Category Archives: Environment

Environmental issues from a reasoned and Orthodox perspective

Agia Skepi Sustainability Center in Cyprus

Please consider supporting our new Cyprus initiative! Help us build a Sustainability Centre at Agia Skepi.

Agia Skepi is a long term detoxification community for adults in Cyprus. The therapeutic framework of the program inspires members in the spirit of fostering quality living through eliminating harmful substances.
An integral part of the recovery process involves cultivating the earth and developing a profound relationship between nature and community. This bond is reinforced by member participation in farm life, which produces organic yields.The relationship between nature and meaningful work is essential in the difficult struggle of detoxification.
The next step in furthering these goals is to renovate three derelict buildings next to Agia Skepi and turn them into a Sustainability Centre. This new effort will provide a practical demonstration of how the principles of sustainable living can be applied in this particular environment. We hope to exemplify the spirit of Agia Skepi through use of natural building methods, renewable energy systems and food production within a regenerative social and agricultural setting.
To support this project, please donate here.  All donations made will go to the Agia Skepi Sustainability Centre. 

To donate by mail, please clearly mark all checks for the Sustainability Centre and mail to:
Orthodox Peace Fellowship
PO Box 959
Bronx, NY 10458

Environment Page

christanimalsThis is a shortened version of a text written by sisters at Annunciation Monastery at Ormylia in Greece, a monastery re-introducing organic farming methods in a region badly damaged by agricultural pesticides. The booklet includes a message from the former Patriarch of Constamntinople, Dimitrios. and details about the project being launched at Ormylia. It is available without charge from World Wide Fund for Nature, Ave. du Mont Blanc, 1196 Gland, Switzerland. The icon — part of sequence on the seven days of creation — is a mosaic at the cathedral of Monreal, Sicily. More

An Orthodox Parish Turns to Solar Power

by Catherine Frye


Down through the centuries Orthodox Christians have fed the hungry, provided shelter for the homeless and cared for those who have need. While these traditional ministries are forever important, a deteriorating environment may threaten the ability of mankind to sustain life as we know it. Caring for the environment now becomes an additional way that we care for our neighbors – those near us in our communities as well as those in future generations.

If we are going to be responsible stewards of God’s creation, as the Scriptures and the Fathers command, we have to reach into our holy Orthodox tradition and discern how the principles in our faith address a variety of new predicaments. Solar power is one way that we can do this. Like “new wine out of old wineskins,” clean solar power allows us to fuel our needs for energy without harming our neighbors. Fr. Lawrence Margitich, pastor at Protection of the Holy Virgin-St. Seraphim of Sarov Church, a parish of the Diocese of the West for the Orthodox Church in America, describes how his parish addressed its need for energy.

“Almost every Church community, particularly small Orthodox parishes,” he says, “struggles to balance expenses and income. A large part of annual expenses are the utilities, the costs of gas and electricity. Parishes in cold climates obviously have a problem with this expense.

“Here in Santa Rosa, California, we felt that utility costs, even in our temperate climate, were too much. We worried about this aspect of the yearly budget for years, but felt helpless. Not only did we have this large expense, but we knew that burning oil and gas contribute to pollution.

“Thanks to the providence and good will of God, a solution came to us to solve these worries. We have in our parish community a chemical engineer, Christopher Frye, whose company, Alternative Energy, installs electrical solar panels. “Chris came to me with the idea that the parish could install solar panels to supply its electrical needs. He explained that with a solar electrical system, our parish would use renewable green energy, rather than energy from fossil fuel pollutants.

“It quickly became clear to me and to members of the Parish Council that by using clean solar power, our parish would not only practice Orthodoxy in our faith, worship, and relationships with God and man, but also in our relationships to the world. We would have an environmental Orthopraxy!

“It is fitting then that the Orthodox Church take the lead in our community by setting an example that will show the way for society. Solar energy turned out to be a wonderful way to accomplish this. We live in a culture that is excessively dependent upon hydrocarbon resources, primarily petroleum. By replacing hydrocarbons with photovoltaics, we are reducing greenhouse emissions and other toxics that pollute the air and water.”

Parishioners were enthused with idea. Laurel Counts, parish bookkeeper, says, “I thought it was a great idea from the beginning. Financially, ecologically, economically, also spiritually, this was the right choice.”

Seraphim Strobel, a petroleum exploration engineer, observed that with the parish using solar power, our parish will operate in ways that honor God by respecting what He has created.

Fr. Lawrence, reflecting further, added, “Isn’t it true, we thought, that any Orthodox parish or monastery ought to tend its landscape and grounds in order to make it beautiful, to shape it into a garden, as a humble icon of God’s Paradise? You may ask, ‘But are solar panels beautiful?’ I would say yes. “For some people four rows of solar panels are not the most beautiful sight to see, although they do occupy a portion of our parish’s five acres that is not all that visible. But for others, our solar panels represent a clear commitment to avoiding fossil fuels.

“In that sense, it is a pleasure to see these beautiful technological components in our field. Had we not enough ground area, the panels could easily have been mounted on the roof.

“The savings gained by using green energy are substantial – over thirty years we expect to save $500,000 in utility expense. That figure is calculated using current costs, though it is likely that natural gas prices will rise in the years to come.” “This was a wise, long term decision for our parish,” added Laurel Counts, “but each parish should investigate the short term expenses. What struck me afterwards about our installation of solar power is that it gave me a surprising sense of greater integrity. That makes me feel very good about our parish.”

Seraphim Strobel added, “The sun will shine until the end of days, but as a petroleum exploration engineer, I know that petroleum resources will be exhausted within the lifetime of our grandchildren. One of the most loving things that we can do for them and for generations still to come is to develop these alternative energy resources now.”

Should your parish install solar power?

Chris Frye, owner of Alternative Energy, suggests that if a parish is interested in installing solar power, it should start by appointing a technically-qualified church member to serve as a coordinator. The coordinator can contact several qualified companies to receive bids. Ask the bidders if some tasks can be conducted by parishioners which could lower their price. At St. Seraphim’s, trenching and other non-technical tasks were performed by church members. This reduced the installation costs substantially.

Let the various bidders suggest sizes, design, placement and types of equipment. With any con- tractor check references, state records, and ask to see other solar installations that they have installed in your area.

Have the last twelve utility bills available for each bidder to review so they can quote a system appropriate for your parish energy needs. If future expansion is planned, this should be communicated to the bidders. Evaluate the bids on price and technical quality. As with all trades, the cheapest bid may not be the most cost-effective bid. There are some very creative financing projects suitable for church non-profits. Some programs may require only a small payment followed by an agreement to purchase the power generated by the solar panels.

Solar panels can be mounted on either roofs or the ground. They can form a roof for parking structures, car ports, patio covers or arbors. Any new structures being built on church properties can have solar panels designed into them at the architectural stage resulting in an attractive and efficient installation.

Along with installing solar panels an evaluation of existing appliances should be considered. At St. Seraphim we were able to install an excess of solar panels so changing from gas-fired to electric-powered appliances makes economic sense. Water heating, space-heating and some cooking can be done with electrical appliances thus reducing your natural gas or propane costs.

At St. Seraphim, we cover 100 percent of our electric bill, and this save us over $1,000 per month. We hope to further reduce our natural gas bill by replacing a boiler used for radiant heating with an electric unit. Additionally, as other water heaters reach the end of their useful life they will be replaced with electric units. Even with a planned expansion of the parish hall, we expect our electric demand to be met with our solar array.

Although solar power is becoming more common, local media may provide some publicity should a church install solar panels. For an Orthodox parish, installing solar panels can call peoples’ attention to what is usually the low-key presence most Orthodox churches have within a community.

Being good stewards of the planet is clearly mandated in Holy Scripture. As we use systems that are benign and harmless in their impact upon the larger community, we serve God by restraining from the harm which commercial electricity does to our neighbors and all the earth.

Catherine Frye is a member of St. Seraphim’s Orthodox Church (OCA) in Santa Rosa, California and President of Alternative Energy. See her website at If your parish needs additional help in turning to solar power, contact the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration. This organization is endorsed by the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America and offers parishes and individuals information and materials on an Orthodox view of environmental issues. Write them at The Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration, 887 Sebastopol Road, Suite A, Santa Rosa, CA 95407. E-mail: [email protected] Membership is $25 per year.

In Communion number 44 / Winter 2007

Liturgical Responsibility for the Environment


This is a shortened version of a text written by sisters at Annunciation Monastery at Ormylia in Greece, a monastery re-introducing organic farming methods in a region badly damaged by agricultural pesticides. The booklet includes a message from the former Patriarch of Constamntinople, Dimitrios. and details about the project being launched at Ormylia. It is available without charge from World Wide Fund for Nature, Ave. du Mont Blanc, 1196 Gland, Switzerland. The icon — part of sequence on the seven days of creation — is a mosaic at the cathedral of Monreal, Sicily.

“Thine own of thine own we offer unto thee.” With these words the Liturgy captures the heart of the Orthodox understanding of our relationship to creation and Creator. Creation is of God. We do not own creation but are the free agents through whom creation is offered to the Creator.

The purpose of creation is summed up in its worship of the Creator. This is most beautifully expressed in the Christmas Hymn, “What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sake was seen on earth as man? For every thing created by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee their hymn; the heavens, the star; the Magi their gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, the cave; the wilderness, the manger; while we offer Thee a Virgin Mother, O pre-eternal God, have mercy upon us…” (Hymn for Vespers)

The whole of the universe worships and offers gifts to its Creator. In the very shape of the churches and the placing of the icons, mosaics or frescoes within them we find a microcosm of the universe which clarifies the role both of humanity and of the rest of creation in relation to God. For it is an expression not just of what is on earth today, but of what exists in heaven and what is to come — the eschatological promise and the redemptive transformation of all creation through the salvation wrought by Christ Jesus. This is expressed by Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter 8. As the Greek Fathers have also taught, “God became man so that man can become God.”

In worship the Orthodox church conveys this profound understanding of creation. In particular, the role of humanity as the priesthood of creation is most clearly shown.

The blessing of the waters shows us the sanctifying and redemptive power given to an element of creation through the invocation of the Holy Spirit by the Church: “Therefore, O King who lovest mankind, do Thou Thyself be present now as then through the descent of Thy Holy Spirit and sanctify this water. And confer upon it the grace of redemption, the blessing of the Jordan. Make it a source of incorruption, a gift of sanctification, a remission of sins, a protection against disease, a destruction to demons, inaccessible to the adverse powers and filled with angelic strength: that all who draw from it and partake of it may have it for the cleansing of their soul and body, for the healing of their passions, for the sanctification of their dwellings, and for every purpose that is expedient. For Thou art our God, who hast renewed through water and spirit our nature grown old through sin…” (Prayer for Blessing of Waters at Theophany)

Orthodox worship is about the celebration and use of all aspects of the senses. It is about sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. It uses and appreciates the material — be that wood and paint, writing materials, bread and wine or burning incense.

“I shall not cease reverencing matter, by means of which my salvation has been achieved,”Saint John Damascus wrote in his essay defending icons. The use of materials to make icons and the presence of elements of the natural world in most icons — animals, plants, countryside, mountains, rivers all affirm the God-given nature of creation; its transfiguration and its place with us in salvation. The anti-gnostic teachings of the Church mean that the material world is held to be of God and is thus, in its essence, good.

Similarly, Byzantine Churches were built in harmony with their natural surroundings. The art of architecture was not autonomous but together with iconography and chant contributed to the ethos of worship, giving it its physical, material expression. Thus it was natural that absolute symmetry was usually avoided; each architectural feature retained its own character while maintaining complete harmony with the overall conception.

At the center of worship is the Eucharist, the most sublime expression and experience of creation transformed by God the Holy Spirit through redemption and worship. In the form of bread and wine, material from creation molded into new form by human hands is offered to God with the acknowledgment, spelt out in the words at the head of this paper, that all of creation is God’s and that we are returning to God that which is His. In the sense that this captures the primordial relationship of Adam to both God and Creation, it is a sign of the restoration of that relationship and even more than that a foretaste of the eschatological state of creation. When we partake of the body and blood of Christ, God meets us in the very substance of our relationship with creation and truly enters into the very being of our biological existence.

>From this, we know that humanity occupies the most special place of all in creation — but is not the whole of creation. We know …


>… crucial example of our power over creation and also of the potentially disastrous results of the greedy exercise of that power.

Just as the priest at the Eucharist offers the fullness of creation and receives it back as the blessing of Grace in the form of the consecrated bread and wine, to share with others, so we must be the channel through which God’s grace and deliverance is shared with all creation. The human being is simply yet gloriously the means for the expression of creation in its fullness and the coming of God’s deliverance for all creation.

As Saint Isaac the Syrian taught, “The humble man approaches ravening beasts, and when their gaze rests upon him, their wildness is tamed. They come up to him as to their Master, wag their heads and tails and lick his hands and feet, for they smell coming from him that same scent that exhaled from Adam before the fall, when they were gathered together before him and he gave them names in Paradise. This was taken away from us, but Jesus has renewed it, and given it back to us through His Coming. This it is which has sweetened the fragrance of the race of men.” (Homily 77, Ascetical Homilies)

But, when we look today at our world, we see a different picture. Humanity’s rebellion, pride and greed has shattered the primordial relationship of Adam. It has ignored or discarded the Church’s understanding of our role as priests of creation. For now we behave like the exploiters and robbers of creation. By doing so, we have brought not just species but entire eco-systems to destruction. Our world is facing a crisis of death and corruption to a degree never before experienced. The Fathers of the Church, while being able to recognize the basic cause, sin, never had to experience such all-embracing and life threatening consequences of sin to creation as we do today.

“The earth is mourning, withering, the heavens are pining away with the earth,” Isaiah preached. “The earth is defiled under its inhabitants’ feet, for they have transgressed the law, violated the precept, broken the everlasting covenant. So a curse consumes the earth and its inhabitants suffer the penalty, that is why the inhabitants of the earth are burnt up and few are left.” (Isaiah 24:3-6)

Throughout the world, forests are being destroyed by fires and logging; wetlands are being drained for development and agriculture; species are disappearing as a result of greed and ignorance; natural resources are being wasted faster than they can be replenished; waters are being soiled and skies polluted. This global crisis is threatening the very world upon which we human beings depend.

We must attempt to return to a proper relationship within the Creator and the creation. This may well mean that just as a shepherd will in times of greatest hazard, lay down his life for his flock, so human beings may need to forego part of their wants and needs in order that the survival of the natural world can be assured. This is a new situation — a new challenge. It calls for humanity to bear some of the pain of creation as well as to enjoy and celebrate it. It calls first and foremost for repentance — but of an order not previously understood by many.

“Love all God’s creation,” wrote Fyodor Mikhail Dostoevsky, “the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light! Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. And once you have perceived it, you will begin to comprehend it ceaselessly, more, more and more every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an abiding universal love. Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and untroubled joy. Do not therefore, trouble it, do not torture them, do not deprive them of their joy, do not go against God’s intent.”

But repentance without action is meaningless. As Christ says, “Many will call me ‘Lord, Lord’, but only those who do the will of my Father shall enter heaven.” So we must call for an ascetic approach to give expression in our everyday life, to this repentance.

The monastic and ascetic traditions of Orthodoxy offer important insights. They develop sensitivity to the suffering of all creation; there are many stories of saints living side by side with other creatures, sharing their everyday life. They offer a celebratory use of resources of creation in a spirit of enkrateia [self-control, voluntary abstention] and liberation from the passions. Within such a tradition many have experienced a more profound joy and a more lasting satisfaction than the ephemeral pleasures of a consumer society. The emphasis in the cenobitic monastic tradition on community rather than individual life is central to a balanced understanding of our needs.

It is in this asceticism that many of us will experience the pain which is that of the shepherd willing to suffer for the sake of his flock. For without substantial changes in how we live and what we expect from life, we will fail to fulfil our God-given role in creation.

Too many of us have allowed greed, selfishness and ignorance to alter our world and the way we relate to it. Our agricultural land, once clean and productive, has been spoiled by excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. By burning our forests, land grabbers are destroying a fragile resource simply to gain illegal title to land. Developers both large and small, who dump raw sewage into our once crystal-clear seas and who build haphazardly on our beaches are attacking not only those of us who were content with living in harmony with nature, a nature that is vanishing, but are attacking many aspects of creation as a whole.

We cannot continue plundering God’s creation without reaping the results of its eventual destruction.

We should also note that we cannot look at creation and decide what is useful, what is not. Jesus taught us that it was through those things which men called foolish that God has often spoken to us. The weak, the ‘useless’, the foolish, the broken have to be taken as part of the whole of creation, for through them we can often glimpse more of God than through the great, the powerful and the useful.

Who on earth would look at a tiny pink forest flower and guess that the rosy periwinkle is responsible for virtually eradicating childhood leukemia? Should not the needs of sea turtles to nest and reproduce on Zakynthis and Akamas — their Mediterranean nesting sites be recognized as fully as those of the tourists to enjoy themselves? Nature abounds with thousands of examples of seemingly useless or even harmful pests, reptiles, plants and mammals. Yet when examined closely, what is harmful or useless to some species may be crucial to others. We are in no position to make that judgment. He who is has not set a sliding scale on the value of that which will be allowed to survive and that which will not.

We need to constantly encounter and be challenged by the profound teachings of the Church and by the cry of creation — the flock over which we have been set — but which now lies victim to our faithlessness. Our model can only be the One who came to be the shepherd to his flock — Jesus Christ.

News – Summer 2006

In Communion / issue 42 / Summer 2006


Bartholomew leading Amazon environmental voyage

In 1995, on the Aegean island of Patmos, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew made a startling proposition: That pollution and other attacks on the environment should be recognized as sins. He quickly became known as the “green patriarch.”

In July Patriarch Bartholomew set off, with a group of religious leaders, scientists and environmental activists, on a week-long trip along the Amazon River to examine the interplay of faith and ecology. It is Bartholomew’s sixth “green journey” since the first in 1995.

The efforts of Bartholomew and others have energized some of the most lively theological explorations in recent years, with fresh studies and interpretation of scripture along environmental lines.

Bartholomew’s trip hopes to draw the attention of religious leaders to the critical pressures facing the Amazon, including clearing pristine rain forest for farmland.

Following the Liturgy on the 16th of July, the third day of the voyage, there was a formal Blessing of the Waters at the point where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes meet to become the Amazon. (See: www.

“The environment brings a sense of urgency and shared purpose that few other issues can bring,” said Mary Evelyn Tucker, a co-founder of the Forum on Religion and Ecology. “It cuts across all religious traditions.”

Jaroslav Pelikan: eternal memory

Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan, a leading scholar in the history of Christianity, fell asleep in the Lord on May 13 after a long battle with cancer.

He was born in 1923 in Akron, Ohio, to a Slovak father and a Serbian mother. His father was a Lutheran pastor and his paternal grandfather was a bishop of the Slovak Lutheran Church in America. He belonged to the Lutheran Church for most of his life, but in 1998 he and his wife Sylvia were received into the Orthodox Church. Members of Pelikan’s family remember him saying that he had not as much converted to Orthodoxy as “returned to it, peeling back the layers of my own belief to reveal the Orthodoxy that was always there.”

His many books include The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.

He joined the Yale University faculty in 1962 as the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History and in 1972 he became the Sterling Professor Emeritus of History until 1996. He served as acting dean and then dean of the Graduate School from1973-78. His awards included the Medieval Academy of America’s 1985 Haskins Medal.

He was past president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was editor of the religion section of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In 1980 he founded the Council of Scholars at the Library of Congress.

In 2002 he was appointed chairperson for the Orthodox Church in America’s Department of History and Archives.

In 2004, having received the John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences, Pelikan donated his award to Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, of which he was a trustee.

He was a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. [Wikipedia and the OCA news service]

Exile Russian church opts for unity with Moscow

The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad adopted a resolution in May at a historic synod that would accept the Moscow Patriarch as its head after more than 80 years of bitter separation following the Communist revolution.

The 135 delegates and top church officials at only the fourth All-Diaspora Council since 1920 adopted a recommendation calling for spiritual unity with the Moscow Patriarchate but administrative autonomy, church officials told Reuters.

“We as a church have to do this to be in communion with the masses of faithful in Russia,” Archbishop Mark, who has led the church’s negotiations with Moscow, told Reuters. “We can help the church in Russia to develop along a new path.”

In the period of Soviet rule, the exile church considered the Moscow Patriarchate a tool of the state. Feelings were so strong that it has taken 15 years since the fall of Communism for reconciliation to take place.

Some exile church officials are still suspicious of Moscow church head Patriarch Alexis, saying he once had links to the KGB. Any spiritual reunion with Moscow may prompt some to leave the church.

“The more time passes, the less Russian the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad will remain,” Alexis said last month. “This could be the last opportunity to bring together within one church two parts of the Russian people who were divided for political reasons as a result of the 1917 tragedy.”

The archbishop said the Church Abroad will retain the right to appoint its own bishops although the patriarch would bless their choices. (Reuters)

Russian Orthodox bishop urges Church not to leave WCC

In a statement issued in May, the Russian Orthodox Church’s representative to European institutions, Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, urged his church not to withdraw from the World Council of Churches as a condition for planned reunification with the US-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.

“I’m convinced there are no more obstacles to reunion – although disagreements exist, these can be settled once unity is restored,” said Bishop Hilarion in a message carried on his Web site. “The problem of whether to stay a member of, or leave, the World Council of Churches should be resolved by discussion. However, I believe it should be solved in the context of a general strategy for inter-Christian cooperation.”

The bishop noted that ROCA delegates had in Brazil criticized the Moscow Patriarchate’s stance during the WCC’s assembly in February when they called for reduced cooperation with Protestant denominations.

“I agree with those who believe it’s necessary to strengthen communication firstly with churches which protect traditional spiritual and moral values, instead of with liberal Protestants. Perhaps a council made up of the Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental churches would be more effective than the WCC,” said Bishop Hilarion, who represents Orthodoxy on the WCC’s executive committee. “But I doubt leaving the WCC would benefit the Russian church. I generally believe withdrawal would not affect the Russian Orthodox church’s internal life in any way.”

Russian Orthodox prelate joins Ecumenical Patriarchate

The deposed head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain has defended his decision to transfer to the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, after its Holy Synod confirmed that it had now formally accepted him.

“I appealed to be allowed to join them and they have now accepted me on their own terms,” said Bishop Basil, who until recently headed the diocese of Sourozh, as the British section of the Russian Orthodox Church is called.

Bishop Basil was speaking after the announcement of his been acceptance by the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on 8 June. He said he expected at least half the clergy in the 30 parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain to join him.

The 68-year-old prelate was sacked by Moscow Patriarch Alexis as head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain in May after Basil asked to be allowed to be placed under the jurisdiction of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos.

Bishop Basil had complained that some of a new generation of Russians arriving in Britain had waged a campaign against him, and that those working against him had received support from within the Moscow Patriarchate.

The membership of the Russian church in Britain has jumped to more than 100,000 since the collapse of communist rule in Russia in 1991. Previously, the British diocese had only about 2000-3000 members, most of them English speaking.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, the Russian church seemed very open to Western Europe, and we had non-Russian bishops here,” Basil told Ecumenical News International in a 9 June interview. “But with the collapse of communism, the demographic picture changed, as did attitudes in Russia itself. The Moscow Patriarchate become less interested in communities which had grown up here, and more concerned with solidifying its control over those arriving here for the first time.”

In its 8 June statement, the Ecumenical Patriarchate said its Holy Synod had unanimously decided to elect Archbishop Basil as an auxiliary bishop and that he would “serve the pastoral needs of Orthodox living in Great Britain” who wished to come under the Istanbul-based patriarchate. [ENI]

Orthodox church to open in Beijing

The Russian Orthodox Church will receive permission to build a chapel in Beijing, it was announced in July by Ye Xiaowen, head of China’s state administration for religious affairs, when he was talking to Patriarch Alexis of Moscow.

At the global inter-religious summit just held in the Russian capital, Ye Xiaowen assured the Orthodox Patriarch that the matter of a church in Beijing “was about to be resolved.” For the time being, the only news that has leaked out is that the building will be dedicated to the Dormition of Mary and will be situated within the perimeter of the Russian embassy in the Chinese capital.

Alexis and Ye also discussed a number of problems, including the situation facing Chinese Orthodox Christians. Currently there are around 13,000 Orthodox Christians in China, but they are not recognized as an official religious community, of which there are five. The Church is doing its utmost to gain recognition before 2008, the year of the Olympics in Beijing. In anticipation of the hoped-for event, 13 Chinese Orthodox students are undergoing studies at the Sretenskaya Theological Academy in Moscow and the Academy of St. Petersburg, to pave the way for a minimal presence of clergy there. Prayer books in Russian and Chinese are already in circulation.

Catholics and Orthodox discuss Europe’s soul

The contribution of Christians is indispensable in restoring Europe’s soul, Catholics and Orthodox affirmed in a meeting on culture held in Vienna in May.

“We believe that Christians, preaching the hope brought by Christ’s resurrection, united together with people of other faiths and convictions, can help everyone to live in an ethically grounded, just and peaceful society,” the participants stated in their final message.

It was the first time that the Vatican organized a symposium in partnership with the Patriarchate of Moscow. Cardinal Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and Orthodox Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, president of the Department of External Relations of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, presided over the meeting. The meeting was attended by lay and religious experts chosen jointly by the Vatican and the Patriarchate of Moscow.

According to the participants, the present crisis splitting Europe “is of a cultural order. Its Christian identity is being diluted. The situation of European peoples is characterized by man’s profound doubt about himself: He knows what he can do, but does not know who he is.”

This crisis has “dramatic demographic consequences: the rejection of children, unions without a future, trial marriages, homosexual unions, the refusal to share life with a person in marriage. All this is a genuine European demographic suicide, in the name of egoism, and hedonism.”

To respond to these challenges, the participants emphasized “the mission of education … All education is discovery of a heritage that arouses love and recognition. In this way, we will be able to contribute to the rediscovery of our Christian roots.” (Zenit)

Iraqi War death toll tops 50,000

Iraqi Freedom

At least 50,000 Iraqis have died violently since the 2003 US-led invasion, according to statistics released in June by the Iraqi Health Ministry, a toll 20,000 higher than previously acknowledged by the Bush administration.

Many more Iraqis are believed to have died but not been counted because of lapses in recording deaths in the chaotic first year after the invasion, when there was no functioning Iraqi government. Spotty reporting nationwide has continued ever since.

Iraqi officials involved in compiling the statistics say violent deaths in some regions have been grossly undercounted, notably in the troubled province of Al Anbar in the west. Health workers there are unable to compile the data because of violence, security crackdowns, electrical shortages and failing telephone networks.

The Health Ministry acknowledged the undercount. The ministry also said its figures exclude the three northern provinces of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan because Kurdish officials do not provide death reports to the Baghdad government .

The toll, mainly civilian, is daunting: Proportionately, it is equivalent to 570,000 Americans being killed nationwide in the last three years. In the same period, at least 2,520 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq.

At the Baghdad morgue, the vast majority of bodies processed had been shot execution-style. Many showed signs of torture – drill holes, burns, missing eyes and limbs, officials said. Others had been strangled, beheaded, stabbed or beaten to death.

Almost 75 percent of those who died violently were killed in “terrorist acts,” typically bombings, the records show. The other 25 percent were killed in what were classified as military clashes. A health official described the victims as “innocent bystanders,” many shot by Iraqi or American troops, in crossfire or accidentally at checkpoints. (The Los Angeles Times)

Washington losing “war on terror”

Despite high-profile arrests, security operations and upbeat assessments from the White House, the United States is losing its “global war on terror,” a number of experts warned in July.

“We are losing the ‘war on terror’ because we are treating the symptoms and not the cause,” argued Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. “Our insistence that Islamic fundamentalist ideology has replaced communist ideology as the chief enemy of our time feeds Al-Qaeda’s vision of the world,” boosting support for the Islamic radical cause, she said.

“It was a doomed enterprise from the very start: a ‘war on terror’ – it’s as ridiculous as a ‘war on anger,’ You do not wage a war on terror, you wage a war against people,” said Alain Chouet, a former senior officer of France’s foreign intelligence service. “The Americans have been stuck inside this idea of a ‘war on terror’ since September 11, they are not asking the right questions. You can always slaughter terrorists – there are endless reserves of them. We should not be attacking the effects of terrorism but its causes: Wahhabite ideology, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood. But no one will touch any of those.”

Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s Osama Bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999, agreed that Washington was acting as its own worst enemy in the fight against Islamic terrorism. “We’re clearly losing. Today, Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and their allies have only one indispensable ally: the US’ foreign policy towards the Islamic world.” (AFP)

A lieutenant says no

In a remarkable protest from inside the ranks of the military, First Lieut. Ehren Watada, 28, has become the Army’s first commissioned officer to publicly refuse orders to fight in Iraq on grounds that the war is illegal.

He announced his decision not to obey orders to deploy to Iraq in a video press conference June 7, saying, “My participation would make me party to war crimes …. It is my conclusion as an officer of the armed forces that the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law. Although I have tried to resign out of protest, I am forced to participate in a war that is manifestly illegal. As the order to take part in an illegal act is ultimately unlawful as well, I must as an officer of honor and integrity refuse that order.”

A native of Hawaii who enlisted in the Army after graduating from college in 2003, Watada differs from other military personnel who have sought conscientious-objector status to avoid deployment to Iraq.

Watada said he gave the Bush Administration the benefit of the doubt as it built the case for war. But when he discovered he was being sent to Iraq, he began reading everything he could. He concluded that the war was based on false claims, ranging from nonexistent weapons of mass destruction to the claim that Saddam had ties to Al Qaeda and 9/11 to the idea that the US is in Iraq to promote democracy.

“I came to the conclusion that the war and what we’re doing over there is illegal.”

Watada said the military conduct of the occupation is also illegal: “If you look at the Army Field Manual, 27-10, which governs the laws of land warfare, it states certain responsibilities for the occupying power. As the occupying power, we have failed to follow a lot of those regulations…. The wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of the Iraqi people is,” he said, “a contradiction to the Army’s own law of land warfare.”

Watada’s decision to hold a press conference and post his statements online puts him at serious risk. If the Army construes his public statements as an attempt to encourage other soldiers to resist, he could be charged with mutiny under Article 94 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which considers anyone who acts “with intent to usurp or override lawful military authority, refuses, in concert with any other person, to obey orders or otherwise do his duty or creates any violence or disturbance is guilty of mutiny.”

“The one God-given freedom and right that we really have is freedom of choice,” Watada said. “I just want to tell everybody, especially people who doubt the war, that you do have that one freedom. That’s something that they can never take away. Yes, they will imprison you. They’ll throw the book at you. They’ll try to make an example out of you, but you do have that choice.”

Appeal for a torture ban

In a statement published in The New York Times in June, US religious leaders called for the elimination of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The statement, “Torture is a Moral Issue,” proclaims that torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions hold dear.

The statement is signed by 27 national religious leaders, including Archbishop Demetrios of America, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, DC; Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter; and Dr. Sayyid Syeed, National Director of the Islamic Society of North America.

The organizer of the statement, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, urges Congress and the President to “remove all ambiguities” by prohibiting secret US prisons around the world, ending the rendition of suspects to countries that use torture, granting the Red Cross access to all detainees, and not exempting any arm of the government from human rights standards.

Churches still at risk in Kosovo

A picturesque valley in the western province of Kosovo is home to the largest and best preserved monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The 14th century Decani monastery has not only survived the passage of time but also the ravages of war. Even though around half the Serb population fled a wave of revenge attacks after the war, the 100,000 who stayed are still targeted by sporadic violence. Stoning of police, attacks on individuals and even murder are not uncommon.

Life in Kosovo has been a struggle for Serbs since June 1999, when NATO bombing halted Belgrade’s repression against independence-seeking ethnic Albanians. Since then, this region has been a United Nations protectorate.

With the region still legally part of Serbia, negotiations aimed at resolving its status began in February. Ethnic Albanians say they will settle for nothing less than complete independence, while Serbs won’t surrender land they consider the cradle of their civilization. For them, Kosovo is “the land of monasteries.”

Visitors to Decani monastery must first pass a heavily armored military checkpoint manned by UN forces.

One of the monks of Decani, Fr. Sava, juggles his mobile phone with his computer hooked up to the Internet. These are essential tools for this “cyber monk,” who has been telling the outside world about his church and the plight of minority Serbs in the UN-governed former Yugoslav province.

“Living in a medieval setting does not mean accepting a medieval mentality. The Internet enables us to speak from the pulpit of a keyboard,” said Fr. Sava. He regrets the slow progress in building a truly multiethnic, respectful Kosovo.

“Serbian Orthodox heritage in Kosovo is probably one of the most important parts of Serbian heritage in general. It is part of the Serbian identity,” says Father Sava. But it’s an identity in danger: since 1999, more than 100 churches have been the target of Albanian extremists. The continual violence culminated in March 2004, when holy sites were targeted.

In 2004, UNESCO added Decani to the World Heritage List, citing its frescoes as “one of the most valued examples of the so-called Palaeologan renaissance in Byzantine painting” and “a valuable record of the life in the 14th century.”

Many churches and monasteries have been destroyed and badly damaged. The city of Prizren suffered the worst damage. The church of Bogorodica Ljeviska, built in 1307, was burned down by a mob. It was regarded as one of the finest examples of late Byzantine art and architecture in the world.

At the meeting on the protection of monuments held in Vienna in June, Ylber Hysa, a Kosovo Albanian negotiator, said that Kosovo’s capital city, Pristina, is offering “full recognition of the rule and the status of the church in Kosovo.” The ethnic Albanian-dominated government, Hysa added, is committed to “providing legal guarantees, physical protection, along with benefits like tax exemption, and creation of special zones.”

For the moment, though, the international military presence seems to be essential. “We need long-term security,” says Fr. Sava, “as the monastery is not only Serb, it’s part of a Christian heritage that belongs to the whole of Europe.”

An important sign of reconciliation and recognition arrived when Fatmir Sejdiu, the Kosovo Albanian president who took office last February, visited the Visoki Decani monastery to mark Orthodox Easter, the first icebreaking gesture since the end of the conflict seven years ago.

Yet much remains to be done. “The problem,” Fr. Sava reflects, “is that there is a very ethnic-based approach in Kosovo, where the Serbs are neglected, with a lack of responsibility in ensuring that Serbs should live like normal citizens. I wish we had a leadership that would take care of the citizens of Kosovo as a whole.” (Monica Ellena of ABC News)

Multi-faith conference calls conversion basic religious right

At an interfaith conference in Geneva in May, the participants – Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims – concluded that everyone should have the right to convert to another faith.

The statement on religious freedom was issued on behalf of the conference by the Geneva-based World Council of Churches and Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue.

“Freedom of religion connotes the freedom, without any obstruction, to practice one’s own faith, freedom to propagate the teachings of one’s faith to people of one’s own and other faiths,” the statement said. This also meant “the freedom to embrace another faith out of one’s free choice.”

The statement was in line with recent calls by the Vatican and other Christian bodies for better treatment for non-Muslims in Islamic countries.

Limits on non-Muslims in Islamic countries are far harsher than any restrictions imposed in the West that Muslims decry. Saudi Arabia bans public expression of non-Muslim religions, and sometimes arrests Christians for worshiping privately, while Pakistan’s Islamic laws deprive local Christians of basic rights although churches can function. In Iran and some other Muslim countries, converts to other religions or to humanism – like Dutch Somali-born politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali – are condemned as “apostates” and can be executed if they refuse to repent. In Afghanistan, Islamic clerics in March condemned Western pressure for the release of a man who had been jailed after converting to Christianity and said he should have been executed for abandoning Islam. (Reuters)

It’s official: you can’t buy happiness

It turns out that happiness really isn’t something money can buy.

A wealth of data in recent decades demonstrates that once personal wealth exceeds about $12,000 a year, more money produces virtually no increase in life satisfaction. From 1958 to 1987, for example, income in Japan grew fivefold, but researchers could find no corresponding increase in happiness.

In part, said Richard Layard of the London School of Economics, who has studied the phenomenon closely, people feel wealthy by comparing themselves with others. When incomes rise across a nation, people’s relative status does not change.

Social comparisons are not the only factor at play. A psychological factor is habituation. The happiness experienced due to an increase in income lasts only until the beneficiary gets used to his newfound status, which is often a matter of months.

When people win lotteries, Layard said, “initially there is a big increase in happiness, but then it reverts to its original level. So why do people want to win lotteries? … They have a rather short-term focus, and they don’t seem to grasp long-term ways their own feelings work.”

The journal Science reported in July yet more evidence and another theory about why wealth does not make people happy: “The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory,” one of its studies concluded. “People with above-average income … are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities.

“The effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient. We argue that people exaggerate the contribution of income to happiness because they focus, in part, on conventional achievements when evaluating their lives and the lives of others.”

“People grossly exaggerate the impact that higher incomes would have on their subjective well-being,” said Alan Krueger, professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University and an author of the study.

The problem is that once people get past the level of poverty, money does not play a significant role in day-to-day happiness, Krueger said. It certainly can buy things, but things do not usually address most of the troubles people experience in daily life – concerns about their children, problems in intimate relationships and stressful aspects of their jobs.

In fact, the study found, the more money people have, the less likely they are to spend time doing certain kinds of enjoyable things that make them happy. High-income individuals are often focused on goals, which can bring satisfaction, but working toward achievements is different from experiencing things that are enjoyable in themselves, such as enjoying close relationships and engaging in leisure activities.

“If you want to know why I think poor people are not that miserable, it is because they are able to enjoy things that a billionaire has not been able to enjoy, given his busy schedule,” Krueger surmised.

“One of the mistakes people make is they focus on the salary and not the non-salary aspects of work,” Krueger said. “People do not put enough weight on the quality of work. That is why work looks like, for most people, the worst moments of the day.” (Washington Post)

Blix says US impedes efforts to curb nuclear arms

Hans Blix, former chief United Nations weapons inspector, said in June that US unwillingness to cooperate in international arms agreements is undermining the effectiveness of efforts to curb nuclear weapons. “If [the US] takes the lead, the world is likely to follow,” Blix said. “If it does not take the lead, there could be more nuclear tests and new nuclear arms races.”

Blix made his comments in the introduction to a 225-page report by a Swedish-financed international commission, delivered today to the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan. The panel, with Blix as chairman and members from more than a dozen countries, listed 60 recommendations for nuclear disarmament. It concluded that treaty-based disarmament was being set back by “an increased U.S. skepticism regarding the effectiveness of international institutions and instruments, coupled with a drive for freedom of action to maintain an absolute global superiority in weaponry and means of their delivery.”

The commission said there were 27,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with 12,000 of them deployed – numbers it labeled “extraordinarily and alarmingly high.”

Blix said he feared the number of nuclear weapons would rise because of efforts to develop more sophisticated new weapons and place them in space. He said he also feared an American-proposed missile shield would bring about countermeasures by Russia and China.

The commission said nuclear weapons should ultimately be banned the way biological and chemical weapons were. “Weapons of mass destruction cannot be uninvented,” the report said. “But they can be outlawed, as biological and chemical weapons already have been, and their use made unthinkable.”

Blix was disparaged by the Bush administration for failing to find any weapons of mass destruction during the three years he headed up the United Nations inspection team in Iraq.

The United States has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and in 2001 it withdrew from the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty.

US prison population rises to 2.2 million

The US prison population, already the largest in the world, grew in 2005 to 2.18 million, according to a report issued by the Department of Justice. One American in 136 is in prison.

The number of inmates grew 2.6 percent between July 1, 2004 to June 30, 2005, an average of 1,085 prisoners per week. According to the annual Census of Jail Inmates, this was the largest increase since 1997. Two-thirds of prisoners are in federal prisons, and the rest are in state prisons. Women make up an increasing proportion of jail inmates, reaching 12.7 percent of the population in 2005, compared to 10.2 percent in 1995. Members of minority groups make up 60 percent of detainees in local prisons; no breakdown was given for federal prisons. Nearly 4.7 percent of African-American men are behind bars in the United States. That percentage grows to nearly 12 percent for black men aged 25 to 29 year old. [AFP]


Jesus and the Natural World

by Fr. John Jillions

Concern for the environment has become such a standard topic of daily life that many have become bored with the subject. Despite the best efforts of Patriarch Bartholomeos, now known among environmentalists as “the green patriarch,” it is difficult to find much sustained grass-roots enthusiasm among the Orthodox for environmental issues. After all, is anyone against protecting the environment? Add to this the scientific and political complexities that beset environmental policy-making, and the tendency of most Orthodox to focus on personal spirituality rather than social and ethical issues, it is not surprising that the environment is not high on the agenda of most Orthodox. But the question of our relation to the natural world goes much deeper than the used of plastic coffee cups, recycling and international summits.

Our attitudes to nature and what is “natural” affect our decisions on a host of issues. For example, when should we allow nature to “take its course” and when should we intervene to prevent it from doing so? Is the world of nature the ideal from which all other life has fallen? Should we be striving for a return to nature and natural living? And what exactly is “natural living”? Is an agrarian life far from the hustle and bustle of the city the one most suited to living the Gospel?

Looking at the issue of how we relate to the natural environment raises the question of how I view what is mine or not mine and my responsibilities toward each. How do I relate to the world beyond my own front door? Many people spend great efforts and money in beautifying their own home, but have little or no sense of personal responsibility for the surrounding neighborhood because it’s “not mine.” On a wider scale, this may mean communities of people, indeed entire countries, with little sense of civic responsibility for maintaining or beautifying the larger community beyond the borders of “mine” or “ours.”

More deeply still, what we think is “natural” affects what we think should be left alone or changed, and our willingness or unwillingness to take steps to make changes. If we view all events as “natural,” we might adopt a fatalistic attitude that is sometimes characteristic of the East. Whatever happens is “natural,” in God’s hands alone, so there is little point in taking action. Each and every tragedy can be met with a shrug of the shoulders and a “that’s life” attitude. The human being is minimally responsible. At the other extreme, if we take a high view of human intervention, we may be convinced that there is almost always something we can do — or should be able to do as science advances — to control nature. According to this latter view, the human being is maximally responsible, except for those rare cataclysmic events which are entirely beyond his control and thus labeled by the insurance industry as “acts of God.”

For Christians the first place to go to begin to look for answers to these questions is to the person of Jesus. His approach to the natural world gives important guideposts for a Christian response.

In the Gospels we most often encounter people who are thoroughly familiar with country ways. The images Jesus uses in his parables and are for the most part from the natural world, although he never once uses the word “nature.” And mostly he refers to agriculture rather than nature in the wild.

Yet in one of his few sayings about nature as such Jesus says there is no human glory that can begin to match the wonder of the created world: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Mt 6:28-29)

Jesus spent much time out of doors. Gospel texts reveal that he noticed what was going on around him in the natural world, reflected upon it, and had great affection for it. If we take for example just the first chapter of Mark, we have references to the various natural settings that were so familiar to Jesus.

Nazareth, where he grew up, in the hills of Galilee. The most famous of Jesus’ teaching takes place in the mountains, “the Sermon on the Mount” (Mt 5-7). Jesus often withdrew to a hill or mountain to pray alone or with his disciples, and it was in the mountains that Jesus would have seen shepherds guiding their sheep on narrow mountain paths, carrying the lambs in their arms, chasing away wolves. It was in the mountains that Jesus appointed the twelve (Mk 3:13), a mountain was the site of the Transfiguration, and his favorite place in Jerusalem was outdoors on the Mount of Olives, where he often sat, taught or prayed, outside the walls of the city opposite the Temple. Here too was the garden of Gethsemani. It was also on a mountain in Galilee that the risen Jesus commissioned his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” (Mt 28:19)

The wilderness around the Jordan river where John was living and baptizing and where Jesus spent forty days being tempted by Satan (Mk 1:9-12). But there was also consolation in the midst of temptation, for “he was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.” (Mk 1:13)

The Sea of Galilee (Mk 1:16) where time and again we find him teaching on the shore (or out of a boat) or getting into a boat and crossing again to the other side (e.g. Mk 5:21). Here is the setting for his call of the first disciples, the fishermen. Here also — in the Gospel of John — is where the risen Jesus meets for the last time with his disciples as they are fishing, where he makes a fire, cooks them a breakfast of fresh fish, talks with them on the shore and tells Peter, “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17). And it was a storm on the Sea of Galilee that so frightened the disciples, which Jesus calmed with a word, so that they wondered “who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him.” (Mk 4:41)

The countryside (Mk 1:45): so many people flocked to Jesus for healing that the Gospel of Mark says he “could no longer enter a town, but was out in the country, though even there, “people came to him from every quarter.” (Mk 1:45) Out in the countryside, walking past the fields and farms of Palestine Jesus picked up many of the images that would re-appear in his teaching: the sower going out to sow his seed (Mk 4:3ff), the fields ripe for harvest (Mk 4:29), the vineyard, (Mk 12:1 ff) and fig trees (Mk 13:28ff).

Jesus was immersed in the natural world. But we should not romanticize this. He also spent much of his time confronting a natural world gone wrong. The first chapter of Mark also shows this darker side of nature. A madman shouting and convulsing in the synagogue (Mk 1:23ff); Peter’s mother-in-law lying sick with a fever (Mk 1:30-31); a leper who begs to be healed (Mk 1:40ff); crowds coming to Jesus with their diseased and demented (Mk 1:32-34).

The wonder of the natural world remains more glorious than Solomon, but in Jesus we find no idolizing of nature. For all the matchless glory of creation, the Father cares infinitely more for the human beings he created. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Mt 6:26) This immediately puts the Christian view of creation and the natural world at odds with much of secular environmentalism for which human beings are just another species. For Christians, human beings are the summit of the creation and have a unique role of care and oversight. More than that, the destiny of creation is mysteriously linked to human beings, such that St Paul can say, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom 8:22-23) Jesus is less concerned about nature than about the redemption of the human race, through which the rest of creation will also end its “groaning.” Jesus does not see a natural world independent of the human world.

Perhaps this is why the most frequent analogies Jesus makes to the natural world are from farming, fishing, vineyards and shepherds: human beings working together with nature, transforming the raw materials of nature into food and drink and clothing. The images Jesus uses are dominated by a picture of the environment that shows human beings using, domesticating and cultivating nature for their own use: mustard seed, yeast, bread, sowing and seeds, vineyards and vines, new and old wine, sheep and goats, the good shepherd, the sheepfold, the flock, weeds among the wheat, fishermen, a net full of fish.

The natural world into which Jesus comes is not the world as it was in the beginning when all was “very good.” Although there is a theological debate as to whether the first creation was truly perfect or only potentially perfect (with Church Fathers of differing views), it is clear that much has gone wrong in the natural world. The desert, for example, is seen as a forbidding, hostile place, the dwelling place of Satan, the personification of all that is destructive and diseased and opposed to God’s purposes in creation. Yet it precisely to the desert that Jesus goes first before beginning his public ministry. All that now keeps the creation groaning is part of the “bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21) which we see in the natural world as a kind of infection that St. Paul calls “the mystery of lawlessness.” (2 Th 2:7) In this sense the natural world is no longer pure and therefore is no longer natural. Here too the Christian view of the environment must differ from secular environmentalists. Jesus never accepts the world as it is as the “natural” world for he never accepts sickness and death as “natural.” At the tomb of Lazarus he does not tell Martha and Mary that the sickness, suffering and death of their brother Lazarus was “natural.” No, he weeps at the tomb because all of this is a terrible deformation of God’s creation. And most people, regardless of their view of Jesus, share his view of death. They weep, because something deep within them protests at the loss and says this ought not to be.

The natural world continues to be a place of ambivalence. On the one hand it refreshes body and soul. Indeed, an article on pastoral life published in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate in the 1970s recommended long walks in parks and countryside as an essential ingredient for a priest’s spiritual health! At the same time the natural world is a source of suffering and disease and we look forward to the time when “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Rom 8:21) We look forward to a “new heaven and a new earth.” (Rev 21:1)

Yet it is significant that the New Testament’s final image of the Kingdom is no rural idyll but a bustling city. The kingdom of God is the “new Jerusalem.” (Rev 21:2) This is all the more striking because the city of Jerusalem was such a troubling place for Jesus: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt 23:38) He was persecuted in the city and stayed away for long periods of time and his disciples were afraid of returning. And their fears were proved right. After a brief triumphal entry, the city becomes the setting for Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trials, torture and crucifixion.

But the city was also the place of Christ’s resurrection, where as Risen Lord he first appeared to his disciples, where he told the disciples to remain “until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Lk 24:49)

None of us is unfamiliar with the temptations and irritations of cities with their congestion, traffic, crowds, stress, pollution, politics, corruption and crime. But throughout history cities have always been the centers of civilization and culture. The city, like the natural world, needs to be transfigured and redeemed, not abandoned. And the new Jerusalem is the image of the redeemed city, of redeemed human culture, the holy city where there is no mourning, nor crying nor pain (Rev 21:4). In this new Jerusalem, the city is not cut off from nature, for the river of the water of life runs through its main street, and the tree of life grows on either side, “with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev 22:1-2)

Fr. John Jillions is Principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge. For information about the Institute, visit their web site: