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Dia-Logos with the cosmos: A Chapter from “Being Bread” by Fr. Stephen Muse, IC70

Dia-Logos with the Cosmos

by Stephen Muse, Ph.D.

What is man that Thou art mindful of him or the son of man that Thou visiteth him?  (Psalm 8:4)

Eternity knows no duration of time but contains in itself the full compass of the centuries. Eternity without space includes in itself all the expanses of the created world. —Archimandrite Sophrony

6 christ-creating Dia Logos

Astronomers recently discovered a planet six hundred light years away from earth with seventy degree temperatures in just the right position from its sun to support life as we know it. A mere six hundred light years is of microscopic proportions in comparison to the estimated size of the known universe, the whole of which may already be infinite. Beyond that we don’t even know if ours is the only universe there is.

A light year is one of those concepts we use as if we know something, yet are totally unable to comprehend what we are saying in any meaningful way that connects with our experience. There are so many such imponderables in our lives that to go about thinking we are in control of anything or that we understand how the universe all fits together is a sure sign of madness.

I was watching an ant careen back and forth over a stone in our walkway. It was moving fast––perhaps fifteen times the distance of its own body in a second. If a six foot man moved fifteen times the length of his own body in one second he would be able to keep up with cars on the highway at speeds over sixty miles per hour.

“Now wait just a darn minute!” you say. “If that were the case, you could hardly even see the ant moving.” Relativity is all about scale and proportion. The ant only looks slow to us because we are giants on a scale logarithmically beyond the world of the ant. It’s not unlike how jets appear as tiny stars blinking in the night sky, barely seeming to move.

Some physicists have recently confirmed that neutrinos, part of the sub-atomic world that comprises the substance of the known universe, have been clocked moving faster than Einstein’s now proverbial speed of light. Think about it, these little wave-particle dualities are flying around in our bodies at speeds we can’t comprehend let alone notice.

Relatively speaking, there is as much distance between the electrons circling the nucleus of an atomic particle as there are between the planets circling the sun. These “clouds of energy” are what constitute the solid molecules that comprise the cells of our bodies. With that much space between the clouds of energy and wave particles racing through our bodies, we shouldn’t even be able to see ourselves. Come to think of it, maybe part of us could make that trip to that new planet discovered only six hundred light years away after all, if only we knew how to switch back and forth from mass to energy like those electrons.

Appearing to stroll about at three miles per hour while spinning round and round, upside-down and right-side-up in a circle at one thousand miles per hour fastened only by gravity to the 24,000 mile circumference of the earth, which is itself orbiting the sun at close to 67,000 miles per hour, in a universe expanding outward at 180,000 miles per hour in our sector alone, is a trick few of us would attempt if we realized what we were doing!

The intricate, complex balance of all these gyrations is miraculous beyond comprehension. Considering that ants are moving at sixty-plus miles per hour under my feet while neutrinos pulverize and X-ray the vast emptiness of my body alternately as both particles and light waves while everything in the universe races toward infinity, I have concerns about how it is I am able to hold it all together from day-to-day.

Most of us are accustomed to operating as the center of our individual universes. We don’t even break a sweat while managing the many spatio-temporal acrobatics of the greater cosmic dance, blissfully unconcerned how strangely empty and isolated we are. Popular religion often masks our awareness of this stunning reality that might otherwise bring us to our knees in awe. If I “believe in Jesus” (on the same scale as believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny), I may conclude that this entitles me to an insurance policy for the afterlife while I continue to live however I want without regard for obeying a larger plan than my own self-satisfaction and individual preservation.

When truly troubled by my inability to live by conscience, I can calm myself by holding forth with something like “substitutionary atonement!” That’s Seminarian-speak for “Jesus took the heat so I don’t have to. God loves everybody. Nuff said?” Such casuistry serves as an excuse to go on unawares, doing whatever I wish without any consistent daily attempts to discover the degree to which self-love rules me instead of a God-centered frame of reference. The real situation is more that we are each flung into life with-out a choice, and then just as we seem to be gaining a foothold, we are yanked out at a moment not of our own choosing and dispossessed of all we have tried to possess in between.

In the publicly shared kingdom of “consensus reality” where reason and materialism are touted as king and queen, it is actually impulsivity driven by pleasure and pain of bodily appetites and the emotionality of likes and dislikes rooted in self-love that hold power. We eat and sleep, marry sometimes and procreate, and invent and accumulate things, all the while taking for granted that the world is pretty much the way we see it and want it to be; and whatever isn’t, is too far away or blessedly unknown to be relevant to our daily lives. But why would the Creator of the universe go to the trouble of placing such tiny, insignificant creatures on such an insignificant planet on the outskirts of the galaxy in a cosmos so gigantic that we’d be afraid we were lost if we weren’t so dazzled by all the toys we have to play with in the meantime? If we live for eighty, ninety, or even a hundred years, it is still less than a nanosecond in cosmic time in comparison to the universe’s fourteen billion years of existence. Are our ordinary daily lives all we really need to be concerned with?

For five thousand years or more, the prophets of Israel, Zoroaster, the sages of the Upanishads, the Buddha, Jalal’udin Rumi, and of course Jesus have borne witness to a world that cannot be seen or comprehended by the narrow-minded “manmade” complacency we live 99.9 % or our lives believing in and conforming too. They all tell us that human life is not merely eating and drinking, marrying, and working. And they say that these cannot be what they are intended to be without recognition of the invisible world in our midst.

When the cosmopolitan, sophisticated, wealthy, and well-educated Nicodemus approached Jesus by night with the opening salvo of “Rabbi we know you are a teacher come from God because of…,” he was presuming to comprehend the mystery of God on earth according to what he already knew, based on lifelong study, reason, and the sense impressions that govern the narrow band of academic and common-sense knowing that constitutes everyday life. Jesus challenged his presumption immediately: “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born from above.” That is, unless they have encountered the Holy Spirit who noetically awakens us to the presence of an uncreated world permeating and giving rise to this one, where God, who is sovereign and source of all life, communicates with the human heart.

The greatest tragedy of our lives is that we reduce our Messenger from beyond the known universe and his prophets to fit within our paltry socially-constructed and democratically agreed upon understandings of the world as we already are familiar with it, rather than seek to encounter the One who alone can lead us out of our present darkness into a love and meaning beyond our wildest comprehension.

Apart from this set of magnitudes, Jesus all too easily morphs into insipid cultural shibboleths, redirecting us back to the comfortable and well worn paths of a civil religion acceptable in the public square. The sharp edges of Truth and the authenticity of dialogue with the Absolute God incarnated as a human being, are removed in order to seem inclusive and avoid offense. Christian faith is reduced to the magic of Disney-belief in a slot-machine deity who passes out tickets to paradise based on legalistic or sentimental adherence to religious slogans repeated by rote without heart, repentance, or obedience.

Or God serves merely as a convenient shape-shifting metaphor for fundamentalist intolerance or touchy-feely “luv” and a political correctness that reaches no higher than the natural emotional bonds of family and species that include those we like, are related to by blood, or with whom we share business transactions, while excluding others who challenge the accumulated power and privilege afforded by being in the world me-first. We are “monomeists” pretending to be monotheists.

In order to do all this without being disturbed by conscience, we console ourselves with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap Grace.” But the Message and the Messenger are far greater than this sort of theological flat-earth perspective. When asked by someone “if only a few would be saved,” Jesus responded by pointing to a difficult truth:

“Strive to enter through the narrow way, because many I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last” (Luke 13:24-30).

This narrow way begins with metanoia––repentance––which is the discovery that as we are, we are not in our right minds. We are not in our right minds because our minds belong in our hearts where grace can affect us beyond mere words and the illusions of comprehension that console us, where it can change our lives. It will take a lifetime of struggle to respond to the Divine Life.

People who have lost their worldly minds from having personally encountered the Messenger and the Message, begin to travel in a different universe, one Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Worldliness is no longer their primary frame of reference. One who considers the reality of an uncreated God who is entirely separate from human consciousness, in whose image we are made yet who is closer to us than our breath, awakens to and gains interest in and response-ability to someone greater than ourselves, someone who loves the whole of creation’s riot of diversity expressing the joy and solidarity of the Creator with beings of all colors, shapes, and sizes. One who is seized by this kind of wonder and humility begins a new vocation!

There is a Buddhist saying to the effect that it is rarer to be born a human being than for a turtle swimming in the great ocean, surfacing once every five hundred years, to surface with its neck in a single ring floating on the surface of the water. Perhaps so. I suspect this is true. What a responsibility! Unlike Descartes, I do not take for granted that “I am” simply because I appear to think or move or breathe or make money, write a book, run a company, complete a university degree, have a baby, or do any other number of things that appear to be mine in the small localized scheme of things. The fact is we can be more certain of the existence of God than of our own. How then to be responsive to the purpose of God for human life on earth and for my life in particular? What am I here for? What is the aim of my life?

These kinds of questions begin to irritate (or depress) a lot of people if they have to consider them for longer than a brief moment. As entertainment they suffice. Like the ancient Athenians observed by the Apostle Paul two thousand years ago, every-body likes the latest news for its entertainment value, but as a real moral problem to be considered over a lifetime with the seriousness that Einstein considered unified field theory or Jesus pondered over Jerusalem, it is another matter. To consider the reality of God beyond and separate from my own consciousness starts to open up those uncomfortable questions of obedience and response-ability again.

Sustain these questions long enough and they begin to reveal a hidden world that cannot be known apart from repentance, ascetical struggle, prayer, worship, and the humility that comes from being dethroned from the center of the universe. Thankfully, what disturbs our paltry “self-esteem” is also what opens the door to the Great Mystery where the journey begins. It is a path that can only be walked by those who have discovered they are paralyzed by complacency and surfeit, can only be seen by those who have discovered they are blind to the uncreated world, can only be heard by those who are deaf to counterfeit worldly ways, can only be begun by those willing to leave behind attachment to what is past at the first hint of invitation from the One to whom the path leads in the present moment.

Once having crossed this threshold, when the forces of resistance question me, as to who it is that is putting me up to all this—creating these questions and disturbing the status quo, revealing to me that I am in the world but not of it, I shall be very careful with my reply and, like Moses, when I refer to “I AM WHO I AM,” at least I will know that it is not me that I’m talking about.  IC

What Has Love Got To Do with It? A Reflection by Fr. John D. Jones, IC70

What Has Love Got To Do With It?

7 coptic last supper the OPF
Reflection on John 15:8-13

by Fr. John D. Jones

My Father is glorified by this: that you should bear much fruit and come to be my disciples. As the Father loved me, I also have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends (John 15: 8-13).

“Love one another as I have loved you.” Or, as Jesus said to his followers another time: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful,” or “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36). Jesus exemplifies this mercy and compassion throughout his own life and in various parables: In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the father moved by compassion rushes out to welcome his wayward son home. So too, moved by compassion the Good Samaritan takes immediate steps to alleviate the suffering of the man who was beaten and robbed. Drawing on very early Christian theology, Orthodox Christian icons of the parable of the Good Samaritan always represent the Good Samaritan by Christ. St. Clement of Alexandria observes that “we call the savior our neighbor because he drew near to us in saving us” (Stromata IV.7). And Blessed Theophlyact develops this idea: “Our Lord and God…journeyed to us…. He did not just catch a glimpse of us as He happened to pass by. He actually came to us and lived together with us and spoke to us. Therefore, He at once bound up our wounds” (Commentary on Luke 10:29-37).

Mercy and compassion are not trivial or incidental characteristics of God. Before Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the law for the second time, he audaciously asked God to see His glory. On Mount Sinai, God displays his glory and goodness to Moses making Himself present to Moses by calling on His own name: “The Lord, the Lord, compassionate, gracious, long suffering, full of mercy and truth” (Exodus 34:6). Throughout the Old Testament, God makes clear that because of his compassion and mercy, he will not abandon the Israelites, but in solidarity with them, promises that he will restore them to the fullness of life.

In Isaiah, God promises to extend this compassionate restoration to all people through the suffering servant, the prototype for Christ in the Christian faith. The Son of God fulfills this promise in His incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. The express image of the Father, the Son of God incarnate as Christ reflects and radiates the glory of the Father among us. Abiding in the love of the Father, Christ radiates and reflects that love, his love, to us. It is through this love that we are saved––that is, healed from sinfulness, death, and estrangement and brought into the fullness of life in communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and with one another in the communion of saints. Salvation is never merely personal but always a matter of koinonia––communion and fellowship with God and others.

But as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes, “While Christ’s victory over death and sin…is indeed complete and definitive…, [our] personal participation in that victory is as yet far from complete” (How We are Saved, p.4). Put simply, we have free will. God won’t drag us into the fullness of life––eternal life—with him. God cannot compel us to love him. We must freely consent to the gift of life that he offers. This consent involves both faith and the fruit of works. As Blessed Theophlyact writes, “Faith truly comes alive only when accompanied by God-pleasing actions.… Likewise, works are enlivened by faith. Apart from one another, both are dead” (Commentary on Gospel of John 9:30-33.)

Why? We are created in the image (ikon) of God: We are created as icons of God. More specifically, we are created as icons of the Son of God, the express image of the Father, who is incarnate as Jesus Christ. The icons that Orthodox Christians produce always represent Christ, His Mother, and the saints in a transfigured state in which the glory of God, the Trinity, infuses and transforms earthly reality. All of our icons are painted or produced to reflect the uncreated light and glory of God: the compassion, grace, patience, mercy, and humility of God. That glory is manifest in the icon for the Nativity of Christ, His resurrection, and His Crucifixion. It is manifest in the icon of the extreme humility of Christ. We venerate icons because we venerate those persons in whom we have found the glory of God to be manifest amongst us. It is no accident that we refer to saints as our god-bearing fathers and mothers.

We produce painted icons only because the Son of God becomes incarnate and because we ourselves are living icons. As Christ abides in and reflects the glory of the Father, so we are created to abide in the love of Christ and to reflect that love in our loves. But in doing so, we are created to reflect the very glory of God––God’s compassion, graciousness, patience, and mercy—in our own lives. “God crowns us with compassion and mercy” (Ps. 103:4). In one sense, this means that God abundantly blesses us with the actions that flow from His compassion and mercy. But there is another, deeper sense to this crowning, as illustrated in an Orthodox Christian wedding service.

The sacramental highpoint of this service is found in the crowning of the bride and groom to and for one another. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, the bride and groom symbolically receive martyrs’ crowns. It might seem odd and depressing to bestow martyr-like crowns at a wedding ceremony. But a martyr, first of all, is one who bears witness to someone or something and who also is willing to lay down his or her life in response to that witness. At their crowning, the bride and groom are given grace by the Holy Spirit to mutually bear witness to one another of the self-sacrificial love that Christ has shown to them. They are given the grace to abide in Christ’s love and to bear the cross of a true self-sacrificial love. Thus, in their own love for one another, they are called to die to mere self-interest; they are called to mutually reflect Christ’s love for one another and any children which they might have in creating the community or communion of a family.

Being created in the image of God, all of us are crowned by him with his compassion and mercy. He shares something of Himself––we Orthodox Christians would say his “energies”––with us. But compassion always moves us away from ourselves to others. As parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan show, compassion for others expresses itself in actions for others and on their behalf. In being crowned with mercy and compassion, we are all of us, at the core of our reality, crowned to another. We are created to bear witness to the love, compassion, and mercy that Christ has shown us by laboring to reflect it through the love, compassion, and mercy that we show to others. As Christ says in the opening scripture text here “My Father is glorified by this: that you should bear much fruit and come to be My disciples.” We are called to do all things for the glory of God. But we are also called to reflect that glory––His compassion and mercy––in our own lives. We do so in our own small ways by, borrowing a phrase from Marquette’s Jesuit heritage, “becoming men and women for others.”

Being a living icon of God is a bit like being a wind spinner. The wind blows, the spinner turns, and it passes the wind on. A well-made spinner doesn’t try to hold onto the wind or hoard it. It responds to all breezes. But we humans have to be very vigilant about the “winds” and “breezes” to which we respond. There are the many breezes of our own passions and thoughts as well as the seductive influences of our society. These breezes blow us away from God and our neighbors into the prideful individualism of seeking our own self-interest above everything else. If we respond to these breezes, we become obsessed “selfies” cut off from any fullness of life. Rather, we must attend to the breeze, the wind, of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies us and renews our lives. For that wind directs us to the kingdom of heaven, which Christ tells us is even now at hand, in which we are enabled to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds, and to love one another as Christ has loved us.

Allowing ourselves to be directed by the grace of the Holy Spirit is the ongoing struggle that we call repentance. Repentance involves a change of mind and heart and a desire for healing in which, with God’s grace, we open ourselves to really abide in Christ’s love and accept what it means to be a living icon of Christ. We are, however, living icons of Christ in community with others. Crowned to one another with God’s compassion and mercy, we are created to find salvation or fullness of life in communion with God, the Trinity, and in community with one another. Compassion is not a kind of feeling that we switch on and off. Compassion is an attunement to others without boundaries. This is the principal lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The true neighbor is a neighbor to all.

For St. John Chrysostom, being compassionately attuned to others “is most especially characteristic of the saints. No glory, nor honor, nor anything else is more precious to them than their neighbor’s welfare and salvation.” Compassion takes us beyond our own interest to the welfare of others and, implicitly, to the welfare of the communities in which we live—local and global. In reflecting Christ’s love in our own lives, compassion should make us attuned to the common good of all.

It is as St. John Chrysostom writes:

But how may we become imitators of Christ? By acting in everything for the common good, and not merely seeking our own…. Let no one therefore seek his own good. In truth, a person (really) seeks his own good when he looks to that of his neighbor…. What is their good is ours; we are one body, and parts and limbs one of another. Let us not live though we were torn apart. Let no one say, “such a person is no friend of mine, nor relation, nor neighbor, I have nothing to do with him, how shall I approach, and how address him?” Though he be neither relation nor friend, yet he is a human being, who shares the same nature with you, has the same Master. He is your fellow-servant, and fellow-sojourner, for he is born in the same world (Commentary on Gospel of St. John).

For nothing is so pleasing to God, as to live for the common advantage or good. For this end God gave us speech, and hands, and feet, and strength of body, mind, heart, and understanding, that we might use all these things, both for our own salvation, and for our neighbor’s advantage and good (Commentary on Gospel of St. Matthew).  IC

This essay was delivered orally at Marquette Mission Week 2015 by Prof. John D. Jones, Department of Philosophy, MU. Fr. John is an Orthodox Christian Chaplain and is Associate Priest, Sts. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church (OCA).

Rachel’s Lament: In Communion on Abortion

Rachel’s Lament: In Communion on Abortion

8 thevisitationicon Lament

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship is pro-life but not exactly in the way the term is typically used. Pro-life movements are normally associated with particular political agendas that differ across countries where they are active, but within our fellowship we simply self-identify as children of the Orthodox Church who seek to have our worldviews shaped therein. We recognize the inherent impotence of political ideology in transforming lives and would rather bring our Orthodoxy to our political activities than the other way around. The life of the unborn was cherished by Christians long before modern political realities came into being and will be long after they, as they inevitably will, fade into the past.

In 2000, In Communion published a special issue dedicated to the topic of abortion that was introduced by a letter written by Jim and Nancy Forest:

“Jaroslav Pelikan, distinguished Christian scholar and longtime professor at Yale University, also a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship advisory board, speaks of abortion as “the great human rights issue of our time.” Sadly, many do not see it that way. Even in some parts of the Christian community, traditional opposition to abortion has slowly been transformed to toleration or even abortion advocacy.”

No less surprising, those active in peace organizations—people who might be found protesting at military bases or at prisons where executions are about to occur—are rarely found engaging in efforts to make abortions less common. (On the other hand, it must be noted that many who campaign for the right to life of the unborn child often seem much less disturbed by war and executions.)

For the vast majority of feminist groups, endorsement of abortion has been a litmus test. Anyone troubled by abortion, who speaks of an “unborn child” in the womb rather than using Latin terms with a dehumanizing effect—embryo or fetus—is someone to be denounced. At all costs, the unborn must not be recognized as human beings with as much claim on social respect and protection as their parents. (Yet how readily an unborn child is recognized and celebrated as human by those who look forward to any child’s birth.)

In this issue, we follow with a few paragraphs from Michael Gorman’s excellent essay surveying the early Church Fathers’ view of abortion, which itself succinctly states our pro-life attitude. Next we offer an excerpt from an article by Frederica Mathewes-Green. The section finishes with an article by Nancy Forest.

Michael Gorman

The earliest specific written references to abortion in Christian literature are those in the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas. The Didache combines a code of Christian morality with a manual of church life and order, while the Epistle of Barnabas is a more theological tract on Christian life and thought. While both of these probably date from the early second century, they most likely drew on Christian sources which had their origins in the late first century.

Both these writings also contain a section based on a Jewish oral and written tradition known as the “Two Ways.” This tradition contrasts the two ways of Life or Light and Death or Darkness. Athanasius notes that it was used extensively in the early church, either as a separate document or as part of the Didache , especially for the training of catechumens and new converts.

The Didache maintains that there is a great difference between these two ways. In an exposition of the second great commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) as part of the Way of Life, the author makes a list of “thou shalt not” statements obviously modeled on, and in part quoting, the Decalogue of the Septuagint. Literally, it declares: “Thou not murder a child by abortion.”

Similarly, the Epistle of Barnabas, in its practical section on the Way of Light, repeats the same words in a list of “thou shalt (not)” statements including, just before the abortion prohibition, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor more than thy own life.” The fetus is seen, not as a part of its mother, but as a neighbor. Abortion is rejected as contrary to other-centered neighbor love.

Frederica Mathewes-Green

A woman with an unplanned pregnancy faces more than “inconvenience”; many adversities, financial and social, at school, at work, and at home confront her. Our mistake was in looking at these problems and deciding that the fault lay with the woman, that she should be the one to change. We focused on her swelling belly, not the pressures that made her so desperate. We advised her, “Go have this operation and you’ll fit right in.”

What a choice we made for her. She climbs onto a clinic table and endures a violation deeper than rape—the nurse’s hand is wet with her tears—then is grateful to pay for it, grateful to be adapted to the social machine that rejected her when pregnant. And the machine grinds on, rejecting her pregnant sisters.

It is a cruel joke to call this a woman’s “choice.” We may choose to sacrifice our life and career plans, or choose to undergo humiliating invasive surgery and sacrifice our offspring. How fortunate we are—we have a choice! Perhaps it’s time to amend the slogan: “Abortion: a woman’s right to capitulate.”

If we refused to choose, if we insisted on keeping both our lives and our bodies intact, what changes would our communities have to make? What would make abortion unnecessary? Flexible school situations, more flex-time, part-time, and home-commute jobs, attractive adoption opportunities, safe family planning choices, support in handling sex responsibly––this is a partial list. Yet these changes will never come as long as we’re lying down on abortion tables 1,600,000 times a year to ensure the status quo. We’ve adapted to this surgical substitute, to the point that Justice Blackmun could write in his Webster dissent, “Millions of women have ordered their lives around” abortion. That we have willingly ordered our lives around a denigrating surgical procedure—accepted it as the price we must pay to keep our life plans intact—is an ominous sign.

For over a hundred years feminists warned us that abortion is a form of oppression and violence against women and their children. They called it “child-murder” (Susan B. Anthony), “degrading to women” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton), “most barbaric” (Margaret Sanger), and a “disowning [of] feminine values” (Simone de Beauvoir). How have we lost this wisdom?

Abortion has become the accepted way of dealing with unplanned pregnancies, and women who make another choice are viewed as odd, backward, and selfish. Across the nation, three thousand crisis pregnancy centers struggle, unfunded and unrecognized, to help these women with housing, clothing, medical care, and job training before and after pregnancy. These volunteers must battle the assumption that “they’re supposed to abort”—especially poor women who hear often enough that their children are unwanted. Pro-choice rhetoric conjures a dreadful day when women could be forced to have abortions; that day is nearly here.

More insidiously, abortion advocacy has been poisonous to some of the deeper values of feminism. For example, the need to discredit the fetus has led to the use of terms that would be disastrous if applied to women. “It’s so small,” “It’s unwanted,” “It might be disabled,” “It might be abused.” Too often women are small, unwanted, disabled, or abused. Do we really want to say that these factors erase personhood?

A parallel disparaging of pregnancy itself also has an unhealthy ring. Harping on the discomforts of pregnancy treats women as weak and incompetent; yet we are uniquely equipped for this role, and strong enough to do much harder things than this. Every woman need not bear a child, but every woman should feel proud kinship in the earthy, elemental beauty of birth. To hold it in contempt is to reject our distinctive power, “our bodies, ourselves.”

Nancy Forest-Flier

In a recent letter, a friend explained his reluctant acceptance of abortion with the statement: “I also believe that the human race is overrunning the planet and destroying our Mother the Earth.” While recognizing abortion as a moral problem, he saw it as the lesser of two evils. The cost of saving the planet is to reduce the human population. This is a widely accepted notion, and there are many who have succeeded in making us believe that over-population is the problem and that birth control and abortion are the answers.

Population control is often an attempt by Western, wealthy nations to impose their values on poor, usually non-white nations, and these countries are not happy about it. At a 1998 Population Consultation of the UN NGO Committee on Population and Development in New York, the ambassador from the Dominican Republic, Julia Alvarez, shocked the audience with a speech in which she sharply criticized groups such as Zero Population Growth and Planned Parenthood for trying to reduce fertility in countries that don’t want it (and thinking that it’s for their own good, etc.). She accused the West of targeting poor and darker-skinned countries, such as her own. “It used to be,” she pointed out, “that older women could depend on their adult children to care for them in old age. In 1960, for example, a Jamaican woman had an average of six children; by 1990 she was likely to have fewer than three. Now typically she has two. Who will supply the support system for this mother when she is old?”

Even more amazing was the speech by Dr. James McCarthy, Head of the Center for Population at Columbia University, who called himself a “recovering demographer” and told the audience that “population doesn’t matter.”

In her book Sex and Destiny, feminist Germaine Greer comments, “we [should] abandon the rhetoric of crisis for we are the crisis. Let us stop worrying about a world crammed with people…stop counting the babies born every minute…use our imagination to understand how poverty is created and maintained…so that we lose our phobia about the poor. Rather than being afraid of the powerless, let us be afraid of the powerful—the rich, sterile nations who have no stake in the future. More ‘unwanted’ children are born to us, the rich, than to them, the poor.”

Although there are clearly some over-populated places in the world, this does not mean that the world is over-populated. There are many, many factors involved. Someone told me recently that the entire population of the world, if it agreed to live at the same density as New York City, could fit into the state of Texas. Not a very savory prospect, but interesting.

Justifying abortion by the population-control argument boils down to saying that we should encourage the use of abortion as birth control. But there are already countries that use abortion as birth control—Russia and other former East bloc countries—and the women there are in despair. Some women have several abortions in their lifetime because the birth control possibilities are so limited, and they are urgently demanding better conditions so that they don’t have to resort to abortion just to limit births. So this argument just doesn’t hold water. Not only do the poor countries not want population control, not only is the whole over-population argument questionable, but individual women who are forced to control births through abortion are crying for help.

I would be surprised if any woman ever had an abortion for the sake of the planet or because of her concern for over-population. Among the women I have known who had abortions, none of them, at that terrible point in their lives, cared a hoot about over-population. Women have abortions because they feel cornered, abandoned, hopeless, scared, manipulated. At least my friends all felt this way and, after the abortion, mourned deeply. They may still be mourning. Frederica Mathewes-Green, in her book Real Choices, explains the psychological after-effects of abortion: if they had it to do over again, most women admit that they would choose not to abort.

My personal feeling is that abortion is just as much a feminist issue as it is a pro-life issue. I think women have been sold a very shoddy bill of goods. Radical feminist leaders have played right into the hands of Hugh Hefner types: abortion is a wonderful solution for both of them. Women are expected to make the “right” choice as soon as a problem pregnancy comes along (at least the playboy philosophy hopes they will).

The other argument one hears is that abortion is a more merciful solution for the children of the poor than growing up in destitution. My friend asked: “Isn’t poverty and isolation a slow, cruel death as opposed to an operation that deals with the new life before it can actually think and breathe?”

Not necessarily. That’s implying that poor people should consider abortion when they get pregnant, because it’s sure better than raising children in poverty and isolation. But there are lots and lots of poor women who curse their poverty, and then on top of it all they feel driven to the abortion clinic when they get pregnant, just because society has few other options.

With all our collective intelligence, with all our social science, with all our money, society in the West should be able to come up with a better solution for dealing with problem pregnancies (not medical problems) than abortion. Abortion leaves far, far too many psychological scars. But it’s the cheap way out. What abortion does is pressure the most vulnerable—scared pregnant women—into “getting rid of the problem” so that society doesn’t have to deal with it.

My friend wrote: “I shudder to think of our making common cause with the so-called ‘Christian’ right who are militantly against abortion but endorse war, sexism, and capital punishment.” But must we be inconsistent simply because others are inconsistent? Just because the far-right seems to have co-opted the pro-life argument doesn’t mean that nobody else can endorse it. This calls for a little bit of courage. I urged my friend not to let the agenda of the far right limit his agenda. If you think abortion is wrong, oppose it bravely!

Here in the Netherlands we have the lowest abortion rate in the entire Western world. And, says the Minister of Health, “we’re proud of it.” Proud to have a low abortion rate? That must mean that lowering the abortion rate, or trying to, is a thing worth doing. What I’m saying is, let’s try to lower the abortion rate everywhere. Let’s not abandon women to their own private darkness where they have to make these impossible decisions alone (and then face a society that shrugs its shoulders).

William Styron’s book Sophie’s Choice is about such an impossible choice. On one level it’s about the Holocaust, but on another level it’s about the pressure to decide which of your children you will allow to live and which you will abandon to the hand of violence. Sophie could not live with her choice and finally took her own life.

One can find women who are no more troubled about an abortion they had than they are troubled about a missed bus, but for every woman who is blasé about having abortions you will find many more who wish they hadn’t had to do violence to their unborn children and to their consciences. I’m not insisting that the laws be changed (although it would be good if it did eventually happen), or that all women be forced to go through with their pregnancy no matter what (even if their health is at risk), or that we abandon women to back-street butchers. I’m saying, let’s work from the other side. Let’s try to create a society in which abortion is unthinkable. A society that forces the weak and frightened to shoulder the burden of a social problem should be ashamed of itself.

How do we do it? That’s a good question. My hope is that peace organizations will at last begin to explore rather than ignore the problem, to start some dialogues, to try to cut through the rhetoric and terrible division and to address a problem that everybody can rally around.  IC

National Identity and Unity: From Babel to Pentecost

National Identity and Unity: From Babel to Pentecost

by Archbishop Makarios of Kenya

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Despite many areas of progress, the last one hundred years has been the most brutal age in the history of humanity. What is most shocking about modern conflicts is that it is not the combatants who have been the main victims, but rather the most vulnerable members of society: children, women, the elderly, the sick. This is due not only to violence but also to malnutrition and disease made worse by armed conflict. Wars disrupt food supplies, destroy crops and agricultural infrastructure, wreck water and sanitation systems, and disable health services. Wars displace whole populations, tearing families and communities apart.

Most modern wars are principally instigated or manipulated by what might be called the “phyletistic personality syndrome,” a phenomenon which pits humans against humans in the most violent of confrontations in the name of national or tribal identity, ethnic cleansing, racial supremacy, or cultural exclusivism, often with distinct religious components.

Nationalism, in the sense of fanatical patriotism, is an obsessive sense of national superiority over other nations and a belief in one nation’s inherent and pre-determined glorious future destiny. Ethnocentrism gives rise to tribal or racial intolerance and leads to the perception that one must eliminate, exclude, or dominate the “lesser tribe.” In the case of cultural-ideological exclusivism, the values and norms of one’s culture are regarded as superior to all others and must therefore be adopted by others or imposed on them. To better understand the phenomenon of ethnic and national identities and cast some light upon the search for human unity, it is necessary for us to explore the biblical and theological explanations for our propensity toward tribalism and nationalism.

In the period immediately preceding construction of the Tower of Babel, we learn that all people were of one race and spoke one language. The diversification of human languages was a consequence of human sin incurred during the building of the Tower of Babel, a rebellion against God’s ordinances, the ambition of “making a name for one’s self” by constructing a human empire and culture independent of the will and assistance of God.

Despite the post-Babel second human Fall, the freshly diversified global situation provided humans with the freedom either to identify with a wise and blessed sense of ethnic affiliation in a theocentric direction or to let their differences degenerate into demonic anthropocentric-nationalism, ethnocentrism and tribal pride. Clearly, the latter path was taken.

The step from ethnic identity to fanatical ethnocentrism, and from national identity to obsessive nationalism, which lies behind most of our violent conflicts, must be understood through a theological, biblical prism as a fallen, corrupt human state, a spiritually dysfunctional condition, which must be condemned by the Church.

How then can the Church assist in the search for the path of human unity? Can the Church be effective? I believe the answer is yes.

A Byzantine kontakion chanted on the Sunday of Pentecost is most illuminating in terms of the post Tower of Babel potential for a unified human condition initiated by Christ and confirmed by the Holy Spirit:

When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, He divided the nations; but when He distributed tongues of fire, He called all to unity. Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the all-holy Spirit!

The Pentecost event in the Upper Room is God’s reversal of the punitive measures taken at Babel. Through the “tongues of fire” and the speaking in various human tongues, the potential for reunification of humanity is made possible through the unify-ing operations of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit possesses a creative force to transform and renew. The Pentecost event transformed the disciples into bold witnesses for Christ by renewing their hearts and minds. This transforming “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is capable of transfiguring human hearts and making former enemies into friends and brothers. In our search for human unity, we need to consistently experience the empowering anointing of Pentecost, becoming faithful instruments of the Holy Spirit.

The initial celebration of the Lord’s Supper was inaugurated not as an individual institution but within a communal setting, that is within the messianic or ecclesial community presided over by Jesus among his disciples. He formed a new, united community dedicated to loving and serving one another as well as “giving thanks” to Him who established it. The partaking of the holy Body and Blood of Christ by the ecclesial community becomes a source of growth in the image and likeness of Christ and the ultimate bond of spiritual and social unity, for it doesn’t discriminate against gender, class, or race in its sanctifying energy. In this way we are made ready to “receive one another as Christ received us.”

The challenge we face is eradication of phyletism within the Church. Sadly, we Church members are often guilty of promoting nationalism at the expense of our catholic (in the sense of universal) identity. Churches constituted on national lines often involve themselves in national wars, even blessing weapons before battle, and even encouraging war and nationalism in the name of Jesus Christ! While nationalistic church leaders are certainly well intentioned, in reality they oppose the work of the Holy Spirit and the teachings of Christ.

It is significant that, at a time of heightened nationalism, a pan-Orthodox Synod held in Constantinople in 1872 condemned ethno-phyletism as a heresy: “We renounce, censure and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed Fathers which support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it and lead it to divine godliness.”

As the Orthodox canon lawyer, Grigorios Papathomas, explains, “the Church must not be confused with the destiny of a single nation or a single race.”

In Pauline terms, we may say that nationalism is the direct consequence of a “fleshly” anthropocentric disposition rather than a spiritual and theocentric human orientation. Nationalism remains in the realm of the “flesh” rather than the “spirit” as a manifestation of the powers and principalities at work in the “present evil age.” In his letter to the Galatians, Paul insists that among Christ’s followers there is “no longer Greek nor Jew” but only the unity, peace, and blessedness that derives from membership in the new “Israel of God,” the Church. This unity however can only be perceived, appropriated, and accomplished in a theocentric manner by those who are reconciled in Christ. It can only be made manifest by those who bring forth the “fruits of the Spirit.” It is in this way that we may receive one another as Christ receives us and thus aspire toward authentic human unity. History is littered with the failed scraps of torn anthropocentric peace treaties, international accords, and cease-fire agreements.

If the Church is to accomplish the task of human unity, it must practice its God-appointed calling. This requires that we abandon ethnic ghettos. We have been appointed to participate in Christ’s great commission, the evangelization and baptism of all nations. This global evangelization mission of the Church bearing the message of unconditional love and forgiveness will eventually enable humans to “Receive one another as Christ received us” (Rom. 15:7).

I end with this question: Who is Jesus Christ for us? Is he merely a tribal leader who facilitates national unification? Or is he God, who saves us from malediction and death? For the believing mind, the answer is self-evident.  IC

This essay is based on a paper presented in 2004 in Malaysia at a conference of the Faith and Order Plenary Commission of the World Council of Churches.

You Cannot Serve Two Ideas

You Cannot Serve Two Ideas: When Ideology and Theology Meet

by Fr. John Garvey

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When I was involved in draft counseling during the war in Vietnam, I had a liberal friend who knew I was anti-war and was also opposed to the death penalty. She was shocked when I said I was also opposed to abortion. When I told her I thought I was being pretty consistent, she didn’t get it. As she saw it, I was violating a kind of liberal package deal.

A couple of years later I met a man who was not at all liberal. He was very much in favor of both the death penalty and abortion rights, and saw no inconsistency. I found myself sadly agreeing with him: he was consistent.

What made him consistent was a total absence of any sense of the sacred. He didn’t think of life at any point as sacred. He wasn’t liberal in any sense of the word. He had a kind of heartless sense of the convenient: get rid of murderers and other unwanted criminals and also get rid of unwanted unborn children––anything or anyone who might interrupt his life was fair game.

My liberal friend was a more complicated case. She did have a half-baked sense of the sacred, of some value that should attach to a woman’s right to choose whether to give birth to or kill the life in her womb, and she knew that innocent people might be mistakenly con-victed, and that even guilty people should not be killed.

But neither had a sense of life as truly sacred. Nor, I think it must be said, do those who call themselves pro-life and defend capital punish-ment based on the argument that the murderer has forfeited the right to life by taking the life of another. In both cases—one side often secular and the other side often ostensibly religious––there is a sense that a life’s value depends somehow on our end of the deal, our sense that a life is of value (because completely inno-cent, as in the case of the child in the womb) or that a life has forfeited its sacred status (because it violated the sacred status of another life, as in the case of a murderer).

This makes us too important, and God’s role as creator a wimpy cameo. How I regard the life of a child in the womb––whether I want it to be born or not––does not matter in the face of the fact that this unique being exists. To argue that it is a tiny collection of cells and therefore unimportant is not far from arguing that it is not so grave a matter to murder a dwarf as it is to murder a giant; it makes my attitude toward a life more important than that life’s existence, its God-givenness.

To argue that the life of a murderer can be taken because the murderer has violated the life of his victim is to say that the murderer gets to define the limits of the sacred. The terrible fact is that the murderer’s life is sacred, because God has willed that life, and none of us has the power to cancel the holiness of having been called into existence from nothingness. We may wish to cancel our vocation; in the horror of some lives it may be an overwhelming desire. But we cannot. And Christians have to bear witness to the sacred character of all human beings, no matter how innocent or how guilty, all of them people for whom Jesus Christ died. We are not our own. This applies to the newly conceived baby, and to any murderer on death row.  IC

Conversations by email

Email Conversations Spring 2015

Any member of the OPF may request to be added to our online discussion list where postings and comments are made almost daily. If you wish to join, make your request via our website or send an email to Alex Patico, Jim Forest, or Pieter Dykhorst (see inside front cover). The following were taken from the discussion list.

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Jim Forest wrote:
A long-term study of Vietnam veterans with PTSD finds that among those “especially likely to develop such war-related trauma, [are] those veterans who had killed multiple times in combat.

Catherine Jefferson wrote:
This is rather like a formal scientific study finding out that children whose parents read to them at home score better on reading and writing skills at school––not scientifically “inevitable,” but at very least an expected result. I don’t scorn the study. Scientific studies of questions that we think we already know the answers to often teach us new things. Sometimes they show us that the expected result/answer we thought we already knew is wrong.
I am not at all surprised that expectations were confirmed when it came to PTSD rates among combat veterans. I’m just a few years younger than most younger Vietnam veterans, and most combat veterans tend to be young guys. I’ve known several. One fought in the Tet Offensive. His statement to me and anyone who asks, “I don’t care how justified. If you ever have to kill somebody, your life will suck for a very long time.”
He never talked about Vietnam, with me anyway…. I don’t know, as a fact, that he has PTSD, but I can see the obvious.
Data is not the plural of anecdote, but I offer his story to illustrate. I expect there are plenty of young men and women from Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer the same way my friend does.

Jim Forest wrote:
I agree, Catherine, that there are no surprises in this study, but one real plus is that those who wish to deny the obvious are less able to claim that killing in war leaves no hidden wounds on those who do the killing.

——————
The following exchange was in response to an essay by Herbert A. Perkins, co-founder of an anti-racist educational group in the twin cities called ASDIC Metamorphosis, who wrote an essay “Reflection on ‘Burning Down the Town’” in response to the problem of some violent protests in Ferguson after the Grand Jury decision not to indict the police officer who shot to death Michael Brown.

A few quotes from Perkins’ essay:

There is no “turning-over,” i.e., revolution, without burning of the “old order” and some degree of “loss” imposed on the innocent.

Who is innocent? Are any of us innocent in our “by-standing” ownership in a society that is racist? What does our DISINTEREST in the ways racism is a violence against people mean in any of our claims of “innocence”? Are we innocent as we turn our eye away from the everyday operations of US racism and the policing/law enforcement that protects the racist interests and life-ways of US communities?

Let us not be naïve! We must take sides against racism. There are no innocent by-standers!

Oppression is held in place by violence. It is removed through the violating of the norms and practices that hold it in place.
I do not advocate the burning of businesses as such, don’t get me wrong. I, a reader of Mohandas Gandhi, recall him saying something like the following: “I’d rather see a man engage in violence to resist the injustice imposed on him than to see him cowardly accepting violence being done to him. Cowardice is inexcusable! But non-violence as resistance to violence is better, preferred.”

Now, today, protesters in Ferguson, protestors across the country, have also violated the peace and orderly business of the towns they live in.

So, please, let us be less sanctimoniousness about this!
In the context of US enslavement of Africans and resistance, Fredrick Gabrielle Douglass’ famously responded: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Alex Patico wrote:
The problem I have with “reactive violence”—what happened in my home city of Washington after Dr. King was shot, for example––is not that it is hard to comprehend, or that it is morally equivalent to the taking of human life by authorities, or even to long-term institutional racism that eats away at souls bit by bit. No, I object for the same reason I object to drone warfare: it ends up hurting many who are, if not totally innocent (who among is?), certainly far from being the ones mainly responsible, the persons that those who burn are really mad at. Those shop owners are “collateral damage,” which is not acceptable in any situation. They become victims mostly because they are convenient targets.

Steve Hayes wrote:
Yes, most violence in the world is “reactive violence”—that is violence because people are angry at someone else’s violence. It is “feel-good” violence, because it makes people feel good to express their anger by behaving violently. The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 was reactive violence, and the attack on Afghanistan that followed was reactive violence reacting against that. The problem I have with reactive violence is that it just perpetuates the cycle of violence, or worse, makes it a spiral, killing and injuring more people each time round. More people have been killed in Afghanistan than were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, and as far as I am aware none of them were involved in planning the attack on the World Trade Center.

That is why I am a pacifist.

I feel passions, like anger, that are sparked off by other people’s violent acts, and the immediate reaction is to want to hit back. But as Orthodox Christians we are told to control the passions, and to rein in our violent urges. And it is only by doing this that we can reduce the spiral of violence, making it smaller instead of bigger.

“Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay.”

Paul del Junco wrote:
God’s “vengeance” was the Cross of Christ. That’s how little we understand what vengeance is for God. If it’s not about love in the end, it’s about nothing. Justice is a degradation of love, in my mind.

Here’s a reality which puts racial injustice, and any injustice, into perspective. And the contemplation of it brings me close to despair. Every single nation on earth without exception, either directly or indirectly, that contains all the finest culture, art, beauty, education, social progress (however you define it), lofty jurisprudence, every human refinement of thought word and deed, including all the finest theological thought, rests on the ugly brutality of war. Our physical security, our economic security, our leisure to pursue all these things (including this conversation!) all rest on this. This is the foundation upon which we all stand. Whether it’s Pax Romana, Pax Byzantina, or Pax Americana. Pax, peace as we know it in this fallen world of ours, stands on this hideous reality. As J. L. McKenzie says, it’s part of the air we breathe.

Jesus is clearly a contradiction to this reality but he lived and preached and died in the reality of Pax Romana. The peace he preached was not of this world. His perspective was not looking into improving the future. It was eschatological. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. It is not as the world gives that I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not let it be afraid.”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we shouldn’t try to improve the world. But we need perspective. We are handing on the baton to our children (may they forgive us), but the fulfillment of our lives and this world does not lie here. The most obvious reason is that it’s temporary. The world’s and our fulfillment lie in eternity.
What’s our job here? To love. Or as Peter Maurin put it, “We must make the kind of society where it is easier for people to be good.”

Alex Patico wrote:
Wonderful, Paul! I think that speaking about justice as “love lite” might be closer to the mark. It’s what passes for fair, reasonable, and good in the absence of the truly compassionate option, which is so much more, as you point out.

Steve Hayes wrote:
I see justice as congealed love.
You can’t force people to love one another, but justice reduces the evil effects of their lack of love.

Prayer for Our Enemies

Prayer for Our Enemies

Lord Jesus,

12 icon-st-ephraim-prostration the OPF

You commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us that we may be truly children of our Father in Heaven, Who causes the sun to rise on those who are evil and those who are good, and rain to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous: we beg You – fill our minds and hearts with Your Holy Spirit that we may forgive those who persecute and murder our brothers and sisters as You forgave those who crucified You.

Help us to repay their evil with goodness that we might not be overcome by evil but conquer evil with good. Deliver us from anger and a desire for vengeance.

As Your first martyr Stephen prayed to You for his murderers, so we pray for all those who fight in the name of ISIS: enlighten their minds and hearts that they might come to know You, the only true God, and Your love for all humankind made manifest in Your Cross. Lead them to repent of their many sins, having defiled themselves with the blood of their many innocent victims and having handed their own souls over to the darkness of the Evil One. Do not let them perish. Have mercy on them and forgive them, for they do not know You or the Father Who sent You, and know not what they do.

For blessed is Your holy Name, O Christ our God, and to You do we offer glory, honor and worship, together with Your eternal Father and Your Holy Spirit, the one true and living God, always now and forever and to the ages of ages.

Amen.

Prayer offered in September 2014 by OPF member Fr. Steve Tsichlis, pastor of St Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, California

Recommended Reading: Being Bread

Being Bread

by Stephen Muse

St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press, 2013, 233 pp.

Reviewed by Pieter Dykhorst

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“Being Bread” is in my opinion the kind of book Orthodox Christians long for and adds to the slowly growing body of literature for lay Orthodox who want uplifting devotional reading from and for today. Our faith and tradition are grounded in the past, and nobody wants that to change. But much of what we read can trick us into thinking past reality (think Saints lives) is wholly separate from present possibility. This book pushes back against that idea without disconnecting from the past at all. Dr. Muse has filled his book with stories grounded in the Orthodox understanding of what life in Christ fully lived looks like, and then gently encourages us to examine our own lives to find there really is abundant space for us to live that life every day.

I have one criticism of this book that I’ll just get out of the way because it is so petty even while necessary. I sometimes skip footnotes but found the key to Dr. Muse’s book partially nestled in one in the introduction. There, I’ve said it. Now, if you—and you’ll be happy if you do—buy this book, be sure to read the footnote on page ten that explains the meaning of the Greek word rendered “daily,” as in the phrase “give us our daily bread” found in the gospels of both St. Matthew and St. Luke. Maybe in a future edition this will be brought up into the text and expanded a bit. But, like I said, it’s hardly a flaw.

Perhaps many of Dr. Muse’s readers will already know that the English word “daily” in The Lord’s Prayer isn’t correctly translated at all. In fact, it turns out the word in Greek was most likely made up by the authors of the Gospels, as it appears nowhere in any extant texts in Greek prior or since, except those talking about the Lord’s Prayer. There is a perfectly good word in Greek for daily, which appears once in James 2:15 where the writer exhorts Christians to provide for brothers who don’t have a sufficient food ration “equal to the span of a day,” or “daily” bread, which is what the single word “ephémeros” means. So, if Jesus had meant to suggest we ask every day merely for what we need to feed our bodies that day, that’s the word the Evangelists would likely have used. But they didn’t.

Instead, the word they chose to coin is “epiousion,” which when modifying bread means something like—lots of scholars argue about the precise meaning, which is what happens when you make up a word that ends up being very important—“from outside normal provision for the sustenance of your very existence.” Some render this “super-sufficient bread.” Dr. Muse packs all that into “being bread,” as in, bread necessary for your being at all, as well as for your continued being. This bread Jesus is talking about is nothing less than that sacramental Word that crosses the boundary from spiritual to physical and feeds us in every way. It includes the bread “man does not live by” alone, but it really points to the Bread of Heaven, Jesus, the bread of Eucharist.

And of course, “Being Bread” is the title of the book. And no, that isn’t a typo—the title italicizes being because Dr. Muse wants us to know that while the book points to our becoming, or being, bread, he uses the word as a noun phrase naming a type of bread. Because that is exactly the lens through which each chapter was written, if you read each chapter through the same lens, suddenly you are not only reading wonderful stories but devotions about how our interactions with others and the world around us are intended to feed our existence and our growth to becoming fully human in Christ. By offering us twenty-five morsels of being bread, Dr. Muse also teaches us how to become bread.

The rest of the key to this book is also found in the introduction. Together with the understanding of the sacramental nature of the bread for which we ask, is the idea that in order for that existence to have any meaning, it is to be shared. And for us to fully share it in any meaningful way, we must stop and be present and pay attention to what is really going on around us and with one another. Again, the focal point is the Eucharist: there we receive bread that gives life but only if we stop to reflect, receive it humbly, and go share that life-sustaining bread with others, whereby we become human the only way we can: together.

I’m reading “Being Bread” again. I enjoyed it the first time when I was merely reading it to write a review. I’m now reading it more in the moment. You can read the book fairly quickly as the collection of delightful stories it is, or you can (also) chew each one slowly to…well, you get the point. I recommend the book that way—it’s much better the second time.

Inside the front cover

The End of Evil and the Good Man

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, variously attributed; listed as the most popular quotation of modern times.)

The world is beset by war, natural calamity, famine, disease, and every evil. What can be done, we ask? How shall we rid the world of evil? These questions are driven by the moral imperative embodied in the lead quote that we must not allow evil to go unopposed. Humanity today is taken with its own genius and independence. Convinced of our own transcendent goodness and good will, we strive to perfect the human condition by human right, law, genius, and might.

Is this correct? Self-proclaimed good men and their followers kill each other over competing “goods” all over the world with no apparent victory over evil in sight! As Christians, we need to redefine our questions or find better answers. Who do Christ and the scripture say are the good men, and what is the thing they must do?

“And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that ye be not troubled, for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted and shall kill you, and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity [evil] shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Jesus Christ, Matthew 24:6-14).

“…not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you are unto this called, that you should inherit a blessing. For ‘He that will love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile. Let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace, and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers; but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.’ And who is he that will harm you, if you be followers of that which is good? But if you suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are you. ‘And be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled.’ But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; Having a good conscience, that whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good behavior in Christ. For it is better, if the will of God be so, that you suffer for well doing than for evil doing. For Christ also has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:9-19).

Prayer for Believers to turn from Violence and be Reconciled

Nothing is more basic to Christian life than prayer. It is the foundation of all other response, not an alternative to response. Please find time each day to be aware of wars now going on in the world and to pray for peace.

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Special prayer being used at the St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam

 

st nicholas myra amsterdam

Let all believers turn aside from violence and do what makes for peace. By the strength of your powerful arm save your people and your Holy Church from all evil oppression; hear the supplications of all who call to you in sorrow and affliction, day and night, O merciful God, let their lives not be lost, we pray you, hear us and have mercy on us.

But grant, O Lord, peace, love and speedy reconciliation to your people whom you have redeemed with your precious blood. Make your presence known to those who have turned away from you and do not seek you, so that none of them may be lost, but all may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, so that everyone, in true harmony and love, O long-suffering Lord, may praise your all holy Name.