Category Archives: Nicholas Sooy

Essays by Nicholas Sooy

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Transfiguration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Nicholas Sooy

contributing editor, In Communion

The Council After the Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion

 

War and Peace in Today’s Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WAR AND PEACE IN TODAY’S WORLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicholas Sooy

contributing editor, In Communion

The Little Ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe just play in the pebbles.

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion.

The Fishermen as Most Wise

This island smells like fish. The air, the towns, all is infused with centuries of fish catching, eating, and selling. It’s been difficult to find something to eat that isn’t seafood. On my way into town, I approached the lunch counter at the bus station. It was stocked with some of the most delicious Greek dishes, breads, and cheeses. Wanting to keep the fast that day, I looked up at the Greek inscriptions over the counter, trying to decipher ingredients from words that I could read,  but not pronounce. Giving up, I asked for something with no meat. In response, I was given a heaping plate of pasta with the most delectable and soft calamari I’ve ever had. While my vision of a meatless dish might be a bit more ascetic than this, you take what you can get.

Something similar happened Friday while taking a break from working in Kolymbari. I walked down the long road from the Orthodox Academy, past the armed guards, into the town in order to find something to eat. I stopped at the first place I saw. A Greek woman approached me, smiling. They were very excited for the Council, and I was their first customer who had stumbled upon them from up the road. I searched the menu for anything fast-friendly, and once again the best I could find was shellfish and pasta. I ordered this, and was surprised to first received two appetizers (which were both fast-friendly of course) before I received my large and scrumptious meal. I felt connected to the island, as I sat on a balcony overlooking the bay, eating mollusks that tasted as if they had just been plucked from the sea. Getting anxious about how much time this was costing me, I finished the meal and was ready to go when the proprietor approached me again and asked if I wanted desert. I declined, being both quite full and a little embarrassed about eating so much. She insisted, saying that it would be a free gift from the restaurant to me. What followed was a delicious chocolate jello of some sort with a full spread of fruit and a bottle of ouzo. The latter item reminded me of the hospitality I encountered on Mt. Athos; a glass of ouzo and a turkish delight at every monastery.

Hospitality is something that I’ve found again and again since my stay here. Its as ubiquitous as fish. For whatever reason, an island of fisherman also happens to be an island of great welcoming.

This morning I watched 10 primates of autocephalous Orthodox Churches gather at the Cathedral of St. Menas in Heraklion to celebrate Pentecost. It was a several hour liturgical marathon, beginning with Orthros, followed by a hierarchical Divine Liturgy celebrated by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, concluding with the kneeling Vespers of Pentecost. The whole enterprise was as elaborate as the temperature was hot. The reflection of the gold in the room made it seem like even the icons were sweating. 

The celebration had its beautiful moments. There was a warm embrace among some of the patriarchs during clerical communion. I was moved by the smiles on their faces. The singing at times was also quite touching. EP Bartholomew, who today was wearing comparatively simple and and unassuming vestments given his rank, has a presence similar to his office. He is a small man with a resounding voice. His chanting was rivaled only by that of Patriarch Theodoros II, whose prayers certainly sound heavenly. But by far, my favorite part of the service was the hymn of Pentecost, “Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God, who hast revealed the fishermen as most wise, having sent upon them the Holy Spirit, and through them Thou hast fished the universe. O Lover of Man, glory to Thee!”

Christ revealed the fishermen as most wise. Christ came into this world as the King of Jews and High Priest and Messiah of the Jewish religion, but instead of exalting the religious leaders or civil authorities, it was the poor and simple fishermen who came out as wise. It wasn’t the scribes or pharisees, both of whom were keepers of canon law and among the most educated and brightest of Jewish society. It wasn’t the Romans either, or even the native Jewish rulers. It was the fishermen, who often didn’t understand his teachings, and even abandoned him.

This wisdom obviously has nothing to do with learning. At Pentecost, the fishermen did not become any more intelligent or any more knowledgeable. Instead, they became more open. It was at Pentecost that the Gospel was preached to the nations, the reviled gentiles who were not canonically permitted to receive the fruits of Jewish sacrifice, these received news of the great sacrifice and resurrection of Christ. The unclean nations were brought into the Christian fold with the sacrament of baptism, an act with roots in the Jewish purification ritual necessary for participation in temple life. The wisdom of the fishermen was hospitality, or philoxenia as it is called in the Greek New Testament. Philoxenia translates as love of stranger, and is the opposite of xenophobia. Pentecost was the overthrowing of centuries of canon law saying who is in and who is out which dates back to Moses, and which was strengthened by the exclusive reforms of Ezra-Nehemiah.

“And through them Thou hast fished the universe,” it is this universal vision of Pentecost which Bartholomew has set his sights on, as he made explicit in his sermon today. The love of stranger, of those unlike us, is the essence of the Church, and it is this vision which he hopes the Council will embrace.

Reflecting on the hospitality of the fishermen of Crete I’ve encountered these past few days has put this vision in a new light for me. On my first full day in town, I had to find my way to Eleftherias Square in order to pick up my badge for the Council. I wandered for several hours, trying to decipher the streets of Chania. Every once in a while, a local fisherman would call out to me and ask where I was going in an attempt to help me. One even walked with  me several blocks to get me to my next turn. Eventually, I ended up where Google told me I should be, but alas it was the wrong place. Giving up I approached a cafe and entreated the locals again for help. They sat me down, poured me a cold drink for free, and did everything they could to find my destination. They called the office, googled the address again, and eventually figured out where I was supposed to be. Then one young guy told me to hop on the back of his motorbike so he could take me there directly. Before long I was wondering how I ended up on the back of a motorbike in Crete, speeding through traffic, wearing my finest clothes with no helmet, clutching the large belly of a man whose name I never caught. Even with his help, and the help of several others upon arrival, it still took us another 20 minutes to find the place, but he stayed with me the whole time, and without complaint or reward.

That night I returned to the room I had rented. It is a small room with four beds in it. But when I told the proprietor that I was in town for the Council, he promised me that he would try his best to not book anyone else for my room, so that I could have it to myself. He was a happy man, middle aged and friendly. His cross was visible resting against his Greek fisherman’s full chest of hair, peeking out from his open shirt. He smiled while he talked, and when I didn’t have an adapter to charge my devices, he gave me one for free. On the drive over to my room, he expressed his great concern that this council might condemn non-Orthodox Christians. He said he realizes that its wrong, even heretical to be outside the Church, but that one cannot be so unkind as to unequivocally condemn. Other Christians need to be shown kindness and we must engage them, otherwise they will never be willing to listen to Orthodoxy or benefit from it.

Again and again I’ve met fishermen, wise and hospitable, with a universal love. Philanthropos is the term the Pentecost hymn uses to describe Christ. I saw that in the face of one attendant at the airport, who when I told him I was going to Chania for the Council, he looked at me with great joy and eagerness, bordering on tears. He told me that he wanted to help me and that he would do anything for me.

Just a week ago I was at another remarkable place. I was in Toronto, Canada last Sunday at the St. John the Compassionate Mission. St. John’s is one of a kind as far as Orthodox communities go. The Mission is open every day of the week, and feeds many poor and homeless. But they are not fed as if they were a soup kitchen, but instead as a Church. There are round tables set up in the narthex where the community comes to eat. The poor eat and work alongside the Christian community, preparing and serving the meals. They live according to the words of St. John Chrysostom, who said in Church there are two tables, one for the poor and one for the altar. The mission is dedicated to St. John the Compassionate, who said “Those whom you call poor and beggars, these I proclaim my masters and helpers, for they and they only are really able to help us and bestow upon us the kingdom of heaven.” The poor are our masters is the philosophy of St. John’s Mission, and what motivates everything. Or as St. Maximus said, “The poor man is God.”

While at St. John’s, I sat next to a man named Bill, whose picture is the banner for this article. He is one of the ‘Masters’ of St. John’s. During my visit, he and I sat next to each other at lunch one day, and he told me endless stories of his days as a fisherman. We had only just met, but he was quite enthused to talk with me. He must have learned somewhere the wisdom of philoxenia- something the fishermen of Crete and lake Ontario have in common.

Bless, Master! These were the first words I heard this morning as Orthros began. In light of my recent experiences in Toronto, I found these words jarring. In a recent blog post by Fr. Ted Bobosh, he points out how Bishops weren’t referred to as ‘Master’ until the 14th century. The now common refrain ‘Eis polla, eti despota’ was originally reserved for the Emperor, but came to be applied to the Bishop as the office was changed through the years. Bishops did not wear the omophorion until the 9th century, for it was a sign of ostentation, and the Bishops crown, the miter, wasn’t universally worn until the 17th century. The ‘despotism’ of the episcopate is something that slowly accumulated as the position of the Bishop become less local and more hierarchical, emulating forms of dress and address that were traditionally associated with secular leadership.

Fr. Ted quotes Fr. Thomas Hopko, who says that ‘episkopos’ was a term that originally referred to the slave who oversaw other slaves. Fr. Thomas says, “The episkopos, the chief servant, is not the master, the despotis, nor is he king or vasilevs, nor is he lord or kyrios. He is a servant, a slave, a doulos, but he is in charge of everything that belongs to the master and the lord. He is in charge of all the master’s servants, goods, and property. He has all the master’s power and authority. He has everything that belongs to the master. He functions in persona, ‘in the place of’ the master. When you see him, you see the master. When you hear him, you hear the master. When he commands, you hear the command of the master. When he orders you to do something, you obey him as you would the master. But he is not really the master; the real master is the master.”

How strange it was this morning, observing the tremendous Byzantine trappings of a liturgy exalting simply fishermen. Beautiful as it was, there were moments that I found simply perplexing. The ten ‘masters,’ arrayed in their omophors and great crowns, all seemed to leave the center of attention when President Prokopis Pavlopoulos entered the Church, several hours into the service. The chanting was nearly drowned out by the sound of the military guard stationed outside the Cathedral, which broke into a great march with brass instruments. EP Bartholomew turned around and blessed the President as he walked down the center aisle, just as communion was about to be prepared. A second ‘great entrance.’

All throughout this Council, I’ve been struck by the presence of armed guards around every Church. Security at the Council is as high as the tensions among the Orthodox. The day I flew into Chania, my flight was delayed an hour, and had to circle the airport several times before we were cleared to land, all because the hierarchs were also arriving that day. When we did arrive, we were ushered unceremoniously behind a rusty barricade, while on the other side I could see and hear many soldiers, in uniform, playing fanfare for the arrival of the Bishops.

There is a very official atmosphere here. Press are restricted in what they can do and who they can interview. All the working sessions of the Council are closed. Press releases are very carefully worded and put together. Of course, this Council would be more of a PR disaster than it already is if protections were not in place, so I’m not necessarily complaining. Merely, the atmosphere is different than I imagined a Church Council would be. It was especially funny to see the military procession of the President into the Church of St. Menas this morning, given that St. Menas is himself a military saint who became a conscientious objector, and was eventually martyred for the stance he took against the Roman military and government.

Stranger still was the contrast between St. John the Compassionate, the bishop who called the poor ‘Master,’ and the poor fishermen of the Church, who now call the bishops ‘Master.’ There are traditionalist elements in the Church who fear this Council for its ecclesiology. This Council is unprecedented for giving executive power to only the primates of the Churches, and not to the whole body of Bishops. Moreover, each primate has absolute veto power over any of the documents. The fear is that this Council is turning patriarchs into popes, and that EP Bartholomew will benefit the most from this. While I am not as worried about that as those raising these concerns- I have faith in the conciliary identity of the Church and in the sincerity of the episcopate- these concerns do have an element of truth in them. Maybe a global Church does need global leaders like the patriarchs, but this does not mean that we should forget our masters, the poor.

I’m not trying to criticize any individual Bishops here. I haven’t actually met any of the primates during my time here; they have more important things to do than to meet me. I assume that behind the Byzantine wall of ceremony, these are good men. Archbishop Anastasios for example, is an advisory board member of In Communion and a friend to the editors. So I have no quarrel with them. Rather, I say all this with  hope in mind. If God can make the lowly fishermen ‘most wise,’ then maybe He can do something with our Bishops too.

It is tempting to criticize this gathering and these men. And perhaps this Council is incomplete. Where are the poor, whom St. Lawrence called ‘the treasures of the Church?’ Where is Moscow, Bulgaria, Antioch and Georgia? Why are only two women present as official delegates, when there are several hundred delegates and consultants? Why are no autonomous Churches represented, while autonomy remains on the agenda? Why are no married Christians given a vote on the document on marriage? This Council seems anemic in some areas. We might even be tempted to say that this Council is woefully unprepared to ‘fish the universe.’ Can a message be carried to the whole world by these men, as Bartholomew hopes? In the face of these questions, we should take heart. These men are no more unprepared than the fishermen who first followed Christ two thousand years back. Today, God has revealed the fishermen as most wise. It is the poor, the unequipped, the losers of the world who Christ chooses to use to save the world. So what if under the layer of gold and ceremony, Bishops are sometimes poor in spirit, in faith, in union, in charity, in wisdom? When we look upon the great poverty of our hierarchy, we should take comfort that these poor are our masters.

And who knows, maybe the charity of these Greek fishermen will have some effect while we are all here.

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion

The Gospel in Crete

This morning, the hierarchs gathered here met in the Church of the Annunciation in Kissamos in order to celebrate the Divine Liturgy of All Souls Day. The departed who labored for this Council were particularly commemorated. The Gospel read today recounts the words of the risen Christ to the apostate Peter, “Do you love me?Feed me sheep.” This Gospel tells the story of a reconciliation, a word that shares the same root as council. It may be helpful to think of these gatherings of Bishops in terms of reconciliation. Each time the Bishops gather, they are being re-conciliated. If they spend too much time away from their brethren, differences appear that threaten the effectiveness of the Church. Successful councils have always gathered the Bishops together in order to course-correct. As such, the canons of the councils are collectively called the ‘rudder.’

Councils reconcile Bishops to one another because they love Christ. They do this so that they can feed Christ’s sheep more effectively. Today we are in dire need of a Council. There are significant pastoral challenges that have arisen from the inconsistency of the Church’s global response to changing times. In the past, the Church has adapted in order to more effectively minister to its flock. The issues of multiple calendars and of the diaspora both signal that reconciliation is needed in order to more effectively minister to the world.

It is a great misfortune that the pre-conciliar proposals for addressing present concerns are inadequate. The issue of the calendar is one of several that have not been on the agenda for some time, while those items which are on the agenda do not do that much to address problems in the Church. With this in mind, should we expect anything to come of this council? Substantive issues are diplomatically skirted. And even with the comparatively bland documents under consideration, four primates are missing. Antioch, one of the highest ranked patriarchates, is missing, as is most of the Slavic world, accounting for more than two-thirds of Orthodox Christians.

“Of course, it may be better to avoid any kind of meeting of bishops; I know of no good to have come from even a single synod; I know of no solutions that resulted, but only additional problems that arose. Their only outcomes are arguments, ambitions and rivalries; bishops prefer to reprove others rather than resolve internal church issues.” These are the words of St. Gregory the Theologian. I’ve read several reports saying that the Church is on the cusp of something tremendous. Either a renaissance will occur in which the Church rises up to shape the world, or some great schism will happen and Orthodox communities will be further relegated to the ghettos of history. If we truly are at such a critical moment, then what should we make of the lackluster progress of the Council so far? Should we lose hope? Or should we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that divisions in the Church are as old as the Church itself (see the book of Acts!).

Yesterday’s Epistle reading tells the story of St. Paul getting shipwrecked with his captors. Its a story that I’ve read many times before, but when I read it yesterday, something stood out to me that I’ve never noticed before. St. Paul reprimands his jailers after they have encountered trouble, saying “Men, you should have listened to me, and not set sail from Crete.” He had told them to stay at Crete while the storm passed, but instead they left Crete and could not bear the storm. Details like these are easy to gloss over until you find yourself sitting on the island of Crete, amidst a ecclesiastical tempest, wondering why four bishops have decided to harbor away from the island.

Councils, as reconciliation, are anchors for the Church. They do not determine the consciousness of the Church, for they may be accepted or rejected. Councils do not change the Church so much as they anchor it. Conciliar statements add stability. They are a common reference which all may look to. Reconciling the Bishops hopefully gets everyone on the same page, so that they might go forth to feed the lost and the found sheep of the world. With several Bishops now absent, this ministry of reconciliation is now in jeopardy. The anchor is lifted, and the Church risks floating away, being swept up in some tide of nationalism, selfishness, or conflict.

Here it would be easy to dwell on the motives of these Bishops and to speculate. Were they right to leave? Is the Church not ready for the Council? Were these Bishops capitulating to ideology, or to pressure at home? Why did they leave just days before the Council, even though they had the documents for many months? Is there a power struggle at play? These questions are unanswerable with how much information is out there. Whatever the motives of the various parties, reconciliation is necessary. We may be tempted to do nothing but point fingers at others, rather than seek reconciliation. Now some reprimand may be necessary, just as St. Paul reprimands his jailers. In fact, if we do love the Church, we may be led to criticize her leaders. For as Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, it is those who love a town the most that criticize it. If you did not love a town, you would not be bothered if it burnt. But St. Paul does not end with a reprimand. Rather, he continues by saying “Do not be afraid.” He tells them that Christ has assured them safe travel. Do not be afraid, because Paul is destined to reach Rome with his jailers. Do not be afraid, because the Gospel will triumph.

Faithful observers of this Council may fear that the Gospel is being held captive by selfish Bishops who have departed from their mission on Crete. But I find St. Paul’s words instructive here. Even if the Gospel is held captive and marooned, we have assurance that it will not remain so. Christ has destined the Church to be salt and light. We should not be afraid, for as Archbishop Anastasios said yesterday, Christ will take this imperfect Council just as he takes imperfect bread, and he will make it into his body. If the Church fails to drop its anchor here in Crete this week,  we may find ourselves floating in the sea, suffering in the tempest. But that also means we will be sailing no longer by our own strength, which will have failed, but instead only by God’s mercy. What is there to fear in that?

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion

Called to Unity

I’ve been on a journey for several days now, which has brought me to where I am now, sitting in the Orthodox Academy of Crete, where just a few meters away 10 primates of the Church are in deliberations in preparation for the ‘Holy and Great Council.’  Getting here was a task in and of itself. It involved three flights, long bus rides, and several long hikes. But if I ask myself again, ‘how did I get here?’ the answer must involve more than just travel itinerary. I’ve been on a journey towards unity with Christ and His Church for as long as I’ve been alive, a journey that started before I was born.

The journey towards the Holy and Great Council is similarly wrought. There have been starts and stops with many borders to be  crossed. Yet, once again, this Council and its preparations are about more than its agenda and issues. Fundamentally, this council is about unity. “He called all to unity” is repeated again and again on all official documents here.

There is a sort of chicken and egg problem with unity in the Church. Christian unity is not mere agreement, that is too shallow. Agreement is only possible once the type of peace is achieved which allows differences to be mediated. Yet at the moment, there is little agreement among Eastern Christians. Four of the fourteen primates of the Council disagree with the Council’s current state so much that they are not even in attendance. Without unity, there is no true Council. But, the Council is not to blame for this lack of unity, rather it merely forces to the surface the already present, underlying disunity among the Churches. Without this Council then, it seems there would be no unity.

It is difficult to speak about the Council at all, because of the disunity of the Church. The Council is referred to as the first of its kind in 1,200 years in all the official documents I have received from the Council.  At the same time, I have read many critics of the Council say that this is not the first since the 7th Ecumenical Council, pointing to the numerous Councils during the second millennium. Similarly, while some say, as I have in this essay, that the Council is meant to foster unity among the Orthodox Churches, others say that there is no disunity, for the Orthodox Church is the fullness of unity in Christ. As happens often in the midst of conflict, there is disagreement about just what is being disagreed about. Any attempt to characterize the conflict is open to criticism.

There is division among the Slavic Churches, with all the East and South Slavic Churches asking for postponement. There is division between the Middle Eastern Churches of Antioch and of Jerusalem, which are currently not in communion with one another. There is disagreement between more ‘conservative’ voices rightly wishing to preserve tradition, and more ‘progressive’ voices rightly wishing to more effectively minister to the modern world. The problems are many and it is easy to get lost in them. No one is satisfied with the statements as they are, which once again is a symptom of a deeper struggle.

Reading the statements from the various Churches on this Council is an instructive exercise. Each Church’s position, whether they have dropped out, championed the Council, or offered pious caution, seems very reasonable. Each perspective is held sincerely by intelligent men, and forms a compelling narrative in and of itself. But this is just the challenge of unity. Each perspective makes sense, yet when they make contact with one another the result is a litany of concerns. It is precisely this situation, made visible by the Council, which is the chief work the Council must address. The particular documents and issues up for consideration are just the presenting issues, not the fundamental ones.

On my flight into Greece this week, I observed something which struck me in light of the Council. I was on an overnight flight over the Atlantic. At one point while walking up from the back of the plane during the flight, I witnessed rows and rows of individuals, all watching a different in-flight movie on the back of the seat in front of them. Each small screen played out a compelling narrative. There were love stories, comedies, tragedies. Whole worlds were contained in these small rectangles. It struck me then how common this situation is. We are all always walking around with different movies playing in our heads. Events are framed differently, different things matter more to different people. We are all the main character of our story, and everyone else is supporting cast. This ego-centric obstacle to communion might be truly seen as a mere result of being embodied the way that we are, yet the Church stands against such separation and calls the cosmos to unity. Our narratives are compelling enough when taken in isolation. But Christ challenges us to live in isolation no longer. He called all to unity.

Contacting the other in true love is difficult. It challenges the core of what we take to be ourselves, not realizing that there is no self apart from communion. It takes true suffering to contact the other. When God reached out to mankind to make peace, it involved mankind killing God. Self-sacrificial love is the only way forward in a conflict like this. It is the example of Christ. Encountering others is the hardest thing we do. “Why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone’s finger as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?” asked novelist Walker Percy. There is a certain asceticism to loving others. It is harder to love another than it is to fast or to give alms. Charity and discipline can both be done in a self-enclosing way. Not so for agape.

The task for the Council is as great as it is holy. That task is to love, the only task that Christians are charged with. Many in the Church regard the Council, and the world, with fear. Nationalism, apocalypticism, ideology, these all breed fear. Some fear the Council will not succeed, others that it will. Some fear losing their power and status. Some fear the modern world and the changes it brings (and has already brought) to life within the Church and without. It is the task of the Church to stand against these fears and to proclaim love, “for perfect love casts out fear.”

Perfect love is no easy feat, and may in fact be impossible this side of eternity. Nonetheless, it is precisely this goal which we should keep in mind and pray for. It is easy to get caught up in the minutia  of Conciliar proceedings, and in these proceedings find fear. Against this we should remember that love is the goal, not this or that statement. If there is no love, if there is not unity, the most perfect statements or agreements will mean nothing. The real fault line that threatens the Council is not political, or jurisdictional, or ethnic, or ideological, though those all contribute. Rather it is the fault line between the statements made at this Council and the underlying unity which supports them.

It is assured that some pious statement will issue forth from this Council. The real question is what comes next. This Council was convened in order to strengthen the witness of the Church in the third millennium and to overcome obstacles to that witness. Unified statements are themselves a powerful witness, but they are not the ultimate, nor the most important, witness. The real work of this Council then begins after the Council ends, when whatever proclamations made are put into practice. If some form of the documents of this Council are adopted at its conclusion, then it will call for increased efforts for peace and justice, for ecumenical labor with other Christians, for union in the ecclesial diaspora, for a rejuvenation of fasting, and for increased sanctity of marital unions. Our task is to take up these calls and put them into action. If done with discernment and love for Christ, then whatever is proclaimed in a week, our efforts will be a holy and great expression of the conciliar effort of the Church.

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion

correction: an earlier version said all slavic churches have asked for postponement, when it is only the east and south slavic churches which have done so.

OPF & IC’s Nicholas Sooy arrives in Crete

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship and In Communion applied to the Holy and Great Council press office for journalist’s credentials for Nicholas Sooy to attend and cover the events of the council. We almost did it as a lark, not really expecting we would be approved. And we were about to leave on a road trip and weren’t sure we had either time or money for a trip to Greece if we were approved.

On the 5th of June, Nicholas and I climbed into my car and headed out of DC on a twelve day, 1750 mile trip to visit various Orthodox ministries to see what Orthodox hospitality and reconciliation ministries looked like at street level–we will publish more on that later!

We arrived back home late on the 13th and the next morning we received  word our application had been approved. OPF & IC was going to Crete! We were a little blown away. By this time, we’d accepted that it was too late. Either the council was not happening or we simply weren’t approved.

Only one of us could go, and Nicholas was our man. He is OPF’s very first summer intern. He also happens to be a terrific writer with a gifted mind who will work with me as an unpaid staff member after the summer when he returns to New York, where he is a doctoral student at Fordham University. (Yes, he can do both things at the same time!)

We scrambled and found a flight leaving in less than twenty-four hours for half the normal price. Hard to say no to that! We also found an airbnb room for about $12 a night right in Chania–when we were looking online, Google told us, helpfully, that “4000 people are looking for rooms in Chania now.” We held our breath, and clicked confirm for both. This morning he emailed me that he arrived safe and sound, but exhausted. It was already mid-afternoon there, and he’d just completed a seventeen hour trip, so I expect he’s sleeping as I type this. Or he’s jet lagged and also typing!

While Nicholas has been orderred to have fun, we are serious about another agenda. Nobody thinks this council is not flawed, and we are no exception. But we believe with all our hearts that it must happen because no council at all is far worse than a flawed council. From our perspective, the real work begins after the council anyway. Whatever bridges are built relationally and administratively on Crete will form a beachhead from which the peacemakers in the Church can begin the slog of taking back unity for our Church.

“Behold how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Ps 133). This ideal isn’t likely to be fulfilled in the next week, but we are praying and expecting it to become reality. In order for that to arrive sooner rather than later, we ask the Holy Spirit to move among our fractious and self-interested Fathers and those among them of brotherly good will. We’re praying for the council to start and to conclude and that perhaps those who have pulled out in advance may even have a change of heart and attend anyway, or at least return to work afterwards.

Our agenda, the real reason Nicholas has gone to Crete, is to make friends and establish realtionships within as many delegations as possible. OPF wants to partner with whomever we can to promote peace and reconciliation within the Church from our small corner office. We already have important contacts with whom Nicholas will meet. We are confident he will be introduced to more.

He will be blogging here starting tomorrow. Please pray first for the council and also for Nicholas.

And if you can, please help us recover the cost of the trip, as reasonable as it is, so that we can keep the presses rolling. Generous friends have already replaced about half the cost in our coffers–we only need a few hundred bucks more. Use our “donate” button or your paypal account and send to [email protected] (both ways go to the same account).

Peace,

Pieter Dykhorst

editor In Communion

 

 

 

War and Peace in Today’s World: a commentary on the Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World”

The below text, by Nicholas Sooy of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is an expanded version of a text sent to the blog publicorthodoxy.org. Texts there are requested to be brief. Texts on the upcoming Council’s documents are generally limited to thoughtful critiques. Below this essay are comments from the editors of In Communion.

War and Peace in Today’s World: a commentary on the The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World”

By Nicholas Sooy

Iraq-bulletholes.jpg
Iraq

“The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” offers a powerful and timely statement on war, peace, and justice. Peacemaking, as Christ tells us in the Beatitudes, is a fundamental Christian vocation. At the same time, the Orthodox Church has a long and complicated history regarding peacemaking and war. While the Church has held to a very strongly pro-peace message throughout its history, changing political situations have affected the extent to which that message is carried out. It is the duty of the Church to counsel the faithful on how to carry out the peacemaking vocation in a changing political environment. The nature of warfare has changed dramatically in the past 100 years, and so this document is timely and much needed. This document authoritatively endorses the more pacific strands of the tradition, and from this position recommends certain responses to contemporary conflict. These statements are much needed, but at times are vague and do not go far enough in addressing the nature of contemporary conflict.

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

This document is monumental for its clear and definitive statement that “The Church of Christ condemns war in general,” along with its condemnation of nuclear weapons in particular and “all kinds of weapons” (4.1). It also recommends various peace efforts to be undertaken by Christians, calling it a “duty” of the Church to encourage whatever brings about peace and justice (3.5).  Along these lines, specific actions are recommended, including prayer, cooperation with social institutions, cooperation among nations and states, cooperation between Christians, peacekeeping, solidarity, and dialogue (1.2, 3.1, 3.2, 6.1, 6.6).

These recommendations are good and should be encouraged, but the list is neither as specific nor as complete as it should be. The Church “supports all initiatives and efforts to prevent or avert [war] through dialogue and every other viable means;” such a statement should be strengthened by specifying some other viable means, for as it stands its vagueness means it carries little weight (4.2). Specifically, all weapons, including nuclear, are condemned, but no calls are made for disarmament and no calls are made to limit arms trading or weapons production. Likewise, nothing is said of the practice in some areas of blessing conventional and nuclear weapons with holy water.

In the same vein, while wars based on nationalism are condemned, nothing is said of the modernist notion of nationalism more generally (4.3). Nationalism is a broad category with many types. Unless nationalism is better defined and specific nationalisms are identified, particularly Orthodox religious nationalisms, the document’s statement could provide deniability to those inciting conflict and even war based on nationalism, under the guise of attempting to censure the nationalism of others. Such nationalisms should be more explicitly condemned, just as religious fanaticism is condemned.

Similarly, while peacebuilding, sustainable development, and nonviolence are all implicitly endorsed, more needs to be said to strengthen ecclesial support for these endeavors, which are proven to ameliorate war and conflict. In particular, the viability of and employment of nonviolent campaigns and nonviolent institutions have risen dramatically over the past century, and each decade nonviolence is used to greater effect. Chenoweth and Stephan (2008) found that nonviolent campaigns are more than twice as successful as violent ones at achieving their goals. The language of nonviolence has been employed by many within the Church, including Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. Metropolitan Tikhon of the OCA has called nonviolence “the Gospel’s command,” while Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has called nonviolence a “Christian concept,” and identifies Orthodox roots for the notion of nonviolence. Given the effectiveness of nonviolence and its employment within Orthodoxy, it is unfortunate that such language should be left out of a document on peace in the contemporary world by the Church. Wars are rarely openly fought between nations anymore, and conflict today involves greater civilian participation. The conflicts in the Middle East and in the former Soviet bloc are prime examples of this new face of warfare. In these contexts, nonviolence is all the more effective and appropriate, and the Church should explicitly call upon Christians, nations, and institutions to invest more in nonviolent resistance and development, and less in warfare, standing armies, and weapons production. The Church should also call upon Christians to respond to oppression through nonviolent resistance rather than insurgency or terrorism.

The omission of an explicit endorsement of nonviolence is part of a larger weakness regarding the proper Orthodox response to violence. War is condemned without qualification, and yet the document is ambiguous regarding those who participate in war, “When war becomes inevitable, the Church continues to pray and care in a pastoral manner for her children who are involved in military conflict for the sake of defending their life and freedom” (4.2). While language of ‘inevitability’ is better than the theologically problematic language of ‘necessary evil’ that some bishops have employed, it would be better to leave out such a qualification entirely and instead say that the Church extends pastoral care to those involved in conflict. No elaboration is given regarding what makes a war ‘inevitable,’ or under what conditions a Christian can engage in fighting. If, as the document suggests, the only condition under which Christians fight is when their own life or freedom is threatened, then the document should mention the witness of martyrs as an alternative response to violence. The martyrs of the Church faced death and imprisonment willingly, and the Church has always lauded martyrs over soldiers. Even so, the document glosses over the fact that most soldiers today do not fight for their own lives or freedom, but instead are employed in humanitarian interventions, as they are described by political leaders, or are fighting insurgents. Greater clarification is needed regarding this changing nature of warfare, since such military operations are usually the result of nationalism and globalization, both of which are condemned in one form or another within this document (4.3, 6.5).

Also missing is counsel regarding conscientious objection. While the document suggests that the Church will extend pastoral care to those who fight, a similar pledge is not made to those who refuse for reasons of conscience or Christian discipleship. Given the strongly anti-war statements in the rest of the document, one might expect that the Church would recommend Christians to object to military service or the performance of duties in at least some circumstances. However, nothing is said regarding this, and nothing is said of the practice of universal military conscription in several countries such as Russia and Greece. The first recorded instance of someone dying for conscientious objection was in the early Christian period. Many saints and martyrs have explicitly refused military service, while other saints known as ‘passion-bearers’ have similarly suffered and been canonized for their refusal to fight.

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


We the editors and members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship join Orthodox Christians everywhere with great anticipation for the upcoming “Great and Holy Council.” We pray that the Holy Spirit would lead the Council into all truth, and that peace would be ensured between all Orthodox Christians. We pray that the Council would be an occasion for Orthodox cooperation, love, and unity, and that The Gospel of Peace would shine forth from the Council’s proceedings both to the Church and to the broken and divided world. It is in the spirit of conciliarity that we engage and add our own voices to the work of the whole Church being conducted by the Council.

We are encouraged by the pro-peace message of the pre-conciliar documents, and wish only that this message would be strengthened. As they are, the documents are historic for their authoritative endorsement of peace and justice and their condemnation of war.

The editors of In Communion are watching the preparations to the council and are reading as many documents and responses as possible. We feel that because this is a very fluid situation and time sensitive, it is less important to write definitive statements than to respond thoughtfully “on the run” so to speak.

For now we wish to go just a bit beyond Nicholas’ “brief critique” and mention a few things we would like to see added to expand this document of the Council. We hope to refine a position that we can claim as an official OPF response. If what we say in the meantime has value, may it find it’s way.

The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World (Mission Statement) should be considered a fine document in as far as it goes. Some of its points are vague or lacking, however. Others seem to miss important issues completely. While reading it, there grows a nagging sense that some of it was cobbled together ad hoc from various quarters’ talking points, reflecting less the clear thinking of the Church’s wisest and more what is politically in the air. We would like to see statements of the Council more clearly rooted in Orthodox theology and tradition, calling the faithful to think and see as Orthodox rather than “citizens.”

The Church should not neglect its history of disobedience to ungodly or unjust leadership. When any nation calls on its citizens to respond either aggressively or defensively in ways that violate the principles of the Gospel we are called to live by, the Church should not shy away from encouraging its children to disobedience. A clear option for conscientious objection should be bolstered by a duty to disobey in certain circumstances.

The Mission Statement fails to adequately address Nationalism and identity politics. It is gratifying to see it condemn war based on Nationalism, but one must wonder if such a simple statement without any expansion on what is at stake is a dodge or worse, as many States with significant or majority Orthodox populations are involved in identity-based conflict with other states.

While Christians are called to be salt and to seek to influence the world outside of the Church, we can never be confident in predictions of how successful applications of Christian principles and responses to violence may be in the world. Nevertheless, the Church must teach its children that while separation from the world does not equal disengagement with it, our calling to be children of God requires we identify with his kingdom and act according to its principles and mandates. We must militate against the world’s practice of identity politics and its preference for violence by manifesting life in the kingdom of God, not by imitating the world.

The Mission Statement should call out for the faithful everywhere the prevalence and nature of the various ethnic, religious, and civic nationalisms that exist in various States and lead too many Orthodox to conflate their citizen-based identity with their Kingdom of God identity. Such conflation always leads to conflict.

Trusting in the Holy Spirit, we pray that the document may be strengthened so that the Church might continue to bring “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.”

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