Category Archives: Jim Forest

by Jim Forest

Letter from the editor IC69

Ukraine Crisis: Truth the First Casualty

guest editorial by Jim Forest
Wars are fought not only with weapons but with words and propaganda. Charge and counter-charge are exchanged as Kiev, Moscow and Washington assert, accuse, and deny. Are the armed “green men” in Ukraine’s Donboss region in fact Russian military, as Kiev and Washington allege, or are they Ukrainians merely replicating locally what was done on the Euromaidan in Kiev a few months earlier, as Moscow asserts? Who had ordered snipers to open fire back then on the people on the Euromaidan? Who distributed leaflets ordering Jews to register with authorities? Was it the new government of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic, as Kiev claims, or was it a provocation aimed at discrediting pro-Russian separatists? Who killed three men at a checkpoint in Slovyansk in late April, Russian military intelligence or Ukrainian nationalists? Who is to blame for the blaze in Odessa on the 2nd of May that trapped and killed so many on the pro-Russian side? Day-by-day such questions multiply.

Spend an hour or two on the web reading texts about the conflict in Ukraine. It’s impressive how much bluster, hyperbole, exaggeration, conspiracy theorizing, overheated rhetoric, and plain lying have come from every side: Kiev, Moscow, Washington, London and other European capitals. Hour-by-hour the ancient Greek proverb—“In war, truth is the first casualty”—is being amply demonstrated.

No one would deny that the former Yanukovych government was corrupt, as was the government that preceded it. That many Ukrainians were fed up with such leadership is understandable. It’s no less understandable that Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority is outraged and, after being treated for years as second-class citizens, that many of them might prefer either a high degree of regional autonomy or even being part of Russia. Only free elections, not only at the national level but oblast-by-oblast, can demonstrate the will of the people. Meanwhile the Ukrainians have a right to sort out their own affairs without outside interference. Regardless of the outcome in Ukraine, the US, NATO, and Russia should stand back.

But of course they are not standing back. It is reasonable to assume that much that is happening in Ukraine is encouraged if not choreographed by strategists in the US and Russia plus various European capitals. In the western press, the fact that the CIA has been quietly meddling in the affairs of Ukraine has been regarded as a detail of minor significance, even though the CIA has so often in the past played a decisive role in arranging “regime change.” White House spokesman Jay Carney confirmed that CIA Director John Brennan visited Kiev in mid-April and met with principal Ukrainian officials. With a straight face Carney said that it was absurd to imply that US officials meeting with their counterparts in Kiev was anything other than routine. The claim would be laughable if the consequences of enmity were not so disastrous.

Certainly the major powers have their special interests and goals. Western European countries see an opportunity to include Ukraine in the NATO alliance and to bring Ukraine into the European Union while in the process “reforming” Ukraine’s economy as is being done, for example, in Greece. Russia seeks to keep NATO at a distance and, having reclaimed Crimea, may also see an opportunity to reabsorb the more Russian-speaking oblasts in eastern Ukraine that were lost when the USSR collapsed. Even if Russia does not seek to expand its borders, it may want to force any future elected Kiev government to grant a considerable degree of autonomy to oblasts in which the majority of the population are Russian speakers.

A major factor in the conflict is ultra-nationalism, which infects not only a large part of the overall population but also the membership of churches. There are three Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine whose borders are drawn in part along lines of language and nationality (Ukrainian or Russian). There are also both Eastern rite and Western rite jurisdictions in communion with Rome, especially in western Ukraine.

It is not a situation in which Christians on the outside can embrace one side and denounce the other. All sides have legitimate claims—and each side has its fanatics and thugs. The only hope for a peaceful solution is dialogue and free elections. Perhaps it is by stressing a deeper unity that Orthodox Christians working for peace can best help remind our fellow Christians in the midst of this conflict of a communion that transcends national and linguistic identity. While deep divisions are obvious and unhealed wounds many, all Christians, no matter of what jurisdictional segment, would respond to the exclamation “Christ is risen!” with the immediate and unified response, “He is risen indeed!”

That Paschal affirmation should shape our response to the world we live in, but often it doesn’t. Not only in Ukraine and Russia but in every Orthodox jurisdiction, national identity often influences our sense of self and our public identity more than the fact of being baptized Christians among whom “there is neither Greek nor Jew”—a Christ-centered community in which all national labels are secondary.

As Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople recently said, while on a visit to The Netherlands, “The concept of the nation cannot become a determining factor of Church life or an axis of Church organization. Whenever an Orthodox Church succumbs to nationalist rhetoric and lends support to racial tendencies, it loses sight of the authentic theological principles and gives in to a fallen mindset, totally alien to the core of Orthodoxy.”  IC

Pro-Russian separatist commander Igor Strelkov kisses an Orthodox icon after a news conference in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, July 10, 2014. During the interview, he said: “It is precisely Russia that we are here fighting for…. We are fighting for your right to self-determination of your language, your culture, your way of life, and your right to be free from being forced into those imposed on you by people for whom your land and your society are merely the objects of political machinations and various financial speculation.”
Pro-Russian separatist commander Igor Strelkov kisses an Orthodox icon after a news conference in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, July 10, 2014. During the interview, he said: “It is precisely Russia that we are here fighting for…. We are fighting for your right to self-determination of your language, your culture, your way of life, and your right to be free from being forced into those imposed on you by people for whom your land and your society are merely the objects of political machinations and various financial speculation.”
Resources for parish and private prayer as well as various relevant texts can be found on the Ukraine Crisis page posted on the OPF’s In Communion web site:

Where Love Is Never Treason

by Jim Forest

mosaic in Chora Church, Istanbul
mosaic in Chora Church, Istanbul

One day Jesus asked the question, “Do people gather figs from thistles?” The answer is of course no––you harvest what you plant. Plant thistles and thistles take root and thistles they become. If you want to grow figs, you need to start with fig seeds. With this question, Jesus implicitly ridicules the idea that good can be brought about by evil means. Violence is not the means of creating a peaceful society. Vengeance does not pave the road to forgiveness. Spousal abuse does not lay the foundation for a lasting marriage. Rage is not a tool of reconciliation.

Yet, while figs do not grow from thistles, in the world of human choice and action, a positive change of attitude and direction is always a possibility. Sinners are the raw material of saints. The New Testament is crowded with accounts of transformations.

In the Church of the Savior in the Chora district of Istanbul, there is a fourteenth-century Byzantine mosaic that, in a single image, tells a story of an unlikely transformation: the conversion of water into wine for guests at a wedding feast in the village of Cana. In the background Jesus––his right hand extended in a gesture of blessing––stands side by side with his mother. In the foreground we see a servant pouring water from a smaller jug into a larger one. The water leaves the first jug a pale blue and tile-by-tile becomes a deep purple as it reaches the lip of the lower jug. “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana, in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

This “first sign” that Jesus gave is a key to understanding everything in the Gospel. Jesus is constantly bringing about transformations: blind eyes to seeing eyes, withered limbs to working limbs, sickness to well being, guilt to forgiveness, strangers to neighbors, enemies to friends, slaves to free people, armed men to disarmed men, crucifixion to resurrection, sorrow to joy, bread and wine to himself. Nature cannot produce figs from thistles, but God is doing this in our lives all the time. God’s constant business in creation is making something out of nothing. As a Portuguese proverb declares, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

WLINT Chora_Church_Constantinople
Chora church, Istanbul

The convert Paul is an archetype of transformation. Paul, formerly a deadly adversary of Christ’s followers, becomes Christ’s apostle and his most tireless missionary, crisscrossing the Roman Empire, leaving behind him a trail of young churches that endure to this day. It was a miracle of enmity being turned to friendship, and it happened in a flash of time too small to measure, a sudden illumination. Witnessing the first deacon, Stephen, being stoned to death in Jerusalem must have been a key moment in setting the stage for Paul’s conversion.

Peter is another man who made a radical about-face. Calling him away from his nets, Christ made the fisherman into a fisher of men. At the Garden of Gethsemane, the same Peter slashed the ear from one of those who had come to arrest Jesus. Far from commending Peter for his courage, Jesus healed the wound and commanded Peter to lay down his blood-stained weapon: “Put away your sword for whoever lives by the sword shall perish by the sword.” For the remainder of his life, Peter was never again a threat to anyone’s life, seeking only the conversion of opponents, never their death. Peter became a man who would rather die than kill.

How does such a conversion of heart take place? And what are the obstacles?

It was a question that haunted the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who for years struggled to turn from aristocrat to peasant, from rich man to poor man, from former soldier to peacemaker, though none of these intentions was ever fully achieved. As a child Tolstoy was told by his older brother Nicholas that there was a green stick buried on their estate at the edge of a ravine in the ancient Zakaz forest. It was no ordinary piece of wood, said Nicholas. Carved into its surface were words “which would destroy all evil in the hearts of men and bring them everything good.” Leo Tolstoy spent his entire life searching for the revelation. Even as an old man he wrote, “I still believe today that there is such a truth, that it will be revealed to all and will fulfill its promise.” Tolstoy is buried near the ravine in the Zakaz forest, the very  place where he had sought the green stick.

Were we to discover it, my guess is that the green stick would probably turn out to bear a three-word sentence we have often read but have found so difficult that we have reburied it in a ravine within ourselves: “Love your enemies.”

Twice in the Gospels, first in Matthew and then in Luke, Jesus is quoted on this remarkable teaching, unique to Christianity:

You have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same?

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and to him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your coat as well. Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods, do not ask them again. As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

Perhaps we Christians have heard these words too often to be stunned by their plain meaning, but to those who first heard Jesus, this teaching would have been astonishing and controversial. Few would have said “amen.” Some would have shrugged their shoulders and muttered, “Love a Roman soldier? You’re out of your mind.” Zealots in the crowd would have considered such teaching traitorous, for all nationalisms thrive on enmity. Challenge nationalism, or speak against enmity in too specific a way, and you make enemies on the spot.

Nationalism is as powerful as an ocean tide. I recall an exchange during the question period following a talk opposing the Vietnam War that I gave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, back in 1968. I had recently been involved in an act of war resistance that would soon result in my spending a year in prison, but for the moment I was free on bail. During the question period, an angry woman holding a small American flag stood up and challenged me to put my hand over my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I said that flags ought not to be treated as idols and suggested instead that all of us rise and join in reciting the Our Father, which we did. Her anger seemed to recede a bit but I suspect in her eyes I was a traitor. I had failed her patriotism test.

We tend to forget that the country in which Jesus entered history and gathered his first disciples was not the idyllic place Christmas cards have made of it, a quiet pastoral land populated with attractive sheep, colorfully dressed shepherds and tidy villages crowning fertile hilltops. It was a country enduring military occupation in which most Jews suffered and where anyone perceived as a dissident was likely to be executed. In Roman-ruled Palestine, a naked Jew nailed to a cross was not an unfamiliar sight. To Jesus’ first audience, enemies were numerous, ruthless and close at hand.

Not only were there the Romans to hate, with their armies and idols and emperor-gods. There were the enemies within Israel, not least the tax collectors who extorted as much money as they could, for their own pay was a percentage of the take. There were also Jews who were aping the Romans and Greeks, dressing––and undressing––as they did, all the while scrambling up the ladder, fraternizing and collaborating with the Roman occupiers. And even among those religious Jews trying to remain faithful to tradition, there were divisions about what was and was not essential in religious law and practice as well as heated arguments about how to relate to the Romans. A growing number of Jews, the Zealots, saw no solution but violent resistance. Some others, such as the ascetic Essenes, chose the strategy of monastic withdrawal; they lived in the desert near the Dead Sea where neither the Romans nor their collaborators often ventured.

No doubt Jesus also had Romans and Rome’s agents listening to what he had to say, some out of curiosity, others because it was their job to listen. From the Roman point of view, the indigestible Jews, even if subdued, remained enemies. The Romans regarded this one-godded, statue-smashing, civilization-resisting people with amusement, bewilderment and contempt––a people well deserving whatever lashes they received. Some of those lashes would have been delivered by the Romans in blind rage for having been stationed in this appalling, uncultured backwater. Judaea and Galilee were not sought-after postings for Roman soldiers––or for the Roman Prefect at the time, Pontius Pilate.

Jesus was controversial. Not only were his teachings revolutionary, but the more respectable members of society were put off by the fact that many drawn to him were people who had lived scandalous lives: prostitutes, tax collectors, and even a Roman officer who begged Jesus to heal his servant. The Gospel says plainly that Jesus loved sinners, and that created scandal.

WLINT Icon inside Church of Panagia Dexia Thessaloniki Greece
Icon in the Church of Panagia Dexla in Thessalonica, Greece

Many must have been impressed by his courage––no one accused Jesus of cowardice––but some would have judged him foolhardy, like a man putting his head in a lion’s mouth. While Jesus refused to take up weapons or sanction their use, he kept no prudent silence and was anything but a collaborator. He did not hesitate to say and do things that made him a target. Perhaps the event that assured his crucifixion was what he did to the money-changers within the Temple precincts in Jerusalem. He made a whip of cords, something which stings but causes no wounds, and set the merchants running, meanwhile overturning their tables and scattering their coins. Anyone who disrupts business as usual will soon have enemies.

Many devout people were also dismayed by what seemed to them his careless religious practice, especially not keeping the Sabbath as strictly as many Pharisees thought Jews should. People were not made for the Sabbath, Jesus responded, but the Sabbath made for people. Zealots hated him both for not being a Zealot and for drawing away people who might have been recruited. Those who led the religious establishment were so incensed that they managed to arrange his execution, pointing out to the Romans that Jesus was a trouble maker who had been “perverting the nation.” It was the Romans who both tortured Jesus and carried out his execution.

Any Christian who believes Jesus to be God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who entered history not by chance but purposefully, at an exact moment and chosen place, becoming fully human as the child of the Virgin Mary, will find it worthwhile to think about the Incarnation happening just then, not in peaceful times but in a humiliated, over-taxed land governed by brutal, bitterly resented occupation troops. Jesus entered by birth, lived in, and was crucified and raised from the dead in a land of extreme enmity.

Transposing Gospel events into our own world and time, many of us would find ourselves alarmed and shocked by the things Jesus said and did, for actions that seem admirable in an ancient narrative might be judged unwise and untimely, if not insane, if they occurred in equivalent circumstances here and now. Love our enemies? Does that mean loving criminals, murderers, and terrorists? Call on people to get rid of their weapons? Apprentice ourselves to a man who fails to say a patriotic word or wave a single flag? Many would say such a man had no one to blame for his troubles but himself.

It was a big step, and a risky one, to become one of his disciples. Had you lived in Judaea or Galilee when the events recorded in the Gospel were happening, are you sure you would have wanted to be identified with him?  IC

This is the first chapter from Jim Forest’s new book, Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment, being published by Orbis Books in September 2014. Jim is International Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment


Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment

Jim Forest, Orbis Books, 2014, 160 pp

reviewed by Pieter Dykhorst

Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment may sound like the start of one of those tough theology lessons you want to dodge because you just don’t want to go through the pain of failing the exam. But it isn’t. Jim Forest isn’t a theologian—not in the way most of us think of them anyway—but something undeniably of the theological arts resides in good story telling, and Jim is a first rate storyteller. Mixing theology up with stories is like giving medicine with a spoon full of sugar. Loving Our Enemies is filled with stories that make the medicine go down, stories of those who were compelled by Jesus loving them—we all start out his enemies—to begin loving their own enemies.

But Jim doesn’t rely solely on story telling. He clearly understands that “thou shalt” may be the least compelling start to a moral lesson if changing lives is the aim. Each chapter delivers what the book promises—a reflection, a devotion really, on the theme of actively loving our enemies despite how we may feel about them, the obstacles along the way, the hope and joy inherent in the effort, and the promise of potentially converting enemies to friends though there are no guarantees. By the time you finish, you will come to believe—you will have arrived there unawares somewhere in the middle— it is not only right and necessary but possible and desirable to love your enemies.

How does the reader get there? It’s fine to know who our enemies are—Jim defines them all the way down to the the one staring at us each morning in the mirror—and that we should love them, but that’s barely the start. Inspiration or feeling aren’t enough either. The subject isn’t just hard, it’s the hardest, too hard for any of us to accomplish on our own, and Jim knows that. So do we. Conversion, transformation, being made into new creatures for whom the hardest love is possible is what is wanted. This is the aim of the book, and each chapter takes the reader one step closer to going all in.

The essential oil of Christian theology is derived from the stories Jesus told, and by his life, death, and resurrection, he illustrated them, making theology something of a practical art. The reflections of Loving Our Enemies are about the possibility of transformation when knowledge, need, and inspiration move us to choice and action. That is when the anointing oil is applied and change takes place. Loving Our Enemies is about imitating what Jesus did and what many of his followers have been doing till now, and receiving the same grace they did to become new creatures capable of love.

“Making friends of enemies––and making choices not driven by enmity–– happens thanks not only to an inner act of will but still more to the grace we receive from the Holy Spirit. The word grace is often used to describe the transformed state of being that occurs at moments when God enters into our conscious lives. While the obstacles within ourselves often seem impossible to overcome—deeply entrenched boredom, indifference, prejudice, anger and hatred—the wind of grace can suddenly blow away walls that seemed immoveable and impenetrable. We can speak of “graced moments” when we see another person in such a light that we realize that, until that moment, we were blind. We “saw” but in so superficial and limited a way that we were unaware of God’s presence in that other life. The other was more a thing than a person.

“Invariably those graced occasions when God breaks through in us are turning points. We are changed and, even if held captive within the stone walls of a prison, we experience a deep freedom and unspeakable happiness. For the rest of our lives we know that what the French writer Leon Bloy said is true: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”

Ultimately, we don’t need to be convinced we have enemies, we need to know what to do with them. We need strategies, and Loving Our Enemies is about the hardest strategy, the counterintuitive strategy of love, introduced by Jesus to a desperate race wrongly convinced the only way to successfully deal with enemies is to neutralize, defeat, or eliminate them.

The book covers the tools needed for the journey: praying for enemies, confession, acts of mercy, regularly receiving communion, turning the other cheek, and more. All are amply illustrated by the lives of real people—many you’ll recognize, some appear frequently in Jim’s writing, a few might surprise you, and some you’ll likely meet for the first time. In many ways, in fact, Loving Our Enemies is not unlike Jim’s other books, but there is a key difference for me. More than any of his others, this book seems to contain more of the essential oil anointing Jim’s own life—I get the feeling as I read each chapter that I’m reading the words of someone who is beginning to close the circle, that Jim is now telling the lessons from his own life and using others’ stories to illustrate. I find few things more compelling than an old man telling his own story, having put-up as we say, but making me feel like it’s not about him.

Confession: A Primer


by Jim Forest

A young monk said to the great ascetic Abba Sisoes: “Abba, what should I do? I fell.” The elder answered: “Get up!” The monk said: “I got up and I fell again!” The elder replied: “Get up again!” But the young monk asked: “For how long should I get up when I fall?” “Until your death,” answered Abba Sisoes.
—Sayings of the Desert Fathers

WHEN I WENT to my first confession,” a friend told me, “tears took the place of the sins I meant to utter. The priest simply told me that it wasn’t necessary to enumerate everything and that it was just vanity to suppose that my personal sins were worse than everyone else’s. Which, by the way, was a bit of a relief, since it wasn’t possible for me to remember all the sins of my first thirty-odd years of life. It made me think of when the father received his prodigal son––he didn’t let his son finish his carefully rehearsed speech. Truly amazing.”

Another friend told me that he was so worried about all he had to confess that he decided to write them down. “So I made a list of my sins and brought it with me. The priest saw the paper in my hand, took it, looked through the list, tore it up, and gave it back to me. Then he said ‘Kneel down,’ and he absolved me. That was my confession, even though I never said a word! But I felt truly my sins had been torn up and that I was free of them.

The very word confession makes us nervous, touching as it does all that is hidden in ourselves: lies told, injuries caused, things stolen, friends deceived, people betrayed, promises broken, faith denied––these plus all the smaller actions that reveal the beginnings of sins.

Confession is painful, yet a Christian life without confession is impossible.

Confession is a major theme of the Gospels. Even before Christ began His public ministry, we read in Matthew’s Gospel that John required confession of those who came to him for baptism in the river for a symbolic act of washing away their sins: “And [they] were baptized by [John] in the Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:6).

Then there are those amazing words of Christ to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The keys of binding and loosing sins were given not only to one apostle but to all Christ’s disciples, and—in a sacramental sense—to any priest who has his bishop’s blessing to hear confessions.

The Gospel author John warns us not to deceive ourselves: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:8, 9).

The sacrament of baptism, the rite of entrance into the Church, has always been linked with repentance. “Repent, and…be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins,” Saint Peter preached in Jerusalem, “and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). In the same book we read that “many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds” (Acts 19:18).

One Gospel story in which we encounter confession is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32). Here Christ describes a young man so impatient to come into his inheritance and be independent that, in effect, he says to his father, “As far as I’m concerned, you are already dead. Give me now what would have come to me after your funeral. I want nothing more to do with you or with this house.”

With Godlike generosity, the father gives what his son asks, though he knows his son well enough to realize that all the boy receives from him might as well be burned in a stove. The boy takes his inheritance and leaves, at last free of parents, free of morals and good behavior, free to do as he pleases.

After wasting his money, he finds himself reduced to feeding the pigs as a farmhand. People he had thought of as friends now sneer. He knows he has renounced the claim to be anyone’s son, yet in his desperation he dares hope his father might at least allow him to return home as a servant. Full of dismay for what he said to his father and he did with his inheritance, he walks home in his rags, ready to confess his sins, to beg for work and a corner to sleep in. The son cannot imagine the love his father has for him or the fact that, despite all the trouble he caused, he has been desperately missed. Far from being glad to be rid of the boy, the father has gazed day after day in prayer toward the horizon in hope of his son’s return.

“But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him” (v. 20). Had he not been watching, he would not have noticed his child in the distance and realized who it was. Instead of simply standing and waiting for his son to reach the door, he ran to meet him, embracing him, pouring out words of joy and welcome rather than reproof or condemnation.

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight and am no longer worthy to be called your son’” (v. 21). Here we have the son’s confession compacted into a single sentence. It is the essence of any confession: our return to our Father, who made us and constantly awaits our homecoming.

WHAT IS SIN? There are countless essays and books that deal with human failings under various labels without once using the three-letter word sin. Actions traditionally regarded as sinful have instead been seen as natural stages in the process of growing up, a result of bad parenting, a consequence of mental illness, an inevitable response to unjust social conditions, or pathological behavior brought on by addiction.

But what if I am more than a robot programmed by my past or my society or my economic status and actually can take a certain amount of credit––or blame––for my actions and inactions? Have I not done things I am deeply ashamed of, would not do again if I could go back in time, and would prefer no one to know about? What makes me so reluctant to call those actions “sins”? Is the word really out of date? Or is the problem that it has too sharp an edge?

The Hebrew verb chata’, “to sin,” like the Greek word hamartia, simply means straying off the path, getting lost, missing the mark. Sin––going off course––can be intentional or unintentional.

The author of the Book of Proverbs lists seven things God hates: “A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren” (6:17–19).

Pride is given first place. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” is another insight in the Book of Proverbs (16:18). In the Garden of Eden, Satan seeks to animate pride in his dialogue with Eve. Eat the forbidden fruit, he tells her, and “you will be like God” (Gen. 3:5).

The craving to be ahead of others, to be more valued than others, to be more highly rewarded than others, to be able to keep others in a state of fear, the inability to admit mistakes or apologize––these are among the symptoms of pride. Pride opens the way for countless other sins: deceit, lies, theft, violence, and all those other actions that destroy community with God and with those around us.

Yet we spend a great deal of our lives trying to convince ourselves and others that what we did really wasn’t that bad or could even be seen as almost good, given the circumstances. Even in confession, many people explain rather than simply admit they did things requiring forgiveness. “When I recently happened to confess about fifty people in a typical Orthodox parish in Pennsylvania,” Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!”

“We’re capable of doing some rotten things,” the Minnesota storyteller Garrison Keillor notes, “and not all of these things are the result of poor communication. Some are the result of rottenness. People do bad, horrible things. They lie and they cheat and they corrupt the government. They poison the world around us. And when they’re caught they don’t feel remorse––they just go into treatment. They had a nutritional problem or something. They explain what they did––they don’t feel bad about it. There’s no guilt. There’s just psychology.”

For the person who has committed a serious sin, there are two vivid signs––the hope that what one did may never become known, and a gnawing sense of guilt. At least this is the case before the conscience becomes completely numb––which happens when patterns of sin become the structure of one’s life to the extent that hell, far from being a possible next-life experience, is where one finds oneself in this life.

It is a striking fact about basic human architecture that we want certain actions to remain secret, not because of modesty, but because there is an unarguable sense of having violated a law more basic than that in any law book––the “law written in [our] hearts” to which St. Paul refers (Rom. 2:15). It isn’t simply that we fear punishment. It is that we don’t want to be thought of by others as a person who commits such deeds. One of the main obstacles to going to confession is dismay that someone else will know what I want no one to know.

One of the oddest things about the age we live in is that we are made to feel guilty about feeling guilty. There is a cartoon tacked up in our house in which one prisoner says to another, “Just remember––it’s okay to be guilty, but not okay to feel guilty.”

A sense of guilt––the painful awareness of having committed sins––can be life-renewing. Guilt provides a foothold for contrition, which in turn can motivate confession and repentance. Without guilt, there is no remorse; without remorse, there is no possibility of becoming free of habitual sins.

Yet there are forms of guilt that are dead-end streets. If I feel guilty that I have not managed to become the ideal person I occasionally want to be, or that I imagine others want me to be, that is guilt without a divine reference point. It is simply an irritated me contemplating an irritating me. Christianity is not centered on performance, laws, principles, or the achievement of flawless behavior, but on Christ Himself and on participation in God’s transforming love.

When Christ says, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), he’s not speaking of getting a perfect score on a test, but of being whole, being in a state of communion, participating fully in God’s love.

This condition of being is suggested by St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity: those three angelic figures silently inclined toward each other around a chalice on a small altar. They symbolize the Holy Trinity: the mysterious communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that exists within God––not a closed communion restricted to themselves alone, but an open communion of love, in which we are not only invited but intended to participate.

A blessed guilt is the pain we feel when we realize we have cut ourselves off from that divine communion that irradiates all creation. It is impossible to live in a Godless universe, but easy to be unaware of God’s presence or even to resent it.

It’s a common delusion that one’s sins are private or affect only a few other people. To think our sins, however hidden, don’t affect others is like imagining that a stone thrown into the water won’t generate ripples. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has observed: “There are no entirely private sins. All sins are sins against my neighbor, as well as against God and against myself. Even my most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it more difficult for those around me to follow Christ.”

Far from being hidden, each sin is another crack in the world.

One of the most widely used Orthodox prayers, the Jesus Prayer, is only one sentence long: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Short as it is, many people drawn to it are put off by the last two words. Those who teach the prayer are often asked, “But must I call myself a sinner?” In fact, the ending isn’t essential––the only essential word is “Jesus”––but my difficulty in identifying myself as a sinner reveals a lot. What makes me so reluctant to speak of myself in so plain a word? Don’t I do a pretty good job of hiding rather than revealing Christ in my life? Am I not a sinner? To admit that I am provides a starting point.

There are only two possible responses to sin: to justify it, or to repent. Between these two, there is no middle ground.

Justification may be verbal, but mainly it takes the form of repetition: I do again and again the same thing as a way of demonstrating to myself and others that it’s not really a sin, but rather something normal or human or necessary or even good. “Commit a sin twice and it will not seem a crime,” notes a Jewish proverb.

Repentance, however, is the recognition that I cannot live any more as I have been living because in living that way, I wall myself apart from others and from God. Repentance is a change in direction. Repentance is the door of communion. It is also a sine qua non of forgiveness. Absolution is impossible where there is no repentance.

As St. John Chrysostom said sixteen centuries ago in Antioch:

Repentance opens the heavens, takes us to Paradise, overcomes the devil. Have you sinned? Do not despair! If you sin every day, then offer repentance every day! When there are rotten parts in old houses, we replace the parts with new ones, and we do not stop caring for the houses. In the same way, you should reason for yourself: If today you have defiled yourself with sin, immediately cleanse yourself with repentance.

Confession as a Social Action: It is impossible to imagine a healthy marriage or deep friendship without confession and forgiveness. If we have done something that damages a relationship, confession is essential to its restoration. For the sake of that bond, we confess what we’ve done, we apologize, and we promise not to do it again; then we do everything in our power to keep that promise.

In the context of religious life, confession is what we do to safeguard and renew our relationship with God whenever it is damaged. Confession restores our communion with God and with each other.

It is never easy to admit to doing something we regret and are ashamed of, an act we attempted to keep secret or denied doing or tried to blame on someone else, perhaps arguing––to ourselves as much as to others––that it wasn’t actually a sin at all, or wasn’t nearly as bad as some people might claim. In the hard labor of growing up, one of the most agonizing tasks is becoming capable of saying, “I’m sorry.”

Yet we are designed for confession. Secrets in general are hard to keep, but unconfessed sins not only never go away, but have a way of becoming heavier as time passes––the greater the sin, the heavier the burden. Confession is the only solution.

To understand confession in its sacramental sense, one first has to grapple with a few basic questions: Why is the Church involved in for-giving sins? Is priest-witnessed con-fession really needed? Why confess at all to any human being? In fact, why bother confessing to God, even without a human witness? If God is really all-knowing, then God knows everything about me already. My sins are known before it even crosses my mind to confess them. Why bother telling God what God already knows?

Yes, truly God knows. My con-fession can never be as complete or revealing as God’s knowledge of me and of all that needs repairing in my life. But a related question we need to consider has to do with our basic design as social beings. Why am I so willing to connect with others in every other area of life, yet not in this? Why is it that I look so hard for excuses, even for theological ration-ales, not to confess? Why do I try so hard to explain away my sins, until I’ve decided either that they’re not so bad, or even that they might be seen as acts of virtue? Why is it that I find it so easy to commit sins, yet am so reluctant, in the presence of another, to admit to having done so?

We are social beings. The individual as autonomous unit is a delusion. The person without community, parents, spouse, or children exists only in ads. The individual is someone who has lost a sense of connection to others or attempts to exist in opposition to others––while the person exists in communion with other persons. At a conference of Orthodox Christians in France a few years ago, in a discussion of the problem of individualism, a theologian confessed, “When I am in my car, I am an individual, but when I get out, I am a person again.”

We are social beings. The language we speak connects us to those around us. The food I eat was grown by others. The skills passed on to me have slowly been developed in the course of hundreds of generations. The air I breathe and the water I drink is not for my exclusive use, has been in many bodies before mine, and will be used by others not yet born. The place I live, the tools I use, the keyboard I type on were made by many hands. I am not my own doctor or dentist. To the extent that I disconnect myself from others, I am in danger. Alone, I die, and soon. To be in communion with others is life.

Because we are social beings, confession in church does not take the place of confession to those we have sinned against. An essential element of confession is doing all I can to set right what I did wrong. If I stole something, it must be returned or paid for. If I lied to anyone, I must tell that person the truth. If I was angry without good reason, I must apologize. I must seek forgiveness not only from God but from those whom I have wronged or harmed.

We are also verbal beings. Words provide a way of communicating not only with others but with ourselves. The fact that confession is witnessed forces me to put into words all those ways, minor and major, in which I live as if there were no God and no commandment to love. A thought that is concealed has great power over us.

Confessing sins, or even temptations, makes us better able to resist. The under-lying principle is described in one of the collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers:

If impure thoughts trouble you, do not hide them, but tell them at once to your spiritual father and condemn them. The more a person conceals his thoughts, the more they multiply and gain strength. But an evil thought, when revealed, is immediately destroyed. If you hide things, they have great power over you, but if you could only speak of them before God, in the presence of another, then they will often wither away, and lose their power.

Confessing to anyone, even a stranger, renews rather than contracts my humanity, even if all I get in return for my confession is the well-worn remark, “Oh, that’s not so bad. After all, you’re only human.” But if I can confess to anyone anywhere, why confess in church in the presence of a priest? It’s not a small question in societies in which the phrase “institutionalized religion” is so often used, the implicit message being that religious institutions necessarily undermine spiritual life.

Confession is a Christian ritual with a communal character. Confession in the church differs from confession in your living room in the same way that getting married in church differs from simply living together. The communal aspect of the event tends to safeguard it, solidify it, and call everyone to account––those doing the ritual, and those witnessing it.

In the social structure of the Church, a huge network of local communities is held together in unity, each community helping the others and all sharing a common task, while each provides a specific place to recognize and bless the main events in life, from birth to burial. Confession is an essential part of that continuum. My confession is an act of reconnection with God and with all the people and creatures who depend on me and have been harmed by my failings, and from whom I have distanced myself through acts of non-communion. The community is represented by the person hearing my confession, an ordained priest delegated to serve as Christ’s witness, who provides guidance and wisdom that helps each penitent overcome attitudes and habits that take us off course, who declares forgiveness and restores us to communion. In this way our repentance is brought into the community that has been damaged by our sins––a private event in a public context.

“It’s a fact,” writes Fr. Thomas Hopko, retired rector of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, “that we cannot see the true ugliness and hideousness of our sins until we see them in the mind and heart of the other to whom we have confessed.”

A Communion-Centered Life: Attending the liturgy and receiving communion on Sundays and principal feast days is at the heart of Christian life, the event that gives life a eucharistic dimension and center point. But communion––receiving Christ into ourselves––can never be routine, never something we deserve, no matter what the condition of our life may be. For example, Christ solemnly warns us against approaching the altar if we are in a state of enmity with anyone. He tells us, “if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). In one of the parables, Christ describes a person who is ejected from the wedding feast because he isn’t wearing a wedding garment. Tattered clothing is a metaphor for living a life that reduces conscience to rags (Matthew 22:1–14).

Receiving Christ in communion during the liturgy is the keystone of living in communion––with God, with people, and with creation. Christ teaches us that love of God and love of neighbor sum up the Law. One way of describing a serious sin is to say it is any act which breaks our communion with God and with our neighbor.

It is for this reason that examination of conscience––if necessary, going to confession––is an essential part of preparation for communion. This is an ongoing process of trying to see my life and actions with clarity and honesty––to look at myself, my choices, and my direction as known by God. The examination of conscience is an occasion to recall not only any serious sins committed since my last confession, but even the beginnings of sins.

The word conscience derives from a Greek verb meaning “to have common knowledge” or “to know with” someone, a concept that led to the idea of bearing witness concerning someone, especially oneself. Conscience is an inner faculty that guides us in making choices that align us with God’s will, and that accuses us when we break communion with God and with our neighbor. Conscience is a reflection of the divine image at the core of each person. In The Sacred Gift of Life, Fr. John Breck points out that “the education of conscience is acquired in large measure through immersing ourselves in the ascetic tradition of the Church: its life of prayer, sacramental and liturgical celebration, and scripture study. The education of our conscience also depends upon our acquiring wisdom from those who are more advanced than we are in faith, love, and knowledge of God.”

Conscience is God’s whispering voice within us calling us to a way of life that reveals God’s presence and urges us to refuse actions that destroy community and communion.

Key Elements in Confession: Fr. Alexander Schmemann provided the following summary of the three key areas of confession:
 Relationship to God: Questions on faith itself, possible doubts or deviations, inattention to prayer, neglect of liturgical life, fasting, etc.
 Relationship to one’s neighbor: Basic attitudes of selfishness and self-centeredness, indifference to others, lack of attention, interest, love. All acts of actual offense––envy, gossip, cruelty, etc.––must be mentioned and, if needed, their sinfulness shown to the penitent.
 Relationship to one’s self: Sins of the flesh with, as their counterpart, the Christian vision of purity and wholesomeness, respect for the body as an icon of Christ, etc. Abuse of one’s life and resources; absence of any real effort to deepen life; abuse of alcohol or other drugs; cheap idea of “fun,” a life centered on amusement, irresponsibility, neglect of family relations, etc.

Tools of Self-Examination: In the struggle to examine conscience, we have tools that can assist us, resources that help both in the formation and the examination of conscience. Among these are the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and various prayers, as well as lists of questions written by experienced confessors. IC

This article as it appears here is the first half of a longer, printed booklet from Conciliar Media, a department of the Antiochian Archdiocese, as part of their popular series of attractive and informative booklets and brochures about the basic teachings of the ancient Orthodox Christian faith. The second half begins with the section we end with: Tools of Self-examination. For the entire article, please visit either of the following webistes:

St. Elizabeth: A Planned Community


ST. ELIZABETH COMMUNITY is not yet in existence but is envisioned by its planners as a “Place of Belonging, a community where Orthodox Christians can live and heal together, sustaining a therapeutic way of life in relation to each other and the earth while serving the broader community on a healing path.” So reads the opening section in a proposal submitted by a group of Orthodox Christians in California through their parish priest to their bishop and a board of advisors. The following is the text of their proposal, which we are pleased to print in IC as an example of the kind of local, community-based ministry that is, essentially, Orthodox peace-work by design. We hope to draw attention to the work and also offer it is an inspiration to others. The proposal made its way to us via Jennifer Ferraez who is one of St. Elizabeth’s founding advisory board members and also a longtime OPF member.


It was through the trauma of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr’s husband being killed that she dedicated her live to social services and caring for others whose souls had been stretched open by suffering. Other saints throughout history have engaged in a broad array of social services, acting as God’s hands on this earth: St. John of Kronstadt, St. Basil, St. Rafael of Brooklyn, Saints Herman and Innocent of Alaska, St. Maria Skobtsova, St. Brigid of Kildare, and many more

Today the Church has responded to the needs of its people and the surrounding community in various social service related ministries. Modern works include: St. Emmaus House of Harlem, Reconciliation Services in Kansas City, Rafael House, St. Elizabeth’s of Minsk, St Brigid Fellowship of Goleta, CA, and of course FOCUS North America which seeks to unite Orthodox organizations caring for those in need

In his travels through Eastern Europe in the summer of 2012, Fr. Paisius Altschul of Kansas City saw many communities of lay people in these former Soviet countries coming together to live, work, and pray. All with a desire to raise their children in the faith that they are now freely able to live. We have such examples in the United States of lay people uniting together in community, but they are either secular or of other faith groups. To this day, there are no Orthodox communities living on land with a goal to care for each other and the broader community. It is essential for the survival of such a community that services to others remains a goal, otherwise it will become an isolated bubble “utopia” that will eventually have the life drained from it. Many of us have come to realize through our own experience of suffering that all our healing is intertwined and we need each other to become all that God has intended us to be on this earth.

The world, especially Western society, is becoming increasingly driven by competition, material-ism, and individualism. These values result in a variety of physical and mental health “symptoms,” including loneliness, depression, anxiety, domestic violence, substance abuse, and violent behavior. When people lose their sense of connectedness to each other and the earth, their sense of self is distorted and aware-ness of God is diminished. We are now faced with two options: unite together in therapeutic communi-ties or fight for what are perceived to be scarce resources on this earth.

Community is one of the most basic human needs. A place of belonging is not only essential to our physical health and well-being, but is a critical factor in our spiritual development. We are who we are within the context of each other. Community reveals our weaknesses and need for each other, but also nurtures our strengths. Like stones on a river, it ultimately sculpts us into the creatures God had intended us to be and reveals our true colors.


The homeless, those returning from war, the formerly incarcerated, survivors of abuse (childhood and partner), those in recovery from drugs and alcohol, and survivors of disaster all have in common the shared experience of trauma which has forever altered their lives. Coming out on the other side of something that stretches the soul wide open—and sometimes shatters it, requires learning how to live again with this new-found knowledge. Many do not survive. In attempting to go back and reengage the world they once knew, they often find that nothing makes sense anymore. Life is forever altered. Not even people who were once familiar are a comfort. Loved ones may no longer be alive, they may have found other lives, or they may suddenly appear as strangers. Drugs, alcohol, and suicide are common results when the pain becomes to much to bear alone.

Surviving traumatic events requires a reorientation of perspective and a reintegration back into life—and eventually the broader community. This cannot be done alone. At St. Elizabeth’s people can support and guide each other in this healing process while participating in community life together—prayers, meals, work, etc. Everyone’s healing is intertwined, as it is also intertwined with the healing of the earth. The length of time spent living in the community will depend on the individual needs of those recovering. We believe that all suffering can be transformed to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit. A goal of the community is for those displaced by trauma to recover a sense of place again.

The proposed community will directly nurture two populations: 1) Orthodox Christians with a heart for social services and community living. Individuals or families who desire to live in a more rural place for their health and sanity, sharing their talents and skills. 2) Individuals displaced by trauma (homelessness, domestic violence, post-military, survivors of disaster, those in recovery from addiction, and others) who are seeking a transitional or more permanent place to live and desire to live in a rural community to continue their healing journey.

The community will also welcome and serve other populations: 1) Visiting pilgrims––those in the field of social services and medicine seeking retreat to rest and restore. This is an aim to prevent “secondary trauma” that can be acquired by working with those in need. 2) Those who would like to teach a seminar or skill to the community. 3) Clergy and family needing retreat to rest and restore.

Outside Ministry: Residents of the community will engage in outreach to the poor and homeless. Potential opportunities include street outreach in the nearby town of Santa Rosa, service at local drop in centers, providing weekly community meals, etc. It is important that the community not become disconnected from the heart and struggles of the poor in the broader community. Working in the streets and slums will “keep things real” and help keep the community healthy while we strive to be the hands of God on this earth.

Funding and Finances

A. Start up Costs: Primarily funding for land and any needed renovations. We are currently looking for at least twenty acres. World Stewardship Institute has offered to make the community a program under their organization until we are able to achieve nonprofit status on our own. They would allow us to manage our own bank account and begin to take donations.

B. On-going Budget: “Community tithes” (a percentage of their income) for food, development, and upkeep of the property. A number of our consultants have experience with grant writing, which will assist with additional funding as needed.


Over the years many locations have been considered. There are certain criteria that were deemed absolutely necessary to sustaining a healthy Orthodox community that is connected to the broader community in service: a church close by, a town nearby, and preferably a monastery not too far away. It is also necessary there be open land and a political climate that would allow fairly free development of such a proposed community. Sonoma County has a long history of “intentional communities” and in speaking with business owners, such a community caring for the poor would be welcome. Santa Rosa has a handful of Orthodox Churches, including St. Seraphim’s where some of the long-term former community members of Rafael House attend. The Kazan Skete is also in town and the Assumption Monastery is in nearby Calistoga.

Physical Description of Community Layout

Among various elements being considered:
▪ two dorm style houses (1 male and 1 female)
▪ community house with dining room, industrial kitchen (to serve the community and prepare food to be sold), library, living-room with fireplace
▪ cabins or yurts for individuals, families of permanent residents, guests
▪ chapel where residents and visitors can engage in prayers together
▪ garden and greenhouse to grow food for the community and the poor
▪ workshops for iconography, music, woodworking, pottery, candle making, etc.
▪ barn for, among other things, chickens and goats
▪ clinical space for counseling, medicine, etc.

Advisory Board

Jennifer Ferraez: Clinical social worker specializing in recovery from trauma. Co-founder of St. Brigid Fellowship (Goleta, CA) and founding team member of Doctors Without Walls. Also a Drug and Alcohol Counselor and member of St. Athanasius Church in Santa Barbara.

Fr. Athanasius Shaw wife Molly: Members of the the Rafael House from its inception until recently. Molly has a background in administration and development. Fr. Athanasius is a volunteer with IOCC. The couple continue to offer insight and guidance to the formation of the community and potential community member.

Fred Krueger: Began our community discussion of the healing of humanity being intertwined with the healing of the earth. Founder and director of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration and the World Stewardship Institute. Member of St. Seraphim Parish in Santa Rosa. Community consultant.

Christina De Michael: Member of St. Seraphim Parish in Santa Rosa. Would like to live in community and teach iconography.

Panteleimon David Walker: Currently working with those in recovery from drugs and alcohol. Interested treating those in the community and possibly joining the community. Member of St. Seraphim Parish in Santa Rosa. Community consultant and acupuncturist.

Bob Harrison: Logistics expert and former member of Rafael House. He and wife, Connie are potential community members.

Carmela Biggs: Adviser and potential community member. Former nurse for Rafael House.

Father Paisius Altschul: Clinical social worker who founded and directed (recently retired) Reconciliation Services in Kansas City which cares for the poor and homeless in their community. He is also the the priest of St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church. Adviser to community.

Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges: Consultant regarding trauma and disaster mental health. Volunteer with IOCC. Assistant priest of St. Athanasius Church in Santa Barbara. Co-founder of St. Brigid Fellowship.

Deborah McQuade: Founder and director of Sarah House hospice for the poor and homeless in Santa Barbara. Former member of a Catholic Worker community. Member of St. Athanasius Church. Adviser and potential community member.

Valerie Yova: St. Athanasius (Goleta, CA) church administrator and choir director. Former director of Public Relations for Project Mexico and Assistant Manager for Capital Campaign. Community consultant and interested in working with community members through music therapy.

Metropolitan Jonah (formerly Abbot Jonah): Adviser in the early years of brain-storming. Introduced us to the work of Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier who, through their work with the L’Arche, revealed a model of “professionals” and those in need living in community under the realization that all our healing is intertwined.

Mo. Victoria of St. Barbara Monastery: Community adviser and spiritual guide.

Jim and Nancy Forrest: Community consultants. Founders and directors of Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

Social Services & Communities Referenced

Reconciliation Services:
Orthodox Peace Fellowship:
Rafael House:
Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration (OFT):
World Stewardship Institute:
St. Brigid Fellowship:
St. Elizabeth’s of Minsk:
Doctors Without Walls:
Catholic Worker:
Emmaus House:
FOCUS North America:

Saint Alexander Schmorell: A Canonization in Munich

by Jim Forest

Saints come in many sizes and varieties, ranging from kings to beggars, surgeons to street sweepers, scholars to the illiterate, the extraordinary to the unnoticed. Some never marry, some are the parents of large families. Some die in bed in their old age, others die early in life at the hands of executioners. There are millions of saints — heaven is crowded — but relatively few of heaven’s population have been formally canonized. The vast majority are rank-and-file saints, an inspiration to those who knew them, but never placed by name on the church calendar.

Reporting on canonizations, journalists often say that so-and-so was “made a saint” today at such-and-such location, but in fact the Church does not make saints. Canonization is merely an act of carefully considered recognition that a particular person became a saint in his lifetime and is unquestionably among the blessed and thus in no need of our prayers for his forgiveness and salvation. The saints who are singled out for special recognition are mentioned at the Liturgy on a particular day every year, some locally or nationally, others in churches around the world. They are also depicted in icons in both churches and homes.

What is it that makes the Church occasionally canonize a particular saint? In many cases it has to do with some remarkable quality or achievement — their exceptional impact on other lives. The memory of their works and lives needs to be passed on from generation to generation in order to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. It is one of the ways the Church declares, “This is sanctity. This is the path to eternal life.”

Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia

The majority of those canonized are martyrs. One of these — Alexander Schmorell — was added to the church calendar this past weekend. His canonization took place at the Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, a church in Munich not far from Schmorell’s grave. On the far side of the cemetery, at Stadelheim Prison, Schmorell was beheaded on 13 July 1943. He was only 25 at the time. He was an Orthodox Christian who had put his life at risk by being part of a anti-Nazi resistance group.

The canonization got underway on Saturday afternoon, February 3, as people began to gather in the church. Aware that the reporters and cameramen present would need certain photos before the ceremonies started, Fr. Nikolai Artemoff, dean of the cathedral, brought out the icon of Alexander Schmorell in anticipation of its formal presentation later in the day. Many photos were taken, a pre-canonization ceremony that would not have been imagined in earlier centuries. The icon showed Alexander Schmorell as the tall, brown-haired young man he was, wearing the white robe of a physician with a Red Cross arm band (he had been a medical student at Munich’s Maximilian University), his left hand raised in a gesture of greeting, the other holding a blood-red cross plus a white rose. He is standing against a pure gold background representing eternity and the kingdom of God.

As Father Nikolai explained to the journalists, the white rose in his hand symbolizes the White Rose group Schmorell co-founded with Hans Scholl in the spring of 1942. Before the arrests began the following February, the group succeeded — assisted by friends in many German and Austrian cities and towns — in widely distributing a series of six anti-Nazi leaflets. All six members of the core group were guillotined. (The story is powerfully told in an the Oscar-nominated film, “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days,” much of which was photographed in Munich.)

Press photos taken and interviews completed, at about 4 PM a procession of about two hundred people set out led by a cross bearer. Behind the cross were six bishops: Archbishop Mark (who leads the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in Germany), Metropolitan Valentin of Orenburg (the Russian city where Schmorell was born), Metropolitan Onufriy of Czernowitz in Ukraine, Archbishop Feofan of Berlin, Bishop Michael of Geneva, and Bishop Agapit of Stuttgart. How many priests? I lost count.

The frigid air was challenging — it was about 15 degrees below zero Centigrade (5 degrees Fahrenheit), with snow and ice on the ground. Though the cemetery, Perlacher Forst, was just across the street, its entrance was several hundred meters away. Once inside the gate, we wound our way through tombstone-lined paths, first stopping to pray at the graves of Hans and Sophie School, the brother and sister who were the first to be executed from the White Rose group, and Christoph Probst, beheaded the same day — 22 February 1943. Here three tall black crosses stand side by side, a single cross piece linking the crosses over the Scholl graves. Sophie, the one woman in the White Rose inner circle, and the youngest, was 21 when she was killed. Today many German streets and squares are named in honor of Sophie and Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst and others executed for their part in the White Rose. Hans and Sophie came from a closely-knit Lutheran family. Christoph Probst was baptized in the Catholic Church a day before his execution.

Archpriest Nikolai Artemoff placing a candle of the grave of St Alexander Schmorell
Archpriest Nikolai Artemoff placing a candle of the grave of St Alexander Schmorell

The procession than continued to Alexander Schmorell’s resting place, not far away. A bouquet of white roses was resting against the rough surface of the tombstone and more flowers heaped over the grave. Embedded in the stone was a bronze Russian Orthodox crucifix. Memorial prayers — a panikhida — was sung, concluding with the melodic two-word chant, Vyechnaya Pamyat (eternal memory), sung repeatedly by all present. Every year there has been a panikhida sung at this grave on the 13th of July, the anniversary of Schmorell’s death, but this was the final panikhida. Now that he has been officially glorified, future services at his grave no longer have a penitential character.

The high point of the day came during the Saturday evening Vigil, which began at 5 PM and lasted three-and-a-half hours, by which time an almost full moon was shining through the windows. In the middle of the service, several icon stands were placed in the center of the church with candle stands behind. At least a hundred candles were lit, forming a curtain of light. Finally a procession of bishops, clergy and altar servers poured out of the sanctuary carrying an icon of Saint Alexander Schmorell followed by another icon crowded with images of New Martyrs of the twentieth century. Next came a huge silver-bound Gospel book, a copy that had been a gift from Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, to Russian Orthodox Christians in Germany. The two icons and the Gospel book were solemnly placed side by side on the stands, then incensed. Finally everyone in the church, beginning with the six bishops, venerated the icon of the newly recognized saint.

“When they brought out the icon,” Nancy told me later that night, “it was such a climax, with the servers holding all those fans over the icons and the choir singing with such exaltation. It was as it there were neon arrows pointing at the icon of Alexander Schmorell and saying, ‘This is what really matters.’ It’s the Church pulling out all the stops. They couldn’t do more to make you look in that direction and feel the importance, the challenge, of this brave life. You couldn’t not get it. This is what the Church does in interpreting human events and letting us know what’s truly valuable. This is something that requires all the ceremony the Church is capable of. But it’s not ceremony for its own sake. It’s all meant to confront us with the inner meaning of a young man putting his head on the chopping block. The canonization ceremony pulls you out of ordinary time and confronts you with the message: consider this life and let it influence your own.”

At the Liturgy the following morning, the church was even more crowded than it had been for the Vigil. We were jammed together like cigarettes in a carton — it was challenging to make the sign of the cross without grazing your neighbors with your elbows. Perhaps as many people were present as would fill the church for the All-Night Easter service. (Also present on Sunday– given a special chair placed at the right end of the iconostasis — was Bishop Engelbert Siebler, representing the Catholic Archdiocese of Munich.)

In the Orthodox Church every Sunday is regarded as a little Easter, but rarely have I experienced so intense a paschal radiance. Resurrection was at the heart of Father Nikolai’s sermon, delivered just before communion. He reminded us that the name the White Rose group adopted for itself had been proposed by Alexander Schmorell. His suggestion came from a story in the novel The Brothers Karamazov, written by Schmorell’s most beloved author, Dostoevsky. In one chapter Christ comes back to earth, “softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him.” He is suddenly present among the many people in Seville’s cathedral square, a place were the pavement is still warm from the burning of a hundred heretics. Responding to a mother’s desperate appeal, Christ raises from the dead a young girl whose open coffin was being carried across the square on its way to the cemetery. Flowers have been laid on her body. “The procession halts, the coffin is laid on the steps at [Christ’s] feet. He looks with compassion, and His lips softly pronounce the words, ‘Maiden, arise!’ and she arises. The little girl sits up in the coffin and looks round, smiling with wide-open wondering eyes, holding a bunch of white roses they had put in her hand.” This merciful action completed, he is recognized by the Grand Inquisitor, who orders Christ’s arrest.

The white rose is a paschal symbol, a sign of the victory of life over death.

That Alexander Schmorell would one day be canonized at this cathedral had been evident for years. He is shown among of a row of twenty-two martyrs of the twentieth-century included in an icon that has long been part of the cathedral’s iconostasis. After the Liturgy and the emptying out of the church, I went to look more carefully at that older icon. Schmorell is easily picked out — there he is, in the first row, third from the right, wearing a white robe. What is remarkable is that, within the group, he alone group has no halo, for at the time the icon was painted canonization was only anticipated. In one hand he holds a thin cross, in the other a scroll with these words taken from his last letter to his parents:

“This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God? Never forget God!!”

One can imagine future icons of Saint Alexander of Munich will often use the same text while other iconographers may decide to use his last words, spoken to his lawyer as he was being taken to the guillotine: “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.”

In a time when fear is being sold every minute of the day, every day of the year — where would the “war on terror” be were we not prisoners of fear? — the pilgrimage to Munich to honor a saint who had freed himself from the tyranny of fear gave me an injection of pure courage.

(report written 9 February 2012)

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Extracts from Fr Nikolai Artemoff’s sermon:

Holy New Martyrs are glorified by the Church because, in the particular circumstances of their own times, they bore a clear witness to Christ and in so doing sacrificed their own lives. On July 13, 1943 Alexander Schmorell was executed by means of the guillotine in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison. On Sunday (in Russian, the “day of resurrection”) the 5th of February 2012, he shall take his place among the band of New Martyrs of Russia, to whom this cathedral church is dedicated.

The death of a martyr is always comprised of both the love for Christ as well as, through this love, the exposure of wickedness of evildoers in this world, and therefore also those who pave the way for Satan and his complict servant, the antichrist.

Alexander Schmorell’s favorite book was The Brothers Karamazov, from which the name “White Rose” hails, as a symbol of purity and resurrection (as evidenced in the resurrection of the girl at the appearance of Christ in Seville at the beginning of the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor”). The path of Alexander Schmorell led from religious instruction which he received from priests in Munich, to the contribution of an Orthodox worldview via F.M. Dostoevsky in the catagorical repudiation of both regimes, enemies of man and idols that they have become of the “Fueher”, Hitler, as well as of Stalin, both nationalist and socialist. The “White Rose” considered Nazi rule as anti-Christian, but for Alexander Schmorell, no less anti-Christian was the regime in which his beloved was enslaved — Bolshevism. “I admit to my love of Russia without reservation. Therefore I also stand in opposition to Bolshevism.”

The last flyer of the White Rose primarily authored by Alexander Schmorell (Nr. IV) witnesses to his concept of the spiritual dimensions of this struggle in the name of God and his Son, Christ. He wrote:

“When he [that is, Hitler] blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed. True, we must conduct a struggle against the National Socialist terrorist state with rational means; but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the concrete, the visible events, behind all objective, logical considerations, we find the irrational element: The struggle against the demon, against the servants of the Antichrist. Everywhere and at all times demons have been lurking in the dark, waiting for the moment when man is weak; when of his own volition he leaves his place in the order of Creation as founded for him by God in freedom; when he yields to the force of evil, separates himself from the powers of a higher order; and after voluntarily taking the first step, he is driven on to the next and the next at a furiously accelerating rate. Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached the One God and who with His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.

“I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defense? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? […] Though we know that National Socialist power must be broken by military means, we are trying to achieve a renewal from within of the severely wounded German spirit.”

(with thanks to Katja Yurschak for the translation of Fr. Nikolai’s words)

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Hymns sung at the glorification of Saint Alexander of Munich (annual commemoration day July 13):

Troparion, tone 4:

Today a light adorns our glorious city, / having within it your holy relics, O Holy Martyr Alexander; / for which sake pray to Christ God / that He deliver us from all tribulations, / for gathered together in love we celebrate your radiant memory / imitating your bravery, / standing against the godless powers and enemies.

Kontakion, tone 4:

From your mother you did inherit the love of Christ, / and through the love of your care-giver you were nourished in the fear of God, O all-glorious one, / to Whom you did give thyself, O all-honorable Alexander, / and you diligently pray with the angels. / Entreat on behalf of all who honor your memory a forgiveness of their sins.

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A section of the web site of the Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia is devoted to St Alexander Schmorell, with texts both in Russian and German:

A biographical essay (“Alexander Schmorell: a Witness in Dark Times”) is here:

Russian translation of “Alexander Schmorell: a Witness in Dark Times”:

An English translation of Schmorell’s letters from prison:

A set of photos of the canonization:

A set of photos having to do of the White Rose:

Wikipedia entry about the White Rose:

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Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship — — and is the author of many books — see: . He belongs to St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam and lives in Alkmaar, the Netherlands.

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❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 64 / Spring 2012

A Pilgrimage to Hell

by Jim Forest

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions….”

–Primo Levi, survivor of Auschwitz, If This is a Man

No one is certain how many died at Auschwitz. Most prisoners were gassed soon after arrival without having been registered, while, for those who were registered, the SS destroyed the bulk of their records before abandoning the camp. But years of research have shown that the figure is not less than 1.1 million people. Even that minimum figure leaves us with a number beyond comprehension. One million plus one hundred thousand. In the summer months, there are perhaps that many leaves on the trees in the park where I take a walk each morning before starting work. I live in a city of one hundred thousand people—thus the number killed equals everyone in this city plus ten more of the same size. But in fact there is no way to envision such a number meaningfully. I cannot take it in.

The way we usually deal with so large a number of human casualties is to focus on just a single face. One face, one story. This is manageable. A single life and death can open a window on a vast crowd.

The most well known face of the Holocaust is Anne Frank, who was fifteen when she and her family arrived at Auschwitz. (From there she was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where she died.) It is consoling to know that her diary has been read or seen enacted in film or on stage by far more people than died in all the Nazi concentration camps combined. Millions have visited her hiding place in Amsterdam. In July 1944, shortly before she and her family were taken away, she wrote in her diary, “I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

Or there is the face of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish scholar who wrote another widely-read diary of life in Amsterdam during the German occupation, in her case lived in the open. Turning down offers to go into hiding, she explained to friends that she wished to share her family’s and her people’s fate. She died at Auschwitz on the last day of November 1943. “They [the Nazis] are out to destroy us completely,” she wrote in her diary. “We must accept that and go on from there…. Very well then … I accept it…. God, take me by Your Hand. I shall follow You faithfully, and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go…. I know that a new and kinder day will come. I would so much like to live on, if only to express all the love I carry within me. And there is only one way of preparing for the new age, by living it, even now, in our hearts.”

Or it could be the face of Edith Stein, a nun with Jewish roots whose life ended on the 9th of August 1942 in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. She had been born in Poland, had lived in Germany and was in a Dutch Carmelite convent at the time of her arrest. “I told our Lord,” she wrote, “that I knew it was His cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that. At the end of the service, I was certain that I had been heard. But what this carrying of the cross was to consist in, that I did not yet know.”

For me, living in the Dutch city of Alkmaar, there is another way of making an intimate connection. On the 5th of March 1942, 213 Alkmaar Jews—all the local Jews not in hiding—were gathered at our one synagogue and from there transported, via Amsterdam and Westerbork, to Auschwitz. Only a few survived. (Today, after a 69-year recess, the same synagogue has just been restored and reconsecrated.)

So many names, so many stories, so many faces to choose from. More than a million.

It had long been a hope of mine to visit this Golgotha of the modern world. Though far from the only one, Auschwitz provides the most vivid image of the assembly-line production of dead bodies—a factory of absolute nihilism, a revelation of a demonic longing to assassinate God and the divine image in man.

The chance to visit Auschwitz finally came, thanks to an invitation to give a lecture at an interfaith peace conference at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. My topic at the conference was not a theory of dialogue but the story of a rescuer—Mother Maria Skobtsova, now recognized as St. Maria of Paris, who founded a house of hospitality in Paris where many lives were saved before she and her principal collaborators were arrested. Mother Maria’s life ended at Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany on the eve of Easter 1945. I could think of no better way to contribute to an interfaith meeting than to tell the story of a Christian willing to lay down her life for Jews.

I was one of three Orthodox Christians from outside Poland who came to the conference. The other two were Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, from Oxford, and Archimandrite Ignatios Stavropoulos, from a monastery near Nefpaktos in Greece. With us was Father Vladimir Misijuk, an Orthodox priest who has translated several of Metropolitan Kallistos’ books into Polish, and Dr. Pawel Wroblewski, one of the prime movers behind the peace conference in Wroclaw.

The day after the conference ended, we traveled together to the camp, now the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

The local weather seemed to be in mourning—chilly, gray, on the edge of foggy. The area for miles and miles around Auschwitz is flat and thinly populated. The town near the camp, Oswiecim, is almost entirely of post-war construction—the population had been removed by the Germans before construction of the concentration camp was started so that there would to be no local witnesses.

Standing near the only surviving crematorium, our delegation was met by a historian on the museum staff, Teresa Wontor-Cichy, who led us under the camp’s notorious Arbeit Macht Frei sign—Labor Brings Freedom. It was here that the famous Auschwitz inmate orchestra played as columns of famished prisoners marched in and out twice a day to their places of labor. The music, Teresa told us, made it easier for the guards to count.

I had imagined Auschwitz-Birkenau as one inter-connected camp, but soon learned that Auschwitz served as the nucleus for more than forty other camps, with nearby Birkenau the point of delivery for the daily trainloads of prisoners, mainly Jews but also Christians, gypsies, homosexuals, and political opponents of the Nazis.

In Auschwitz itself, nearly all the buildings had been constructed of brick. It could pass for a solidly-built military post. It would not have been hard to convince a naive visitor, so long as he didn’t look behind the wrong doors, that the conditions of life at Auschwitz weren’t so bad. Why, there was even an orchestra! On the other hand, were a visitor to be taken inside the buildings, he would have soon discovered that there are hells in this world worse than any hell he might imagine in the next. For example, there was Block 10—the domain of Nazi doctors carrying out the most vile medical experiments. One of the physicians, Josef Mengele, became known as the “Angel of Death.” Block 11 served as a “prison within the prison.” A small court operated here at which many were sentenced to death. The basement cells were for those deprived of all food and water. Among ten men sent to die in one such cell, now marked by a tall Paschal candle, was Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to take the place of a young husband and father. Kolbe was the last to die, enduring two weeks of starvation, thirst, and neglect. He has since been canonized by the Catholic Church.

We stopped for a time in the yard between Blocks 10 and 11. This had been used as a place of summary execution for those convicted of breaking camp rules. Even a baseless accusation could mean death before a firing squad. Here Metropolitan Kallistos led us in a prayer, long silences between each phrase, both for those who died here and for the guards who had caused so much suffering. We prayed with the awareness that, while the Nazis themselves despised Christianity, centuries of Christian anti-Semitism had helped create an environment of contempt and hatred without which the Shoah would have been impossible.

The charts, maps, and photos we saw in the various buildings we passed through effectively told the story of the creation and uses of Auschwitz and its surrounding network of camps, but what made the deepest impression were the many items the SS had failed to destroy as, the Red Army fast approaching, they made their hurried retreat in January 1945. We passed through room after room containing the mute evidence of people who, after stripping naked for a delousing shower (so they were told), were gassed by the hundreds at a time—all children younger than fifteen, their mothers, the elderly, those judged unfit. Among those condemned on arrival, the lucky ones were those closest to the shower heads—they died immediately—while those further away took upto twenty minutes to breathe their last.

Even as they were dying, their possessions were being carefully sorted. We saw a mountain range of shoes, thousands of reading glasses, the train tickets more affluent passengers had purchased for the privilege of riding to Auschwitz first or second class instead of traveling in freight cars, and countless suitcases bearing names and addresses of the doomed. We saw dense piles of hair that had been cut from the bodies of women after they were removed from the gas chamber. The hair was for use, Teresa told us, as a commercial component in making textiles. Finally we saw empty canisters of Zyklon B, the substance from which the lethal cyanide gas was released.

Our final stop in the original Auschwitz was the camp’s one surviving place of gassing and body burning. It had escaped destruction because, when much larger gas chambers and crematoria were built at Birkenau, this smaller building had been converted into a bomb shelter. The adjacent crematorium, with its tall square chimney and just two ovens, was also left intact.

Birkenau, about a mile away, didn’t bother with brick structures for housing its captives. It was a gridiron of quickly-erected wooden barracks filling a vast area, barrack after barrack as far as the eye could see. Though a small number of barracks survive, in most cases only the foundations remain. The one brick building left standing is at the entrance to Birkenau, a one-storey structure crowned with an observation tower in the center under which prisoner-bearing freight trains arrived from every part of Europe. A few hundred yards beyond the station, truly the end of the line, was the area where an SS doctor presided over the selection process. Some were judged healthy enough to work—a slow death-sentence for all but a few—while the rest were led away to the nearby gas chamber. About 75 percent were killed on arrival.

Auschwitz barrack interior

We visited two barracks, one of them still containing the deep, wooden bunks on which inmates—up to a thousand per barrack—were stored at night like cigarettes in a carton. The shed-like structure provided almost no defense against the elements.

Walking from place to place in the two camps, I felt as if I had turned to wood. Words failed me—indeed my emotions failed me, and they still do. It’s not possible to respond in word or sentiment in an adequate way to evil of such magnitude. The awful images are inerasable. Having been there in the flesh, the events that happened in this rural corner of Poland are forever real to me. Any pilgrim to Auschwitz is brought closer to the mainly anonymous people who died here.

One thought kept running through my mind. This human-made hell could never have existed without fear and obedience. Those who ran the camps, from the commandants to the lowest ranking soldier, knew they would themselves be killed if they failed to obey orders. While no doubt some of the staff were already psychopaths, most of those who were assigned here were, at least at the start, ordinary people, probably relieved that they hadn’t been sent into combat.

Adolf Eichmann, the chief bureaucrat of the Holocaust, claimed that he had no ill feeling against Jews. He did what he did because it was his assigned duty. He was “just following orders.” We have heard the same justifications from everyone involved in all concentration camps: “I was just following orders.” The same was true of those who created and staffed the Gulag Archipelago or who dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or who firebombed Tokyo or Dresden or Coventry or London. It remains true of those today whose daily work involves killing. Only psychopaths want to kill. The rest of us are “just following orders,” whether because of a sense of duty or driven by fear of what the consequences would if we dared to say no.

In his Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann, Thomas Merton reflected on the fact that psychiatrists testifying at Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem found Eichmann perfectly sane. “The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless,” Merton commented. “A man can be ‘sane’ in the limited sense that he is not impeded by disordered emotions from acting in a cool, orderly manner, according to the needs and dictates of the social situation in which he finds himself. He can be perfectly ‘adjusted.’ God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted even in hell itself. And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one’s own?”

Perhaps sanity has come to mean merely the capacity to live successfully in a toxic society and follow orders. Following orders is made easier by propaganda—slogans inciting fear and hatred, slogans to kill by. For everyone involved wants to believe the murderous work he or she is doing serves, at least eventually, some larger good.

Underneath such adaptation is fear—fear of punishment, fear of exclusion, fear of death. Thus we conclude that it’s better to remain alive by becoming a murderer than to die without the stain of innocent blood on our hands.

During the visit to Auschwitz, I kept thinking of Easter and the resurrection of the crucified Christ from his tomb, an event which, for Christians at least, ought to equip us not to fear death and no longer to be prisoners of hell. But how rare are the Paschal people—and how numerous those who obey orders no matter how deadly the consequences.

Leaving Auschwitz, I remembered the words of one of its victims, Etty Hillesum: “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty, to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.” IC

Photos of the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum can be viewed at:

Enlarge Photos

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

The Challenge of a 20th Century Saint, Maria Skobtsova

St Maria Skobtsova of Paris

by Jim Forest


Mother Maria Skobtsova — now recognized as Saint Maria of Paris — died in a German concentration camp on the 30th of March 1945. Although perishing in a gas chamber, Mother Maria did not perish in the Church’s memory. Those who had known her would again and again draw attention to the ideas, insights and activities of the heroic nun who had spent so many years of her life assisting people in desperate need. Soon after the war ended, essays and books about her began appearing in French, Russian and English. A Russian film, “Mother Maria,” was made in 1982. Her canonization was celebrated in May 2004 at the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky in Paris. Among those present at the event was Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris and Jewish by birth, who subsequently placed St. Maria on the calendar of the Catholic Church in France. One wonders if there are any other saints of post-Schism Christianity who are on both the Catholic and Orthodox calendars?

We have no time today for a detailed account of her life. I will only point out that she was born in Riga in 1891 and grew up on a family estate along the Black Sea. Her father’s death when she was fourteen was a devastating event that for a time led her to atheism, but gradually she found her way back to the Orthodox faith. As a young woman, she was the first female student at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. In the same period she witnessed the Bolshevik coup and the civil war that followed. Like so many Russians, she fled for her life, finally reaching Paris, where she was among those who devoted themselves to serving fellow refugees, many of whom were now living in a state of destitution even worse than her own. At that time, she worked with the Student Christian Movement.

The tragic death in 1926 of one her daughters, Anastasia, precipitated a decision that brought her to a still deeper level of self-giving love. In 1932, following the collapse of her marriage, her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy, encouraged her to become a nun, but a nun with an exceptional vocation. Metropolitan Evlogy blessed her to develop a new type of monasticism — a “monasticism in the world” — that centered on diaconal service within the city rather than on quiet withdrawal in a rural context.

In a time of massive social disruption, Mother Maria declared, it was better to offer a monastic witness which opens its gates to desperate people and in so doing to participate in Christ’s self-abasement. “Everyone is always faced … 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.”

It was clear to her that it was not only Russia which was being torn to shreds. “There are times,” she wrote, “when all that has been said cannot be made obvious and clear since the atmosphere around us is a pagan one and we are tempted by its idolatrous charms. But our times are firmly in tune with Christianity in that suffering is part of their nature. They demolish and destroy in our hearts all that is stable, mature, hallowed by the ages and treasured by us. They help us genuinely and utterly to accept the vows of poverty, to seek no rule, but rather anarchy, the anarchic life of Fools for Christ’s sake, seeking no monastic enclosure, but the complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.”

She saw that there were two ways to live. The first was on dry land, a legitimate and respectable place to be, where one could measure, weigh and plan ahead. The second was to walk on the waters where “it becomes impossible to measure or plan ahead. The one thing necessary is to believe all the time. If you doubt for an instant, you begin to sink.”

The water she decided to walk upon was a vocation of hospitality. With financial support from Metropolitan Evlogy, in December 1932 she signed a lease for her first house of hospitality, a place of welcome and assistance to people in desperate need, mainly young Russian women. The first night she slept on the floor beneath the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. A small community of co-workers began to form. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and instead slept on an iron bedstead in the basement by the boiler. A room upstairs became a chapel.

The first house having become too small, in 1934 the community relocated to a three-storey house at 77 rue de Lourmel in an area of Paris where many impoverished Russian refugees had settled. Now, instead of 25 people, the community could feed a hundred. Stables in back became a small church.

The vocation of hospitality is much more than the provision of food, clothing and a place to sleep. In its depths, it is a contemplative vocation. It is the constant search for the face of Christ in the stranger. “If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person,” she reflected, “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.”

By 1937, there were several dozen women guests at 77 rue de Lourmel. Up to 120 dinners were served each day. Other buildings were rented, one for families in need, another for single men. A rural property became a sanatorium.

From a financial point of view, it was a very insecure life, but somehow the work survived and grew. Mother Maria would sometimes recall 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’s day typically began with a journey to Les Halles to beg food or buy cheaply whatever was not donated. The cigarette-smoking beggar nun became well known among the stalls. She would later return with a sack of bones, fish and overripe fruit and vegetables.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh provides an impression 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. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse. In front of a café, 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 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.”

Life in community was not easy. Conflicting views about the relative importance of liturgical life were at times a source of tension. Mother Maria was the one most often absent from services or the one who would withdraw early, or arrive late, because of the pressing needs of hospitality. “Piety, piety,” she wrote in her journal, “but where is the love that moves mountains?”

Mother Maria saw blessings where others only saw disaster. “In the past religious freedom was trampled down by forces external to Christianity,” she wrote. “In Russia we can say that any regime whatsoever will build concentration camps as its response to religious freedom.” She considered exile in the west a heaven-sent opportunity to renew the Church in ways that would have met repression within her mother country.

For her, exile was an opportunity “to liberate the real and authentic” from layers of decoration and dust in which Christ had become hidden. 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.”

Russians have not been last among those enamored with theories, but for Mother Maria, all theories had to take second place. “We have not gathered together for the theoretical study of social problems in the spirit of Orthodoxy,” she wrote, “[but] to link our social thought as closely as possible with life and work. More precisely, we proceed from our work and seek the fullest possible theological interpretation of it.”

While many valued what she and her co-workers were doing, there were others who were scandalized with the shabby nun who was so uncompromising in her hospitality that she might leave a church service to answer the door bell. “For many in church circles we are too far to the left,” she noted, “while for the left we are too church-minded.”

In October 1939, Metropolitan Evlogy send a priest to rue de Lourmel: Father Dimitri Klépinin, then 35 years old. A man of few words and great modesty, Fr. Dimitri proved to be a real partner for Mother Maria.

The last phase of Mother Maria’s life was a series of responses to World War II and Germany’s occupation of France.

Her basic choice was the decision to stay. It would have been possible for her to leave Paris when the Germans were advancing, or even to leave the country to go to America, but she would not budge. “If the Germans take Paris, I shall stay here with my old women. Where else could I send them?”

She had no illusions about Nazism. It represented a “new paganism” bringing in its wake disasters, upheavals, persecutions and wars. It was evil unveiled, the “contaminator of all springs and wells.” The so-called “master race” was “led by a madman who needs a straightjacket and should be placed in a cork-lined room so that his bestial wailing will not disturb the world at large.”

Paris fell on the 14th of June. With defeat came greater poverty and hunger for many people. Local authorities in Paris declared the house at rue de 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 high-priority targets of the occupiers. In June 1941, a thousand were arrested, including several close friends of Mother Maria and Fr. Dimitri. An aid project for prisoners and their dependents was soon launched by Mother Maria.

Early in 1942, with Jewish registration underway, Jews began to knock on the door at rue de Lourmel asking Fr. Dimitri if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The names of those “baptized” were also duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo, as indeed did happen. Fr. Dimitri was convinced that in such a situation Christ would do the same.

In March 1942, the order came from Berlin that a yellow star must be worn by Jews in all the occupied countries. The order came into force in France in June. There were, of course, Christians who said that the law being imposed had nothing to do with Christians and that therefore this was not a Christian problem. “There is not only a Jewish question, but a Christian question,” Mother Maria replied. “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. Shopping by Jews was restricted to an hour per day. A week later, there was a mass arrest of Jews — 12,884, of whom 6,900 (two-thirds of them children) were brought to a sports stadium just a kilometer from rue de Lourmel. Held there for five days, the captives in the stadium received water only from a single hydrant. From there the captives were to be sent to Auschwitz.

Mother Maria had often thought her monastic robe a God-send in aiding her work. Now it 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, 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. “It is amazing,” Mother Maria remarked, “that the Germans haven’t pounced on us yet.” In the same period, she said if anyone came looking for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

Fr. Dimitri, Mother Maria and their co-workers set up routes of escape to the unoccupied south. It was complex and dangerous work. Forged documents had to be obtained. An escaped Russian prisoner of war was also among those assisted, working for a time in the Lourmel kitchen. In turn, a local resistance group helped secure provisions for those Mother Maria’s community was struggling to feed.

In February 1943 Mother Maria, her son Yuri, Fr. Dimitri and their collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the camp at Compiegne.

In December, Yuri and Fr. Dimitri were deported to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany and from there to Dora, 40 kilometers away. On the 6th of February, Yuri was “dispatched for treatment” — a euphemism for being sentenced to death. Four days later Fr. Dimitri, lying on a dirt floor, died of pneumonia. His final action was to make the sign of the Cross. His body was disposed of in the Buchenwald crematorium.

Mother Maria was sent to Ravensbrück in Germany, where she endured for two years, an achievement in part explained by her long experience of ascetic life. “She was never downcast, never,” a fellow prisoner recalled. “She never complained…. She was on good terms with everyone. Anyone in the block, no matter who it was, knew her on equal terms. She was the kind of person who made no distinction between people [whether they] held extremely progressive political views [or had] religious beliefs radically different than her own. She allowed nothing of secondary importance to impede her contact with people.”

By March 1945, Mother Maria’s condition was critical. She had to lie down between roll calls and hardly spoke. Her face, a fellow prisoner Jacqueline Pery recalled, “revealed intense inner suffering. Already it bore the marks of death. Nevertheless Mother Maria made no complaint. She kept her eyes closed and seemed to be in a state of continual prayer. This was, I think, her Garden of Gethsemani.”

She died on Holy Saturday. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance. We are not certain of the details of her last day. According to one account, she was simply among the many selected for death that day. According to another, she took the place of another prisoner, a Jew. 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.”

We now know Mother Maria as St. Maria of Paris. Her commemoration occurs on July 20.

Every saint poses a challenge, but Mother Maria is perhaps among the most challenging saints. Her life is a passionate objection to any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings. Still more profoundly, she challenges each of us to a life of a deeper, more radical hospitality, a hospitality that includes not only those who share our faith and language but those whom we regard as “the other,” people in whom we resist recognizing the face of Christ.

Mother Maria was certain that there was no other path to heaven than participating in God’s mercy. “The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

We can sum up Mother Maria’s credo in just a few words: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.”

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A more detailed account of the life of St. Maria of Pais is posted at:

A collection of links about her, and those who worked with her, is in this section of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site:

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Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship . He is also the author of numerous books, including “Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue,” and wrote the introduction to “Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings” (Orbis Books, 2003).

* * *

Jim Forest

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date: November 8, 2011

Dear In Communion reader

The Holy Meal mosaic, Church of Sant Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, photo by Nick Thompson.

It is with mixed feelings that this appeal letter is written. After 21 years editing In Communion, I now pass on this challenging responsibility to a new editor, Pieter Dykhorst. With my 70th birthday just a few months away, it seems a good moment for the transition. (Let me add that this is not goodbye by any means — I’ll remain international secretary. Also, as an associate editor, I expect to work closely with the new editor.)

I recall waiting with Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, priest of our parish in Amsterdam, at a bus stop in Oxford 21 years ago. The Orthodox Peace Fellowship had existed for several years but could hardly have been a smaller organization. The money in our bank account barely covered the costs of printing and mailing out the small newsletter we published in those days. Perhaps two hundred people were on the mailing list. To support our family, I had another job and thus had little time to devote to OPF. There was no OPF secretary in North America. The question was: ought I to give up my job and focus on building up the nearly penniless OPF? Fr. Sergei, who clearly saw the need for such work in the Church, said “Perhaps this is the moment for a leap of faith.” And so the leap was taken.

If OPF has not grown hugely in the two decades since then, it has grown a lot, is certainly better known than it was, has helped gather and make available a great deal of information about the theology and practice of peacemaking, and has played a constructive role in various situations of conflict and war, most notably in Iraq and former-Yugoslavia. More Orthodox Christians feel themselves challenged to be peacemakers than was the case when there was no Orthodox Peace Fellowship. More of us realize – using a phrase from Clement of Alexandria – that, through baptism, we are called to be part of “an army that sheds no blood.”

Dear friend, you are part of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Please help us not only continue but grow. Try to make a donation more than once a year and – equally important – to make the Orthodox Peace Fellowship better known to others. One way to do that is to give someone a gift subscription.

Donate $100 or more (or the equivalent in other currencies), and by way of thanks we’ll send you a gift copy of Saint George and the Dragon (see an extract from that book in this issue) when it’s published in September.

In Christ’s peace,

Jim Forest
international secretary, Orthodox Peace Fellowship

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❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011


A Letter from the (Retiring) Editor

the OPF newsletter in 1991
The OPF newsletter, The Occasional Paper, in 1991

This is the last issue of In Communion that I’ll be editing. Pieter Dykhorst, an old friend and long-time member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is taking over the job. After this issue goes to press, I’ll be joining the community of people helping as associate editors.

It’s not easy to stop doing a work that has been so significant to me, but – after twenty-one years at the job – it’s time. I’ll be turning seventy in November and want to clear more space in my life for reading, writing and wandering.

Books, newspapers, journals and magazine have figured in my life since I was in the very early stages of literacy. Would that I still had a copy of a one-page family newspaper I made by hand using an alphabet of my own design. A year or two later, having become reasonably literate, mother gave me a set of hard rubber type in several fonts and sizes plus a tiny rotary press with which I turned out a midget publication that could be read by others. By the time I was ten, there were afternoons when I hung around the local daily newspaper, The Red Bank Register, watching several men set type from molten zinc on linotype machines. Occasionally one of them set a headline with my name – an instant treasure. In seventh grade, I started a school paper that was christened The Flame. In high school, on the staff of a monthly student newspaper, I was aware how lucky we were to have as faculty adviser a man who had been a journalist for The New York Times.

The first publication of real consequence that I worked with was The Catholic Worker. Its monthly print run was about 90,000 copies and its circulation was international. Encouraged by Dorothy Day, I acquired enough experience eventually to be appointed managing editor. Later on I was assistant editor of a monthly magazine called Liberation, whose focus at the time was on civil rights and whose authors included James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King.

first issue of In Communion
First issue of In Communion, February 1995

Since then I have been involved with many other publications – newspapers, business journals, press agencies, news services, magazines – but none of these meant more to me or involved me for so long a time as In Communion.

I’ve seen the journal move from a simple two-page newsletter called The Occasional Paper (launched in 1987 by Mariquita Platov and Jim Larrick) to something more substantial after they asked me, late in 1990, to take over the job. It remained quite an occasional paper until 1995, when the newsletter became a quarterly journal named In Communion. (You hold the 61st issue in your hands.)

I don’t recall anything that, on reflection, I wish we hadn’t published. Articles have covered a very wide spectrum – the prevention and ending of war, the making of peace, hospitality, the protection of life at every stage and circumstance of its development, aspects of spiritual life, biblical studies, nonviolent alternatives and the lives of the saints. (Our year-after-year attention to the life and writings of Mother Maria Skobtsova may have played a part in her canonization.)

Thanks to the web, most of what we have published over the years is available at the click of a mouse button via the OPF’s much-visited In Communion site.

I’m delighted Pieter Dykhorst will be my successor. He has experience in all the key areas that the editorship of In Communion requires. It was during a two-year stint Pieter had in Albania that I first met him – I was then writing a book about the resurrection of the Albanian Church and he was working closely with Archbishop Anastasios, a member of our advisory board. Pieter was born in South Africa. He is now in the last stages of completing a master of science degree in international/inter-cultural conflict resolution. As it happens, he lives in Washington, DC, and thus is in the same area as Alex Patico, OPF’s secretary in North America, making face-to-face collaboration between them not only possible but easy.
I’m looking forward to the Fall issue.

– Jim Forest

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011