Category Archives: Essays

Essays published in In Communion by any author on any subject

That the World May Believe

“…that they may all be one…that the world may believe that you have sent me.” —Jesus (Jn 17:20, 21)

While we confess in the Creed that the Orthodox Church is one, where must an observer look to see our theological, mystical, or true
oneness? We have hidden it from ourselves and the world by our
behavior. Because of our pervasive fear, self-interest, and insularity, the visible unity of the Church exists only as a broken promise. We boast that the Church, the kingdom of God on earth, is a place of light set high and reached by straight roads where healing and wholeness are practiced, but it exists merely as a broken affiliation scattered among a deeply fractured human family.

The world is like a concentration camp of darkness where its billions suffer every degradation and practice mutual genocide. Our lack of unity effectively marginalizes the witness that Jesus is the light and liberty we all need. How will they believe us when we say Jesus was sent by the Father or recognize us as the children of God when we fail to be peacemakers even within our own house? This should break all our hearts. When Jesus looked over Jerusalem and felt
deeply Israel’s brokenness, “he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!’” Should we not weep both for our own dysfunctional city and the world? We know the way of peace and do not walk in it.

This is why I embrace the calling, gathering, and labor of the Holy and Great Council that convened in Crete in June 2016. One need not uncritically accept all it has done or produced. To do so would provide an unhelpful gloss. But neither should anyone seek to sabotage or undermine it. That would be business as usual.
I am encouraged by the mere convening of the Council, however incomplete, and the reconciliatory mission it has undertaken. The Council is a necessary and hopeful start to the process of facilitating our healing. The work needed to resolve the problems that have hindered our mission and witness to both the Church and the world must continue. I dare to hope that all Orthodox who believe in the
conciliar and reconciliatory nature and calling of the Church will embrace the Council, both as an event and as a process, and pray for its success. For the Orthodox Church manifests its true nature in open display when it gathers in council.

The Council’s call to bring all the Churches together every few years suggests a clear and simple rallying point. We reject the model of one pope who rules all. But our present model of many battling popes is a disaster. If the council as an institution were to adopt a model similar to the ruling council in Plato’s perfect republic, then our “philosopher kings” could regularly convene as a council of wise
elders truly coming together as benevolent equals. Such a council could lead to increasing our capacity within the Church to bridge internal divides. We could again build trust to resolve outstanding disagreements and problems among us and create mechanisms that prevent new problems from becoming the next generation’s  protracted conflicts that defy resolve. By immediately fortifying the
very conciliar forum where courageous and imaginative leadership can continue to work together, we will in time come to recognize this as normal.

Critical evaluation of the Council’s documents and proceedings done in good faith and in the spirit of love and with the desire for the success of the Church in its conciliar identity is something all concerned Orthodox should engage in. As we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us in this work, we may begin to implement those things on which we find we already agree, for even critical evaluation should not obscure the fact that the documents contain much that is good. This conciliar labor must engage the Church universal, not only primates, bishops, and synods. Through such a broad and engaged habit of conciliar involvement, we will pass the true test of catholicity and begin to rescue from abstraction our claim of
diachronic interaction with history. An organic, growing tradition lives to make history, not preserve it.

We must also acknowledge the criticisms and concerns held by those Churches that participated fully up till the gathering in Crete and hope that their concerns
will be considered in full council. These concerns cannot be addressed, and the work already begun cannot be improved or completed, if all the local Churches do not themselves participate fully. Only then can the Pan-Orthodox aspirations of the
council be realized. The Churches can’t wait for the Holy Spirit’s anointing to participate, they must participate so they can invite the Holy Spirit’s anointing. Finally, the conciliar and reconciliatory nature and work of the Church cannot be separated. The reconciliation of all things is rooted in—and indeed only made
possible by—the ministry of reconciliation being practiced within the Church among and between her members (Eph 2 & Col 1). The councils of the Church are a visible expression of that ministry. When our shepherds become better and more credible examples of reconciliatory ministry through conciliar engagement, the Church may once more believably offer Jesus Christ as bread to a suffering world. Without conciliarity, there is no reconciliation.

That we may be healed and that the world may believe.

The Extra/Ordinary Hospitality of St. Herman House

The following is the first of many features we will be doing on Orthodox service ministries that the OPF is partnering with or supporting, as part of our St. Macrina’s Ministries initiative. Nicholas Sooy, a member of the In Communion editorial staff and author of this piece, formerly worked full time at St. Herman House.

The Church is a hospital, according to St. John Chrysostom, and according to St. Ignatius its sacraments are medicine. It is often repeated that Christ is the Great Physician, and that the spiritual life of the Church heals the sickness of the passion-ridden soul. It is beautiful when the Church is compared with a hospital, with all its evocations of healing, compassion, and philanthropia. A contrast between the Church and a hospital may also seem instructive at first glance. The hospital cares for the body, while the Church is a special hospital for souls. This dualism, however, is something foreign to Orthodoxy. The Fathers did not see the Church as some merely spiritual counterpart to hospitals. Rather, hospitals in the patristic era were extensions of the healing ministry of the Church.Some historians believe the first hospital ever was founded by St. Basil the Great. Early medical institutions were even called Basilias.

Hospitality, the type of love practiced in hospitals, is a very Christian notion. The Greek word for hospitality is ‘philoxenia,’ love of stranger (the opposite of xenophobia). While we might think of hospitality as welcoming friends, in the early Church it meant loving strangers,“for even sinners love those who love them.” The relation between ‘hospitality’ and ‘hospital’ should be instructive for us, for we tend to separate caring for the sick from welcoming strangers. Christ, however, did not separate these activities. Instead, they were both expressions of the same love: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me.”

In the Byzantine Empire, there were a variety of philanthropic institutions, like hospitals, that grew out of the Church’s commitment to hospitality, whether that be for the poor, the sick, or the stranger. The xenon was a ‘house of hospitality,’ which existed to shelter the poor, the traveller, the pilgrim, and the stranger. Sometimes these houses were large complexes, while sometimes they were rooms in the Church building. Xenons, along with orphanages, hospitals, and other such houses of hospitality, were incredibly important to the Christian witness and vocation in the early Church. St. John Chrysostom said that every Christian home should have a special room dedicated to hosting the homeless or the stranger, while one of the Arabic canons attributed to the Council of Nicaea says that a “house of hospitality for the poor should be established in every city of every diocese.”

The St. Herman House of Hospitality is one of those rare places where God is unavoidably present. God is seen in the many icons which grace the house. Some of these icons hang in the chapel, while the rest come from the streets of Cleveland. St. Herman House was founded in 1977 by Fr. Gregory Reynolds and Mother Mary Blossom, two truly saintly monastics, to serve the poor in Cleveland in a time when almost no one else was doing so. Today, St. Herman House is run by FOCUS North America (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve) and supported by the more than 20 parishes in the Cleveland area, a true expression of pan-Orthodox unity and authentic, ancient hospitality.

Last year, St. Herman House served over 73,000 meals. They are one of the only programs in the nation that serves 3 hot meals a day, 7 days a week. The house also distributes around 800 grocery bags a year to mothers with dependent children and has an emergency bread and food pantry that is available outside meal times. The house’s clothing pantry is nearly as expansive as its food pantry, and each year over 500 men benefit from the free clothing and hygiene products. Shoes, jackets, and gifts are also given out to local children and families at various school and holiday giveaways. St. Herman House is also a shelter, and at any time can host up to 28 men. In addition to the emergency shelter, there is also a transitional house attached to the community that can house up to 12 eligible men. Together with case management and the jobs program the house runs, the transitional house provides men an avenue towards stability and independence. St. Herman’s also runs a 75 acre farm, which supports the feeding ministry, and which is being prepared as a ‘recovery ranch’ for those with addictions. Finally, to add to this litany of services, St. Herman’s also practices hospitality in non-material ways. The house has a chapel in which prayers are said every morning and afternoon, and once a week there is an open Bible study in the dining room. The house also serves as a home to the homeless for those who do not sleep there. Every morning it is open for ‘hospitality time’ where snacks, friendship, and a homey place to sit are offered.

While the vast array of services offered at St. Herman House is unparalleled, what truly makes the place unique are the people. Christianity is not about services, whether they are Church services or social services. Christianity is about persons, and in particular is about the person of Christ. To love another means to attend to the image of God in them. If we fail to love others, either by neglecting their material needs, or by treating them only as material beings, we dehumanize them.

There was one man who was staying at 2100 Lakeside, the main shelter in Cleveland. 2100 is a large, impersonal facility with security guards and a prison-like, industrial environment. This man was sleeping at 2100, but every morning at 5am would get up, skip the breakfast at Lakeside, and walk many miles to St. Herman’s for a small breakfast of oatmeal, coffee, and pastries. Paul Finley, the director, once asked this gentleman why he spent so much effort to have breakfast at St. Herman House, and as the man sat there teary-eyed in that friendly room, filled with couches, real wooden tables, and icons, he said, “Because here I feel like I am a human being.”

St. Athanasius taught that Christ, through the Church, was restoring the fallen image of man. The Church exists to foster the wholeness of personhood, the dignity that comes from becoming Christ-like. With that purpose in mind, it should be no surprise to hear that the Church humanizes and brings people to wholeness. This loving vocation of restoration is simple Christianity, and yet it comes to life in a very real way at St. Herman House. Repentance, prayer, fasting, almsgiving,fighting the passions, loving neighbors, loving enemies, healing, forgiving, all these activities at the heart of Christianity made sense to me at St. Herman House in the fullest way that I have experienced. In all my experiences in parishes, in monasteries, and even on Mt. Athos, St. Herman House is the one place I’ve been where I have seen the Church be the Church in the realest way possible. No one understands the passions and the need for grace better than homeless men. No one understands the need to turn away from death towards life better than those who have lived in hell on earth amidst the poverty and violence of the street.

As the Russian proverb goes, the only thing one does alone is go to hell. For many homeless, this is all too real. What is lonelier than homelessness, than the knowledge that you might freeze to death tonight and not one person in the city will open their home to save your life? Each year several dozen homeless men freeze to death in Cleveland. What is a lonelier hell than a death like that in a city of so many? If such a death is hell on earth, then where on earth is God’s will done as it is in heaven? It is often said that to enter a Church is to step from this world into the Kingdom of Heaven. Nowhere is this more real and tangible than at St. Herman House. Orthodoxy does not deal in vague abstractions. Rather, its theology is concrete, incarnate, and lived. The hospitality of St. Herman House is lived theology, not social work. It is to such theology that we are called by Christ and the Fathers. As St. John Chrysostom said,

Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold. He who said, “This is my body,” and made it so by his word, is the same who said, ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food. As you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.’ Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.

St. Herman House is a place of golden chalices and golden souls, as the Church is called to be. It is a place touched by miracles. It is a miracle each time that the eucharist is celebrated in the chapel. It is a miracle each time an addict gets clean. It is a miracle each time a group of broken and fallen men can work together to serve a meal to their brethren. It was a miracle last year when an estate donation of 7,000 dollars came in the day after Paul Finley privately reported to the board that they were 7,000 dollars short of their budget. It is a miracle whenever a donation of batteries shows up just as the staff is about to leave to buy batteries for the house. It is a miracle each day when the men of the voluntary house wake up before dawn to say Orthodox morning prayers. It is a miracle that a place surrounded by so much pain and suffering has come to be called ‘the happiest place on earth.’ “The miracle is,” according to Fr. Stephen Callos, “that it kept going.” After over 35 years and several leadership shakeups, the house is still going, and is growing. There was even a brief transitional time when the house was run by a non-Orthodox individual, and in my favorite anecdote from the house, the daily prayers kept going, because the men living in the shelter had grown to love the prayers of the Church. It is a place that can only be described as God-directed.

There’s a beautiful, yellow, Victorian house on Franklin Blvd. where God is present, and where the Church is the Church. The ancient vision of the Church as a hospital, or perhaps more accurately as a house of hospitality, is alive and well in Cleveland, OH. It is an example to the whole city of Cleveland, to the state of Ohio, to the United States, and to the Church Universal that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Such is the wonderful message that the Church is to carry forth, and it is incumbent upon all of us to do so. Nothing is more natural for a Christian Church than to have a house of hospitality, and nothing is more natural to Christianity and to the Christian than to support such an endeavor. In truth, though St. Herman’s may be extraordinary and out of this world, that is precisely what should be normal. The super-natural, the extra-ordinary is the norm for the Christian seeking divine-human communion. The hospitality at St. Herman House is not something to be admired from afar. It is a proof to us that we can live more compassionate lives, that we can be hospitable, and that the Church is a hospital and can be as such in its fullest sense. St. John Chrysostom, commenting on the Xenons of his time, said that it was the responsibility of all Christians to practice such radical hospitality, saying:

Though you may not wish to take them into your houses, at any rate in some other way (receive them), by supplying them with necessaries. “Why, has not the Church means” you will say? She has: but what is that to you? that they should be fed from the common funds of the Church, can that benefit you? If another man prays, does it follow that you are not bound to pray?

We are hospitable, just as we are prayerful: for the sake of others, and also for our own sake. Fr. Stephen Callos told me, “We need them more than they need us… it’s important for my children and my parish… we need to go down there and look the poor in the eye and serve them.” Ultimately, this small act of looking another in the eye with love and hospitality is the point. Looking, and seeing Christ. While we all might not be able to feed 200 people a day, we can show hospitality. It is quite simple. When I asked why he does what he does, Paul Finley told me plainly, “It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done… and it’s not much different from anything else I’ve done. People are people. People in the rich area of town just as much as in the poor areas are greedy, angry, charitable, envious, grateful. There are lots of kind guys and charitable guys here, just as much as angry. I saw a homeless guy give another homeless guy a dollar for a bus ticket. People with nothing helping one another. Sometimes the poor are more generous. It’s possible because we are all made in the image of God. We all have to struggle with the passions. Sometimes redemption happens; everyone has their own spiritual journey.” Or as Angel Valdez said, “It is not difficult to find Jesus in a place like this. He is here, he lives here, he visits us every day hidden behind different faces. I recognize him because he is always, always carrying and dragging a painful and heavy cross.”

To support FOCUS North America and the St. Herman House, to volunteer, or to learn more, go to sainthermans.com or focusnorthamerica.org.

Living In Communion

From the OPF’s New Podcast:

There is nothing so Orthodox as communion. Holy Communion “is the most profound expression of the essence of the Church.” “What is the mark of a Christian?” asks St. Basil, “… that he be holy and blameless and so eat the Body of Christ and drink His Blood.” I once remember reading a pamphlet handed out at a Greek Church. The pamphlet asked “Why should I come to Church? What is the purpose of gathering together? Why can’t I be a Christian in my own home?” The answer was simple: communion. One can believe at home, can pray at home, and can even eat bread and wine at home, but one cannot live in communion without other Christians. The Church gathers as the Body of Christ to partake of the Body of Christ. Communion is that which joins us to others, and to God. As Fr. Meletios Webber says, when you partake of the Eucharist, there is a brief moment where you feel the sacrament on the tongue. As it is received, this brief moment comes where the Body of Christ becomes joined to your own body and you can no longer tell where God ends and you begin. In this way we are joined to God through theosis, through divine-human communion.

This Mystery does not end there. We often separate the spiritual and inner from the practical and outer. We separate our communion with God from our communion with others, focusing on our own spiritual improvement while neglecting the love of our neighbor. For example, I remember my friend Nancy Forest telling me that she once read an introduction to Orthodoxy which detailed the ins and outs of hesychasm and asceticism. Strangely though, in this introduction to Christianity, the word ‘love’ never appears. Similarly, St. Maria tells us that “we may note that in the first volume of the Philokalia, material about the attitude toward one’s neighbor takes up only two pages out of six hundred, and in the second volume, only three out of seven hundred and fifty. The proportion is quite different from that in the Gospels or the Epistles.”

St. Maria is here pointing out how easy it is to separate our spiritual life from the life we live with others. Such a separation goes against the core of Christian teaching. Abba Dorotheos used the image of a wheel to describe the mystery of divine-human communion. God is at the center, the hub of the wheel, and humans are on the spokes. As we move along the spokes towards the center, we simultaneously draw nearer both to God and to one another. Drawing near to others in love is inevitable with this understanding of the spiritual life, and if we are not doing so, it is a sure sign that we are neither drawing nearer to God nor one another.

I say this to convey that communion should not be understood only as a private sacrament that exists between God and the soul. Communion is also the communal union that is established between all humans. Here is what Alexey Khomiakov says when explaining sobornost’, the unified spiritual community,

We know that when any one of us falls, he falls alone; but no one is saved alone. He who is saved is saved in the Church, as a member of her, and in unity with all her other members. If anyone believes, he is in the communion of faith; if he loves, he is in the communion of love; if he prays, he is in the communion of prayer.’

Communion is a sacrament that is found in the chalice, yes. However, if it exists only in the chalice, then it does not even exist there. If we do not love our brothers and sisters, and if we are not at peace with our brothers and sisters, then there is no communion and the chalice means nothing. Christ tells us that if we are approaching the altar and someone has something against us, we should immediately go and seek reconciliation. Because of this teaching, it is the practice in the Orthodox Church that one must do everything possible to be at peace with all before communion can be taken. As the Holy Apostle John tells us, “If anyone says, ““I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”(1 John 4:20) What does it mean to love those we have seen? St. Paul tells us,

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ (Romans 12:9-21)

Loving our neighbors does not mean just loving those who are our friends or who live near us. It means loving all, the lowly, the stranger, and even our enemies. We are called to show hospitality to strangers as well as to enemies. We are to bless even those who persecute us, or who seek to do harm to us and to our community. We are to strive to be at peace with all. Christ himself often spoke about this sort of love, telling us to love our enemies and to care for the poor. Christ tells us in the parable of the sheep and the goats:

[T]he King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

This is Christ’s description of the mystery of human communion. Christ identifies himself with the ‘least of these,’ those who are sick, in prison, hungry, thirsty, or homeless. The Church is the Body of Christ, and we are all members of the Body. Yet Christ tells us that we should see his Body not just in the Church or in the chalice, but in the sick, the stranger, the hungry, and the thirsty. This mean that true communion with Christ means actively loving ‘the least of these.’’ St. John Chrysostom once made the same point, saying, “If you do not find Christ in the beggar at the church door, neither will you find him in the chalice.” Communion is inseparable from such tangible and active love.

St. Maria expresses a similar thought, commenting on the words of Christ saying,

At the Last Judgment I will not be asked whether I satisfactorily practiced asceticism, nor how many bows I have made before the divine altar. I will be asked whether I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick, and the prisoner in his jail. That is all I will be asked.’

This is not to say that we should just quit the sacraments and take up social work instead. True Christian love and communion are not social work, they are lived theology. They are love. And if we provide material assistance, without truly loving others and communing with Christ in them, then we still would fall short. St. Paul tells us,

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.It is love alone that is the point of all our labors.’

I often bring people to liturgy who have never been to an Orthodox service before. They often have many questions about all the strange customs and practices of the Church. And if they have a protestant background, as most do, they particularly ask about sacraments, icons, and communion. I say the same thing every time. I tell them that the whole point is love. We approach icons, which are wood and paint, images of people, and we approach them with reverence. Every day, we Orthodox practice looking at the face of a human painted on a piece of wood, and we attempt to cultivate true love, true devotion, true reverence for this face, believing that we can see Christ in it. It is not hard to see how such a practice prepares us to be more loving to one another. Icons are painted of saints, those who are easy to love. They are painted in an idealized way that is meant to represent the heavenly body of the individual, making it even easier to practice devotion and love. It is difficult to muster up as much devotion and love when looking at the face of someone who is in prison, or who is disfigured with sickness, or who is a stranger, or who is your enemy, or someone who persecutes and harms you. Yet, we are told that we must love them as well.

Loving them, of course, doesn’t mean that we are to feel affection or some other feeling. Love is more active than that. It is not always easy and does not always feel good. That is why we start with the best case scenarios: icons of saints and of Christ. Through regular, habitual, liturgical practice we can work our way up to strangers and enemies. The same goes for everything else we do in Church. Every ritual points towards love. We practice love in our parishes and in our families, we learn how to deal with conflict peacefully, and we learn to devote ourselves to one another. We do that in our communities where it is easy, where it is safe and where everyone has the same beliefs and commitments. This is what should happen when we gather regularly for services. And those in the services are treated as icons. The priest censes the people along with the icons, because all are the Body of Christ. The incense, the vestments, the chanting, this all draws us together.

During the Divine Liturgy, there is a special focus: communion. We gather together to receive it. Communion is the center of spiritual practice, and it too points us towards love. We spend the whole week between Sunday liturgies praying and fasting in preparation for receiving communion.Then we gather in the evening and in the morning to pray and to prepare ourselves to receive it. We then spend well over an hour praying during the liturgy, all just to prepare us to receive. St. Symeon tells us that we should always receive communion with tears. This tells us that we are truly to cultivate devotion, and the whole of the liturgical life of the Church prepares us for this. Why so much effort to cultivate devotion surrounding an act that takes only a few seconds? Why do we prepare so much to receive just the smallest piece of bread and wine? It is because we see the bread and the wine as the Body of Christ, and the whole point of Christianity is to commune with that Body. The practice of communion is just that, practicing communion. The end goal is mystical communion with the Trinity, with all mankind, and with the whole universe. It is easier to cultivate the right mindset and orientation towards that communion if we practice with just the smallest piece of the Body of Christ on a spoon. It is much harder to practice frequent communion with the Body of Christ writ large. We spend all this time preparing for communion, because if we can succeed in truly communing, in loving God and man through the Body of Christ, the Godman, then we have made the first step towards carrying around that same devotion and love for all. It is easier to love Christ in the chalice than in the leper. But Christ calls us to love Him in the leper, so we start with the chalice, and practice as regularly as we can.

If we succeed in cultivating a heart that so loves the chalice, then it will be that much easier to see our fellow Christians as living chalices. For each of those who worship with us receive from the same cup that we do, and they literally carry the Body of Christ within them. Then after we expand our devotion to include our co-religionists, we can then go out into the streets, and see that all are made in the image of God and that Christ is truly in the ‘least of these.’ This process is what the hesychast fathers called the ‘enlightening of the nous.’’ The fall is the darkening of the ‘nous,’ where nous means something like the eye of the mind or the heart.

It is through the nous that we mystically see the bread and wine as communion, and it is through the nous that we see that all are truly icons of Christ. Thus every practice in the Church which aims at enlightening the nous at the same time is teaching us to love, whether it be confession, iconography, or partaking of the sacrament. All these practices point us towards God, who is love. As St John the Evangelist says,

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love… If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us…God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.’

The mystical communion with God that we seek in the Eucharist means just this: that we abide in God and that God abides in us. Remarkably, what St. John tells us is that this communion is achieved through love. If we can approach just the smallest portion of the Body of Christ on a spoon, with full reverence, devotion, and love, and if we do that as often as we can, then soon the nous will enlighten and it will get easier and easier to see the larger Body of Christ with such devotion, reverence, and love. We will see each member of that Body with love until our love encapsulates the whole universe. Many modern spiritual masters, like St. Silouan speak of expanding the heart to contain the whole world. What they mean is simply that we should love everyone, just as we love God. Christ tells us that the whole of the law is to love God with all our heart… and to love our neighbor as ourself. These commandments are not separate, but are one and the same.

In an interview we once did with Fr. Thomas Hopko of Blessed Memory, he commented on that commandment and said that sometimes it is translated as ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ He says this is a poor translation, and a better translation is that “we should love our neighbor as ourselves.” This means we should love our neighbor “as being our own self.” “Your neighbor is your true self. You have no self in yourself.” The Fathers say the same thing, “Your brother is your life.”” Or as Fr. Tom summarizes, “I have no self in myself except the one that is fulfilled by loving the other.” This mutuality is what Fr. Tom calls communion. He says, ““The Orthodox approach is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that God is a Trinity of persons in absolute identity of being and of life in perfect communion. Therefore, communion is the given. Anything that breaks that communion destroys the very roots of existence.” Communion then, is not just limited to the sacrament, but instead implies a whole sacramental way of living. Many things can break that communion: violence, poverty, ideology, killing, anger, greed, envy, and egoism. This is why forgiveness, prayer, peace, and Christian charity are so vital. They are how we live in communion. A life lived in communion brings the Eucharistic to bear on all aspects of life. It means engaging the world in practical ways that bring about the Kingdom of God. Division and strife sever communion. That is why we must make peace with all, in our own hearts. From there we can make peace with those in our lives, in our families and communities. Reconciling, loving, forgiving, these all establish communion with those around us. From there we can make peace not just with those close to us, but with enemies and strangers as well. We can then seek to make peace within our society, which St. Clement calls justice. And by God’s grace, we can seek to expand such communion to the whole world and cosmos.

As St. Basil said, “I cannot convince myself that without mutual love and without peace with all people, in as far as it is within my possibilities, I can call myself a worthy servant of God.” St. Basil also said, “Nothing is so characteristic of a Christian as to be a peacemaker.” This saying is profound given the quotation from Basil with which we started. St. Basil says that the mark of a Christian is communion, but he also says that nothing is so characteristic as being a peacemaker. Given what Fr. Thomas Hopko said, we should read these two quotations together. Being a peacemaker, working for peace and justice and reconciliation, is the same thing as seeking communion. Peace is the same thing as the mystery of divine-human communion. Peace and justice between people is involved in this as well, for we are all icons of God incarnate, and peace with God means peace with man. Communion is not just a spiritual exercise, and it is not just something done for the life of our souls. It is a lived reality for the life of the world. Thus, we should identify Christ’’s twofold command to love God and to love neighbor with the twofold announcement of the angel, that Christ comes bringing glory to God in the highest with peace on earth, and goodwill to all men. We love God, glorifying Him in the highest. And we love man, seeking to bring about peace on earth and goodwill towards all.

This podcast is the first of many sponsored by the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. The podcasts are titled In Communion; this name comes from the interview we did with Fr. Thomas Hopko. In Communion is also the name of the journal we publish, as well as the name of our website. Fr. Tom was on the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and was a very active promoter of our work. He was also a good friend to many in OPF. This podcast is a mission statement of sorts for our journal and our work. We seek to promote a life lived in communion, which is really nothing more than the Christian life. You can expect many stories, reflections, interviews, and essays from this podcast. All will focus on this simple theme of living a life in communion. We will discuss saints lives, stories of people bringing about communion through the ‘liturgy outside the church,’’ the orthopraxy of living in the world, and the Christian vocation of peace, justice, and love. How should we live in and engage the contemporary world as the Body of Christ, as people seeking to live in communion with all and with everything? This is the question that motivates us. We hope to discern these things with you.

To hear more of the OPF’s Podcasts, be sure to visit us at:
http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts
Episodes are co-produced by Pieter Dykhorst and Jim Forest,
and typically recorded by Nicholas Sooy.

What Are You Fighting For?

Hieromonk Fr. Seraphim Aldea was in Paris shortly after the November 2015 attacks in Paris. In the following, written shortly after the attacks, he reflects on peace and violence in light of these attacks. In the addendum, written two months later, Fr. Seraphim responds to some criticisms of his initial reflection.

It’s been a very tough week to be in Paris. I came shortly after the attacks. They happened on Friday night, and I was here already on Sunday. It is a very sad time, and you can feel it in the city. You can feel it in people and their behavior. They do try to move on with their lives, but there is a certain type of lack of engagement somehow, and
distance. A distance, that is the word. I’ve seen it before, in people as well as in larger communities, and it seems to be the reaction after something horrible.

I’ve tried to make sense all week of what has happened and what is happening at large. I’ve tried to make sense of that as I hold onto my faith and things my faith, Christ, ask of me. I can tell you two things that I’m sure are very common. On the one hand, nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense about Christianity, and that is all right. There is no logic in Christ’s asking us to be children of peace, makers of peace in the world. There is no logic in Christ’s commandment to allow ourselves to be crucified for the sake of our neighbor, to die for the sake of our neighbor and the world we live in. There is absolutely no connection; there is no way to fit the two together. But that is all right. It took me, again, a few days to understand that it is absolutely all right, because we are not part of this world, and we should
not fit into it. It is painful, but it is the truth.

And the second thing I’ve understood is how small, how horribly small my heart really is, because as I walked the streets of Paris and as I felt this cloud of sadness just overcoming everything and  everyone, as I kept on praying, as I kept on putting on the mask of a Christian, I clearly perceived in my heart a hope—a secret, horrible, disgusting hope—that while I look away and against my formal  approval, somebody somewhere, some nation from somewhere, will in fact do so that this whole horrible thing is ended.

There is a fight at all times in my heart—and I’m sure many of you can identify with it—between my faith and Christ’s commandment for peace and love and self-sacrifice, and my instincts, which are naturally towards survival, my personal survival, the survival of the communities and groups I’m part of, the survival of my family, my friends, my nation, my church, my culture. And because these two do not fit in moments of crisis and because I’m too much of a coward, really, to choose either Christ or the world, I develop sense. The saints have tried to get out of this prison of time and space and idea of a progression in life. Think of St. Brendan. Think of his physical attempt to get away from the world and to free himself of the world’s vision of life, a vision where things happen in time, and you get from point A to point B to point C. Think of St. Columba and his lack of progression, of his failure, which then Christ turned into one of the most beautiful stories of Christianity. Think of the 68  monastics who were killed on Martyrs’ Bay in the ninth century by the first Viking attack. Think of all the others who were killed everywhere in the British Isles by the Vikings. Not one has fought back. Not one has taken a gun to fight back and protect himself, his brothers, his community, or his island—because what they were fighting for does not belong to this world.

It’s just what Christ was trying to say. If his aim had been to rule the world here, to rule this dust which he created, he would have fought. He would have brought armies to fight against those who crucified him. And as he apparently didn’t fight and as he apparently was defeated, he was actually fighting back and winning the battle, but not here, not over this dust, but over the kingdom, the eternal kingdom of peace.

All these monastics who died in the Celtic isles—not fighting back, butchered by barbarians the same way things happen today—all of these are beautifully represented on their tombstones, and they are represented as frightening, powerful, heavily armed soldiers because they were frightening and they were powerful and
heavily armed in their fight for the kingdom. Yes.

We might die and our families might die and our culture and civilization might die, but if we die in the name of Christ, we have won. Whereas, if we win, abandoning Christ and his commandments, if we win and rule this dust at that expense, we have, in fact, lost.

As I was walking that day, I understood again that there is an essential difference between the mind of someone who is a believer, someone who functions by faith, and someone who functions by logics. Yes, there are religions on this planet—there have been before, and there will come long after we die—there are religions on this world who think in terms of ruling the earth, in terms of taking over the world and ruling it. There are religions that think in terms of progression and that rejoice in the fact that there were a thousand of them 20 years ago and there are a hundred thousand today. In that quantity, they see a sign that their religion is progressing and growing, but that is not the true faith.

In the true faith, things do not happen in time. I am not here so I can lead to the next generation. I am not here so I can leave behind some sort of heritage for those coming after me, because there is no future and there is no past. There is nothing to leave behind, because there is no “behind.” There is nothing to build for the future, because there is no future. The battle, the fight, happens here and now in me and in you. The kingdom is in me and in you and in each and every one of the people created.

The world does not need more soldiers; the world needs more saints. There is no question whether you or I should fight, because we are fighting, even against our will. We are all involved in this battle. We are all soldiers, but we can be the type
of soldier that fights for a kingdom over dust and become a warrior, a terrorist, who is any kind of person who kills another person; or we can become the kind of warrior that fights for the kingdom to come, that fights for the kingdom of love, that fights for the kingdom of peace, which Christ promised to all those who make peace.

Let’s pray for peace, for all of us, everywhere. Amen.

Addendum:
In connection to the Paris attacks, I said a few things concerning war and the use of guns and the idea of killing other people. I have received such horrible comments, and there was such a violent reaction against what I said that I simply could not deal with it.

I don’t really know what to do with hatred or just pure, empty  violence, even if it’s simply a matter of words or attitudes. I simply don’t know what to do with it; it has no space in my life. And it took me these two months to come to some sort of sense, to some sort of peace concerning this topic. Really there are very few thingsI care as much for as this topic. There is absolutely no reason—absolutely no reason why another human being could kill another one. Really, this is something I care for deeper than I had realized. Because what offended me, what scared me, following that reaction, was not so much that people could disagree with me or have a negative  reaction to things I say. That happens all the time with my friends
and with members of my family and with people in the parishes that I visit.

But what paralyzed me was the reality, which I hadn’t grasped until then, the reality of the fact that there is a huge number of Christians in the world who truly believe that it is all right to kill a human being. I’m not discussing any reasons, any justifications for killing; I’m discussing pure killing, for any reason, any justification. All I can say is: Go back to Christ. Go back to the God of peace. Go back to Christ who is love. There is no argument to support murder in Christianity, at least not in a pure Orthodox Christianity. There is no such thing as “just war” in Orthodox Christianity. That is a Catholic invention, and it is deeply wrong. It is anti-Christian.

Now, this is the confession of my heart. This is not some sort of intellectual conclusion, not something I believe in, something I chose, something my mind created. This is not an opinion, mine or
someone else’s. This is what I know in my heart to be the truth, and that is why this is a confession. You are listening to a confession, and you do with it whatever you want. In my heart, I know this is the truth; I know this is Christ. There is no way to life through murder, and the Orthodox Church, again, has kept that teaching as pure as possible by not creating any theory, any doctrine to justify war in any context. Many of those who wrote to me argued that there are various elders who supported war. Well, I say to you, before Christ and before those elders, that they are wrong. Even if a saint says so, he is wrong. Even if a bishop or a synod say so, they are wrong, for the very simple reason that Christ, who is the truth, and Christ’s Church, through its Tradition, say otherwise. Go back to the Christ in your heart, and look into the depth of Orthodoxy, beyond nationalism, beyond matters of state, beyond matters of borders. Go back to what Christianity is about, and you will find the same truth in your heart.

I know that intellectually we can conceive of all sorts of justifications for war and for violence and for murder. I know that there are all sorts of intellectual possibilities. I know that in theory, in abstract, there can be other answers, but I am not a theoretical being with a theoretical heart, and I’m not an abstract being with an
abstract heart. I have only this heart, of flesh, and only this answer in this heart: Christ is love. He is the King of peace. And this is the answer I am giving you. We are real beings; we are not abstract beings with abstract hearts beating in our chests. The fact that there can be, from an intellectual perspective, ten or a hundred answers to one question does not change the fact that the truth is simply one, and that the name of that truth is Christ.

Look at Christ’s reaction when St. Peter wanted to protect him against the mob that came to get Christ and take him to Golgotha and then to the crucifixion. Look at Christ’s reaction to Peter’s attempt to save him. What else  is there in this world or in any other world, what else is there more valuable, more precious, than the Source of being himself, than Christ himself? And if he was against killing someone to protect that Source of life and being, what do you think would be his reaction when we justify war and murder today in the name of nationalism or instinctual family relations or any other reason?

I don’t want to argue this. This is a topic that does not need me to represent it or to fight for it. It doesn’t stand through me. This stands through Christ. I am simply called to give witness for this truth…And as long as Christ’s words stand by that confession, and as long as the 2,000-year-long tradition of the Orthodox Church stand by that confession, I am all right, and I trust that Christ is all right with what I’m doing as well.

Glory be to God in all things always. Amen. IC

The Protection of the Mother of God

Theological research has always been a mandate of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship as well as In Communion, and this year we have launched a new research project on the saints of the Church. It has become customary to feature saints on the cover of our journal for several years now, and to use the saints as the launching point for each publication. We have now begun a formal and systematic study of the hagiographies of the Church, with the hope of producing a book-length publication on the subject: A Mercy of Peace.

Every day of the year, the Church celebrates dozens of holy people whose lives illumine the Church. These saintly luminaries reveal the mind of the Church in a special way. The teachings and activities of the saints do not carry the same authority as the liturgical, canonical, or conciliar texts of the Church, but instead shed light on the Gospel and the teachings of Christ in a way that canons, formulas, and liturgical texts cannot. Saints are humans, just like us, who took the message of Christ to heart, and who lived out that message in radical ways. The witness of the saints is diverse. Hagiographies do not provide us with doctrine, methods of prayer, or rules for behavior. Instead, they provide us with stories. In them we read narratives and tales of heroic individuals attempting, and
sometimes failing, to proclaim that the Kingdom of God reigns, while at the same time laboring in a world that seems alien to the values of poverty, meekness, mercy, peace, and justice that define Christ’s Kingdom. Without the witness of these saints, the tradition of our Church would merely be a record of methods of prayer,
rules for Church governance, and a few dogmatic statements of belief. It is the saints which make our tradition a living one.

Every Orthodox community has a special devotion to certain saints, and the OPF is no different. Looking through our past publications, you will see St. Maria of Paris, St. Dmitry Klepinin, St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, and St. Alexander Schmorell appear again and again. Among the saints, there is one in particular to which the OPF has the highest devotion, and that is Mary, the Mother of God herself. The OPF is formally dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God, and in many places the name of our organization is written “The Orthodox Peace Fellowship of the Protection of the Mother of God.” An icon of the Protection of the Mother of God was even specially painted for the OPF, and has since come to adorn everything that the OPF does.

The Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God is celebrated on October 1, or on October 28, depending on the jurisdiction. This feast commemorates a series of events, the first of which occurred in the summer of 626, where Constantinople was saved from an enemy invasion, not by force of arms, but through the non-military, supernatural intervention of the Mother of God. It is recorded that while Emperor Heraclius and the entire army were away, the city of Constantinople wasattacked simultaneously by the Scythians and the Persians. Left defenseless, thepeople began to pray fervently. Patriarch Sergius began to lead processions through the city. In response to the threat of invasion and death, the people gathered, they marched, they prayed, and they kept vigil. The center of this activity was at the Great Church of the Theotokos, which was near the city gates. As the account goes, their actions paid off. A hurricane soon swept through the region, scattering the enemy ships and routing the sieging armies. In icons commemorating
this, “The Mother of God is seen standing on a small cloud, hovering in the air above the faithful. She has both arms outstretched in a gesture of supplication, expressing her prayer of intercession. Two angels hold by either end a great veil which billows in the form of a vault over the Mother of God.” (The Meaning of Icons by Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, printed in our Fall 2007 issue of In
Communion) Other icons simply depict Mary holding out her veil as a sign of protection. The Russian word Pokrov (Покров), and the Greek Skepi (Σκέπη) both mean “veil” or “shroud,” as well as “protection” or intercession.”

Following this event in 626, it became custom to devote prayers to Mary for protection, as the story had a tremendous impact on the public consciousness of the Byzantine people. It is reported that several other times following this event (in 677, 717-718, and in 860) Mary appeared and intervened, preventing invasions and routing armies through supernatural means. These events imprinted themselves on the Byzantine conscience, making it even more commonplace for Orthodox to resort to prayer, rather than arms, in times of danger. Mary was given the title “Defender General” by the Church, and it was to her that the Byzantines would first look for defense. This “feminine defense paradigm” came to exert a powerful influence over medieval Orthodox culture, as Dr. Marian Simion recounts:

“[T]he feminine defense paradigm had been a dominant motif in Orthodox Christianity, which deconstructed the masculinity of war and consistently skewed the meaning of violence away from an exclusive physical expression. This paradigm prevented the adoption of a Just War theory, due to structural and phenomenological implications. First, the feminine defense paradigm affected the institutional self-perception of the Orthodox Church; secondly, it redefined human connectedness; and thirdly, it deeply influenced the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christians in terms of feminine protection, as expressed in the devotion to Virgin Mary.”

-Marion Simion, Religion and Public Policy: Human Rights, Conflict, and Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 200

Dr. Simion further elaborates on these points, noting that the motif of Mary’s protection shifted the Church away from viewing Christianity through a masculine lens of retribution, and instead viewed Christianity as paradigmatically about care and protection. This reinforced attitudes towards caring for the poor, the vulnerable, the sick, the stranger, and the prisoner. This likely also contributed to the fact that the Church in the East never developed retributive theories of the atonement, or views of God that emphasized retribution and violence. As Dr. Simion further summarizes, “The effect of such imagery and mnemotic analogies over the Orthodox society was that they contributed to a sense of social cohesion, which in  essence had collectively celebrated meekness and life, rather than valor and sacrificial death–thus discouraging any rush to violence. Furthermore, such illustrations simply maintained that violence leads to alienation, destruction and death, and that it ultimately destroys and humiliates God’s own creation.”

Even in the military texts of the late Byzantine Empire, peace was always viewed as normative. Often times, these popular sentiments caused Emperors, such as Leo VI, to encounter difficulty in raising support for the armed forces. This is in part due to the pervasive belief in Mary as the Protector General and the dominance of the feminine defense paradigm. In fact, the Byzantine Empire was viewed as “effeminate” by the Franks because of their aversion to war. As Dr. Simion concludes, “Thus, within the spirituality of warfare, the feminine motif had been profound and complex enough to have influenced the attitudes towards war more directly. It is clear that such influences generated attitudes which often prevented wars of aggression, while wars of defense had increasingly involved non-violent means. Moreover, with Virgin Mary’s patronage over the imperial City and civil society, the Orthodox Church advocates human interaction (including with enemies), based on sharing, reconciliation, maternal instincts,
nurturing, restoration and recreation of relationships, social connectedness, forgiveness, meekness, etc.”

The feast of the Protection of the Mother of God was formally added to the calendar after another instance of protection in the 10th century. During another siege, Sts. Andrew and Epiphanius were holding vigil in the Church of the Theotokos, when suddenly they saw a familiar woman enter the church and begin walking up the aisle. “On reaching the center of the church, the Mother of God
knelt down and remained long in prayer, her face bathed in tears. When she had prayed yet again before the altar, she took off the shining veil which enveloped her and, holding it above her head, extended it over all the people present in the church.” (In Communion Fall 2007) After this, the siege ended with neither bloodshed nor violence.

The most recent story associated with this feast day occurred during WWII, which explains why the feast is celebrated on October 28 in the Greek tradition. That was the day that Mussolini had given Prime Minister Metaxas for surrendering to the Italian forces, lest they be invaded. It is recorded that Metaxas simply sent a telegram in response which read, “Oxi,” which means “no.”

That morning, Greeks of all political persuasions filled the streets, gathering and marching, shouting “Oxi!” October 28 is still celebrated in Greece as “Oxi Day,” commemorating the Greek resistance to the Axis forces. The Church participated in this resistance nonviolently, protecting many Jews, and refusing to  cooperate with evil. In 1952, the Church of Greece formally moved the feast of the Protection to the 28th, connecting the ancient feminine defense paradigm to the activities of peace and resistance which Orthodox Christians still undertake today.

In our own way, we at In Communion also hope to stand in this tradition, kneeling down next to the weeping Mother of God in this suffering world, clinging to her soft and nurturing veil, our own faces bathed in tears, praying with her for a world under siege by violence. Let us pray for peace in the words of the Akathist:

“O Champion  General, I your City now inscribe to youTriumphant anthems as the  tokens of my gratitude,Being rescued from the terrors, O Mother of God.Inasmuch as you have power unassailable, From all kinds of  perils free me so that unto youI may cry aloud: Rejoice, O unwedded Bride.” IC

Ouspensky, Leonid, and Vladimir Lossky. “The Protection of the Mother of God.” In Communion, no. 47 (October 27, 2007).

Demetrios. “Encyclical of Archbishop Demetrios for OXI Day 2015.” October 23, 2015. http://www.goarch.org/news/encyclicaloxiday2015.

Simion, Marian. “Just War Theory and Orthodox Christianity.” THE ANNALS OF THE ACADEMY OF ROMANIAN SCIENTISTS, Vol. 3, no. 1 (2011): 23-45.

Two Apple Orchards

The following reflection is an excerpt from His Grace Bishop Seraphim Sigrist’s 2017 book Tapestry, in which he reflects upon themes of peace and conflict as they are seen through the lens of two apple orchards.

The apples are gone now from the tree out front . . . These orchards from other years and other places. . . The tree here today standing between the seasons. Those trees which seem in memory to suggest not only the past but also the future.

Butovo: Apples Falling from the Past
In the afternoon we travel from Moscow to Butovo a place to the south of Moscow which was a killing ground used by the Communists for people from the Moscow area, and in particular in 1937 and 1938.

On the way a lady speaks of Fr. Pavel Florensky’s scientific work on seawater during the days before his execution in the northern Solovki camp, and of his intention to do a second volume of Pillar and Ground of Truth, this time focused on humanity, as the first is on God. Since we do not have it, drafts were destroyed, we do not know what the final position of his thought was. Then she says we are getting near Butovo and she wishes to be silent for these moments.

There is a new church and a bell tower and there are stones with the inscriptions of many names of those murdered here. In the church the attendants tell us that the names of 10,000 are known but countless others unknown. Included are 900 bishops and priests. Enough record remains of them,that 250 of the 10,000 here have been formally recognized as saints by the Church. 10,000 in the Moscow region in 1937-1938 in just this one place. Think of the whole land and of the whole Communist period.

But we will remember also the day when they will return, and all our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and ourselves also will return. I think of Peter de Vries, who wrote, “The recognition of how long, how very long, is the mourners’ bench upon which we sit, arms linked in undeluded friendship—all of us, brief links ourselves, in the eternal pity,” and so it is not wrong that there are flowers and apple trees also even, beside a mourners bench long enough to stretch to Eden where there were also apples and flowers, or perhaps, indeed, it must be the same garden because it will return. Will return and has returned. We walk in the apple orchard,and there are flowers now and apples on the trees. When we leave, ladies from the church follow us to the gate with a big plate of apples newly fallen, and we eat them in the car.  Someone says,“Every centimeter of this place is soaked with blood . . . eating these apples is like communion.”

Krakow: Apples Falling from the Future
Now we have come to the chalet-like retreat center of Andrej and Samita on a hillside near the ancient Polish city of Krakow. Here we will spend the night. It is a good place with apple trees everywhere and I know I must be deeply feeling it a good place because I feel the desire to climb the trees,as when a boy. We sit around a table under the trees,and there is nothing lacking,and the apples are falling continually. This year there are more than ever, it seems, now one falls, now three but it almost seems they are growing faster than falling and how perfect and round they are and how fine the taste . . . and there is watermelon and coffee too and talk about interior monasticism. . . and Andrej says . . . we must open ourselves to God who is coming not from the past but from the future . . .apples falling like cherry blossoms into, or rather from,a future momentarily at least made present in love and peace.

And under the apple trees Anika played the guitar and sang beneath the weaving branches.

The next morning we spread a cloth on a table in the middle of the orchard and in the early bright light do our service of shared bread and wine . . . Apples falling still . . . some great joyful mystery in these ripening and falling apples somehow offering themselves as we offer all things as best we can . . .and again the growth seeming to more than keep pace with the falling . . .a circulation of heaven and earth. Our host Andrej says in conversation after that there is much writing about Spirit, about the Holy Spirit, about Pneumatology as it is called, but this is to make it an abstraction and an object not the subject, not the One who acts. . . what is needed he said is “Pneumatics,” the seeing of the Spirit’s operation in persons and in the world . . .

Bishop Seraphim (Sigrist)

Christmas is the Real Birthday of Each of Us

 

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)

Some Reflections on the Approaching Great and Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church

by Rev. Dr. Andrew Louth

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.

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Mother Maria Skobtsova, Martyr of Sobornost

Mother Maria Skobtsova, Martyr of Sobornost

By Matthew Franklin Cooper

Mother Maria Skobtsova, Martyr of Sobornost
Mother Maria Skobtsova, Martyr of Sobornost

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.

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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.

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Dia-Logos with the cosmos: A Chapter from “Being Bread” by Fr. Stephen Muse, IC70

Dia-Logos with the Cosmos

by Stephen Muse, Ph.D.

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

6 christ-creating Dia Logos

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