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That the World May Believe

“…that they may all be one…that the world may believe that you have sent me.” —Jesus (Jn 17:20, 21)

While we confess in the Creed that the Orthodox Church is one, where must an observer look to see our theological, mystical, or true
oneness? We have hidden it from ourselves and the world by our
behavior. Because of our pervasive fear, self-interest, and insularity, the visible unity of the Church exists only as a broken promise. We boast that the Church, the kingdom of God on earth, is a place of light set high and reached by straight roads where healing and wholeness are practiced, but it exists merely as a broken affiliation scattered among a deeply fractured human family.

The world is like a concentration camp of darkness where its billions suffer every degradation and practice mutual genocide. Our lack of unity effectively marginalizes the witness that Jesus is the light and liberty we all need. How will they believe us when we say Jesus was sent by the Father or recognize us as the children of God when we fail to be peacemakers even within our own house? This should break all our hearts. When Jesus looked over Jerusalem and felt
deeply Israel’s brokenness, “he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!’” Should we not weep both for our own dysfunctional city and the world? We know the way of peace and do not walk in it.

This is why I embrace the calling, gathering, and labor of the Holy and Great Council that convened in Crete in June 2016. One need not uncritically accept all it has done or produced. To do so would provide an unhelpful gloss. But neither should anyone seek to sabotage or undermine it. That would be business as usual.
I am encouraged by the mere convening of the Council, however incomplete, and the reconciliatory mission it has undertaken. The Council is a necessary and hopeful start to the process of facilitating our healing. The work needed to resolve the problems that have hindered our mission and witness to both the Church and the world must continue. I dare to hope that all Orthodox who believe in the
conciliar and reconciliatory nature and calling of the Church will embrace the Council, both as an event and as a process, and pray for its success. For the Orthodox Church manifests its true nature in open display when it gathers in council.

The Council’s call to bring all the Churches together every few years suggests a clear and simple rallying point. We reject the model of one pope who rules all. But our present model of many battling popes is a disaster. If the council as an institution were to adopt a model similar to the ruling council in Plato’s perfect republic, then our “philosopher kings” could regularly convene as a council of wise
elders truly coming together as benevolent equals. Such a council could lead to increasing our capacity within the Church to bridge internal divides. We could again build trust to resolve outstanding disagreements and problems among us and create mechanisms that prevent new problems from becoming the next generation’s  protracted conflicts that defy resolve. By immediately fortifying the
very conciliar forum where courageous and imaginative leadership can continue to work together, we will in time come to recognize this as normal.

Critical evaluation of the Council’s documents and proceedings done in good faith and in the spirit of love and with the desire for the success of the Church in its conciliar identity is something all concerned Orthodox should engage in. As we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us in this work, we may begin to implement those things on which we find we already agree, for even critical evaluation should not obscure the fact that the documents contain much that is good. This conciliar labor must engage the Church universal, not only primates, bishops, and synods. Through such a broad and engaged habit of conciliar involvement, we will pass the true test of catholicity and begin to rescue from abstraction our claim of
diachronic interaction with history. An organic, growing tradition lives to make history, not preserve it.

We must also acknowledge the criticisms and concerns held by those Churches that participated fully up till the gathering in Crete and hope that their concerns
will be considered in full council. These concerns cannot be addressed, and the work already begun cannot be improved or completed, if all the local Churches do not themselves participate fully. Only then can the Pan-Orthodox aspirations of the
council be realized. The Churches can’t wait for the Holy Spirit’s anointing to participate, they must participate so they can invite the Holy Spirit’s anointing. Finally, the conciliar and reconciliatory nature and work of the Church cannot be separated. The reconciliation of all things is rooted in—and indeed only made
possible by—the ministry of reconciliation being practiced within the Church among and between her members (Eph 2 & Col 1). The councils of the Church are a visible expression of that ministry. When our shepherds become better and more credible examples of reconciliatory ministry through conciliar engagement, the Church may once more believably offer Jesus Christ as bread to a suffering world. Without conciliarity, there is no reconciliation.

That we may be healed and that the world may believe.

The Extra/Ordinary Hospitality of St. Herman House

The following is the first of many features we will be doing on Orthodox service ministries that the OPF is partnering with or supporting, as part of our St. Macrina’s Ministries initiative. Nicholas Sooy, a member of the In Communion editorial staff and author of this piece, formerly worked full time at St. Herman House.

The Church is a hospital, according to St. John Chrysostom, and according to St. Ignatius its sacraments are medicine. It is often repeated that Christ is the Great Physician, and that the spiritual life of the Church heals the sickness of the passion-ridden soul. It is beautiful when the Church is compared with a hospital, with all its evocations of healing, compassion, and philanthropia. A contrast between the Church and a hospital may also seem instructive at first glance. The hospital cares for the body, while the Church is a special hospital for souls. This dualism, however, is something foreign to Orthodoxy. The Fathers did not see the Church as some merely spiritual counterpart to hospitals. Rather, hospitals in the patristic era were extensions of the healing ministry of the Church.Some historians believe the first hospital ever was founded by St. Basil the Great. Early medical institutions were even called Basilias.

Hospitality, the type of love practiced in hospitals, is a very Christian notion. The Greek word for hospitality is ‘philoxenia,’ love of stranger (the opposite of xenophobia). While we might think of hospitality as welcoming friends, in the early Church it meant loving strangers,“for even sinners love those who love them.” The relation between ‘hospitality’ and ‘hospital’ should be instructive for us, for we tend to separate caring for the sick from welcoming strangers. Christ, however, did not separate these activities. Instead, they were both expressions of the same love: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me.”

In the Byzantine Empire, there were a variety of philanthropic institutions, like hospitals, that grew out of the Church’s commitment to hospitality, whether that be for the poor, the sick, or the stranger. The xenon was a ‘house of hospitality,’ which existed to shelter the poor, the traveller, the pilgrim, and the stranger. Sometimes these houses were large complexes, while sometimes they were rooms in the Church building. Xenons, along with orphanages, hospitals, and other such houses of hospitality, were incredibly important to the Christian witness and vocation in the early Church. St. John Chrysostom said that every Christian home should have a special room dedicated to hosting the homeless or the stranger, while one of the Arabic canons attributed to the Council of Nicaea says that a “house of hospitality for the poor should be established in every city of every diocese.”

The St. Herman House of Hospitality is one of those rare places where God is unavoidably present. God is seen in the many icons which grace the house. Some of these icons hang in the chapel, while the rest come from the streets of Cleveland. St. Herman House was founded in 1977 by Fr. Gregory Reynolds and Mother Mary Blossom, two truly saintly monastics, to serve the poor in Cleveland in a time when almost no one else was doing so. Today, St. Herman House is run by FOCUS North America (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve) and supported by the more than 20 parishes in the Cleveland area, a true expression of pan-Orthodox unity and authentic, ancient hospitality.

Last year, St. Herman House served over 73,000 meals. They are one of the only programs in the nation that serves 3 hot meals a day, 7 days a week. The house also distributes around 800 grocery bags a year to mothers with dependent children and has an emergency bread and food pantry that is available outside meal times. The house’s clothing pantry is nearly as expansive as its food pantry, and each year over 500 men benefit from the free clothing and hygiene products. Shoes, jackets, and gifts are also given out to local children and families at various school and holiday giveaways. St. Herman House is also a shelter, and at any time can host up to 28 men. In addition to the emergency shelter, there is also a transitional house attached to the community that can house up to 12 eligible men. Together with case management and the jobs program the house runs, the transitional house provides men an avenue towards stability and independence. St. Herman’s also runs a 75 acre farm, which supports the feeding ministry, and which is being prepared as a ‘recovery ranch’ for those with addictions. Finally, to add to this litany of services, St. Herman’s also practices hospitality in non-material ways. The house has a chapel in which prayers are said every morning and afternoon, and once a week there is an open Bible study in the dining room. The house also serves as a home to the homeless for those who do not sleep there. Every morning it is open for ‘hospitality time’ where snacks, friendship, and a homey place to sit are offered.

While the vast array of services offered at St. Herman House is unparalleled, what truly makes the place unique are the people. Christianity is not about services, whether they are Church services or social services. Christianity is about persons, and in particular is about the person of Christ. To love another means to attend to the image of God in them. If we fail to love others, either by neglecting their material needs, or by treating them only as material beings, we dehumanize them.

There was one man who was staying at 2100 Lakeside, the main shelter in Cleveland. 2100 is a large, impersonal facility with security guards and a prison-like, industrial environment. This man was sleeping at 2100, but every morning at 5am would get up, skip the breakfast at Lakeside, and walk many miles to St. Herman’s for a small breakfast of oatmeal, coffee, and pastries. Paul Finley, the director, once asked this gentleman why he spent so much effort to have breakfast at St. Herman House, and as the man sat there teary-eyed in that friendly room, filled with couches, real wooden tables, and icons, he said, “Because here I feel like I am a human being.”

St. Athanasius taught that Christ, through the Church, was restoring the fallen image of man. The Church exists to foster the wholeness of personhood, the dignity that comes from becoming Christ-like. With that purpose in mind, it should be no surprise to hear that the Church humanizes and brings people to wholeness. This loving vocation of restoration is simple Christianity, and yet it comes to life in a very real way at St. Herman House. Repentance, prayer, fasting, almsgiving,fighting the passions, loving neighbors, loving enemies, healing, forgiving, all these activities at the heart of Christianity made sense to me at St. Herman House in the fullest way that I have experienced. In all my experiences in parishes, in monasteries, and even on Mt. Athos, St. Herman House is the one place I’ve been where I have seen the Church be the Church in the realest way possible. No one understands the passions and the need for grace better than homeless men. No one understands the need to turn away from death towards life better than those who have lived in hell on earth amidst the poverty and violence of the street.

As the Russian proverb goes, the only thing one does alone is go to hell. For many homeless, this is all too real. What is lonelier than homelessness, than the knowledge that you might freeze to death tonight and not one person in the city will open their home to save your life? Each year several dozen homeless men freeze to death in Cleveland. What is a lonelier hell than a death like that in a city of so many? If such a death is hell on earth, then where on earth is God’s will done as it is in heaven? It is often said that to enter a Church is to step from this world into the Kingdom of Heaven. Nowhere is this more real and tangible than at St. Herman House. Orthodoxy does not deal in vague abstractions. Rather, its theology is concrete, incarnate, and lived. The hospitality of St. Herman House is lived theology, not social work. It is to such theology that we are called by Christ and the Fathers. As St. John Chrysostom said,

Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold. He who said, “This is my body,” and made it so by his word, is the same who said, ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food. As you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.’ Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.

St. Herman House is a place of golden chalices and golden souls, as the Church is called to be. It is a place touched by miracles. It is a miracle each time that the eucharist is celebrated in the chapel. It is a miracle each time an addict gets clean. It is a miracle each time a group of broken and fallen men can work together to serve a meal to their brethren. It was a miracle last year when an estate donation of 7,000 dollars came in the day after Paul Finley privately reported to the board that they were 7,000 dollars short of their budget. It is a miracle whenever a donation of batteries shows up just as the staff is about to leave to buy batteries for the house. It is a miracle each day when the men of the voluntary house wake up before dawn to say Orthodox morning prayers. It is a miracle that a place surrounded by so much pain and suffering has come to be called ‘the happiest place on earth.’ “The miracle is,” according to Fr. Stephen Callos, “that it kept going.” After over 35 years and several leadership shakeups, the house is still going, and is growing. There was even a brief transitional time when the house was run by a non-Orthodox individual, and in my favorite anecdote from the house, the daily prayers kept going, because the men living in the shelter had grown to love the prayers of the Church. It is a place that can only be described as God-directed.

There’s a beautiful, yellow, Victorian house on Franklin Blvd. where God is present, and where the Church is the Church. The ancient vision of the Church as a hospital, or perhaps more accurately as a house of hospitality, is alive and well in Cleveland, OH. It is an example to the whole city of Cleveland, to the state of Ohio, to the United States, and to the Church Universal that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Such is the wonderful message that the Church is to carry forth, and it is incumbent upon all of us to do so. Nothing is more natural for a Christian Church than to have a house of hospitality, and nothing is more natural to Christianity and to the Christian than to support such an endeavor. In truth, though St. Herman’s may be extraordinary and out of this world, that is precisely what should be normal. The super-natural, the extra-ordinary is the norm for the Christian seeking divine-human communion. The hospitality at St. Herman House is not something to be admired from afar. It is a proof to us that we can live more compassionate lives, that we can be hospitable, and that the Church is a hospital and can be as such in its fullest sense. St. John Chrysostom, commenting on the Xenons of his time, said that it was the responsibility of all Christians to practice such radical hospitality, saying:

Though you may not wish to take them into your houses, at any rate in some other way (receive them), by supplying them with necessaries. “Why, has not the Church means” you will say? She has: but what is that to you? that they should be fed from the common funds of the Church, can that benefit you? If another man prays, does it follow that you are not bound to pray?

We are hospitable, just as we are prayerful: for the sake of others, and also for our own sake. Fr. Stephen Callos told me, “We need them more than they need us… it’s important for my children and my parish… we need to go down there and look the poor in the eye and serve them.” Ultimately, this small act of looking another in the eye with love and hospitality is the point. Looking, and seeing Christ. While we all might not be able to feed 200 people a day, we can show hospitality. It is quite simple. When I asked why he does what he does, Paul Finley told me plainly, “It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done… and it’s not much different from anything else I’ve done. People are people. People in the rich area of town just as much as in the poor areas are greedy, angry, charitable, envious, grateful. There are lots of kind guys and charitable guys here, just as much as angry. I saw a homeless guy give another homeless guy a dollar for a bus ticket. People with nothing helping one another. Sometimes the poor are more generous. It’s possible because we are all made in the image of God. We all have to struggle with the passions. Sometimes redemption happens; everyone has their own spiritual journey.” Or as Angel Valdez said, “It is not difficult to find Jesus in a place like this. He is here, he lives here, he visits us every day hidden behind different faces. I recognize him because he is always, always carrying and dragging a painful and heavy cross.”

To support FOCUS North America and the St. Herman House, to volunteer, or to learn more, go to or

Book Review: Fossil or Leaven: The Church We Hand Down

Fossil or Leaven: The Church We Hand Down
Essays Collected in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of New Skete
New Skete Monasteries and Alexander Press, 2016, 239 pp.

There was once a renowned bakery which produced the best bread in the land. The bakers said it was because they used a special strain of yeast. One day, a group of marauders came and ransacked the bakery, forcing the bakers into hiding. A generation later, the old bakers returned to the shop to resume their bread making, but unfortunately the yeast had died and ossified. Understandably, the bread failed to taste any good. Then, some enterprising bakers decided to use the old recipe with a live yeast. These bakers were denounced as charlatans by the old bakers, who still kept making bread with the petrified leaven; but nonetheless the new bakers succeeded in recapturing the fame and taste of the original. For many years after this, a debate ensued in the baking community; which set of bakers produce the more authentically traditional bread from this bakery: the old bakers who used the original ossified ingredients, or the second group who used the same recipe with fresh ingredients?

Fossil or Leaven sketches an answer to this parable, only the book is not concerned with baking but with the Church. The book is a collection of reflections inspired by New Skete, a monastic community that attempts to be authentically Byzantine while also providing a leaven for society. New Skete was founded by a group of Byzantine Franciscans who recognized a certain decay in Eastern Rite monasticism within the Catholic Church, leading them to commit themselves to being as authentically Byzantine as possible. This led them to found New Skete and to leave the Roman Catholic Church for the Orthodox Church of America. They were encouraged in this mission by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, among others, who had a similar vision of renewal through the rediscovery of Byzantine traditions. This text, which contains thirty reflections by friends and members of New Skete (who happen to also be some of the most prominent voices in the Church today), perfectly encapsulates the life, vision, and legacy of New Skete. Some essays are explicitly on New Skete, others are on topics of particular importance to the monastery, such as liturgical renewal, women in the Church, hospitality, or prophetic witness. What unifies these essays is that they all provide an answer to the question: how can the Church be leaven for the world? In this way, the text instantiates what New Skete is about: proclaiming the salvation of the world through the renewal of Byzantine religious life.

One of the defining features of monasticism in the Byzantine Empire was its freedom. The first monastics lived in a variety of ways: in groups, in pairs, in scattered communities, on pillars, in caves, in deserts, or even in cities. Each monastic community, or hermit more or less had their own rules. Macrina and her brother Basil provided yet another rule, in their vision of a ‘new city.’ This led to an even wider variety of communities proliferating throughout the Byzantium, with some being Basilian in nature, some serving particular groups of vulnerable populations, some being for women, some just for eunuchs, and others still serving as retirement communities for aristocrats. The custom was that whoever founded the monastery was to write its rule (which would often include anathemas to those who would try to unjustly seize the land or in any other way interfere with the legal status of the monastery, a good way to protect your property from the Emperor). This led to quite a diversity of communities, and while various monastic traditions would crop up and continue across communities, the freedom and diversity of Byzantine monasticism prevented anything like monastic orders from arising. The desert monastics fled the cities to live a life of radical freedom, hoping to hold imperial and ecclesial authorities at a distance. The most significant monastic leaders of the empire thereafter, such as Theodore the Studite, Basil the Great, and Symeon the New Theologian, likewise led movements of reform and renewal, combatting the slow ossification and decay of the monastic witness. In short, the legacy of Byzantine monasticism is one that is perpetually attempting to leaven society, providing centers of renewal, faith, intellectual life, and charitable work.

The Eastern Roman Empire ended centuries ago, and due to the various political movements that have dominated the region since then (especially the Ottoman conquests and the subsequent nationalist reactions), many aspects of Byzantine society have become buried in history. Nonetheless, the religious traditions of the Empire have continued, albeit in a modified form, with monasticism among those traditions. Unfortunately, the collective trauma of centuries of living in another society, combined with the loss of the diversity of religious forms and the reification of extant forms (due in part to the success of the printing press), have left Byzantine monasticism today a shadow of its former glory. Monasticism no longer holds the prestige in society it once did, and the premier educational and social institutions of the world are no longer run by Byzantine monastics. Though there are those quite suspicious of efforts of renewal, fearing that innovation leads to the betrayal of the faith, renewal is necessary if Orthodox religious life is to stay true to the Byzantine tradition. As the parable recounted at the outset of this review implies, staying true to one’s traditions sometimes means renewal.

We stand today in a situation much like that of the leader of one of the greatest Byzantine monastic renewals in history: St. Francis of Assisi. As Byzantine historian Fr. John McGuckin points out, St. Francis is more of an eastern monastic than a western one. At the beginning of his ministry, Francis found himself praying in the San Damiano Church, in front of a cross painted in the Byzantine style with icons. The church was in ruins, and even if it were not a ruined Byzantine church (which existed at this time in Italy), it evidently had some contact with eastern monasticism, leading to the San Damiano cross. Francis responded to this call for renewal, reportedly from the mouth of the Byzantine cross itself, and lived not according to any western monastic rule, but instead in the pattern of the Byzantine fool-for-Christ. In this way, Francis successfully brought a vision of Eastern monasticism to the west. Francis’s vision of monasticism resonated deeply with the Byzantines of his day who heard of him, as evinced by the Greek liturgical service to St. Francis recorded in the Galatone codex, or the legend in Crete that Francis’s mother, Pica de Bourlemont, was actually Byzantine rather than French, or the popularity Francis icons and of the name Frangiskos in the Greek islands, such as Crete. Francis brought to the Church of his day the freedom of love characteristic of Eastern monasticism.

New Skete has done today what Francis, Theodore, and Symeon did centuries ago, reviving Byzantine monasticism in the face of the ruins of fossilized religion. This revival is not an updating or revising of the truth or way of Byzantine religious life, but a revival of it. The unique liturgy and way of life practiced by New Skete may seem to some as suspect, but it is nothing more than the carrying out of Schmemann’s vision (though perhaps more radically than Schmemann himself), a liturgy in the vernacular, simplified so that the laity may understand and participate. New Skete bears none of the marks of trauma which have inflicted much of the rest of the Church: fearful of outsiders, and clinging to received traditions as if survival depends upon it (for indeed during the intervening eras of persecution and occupation, survival did depend on it). Tireless scholarship has gone into making New Skete what it is today.

But the real work of the community is the work of loving one another, and living in harmony. The sign of Christian life is that we love one another, for we shall be known by our love, joyfully caring for each other “in the spirit of happiness.” This collection of essays encapsulates that joyful love. Each essay in it is no more than a few pages long, and makes for easy reading, as if one if gathered in conversation with the authors, who are in conversation with each other. The book will remind pilgrims to New Skete of the experience around the holy table at which meals are taken in the monastery. The table is always full of good food, good company, and lively conversation. This is a book of friends communing together, proving that the Byzantine religious tradition is alive in this century, and is capable of meeting the needs of people today as it used to in Constantinople. It is a book that I would recommend to anyone interested in Christianity, and especially to those Christians who call themselves Orthodox. Each essay is a gem of wisdom from eminent scholars such as Sister Vassa Larin, Peter Bouteneff, Michael Plekon, Pantelis Kalaitizidis, Paul Meyendorff, Bishop Seraphim Sigrist, and Kyriaki FitzGerald.

Christianity started as a small group of friends who would gather together to eat meals and to proclaim the truth. It was a small movement, but served as leaven to the world; just a little will change the whole batch, as Christ himself note. The first Christians faced persecution, but in the face of this they doubled down on what made the movement distinctive: love for one another. This was so attractive that the Church grew and become leaven, and within just a few generations the entirety of the known civilized world became Christian. In the first centuries, this happened through the Greek-Christian synthesis of St. Constantine, but the only reason this Semitic movement became Greek Christianity in its early days was because the dominant culture was Greek. As such one should expect the next great revival not to be Hellenist as with Constantine, or in Italian as with Francis, but in the vernacular, with English being the great international language in the world today. Just as Christianity began in the margins of a great empire as a movement reviving the prophetic Messianic traditions that had decayed in the second temple, so Francis worked in the ruins of a great empire, reviving the freedom and love of Byzantine monasticism. Today our challenge is the same as that which faced the first Christians, and which faced Francis. The Church faces many challenges, with violence plaguing many ‘traditionally Orthodox’ countries, and demographic decline that threatens the future of the Church. But the first Christian movement was not hindered by violence or limited by demographic realities. As leaven it transformed the entire society, converting the world to its vision of life. If the Church today doubles down on what makes it distinctive, on the love and freedom of Byzantine religious life (represented particularly in monasticism), then Byzantine Christianity can again sweep the world, as it did under Constantine, or in Italy under Francis. This is the challenge that New Skete presents to us and which it attempts to answer, namely, will we be fossil, or leaven?

The Gospel Command of Nonviolence


This is a pastoral letter from Metropolitan Tikhon of the OCA, issued August 10, 2014. Metropolitan Tikhon expresses solidarity with those suffering in war, and calls all Christians to be witnesses for peace, living out in their own lives “the Gospel’s command to adhere to peace and non-violence.”

We have preferred profane and material things to the commandment of love, and because we have attached ourselves to them we fight against men, whereas we ought to prefer the love of all men to all visible things and even to our own body.” (St Maximus the Confessor, The Ascetic Life, 7)

Our hearts have been deeply wounded by the stories and images of war and fighting throughout the world. The recent incidents of violence in the Middle East loom as tragic examples of an increasing disrespect for humanity and disregard for human life and dignity. The Orthodox Church in America joins those in the Middle East, in North America, and around the world who have raised their voices against the inhumane actions we are witnessing. We join all who condemn this blatant disregard for human dignity and life.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, whose ministry in the Middle East consistently witnesses to the Gospel of love of Jesus Christ and the Gospel’s command to adhere to peace and non-violence, has issued a strong statement condemning the attacks against Christians in Mosul, expressed in “coercion forcing them to change their belief, pay a tax or leave their homes, while having their property confiscated.” The statement calls on “states that provide fundamentalist groups with any direct or indirect foreign support to immediately stop all forms of material, logistic, military and moral support.”

The Orthodox Church in America expresses its solidarity with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch in its striving for non-violence and peace. We also express our solidarity with all the suffering Christian communities of Mosul, whose expulsion is ending the Christian presence there after nearly two thousand years.

Another story of violence is unfolding yet again between Israel and the Hamas organization in Gaza. In this violence hundreds of innocent civilians have already died, some of them Israelis, most of them Palestinians. This humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is overwhelming; hundreds of thousands of innocent people are losing their homes and struggling to survive without electricity and water.

Yet another narrative of violence continues in Syria. Many innocent people not involved in the fighting have lost their lives. A large proportion of the Syrian population has taken to flight, forced to live in refugee camps in the region. Millions have lost their homes, their livelihoods and their loved ones.

Those of us living in North America may feel a sense of helplessness when seeing and hearing of these tragedies. We ought to remember the words of St John Cassian, who writes that the “goal of peaceful improvement cannot be reached through the decisions of others, which is forever beyond our control, but is found rather in our own attitude. To be free from wrath is not dependent on the perfection of others, but stems from our own virtue, which is acquired through our own tolerance, not other people’s patience.” (Institutes, VIII.17)

St John is pointing to a fundamental spiritual principle: that real change only begins when we look within our own hearts. Rather than feeling helpless in the face of world tragedies, we need to recall our unity with all of mankind and to respond with prayer for the suffering and the departed. In addition, just as the ascetic struggles of the great saints, in their own time and place, have a cosmic effect, so our own effort to purify our own hearts will have an effect on the rest of the world.

Thus, a very concrete and practical way that we in North America can respond to the violence in the Middle East is to commit ourselves to establishing peace in our own families and communities. When the Holy Apostle James posed the question: “What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you?”, he immediately answers with a challenge for us to consider: “Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?” (James 4:1).

If we are truly concerned about the strife in the world today, let us begin by overcoming anger in our own hearts by striving for meekness and humility. If we are upset by the violence and destruction in the Middle East, let us direct our energy to bring peace to the conflicts within our own families. If we are horrified by images of human beings injuring and killing one another, let us offer an image of Christ by giving alms to those in need in our own neighborhood.

In this way, our deeds will be joined to our prayers, and by the action of divine grace, we will have the assurance that our merciful Lord will grant consolation to those who are suffering, will provide a place of rest for those who have departed and will bestow upon the world the peace that passes all understanding.

With love in Christ,


What Are You Fighting For?

Hieromonk Fr. Seraphim Aldea was in Paris shortly after the November 2015 attacks in Paris. In the following, written shortly after the attacks, he reflects on peace and violence in light of these attacks. In the addendum, written two months later, Fr. Seraphim responds to some criticisms of his initial reflection.

It’s been a very tough week to be in Paris. I came shortly after the attacks. They happened on Friday night, and I was here already on Sunday. It is a very sad time, and you can feel it in the city. You can feel it in people and their behavior. They do try to move on with their lives, but there is a certain type of lack of engagement somehow, and
distance. A distance, that is the word. I’ve seen it before, in people as well as in larger communities, and it seems to be the reaction after something horrible.

I’ve tried to make sense all week of what has happened and what is happening at large. I’ve tried to make sense of that as I hold onto my faith and things my faith, Christ, ask of me. I can tell you two things that I’m sure are very common. On the one hand, nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense about Christianity, and that is all right. There is no logic in Christ’s asking us to be children of peace, makers of peace in the world. There is no logic in Christ’s commandment to allow ourselves to be crucified for the sake of our neighbor, to die for the sake of our neighbor and the world we live in. There is absolutely no connection; there is no way to fit the two together. But that is all right. It took me, again, a few days to understand that it is absolutely all right, because we are not part of this world, and we should
not fit into it. It is painful, but it is the truth.

And the second thing I’ve understood is how small, how horribly small my heart really is, because as I walked the streets of Paris and as I felt this cloud of sadness just overcoming everything and  everyone, as I kept on praying, as I kept on putting on the mask of a Christian, I clearly perceived in my heart a hope—a secret, horrible, disgusting hope—that while I look away and against my formal  approval, somebody somewhere, some nation from somewhere, will in fact do so that this whole horrible thing is ended.

There is a fight at all times in my heart—and I’m sure many of you can identify with it—between my faith and Christ’s commandment for peace and love and self-sacrifice, and my instincts, which are naturally towards survival, my personal survival, the survival of the communities and groups I’m part of, the survival of my family, my friends, my nation, my church, my culture. And because these two do not fit in moments of crisis and because I’m too much of a coward, really, to choose either Christ or the world, I develop sense. The saints have tried to get out of this prison of time and space and idea of a progression in life. Think of St. Brendan. Think of his physical attempt to get away from the world and to free himself of the world’s vision of life, a vision where things happen in time, and you get from point A to point B to point C. Think of St. Columba and his lack of progression, of his failure, which then Christ turned into one of the most beautiful stories of Christianity. Think of the 68  monastics who were killed on Martyrs’ Bay in the ninth century by the first Viking attack. Think of all the others who were killed everywhere in the British Isles by the Vikings. Not one has fought back. Not one has taken a gun to fight back and protect himself, his brothers, his community, or his island—because what they were fighting for does not belong to this world.

It’s just what Christ was trying to say. If his aim had been to rule the world here, to rule this dust which he created, he would have fought. He would have brought armies to fight against those who crucified him. And as he apparently didn’t fight and as he apparently was defeated, he was actually fighting back and winning the battle, but not here, not over this dust, but over the kingdom, the eternal kingdom of peace.

All these monastics who died in the Celtic isles—not fighting back, butchered by barbarians the same way things happen today—all of these are beautifully represented on their tombstones, and they are represented as frightening, powerful, heavily armed soldiers because they were frightening and they were powerful and
heavily armed in their fight for the kingdom. Yes.

We might die and our families might die and our culture and civilization might die, but if we die in the name of Christ, we have won. Whereas, if we win, abandoning Christ and his commandments, if we win and rule this dust at that expense, we have, in fact, lost.

As I was walking that day, I understood again that there is an essential difference between the mind of someone who is a believer, someone who functions by faith, and someone who functions by logics. Yes, there are religions on this planet—there have been before, and there will come long after we die—there are religions on this world who think in terms of ruling the earth, in terms of taking over the world and ruling it. There are religions that think in terms of progression and that rejoice in the fact that there were a thousand of them 20 years ago and there are a hundred thousand today. In that quantity, they see a sign that their religion is progressing and growing, but that is not the true faith.

In the true faith, things do not happen in time. I am not here so I can lead to the next generation. I am not here so I can leave behind some sort of heritage for those coming after me, because there is no future and there is no past. There is nothing to leave behind, because there is no “behind.” There is nothing to build for the future, because there is no future. The battle, the fight, happens here and now in me and in you. The kingdom is in me and in you and in each and every one of the people created.

The world does not need more soldiers; the world needs more saints. There is no question whether you or I should fight, because we are fighting, even against our will. We are all involved in this battle. We are all soldiers, but we can be the type
of soldier that fights for a kingdom over dust and become a warrior, a terrorist, who is any kind of person who kills another person; or we can become the kind of warrior that fights for the kingdom to come, that fights for the kingdom of love, that fights for the kingdom of peace, which Christ promised to all those who make peace.

Let’s pray for peace, for all of us, everywhere. Amen.

In connection to the Paris attacks, I said a few things concerning war and the use of guns and the idea of killing other people. I have received such horrible comments, and there was such a violent reaction against what I said that I simply could not deal with it.

I don’t really know what to do with hatred or just pure, empty  violence, even if it’s simply a matter of words or attitudes. I simply don’t know what to do with it; it has no space in my life. And it took me these two months to come to some sort of sense, to some sort of peace concerning this topic. Really there are very few thingsI care as much for as this topic. There is absolutely no reason—absolutely no reason why another human being could kill another one. Really, this is something I care for deeper than I had realized. Because what offended me, what scared me, following that reaction, was not so much that people could disagree with me or have a negative  reaction to things I say. That happens all the time with my friends
and with members of my family and with people in the parishes that I visit.

But what paralyzed me was the reality, which I hadn’t grasped until then, the reality of the fact that there is a huge number of Christians in the world who truly believe that it is all right to kill a human being. I’m not discussing any reasons, any justifications for killing; I’m discussing pure killing, for any reason, any justification. All I can say is: Go back to Christ. Go back to the God of peace. Go back to Christ who is love. There is no argument to support murder in Christianity, at least not in a pure Orthodox Christianity. There is no such thing as “just war” in Orthodox Christianity. That is a Catholic invention, and it is deeply wrong. It is anti-Christian.

Now, this is the confession of my heart. This is not some sort of intellectual conclusion, not something I believe in, something I chose, something my mind created. This is not an opinion, mine or
someone else’s. This is what I know in my heart to be the truth, and that is why this is a confession. You are listening to a confession, and you do with it whatever you want. In my heart, I know this is the truth; I know this is Christ. There is no way to life through murder, and the Orthodox Church, again, has kept that teaching as pure as possible by not creating any theory, any doctrine to justify war in any context. Many of those who wrote to me argued that there are various elders who supported war. Well, I say to you, before Christ and before those elders, that they are wrong. Even if a saint says so, he is wrong. Even if a bishop or a synod say so, they are wrong, for the very simple reason that Christ, who is the truth, and Christ’s Church, through its Tradition, say otherwise. Go back to the Christ in your heart, and look into the depth of Orthodoxy, beyond nationalism, beyond matters of state, beyond matters of borders. Go back to what Christianity is about, and you will find the same truth in your heart.

I know that intellectually we can conceive of all sorts of justifications for war and for violence and for murder. I know that there are all sorts of intellectual possibilities. I know that in theory, in abstract, there can be other answers, but I am not a theoretical being with a theoretical heart, and I’m not an abstract being with an
abstract heart. I have only this heart, of flesh, and only this answer in this heart: Christ is love. He is the King of peace. And this is the answer I am giving you. We are real beings; we are not abstract beings with abstract hearts beating in our chests. The fact that there can be, from an intellectual perspective, ten or a hundred answers to one question does not change the fact that the truth is simply one, and that the name of that truth is Christ.

Look at Christ’s reaction when St. Peter wanted to protect him against the mob that came to get Christ and take him to Golgotha and then to the crucifixion. Look at Christ’s reaction to Peter’s attempt to save him. What else  is there in this world or in any other world, what else is there more valuable, more precious, than the Source of being himself, than Christ himself? And if he was against killing someone to protect that Source of life and being, what do you think would be his reaction when we justify war and murder today in the name of nationalism or instinctual family relations or any other reason?

I don’t want to argue this. This is a topic that does not need me to represent it or to fight for it. It doesn’t stand through me. This stands through Christ. I am simply called to give witness for this truth…And as long as Christ’s words stand by that confession, and as long as the 2,000-year-long tradition of the Orthodox Church stand by that confession, I am all right, and I trust that Christ is all right with what I’m doing as well.

Glory be to God in all things always. Amen. IC


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Transfiguration

A light appeared from above and everything changed. In the sky there was a great cloud, and the light radiated forth brighter than the sun. There was a thunderous sound, as if the heavens had opened. “This is my son whom I love, listen to him,” said the voice. The disciples fell to the ground. Christ then said to them “Do not be afraid.” This event on Mt. Tabor was a great mystery to the world, the Transfiguration.

The Transfiguration is not just a sign that Christ shows us the Divine, but a sign that we too will one day shine in the radiance of Divine life. The Church teaches that every human is the bearer of the image of God and is the real Body of Christ. The Earth too bears that image, for it bears us, it is the chalice which holds the most sacred thing in creation- life. Orthodox Christians believe that all creation will be transfigured, and that if we just “listen to him,” we will love all humans, love all creation, love all life, and honor the sacred beauty therein.

71 years ago today, on the feast of the Transfiguration, a light appeared from above and everything changed. In the sky there was a great cloud, and the light radiated forth brighter than the sun. There was a thunderous sound, as if the heavens had opened. In an instant 66,000 souls fell to the ground, never to get up again. The city of Hiroshima was obliterated by a single bomb, the A-Bomb. The land was disfigured, irradiated. Over 100,000 ended up perishing from its effects, and those who survived it were changed, bearing the disfiguration in their bodies. This Bomb was a great mystery to the world, and through it the United States meant to speak to the world and to say “Be afraid.”

The primary goals of the bombing were as much military as psychological. The Americans were hoping to strike fear into the Japanese, forcing them to surrender, and to strike fear into the world, establishing the dominance of the United States. Hiroshima was ideally suited to these ends, due to its compact nature. Nuclear weapons expend most of their energy at the epicenter of the blast, and so a special city would be required to showcase how disfiguring the weapon could be. As a bonus, there were weapons stored in the city which could legitimate the civilian casualties of the attack.

Hiroshima was chosen to be the site of revelation to the world. The bomb had been revealed to a select group in New Mexico earlier that summer. The scientists and officials watched with great reverence and devotion. One blind woman miles away said she saw the light as well. A semi-official report of that first blast read “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” The operation was named Trinity.

The Orthodox Church teaches that the Transfiguration is a second Theophany. At Theophany, the Trinity was revealed to the world. At Transfiguration, it was revealed to a select group.

Visit Hiroshima today, and you may still see the disfiguration. As Robin Wright recounts,

Everything about Hiroshima is haunting, particularly the stories and remnants of extinguished young lives collected in the museum. There’s a battered lunchbox belonging to Shigeru Orimen, who was in his first year of junior high. His mother was able to identify the boy’s burned body because he was still clutching it. There’s a shredded school cap and uniform on a skeletal mannequin. They were assembled from meagre rags of clothing left on three boys, aged twelve to fifteen, who happened to be a thousand yards from the bomb’s hypocenter above Hiroshima. There’s a re-created panorama of a woman and child fleeing the blast. Covered with soot and dust, their skin is scorched and bloody, their hair, fried, stands on end, and ripped pieces of clothing hang off their bodies as they attempt to escape the fires consuming the city. The eeriest display is a ghostlike shadow imprinted on a stone step as the blast vaporized the human being who had been sitting there.

Also present in the museum is a small, charred tricycle. It belonged to a three year old boy who had been outside riding it when the 16 kiloton bomb, called “Little Boy” by the Americans, was dropped on the city. His father would find him later in the rubble, on death’s doorstep, still clinging to the handlebars of the tricycle. What did the world gain with the death of this child and the many other children of the city?

Overhead, another American plane accompanied the B-29 bomber. This plane was there to silently observe the effects of the bomb. It was named “Necessary Evil” by the Americans.

Three days later, another bomb was dropped over Nagasaki. The crew were all Christians and just before leaving, they sat with two Christian Chaplains who blessed them and their mission. Nagasaki was home to the largest Christian community in Japan. Over half of the Christians in Japan were killed by the bomb, succeeding where 200 years of intense persecution by the Japanese government had failed. The steeple of the Cathedral of St. Mary was used by the bombers for targeting. The bomb exploded directly over the Cathedral, which was the largest Christian Church in the orient at the time, with over 15,000 members. Exactly one week before Hiroshima was bombed was the feast of St. John the Soldier of Constantinople. St. John was canonized for his refusal to kill Christians and other innocents and for disobeying orders to do so. Some of the crew expressed doubt about the bomb they were dropping, but “orders were orders.” Orthodox Christians were among those killed in the blast.

Orthodoxy was brought to Japan by St. Nicholas, a Russian. He was a voice of peace, having once nonviolently disarmed a Samurai through his preaching. He was protected by the people during the anti-Russian sentiment that reined during the Russian-Japanese war, for he was beloved. The bomb was not as merciful to the Christian population.


In the ensuing years, wars were waged over the bomb. An arms race broke out in the world, to be won by those who could disfigure the world the most, even destroy it. Proxy battles were fought in Vietnam, Korea, and Afghanistan. We still live in the shadow of the bomb today. But there is not just shadow, but also the light of Tabor.

Today we celebrate. The Transfiguration is a promise to a broken world. A promise that all scars will be healed, all divisions overcome, all wars ended, and all souls restored. The Earth will no longer be a crucible of destruction, but the realm of the Kingdom. Atomic radiation will not shine forth from broken bodies, but the uncreated light from transfigured ones. Men will no longer aspire to harness the power of God, but will kneel before their king. There will no longer be cause to be afraid.

Today we remember. Once again the human race had looked upon itself and the world it inhabited with fear, hatred, and violence, and resorted to the most heinous mass execution of civilians that had ever occurred in an instant- the fruits of our dehumanizing fear. Against this, we find the words of the Transfigured whispering to us, “do not be afraid.” Let us pray that we do not need another great cloud and light before we “listen to him.”

Nicholas Sooy

contributing editor, In Communion

The Council After the Council

By now, everyone has left Crete. Everything has been wrapped up. My skin, for its part in this, is a shade darker and a shade redder. The Council has ended. But the conciliar process has not.

One of the phrases that is used in the Council documents is “liturgy after the liturgy.” This phrase is meant to capture the manifold ways in which prayer, love, and sacramentality are to shape the whole of life and the cosmos, and not just the experiences we have during liturgical services. After the liturgy each day at the Council, bells would ring. But they weren’t the bells attached to the monastery. These bells hung around the necks of the goats which fed off the mountainside. It was a refreshingly simple sight, peaceful, joyful. A fitting reminder each day of the world for which this Council is held. A reminder of the ‘liturgy after the liturgy.’

The Council may be over, but conciliarity is just beginning. We now enter the long stretch that belongs to the ‘council after the council.’ It is the role of the primates to speak to the world on behalf of the Church. Now they have done so. But the words they have spoken are not the point. The specific phrases of “The Mission of the Church in Today’s World” are important insofar as they call upon the whole Church for a renewed prophetic witness. But more important than that call is the missionary witness itself. It is now up to the body of the Church to fulfill that mission.

This is what I mean by the ‘council after the council.’ Whether this Council is a global turning point in the history of salvation, signalling a new Pentecost which heals the problems of modernism, or if it is just a failed Council depends entirely on the conciliar authority of the whole Church now. By this I mean more than whether the loudest voices begin to preach or denounce this Council. Rather, the real test is the fruit of this Council.

When the Council of Nicaea happened, it was a turning point in the Church. Prior to that, Christianity was divided. Not only had Arianism taken over, but the Church had not gathered in Council before. In the changing landscapes of post-Constantine Christianity, the Church rose to meet the new challenges of the world through Council. A creed was proclaimed, but this creed wasn’t just a formula, it was a confession. The Church came together as one and confessed the faith.

The challenge today is the same. Arianism is not the challenge we face, there are other isms now with which we must grapple- modernism,  ethno-phyletism, nationalism, jurisdictionalism, militarism, consumer capitalism, globalism. All these are addressed in one way in another. In the face of these, it is the duty of the Church again to gather and to confess.

It is now our turn to sit and the conciliar table and to add our voices.

Something shifted in the spirit of the Church during the Council. Each day after liturgy, there was a real camaraderie that developed among those in attendance. The Council began with a formal liturgy where everyone knew their place. The opening session involved prepared speeches. But as the Council wore on, dialogue happened, and friendships broke out. Bridges were erected within the Church, something that has long been needed.

There of course has been intrigue and controversy. There is a lot more about the proceedings of the Council that I could have written about this past week. There are more stories to tell and controversies to be gossiped about.  But that doesn’t interest me so much. It is not the immediate ups and downs of the conciliar process which matters. Rather, it is the Gospel that matters.  The most significant guide for me during my time at the Council was the Gospel. It was instructive to read Christ’s words to love our enemies while I sat waiting to see if the Council would work out its statements on other Christians. It was grounding to read Christ’s call to take the lowest position while awaiting decisions about the diaspora.

Every day there was a press conference, and a liturgy, and at the end there were more speeches. And now we have documents. The whole way there has been speculation and controversy, but the consistent word from the Bishops has been that we should not focus on such things. And I personally found it quite exhausting to keep up to date with each new bit of gossip about the Council. It is better, I think, to recognize this Council as a first step. There may be flaws and controversy, but Moscow has called for another Council, and this Council has called for more. This is the first step in the conciliar process. And it was a good step. As one representative said during the press conference, the bishops were honest and open. They discussed everything from metaphysics to poverty, and the atmosphere was sincere, emotional, and empathetic. It was as if the Holy Spirit really was acting.

In this respect, the discussions are more than the statements. The live voice of the Church, speaking in love and brotherhood, manifests in these real person to person encounters. These encounters constitute the conciliar identity of the Church, for it is only in such an encounter that love can manifest. Now it is the duty of the whole Church to open itself to real, personal interaction. The ‘council after the council’ much like the ‘liturgy after the liturgy’ is simply this space for encounter, for dialogue, for compassion, for co-suffering love.

As I walked down the long, dusty, sun-soaked road that led away from the Orthodox Academy for the last time, I turned and saw about a half dozen goats mulling about the sparsely vegetated hillside. Bells clanged around the necks of each. I paused for a moment and smiled at their presence here, reminding me of the ‘pastoral’ vocation of the Church. They fulfilled their God-given purpose so well. I wonder if we will live up to ours.

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion


War and Peace in Today’s Council

Today my response to “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” was published on Public Orthodoxy, the blog of Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies center. You can find it here. I’m also posting the text below, and you can find an expanded version posted on our own website.

The Mission document is monumental for its statements on war and peace. Warfare and nuclear weapons are unequivocally condemned, without qualification, as an expression and fruit of sin. What strikes me about all of this is that I haven’t been able to find any discussions of these aspects of the document anywhere. From what has been released regarding the minutes of the Council, the discussion of this text centered entirely on the proposals of the Church of Greece about the use of the word ‘prosopon’ (person) and against religious syncretism. The war and peace sections were not discussed. That means they passed exactly as they were formulated at the pre-conciliar consultations, where this document was signed by all 14 patriarchates, and not just the 10 who have shown up. None of the 4 absent patriarchates cited the sections on war and peace as problematic. So as far as I can tell they are not controversial.

Even those outside the Council aren’t talking about these sections, as far as I can tell. I haven’t been able to find any other articles or commentaries on these sections. They are literally unremarkable, in that no one is making any remarks.

I find this silence remarkable, given how groundbreaking this document is for the Church. The highest level of Church authority has unequivocally condemned nuclear weapons and warfare, and has issued a call for Orthodox peacemaking, and for Orthodox cooperation with and involvement in organizations that promote peace.

There are some very radical consequences to these statement. Will the Orthodox Church lead the push for nuclear disarmament? Will Russia give up its nuclear weapons? Will peaceful opposition to warfare become the new norm for Orthodox Christians around the world?

War and peace issues, apart from the document, are being discussed quite regularly at the Council. Nationalism has been condemned many times by the bishops present, a statement was made about the attack on the Syriac patriarchate, and terrorism has come up several times at the press briefings. Territorial disputes are also on everyone’s mind. The last two days, the issue of the ‘New Lands’ between the EP and Greece has been all ablaze. Similarly, today at the press briefing, the Serbian and Romanian spokesmen were asked about the dispute between those patriarchates. This Council has been a voice for peace on most of these accounts. As special meeting was set up between the Serbian and Romanian patriarchate this evening, to discuss the issue in a spirit of humility and conciliarity. Thankfully, the atmosphere among the bishops and delegates is very open, direct, humble, and brotherly.

At the press conference today, it was suggested that this Mission document may be signed today, if so then it has already been signed. But it was also said that there are nearly 300 bishops signing these documents, and they sign them in all the official languages of the Council. During the press conference, the signing of the documents on autonomy and the diaspora was taking place, and it was taking a long time. So the Mission document might be signed tomorrow if it hasn’t already been signed.  I’m especially glad for the timing of this, being posted on Fordham’s blog today as the document is being signed. Today is also the first day of the Tradition, Secularization, Fundamentalism conference put on by the Orthodox Studies Center at Fordham.

The Mission document isn’t perfect, and I make some criticisms of it in my response. But these criticisms are constructive in nature. This document is a wonderful starting point to the conversation within global Orthodoxy on this vital topic. This Council is calling for future Councils to take place to continue to discuss these and other topics, a proposal which is consonant with Moscow’s and others’ calls for a fuller Council at a later date. The primates of this Council want the global Church to have regular Councils and synods, just as the ‘local’ Churches have regular synods of their bishops. So I hope my suggestions for ways to expand upon this work can be considered and codified at a later Council. Having talked to those behind the scenes, I know they are sympathetic to these points, and my text on this document did end up in the hands of the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. So we can only pray that the Orthodox Church would truly become a voice for peace and healing in the world, declaring “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.”


“The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” offers timely statement on war, peace, and justice. The nature of conflict has evolved and the Church needs to counsel the faithful on the peacemaking vocation. This document offers an authoritative peace stance, and makes recommendations, but these are mostly too vague and incomplete. In particular, more should be developed regarding faithful responses to violence.

The basis for peace is the dignity of the human person (1.2), and peace is defined as the manifestation of dignity, social justice, freedom, the unity of mankind, and love among peoples and nations (3.1). War, conflict, violence, the arms race, and destructive weapons are all identified as the result of evil and sin (2.2, 4.1). Thus, peace and war are viewed first through a theological lens. The Church’s mission is to address the spiritual roots of conflict; however, the Church is also called to respond to conflict in the world and to make peace. St. Basil is cited as saying “nothing is so characteristic of a Christian as to be a peacemaker” (3.2).

This document definitively states, “The Church of Christ condemns war,” and condemns nuclear weapons and “all kinds of weapons” (4.1). It also calls it a “duty” of the Church to encourage whatever brings about peace and justice (3.5). Specific actions are recommended, including prayer, cooperation with social institutions, cooperation among nations and states, cooperation between Christians, peacekeeping, solidarity, and dialogue (1.2, 3.1, 3.2, 6.1, 6.6).

This list is good, but is incomplete and vague. The Church “supports all initiatives and efforts to prevent or avert [war] through dialogue and every other viable means;” such a statement should be strengthened by specifying some other viable means (4.2). Specifically, all weapons, including nuclear, are condemned, but no calls are made for disarmament or limiting the production and trade of arms, and the use of nuclear weapons is not unequivocally condemned. Likewise, nothing is said of the practice of blessing conventional and nuclear weapons with holy water. In the same vein, while wars based on nationalism are condemned, nothing is said of modernist nationalism generally (4.3). Orthodox nationalism should be condemned, since it divides.

Similarly, while the proven strategies of peacebuilding, sustainable development, and nonviolence are all implicitly endorsed, they should also be explicitly called for. In particular, the viability of nonviolent campaigns and institutions has risen dramatically over the past century. Chenoweth and Stephan (2008) found that nonviolent campaigns are more than twice as successful as violent ones at achieving their goals, and each decade the ratio increases. The language of nonviolence has been employed by many including Patriarch Kirill, while Metropolitan Tikhon of the OCA has called nonviolence “the Gospel’s command,” and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has called nonviolence a “Christian concept” with Orthodox roots. Given the role of nonviolence in the contemporary world, nonviolence should be mentioned. Wars are rarely openly fought between nations anymore, and conflict today involves greater civilian participation; the Middle East and former Soviet countries exemplify this. Nonviolence is most effective in such contexts, and the Church should recommend Christian investment and participation in nonviolent action, while condemning violent action.

War is condemned without qualification, and yet the document is ambiguous regarding participation in war, “When war becomes inevitable, the Church continues to pray and care in a pastoral manner for her children who are involved in military conflict for the sake of defending their life and freedom” (4.2). While language of ‘inevitability’ is better than the theologically problematic language of ‘necessary evil,’ it would be better to say that the Church cares for all involved in conflict. No elaboration is given regarding what makes a war ‘inevitable,’ or under what conditions fighting is allowed. The only conditions listed are for life and freedom, but ‘freedom,’ a common excuse for unnecessary fighting, is undefined. Martyrdom should also be mentioned as an alternative response to violence. The martyrs faced death and imprisonment, and are lauded over soldiers. Even so, the document glosses over the fact that most soldiers today do not fight for such causes, but instead are employed in ‘humanitarian’ interventions or fighting insurgents. These realities should be addressed, since such military operations are usually the result of nationalism and globalization, both of which are condemned in one form or another (4.3, 6.5).

Also missing is counsel regarding conscientious objection. In this document, the Church promises care to those who fight, but a similar pledge is not made to those who for Christian reasons refuse. Given the strongly anti-war statements in the rest of the document, one might expect that the Church would recommend conscientious objection or disobedience in at least some circumstances. Nothing is said of this, or of the practice of universal conscription in countries like Russia and Greece.

There is a final weakness in the account of violence. Peace is aptly defined as the presence of justice and dignity, rather than the cessation of violence. Along these lines, “oppression and persecution” in the Middle East are condemned, along with religious fanaticism, because they “uproot Christianity from its traditional homelands” (4.3). In response to this, the document calls for a “just and lasting resolution” (4.3). These statements, along with other condemnations of things like secularism and globalized consumer capitalism, are too vague to accomplish anything. In particular, such condemnations can and have served as pretexts for Orthodox Christians to take up arms and engage in interventionist warfare. Peace is defined as the “reign” on earth of “Christian principles” of justice and dignity, and such language may be seen by some to warrant Christian warfare for the sake of establishing such a ‘reign’ (3.1). It would be counterproductive if a document condemning war allowed escape clauses for Christian nationalists to undertake war in defense of “traditional homelands,” or some other noble cause. Such inconsistencies threaten the integrity of the document, and as such the Great and Holy Council should clarify which methods and means are acceptable for addressing injustice. As it is, greater clarification and revision is needed.

Nicholas Sooy

contributing editor, In Communion

The Little Ones

This morning I awoke at the crack of dawn in order to make my way down to the daily liturgy at the Patriarchal and Stavropegial Monastery next to the Orthodox Academy of Crete. Back home it was just after 10pm, and here in Crete the night had cooled the air to a chilly 83 Fahrenheit. Comparatively, long sleeves felt appropriate! I arrived at the monastery just as things were beginning and sat pensively in the courtyard. It was filled with quiet men, all observing one another, but without any tension. Chanting from inside the chapel wafted over the scene, projected from a loudspeaker on top of the building. Monks and Bishops were scattered around, sitting contemplatively, or whispering to one another. Several security guards stood watch,  a little further from the Church, standing tall in black suits, with sunglasses and an ear piece. The third layer of people were the journalists, photographers decked out in equipment, held behind a careful line.

There was a decorative trench near the walls of the courtyard, filled with small pebbles. Sitting in that trench I saw the last thing you’d expect at a gathering of the world’s most powerful celibate greybeards: a little girl. She sat playing with the pebbles, pushing them around, making a fine mess. And when she finished, a Council staff member came over and dutifully swept it all up. I took her photograph, which is now the banner image for this article. I was struck by the simplicity of the scene. A little girl played while some men stood around and looked at each other. Somehow, our faith in Christ, the mysterious journey that we and the whole universe are on, brought us here. It was totally and utterly unremarkable, but at the same time fantastic- that a little girl would sit here and play with stones while these great men gathered for great work.  It reminds me of Christ; when confronted with a woman caught in adultery and asked to judge, Christ’s first response is to sit down and draw in the sand. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says “mysticism is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.”

Immediately, the words of Christ came to mind, “let the little ones come to me.” It is these to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belong. I sat there by this ‘little one,’ while just a few meters away the Bishops were all gathering to pray for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I went into the Church to pray the Liturgy, and was again struck by the simplicity of it. The monastery Church was beautiful, but small. There was a small entrance, and then the chapel was split into three sections for standing, before opening up to the altar. Overhead were several large chandeliers, all candlelit, and spun in circles with great joy by one of the monks. I’ve never imagined that I would stand in a small chapel with 10 primates of the Church, besides another several dozen bishops. And were I to imagine it, I would imagine it much grander than it was. The Bishops stood along the walls, just like simple parishioners.

It was touching how they cared for one another. There were many genuine smiles. When a Bishop would walk into the Church, another Bishop would jump out from his seat, kiss the new arrival, and give him the seat. It was like they were playing musical chairs. It was a very familial atmosphere. We all stood there, sweating, in several dozen in a room designed for twenty. The room was so packed that every bow risked knocking over someone behind you.

The Patriarchs entered the Church gradually and without fanfare. No bells were rung, no trumpets played. The Patriarchs simply ambled in, escorted by a small entourage of course. There was something pleasant about watching Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew walk into the service behind me, in the simple black robes of a monk. He walked in quickly through the opening in the Bishops, went to the side of the Church, and stood there, not demanding any attention or distracting anyone from the prayers. Again, it was completely unremarkable, a man walking through a Church, and what was so remarkable about it was its unremarkability.

Even more striking was the entrance of Metropolitan John Zizioulas. At some point during the service, he entered, looking around as if he were both lost and exactly where he was supposed to be. He had the face of a child, a little one, both content and filled with wonder. He walked around the back a bit, and turned towards me. I looked into his face and thought “I recognize this Bishop! Who is he?” He then continued forward, greeting his brother Bishops, when it occurred to me that it was the titular Metropolitan of Pergamon! His absolutely simple manner disguised his face, for I’ve only ever seen him vested elaborately or on  a stage, and here he was, wandering around! The situation turned comic as he went to the front, and three Bishops jumped up from their seats along the wall to seat him. He seemed caught off guard as he refused their seats- surprised and joyful, but unwilling to take the seat of another. As a compromise, they brought out a plain wooden chair for him and plopped it down right where he stood.

What delighted me about this situation was that it wasn’t limited to the Bishops. At one point an old man slowly walked in, bent over on his cane. Immediately, they opened up a space for him along the wall, where the Bishops were sitting, even though not every Bishop had a seat. Then when the little girl from the courtyard came in with her family, a kindly old Bishop came up to them, blessed them, and spoke very joyfully and freely with them. It was the image of Christ welcoming the children.

Taking all of this in filled me with a deep spiritual joy. God was present at this Liturgy, not just in the sacraments, but in the gathering of the assembly, of two or more in Christ’s name. Christ was present in the little ones. How struck I was, then, when it came time for the readings, and I discovered that the Gospel for today began, “Do not despise the little ones” and ended with “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.”

The Gospel chapter from which this reading is taken is a beautiful one. It begins by asking who is the greatest among the disciples (a question still on the minds of Christians today). Christ answers that it is those who are childlike. The passage then goes on to call for brothers to reconcile. What could be a more appropriate passage for this gathering!

After Liturgy, the first session of the Council began. But before the primates said anything, the Gospel was read. In particular, Mark’s counterpart to this morning’s Gospel was read. Two disciples were quarreling about which was the greatest. In response, Jesus reprimanded them, saying that we Christians do not wield power like those in the world do, lording it over them.

This peculiar Christian notion of power has long captivated me. He who is greatest is the servant. At a banquet (or during a Church service), Christians should be tripping over themselves to give up their seats and to find the lowest position. Power in Christianity is inverted. It is an ‘upside down Kingdom’ as the phrase goes. A kingdom which belongs not to the powerful men, but to the ‘little ones.’

Would the Council bear out this dynamic? The opening session was very calm and hopeful, all things considered. The Bishops all spoke of the conciliar identity of the Church, and expressed joy at being gathered together. The format was simple, first EP Bartholomew spoke for quite some time, then each patriarch in turn made a speech, to which His All Holiness responded. There wasn’t an overt power struggle at play, though there are always interpretable hints.

While mos of the speeches were fairly standard articulations of each Patriarch’s position, a ‘buzz’ was created when Archbishop Anastasios of Albania brought up the issue of consensus. Decisions at this Council are supposed to be made by consensus. Russia, among others, pushed prior to the Council for consensus to mean unanimity. This is controversial, however. For example, during the second session today, the use of the word ‘prosopon’ to describe man was discussed. Met. Hierotheos Vlachos led Greece in voting against the use of the term, while Met. Kallistos Ware and Met. John Zizioulas led Constantinople in voting for it. Since there was no unanimity, no change was made to the document, meaning the word stays in. This voting system creates an abusable power dynamic. Any change to the documents can be blocked by simple dissent. Though if that tack is taken to often, then a primate could veto the document altogether. The tools used in these negotiations are powerful, and it is tempting to ‘wield power over’ others, like those in the world do.

Now that Russia has backed out, will consensus be reinterpreted as majority vote, as it has been in past Councils? These questions immediately arose in everyone’s mind as the Archbishop spoke.

But what stood out to me in the Archbishop’s remarks were something else. Anastasios said that “War is not the opposite of peace, ego-centrism is.” He then said that ego-centrism can manifest at all levels, individually, locally, ecclessially, nationally, and internationally. In order to achieve peace, what we need to do is get over ourselves.

This resonated deeply with me. I thought again of the girl this morning. Why did Christ say his followers should be childlike? Aren’t children ignorant and greedy? Maybe they are. But there is also something innocent about children, something selfless. Children may at times be rather self-centered, but it is not in a sedimented way. Children are open to others. And most importantly, children are incapable of pretension. Children are never full of themselves, self-important, or pretentious. The Optina Fathers identified pride, the chief vice, with pretense. So when Christ says we should be the least, we should be like the little ones, he is saying we should not be pretentious. This draws a line from childlikeness in the Gospel reading, to brotherly love and reconciliation. One who has no pretenses will be much better equipped for reconciliation. On the other hand, if one’s position is only a pretense, then nothing can be done towards reconciliation.

There are elements in this Council which tend towards the more pretentious, away from unity. There are inner and outer forces pushing on this Council, trying to make it more that way. And there are the speculations. It only takes a few minutes in the press room at the Council to feel the pretense.

Today was the first press conference ever, and it was a stark contrast to this morning. While this morning I saw Bishops loving one another, at the press conference, I saw speculation, pretense, and confrontation. There is endless speculation right now about what’s going on and what’s going wrong. Is it true that Bulgaria only withdrew under pressure from Moscow, and that the faithful in Bulgaria are unhappy with the withdrawal? Was Moscow only pretending to be in favor of the Council, but really intended to drop out after all? Is that why they insisted that the Council happen ‘unless unforseen circumstances arise?’ Is it true that Constantinople has refused to respond to Antioch’s appeal for mediation? Will Bartholomew recognize the Kiev Patriarchate? What will Bartholomew do if the Council’s decisions are not accepted by those absent? Who decided that only the Primates should have voting rights, is this a new canonical function of Primates for wielding power? Why did the four Churches drop out at the last minute, after sending the full list of their delegation and booking hotel rooms? Was it a power play? Is Moscow trying to humiliate Constantinople? Is Constantinople trying to circumvent Moscow? Can this Council be called Pan-Orthodox now that some Churches are missing?

Politics, power, intrigue, competition. Its all very compelling stuff, but totally foreign to the Gospel. That’s not to say that none of this is true. There might be a power struggle in the Church. But if so, then it is still foreign to the Gospel. It felt like I was in a political press conference. Questions were inflammatory, and the answers were circumspect. There was a Russian war reporter there, who had covered military conflicts in the past. She was very combative with Bishop Job, confronting him openly, interrupting the moderator, and disregarding instructions. It would have been embarrassing if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve seen the routine, dozens of times before, only with politicians instead of Bishops. And what did Bishop Job say? Very little. He reiterated the talking points we already knew. He said the absence of the other primates is baffling to those in attendance. On some questions he said simply, I am not the media representative for that Patriarch and so cannot answer that for him. Were these reserved responses necessary for responding to a conflict crazy press? Or did they only provoke the press? The whole dynamic disturbed me.

I felt particularly bad for the priest who was translating everything between Greek and English. He was very good, fluent in both with no accent. Yet, he seemed like a fish out of water in that environment. He had a fumbling manner, the kind you would imagine in your sweet great-uncle. Simple and unassuming, but not particularly magnetic. He was visibly shaken by the whole experience, as in, his he was literally shaking. He translated everything kindly, and even when the reporters were speaking out of turn, he translated, as if out of some sincere desire to be of help to everyone. It was touching. He had a face of childlike innocence, of no pretension. It felt like worlds colliding. The dog-eat-dog world of politics and power, against these simple monks who love their Church and are trying to put it in order.

Of course, everyone believes that there is political maneuvering going on among the Bishops. Only, it depends on who you ask as to who is doing the maneuvering. Is it Bartholomew, trying to hellenize the Church? Is it Moscow, trying to create a sphere of greater influence for Russia? Is it Jerusalem, trying to expand its territory? Is it Antioch, pushing pan-Arab nationalism?

Dwelling on these accusations too long makes my stomach turn. And then I look again at the photo of the young girl, playing in the rocks in the middle of a Council.

Unity is not something that comes with dramatic events. Peace is not made overnight. It is a process that takes a long, ordinary road. Peace is made through a continuous overcoming of ego-centricism at every level, as Anastasios said. It is something that takes time and is as simple in its day to day expression as a girl playing with rocks. This Council will not settle anything this week. Nothing can be settled in so short of a time. This Council is just the beginning. And we should not despair over that. Moscow has said this is just a preparatory Council to a later Pan-Orthodox Council. Bartholomew has said that this is the first Council in an initiative to have regular, global synods of primates. Do these two visions really represent a power struggle? If there is no pretension in these statements, if we are as the little ones, then it need not be so. Moscow wants another Council after this, and so does Constantinople. Where’s the conflict? There will be another Council, and this meeting is just the beginning of the slow, and extraordinarily ordinary process of peacemaking.

The conflict only comes with pretension, with the attempt to wield power over others. But Christ had the opportunity to do that. He could rule all the nations. That’s what the Messiah was supposed to do after all. But he refused. Instead he became a servant. In the face of political power, he remained simple, and was killed for it. Yet somehow, that unwound the power of those who killed him. In the face of these political tensions, perhaps our Bishops, and we ourselves, should become as children. It is tempting to want to respond to power with power. But maybe, when faced with the power play of  religious leaders, we should imitate Christ in being as peaceful as a dove, and as cunning as a serpent. We should stoop down and draw in the sand, just like he did.

Or maybe just play in the pebbles.

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion.