Category Archives: Jim Forest

by Jim Forest

A Conversation in Volos about Church and State

by Jim Forest

Fifty Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant Christians from Europe and the United States met in Volos, Greece in mid-May for a discussion of “Forgiveness, Peace and Reconciliation.” Our host was Metropolitan Ignatios, the local bishop. The conference was organized by the Volos Academy for Theological Studies.

The most important and difficult issue speakers addressed was the relationship of church and state.

Because of space limitations, I will concentrate here on what the Orthodox speakers had to say.

Among those challenging an uncritical relationship between state and church was Metropolitan Neofytos of Morfou, Cyprus, an island divided between Greeks and Turks for more than three decades. He spoke of the need for self-criticism within the Church as a way of initiating “a process of healing.” This is a question of discovering the truth, however painful, “because only the truth is liberating.”

He described the negative impact of national ideas being transferred from Greece to Cyprus in the sixties. “Belonging to the Greek nation was regarded as equal to or even above being Orthodox. The Church was seen as acting for the splendor of the nation. Faith was regarded not as the path to Christ the Savior but the realization of national ideals. Basic Christian teaching was marginalized. I don’t mean to suggest that the Church should be indifferent to national issues. It has a part to play. We are taught to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But in Cyprus we lost the golden balance point. We came to see ourselves primarily as a political organism, with our politicians turning to the Church with the expectation of hearing the correct political words and phrases. There was an absence of forgiveness, an erosion of confession. We made the grave mistake of not praying for the enemy. Indeed there are Orthodox Christians who are scandalized even to be asked to forgive. We lost our way. Christian identity should never to used to divide.”

Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis, director of Volos Academy for Theological Studies, argued that wars, even when occurring in the name of religion, “are nothing but a result of the exaltation of collective egoisms. They only witness to the absence of real repentance, the denial of the Cross. Behind any conflict, we can easily discern an idolization of religion, tribe and nation, an odd paganism of earth, soil, homeland or of the ‘God-bearing’ people, of a claim of exclusivity, which is a real temptation.”

Dr. Vletsis Athanasios spoke of the problem “of unrepented sins committed collectively by Orthodox people, or even the failure to identify sins we have committed. The illumination of memory is needed. Otherwise we are doomed to persist in committing past sins.”

In a lecture on the Orthodox view of human rights, Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis of Holy Cross Greek School of Theology in Boston, pointed out that, while “Orthodox Christianity does not have a complete system of understanding the human person … It is wrong to assume that the ethos of Orthodoxy does not permit the development of human rights sensitivities and advocacy. Quite the contrary, the Orthodox view of human dignity supports the idea of human rights. The possibility for a greater sensitivity and advocacy of human rights issues by the Orthodox churches is highly probable since under the pressure of historic challenges people often find new meaning in traditional ideas.”

Dr. Athanasios Papathanasiou, editor of the quarterly journal Synaxis, published in Athens, spoke about war in the Orthodox tradition. “It is interesting to see how the tension between the historic necessity and the gospel criteria is depicted in the canons of the Orthodox Church,” he said. “I believe that the Church does not represent a compact body with a common view and unanimity throughout history. It is always formed by several trends, with various sensibilities and priorities; trends which are often in agreement, divergence or even in conflict.” Thus one finds, even among the Church Fathers, a range of views about war.

Dr. Petros Vassiliadis, professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, agreed that the religious factors have been a driving force in nearly every war. “All the shortcomings of Christianity,” he said, “are rooted in bad Christology. I have problems whenever we absolutize our own mission.”

Fr. Zivko Panev, professor at the St. Serge Institute in Paris, discussed the influence of the state on church life in Serbia following the restoration of the Serbian patriarchate, with the consequence that “national identity merged with church identify.” In fact, many Serbs who would identify themselves as Orthodox don’t believe what the Church teaches. Some are even convinced atheists. The problem in Serbia is made more complex because of an “idealization of religion that followed the collapse of communist ideology, with the Church perceived as being the principal guardian of national identity.”

Dr. Alexei Bodrov, director of St. Andrew’s Biblical Theological Institute in Moscow, spoke of various problems in Russia. These include the “traditional lack of tolerance – in principle we have tolerance, in practice we do not. There is still widespread anti-Semitism. Even the concept of human rights is regarded as highly suspect, having a much lower priority than state or national interest. There is in Russia today a highly politicized Orthodoxy that has little in common with Christian Orthodoxy. One notes the many ties between church and the military, church and police, church and other state bodies. This is partly due to Orthodoxy being made to take the place of Marxist ideology following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet though a high percentage of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, in fact less than four percent occasionally take part in church services.”

Fr. Vassilios Thermes, an Orthodox priest and psychiatrist living in Athens, said “there is no greater sin than war with its violence, hatred, cruelty, murder and fanaticism. Any kind of violence and hostility is an assault on the Holy Spirit. Who are the peacemakers that Christ calls on his followers to become? They are the ones that help us to overcome hatred. Each peacemaker is a carrier of the Holy Trinity. He is a child of God because he imitates God. You cannot convey to others what you don’t have.”

My own lecture emphasized the importance of the Church recovering the memory of its own resistance to violence in the early centuries of Christianity. “We Orthodox certainly have remembered how the early Church celebrated the liturgy. To the astonishment of other Christians, we are happy to stand in the church for very extended periods. But sadly we have forgotten a great deal of the social teaching and practice of the early Church and have become deaf to much that the saints had to say.”

* * *

from the Summer 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 46

* * *

The Pilgrimage of Illness

by Jim Forest

Any trip, even a small journey from one prosaic location to another, has the potential to become a pilgrimage.

In my own case during these last few years, the most common of pilgrimages has been going from our house to the local hospital, a five-minute bicycle ride from our front door. I make that small pilgrimage three times a week, normally on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

It’s a journey that began several years ago when a routine blood test revealed that the creatinine level in my blood was higher than it should be. Our family doctor referred me for further tests to a specialist at the hospital. More tests made it clear that my kidneys were gradually failing, probably due to damage caused by high blood pressure. Sometime in the not-distant future, the doctor said, I would need to make use of an artificial kidney machine in order to stay alive.

Dialysis was something I passionately wanted to avoid. During the thirty months that followed diagnosis, I faithfully took all the medication my doctor prescribed, but I also looked into alternative treatments. My diet changed. I also found a local acupuncturist who made no promises but said acupuncture might help. As a result I spent many hours with needles placed in various areas of my body, from feet to ears. This therapy may have been a factor in retarding the progression of the disease, but tests showed that my kidney efficiency continued to decline.

I often prayed for a healing miracle, and many prayed for me. For several years I have been on a list of people for whom our parish prays at each and every liturgy. The fact that there has been no miracle is disappointing, and yet I have felt greatly helped by the prayer. I think it was a major factor in my gradually coming to terms with my illness, an inner shift that happened quite slowly. It may well have been the prayer of others that helped me realize I was on a pilgrimage. For the better part of three years, even while writing a book on pilgrimage, I’m embarrassed to say such a thought never crossed my mind.

In that period of regular hospital visits and frequent blood tests, far from seeing myself on a pilgrim’s path leading more and more deeply into the kingdom of God, it seemed to me that I was simply a victim of rotten luck. Each trip to the hospital was a painful reminder of a dark, confining future that was relentlessly coming my way. While I rejoiced each time my doctor told me that dialysis wasn’t yet needed, it was joy with a shadow, as he also made me aware that month by month my creatinine level was slowly but steadily rising, a sure sign of kidney failure. Whatever prayer, changed diet and acupuncture were achieving, at the very best the progress of my illness was simply being slowed.

During each visit to the hospital, I had a glimpse into the several wards where other patients were undergoing dialysis. It seemed to me a nightmare vision. Transparent plastic tubes filled with dark red blood ran from the bandaged arms of men and women into machines that looked like props from Star Wars. I hoped against hope that I would not eventually have to join them.

And yet I have. A year ago, soon after returning from a Christmas visit with my oldest son, his wife and two of our grandchildren in America, my doctor looked at the latest blood test results, then called the dialysis unit to make an appointment for me to start dialysis the next day.

What I had desperately hoped to avoid is now normal. I now spend nearly twelve hours a week – fifty hours a month, six hundred a year – at the dialysis clinic. Dialysis is part of the core structure of each week. Blood-filled plastic tubes now link my arm to a dialysis machine. Nurses that I saw caring for others now care for me. People who were unenviable strangers, dialysis patients, now are people I know by name. The “other” now includes me. We’re all in the same boat.

I’ve had to rethink how best to use my available work time. My work time has been radically cut. This has not been easy.

Yet there are significant pluses to report. It finally dawned on me that the hospital I dreaded visiting is actually holy ground. My main pilgrimage these days is the unprayed-for blessing of regularly going to a place where nearly everyone is sick, caring for the sick, or visiting the sick.

I’ve discovered that far worse things can happen than being chronically ill. Unlike people burdened with the illusions that come with good health, the sick are well aware that they are unable to survive on their own. We’re intensely conscious of our dependence on the care of others. It’s hard to be seriously ill and not be poor in spirit, the first of Christ’s Beatitudes. Because of that, the sick are by definition on the ladder of the Beatitudes. Each of us may still have quite some climbing to do, but, thanks to illness, at least we’ve made a start. We’re on the first rung.

In a culture which prizes individuality and independence, most of us are reluctant to realize how much we depend on others, though in reality there has never been a day of our lives when this wasn’t the case. We started that dependence the instant we were conceived and it continues without interruption until we take our last breath. We depended on others for love, for encouragement, for inspiration. We depended on others for food. We depended on others for the words and gestures that make communication possible. We depended on others for all the skills we slowly acquired while growing up. We depended on others for wisdom. And yet for much of our lives we managed to nourish the illusion that we were independent and had the right to pat ourselves on the back for whatever good things came our way. The phrase “thank you,” however often it was said out of social necessity, didn’t necessarily reflect a deeply felt attitude.

Being sick changes that. The words “thank you” begin to rise from the depths of the heart. In the community of the sick, there aren’t many people unaware of how much they depend on the care of others, even if most of them are people we don’t even know by name. It’s not only dependence on the doctors and nurses who directly care for us, but all those who have such unheralded tasks as doing laboratory analyses in rooms we never enter or people quietly keeping the hospital clean.

Directly or indirectly, what all these people are doing day after day is trying to keep us alive a little longer and, in the case of those we meet face to face, even trying to keep our spirits up in the process. They are professional life-savers, yet none see themselves as heroes. They do what they do with the matter-of-factness of a teacher writing 2 + 2 = 4 on a classroom blackboard or a plumber repairing a stopped-up sink. Yes, there are those for whom hospital work seems to be just a job, and perhaps not one they especially like doing; but my experience suggests such people form a small minority.

At the end of a session of dialysis, I sometimes say to the nurses who helped me that day, “Thank you for saving my life.” They always look surprised to hear such a declaration. Generally people are too polite to express appreciation that plainly, though anyone with a chronic illness knows he or she is living on borrowed time. Every dialysis patient knows that he or she, without dialysis, wouldn’t have long to live. The writer James Mitchner’s life ended a week after he decided to stop dialysis.

It’s not only the professional care-givers who make a hospital holy ground, but also those who visit the sick. Though the regulations in many hospitals attempt to restrict visits to predetermined hours that pose the least inconvenience for staff, in practice we find visitors arriving and departing throughout the day and rarely being told to go away. Typically they arrive carrying flowers, though some bring books, magazines, chocolates, juice, balloons, music or all sorts of others things they hope will communicate their love and give the patient a little extra energy for coping with illness.

It’s holy work, and often done despite a temptation not to be there. Hospitals, after all, are places exploding with reminders about human mortality. The most death-denying person knows that every day there are people breathing their last in this building. Also hospitals are obviously not the healthiest places to be in. Yet crowds of people each day manage to overcome their hesitation, even their fear, and cross the border. After all, it’s not easy to communicate the bond of love while physically avoiding the person you love. Greeting cards and phone calls aren’t bad, but they can never equal the reality of being there.

Visiting is a healing work as crucial and powerful as what the doctors and nurses are doing. There is nothing more healing than love. Love can be expressed far more openly by the visitor than the health-care professional. Whether visitors sit silently or talk non-stop, they manifest how much the sick person they are visiting matters to them. Whoever visits the sick is a pilgrim, for they are meeting not only someone familiar but Christ as well. It was he who said, “I was sick and you visited me.”

In my own case, I’m one of the lucky ones within the community of the sick. Kidney illness is certainly inconvenient, and it’s not painless being jabbed in the arm with two hollow needles several times each week. On the other hand, neither the illness itself nor dialysis (once you’re connected to the machine) is painful. Kidney illness has become treatable. You can live a long and full life on dialysis. You can even travel, though it’s not easy as one would like setting up appointments for care at places you might wish to visit. You might even be one of the lucky ones who eventually gets a transplant and no longer needs dialysis.

But in the meantime. As is the case with many diseases, dialysis is not without rewards. If you happen to love books, it’s an illness that gives you the possibility of hours of quiet reading time each week. In my life, that qualifies as an answered prayer. Prefer watching TV? Normally I don’t, but there’s a TV close at hand should I find myself too tired to read and yet unwilling to take a nap. I happened to catch an excellent program on monastic life the other day.

The pilgrimages of illness being made by others are often far harder than mine, or more difficult to bear. In other sections of the hospital I sometimes encounter children who are gravely ill. I often see people who are in great pain and distress. I see faces collapsing with discouragement and grief. There is usually nothing at all I can do but silently pray, which may in fact be an achievement in the face of the overwhelming powerlessness I sometimes feel when I witness what other people are up against. Prayer seems so meager a response – in moments of doubt, just another form of nothing. But not to pray is itself a kind of dying.

Being among the sick is being among those who include the dying. Just a few days ago, a frail dialysis patient in his eighties died before my eyes. I thought he had dozed off. So did the nurses. But at the end of his session, when a nurse attempted to wake him up, it was discovered he had quietly left this world. His pilgrimage was ended.

In fact pilgrimage historically was, among other things, a dress rehearsal for dying.

What better death is there than to die on pilgrimage? As each year many pilgrims die of accidents and illnesses, every pilgrim route acquires memorials to those whose lives were completed along the way. Among the monuments one finds on the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain is a pilgrim’s staff with a rusting bicycle set in a concrete pedestal, its front wheel raised toward heaven. The German who had been riding it died of a heart attack in El Acebo. Later on, an Irish pilgrim happened to find a bouquet of flowers along the roadside, picked it up, but found it awkward to carry. When she came upon the bicycle monument, she left the flowers there, realizing that, like the German biker, she “did not want to spend the last days or months of her life dying in bed.”

I recall a priest Nancy and I met at a Russian Orthodox church in Jerusalem twenty years ago who showed us a remarkable scrapbook nearly a century old – fading photos of Russian pilgrims coming in their thousands to the Holy Land until such journeys were made impossible, first by the world war that broke out in 1914 and then by the draconian restrictions imposed by the Soviet regime after 1917. He pointed out that many of the pilgrims we saw in the photos had buried others who died along the way, and that many more died either in Jerusalem or on the way back home.

“A pilgrim leaving Russia in those days never assumed he would return alive the way a tourist does these days,” he said. “They said goodbye as if for the last time, as indeed was often the case. But this thought did not disturb them. They saw it as a blessing to die on pilgrimage, and especially to die in the city where Jesus rose from the dead.”

Whoever is on the pilgrimage of illness cannot help but be more aware of last things than many others, but the job of the pilgrim is not dying but living. As St. Ireneaus, one of the theologians of the second century, said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”

Even if it is a life of confined borders, it is no less a life.

Jim Forest is editor of In Communion. His essay on illness is a chapter from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, to be published by Orbis Books in August. A children’s book, Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue, is being published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in July.

St. George the Great Martyr

True stories become legends and legends are compressed via symbols into myths. The St. George of myth was a knight in armor who fought a dragon to save a princess. The real George never saw a dragon nor did he rescue a princess in distress. We are not even sure he had a horse, possessed a sword, or was a soldier. It is possible he was a farmer – the name “George” means tiller of the soil, which explains why St. George is a patron saint of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.

A Christian convert who was born late in the third century after Christ and died early in the fourth century, George was one of the victims of the anti-Christian persecution ordered by the Emperor Diocletian that began in February of the year 303. Churches were destroyed and biblical texts burned. All Roman subjects were ordered to make ritual sacrifices to Rome’s gods. Those who refused risked loss of property and severe punishment. Many were sent into exile as slave laborers in quarries and mines in Egypt and Palestine. Thousands were tortured and many executed. Finally in 311 the attack ended. With Diocletian in retirement and the emperor Galerius critically ill and close to death, Galerius published an edict of toleration allowing Christians to restore their places of worship and to worship in their own way without interference, provided they did nothing to disturb the peace.

What made George a saint among saints was the fearless manner in which he proclaimed his faith during a period of persecution when many other Christians were hoping not to be noticed. According to one ancient account, George went to a public square and announced, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this George was arrested, tortured and finally beheaded. The probable date of his martyrdom is April 23, 303, in the town of Diospolis, later known as Lydda, in Asia Minor – Turkey as it is known today. His courageous witness led to the conversion of many and gave renewed courage to others already baptized.

In the oldest icons of St. George, he is shown dressed as a soldier and holding the cross of martyrdom.

It was only in later centuries that the dragon legend emerged. It has been told in many variations, but in its most popular form it concerns a dragon living in a lake who was worshiped by the unbaptized local people, who in their fear sacrificed their children to appease the creature. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, to be sacrificed. While going toward the dragon to meet her doom, Saint George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance. Afterward Elizabeth led the vanquished creature into the city.

According to the Legenda Aurea written by Blessed James de Voragine, the wounded dragon followed Elizabeth “as if it had been a meek beast and debonair.” Refusing a reward of treasure, George called on the local people to be baptized. The king agreed, also promising to maintain churches, honor the clergy, faithfully attend religious services, and show compassion to the poor.

– an extract from Praying with Icons (Jim Forest, Orbis Books)

The Healing of Enmity

by Jim Forest

But I say to you, Love your

enemies and pray for those

who persecute you.

– Jesus Christ (Mat 5:44)

Passenger planes taken by terrorists fly into the two towers of the World Trade Center; the buildings collapse and thousands are killed. Many more are wounded. Still more now suffer from having breathed in the toxic airbourne debris.

During the Second World War, entire cities – London, Manchester, Birmingham, Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki -become targets of war. Everyone without exception was a target – children, the ill, grandparents, ordinary people. They died in countless thousands.

In the Soviet era, millions were taken away, some to labor camps in which it was a miracle not to die of disease, exposure, abuse, or execution. I recall visiting a place of mass executions in a Belorussian forest. Here, during the Stalin years, people were brought by the truck-load each day and one by one were shot in the back of the head and thrown into deep pits. When one pit was filled, another was dug. There were many pits.

We still aren’t sure how many millions were killed under the Hitler regime- Jews, gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals, Christians who dared to resist or people simply regarded as inconvenient. As in the Soviet gulag, many died simply of the consequences of living in such condition and being worked like slaves. A vast number were simply executed. The murders were done not only in concentration camps but also in hospitals. In the latter, people regarded as genetically or mentally inferior were killed. It was regarded as “mercy killing.”

In Communist Albania it became a criminal activity to make the sign of the cross, to have an icon in one’s home or to dye an egg red at Easter. Every church, monastery and seminary without exception was closed. The smallest indication of religious belief could be severely punished. Most priests and many lay people died in concentration camps.

One could spend many hours briefly describing, country by country, the horrors of mass violence that human beings have suffered just in the past hundred years. I mention a few examples only to point out that, when we talk about Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies, the beginning point is the recognition that we have enemies and that evil deeds occur every minute of the day. Often times nationalistic, racial or ideologically-driven movements develop in such a way that enormous numbers of people find themselves in grave danger.

christ

There are people who, having lost any sense of the sacredness of life, abuse and murder innocent people, even children – some on a large scale, others as a kind of hellish past-time. I think of my stepmother, Carla, who was shot and killed by sniper as she stepped off the bus one evening in San Francisco in 1966 after a day of service in a center for alcoholics.

Such events were once rare; in more recent years they have become more common. Most of us have stories to tell of awful things that happened – grave danger, abuse, or violence- to ourselves or to people we know. I am equally sure that many of us have memories of dreadful things we have done or said to others, under obedience, out of fear, or in a state of rage.

The reality of enmity is a cental theme in the Gospels. The peaceful, star-illumined Bethlehem we see in Christmas cards tells us nothing at all about the hard life the people lived there were enduring when Jesus was born. The years of Christ’s life described in the Gospels occurred in a small land under heavy, often brutal, military occupation. There was no concept of human

rights. Torture and crucifixion were not rare punishments. It’s no wonder that there was a serious movement of Jewish armed resistance, the Zealots, and that conflict between Israel and Rome not many years later resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of thousands of Jews.

So when Jesus instructed his followers, as he did in his Sermon on the Mount, to love their enemies and pray for them, it was not a teaching that would have been offered in a state of naivete by someone living in an oasis of peace, nor was it a teaching that would have been easily embraced by the suffering people who were listening to him. It’s not a teaching anyone, even in situations of relative social tranquility, takes to easily. What most of us do when we are abused by others is look for a way to return the abuse, even doing so in double measure. Say an irritating word to me and I’ll give you irritation back, multiplied by two. Hit me and I’ll hit you twice as hard. Few Jews had a kind thought regarding the uninvited Romans. Occupation troops are resented and despised. They often become the targets of deadly violence.

We see this even in cases where an occupation is meant to be humanitarian.  Jesus is never just a man of words. Can you think of anything he taught that he didn’t give witness to in the way he lived and interacted with other people? I cannot.

He urged his followers to be peacemakers. In the Beatitudes, he says they will be known as God’s own children. In his own life, again and again we see both courage and nonviolence. He repeatedly gave the witness of refusing to return evil for evil. His most violent action was to use a whip of chords to chase money-lenders from the Temple because they were profaning sacred space. Many were upset, but no one was harmed. The only life endangered by his action was his own. The total number of people killed by Jesus Christ is zero.

While many people are driven by anger and vengeance, Christ taught forgiveness and again and again gave the example of forgiving others. When asked by his disciples if they must forgive as much as seven times, Christ replied: seventy times seven. Forgiveness is one of the main themes of the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ask God to forgive us only insofar as we have forgiven others. Perhaps nothing is more impressive than seeing Christ praying for his enemies as he hung nailed to the cross: “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Indeed, it seems that none of those involved in crucifying him had any idea what they were doing. The idea that Jesus was king of the Jews and son of God was nothing more than a joke. For some, a heretic was being punished. For others, he was a threat to the Jewish people. For the Roman soldiers, it was simply a grim duty they were under orders to perform.

Jesus also gave the witness of healing. Healing is another word for peacemaking. Peacemaking is the healing of damaged or broken relationships. On one occasion an act of healing was done in response to an appeal not from a fellow Jew, but from an officer of the Roman occupation forces, the centurion who appealed to Jesus on behalf of a critically ill servant. Jesus was prepared to come to the soldier’s home, but the officer said there was no need for that; Jesus’s word was all he needed. Jesus later said that he hadn’t seen such faith in all of Israel. Can you imagine how annoyed, even scandalized, some of the witnesses to this exchange would have been? A good deed for a Roman? Admiration for a Roman’s faith?

If you take Jesus’s teaching about love of enemies out of the Gospel, you have removed the keel from the ship. But then how do we go about loving an enemy? The answer is given to us by Christ. He doesn’t simply command us to love our enemies, but to pray for them.

Without praying for our enemies, how would it be possible to love them? Think about these two important words, love and prayer. The love so often spoken of by Christ is not romantic love. Love is not about how we feel regarding the other but how we respond to the other. If you say you love someone, but you let him starve to death when it is in your power to give him food, in fact you do not love him. love. If you say you love God, but you abandon your neighbor, you love neither God nor neighbor.

Love is not the acquisition of pleasant feelings for an enemy, the kind of feeling we have for a sweetheart, a member of your family, or a cherished friend. The love Christ speaks of has very little to do with feelings and much to do with actions. Love is to do what you can to preserve another life and to bring that person toward salvation. Christ uses a metaphor: God’s love is like the rain falling equally on both wheat and weeds; or it is like the sun shining on both the just and the unjust. This doesn’t mean God doesn’t distinguish between the just and the unjust; but so long as a person lives, the possibility of repentance and conversion lives.

Think about the word prayer. Prayer is the giant step of taking into your heart, the center of your life, your appeal to God for the well-being and healing of another person’s life. It is not a sentimental action but an act of will and an obedience to God, knowing that God seeks the well-being and salvation of each person. After all, each person, no matter how misguided or damaged, is nonetheless a bearer of the image of God. If it pains you to imagine the intentional destruction of an icon, how much more distress should we feel when an human being is harmed or killed?

I’m talking now about the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – not the Gospel according to Hollywood. The latter provides us with a never-ending parade of stories about evil people killed by good people. The basic story tempts us to prefer heroism to sanctity, or to confuse the two. A basic element of the Gospel According to Hollywood is that the evil people are so evil that there is no real solution short of hastening their death.

Confronted by such pure evil, what else can one do? But the teaching of Christ is not to kill enemies but to overcome enmity.  It’s like the transformation of water into wine that Christ performed at the wedding feast in Cana. We are commanded to convert our enmity into love, and it starts with prayer.

But to pray for an enemy is no small or easy step. The fact is that the last people in the world we want to pray for are the people we fear or hate or regard with disgust. You know you have an enemy whenever you discover a person or community of people for whom you hesitate to pray. But once you recognize enmity, take note of it. Keep a list of the people you find it hard to pray for and then pray for them anyway. Do it as a religious duty.

Prayer is an invisible binding together. The moment I pray for another person, a thread of connection is created. I have taken that person into myself. Praying for him means to ask God to bless him, to give him health, to lead him toward heaven, to use me to help bring about his salvation. As soon as this occurs, my relations with that person or community of people is changed.

You look differently at a person you are praying for. You listen differently. It doesn’t mean you will necessarily agree. You may disagree more than ever. But you struggle more to understand what is really at issue and to find solutions that will be for his good as well as your own. In fact, the saints tell us, that the deeper we go in the life of faith, the freer we become from worrying about our own welfare, and the more we worry about the welfare of others.

Some years ago, at a conference on the Greek island of Crete, I gave a talk in which I summarized Orthodox teaching about war. I pointed out that the Orthodox Church has never embraced the just war doctrine, a doctrine that evolved in the west. The Orthodox Church, I said, regards war as inevitably sinful in nature even in cases where no obvious alternative to war can be found. No one has ever been canonized for killing. Priests, deacons and iconographers are forbidden by canon law to kill or cause the death of others. Under all circumstances and at all times, every baptized person is commanded by Christ to love his enemies.

There was nothing remarkable in what I said, no novel doctrines, nothing borrowed from non-Orthodox sources, yet the lecture stirred up a controversy not only in the hall in which I was speaking but into the city itself as my talk and the translator’s words were being broadcast live over the diocesan radio station. The debate continued that night when the local bishop, Metropolitan Irinaios, and I took part in a radio conversation with listeners phoning in with their comments or questions. Responding to a man who called in to denounce Turks as barbarians who only understood the language of violence, I summarized what Christ had to say on the subject of loving one’s enemies. “That’s all very well,” the caller responded, “but now let me tell you about a real saint.” He proceeded to tell me about a priest who, in the 19th century, played a valiant role in the war to drive the Turks off the island. I suggested he not dismiss the teaching of Jesus so readily and asked if he wasn’t perhaps confusing heroism and nationalism with sanctity.

In fact we have soldier saints, like Great Martyr George. But when we study their lives in order to find out why the Church canonized them, it was never for their courage and heroism as soldiers, but for other factors. Most were martyrs – people who fisherman died for their faith without resistance. There are saints who got in trouble for refusing to take part in war, in some cases dying for their disobedience. St. George dared to confess his faith publicly during a time of imperial persecution. The “dragon” he irritated was Caesar. One saint, Martin of Tours, narrowly escaped execution after refusing to take part in battle; he went on to become a great missionary bishop.

There is Ireland’s renowned Saint Columba, who is on the Church calendar not because he was co-responsible for a great battle in which many were slaughtered, but because he went on to live a life of penance in exile, in the process converting many to Christ.

All of what I’m saying probably sounds fine. It isn’t hard to admire saints. Most people realize that the Gospel is not a summons to hatred or violence. But what about our ordinary selves living here and now? What does this have to do with how we carry on our lives?  A beginning point is to admit we are only partial Christians – that is to say, our conversion has begun but is far from complete. When we go to confession, many of us don’t even try confessing all of our sins because no priest in the world would have time to hear them all. We try to identify the main ones, the sins that are most urgent and problematic, and focus on them, saving other sins for a later confession. Each of us is painfully aware that we have far to go. As the cartoon character Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

One of the great obstacles were up against is that it’s easier to be more nation-centered than Christ-centered. The culture we live in is a powerful influence. One is less likely to be shaped by the Gospel than by the particular economic, social, political and cultural milieu we happen to be part of.  If I am a German living in Germany in the 1930s, there is a good chance  I will gravitate toward Nazism. If I am a white South African living in the era of apartheid, it’s more than likely that I will accept the justifications for racism, and the benefits that come from being part of a racist society. Our thoughts, values, choices, our “life style” – all these tend to be formed by the mass culture in which we happen to be born and reared. If we are Christians, we will try to adjust Christ and the Gospel to the national flag and the views

of the people around us.

Yet we have in the Church many saints who provide us with models of what it means to follow Christ wholeheartedly – without holding anything back, without compromising with the demands of money or politics. One such saint – canonized only two years ago – is Mother Maria Skobtsova, a Russian refugee in France who devoted herself to the care of the homeless and destitute, and also to the renewal of the Church. She and the community she was part of helped save the lives of many people, especially Jews, when France was occupied by the Third Reich. On one occasion she managed to smuggle children awaiting deportation out of a stadium in which thousands of Jews had been rounded up. It is hardly surprising that eventually she was arrested and ended her life in a German concentration camp,

Ravensbruk, dying on Good Friday. Yet we find in her many letters, essays and the acts of her brave life not a trace of hatred for Germans or Austrians, even those who were captive of Nazi ideology. She was part of the resistance to Nazism and Hitlerism, but was no one’s enemy, not even Hitler’s. Her small community produced three other martyrs: the priest who assisted her, Fr. Dimitri Klepenin, her son, Yuri, who was then just entering adulthood, and her good friend Ilya Fondaminsky, a writer, editor and publisher.

At the core of their lives and many courageous actions was the conviction, as Mother Maria put it, that “each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” This is not some new idea that was discovered by a few saintly Christians in Paris in that grim time, but what C.S. Lewis referred to as “mere Christianity.” It is because each person is an icon of God that everyone in the church is honored with incense during the Liturgy.

Mother Maria had been married and become a mother before taking the monastic path. Before that happened, her husband left her and one of her children died of illness. She embraced a celibate vocation, but her understanding of monastic life was not the traditional one of withdrawal. Her desert was the city. She was opposed to living a life that might impose “even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.” Like any Orthodox Christian, the Liturgy was at the heart of her life, not as an end in itself but because it gave daily life a divine imprint.

“The meaning of the Liturgy must be translated into life,” she said. “It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.” She was determined to live a life in which the works of mercy were central. As she wrote: “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.”  No one has lived in a more violent time than she, a time in which there were powerful temptations to keep one’s head down and quietly survive. Yet instead she and those who worked with her give us a model of centering one’s life on those whose lives are threatened.

In Europe in those days it was especially the Jews. In our time the list of those in danger is much longer, including not only the born but the unborn as well as those who are handicapped or old. We live in what many people have come to identify as a culture of death. The only question each of us must struggle with is where to focus our life-saving activity. It is not just a question of saving lives but making clear to others, through our response to them, that they bear God’s image – thus we proclaim that there is a God, and that God is love.

We have met the enemy and he is us, as Pogo said. But the self is no small foe. In the days when India was struggling for independence, Gandhi sometimes said he had only three enemies – the British nation, his favorite enemy; the Indian people, a much more difficult adversary, and finally a man named Gandhi, the hardest enemy of all. Each of us sees our most difficult enemy when we look into a mirror. Yet if we will only cooperate in Christ’s mercy, struggling day by day to die to self, day by day our conversion will continue, which will be good not only for ourselves but good for everyone else as well.

This essay is based on a lecture delivered at St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in

Edmonton, Canada, in October. Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace

Fellowship. His most recent book is The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell.

You have many things to ponder. Ponder paradise, where Cain, who destroyed his brother through jealousy, does not return. Ponder the kingdom of heaven to which the Lord admits only those of one heart and mind. Ponder the fact that only those can be called the sons of God who are peacemakers, who, united by divine birth and law, correspond to the likeness of God the Father and Christ. Ponder that we are under God’s eyes, that we are running the course of our conversion, and life with God Himself looking on and judging, that then finally we can arrive at the point of succeeding in seeing Him, if we delight Him as He now observes us by our actions, if we show ourselves worthy of His grace and indulgence, if we, who are to please Him forever in heaven, please Him first in this world.– St. Cyprian of Carthage

“On Jealousy and Envy,” chapter 18

Mrs. Jellyby and the Domination of Causes

by Jim Forest

Among the many memorable characters populating Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House is the formidable Mrs. Jellyby, a woman living in London who resolutely devotes every waking hour to a project in Africa that she refers to as the “Borrioboola-Gha venture.” Her goal is the resettlement of impoverished Britons among African natives, all of whom will support themselves through coffee growing. Mrs. Jellyby is convinced that no other undertaking in life is so worthwhile or would solve so many social problems, in both Africa and England, at a stroke.

A 19th century illustration from Bleak House
A 19th century illustration from Bleak House

Dickens’s interest is not in the project, however, but rather in Mrs. Jellyby, a person so wedded to her work that she has no time for her husband or their several children, with the exception of Caddy, her eldest daughter. When we meet Caddy, we see her conscripted as her mother’s secretary. Ink-spattered Caddy puts in nearly as many hours as her mother in the daily task of answering letters and sending out literature about Borrioboola-Gha. Unwilling conscript that she is, Caddy has come to hate the very word –Africa — or any phrase that has the remotest suggestion of idealistic causes. For her, “cause” is another word for the ruin of family life.

Meanwhile Mr. Jellyby is a man on the edge of suicide. Though he is still surviving his despair as the book closes, in our last glimpse of him he is resting his head despondently against a wall.

In the book’s postscript, we learn that the Borrioboola-Gha project failed after the local king sold the project’s volunteers into slavery in order to buy rum. Far from being deterred by this grim outcome, Mrs. Jellyby quickly finds another cause to occupy her time, “a mission with more correspondence than the old one,” thus providing new vistas for a permanent campaigner.

While few in the peace movement so radically neglect those in their care, unfortunately I cannot think of Mrs. Jellyby merely as a gross caricature. When my wife and I talked about her recently, we could think of several people, of both sexes, resembling her in many details: people with a certain legitimate concerns and noble goals who engage themselves so fully that their fixation wrecks havoc in the lives of those around them, driving many people they intended to influence, even their own sons and daughters, in the opposite direction.

I recall one activist who wasn’t able to attend his daughter’s wedding because he felt obliged to take part in a peace demonstration that day. Another man, more gandhian than Gandhi, also springs to mind. He was left in charge of the Manhattan office of a group called the Committee for Nonviolent Action while the staff was away protesting nuclear weapons. In their absence he nearly starved the office cat to death because he was conscientiously opposed to the domestication of animals. Whatever food that highly domesticated cat found during those austere weeks, it was not from this pacifist’s ideology-governed hand.

I wonder if the Mrs. Jellybys of this world, dedicated in theory to compassion as the bearers of utopian visions, are not at a deeper level driven by rage with those around them, perhaps especially their own families? By taking up a virtuous cause, they can punish their spouses, children and relatives with a clear conscience. After all, they are doing something entirely noble, so much more important than caring for the people they live with or are related to. Their impatience and neglect or abandonment of others around them is a necessary, even God-endorsed price of serving a higher purpose.

It is a dilemma that the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, discussed in one of his letters:

One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations. I think this is especially true when there are… elements that are not spiritually developed… There is the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence… In our acceptance of vulnerability, we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time… all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds, race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation… We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it.

[The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York; pp. 262-4]

Because of my particular life experience, I tend to think especially of the peace movement, but it hardly matters what movement it is that one belongs to: left or right, red or green, nationalist or trans-nationalist, large or small. It could be pacifism, feminism, Marxism, anarchism, vegetarianism, human rights, animal rights, some political party or one’s religion. In any case, ideology rather than love and compassion can easily become the driving force in one’s life.

Compassion, however much the word is used, does not easily thrive within the climate of movements and causes. In its place one may find a very narrow compassion focused like a spotlight on a carefully selected victim group whose needs legitimate the cause. Perhaps one of the main functions of ideology is to confine the area of compassion, so that, for example, one feels compassion for the baby seal being slaughtered for its fur but not for the man whose family may presently depend upon the fur trade; or compassion for one group of war casualties but not another; or compassion for the desperate mother posed to abort her child but not the unborn child (or vice versa)…

Cause-directed ideology also serves the function of keeping its users in a constant state of guilt and anger: guilt because one can never become the utterly dedicated person the cause requires and expects of its adherents; and anger because there are never enough people ready to join the group — and always those who either stand in opposition or don’t seem to care.

Many saints of the last hundred years would readily recognize Mrs. Jellyby and could identify her real-life counterparts. In Russia, for example, in the mid- and late-19th century there was an explosion of radical movements which, while dedicated to various social reforms, abandoned care of neighbor and relative as a bourgeois waste of time. Something similar, though not nearly so pathological, occurred in many countries in the 1960s and 70s.

No matter what the time or place, ideology draws borders: the community of Us versus the adversary, Them. We can more or less comprehend the Us community’s content and shape, although in the end it defines our shape.

In contrast, God is not comprehensible or definable. God is both unbearable light and infinite darkness.

The Church helps protect its members from ideologies and the us-versus-them way of seeing ourselves, if only by placing us in a community in which the Eucharist is at the center. Eucharistic life is something social movements generally avoid. Cause-driven movements aren’t drawn to sacramental mysteries, still less to the mystical life. In many groups dedicated to peace and justice, even ones with a religious basis, the word mysticism, if said at all, is pronounced with derision, as if to say: the true social activist has no time to be a mystic, for mysticism cannot possibly have anything to do with untying the knots in our disordered world. There is too much to be done, too many urgent needs to be met, to permit indulgence in liturgies, religious rites, penitential activities, examinations of conscience, periods of silence and withdrawal, etc. If religion is tolerated at all, it must be kept in a well-governed corner under the strict regulation of ideology and peer-group control.

This kind of movement climate, of course, remains spiritually shallow and inevitably results in many cases of burn-out — psychological and physical exhaustion that makes it impossible for the social activist to continue. In such cases burn-out might be seen as a healthy reaction to an unhealthy social situation.

How different our work for social healing would be if it were nourished by a deep spiritual life! As one of the Spanish mystics, John of the Cross, wrote:

“Let those that are great activists and think to circle the world with words and outward works note that they would bring far more profit to the Church and be far more pleasing to God if they spent even half [the time given to action] in being present with God in prayer…. Most certainly they would accomplish more with one piece of work than they now do with a thousand and do so with far less labor. For through prayer they would merit the result, and themselves be made spiritually strong. Without prayer, they would do much hammering but achieve little, even nothing at all or even cause harm.” (Spiritual Canticle, xxix, 3)

Perhaps we are at a moment in history, with many ideologies in a state of collapse, when we can imagine that a deep, disciplined spiritual life would lay a foundation for social action that would not only produce useful results but would also refresh us day by day as we seek to build up a nonviolent social order?

God is love. We move toward God through no other path than love itself. It is not a love expressed in slogans or ideologies, but actual love, love experienced in God, love that binds us to those around us, love that lets us know others not through ideas and fears but through God’s love for them: a way of seeing that transfigures social relationships.

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His books include The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell, Praying with Icons, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, and Ladder of the Beatitudes.

The Ladder of the Beatitudes

by Jim Forest

Those who are new to Orthodoxy are sometimes surprised to discover the intense reverence the Church has for the Gospel. A book containing only the four Gospels is normally kept on the altar, representing Christ’s throne. The book is large and is decorated with several icons on the cover, most frequently one of Christ’s resurrection.

In the first part of the Liturgy, the Gospel book is carried out of the sanctuary, which represents heaven, into the main part of the church, which represents our world, and back into the sanctuary once again. Throughout the procession, the book is held high. We all bow to it, as we would bow to Christ, for Christ is present wherever His word is present. The Gospels are a sacrament of Christ’s presence.

For the same reason, there are occasions when the Gospel book is kissed by faithful Orthodox believers. While any Orthodox library will have many treasured books, most notably the writings of the Church Fathers and various lives of the saints, no other book by any saint or theologian is reverenced by Orthodox as the Gospel is reverenced, just as no saint is venerated as Christ is venerated.

Later, the Gospel book is brought back into the center of the church for the day’s reading. Like the rest of the Liturgy, it is sung. “To sing is to pray twice,” according to an ancient Christian saying. Everyone stands, a gesture both of respect and of attention. Candles are held on either side of the Gospel book, a symbol that Christ is the light of the world.

The careful connection, typical of Orthodox tradition, of spiritual and physical action does much to bring even a skeptical bystander to awareness of the life-giving significance of the Gospel. Yet ritual gestures can only invite an inner response, never force it. It is one thing to kiss the Gospels with one’s lips, another thing to live them body and soul. What is it we are bowing to? Are we really listening? It is a lifelong task opening our ears and hearts to the Gospel and trying to live it fully. Even the holiest saint knows he is not yet living the Gospel as he ought to. Indeed, the closer we come to Christ, the more aware we are of how far we are from Him.

During the procession with the Gospel book, the choir sings the Beatitudes. The reason is that the Church recognizes these verses as a summary of Christ’s teaching, a synopsis of the whole Gospel.

If we recognize the last two verses as one, in that both describe the suffering often imposed upon those who love the Gospel, we find there are eight Beatitudes, each of them an aspect of being in communion with God, and each of which we need to think about again and again as we make progress in our lifelong conversion to Christ.

They are like rungs on a ladder. Each one leads to the next, and is placed in a particular order. To reach the second step, we need to make the first step. The idea isn’t that I’ll be a peacemaker while somebody else specializes in poverty of spirit or being pure of heart.

We begin at the beginning, the first rung of the ladder, the primary Beatitude — “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Without poverty of spirit, none of us can begin to follow Christ. What does poverty of spirit mean? It is my awareness that I cannot save myself, that I am defenseless, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death. It is my awareness that I desperately need God’s help and mercy. It is stepping away from the rule of fear in one’s life, fear being the great force that restrains us from acts of love. Being poor in spirit means becoming free of the myth that possessing many things will make me a happier person. It is an attitude expressed in a French proverb: “When you die, you carry in your clutched hand only that which you have given away.”

The second rung — “Blessed are they who mourn.” Here is the Beatitude of feeling grief for the sorrows of other people. I can hardly feel someone else’s pain without poverty of spirit, because otherwise I am on always on guard to keep what I have for myself, and to keep me for myself. If I begin to feel for someone, to feel and not just pretend to feel, I will want to share with him what I have, and even share myself. The immediate consequence of poverty of spirit is becoming sensitive to the losses of people around us, not just those whom I happen to know and like but strangers. This is the Beatitude of tears. Remember chapter 11, verse 35, of the Gospel of John: “Jesus wept.” That is the entire verse. The 17th Century poet and priest, John Donne, comments, “There is no shorter verse in the Bible, nor is there a larger text.”

The third rung — “Blessed are the meek.” We find examples of each Beatitude in Christ’s life. We see meekness in Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, something that embarrassed them, something they resisted. But in what better way could he teach them the nature of love and what it means to be an apostle? We see the meekness of his entry into Jerusalem on the back not of a powerful horse but a modest donkey. We see meekness in Christ carrying the cross and enduring all the other events that led to his crucifixion. Meekness is a hard virtue for everyone, but perhaps most of all for men because we have been made to think of meekness as a feminine quality. But meekness is not simply doing what you are told. The person who obeys evil orders is not being meek but being cowardly. He has cut himself off from his own conscience, thrown away his God-given freedom, all because he is afraid of the price he may have to pay for following Christ. We must first of all be meek toward God, and that God-centered meekness will give us the strength not to lord it over others or to commit evil deeds against a neighbor.

The fourth rung — “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for that which is right.” When we begin to share in the sufferings of others, we cannot help but notice that often suffering is the result of injustice or is made worse by injustice. Jesus doesn’t say “Blessed are those who hopefor righteousness” or “Blessed are those who campaign for righteousness” but “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness” — that is, people who want what is right as urgently as someone dying on a desert thirsts for water. For the same reason, they cannot adapt themselves to the absence of righteousness, explaining that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, that eggs must be broken to make an omelet, or even the blasphemy that God wills social evils.

The fifth rung — “Blessed are the merciful.” This Beatitude prevents us from thinking that the longing for righteousness permits us to be ruthless. It is natural to feel anger toward those who make themselves richer, more comfortable or more powerful by causing suffering. We can easily think of all sorts of people, from petty criminals to heads of corporations and governments, who, as we hear in the vivid imagery of the Old Testament, “grind the poor.” But we see in Christ the constant example of someone ready to be merciful to anyone, no matter what he has done: not only the prostitute but the Roman centurion (that is, a soldier belonging to an occupying army) and the tax collector.

The sixth rung — “Blessed are the pure in heart.” What is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart able to feel the sorrow of others, a heart that thirsts for what is right, a heart that is not vengeful. We see a pure heart in the face of any saintly person. Consider the pure heart of St. Seraphim of Sarov, who was so free of fear and violence that he was on good terms with a bear who lived near his cabin and on occasion even shared his of bread with the bear, seeing this beast as a neighbor, and who forgave the robbers who nearly beat him to death and left his body bent for the rest of his life. He labored long and hard to free himself of all obstacles to God and finally had a heart so pure that it seems no one can come near him, or kiss his icon, without becoming more pure himself.

The seventh rung — “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Only after ascending the first six rungs of the ladder of the Beatitudes can we talk about the Beatitude of the peacemaker, for only a person with a pure heart can help, in God’s mercy, to rebuild broken bridges and pull down walls, to help us recover our lost unity. The maker of peace must be a person who seeks nothing for himself, not even recognition. Such a person does not even regard his actions as “good deeds.” They simply are the consequence of having been drawn more deeply into God’s love. Because of this, such a person cannot help but see others, even the most unpleasant or dangerous person, as a child of God, someone beloved of God, someone made in the image of God even if the likeness is presently very damaged or completely lost. Think of the teaching of St. Sergius of Radonezh: “Contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all discord.”

How desperately we need such people! We need them not only in places where wars are being fought or might be fought, but we need them within the church and within each parish. Even the best and most vital parishes often suffer from deep divisions. And who is the peacemaker who is needed? It is each of us. Often it is harder to forgive and understand someone in our own parish than an abstract enemy we see mainly in propaganda images on television. See can see within our Orthodox Church that we don’t simply disagree with each other on many topics but that often we despise those who hold an opposing view. In the name of Christ, who commanded us to love one another, we engage in wars of words. Far from loving our opponent, we don’t even respect him. But without mercy and forgiveness, without love, I am no longer in communion either with my neighbor or with Christ.

At the deepest level, the peacemaker is a person being used by God to help heal our relationship with God, for we get no closer to God than we get to our neighbor. As we know from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, our neighbor doesn’t just refer to the person next door of the same nationality but even more to the person regarded as “different” and a “threat.” St. Silouan of the Holy Mountain taught that love of enemies is not simply an aspect of Christian life but is “the central criterion of true faith and of real communion with God, the lover of souls, the lover of humankind.”

Finally, the eighth rung — “Blessed are they who suffer persecution” — the Beatitude of the persecuted. We are reminded that we shouldn’t expect or even want to win a peace prize for following Christ. It is, of course, no news to anyone in Russia what a price can be paid simply for being a believer. But we are given the remarkable advice that we should rejoice when we are persecuted because we are in the good company of the prophets and, still more important, with Jesus the Savior, who never harmed anyone but finally had to carry a cross — we know it to be the holy and life-giving cross but it didn’t look either holy or life-giving at the time — to a place of execution and have nails hammered through his flesh for our sake. But it is on the cross that resurrection begins.

This sermon was preached at the Church of Saints Cosmas&Damian in Moscow on Sunday, March 23, 1996. Jim Forest is co-secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. The sermon was a step along the way in writing The Ladder of the Beatitudes (Orbis Books, 1999).

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

talk by Jim Forest for the Orthodox Peace Fellowship meeting in Canton, Ohio, June 22, 2001

In the dawn of time, way back in the nineteen-fifties, my favorite comic strip concerned an assortment of animals living in Florida’s Okefenokee Swamp. The artist, a whimsical man named Walt Kelly, referred to them as “nature’s schreechers.”

There was Pogo, a level-headed, pure-hearted possum overflowing with good will. It was Pogo who gave the strip its name. It would have been a Pogo-like child who told the emperor he was wearing no clothes. The swamp’s large cast also included Albert, a raffish, cigar- smoking alligator of large appetites, a turtle named Churchy La Femme who wore of pirate hat and had an keen eye for the ladies, Beauregard, a hound dog with a Sherlock Holmes orientation, an owl name Howland who was the swamp’s leading scientist and also occasional newspaper editor, a porcupine named Porkypine who had a knack for seeing the dismal side of things and being disappointed when the worst didn’t happen, Madamzelle Hepzibah, a romantic skunk with an accent fresh from Paris who loved to be wooed but was never won, and the fox Seminole Sam, a lawyer by trade who would never walk past a penny without putting it in his pocket, perhaps emptying your pocket while he was at it. There was also P.T. Bridgeport, a bear in striped jacket and boater hat who spoke in circus-poster lettering and in my mind sounded like W.C. Fields. He was the model showman-salesman in a nation fascinated by shows and selling.

I mustn’t leave out Wiley Cat, who at a certain point in the strip’s history began to bear an astonishing resemblance to Joseph McCarthy. Wiley Cat saw sedition if the roses had red petals or if he found a red hen in the farmyard. You had to be a brave cartoonist in those days to dare making fun of the junior Senator from Wisconsin — being laughed at was not something that warmed his cold-war heart.

Not least in the cast was Deacon Mushrat, a severe, bespeckled muskrat who more a black morning coat, had a black string tie, spoke in black Gothic script, was in permanent pulpit-mode, smiled only when receiving the collection plate, and was in favor of kindness to the needy so long as the beneficiaries were abjectly grateful and didn’t forget to say “Thank you” and “Amen.”

It was a well-drawn, wonderfully funny strip packed with puns and poetry and, on occasion, a good-humored political bite. Few people in America took on the fifties as daringly as Walt Kelly, including our obsession with spies, traitors, and nuclear weapons. He got away with it because he pretended this was just a comic strip and that these were, after all, only talking animals in an imaginary swamp. But of course these verbose animals were human beings in india-ink disguises. They were us, we were them. Their swamp was our country.

You may wonder why Jim Forest, who is supposed to be talking about “Following Christ in a Violent World,” is instead talking about a comic strip on the 1950s? The answer is that, while I was thinking about what I might say here in Canton, I found myself haunted by a single sentence that Pogo said many a time during the years this strip was being drawn:

We have met the enemy and he is us.

This is a key verse from the Gospel According to Pogo.

We have met the enemy and he is us, as I was to learn later in life, sums up a lot of the writings of the Church Fathers, the principal theologians of Christianity’s first millennium.

If you read the Fathers, you find that one of their main subjects is spiritual warfare, a life-long inner struggle against those soul-destroying tendencies the Church Fathers called passions. It is a battle with all those temptations and attitudes that, unresisted, can carry me or any of us to hell. In a world in which bad choices and enmity not only rise up in our darker thoughts but are relentlessly promoted day in and day out via the mass media, spiritual warfare is something no Christian can get along without.

It is striking how often the Church has used military metaphors to describe ordinary Christian life. In the Book of Revelation, John the Evangelist sees a two-edged sword emerges from Christ’s mouth. Paul uses not only a sword but helmet and shield in describing basic attributes of Christian life. In doing this he is only enlarging on Christ’s own words. He said that he came “not to bring peace but a sword.”

Sadly, it’s a text that has sometimes been used to justify weapons and warfare, though such a reading goes flat when we notice that Christ had no sword, killed no one, and blessed neither armies nor wars, not even the liberation war that was gathering steam under the anti-Roman Zealots in those days. As St. Tikhon, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in the first years of Communism, said in 1919 in an effort to prevent Orthodox Christians from participating in civil war:

For the Christian, the ideal is Christ, who used no sword to defend Himself, who brought the sons of thunder to peace, having prayed for His enemies on the Cross. For the Christian, the guiding light is the command of the holy Apostle, who suffered much for his Savior and who sealed his dedication to Him by his death.

In the Gospels we meet the Christ of healing and forgiveness, the Christ who brings the dead back to life. He speaks admiringly of the faith of a Roman centurion — an officer of Rome’s army of occupation — who seeks his help. He prevents the execution of a woman who had been found guilt of adultery. His final healing miracle before his crucifixion was on behalf of one of the men who had come to arrest him, someone wounded by Peter in his effort to use a sword to defend Christ. The early Church took very much to heart what Christ said to Peter on that occasion: “Whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.”

Yet, reflecting on the lives of the saints and the Church’s history, we see that Christ did indeed bring a sword.

There is the sword of division that occurs whenever a follower of Christ obeys God rather than man. The Church’s many martyrs are mainly men and women who suffered for failing to be the kind of people the authorities wanted them to be.

The sword also symbolizes truth, with its razor-sharp edge. It’s interesting to reflect that Gandhi’s word for nonviolence, satyagraha, means much more than the mere avoidance of violence. Satyagraha means the power of truth. Each time we recite the prayer that begins “Oh heavenly King,” we remind ourselves that the Holy Spirit is the spirit of truth. Living in the truth, being truthful people, is a sine qua non of spiritual life, that is life in the Holy Spirit. And it is no easy undertaking. While we remain in this world, it’s an endless battle. “Tell the truth,” says my wife’s screen-saver. “Don’t be afraid.” She is a profoundly truthful person but apparently even she needs to be reminded not to let fear keep her from trying to know the truth and to tell it.

I learned partly from our daughter Anne just how powerful a symbol the sword can be. Anne was about sword-length herself at the time and night after night she was having dragon nightmares. Our response was to purchase a silver-colored plastic sword from a local toy store and give it to her, hoping it might aid her in her night-time encounters with dragons — and it did. She felt much safer and stronger when she closed her eyes at night. In the course of several years, she wore out three plastic swords before she decided she no longer need a sword in bed with her. Before that day came, I can recall her surprise when she noticed Nancy and I didn’t sleep with a sword. Once at breakfast I mentioned a dream that had disturbed my sleep the night before.”You know, daddy,” she said, “if you had sword, you wouldn’t have dreams like that.”

It is not only children who battle dragons. Dragons symbolize evil. They are an image of anything that makes us afraid. Sooner or later we meet real dragons. We even find discover some of them have dug caves in our own souls. We are obliged to fight them. This is spiritual warfare. This is what the icon of Saint George the Great Martyr is all about. It is not that George had a white horse and went around looking for dragons to test his warrior skills and rescue ladies in distress. This young soldier probably didn’t have a horse and never saw a dragon. The actual dragon he met was imperial persecution of Christians. In the era of Diocletian, he suffered torture and was executed for professing his faith. His actual weapon was not a spear but the cross.

However the medieval legend of Saint George reveals the truth in its own metaphorical way and is a profoundly Christian story. An important detail of the legend is that George doesn’t kill the dragon; he only wounds and subdues it. Princess Elizabeth puts the dragon on a leash made from her belt and leads it back to the town. Responding to this miracle of courage, the people of the town are converted and prepare for baptism. The dragon to whom they once sacrificed their children in the end becomes their pet.

Another detail worth pondering is that the unbaptized people of Elizabeth’s town have long had their own solution to living with the dragon: they sacrificed some of their children to it. Human sacrifice to appease dangerous gods was a common practice in the pre-Christian world, and remains a central element in the pseudo- religion of nationalism: the offering of our children to the god of war.

We don’t have to look far to find a dragon. Most of the spiritual warfare we carry on in our lives is in response not to a terrifying creature in the distance but to a familiar adversary we meet in the mirror. The struggle against those soul-destroying tendencies the Church Fathers called passions is a struggle with myself.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

St. Paul tells us that we struggle “not with flesh and blood but with principalities and powers.” (Eph 6:12) This is crucial to any understanding of Christian peacemaking.

I say “Christian peacemaking” and just simply “peacemaking” because our center point is not an ideology or philosophy or political movement of peace. It is Christ himself. It is not simply that Christ is peaceful but rather that he is peace. For us peacemaking is not a secular word. It is participation in who Christ is: the Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, our maker and redeemer, who not only came to live us with us as a man among men, but gives us an example of what is to be fully human, to become people in whom the image of God is not only present, if largely hidden, but has become visible; a people in whom God’s likeness has been restored.

Battling the principalities and powers rather than flesh and blood is the essence of Christian peacemaking and why in the Beatitudes Christ calls peacemakers children of God.

A large part of our struggle with principalities and powers is recognizing that these powers rejoice in God’s sons and daughters being in enmity with each other. This means we have to struggle to overcome whatever makes us into enemies with our fellow human beings. This means trying to identify aspects of the process of enmity — to see the ways in which enmity plants itself in me and the way enmity can become the organizing principal both of one’s own life and of whole societies.

I mentioned the Gospel According to Pogo. We can also speak of the Gospel According to John Wayne — or any other movie star who plays similar roles. This is our main story. It’s a movie we have made thousands of times and continue making. It can be adapted to any background — not only the 19th century western frontier, but 20th century urban strongholds of the Mafia or an intergalactic backdrop a la Star Wars. These are always stories of how decent, brave men find no honorable recourse but to take up a gun and kill those who are evil and indecent. The latter are always people who rejoice in their malevolence. There is no image of God in them. Repentance and conversion are out of the question. The community can only protect itself from the dangers such men pose by killing them. This is our culture’s main story, and a powerful myth it is.

The Christian conviction is that no human being comes from bad seed — no one is genetically programmed to evil. Neither is any of us lacking a capacity for evil. As Solzhenitsyn wrote:

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains… an un-uprooted small corner of evil.

[Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, “The Ascent”]

The person who commits evil deeds has lost his way but, if we wish to see him with Christ’s eyes, we will see him as being in the grip of invisible powers which are making use of his life. The man himself is not our enemy, only the demons who have gained a foothold in his life. Our hope is that the person threatening our lives today may in the future be someone we need no longer fear, and that we might either help in his salvation or at least not impede it. But if we see only an enemy in him, someone to hate, we are already in hell, we are in the kingdom of hatred.

“The Church never has any enemies,” Archbishop Anastasios told me when I was in Albania in March. “We may be regarded as enemies but we have no enemies.” These words come from the leader of a Church which suffered one of the harshest persecutions in the history of Christianity. This is no vague, distant memory. Many of the persecutors are still alive. Many of them still hate every manifestation of religion, especially Christianity.

As was the case with the early Church, the Church in Albania refuses to have enemies. It is not fighting a “holy war” against them, not even thinking a holy war against them, but rather has a paschal confidence that anyone, no matter how much an enemy he has been or seems to be, can in the blink of an eye become a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ or in some other way devoted to God and no longer anyone’s enemy. The key word is conversion.

In the early Church the primary model of transformation is Paul. He was among the most passionate enemies of Christianity at first, a man who approved of Christ’s crucifixion and consented to the execution by stoning of the Church’s first deacon, Stephen. Yet Christ makes of him not only a disciple but an Apostle as well as one of the authors of the New Testament. We find other models in the repentant thief crucified with Jesus, in St. Mary Magdalene, in St. Moses the Black, in St. Mary of Egypt and in so many others.

Peacemaking begins with the eyes, with the way we see others. A nun friend of mine often uses the phrase “hospitality of the face.” Our face should be a place in which others experience a real welcome.

Peacemaking is also a life of prayer for the other, not only those whom we love but also those we fear, those who threaten us. Christ’s commandment is, “Love your enemies, pray for them.” Take this out of the Gospel and you have removed the keel from the ship. How can we love an enemy whom we do not pray for? It is impossible.

If we want to overcome enmity, it starts with prayer. This is not a small or easy step. The fact is that the last person in the world we really want to pray for is the person we fear or despise. The first glimpse we have of the enemy within ourselves is our reluctance to pray for those whom we fear or hate. We need to keep a list of our enemies and make prayer for them part of our daily life.

Prayer is an invisible binding together. The moment I pray for another person, there is a thread of connection. I have taken that person into myself. Praying for him means to ask God to bless him, to give him health, to lead him toward heaven, to use me to help bring about his salvation. As soon as this occurs, my relations with that person or community of people is changed. You look differently at a person you are praying for. You listen differently. It doesn’t mean you will necessarily agree. You may disagree more than ever. But you struggle more to understand what is really at issue and to find solutions that will be for his good as well as your own. In fact, the saints tell us, the deeper we go in the life of faith, the freer we become from worrying about our own welfare, the more we worry about the welfare of others.

Keep in mind that love is not simply a sentimental condition — happy, joyful feelings for certain beloved persons. Love is how we respond to the other. It is doing what we can safeguard his life and to pray for his salvation. If you say you love someone but you let him starve to death, there is no love. If you say you love God but you abandon your neighbor, there is no love for God.

Yet how hard it is to overcome the temptation not to seek God’s image in other people. On the contrary, how easy it is not to see that image or even to imagine its exists. Truly we have met the enemy and he is us.

Some years ago, at a Syndesmos conference on the Greek island of Crete, I gave a talk in which I summarized Orthodox teaching about war. I pointed out that the Orthodox Church has never embraced the just war doctrine, that the Church regards war as inevitably sinful in nature even in cases where no obvious alternative to war can be found, that no one has ever been canonized for killing, that priests are forbidden by canon law to kill or cause the death of others, and that under all circumstances and at all times every baptized person is commanded by Christ to love our enemies. There was nothing remarkable in what I said, no novel doctrines, nothing borrowed from non-Orthodox sources, yet the lecture stirred up a controversy not only in the hall in which I was speaking but into the city itself, as the translator’s words were being broadcast live over the diocesan radio station.

The debate continued that night when the local bishop, Metropolitan Irinaios, and I took part in a radio conversation with listeners. Responding to a man who called in to denounce Turks as barbarians who only understood violence, I summarized what Christ had to say on the subject of loving one’s enemies and pointed out that Christ lived, died and rose from the dead in a country suffering occupation, yet he neither blessed nor took part in the Zealot’s armed struggle against the occupiers. “That’s all very well,” the caller responded, “but now let me tell you about a real saint.” He preceeded to tell me about a priest who, in the 19th century, played a valiant role in the war to drive the Turks off the island.

In fact we have soldier saints, like Great Martyr George, but when we study their lives in order to find out why the Church canonized them, it was never for their courage and heroism as soldiers but other factors. Most were martyrs — people who died for their faith without defending themselves. There are saints who got in trouble for refusing to take part in war, in some cases dying for their disobedience. One saint, Martin of Tours, providentially escaped execution and went on to become a great missionary bishop. There is Ireland’s renowned Saint Columba, who is on the Church calendar not because he was co-responsible for a great battle in which many were slaughtered but because he went on to live a life of penance in exile, in the process converting many to Christ.

All of what I’m saying probably sounds fine. It isn’t hard to admire saints. Most people realize that the Gospel is not a summons to hatred or violence. But what about our ordinary selves living here and now? What does this have to do with how we carry on our lives?

Most of us will readily admit we are only partial Christians — that is to say, our conversion is far from complete. When we go to confession, we don’t even try confessing all of our sins because no priest in the world would have time to hear them all. We try to think what the main ones are and focus on them, or perhaps deal with them thematically. We’re painfully aware that we have far to go.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

One of the great obstacles is that we tend to be more nation- than Christ-centered people. We are formed less by the Gospel than by a particular economic, social, political and cultural milieu. Our thoughts, values, choices, “life style” — all these tend to be formed by the mass culture in which we are born and raised. In America Christians easily find themselves following a Christ who has been Americanized: a Christ who smiles like a presidential candidate, a Christ of success rather than the cross, a Christ who blesses manifest destiny, a Christ untroubled by our wars, or by the Cuban or Iraqi children made dead by economic sanctions, or all the children killed before birth through abortion, or the many ways we push our neighbors toward tragic choices by our failures to help or to develop structures of mutual support.

Yet we have in the Church so many saints who provide us with models of what it means to follow Christ wholeheartedly, without holding anything back.

One such saint — not yet formally canonized — is Mother Maria Skobtsova, a Russian refugee in France who devoted herself to the care of the homeless and destitute — and also to the renewal of the Church. She and the community she was part of helped save the lives of many people, especially Jews, when France was occupied by Nazi armies. On one occasion she managed to smuggle children awaiting deportation out of a stadium in which thousands of Jews had been rounded up. It is hardly surprising that eventually she was arrested and ended her life in a German concentration camp, Ravensbruck, dying on Good Friday in the place of a Jewish woman. Yet we find in her many letters, essays and the acts of her brave life not a trace of hatred for Germans or Austrians, even those who were captive of Nazi ideology. She was part of the resistance to Nazism, but was no one’s enemy, not even Hitler’s. Her small community produced two other martyrs: the priest who assisted her, Fr. Dimitri Klepenin, and her son, Yuri, who was then just entering adulthood.

At the core of their lives was the conviction, as Mother Maria put it, that “each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” This is not some new idea that was discovered by a few saintly Christians in Paris in that grim time but what C.S. Lewis referred to as “mere Christianity.” It is because each person is an icon of God that everyone in the church in honored with incense during the Liturgy.

Mother Maria had been married and became a mother before taking the monastic path. Before that happened her husband left her and one of her children had died. She embraced a celibate vocation, but her understanding of monastic life was not the traditional one of withdrawal. She was opposed to living a life that might impose “even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.” Like any Orthodox Christian, the Liturgy was at the core of her life, but it was seen giving daily life a divine imprint. “The meaning of the Liturgy must be translated into life,” she said. “It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.” She was determined to live a life in which the works of mercy were central. As she wrote: “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.”

No one has lived in a more violent time than she, a time in which there were more temptations to keep one’s head down and quietly survive. Yet instead she and those who worked with her give us a model of centering one’s life on those whose lives are threatened. Then it was especially the Jews. In our time the list of those in danger is much longer, including not only the born but the unborn as well as those who are handicapped or old. We live in what many people have come to identify as a culture of death. The only question each of us must struggle with is where to focus our life-saving activity. It is not just a question of saving lives but making clear to others, through our response to them, that they bear God’s image — thus that there is a God, and that God is love.

We have met the enemy and he is us — no small foe. Yet if we will only cooperate in Christ’s mercy, struggling day by day to die to self, day by day our conversion will continue.

Let me close with these words from St. Cyprian of Carthage:

You have many things to ponder. Ponder paradise, where Cain, who destroyed his brother through jealousy, does not return. Ponder the kingdom of heaven to which the Lord admits only those of one heart and mind. Ponder the fact that only those can be called the sons of God who are peacemakers, who, united by divine birth and law, correspond to the likeness of God the Father and Christ. Ponder that we are under God’s eyes, that we are running the course of our conversion, and life with God Himself looking on and judging, that then finally we can arrive at the point of succeeding in seeing Him, if we delight Him as He now observes us by our actions, if we show ourselves worthy of His grace and indulgence, if we, who are to please Him forever in heaven, please Him first in this world.

[“On Jealousy and Envy”, chapter 18]

Salt of the Earth: An Orthodox Christian Approach to Peacemaking

salt“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.” This verse from St. Matthew’s Gospel comes immediately after the Beatitudes.

But how many of us want to be become like salt? Perhaps we ought to advise Jesus that it’s time to revise the Sermon on the Mount? “Dear Lord, we revere your every word, but couldn’t you use more attractive metaphors? How about, ‘You are the sugar of the earth, but if the sugar should lose its sweetness, it is tossed out the doors and trodden under foot by men’?”

Living in a sugar-addicted world, surely sugar would be a much more welcome term for modern people. Salt is out-of-date. Sugar is far more appealing.

But for the time being we are stuck with the Gospel Christ gave us rather than the one we might write ourselves. He tells his followers that we are intended to be like salt, a bitter substance normally used in relatively small amounts.

Salt was more valued by our ancestors. In commentaries on this passage, the Church Fathers stress the value of salt as a preservative and thus a life-saving substance. “Salt preserves meat from decaying into stench and worms,”says Origen. “It makes meat edible for a longer period.”

St. John Chrysostom comments on the salt metaphor in these words: “It is a matter of absolute necessity that he commands all this. Why must you be salt? Jesus says in effect: ‘You are accountable not only for your own life but also for that of the entire world. I am sending you not to one or two cities, nor to ten or twenty, not even to one nation, as I sent the prophets. Rather I am sending you to the entire earth, across the seas, to the whole world, to a world fallen into an evil state.’ For by saying, ‘You are the salt of the earth,’ Jesus signifies that all human nature has ‘lost its taste,’ having become rotten through sin. For this reason, you see, he requires from his disciples those character traits that are most necessary and useful for the benefit of all.”

There is a great deal of salt in the Gospel, and not much sugar.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ identifies peacemakers as God’s own children, but peacemaking is often a bitter, salt-like undertaking. To stand against hatred and killing in time of war (and when is it not time of war?) is no sweet task. One is likely to be regarded as naive, if not unpatriotic, if not a traitor.

Yet at every service, Orthodox Christians hear the challenge: “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” We begin the Liturgy with an appeal to God not just for a private peace or the peace of our family or the peace of the parish community or the peace of our neighborhood or the peace of city or the peace of our nation, but “for the peace of the whole world and the union of all.” The Litany of Peace draws our attention to the world-embracing mission of the Church that St. John Chrysostom emphasized in the passage I just read to you. We are, he said, “accountable not only for [our] own life but also for that of the entire world.”

Prayer is not simply a request that God to do something or give something. It is a summons to responsibility. What I ask God to do implies a willingness on my part to participate in God’s answer to my prayer. If I am unwilling to help in doing what I ask God to do, can it even be thought of as prayer? Why would God do at my request what I refuse to do? We are talking then not only about what we ask God to do but what we are asking God to equip us to do. If we ask for peace, the peace of the whole world, then we must be willing to become people actively doing whatever we can that contributes to the peace of the world.

Consider three key words: Orthodox, Christian and peace.

Often the word “orthodox” is used as a synonym for rigidity. Not often is it understood in its real sense: the true way to give praise, and also true belief. Attach it to the word “Christian” and it becomes a term describing a person who is trying to live according to the Gospel. He may have far to go, but this is the direction he is trying to take. “To be an Orthodox Christian,” said Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “is to attempt to live a Christ-centered life. We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

To be an Orthodox Christian means belonging to the Orthodox Church. It is not possible to follow Christ and remain alone. I am part of a vast, time-spanning community of people with a collective memory that goes back as far as Adam and Eve. It is a community that includes the Church Fathers, whose words we are encouraged to read.

It is also a Church of Councils. We hold ourselves accountable to the results of those councils, even though they met many centuries ago. It means I don’t let my own opinions or those of my neighbors take charge of my faith. This requires guarding myself from the various ideologies that dominate the world I live in.

We are also a Church of saints. Day by day we remember them. We bear their names. We call on them for help. We remember what they did and sometimes what they said. We have icons of some of them in our churches and homes.

Attention to the Church Fathers and the saints can be a bewildering experience. For example we discover one Church Father showers the highest praise on marriage while another regards marriage as a barely tolerable compromise for those unable to embrace the real Christian calling: celibate monastic life. It can be disconcerting to discover that on various questions different Church Fathers may have different ideas or different emphases or just plain disagree.

Or we look at the saints and find one who was martyred for refusing to be a soldier, then the next day discover a saint who was a hero on the battlefield. Or we read about a saint who wore the rich clothing of a prince and then find another saint whose only clothing was his uncut beard. Here is a saint who was a great scholar while there is a saint who was a holy fool. Here is a saint who raced to the desert, while over there is a saint who refused to leave the city and was critical of those who did. Each saint poses a challenge and each saint raises certain questions and even certain problems. The puzzle pieces don’t always fit. We discover that neither the Church Fathers nor the saints on the calendar are a marching band, all in step and playing in perfect harmony.

Devotion to the saints solves some problems and raises others. In the details of their lives, they march in a thousand different directions. They also made mistakes. They were not saints every minute of every day. Like us, they had sins to confess. But their virtues overwhelm their faults. In different ways, each saint gives us a window for seeing Christ and his Gospel more clearly.

To be an Orthodox Christian means, as St. Paul says, that we are no longer Greek nor Jew. Nationality is secondary. It is not the national flag that is placed on the altar but the Gospel. For us, even though we find ourselves in an Orthodox Church divided on national or jurisdictional lines, it means we are no longer American or Russian or Egyptian or Serbian. Rather we are one people united in baptism and faith whose identity and responsibility includes but goes beyond the land where we were born or the culture and mother tongue that shaped us.

On to the next word: peace. This is a damaged word. It’s like an icon so blackened by candle smoke that the image is completely hidden. “Peace” is a word that has been covered with a lot of smoke from the fires of propaganda, politics, ideologies, war and nationalism. In Soviet Russia there were those omnipresent slogans proclaiming peace while the Church was often obliged to take part in state-organized and state-scripted “peace” events. And in American, as a boy growing up in New Jersey, it was almost the same. “Peace is our profession” was the slogan of the Strategic Air Command, whose apocalyptic work was work was on stage center in the film “Doctor Strangelove.” In more recent years, there was a nuclear missile officially christened “the peacemaker.”

Not only governments but peace groups have damaged the word “peace.” Anti-war groups often reveal less about peace than about anger, alienation and even hatred. Sadly it’s a surprise to find a peace group that regards unborn children as among those whose lives need to be protected.

In wartime talk of peace can put you on thin ice. I recently heard a story that dates back to the first Gulf War. Three clergymen were being interviewed on television. Two of them insisted that the war was a good and just war and had God’s blessing. The third opened his Bible and read aloud the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers… Love your enemies…” But he was cut short by a shout from the angry pastor next to him: “That’s not relevant now! We’re at war!”

War does this to us. Parts of the Gospel are simply abandoned. They are seen as temporarily irrelevant, an embarrassment to the patriotic Christian. “Peace” is put in the deep freeze, a word to be thawed out after the war is over. Thus the salt loses it savor and sugar takes its place.

Part of our job is to clean words like “peace.” It’s a work similar to icon restoration. Otherwise it will be hard to understand the Gospel or the Liturgy and impossible to translate the Gospel and the Liturgy into daily life.

The single word “peace” is one of the essential characteristics of the Kingdom of God. Consider how often and in what significant ways Christ uses the word “peace” in the Gospel: “And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it.” “And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!'” “And he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.'” “And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'” “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!'” “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!” “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” His greeting after the resurrection is, “Peace be with you.” In Mark’s Gospel, once again we come upon the metaphor of salt: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

In the Slavic liturgical tradition, the custom is to sing the Beatitudes while the Gospel Book is carried in procession through the church. Why? Because the Beatitudes are a short summary of the Gospel. These few verses describe a kind of ladder to heaven, starting with poverty of spirit and ascending to readiness to suffer for Christ and at last participation in the Paschal joy of Christ. Near the top of the ladder of the Beatitudes we come to the words, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Christ’s peace is not passive nor has it anything to do with the behavior of a coward or of the person who is polite rather than truthful. Christ says, in Matthew’s Gospel: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He means the sword metaphorically, as Luke makes clear in his version of the same passage: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” To live truthfully rather than float with the tide means most of time to swim against the tide and to risk penalties if not punishment for doing so. Christ had, and still has, opponents. Christ’s words and actions often brought his opponents’ blood to a boil. Think of his words of protest about the teachings of the Pharisees who laid burdens of others they would not carry themselves. Think of him chasing the money changers from the Temple. No one was killed or injured but God’s lightning flashed in the Temple courtyard.

Jesus speaks the truth, no matter how dangerous a task that may be. He gives us an example of spiritual and verbal combat. But his hands are not bloodstained. Think about the fact that Christ killed no one. Neither did he bless any of his followers to kill anyone. There are many ways in which Christ is unique. This is one of them. His final miracle before his crucifixion is to heal the injury of a temple guard whom Peter had wounded. He who preached the love of enemies took a moment to heal an enemy while on his way to the Cross.

In the early centuries, Christians got into a lot of trouble for their attitude toward the state. You get a sense of what that was like in this passage from Second Century hieromartyr, St. Justin: “From Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.”

The big problem for early Christians, a problem that so often got them into trouble, was their refusal to regard any ruler as a god. This doesn’t mean simply a ruler who claims to be a god, but the persistent tendency of so many rulers down to the present day to behave as gods and expect to be treated that way. Christians were obedient members of society in every way they could be without disobeying God, but were prepared to suffer even the most cruel death rather than place obedience to Caesar before obedience to God.

While eventually the baptismal requirements of the Church were relaxed, it was once the case that those who did not renounce killing, whether as a soldier or judge, could not be baptized. It is still the case that those who have killed another human being, even in self defense or by accident, are excluded from serving at the altar. Presumably this would also mean any person whose words incite others to kill.

What’s the problem? Killing in war is often awarded with medals. Aren’t soldiers only doing their duty, however horrible it may be? Is there not virtue in their deeds, however bloody? I am reminded of an interview with an American soldier in Iraq that I heard on television recently: “A part of your soul is destroyed in killing someone else.” He might have said, but didn’t, that a part of your soul is wounded when you kill another. The Church looks for ways to heal such wounds.

Christ is not simply an advocate of peace or an example of peace. He is peace. To want to live a Christ-like life means to want to participate in the peace of Christ. Yes, we may fail, as we fail in so many things, but we are never permitted to give up trying.

How do we give a witness to Christ’s peace, especially in time of war? There are at least seven aspects of doing this.

The first is love of enemies. Love is another damaged word. It has been sentimentalized. It has come to mean a nice feeling we have toward a person whom we enjoy seeing and being with. The biblical meaning of the word is different. Christ calls on his followers to love their enemies. If you understand love as a euphoric feeling or pleasant sentiment, fulfilling this commandment is impossible. But if you understand love as doing what you can to protect the life and seek the salvation of a person or group whom we are encouraged to fear or despise, that’s very different.

Jesus links love of enemies with prayer for them. Without prayer, love of enemies is impossible. One of the saints who gave special emphasis to this theme was the 20th century monk St. Silouan of the Holy Mountain. Silouan’s stress may have its roots in the fact that, before becoming a monk, he nearly killed another young man. Not long afterward, he went to Mount Athos. Much of his teaching later in life centered on love of enemies. “He who does not love his enemies,” he insisted, “does not have God’s grace.”

The second aspect is doing good to enemies. Jesus teaches his followers, “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” (Luke 6:28)

Jesus’ teaching about a compassionate response to enemies was not new doctrine. We find in the Mosaic Law: “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under a burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it.” (Exodus 23:4-5)

St. Paul elaborates: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by doing so you will reap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:20-21)

Christ’s teaching to do good to enemies is often viewed as unrealistic. In fact, it is a teaching full of common sense. Unless we want to turn the world into a cemetery, we must search for opportunities through which we can demonstrate to an opponent our longing for an entirely different kind of relationship. An adversary’s moment of need or crisis can provide that opening.

The third aspect is turning the other cheek. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other also.” (Mt.5:39; Luke 6:29) Contrast this with the advice provided in the average film or novel, where the standard message might be described as “The Gospel According to Hollywood.” This pseudo-gospel’s basic message is: If you are hit, hit back. Let your blow be harder than the one you received. In fact, as we saw in the US attack on Iraq in 2003, you needn’t be hit at all in order to strike others. Provocation, irritation, or the fear of attack is warrant enough.

“Turning the other cheek” is widely seen as an especially suspect Christian doctrine, an ethic that borders on masochism. Many would say it is Jesus at his most unrealistic: “Human beings just aren’t made that way.” For a great many people the problem can be put even more simply: “Turning the other cheek isn’t manly. Only cowards turn the other cheek.”

But what cowards actually do is run and hide. Standing in front of a violent man, refusing to get out of his way, takes enormous courage. It is manly and often proves to be the more sensible response. It’s also a way of giving witness to confidence in the reality and power of the resurrection.

The fourth aspect is forgiveness. Nothing is more fundamental to Jesus’ teaching than his call to forgiveness: giving up debts, letting go of grievances, pardoning those who have harmed us, not despairing of the other. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we are telling God that we ask to be forgiven only insofar as we ourselves have extended forgiveness to others: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

How hard it is to forgive! For we are wounded and the wounds often last a lifetime; they even spill across generations. As children, as parents, as husbands or wives, as families, as workers, as jobless people, as church members, as members of certain classes or races, as voters, as citizens of particular states, we have been violated, made a target, lied to, used, abandoned. Sins, often quite serious sins, have been committed against us. We may feel damaged, scarred for life, stunted. Others we love may even have died of evil done to them.

But we are not only victims. In various ways we are linked to injuries others have suffered and are suffering. If I allow myself to see how far the ripples extend from my small life, I will discover that not only in my own home but on the far side of the planet there are people whose sorrows in life are partly due to me. Through what I have done or failed to do, through what my community has done or failed to do, there are others whose lives are more wretched than they might have been. There are those dying while we feast.

But we prefer to condemn the evils we see in others and excuse the evils we practice ourselves. We fail to realize that those who threaten us often feel threatened by us, and may have good reasons for their fears. The problem is not simply a personal issue, for the greatest sins of enmity are committed en masse, with very few people feeling any personal responsibility for the destruction they share in doing or preparing. The words of Holocaust administrator Adolph Eichmann, “I was only following orders,” are among humanity’s most frequently repeated justifications for murder.

The fifth aspect is breaking down the dividing wall of enmity. In Christ enmity is destroyed, Saint Paul wrote, “for he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of enmity… that he might create in himself one new person in place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing enmity to an end.” (Eph. 2:14-16)

Walls would have been on Paul’s mind at the time; in the same letter he mentions that he is “a prisoner for the Lord.” His words of guidance were sent from within the stone walls of a prison.

Consider Christ’s response to the centurion who asked him to heal a sick servant. It must have been hard for his more zealot-minded disciples to see Jesus responding positively to the appeal of an officer in an occupation army and galling to hear him commenting afterward, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” In this brief encounter, the dividing wall of enmity collapsed.

We live in a world of walls. Competition, contempt, repression, racism, nationalism, violence and domination: all these are seen as normal and sane. Enmity is ordinary. Self and self-interest form the centering point in many lives. We tend to be a fear-driven people. Love and the refusal to center one’s life in enmity are dismissed as naive, idealistic, even unpatriotic, especially if one reaches out constructively to hated minorities or national enemies.

Many wars are in the progress at the moment. The cost in money, homes destroyed, damaged sanity, in lives and injuries is phenomenal. So many deaths, and mainly non-combatants – children, parents and grandparents, the very young, the very old, all sorts of people. Countless hideous wounds, visible and hidden. There are also less tangible costs, spiritually, psychologically, for we have become a people who make war and preparations for war a major part of our lives. We hear of many people who expect to die in a violent death and who live in a constant state of “low grade” depression. Fear and despair are widespread. Stress-relieving pills are selling better than ever in today’s world.

The sixth aspect is nonviolent resistance to evil. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil.” When Peter used violence to defend Jesus, he was instantly admonished, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” For several hundred years following the resurrection, the followers of Jesus were renowned for their refusal to perform military service. But for many centuries, Christians have been as likely as any others to take up the sword – and often use it in appalling ways.

The refusal to kill others can be a powerful witness, yet Christian life is far more than the avoidance of evil. It is searching for ways to combat evil without using methods that inevitably will result in the death of the innocent.

Responding to evil with its own weapons, even with the best of motives, often results in actions which mimic those of the enemy, or even outdo the enemy’s use of abhorrent methods. When Nazi forces bombed cities, there was profound revulsion in Britain and the United States, but in the end the greatest acts of city destruction were carried out by Britain and the United States.

Yet what is one to do? Christians cannot be passive about those events and structures which cause innocent suffering and death.

For centuries men and women have been searching for effective ways of both protecting life and combating evil. It is only in the past hundred years, because of movements associated with such people as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day, that nonviolent struggle has become a recognized alternative to passivity, on the one hand, and violence on the other.

Yet such acts of nonviolent protest are far from unknown in the Orthodox Church. One powerful example occurred in Constantinople in the year 842 when, opposing the iconoclast Emperor Leo V, a thousand monks took part in an icon-bearing procession in the capital city. They were exhibiting in public images of Christ and the saints which, had they obeyed the emperor, should have long before been destroyed. Their act of civil disobedience risked severe punishment. Iconographers had been tortured, mutilated and sent into exile. Thousands of icons had been destroyed. The death of the emperor later that year was widely seen as heaven’s judgment. In 843 his widow Theodora convened a Church Council which reaffirmed the place of the icon in Christian life. In The Orthodox Church, the first Sunday of Lent was set aside to celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

There is one last element of peacemaking: It is aspiring to a life of recognizing Jesus in the other: In his teaching about the Last Judgment, Christ tells us, “Truly, I say to you, what you did it to one of the least of these, you did to me.” It is a scene represented in icons in many ancient churches, though not popular today.

Occasionally the question is raised: “Why are we judged together and not one by one as we die?” It is because each person’s life is far from over when he dies. Our acts of love and failures to love continue to have consequences until the end of history. What Adam and Eve did, what Moses did, what Plato did, what Pilate did, what the Apostles did, what Caesar did, what Hitler did, what Martin Luther King did, what Dorothy Day did, what you and I have done ? all these lives, with their life-saving or murderous content, continue to have consequences for the rest of history. What you and I do, and what we fail to do, will matter forever.

It weighs heavily on many people that Jesus preached not only heaven but hell. There are many references to hell in the Gospels, including in the Sermon on the Mount. How can a loving God allow a place devoid of love?

One response to that question which makes sense to me is one I first heard in a church in Prague in the Communist period. God allows us to go wherever we are going. We are not forced to love. Communion is not forced on us. We are not forced to recognize God’s presence. It is all an invitation. We can choose. We can choose life or death. Perhaps we can even make the choice of heaven while in hell. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis has a tour bus leaving daily from hell to heaven. But the bus is never full and tends to return with as many passengers as it took on the trip out of hell. Heaven is too painful, its light too intense, its edges too sharp, for those who are used to the dullness of hell. In fact the older we are, the more we live by old choices, and defend those choices, and makes ideologies, even theologies out of our choices, and finally become slaves to them.

We can say, not just once but forever, as Peter once said of Jesus, “I do not know the man.” There are so many people about whom we can say, to our eternal peril, “I do not know the man,” to which we can add he is worthless, has no one to blame for his troubles but himself, that his problems aren’t our business, that he is an enemy, that he deserves to die whether of frostbite or violence matters little.

As St. John Chrysostom said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.” If I cannot find the face of Jesus in the face of those who are my enemies, if I cannot find him in the unbeautiful, if I cannot find him in those who have the wrong ideas, if I cannot find him in the poor and the defeated, how will I find him in bread and wine, or in the life after death? If I do not reach out in this world to those with whom he has identified himself, why do I imagine that I will want to be with him, and them, in heaven? Why would I want to be for all eternity in the company of those whom I hated and avoided every day of my life?

Christ’s Kingdom would be hell for those who avoided peace and devoted their lives to division. But heaven is right in front of us. At the heart of what Jesus says in every act and parable is this: Now, this minute, we can enter the Kingdom of God. This very day we can sing the Paschal hymn: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tomb he has given life!”

* * *

Jim Forest, secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is the author of many books, including The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life and Ladder of the Beatitudes. The text is based on a lecture given 20 November 2004 at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Crestwood, New York.

* * *

Blessed

by Jim Forest

The word “blessed,” the first word of each Beatitude, isn’t an everyday word. What do”blessed” and “beatitude” mean?

“Beatitude” comes from the Latin word beatus, meaning happy, fortunate, blissful. In the context of the Greek gods, it meant supremely happy, in a state of pure bliss. In the late fourth century, beatus was the word St. Jerome opted for in his Vulgate translation of the “blessed are” verses.

“I would expect that, like so many other Latin writers, Jerome was assuming that the meaning would enlarge within its textual context,” Latin scholar Harold Isbell tells me. “However don’t overlook the possibility that because Greek is a more nuanced language, it conveys degrees of meaning that the hard headed Roman would not suspect. Then there is ‘beatific,’ as in ‘beatific vision,’ which in the Christian tradition of the west refers specifically to the vision of God, an entirely appropriate but quite unmerited fruit of God’s creative act.”

While most English Bibles use “blessed,” a few modern translations have preferred “happy”: “How happy are the poor of spirit…”

“‘Happy’ isn’t good enough,” Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild once told me. “The biblical translator who uses such a word should change jobs, maybe write TV comedies with nice happy endings. The problem is that, if you decide you don’t like ‘blessed,’ there isn’t a single English word that can take its place. You might use a phrase like ‘on the right track’ or ‘going in the right direction.’ Sin, by the way, means being off the track, missing the target. Being ‘blessed’ means you aren’t lost — you’re on the path the Creator intends you to be on. But what you recognize as a blessing may look like an affliction to an outsider. Exchanging ‘blessed’ for ‘happy’ trivializes the biblical word. You might as well sum up the Bible with a slogan like, ‘Have a nice day’.”

“Happy” in some respects makes for an unhappy translation. Its root is “hap,” the MiddleEnglish word for “luck.” The word “happen” is a sister word. A “happenstance” approach to life is to let things happen as they will, to depend on the roll of the dice. To act in a “haphazard” manner is to do things by chance. To be “hapless” is be unlucky, but to have good luck is be a winner. The lucky person, the happy person, has things going his way. We say certain people were born under a lucky star — they seem to get all the breaks, everything from good looks to money in the bank.

The founding fathers of the United States, in declaring independence from Britain in 1776, recognized “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights. For them, the pursuit of happiness meant each person had the right to seek his own good fortune and not simply be the servant of another. In our era, in which happiness is somewhere between a human right and a social duty, many people feel guilty for failing to be continually happy.

But what about the word “blessed”? This was the word chosen by the translators of the Authorized Version in the seventeenth century. Since at least medieval times, “blessed” meant something consecrated to God or belonging to God.

There are several Hebrew words which have been translated as “blessed,” beginning with baruk, as in the verse: “And God blessed them [the first man and woman], saying, Be fruitful and multiply…” (Gen 1:28) Baruk is linked to kneeling — a blessing would be received while kneeling in a posture of respect and submission.

“Baruk is frequently applied to God, indeed the berakah is the characteristic Jewish prayer,” Archimandrite Ephrem Lash of the Monastery of St. Andrew in Manchester explained to me. “The typical Jewish prayer begins, ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God…’ There is even a ‘berakah’ for forgetting the correct berakah. This has been taken into Christianity, in particular into Orthodoxy, where no service can begin without a ‘berakah’ — ‘Blessed is our God now and forever and unto the ages of ages,’ or ‘Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…’.”

Ashre is another Hebrew word that has been translated as “blessed.” It’s an exclamation — “O the good fortune!” The root meaning is “to go straight, to advance.” The person of whom one can say ashre ha-ish is one for whom things are on the right track, going along a straight way, going forward, making headway. It is often used in the Book of Psalms, as seen in the first psalm: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The next verse offers a metaphor of what it is like to be blessed — such a person “is like a tree planted by streams of water.”

There is the similar Hebrew word ashar. In the Book of Proverbs it is used in a passage describing the ideal woman: “Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.” (Prov 31:28)

All the authors of the New Testament wrote in Greek, even when it wasn’t their first language. In those passages where “blessed” is a verb, the Greek is eulogeo, literally, “the saying of a good word” — an action associated with praise, thanksgiving and consecration, and therefore used in liturgical contexts. For example: “And as they ate, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘Take, eat, this is my body’.” (Mark 14:22)

Where “blessed” is used as an adjective, it is a translation of makarios. It is the word makarios that is used again and again in the Beatitudes. We hear it also in such texts as, “Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear” and, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Mt 13:16, 16:17)

In classical Greek makar was associated with the immortal gods. Lari means fate or death, but with the negative prefix ma the word means being deathless, no longer subject to fate, a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods, the hoi Makarioi, were the blessed ones.

“The interesting thing about ashre is that it is never, so far as I know, applied to God,” Archimandrite Ephrem points out. “On the other hand the Greek makar starts life as precisely something that the gods are, though the related adjective makarios is more commonly applied to humans.”

In Christian use, makarios came increasingly to mean sharing in the life of God, the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of happenstance running through it. What a gift! Weare not simply capable of an abstract awareness that God exists or of studying God as an astronomer might study the night sky, all the while knowing the stars are unbridgeable distances away and that their light may be years or centuries old by the time it reaches our eyes. The blessing extended to us is participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity, sharing in God’s immortality, and being filled with qualities that humanly seem impossible.

Jim Forest is co-secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. This is a shortened section from The Ladder of the Beatitudes, published by Orbis Books in the US and Alban Books in Great Britain.

The Serbian Orthodox Church

Not What We Have Been Led to Believe

by Jim Forest

The cover of a recent issue of the British weekly magazine The Tablet displayed a drawing of an Orthodox bishop kneeling in the rubble of abombed church. On his knees behind him, looking far and away themore pious of the two, was President Milosevic. The headline beneath the drawing read, “Serbia’s Martyr Complex,” the featured essay in that issue, but it was the drawing that interested me more than the text it illustrated. The bishop’s face was that of a typecast Hollywood villain. With only a small change in costume, he could have been Count Dracula contemplating a victim’s neck or a ruthless Mafia boss imagining an enemy’s death. The archbishop was the arch-Serb.

The art of enmity has for years given us a steady diet of images of evil Serbs, sometimes shown as cavemen, often dripping with blood, victimizing their neighbors. Nor is it unusual to show the Serbian Orthodox Church playing the role as chaplain to the state and accomplice in Serbian war crimes, preacher of a nationalistic mythology which the faithful heard as a blessing to create, by any means necessary, a Greater Serbia.

It is human nature, not only the nature of the mass media, to want to iron out the wrinkles that complicate our perception of others, always with a tilt toward bad news — a process that reduces the world to comic book simplicity. Thus the English say “rather” and drink tea,the French make love and drink wine, the Dutch grow tulips and drink gin, and Serbs kiss icons and drink their neighbor’s blood.

In fact the religious identity of Serbs is not what we have been led to believe nor has the Serbian Orthodox Church been a pillar of support for Milosevic. While it’s true that church attendance in Serbia went up during NATO’s bombardment — exploding bombs turn one’s mind to ultimate things — the Church is a minor element in Serbian social and political life.

Among the reasons for this is that Tito was extraordinarily effective in his 35-year struggle to marginalize the Orthodox Church. Throughout the Tito era, it was a major disadvantage to put one’s toe in the church door. Those who wanted to advance in life had to join the Communist Party, in which atheism was obligatory. Tito died in 1980, but many of his policies survived, including the view that religion belonged to the past. While Milosevic used nationalist rhetoric in his successful bid for power in 1989, in other ways he remained faithful to his political and ideological roots.

It was thus a weakened Serbian Orthodox Church that had to define its response to the events which tore Yugoslavia to shreds in the nineties. Serbian priests I have interviewed estimate that perhaps five percent of the population is engaged in the Church in a significant way, while the vast majority is unbaptized. There are few cities in Europe more secular than Belgrade.

Nonetheless, the head of the Church, Patriarch Pavle, now 85 years old, is widely respected and often described as a saint even by unchurched people. A small, lean, white-bearded man with a meek but determined manner, he is well known for having personally taken part invarious anti-war, anti-government protest demonstrations. In 1997 he led a procession of many thousands that freed protesting students who were under police siege in central Belgrade.

Pavle has touched Serbs even more deeply through significant gestures in his private life. One cleric in Belgrade complained to me how inconvenient it was when Pavle came to visit his parish. “You can never say how late he will arrive. He travels by tram and bus, then walks the rest of the way. He says he will get a car only when the poorest person can have one.”

Not every cleric set such an inspiring example. A deacon I know in Serbia complains about priests who “are more interested in cars than souls.” Two friends of mine had to delay their wedding in Belgrade until they could find a priest who didn’t begin the conversation by announcing his fee. (It should be noted that most Serb clergy have no regular salary and depend on gifts for services for their livelihood.)

Further complicating the problem of the Church’s role in post-Tito Serbia is that the Church, however crippled by past oppression, is the only institution that still incarnates Serbian identity. No other social structure is so deeply linked with Serbia’s history, traditions, achievements and sorrows. One easily finds Serbs who value the Church for “cultural” reasons while regarding its beliefs and teachings as irrelevant. For the ultra-nationalist, ultimate values are national, yet he may regard himself as somehow Orthodox simply because to be Serb is to be Orthodox. An icon in someone’s home can be more a sign of Serbian than Christian identity.

Every Serb I met, no matter how alienated from Christian belief, held the ancient monasteries and churches — many are in Kosovo — in high regard. In more peaceful times they were always ready to take guests like me to visit these “monuments,” but those who crossed themselves, kissed icons or visibly prayed in such places were the exception. Though there have been many conversions of young intellectuals, Serbs tend to regard the Church as a beautiful museum with little relevance to the modern world, though in recent years the outspoken criticism by the hierarchy in regard to the Milosevic regime has earned the Church a certain respect among those working for a more democratic society.

The direction of the Church’s hierarchy, while wanting to preserve all that is good in Serbian identity and tradition, has been to oppose malignant, intolerant forms of nationalism.

The church’s pastors see the neglect of spiritual life as being at the heart of the nation’s crisis. “For 45 years under communism, atheism was the official religion,” Bishop Lavrentije of Sabac-Valjevo explained in an interview in 1995. “Priests were forbidden from going into schools and from visiting the army. People were educated without any contact with belief in God, and were taught that there was no soul. Those generations [who received an atheist education] are now soldiers. That is the reason for genocide. As one philosopher said, ‘If you take away God from man, man becomes the strongest animal’.” (One of Lavrentije’s projects has been to make available works of literature that will help restore Serbia’s spiritual life. The press he founded has published an edition of the complete works of Dostoevsky.)

Patriarch Pavle speaks with a similar monastic directness. When I first met him in 1994, I asked about the civil war that was then raging in Bosnia. Pavle responded that the blame must be shared among Serbs along with everyone else — the governments of the several republics of former Yugoslavia plus the rest of Europe and the United States: “Everyone is guilty. There are criminals on every side. God alone knows who has the greatest blame or who has committed the most sins.” (His answer reminded me of the figure of Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.) In such a situation, Pavle continued, “the Church must condemn all atrocities that are committed, no matter what the faith or origin of the person committing them may be. No sin committed by one person justifies a sin committed by another. We will all face the Last Judgment together where each of us must answer for his sins. No one can justify his sins by saying someone else is guilty of a crime.”

Few bishops east or west have spoken so tirelessly against ethnic division, hatred and war. “Let us grasp the teaching of the Holy Apostle Paul, that one cannot accomplish good by evil means — a lesson our mothers taught us through the ages, warning us that evil never brings good,” he said on one occasion. “Oh, that God would help us to understand that we are human beings and that we must live as human beings, so that peace would come into our country and bring an end to the killing.”

The principle was summed up in a statement issued by the Serbian bishops on March 23, two days before the NATO attack: “The way of nonviolence and cooperation is the only way blessed by God.” Still more significant are the special prayers the Serbian Church added to the Holy Liturgy early in the breakdown of Yugoslavia, including this petition:

For all those who commit injustice against their neighbors, whether by causing sorrow to orphans, spilling innocent blood or by returning hatred for hatred, that God will grant them repentance, enlighten their minds and their hearts and illumine their souls with the light of love even toward their enemies, let us pray to the Lord.

For years Church response to the war was expressed chiefly in the reiteration of fundamental moral principles and efforts to relieve suffering. In the past year, as the danger of war in Kosovo increased, the bishops began actively promoting policies they hoped might make peace more likely.

The person chiefly responsible for Church peace efforts, Bishop Artemije of Prizren, made five trips to Washington and traveled repeatedly to European capitals in his efforts to convince the West that it was mistaken in its long-running support of Milosevic. In a letter the bishop hand-delivered to US Secretary of State Albright in February, he said: “We believe that US policy must cease to be perceived as hostile to the legitimate interests of the Serbian nation and must, instead, be directed toward the replacement of the Milosevic regime by a democratic government… The Milosevic regime, as the repeated generator of crises, cannot be relied upon to help secure a just and durable peace. However, current American policy seems to be repeating, once again, the mistakes of the past, relying on the one hand, upon guarantees given by the Milosevic regime, while holding only the Serbian nation responsible for the escalating cycle of violence. This mistaken policy, we believe, now on the verge of NATO intervention in Kosovo Province, will be entirely counterproductive.”

NATO intervention, he argued, would only strengthen the Milosevic regime and be a major setback for the democratic opposition in Serbia, which in turn would delay democratization, a precondition for peace in the Balkan region. “NATO intervention in Kosovo would risk setting back the cause of democracy in Serbia and in the Balkans for years to come.”

Bishop Artemije proposed a solution inspired by the Swiss example — that Kosovar Serbs and Kosovar Albanians each be granted the right to self-administration in rural areas in which they constitute relative or absolute majorities with economic, judiciary, and political links to Serbia, while in major cities a system of multi-ethnic rule be adopted in which political power is shared through a two-chamber Assembly.

On February 3, Patriarch Pavle sought permission for a non-negotiating representation at the Rambouillet negotiations. The request was denied. Even so a week later the delegation went to Rambouillet, hoping to put forward the Church-backed peace proposal. Bishop Artemije held a press conference in a local caf, telling journalists that “the Serbs in the castle represent only two parties, Milosevic’s socialists and the neo-communists of his wife.” He stood in prayer outside the chateau gates, truly a voice crying in the wilderness.

The monasteries in Kosovo, most notably the Decani monastery south of Pec, have given their own witness for peace both before and during the war (see various articles in the news section of recent issues of In Communion).

It was Hieromonk Sava, assistant abbot of Decani, who explained to a journalist, “This is a war between extremists. On one side is a totalitarian regime, and on the other, secessionists. We condemn violence on both sides.”

He regretted that “the spiritual side of Orthodoxy” was not so well known among Serbs after 50 years of communism. “You might be surprised to know,” he commented, “that at our Sunday service of worship we have only about ten people from Decani in attendance. For the Serb, tradition is important, but there has been a secularization of tradition here just as in other parts of Europe, and that has taken man further from God.”

Asked who Kosovo belonged to, he responded: “Adam and Eve, that’s who.” Asked which side does God take in this conflict? “God is on the side of the suffering people.”

Now, after dropping 23,000 bombs in 79 days, NATO is in charge of Kosovo and refugees are returning home while many Serbs flee the province. Much of Serbia and Kosovo lies in ruins, with thousands killed by soldiers and paramilitaries or as “collateral damage” of NATO bombing. While Serbia’s military was only slightly harmed, the country’s infrastructure was severely damaged. Even water purification plants were targeted. The results will be a high mortality rate for years to come among the more vulnerable members of society.

In June the Serbian Orthodox Church renewed an appeal it first made in 1992 for Milosevic to step down and for the creation of a government of national unity acceptable both to the Serbian people and other nations.

It may be a time of renewed persecution for Orthodox Christians. Bishop Artemije has had to flee Prizren after being under siege from the KLA, but remains in Kosovo and hopes to return to Prizren. As of this writing, two monasteries have been destroyed, one monk reported murdered, and a nun raped by KLA soldiers.

The most striking and hope-giving gesture since the bombs stopped falling has been Patriarch Pavle’s decision to move from Belgrade to Pec, the historic center of the Serbian Orthodox Church, an action he hopes will encourage other Serbs to remain in Kosovo or return from Serbia. It is also a gesture to Kosovo Albanians. If Pavle and the monasteries of Kosovo can give witness of Serbians who love their neighbors, and even their enemies, perhaps there can be a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Kosovo.

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His most recent books are PrayingWith Icons and The Ladder of the Beatitudes (Orbis).