Children who are born on a day close to Christmas may fear or feel that their birthday celebration is lost in this day, but there is a deep way in which it cannot be a loss because Christmas is the real birthday of each of us and to approach Bethlehem is to approach the moment of our own birth.
This is because God in accepting human life revealed all human life joined to eternity, your birth and my birth are shown too, by the birth at Christmas, to be endlessly beginning in God. Life is divine and human because of the Godmanhood of Jesus. There is no death, all things are eternal. Egocentricity lets go of its boundaries and is born in personhood.
A child approaches Christmas with a joy and sense of wonder which are already an intuition of this. For those older, for us, there is a journey perhaps back and inward to that beginning which is our own Bethlehem, past all of the routine and tiredness and memory of things done poorly, of failures, of gain and of loss, roads taken and untaken and of the shadow of death, of having come to terms with life as it is, past all that to a beginning.
… my soul hurrying
Could not speak for tears,
When she saw her own Child,
Lost so many years.
Down she knelt, up she ran
To the Babe restored:
“O my Joy,” she sighed to it,
She wept, “O my Lord!”
This going back and inward, this meditation, aims on an individual level to imitate what God has accomplished at Christmas on a cosmic level.
The happiness that I wish you at this Christmas is then profound and new it does not arise from our perhaps pious Christian practice over the years, good though that is in its way, nor even from those childhood memories which are themselves close to the beginning but only an intuition of it. As Eric Rohmer expressed it “it is a living joy a joy of today. The birth we celebrate is not only that of Jesus but our birth as well, each of us is asked to believe in a fresh joy for tonight, we must pledge ourselves in a new hope.”
Then we see that the star above is the Christmas star, and all things that live are in its light. The holiness of the real is always there, totally accessible, intimate and immediate…
We see at this place where time and eternity meet, this beginning place, that it is indeed a beginning for us today whatever our age, the beginning of a way of life and an adventure in joining moment to moment on the way into that holiness which is life as adventure, life as becoming and becoming as divine.
The Christmas message of His Grace Bishop Seraphim (Sigrist)
It seems to me of paramount importance that the Synod, as His All-Holiness asserts, should show that the Orthodox Church wants genuinely to communicate with the world. We have treasures to share, in the Gospel, and the wisdom acquired through many centuries of believers following in our Lord’s footsteps and living in the grace of the Resurrection. It is also true that many in the West want to hear our voice, what we have to tell them of Christ. It will be a betrayal of everything we hold dear if the result of the Synod is that the world perceives the Orthodox apparently concerned solely with themselves in a fearful and introspective way.
Nevertheless, like many people, I have some reservations about the synod. First, eleven days seems minuscule in comparison with the 1200 and more years we have to make up. Secondly, the preparatory documents have been unavailable until very recently, and seem to have been prepared by a small circle of people, mostly (or exclusively?) associated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, whereas one would have expected widespread consultation beforehand. Thirdly, the ecclesiology of voting by patriarchates is unprecedented and unsustainable, apparently overriding the duty laid on each bishop ‘rightly to discern the word of your truth’, as we pray in the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy, citing 2 Tim 2:15. Nevertheless, we need to recognize that the only voice that counts at the synod is that of the Holy Spirit, so, despite all the fumbling of human preparation, it is important that we should earnestly pray that the fathers of the synod will hear and attend to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Although the preparatory statements tend too much towards blandness, they seem to be on the right lines, with some reservations mentioned below. The emphasis on the Church’s concern for the world in which we live today is vital, and the presentation of the life of the Church as springing from the Eucharist is expressed well. So too the emphasis on ecumenism and a readiness to work and pray together with our fellow Christians, especially those whose baptism we recognize: all that is important. Although I can well understand the logic of the position of those who deny that there are other Christians than the Orthodox—since we, as Orthodox, hold that the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church that we confess in the Symbol of Faith is identical with the Orthodox Church—it seems to me that it is a logic isolated from life. We must (and in practice do) recognize that there are Christians who find their ecclesial identity in other communions than the Orthodox Church. Do any of us really believe, for example, that Catholics are not Christians, and that the see of Rome is vacant, Pope Francis being no more than an unbaptized pagan? It makes nonsense of our behaviour: one Sunday recently I worshipped in San Teodoro in Rome, a church given to the Greeks by the pope some years ago. Should we have refused this gift? When we look at the history of the Church, we are deceiving ourselves if we think that there is one community completely innocent, namely the Orthodox Church, and that division is simply the result of the sins of others: Catholics, Protestants, or whoever. The principle of ecumenism lies in repentance, expressed clearly in the words of his elder brother, recalled by the Elder Zosima in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov: ‘each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all’.
Some of the preparatory statements could have been more radical. The statement on fasting is banal; it would have been useful in the context of understanding fasting in a non-Mediterranean world—the point raised by the statement—to have been reminded of the way fasting is justified by the Fathers: commitment to greater simplicity in our eating, an exercise in detachment, an opportunity to greater commitment to almsgiving. The statement on marriage fails to address any of the burning pastoral issues: what later commitment to marriage demands of young people; how marriage is to cope with a society in which men and women are much more equal; the challenges of the capacity to control pregnancy for the practice of sexuality. The section on War and Peace is all right as far as it goes, but makes no mention of conscientious objection to participation in war.
Finally, the statements on the diaspora and autonomy seem to me to ignore the changes in political society between the world of the Mediterranean in late antiquity and the world in which we live today. The ideal of one bishop leading the Eucharistic community in a city reflected the world of the early Christian centuries. The world today is very different, but the statements simply see the diaspora as a passing phase, leading to a worldwide network of autonomous/autocephalous ‘local’ churches. That, on the one hand, ignores the way in which the experience of diaspora enabled many to realize the Pauline sense of Christians as essentially aliens in this world, ‘every foreign country is theirs and every country foreign’, as the epistle to Diognetos put it, and, on the other hands, ignores the way in which many people, not least Christians, move from country to country, as well as the way in which ‘cities’ nowadays are vast amalgams of communities, so that the Christian community in a modern city is really, at best, an imagined community, made up of real communities without necessarily any territorial base. We need an ecclesiology to measure up to that, not an attempt to restore an ancient ecclesiology that no longer corresponds to the social reality in which we live.
Andrew Louth is Emeritus Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University.
On the 31st of March, we celebrate the dies natalis of Mother Maria (Skobtsova), a beloved martyr and witness to Christ among the Russian émigré population in France. Her “Essential Writings” are particularly recommended during this Lenten season, as her essays, though brief, are spiritually and personally challenging on a number of levels. My apologies in advance to my readers – but if I quote Mother Maria directly once too often herein, please understand that it is not due to a lack of reflection on my part so much as an awe of the depth of her work, that I cannot bring myself to express her ideas better than she expresses them herself.
The association Jim Forest of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (which hosts a considerable collection of resources on her life and works) makes between her and Dorothy Day is not at all coincidental. Her life, like that of Dorothy Day, was decidedly not what one might expect of a saint, though of course no two saints are ever completely alike. Mother Maria Skobtsova, in her youth, had been a member of the left-populist, peasant-driven Socialist-Revolutionary Party which had been outlawed by Trotsky, and lived its fate in an all-too-personal way. She narrowly avoiding execution in late 1917 after her party was disbanded, later became deputy mayor of the small town of Anapa in Krasnodar, was captured by the White Army and put on trial as a Bolshevik, and saved again from the gallows by Daniel Skobtsov, a judge who would become her second husband. Their family fled first to Georgia, then to Yugoslavia, and finally to Paris. Even though she had no taste at all for Marxism after her run-in with Trotsky, and though she abhored the brutalities she witnessed in the Russian Revolution, as Olivier Clément writes, she ‘became a Christian without ever having stopped being the socialist revolutionary, an intellectual of leftist bent’.
Her exile and the tragic death of her daughter to illness led her to take monastic vows which, though canonical, were nevertheless highly idiosyncratic. She lived the ‘new monasticism’ in an unfurnished rented house, amongst her fellow émigrés in the world, which she took to be her cloister. She dedicated herself to an active nonpossession, and kept the door of her house always open to the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the orphaned, the homeless, the mentally-ill; she gave of herself and everything she had to those who needed her help. She also organised discussions on philosophy and on the Orthodox faith from her house, and she maintained close friendships with a number of people in the Russian émigré community of Paris: the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, her confessor Fr. Sergey Bulgakov, and the historian Georgiy Fedotov. During the Second World War, her house became a refuge for Jews, and she and Fr. Dmitri Klepenin, another spiritual son of Fr. Sergey Bulgakov and the chaplain of her house, would give baptismal certificates to Jews who sought to flee the country. Eventually the Gestapo shut her down and sent her, along with Fr. Dmitri, her son Yuri, and her friend Ilya Fondaminsky – all of whom eventually met their martyrdoms in Nazi concentration camps. Mother Maria was sent to Ravensbrück, and was eventually put to death in the gas chambers. It is said in some of her hagiographies that she took the place of another woman, a Jew, who had been assigned to be killed that day.
During her life and in her martyrdom, the faith she lived in service to the poor and the faith she discussed in the émigré circles were one. She was devoted to the Mother of God, and even painted a variant of the ikon of the Mother of God Akhtirskaya, portraying the Holy Theotokos embracing the crucified body of Christ her child. Perhaps drawing upon her own experience of losing her daughter, she offered her motherly kindness, as a nun, to a suffering world without reservation or exception. She was insistent that the love of God could be lived only through a radical openness to the sufferings and the struggles of one’s neighbour – that only through keeping the second commandment of Christ in the Gospel could the first even become possible. And throughout her writings, she holds up and defends from a Patristic basis the Russian religious-philosophical idea of sobornost’, of radical dynamic community which is at the same time freeing and completing of the person who participates in it.
Her writings attest deeply to how her radical Socialist-Revolutionary ideals stuck with her. She gave up the idle hope that human revolution could achieve anything on its own terms, but she never gave up hope that all things could and would be achieved through Christ. Indeed, in her essays, she excoriates both capitalism and communism by name for their mutilation and violent enslavement of the human person, and ends up advocating something that looks very much like distributism:
In fact, mankind has enough experience of the two opposing systems of coercion and violence. The old coercion of the capitalist regime, which destroys the right to life and leaves one only with the right to labour, has recently begun to deprive people of that right as well. Forced crisis, forced unemployment, forced labour, joyless and with no inner justification—enough of all that. But try going to the opposite system. It turns out to be the system of communist enforcement: the same joyless labour under the rod, well-organised slavery, violence, hunger—enough of that, too. It is clear to everybody that we must seek a path to free, purposeful and expedient labour, that we must take the earth as a sort of garden that it is incumbent upon us to cultivate. Who doubts that?
Her leftist bent extends to her personal ethics as well as to her social ones. She is highly critical of the tendency she saw within the Church to withdraw into one’s own shell of piety, to take only the vertical beam of the Cross descending from God to the individual man, and to leave behind the horizontal beam which embraces the other men and women around him as well. For Mother Maria, not only the crass and obvious impiety of greed, but also the much more subtle and insidious impiety of a philanthropy that is only seen as an occasion for the improvement of one’s own virtue or an exercise for the good of one’s own soul, is a form of selfishness which runs contrary to the Gospel. She writes:
A person should have a more attentive attitude to his brother’s flesh than to his own. Christian love teaches us to give our brother not only material but also spiritual gifts. We must give him our last shirt and our last crust of bread. Here personal charity is as necessary and justified as the broadest social work. In this sense there is no doubt that the Christian is called to social work. He is called to organise a better life for the workers, to provide for the old, to build hospitals, care for children, fight against exploitation, injustice, want, lawlessness. In principle the value is exactly the same, whether he acts on an individual or a social level; what matters is that his social work be based on love for his neighbour and not have any latent career or material purposes.
The social element of Christianity is, indeed, for her so inseparable from the core of Orthodox spirituality and the Gospel message, that she even criticises those Christians of like mind to her, who base their actions and their programmes not on the basis of an authentic Orthodox Christian (or Catholic, or Protestant) witness but instead upon the false ground of secular humanism.
The most doubtful, disputable and unsatisfying thing about all the concepts of… ‘social Christianity’… is their secondary character, their incommensurability with the idea of Christian life understood as communion with God. … All the trends of social Christianity known to us are based on a certain rationalistic humanism, apply only the principle of Christian morality to this world, and do not seek a spiritual and mystical basis for their constructions.
To make social Christianity not only Christian-like but truly Christian, it is necessary to bring it out of flat soulfulness and two-dimensional moralism into the depths of multi-dimensional spirituality. To substantiate it mystically and spiritually. It seems to me that this coincides precisely with what Orthodoxy—which has not yet spoken in this area—can and must say; it will give greater depth to Catholic and Protestant attempts to turn a Christian face to the world.
Throughout Mother Maria’s work there is always this similar challenge. Typically of Russian religious philosophy, Saint Maria places upon herself the demand of complete commitment, and will brook no compromises or comfortable lies. The Christian life is not truly or fully Christian until it ‘faces the desert’, an image to which she, being well-versed both in the Desert Fathers and in the ‘holy fools’ of the Church, continually returns. The reality of the Russian exile haunts her every page, and she is keenly aware of it. She writes with very few comforts for those Orthodox exiles who want to withdraw and take refuge in the old trappings of the state, of ritual, or of the æsthetic forms of Church life; she calls them instead – lovingly, but insistently – to the radical witness to Christ’s life and death in their own lives.
And yet there is also all too much in Mother Maria’s writings to discomfort and disorient those who are expecting to see in her a liberal and an œcumenist. She was neither. Early in her life she was a penpal of the arch-traditionalist Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church himself, Konstantin Pobedonostsev; Olivier Clément alludes that it was from him that she learned the personal ‘love of neighbour as opposed to love of those far away’. The three authors she alludes to most fondly are Aleksei Khomyakov, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Solovyov, and it’s clear that she has absorbed much of their romantic-conservative Slavophil temperament. She has some notably harsh words for ‘godless and giftless… cool, uncreative, imitative… secular democracy’, which in her mind amounted to a form of ‘mystical totalitarianism’.
In the fog of the Second World War, she sees straight through those who claimed – and indeed, still claim in modern times, in the case of the EU and NATO – to be ‘defending the right cause, fighting for the liberation of national minorities, or for the federal organisation of Europe, or for democracy’. Not only does she bluntly say that these things are ‘not enough’, but she deliberately likens them to those pitiable flights of fancy to which Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was prone, and further posits that no one truly wants to or should die for such milquetoast abstract ideals: ‘your life is greater and your death is greater’ than the sum total of these things. The personalism-in-sobornost’ Mother Maria insists on cannot be reduced to such paper-thin abstractions. She speaks with dismay of the ‘religious League of Nations’ whose highfalutin, carefully-worded statements of unity were totally inadequate to halt the advances of fascism and Bolshevism – both ideologies which she deems, referring to the Brothers Karamazov, to be ‘Smerdyakovism enthroned’. And she has some critical things to say – perhaps, from the point-of-view of many readers here, too critical – of Pope Pius XI, whose ‘diplomatic subtlety and refinement’ in addressing German Christians she deemed fatally ill-suited to the spirit of the times, and whom she likens to a ‘sympathetic acquaintance at a funeral’ who is unaware of how the gates of eternity opened at the cataclysmic catastrophe being faced by Europe.
And perhaps under the influence of Solovyov, she sees in consistent pacifism ‘something egoistically vegetarian… which makes one sick at heart’. In truth, she rejects, just as Chesterton and Solovyov do, the idea of wars of choice, pre-emptive wars, wars of aggression; she holds the ‘motivation of the robber’ to be utterly incompatible and at odds with the Christian life. But ‘much more complicated’ for Mother Maria, ‘is the question of enduring war, of passive participation, of war in defence’. She is not unaware of the terrible human and civilisational costs of war, and clearly sympathises with the pacifist denunciation of the same. But her maternal compunction is what leads her to pity the most powerless in war, as well as those who come to their defence, and it is what leads her to point to God’s presence even in the worst desolation.
Mother Maria’s understanding of freedom is complex in a similar but perhaps obverse way to her thoughts on war. Clearly she is influenced here by her reading of Dostoevsky: freedom is a vital necessity to the Christian life; in all things free participation is called-for, and there is no part of the Christian life that can be forced. Her excoriations of capitalism and communism for their totalitarian demands on the human person are evidence enough of the value she places on freedom, rightly considered. And yet at the same time, she understands what a terrible thing, what a privation, the prescription of the ‘freedom’ of exile has been for the Russian émigrés. ‘We have lost our weightiness,’ she writes, ‘lost our corporeality, acquired an enormous mobility and lightness, become unbound… we are almost like shadows.’
And yet it is a privation in which an even more terrible and urgent call is present: the call to again live the Gospel in a meaningful and creative way, without seeking refuge in the pieties of a motherland they no longer lived in, and without succumbing to the ‘spiritual philistinism, spiritual mediocrity, lukewarmness’ of the deadening liberal culture sheltering them. Even more so than when the first Russian monks set out into the wastelands of Siberia, she comprehends the call to a ‘new monasticism’ among the Russian émigrés in the streets and apartment complexes of the totally-foreign cities in which they’ve landed. But even as she sympathises maternally with the plight of her fellow émigrés – ‘hard as it is to say to impoverished people, “become still more impoverished”’ – she still holds forth bluntly the ‘inner command’, that ‘our God-given freedom calls us to activity and struggle’.
And Mother Maria was active and struggled to the very last. She was, as Jim Forest rightly notes, a great comfort to those who were imprisoned with her in the ‘hell’ of Ravensbrück. Even in a place where human dignity had utterly stripped away from everyone, even in a place where – to borrow Forest’s description – obscenity, contempt and hatred were as commonplace as hunger, illness and death, Mother Maria provided the inmates with a family and a refuge. She once again organised discussion circles and kept evening prayers, brought French and Soviet prisoners alike together, and shared even what little food she got with those who had still less, until her health failed and her friends would not allow her to give away any more.
Mother Maria pointed to God’s presence even in the worst of places and in the worst of times; in many instances, she herself was a great testament to that presence. She lived under regimes of great turbulence, depravity and cruelty. Yet, in spite of them, she witnessed throughout to a much higher ideal worthy of struggle: that of the Kingdom of God as realised in sobornost’.
As witnesses of truth and preachers of piety,
Let us worthily honor through divinely inspired chants:
Dimitry and Maria, George and Elias,
Who have borne the sufferings,
The bonds and unjust judgment,
In which like the martyrs
Have received the imperishable crown.
* * *
Matthew Cooper is a parishioner and choir baritone at Saint Sava’s Serbian Orthodox Church in South Saint Paul, Minnesota a father of two, a former English teacher and now a data analyst working in the field of higher education. He has published articles online at Solidarity Hall, Christian Democracy Magazine, Oriental Review and Front Porch Republic, and runs the blog The Heavy Anglo-Orthodox. A slightly different version of this article was first published in The Dorothy Option.
What is man that Thou art mindful of him or the son of man that Thou visiteth him? (Psalm 8:4)
Eternity knows no duration of time but contains in itself the full compass of the centuries. Eternity without space includes in itself all the expanses of the created world. —Archimandrite Sophrony
Astronomers recently discovered a planet six hundred light years away from earth with seventy degree temperatures in just the right position from its sun to support life as we know it. A mere six hundred light years is of microscopic proportions in comparison to the estimated size of the known universe, the whole of which may already be infinite. Beyond that we don’t even know if ours is the only universe there is.
A light year is one of those concepts we use as if we know something, yet are totally unable to comprehend what we are saying in any meaningful way that connects with our experience. There are so many such imponderables in our lives that to go about thinking we are in control of anything or that we understand how the universe all fits together is a sure sign of madness.
I was watching an ant careen back and forth over a stone in our walkway. It was moving fast––perhaps fifteen times the distance of its own body in a second. If a six foot man moved fifteen times the length of his own body in one second he would be able to keep up with cars on the highway at speeds over sixty miles per hour.
“Now wait just a darn minute!” you say. “If that were the case, you could hardly even see the ant moving.” Relativity is all about scale and proportion. The ant only looks slow to us because we are giants on a scale logarithmically beyond the world of the ant. It’s not unlike how jets appear as tiny stars blinking in the night sky, barely seeming to move.
Some physicists have recently confirmed that neutrinos, part of the sub-atomic world that comprises the substance of the known universe, have been clocked moving faster than Einstein’s now proverbial speed of light. Think about it, these little wave-particle dualities are flying around in our bodies at speeds we can’t comprehend let alone notice.
Relatively speaking, there is as much distance between the electrons circling the nucleus of an atomic particle as there are between the planets circling the sun. These “clouds of energy” are what constitute the solid molecules that comprise the cells of our bodies. With that much space between the clouds of energy and wave particles racing through our bodies, we shouldn’t even be able to see ourselves. Come to think of it, maybe part of us could make that trip to that new planet discovered only six hundred light years away after all, if only we knew how to switch back and forth from mass to energy like those electrons.
Appearing to stroll about at three miles per hour while spinning round and round, upside-down and right-side-up in a circle at one thousand miles per hour fastened only by gravity to the 24,000 mile circumference of the earth, which is itself orbiting the sun at close to 67,000 miles per hour, in a universe expanding outward at 180,000 miles per hour in our sector alone, is a trick few of us would attempt if we realized what we were doing!
The intricate, complex balance of all these gyrations is miraculous beyond comprehension. Considering that ants are moving at sixty-plus miles per hour under my feet while neutrinos pulverize and X-ray the vast emptiness of my body alternately as both particles and light waves while everything in the universe races toward infinity, I have concerns about how it is I am able to hold it all together from day-to-day.
Most of us are accustomed to operating as the center of our individual universes. We don’t even break a sweat while managing the many spatio-temporal acrobatics of the greater cosmic dance, blissfully unconcerned how strangely empty and isolated we are. Popular religion often masks our awareness of this stunning reality that might otherwise bring us to our knees in awe. If I “believe in Jesus” (on the same scale as believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny), I may conclude that this entitles me to an insurance policy for the afterlife while I continue to live however I want without regard for obeying a larger plan than my own self-satisfaction and individual preservation.
When truly troubled by my inability to live by conscience, I can calm myself by holding forth with something like “substitutionary atonement!” That’s Seminarian-speak for “Jesus took the heat so I don’t have to. God loves everybody. Nuff said?” Such casuistry serves as an excuse to go on unawares, doing whatever I wish without any consistent daily attempts to discover the degree to which self-love rules me instead of a God-centered frame of reference. The real situation is more that we are each flung into life with-out a choice, and then just as we seem to be gaining a foothold, we are yanked out at a moment not of our own choosing and dispossessed of all we have tried to possess in between.
In the publicly shared kingdom of “consensus reality” where reason and materialism are touted as king and queen, it is actually impulsivity driven by pleasure and pain of bodily appetites and the emotionality of likes and dislikes rooted in self-love that hold power. We eat and sleep, marry sometimes and procreate, and invent and accumulate things, all the while taking for granted that the world is pretty much the way we see it and want it to be; and whatever isn’t, is too far away or blessedly unknown to be relevant to our daily lives. But why would the Creator of the universe go to the trouble of placing such tiny, insignificant creatures on such an insignificant planet on the outskirts of the galaxy in a cosmos so gigantic that we’d be afraid we were lost if we weren’t so dazzled by all the toys we have to play with in the meantime? If we live for eighty, ninety, or even a hundred years, it is still less than a nanosecond in cosmic time in comparison to the universe’s fourteen billion years of existence. Are our ordinary daily lives all we really need to be concerned with?
For five thousand years or more, the prophets of Israel, Zoroaster, the sages of the Upanishads, the Buddha, Jalal’udin Rumi, and of course Jesus have borne witness to a world that cannot be seen or comprehended by the narrow-minded “manmade” complacency we live 99.9 % or our lives believing in and conforming too. They all tell us that human life is not merely eating and drinking, marrying, and working. And they say that these cannot be what they are intended to be without recognition of the invisible world in our midst.
When the cosmopolitan, sophisticated, wealthy, and well-educated Nicodemus approached Jesus by night with the opening salvo of “Rabbi we know you are a teacher come from God because of…,” he was presuming to comprehend the mystery of God on earth according to what he already knew, based on lifelong study, reason, and the sense impressions that govern the narrow band of academic and common-sense knowing that constitutes everyday life. Jesus challenged his presumption immediately: “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born from above.” That is, unless they have encountered the Holy Spirit who noetically awakens us to the presence of an uncreated world permeating and giving rise to this one, where God, who is sovereign and source of all life, communicates with the human heart.
The greatest tragedy of our lives is that we reduce our Messenger from beyond the known universe and his prophets to fit within our paltry socially-constructed and democratically agreed upon understandings of the world as we already are familiar with it, rather than seek to encounter the One who alone can lead us out of our present darkness into a love and meaning beyond our wildest comprehension.
Apart from this set of magnitudes, Jesus all too easily morphs into insipid cultural shibboleths, redirecting us back to the comfortable and well worn paths of a civil religion acceptable in the public square. The sharp edges of Truth and the authenticity of dialogue with the Absolute God incarnated as a human being, are removed in order to seem inclusive and avoid offense. Christian faith is reduced to the magic of Disney-belief in a slot-machine deity who passes out tickets to paradise based on legalistic or sentimental adherence to religious slogans repeated by rote without heart, repentance, or obedience.
Or God serves merely as a convenient shape-shifting metaphor for fundamentalist intolerance or touchy-feely “luv” and a political correctness that reaches no higher than the natural emotional bonds of family and species that include those we like, are related to by blood, or with whom we share business transactions, while excluding others who challenge the accumulated power and privilege afforded by being in the world me-first. We are “monomeists” pretending to be monotheists.
In order to do all this without being disturbed by conscience, we console ourselves with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap Grace.” But the Message and the Messenger are far greater than this sort of theological flat-earth perspective. When asked by someone “if only a few would be saved,” Jesus responded by pointing to a difficult truth:
“Strive to enter through the narrow way, because many I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last” (Luke 13:24-30).
This narrow way begins with metanoia––repentance––which is the discovery that as we are, we are not in our right minds. We are not in our right minds because our minds belong in our hearts where grace can affect us beyond mere words and the illusions of comprehension that console us, where it can change our lives. It will take a lifetime of struggle to respond to the Divine Life.
People who have lost their worldly minds from having personally encountered the Messenger and the Message, begin to travel in a different universe, one Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Worldliness is no longer their primary frame of reference. One who considers the reality of an uncreated God who is entirely separate from human consciousness, in whose image we are made yet who is closer to us than our breath, awakens to and gains interest in and response-ability to someone greater than ourselves, someone who loves the whole of creation’s riot of diversity expressing the joy and solidarity of the Creator with beings of all colors, shapes, and sizes. One who is seized by this kind of wonder and humility begins a new vocation!
There is a Buddhist saying to the effect that it is rarer to be born a human being than for a turtle swimming in the great ocean, surfacing once every five hundred years, to surface with its neck in a single ring floating on the surface of the water. Perhaps so. I suspect this is true. What a responsibility! Unlike Descartes, I do not take for granted that “I am” simply because I appear to think or move or breathe or make money, write a book, run a company, complete a university degree, have a baby, or do any other number of things that appear to be mine in the small localized scheme of things. The fact is we can be more certain of the existence of God than of our own. How then to be responsive to the purpose of God for human life on earth and for my life in particular? What am I here for? What is the aim of my life?
These kinds of questions begin to irritate (or depress) a lot of people if they have to consider them for longer than a brief moment. As entertainment they suffice. Like the ancient Athenians observed by the Apostle Paul two thousand years ago, every-body likes the latest news for its entertainment value, but as a real moral problem to be considered over a lifetime with the seriousness that Einstein considered unified field theory or Jesus pondered over Jerusalem, it is another matter. To consider the reality of God beyond and separate from my own consciousness starts to open up those uncomfortable questions of obedience and response-ability again.
Sustain these questions long enough and they begin to reveal a hidden world that cannot be known apart from repentance, ascetical struggle, prayer, worship, and the humility that comes from being dethroned from the center of the universe. Thankfully, what disturbs our paltry “self-esteem” is also what opens the door to the Great Mystery where the journey begins. It is a path that can only be walked by those who have discovered they are paralyzed by complacency and surfeit, can only be seen by those who have discovered they are blind to the uncreated world, can only be heard by those who are deaf to counterfeit worldly ways, can only be begun by those willing to leave behind attachment to what is past at the first hint of invitation from the One to whom the path leads in the present moment.
Once having crossed this threshold, when the forces of resistance question me, as to who it is that is putting me up to all this—creating these questions and disturbing the status quo, revealing to me that I am in the world but not of it, I shall be very careful with my reply and, like Moses, when I refer to “I AM WHO I AM,” at least I will know that it is not me that I’m talking about. IC
My Father is glorified by this: that you should bear much fruit and come to be my disciples. As the Father loved me, I also have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends (John 15: 8-13).
“Love one another as I have loved you.” Or, as Jesus said to his followers another time: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful,” or “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36). Jesus exemplifies this mercy and compassion throughout his own life and in various parables: In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the father moved by compassion rushes out to welcome his wayward son home. So too, moved by compassion the Good Samaritan takes immediate steps to alleviate the suffering of the man who was beaten and robbed. Drawing on very early Christian theology, Orthodox Christian icons of the parable of the Good Samaritan always represent the Good Samaritan by Christ. St. Clement of Alexandria observes that “we call the savior our neighbor because he drew near to us in saving us” (Stromata IV.7). And Blessed Theophlyact develops this idea: “Our Lord and God…journeyed to us…. He did not just catch a glimpse of us as He happened to pass by. He actually came to us and lived together with us and spoke to us. Therefore, He at once bound up our wounds” (Commentary on Luke 10:29-37).
Mercy and compassion are not trivial or incidental characteristics of God. Before Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the law for the second time, he audaciously asked God to see His glory. On Mount Sinai, God displays his glory and goodness to Moses making Himself present to Moses by calling on His own name: “The Lord, the Lord, compassionate, gracious, long suffering, full of mercy and truth” (Exodus 34:6). Throughout the Old Testament, God makes clear that because of his compassion and mercy, he will not abandon the Israelites, but in solidarity with them, promises that he will restore them to the fullness of life.
In Isaiah, God promises to extend this compassionate restoration to all people through the suffering servant, the prototype for Christ in the Christian faith. The Son of God fulfills this promise in His incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. The express image of the Father, the Son of God incarnate as Christ reflects and radiates the glory of the Father among us. Abiding in the love of the Father, Christ radiates and reflects that love, his love, to us. It is through this love that we are saved––that is, healed from sinfulness, death, and estrangement and brought into the fullness of life in communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and with one another in the communion of saints. Salvation is never merely personal but always a matter of koinonia––communion and fellowship with God and others.
But as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes, “While Christ’s victory over death and sin…is indeed complete and definitive…, [our] personal participation in that victory is as yet far from complete” (How We are Saved, p.4). Put simply, we have free will. God won’t drag us into the fullness of life––eternal life—with him. God cannot compel us to love him. We must freely consent to the gift of life that he offers. This consent involves both faith and the fruit of works. As Blessed Theophlyact writes, “Faith truly comes alive only when accompanied by God-pleasing actions.… Likewise, works are enlivened by faith. Apart from one another, both are dead” (Commentary on Gospel of John 9:30-33.)
Why? We are created in the image (ikon) of God: We are created as icons of God. More specifically, we are created as icons of the Son of God, the express image of the Father, who is incarnate as Jesus Christ. The icons that Orthodox Christians produce always represent Christ, His Mother, and the saints in a transfigured state in which the glory of God, the Trinity, infuses and transforms earthly reality. All of our icons are painted or produced to reflect the uncreated light and glory of God: the compassion, grace, patience, mercy, and humility of God. That glory is manifest in the icon for the Nativity of Christ, His resurrection, and His Crucifixion. It is manifest in the icon of the extreme humility of Christ. We venerate icons because we venerate those persons in whom we have found the glory of God to be manifest amongst us. It is no accident that we refer to saints as our god-bearing fathers and mothers.
We produce painted icons only because the Son of God becomes incarnate and because we ourselves are living icons. As Christ abides in and reflects the glory of the Father, so we are created to abide in the love of Christ and to reflect that love in our loves. But in doing so, we are created to reflect the very glory of God––God’s compassion, graciousness, patience, and mercy—in our own lives. “God crowns us with compassion and mercy” (Ps. 103:4). In one sense, this means that God abundantly blesses us with the actions that flow from His compassion and mercy. But there is another, deeper sense to this crowning, as illustrated in an Orthodox Christian wedding service.
The sacramental highpoint of this service is found in the crowning of the bride and groom to and for one another. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, the bride and groom symbolically receive martyrs’ crowns. It might seem odd and depressing to bestow martyr-like crowns at a wedding ceremony. But a martyr, first of all, is one who bears witness to someone or something and who also is willing to lay down his or her life in response to that witness. At their crowning, the bride and groom are given grace by the Holy Spirit to mutually bear witness to one another of the self-sacrificial love that Christ has shown to them. They are given the grace to abide in Christ’s love and to bear the cross of a true self-sacrificial love. Thus, in their own love for one another, they are called to die to mere self-interest; they are called to mutually reflect Christ’s love for one another and any children which they might have in creating the community or communion of a family.
Being created in the image of God, all of us are crowned by him with his compassion and mercy. He shares something of Himself––we Orthodox Christians would say his “energies”––with us. But compassion always moves us away from ourselves to others. As parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan show, compassion for others expresses itself in actions for others and on their behalf. In being crowned with mercy and compassion, we are all of us, at the core of our reality, crowned to another. We are created to bear witness to the love, compassion, and mercy that Christ has shown us by laboring to reflect it through the love, compassion, and mercy that we show to others. As Christ says in the opening scripture text here “My Father is glorified by this: that you should bear much fruit and come to be My disciples.” We are called to do all things for the glory of God. But we are also called to reflect that glory––His compassion and mercy––in our own lives. We do so in our own small ways by, borrowing a phrase from Marquette’s Jesuit heritage, “becoming men and women for others.”
Being a living icon of God is a bit like being a wind spinner. The wind blows, the spinner turns, and it passes the wind on. A well-made spinner doesn’t try to hold onto the wind or hoard it. It responds to all breezes. But we humans have to be very vigilant about the “winds” and “breezes” to which we respond. There are the many breezes of our own passions and thoughts as well as the seductive influences of our society. These breezes blow us away from God and our neighbors into the prideful individualism of seeking our own self-interest above everything else. If we respond to these breezes, we become obsessed “selfies” cut off from any fullness of life. Rather, we must attend to the breeze, the wind, of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies us and renews our lives. For that wind directs us to the kingdom of heaven, which Christ tells us is even now at hand, in which we are enabled to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds, and to love one another as Christ has loved us.
Allowing ourselves to be directed by the grace of the Holy Spirit is the ongoing struggle that we call repentance. Repentance involves a change of mind and heart and a desire for healing in which, with God’s grace, we open ourselves to really abide in Christ’s love and accept what it means to be a living icon of Christ. We are, however, living icons of Christ in community with others. Crowned to one another with God’s compassion and mercy, we are created to find salvation or fullness of life in communion with God, the Trinity, and in community with one another. Compassion is not a kind of feeling that we switch on and off. Compassion is an attunement to others without boundaries. This is the principal lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The true neighbor is a neighbor to all.
For St. John Chrysostom, being compassionately attuned to others “is most especially characteristic of the saints. No glory, nor honor, nor anything else is more precious to them than their neighbor’s welfare and salvation.” Compassion takes us beyond our own interest to the welfare of others and, implicitly, to the welfare of the communities in which we live—local and global. In reflecting Christ’s love in our own lives, compassion should make us attuned to the common good of all.
It is as St. John Chrysostom writes:
But how may we become imitators of Christ? By acting in everything for the common good, and not merely seeking our own…. Let no one therefore seek his own good. In truth, a person (really) seeks his own good when he looks to that of his neighbor…. What is their good is ours; we are one body, and parts and limbs one of another. Let us not live though we were torn apart. Let no one say, “such a person is no friend of mine, nor relation, nor neighbor, I have nothing to do with him, how shall I approach, and how address him?” Though he be neither relation nor friend, yet he is a human being, who shares the same nature with you, has the same Master. He is your fellow-servant, and fellow-sojourner, for he is born in the same world (Commentary on Gospel of St. John).
For nothing is so pleasing to God, as to live for the common advantage or good. For this end God gave us speech, and hands, and feet, and strength of body, mind, heart, and understanding, that we might use all these things, both for our own salvation, and for our neighbor’s advantage and good (Commentary on Gospel of St. Matthew). IC
This essay was delivered orally at Marquette Mission Week 2015 by Prof. John D. Jones, Department of Philosophy, MU. Fr. John is an Orthodox Christian Chaplain and is Associate Priest, Sts. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church (OCA).
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