This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven….I testify in truth and in great joy of heart before God and his holy angels that I never had any other reason for returning to that nation from which I had earlier escaped [Ireland], except the gospel and God’s promises.
Few saints are as well known or have so much written about them as Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. The body of work attributed to the very real 5th century Christian missionary and saint of that name is so large––and the historical record suggests that much of that work took place over significantly more than the span of one lifetime––that some scholars suggest there must have been two Patricks or that some unknown contemporary shared the work.
The St. Patrick we know, on whom the legend is based, did leave behind a written record that tells us a great deal but far too little to confidently describe his accomplishments. Patrick’s own words suggest that while all of the astounding growth and success of Christianity in Ireland in that period may not be directly attributable to him, his work laid the foundations for much of it.
Patrick left us two documents––a short biography and a letter––that provide a brief sketch of his life, a number of clues about the nature and scope of his ministry, and considerable insight into the nature of his faith, theology, and character. The wide-angle picture they give of his life and ministry offer few details, and together they wouldn’t fill half an issue of In Communion.
Most of the legend of St. Patrick comes from hagiography written down more than a century later. They connect the dots Patrick provides for a more robust picture of his life. But they also conflate his story with what was done by others who came after him. Much in them may be taken as reliably descriptive of Patrick and his life but cannot be taken as factual without additional evidence.
A third narrative informing contemporary notions about Patrick is the popular cultural fiction full of fun things like green beer, leprechauns, and pots of gold.
The Irish are not alone in surrounding an important historical figure with a popular mythology. The society without such mythologies probably does not exist. Patrick is on our cover in this issue for two purposes. Without begrudging Patrick his place in Irish hearts, we want to rescue him from being a saint merely for the Irish and restore him to the whole Church for all to venerate. By getting to know each other’s saints, we engage in bridge building and are drawn into a richer Orthodoxy and away from our tendency to remain too comfortably settled in our jurisdictional, cultural, or ethnic ghettos.
The makeover of Patrick from Orthodox saint to national patron also serves to exemplify how Christians may over time fall prey to erroneous thinking about not only our collective cultural and historical identities but also our Christian identity. By the 15th century, St. Patrick was only one of about thirty-five “pattern day” saints (patrons) in Ireland, albeit possibly the most important. He become Ireland’s Patron Saint when he was made the emblem of Irishness at the rise of Irish nationalism beginning in the 18th century. By teasing Patrick’s narratives apart, we find in him a father of the faith to the Irish around whom they may gather for celebration, but nothing like a national hero.
Very late in his ministry and near the end of his life, Patrick wrote his two documents. They clearly suggest he didn’t write much else, at least not earlier and nothing that might have been intended as a record. His very short Confessio was written self-consciously to the posterity of his Irish children in the faith, and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus was written against the chief of a band of murdering and plundering slavers who raided the Christians under Patrick’s care. One may feel a natural skepticism toward autobiographical sketches, but while Patrick’s words erect a bare biographical framework, they convey a profound and believable humility. Reluctant to tell his story, he seems more compelled to talk about God’s faithfulness, his own unworthiness, and his great love for his Irish children in Christ.
Patrick’s confession begins “My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.” And then in one short paragraph, he offers nearly all of what he eventually gives us of the bones of his biography:
My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae [somewhere in Roman Britain]. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others.
He tells us that his story would be long if he told his “each and every deed” in Ireland. But he doesn’t; instead, his biography is really a lengthy confession of God:
So I am…a refugee, and unlearned. I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall. That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure.
So be amazed, all you people great and small who fear God! You well-educated people in authority, listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me. His gift was that I would spend my life, if I were worthy of it, to serving them in truth and with humility to the end.
Only after several paragraphs does Patrick offer just a little more detail about his circumstances. We learn that he and the many with him were taken because they “deserved this, because we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments.” He describes his life as a simple shepherd and tells of hearing God’s voice prompting him to escape, which he did after six years; about his years-long journey to return home again; and how he eventually returned to Ireland ––again being directed by God in visions––probably in his forties and over the strong protest of his family. Patrick’s Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus is similarly written in the style of a confession but with a more practical purpose. A lament for the killing and plundering of Christians and an encouragement to his beloved suffering Irish children in Christ, he begins the letter with these words:
I declare that I, Patrick, an unlearned sinner indeed, have been established a bishop in Ireland. I hold quite certainly that what I am, I have accepted from God. I live as an alien among non-Roman peoples, an exile on account of the love of God––he is my witness that this is so…. The truth of Christ stimulates me, for love of neighbors and children: for these, I have given up my homeland and my parents, and my very life to death, if I am worthy of that. I live for my God, to teach these peoples…. With my own hand I have written and put together these words to be given and handed on and sent to the soldiers of Coroticus. I cannot say that they are my fellow-citizens, nor fellow-citizens of the saints of Rome, but fellow-citizens of demons, because of their evil works. By their hostile ways they live in death…. They are blood-stained with the blood of innocent Christians, whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ.
After descriptions of Coroticus’ crimes, encouragement to the suffering Irish Christians, and a defense of his ministry, Patrick ends with a purposeful appeal:
I ask insistently whatever servant of God is courageous enough to be a bearer of these messages, that it…be read before all the people, especially in the presence of Coroticus himself. If this takes place, God may inspire them to come back to their right senses before God. However late it may be, may they repent of acting so wrongly, the murder of the brethren of the Lord, and set free the baptized women prisoners whom they previously seized. So may they deserve to live for God, and be made whole here and in eternity. Peace to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It would be surprising if “each and every deed” of Patrick’s life were not repeated, did not become legendary, and did not also evolve by the time they were written down. by his own testimony, Patrick converted thousands, preached all over Ireland, and had dealings with kings and chieftains––he tells of one king who was quite unhappy when his daughter, guided by Patrick, became a nun. There were also conflations, fictionalizations, and inaccurate attributions. We learn from the legends, for example, that Patrick founded monasteries, faithfully taught about the Trinity to a pantheistic culture, and wrote certain poems and prayers that have survived. Likely he did found monasteries—he wrote of the many Christians under his care who entered monastic life—though no historical proof exists that he founded any, and he gives clear evidence that he faithfully taught the Orthodox doctrines of the Trinity, though historians doubt he used the shamrock to do so. It wouldn’t be surprising if he wrote prayers and made contributions to liturgical practice, yet historians doubt he wrote the ones attributed to him, and none others any longer exist.
Some of what is handed down is wholly fiction. He didn’t drive snakes from Ireland. Scientists who know tell us there is no evidence there have been any in Ireland since at least the last ice age, though banishing snakes may be metaphor for converting druidic folk to the worship of God in Christ. Patrick didn’t convert all of Ireland––that was mostly accomplished by the 14th century. He didn’t bring Christianity to Ireland and wasn’t the first Christian bishop—Christianity reached the island about a hundred years earlier and at least one bishop preceded him. Probably he was also not the only bishop in Ireland during his lifetime.
It remains for the skeptic to believe, however, that Patrick is not central to the story of the Irish Church, for no matter how sparsely documented are the lives of certain figures, popular culture never escapes their influence or fails to form collective memories of them. When those memories are later recorded and work done by Patrick’s spiritual children and grandchildren is attributed to him, the credit isn’t wholly misplaced. Knowing better the true story shouldn’t diminish him. The man who spent himself for the Irish “so that you may have me for yours,” and who “traveled everywhere among you for your own sake, in many dangers, and even to the furthest parts where nobody lived beyond, and where nobody ever went, to baptize and to ordain clerics or to bring people to fulfillment” remains worthy of collective commemoration of Christian faithful everywhere.
The Irish have succeeded in making Patrick their own, though he is not considered something like an Irish ethnic forebear. He became one of the most successful symbols of national identity anywhere by simple inclusion in the common national narrative. Patrick was one of many saints celebrated in Ireland when his feast day was taken over by parades, all things green, Guinness beer, and rousing music and fun prose. Over time many other elements of Irish identity were included—the Blarney Stone, Leprechauns, pots of gold—as St. Patrick’s Day evolved into a celebration of all things Irish.
As is very often the case among expatriate communities, Irish emigrants were among the most vocal advocates not only for creating and preserving a coherent and distinct Irish identity but for championing the political cause of the motherland. The keenest boosters of Irishness and Irish independence from Britain were found in America in the 18th century where the first St. Paddy’s Day parade took place in New York City as part of the nascent Irish Nationalist movement.
As the Irish formed communities in America, they began for the first time to think of what it meant to be Irish in the midst of others. Most had never thought in terms of ethnicity or national identity. Being Catholic became subordinate to being Irish as they sought to build and preserve their cultural distinctiveness. Over time, Gaelic culture became the matrix of Irish identity, in contrast to English culture. As the narrative of Irish cultural nationalism secularized, so did Patrick. Nobody seemed to notice that the saint was being erased from the page.
Despite being a driving force in most civic and international conflict, nationalism is much misunderstood. Irish nationalism is but one form, and Patrick provides but one example of a figure being co-opted in a nationalist project. Americans do not think of themselves as nationalistic, yet America broadly fosters a Civic Nationalism of a politico-credal sort even while other forms of nationalism flourish among a variety of groups, among them the messianic, religious nationalism of some Evangelical Protestants in which America is God’s chosen among the nations of the world. Americans often confuse patriotism with nationalism but they are not the same thing at all1.One need not be a patriot to be a nationalist or a nationalist to be a patriot, or one may be both. Orthodox too hold to a variety of nationalisms, some of them are overtly religious while others are less so.
Among all forms of nationalism, religion remains the most powerful tool in any nationalist identity-building project because of the nature of religious belief. Religion is primary to believers’ sense of being human in the world. With religion at the core of understanding about the world and self and how all things relate to one another, religion becomes a handy cornerstone of collective-identity building around which many nation groups are formed. Who we are (personal ideas of identity are not possible without collective identity—it is the matrix in which personal identity is formed) unconsciously infuses every thought and perspective and thing with meaning so that we may say culture—that which defines the parameters and content of collective identity—becomes as water is to a fish, something not noticed until it is either threatened or absent or until something in stark contrast is presented as an alternative. When our culture—that is to say our collective being—is threatened or challenged, it’s existential primacy becomes immediately apparent as we instinctively defend it as we would our lives. Religion thus is often usefully the key element, albeit only one, of a complete montage of cultural components built together to form the being of each member of a national group from birth.
Religion-infused cultures abound. Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant countries (examples: Greece, Spain, USA) with long histories of Christianity being a dominant culturally formative factor could not be imagined without their Christianized character, regardless of whether or not any or most of their citizens still think of themselves as Christian. A couple of good examples of Christianity being consciously used to create an exclusive national identity, with varying degrees of success, would be in the increasingly influential narrative of America as a Christian nation uniquely blessed by God or the Greek nationalist project that conflates ancient Hellenic history with Byzantine Orthodox history to create an exclusive Orthodox Greek nation. Religion so used becomes the defining element of a nation-forming group’s identity. Their cultural particularities become the evidence of God’s blessing––the standard of good citizenship––and the means by which his blessing is maintained. Religious nationalism in any of many forms is the most obdurate and formidable of all nationalisms, Orthodox nationalisms being good examples rather than exceptions. Orthodox Christians often understand nationalism to be the same thing as ethnophyletism, which is the conflation of ethnic, or racial, and Orthodox identities to form nation groups that form the basis of both Church and State. The manifestations of this in the Balkans in the late 19th century—think principally of Greece or Bulgaria—was the cause of a Holy and Great pan-Orthodox Synod in Istanbul condemning this kind of nationalism in 1872. Orthodox who now routinely condemn ethnophyletism often remain nationalists of another type. But the nasty treachery of all nationalistic thinking is that it always makes us exclusive.
An example of non-ethnophyletic nationalism with religious dimensions among Orthodox is the Arab Nationalism of the Syrian Ba’ath party (forming around cultural “Arabness” with language as the primary identity marker) and which is held by large numbers of Syrian Orthodox Christians. A recent statement posted to the Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate’s website in the name of Patriarch John X,2 states that “The Church of Antioch and all the East for the Greek Orthodox makes a point to affirm at all times that it is a daughter of the nation and is the abode in which they reside.” In the statement, the Mosque and the Church are linked as equal sister-daughters of the nation of Syria. In the Arab nationalism of the Syrian Ba’ath––as distinct from the Iraqi Ba’ath, which they split from in 1966––one is first a Syrian Arab and then either Orthodox or something else. Arab, Syrian, and Orthodox are thus conflated in a way that is not only wrong but much contested by other Syrians, Arabs, and Christians.
Not all difference is exclusive, however, and the warmth we naturally feel for our own cultural heritage is part of being human and is the natural consequence of how we are formed socially, culturally, linguistically, and generally in our whole-world view. The normal cultural differences that exist between groups are generally never intended to divide. The real problem of nationalism among Orthodox, however, is not in so benign a thing as the cultural preference of “Cristos anesti” over “Christ is risen” or “Krishti ungjall” or in enjoying plum pudding over baclava or in certain ritualistic preferences during the Divine Liturgy: while these things may naturally provide distinction as between families, they need not be divisive. The problem manifests when there is conflict or when difference forces the kinds of choice that expose competing allegiances and we begin to fight either to defend our difference or to elevate it. The contorted apologetics for the Syrian and Russian governments common among Arab and Russian Orthodox that fly in the face of fundamental Christian values is the result of such conflated loyalties.
One evidence of conflated Orthodox and national identity is the very modern phenomenon of making saints national heroes or national heroes saints. something that by its nature is divisive within the Kingdom of God and should be anathema to the Church but is instead common!
A common manifestation of softly held or unconscious nationalist sentiment is an elitism that sometimes makes others feel less “Orthodox” for being of another jurisdictional, ethnic, or cultural group because of the way we cleave to our national identity. The division of the Orthodox world into cultural and ethnic jurisdictions has created what some call Orthodox ghettos (ghetto implies separation not poverty) wherein a monolithic way of being Orthodox that results in isolation is created by the conflation of our own customs with the Orthodox faith. Visitors to Orthodox parishes should not be made to feel they must first, or even also, become Greek, Serb, Russian, or Arab to become truly Orthodox. Looking to the future, American Orthodox should avoid creating a similar attitude that elevates a version of culturally American Orthodoxy over other forms––something many are already promoting.
When Christ sent his disciples out, he called them ambassadors, people who represent the interests of one state to the leaders of another. Ambassadors who are confused in their allegiance are likely to be called spies and may be stripped of their citizenship rights, imprisoned, and often executed, as are citizens who switch sides to serve the interests of a rival state. It shouldn’t surprise us that the earliest missionaries usually found themselves in courts and before kings declaring their allegiance to God and were commonly martyred for it. Christ did not tell his disciples “You should not serve two masters”; he said “You cannot.” For, when you serve the one, you automatically oppose the interests of the other: you must choose. Ultimately, attempting to simultaneously serve two rival interests merely makes one useless to both. When the released Syrian and Lebanese nuns of Mar Thecla monastery contradicted the widely held perspective among Orthodox that they were being mistreated during their captivity, they were branded by the Church as traitors to Syria and unfaithful to the Church3. The conflated loyalties of the Church leaders in this instance promoted their national loyalty and compromised their spiritual sense.
When we consciously choose to exclusively serve Christ, we cultivate our Christian-ness to be a culturally transformative force rather than guarding it as part of our inherited cultural identity. Our lives are neither gift nor extension of anything earthly: we are not merely products of a history stream and so we do not owe our primary allegiance to any other product of history, such as a nation-state.
He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ’For we also are His children’ (Acts 17:26-28).
The Irish rightly love Patrick for his sacrificial work of building up the Irish Church, a legacy that lasts into eternity. But the very inclusion of Patrick in the Irish nationalist mythology diminishes him and casts a shadow over a saint who belongs to the whole Church everywhere and everywhen. It is a fundamental aspect of being human that we are defined by others, though at times in our development we are allowed to choose by whom. Like the apostle Peter, Patrick chose his identity in Christ. In answering Jesus with “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” Peter was given his own identity. It was in his recognition—by the Father’s revelation—of Christ that he was captured and transformed into a citizen of God’s Kingdom to be eventually martyred by Rome, the symbol of earthly citizenship.
Patrick willingly became a servant of “the nations” to whom he was sent from his home in Britain—there was no Ireland then, only the chaos of competing kingdoms just the other side of the Roman frontier. By the 4th century, a primitive Irish was widely spoken but a variety of Celtic languages were still common. Patrick saw an island in need not of “civilized” culture, Imperial rule, or a strong local king to bring lasting stability but the gospel. He went to share the gospel with “the nations to which the love of Christ brought me” at the end of the world, where he thought he was. Nationalism is a modern phenomenon, but it is possessed by the same sick spirit as tribalism, culturalism, ethnicism, imperialism, and so many other isms. Only as each of us discovers our full and true identity in an encounter with Christ, the Son of the living God, will we find the cure for the sickness of nationalism. IC [wpanchor id=”footnotes”]
1. Simple working definitions: Patriotism is the natural love for one’s own country; nationalism is a political philosophy that claims statehood belongs primarily to distinct and exclusive national-identity groups. Click HERE for information on the OPF resource on nationalism, For the Peace from Above. Also search our website for more resources.
2. The full statement may be found on our website in Arabic HERE and in English HERE. Ba’athism is a socialist Arab Nationalism that conflates numerous identity groups to form the fiction of a Syrian nationality for the purpose of creating a secular state of Syria. Michel Aflaq, an Antiochian Orthodox, was a founder of Ba’athism. Hafiz Assad was its champion, and like Bashar today, was ruthless in eliminating competing political parties. The current civil war is the continuation of that struggle. The Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate supports the Assad family and its nationalist ideology, though they may not be Ba’athist––Patriarchal statements often reflect more general Pan-Arab nationalism. 3. From the Patriarchal statement referenced in footnote 2.
Competing nationalist narratives in Syria create false dichotomies that force people into mutually exclusive identity groups.
Ba’athist nationalism creates a Syrian identity that falsely conflates Christian and Muslim as sister-daughters of the nation. Sectarian nationalists of various kinds manipulate and exploit religious difference to divide and create conflict.
One day Jesus asked the question, “Do people gather figs from thistles?” The answer is of course no––you harvest what you plant. Plant thistles and thistles take root and thistles they become. If you want to grow figs, you need to start with fig seeds. With this question, Jesus implicitly ridicules the idea that good can be brought about by evil means. Violence is not the means of creating a peaceful society. Vengeance does not pave the road to forgiveness. Spousal abuse does not lay the foundation for a lasting marriage. Rage is not a tool of reconciliation.
Yet, while figs do not grow from thistles, in the world of human choice and action, a positive change of attitude and direction is always a possibility. Sinners are the raw material of saints. The New Testament is crowded with accounts of transformations.
In the Church of the Savior in the Chora district of Istanbul, there is a fourteenth-century Byzantine mosaic that, in a single image, tells a story of an unlikely transformation: the conversion of water into wine for guests at a wedding feast in the village of Cana. In the background Jesus––his right hand extended in a gesture of blessing––stands side by side with his mother. In the foreground we see a servant pouring water from a smaller jug into a larger one. The water leaves the first jug a pale blue and tile-by-tile becomes a deep purple as it reaches the lip of the lower jug. “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana, in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
This “first sign” that Jesus gave is a key to understanding everything in the Gospel. Jesus is constantly bringing about transformations: blind eyes to seeing eyes, withered limbs to working limbs, sickness to well being, guilt to forgiveness, strangers to neighbors, enemies to friends, slaves to free people, armed men to disarmed men, crucifixion to resurrection, sorrow to joy, bread and wine to himself. Nature cannot produce figs from thistles, but God is doing this in our lives all the time. God’s constant business in creation is making something out of nothing. As a Portuguese proverb declares, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”
The convert Paul is an archetype of transformation. Paul, formerly a deadly adversary of Christ’s followers, becomes Christ’s apostle and his most tireless missionary, crisscrossing the Roman Empire, leaving behind him a trail of young churches that endure to this day. It was a miracle of enmity being turned to friendship, and it happened in a flash of time too small to measure, a sudden illumination. Witnessing the first deacon, Stephen, being stoned to death in Jerusalem must have been a key moment in setting the stage for Paul’s conversion.
Peter is another man who made a radical about-face. Calling him away from his nets, Christ made the fisherman into a fisher of men. At the Garden of Gethsemane, the same Peter slashed the ear from one of those who had come to arrest Jesus. Far from commending Peter for his courage, Jesus healed the wound and commanded Peter to lay down his blood-stained weapon: “Put away your sword for whoever lives by the sword shall perish by the sword.” For the remainder of his life, Peter was never again a threat to anyone’s life, seeking only the conversion of opponents, never their death. Peter became a man who would rather die than kill.
How does such a conversion of heart take place? And what are the obstacles?
It was a question that haunted the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who for years struggled to turn from aristocrat to peasant, from rich man to poor man, from former soldier to peacemaker, though none of these intentions was ever fully achieved. As a child Tolstoy was told by his older brother Nicholas that there was a green stick buried on their estate at the edge of a ravine in the ancient Zakaz forest. It was no ordinary piece of wood, said Nicholas. Carved into its surface were words “which would destroy all evil in the hearts of men and bring them everything good.” Leo Tolstoy spent his entire life searching for the revelation. Even as an old man he wrote, “I still believe today that there is such a truth, that it will be revealed to all and will fulfill its promise.” Tolstoy is buried near the ravine in the Zakaz forest, the very place where he had sought the green stick.
Were we to discover it, my guess is that the green stick would probably turn out to bear a three-word sentence we have often read but have found so difficult that we have reburied it in a ravine within ourselves: “Love your enemies.”
Twice in the Gospels, first in Matthew and then in Luke, Jesus is quoted on this remarkable teaching, unique to Christianity:
You have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same?
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and to him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your coat as well. Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods, do not ask them again. As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
Perhaps we Christians have heard these words too often to be stunned by their plain meaning, but to those who first heard Jesus, this teaching would have been astonishing and controversial. Few would have said “amen.” Some would have shrugged their shoulders and muttered, “Love a Roman soldier? You’re out of your mind.” Zealots in the crowd would have considered such teaching traitorous, for all nationalisms thrive on enmity. Challenge nationalism, or speak against enmity in too specific a way, and you make enemies on the spot.
Nationalism is as powerful as an ocean tide. I recall an exchange during the question period following a talk opposing the Vietnam War that I gave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, back in 1968. I had recently been involved in an act of war resistance that would soon result in my spending a year in prison, but for the moment I was free on bail. During the question period, an angry woman holding a small American flag stood up and challenged me to put my hand over my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I said that flags ought not to be treated as idols and suggested instead that all of us rise and join in reciting the Our Father, which we did. Her anger seemed to recede a bit but I suspect in her eyes I was a traitor. I had failed her patriotism test.
We tend to forget that the country in which Jesus entered history and gathered his first disciples was not the idyllic place Christmas cards have made of it, a quiet pastoral land populated with attractive sheep, colorfully dressed shepherds and tidy villages crowning fertile hilltops. It was a country enduring military occupation in which most Jews suffered and where anyone perceived as a dissident was likely to be executed. In Roman-ruled Palestine, a naked Jew nailed to a cross was not an unfamiliar sight. To Jesus’ first audience, enemies were numerous, ruthless and close at hand.
Not only were there the Romans to hate, with their armies and idols and emperor-gods. There were the enemies within Israel, not least the tax collectors who extorted as much money as they could, for their own pay was a percentage of the take. There were also Jews who were aping the Romans and Greeks, dressing––and undressing––as they did, all the while scrambling up the ladder, fraternizing and collaborating with the Roman occupiers. And even among those religious Jews trying to remain faithful to tradition, there were divisions about what was and was not essential in religious law and practice as well as heated arguments about how to relate to the Romans. A growing number of Jews, the Zealots, saw no solution but violent resistance. Some others, such as the ascetic Essenes, chose the strategy of monastic withdrawal; they lived in the desert near the Dead Sea where neither the Romans nor their collaborators often ventured.
No doubt Jesus also had Romans and Rome’s agents listening to what he had to say, some out of curiosity, others because it was their job to listen. From the Roman point of view, the indigestible Jews, even if subdued, remained enemies. The Romans regarded this one-godded, statue-smashing, civilization-resisting people with amusement, bewilderment and contempt––a people well deserving whatever lashes they received. Some of those lashes would have been delivered by the Romans in blind rage for having been stationed in this appalling, uncultured backwater. Judaea and Galilee were not sought-after postings for Roman soldiers––or for the Roman Prefect at the time, Pontius Pilate.
Jesus was controversial. Not only were his teachings revolutionary, but the more respectable members of society were put off by the fact that many drawn to him were people who had lived scandalous lives: prostitutes, tax collectors, and even a Roman officer who begged Jesus to heal his servant. The Gospel says plainly that Jesus loved sinners, and that created scandal.
Many must have been impressed by his courage––no one accused Jesus of cowardice––but some would have judged him foolhardy, like a man putting his head in a lion’s mouth. While Jesus refused to take up weapons or sanction their use, he kept no prudent silence and was anything but a collaborator. He did not hesitate to say and do things that made him a target. Perhaps the event that assured his crucifixion was what he did to the money-changers within the Temple precincts in Jerusalem. He made a whip of cords, something which stings but causes no wounds, and set the merchants running, meanwhile overturning their tables and scattering their coins. Anyone who disrupts business as usual will soon have enemies.
Many devout people were also dismayed by what seemed to them his careless religious practice, especially not keeping the Sabbath as strictly as many Pharisees thought Jews should. People were not made for the Sabbath, Jesus responded, but the Sabbath made for people. Zealots hated him both for not being a Zealot and for drawing away people who might have been recruited. Those who led the religious establishment were so incensed that they managed to arrange his execution, pointing out to the Romans that Jesus was a trouble maker who had been “perverting the nation.” It was the Romans who both tortured Jesus and carried out his execution.
Any Christian who believes Jesus to be God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who entered history not by chance but purposefully, at an exact moment and chosen place, becoming fully human as the child of the Virgin Mary, will find it worthwhile to think about the Incarnation happening just then, not in peaceful times but in a humiliated, over-taxed land governed by brutal, bitterly resented occupation troops. Jesus entered by birth, lived in, and was crucified and raised from the dead in a land of extreme enmity.
Transposing Gospel events into our own world and time, many of us would find ourselves alarmed and shocked by the things Jesus said and did, for actions that seem admirable in an ancient narrative might be judged unwise and untimely, if not insane, if they occurred in equivalent circumstances here and now. Love our enemies? Does that mean loving criminals, murderers, and terrorists? Call on people to get rid of their weapons? Apprentice ourselves to a man who fails to say a patriotic word or wave a single flag? Many would say such a man had no one to blame for his troubles but himself.
It was a big step, and a risky one, to become one of his disciples. Had you lived in Judaea or Galilee when the events recorded in the Gospel were happening, are you sure you would have wanted to be identified with him? IC
This is the first chapter from Jim Forest’s new book, Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment, being published by Orbis Books in September 2014. Jim is International Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.
Holy Disobedience: Resistance to Secular and Ecclesiastical Authority
by A. Edward Siecienski
Christian history, particularly the patristic period, is populated with heroes of the Faith and Saints who found themselves at odds with both secular and ecclesiastical authority. These heroes and saints, in order to protect the Orthodox faith, disobeyed the biblical injunction to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men” (1 Peter 2:13).
As a historical phenomenon, this intriguing reality presents a rather troubling precedent for Orthodox Christians––can an individual simply ignore secular and ecclesiastical authority whenever one thinks it right? What would then prevent Christians from challenging Church or State at every turn, claiming that they are simply following the examples of Saints Athanasius, Ambrose, Maximus the Confessor, and Mark of Ephesus? St. Paul had written that “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1) and Ignatius of Antioch had once claimed “that we should regard the bishop as the Lord Himself,” and yet across the centuries, we find examples of Orthodox who followed the way of disobedience rather than obedience.
Christians have disobeyed individuals when they believed them to be, for one reason or another, illegitimate authorities––e.g., popes whose claims to universal jurisdiction were never recognized, bishops who were uncanonically elected, emperors who illegally seized the throne. Here, we will look at “holy disobedience” within the Orthodox tradition to those recognized, even by the disobedient themselves, as the legitimate secular or ecclesiastical authority that would, under normal conditions, require obedience. Perhaps we may discover what wisdom history offers Christians today as they face certain challenges in dealing with secular or ecclesiastical authority.
Any discussion of holy disobedience must begin with the Scriptures and the precedent set by the apostles themselves as the early Church began to preach Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord. According to Acts 4, “the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees” brought Peter and John before the “rulers of the people and elders” who commanded them to cease their ministry and desist from speaking in Jesus’ name. Their answer was “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). When the apostles continued to preach and heal in Jesus’ name, they were again arrested and reminded that they had been given “strict orders not to teach in this name.” Peter, speaking for the group, simply replied “We must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29), establishing a principle for dealing with authorities, both secular and religious, that would be invoked throughout the centuries.
Paul, the very man who enjoined Christians to obedience in Romans 13:1-7, seems to have had a very prickly relationship with those in authority in the Church, particularly with the “so-called pillars” James, John, and Peter. Without doubting their legitimacy as “apostles and elders,” Paul never gives them unquestioned obedience, and famously rebukes Peter in Antioch when he believes him to have violated the principles established at the Council of Jerusalem. Paul grounds his own apostolic authority in the call he received from Christ on the road to Damascus, believing this pedigree equal to (or beyond) anything claimed by the others. Therefore even if one claiming to be among the super apostles preaches a Jesus “other than the Jesus we preached” (2 Corinthians 11:4-5), Paul is clear he must be rejected.
Despite Paul’s clear call for obedience, the Church’s relation to the state during the apostolic period remained a complicated affair. Beginning in 64 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Nero, Christians in Rome found themselves persecuted for their beliefs and blamed for the great fire that had consumed the city. For the next 250 years sporadic and localized persecution of Christians occurred throughout the empire, culminating in the great imperial persecutions of Decius (249-251) and Diocletian (303-305). Having long been accused of disloyalty to the state, Christians were now asked to prove their allegiance by offering sacrifices for the safety of the empire. Most Christians were normally quite happy to oblige with obedience to imperial authority; however in demanding that believers offer sacrifices to the gods, the state had gone beyond what could legitimately be expected and Christians now found themselves duty bound to resist. According to Hugo Rahner, this refusal “had its roots in the Christian’s response to the invitation to the kingdom where the Messiah would reign in peace and justice, making it impossible to fall under the total control of a despotic state.” Simply put, Christians were first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of God, and it was to this kingdom that their primary allegiance belonged. Because citizenship here was both “temporary and secondary,” all of its demands had to be weighed against the chief obligation of Christian discipleship. Provided that the state did not attempt to overstep its proper bounds by asking Christians to betray their true king, the Church could give it everything it wanted. According to Tertullian, the emperor was owed prayers and was deserving of the greatest respect, for as a man he is second only to God, protected by God, and therefore inferior only to God”; however, according to Hippolytus, when the emperor claims a level of authority that belongs to God alone, the Christian must imitate the example of Daniel and follow the decrees of God rather than those of the king, even if it may literally put him in the lion’s den.
But things changed following the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 when the Empire itself ceased persecuting the Church and began instead to patronize it. Constantine the Great, who presumed the traditional right of the emperor to regulate religious matters, not only granted Christians freedom to worship within the empire, but quickly made them the preferred sect. As Pontifex Maximus, Constantine was seen by Christians not only as the divinely appointed patron and protector of the Church, but as its visible head whose commands echoed the will of God himself. For the most part, the Church embraced this new state of affairs and the symphonia established between the empire and the Church. However, following the Council of Nicea in 325, certain figures began to reassess this relationship as Constantine and his heirs began diluting Nicene orthodoxy in the name of religious harmony. This was certainly the view of Athanasius of Alexandria, whose staunch defense of the council led him to reject all compromise with those he deemed Arian. For Constantine religious peace was a good in itself, which is why the emperor made it clear to Athanasius and the Nicene hardliners what they had to do––re-admit Arius and his followers to communion. When Athanasius refused, Constantine issued instructions that were incapable of misinterpretation:
Meantime should anyone, though I deem it most improbable, venture on this occasion to violate my command, and refuse his attendance, a messenger shall be dispatched forthwith to banish that person in virtue of an imperial edict, and to teach him that it does not become him to resist an emperor’s decrees when issued in defense of truth.
And yet despite all of the honorifics he heaped upon Constantine and his children (e.g. “most religious,” “most blessed”), Athanasius would not obey him, believing not only in the truth of the Nicene position, but also in the right of the bishops who spoke the truth to minister free of imperial interference. He wrote to the clergy, instructing them that if
you are quite unexpectedly replaced by order of the civil authorities as you presided blamelessly in your churches in union with your people…justice demands that you show your disapproval, for if you remain silent in a short time this evil will spread to all the churches.
Athanasius was not alone in condemning imperial religious policy or in urging others to resist it. Pope Julius in the West also bemoaned the fact that “the decisions of the Church are no longer according to the gospels but tend only to banishment and death.” He wrote to the Bishops of the East asking them to
denounce in writing those persons who attempt [such things], so that the Churches may no longer be afflicted thus, nor any bishop or presbyter be treated with insult, nor anyone be compelled to act contrary to his judgment…lest we become a laughing stock among the heathen and, above all, excite the wrath of God.”
When, in 353, Pope Liberius was asked to support the condemnation of Athanasius at the Synod of Arles, he refused, claiming that “I would prefer death for God’s sake rather than appear a traitor and give my consent to a judgment contrary to the Gospel.” Once more the choice appeared to be obedience to the emperor or obedience to the gospel, and the Church was forced to define for the emperor the limits of his authority and the Christian’s ultimate allegiance. Athanasius’ supporters “used great boldness of speech against him [Emperor Constantius], teaching him that the kingdom was not his, but God’s…, and they threatened him with the day of judgment and warned him against infringing Ecclesiastical order and mingling Roman sovereignty with the Constitution of the Church.” Constantius meanwhile took the traditional Roman view that the emperor had both the power and duty to regulate religious matters, maintaining that the imperial will effectively ruled the Church.” Yet not everyone was convinced by his arguments. Bishop Lucifer of Cagliari wrote to the emperor to remind him that “despite all your cruelty, you lie helpless under the feet of God’s servants, and all your imperial pomp is for us nothing. For us, you are, with all your authority, only a passing breeze.”
This same line of thinking is evident in writings of Ambrose of Milan, whose challenge to Emperor Theodosius following the massacre at Thessalonica has become almost ecclesial legend. After a charioteer was arrested for an attempted rape on a slave, the local populace revolted, killing several officials. In a fit of rage, Theodosius ordered an army unit to punish the citizens of Thessalonica. Their action resulted in the deaths of possibly seven thousand men, women, and children. In a showdown that proved to be a watershed moment in Church/State relations, Ambrose denied Theodosius communion, refusing to even serve the liturgy in his presence at all, and courageously checked Theodosius at the Church door, refusing him entry. In a letter to Theodosius, Ambrose was clear that his allegiance to God was elevated above any love, respect, or civic duty he had toward the emperor (in fact, his pastoral duty to Theodosius, an Orthodox Christian, also constrained him):
I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so….I have been warned, not by man, nor through man, but plainly by Himself that this is forbidden me.
Ambrose had other similar contests with Theodosius. He was clear that as a subject he owed Theodosius obedience, yet he was bound to speak out “in obedience to God…and the desire to preserve your well-being…for who will dare tell the truth if the bishop does not?” As he put it plainly elsewhere,
we pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. Tribute is due to Caesar, we do not deny it. The Church belongs to God, therefore it ought not to be assigned to Caesar. For the temple of God cannot be Caesar’s by right. That this is said with respectful feeling for the Emperor, no one can deny. For what is more full of respect than that the Emperor should be called the son of the Church. As it is said, it is said without sin, since it is said with the divine favor. For the Emperor is within the Church, not above it. For a good emperor seeks the aid of the Church and does not refuse it.
During the monothelite crisis of the sixth and seventh centuries, with Christianity still divided over reception of Chalcedon, the imperial desire for religious peace once again brought the saints into conflict with the emperors. Pope Martin I of Rome and Maximus the Confessor joined forces to battle both the Ekthesis of Heraclius (638) and the Typos of Constans II (648), which to them represented a form of “creeping monophysitism” that diluted the truth of the Council. Pope Martin was later arrested and taken to Constantinople, where after being defrocked and humiliated he was sent into exile, dying shortly thereafter in 655. Maximus the Confessor was also brought East and put on trial, where he maintained not only his orthodoxy, but the proper place of the emperor vis-à-vis the Church:
No emperor was able to persuade the fathers who speak of God to be reconciled with the heretics of their times by means of equivocal expressions…[You ask] “Is the Christian emperor also a priest?” [I say] no, he isn’t, because he neither stands beside the altar…nor does he baptize, nor perform the rite of anointing, nor does he ordain and make bishops…nor does he wear the symbols of priesthood, the pallium and the gospel book…During the anaphora at the holy table…the emperors are remembered with the laity…after all the clergy.
Centuries later the Church was again confronted with imperial intervention in Church matters, as the Emperors Leo IV and Constantine V began their campaign against the icons. This time it was John of Damascus who came to the Church’s defense, claiming that there had been a “piratical attack” on the Church, with bishops being exiled or killed and replaced with imperial lackeys. Once again, as with Constantius, Theodosius, and Constans II, the emperors had forgotten their place and failed to remember that
it is not for emperors to legislate for the Church…, for emperors did not speak the word to us, but apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers…. Political good order is the concern of emperors, the ecclesiastical constitution that of pastors and teachers…. We submit to you, O Emperor, in the matters of this life, taxes, revenues, commercial dues, in which our concerns are entrusted to you. For the ecclesiastical constitution we have pastors who speak to us the word and represent ecclesiastical ordinance.
As problematic as the Church-State relationship has been for Christians, the question of (dis-)obedience to ecclesiastical authority is more complicated, and thus far more vexing. Certainly there are more than a few examples, especially in the writings of the desert fathers and early monastics, of the need for obedience to one’s spiritual superiors. The Rule of Benedict clearly states that “obedience given to superiors is given to God.” According to John Cassian,
the monks rank obedience not only above manual labor, but over reading, silence, the peace of the cell, even before all virtues; they consider all things to take second place to this, and are happy to undergo any inconvenience if only they can show they have in no way infringed this one good thing.
Given this stress on monastic obedience, one might then find it puzzling that historically monks have been at odds with ecclesiastical authorities in so many different times and places. For example, Maximus the Confessor refused during his trial to commune with the hierarchy in Constantinople, believing them to be heretics condemned by the Romans and the Lateran Synod. His accusers then asked him: “But what if the Romans should come to terms with the Byzantines, what will you do?” He answered: “The Holy Spirit, through the apostle, condemns even angels who innovate in some way contrary to what is preached. Simply put, Maximus knew that in the matter of Christ’s wills he was right and the hierarchy was wrong, and he would rather die “than have on my conscience the worry that in some way or other I have suffered a lapse with regard to belief in God.”
In the eighth century, during the iconoclastic controversy, imperial pressure on the iconodules was supplemented by the decrees of the iconoclast hierarchy, who gathered in (an alleged) ecumenical council at Hierea in 754, and formally ruled against the icons. Despite the absence of all five patriarchs, 338 bishops, led by Theodosius of Ephesus, participated in the synod, anathematizing all who attempted “to represent the divine image of the Word after the Incarnation…[or] the forms of the Saints in lifeless pictures with material colors.” Having now been endorsed by an ecumenical council, the teachings of the iconoclast bishops became the teaching of the Church, to which religious obedience must be given. And while the emperor could (and did) employ the secular arm against the iconodules, the iconoclasts could now also demand submission to the decisions of an ecumenical council. For this reason monastic communities were told “to subscribe to the definition of our Orthodox synod” for it was not right that “idolaters and worshippers of shadows” should prefer their own view to that of the Church. Simply put, the Church has spoken and its children must obey.
Of course the absence of all five patriarchs made impugning the conciliar legitimacy of Hierea easy for the iconodules, but very often opposition to the iconoclast councils––both at Hierea in 754 and a similar council in 815––took a different tactic. Theodore the Studite, for example, called on the monks to engage in “God-pleasing resistance” to the decisions of these synods (as well as the Moechian synod of 809) because despite the veneer of legitimacy, these gatherings lacked an essential component required of all true Church councils––adherence to the canons and to the truth. He wrote that the Church of God
has not permitted anything to be done or said against the established decrees and laws, although many shepherds have in many ways railed against them when they have called great and very numerous councils, and given themselves to put on a show of concern for the canons, while in truth acting against them…. A council does not consist simply in the gathering of bishops and priests, no matter how many there are…. A council occurs when, in the Lord’s name, the canons are thoroughly searched out and maintained…, [for] no authority whatever has been given to bishops for any transgression of a canon. They are simply to follow what has been decreed, and to adhere to those who have gone before.
Thus for Theodore disobedience to the hierarchy was sometimes necessary if one was to be obedient to the canon of truth received from the Fathers, “for we have an injunction from the Apostle himself: If anyone preaches a doctrine, or urges you to do something against what you have received, against what is prescribed by the canons of the catholic and local synods held at various times, he is not to be received, or to be reckoned among the number of the faithful.” Addressing the charge that he was introducing schism, Theodore was adamant that in so much as he had remained a child of the Church and its canons (unlike the false teachers who now claimed authority) it was not he who was the Schismatic. As with Maximus before him, Theodore knew in this matter he was right and the hierarchy was wrong.
Following the disastrous Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Byzantine Empire increasingly found itself threatened by Seljuk advances in the East, losing most of its territory in Asia Minor by the end of the century. Despite the hope entertained by some (e.g., Pope Urban II) that a joint crusade would unite the two halves of Christendom, relations between Latins and Greeks deteriorated throughout the twelfth century as increased contact brought little but enmity. By the Fourth Crusade, mutual hatred boiled over, leading to the vicious sack of Constantinople by the Latins in April of 1204 and the establishment of the Latin Empire under Baldwin of Flanders. And yet, within months of Michael VIII Palaeologus’s recapture of Constantinople in 1261, Michael and many of his heirs were willing to negotiate Church union with Rome in exchange for aid against the Turks.
On two separate occasions, Church union was briefly achieved—at the Council of Lyon in 1274 and the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439. These were thought to be “ecumenical councils” and are still regarded as such by the Roman Catholic Church. Yet we know today that both Lyons and Florence ultimately failed in their attempts at union and are not considered ecumenical councils by the Orthodox Church. The reason for this, it has often been suggested, is “holy disobedience.”
Roman Catholic historian Joseph Gill, in his monumental history of the Council of Florence, maintained that the sole stumbling block to Florentine union was the stubbornness and disobedience of one man––Mark of Ephesus––and that had Mark been silenced or punished by the emperor for refusing to accept the decisions of this ecumenical council, the history of Christendom might have been different. Gill, most would argue today, appears to overstate the council’s chances for success, yet there is something to be said for the fact that with both the Council of Lyons and the Council of Florence, disobedience to secular and ecclesial authority goes a long way in explaining the failure of these two gatherings.
From the Orthodox perspective, the Council of Lyons can hardly be called either an ecumenical council (since four of five patriarchs were absent) or a reunion council (since there was never any discussion of the theological issues dividing East and West). Indeed, Lyons is better understood as Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus’ personal submission to Rome, the resulting “union” being little more than his attempt to bring the Eastern Church along with him. Michael was keenly aware that union with the Latins had little support among the Byzantines, and in the end, despite the efforts of Michael and eight years of effort by the Patriarch John Beccus, the Union of Lyons never succeeded.
The Council of Ferrara-Florence was in many ways far different than the Council of Lyons. Unlike Lyons it could genuinely claim to be ecumenical in so much as the five patriarchs (or their representatives) were present and there was full and free discussion of all the contested issues. For months the two sides went back and forth on purgatory and the filioque––each side only becoming more frustrated by the seeming impasse they had reached. Increasingly, however, members of the Byzantine delegation, men like Isidore of Kiev, Bessarion of Nicea, and George Scholarius, were swayed by the Latins’ arguments. They came to believe that the Latin teaching on the procession of the Holy Spirit was genuinely orthodox, and clearly supported by the fathers, both East and West.
Emperor John VIII Palaeologus, under tremendous pressure from both the pope and unionists within his own ranks, pressed the issue. The leading anti-unionists, men such as Mark Eugenicus of Ephesus and Anthony of Heraclea, were labeled traitors and Judases who were preventing both the unity of Christ’s Church and the salvation of the Great City. But Mark remained unmoved, believing that the Latins’ texts were corrupted and their arguments contrary to the teaching of the fathers.
When a vote on the orthodoxy of the filioque was taken on May 30th, the Latin teaching was rejected by a 17-10 majority––the anti-unionists were still in control. However, it was at this point that holy obedience was invoked. Patriarch Joseph II, now close to death but convinced of the Latins’ orthodoxy, invited members of the delegation for private meetings, reminding them both of their collective theological ignorance and of their debt to him personally:
Why do you not listen to me? Was it not from my cell that you came out? Was it not I who raised you to the rank of bishop? Why then do you betray me? Why did you not second my opinion? Think you, then, that you can judge better than others about dogmas? I know as well as anybody else what the Fathers taught.
Three days later, when a second vote was taken on the orthodoxy of the filioque, the entire delegation (except Mark of Ephesus, Anthony of Heraclea, Dositheus of Monemvasia, and Sophronius of Anchialus) embraced the Latin teaching. When Patriarch Joseph died days later, the Latins were convinced enough of his commitment to union to permit him honorary burial in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, where he remains to this day.
When union was finally proclaimed on July 6th, the one notable absence from the proceedings was Mark of Ephesus, who had refused to sign. In an interview with Pope Eugene shortly afterward he explained his justification for denying obedience to what was now considered by all parties to be an ecumenical gathering:
The councils sentenced those who would not obey the Church and kept opinions contrary to her doctrine. I express not my own opinions, I introduce nothing new…, neither do I defend any errors. But I steadfastly preserve the doctrine which the Church, having received from Christ the Savior, has ever kept and keeps.
The pope demanded that Mark be punished, likening him to those who had refused to acknowledge the Council of Nicea. The emperor claimed he had already guaranteed Mark safe passage but assured the pope that steps would be taken to silence Mark unless he subscribed to the union at some point after his return.
By the time the Byzantines arrived back in Constantinople in February of 1440, the signatories had come to reject the union, wishing they too had been disobedient to pope, emperor, patriarch, and council. When the emperor tried to compel the clergy to commune with the unionist Patriarch Metrophanes, the leading anti-unionists left the city to lead the resistance from afar.
Mark of Ephesus spent his remaining years writing against the council, urging Orthodox Christians to run from the unionists “as one runs from snakes…as from those who have sold and bought Christ.” Isidore of Kiev tried to introduce the union in Moscow, entering the city behind a Latin cross with the anti-unionist monk Symeon in chains before him. Within days of including the pope’s name in the dyptichs, Isidore was in prison on charges of heresy. By the time the union was publicly proclaimed in Constantinople in December of 1452, it had already been rejected by the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. George Gennadius Scholarius, who had urged the Greeks to union at Florence, now became the leading anti-unionist and first patriarch of Constantinople following the fall of the city to the Turks. The union was at an end, and as with Lyons, the Orthodox heroes of the council were those who would not subscribe to it—disobeying both Emperor and Patriarch in the name of the Orthodox faith.
Having examined the phenomenon of resistance to secular and ecclesiastical authority in the Orthodox tradition, one would think that we should be able to construct clear and concise guidelines for when “holy disobedience” is appropriate. Unfortunately, we cannot. In the end it is a matter of conscience whether one obeys or disobeys secular and religious superiors, hoping in either case that ultimately one is doing the will of God. That being said, I do believe there are at least two important principles that emerge from our study which can be used as Orthodox Christians wrestle with issues of obedience/disobedience in the Church today.
First, there exists a primary allegiance of the Christian to the Kingdom of God that relativizes allegiance to the powers of this world. This loyalty to God over all others forces Christians to recognize that occasionally secular authorities make claims upon the conscience that are far beyond their competence. This is particularly the case when secular authority claims for itself the right to rule over properly religious matters, to usurp or “pirate” the power of the Church, or to compel Christians to act in a manner contrary to the gospel of Christ.
Second, despite the importance of ecclesiastical obedience as a religious good, Orthodox history also teaches us that resistance to religious authorities, be they patriarchs, bishops, or councils, may be necessary to protect the faith. This is especially the case when ecclesiastical authorities have been co-opted by the state or when they clearly teach contrary to the ancient faith of the Church. Obedience to the truth of the gospel is the first requirement of the Christian. When, either by their teachings or their actions, Church authorities betray that truth for personal gain or political expediency, “holy disobedience” is entirely appropriate.
These important principles are never easy to apply. It is often hard within the Church to separate prophetic practitioners of holy disobedience from quarrelsome troublemakers or those co-opted to other interests. For centuries, individuals have invoked the examples of Saints Athanasius, Ambrose, Maximus, and Mark of Ephesus to justify their resistance to authority, and not all have been right. And yet, the record suggests that those who are today condemned for their disobedience may, in fact, be the ones remembered as heroes in the years to come. IC
Edward Siecienski is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Clement and Helen Pappas Professor of Byzantine Civilization and Religion at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. The unedited and fully footnoted article may be found at: http://academiccommons.columbia.edu/item/ac:156404
Contemporary discussions of just war theory in Christian ethics focus on whether Christians should be in the business of defining criteria for the decision to go to war and for the proper engagement in combat. There is very little attention to the way in which––debates about just war criteria notwithstanding––combat soldiers are forced to engage in practices, both in training before war and during war, that fine-tune the body to the constant threat of violence—what I term the ascetics of war. If war is seen as fostering a certain ascetics on the body, then the Orthodox notion of divine-human communion (theosis) is relevant to discussions of war insofar as divine-human communion is itself linked to an ascetics of virtue. Understanding the human as created for communion with God shifts the focus of the discussion from just war versus pacifism to the effects of war on the human person and the practices that undo such effects. I argue that the ascetics of virtue that involves the particular ascetical practice of truth-telling has the power to undo the traumatic effects of war on the combat veteran. Insofar as this undoing is an embodiment of virtue, it is also an embodiment of the divine—theosis1.
Forgetting Virtue: When it comes to the question of war, the Orthodox are probably most well known for asserting that there is no just war “theory” in the Orthodox tradition in the form of distinctions between jus in bello (criteria for just conduct during war) and jus ad bellum (criteria determining when going to war is just); there is also consensus that within the tradition there has been discussion about the need to go to war even if such discussion never resulted in a just war “theory”; the current debate centers on how going to war is characterized: For Fr. Stanley Harakas, it is always a necessary evil; for Fr. Alexander Webster, there has existed a “justifiable war tradition” within Orthodoxy that identifies under certain conditions when war is virtuous and of moral value. What is remarkable about the entire debate is that there is little attention to what is arguably the core and central axiom of the Orthodox tradition—the principle of divine-human communion. Webster speaks of war as “virtuous,” and yet absent is any attention to the tradition of thinking on virtue in either the ascetical writings or in such thinkers as Maximos the Confessor; in both cases, the understanding of virtue is inherently linked to one’s struggle toward communion with God—theosis. How exactly is claiming to have fought in a virtuous war, or to have killed virtuously consistent with this tradition of thinking on virtue in light of the principle of divine-human communion? Is it really the case that being virtuous in war means moving toward a deeper communion with God? Webster does not give an answer to these questions. Although Harakas does argue for the patristic bias for peace, approaching the issue from an eschatological perspective, his emphasis is still on how to label the action to go to war, or the conduct during war, and there is no attention to war from the perspective of the Orthodox understanding of creation’s destiny for communion with God.
The Vice of War: One result of understanding war from the principle of divine-human communion is attention to the effects of war on those who live through it, no matter what side one is on. Discussions of justifiable war may create the impression that as long as one is on the morally justified side of war, then that should be enough to mitigate the existential effects of war and violence. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that the “side” one is on makes absolutely no difference to the non-discriminatory effects of violence in war.
There is no shortage of stories of the traumatic effects of war from soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War, or the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What stories from veterans of war reveal is that violence becomes embodied—its insidiousness seeps into the physiological infrastructure of the human person. If creation is created for communion, and if humans are the center of this divine-human drama, then divine-human communion itself is the presencing of the good into the deep recesses of the body—it is an embodied experience. Violence opens up the body not to God, but to the inhabitation of the anti-God.
This absence of the divine is evident in the staggering statistic that at least “one third of homeless males are [Vietnam] veterans, with 150,000-250,000 veterans homeless on a given night and at least twice that number homeless at some time in the course of a given year.” The absence is further apparent in the finding of the study that
35.8 percent of male Vietnam combat veterans met the full American Psychiatric Association diagnostic criteria for PTSD at the time of the study, in the late 1980s…. This is a thirty-two-fold increase in the prevalence of PTSD compared to the random sample of demographically similar civilians. More than 70 percent of combat veterans had experienced at least one of the cardinal symptoms (“partial PTSD”) at some time in their lives, even if they did not receive the full syndrome diagnosis.
This high rate of PTSD symptoms among Vietnam veterans demonstrates that the effects of war linger in the body long after a soldier’s tour of duty. This lingering is in the form of “(a) a hostile or mistrustful attitude toward the world; (b) social withdrawal; (c) feelings of emptiness or hopelessness; (d) a chronic feeling of being ‘on the edge,’ as if constantly threatened; (e) estrangement.” Those who suffer from combat trauma often experience flashbacks to traumatic events, in which the primary image that is governing their emotional state is one of violence and impending threat to life. One would hope that sleep would give respite to such suffering, but combat trauma often leads to recurring nightmares; and the lack of deep sleep leads to other inevitable emotional disturbances, such as increased irritability and tendency to anger. Beyond the recurring nightmares, combat veterans often simply cannot sleep because they have trained themselves for survival to be hyper-alert and to react to sounds that may, in combat situations, be life threatening; as any good ascetic would know, such training of the body is simply not undone by returning home. Add to all this “random, unwarranted rage at family, sexual dysfunction, no capacity for intimacy, somatic disturbances, loss of ability to experience pleasure, peripheral vasoconstriction, autonomic hyperactivity, sense of the dead being more real than the living.” What is most damaging to combat veterans who suffer symptoms of PTSD is the destruction of their capacity to trust, which inevitably renders impossible any forms of bonding with others that are meaningful. If Jesus’ greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37-39), then experiencing PTSD symptoms makes that impossible. What is most demonic about the violence of war is its power to debilitate the capacity to experience love—both in the form of being loved and loving another.
Most frightening of the diverse forms in which PTSD is manifested in combat soldiers is that which is called the “berserk state.” The state of being berserk also poses a formidable challenge to Christian conceptions of the spiritual life and, in particular, the notion of deification. Berserk is an extreme state of PTSD that is triggered by such events as “betrayal, insult, or humiliation by a leader; death of a friend-in-arms; being wounded; being overrun, surrounded, or trapped; seeing dead comrades who have been mutilated by the enemy; and unexpected deliverance from certain death.” Shay elaborates that “I cannot say for certain that betrayal is a necessary precondition. However, I have yet to encounter a veteran who went berserk from grief alone.” The following are characteristics of the berserk state:
beast-like, godlike, socially disconnected, crazy, mad, insane, enraged, cruel, without restraint or discrimination, insatiable, devoid of fear, inattentive to own safety, distractible, reckless, feeling invulnerable, exalted, intoxicated, frenzied, cold, indifferent, insensible to pain, suspicious of friends.
Soldiers who go berserk in combat are often those who put themselves in the greatest danger and, if they survive, are ironically deemed the most heroic. There is growing research that indicates that the berserk state entails “changes in the parts of the brain that process incoming sensations for signs of danger and connect sensation with emotion.” Even after combat, a veteran can go berserk and often have no recollection of it, as was the case with John, an Iraqi war veteran, who cut his fiancée and her mother with a knife after an argument over bus schedules, and after a long stretch in which John was showing progress through treatment. After cutting his fiancée and her mother, John then cut himself, telling the police as they walked in “see, it doesn’t hurt.” John could not immediately recall the event. He had to be told what had happened, and when told, he became afraid that he had killed his daughter, which he had not.
What’s most troubling about the berserk state is that violence can imprint itself on the body—and, thus, on the soul—in ways that could be permanent. Based on his work with Vietnam veterans, Shay concludes
that the berserk state is ruinous, leading to the soldier’s maiming or death in battle—which is the most frequent outcome—and to lifelong psychological and physiological injury if he survives. I believe that once a person has entered the berserk state, he or she is changed forever.
He explains that “more than 40 percent of Vietnam combat veterans sampled in the late 1980s…reported engaging in violent acts three times or more in the previous year.” The spiritually challenging question is, what meaning could speaking about theosis possibly have for someone whose physiology has been permanently scarred by violence?
A new category is emerging that distinguishes a certain state of being that is effected by the combat veteran’s participation in war that is not thought to be identical with PTSD even though many of the symptoms are similar. “Moral injury” is distinguished from PTSD in that it is not induced through a fear response. Moral injury refers to a change in the veteran’s state of being when he or she experiences a deep sense of having violated his or her own core moral beliefs. It may occur as a result of killing, torturing prisoners, abusing dead bodies, or failing to prevent such acts; it may also ensue even if there was no way for the combat veteran to avoid doing such acts. In the experience of moral injury, combat veterans may judge themselves to be worthless, unable to live with a never-erasable act he committed. Symptoms are similar to those of PTSD, such as isolation, mistrust of others, depression, addiction, emotional detachment, and negative self-judgments. There are countless stories of combat veterans who admit that they are afraid to speak of all that they did in combat situations for fear that the one to whom they speak will deem him or her unlovable. In the situation of moral injury, the Christian concept of forgiveness is extremely relevant. Moral injury points to the need for self-forgiveness, which I would argue is impossible without some sense of transcendence.
The disturbing stories of combat veterans––not sleeping with spouses for fear that a nightmare may lead them to physically harm their spouse; not being able to sleep in the middle of the night because of hyper-vigilance; not wanting to be outdoors for fear that a sound, such as a bird chirping or water running, may trigger combat mode; not being able to enter public spaces, such as grocery stores or elevators; having dreams of mutilating one’s children; alienating friends and family; not being able to hold a job, or even get a job for fear of public spaces––reveal that there is an ascetics to war. Either through training received in the military to do violence or to prepare ones body for survival against constant threats of violence, or through its application in battle, war is the undoing of virtue through its negative impact on a combat veteran’s capacity for relationship with family, friends, and strangers. From the perspective of the principle of divine-human communion, the lifelong ruin of good character is not limited to the soul of the combat veteran but is embodied; character is a relational category and the ruin of character is simultaneously the ruin of relationships.
But what of theosis? On the surface, it would seem that for those who suffer from PTSD as a result of combat, or any trauma, talk of theosis or divine-human communion seems like a luxury. To some extent, the Orthodox have contributed to this perception of the irrelevancy of theosis to those who are in the midst of perpetual suffering by predominantly linking deification to the monk in various monastic settings. Further confounding is the tendency to describe theosis in supernatural terms such as being surrounded by divine light, battling demons, or eating with the bears. In order to have any relevancy for the experience of trauma, theosis must leave the confines of the monastery and be normalized for all Christians in the world.
This more mundane form of theosis is rendered possible in the Greek patristic tradition in its linking of divine-human communion to virtue, which can illuminate what Shay means by the “undoing of character” that occurs as a result of war. In the writings of Maximos the Confessor, communion with God, an embodied presencing of the divine, is simultaneous with the acquisition of virtue: Virtue is embodied deification. To say that the human is created with the potential to be godlike should not conjure up images of Greek mythology––within the Greek patristic texts, if God is love, then human beings were created to love and this love is simultaneously a uniting of oneself with God since God is love.
In Maximos’ treatise on love, he discusses a trajectory of the acquisition of virtues toward the acquisition of love, the virtue of virtues. For Maximos, virtue is not a building of character for character’s sake; having acquired virtue does not bring one to a state of being where one displays virtues like badges of honor; virtue is not simply the basis for proper moral decision making. The acquisition of virtue is the precondition for enabling the human capacity to love according to Maximos: “Scripture calls the virtues ways, and the best of all the virtues is love,” and “all the virtues assist the mind in the pursuit of divine love.”
In naming the virtues, Maximos does not restrict himself to only the four cardinal virtues—prudence, courage, temperance, and justice—but, consistent with the Eastern Christian patristic tradition, gives a wider catalogue of virtues and vices that correspond to the three parts of the soul: sensible, irascible and the rational. Particular virtues correspond to particular vices, insofar as each virtue is meant to neutralize a particular vice. The hermeneutical key to Maximos’s complicated detailing of the relation of virtues and vices to the inner life of the human person and to human agency is “progress in the love of God,” which is measured ultimately by how one relates to others, especially those to whom one feels hatred or anger. This particular definition of virtue illuminates the full force and terrifying implications of Shay’s idea of war leading to the “undoing of character.” What is being undone is the human capacity to love and to receive love. When something like the berserk state “destroys the capacity for virtue,” this destruction is not simply an evacuation of a “sense of being valued and of valuing anything,” as Shay defines it; according to the description of how combat veterans relate to their family, neighbors, friends, and strangers, what is impaired is the capacity for authentic relationships marked by intimacy, trust, and depth—in short, love.
If virtues are embodied deification, the precondition for acquiring the virtue of virtues, then vice impairs the capacity for love. Maximos explains that “the purpose of divine Providence is to unify by an upright faith and spiritual love those who have been separated in diverse ways by vice.” He elaborates that the “vice that separates you from your brother” includes “envying and being envied, hurting or being hurt, insulting or being insulted, and suspicious thoughts.” Maximos is also astute to know that vice breeds vice, that it is not simply the doing of vice that harms the capacity for love, it is being “viced upon”: “The things which destroy love are these: dishonor, damage, slander (either against faith or against conduct), beatings, blows, and so forth, whether these happen to oneself or to one’s relatives or friends.” Vices produce, and are, such affective emotions as anger, hatred, and fear. Throughout this treatise, Maximos is attempting both to advise and exhort a form of training that can overcome what are ultimately corrosive emotions, no matter how justified.
Also relevant to illuminating the “undoing of character” that war and violence potentially effect on a combat veteran is Maximos’ discussion of the relation of images to the cultivation of vices and virtues. According to Maximus, what often incites and reifies a vice are images or thoughts that present themselves to the human person. Maximos explains that “Love and self-mastery keep the mind detached from things and from their representations…. The whole war of the monk against demons is to separate the passions from the representations.” He adds that the “virtues separate the mind from the passions.” Maximos also warns when “insulted by someone or offended in any matter, then beware of angry thoughts, lest by distress they sever you from charity and place you in the region of hatred.” For Maximos, detachment “is a peaceful state of the soul in which it becomes resistant to vice.” In terms of images that incite vice, this resistance is not a removal of the image, but disabling of its power to evoke feelings of anger or hatred. To be virtuous is to experience in the face of images the emotions and desires that cultivate authentic relationships.
The problem that veterans with PTSD often face is that the images they confront, whether real or imaginary, trigger the emotion of impending fear, which leads to other negative emotions, such as anger-turned-to-rage and hatred, which then lead to a withdrawal from the other. The relation between images of impending threat and certain emotions and desires is reminiscent of Saint Anthony the Great’s encounter with images of the demonic; Anthony’s struggle was against those images and their potential impact on the passions. In this sense, the acquisition of virtue, has something to do with the affective response to certain images, either real or imaginary. Virtue is not the elimination of images—how could one forget a friend’s head being blown off—but rather an attenuation of the power of demonic images on the landscape of one’s emotions and desires, which forms the basis for the shape of relationality. In combat trauma, the redoing of virtue does not mean forgetting one’s friend head being blown off; rather, healing is about acquiring a new kind of memory of the events. The acquisition of virtue would be an affective response to the images of war and violence that do not destroy relationships but open the path for a breakthrough of love.
If the ascetics of war is an undoing of good character, which is the destruction of the capacity for authentic relationships, then the challenge for combat veterans is to engage in the tasks that lead to a redoing of virtue, which would increase their capacity for such relationships, and for the embodied presence of the divine—theosis. Maximos discusses the virtues in terms of the power to counter particular vices. Insofar as virtue is related to love, then virtues build relationships of intimacy, trust, compassion, empathy, friendship, sharing, caring, humility, and honesty––all that is apparently threatened by the experience of vice. Insofar as virtues build proper relationships while vices destroy such relationships, the ascetics of theosis must be relevant to those attempting to undo the ascetics of war. According to Maximos, the acquisition of virtue is a training realized in and through certain practices that forms both the body and the inner life (soul) of the human person; virtue is a wiring of the self for openness to love. Thinking about the healing of combat trauma along the lines of practices and virtues provides a way for intersecting the psychological literature on trauma and the ascetical/mystical tradition on the formation of virtue. The connecting category is that of practices, since the combat veteran must engage in a new kind of ascetics, one that replaces the ascetics of war in order to combat the demonic images impacting his relationships to self and others. IC
This is the first half of Prof. Papanikolaou’s keynote address as published in IC69: the full speech with footnotes may be found on our website here.
Aristotle Papanikolaou is the Archbishop Demetrios Professor in Orthodox Theology and Culture at Fordham University and is Senior Fellow and co-founder of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center, also at Fordham. For a list of his publications or to contact him, visit http://www.fordham.edu
It is very difficult for infinite and eternal life to make its way into the narrow human soul and into the even narrower human body. Held behind bars, the inhabitants of this earth suspiciously stand their ground against anything coming from without. Cast into this prison of time and space they are unable—from atavism or perhaps from inertia—to bear being penetrated by something outlasting time and outlying space, something that is eternal. Such an invasion is considered as aggression and they respond with war. A man, given the fact that he is being corrupted by the “moth” of time, does not like the intrusion of eternity into his life and cannot easily adapt himself to it. He often considers this intrusion sheer unforgivable insolence. At times he might become a hardened rebel against eternity as in its face he perceives his own minuteness; at other times he experiences fierce hatred towards it as he views it through an earthbound and worldly human prism. Plunged bodily into matter, bound by the force of gravity to time and space, his spirit quite divorced from eternity, the world-weary man takes no pleasure in those arduous expeditions towards the eternal. The chasm between time and eternity is quite unbridgeable for him because he lacks the capacity to cross it. Thoroughly besieged by death, he covers with scorn all those who say to him, “Man is immortal; he is eternal.” Immortal in what respect? In his weak body? Eternal in what respect? In his feeble spirit?
In order to be immortal, a person must, at the very core of self, feel himself immortal. For him to be eternal, in the center of self consciousness he must know himself eternal. Without this, both immortality and eternity will be conditions imposed from the outside. And if at one time man did have this sense of immortality and awareness of eternity, it has long ago wasted away under the weight of death. And we learn of this wasting away from the whole mysterious makeup of human beings. Our whole problem lies in how we might rekindle that extinguished feeling and revive the wasted-away awareness. Human beings are not able to do this; it must be done by God, who incarnated His immortal and eternal Self inside man’s self awareness when He was made man and became God-human. Christ incarnate bridged the chasm between time and eternity and restored relations between them, so that in Christ, through his body the Church, man can once more feel himself immortal and know himself eternal.
The ever-living personality of God-human Christ is the Church. The Church’s life, purpose, spirit, plan, and ways are all given in the person of Christ. The mission of the Church is to make every one of her faithful organically one with the Person of Christ. Through the Church, our sense of self is turned into a sense of Christ and our self-knowledge (self-awareness) into Christ-knowledge (Christ-awareness); our life becomes life in Christ and for Christ and our personality becomes personality in Christ and for Christ; and within us begins to live not ourselves but Christ in us (Gal 2:10). The mission of the Church is to form in her members the conviction that human personhood is properly composed of immortality and eternity and that man is a wayfarer wending his way in the sway of mortality and time towards immortality and eternity.
The Church is God-human, eternity incarnated within the boundaries of time and space. She is here in this world, but not of this world (John 18:3), in order to raise it on high where she herself has her origin. The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and the Holy Ghost to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of being and doing. Her ecumenical, all-embracing purpose is beyond nationality to unite all men in Christ without exception to nation or race or social strata. “There is neither Greek nor Jew, their is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), because “Christ is all, and in all.” The means and methods of this God-human union of all in Christ have been provided by the Church through the holy sacraments and in her God-human works (ascetic exertions, virtues). And so it is that in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, the ways of Christ and the means of uniting all people are composed and defined and integrated. Through this mystery man is made organically one with Christ, and with all the virtues of faith, prayer, fasting, love, meekness, and giving alms, a man is consolidated in this union and preserves himself in its sanctity, personally experiencing Christ both as the unity of his personality and as the essence of his union with other members of the body of Christ, the Church.
The Church as the personhood of Christ, is a God-human organism and not a human organization. As Christ is indivisible, so is his body the Church, and it is a fundamental error to divide the God-human organism of the Church into little national organizations. In the course of their procession down through history, many local Churches have limited themselves to nationalism, to national methods and aspirations, ours (Russian) among them. The Church has adapted herself to the people when it should properly be the reverse: the people adapting themselves to the Church. This mistake has been made many times by our Church. But we very well know that these were the “tares” of our Church life, tares which the Lord will not uproot, leaving them rather to grow with the wheat until the time of harvest (Matt. 13, 29-30). We also well know (the Lord so taught us) that these tares have their origin in the devil, our primeval enemy and the enemy of Christ (Matt. 13, 25-28). But we wield this knowledge in vain if it is not transformed into prayer, the prayer that in time to come Christ will safeguard us from becoming the sowers and cultivators of such tares ourselves.
It is time—the twelfth hour—for our Church representatives to cease being nothing but the servants of nationalism and for them to become bishops and priests of the One, Holy Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The mission of the Church, given by Christ and put into practice by the Holy Fathers, is this: that in the soul of our people be planted and cultivated a sense and awareness that every member of the Orthodox Church is a Catholic Person, an eternal person, a person who is God-human and is Christ’s and is therefore a brother to every human being, a ministering servant to all men and all created things. This is the Christ-given objective of the Church. Any other objective is not of Christ but the Antichrist. For our local Church to be the Catholic Church of Christ, this objective must be brought forward continuously among our people. The means of accomplishing this objective are themselves God-human because a God-human objective can be brought about exclusively by God-human means. It is on this point that the Church differs radically from anything which is human or of this earth.
These means are none other than the ascetic exertions and virtues and they can be successfully practiced only by God-human, Christ-bearers. God-human virtues exist in an organic kinship, each having its source in the other as they bring one another to completion.
First among the ascetic virtues is the effort of faith: The souls of our people must constantly pass through this exertion. These souls may then be given up to Christ with no reservations and without compromises, having extended down to the God-human depths and ascended to the God-human heights. It is essential to create in our people the sense that the faith of Christ is a virtue beyond nationhood, is ecumenical, catholic, and trinitarian, and entails believers in Christ waiting on Christ, and only on Christ, with every event of their lives.
The second ascetic virtue is the God-human virtue of prayer and fasting. This virtue must become the way of life of our Orthodox people, the souls of their souls, because prayer and fasting are the all-powerful, Christ-given means of purging not only the human personhood but also society, the people, and the human race at large of every defilement. Prayer and fasting are able to cleanse our people’s souls from our defilements and sinning. The souls of our people must fall in step with the Orthodox life of prayer. Prayer and fasting are not to be performed merely for the individual, or for one people, but for everyone and everything (“in all and for all”), for friends and enemies, for those who persecute us and those who put us to death, because that is how Christians are to be distinguished from the Gentiles.
The third God-human virtue is love, that love which knows no bounds, which does not question who is worthy and who is not but loves them all; loving friends and enemies as well as sinners and evildoers, without however loving their sins and crimes. It blesses the accursed and shines on both the evil and the good as does the sun (Matt. 5: 44-46). This God-human love must be cultivated in our people because its catholic character is what sets it apart from all self-proclaimed and relative loves ––among them the pharisaic, the humanistic, the altruistic, and the nationalistic––and from animal love. The love of Christ is all-embracing love, always. By prayer it is acquired because it is a gift of Christ. The Orthodox heart prays with intensity “Lord of love, this love of Thine for everyone and for all things—give it to me!”
The fourth ascetic virtue is the God-human virtue of meekness and humility. Only he who is meek at heart can appease fierce hearts that are in uproar. Only he who is lowly in heart can humble proud and haughty souls. But a person can show all “meekness unto all men” (Tit. 3:2) only when he turns his heart of hearts into the Lord Jesus who is “meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). The soul of the person must be rendered meek by Christ’s meekness. The Lord humbled himself with the greatest humility—he was incarnate and became a man. Should you be of Christ, humble yourself as a worm and embed your flesh in the pain of all who are in pain, of everyone found in sorrow and grief, in the trial of everyone who is impassioned and thus tormented, and in the trauma of every animal and bird. Humble yourself lower than them all and be all things to all men, but be of Christ and according to Christ. When you are by yourself, pray: “O humble Lord, by your humility, humble me! Meek, gentle Lord, assuage my fierce soul!”
The fifth ascetic virtue is the God-human virtue of patience. The patient endure ill-use, do not render evil for evil, and forgive in total compassion all assault, slander, and hurt. To be of Christ is to feel yourself perpetually crucified to the world and persecuted by it, violated and spat upon. The world will not tolerate Christ-bearing men just as it would not tolerate Christ. Martyrdom is the state in which a Christian brings forth fruit. For the Orthodox, martyrdom is purification. Being Christian does not simply mean to bear suffering cheerfully but to pardon in compassion those who cause it and to pray for them as did Christ and the archdeacon Stephen. And so, pray “Long-suffering Lord, give me forbearance, make me magnanimous and meek!”
Our Church’s mission is to infuse these God-human virtues and ascetic exertions into the people’s way of living. For therein lies salvation from the world and from all the soul-destroying, death-dealing, and Godless organizations of the world. In response to the sophisticated atheism and refined cannibalism of contemporary civilization we must give place to those Christ-bearing personalities, who with the meekness of sheep will put down the roused lust of wolves, and with the harmlessness of doves will save the soul of the people from cultural and political putrefaction. We must execute ascetic effort in Christ’s name in response to the cultural exercising which is performed in the name of the decayed and disfigured modern way of being, in the name of atheism, civilization, or various Christless ideologies. The call within our Church today should be to return to the way of the Christ-bearing ascetics and to the Holy Fathers, among them Saints Anthony, Athanasios, Basil, Gregory, Sergios and Seraphim of the Russians, Savva, Prochios, and Gabriel of the Serbs, and others like them because it was the God-human virtues that formed their saintliness. Today only Orthodox ascetic efforts and virtues can bring about sanctity in every soul, for as Christ is the same yesterday, today and unto all ages (Heb 13:8) so is the means by which the Church makes Christians. Whereas the human world is transient and time-bound, that of Christ is ever whole. for evermore.
Orthodoxy will always generate ascetic rebirth. The ascetics are Orthodoxy’s only missionaries. Asceticism is her only missionary school. Orthodoxy is ascetic effort and it is life, and it is thus by effort and by life that her mission is broadcast and brought about. The development of asceticism ought to be the inward mission of our Church amongst our people, and the parish must become the ascetic focal point by prayer and fasting and the liturgical life. The parish community must be regenerated and in Christ-like and brotherly love must minister humbly to Him and to all people. This much is groundwork and indispensable. But to this end there exists a prerequisite––that our bishops, priests, and monks become ascetics themselves. That this might be, then, let us beseech the Lord. IC
Paper delivered at the annual conference of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, Washington, DC – October 2013
[The following is the full text of Prof. Papanikolaou’s essay/address. The first half was published as an essay in the summer issue of In Communion, IC69]
Orthodoxy and Secular Rule: Ethics and Politics
Contemporary discussions of just war theory in Christian ethics focus on whether Christians should be in the business of defining criteria for the decision to go to war and for the proper engagement in combat. There is very little attention to the way in which, debates about just war criteria notwithstanding, combat soldiers are forced to engage in practices, both in training before war and during war, that fine-tune the body to the constant threat of violence—what I term the ascetics of war. If war is seen as fostering a certain ascetics on the body, then the Orthodox notion of divine-human communion (theosis) is relevant to discussions of war insofar as divine-human communion is itself linked to an ascetics of virtue. Understanding the human as created for communion with God shifts the focus of the discussion from just war versus pacifism to the effects of war on the human person and the practices that undo such effects. After briefly discussing the current debate within contemporary Orthodox theology on just war theory, I will draw on the work of Jonathan Shay to illustrate the effects of the ascetics of war on the body. I will then argue that the ascetics of virtue that involves the particular ascetical practice of truth-telling has the power to undo the traumatic effects of war on the combat veteran. Insofar as this undoing is an embodiment of virtue, it is also an embodiment of the divine—theosis.
When it comes to the question of war, the Orthodox are probably most well known for asserting that there is no just war “theory” in the Orthodox tradition in the form of distinctions between jus in bello and jus ad bellum, and their respective criteria; there is also consensus that within the tradition there has been discussion about the need to go to war even if such discussion never resulted in a just war “theory”; the current debate centers on how going to war is characterized: For Fr. Stanley Harakas, it is always a necessary evil; for Fr. Alexander Webster, there has existed a justifiable just war tradition within Orthodoxy that identifies under certain conditions when war is virtuous and of moral value. What is remarkable about the entire debate is that there is little attention to what is arguably the core and central axiom of the Orthodox tradition—the principle of divine-human communion. Webster speaks of war as “virtuous,” and yet absent is any attention to the tradition of thinking on virtue in either the ascetical writings or in such thinkers as Maximos the Confessor; in both cases, the understanding of virtue is inherently linked to one’s struggle toward communion with God—theosis. How exactly is claiming to have fought in a virtuous war, or to have killed virtuously consistent with this tradition of thinking on virtue in light of the principle of divine-human communion? Is it really the case that being virtuous in war means moving toward a deeper communion with God? Webster does not give an answer to these questions. Although Harakas does argue for the patristic bias for peace, approaching the issue from an eschatological perspective, his emphasis is still on how to label the action to go to war, or the conduct during war, and there is no attention to war from the perspective of the Orthodox understanding of creation’s destiny for communion with God.
The Vice of War
One result of understanding war from the principle of divine-human communion is attention to the effects of war on those who live through it, no matter what side one is on. Discussions of justifiable war may create the impression that as long as one is on the morally justified side of war, then that should be enough to mitigate the existential effects of war and violence. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that the “side” one is on makes absolutely no difference to the non-discriminatory effects of violence in war.
There is no shortage of stories of the traumatic effects of war from soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War, or the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What stories from veterans of war reveal is that violence becomes embodied—its insidiousness seeps into the physiological infrastructure of the human person. If creation is created for communion, and if humans are the center of this divine-human drama, then divine-human communion itself is the presencing of the good into the deep recesses of the body—it is an embodied experience. Violence opens up the body not to God, but to the inhabitation of the anti-God.
This absence of the divine is evident in the staggering statistic that at least “one-third of homeless males are [Vietnam] veterans, with 150,000-250,000 veterans homeless on a given night and at least twice that number homeless at some time in the course of a given year.” It is also apparent in the study that showed that “35.8 percent of male Vietnam combat veterans met the full American Psychiatric Association diagnostic criteria for PTSD at the time of the study, in the late 1980s . . . This is a thirty-two-fold increase in the prevalence of PTSD compared to the random sample of demographically similar civilians. More than 70 percent of combat veterans had experienced at least one of the cardinal symptoms (‘partial PTSD’) at some time in their lives, even if they did not receive the full syndrome diagnosis.” This high rate of the experience of PTSD symptoms among Vietnam veterans demonstrates that the effects of war linger in the body long after a soldier’s tour of duty. This lingering is in the form of “(a) hostile or mistrustful attitude toward the world; (b) social withdrawal; (c) feelings of emptiness or hopelessness; (d) a chronic feeling of being ‘on the edge,’ as if constantly threatened; (e) estrangement.” Those who suffer from combat trauma often experience flashbacks to traumatic events, in which the primary image that is governing their emotional state is one of violence and impending threat to life. One would hope that sleep would give respite to such suffering, but combat trauma often leads to recurring nightmares; and, the lack of deep sleep leads to other inevitable emotional disturbances, such as increased irritability and tendency to anger. Beyond the recurring nightmares, combat veterans often simply cannot sleep because they trained themselves for the sake of survival to be hyper-alert and to react to sounds that may, in combat situations, be life-threatening; as any good ascetic would know, such training of the body is simply not undone by returning home. Add to all this “[r]andom, unwarranted rage at family, sexual dysfunction, no capacity for intimacy, [s]omatic disturbances, loss of ability to experience pleasure, [p]eripheral vasoconstriction, autonomic hyperactivity, [s]ense of the dead being more real than the living.” What is most damaging to combat veterans who suffer from symptoms of PTSD is the destruction of their capacity to trust, which inevitably renders impossible any forms of bonding with others that are meaningful. If Jesus’ greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all your hear, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37-39), then experiencing PTSD symptoms simply makes that impossible. What is most demonic about the violence of war is its power to debilitate the capacity to experience love—both in the form of being loved and loving another.
Most frightening of the diverse forms in which PTSD is manifested in combat soldiers is that which is called the “berserk state.” The state of being berserk also poses a formidable challenge to Christian conceptions of the spiritual life, and, in particular, the notion of deification. Berserk is an extreme state of PTSD that is triggered by such events as “betrayal, insult, or humiliation by a leader; death of a friend-in-arms, being wounded; being overrun, surrounded, or trapped; seeing dead comrades who have been mutilated by the enemy; and unexpected deliverance from certain death.” Shay elaborates that “I cannot say for certain that betrayal is a necessary precondition. However, I have yet to encounter a veteran who went berserk from grief alone.” The characteristics of the berserk state are: “beastlike, godlike, socially disconnected, crazy, mad, insane, enraged, cruel, without restraint or discrimination, insatiable, devoid of fear, inattentive to own safety, distractible, reckless, feeling invulnerable, exalted, intoxicated, frenzied, cold, indifferent, insensible to pain, suspicious of friends.” Soldiers who go berserk in combat are often those who put themselves in the greatest danger and, if they survive, are deemed, ironically, the most heroic. There is growing research that indicates that the berserk state entail “changes in the parts of the brain that process incoming sensations for signs of danger and connect sensation with emotion.” Even after combat, a veteran can go berserk, and often have no recollection of it, as was the case with John, and Iraqi war veteran, who cut his fiancée and her mother with a knife after an argument over bus schedules, and after a long stretch in which John was showing progress through treatment. After cutting his fiancée and her mother, John then cut himself, telling the police as they walked in, “see, it doesn’t hurt.” John could not immediately recall the event; he had to be told what had happened; and, on being told, he was afraid that he had killed his daughter, which he did not.
What’s most troubling about the berserk state is that violence can imprint itself on the body—and, thus, on the soul—in ways that could be permanent: “On the basis of my work with Vietnam veterans, I conclude that the berserk state is ruinous, leading to the soldier’s maiming or death in battle—which is the most frequent outcome—and to life-long psychological and physiological injury if he survives. I believe that once a person has entered the berserk state, he or she is changed forever.” He amplifies that “[m]ore than 40 percent of Vietnam combat veterans sampled in the late 1980s by the congressionally mandated National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study reported engaging in violent acts three times or more in the previous year.” The spiritually challenging question is, what meaning could speaking about theosis possibly have for someone whose physiology has been permanently scarred by violence?
In addition to PTSD, a new category is emerging in order to distinguish a certain state of being that is effected by the combat veteran’s participation in war and that is no longer thought to be identical with PTSD, even if many of the symptoms are similar. This state of being is being called “moral injury,” which is distinguished from PTSD in the sense of not being induced through a fear response. Moral injury refers to the state of being when a combat veteran experiences a deep sense of having violating their own core moral beliefs. It may occur as a result of killing, torturing prisoners, abusing dead bodies or failing to prevent such acts; it may also ensure even if there was no way for the combat veteran to avoid doing such acts. In the experience of moral injury, combat veterans may judge themselves to be worthless, unable to live with an act he or she committed that is a never erasable act. Symptoms are similar to those as PTSD, such as isolation, mistrust of others, depression, addiction, emotional detachment, and negative self-judgments. There are countless stories that I’ve heard of combat veterans who admit that they are afraid to speak of all that they did in combat situations for fear that the one to whom they speak will deem him or her unlovable. In the situation of moral injury, the Christian concept of forgiveness is extremely relevant. Moral injury points to the need for self-forgiveness, which I would argue is impossible without some sense of transcendence. The necessity for some form of transcendence in order to enable self-forgiveness of an act committed that can never be taken back and never forgotten but is integratable in a personal narrative through an intuition of one’s narrative being a part of a larger cosmic and divine reality, in my mind points more powerfully to the existence of God than any other philosophical argument, whether it be the cosmological, ontological or teleological arguments.
It is very disturbing to hear the stories of combat veterans, which include: not sleeping with their spouses for fear that a nightmare may lead them to physically harm their spouse; not being able to sleep in the middle of the night because of hyper-vigilance; not wanting to be outdoors for fear that a sound, such as a bird chirping or water running, may trigger combat mode; not being able to enter public spaces, such as grocery stores or elevators; having dreams of mutilating one’s children; alienating friends and families; not being able to hold a job, or even get a job for fear of public spaces. These and many such similar stories reveal that there is an ascetics to war: either through the training received in the military, or through the practices that one performs in the midst of war to train the body for survival against constant threat of violence, war is the undoing of virtue in the sense that impacts negatively a combat veteran’s capacity for relationship with family, friends and strangers. War does not simply cause “lifelong disabling psychiatric symptoms but can ruin good character.” From the perspective of the principle of divine-human communion, the ruin of good character is not limited to the “soul” of the combat veteran; “character” is a relational category and the ruin of character is simultaneously the ruin of relationships.
What does theosis have to do with war?
On the surface, it would seem that for those who suffer from PTSD as a result of combat, or any trauma, talk of theosis or divine-human communion seems like a luxury. To some extent, the Orthodox have contributed to this perception of the irrelevancy of theosis to those who are in the midst of perpetual suffering by predominantly linking deification to the monk in the monastery, the desert, on a stylite or in the forest; add to this the tendency to describe theosis in supernatural terms of being surrounded divine light, battling demons, or eating with the bears. In order to have any relevancy for the experience of trauma, theosis must expand the boundaries of the monastery and be made more worldly.
This more mundane form of theosis is rendered possible in the Greek patristic tradition in its linking of divine-human communion to virtue, which can illuminate what Shay means by the “undoing of character” that occurs as a result of war. In the writings of Maximos the Confessor (d. 662), communion with God, which is an embodied presencing of the divine, is simultaneous with the acquisition of virtue: Virtue is embodied deification. To say that the human is created with the potential to be god-like should not conjure up images of Greek mythology; within the Greek patristic texts, it simply means that if God is love, then the human was created to love, and this love is simultaneously a uniting oneself with God, since God is love. In Maximos the Confessor, deification is the acquisition of love, the virtue of virtues, and his Centuries on Love is a treatise in which Maximos discusses a trajectory of the acquisition of virtues toward the acquisition of the virtue of virtues—Love. For Maximos, the human is created to learn how to love, and is in constant battle against that which weakens the capacity to love.
Virtue, for Maximos, is not a building of character for character’s sake; it is not a state of being where one displays one’s virtues like badges of honor; it is not simply the basis for proper moral decision making. The acquisition of virtue is the precondition for enabling the human capacity to love: “Scripture calls the virtues ways, and the best of all the virtues is love” (4.74). Virtues are necessary for the learning and acquisition of love: “All the virtues assist the mind in the pursuit of divine love” (1.11). Maximos does not restrict himself to only the four cardinal virtues—prudence, courage, temperance, and justice—but, consistent with the Eastern Christian patristic tradition, gives a wider catalogue of virtues and vices that correspond to the three parts of the soul: sensible, irascible and the rational. Particular virtues correspond to particular vices, insofar as each virtue is meant to neutralize a particular vice. The hermeneutical key to Maximos’s complicated detailing of the relation of virtues and vices to the inner life of the human person and to human agency is “progress in the love of God,” (2.14), which is measured ultimately by how one relates to others, especially those to whom one feels hatred or anger (1.71). This particular definition of virtue, then, illuminates the full force and terrifying implications of Shay’s idea of war leading to the “undoing of character.” What is being undone is the human capacity to love and to receive love. When something like the berserk state “destroys the capacity for virtue,” this destruction is not simply an evacuation of a “sense of being valued and of valuing anything,” as Shay defines it; according to the description of how combat veterans relate to their family, neighbors, friends and strangers, what is impaired is the capacity for authentic relationships marked by intimacy, trust, depth—love.
If virtues are embodied deification, the precondition for the learning of the virtue of virtues, which is love, then vice impairs the capacity for love. Maximos explains that “[t]he purpose of divine Providence is to unify by an upright faith and spiritual love those who have been separated in diverse ways by vice” (4.17). He elaborates that the “vice that separates you from your brother” includes “envying and being envied, hurting or being hurt, insulting or being insulted, and suspicious thoughts” (4.18-19). Maximos is also astute to know that vice breeds vice; i.e., that it is not simply the doing of vice that harms the capacity for love, it is being “viced upon”: “The things which destroy love are these: dishonor, damage, slander (either against faith or against conduct), beatings, blows, and so forth, whether these happen to oneself or to one’s relatives or friends” (4.81). Vices produce and are such affective emotions as anger, hatred, and fear. Thoughout this treatise, Maximos is attempting both to advise and exhort a form of training that can overcome what are ultimately corrosive emotions, no matter how justified.
Also relevant to illuminating the “undoing of character” that war and violence potentially effect on a combat veteran is Maximos’s discussion of the relation of images to the cultivation of vices and virtues. According to Maximus, what often incites and reifies a vice are images or thoughts that present themselves to the human person. Maximos explains that “Love and self-mastery keep the mind detached from things and from their representations . . . The whole war of the monk against demons is to separate the passions from the representations (3.39, 3.41). He adds that the “virtues separate the mind from the passions (3.44). Maximos also warns when “insulted by someone or offended in any matter, then beware of angry thoughts, lest by distress they sever you from charity and place you in the region of hatred” (1.29). “Detachment,” for Maximos, “is a peaceful state of the soul in which it become resistant to vice” (1.36). In terms of images that incite vice, this resistence is not a removal of the image, but disabling of its power to evoke such feelings of anger or hatred. To be virtuous is to experience in the face of images the emotions and desires that cultivate authentic relationships.
The problem that veterans with PTSD often face is that the images they confront, whether real or imaginary, trigger the emotion of impending fear, which leads to other negative emotions, such as anger-turned-to-rage and hatred, which then lead to a withdrawal from the other. The relation between images of impending threat and certain emotions and desires is reminiscent of Saint Anthony the Great’s encounter with images of the demonic; Anthony’s struggle was against those images and their potential impact on the passions. In this sense, the acquisition of virtue, has something to do with the affective response to certain images, either real or imaginary. Virtue is not the elimination of images—how could one forget a friend’s head being blown off—but, rather, an attenuation of the power of demonic images on the landscape of one’s emotions and desires, which forms the basis for the shape of relationality. In combat trauma, the redoing of virtue does not mean forgetting one’s friend’s head being blown off; rather, healing is about acquiring a new kind of memory of the events. The acquisition of virtue would be an affective response to the images of war and violence that do not destroy relationships but open the path for a breakthrough of love.
If the ascetics of war is an undoing of good character, which is the destruction of the capacity for authentic relationships, then the challenge for combat veterans is to engage in the tasks that lead to a redoing of virtue, which would increase their capacity for such relationships, and for the embodied presence of the divine—theosis. Maximos discusses the virtues in terms of the power to counter particular vices. Insofar as virtue is related to love, then virtues build relationships of intimacy, trust, compassion, empathy, friendship, sharing, caring, humility, and honesty: all that is apparently threatened by the experience of vice. Insofar as virtues build proper relationships while vices destroy such relationships, then the ascetics of theosis must be relevant to those attempting to undo the ascetics of war. According to Maximos, the acquisition of virtue is a training realized in and through certain practices that forms both the body and the inner life (soul) of the human person; virtue is a wiring of the self as openness to love. Thinking about the healing of combat trauma along the lines of practices and virtues provides a way for intersecting the psychological literature on trauma and the ascetical/mystical tradition on the formation of virtue. The connecting category is that of practices, since the combat veteran must engage in a new kinds of ascetics, one that replaces the ascetics of war in order to combat the demonic images impacting his relationships to self and others.
Although there are many practices that enable the acquisition of virtue, and thus, the capacity for relationships of trust, intimacy, depth and love, I will restrict my focus to one that is key to any redoing of virtue in both the psychological and the ascetical/mystical literature—the practice of truth-telling or confession. In the Christian tradition, truth-telling is primarily associated with the sacrament of Confession understood forensically as fulfilling a contractual obligation to tell a priest one’s sins before forgiveness is granted; or, with the moral obligation not to lie. When speaking about truth-telling as a practice that enables the capacity for love through the acquisition of virtues, I am not referring strictly to either a forensic understanding of the Sacrament of Confession, or the moral obligation to tell the truth. Speaking certain truths in the midst of another or other persons has the power both to reconfigure the relationships in which such a truth is spoken, and to produce an affective effect on the landscape of one’s emotions and desires. Truths spoken hover in the midst of a relationship with the power to affect both the speaker and the listener(s). It is not uncommon to think that one can protect oneself from a traumatic experience by simply attempting to forget it, or by not verbalizing it to others. The irony is that only through a verbal acknowledgement or recognition, which cannot be revoked, can the power of the traumatic image be mitigated. It is also the case that the affective result of truth-telling as an event depends on the listener, who can use the spoken truth either to iconically presence the divine toward mitigating the power of the effects of violence, or can image the demonic by adding violence to violence. In short, the event of truth-telling to another is a iconically charged event, that can potentially presence either the divine or the demonic.
Both Jonathan Shay and Judith Herman in their experience with trauma victims attest to the basic truth that healing cannot occur until the trauma victim can begin to speak about the traumatic events. Truth-telling in and of itself is not sufficient for healing, but it is absolutely necessary. Also, truth-telling of trauma cannot begin until a safe and secure environment is established for the trauma victim, what Herman refers to as stage one of recovery. Once such a secure and safe environment is established, it is absolutely essential that the victim of combat trauma speak about the truth about the traumatic event and reconstruct a narrative of the event itself.
To even speak the truth about the trauma of war can be interpreted as an embodiment of the virtue of humility, in the sense that making oneself vulnerable is requisite to opening the self to loving and being loved. The sixth-century Syriac Christian ascetic, Dorotheos of Gaza, analogizes the Christian life to building a house, “[t]he roof is charity, which is the completion of virtue as the roof completes the house. After the roof comes the crowning of the dwelling place . . .[i.e. railings around the flat roof] . . . The crown is humility. For that is the crown and guardian of all virtues. As each virtue needs humility for its acquisition—and in that sense we said each stone is laid with the mortar of humility—so also the perfection of all the virtues is humility.” As Shay declares, “the fact that these veterans can speak at all of their experience is a major sign of healing.” The reconstruction of the narrative must also be in the context of other persons, in the form of a community. Shay argues that the “healing of trauma depends upon the communalization of the trauma—being able to safely to tell the story to someone who is listening and who can be trusted to retell it truthfully to others in the community.” The mitigation of the demonic, thus, depends on truth, even if such a truth has to do with the experience of the demonic; and this truth needs to be “communalized” told and listened to by others.
Over the years, Shay has discovered that such communalization is most effective when the community itself consists of those who know, either directly or indirectly, the effects of combat trauma. Much like Alcoholics Anonymous, the healing power of truth-telling depends not simply on telling the truth, but on who is listening. The rebound effect of truth-telling depends on the symbolic/iconic significance of the one listening. In the end, the veterans heal each other. Theologically, the veterans are iconically charged to presence the divine to each other, even in the midst of, and because of, their shared suffering.
The affective effect of truth-telling might also require a listener beyond a community of combat veterans. Shay’s “clinical team has encouraged many of the veterans we work with to avail themselves of the sacrament of penance. When a veteran does not already know a priest he trusts to hear his confession, we have suggested priest who understand enough about combat neither to deny that he has anything to feel guilty about nor to recoil in revulsion and send him away without the sacrament.” What this need for a form of truth-telling beyond the community of combat veterans reveals is that the experience of forgiveness needs another kind of listener other than the empathetic combat veteran. Although the same ascetical practice, truth-telling to distinctive listeners does different kinds of work on the landscape of one’s emotions and desire. The chances are very high that the ascetics of war will lead some to engage in practices in which there is a felt need for forgiveness. Tom Mathews’s father felt this need, as did John, who could barely speak about how combat in Iraq lead to killing of kids whom he realized “could be your kids.” On the cosmic scale, other combat veterans cannot iconically symbolize that forgiveness; cannot be a kind of listener that enables the realization of that forgiveness as an affective event in the combat veteran. Someone like a priest is iconically charged to perform that role.
The importance of truth-telling in the redoing of virtue only highlights how the military culture of denial and repression of the combat experience is corrosive. When mistakes were made and innocent people were killed rather than the “enemy,” the military thought it was helping by covering for the solider(s), who were told that it would be “all right.” Shay relays one story in which the soldiers involved in such a mistake were actually given medals as a way of covering up for the mistake. When friends are lost, soldiers are told to “stuff those tears,” or “to get even.” Whereas in ancient cultures, dead bodies, including those of the enemy, were treated with respect, the US military had no mechanism in Vietnam for memorializing the dead. Ancient cultures also had rituals for reintegrating soldiers back into society after battle. Such rituals did not depend on whether the battle was just or not. American soldiers return from war with little to no fanfare, trying to figure out what to do next. What’s especially egregious is how the US military has not provided sufficient enough resources for combat veterans showing symptoms of PTSD, often making difficult the availability of such resources because of budgetary constraints. Although improvements have been made, what pervades military culture, and American culture in general, is a pelagian-like “suck it up” attitude, with no realization at all of how a combat veteran is ultimately in the grip of the demonic until engaging in ascetic practices that undo the effects of war and violence.
It is both encouraging, ironic and a little troubling to contemplate how an ascetics of virtue in the form of fostering a community of people who learn to trust each other, who form bonds of affection through telling personal stories, who become friends, has the power to mitigate the effects of the ascetics of war. Beyond the debates over whether Christians should think about criteria for judging decisions to go to war, which this essay has not necessarily dismissed as illegitimate, the formation of communities of virtue both before and after combat has the power to mitigate the effects of violence on any one of the members in the community itself, especially if that community of virtue presupposes an open space for truth-telling.
There is an even deeper theological significance to the necessity of truth-telling as part of an ascetic of virtue that undoes the ascetic of war. First, it reveals that God meets someone in the truth of her concrete, historical situation. In the case of combat trauma, it is not a matter of first undoing the effects of war and then going off to the desert to achieve theosis; undoing the effects of violence is itself the desert in which the combat veteran finds himself in his struggle to (re)experience the presence of the divine. The ascetical struggle toward divine-human communion is entrenched in a particular history and a particular body, which then demands the virtue of discernment on the part of the community of combat veterans, the mental health professional, the priest, even family and friends in order to extricate the combat veteran from the grip of the demonic. As Shay argues, “Modern combat is a condition of enslavement and torture.” The formation of communities of virtue, which presuppose truth-telling, mitigates and breaks the cycle of violence. Second, sin committed and sin that is done to us cannot be forgotten, repressed or denied. It is part of the fabric of the universe that the truth must be recognized, otherwise it will haunt us in other forms. It is only by integrating the truth of sin into our narrative that it can then be neutralized in its effect. In the end, God is the God of truth, which includes the unique and particular truths of our narratives; if God is truth, then God is found in the verbal recognition of the truths of our narrative, no matter how horrific those truths may be. Although “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor power, nor things present nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39), to love and be loved by God and neighbor depends ultimately on the practice and virtue of honesty, which includes the courage to acknowledge and accept the truths of our own narrative.
In sharing these ideas with a colleague it was pointed out to me that perhaps I am confusing therapy with morality. I think that what I have presented here today is, in part, attempting to trouble the waters between too easy a divide between, to use a different word, spirituality and ethics. It is clear that in Maximos the Confessor that whatever virtue is it has to do with what humans are meant to be, which for Maximos was creatures built to learn how to love. In so far as the arena of war, which extends as far back as military training to post-deployment life, involves engaging in a set of practices that are constitutive of the self, then what happens to the combat veteran is as much an ethical concern as are the decisions about whether or not to go to war, and by what means should war be waged.
My discussion today did not in any way intend to undermine just-war ethics; nor am I advocating a pacifist position. Christian ethics still needs to discuss when and by what means violence is legitimate, or whether these are the right questions to ask. I do think, however, that an ethics of war that focuses simply on these questions is missing other dimensions in the ascetics of war which a Christian virtue ethics can illuminate and offer resources for reflection. There may, in fact, be just uses of violence, which are also motivated by courage, temperance, justice and charity, but such a use of violence is not the end of the ethical story. Ethics needs to consider the effect of inflicted and inflicting violence on the human person and the formation of virtue that could potentially mitigate or reverse such effects, the most damaging being the capacity to love and be loved.
Finally, this interrelation between violence and virtue that I am presenting today could also be extended to areas of ethics beyond the ethics of war, such as issues related to social justice. The effects of violence on the human is also clearly visible in the poor neighborhoods in the big cities of the United States (and I’m sure of Europe), where the threat of violence is constant. One teenager who lived in a poor neighborhood of Chicago, which is infested with violent gangs, described his neighborhood as a daily war zone. Related to this, one of the most difficult questions confronting educators in the United States is how to educate children in poorer neighborhoods, who are consistently underperforming in comparison with children in more middle-class or affluent neighborhoods. Paul Tough has recently reported on approaches to this problem that focus on character, such as the recent work and studies of the Nobel-Prize economist from the University of Chicago, James Heckman. Tough describes how educators for decades were focusing on improving what are called “cognitive skills,” which have to do with such things as reading and mathematics. Studies have shown that the skills correlated with success in such things as college graduation, or well-paying job are what are called “non-cognitive skills.” It is the development of non-cognitive skills that allow for the development of cognitive skills. Examples of non-cognitive skills are self-control, impulse control, anger management, delayed gratification, or thinking before making a bad decision. If you have not noticed already, these sound a lot like St. Maximus’s virtues.
What they have also discovered is that the stress from adverse experiences in childhood, such as the experience of violence or the threat of violence, can prevent non-cognitive skills from developing properly. If a child has experienced four or more adverse effects as a child, she is thirty-two times likely to develop learning problems. If a child is experiencing the constant threat of violence in the home, the stress that such a threat generates can prevent the development of the part of the brain responsible for non-cognitive skills. Another way it was explained is this: if one is in the forest and is confronted by a bear, then the part of the brain responsible for aggression will activate and that part of the brain responsible for reading and writing will deactivate in order for the person to prepare for an emergency response. Such an emergency response, however, is meant to be infrequent. For some children living in a family home situation in which the threat of violence is constant, the brain responds as if facing a bear every single day. If the emergency response of the brain is activated repeatedly, the brain forms pathways that get increasingly ingrained. In day-to-day situations, this means that it is difficult for such children to learn reading and mathematics in class when the brain is constantly on emergency response mode. It also explains why such children are plagued with two of the vices that St. Maximus says get in the way of love—fear and anger. It is not uncommon for such children to have behavioral problems in school that often manifests itself in rage. Being surrounded by or experiencing violence can actually form the brain in such a way as to form the vices of fear and anger (again, not necessarily self-love as much as self-loathing). These vices are impairing the ability to be in the kind of relationships that would not simply allow for love to occur, but to allow for learning to occur.
What was also interesting about these studies is that it is being shown how proper attachment to a parent or parents can help a child manage the stress of adverse situations. In other words, the development of proper relations through the virtues can counter the vices formed through the experience or threat of violence. What’s most hopeful is that these non-cognitive skills can be learned even throughout adulthood; in other words, the human was created in such a way that these non-cognitive skills can be learned no matter what the age of a person. What is really remarkable about all this, at least for me, is the connection between all that these studies are showing with all that St. Maximus says about the interrelation between the manifestation of the virtues and contemplation.
What I have attempted to suggest in this paper is that St. Maximus’s account of virtue can disrupt the current status quo in both philosophical and theological virtue ethics, as well as just war and social ethics, by offering a thick understanding of the human telos as one that entails learning how to love. St. John Chrysostom once said that even the poor need virtue. St. Maximus helps us to understand this comment in the sense that what is distinctive about an Orthodox war and social ethics for today goes well beyond simply congratulating the solider for his or her service, or helping the poor during a time of need, or advocating for systemic change. By never wavering in its understanding of the human being as being created to learn how to love, a Christian war and social ethics offers the very wisdom of the practices needed to form the human being in the virtues that would allow the human to mitigate the effects of poverty and violence, and enable the person to learn how to love, which is nothing less, according to St. Maximus, than the experience of God. If poverty and violence potentially depersonalize and render the human being faceless, then the ascetical practices that manifest the virtues and that enable the capacity to love are essential for the realization of the person as a eucharistic being in the world that is free (ekstatic) and irreducibly unique (hypostatic).
The following interview with Hieromonk Melchizedeck (Gordenko) and monk Gabriel (Kairasov) appeared in Orthodoxy in Ukraine, a Ukrainian language website on January 30th.
by Lado Gegechkori
HIEROMONK MELCHIZEDECK (GORDENKO) and monk Gabriel (Kairasov), on the night of February 20th, stood risking their lives on Grushevsky Street in Kiev between the police and the demonstrators, and in this way stopped the bloodshed for entire days.
LG: Tell us, fathers, what made you to go out to the street that day?
Fr. M: Once a long time ago I saw a photograph from Serbia, in which one priest was standing between the police and the demonstrators. I was filled with admiration for him—one man with a cross in his hands was able to stop a thousand people on one side, and a thousand on the other!
Our Desyatina Monastery is located very close to the epicenter of these events—even at night in the church we could hear fireworks, shouting from megaphones, and the noise of crowds. When I heard that on Grushevsky Street explosions were causing people to lose their arms, legs, and eyes, I understood that I should be there, so that I would not later be ashamed of myself. For some reason I remembered the example of a priest in Georgia, who ran out with a bench in his hands to route the gay parade. That man saw lawlessness in the streets and did not try to hide or wait it out in the church, but went out to make his position clear to the laity, and to inspire them by his example.
LG: As far as I understand it, you had agreed upon a plan?
Fr. M: No, we had no sort of plan. Early in the morning, Fr. Ephraim, Fr. Gabriel, and I prayed together, and after asking a blessing, we went out to the Maidan. None of us had even the slightest wavering or doubt. There was no plan. There was a goal—to do at least something to stop the violence.
LG: How did the demonstrators react to the appearance of men in vestments?
Fr. M: We were realistic about the fact that it is no longer possible to stop the police or demonstrators, and therefore we were ready to stand under the flying bullets and stones. But when people saw priests in front of them, standing between them and the police cordon, it was as if they had been dashed with boiling water. They calmed down almost immediately. A moment of something like a blessed reasonableness came over them.
Fr. G: The people standing there came up to us and said, “As long as you stand here, we will not throw any stones at the police.” This really inspired us all. We were able to restrain people until nightfall—only then did Molotov cocktails start flying at the police. But even in that moment, many of the demonstrators ran over to the police cordon and shouted to their comrades to cease their aggression. Some of these young fellows even climbed onto the roof of a burnt-out bus in order to pull out the protesters, thus placing themselves in the path of danger.
LG: Did you understand that you were risking your lives? After all, Molotov cocktails and grenades were blowing up around you.
Fr. G: When we were standing between the crowd of protesters and the police behind their shields, and all around us grenades were popping and cocktails were ripping, a hot bottle landed about five meters from me. But it did not explode… Fire was burning all around us, bottles were crashing and machinery was rumbling, but for some reason this cocktail did not explode. It would have scorched me and everyone around me in a moment, but it only hit the ground and fizzled out. Then I felt that the Lord was protecting us.
Later, however, people started using us as human shields—demonstrators walked up to us and threw stones and bottles with flammable mixtures from behind our backs. At that moment I felt a terrible bitterness for these people, whom we were calling to make peace, but who were nevertheless thirsting for blood. I felt that demons were mocking these human souls, inciting them to rage, and dulling their good sense.
LG: At what moment did you understand that it was time for you to leave the demonstration site?
Fr. M: We were not alone there—there were lay people standing next to us, both men and women. We were watching attentively, so that no one would throw stones and bottles at them—after all, we essentially bore responsibility for them at that moment. Therefore, when the situation came to a head, we decided to step back in order to guard those who stood with us shoulder-to-shoulder.
Some have spoken of provocations and aggression from the crowd, others, about the cruelty and brutality of the police. I cannot say anything of the kind. We did not want to find the guilty party; we wanted to make peace between both sides.
LG: Some are inclined to emphasize the cruelty of the police, while others blame the demonstrators for everything. What is your opinion, as eye-witnesses?
Fr. G: At the moment the passions were escalating, a man ran from out of the crowd. Disregarding the cold, he was bare to the waist. The man shouted to the crowd and the police to stop, and then fell to his knees and began to pray fervently. But the police jumped at him, took him by the feet and dragged him to the cars. I tried to stop them, but in vain. I was sincerely sorry for that man—it seemed to me that God’s grace was visiting him at that moment.
It is not right to bet in this situation on one side or the other. We saw cruelty from both camps—each of them was sick in their own way.
LG: At that moment, people of all different religious confessions were gathered in the center of town. Did you have any confrontations with them?
Fr. M: During those hours that we spent at the Maidan, people from all different confessions came there: Greek-Catholics, clergy from the “Kiev Patriarchate” and the Catholic Church; and what is the most amazing of all—Buddhists!
Fr. G: Even a Jew came up to me in his kippah, and standing next to me, started praying. I listened to him amazed: he was praying Orthodox prayers with us!
Fr. M: To me a young man came up, introduced himself as Seryezha, and asked me whether we accept heretics. “Heretics in what sense?” I asked. “I am a Baptist,” Seryezha smiled. “Of course we accept them. Come on over!”
This place was the borderline of peace, and there could be no talk of “acceptance” or “non-acceptance.”
LG: That is, the common woe united all those who can’t find a common language during peaceful times?
Fr. G: There was no division between confessions or ideology. This was not the time for that. When a mother sees a tree falling over the sandbox, she won’t only grab her own child—she’ll pick up someone else’s as well, be he the neighbor’s or a street kid. At that moment, we were all related.
And do you know what is most amazing? People started calling us from Kiev and other cities—both lay people and clergy—saying that they wanted to stand with us shoulder-to-shoulder when we go out there again. Literally just a few days ago, a man who had been standing in the barricades at that moment came to our church, and said that he no longer wants to stand there, now he wants to pray.
Many protesters who saw us there said the same thing. They had thought that a stone is the weightiest thing there could possibly be. But when they saw us, they recognized that compared to certain spiritual things, a stone is lighter than a feather.
LG: You risked your lives, standing there in those minutes. Tell us, did you remember the New Martyrs then, and were you inspired by their example?
Fr. G: Do you know, when we went to the Maidan, I began to pray silently. And among all the other saints whom I was asking for help, some of the first who came to mind were the Georgian martyrs Shalva, Bidzina, and Elisbara. These were three princes who stirred an uprising in Georgia against the Islamic oppression. Having gathered two thousand warriors under their banners, they defeated the army of the Persian shah, which numbered 10,000 strong. But when hundreds of women and children were taken captive by the shah, the princes surrendered without a second thought. The captives were released, but the princes were executed. Their martyrdom consisted in their living and fighting for the people’s sake, and they were ready to die in order to save innocent lives.
I also recalled the example of one Russian commander who fought in Chechnya—his name was kept secret, but the mujahedin announced a price on his head. When the Chechens took several peaceful citizens captive, he unhesitatingly gave himself up in exchange for the captives’ freedom. He was brutally murdered, but the captives survived.
Who are the New Martyrs? What can we call the feeling that guides them? I would call it “ordinary patriotism.” IC
ALTHOUGH IT IS natural and usual to love those who love us and to do good to those who do good to us (Mat.t 5:46-47; Luke 6:32-33), to love our enemies is distasteful to our nature. One can say that it isn’t in our power but is an attitude that can only be the fruit of grace, given by the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Silouan the Athonite writes, “The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it.”
The starets repeatedly says that love of enemies is impossible without grace. “Lord, You have given the commandment to love enemies, but this is difficult for us sinners if Your grace is not with us…. Without God’s grace we cannot love our enemies…. He who has not learned to love from the Holy Spirit, will certainly not pray for his enemies.” On the contrary, St. Silouan always taught that this attitude is a gift of the Holy Spirit: “The Lord has commanded us to love our enemies, and the Holy Spirit reveals this love to us…. When you will love your enemies, know that a great divine grace will be living in you.”
This grace does not suddenly erupt in the soul, but rather shows itself in a divine pedagogy, where taking into account the weakness and the difficulties of man, the Holy Spirit progressively teaches him to love and teaches him all the attitudes and ways which will al-low him to do so. “The Holy Spirit teaches us to love even our enemies…. The Holy Spirit teach-es the soul a profound love for man and compassion for the lost. The Lord had pity for those who were lost…. The Holy Spirit teach-es this same compassion for those who go to hell…. I could not speak about it if the Holy Spirit had not taught me this love…. The Lord taught me love of enemies.”
The grace of the Holy Spirit shows to him who possesses it the way to love his enemies. But it also reveals to him the foundation of this love: the love of God for all people and His will to save them. “No man can know by himself what divine love is if the Holy Spirit does not instruct him; but in our Church divine love is known through the Holy Spirit, and that is why we speak about it.” Grace also “gives man the capacity and the strength to love his enemies, and the Spirit of God gives us the strength to love them.”
Starets Silouan insisted that because love of enemies is a fruit of grace, it is essentially only through prayer that it can be obtained. Several times he urges us to “ask the Lord with our whole being to give us the strength to love all men.” He also advised to pray to the Mother of God and the Saints. “If we are incapable [of loving our enemies] and if we are without love, let us turn with ardent prayers to the Lord, to His Most Pure Mother, and to all the Saints, and the Lord will help us with everything, He whose love for us knows no bounds.” The starets confessed that he himself constantly prayed to God for this. “I continuously beg the Lord to give me the love of enemies…. Day and night I ask the Lord for this love.” Wishing in his universal love for all men to receive such a gift, he links them to himself in his prayer. “Lord, teach us through Your Holy Spirit to love our enemies and to pray for them with tears…. Lord, as you prayed for your enemies, so teach us also, through the Holy Spirit, to love our enemies.”
Yet obtaining the grace to love one’s enemies presupposes other conditions.
The love of enemies is completely bound to the love of God. We have seen that the principal foundation for the love of enemies is the love that God shows to all His creatures equally and His will that all people should be saved. Christ gave us a perfect example of such love throughout his earthly life. The love of God leads man to accomplish His will and to imitate Him as much as possible, and so also to love his enemies. The starets thus noted that he who does not love his enemies shows that he has not learned from the Holy Spirit to love God.
To love one’s enemies is also tightly bound to humility. The starets often associated these two virtues, pointing out that almost all the difficulties we encounter in loving our enemies are linked with pride, from which flows the afflictions that follow upon insults: hatred, bad temper, spite, the desire for revenge, contempt for one’s neighbor, and the refusal to forgive and to be reconciled.
But even while pride excludes the love of enemies, love excludes pride. “If we love our enemies, pride will have no place in our soul.” Further, it is the link between humility and love of enemies that proves the presence of grace and the authenticity of love. “If you have compassion for all creatures and love your enemies, and if at the same time you judge yourself the worst of all people, this shows that the great grace of the Lord is in you.”
Indeed humility is the indispensable condition to receive and keep the grace that teaches us to love our enemies and gives us the strength to do so. The starets advises us, if you “humiliate yourself, then grace will teach you.” On the other hand, “pride makes us lose grace…. The soul is then tormented by bad thoughts and does not understand that one must humiliate oneself and love one’s enemies, for without that, one cannot please God.”
The starets sometimes also stressed the role played by peni-tence in connection with humility. “Regard yourself the worst of men,” he advises. Doing so mani-fests an attitude of great humility, which by its nature implies peni-tence. He who counts himself the worst of men necessarily thinks others better than himself and will judge and blame himself without the need to judge and criticize his enemies, for he tends to estimate them better than himself.
St. Silouan also exemplified another aspect of a penitential attitude, that of asking God’s for-giveness each time one has not loved one’s enemy. “If I judge someone or look at him angrily, my tears dry up and I fall into despondency and again I start asking the Lord to forgive me, and the merciful Lord forgives me, a sinner…. Through such an attitude, by which the soul humbly recognizes before God its faults and shortcomings and obtains from Him forgiveness, an opening can be made that becomes bigger and bigger for grace and unceasing progress in love. As to a total absence of compassion for enemies, it shows the presence and the action of an evil spirit; sincere repentance is the only way to be freed from it.”
This insistence on prayer, humility, and penitence shows that, although St. Silouan recognized the determining role the action of grace plays in acquiring love of enemies, he did not neglect the role played by the efforts we must make. The starets was very conscious of the importance of our initiating action. “I beg you, try,” he states, “In the beginning, force your heart to love your enemies.” The efforts one makes must manifest themselves generally with focused intention and constant good will, stretched toward the realization of God’s command. God will not fail to respond to such effort.
For the person who feels discouraged by such a demanding task, St. Silouan reassures him. “Seeing your good intention, the Lord will help you in everything.” The starets who felt in himself so acutely human powerlessness and weakness seemed to think constantly of these words of the Apostle: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13) and witnesses in his own experience the mighty help that everyone can receive from God.
LOVE IS AN interior disposition that cannot be described adequately, but one can specify conditions and manifestations. In this way it is possible, by close attention to the wisdom of the Fathers, to define different steps in the love of enemies, from the most elementary to the highest. What follows is such a list of twenty-six steps that serves to summarize St. Silouan’s teaching on the love of enemies. This classification in steps does not of course pretend to establish a rigorous hierarchy. Some attitudes can be considered as being on different levels but each attitude more or less implies the others. Thus love, particularly this most difficult of all loves, may be analyzed in parts but in the end is a disposition that exists as a whole and is indivisible.
The first step, says St. John Chrysostom, is not to be the first to cause harm.
The second step is not to take revenge in the measure one has suffered.
While the two first degrees do not seem to concern the love of enemies, they are its preconditions. The tendency to attack one’s enemies or to take revenge is instinctive and spontaneous, and receives its approbation from the Old Testament law of retaliation when taken in its most literal meaning.
The third step is not to take revenge at all, but to leave that to God, as the Apostle Paul said: “Recompense to no man evil for evil” (Rom. 12:17); “Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). St. Isaac the Syrian gives the same advice: “Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute. Let yourself be crucified, but do not crucify. Let yourself be insulted, but do not insult.”
The fourth step is not to resist. This attitude was advised by Christ: “But I say unto you that you resist no evil” (Matt. 5:39).
The fifth step is not to be irritated by what our enemies do to us (St. Maximus the Confessor, Centuries on Charity 1:38, 2:49), but to bear, to show patience, to endure all we are made to suffer, following the example and exhortation of the Apostle: “Being persecuted, we suffer it” (1 Cor. 4:12), and “For ye suffer if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face” (2 Cor. 11:20).
The sixth step is not to get inwardly upset about insults, abuse, trials and affliction that our enemies make us suffer, or as St. Simeon the New Theologian puts it: “not to turn a hair during trials and to have an equable and uniform attitude towards those who abuse one face-to-face, who accuse, persecute, condemn, insult, spit, or even to those who make a show of friendship and behind one’s back act in the same way that they can’t completely hide.” We must add that this can happen on different planes, as this attitude also has different steps. On the lowest step it can be allied to contempt, and so be the opposite to love; one step higher it can be allied to indifference, and so still not be in accordance with love; on a higher plane it can show that one has attained impassibility, and higher still, be allied to true charity.
The seventh step is to consider offenses as a gift, to rejoice about them, and to thank God for them. He who has reached this step understands the meaning of these words of Christ: “Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake” (Matt. 5:11). The Fathers advise us to consider the person who offends us as a physician providentially come to cure our souls of its diseases, particularly pride and vainglory. They emphasize the profit one can gain from what one is made to suffer. St. Zosima said, “If someone remembers a brother who has hurt, injured, or insulted him, he must regard him as a doctor and benefactor sent by Christ. If you get upset in these circumstances, it means your soul is sick. Indeed, if you were not sick, you would not suffer. So give thanks to this brother, for through him you know your illness. Pray for him and receive what comes from him as medicine sent to you by the Lord.” St. John of Gaza writes, “If we are just, the trial sent us [by our enemies] is for our progress, and if we are unjust, it is for the remission of sins and our improvement; it is also an exercise and a lesson in endurance.”
The eighth step is to offer yourself voluntarily to suffer offenses. This attitude is advised by Christ and recorded for us in the Gospel. “Whosoever shall strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39).
The ninth step is to want to suffer more than one is asked to endure.
The tenth step is to feel no hate for those who ill treat us.
The eleventh step is to feel no rancor, wrath, or re-sentment towards our ene-mies. St. John Climacus wrote, “Charity is first of all to reject every thought of enmity, because charity thinks no ill” (1 Cor. 13:5).
The twelfth step is not to accuse our enemies, not to criticize them, not to speak ill of them, not even to reveal the harm they have done to us.
The thirteenth step is not to despise them.
The fourteenth step is to feel no trace of aversion or repulsion towards them.
The fifteenth step is not to feel the slightest bitterness towards them or to the memory of what they have done to us nor the slightest sadness.
The sixteenth step is not to judge them at all and only to consider one’s own faults. This in answer to Christ’s teaching to “Judge not, that ye be not judged…. [and] Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye” (Matt. 7:1-3)?
The seventeenth step is to sincerely forgive them. This attitude makes us worthy to petition God for the forgiveness of our own faults as the Lord taught us, asking “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12), and shows that we take seriously the words of Christ that “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matt. 6:14). This forgiveness in its highest form does not even remember what one has suffered. St. Simeon the New Theologian notes that in this degree, love of enemies consists in “covering with total oblivion what one has suffered” so that we “think of nothing that has happened, whether the persecutors are present or absent.”
Still these seventeen first steps don’t take us into what is love proper although they form indispensable conditions and preparatory stages one must pass. Love is not simply the absence of enmity but rather is superior to it. In this respect St. Maximus the Confessor writes, “To feel no envy, no wrath, no bitterness towards the offender does not yet mean to have love for him.” One can, without any love, avoid rendering evil for evil because of the commandment. Not to hate someone does not yet mean to love him. One can feel for him something between the two that is neither love nor hate. It is the following steps that will bring us to real love.
The eighteenth step is to strive to be reconciled with one’s enemies as ordained by Christ: “First be reconciled with thy brother” (Matt. 5:24), “Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him” (Matt. 5:25). By this attitude we show a desire for union that is the foundation of love, contrary to which is the tendency toward division and separation.
The nineteenth step is to feel pity and compassion for them. This attitude is in answer to Christ’s counsel, given in the context of His teaching on the love of enemies. “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36). This is how St. Isaac the Syrian describes him who has real compassion for all beings in creation, and so also for his enemies: “When he thinks of them, and when he sees them, tears run from his eyes. So strong and so violent is his compassion, and so great is his constancy that it wrings his heart and he can’t bear to hear or to see the least harm or the slightest sadness in creation.”
The twentieth step implies renouncing being avenged by God but also wishing that He will not punish our enemies. The Apostle’s instruction––“Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath, for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19)—seems to have been given to beginners hardly able to give up their own revenge. This twentieth step consists positively in wanting God to forgive our enemies, to keep and save them.
The twenty-first step is to pray to God for them. This attitude is in answer to Christ’s command to “pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44, Luke 6:28). It is evident so far that praying for enemies is implied, but to this point, it has been a means of avoiding and being purified from undesirable attitudes like hate, spite, resentment, and pride. In the higher stages, prayer is no longer for oneself but for the other: it leads to compassion and to love for the enemy and permits positive attitudes to develop and strengthen. It consists in asking God to take pity on him, forgive him his sins, save him, and give him what is best. A sorrowful heart and tears are the sign that the prayer is deep, sincere, and motivated by real compassion. St. Isaac the Syrian writes “He who is compassionate prays tearfully, at all hours, for the animals without reason, for the enemies of truth, and for all who harm him, so that they be kept and forgiven.” “He who loves his enemies,” says St. Maximus, “will even suffer for them if the chance is given to him.”
The twenty-second step is to have affection for them. St. Simeon notes that at this level love consists in “loving them from the bottom of the soul, and more still in engraving in oneself the face of each one of them, to kiss them impassibly as true friends with tears of sincere charity.”
The twenty-third step, then, is to begin to wish and do them good. This attitude is in answer to the commandments of Christ to “bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you” (Matt. 5:44; cf Luke 6:27-28), to “love you your enemies and do good” (Luke 6:35), and “as you would that men should do to you, do you also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31). These commandments the Apostle repeats, saying, “Bless them which persecute you, bless and curse not” (Rom. 12:14), “Provide things honest in the sight of all men” (Rom. 12:17), and “Therefore if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink” (Rom. 12:20). In their behavior, the Apostles show the attitude “being reviled, we bless” (1 Cor. 4:12).
When a man who was being ill-treated asked him how to act, St. John of Gaza had only one answer: “Do good to him.” St. Isaac advises to “Show the greatness of your compassion by rendering good to those who were unjust to you,” and he writes that “it is a great thing to do good to sinners more than to the just.” St. Maximus teaches that one only really loves when one is able to “return naturally good for evil” and that “to be capable of doing good to those who hate us is only given to perfect spiritual love.” Love, then, does not only consist of doing good to our enemies, but also in thinking well of them.
The twenty-fourth step is to consider those who harm us in the same way as those who do us good and to love them in the same way. St. Barsanuphios teaches that one must manage “to consider he who strikes as he who caresses, he who despises as he who esteems, he who insults as he who honors, he who afflicts as he who consoles.” More than all the Fathers, St. Maximus advises us to treat all men equally and to love them all without making any difference, friends or enemies, just or sinners. He wrote, “Blessed the man who can love all men equally…. He who is good and impassive, by the disposition of his will, loves equally all men, the just for their nature and their good disposition, the sinners for their nature and with the compassionate pity one has for a fool wandering in the night.” He adds that “perfect love loves all men equally. He loves the virtuous as friends, and the depraved as enemies…. If you detest some people and feel for others neither love nor hate, if you love these but moderately and those very much, know by this inequality that you are still far from perfect, as [perfect love] loves all men equally.” Indeed “the friends of Christ truly love all beings.” St. Isaac the Syrian gives the same teaching: “Consider all men, whether unbelievers or murderers, as equal in good and honor, and that each one by his nature is your brother, even if without knowing it he has wandered from the truth…. Compassion,” he says “is a sadness born from grace; it feels for all beings with the same affection…. He who loves all beings equally, with compassion and discernment, has reached perfection.”
The twenty-fifth step is to treat our enemies in the same way as our friends. “He who really loves his enemies,” writes St. Simeon, is capable of “receiving them too as friends at meeting for meals, without at all returning to the past.” St. John Chrysostom says the same: “We act towards them who have harmed us as towards real friends, and love them as ourselves.”
The twenty-sixth step is to love our enemies not only as ourselves, but more than ourselves. Charity, says St. Maximus, “leads harmoniously to this praiseworthy inequality through which each prefers his neighbor to himself, as much as in the past he wanted to push him to the side and put himself forward.” In the Apophthegmata, we read that the monks of Sketes in the desert west of the Nile Delta sought to love their enemies even more than themselves.
Again, the enumeration of these steps does not estab-lish a formulaic method or lay out a strict progression one must follow in a precise order, but instead they lay out a mosaic comprised of the many lessons St. Silouan learned in his own life. Our classification is mainly peda-gogical; it tries to help us understand that the love of enemies has many compo-nents, that its acquisition is the result of numerous de-mands and is only possible after a gradual and coordinated interior effort. It also wishes to stress that there are different levels of quality and of intensity that some, who haven’t fought long to reach them, will barely understand.
But, if one examines the teaching of St. Silouan on the love of enemies, one notices that while he is not unaware of the elementary steps, he mostly considers the higher levels. This confirms what we have already said, that the teaching of the starets is the expression of a personal experience at the highest level of spiritual life.
For the person as yet unable to love his enemies, St. Silouan teaches that at least he must not hate them, curse them, or snub them, and must refuse thoughts of anger against them. In that way at least progress is made towards love.
The love of enemies implies that one not only must bear the afflictions that they make us suffer, but also that one suffers them with joy for God’s sake. It also implies correlatively that one thanks God for all these afflictions. As we have seen, they contribute to our spiritual progress and for this reason must be received as a providential gift of God for our salvation.
The love of enemies also implies that, face-to-face with the violence one suffers, one should maintain peace of soul and body. In other words, not only must one not show irritation in return, but one must not even become agitated. Starets Silouan also recommends that in learning to not accuse his enemies, one must not think badly about them or even judge them at all. Rather than accuse others, we must feel guilty ourselves.
For the starets, the love of enemies supposes that one forgives them their offenses and prays for them. But forgiving is not yet loving; prayer can precede love and not yet be a manifestation of it. “When I was still in the world, I liked to forgive with all my heart,” he said. “I forgave easily and I liked to pray for those who had offended me, but when I came to the monastery, while I was still a novice, I received a great grace and it taught me to love my enemies.”
St. Silouan sees compassion as one of the principal dimensions of the love of enemies. Such compassion consists first of all in feeling pity for them. This pity is partly a result of being conscious that those who harm us or want to do so have a sick soul and act under a demonic influence. In this condition, they suffer profoundly. To the question, “How can a subordinate keep a peaceful soul if his superior is a violent and bad man?” the starets answers, “An irascible man endures great suffering caused by a bad spirit. He suffers torment because of his pride. The subordinate must know this and pray for the sick soul of his superior.”
On the other hand, this pity results from the knowledge that he who causes harm and is opposed to the truth or doesn’t know it, lives aloof from God, deprives himself of His gifts, wanders far from the way to salvation, and is heading for the plains of hell, the beginning of which he already suffers here on earth. “The soul has compassion for enemies and prays for them because they have wandered away from the truth and are going to hell…. A good man thinks, ‘each man who has wandered far from the truth is going to his fall,’ and this is why he feels pity for him…. He who has been taught by the Holy Spirit to love will suffer all his life for those who don’t save themselves. Many tears run down his cheeks for mankind, and the divine grace gives him strength to love his enemies…. They are to be pitied who don’t know God and are opposed to Him––my heart suffers for them and tears run down my cheeks. We can clearly see both Paradise and the torments––we know this through the Holy Spirit, and the Lord Himself said, “the Kingdom of God is in you” (Luke 17:21). So eternal life already starts here on earth, and the eternal torments too start here.”
We see here that pity is accompanied by compassion, that it consists in suffering what others are suffering as if one felt it oneself, in showing true solidarity with them in their suffering, in putting oneself in their place in their troubles. Such is an authentic and unlimited love. The starets gives us an example of his own compassion that is deeply lived, is accompanied by pain and tears, and is permanent. It is as deep as what one feels for one’s loved ones when they are in pain or trouble. “The Lord teaches us to love enemies in such a way that we will feel compassion for them as for our own children.” We must, says the starets, be compassionate not only for our own enemies and the enemies of truth, but for the demons who suffer infernal pains for turning away from God and denying Him in their voluntary deprivation of heavenly goods, their refusal to love God and to be loved by Him. “Taught by the Holy Spirit, one will feel com-passion even for demons, for they are separated from goodness, they have lost humility and God’s love.”
For the starets, compassion for enemies is linked to the compassion one must have for all creatures without exception: “One must feel compassion for every person, every creature and all of God’s creation.”
“The Spirit of God teaches us to love all that exists, and the soul feels compassion for each being, and also loves enemies and pities demons, because in their fall they were detached from the good.” Compassion makes no exceptions. “There are people who wish damnation and the torments in the fire of hell for their enemies or enemies of the Church. They think in this way because they haven’t learned from the Holy Spirit to love God. He who has learned love weeps for the whole world! You say, ‘Let him burn in the fire of hell!’ But I ask you, ‘If God gave you a good place in Paradise and that from there you could see in the fire the man to whom you wished this torment, wouldn’t you feel pity for him, whoever he is, even if he is an enemy to the Church?’ Or do you have a heart of metal?”
The starets felt so much pity and compassion for those who have to endure the sufferings of hell because he had himself experienced the beatitude of Paradise and the dreadful wretchedness of hell, and he knew the painful distance that separated both. For him, the love of enemies implies wishing and doing good to them. He who loves his enemies wants what is best for them—that they should repent, know God, and obtain the grace of salvation. “We must only have one thought,” says St. Silouan “that all be saved.”
Another factor of the love of enemies on which St. Silouan insists is prayer. “It is a great work in God’s eyes to pray for those who offend us and who make us suffer.” For the starets, prayer for and love of enemies are intimately connected. “The Lord has given on earth the Holy Spirit who teaches the soul to love our enemies and to pray for them…. Lord, teach us through your Holy Spirit to love our enemies and to pray for them with tears…. Lord, as You prayed for your enemies, teach us also, through the Holy Spirit, to love our enemies…. The soul that has been taught to pray by the grace of God loves with compassion all creatures, and especially man.”
Prayer indeed awakens in us love for our enemies, and at the same time results from love and is a witness to it. Prayer not only awakens the love of enemies, the love of enemies awakens prayer.
Praying for enemies first permits one to obtain from God the grace to love them. “One can only love one’s enemies through the grace of the Holy Spirit. That’s why, as soon as someone has hurt you, pray to God for him…. To have a peaceful soul, one must get used to loving him who has offended us and to pray immediately for him. The soul cannot have peace if it doesn’t with all its strength ask the Lord for the gift of loving all men.” But prayer is also what permits us to retain the grace of loving enemies once it has been obtained. “The man who hasn’t been taught by the Holy Spirit to love will certainly not pray for his enemies.” The pity and compassion that one feels for enemies, conscious that they have wandered away from God, are deprived of divine goods and are heading for their ruin, lead one to pray for their escape from the ills they will have to suffer. They also lead one to pray to God for them to repent and turn away from their bad ways, for them to know him and be saved. “The Lord has given on earth the Holy Spirit who teaches the soul to love enemies and pray for them so that they will be saved. That is love…. The man who carries in him the Holy Spirit has a heart full of compassion for all of God’s creatures and especially for the people who don’t know God or are opposed to Him and who for this reason will go into the tormenting fire. He prays day and night––more than for himself––for them all to repent and know the Lord…. ‘Lord, all peoples are the work of Your hands; turn them away from hate and wickedness to repentance so that they all may know Your love.’” IC
Jean-Claude Larchet is professor of philosophy and a specialist in Patristics living in France. This is a section of a longer essay published in Buisson Ardent by the Association Saint-Silouane l’Athonite in the society’s journal (Maxime Egger, secretary, Le Sel de la Terre, 79 avenue C-F Ramuz, CH-1009 Pully, Switzerland). The translation was made by Mother Lydia of the Orthodox Cloister of St. John the Forerunner in The Hague.
Reviewing Frank Schaeffer (author of novels such as Portofino, and non-fiction works including Keeping Faith), is challenging. His writing is so closely associated with the story-arc of his own life––a childhood within one of the inner circles of evangelical Christianity, and a journey across the faith spectrum to light in the bosom of the Orthodox Church––that it is hard to view that body of work on its own merits. One must be able to judge a book on several levels: literary merit, intellectual con-tent, style, authenticity and so forth.
Patience with God was published in 2009, after Schaeffer’s books about his son’s military service, and before his latest novel, And God said, Billy! All his books have to do, in some way, with religion, faith, and the search for God, but Patience is focused directly on that subject matter. It deals with three paths diverging in a wood, if you will: fundamentalist Christianity, atheism (especially the “New Atheism“) and an option that is contrasted with both of those poles.
The subtitle of the book is “Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism).” Turned off by a politicized and intolerant Religious Right, and uncomfortable with acerbic attacks from non-religionists, many look for a third way, which retains the baby while tossing the bath water.
I was impressed with several ele-ments of this book. First is Schaeffer’s approach to the acquisition of spiritual knowledge (with which some readers may have a problem, while others will be encouraged):
“When salvation is understood as a journey, there is no pressure to make snap decisions and ‘get right with God.’ And because everyone is on the same path––even atheists––those at different stages on that path are not judged as ‘lost.’ In that sense, what many Fathers of the Church said is understandable…. The Church can only say how some people may find the path of salvation, but never who is lost…. One is freed from the illusion of certainty.”
This captures the essence of the volume: that sincere searching, of what-ever kind, is to be applauded, while zero sum standoffs about doctrine do no one any good. Does this flirt with anything-goes relativism? I think not, but readers will have to judge for themselves.
Second, judiciously chosen quotes from Soren Kierkegaard add meatiness to the narrative:
“Let others admire and extol him who claims to be able to comprehend Christianity…. I regard it then as a plain duty to admit that one neither can nor shall comprehend it.“
“One sees now how…extraordinarily stupid it is to defend Christianity…, making of Christianity a miserable something or other which in the end has to be rescued by a defense.“
“Man is offended at Christianity… because it is too high, because its goal is not man’s goal, because it would make of a man something so extraordinary that he is unable to get it into his head.”
What Schaeffer takes from this nineteenth-century Danish philosopher (often called an existentialist) is the radical jarring of our modern Christian consciousness that real progress toward spiritual achievement requires.
Third, the author draws on personal relationships, such as those with the couple who ran his boarding school in England, or with a craftsman he met there. They taught him life lessons that have served his well––about kindness, diligence, integrity, and humanity.
Fourth, Schaeffer distinguishes between the responsible and serious atheists (and believers ) with whom he picks no quarrel, and others who are, by personality and mission, antagonistic. Figures like Bertrand Russell stand out as well-meaning and serious questioners of faith, who may in the end actually strengthen its claim on our spirit. This comment of Russell on mortality could find a comfortable home in the reflec-tions of an Orthodox monk: “To aban-don the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things––this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship…. United with his fellow-men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love.”
I’ll let this quote of Shaeffer’s sum up my thoughts: “The cure for hubris…is, I think, to experience God through fail-ure, beauty, tragedy, community, and love.“ The open-minded will find much to like in Schaeffer’s third way––which is The Way of Christ. IC
And throughout all Eternity
I forgive you, you forgive me.
As our dear Redeemer said:
‘This the Wine, and this the Bread.’
The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.
‘He is free because he forgives’
In the book by Kevin Andrews, The Flight of Ikaros1, there is a story that sums up the essence of forgiveness. Andrews was studying medieval fortresses in Greece. The year was 1949. He was travelling through a land devastated by the German occupation during the Second World War, and cruelly divided by the post-war struggle between Communists and anti-Communists that had only just drawn to a close. Arriving one evening in a village, he was given hospitality by the parish priest Papastavros. The priest’s house had been burnt down, and so he received his guest in the shed that was now his home.
Gradually Andrews learnt the priest’s story. His two eldest sons had joined the Resistance during the German occupation. But some villagers betrayed their hiding-place; they were captured and never seen again. About the same time, his wife died from starvation. After the Germans had left, Papastavros was living alone with one of his married daughters and her baby son. She was expecting her second child in a few weeks. One day he returned home to find his house in flames, set on fire by Communist partisans. ‘I was in time’, he recounted to Andrews, ‘to see them drag my daughter out and kill her; they shot all their bullets into her stomach. Then they killed the little boy in front of me.’
Those who did these things were not strangers coming from a distance, but they were local people. Papastavros knew exactly who they were, and he had to meet them daily. ‘I wonder how he has not gone mad,’ one of the village women remarked to Andrews. But the priest did not in fact lose his sanity. On the contrary, he spoke to the villagers about the need for forgiveness. ‘I tell them to forgive, and that there exists no other way,’ he said to Andrews. Their response, he added, was to laugh in his face. When, however, Andrews talked with the priest’s one surviving son, the latter did not laugh at his father, but spoke of him as a free man: ‘He is free because he forgives.’
Two phrases stand out in this account: ‘There exists no other way’, and ‘He is free because he forgives.’
There exists no other way. Certain human situations are so complex and intractable, so fraught with anguish, that there exists only one way out: to forgive. Retaliation makes the problem worse; as Mahatma Gandhi observed, ‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.’ Solely through forgiveness can we break the chain of mutual reprisal and self-destroying bitterness. Without forgiveness, there can be no hope of a fresh start. So Papastavros found, faced by the tragedies of enemy occupation and civil war. Surely his words apply also to many other situations of conflict, not least in the Holy Land.
He is free because he forgives. In the words of the Russian Orthodox starets St Silouan of Mount Athos (1866-1938), ‘Where there is forgiveness … there is freedom.’ If only we can bring ourselves to forgive – if we can at least want to forgive – then we shall find ourselves in what the Psalms call a ‘spacious place’ or ‘a place of liberty’: ‘We went through fire and water, but Thou broughtest us out into a place of liberty’ (Psalm 66:12). Forgiveness means release from a prison in which all the doors are locked on the inside. Only through forgiveness can we enter into what St Paul terms ‘the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:21).
Yet how hard, how painfully hard, it is to forgive and to be forgiven! To quote another Russian Orthodox witness, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (1914-2003), ‘Forgiveness is not a little brook on the boundary between slavery and freedom: it has breadth and depth, it is the Red Sea.’ ‘Do not think that you have acquired virtue,’ said the Desert Father Evagrius of Pontus (346-99), ‘unless you have struggled for it to the point of shedding your blood.’ The same can be said of forgiveness. Sometimes the struggle to forgive is indeed nothing less than an inner martyrdom, to the point of shedding our blood.
Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church
How shall we set out in our exodus across the ‘Red Sea’ of forgiveness? Let us consider first the way in which the Orthodox Church offers to its members an annual opportunity to make a fresh start, on what is known as ‘The Sunday of Forgiveness’. This will lead us to look more closely at forgiveness in the Psalms and especially in the Lord’s Prayer. What, we may ask, is the meaning of the Greek verb used in the Lord’s Prayer for ‘forgive’, aphiēmi, ‘let go’? Does this mean that to forgive is to condone, or at any rate to forget? Next, taking as our guide the early Fathers, we shall see how the phrase ‘Forgive us … as we forgive’ underlines the fundamental unity of the human race. Finally, we shall try to appreciate what is signified by the word ‘as’ in the forgiveness clause of the Lord’s Prayer : ‘ … as we forgive’. Why should the scope of God’s forgiveness be seemingly restricted by my own willingness to forgive? We shall end with four practical guidelines.
The Sunday of Forgiveness occurs immediately before the seven-week Fast of Lent, the ‘Great Fast’ in preparation for the ‘Feast of Feasts’, the Lord’s Resurrection at Pascha. The human animal, it has been said, is not only an animal that thinks, an animal that laughs and weeps, but much more profoundly an animal that expresses itself through symbolic actions. With good reason, then, the Orthodox Church affords its members the chance each year to externalize their longing for forgiveness, through a liturgical rite that is both corporate and personal.
On the morning of Forgiveness Sunday, the appointed Gospel reading is Matthew 6: 14-21, beginning with Christ’s words: ‘If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’ Then in the evening, at the end of Vespers, there comes a ceremony of mutual pardon. Usually the priest gives a homily, concluding with an appeal to his flock to forgive him for all his mistakes and shortcomings in the past year. Then he comes down the sanctuary steps to the floor of the nave where the people are standing; for there can be no genuinely mutual forgiveness unless I put myself on the same level as the other. Kneeling before the congregation, he says ‘Forgive me, a sinner.’ The people likewise kneel before the priest, answering ‘May God forgive you. Forgive us.’ To this the priest responds ‘God will forgive’, or ‘May God forgive and bless us all.’ After that the people come up one by one to the priest, and each kneels before him, as he in turn kneels before each of them; and they exchange the same words, ‘Forgive me …. God will forgive.’ Then, having first knelt before the priest, the members of the congregation go round the church kneeling before one another, each asking and granting pardon. All this, for obvious reasons, is easier to carry out if, as in traditional Orthodox practice, the church is not cluttered up with pews.
There is of course a danger that a ceremony such as this may become over-emotional, in which case the results will probably prove ephemeral. Forgiveness, after all, is not a feeling but an action. It involves not primarily our emotions but our will. It is a decision, which then requires to be given practical effect. There is also the opposite danger that some worshippers, growing accustomed to this ceremony year by year, will go through it in a manner that is merely formal and automatic. Ritual can all too easily become ossified.
Nevertheless, when full allowance has been made for the dangers of emotionalism and formalism, it remains true that for very many Orthodox Christians this annual service of mutual pardon is deeply healing. On the basis of my personal experience, after more than forty years of pastoral work in a parish, I can testify that again and again it has a transfiguring effect upon relationships within the local church family. It is an occasion that many of our people approach with the utmost seriousness. Let us not underestimate the power of ritual. Even if there are times when it becomes ossified, on other occasions it can and does act as a potent catalyst, enabling us to give expression to what would otherwise remain unacknowledged and repressed. Those too hesitant or embarrassed to call at one another’s homes and embark on a lengthy verbal explanation can make a new beginning within the framework of shared prayer. The Vespers of Forgiveness serves in this way as a genuine breakthrough, the sudden vision of a fresh landscape.
The burden of unhappy memories means, not surprisingly, that the Vespers of Forgiveness is somewhat subdued and sombre. We cry out in sorrow: ‘Turn not away Thy face from Thy servant, for I am in trouble; hear me speedily: hearken unto my soul and deliver it.’ Yet, along with sorrow, there is also a note of glad expectation. ‘Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast,’ we sing in one of the hymns; and a little later we add, ‘Thy grace has shone forth and given light to our souls.’ As the mutual pardon is being exchanged between priest and people, in many churches the choir sings the Resurrection hymns that will be used seven weeks later at Paschal midnight: to forgive is to rise again from the dead. St John Climacus, abbot of Mount Sinai in the seventh-century – whose book The Ladder of Divine Ascent is specially appointed for reading in Lent – has a phrase that exactly describes the spirit of the Vespers of Forgiveness: charopoion penthos, ‘mourning that causes gladness’ or ‘joy-creating sorrow’.
Sometimes people have told me that they find the phrase commonly used at the service, ‘Forgive me … God will forgive’, to be problematic and even evasive. Surely, they object, when someone asks for forgiveness, it is not enough for us to assure them that they are forgiven by God, for they already know that; what is required is that we should forgive them. This, however, is to overlook an essential point. Forgiveness is first and foremost a divine act: ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ (Mark 2:7). If, then, I am to forgive someone else, and the other person is to forgive me, in the last resort this is possible only in so far as we are both of us in God. More specifically, we are able to forgive each other solely because we are both of us already forgiven by God. Our forgiveness is rooted in His, and is impossible without it: ‘Apart from Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).
Since, therefore, forgiveness is not primarily our human action but a divine action in which we humans participate, it is vitally important that in the process of mutual forgiveness we should allow space for God to operate. At the beginning of the Eucharistic service in the Orthodox Church, the Divine Liturgy, the deacon says to the priest, ‘It is time for the Lord to act’ (see Psalm 119:126), thereby affirming that the true celebrant at the Holy Mysteries is not the priest but Christ Himself. The phrase applies equally to our mutual forgiveness: here, too, it needs to be said, ‘It is time for the Lord to act.’ Our attempts at reconciliation often fail, precisely because we rely too much upon ourselves, and do not leave proper scope for the action of the Lord. With St. Paul we need to say, ‘not I, but Christ in me’ (Gal. 2:20). Such, then, is the spirit in which we reply at the Vespers of Forgiveness, ‘God will forgive.’
Forgiveness in the Psalms
In order to deepen our appreciation of the mystery of forgiveness, let us turn both to the Old Testament and to the New; and let us consider how forgiveness is understood first in the Psalms and then in the Lord’s Prayer. Because of the central place that the Psalms have occupied in the liturgical life of the Church, in both the East and the West, the testimony that they bear to the meaning of forgiveness is particularly significant.
First of all the Psalms contain a number of striking passages in which the worshipper pleads to God for forgiveness. The best known and most eloquent of these pleas is Psalm 51, ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness’, which is recited no less than four times daily in the Byzantine Divine Office, at the Midnight Service, Matins, the Third Hour and Compline. Another such plea is Psalm 130, ‘Out of the deep …’:
If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark what is done amiss,
O Lord, who could abide it? (verse 4).
The same urgent cry for forgiveness recurs in many other Psalms:
For Thy name’s sake, O Lord,
Be merciful to my sin, for it is great (Psalm 25:10).
Deliver me from all mine offences …
Take Thy plague away from me (Psalm 39: 9, 11).
I said, ‘Lord, be merciful unto me:
Heal me, for I have sinned against Thee’ (Psalm 41:4).
O remember not our past sins, but have mercy upon us, and that soon:
For we are come to great misery (Psalm 79:8).
In these and similar passages of the Psalms, it is made abundantly clear how greatly we need the healing grace of divine forgiveness. Without God’s mercy we are helpless. It is also made clear that we have no claims upon God. Helpless as we are, we can do nothing to earn or deserve God’s mercy, nothing to oblige or constrain Him to forgive us. We can do no more than wait in patience and humility for His free gift of pardon. ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait for Him … A broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise’ (Psalms 130:5; 51:17).
In the second place, the Psalms repeatedly insist these pleas for divine forgiveness do not remain unheard. The Lord is a God of loving-kindness and tender love, ever eager to show mercy and grant healing. This is the theme in particular of Psalm 103, used daily at Matins in the Orthodox Church, and also regularly in the Divine Liturgy:
Praise the Lord, O my soul:
And all that is within me praise His holy name …
Who forgiveth all thy sin:
And healeth all thine infirmities …
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy:
Long-suffering and of great goodness …
Like as a father hath compassion upon his children,
So hath the Lord compassion upon them that fear Him (verses 1, 3, 8, 13).
In a memorable phrase, it is said that God ‘covers’ our sin:
Blessed is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven:
Even he whose sin is covered (Psalm 32:1).
Elsewhere it is said that our sins are ‘blotted out’:
To Thee shall all flesh come to confess their sins:
When our misdeeds prevail against us, in Thy mercy do Thou blot them out (Psalm 65:2).
A leitmotif in the ‘historical’ Psalms is the way in which, again and again in the story of salvation, the people of Israel has gone astray, and yet God in His faithful love has forgiven them (Psalms 78:38; 106: 43-44; 107: 13-16; cf. 85: 1-3). God, it is said elsewhere, is like a shepherd who goes in search of a lost sheep (cf. Matt. 18:12; Luke 15:4):
I have gone astray like a sheep that is lost:
O seek thy servant, for I do not forget Thy commandments (Psalm 119:176).
Yet we are not presumptuously to take God’s forgiveness for granted, for His mercy goes hand in hand with His justice (cf. Romans 11:22):
My song shall be of mercy and justice (Psalm 101:1).
Thirdly, if we are in this way forgiven by God, then we in our turn are called to extend forgiveness to our fellow humans. This is not in fact affirmed in the Psalms very clearly or very frequently, but there are occasions in which it is at least implied, in the context of money-lending:
The ungodly borroweth and payeth not again:
But the righteous giveth and is bountiful …
The righteous is ever bountiful and lendeth:
And his children shall be blessed (Psalm 31:21, 26).
It is good for a man to be generous when he lendeth (Psalm 112:5).
This can perhaps be enlarged to include not only generosity over debts but other forms of remission and forgiveness. At the same time a restriction has to be noted. We cannot grant forgiveness on behalf of others, in regard to offences that have been committed not against us but against them:
But no man may deliver his brother:
Nor pay a price unto God for him (Psalm 49:7).
Sadly, however, it has to be noted that there are grave limitations in the Psalms concerning the scope of forgiveness. If, as we have seen, there are only a few places where it is suggested that we should forgive others, there are unfortunately many other passages in which the Psalmist curses his enemies and prays for their destruction. God is invoked as a God of vengeance (Psalms 54:1; 94:1). We are to hate our enemies with a ‘perfect hatred’ (Psalm 139:22). Particularly cruel is the punishment called down upon the daughter of Babylon:
Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children:
And throweth them against the stones (Psalm 137:9).
Most notably, Psalm 109 contains an imprecation daunting its cruelty:
Let his days be few:
And let another seize his possessions.
Let his children be fatherless:
And his wife become a widow.
Let his children be vagabonds and beg their bread:
Let them be driven out even from their desolate places …
Let there be no man to pity him:
Or to have compassion upon his fatherless children (verses 7-9, 11).
Such a passage does not stand alone: compare, for example, Psalms 83: 9-17, 129: 5-8, and 140: 8-10. I have noted altogether over thirty passages in the Psalms asking God to inflict pain and suffering upon others, and this figure is almost certainly an underestimate. It is of course possible to explain away such passages by interpreting them symbolically, as referring not to our fellow human beings but to our evil thoughts or to the demons. But such was not their original intention
‘… seventy times seven …’
When we turn, however, from the Old Testament to the New, we are at once impressed by a manifest and remarkable contrast. Nowhere in the Gospels does Christ instruct us to hate our enemies: He tells us, on the contrary, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matt. 5: 44). The law of retaliation is firmly abrogated: we are not to ‘resist an evildoer’, but to ‘turn the other cheek’ (Matt. 5:39). There are to be no limits to our forgiveness: we are to forgive our brother ‘seven times a day’ (Luke 17:4); and not only that, but ‘seventy times seven’ (Matt.18:22). We do not find such statements in the Psalms. Nor, indeed, do we find in the Psalms the statement that occupies such a prominent place in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’ (Matt. 6:12). The Lord’s Prayer is comprehensive but extremely concise: if, then, in such a short prayer, nearly a quarter – no less than 13 words in the Greek text, out of 57 (or 58) 0 – is devoted to the theme of forgiveness, this shows how crucially important it is in God’s sight that we should forgive and be forgiven.
Such, certainly, is the view of Origen (d. 253/4): if Christ, he says, places such strong emphasis upon forgiveness in the model prayer that He has given us, this is because there cannot be any true prayer at all unless it is offered in a forgiving spirit.11 St Gregory of Nyssa (d.ca. 394) goes so far as to claim that the clause ‘Forgive us .. as we forgive” is the culminating point in the entire prayer; it constitutes ‘the very peak of virtue’.12 He adds, however, that – fundamental though the clause is – its true sense is not at all easy to grasp: ‘The meaning surpasses any interpretation in words.’13
A valuable insight into the significance of forgiveness is provided by the literal sense of the verb used in the Lord’s Prayer for ‘forgive’, aphiēmi. The primary idea conveyed by this word is ‘let go’, ‘set aside’, ‘leave behind’. It denotes such things as release from captivity, the cancellation of a debt, or the remission of punishment. The unforgiving grasp, retain, and hold fast; the forgiving let go. Yet, if we ‘let go’ the memory of an offence, does this not suggest that we are condoning the evil that has been done? That, surely, cannot be the correct meaning of forgiveness. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, ‘Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what has happened seriously and not minimizing it.’14 To condone an evil is to pass over it, to ignore it, or else it is to pretend that it is not an evil, to treat it as if it were good. But to forgive is something altogether different from this. There can be no genuine forgiveness that is not truthful and realistic. Let us not practise any evasion. If an evil has been done, then this has to be frankly admitted.
Moreover, if the process of forgiveness is to be brought to full completion, the evil has to be frankly admitted by both sides, by the aggressor as well as the victim. It is true that, when we suffer wrong, we should endeavour to forgive the other immediately, without any delay, not waiting for the other to acknowledge the wrong. It was precisely in this spirit that Jesus prayed at His crucifixion, ‘Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:24). If, however, the forgiveness is to come to proper interpersonal fulfilment, more than this is required. Forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered; and the one who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.
If forgiveness, in the sense of ‘letting go’, is not the same as condoning, should we say that to forgive is to forget? Shall we make our own King Lear’s words, ‘Pray you now, forget and forgive’? The answer seems to be both yes and no. It all depends on what we remember (or forget) and on how we do so. Certainly there is no point in clinging to the memory of trivial misunderstandings and injuries. We should rather allow them to slip quietly away into oblivion, for we have better things with which to occupy our minds. There are, however, events in our personal lives, and in the lives of the communities to which we belong, that are far too important simply to be forgotten. It would not be right to say to the members of the Armenian nation, ‘Forget the massacres of 1915′, or to the Jewish people, ‘Forget the Shoah in the Second World War.’ These are matters that, for the sake of our shared humanity, none of us should forget, not least so as to ensure that such atrocities may never be allowed to happen again.
More decisive than what we remember is how we do so. We are not to remember in a spirit of hatred and recrimination, or for the sake of revenge. Dr Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, has rightly said: ‘Remember the past … but do not be held captive by it. Turn it into a blessing, not a curse; a source of hope, not humiliation.’15 Our memories are not to be repressed or negated, but at the same time they require to be purified and healed. We need to remember, yet not self-righteously, not with aggressive accusations, but in a spirit of compunction and mourning. We need to remember with love. But that is difficult.
Forgiveness, it can even be said, begins not with an act of forgetfulness, but with an act of mindfulness and self-knowledge. We have to recognize the harm that has been done, the wound that we or the other carry in our heart. Only after this moment of truthful recognition can we then begin to ‘let go’, not in the sense of consigning to oblivion, but in the sense of no longer being held prisoner by the memory. Remember, but be free.
Responsible for everyone and everything
In the Patristic interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, a dominant theme is the unity of the human race. The early Fathers are in full agreement with the words of Julian of Norwich (fourteenth century), ‘In the sight of God, all man is one man, and one man is all man.’16 They agree equally with John Donne (1571/2-1631), ‘No man is an Island, entire of it self.’17 Our need to forgive and to be forgiven springs directly from the fact that we are all of us interdependent, members of a single human family. Indeed, this insistence upon coinherence is to be seen, not only in the clause ‘Forgive us … as we forgive’, but in the Lord’s Prayer as a whole. St Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) notes how the prepositions in the Prayer are consistently in the plural, not the singular – not ‘my’ but ‘our’, not ‘me’ but ‘us':
We do not say ‘My Father who art in heaven’, or ‘Give me this day my bread’, nor does each one ask that only his own debt be remitted, nor does he request for himself alone that he may not be led into temptation or may be delivered from the evil one. Prayer with us is public and common, and when we pray we do not pray for one but for the whole people, because the whole people are one.18
This perception of our human unity, in Cyprian’s view, has its foundation in the Christian doctrine of God. We believe in God the Trinity, who is not only one but one-in-three, not only personal but interpersonal; we believe in the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so we human beings are saved, not in isolation, but in communion one with another.19
This unity that marks us out as human persons, while underlined throughout the Lord’s Prayer, is particularly evident in the clause concerning forgiveness. In the words of Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150 – ca. 215), when we say ‘Forgive us … as we forgive’, we are proclaiming that ‘all humankind is the work of one Will’.20 This is a point emphasized by St Maximos the Confessor (ca. 580-662) in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. Unity and mutual love, he says, constitute ‘the principle (logos) of nature’, according to which we human beings have been created. When, therefore, we pray for forgiveness, we are bringing our human will into harmony with the logos of our nature. Conversely, to withhold forgiveness is to ‘sunder human nature by separating ourselves from our fellow humans, even though we are ourselves human’. Our refusal to live in union with each other through mutual forgiveness is therefore self-destructive: ‘Failing such union, our nature remains self-divided in its will and cannot receive God’s divine and ineffable gift of Himself.’21
St Gregory of Nyssa likewise sees the refusal of forgiveness as self-destructive: ‘In condemning your neighbour, you thereby condemn yourself.’22 Giving a wide-ranging application to the notion of human unity, Gregory maintains that it extends through time as well as space. When saying ‘Forgive us’ in the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking forgiveness not only for our own personal sins but also for ‘the debts that are common to our nature, and more particularly for the ancestral sin23 that the whole human race inherits from Adam. Even if we keep ourselves free from personal sins – in fact, as Gregory comments, none of us can claim this of ourselves, even for an hour – we would still need to say ‘Forgive us’ on behalf of Adam:
Adam lives in us … and so we do well to make use of these words Forgive us our trespasses. Even if we were Moses or Samuel or someone else of pre-eminent virtue, we would none the less regard these words as appropriate to ourselves, since we are human; we share in Adam’s nature and therefore share also in his fall. Since, then, as the Apostle says, ‘we all die in Adam’ (1 Cor. 15:22), these words that suitably express Adam’s penitence are likewise appropriate for all those who have died with him.24
A similar line of thought is found in St Mark the Monk (? early fifth century). In his opinion, we are called to repent not only ‘for our own sin’ but also ‘for the sin of transgression’, that is to say, for the ancestral sin of Adam. Repentance is vicarious:
The saints are required to offer repentance not only on their own behalf but also on behalf of their neighbour, for without active love they cannot be made perfect … In this way the whole universe is held together in unity, and through God’s providence we are each of us assisted by one another.25
Even though there is no explicit reference here to the Lord’s Prayer, Mark’s line of argument can surely be applied likewise to the petition ‘Forgive us … as we forgive.’ If we can repent for the sins of others, then we can and should also ask forgiveness on their behalf. The principle of mutual solidarity applies equally in both cases: ‘we are each of us assisted by one another’. No one is forgiven and saved in isolation.
These statements by Gregory of Nyssa and by Mark the Monk fall far short of a fully developed theology of original guilt, such as we find in St Augustine (354-430). Mark specifically excludes the view that, in a juridical sense, we are guilty of Adam’s sin, considered as an act of personal choice.26 Yet, on a level more profound than legal culpability, there exists a mystical solidarity that unites us all one to another; and it is of this that Gregory and Mark are speaking. ‘All man is one man’, and so we are each of us ‘responsible for everything and everyone’, to use the phrase of Dostoevsky’s Starets Zosima.27 Even if not personally guilty, nevertheless we bear the burden of what Adam and all the other members of the human family have done. They live in us, and we in them. Here as always the vital word is ‘we’, not ‘I’. None of us falls alone, for we drag each other down; and none of us is forgiven and saved alone. Forgiveness is not solitary but social.
How far can the notion of vicarious forgiveness be legitimately extended? Can I forgive or accept forgiveness on behalf of others? So far as asking forgiveness is concerned, it is surely reasonable to request forgiveness on behalf of others, when those others are joined to me in some way, for example by kinship, nationhood, or religious allegiance. If, tracing back our ancestry, we become aware that our family tree is tainted with unresolved tensions and alienation, we can and should pray for the forgiveness and healing of our forebears. By the same token, the descendant of a slave-trader might rightly feel impelled to ask forgiveness in his heart – and perhaps by some external gesture as well – from the families of those whom his ancestor took captive and sold into bondage. Pope John Paul II acted as a true Christian when, during the visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to Rome in June 2004, he asked the Patriarch’s forgiveness for the sack of Constantinople by the Latin Crusaders eight hundred years previously.28 How I long for an Orthodox church leader to ask forgiveness in the same way from the Catholics, for the many evils that we Orthodox have inflicted upon them! And all of us, Orthodox and Catholics alike, have to seek forgiveness from the Jews, God’s Chosen People, for the heavy sins that, over the centuries, we have committed against them.
Have we the right, however, not only to ask forgiveness on behalf of others, but also to offer it on their behalf? Here there is reason for us to be much more hesitant. For myself, I agree with the late Rabbi Albert Friedlander – and with Psalm 49:9 – that one cannot forgive offences that have not been committed against oneself. It would be inappropriate, and indeed presumptuous, for me as a non-Jew to claim authority to forgive the suffering inflicted upon the Jews during the Shoah in the Second World War. It is not for me but for the Jews themselves to decide how those sufferings should be remembered, and how and when they should be forgiven. In the Lord’s Prayer, we do not say, ‘… as we forgive those who have trespassed against others’, but ‘… as we forgive those who have trespassed against us’.
Issuing an order to God
What light do the Fathers shed upon the central word in the forgiveness petition – indeed, the most puzzling word in the whole of the Lord’s Prayer – the word ‘as': ‘Forgive us … as we forgive’? ‘No word in English’, states Charles Williams, ‘carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word “as” in that clause; it is the measuring rod of the heavenly City, and the knot of the new union. But also it is the key of hell and the knife that cuts the knot of union.’29 Truly it is a hazardous prayer. We dare to apply to ourselves with unmitigated rigour the principle laid down by Christ. ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get’ (Matt. 7:2). ‘What you do,’ warned St Cyprian, ‘that you will also yourself suffer.’30 As St John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407) put it, ‘We ourselves have control over the judgement that is to be passed upon us.’31
Not only is it a hazardous request to God, but it is also a very strange one. It is as if we were issuing an order to God and instructing Him how to act. ‘If I do not forgive others,’ we are saying to Him, ‘then do You withhold forgiveness from me.’ Nowhere else in the Lord’s Prayer do we issue orders in this way. St Gregory of Nyssa attempts to spell out the paradox in terms of what may be called ‘mimetic inversion’. Under normal circumstances, he observes, it is we who are called to imitate God; as St Paul said, ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1 Cor. 11:1). This is particularly the case when we forgive others. Since in the last resort it is God alone who has the power to forgive sins (Mark 2:7), it is only possible for us to forgive others if we imitate God. We cannot genuinely forgive, that is to say, unless we have been taken up into God and have ourselves ‘in some sense become God’, to use Gregory’s phrase. The one who forgives needs to be ‘deified’ or ‘divinized'; there can be no effective forgiveness without theosis.32 That is the normal pattern. But here, in the case of the Lord’s Prayer – and Gregory admits that this is a ‘bold thing’ to say33 – the customary order is reversed. On this occasion, it is we who serve as an example to God. Instead of ourselves imitating Him, we are telling Him to imitate us: ‘What I have done, do You do likewise; imitate Your servant, O Lord …. I have forgiven; do You forgive. I have shown great mercy to my neighbour; imitate my loving-kindness, You who are by nature loving-kind.’34
Yet, in this clause ‘Forgive us … as we forgive’, precisely how strong a sense should be attached to the conjunction ‘as’? Should it be understood as causative, proportionate or conditional?
(1) Is the sense causative? In that case, we are saying to God, ‘Forgive us because we forgive'; our forgiveness is the cause of His. This is indeed the way in which some Patristic authors interpreted the phrase. Clement of Alexandria even suggested that, by forgiving others, we somehow compel God to forgive us.35 Yet a causative interpretation of this kind surely presents grave difficulties. As Calvin has rightly insisted, forgiveness comes from the ‘free mercy’ of God.36 It is an unmerited gift of divine grace, conferred solely through Christ’s Cross and Resurrection; it is never something that we can earn or deserve. God acts with sovereign liberty, and we have no claims upon Him. As Paul affirmed, quoting the Pentateuch: ‘For God says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy’ (Rom. 9:15-16; cf. Exod. 33:19). This is rendered abundantly clear in Christ’s parable concerning the labourers in the vineyard: to those who complain about their wages, the master replies, ‘Have I not the right to do as I choose with what is my own?’ (Matt. 20:15). Moreover, the initiative rests with God and not with us. He does not wait for us to forgive others before He extends His forgiveness to us. On the contrary, His act of free and unrestricted forgiveness precedes any act of forgiveness on our part: ‘God proves His love for us, in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’ (Rom. 5:8).
(2) If the word ‘as’ cannot be causative, is it proportionate? Does it signify ‘to the same degree’, ‘according to the same measure’? Once more, this can hardly be the true sense. Between our forgiveness and God’s there can be no common measure. He forgives with a fullness and generosity far beyond our wildest imagining: ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord’ (Isa. 55:8). The transcendent and incomparable character of divine forgiveness is underlined in another Matthaean parable, that of the two debtors (Matt. 18:23-35). In relation to God, we are like the slave who owed ten thousand talents (a talent being equivalent to more than fifteen years’ wages received by a labourer), whereas in relation to each other we are like the slave who owed a hundred denarii (a denarius being the usual day’s wage for a labourer). Even St Gregory of Nyssa, after suggesting that in His act of forgiveness God is imitating us, at once goes on to qualify this by asserting that our sins against God are immeasurably heavier than any sins by others against us.37 Later he refers for confirmation precisely to the parable of the two debtors.38
(3) If, then, our forgiveness is neither the cause nor the measure of God’s forgiveness, what further alternative remains? There exists a third possibility: it is the condition. Forgiveness is indeed unmerited, but it is not unconditional. God for His part is always overwhelmingly eager to forgive. This divine eagerness is movingly expressed in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15 : 11-32), which is read at the Orthodox Liturgy on the Sunday two weeks before the Sunday of Forgiveness. The father does not simply sit and wait passively for his son to return home. We are to imagine him standing day after day outside his house, anxiously scanning the horizon in the forlorn hope that at long last he may catch sight of a familiar figure. Then, as soon as the prodigal comes into view, while he is still far off, the father rushes out to meet his son, embracing and kissing him, and inviting him into the feast. Such is God’s great willingness to forgive us and to welcome us home. Later in the story the father again goes out, this time in the hope of persuading his elder son to come and share the feast. This double going out on the part of the loving father is of primary significance if we are to appreciate the quality of divine mercy.
Yes, indeed, God is always eager to forgive – far more so than we are to repent. In the words of St Isaac the Syrian (seventh century), ‘There exists in Him a single love and compassion that is spread out over all creation, a love that is without alteration, timeless and everlasting.’39 Calling to mind Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane and His death on the Cross, we ask ourselves: What more could God incarnate have done to win us back to Himself, that He has not done? Forgiveness, however, has not only to be offered but to be accepted. God knocks at the door of the human heart (Rev. 3:20), but He does not break the door down: we for our part have to open it.
Here precisely we find the true meaning of the word ‘as’ in the Lord’s Prayer. It is not that God is unwilling to forgive us. But if, despite God’s unfailing eagerness to forgive, we on our side harden our hearts and refuse forgiveness to others, then quite simply we render ourselves incapable of receiving the divine forgiveness. Closing our hearts to others, we close them also to God; rejecting others, we reject Him. If we are unforgiving, then by our own act we place ourselves outside the interchange of healing love. God does not exclude us; it is we who exclude ourselves.
Our forgiveness of others, then, is not the cause of God’s forgiveness towards us, but it is certainly the condition without which God’s forgiveness cannot pass within us. Divine pardon is indeed a free gift that we can never earn. What concerns us here, however, is not merit but capacity. Our relation to God and our relation to our fellow humans are strictly interdependent. As St Silouan of Mount Athos affirmed, ‘Our brother is our life.’40 This is true not in a sentimental but in an ontological sense. Love for God and love for neighbour are not two loves but one.
‘Forgive us … as we forgive': when we say these words, so Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh has rightly cautioned us, ‘we take our salvation into our own hands’.41
Four words of counsel
As we begin to cross the Red Sea of forgiveness, let us remind ourselves of certain practical guidelines.
(1) Do not delay, but do not be in haste. Do not delay: the time for forgiveness is always now. Maximize the moment. The devil’s weapons are nostalgia and procrastination: he tells us ‘Too late’ or ‘Too soon’. But, where the devil says ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Tomorrow’, the Holy Spirit says ‘Today’.
We are not to think within ourselves, ‘First, I will change for the better; then I will be ready to forgive.’ Still less are we to think (what is far worse), ‘First, I will wait to see whether the other is really sorry for the wrong that he has done, and whether he has really changed for the better; then I will decide whether to forgive him.’ Let us, on the contrary, be like the loving father in the story of the prodigal. Let us take the initiative, and run out to meet the other. Forgiveness has to come first; it is the cause of the change in ourselves and in others, not the effect. To adapt a phrase of the Romanian Orthodox theologian Fr Dumitru Staniloae (1903-93), ‘In so far as I am not forgiven, I am unintelligible to myself.’42
Yet there is another side to the question. Forgive now, in your heart; but in your outward actions do not be overhasty. Forgiveness signifies healing, and healing often takes time. Premature requests for forgiveness can make the situation worse. If we force ourselves upon the other, without first seeking through imaginative empathy to discover what the other is thinking and feeling, we may widen rather than bridge the gulf that separates us. Without putting things off, often we need to pause – not with passive indifference but waiting with alertness upon God – until the kairos, the moment of opportunity, has become clear. The Emperor Augustus was right: Festina lente.43
(2) Forgive the other, but also be willing to accept the forgiveness that the other is offering to us. It is hard to forgive; but often it is even harder to acknowledge that we ourselves need to be forgiven. Let us be humble enough to accept the gift of another’s pardon. As Charles Williams wisely observed, ‘Many reconciliations have unfortunately broken down because both parties have come prepared to forgive and unprepared to be forgiven.’44
(3) Forgive others, but also forgive yourself. Have we not sometimes said, or heard others say, ‘I will never forgive myself for that’? Yet how can we accept forgiveness from others, if we will not forgive ourselves? In the words once more of Charles Williams, by remaining in this state of ‘half-anger, half-anguish’, we each create for ourselves ‘a separate hell’.45 Judas regretted what he had done, but in his case self-knowledge brought him not to fresh hope but to despair; unable to accept God’s forgiveness, and therefore unable to forgive himself, he went out and committed suicide (Matt. 27: 3-5). Peter on the other hand took a different path. Brought to self-knowledge by the crowing of the cock, he wept bitter tears of remorse; yet this remorse did not reduce him to despair. On the contrary, seeing the risen Christ at the lakeside, he did not turn away from Him into a ‘separate hell’, but drew near with hope. Accepting Christ’s forgiveness, forgiving himself, he made a new beginning (Matt. 26:75; John 21:15-19).
(4) Pray. If we cannot yet find within our heart the possibility of forgiving the other, then let us at least pray for them. In the words of St Silouan, ‘If you will pray for your enemies, peace will come to you.’46 Let us ask God that we may not make the other’s burden more heavy, that we may not be to them a scandal and a cause of stumbling. And if, as we pray, we cannot yet bring ourselves to the point of actually forgiving, then let us ask God that we may experience at least the desire and longing to forgive. There are situations in which truly to want something is already to attain it. Like the man who brought his sick child to Christ and cried out, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’ (Mark 9 : 24), let us also cry out with tears: ‘Lord, I forgive; help my unforgivingness.’ Slowly, gradually, there will come at last the moment when we are able to remember with love.
By invoking God’s help in prayer and by admitting our own helplessness, we are reminded of the all-important truth that forgiveness is a divine prerogative. It is not simply our action, but the action of God in us. To forgive, in a full and genuine sense, we need to be ‘in God’. ‘It is God who has shone in our hearts … the all-surpassing power is from Him and not from us’ (2 Cor. 4 : 6-7). This ‘all-surpassing power’ of God is communicated to us above all through the ‘mysteries’ or sacraments of the Church; and, in the Patristic interpretation of ‘Our Father’, at least two of these ‘mysteries’ are mentioned implicitly in the course of the Prayer. When we say, ‘Give us today our daily bread’, we are to think not of material bread alone but of the ‘bread from heaven’, the Eucharist. Then, in the petition that follows, ‘Forgive us … as we forgive’, we are to recall the forgiveness of sins that we have received in Holy Baptism. The Lord’s Prayer, according to St Augustine, is in this way a continual renewal of Baptism: reciting the words that Christ has given us, ‘daily we are washed clean’.47 Our forgiveness, then, does not depend merely upon our feelings, or upon the decision of our will. It has an objective basis, in the sacrament of our baptismal washing.
After Orthodox Christians have knelt before each other at the Vespers of Forgiveness, asking and granting pardon, what do they do on the next day, the first day of Lent, known as ‘Clean Monday’ (Kathara Devtera)? In many places it is still the custom to go out on the hills and have a picnic; and on this, the first open-air festival of the year, both children and grown-ups fly kites in the spring breeze. Such can also be our inner experience when we begin to forgive one another. To forgive is to enter spiritual springtime. It is to emerge from gloom into the sunlight, from self-imprisonment into the liberty of the open air. It is to ascend the hills, to let the wind blow on our faces, and to fly noetic kites, the kites of imagination, hope and joy.
As his son said of the priest Papastavros, ‘He is free because he forgives.’
1 Kevin Andrews, The Flight of Ikaros: A Journey into Greece (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1959), pp. 109-19.
2 I take this sentence from a pamphlet entitled The F Word: Images of Forgiveness (no place, no date).
3 Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), Saint Silouan the Athonite (Tolleshunt Knights, Essex: The Monastery of St John the Baptist, 1991), p. 341.
4 Archbishop Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1966), p. 31. See also his perceptive words about forgiveness in Meditations on a Theme (London/Oxford: Mowbrays, 1972), pp. 104-8.
5 On prayer 136; tr. Robert E. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus : the Greek Ascetic Corpus (Oxford: OUP, 2003), p. 207 (translation modified).
6 For the liturgical texts used on the Sunday of Forgiveness, see The Lenten Triodion, tr. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware (London/Boston: Faber & Faber, 1978), pp. 168-83, especially p. 183. Most of the hymnology for the day in fact alludes, not to mutual forgiveness, but to the other main theme of the Sunday, the Casting out of Adam from Paradise.
7 The details of the ceremony vary in different places. A simpler form of mutual pardon is used daily at the end of Compline: see Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church, tr. Isabel Florence Hapgood, 2nd. edtn (New York: Association Press, 1922), p. 162; The Liturgikon: The Book of Divine Services for the Priest and the Deacon, ed. The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, 2nd edtn. (Englewood, NJ: Antakya Press, 1994), pp. 67, 98.
8 Not that there is anything wrong with the emotions as such, for they are an integral part of our human personhood according to the divine image, and so they can and should be offered up to God in our ‘reasonable worship’ (Rom. 12:1). I am thinking here, however, of a febrile emotionalism that is artificial and exaggerated.
9 The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 7, title (PG 88: 801C), tr. Archimandrite Lazarus Moore (London: Faber & Faber, 1959), p. 113.
10 The Greek text, as used liturgically, in the Orthodox Church, contains 58 words; in critical editions of the New Testament there is one word less, as the definite article is omitted before gēs (‘earth’).
11 On prayer 8:1, 9:1, ed. P. Koetschan, GCS (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1899), p. 317; tr. Rowan A. Greer, The Classics of Western Christianity (New York/Ramsey/Toronto: Panlist Press, 1979), pp. 97,98. On the Patristic use of the Lord’s Prayer, see the systematic study, with detailed bibliography, by Kenneth W. Stevenson, The Lord’s Prayer : A Text in Tradition (London: SCM, 2004), to which I am much indebted.
12 On the Lord’s Prayer, homily 5, ed. J.F. Callahan, Gregorii Nysseni Opera VII/2 (Leiden/New York/Köln, 1992) p. 59, line 1; tr. Hilda C. Graef, Ancient Christian Writers 18 (New York: Newman Press, 1954), p. 71.
13 On the Lord’s Prayer, homily 5, ed. Callahan, p. 61 : 10-11; tr. Graef, p.73. Here (and elsewhere) I have modified Dr Graef’s translation.
14 Quoted in the pamphlet The F Word : Images of Forgiveness.
15 The Times (London), 17 July 2004, p. 47.
16 Quoted by Charles Williams, The Forgiveness of Sins (London : Geoffrey Bles, 1942), p. 16. This brief study, written in the middle of the Second World War, remains one of the most helpful treatments on the subject.
17 Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (London: Thomas Jones, 1624), Meditation XVII.
18 On the Lord’s Prayer 8, ed. C. Moreschini, Corpus Christianorum III/A, Pars II (Turnhout: Brepols, 1976), lines 103-18; cited in Stevenson, The Lord’s Prayer, p. 33.
19 On the Lord’s Prayer 23, ed. Moreschini, lines 447-9.
20 Stromateis 7:81:2, ed. O. Stählin and L. Früchtel, GCS (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1970), p.58; tr. F.J.A. Hort and J.B. Mayor, Clement of Alexandria : Miscellanies Book VII (London: Macmillan, 1902), p. 141.
21 On the Lord’s Prayer, ed. Peter van Deun, Corpus Christianorum 23 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1991), lines 662-8; tr. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, The Philokalia, vol. 2 (London/Boston: Faber & Faber, 1981), p. 301 (translation adapted).
22 On the Lord’s Prayer, homily 5, ed. Callahan, p. 61 : 5-6; cf. p. 69:24; tr. Graef, pp. 73, 80.
23 The Greek Fathers, and also most present-day Orthodox writers, speak not of ‘original sin’ but of ‘ancestral sin’ (propatorikē hamartia). There is a subtle difference in meaning between the two terms.
24 On the Lord’s Prayer, homily 5, ed. Callahan, pp. 64:23; 65:2; 66:7-15; tr. Graef, pp. 76,77.
25 On repentance 12 and 11, ed. G.-M. de Durand, Sources chrétiennes 445 (Paris: Cerf, 1999), pp. 252, 250.
26 On baptism 17, ed. de Durand, op. cit., p. 392.
27 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), p. 320.
28 Service Orthodoxe de Presse et d’Information (SOP) 290 (July-August 2004), pp. 1-3.
29 The Forgiveness of Sins, p. 66.
30 On the Lord’s Prayer 23, ed. Moreschini, lines 440-1.
31 On Matthew, homily 19:6 (PG 57: 281).
32 On the Lord’s Prayer, homily 5, ed. Callahan, pp. 59:1-11; 60 : 15-16; 61 : 15-17; tr. Graef, pp. 71, 72, 73.
33 op. cit., ed. Callahan, pp. 61 : 13-14; tr. Graef, p. 73.
34 op. cit., ed. Callahan, p. 61 : 23-24; 62 : 7-9; tr. Graef, pp. 73, 74.
35 Stromateis 7 : 86 : 6, ed. Stählin and Früchtel, p. 62; tr. Hort and Mayor, p. 153.
36 Stevenson, The Lord’s Prayer, p. 165.
37 On the Lord’s Prayer, homily 5, ed. Callahan, p. 62 : 9-11; tr. Graef, p. 74.
38 op. cit., ed. Callahan, pp. 69 : 26; 70 : 12; tr. Graef, pp. 80-81. The parable is quoted to the same effect by other early Christian writers, such as Tertullian (ca. 160- ca. 225), On the Prayer 7, ed. and tr. E. Evans (London: SPCK, 1953), pp. 12-13; Origen, On prayer 28 : 7, ed. Koetschau, p. 379; tr. Greer, p. 150.
39 Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac the Syrian), ‘The Second Part’, Chapters IV – XLI, tr. Sebastian Brock, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 555, Scriptores Syri 225 (Louvain : Peeters, 1995), Homily 40 : 1, p. 174.
40 Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, pp. 47, 371.
41 Archbishop Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer, p. 30.
42 Marc-Antoine Costa de Beauregard, Dumitru Staniloae : Ose comprendre que Je t’aime (Paris: Cerf, 1983), p. 24: ‘Mois-même, tout que je ne suis pas aimé, je suis incomprehensible.’
43 Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, ‘Divus Augustus’, §25 (‘Make haste slowly’).
44 The Forgiveness of Sins, p. 113.
45 The Forgiveness of Sins, pp. 77-78.
46 Archimandrite Sofrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 377.
47 Augustine, Sermon 59 : 7; cf. 56 : 11; 57 : 8 (PL 38: 382, 390, 401). See Stevenson, The Lord’s Prayer, p. 82. A similar interpretation is given by Caesarius of Arles (ca. 470-542), and by Euthymius Zigabenus (twelfth century): see Stevenson, op. cit., pp. 90, 108.