Not much time has passed since Europe was last in danger of being overrun by Islam. In 1453, Constantinople, the Eastern bulwark of Christianity, was captured by the Ottomans. In1529 and again in 1683 the Turks stood at the gates of Vienna. The struggle to free Belgrade lasted almost 200 years, and it was only a short time before the First World War that the last Balkan countries were able to free themselves from the Ottoman rule. It is naive, however, to assume that Islam and Christianity were wrestling with each other in that region for six hundred years. The fact is that empires are not built on any religion but on economic and military powers. Christianity and Islam both became servants of empire, the first of the Roman Empire and the second of the Ottoman Empire.
Many Christians have forgotten that Syria and North Africa were once the heartland of the Christian world, but were overrun and fell under Arab control during the first Islamic invasions between 632 and 732 AD. Arab armies swept into Europe and stood within 200 kilometers south of Paris, and near Geneva, too. If Charles Martel had not stood firm, we might all be Muslims today.
Again many Christians are pondering the questions: What is Islam? Who is Allah? What relationship does Allah have to Jesus Christ and his Church?
Allah in the Thought and Lives of Muslims
A Muslim’s relationship to Allah can be seen in the five daily prayers, which belong to the five pillars of Islam. “Islam” means surrender, submission or subjugation.
If it were possible to watch from space, we could see the prayer ritual of Islam sweeping across our globe like a mighty wave five times a day, as millions of Muslims bow to the ground in worship. At dawn, as soon as one can distinguish between a white and a black thread, the prayer of the Muslim begins in the Philippines. The first wave of worship surges over Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, then Iran and Turkey. Finally it reaches Europe, at which time the second wave of worship begins at noon for the Muslims in China. This new wave will have reached India and the forty-five million Muslims in Central Asia just as a third wave will have started at 3 p.m. for afternoon prayers in the Far East. These three waves of worship follow each other successively, molding and determining life under the Islamic culture. Then, as dawn is breaking on the East Coast of America with its Morning Prayer, Muslims in the Nile Valley are bowing down in the heat of noon prayer and in Pakistan men are gathering in their mosques for afternoon prayer. When the final wave of the Muslim night prayer begins in the Far East two hours after sunset, the rays of the setting sun touch the worshipers in the Ganges Delta, while pilgrims in Mecca bow down for afternoon prayer before the black stone in the Ka’ba. At that moment the second prayer wave has already reached faithful Muslims in the high Atlas Mountains in Morocco, while the first wave breaks with the early morning dawn in the Rocky Mountains of America.
These five waves of prayer unite millions of Muslims in worship. Many Muslims pray earnestly, disciplining themselves by repeating their prayers 17 times a day. Early in the morning, the Muezzins call from the minarets: “Arise to prayer! Arise to success! Prayer is better then sleep!” Everyone who serves Allah hopes to receive a reward from him. Muslims thank Allah because he has already granted faith, which leads them to pray and keep the law in order to have the goodwill of Allah bestowed upon them.
Islam, then, is a religion based on keeping the Law of God. Prayer is an obligation. In Saudi Arabia a visitor may observe policemen forcing passers-by into mosques during the prayer times, so that the wrath of Allah may not descend on the country because of neglected prayer.
There is also in Islam a deep longing for purity. Before each prayer time, every Muslim performs a compulsory ablution — the washing of hands, arms, feet, mouth, face and hair. Those who know something of Judaism will see the parallel with the Pharisaic ablutions. Everyone must be clean before entering Allah’s presence to pray.
A sentence from the al-Fatiha in the main prayer for all Muslims reads, “Guide us in the straight path, the path of those whom thou hast blessed, not of those against whom thou art wrathful, nor of those who are astray,” a cry expressing the desire for guidance and a total dependence on Allah. A Christian cannot deny the faithful intent of Muslims to serve God. On the contrary, their discipline, sincerity and consistency in praying can be an example to us. Without a doubt, every true Muslim desires to serve God with all his heart. He calls on Allah in his prayers; he wants to honor him; he fights for him and submits his entire being to him.
The Beautiful Names of Allah
“Allah” is the Semitic name of God which comes originally from El, Eloh and Elohem. What is the Muslim concept of Allah? Whom do they worship? In his struggle against polytheism, Muhammad waged a merciless campaign against all gods, idols and images. His outcry was: “Allah is One! All other gods are nothing!” He had accepted the basic monotheistic faith of the Jews who were living in the Arabian Peninsula after being exiled from their homeland by the Romans. Influenced by them, Muhammad freed the Arab world from idolatry. The first half of the Islamic creed makes a sharp distinction between the Oneness of God and the claims of religions and magical cults which teach that other gods exist. Millions of Muslims confess daily, “There is no god save Allah!” as the core of the Islamic faith. Any theological assertion that contradicts this is rejected without question.
Muhammad not only testified to Allah’s uniqueness, but described him with many names:. Islamic theologians have systematized all his statements into “the 99 most beautiful names of Allah”. Sorting through these names of Allah according to their significance and frequency, moves us closer to the heart of Islam. Allah is the Omniscient One with infinite wisdom who hears all and sees all, understands all and encompasses everything. He both builds up and destroys. He is the exalted one above everything, great and immeasurable, magnificent and almighty, without equal. He is the living one, ever-existing, unending, everlasting, the first and the last, the one and the only one, the incomparably beautiful one. He is praiseworthy and excellent, the holy one, light and peace. He is the true reality and the foundation of everything, who created everything out of nothing by the strength of his word. He brought everything into being, and to him we shall all return. He creates life and causes death (Sura al-A`raf 7:44; note that Eastern Christianity does not accept that God created death). He will raise the dead and unite the universe. Allah is the sovereign lord and king to whom the universe belongs. He saves whom he wills and condemns whom he wishes. Above all, Allah is called the compassionate and merciful one, and yet he is also the avenger. He has recorded everything and will be the incorruptible and indisputable witness on the day of judgement.
The authority of Allah may open the door to success or lock it. Nothing takes place without his will. He has no need of any mediator. Everything depends directly on him. He is also benevolent and patient, faithful and kind to Muslims, the giver of all gifts. From him alone comes provision for all mankind. He who possesses everything makes people wealthy and protects all who glorify him. He is guardian over all who worship him. Allah acknowledges those who repent, and forgives because he is the forgiving one. He is gracious toward Muslims.
Often, the names of Allah are ascribed to him in a spirit of wishful thinking rather than confident faith. The more oppressive attributes create fear and drive people to do everything possible to keep the law. Poverty and illness are regarded as signs of Allah’s wrath for secret sins. By the same token, riches, success and esteem in Muslim society are taken as indications of favor. Some Muslims say, “Because we have remained faithful to Allah for 1300 years, he has rewarded us with the oil.”
The wealth of the divine names of God can be discovered only in Sufism. Ordinary Muslims accept that Allah cannot be proved to exist, or described. One can only sense him through experience. A pious Muslim confirms his faith that God is beyond our understanding by the common words, “Allahu akbar! God is great!” This statement, repeated millions of times each day, is an abridged form of the Islamic creed. With this testimony Khomeini’s revolutionary guards ran blindly into mine fields knowing they would be torn to shreds. Yet it is not a complete sentence. Its literal meaning is “Allah is greater!” Every listener should complete the thought: Allah is wiser than all philosophers, more beautiful than the most fascinating view, stronger than all atomic and hydrogen bombs together, and greater than anything we know. Allah is the unique, and inexplicable one — the remote, vast and unknown God. Everything we may think about him is incomplete, if not wrong. Allah cannot be comprehended. He comprehends us. We are slaves who have only the privilege to worship him in fear.
Islam stands for renunciation of the rationalism that prevails in Europe and America. For a long time it was the characteristic of Islamic theology that Allah could not be described philosophically. Understanding this brings us to a crucial statement expressed by the Islamic theologian al-Ghazali, who meditated at length on the ninety-nine excellent names of God. He wrote that these names can mean everything and yet nothing. One name of Allah can negate another and the content of one may be included in the next. No one can understand Allah, so devout believers can only worship this unknown God and live before him in fear and reverence, observing all his laws in strict obedience.
Islam — a theocentric culture
What are the practical consequences of such an understanding for the daily life of a Muslim? The image of a great, all-embracing Lord has conditioned the home, education, work and politics. “Show me your God and I will explain to you why you live as you do.” Similarly Genesis tells us, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him.” (1:27 ) This means that the concept of God is the pattern and measure of the culture associated with it.
In Islam, the father of the family is not an equal partner with his wife, but the patriarch of the house, holding all rights and authority. The children belong to him alone. He supplies provisions and grants no insight into his financial situation. His wife is not necessarily a life-time companion with equal rights, but often just a means of satisfying his physical desires, sometimes merely a baby factory. There are exceptions, of course, where noble and sensitive Arabs open themselves to the influence of world-wide humanism or where some resolute wives exert influence over their husbands. Christendom has also influenced Arab customs to some extent. In general, however, Islam is a man’s world where women must stay in the background, not seen in mosques, coffee bars, or public life. Khomeini in particular used the resurgence of Islam to reduce women to medieval subjection.
In schools, too, until a few years ago, the teacher gave instruction like a patriarch, ruling over his pupils and forcing the lessons down their throats. Any pupil who could not fully repeat the subject matter was punished. The main goals of education in many Islamic schools are not understanding, individual thinking and development of character, but acceptance and conformity. This is closely associated with the concept of thought in the Islamic religion, since a Muslim is forbidden to think critically about the Qur’an. He must accept it and memorize it. Being thus filled with the spirit of Islam, he walks in accordance with Allah’s law in his daily life. (How many Christians know even one of the Gospels by heart? Yet many Muslims have mastered the whole of the Qur’an.)
The forms of educational instruction and thought in Islam are based upon the picture of Allah given by Muhammad. A person is not guided to become active and responsible, but to submit himself passively to his fate. This is why Muslim emotions often flare up uncontrollably, for their entire education amounts to a submission of will and integration into an Allah-centered society. Again, in politics, democracy does not appear as the best model for social organization. Rather Allah, the king and lord over all, is the unconscious pattern for many sultans and dictators. The strong man who swept away corruption with an iron hand, who brought renown to Islam, has always been admired. (In Arab schools one can find children with such unusual first names as Bismarck, Stalin, de Gaulle and Nasser, because the parents wish and hope that there will be a glorious future for their offspring in the spirit of such historic personalities.) Complaisance and compromise mean weakness and incompetence.
It is not surprising, then, that Nasser and Khomeini were the dominating figures in the Near East. While Nasser attempted to combine an Arab socialism with Islam in order to meet the attack of atheistic communism, Khomeini trod a still more radical path by attempting to establish the kingdom of Allah on earth in Shi’ite countries. The ultimate aim of Khomeini’s revolution was not merely the removal of the shah or the elimination of Christian, capitalistic or communistic principles from among his people, but the reinstatement of an Islamic theocracy in which Allah prevailed in every area of life. This brought a “mullah state” into existence, where more people were killed in a few years in the name of Allah and Islam than during the long reign of the shah. Enemies of the Islamic revolution were no longer even regarded as people. Khomeini himself declared, “In Persia no people have been killed so far — only beasts!”
As the Islamic spirit cannot tolerate any other gods beside Allah, Islam will find no rest until all people have become Muslims. This mission-consciousness is based on the Islamic confession of faith which states that “there is no God except Allah.” Thus there can be no real peace on earth except through Islam.
We must confess, however, that Christians Crusaders who came to the Near East left behind them a trail of blood, engraving on the consciousness of Muslims the image of Christians as aggressive militants. Yet all “holy wars” are in direct conflict with the teaching of Jesus, who said, “Do not resist evil! Put your sword away! Love your enemies!” Christ never commanded his followers to fight in religious wars; rather, he forbade them any demonstration of violence. Muhammad, on the other hand, repeatedly fought in person alongside his fighters until they conquered Mecca and the whole of the Arabian Peninsula. The spread of Islam is based on the sword, holy war being considered a direct command of Allah. This is why there is still in Islam the potential for holy war. (Sura al-Baqara 2:245). In Islam, there is no separation between throne and altar, between politics and religion. Mosques are often the starting point for political upheaval. Friday sermons are not confined to the fostering of faith and spiritual life, but may stir up the people for political conflict in the name of Allah.
According to the Islamic portrayal of Allah, nothing exists outside the province of his omnipotence, and anyone not surrendering voluntarily must be brought into subjection either by cunning strategy, economic persuasion or revolutionary force. Islam demands surrender of all areas of life to Allah’s spirit and the Qur’an’s control over all thought and conduct. Bedouin tribes once said to Muhammad, “We believe in Allah ” But he replied, “You have not believed until you say, ‘We have submitted ‘”
Islam cannot compromise with any “isms” for any period of time. As its history unfolded, strong impulses repeatedly flowed out of the Qur’an, which overcame ideas and concepts that had penetrated the Islamic culture from Europe, Persia and India, resulting in an all-pervading legalistic religion. The ultimate aim was nothing less than the establishment of Allah’s kingdom on our earth.
Allah in the Light of the Christian Faith
Islam has recovered much ground and expanded in the last ten years, making a substantial thrust into the cultures of Christianity, Hinduism, communism and the African cults. When we as Christians meet Muslims and try to understand them, we should not forget that many of them are genuine worshipers who serve their God with dedication. We Christians should never despise their deep aspirations, but should love and respect every Muslim who sincerely worships Allah.
This, however, does not absolve us from the obligation to seek the truth about Islam. Our respect for Muslims leads us to compare the Qur’an and the New Testament, which for us is the only standard of truth. If one compares the 99 names of Allah in Islam with the names of God in the Bible, one must acknowledge that the Allah of the Muslims is not in harmony with our God. If someone says, “Your God and Islam’s God are the same,” he does not understand who Allah and Christ really are, or glosses over the deeply rooted differences.
Allah — No Trinity
In the Arabic language, the name Allah can be understood as a sentence: al-el-hu. ‘El’ is an old Semitic name for God meaning ‘the strong and mighty’. The Islamic name, Allah, corresponds to the Hebrew name Elohim. Although the Hebrew name contains the possibility of a plural (hum), the name of Allah (hu) can only be singular. Thus, Allah in Islam is always only one and never a unity of three. It is unthinkable for a Muslim to believe in the existence of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the New Testament sense. Consequently, the Islamic confession of faith not only declares the uniqueness of Allah but at the same time firmly rejects the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Allah — No Father
The name ‘Father’, the revelation of God’s innermost reality, is an indispensable element of the Christian faith. God has bound himself to us as our eternal Father. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God.” (1 John 3:1) In dialogue with Muslims and Jews, we must scrutinize anew statements of Jesus in the New Testament concerning the name “Father” for God. This name is mentioned at least 164 times in the Gospels. Christ did not preach about a distant God whom no one can know or comprehend, nor did he teach us to approach him with a trembling fear as the unapproachable holy Judge. Instead he gently moved the veil from before the God of the Old Testament and revealed him to us as the Father. He did not teach us to pray to Elohim, Yahweh, or the holy Trinity, but placed on our lips the loving name — “our Father.” Christ thus shared his own privilege with us, the unworthy ones. Through him we have become children of God, a relationship which Muhammad emphatically rejects (Sura al-Ma’ida 5:18).
If we compare the occasions when Christ used the name “God” with the occasions when he used the name “Father,” we are in for a surprise. Speaking to outsiders, demons or his enemies, Jesus spoke of the hidden God, the great and powerful Lord. But when he prayed or talked in the intimate circle of his followers, he revealed the innermost secret of God — his Fatherhood. For this claim Jesus was convicted of blasphemy when the high priest Caiaphas asked him, “I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” (Mt 26:63) For Caiaphas to refer to God as “Father” would have been scandalous to the Jews, so he asked Jesus if he considered himself the “Son of God,” implying God’s Fatherhood. Christ confirmed his confession. His first words on the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” But as the Father veiled his face the Son cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet the crucified One held on to the reality of God’s Fatherhood in the midst of his suffering and died with the words: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
The author, a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship living in Britain, prefers to remain anonymous. His homeland is a country with a Muslim majority.
“The world has changed” was a view frequently expressed after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September. Yet, while the world of a great many people was changed, the world itself was not. It remains the violent and unpredictable place that it has been since the Fall of Adam.
In this context it is timely to present an introduction to the work of Rene Girard and his understanding of violence. A professor of literature, Girard turned his attention also to anthropology and psychology. In the course of his research, he was converted to Christianity. What he says is rooted in a deep and clear-sighted reading of the Old Testament and the Gospels. Girard has no easy solution to violence. He provides an analysis which demonstrates how difficult it is to overcome and shows us what each one of us can do, minute by minute, to try to combat it. Far from complaining that religion is outdated and dangerous, Girard insists that after two thousand years we are only just beginning to be capable of understanding the Gospel message.
A few days after the attack on the World Trade Center, a young man asked me, “What would it take to do nothing?” A frequent visitor to New York, with many friends there, he was heavy with the pain of what had happened. Yet something within him was struggling to break the cycle of revenge, of attack and counter-attack, to try to understand what it really would cost each of us to refrain from retaliation. What would it cost to pay attention not only to the real and terrible consequences visited on America, but to also the deeper challenge: was there any way this event could be turned to the purposes of peace? Unless we can answer these questions, we are in no position to make a free choice in our response to any kind of attack, personal or global. Only if we know what it would take to do nothing, can we understand what we are choosing if we do something.
Our concern here is what happens when our perception of the ordering of the world is turned upside down: when we are no longer sure who is powerful and who is vulnerable, who is strong and who is weak, who is free and who is in chains, who, indeed is right, and who is wrong. One urgent message given to the world on September 11 is that peace is not the concern of the few, of the government or world leaders. Peace — its making and keeping — is the task of each one of us. It becomes increasingly necessary not only to seek peace, but to understand the mechanisms of violence — collective and individual — which destroy it.
We shall explore here three of Girard’s basic principles: the importance of mimesis, or imitation, in the development of our own desire and behavior; the scapegoating mechanism, and how what is often understood as “peace” is in fact founded on violence; and finally the way in which these processes are overturned by a message we have hardly begun to understand: that of the Gospels.
Mimesis and the development of desire
Much of our conscious effort is devoted to learning, yet the bulk of our learning happens at an unconscious level. We learn above all by imitation, by absorbing what others do, and this plays a large part in our growing up as members of a particular family and society.
This applies not only to our speech, our attitudes and so on, but to our desires. Last summer a friend came to stay, bringing his palm-top computer. It was beautiful. I use computers but unlike my friend travel little, and have no need of a palm-top. Yet seeing it in his hands, I found myself desiring one. I went so far as to investigate prices. I still am drawn to places which sell them, although so far I have resisted the temptation to acquire one.
A classic example: Children are playing in a room where toys are scattered about. No particular interest is shown in them until a child picks one up and starts to play with it. What instantly becomes the most desirable object in the room?
This is nothing new. Any parent understands it. Indeed, our whole western economy is built on it. Mimetic desire, whereby we learn what we want by seeing what others want, plays a significant part in our lives. It is the basis of envy — but also of discipleship. In its positive form, mimesis moves us on. We discover what is desirable by observing someone we admire. Eventually we come to discern what it is in that person that is worth imitating. I may begin by admiring a competent musician. My admiration can turn to envy if I am unable to imitate his skill. However, if I begin to see that his desire for music is underpinned by his relationship with it, by his being prepared to give other things up for it, and to work at it, I may come to realize that those qualities can be imitated. In this way mimesis becomes conscious. I begin to develop not his, but my own way of making music. This is what is at the root of discipleship.
Most mimesis, however, happens at an unconscious level. We come to desire something because we see its desirability in someone else. But when too many of us begin reaching out for the same things, there is not enough to go around. Mimesis turns to envy and then to rivalry. We begin to identify ourselves over against those who have what we want. The situation becomes one of conflict, exclusion and finally violence.
The scapegoating mechanism
In a stable society, mimesis stays within limits because we also carry unconscious assumptions about what belongs to which members of society. “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate: God made them high or lowly, and ordered their estate.” I used to sing this as a child in the 1950s. It would be hard to find it in a hymn book now. Lazarus, the beggar, does not expect to become like Dives, the rich man. He asks for scraps, not for a place at the table. His desire for food is an instinctual need, and not a mimetic desire formed from seeing Dives feasting, and he therefore forms no threat to the stability of the world that both of them inhabit.
What happens, however, when we begin to perceive that the world order we have grown up with is not ordained by God, when we begin to interpret our dignity as human beings not as holding different places in that order, but as mere accident? What happens when we begin to deconstruct differences in class, opportunity, wealth, even gender? The whole of society becomes a much more risky place. Mimetic desire is let loose, and, remaining unconscious — we do not know what we are imitating, only that we are filled with compelling desire for what the other has — begins to divide us. We become rivalrous and competitive, and begin to break down the familiar structures. It is well known that revolutions begin not in a state of total oppression, but when there is a slight improvement: a vision is then possible of how life could be.
A major catastrophe can have the same effect. All afflicted by the same event — an infectious illness, say — begin to realize that no one is immune. Increased information, such as our passion for knowing about the private lives of the famous, can also bring down hierarchical barriers. This can, of course, be positive, leading to greater understanding, compassion and respect. If it remains caught up in mimetic desire, however, if our consciousness is occupied by our pain or anxiety and we are unable to move beyond that, we have to look for someone to blame — a natural human reaction. As a priest said to me recently, “When you are hurt, you shout.” It cannot be bypassed. When we get stuck there, however, the scapegoating mechanism comes into play. Egged on by our capacity for imitation, we draw together in finding a scapegoat responsible for our collective suffering. An alliance forms against the person held responsible.
Scapegoats tend to be chosen because they are different in some way. Again, the choosing is not thought out or rational. The scapegoat may be the person in the class who is cleverer than anyone else, or the one who has a different accent. A young man wrote to the “problem page” of a newspaper recently because he was uncomfortable at his new place of work. Everyone else had been to English public school, and called each other by their surnames as they had been brought up to do. Used to being plain “Paul,” he quickly found himself ostracized by the use of his first name. Everyone else remained “Jones” or “Cartwright.”
As a psychology student in the early 70s, I was impressed by something I heard in a lecture on the “shared dislikes hypothesis” of a psychologist named Festinger. Nothing, he claimed, is so bonding as finding something you dislike together. Since I was lonely, I adopted this theory as a technique in getting to know people. I would drop into conversations complaints about something — the college food, the lack of windows in the library, almost anything would do — and found it worked. People cheered up, and became warmer and friendlier as we discussed our shared resentments against “the system.”
When the stakes are higher than this, scapegoating becomes a very serious business indeed. Throughout the history of the world we find people — or groups, or particular races — who have been chosen for scapegoat roles. Since, as the Orthodox funeral service tells us, “No man lives and does not sin,” we can usually find something which enables the scapegoat to fulfil this role satisfactorily, and keep our sense of justice intact. The scapegoat is expelled or killed. The act of violence is cathartic. The communal dislike which has been generated is bonding. Peace is restored, and the act of scapegoating is what has brought this about. Ancient ritual and sacrifice, argues Girard, are based on this process. A violent act takes place. The story of the expulsion or killing of the victim is told from the point of view of the victor (the only point of view now available); and stability is maintained through re-enactment of the story in sacrificial rituals. Hence, shocking though this may be, civilization is founded on violence.
The Gospel message overturns the scapegoating mechanism
Throughout the Old Testament, Girard wants us to understand, we see a gradual undoing of the old mechanisms of scapegoating and sacrifice which progressively reveal a merciful God who forgives: “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart he will not despise” (Psalm 50/51). Finally, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross unveils violence for what it is. Remember that while he was accused as a blasphemer and rabble-rouser, “it was out of envy that they delivered him” (Mark 15:10). Even Pilate was able to see this. Human beings, confronted by Love incarnate, were unable to bear what he had and they did not. They were unable to bring to consciousness what was troubling them, and to discover what form of imitation could bring them to a true sharing in what they perceived in him. Those who had begun to understand who he was and who witnessed his Resurrection were able to break free of the cycle of violence.
In Knowing Jesus, James Alison describes the Resurrection appearances as acts of forgiveness. “Peace be unto you” are Christ’s first words to the disciples hiding fearfully in the room in which he appears. There is no whisper of resentment for their abandonment of him in his Passion. He is as much as one with them as he has ever been. “Forgive all,” we sing in the Paschal stikhera, “in the joy of the Resurrection.”
There is an ancient tradition in both Judaism and Islam that God prays, and that God’s prayer is “May my mercy prevail over my justice.” This prayer reached its fruition in the crucifixion. There was no retaliation. Words of forgiveness were spoken from the Cross itself. The angels ministered and were amazed, but they were not called upon to rescue Jesus in a display of power. Christ entered into the condition of his fellow human beings and followed its consequences to the very end. Being also God, he took his human nature through death to life, and it is that path, without violence, that he calls us to follow.
Jessica Rose is a freelance writer, lecturer, pastoral counselor and associate editor of In Communion. Her book Sharing Spaces? Prayer and the Counseling Relationship will be published in January by Darton, Longman and Todd, London. She directs the Russian choir of the Orthodox parish in Oxford, England.
A Girard Reader, Herder & Herder, Crossroads
Gil Baillie: Violence Unveiled, Crossroads
Rene Girard: I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, Orbis Books
Concern for the environment has become such a standard topic of daily life that many have become bored with the subject. Despite the best efforts of Patriarch Bartholomeos, now known among environmentalists as “the green patriarch,” it is difficult to find much sustained grass-roots enthusiasm among the Orthodox for environmental issues. After all, is anyone against protecting the environment? Add to this the scientific and political complexities that beset environmental policy-making, and the tendency of most Orthodox to focus on personal spirituality rather than social and ethical issues, it is not surprising that the environment is not high on the agenda of most Orthodox. But the question of our relation to the natural world goes much deeper than the used of plastic coffee cups, recycling and international summits.
Our attitudes to nature and what is “natural” affect our decisions on a host of issues. For example, when should we allow nature to “take its course” and when should we intervene to prevent it from doing so? Is the world of nature the ideal from which all other life has fallen? Should we be striving for a return to nature and natural living? And what exactly is “natural living”? Is an agrarian life far from the hustle and bustle of the city the one most suited to living the Gospel?
Looking at the issue of how we relate to the natural environment raises the question of how I view what is mine or not mine and my responsibilities toward each. How do I relate to the world beyond my own front door? Many people spend great efforts and money in beautifying their own home, but have little or no sense of personal responsibility for the surrounding neighborhood because it’s “not mine.” On a wider scale, this may mean communities of people, indeed entire countries, with little sense of civic responsibility for maintaining or beautifying the larger community beyond the borders of “mine” or “ours.”
More deeply still, what we think is “natural” affects what we think should be left alone or changed, and our willingness or unwillingness to take steps to make changes. If we view all events as “natural,” we might adopt a fatalistic attitude that is sometimes characteristic of the East. Whatever happens is “natural,” in God’s hands alone, so there is little point in taking action. Each and every tragedy can be met with a shrug of the shoulders and a “that’s life” attitude. The human being is minimally responsible. At the other extreme, if we take a high view of human intervention, we may be convinced that there is almost always something we can do — or should be able to do as science advances — to control nature. According to this latter view, the human being is maximally responsible, except for those rare cataclysmic events which are entirely beyond his control and thus labeled by the insurance industry as “acts of God.”
For Christians the first place to go to begin to look for answers to these questions is to the person of Jesus. His approach to the natural world gives important guideposts for a Christian response.
In the Gospels we most often encounter people who are thoroughly familiar with country ways. The images Jesus uses in his parables and are for the most part from the natural world, although he never once uses the word “nature.” And mostly he refers to agriculture rather than nature in the wild.
Yet in one of his few sayings about nature as such Jesus says there is no human glory that can begin to match the wonder of the created world: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Mt 6:28-29)
Jesus spent much time out of doors. Gospel texts reveal that he noticed what was going on around him in the natural world, reflected upon it, and had great affection for it. If we take for example just the first chapter of Mark, we have references to the various natural settings that were so familiar to Jesus.
Nazareth, where he grew up, in the hills of Galilee. The most famous of Jesus’ teaching takes place in the mountains, “the Sermon on the Mount” (Mt 5-7). Jesus often withdrew to a hill or mountain to pray alone or with his disciples, and it was in the mountains that Jesus would have seen shepherds guiding their sheep on narrow mountain paths, carrying the lambs in their arms, chasing away wolves. It was in the mountains that Jesus appointed the twelve (Mk 3:13), a mountain was the site of the Transfiguration, and his favorite place in Jerusalem was outdoors on the Mount of Olives, where he often sat, taught or prayed, outside the walls of the city opposite the Temple. Here too was the garden of Gethsemani. It was also on a mountain in Galilee that the risen Jesus commissioned his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” (Mt 28:19)
The wilderness around the Jordan river where John was living and baptizing and where Jesus spent forty days being tempted by Satan (Mk 1:9-12). But there was also consolation in the midst of temptation, for “he was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.” (Mk 1:13)
The Sea of Galilee (Mk 1:16) where time and again we find him teaching on the shore (or out of a boat) or getting into a boat and crossing again to the other side (e.g. Mk 5:21). Here is the setting for his call of the first disciples, the fishermen. Here also — in the Gospel of John — is where the risen Jesus meets for the last time with his disciples as they are fishing, where he makes a fire, cooks them a breakfast of fresh fish, talks with them on the shore and tells Peter, “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17). And it was a storm on the Sea of Galilee that so frightened the disciples, which Jesus calmed with a word, so that they wondered “who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him.” (Mk 4:41)
The countryside (Mk 1:45): so many people flocked to Jesus for healing that the Gospel of Mark says he “could no longer enter a town, but was out in the country, though even there, “people came to him from every quarter.” (Mk 1:45) Out in the countryside, walking past the fields and farms of Palestine Jesus picked up many of the images that would re-appear in his teaching: the sower going out to sow his seed (Mk 4:3ff), the fields ripe for harvest (Mk 4:29), the vineyard, (Mk 12:1 ff) and fig trees (Mk 13:28ff).
Jesus was immersed in the natural world. But we should not romanticize this. He also spent much of his time confronting a natural world gone wrong. The first chapter of Mark also shows this darker side of nature. A madman shouting and convulsing in the synagogue (Mk 1:23ff); Peter’s mother-in-law lying sick with a fever (Mk 1:30-31); a leper who begs to be healed (Mk 1:40ff); crowds coming to Jesus with their diseased and demented (Mk 1:32-34).
The wonder of the natural world remains more glorious than Solomon, but in Jesus we find no idolizing of nature. For all the matchless glory of creation, the Father cares infinitely more for the human beings he created. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Mt 6:26) This immediately puts the Christian view of creation and the natural world at odds with much of secular environmentalism for which human beings are just another species. For Christians, human beings are the summit of the creation and have a unique role of care and oversight. More than that, the destiny of creation is mysteriously linked to human beings, such that St Paul can say, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom 8:22-23) Jesus is less concerned about nature than about the redemption of the human race, through which the rest of creation will also end its “groaning.” Jesus does not see a natural world independent of the human world.
Perhaps this is why the most frequent analogies Jesus makes to the natural world are from farming, fishing, vineyards and shepherds: human beings working together with nature, transforming the raw materials of nature into food and drink and clothing. The images Jesus uses are dominated by a picture of the environment that shows human beings using, domesticating and cultivating nature for their own use: mustard seed, yeast, bread, sowing and seeds, vineyards and vines, new and old wine, sheep and goats, the good shepherd, the sheepfold, the flock, weeds among the wheat, fishermen, a net full of fish.
The natural world into which Jesus comes is not the world as it was in the beginning when all was “very good.” Although there is a theological debate as to whether the first creation was truly perfect or only potentially perfect (with Church Fathers of differing views), it is clear that much has gone wrong in the natural world. The desert, for example, is seen as a forbidding, hostile place, the dwelling place of Satan, the personification of all that is destructive and diseased and opposed to God’s purposes in creation. Yet it precisely to the desert that Jesus goes first before beginning his public ministry. All that now keeps the creation groaning is part of the “bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21) which we see in the natural world as a kind of infection that St. Paul calls “the mystery of lawlessness.” (2 Th 2:7) In this sense the natural world is no longer pure and therefore is no longer natural. Here too the Christian view of the environment must differ from secular environmentalists. Jesus never accepts the world as it is as the “natural” world for he never accepts sickness and death as “natural.” At the tomb of Lazarus he does not tell Martha and Mary that the sickness, suffering and death of their brother Lazarus was “natural.” No, he weeps at the tomb because all of this is a terrible deformation of God’s creation. And most people, regardless of their view of Jesus, share his view of death. They weep, because something deep within them protests at the loss and says this ought not to be.
The natural world continues to be a place of ambivalence. On the one hand it refreshes body and soul. Indeed, an article on pastoral life published in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate in the 1970s recommended long walks in parks and countryside as an essential ingredient for a priest’s spiritual health! At the same time the natural world is a source of suffering and disease and we look forward to the time when “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Rom 8:21) We look forward to a “new heaven and a new earth.” (Rev 21:1)
Yet it is significant that the New Testament’s final image of the Kingdom is no rural idyll but a bustling city. The kingdom of God is the “new Jerusalem.” (Rev 21:2) This is all the more striking because the city of Jerusalem was such a troubling place for Jesus: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt 23:38) He was persecuted in the city and stayed away for long periods of time and his disciples were afraid of returning. And their fears were proved right. After a brief triumphal entry, the city becomes the setting for Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trials, torture and crucifixion.
But the city was also the place of Christ’s resurrection, where as Risen Lord he first appeared to his disciples, where he told the disciples to remain “until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Lk 24:49)
None of us is unfamiliar with the temptations and irritations of cities with their congestion, traffic, crowds, stress, pollution, politics, corruption and crime. But throughout history cities have always been the centers of civilization and culture. The city, like the natural world, needs to be transfigured and redeemed, not abandoned. And the new Jerusalem is the image of the redeemed city, of redeemed human culture, the holy city where there is no mourning, nor crying nor pain (Rev 21:4). In this new Jerusalem, the city is not cut off from nature, for the river of the water of life runs through its main street, and the tree of life grows on either side, “with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev 22:1-2)
Fr. John Jillions is Principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge. For information about the Institute, visit their web site: www.iocs.cam.ac.uk.
Speaking in September in Aachen, Germany, at an interreligious forum, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, was sharply critical of tendencies in the ecumenical movement to place secular ideologies higher than holy scripture. Extracts from his text follow:
“For the last ten years we have heard about the crisis of the ecumenical movement more often than ever. … Some people are afraid of excessive bureaucratization in modern ecumenism. They would like to see a more ‘charismatic’ approach to the problem of cutting the Gordian knot of differences and divisions.
“Others, having resigned themselves to the tragedy of division and even convinced themselves that this is not a tragedy at all, insist on ‘broadening the horizons,’ on the inclusion… of a maximum number of communities of different trends irrespective of their teaching…
“It looks as if the ecumenical movement is really in crisis, even at a dead end. In a certain sense this crisis was inevitable. As far back as the eve of ecumenism, in its most romantic period, the outstanding Russian theologian Archpriest George Florovsky warned against easy ways, against dangers of ‘dogmatical minimalism,’ and exposed the futility of hurried efforts aimed at reaching any result as soon as possible. He saw other serious danger in domination of humanitarian and peace-making subjects… at the expense of Christian unity, return to the spirit and life of the early Ecumenical Church, which… continues her ceaseless being in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and in many respects in the Roman Orthodox Church.
“Today, paradoxical as it may seem, the ecumenical movement has become a hostage of politics aimed at underlining human values rather than particularly Christian ones. The movement itself is not to be blamed, as it consists of the Churches and Christian communities, which bring their concerns and priorities into it… processes of modernization that took place in the Protestant world under relatively favorable post-war conditions…
“[T]he ecumenical movement on the whole has not fulfilled its most important task in history, namely the rapprochement of Christians at the profound level of spiritual life, but rather has left them separated in their experience of faith…
“[I]nstead of spiritual revival and rapprochement we have faced new obstacles that make our common witness to Christ more and more difficult in the world, from which Christian values are being ousted. In our opinion, uncritical adoption of secular humanitarian ideology by many theologians and Churches in the West played a negative part in it. Secular humanism in many respects differs from Christian Biblical anthropology, which is far from the unequivocal support of freedom in every form…
“[M]any liberal values connected with personal rights and freedoms have become coated with doubtful theological argumentation, which has a different evaluation and is considered doubtful by many people. At present these values are perceived as equal to those of the Holy Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition or even higher. Moreover, the clear and unequivocal witness of the Word of God when it differs from the secular liberal values is ignored or… distorted.
“The protection of personal rights, which is in compliance with the Church tradition (especially under tyranny, persecution for faith, wars and poverty), was radicalized to the detriment of the norms of the Apostolic Tradition, and in female ordination, ordination of homosexuals, and so on. The secular legal principle of religious tolerance was extrapolated on dogmatics and brought about syncretism, which is often hidden beyond the facade of inculturation…
“No wonder that the Churches that confess the changeless values of Holy Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition resist the impulse to subject ‘old truths’ to reform and revision. But this resistance consists neither in raising outside barriers, nor in refusing to communicate with ‘brothers, separation from whom tortures us,’ to quote St. Gregory the Theologian…
“It is evident that the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches as the Churches of the Tradition, which are the closest in their history, teaching and church order, and many Protestant communities that try to keep the norms of the Apostolic Tradition in their life, should work together to assert the Word of Christ in the world in order to save many.
“Probably we should seek the ways of a more adequate representation of the ‘catholic’ tradition in the framework of the global inter-Christian forum, which is the World Council of Churches, or whatever structure may replace it.
“Many people fear that the inter-Christian dialogue is losing its dynamics and meaning and that it is maintained for the sake of a certain political correctness. We have talked about many dogmatic truths for fifty years, but have not reached complete understanding, and many people say that the dialogue has no future.”
some reflections by Jim Forest for the St Nicholas Evening discussion at St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, Amsterdam, September 23, 2004
It’s the first St Nicholas Evening. Originally I was asked to talk about prayer with icons but the terrible recent events in Russia, Chechnya and many other countries made Deacon Hildo suggest a more difficult subject: Orthodoxy, Peace and Reconciliation.
My hope is that for a little while we can try to put aside some of the pain and anger we are feeling and, for a few minutes, look carefully at these three words. What do they mean? What do they have to do with us? What responsibilities do they point us toward?
Orthodoxy: it means both the true way to give praise and true belief. What we really mean by this is the true path of following Christ. Orthodoxy is not just a tribal designation: in this enclosure are the Orthodox Christians, over there are Roman Catholics, somewhere else, within different fences, all sorts of Protestants, etc etc. To be Orthodox is not simply a way of saying what I am not. It is a recognition that I am trying to live according to the Gospel: the word and the example of Christ.
It also means I belong to the Orthodox Church. I am part of a huge community of people with a collective memory that goes back as far Adam and Eve. It is a community that includes the Church Fathers, whose words we not only store on our books shelves but make some effort to discover, according to our spiritual and intellectual capacity.
We are a Church of Councils and hold ourselves accountable to the results of those council even though they net as much as seventeen centuries ago.
We are a Church of saints. Day by day we remember them. We bear their names. We call of them for help. We remember what they did and sometimes what they said.
Sometimes it gets confusing. One Church Father showers the highest praise on marriage, another regards marriage as a tolerable compromise for those unable to embrace the real Christian calling, celibate monastic life. It can be disconcerting to discover that on various questions different Fathers may have different ideas or different emphases.
Or we look at the saints and find here is a saint who was martyred for refusing to be a soldier and here is a saint who was a hero on the battlefield of war. Here is a saint who wore the rich clothing of a prince and here is a saint who wore nothing. Here is a saint who was a great scholar but here is a saint who was a holy fool. Here is a saint who raced to the desert, but here is a saint who refused to leave the city. Each saint poses a challenge and each saint raises certain questions.
Also it isn’t always clear what in a particular saint’s life placed him or her on the Church’s calendar. Do we have icons of St Alexander Nevsky because he defeated the Teutonic Knights? Or because, preferring negotiations to war, to negotiated with the Golden Horde and made compromises with them? Or was it because, later in his life, he set aside military and political duties and instead embraced a repentant monastic life?
Saints do not solve our problems. In the details of their lives, they march in a thousand different directions. They also made mistakes. The were not saints 24 hours a day. They too were sinners. Like us, they went to confession seeking God’s forgiveness for their faults.
But in some way each saint did something which brightly reflects the light of the Gospel. This is finally what is most important about them. They give us in many different ways a window for seeing the Gospel more clearly. In some way each of them opens a door toward Christ.
One last comment about the word “Orthodox”: It means, as St Paul says, that we are no longer Greek nor Jew. In our on world that also means we are no longer Russian or American or Dutch or Serbian. Rather we are one people whose identity and responsibility goes beyond the land where we were born or the culture and mother tongue that shaped us. In my own case, I am not first American, then Orthodox, and finally — if there is some room left — a Christian. No. I am an Orthodox Christian — Orthodox is an only adjective — who also happens to be an American. But being American comes afterward. It is in parentheses. It is in small type.
On to the next word: Peace. Let us admit right away that this is a damaged word. It’s like an icon I once encountered in Moscow at the parish of St Cosmos and Damien that had been blackened by candle smoke that the image was completely hidden. I spent an afternoon watching two restorers at work. Little by little, using alcohol and little balls of cotton, they cleaned the icon until finally we could see it bore the image of St Nicholas. Beautiful colors began to shine. There he was, a saint who is, in the Orthodox memory, the model of the perfect pastor. I realized I was watching a tiny resurrection.
Peace is a word that has been covered with a lots of smoke from the fires of propaganda, politics, ideologies, war and nationalism. In Russia there were all those Soviet slogans about peace, so many posters with the words, “Mira Mir!” The Church was obliged to take part in state-organized “peace” events. And in American, when I was growing up, it was almost the same. When I was a boy, the slogan of the Strategic Air Command, the section of the military that was in charge of fighting nuclear war, was “Peace is our profession.” It may well be still the same. More recently one of America’s nuclear missiles was given the name “Peacemaker.” Such abuse of words, whether in Russia or America, is what Gorge Orwell called Newspeak in his novel “1984.” We have to do we what can to clean words like “peace.” Otherwise it will be hard to understand the Gospel or the Liturgy or to translate the Gospel and the Liturgy into daily life.
According to the first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, peace means: “Freedom from, or cessation of, war or hostilities; that condition of a nation or community in which it is not at war with another.” It goes on to describe peace within a nation — “Freedom from civil commotion and disorder; public order and security.” From there the writers of the OED go to deeper water, recalling that the Latin word pax, the Greek eirini and the Hebrew word Shalom all mean something more than the absence of war of civil discord. Understood biblically, peace means safety, welfare, prosperity.
One of the things I like about the Oxford English Dictionary definition is the use of the word “freedom.” The dictionary’s authors understood that peace is not simply the absence of war, a condition to be described in negative terms, but freedom from war. (One Russian word any non-Russian will quickly learn from the sermons of Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov is svaboda.) It’s not a freedom we know much about. From Cain and Able until today, war is history’s default setting. But we can imagine that not to be in a state of war is truly a liberation.
Think how often and in what significant ways Christ uses the word peace in the Gospel. Peace is a summing up of the Kingdom of God in a single word. “And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it.” “And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!'” “And he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.'” “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” “And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'” “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!'” “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!” “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” And so forth. His greeting after the resurrection is, “Peace be with you.”
We sing the Beatitudes at almost every Liturgy. The Beatitudes are a short summary of the Gospel — this is why we sing them while the Gospel book is being carried in procession. These few verses describe a kind of ladder to heaven, starting with poverty of spirit and ending with the readiness to suffer and even die for Christ. It is near the top of that ladder that we come to the words, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”
We hear the word “peace” over and over during every Liturgy. “In peace let us pray to the Lord!” “For the peace from above and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord!’ “Peace be with you.” “For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls…” “For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy Churches of God and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord!” I am only mentioning a few examples. At the next Liturgy pay attention to how many times we speak about peace or are called to be in a state of peace. It is an absolute condition of eucharistic worship. How can we be in communion with God if we are in a state of enmity with those whom God has given is to love? It is that simple. Again and again we are warned not to approach the chalice if we have broken our communion with those around us.
We not only hear about peace from Christ and in the prayers of the Liturgy, we see peace in the life of Christ. We see it when he heals the sick servant of a Roman soldier — an officer serving in an army of occupation. We see it when Christ saves the life of an adulterous woman whom the crowd was ready to stone to death. We see it the way Christ related to every person who came to him seeking relief, healing, forgiveness, mercy. We see it in the prayer he taught to his disciples, which included the words, “Forgive us as we forgive others.” We see it even after his arrest. The last healing miracle before his crucifixion was to repair the ear of a man injured by the Apostle Peter. Then he then turns to Peter with those amazing words: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” We see peace when he is dying. He prays to his Father to forgive those who have beaten, tortured and crucified him: “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” These words were said aloud — not so his Father could hear the but so that we can hear them.
We also see that Christ’s peace has nothing to do with the behavior of a coward or of the person who is polite rather than truthful. Christ said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Think of his words of protest about the teachings of the Pharisees who laid burdens of others they would not carry themselves. Think of him chasing the money changers from the Temple. No one was killed or injured but God’s lightning flashed in the Temple courtyard.
Finally consider the simple fact that Christ never killed anyone, no matter how much we might regard him as justified in such an act had he done so. Neither does he bless any of his followers to kill. There are many ways in which Christ is unique. This is one of them.
In fact, in the early centuries, Christians got into a lot of trouble for their attitude toward the state. They refused to regard the ruler as a god. They were obedient in every way they could be without disobeying God, but they were prepared to suffer even the most cruel death rather than place obedience to Caesar before obedience to God. While eventually the baptismal requirements of the Church were relaxed, it was once the case that those who did not renounce killing, whether as a soldier or judge, could not be baptized. It is still the case that those who have killed another human being, even in self defense or by accident, are not permitted to serve at the altar. The reason is that one who serves at the altar is supposed to be a person without blood-stained hands. In fact ideally this should be the case of anyone approaching the chalice, though the Church is a channel of Christ’s mercy and receives for communion those who have repented of their sins, even the sin of murder.
Christ is not simply an advocate of peace or an example of peace. He is peace. To want to live a Christ-like life means to want to participate in the peace of Christ. Yes, we may fail, as we fail in so many things, but we are never permitted to give up trying.
Finally, the word reconciliation. Because I have already spoken too long, I only want to say a little. In fact not very much needs to be said. Reconciliation means being brought back to the relationships God intends for us. It is not his intention that his children should hate each other. It is not his intention that we should be each other’s murderer. It is not his intention that we should view ourselves as better than anyone else. I am Orthodox — heaven is for me. You are Moslem — to hell with you. Each person, not matter what his belief or even his disbelief, bears the image of God. As St. John of Kronstadt said, “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”
Another word for reconciliation is healing. Not only can we seek the healing of ourselves when we, as individuals, are sick, but we should see our social brokenness as a sickness that also needs to be healed.
But national and religious divisions are so deep, and often so ancient, that reconciliation is almost impossible to imagine. You must be a kind of holy fool to seriously think reconciliation could ever happen. Not only do we fail to do anything to bring about reconciliation but we don’t even allow ourselves to think about it. It’s too crazy. At least there are many people who would think so or even regard me as a traitor.
I think this is why Jesus, in teaching his followers to love our enemies, immediately adds the teaching, “and pray for them.”
The beginning of reconciliation is prayer — prayer for the very people we wish were dead and might even be willing to kill with our own hands, like the people who blow up children, the people who behead hostages, people more cruel than wild animals. But if we pay any attention to the words of Jesus, we are obliged to pray for them — to pray for their conversion, to pray for their repentance, to pray for their healing. This kind of prayer is extremely difficult. I am still struggling with it after all these years. But without it, there is no beginning. Prayer is the first thread in the work of repairing the torn fabric.
There is much more that could be said about each of these three words but perhaps this will at least give us a starting point.
“We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”
— Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
One of the significant events in the Orthodox Church this year was the death from cancer on August 4th of a remarkable, indeed saintly, bishop: Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. He was 89. For many years he headed the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Great Britain.
Though he was not a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship’s advisory board, Metropolitan Anthony’s letters and conversations with those responsible for OPF played an important role in the path the Fellowship has followed. He passionately believed that peacemaking required active, warrior-like combat with evil. He had a strong aversion to the word “pacifist,” not only because it sounded with “passive-ist” but because of unpleasant encounters with self-righteous people quick to denounce those who failed to share their ideology. He preferred the phase “a man — or woman — of peace” which meant, he explained, a person “ready to work for the reconciliation of those who have grown apart or turned away from one another in enmity.” He was unhesitating in declaring that hatred is incompatible with Christianity, but saw the use of violence against Nazism in the Second World War as a lesser evil.
He sometimes told the story of an encounter he had during a retreat for university students. “After my first address one of them asked me for permission to leave it because I was not a pacifist.” “Are you one?” Metropolitan Anthony replied. “Yes.” “What would you do,” he asked, “if you came into this room and found a man about to rape your girl friend?” “I would try to get him to desist from his intention!” the man replied. “And if he proceeded, before your own eyes, to rape her?” “I would pray to God to prevent it.” “And if God did not intervene, and the man raped your girl friend and walked out contentedly, what would you do?” “I would ask God who has brought light out of darkness to bring good out of evil.” Metropolitan Anthony responded: “If I was your girl friend I would look for another boy friend.”
Yet, while hating passivity in the face of evil, his own commitment to reconciliation had deep roots in his life. During the years the German army occupied France when he was a physician active in the Maquis, a section of the French resistance, he had occasion to use his medical skills to save the life of a German soldier. Condemned for this act of Christian mercy by colleagues in the resistance, it was an action which almost cost him his own life. He was nearly executed. It was in that crucible of expected death that he decided, should he survive the war, that he would become a monk.
On another occasion, the roles were reversed: it was a German who saved his life. He had been arrested by the occupation forces. During a long interrogation, he was asked what he thought of National Socialism. “I assumed that I was going to be carted off to a camp anyway,” he recalled, “so I decided to tell the truth. I told them that I hated their system, and it would soon be overthrown by their enemies.” After a long pause his interrogator replied: “Quickly, out through that door. It isn’t guarded.” Thus he escaped.
He faced life-threatening situations many times. When the war ended, he found himself among Charles de Gaulle’s bodyguards during de Gaulle’s triumphal entry into Paris. He remembered taking cover from snipers while the General ignored the bullets.
Metropolitan Anthony stood ramrod straight. To the end of his life one could easily imagine him as an military officer if only he changed from his monastic robes into an army uniform. No one could have imagined, when he was a youth, that monastic vows, ordination as a priest and consecration as a bishop lay ahead or that he might become one of the great Christian missionaries of his era.
He was born Andrei Borisovich Bloom on the 19th of June 1914 in Switzerland, where his father was serving as a member of the Russian Imperial Diplomatic Corps. His mother was the sister of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. Molotov, Stalin’s comrade, was also a relative. Shortly before the First World War, the family returned to Russia, but soon left again for a diplomatic assignment in Persia. His vivid memories of Persian shepherds, “minute against the hostile backcloth of the vast Persian plain” while protecting their flocks, made him a convincing preacher on the parable of the Good Shepherd.
After the Russian Revolution, the family set out through Kurdistan and Iraq. When they sailed for Britain in a leaking ship, he hoped to be shipwrecked — he was reading Robinson Crusoe at the time. Instead, he was put ashore at Gibraltar where the family’s luggage was mislaid. Some fourteen years later it was returned with a bill for £1.
In 1923, the family at last settled in Paris, adopted home to thousands of impoverished Russian refugees. Here his father became a laborer while his son went to a rough school. Andrei evinced an early suspicion of Roman Catholicism, which prompted him to turn down a place at an excellent school when the priest in charge hinted that he ought to convert.
After reading classics, he went on to study physics, chemistry and biology at the Sorbonne School of Science. In 1939 he was qualified as a physician.
Like so many of his contemporaries, he grew up with no belief in God and at times voiced fierce hostility to the Church. But when he was eleven, he was sent to a boys’ summer camp where he met a young priest. Impressed by the man’s unconditional love, he reckoned this as his first deep spiritual experience, though at the time it did nothing to shake his atheist convictions.
His opinions were undermined, however, a few years later by an experience of perfect happiness. This came to him when, after years of hardship and struggle, his family was settled under one roof for the first time since the Revolution. But it was aimless happiness, and he found it unbearable. He found himself driven to search for a meaning to life and decided that if his search indicated there was no meaning, he would commit suicide.
After several barren months, he reluctantly agreed to participate in a meeting of a Russian youth organization at which a priest had been invited to speak. He intended to pay no attention, but instead found himself listening with furious indignation to the priest’s vision of Christ and Christianity.
Returning home in a rage, he borrowed a Bible in order to check what the speaker had said. Unwilling to waste too much time on such an exercise, he decided to read the shortest Gospel, St. Mark’s. Here is his account of what happened:
While I was reading the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning-point. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the crucifixion of the prophet of Galilee was true, and the centurion was right when he said, “Truly he is the Son of God.” It was in the light of the resurrection that I could read with certainty the story of the Gospel, knowing that everything was true in it because the impossible event of the resurrection was to me more certain than any other event of history. History I had to believe, the resurrection I knew for a fact. I did not discover, as you see, the Gospel beginning with its first message of the annunciation, and it did not unfold for me as a story which one can believe or disbelieve. It began as an event that left all problems of disbelief behind because it was a direct and personal experience.
During the Second World War, Metropolitan Anthony worked for much of the time as a surgeon in the French Army, but also, during the middle of the war, was a volunteer with the French resistance. In 1943, he was secretly tonsured as a monk, receiving the name Anthony. Since it was impractical for him to enter a monastery, the monk who was his spiritual father told to spend eight hours a day in prayer while continuing his medical work. When he asked about obedience, he was told to obey his mother. He continued to live a hidden monastic life after the war, when he became a general practitioner.
In 1948, when he was ordained priest, revealing then that he had been a monk for the previous five years. The following year he was invited to become Orthodox chaplain to the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius in England. The Fellowship had been founded in 1928 by a group of Russian Orthodox and Anglican Christians to enable them to meet each other and to work together for Christian unity. It was at St. Basil’s House in London, the Fellowship’s home in those years, that he began to meet Christians in Britain and to exert a growing influence in ever-widening circles. Shortly afterwards Father Vladimir Theokritoff, the priest of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Parish in London died suddenly. Father Anthony was the obvious choice to succeed him.
In 1953 he was appointed hegoumen, in 1956 archimandrite, then in 1962 archbishop of the newly created Diocese of Sourozh, encompassing Britain and Ireland. (The name Sourozh comes from the ancient name of a city in the Crimea.) In 1963 he was named acting Exarch of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in Western Europe. By the time of his death, the Sourozh diocese had grown to twenty parishes.
Services in the London parish, which ultimately moved to the church which became All Saints Cathedral at Ennismore Gardens, not only met the spiritual needs of Russians living in or near London but attracted many people eager to experience Orthodox worship or seeking guidance in their own search for God. Many people who had no Russians in their family tree became Orthodox Christians thanks to his sermons, broadcasts and writings.
During the long years of Soviet rule, Metropolitan Anthony played an important part in keeping the faith alive in Russia through countless BBC World Service broadcasts. Perhaps still more important were the annual BBC broadcasts of the All-Night Paschal Vigil service at the London Cathedral. As Matins began, Metropolitan Anthony would emerge from behind the iconostasis to encourage the congregation, as they stood waiting in the dark, to speak up with their responses as this would be the only Paschal service that many in the Soviet Union would hear.
Beginning in the sixties, he was able to make occasional visits to Soviet Russia, where he not only preached in churches but spoke informally to hundreds of people who gathered in private apartments to meet him and engage in dialogue. Books based on his sermons were circulated in samizdat among Russian intellectuals until they could be openly published in the 1990s.
During the past decade, his declining health ruled out trips to Russia but he corresponded with many church members, stated his opinion on controversial issues of church life in letters to the Patriarch and the Councils of Bishops, and continued to preach his message of Christian love and freedom — not always welcome in the post-Communist Russian Church — through books and tapes.
One of the stories he sometimes told late in his life was about a letter he received from a monk in Russia who wrote there were “three great heretics” living in the west whose books were being read in Russia — Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff and Anthony Bloom. The letter writer asked the assistance of Metropolitan Anthony in finding out more about “this Anthony Bloom.”
For years Metropolitan Anthony was a familiar voice on British radio. The BBC had grave doubts when it was first proposed that he do English-language broadcasts. It was feared that the combination of his Russian-French accent and his refusal to use a script would lead to problems. But his transparent spiritual qualities and ability to speak fluently for a set number of minutes made him an instant success. At the height of his fame, Gerald Priestland, the renowned BBC religious correspondent, called him “the single most powerful Christian voice in the land.”
One of his most memorable broadcasts was a discussion with the atheist Marghanita Laski in which he said that her use of the word “belief” was misleading. “It gives an impression of something optional, which is within our power to choose or not … I know that God exists, and I’m puzzled to know how you can manage not to know.” (The transcript of their exchange is included in The Essence of Prayer.)
Outspoken on many issues, at times his plain speech landed him in hot water with the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1974 he was deprived of the position of Exarch for having written to The Times, in his name and that of the clergy and believers of the Sourozh Diocese, disowning criticism of Alexander Solzhenitsyn made by a senior hierarch in Moscow. Nevertheless, he remained head of his diocese. No attempt was made to prevent him continuing his visits to Russia.
His several books were widely read. Living Prayer, a best seller, has been translated into ten languages. It was later reprinted as a section of The Essence of Prayer.
In great demand as a speaker, Metropolitan Anthony spent much of his time preaching in non-Orthodox churches, leading retreats, giving talks and hearing confessions. He regularly spoke in hospitals, particularly about death, drawing on his experience as a cancer specialist. He received honorary doctorates from Cambridge and from the Moscow Theological Academy.
After the liberation of the Church in Russia, some priests and bishops proposed nominating him when elections for patriarch were held in 1990. But Metropolitan Anthony declined, citing his age. “If this had only happened ten years earlier, I might have agreed,” a relative quoted him as saying.
Earlier this year, Patriarch Alexy II, in an open letter, appointed Metropolitan Anthony to be in charge of a new Metropolia which, it was hoped, would embrace all Orthodox Christians of Russian tradition in Western Europe, and might eventually become the foundation for a Local Orthodox Church.
Citing age and poor health, Metropolitan Anthony had several times offered his resignation as head of the Sourozh Diocese but each time it was declined by the Moscow Patriarchate. Only five days before his death did the Holy Synod finally relieve him of his official duties, handing over to Bishop Basil (Osborne) of Sergievo the direction of the diocese.
Few bishops were more accessible to their flock, but this sometimes had comical results. When one parishioner rang to say that “Peter” had died and asked for prayers, Metropolitan Anthony immediately complied, then asked when the funeral would be. “Oh, there won’t be one,” he was told. “We flushed Peter down the loo.” Peter turned out to be a parakeet.
He was attentive to the person to whom he was listening, no matter who it was, to an astonishing degree. “In my life no one else had ever looked at me with such absolute attention,” people would often comment.
He loved going to children’s camps, allowing himself to be drilled and taking part in playlets, usually as a surgeon, dressed always in his monastic garb. “I always wear black when I operate,” he would say with a chuckle.
He would sometimes remark that he was quite prepared to be told he was a crackpot, but added, “Even if I am a crackpot, I’m a lot steadier and more normal than some people you might call normal. I’ve been a doctor and a priest without showing much sign of mental derangement.”
His faded and frayed black robe seemed nearly as old and worn as he was. Once, while visiting Russia, he was lectured by another monk who had no idea that this was the famous Metropolitan Anthony and was angry to see him awaiting their special guest from London in such tattered clothing. Metropolitan Anthony accepted the criticism meekly.
“He always seemed to me an actual witness of Christ’s resurrection,” said a regular participant in the annual Sourozh diocesan conference in Oxford, “not someone who believed it because he heard a report from a trustworthy source or read about it in a book, but someone who had seen the risen Christ with his own eyes. In meeting Metropolitan Anthony, I can understand why in the Church certain saints are given the title ‘Equal of the Apostles’.”
This text is drawn from various articles and obituaries published since the death of Metropolitan Anthony. Many of his sermons are posted on the web site of the Sourozh Diocese: www.sourozh.org.
from the Fall 2003 issue of In Communion (issue 31)
Declaration on Environment Signed by Pope and Patriarch of Constantinople
Here is the text of the joint declaration signed 10 June 2002 by Patriarch Bartholomeos and Pope John Paul II on the shared Christian responsibility to safeguard the environment.
We are gathered here today in the spirit of peace for the good of all human beings and for the care of creation. At this moment in history, at the beginning of the third millennium, we are saddened to see the daily suffering of a great number of people from violence, starvation, poverty, and disease. We are also concerned about the negative consequences for humanity and for all creation resulting from the degradation of some basic natural resources such as water, air and land, brought about by an economic and technological progress which does not recognize and take into account its limits.
Almighty God envisioned a world of beauty and harmony, and He created it, making every part an expression of His freedom, wisdom and love (cf. Gen 1:1-25).
At the center of the whole of creation, He placed us, human beings, with our inalienable human dignity. Although we share many features with the rest of the living beings, Almighty God went further with us and gave us an immortal soul, the source of self-awareness and freedom, endowments that make us in His image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26-31; 2:7). Marked with that resemblance, we have been placed by God in the world in order to cooperate with Him in realizing more and more fully the divine purpose for creation.
At the beginning of history, man and woman sinned by disobeying God and rejecting His design for creation. Among the results of this first sin was the destruction of the original harmony of creation. If we examine carefully the social and environmental crisis which the world community is facing, we must conclude that we are still betraying the mandate God has given us: to be stewards called to collaborate with God in watching over creation in holiness and wisdom.
God has not abandoned the world. It is His will that His design and our hope for it will be realized through our cooperation in restoring its original harmony. In our own time we are witnessing a growth of an ecological awareness which needs to be encouraged, so that it will lead to practical programs and initiatives. An awareness of the relationship between God and humankind brings a fuller sense of the importance of the relationship between human beings and the natural environment, which is God’s creation and which God entrusted to us to guard with wisdom and love (cf. Gen 1:28).
Respect for creation stems from respect for human life and dignity. It is on the basis of our recognition that the world is created by God that we can discern an objective moral order within which to articulate a code of environmental ethics. In this perspective, Christians and all other believers have a specific role to play in proclaiming moral values and in educating people in ecological awareness, which is none other than responsibility towards self, towards others, towards creation.
What is required is an act of repentance on our part and a renewed attempt to view ourselves, one another, and the world around us within the perspective of the divine design for creation. The problem is not simply economic and technological; it is moral and spiritual. A solution at the economic and technological level can be found only if we undergo, in the most radical way, an inner change of heart, which can lead to a change in lifestyle and of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. A genuine conversion in Christ will enable us to change the way we think and act.
First, we must regain humility and recognize the limits of our powers, and most importantly, the limits of our knowledge and judgment. We have been making decisions, taking actions, and assigning values that are leading us away from the world as it should be, away from the design of God for creation, away from all that is essential for a healthy planet and a healthy commonwealth of people. A new approach and a new culture are needed, based on the centrality of the human person within creation and inspired by environmentally ethical behavior stemming from our triple relationship to God, to self, and to creation. Such an ethics fosters interdependence and stresses the principles of universal solidarity, social justice, and responsibility, in order to promote a true culture of life.
Secondly, we must frankly admit that humankind is entitled to something better than what we see around us. We and, much more, our children and future generations are entitled to a better world, a world free from degradation, violence and bloodshed, a world of generosity and love.
Thirdly, aware of the value of prayer, we must implore God the Creator to enlighten people everywhere regarding the duty to respect and carefully guard creation.
We therefore invite all men and women of good will to ponder the importance of the following ethical goals:
1. To think of the world’s children when we reflect on and evaluate our options for action.
2. To be open to study the true values based on the natural law that sustain every human culture.
3. To use science and technology in a full and constructive way, while recognizing that the findings of science have always to be evaluated in the light of the centrality of the human person, of the common good, and of the inner purpose of creation. Science may help us to correct the mistakes of the past, in order to enhance the spiritual and material well-being of the present and future generations. It is love for our children that will show us the path that we must follow into the future.
4. To be humble regarding the idea of ownership and to be open to the demands of solidarity. Our mortality and our weakness of judgment together warn us not to take irreversible actions with what we choose to regard as our property during our brief stay on this earth. We have not been entrusted with unlimited power over creation, we are only stewards of the common heritage.
5. To acknowledge the diversity of situations and responsibilities in the work for a better world environment. We do not expect every person and every institution to assume the same burden. Everyone has a part to play, but for the demands of justice and charity to be respected the most affluent societies must carry the greater burden, and from them is demanded a sacrifice greater than can be offered by the poor. Religions, governments, and institutions are faced by many different situations; but on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity all of them can take on some tasks, some part of the shared effort.
6. To promote a peaceful approach to disagreement about how to live on this earth, about how to share it and use it, about what to change and what to leave unchanged. It is not our desire to evade controversy about the environment, for we trust in the capacity of human reason and the path of dialogue to reach agreement. We commit ourselves to respect the views of all who disagree with us, seeking solutions through open exchange, without resorting to oppression and domination.
It is not too late. God’s world has incredible healing powers. Within a single generation, we could steer the earth toward our children’s future. Let that generation start now, with God’s help and blessing.
John Paul II
10 June 2002
* * *
“Each of us is called to make the crucial distinction between what we want and what we need”
Patriarch of Constantinople’s Address on Environmental Ethics
Here is the address delivered in the Ducal Palace in Venice by Patriarch Bartholomeos prior to signing the joint declaration with John Paul on protection of the environment.
Beloved and learned participants,
As we come to the close of our Fourth Symposium on Religion, Science, and the Environment, we offer thanks to God for the fruitful proceedings as well as for your invaluable contribution. We recall the prophetic words of our predecessor, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I of blessed memory. In his historic encyclical letter of 1989, urging Christians to observe September 1st as a day of prayer for the protection of the environment, he emphasized the need for all of us to display a “eucharistic and ascetic spirit.”
Let us reflect on these two words “eucharistic” and “ascetic.” The implications of the first word are easy to appreciate. In calling for a “eucharistic spirit,” Patriarch Dimitrios was reminding us that the created world is not simply our possession but it is a gift — a gift from God the Creator, a healing gift, a gift of wonder and beauty — and that our proper response, on receiving such a gift, is to accept it with gratitude and thanksgiving. This is surely the distinctive characteristic of ourselves as human beings: humankind is not merely a logical or a political animal, but above all a eucharistic animal, capable of gratitude, and endowed with the power to bless God for the gift of creation. Other animals express their gratefulness simply by being themselves, by living in the world in their own instinctive manner; but we human beings possess self awareness, and so consciously and by deliberate choice we can thank God with eucharistic joy. Without such thanksgiving we ! are not truly human.
But what does Patriarch Dimitrios mean by the second word, “ascetic”? When we speak of asceticism, we think of such things as fasting, vigils, and rigorous practices. That is indeed part of what is involved; but askesis signifies much more than this. It means that, in relation to the environment, we are to display what the Philokalia and other spiritual texts of the Orthodox Church call enkrateia, “self-restraint.”
That is to say, we are to practice a voluntary self-limitation in our consumption of food and natural resources. Each of us is called to make the crucial distinction between what we want and what we need. Only through such self-denial, through our willingness sometimes to forgo and to say, “no” or “enough” will we rediscover our true human place in the universe.
The fundamental criterion for an environmental ethic is not individualistic or commercial. The acquisition of material goods cannot justify the self-centered desire to control the natural resources of the world. Greed and avarice render the world opaque, turning all things to dust and ashes. Generosity and unselfishness render the world transparent, turning all things into a sacrament of loving communion — communion between human beings with one another, communion between human beings and God.
This need for an ascetic spirit can be summed up in a single key word: sacrifice. This exactly is the missing dimension in our environmental ethos and ecological action.
We are all painfully aware of the fundamental obstacle that confronts us in our work for the environment. It is precisely this: how are we to move from theory to action, from words to deeds? We do not lack technical scientific information about the nature of the present ecological crisis. We know, not simply what needs to be done, but also how to do it. Yet, despite all this information, unfortunately little is actually done. It is a long journey from the head to the heart, and an even longer journey from the heart to the hands.
How shall we bridge this tragic gap between theory and practice, between ideas and actuality? There is only one way: through the missing dimension of sacrifice. We are thinking here of a sacrifice that is not cheap but costly: “I will not offer to the Lord my God that which costs me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24). There will be an effective, transforming change in the environment if, and only if, we are prepared to make sacrifices that are radical, painful, and genuinely unselfish. If we sacrifice nothing, we shall achieve nothing. Needless to say, as regards both nations and individuals, so much more is demanded from the rich than from the poor. Nevertheless, all are asked to sacrifice something for the sake of their fellow humans.
Sacrifice is primarily a spiritual issue and less an economic one. In speaking about sacrifice, we are talking about an issue that is not technological but ethical. Indeed, environmental ethics is specifically a central theme of this present symposium. We often refer to an environmental crisis; but the real crisis lies not in the environment but in the human heart. The fundamental problem is to be found not outside but inside ourselves, not in the ecosystem but in the way we think.
The root cause of all our difficulties consists in human selfishness and human sin. What is asked of us is not greater technological skill but deeper repentance, metanoia, in the literal sense of the Greek word, which signifies “change of mind.” The root cause of our environmental sin lies in our self-centeredness and in the mistaken order of values, which we inherit and accept without any critical evaluation. We need a new way of thinking about our own selves, about our relationship with the world and with God. Without this revolutionary “change of mind,” all our conservation projects, however well-intentioned, will remain ultimately ineffective. For, we shall be dealing only with the symptoms, not with their cause. Lectures and international conferences may help to awaken our conscience, but what is truly required is a baptism of tears.
Speaking about sacrifice is unfashionable, and even unpopular in the modern world. But, if the idea of sacrifice is unpopular, this is primarily because many people have a false notion of what sacrifice actually means. They imagine that sacrifice involves loss or death; they see sacrifice as somber or gloomy. Perhaps this is because, throughout the centuries, religious concepts have been used to introduce distinctions between those who have and those who have not, as well as to justify avarice, abuse and arrogance.
But if we consider how sacrifice was understood in the Old Testament, we find that the Israelites had a totally different view of its significance. To them, sacrifice meant not loss but gain, not death but life. Sacrifice was costly, but it brought about not diminution but fulfillment; it was a change not for the worse but for the better. Above all, for the Israelites, sacrifice signified not primarily giving up but simply giving. In its basic essence, a sacrifice is a gift — a voluntary offering in worship by humanity to God.
Thus in the Old Testament, although sacrifice often involved the slaying of an animal, the whole point was not the taking but the giving of life; not the death of the animal but the offering of the animal’s life to God. Through this sacrificial offering, a bond was established between the human worshiper and God. The gift, once accepted by God, was consecrated, acting as a means of communion between Him and His people. For the Israelites, the fasts — and the sacrifices that went with them — were “seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful festivals” (Zechariah 8:19).
An essential element of any sacrifice is that it should be willing and voluntary. That which is extracted from us by force and violence, against our will, is not a sacrifice. Only what we offer in freedom and in love is truly a sacrifice. There is no sacrifice without love. When we surrender something unwillingly, we suffer loss; but when we offer something voluntarily, out of love, we only gain.
When, on the fortieth day after Christ’s birth, His mother the Virgin Mary, accompanied by Joseph, came to the temple and offered her child to God, her act of sacrifice brought her not sorrow but joy; for, it was an act of love. She did not lose her child, but He became her own in a way that He could never otherwise have been.
Christ proclaimed this seemingly contradictory mystery when He taught: “Whosoever wishes to save his life must lose it” (Matt. 10:39 and 16:25). When we sacrifice our life and share our wealth, we gain life in abundance and enrich the entire world. Such is the experience of humankind over the ages: Kenosis means plerosis; voluntary self-emptying brings self-fulfillment.
All this we need to apply to our work for the environment. There can be no salvation for the world, no healing, no hope of a better future, without the missing dimension of sacrifice. Without a sacrifice that is costly and uncompromising, we shall never be able to act as priests of the creation in order to reverse the descending spiral of ecological degradation.
The path that lies before us, as we continue on our spiritual voyage of ecological exploration, is strikingly indicated in the ceremony of the Great Blessing of the Waters, performed in the Orthodox Church on January 6th, the Feast of Theophany, when we commemorate Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan River. The Great Blessing begins with a hymn of praise to God for the beauty and harmony of creation:
“Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works: no words suffice to sing the praise of Thy wonders. … The sun sings Thy praises; the moon glorifies Thee; the stars supplicate before Thee; the light obeys Thee; the deeps are afraid at Thy presence; the fountains are Thy servants; Thou hast stretched out the heavens like a curtain; Thou hast established the earth upon the waters; Thou hast walled about the sea with sand; Thou hast poured forth the air that living things may breathe….”
Then, after this all-embracing cosmic doxology, there comes the culminating moment in the ceremony of blessing. The celebrant takes a Cross and plunges it into the vessel of water (if the service is being performed indoors in church) or into the river or the sea (if the service takes place out of doors).
The Cross is our guiding symbol in the supreme sacrifice to which we are all called. It sanctifies the waters and, through them, transforms the entire world. Who can forget the imposing symbol of the Cross in the splendid mosaic of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe? As we celebrated the Divine Liturgy in Ravenna, our attention was focused on the Cross, which stood at the center of our heavenly vision, at the center of the natural beauty that surrounded it, and at the center of our celebration of heaven on earth.
Such is the model of our ecological endeavors. Such is the foundation of any environmental ethic. The Cross must be plunged into the waters. The Cross must be at the very center of our vision. Without the Cross, without sacrifice, there can be no blessing and no cosmic transfiguration. Amen.
My parents were people radically out of step with the America of the cold-war fifties. In those days they both belonged to the Communist Party. I was a “red-diaper baby.” Yet religious inspiration played a major part in the lives of my parents as long as I can remember.
An orphan raised by a Catholic farming family in western Massachusetts, my father became active in the local Catholic parish, serving as an altar boy. Inspired by a saintly pastor, he was preparing to become a priest. But the old priest was sent to another parish and his successor was a rigid man who ordered my father to resign from the local Protestant-sponsored Boy Scout troop. His strict eyes picking out my father at Mass on Sunday, he preached against Catholic contact with those who were not in communion with Rome. My father walked out on Mass that day and never returned. Yet I gradually became aware that underneath the bitterness he had acquired toward Catholicism was grief at having lost contact with a Church which, in many ways, had shaped his conscience. Far from objecting to my own religious awakenings, he cheered me along.
My mother had been raised in a devout Methodist household but was also disengaged from religion. When I was eight, I recall asking her if there was a God and was impressed by the remarkable sadness in her voice when she said there wasn’t. Some years later she told me she had lost her faith while a student at Smith College when a professor she admired told her that religions were only myths but were nonetheless fascinating to study. Again, as she related the story, I was struck by the sadness in her voice. Why such sadness?
I wonder if my parents’ love of wild life and wilderness areas had to do with a sense of God’s nearness in places of natural beauty? For their honeymoon, they had walked a long stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Our scrap books were full of photos Dad had taken of national parks, camps sites, and forest animals. Mother used to say that Dad was a wonderful hunter, except the only thing he could aim at an animal was a camera. The idea of owning a gun was anathema to both of them.
They had a similar reverence for human beings, especially those in need or in trouble. In this regard they were more attentive to the Gospel than many who are regularly in church. Christ taught that what you do for the least person you do for him even though you may not realize it or believe in him. In this regard, my parents were high on the list of those doing what God wants us to do even if their concern for the poor had led them away from churches and into the political left. A great deal of their time went into helping people.
While I often felt embarrassed coming from a family so different from others in the neighborhood, my spiritual life was influenced by my parents’ social conscience far more than I realized at the time. They helped make me aware that I was accountable not only for myself, my family, and friends, but for the down-and-out, the persecuted, and the unwelcome.
My parents were divorced when I was five. Afterward my mother, younger brother and I moved from Colorado to New Jersey. Our new home was in the area in which my mother had grown up, though not the same neighborhood as her wealthy parents (both were dead by the time of her return).
Mother’s identification with people on the other side of the tracks had brought us to live on the other side of the tracks, in a small house in a mainly black neighborhood where indoor plumbing was still unusual and many local roads still unpaved. One neighbor, Libby, old as the hills and black as coal, had been born in slavery days. Earlier in her life she had worked in my grandparents’ house.
Among my childhood memories is going door-to-door with my mother when she was attempting to sell subscriptions to the Communist paper, The Daily Worker. I don’t recall her having any success. This experience left me with an abiding sympathy for all doorbell ringers.
We received The Daily Worker ourselves. It came in a plain wrapper without a return address. Occasionally Mother read aloud articles that a child might find interesting. But as the cold winds of the “McCarthy period” began to blow, the time came when, far from attempting to sell subscriptions, the fact that we were on its mailing list began to worry Mother. It was no longer thrown away with the garbage like other newspapers but was saved in drawers until autumn, then burned bit by bit with the fall leaves.
One of the nightmare experiences of my childhood was the trial and electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple accused of helping the Soviet Union obtain US atomic secrets. My parents were convinced that the Rosenbergs were scapegoats whose real crimes were being Jews and Communists. Their conviction, Mother felt, was meant to further marginalize American Communists, along with other groups critical of US structures, for the government wasn’t only after “reds” but “pinkos.” The letters the Rosenbergs sent to their children from prison were published in The Daily Worker and these Mother read to my brother and me. How we wept the morning after their death as she read the press accounts of their last minutes of life.
Music was part of our upbringing. Mother hadn’t much of a voice, but from time to time sang with great feeling such songs as “This Land is Your Land,” “Joe Hill” and “The Internationale” with its line, “Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the earth, for justice thunders condemnation, a better’s world’s in birth.” On our small wind-up 78 rpm record player, we played records of Paul Robeson, the Weavers, Burl Ives (who was a bit to the left in those days), and, of course, Pete Seeger. From these recordings I also learned many spirituals. The music of the black church was the one acceptable source of religion in the American left. I sometimes heard spirituals when I walked slowly past a nearby black church.
Despite my mother’s alienation from religion, she missed the Methodist Church in which she had been raised. During the weeks surrounding Easter and Christmas, her religious homesickness got the best of her and so we attended services, sitting up in the church balcony. One year she sent my brother and me to the church’s summer school. While this was a help for her as a working mother (she was a psychiatric social worker at a mental hospital), I have no doubt she hoped my brother and I would soak up the kind of information about the deeper meaning of life that she had received as a child.
The minister of the church, Roger Squire, was an exceptional man whose qualities included a gift for noticing people in balconies and connecting with children. His occasional visits to our house were delightful events. Only as an adult did it cross my mind how remarkable it was that he would make it a point to come into our neighborhood to knock on the kitchen door of a home that contained not church-goers but a Communist.
One of the incidents that marked me as a child was the hospitality of the Squire family to two young women from Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had survived the nuclear bombing but were badly scarred. American religious peace groups had brought them and others to the United States for plastic surgery and found them temporary homes in and near New York City not an easy undertaking for the hosts in the fifties when the word “peace” was almost a synonym for “Communism” and when many people had no desire to think about, not to say see with their own eyes, what American nuclear bombs had done to actual people. In fact, I could only guess at the results myself, as the two women were draped with veils of silk. I had an idea of faces partly melted. Through the Squires’ guests, I learned about the human cost of war and the effects of nuclear weapons, and through the Squire family I had a sturdy idea of what it meant to conform one’s life to the Gospel rather than to politics and the opinions of neighbors.
Yet the Methodist Church as such didn’t excite me. While I prized Rev. Squire and enjoyed the jokes he sprinkled in sermons to underline his points, long-time sitting was hard work for a child. I felt no urge to be baptized. Neither was I won over by the nearby Dutch Reformed Church which for some forgotten reason I attended for a few weeks or months and which I remember best for its unsuccessful attempt to get me to memorize the Ten Commandments.
The next big event in my religious development was thanks to a school friend inviting me to his church in Shrewsbury. It was among the oldest buildings in our region, its white clapboard scarred with musket balls fired in the Revolutionary war. The blood of dying soldiers had stained the church’s pews and floor, and though the stains could no longer be seen, it stirred me to think about what had happened there.
What engaged me still more was the form of worship, which was altar rather than pulpit centered. It was an Episcopal parish in which sacraments and ritual activity were the main events. (Being a parent has helped me realize that ritual is something that children naturally like; for all the experiments we make as children, we are born conservatives who want our parents to operate in predictable, patterned, reliable ways. We want meals to be on the table at a certain time and in a specific way, and in general like to know what to expect. We want the ordinary events of life to have what I think of now as liturgical shape.)
The parish was “high church” — vestments, acolytes, candles, processions, incense, liturgical seasons with their special colors, fast times, plain chant, communion every Sunday. I got a taste of a more ancient form of Christianity than I had found among Methodists. I loved it and for the first time in my life wanted not just to watch but to be part of it. It was in this church that, age nine or ten, I was baptized. I became an acolyte (thus getting to wear a bright red robe with crisp white surplice) and learned to assist the pastor, Father Lavant, at the altar. I learned much of the Book of Common Prayer by heart and rang a bell when the bread and wine were being consecrated. In Sunday school after the service I learned something of the history of Christianity, its sources and traditions, with much attention to Greek words. I remember Father Lavant writing Eucharist on the blackboard, explaining it meant thanksgiving, and that it was made up of smaller Greek words that meant “well” and “grace.” The Eucharist was a well of grace. He was the sort of man who put the ancient world in reaching distance.
But the friendship which had brought me to the church in the first place disintegrated sometime that year. I no longer felt welcome in my friend’s car, and felt awkward about coming to their church under my own steam though it would have been possible to get there by bike.
Perhaps the reason the car-door no longer opened to me was my friend’s parents became aware of our family’s political color. Given the times, it would have been hard not to know.
I had little grasp of the intense political pressures Americans were under, though I saw the same anti-communist films and television programs other kids saw and was painfully aware that my parents were “the enemy” — the people who were trying to subvert America — though I couldn’t see a trace of this happening among the real live Communists I happened to know.
It was about that time that the FBI began to openly exhibit its interest in us, interviewing many of the neighbors. One day, while Mother was out, two FBI agents came into our house and finger-printed my brother and me. Such were the times.
My father’s arrest in 1952 in St. Louis, where he was then living, was page-one news across America. Dad faced the usual charge against Communists: “conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence.” I doubt many read this hair-raising assembly of phrases closely enough to notice that in fact the accused were not being charged with any violent or revolutionary actions or even with advocating such activities, but with being part of a conspiracy to advocate them.
The afternoon of Dad’s arrest, my Uncle Charles drove up to our house, came to the door, and yelled at my mother while waving a newspaper that had the banner headline: Ten Top Reds Arrested in Missouri. He stormed off the porch, got back into his car, a black Buick, and drove away. I never saw him again. Until then he had been a frequent visitor though I was aware Mother took pains to avoid political topics when we were with him.
Dad was to spend half a year in prison before being bailed out. Several years passed before the charges against him were finally dropped.
While it was never nearly as bad for dissenters in the US as it was in the USSR — no gulag, no summary executions, no Stalin — nonetheless I have come to feel a sense of connection with the children of religious believers in Communist countries; they too know what it is like to have their parents vilified by the mass media and imprisoned by the government.
Though it was bad enough that Dad was in prison, I was still more aware of the pressures my mother was facing. The FBI had talked with her employers. Many Communists were losing or had lost their jobs; she took it for granted it would happen to her as well. This expectation was a factor in her not buying a car until well after my brother and I were full-grown, even though we lived pretty far off the beaten track. She took the bus to work and back again, or found colleagues who could give her a lift. When I pleaded with her to get a car, she explained we shouldn’t develop needs that she might not be able afford in the future.
Her only hope of keeping her job was to give her employers no hook on which to justify dismissal. Night after night for years she worked at her desk writing case histories of patients with whom she was involved. No matter how sick she might be, she never missed a day of work, never arrived late, never left early. I doubt that the State of New Jersey ever got more from an employee than they got from her. And it worked. She wasn’t fired.
My religious interest went into recess. Within a year or two I was trying to make up my mind whether I was an atheist or an agnostic. I decided on the latter, because I couldn’t dismiss the sense I often had of God being real. Like my parents, I loved nature, and nature is full of news about God. Wherever I looked, whether at ants with a magnifying glass or at the moon with a telescope, everything in the natural order was awe-inspiring, and awe is a religious state of mind. Creation made it impossible to dismiss God. But it was a rather impersonal God — God as prime move rather than God among us.
It wasn’t until 1959, when I was turning 18, that I began to think deeply about religion and what God might mean in my life.
At the turning point in his life, St. Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus. The equivalent moment in my own life is linked to a more prosaic setting: Saturday night at the movies. Just out of Navy boot camp, I was studying meteorology at the Navy Weather School at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The film at the base theater happened to be The Nun’s Story, based on the autobiography of a young Belgian who entered a convent and later worked at a missionary hospital in the African Congo. In the end, the nun (played by Audrey Hepburn) became an ex-nun. Conscience was at the heart of the story: conscience leading a young woman into the convent and eventually leading her elsewhere, but never away from her faith. I later discovered the film was much criticized in the Catholic press for its portrayal both of loneliness and of the abuse of authority in religious community.
If it had been Hollywood’s usual religious movie of The Bells of St. Mary’s variety, it would have had no impact on my life. But this was a true story, well-acted and honestly told, and without a happy ending, though in the woman’s apparent failure as a nun one found both integrity and faith. Against the rough surface of the story, I had a compelling glimpse of the Catholic Church with its rich and complex structures of worship and community.
After the film I went for a walk, heading away from the buildings and sidewalks. It was aware, clear August evening. Gazing at the stars, I felt an uncomplicated and overwhelming happiness such as I had never known. This seemed to rise up through the grass and to shower down on me in the starlight. I felt I was floating on God’s love like a leaf on water. I was deeply aware that everything that is or was or ever will be is joined together in God. For the first time in my life, the blackness beyond the stars wasn’t terrifying.
I didn’t think much about the film itself that night, except for a few words of Jesus that had been read to the novices during their first period of formation and which seemed to recite themselves within me as I walked: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have great treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.”
I went to sleep that night eager to go to Mass. I knew I wanted to be a Christian and was strongly drawn to the Catholicism.
The next morning I went to a nearby Catholic church but found the Mass disappointing. I feel like an anthropologist observing a strange tribal rite. I had only a vague idea what was happening. There seemed little connection between the priest and the congregation. Most of the worship was in mumbled, hurried, automatic Latin, except for the sermon, which probably I would have preferred had it been in Latin. People in the pews seemed either bored or were concentrating on their rosaries. At least they knew when to sit, stand, and kneel. I struggled awkwardly to keep up with them. At the end of Mass, there was no exchange of greetings or further contact between people who had been praying together. Catholic worship seemed to have all the intimacy of supermarket shopping.
Still resolved to become a Christian, I started looking for a church where there was engagement and beauty and at least something of what I had hoped to find in Catholicism. The Anglo-Catholic segment of the Episcopal Church, which I had begun to know as a child, seemed the obvious choice, and it happened that another sailor at the Weather School had been part of a high church parish. He shared his Book of Common Prayer with me and in the weeks that followed we occasionally read its services of morning and evening prayer together.
After graduating, I spent a two-week Christmas leave in an Episcopal monastery on the Hudson River not far from West Point, a joyous experience in which I thought I had found everything I was hoping for in the Catholic Church: liturgy, the sacraments, and a religious community that combined prayer, study and service. Stationed with a Navy unit at the Weather Bureau in Washington, DC, I joined a local Episcopal parish, St. Paul’s, which the monks had told me about.
Those months were full of grace. So why am I not writing an essay on “Why I am an Episcopalian”? One piece of the answer is that I had never quite let go of the Catholic Church. I could never walk past a Catholic church without stopping in to pray. A hallmark of the Catholic Church was that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved on or near the altar awaiting anyone who came in. Its presence meant this wasn’t just a room that came to life from time to time but a place where many of the curtains that usually hide God were lifted, even if you were the only person present. The doors of Catholic churches always seemed open.
Another factor were books that found their way into my hands Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
There were negative elements as well. One of these was an experience at the Episcopal monastery I occasionally visited. On the last day of an Easter stay one of the monks asked to see me. Once in the visiting room, he pulled me into a closet and embraced me. I struggled free and left the monastery in great confusion. Back in Washington, I wrote to the prior of the community, telling him what had happened. His reply wasn’t helpful. He might have pointed out that monks, like everyone else, suffer loneliness and have sexual longings of one sort or another and sometimes don’t manage it very well. Rather he said that homosexuality was often an indication of a monastic vocation. As my own sexual orientation was of the more common variety, I wondered if the prior meant I wasn’t the right sort of person to be visiting. After his letter, I had no desire to return. The experience underscored my growing doubts about remaining in the Episcopal Church.
Yet I still had reservations about becoming Catholic and so began to explore the varieties of Christianity in Washington, visiting every sort of church, black and white, high and low. Among them was a Greek Orthodox cathedral, but it seemed a cool, unwelcoming place; I sensed one had to be Greek to be a part of it. I returned several times to the black church on the campus of Howard University, a friendly place with wonderful singing, but felt that, as a white person, I would always be an outsider. If I could have changed skin color by wishing, I would have turned black in the Howard chapel.
As the weeks went by I came to realize that the Catholic churches I so often stopped in to pray were places in which I felt an at-homeness I hadn’t found anywhere else. On November 26,1960, after several months of instruction, I was received into the Catholic Church.
What had most attracted me to Catholicism was the Liturgy. Though in some parishes it was a dry, mechanical affair, there were other parishes where the care taken in every aspect of worship was profound. While for some people, worship in an ancient language is a barrier, in my own case I came to love the Latin. I was happy to be participating in a language of worship that was being used simultaneously in every part of the world and which also was a bridge of connection with past generations. I learned many Latin prayers by heart, especially anything that could be sung, and still sing Latin prayers and hymns. “To sing is to pray twice,” one of the Church Fathers says. How true!
In the early stages of liturgical change following the Second Vatican Council, I felt a complex mixture of expectation and anxiety. Despite my private love of Latin, I could hardly disagree with the many arguments put forward for scrapping it. I didn’t want to hang onto what apparently got in the way for others.
The Englishing of the Liturgy was not carried out by poets. We ended up with the English language in its flattest state. We lost not only Latin but Gregorian chant, a great pity. Most of the music that took its place was pedestrian at every level, fit for shopping malls and Disneyland. The sand blasting had also removed incense. The body language of prayer was in retreat. The holy water fonts were dry. Many bridges linking body and soul were abandoned.
Yet, again like most Catholics, I uttered few words of complaint. I knew that change is not a comfortable experience. And I thought of myself as a modern person; I was embarrassed by my difficulties adjusting to change. Also I had no sense of connection with those who were protesting the changes. These tended to be the rigid Catholics of the sort who were more papal than the Pope. (I had never been attracted to that icy wing of Catholicism that argued one must be a Catholic, and a most obedient Catholic, in order to be saved.)
If one has experienced only the modern “fast-food” liturgy of the Catholic Church, perhaps the typical modern Mass isn’t so disappointing. But for me there was a deep sense of loss. For many years I often left Mass feeling depressed.
All this said, there was a positive side to Catholicism that in many ways compensated for what was missing in the Liturgy. For all its problems, which no church is without, the Catholic Church has the strength of being a world community in which many members see themselves as being on the same footing as fellow Catholics on the other side of the globe; in contrast many Orthodox Christians see their church, even Christ, primarily in national terms. The Catholic Church also possesses a strong sense of co-responsibility for the social order, and a relatively high degree of independence from all political and economic structures.
This aspect of the Catholic Church finds many expressions. I joined one of them, the Catholic Worker movement, after receiving a conscientious objector discharge in 1960.
Founded by Dorothy Day in 1933, the Catholic Worker is well known for its “houses of hospitality” — places of welcome in run-down urban areas where those in need can receive food, clothing, and shelter. It is a movement not unlike the early Franciscans, attempting to live out the Gospels in a simple, literal way. Jesus said to be poor; those involved in the Catholic Worker struggle to have as little as possible. Jesus said to do good to and pray for those who curse you, to love your enemies, to put away the sword; and Catholic Workers try to do this as well, refusing to take part in war or violence. The Catholic Worker view of the world is no less critical than that of the Prophets and the Gospel. There was a remarkable interest in the writings of the Church Fathers. One often found quotations from St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, Saint Basil and other voices of the early Church in movement’s widely read publication, The Catholic Worker.
I found in Dorothy Day a deep appreciation of its richness and way of worship of the Eastern Church. She also had a special love for Russian literature, most of all the work of Dostoevsky. At times she recited passages from The Brothers Karamazov that had shaped her understanding of Christianity; mainly these had to do with the saintly staretz Father Zosima (a figure modeled in part on Father Amvrosi who was canonized by the Russian Church in 1988) and his teaching on active love. Dorothy inspired me to read Dostoevsky. It was Dorothy who first took me into a Russian Orthodox Church, a cathedral in upper Manhattan where I met a priest who, many years later, I was to meet again in Moscow, Father Matvay Stadniuk. (In 1988 he launched the first public project of voluntary service by Church members since Soviet power had launched its war on religion.) At a Liturgy she took me to I first learned to sing the Old Slavonic words, “Gospodi pomiloi “Lord have mercy, the main prayer of Orthodoxy.
One evening Dorothy brought me to a Manhattan apartment for meeting of the Third Hour, a Christian ecumenical group founded by a Russian émigré, Helene Iswolsky. The conversation was in part about the Russian word for spirituality, dukhovnost. The Russian understanding of spiritual life, it was explained, not only suggests a private relationship between the praying person and God but has profound social content: moral capacity, social responsibility, courage, wisdom, mercy, a readiness to forgive, a way of life centered in love. Much of the discussion flew over my head. At times I was more attentive to the remarkable face of the poet W.H. Auden, a member of the Third Hour group. I recall talk about iurodivi, the “holy fools” who revealed Christ in ways that would be regarded as insanity in the west, and stralniki, those who wandered Russia in continuous pilgrimage, begging for bread and reciting with every breath and step the silent prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
One of the people Dorothy was in touch with was the famous Trappist monk and author, Thomas Merton, whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been a factor in my becoming a Catholic. Through Dorothy I came to be one of his correspondents and later his guest at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Besides many letters, Merton used to send me photographs of Russian and Greek icons. Icons had played an important part in his conversion to Christianity and, as I was to discover in writing a book about him, in his continuing spiritual life.
Thanks to Merton and Dorothy Day, I was more aware than many western Christians of the eastern Church, but Orthodoxy seemed to me more an ethnic club than a place for an American with a family tree whose roots stretched from Ireland to the Urals, more a living museum than a living Church. My eyes were slow in opening to icons. While the music in Russian churches was amazingly beautiful, Orthodox services seemed too long and the ritual too ornate. I was in a typical American hurry about most things, even worship, and had the usual American aversion to trimmings. Orthodoxy seemed excessive.
As much of my life has been spent editing peace movement publications, one might imagine such work would have opened many east-west doors for me. Ironically, however, through most of the Cold War the peace movement in the United States was notable for its avoidance of contact with the Soviet Union. Perhaps because we were so routinely accused of being “tools of the Kremlin,” peace activists tended to steer clear of the USSR and rarely knew more about it than anyone else. Even to visit the Soviet Union was to be convicted of everything the Reader’s Digest had ever said about KGB direction of peace groups in the west.
In the spring of 1982, after five years heading the staff of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in Holland, I was on a speaking trip that took me to twenty American cities. At the time the Nuclear Freeze movement was gathering strength. It advocated a bilateral end to nuclear testing, freezing the manufacture of nuclear weapons, and halting development of new weapons systems. Millions of people, both Democrat and Republican, supported the Freeze. Yet I came back to Holland convinced that its prospects for success were slight.
The Freeze, like many peace campaigns during the Cold War, was built mainly on fear of nuclear weapons. Practically nothing was being done to respond to relationship issues or fear of the Soviet Union. All that was needed was one nasty incident to burst the balloon, and that came when a Soviet pilot shot down a South Korean 747 passenger plane flying across Soviet air space. The image of the west facing a barbaric and ruthless enemy was instantly revived. The Freeze movement crashed with the 747 jet.
The trip brought home to me that both in the peace movement and in the military, we in the west knew more about weapons than the people at whom the weapons were aimed. I began to look for an opportunity to visit the Soviet Union.
At the time it wasn’t easy to find an opening. The Soviet Union was at war in Afghanistan, an event sharply condemned by the organization I was working for. A seminar we had arranged in Moscow was abruptly canceled on the Soviet side. An editor of Izvestia whom I met in Amsterdam candidly explained that Kremlin was guarding itself from western pacifists unveiling protest signs in Red Square.
In October 1983, a few representatives of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation met several leaders of the Christian Peace Conference for a dialogue on the subject of “Violence, Nonviolence and Liberation.” We met in Moscow in an old wooden building used at that time by the External Church Affairs Department of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The meeting would have been useful no matter where it had happened. But for me it had an unexpected spiritual significance because it was in Russia. I experienced a particular sense of connection with the Russian Orthodox believers and longed to have the chance for more prolonged contact.
A year later I was in Moscow once again, this time for an exchange (sadly not real dialogue) with hardline Communists in the Soviet Peace Committee. For me the primary significance of the trip was the contact with Orthodox believers.
The high point was the Liturgy at the Epiphany Cathedral. This isn’t one of the city’s oldest or most beautiful churches, though it has an outstanding choir. The icons, coming from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were a far cry from Rublev and Theofan the Greek. And yet being in that throng of devout worshipers was a more illuminating experience than I have had in far more beautiful churches. The place became beautiful for me simply because it was such a grace to be there.
The church was crowded as a church in the west would be only on a major feast day. As is usual in the Russian Orthodox Church, there were no pews. There were a few benches and chairs along the walls for those who needed them, but I found it freeing to be on my feet. Though at times it was uncomfortable to be standing up for so long, being upright made me more attentive. It was like a move from the bleachers to the field. (I’d like one day to learn how chairs and benches made their way into churches. Is it connected with the Reformation’s re-centering of services around the sermon? Perhaps it happened when people got bored.)
I was fascinated by the linking of spiritual and physical activity. Making the sign of the cross and half bows were ordinary elements of prayer. Orthodox believers seemed to cross themselves and bow almost continually. As I watched the rippling of bowing heads in the tightly packed congregation, I was reminded of the patterns the wind makes blowing across afield of wheat.
All the while two choirs, in balconies on either side of the huge cupola, were singing. For the Creed and Our Father, the congregation joined with the choirs, singing with great force.
At first I stood like a statue, though wanting to do what those around me were doing. It seemed so appropriate for an incarnational religion to link body and soul through these simple gestures. It must have taken me most of an hour before I began to pray in the Russian style.
The sense of people being deeply at prayer was as tangible as Russian black bread. I felt that if the walls and pillars of the church were taken away, the roof would rest securely on the prayers of the congregation below. I have very rarely experienced this kind of intense spiritual presence. In its intensity, though there are many superficial differences, I can only compare it to the black church in America.
The experience led me to write Pilgrim to the Russian Church, a book which required a number of Russian trips; on one of these I was joined by my wife, Nancy.
In the course of my travels I came to love the slow, unhurried tradition of prayer in Orthodoxy, deeply appreciating its absent-mindedness about the clock. The Liturgy rarely started on time, never ended on time, and lasted two or three hours, still longer on great feasts. I discovered that Orthodox believers are willing to give to worship the kind of time and devotion that Italians give to their evening meals.
I became increasingly aware of how deep and mindful is Orthodox preparation for communion, with stress on forgiveness of others as a precondition for reception of the sacrament.
I enjoyed watching confession in Orthodox churches. The penitent and priest weren’t tucked away in closets but stood in front on the iconostasis, faces nearly touching. There is a tenderness about it that never ceases to amaze me. (While I still don’t find confession easy, I don’t envy those forms of Christianity that do without it.)
I quickly came to appreciate Orthodoxy for taking literally Jesus’ teaching, “Let the children come to me and hinder them not.” In our Catholic parish in Holland, our daughter Anne had gone from confusion and hurt to pain and anger after many attempts to receive communion with Nancy and me. She hadn’t reached “the age of reason” and therefore couldn’t receive the instruction considered a prerequisite to sacramental life. But a child in an Orthodox parish is at the front of the line to receive communion.
I came to esteem the married clergy of Orthodoxy. While there are many Orthodox monks and nuns and celibacy is an honored state, I found that marriage is more valued in Orthodoxy than Catholicism. Sexual discipline is taken no less seriously, yet one isn’t left feeling that the main sins are sexual.
I came to cherish the relative darkness usual in Orthodox churches, where the main light source is candles. Candle light creates a climate of intimacy. Icons are intended for candlelight.
Praying with icons was an aspect of Orthodox spirituality that opened its doors to us even though we weren’t yet Orthodox. During a three-month sabbatical in 1985 when we were living near Jerusalem, we bought a small Russian Vladimirskaya icon of Mary and Jesus and began praying before it. The icon itself proved to be a school of prayer. We learned much about prayer by simply standing in front of our icon.
All the while Nancy and I were continuing our frustrating search for a Catholic parish that we could be fully a part of in our Dutch town.
On the one hand there were parishes that seemed linked to the larger Church only by frayed threads; parishes were abandoning rituals, traditions and lines of connection which seemed to us worth preserving, and going their own way. There were other parishes that, in ritual life, were clearly part of a larger church but where there was no sense of welcome or warmth.
Finally Nancy and I became part of a parish where, by joining the choir, we felt more a part of a church community. But we were far and away the youngest members of the choir and still felt apart. None of our children were willing to come.
How we envied Russian Orthodox believers! Oddly enough it didn’t occur to me that there might be a similar quality of worship in Orthodox churches in the west. I thought that Orthodoxy was like certain wines that must be sipped at the vineyard. I also had the idea that Russian parishes in the west must be filled with bitter refugees preoccupied with hating Communists.
Then in January 1988, at the invitation of Father Alexis Voogd, pastor of the St. Nicholas of Myra Church in Amsterdam, Nancy and I took part in a special ecumenical service to mark the beginning of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Millennium celebration: a thousand years since the baptism of the citizens of Kiev. Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox, we were packed into the tiny church for a service that was a hodge-podge of speeches by clergy from various local churches interspersed with beautiful Russian hymns sung by the parish choir.
If it was just that ecumenical service, perhaps we might not have returned. But at the reception in the parish hall that followed, we were startled to experience a kind of interaction that I had rarely found in any church in any country, not to say in prudent, restrained, understated Holland.
Walking to the train station afterward, we decided to come back and see what the Liturgy was like. The following Sunday we discovered it was every bit as profound as it was in Russia. And that was that. We managed only once or twice to return to Mass in our former Catholic parish. Before a month had passed we realized that a prayer we had been living with along time had been answered: we had found a church we wholeheartedly could belong to and couldn’t bear not going to even if it meant getting out of bed early and traveling by train and tram to Amsterdam every week.
On Palm Sunday 1988, I was received into the Orthodox Church; Nancy made the same step on Pentecost.
In many ways it wasn’t such a big step from where we had been. Orthodoxy and Catholicism have so much in common: sacraments, apostolic succession, the calendar of feasts and fasts, devotion to the Mother of God, and much more. Yet in Orthodoxy we found an even deeper sense of connection with the early Church and a far more vital form of liturgical life. Much that has been neglected in Catholicism and abandoned in Protestant churches, especially confession and fasting, remain central in Orthodox life. We quickly found what positive, life-renewing gifts they were, and saw that they were faring better in a climate that was less legalistic but more demanding.
The religious movement in my life, which from the beginning was influenced by my parents, also influenced them. While neither followed me into Catholicism or Orthodoxy, in the early sixties my mother returned to the Methodist Church and remains much a part of her church to this day; she had resigned from the Communist Party at the time the Soviets put down the Hungarian uprising. Despite her age and failing eyesight, she continues in her struggle for the poor, much to the consternation of local politicians and bureaucrats. While my father never left “the Party” (to the end of his life he wore rose-colored glasses when looking at the USSR), he eventually became a Unitarian. He enjoyed the joke about Unitarians believing at most in one God. In the last two decades of his life he was especially active in developing low-income and inter-racial housing projects in California. A cooperative he helped found in Santa Rosa was singled out for several honors, including the Certificate of National Merit from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Always deeply supportive of my religious commitment, I recall with particular happiness hearing him reading aloud to my step-mother from my book, Pilgrim to the Russian Church. On his death bed in the spring of 1990, he borrowed the crucifix I normally wear around my neck. It was in his hands when he died.
Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of its quarterly journal, In Communion. His most recent books are Praying With Icons and The Ladder of the Beatitudes (both published by Orbis). Earlier books include Religion in the New Russia, Pilgrim to the Russian Church, Love is the Measure: a biography of Dorothy Day, and Living with Wisdom: a Life of Thomas Merton. A book on the resurrection of the Orthodox Church in Albania is scheduled for publication by the World Council of Churches in the Fall of 2001. Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness will be published early in 2002. He has lived in the Netherlands since 1977 and is a member of the St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. The essay is reprinted from Toward the Authentic Church, edited by Thomas Doulis (Minneapolis: Light & Life Books, 1996). Photo taken in Oxford, May 2001, by Nancy Forest.
In an age when many cradle Christians are indifferent to entering a church, believing that it is a space equal to any other in which to commune with God; in a time when many who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” disdain churches as incapable of inspiring their spiritual quest, I would like to offer some reflections on Orthodox churches, icons and liturgy and the power that they can hold. These reflections describe how churches can affect individuals with a power apart from them. Karl Rahner, the German Catholic theologian, spoke of the modern phenomenon of the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, and how the culture does not see all of life as imbued with God’s grace in a sacramental way. But it seems, at least outside of Orthodoxy, that there is a perception that sacred space has been absorbed into the profane, leading to a cynical attitude that life can hold no mystery because it is limited to only what our minds can grasp.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine of Hippo explained that after his baptism on Pascha in April of 387, he often was moved deeply at the liturgy. As a later commentator wrote, “After that Holy Saturday, days of infinite sweetness began. Taking part in the liturgy moved him to tears. He cried not because he was in distress, but because he could finally breathe.”
Bishop Kallistos Ware met the “concrete and specific fact” of the Orthodox Church as “a worshiping presence” when., out of curiosity, he walked into an Orthodox Vespers in London many years ago. This professor of classics as well as bishop remarks how grateful he is that he first knew of the Orthodox Church through the act of worship rather than through books or social contact, theory or ideology. When he stepped off that London street and into the candle-lit darkness of the Vigil Service, he entered another world “that was more real” to him than his life outside. He did not understand a single word of the Slavonic service, but was convinced that he had come home. Not only did he find the sacred, but he found reality. [The Inner Kingdom, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press]
My own experiences of Orthodox liturgy have given me a sense of being home. And at times, during the months before I was chrismated, I would suddenly and inexplicably be moved to tears. I spent days, sometimes weeks of reflection and discussion with my spiritual father to attempt to understand with my mind what I was feeling in my deepest self. Some of it was sadness, but intermingled with a sense of forgiveness, relief and hope. I felt I was resting in the hand of God. Through my reading I discovered the accounts that I have described above, which are so striking in their similarities to my own.
Having lived almost all of my life as a Catholic, in the time before the Second Vatican Council changed the Catholic liturgy from Latin to the vernacular, I know something of an interior experience of the liturgy. Although I did not resist the changes, I was more than comfortable with worshiping in Latin; and found a measure of peace in these experiences. But nothing really prepared me for the dynamis of the Orthodox liturgy; its ability through grace to move the believer from one kind of existence to another.
A few weeks after I was chrismated at St. George Tropeoforos Greek Orthodox, I visited the Russian Orthodox Cathedral St. Nicholas for the vigil one Saturday evening. Recently restored, St. Nicholas is an architectural symbol and living spiritual witness to more than 1000 years of Russian Orthodoxy. It is now headed by Bishop Mercurius, Bishop of Zaraisk, administrator of the US parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate. The feeling I had upon entering the Cathedral was one of space and openness. Standing in that space invites a kind of active and communal prayer, lacking pews which could put barriers between yourself and others and in a sense to isolate and hide yourself in prayer. That choice is impossible. Two or three benches are placed in the back and on one side wall for the elderly and children. Everyone who enters the cathedral must be active, even if only by standing and gazing at the beauty surrounding you. When I stood in the middle of the expansive space with its soaring dome of Christ the Pantocrator gazing down, its gleaming wood floors and several shining candelabras, its enormous icons on the walls and splendid iconostasis, I was struck dumb. Even if I could have spoken Russian, which I think all of the congregation speaks, I wouldn’t have been able to say anything.
I purchased candles and approached an icon of Christ and another of a modern woman saint who was pale, in a scarf and plain dress. I didn’t know who she was, but the look in her eyes was of suffering and compassion at the same time. Vigil began; the choir sang and a deacon opened the left door, turned toward the iconostasis with arm raised and chanted in a deep bass voice. All was in Slavonic. The congregation of young and old, men, women and children crossed themselves, bowed, and many prostrated themselves, touching their foreheads to the floor. I noticed one young man, especially, tall and slender who found a place along the wall to pray and prostrate. The only time I had ever seen anyone assume such a position in the Catholic church was at the ordination of priests when the men lay prone on the floor in the sanctuary. It was powerful to observe then, and was no less powerful now. I crossed myself and bowed until my shoulder ached, but I did not prostrate. I was not prepared for that yet.
While this activity unfolded, I noticed an older woman in a black scarf which covered her head and forehead, black skirt and blouse and glasses tending to the candles — removing the ones almost burned away and placing them in a little bucket. She appeared to have dropped from another century and a land far away. Then I noticed other women who either maintained the candles or cleaned the icon glass which the worshipers kissed. They were young or middle aged and stylishly dressed. Some wore pants, but all had their head covered with a hat or scarf. They seemed quite comfortable crossing the line that our American culture has established between modernity and tradition and between the sacred and the profane. For them, there did not seem to be a division, but a co-existence, or perhaps an organic integration of both into their lives.
The choir was both ethereal, with women’s voicing floating above, and densely rich from the grounding of male voices. The music seemed more “call and response” than accompaniment or interjection to the prayers and chants of the clergy. Periodically, a chorus of male voices penetrated from behind the iconostasis, and much later I realized that the chorus was formed by the bishop, priests and deacons. At the end of the service, someone who I surmised was the bishop because of his crown, stood on the Ambo and anointed everyone with oil, using a brush from a golden cup. I went to the end of the line, watched everyone carefully, and received the anointing. I left the vigil feeling jubilant and tranquil at the same time.
I returned again at the feast of the Veneration of the Cross which coincided with the visit of the Tikhvin Icon. The ancient and much loved icon was on its way back to Russia and its home in the Dormition Cathedral in the Tikhvin Monastery after a stay of 55 years in the US. The line inside the church, five or six people wide, wound from the front of the church around to the opposite side. People waited silently to venerate the ancient and miraculous icon, left flowers, and many wept. The tradition of the Tikhvin icon goes back 2,000 years and many miracles ago and much history and change. She seemed to embody within her ancient tempura, jewels and precious metal, the faith and hope of the people who expect her to be with them in their suffering and in their joy.
While the icon was being venerated, the vigil proceeded for the Veneration of the Cross. Every liturgical feast was new to me, so I was not prepared for what occurred. I had no idea what was being sung or said, but not knowing the language has the advantage of forcing one to glean information through other venues. This time I noticed a rhythm to the service for the first time. There was an interchange between the chanting, singing and reading by the deacons and priests and their movements in and out of the iconostasis to pray, read and cense the icons and the congregation.
The entire church was packed with people, not only those for the Tikhvin icon, but for the vigil as well. Almost everyone who were there for the vigil was prostrating throughout the liturgy. I was in the front, surrounded by prostrating worshipers, I could not avoid it, nor did I want to. When Bishop Mercurius lifted the cross surrounded by flowers on his head and processed into the nave, I could feel the liturgy moving to a climax. He, together with the clergy and all the people, prostrated themselves before the cross. The music swelled during the prostrations, and I wept. My forehead was on the floor, my spirit was bowed but soared within me, and I wept. I was everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. I was in this world and somehow transcending it. And after almost two hours of standing and crossing and bowing, I became tranquil and at rest inside myself. My prayers for what to do and where to go were met with a quiet answer: be nothing, stop striving, to rest in God.
Like St. Augustine, I cried not because of sadness, but because I could finally breathe. Weeping and breathing are interrelated. The body releases its tension, we give in, we give up, we open our hearts, take in air and let the tears flow. Why? Possibly, as Isaac of Nineveh said, “When you reach the place of tears, then know that your spirit has come out from the prison of this world and has set its foot upon the path that leads towards the new age. Your spirit begins at this moment to breathe the wonderful air which is there, and it starts to shed tears.” [Mystic Treatises in the Philokalia, quoted in The Way of the Pilgrim]
Standing in prayer in St. Nicholas Cathedral reminded me of the dance. With all its elements, it binds the human with the divine, provides us with the opportunity to dance with God. Later this notion took on even more meaning when I read these words of Thomas Merton: “No despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not. Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.”
So we join in the dance with our bodies, souls and spirits in those churches which have inspired Christians for 2000 years. In these spaces set aside for their sacred purpose, let us set our cares aside, as the cherubic hymn reminds us, so
that we may receive the King of all.
Mary Ward has taught at Fordham University in New York City since 1995 as an adjunct professor and has lectured at American Academy of Religion conferences and at colleges and parishes.
We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.
These few words from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom were the underlying theme of all his books, lectures and sermons. To be a Christian is to devote one’s life to becoming the Gospel. The Gospel exists so that each of us can make of our lives a unique living translation of its stories, sayings and parables. Like no other book in the world, it is meant to be lived, to be lived in such a way that those who have not read the text might guess at least its major themes simply by knowing those who are absorbing the text into their lives.
Orthodox ritual goes to great lengths to draw our attention to the Gospel. This small book, containing only the texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, is enthroned on the altar. It is something we bow toward and often kiss. Side by side with the Cross, it is before us when we confess our sins. Held high, it is solemnly carried through the church in procession every week. It is decorated with relief icons. During services, it is not simply read but chanted so that the words of the Gospel might enter us more deeply.
Only a degree less important in the life of the Orthodox Church is our close attention to the lives of the saints, that is to those people who, to a remarkable degree, in some way became the Gospel. Each saint provides a unique translation of the Gospel. Each saint not only helps us see what the Gospel is about but also how diverse are the ways in which a person can become the Gospel. Each saint throws a fresh light on how the Gospel can be lived more fully in the particular circumstances of our lives.
I would like to look at the example given by several people newly recognized as saints: Mother Maria Skobtsova plus three others closely associated with her: the priest Dimitri Klepinin, her friend and collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky; and Mother Maria’s son, Yuri. On the first weekend of May, in the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky in Paris, their names were added to the Church’s calendar of saints.
Mother Maria Skobtsova was born in 1891 in Latvia — then part of the Russian Empire — and was given the name Elizaveta. She grew up near the Black Sea and later in St. Petersburg. Her childhood faith collapsed following her father’s death, but as a young adult her faith was gradually reborn. Liza prayed and read the Gospel and the lives of saints. While regarding herself as a socialist, it seemed to her that the real need of the people was not for revolutionary theories but for Christ. She wanted “to proclaim the simple word of God,” she told Alexander Blok in 1916. She was the first woman to study at the theological institute in St. Petersburg. After Lenin’s forces took power, she narrowly escaped summary execution by convincing a Bolshevik sailor that she was a friend of Lenin’s wife.
One of the many refugees who fled Russia during the civil war, by the time she reached Paris in 1923 she had finished one marriage and started another and was the mother of three.
One child, Nastia, died very young — the kind of death that visited many Russian families struggling to survive in France in those days. Liza’s monastic vocation is partly connected with Nastia’s death in the winter of 1926. During her month-long vigil at her daughter’s bedside, Liza came to feel how she had never known “the meaning of repentance.”
“Now I am aghast at my own insignificance,” she wrote. “I feel that my soul has meandered down back alleys all my life. And now I want an authentic and purified road. Not out of faith in life, but in order to justify, understand and accept death …. No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end and without exceptions. And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden.”
After Nastia’s burial, Liza became aware “of a new and special, broad and all-embracing motherhood.” She emerged from her mourning with a determination to seek “a more authentic and purified life.” She felt she saw a “new road before me and a new meaning in life, to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.”
In 1930, she was appointed traveling secretary of the Russian Student Christian Movement, work which put her into daily contact with impoverished Russian refugees in cities, towns and villages throughout France.
She took literally Christ’s words that he was always present in the least person. She wrote:
If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person, he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery …. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him — one that will demand his most dedicated efforts …. He will perceive that the divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil …. And he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image.
Metropolitan Anthony, then a layman in Paris studying to become a physician, recalled a story about her from this period that he heard from a friend:
She went to the steel foundry in Creusot, where many Russian refugees were working. She came there and announced that she was preparing to give a series of lectures on Dostoevsky. She was met with general howling: “We do not need Dostoevsky. We need linen ironed, we need our rooms cleaned, we need our clothes mended — and you bring us Dostoevsky!” And she answered: “Fine, if that is needed, let us leave Dostoevsky alone.” And for several days she cleaned rooms, sewed, mended, ironed, cleaned. When she had finished doing all that, they asked her to talk about Dostoevsky. This made a big impression on me, because she did not say: “I did not come here to iron for you or clean your rooms. Can you not do that yourselves?” She responded immediately and in this way she won the hearts and minds of the people.
While her work for the Russian Student Christian Movement suited her, she began to envision a new type of community, “half monastic and half fraternal,” which would connect spiritual life with service to those in need, in the process showing “that a free Church can perform miracles.”
Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, dean of the St. Sergius Theological Institute and her confessor, was a source of support. He was a confessor who respected the freedom of all who sought his guidance, never demanding obedience, never manipulating. Another key figure in her life was her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy. He was the first one to suggest to Liza the possibility of becoming a nun. Assured by him that she would be free to develop a new type of monasticism, engaged in the world and marked by the “complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds,” in March 1932 Liza was professed as a nun, receiving the name Maria. Her goal was to create a model of what she called “monasticism in the world.”
Here again there is an interesting impression by Metropolitan Anthony of what Mother Maria was like in those days:
She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time in monastic clothes. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse and I saw: in front of a cafe, on the pavement, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.
Mother Maria’s intention was “to share the life of paupers and tramps,” but how she would do so was not yet clear. She knew that it could not be a life of withdrawal from the sufferings of the world. “Everyone is always faced,” she wrote, “with the necessity of choosing between the comfort and warmth of an earthly home, well protected from winds and storms, and the limitless expanse of eternity, which contains only one sure and certain item … the Cross.”
With financial help and the encouragement of Metropolitan Evlogy, she started her first house of hospitality. As the building was unfurnished, the first night she wrapped herself in blankets and slept on the floor beneath the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. Donated furniture began arriving, and also guests, mainly unemployed young Russian women. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and instead slept on an iron bedstead in the basement. A room upstairs became a chapel while the dining room doubled as a hall for lectures and discussions.
When the first house proved too small, a new location was found — a house of three storeys at 77 rue de Lourmel in the fifteenth arrondisement, an area where many impoverished Russian refugees had settled. While at the former address she could feed only 25, here she could feed a hundred. A stable behind the house was made into a church. The house was a modern Noah’s Ark able to withstand the stormy waves the world was hurling its way. Here the guests could regain their breath “until the time comes to stand on their two feet again.”
As the work evolved, she rented other buildings, one for families in need, and another for single men. A rural property became a sanatorium.
Donations were given and quickly spent, yet the community purse was never empty for long. She sometimes recalled the Russian story of the ruble that could never be spent. Each time it was used, the change given back proved to equal a ruble. It was exactly this way with love, she said: No matter how much love you give, you never have less. In fact you discover you have more — one ruble becomes two, two becomes ten.
Mother Maria felt sustained by the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount: “Not only do we know the Beatitudes, but at this hour, this very minute, surrounded though we are by a dismal and despairing world, we already savor the blessedness they promise.”
Of course she had her critics. The house on rue de Lourmel, some charged, was an “ecclesiastical Bohemia.” There should be more emphasis on services, less on hospitality. But Mother Maria’s view was that “the Liturgy must be translated into life. It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.”
She had an unusual opinion regarding exile. In her view, far from being a catastrophe, it was a heaven-sent opportunity to renew the Church in ways that would have met with repression in her mother country:
What obligations follow from the gift of freedom which [in our exile] we have been granted? We are beyond the reach of persecution. We can write, speak, work, open schools …. At the same time, we have been liberated from age-old traditions. We have no enormous cathedrals, [jewel] encrusted Gospel books, no monastery walls. We have lost our environment. Is this an accident? Is this some chance misfortune?… In the context of spiritual life, there is no chance, nor are there fortunate or unfortunate epochs. Rather there are signs which we must understand and paths which we must follow. Our calling is a great one, since we are called to freedom.
She saw expatriation as an opportunity “to liberate the real and authentic.” It was similar to the opportunity given to the first Christians. “We must not allow Christ,” she said, “to be overshadowed by any regulations, any customs, any traditions, any aesthetic considerations, or even any piety.”
In September 1935 Orthodox Action was founded. The name was proposed by her friend Nicholas Berdyaev. The co-founders included the theologian Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, the historian George Fedotov, the literary scholar Constantine Mochulsky, her long-time co-worker Fedor Pianov, and Ilya Fondaminsky, the editor of various Russian expatriate journals who had once had a post in the Kerensky government. Metropolitan Evlogy was honorary president. Mother Maria was chairman. Its projects included hostels, rest homes, schools, camps, hospital work, help to the unemployed, assistance to the elderly, and publication of books and pamphlets. By now many co-workers were involved.
While many valued what she and her co-workers were doing, there were others who were scandalized with the shabby nun who was so uncompromisingly devoted to the duty of hospitality that she would leave a church service to answer the door bell. “For church circles we are too far to the left,” Mother Maria noted, “while for the left we are too church-minded.”
Following the departure for England of the first chaplain, Fr. Lev Gillet, in October 1939, Metropolitan Evlogy sent another priest to rue de Lourmel: Father Dimitri Klepinin, then 35 years old. He had been born in Russia in 1904. He came to Paris from Belgrade in 1925 to study at the St. Sergius Theological Institute. Like Mother Maria, he was a spiritual child of Father Sergei Bulgakov. A man of few words, great modesty and a profound love of the Liturgy, Father Dimitri proved to be a major partner in Mother Maria’s work.
The last phase of the life of Mother Maria and her co-workers — these now included her son Yuri — was shaped by World War II and Germany’s occupation of France.
Paris fell on the 14th of June 1940. France capitulated a week later. With defeat came greater poverty and hunger for many people. Local authorities in Paris declared the house at rue Lourmel an official food distribution point.
Paris was now a prison. “There is the dry clatter of iron, steel and brass,” wrote Mother Maria. “Order is all.” Russian refugees were among the particular targets of the occupiers. In June 1941, a thousand were arrested, among them her friend Ilya Fondaminsky. His long delayed baptism occurred within the makeshift Orthodox chapel at the prison camp in Compiegne. He died at Auschwitz the following year.
When the Nazis issued special identity cards for those of Russian origin living in France, Mother Maria and Father Dimitri refused to comply, though they were warned that those who failed to register would be regarded as citizens of the USSR — thus enemy aliens — and be punished accordingly.
Early in 1942, Jews began to knock on the door at rue de Lourmel asking Father Dimitri if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The names of those supposedly baptized were duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo. Father Dimitri was convinced that in such a situation Christ would do the same.
In June the Jews of occupied France were ordered to wear the yellow star.
There were, of course, Christians who said that the anti-Jewish laws being imposed had nothing to do with Christians and therefore this was not a Christian problem. “There is no such thing as a Christian problem,” replied Mother Maria. “Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the Star. The age of confessors has arrived.”
In July Jews were forbidden access to nearly all public places while shopping by Jews was limited to one hour per day. A week later, there was a mass arrest. Nearly 13,000 Jews, two-thirds of them children, were brought to a sports stadium less than a mile from rue de Lourmel where they were held for five days before being transported to Auschwitz.
Mother Maria had often regarded her monastic robe as a God-send in aiding her work. Now her nun’s robes opened the way for her to enter the stadium. Here she worked for three days trying to comfort the children and their parents, distributing what food she could bring in, and even managing to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins.
The house at rue de Lourmel was bursting with people, many of them Jews. She told Berdyaev that, if anyone came to the house searching for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.
Father Dimitri, Mother Maria, Yuri and their co-workers set up routes of escape to the unoccupied south — complex and dangerous work. An escaped Russian prisoner of war was also among those assisted. A local resistance group helped secure the food that was needed.
On February 8, 1943, Nazi security police entered the house Lourmel and found a letter in Yuri’s pocket in which Fr. Dimitri was asked to provide a Jew with a false baptismal document. Yuri was arrested, and Fr. Dimitri the next day. Under interrogation he made no attempt to hide his beliefs. Called a “Jew lover,” he responded by pointing to the cross he wore. “Do you know this Jew?” he asked. For this he was struck on the face.
Mother Maria’s arrest followed. At first she was confined at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris in the same building where Yuri, Father Dimitri and their co-worker of many years, Feodor Pianov, were being held. Pianov later recalled the scene of Father Dimitri in his torn cassock being taunted as a Jew. One of the SS officers began to beat him while Yuri stood nearby weeping. Father Dimitri consoled him, reminding him that “Christ withstood greater mockery than this.”
In April they were transferred to Compiegne. Mother Maria was able to have a final meeting with Yuri. Hours later, Mother Maria was sent in a sealed cattle truck to the Ravensbrück camp in Germany. In a letter Yuri sent to the community at rue de Lourmel, he said his mother told him “that I must trust in her ability to bear things and in general not to worry about her. Every day [Fr. Dimitri and I] remember her at the proskomidia … We celebrate the Eucharist and receive communion each day.”
“Thanks to our daily Eucharist,” he reported in another letter, “our life here is quite transformed and to tell the honest truth, I have nothing to complain of. We live in brotherly love. Dima [Fr. Dimitri] … is preparing me for the priesthood. God’s will needs to be understood. After all, this attracted me all my life and in the end it was the only thing I was interested in, though my interest was stifled by Parisian life and the illusion that there might be ‘something better’ — as if there could be anything better.”
For nine months the three men remained together at Compiegne. “Without exaggeration,” Pianov wrote after being liberated in 1945, “I can say that the year spent with [Father Dimitri] was a godsend. I do not regret that year…. From my experience with him, I learned to understand what enormous spiritual, psychological and moral support one man can give to others as a friend, companion and confessor.”
On December 16, Yuri and Father Dimitri were deported to Buchenwald in Germany, followed several weeks later by Pianov. In January 1944, Father Dimitri and Yuri were sent to another camp, Dora, about 20 miles away. On the 6th of February, Yuri was “dispatched for treatment” — a euphemism meaning sentenced to death. Four days later Fr. Dimitri died of pneumonia.
A final letter from Yuri made its way to rue de Lourmel: “I am absolutely calm, even somewhat proud to share mama’s fate. I promise you I will bear everything with dignity. Whatever happens, sooner or later we shall all be together. I can say in all honesty that I am not afraid of anything any longer…. I ask anyone whom I have hurt in any way to forgive me. Christ be with you!”
At Ravensbrück, Mother Maria endured for two years, an achievement in part explained by her long experience of ascetic life. A fellow prisoner who survived recalls how Mother Maria she would recite passages from the New Testament: “Together we would provide a commentary on the texts and then meditate on them. Often we would conclude with Compline… This period seemed a paradise to us.”
By March 1945, Mother Maria’s condition was critical. On the 30th of March — Good Friday, as it happened — she entered into eternal life. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance.
Regarding her last day, accounts vary. According to one, she was simply one of the many selected for death that day. According to another, she took the place of a fellow prisoner, a Jew. Her friend Jacqueline Pery wrote afterward:
“It is very possible that [Mother Maria] took the place of a frantic companion. It would have been entirely in keeping with her generous life. In any case she offered herself consciously to the holocaust … thus assisting each one of us to accept the cross …. She radiated the peace of God and communicated it to us.”
Four saints, all victims of one of the ideological insanities that destroyed so many millions of people in the 20th century.
In them, we see an extraordinary example of what perhaps could be called “the sacrament of the open door.”
Recently my wife asked me what is the most important thing in our house. I thought for a moment, then mentioned certain books and icons. “No,” she said, “it is the front door. Everything depends on how we open the door. Everything depends on hospitality.”
It was a startling thought. I’m sure all the newly canonized saints said very similar things many times. Indeed in one of her essays Mother Maria uses the term “the asceticism of the open door.”
Controversial in life, Mother Maria remains a subject of contention to this day and I expect this controversy will continue even now that she has been recognized as a saint. While clearly she lived a life of heroic virtue and is among the martyrs of the twentieth century, her verbal attacks on nationalistic and tradition-bound forms of religious life still raise the blood pressure of many Orthodox Christians. St. Maria of Paris, as perhaps she will now be called, remains an indictment of any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings.
All saints show us in certain ways what it means to become the Gospel. From such people, even if we knew nothing at all about the words of Christ, we could guess the outline of Christ’s teaching simply by the example given by these dedicated followers. Each of their lives provides a translation of the Gospel into the circumstances of their vocation and time.
Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. This is a shortened version of a talk delivered at the Sourozh diocesan conference held in Oxford in May. The main source of biographical material used in this text is Fr. Serge Hackel’s biography of Mother Maria, Pearl of Great Price, published in Britain by Darton Longman & Trodd and, in America, by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.