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Living In Communion

From the OPF’s New Podcast:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Are You Fighting For?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Protection of the Mother of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demetrios. “Encyclical of Archbishop Demetrios for OXI Day 2015.” October 23, 2015.

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

Statement of Archbishop Demetrios on immigration in the United States, February 4, 2017:

Above: Greek fisherman aids refugees off the island of Lesvos. Photograph by Sergey Ponomarev.


“As Orthodox Christians and as Americans, we express our sadness  and pain for our brothers and sisters all over the world who find themselves in tragic circumstances of hostility, violence and war, where families have been torn apart, displaced and where people are denied basic human rights. Following the example of Christ, we are called to offer unconditional love to our fellow men while   starting immediately to pray for them. In our great country, which has historically and practically welcomed people of every nation, tribe, and tongue, we have the distinct privilege and honor to offer philoxenia – love of the stranger – to humans from all walks of life.

The New Testament is replete with an ethos of philoxenia – love of the stranger – based not on fear but on care and on gratitude. Welcome one another, says Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans, even as Christ welcomed you (Rom. 15:7). Christian philoxenia must not only be extended to those close to us, but must be extended to those near and far away, and even to those who will not reciprocate—to the poor, the stranger, even those who hate us. For Christ says, if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? (Luke 14:14).

As a vital expression of love, we must continue to fervently pray for peace for the entire humanity, especially for those affected by difficult circumstances. Our fellow humans who are suffering under terrible conditions and ordeals all over the world are expecting justice and begging for our love and prayers; even the least
among them. As Christ said, Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40). In these most difficult times, the strongest expression of our philoxenia becomes a very urgent matter.

United as one people, as one nation under God, let us proceed courageously, prudently, and lovingly. Always with the help of the Almighty God!”

Cover Story IC70: From Herod to ISIS through Christ

From Herod to ISIS through Christ: No Record of Retribution!

by Pieter Dykhorst

2 St john baptist Cover

Having beheld the strange and ineffable humility of the Incarnate God the Word, O Divinely-blessed Baptist, when He bowed His Divine Head to thee and received a servile baptism, thou thyself wast wholly filled with great humility. Entreat therefore this Divinely-loved virtue for us also, who are possessed by pride, that we may cry to Him from a humble heart: Alleluia!

Wholly filled with the gifts of Grace, in finishing the course of earthly life, John the Divinely-chosen, thou didst teach all to please God well through fulfillment of the Law and repentance. Therefore, we sing out thankful praises to thee, the great teacher of truth:

Rejoice, planter of the law and statues of the Lord!

Rejoice, exposer of Herod’s lawlessness!

Rejoice, zealot for his correction!

Rejoice, thou who didst suffer imprisonment and
bonds for the sake of righteousness!

Rejoice, thou who wast beheaded for the truth!

Rejoice, for thy body was given an honorable burial by thy disciples!

Rejoice, for by God’s providence thy head was preserved incorrupt!

Rejoice, for it has granted consolation, sanctification, and healing to Christians!

Rejoice, for the faithful piously bow down also before thy right hand
which baptized the Lord!

Rejoice, for many miracles are thereby accomplished even to the present day!

Rejoice, for by thee the faithful are delivered from the dishonor of passions!

Rejoice, for by thee the sinful are moved to repentance!

Rejoice, great John, Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist of the Lord!

O great and most glorious John, Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord! Receive from us now this supplication offered to thee, and by thy prayers, which are pleasing to God, deliver us from evil of all kind, and rescue us from eternal torment, and make us heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven, that throughout the ages we may chant unto God: Alleluia!

O Baptist of Christ, Holy Forerunner, last of the prophets, first of the martyrs, instructor of fasters and desert-dwellers, teacher of purity and close friend of Christ! I pray thee; I run to thee. Do not reject me from thy protection, but lift me up who am fallen in many sins; renew my soul by repentance, as by a second Baptism. Purify me, corrupted by sins, and compel me to enter therein where no corruption can enter: into the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen. (“The Akathist to St. John the Baptist,” Kontakion VIII, Ikos VIII, Kontakion XIII, Prayer to St. John the Baptist.)

Fr. John Parker of South Carolina recently wrote an article titled “An Orthodox Response to Beheading by Muslims” exploring the Church’s historical response to the martyrdom of its children and what it should be today.

The essay asks rhetorically “is violence—individual or large-scale––a possible Orthodox response?” To shape his answer, Fr. John looks at the examples of martyrs beginning with the first of the New Testament, St. John the Baptist, and the first of the new Church, St. Stephen. With each saint listed, Fr. John points to the historical record and it’s stunning silent testimony that “there was no record of retribution.”

Retribution for the murder of John or Stephen would be unthinkable! Imagine if Jesus had prayed for help to save or avenge John the Baptist––the entire Gospel would have turned upside down in a moment. We try so hard to find any justification in the Gospel for violence but there is none. Jesus never appealed to the authorities, raised a mob, or led a protest. He committed no act of violence––even when he cleared the temple, there is no record he harmed anyone. When he had the chance and justification at Gethsemane, he didn’t even encourage Peter’s zeal. What we could have done with different words! “Well done, Peter. Those who live by the sword understand the world. Today you defended me, but the time is coming when you must defend yourself. Wait until you gain strength. Today we will be passive because we are weak—one sword is simply not enough.”

One of the more remarkable aspects of the response of Jesus and his followers to the violence done to John the Baptist, Jesus himself, and the young Church is that their actions ran sharply counter to what might be expected. In fact, Rome saw its violence against them as preemptive––the authorities sensed rebellion everywhere. Palestine of Jesus’ day was swirling with political and revolutionary intrigue—the Jews desperately needed a political, military Messiah, and had Jesus wanted to inaugurate his kingdom with violence, he could have: The twelve legions of angels Jesus had standing by in the Garden were probably more than enough. The space of calm into which Jesus was born was brief and rippling with unrest, but waiting for a champion. And Jesus ignored it, did nothing to encourage rebellion, and gave an example exactly the opposite of what any sane person would have advised.

Instead, when Jesus heard of John’s murder, he retreated by himself, but when he saw people following him, he got back to the work of ministering mercy to them.

After the murder of St. Stephen the Proto-martyr—who prayed that his killers be forgiven even as the stones began to rain down on him—“was there an apostolic uprising?” as Fr. John teasingly asks in his essay. Instead, through responses of prayer, love, and forgiveness, the Church swelled with the numbers of its enemies its love prompted to conversion! Stephen pointed the way as he was dying by praying in the manner of his Savior on the cross: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them. Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

As Christians scattered throughout the region in response to growing persecution, they left us no record of raising bands of fighters to return to Jerusalem “to kill our enemies there before they come kill us here.” Instead, they continued to preach to hostile reception wherever they went, often with the same murderous response. The historical record is instead replete with evidence like that from the trial of St. Cyprian of Carthage:

At the trial, St Cyprian calmly and firmly refused to offer sacrifice to idols and was sentenced to beheading with a sword. Hearing the sentence, St Cyprian said, “Thanks be to God!” All the people cried out with one voice, “Let us also be beheaded with him!” Coming to the place of execution, the saint again gave his blessing to all and arranged to give twenty-five gold coins to the executioner. He then tied a handkerchief over his eyes, and gave his hands to be bound to the presbyter and archdeacon standing near him and lowered his head. Christians put their cloths and napkins in front of him so as to collect the martyr’s blood.

We must try to imagine––we can’t know––the human suffering these murders caused, the grief and fear experienced by the Christian community, or their struggle with hatred and desire for revenge, though millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ are living it today, many of whom are giving the same testimony the Holy Spirit has handed down through the Church from the time of the first martyr.

Fr. John wrote before the twenty-one Egyptian Copts were killed on a beach in Libya in February, 2015, but surely their witness may be added to his list. One mother who lost her son that day and couldn’t be blamed were she to demand angry justice said instead when she was asked if she had a message for her son’s murderers: “I thank you [ISIS], may the Lord touch your hearts and light a way for you so you don’t end up in a bad place—light a way for you so you don’t end up in hell.” Another mother whose son was also taken said she’d invite his murderer into her home “and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven.”

This makes no sense to the worldly minded because it is not of this world. It is the response of those who are in the world and know they are not of it. In “The Akathist to St. John the Baptist” we find joy, salvation, and consolation in contemplating not just the fact of his sacrifice, but in its purpose and Christ’s ultimate victory at the end of all things.  IC

Letter From The Editor, IC70

Letter from the Editor:

letter from the editor 2

Dear reader,

This issue represents an effort to introduce ourselves to those who are not already familiar with us. As a result of our efforts, you may be holding in your hands the first issue of In Communion you’ve ever picked up. Perhaps a friend who subscribes handed it to you or you came across it in church. Maybe you saw it lying somewhere and picked it up because you’ve heard of us and you’re curious to find out for yourself who we are and what we do. If we are new to you, you may want to start by reading “The Orthodox Peace Fellowship: a Fellowship of Orthodox Christian Peacemakers” on page seven, a short narrative that describes who we are.

As you read this issue of In Communion, you will discover exactly the sort of content we’ve always published, all of which is archived on our website where anyone may go to freely read. You may be surprised that we are conspicuously apolitical even though many of the topics we care about are those that perennially fill the public square with noisy debate. Yet, we do have members from all over the political map. No one must sign a political statement to join! But because the Gospel does not lend itself to any particular politics no matter how much we sometimes want it to, we seek to shape our attitudes and behaviors by looking to the words and example of our Lord, the Apostles, Church Fathers, Saints, and the Tradition of the Orthodox Church. We bring our faith to our individual political activities, not the other way around, recognizing as we individually grow in salvation that disagreements are bound to occur. What matters is fidelity to our calling to be peacemakers: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

Nevertheless, we take certain stands that to some resemble standard political rhetoric (as examples: we are consistently pro-peace, which some misinterpret as appeasing anti-warism; others take our consistent pro-life stand as fundamentalist intolerance). I welcome you to read what you are holding, visit our website, and join our conversation, or start your own about what it means to be a Christian peacemaker in an increasingly violent world. You may decide to join us and contribute to helping us enlarge the conversation; but if not, feel free to make full use of the resources you find on our website. If you like what you see, please spread the word.

Pieter Dykhorst, editor In Communion

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship: An Introduction, IC70

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship: A Fellowship of Orthodox Christian Peacemakers.

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24).

Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection (Easter verses, Orthodox Liturgy).

FraAngelicoSword-1005x1024 the OPF
“The Capture of Christ,” by Fra. Angelico, c. 1440

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship of the Protection of the Mother of God is an association of Orthodox Christian believers seeking to practice the Christian peacemaking vocation in every area of life, to bear witness to the peace of Christ by applying the principles of the Gospel to situations of division and conflict at every level of human relationship, and to promote prayer and worship, acts of mercy and service, and love for all human beings and for all of creation. We are not a political association and support no political parties, agendas, or candidates, and we promote no ideology other than that we should “repent and believe, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Were we to attempt to formulate an ideology, we could not improve on the beatitudes from the sermon on the mount.

From the earliest days of the Church, followers of Jesus have sought to live out their Christian faith in its fullness, working to build communities of worship, providing for those lacking the necessities of life, loving not only neighbors but enemies, seeking conversion of adversaries rather than victory over them, and practicing repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation as normal virtues of sacramental life.

This has never been easy. Each generation has had to confront the problem of evil and combat its structures and also has had to suffer the tension that exists between membership in the Church and citizenship in a political entity, be that an empire or a nation-state.

Often the teachings of Jesus have been dismissed, even by believers, as too idealistic. Yet every generation, even in the era of Hitler and Stalin, has been blessed with heroic witnesses to membership in “an army that sheds no blood,” as Clement of Alexandria described the Church.

Among the principles that guide us:
  • Aware that each person is made in the image and likeness of God, we seek recovery of a sense of familial connection which, while respecting national identity, transcends every tribal, ethnic, and national boundary. This is the oneness the Church mirrors when it is gathered before the Holy Table.
  • We use our vocation and whatever special gifts and resources God has given us, especially our participation in eucharistic community, as we strive to undertake constructive action on behalf of those who are endangered, from the child in the womb to the aged awaiting death, in every circumstance of life and across all boundaries.
  • We aspire to eliminate violence as a means of conflict resolution, and we promote resolution of conflicts by mediation, negotiation, and other forms of nonviolent action.
  • We pray that, while no one can be certain that he or she will always find a nonviolent response to every crisis that may arise, God will show us in each situation ways of resistance to evil that will not require killing opponents.
  • We offer support to those whose conscience leads them to refuse participation in war and who struggle against evil in non-military ways. We believe conscientious objection to participation in war is consistent with the Gospels and Holy Tradition.
  • We respect those who disagree with us and may choose to serve in their country’s armed forces. We do not promote the naive notion that a nation may be pacifist as a national defense strategy and acknowledge that in our fallen world people often feel compelled to choose collective violence in response to evil. Nevertheless, we find no basis for a Just War theology in Orthodox tradition and, consistent with the earliest teaching of the Church, consider all war sin. Rather than seek to justify war, we are encouraged to exhaust all efforts to seek peace. We believe more wars would be prevented by focusing on doing peace well before war rather than waiting for war to arrive to argue how to do it well.
  • We encourage the compassionate treatment of prisoners and their rehabilitation, with special attention to restitution by wrong-doers to victims of their crimes. We reject the execution of criminals as incompatible with the teachings of Christ.
  • We commit ourselves to pray for all, especially fellow believers, who suffer around the world from all forms of violence, evil, oppression, and injustice that they may be delivered from evil, healed from their wounds, and enabled to find renewed ways to live in peace and safety.
  • We further commit ourselves to prayer for enemies and endeavor to communicate God’s love for them, recognizing our own violence and praying that, through Christ’s saving death on the Cross, we will be reconciled with God and with each other.

Thus we strive to avoid bitterness in dealing with controversy, seeking conversion both of ourselves and our adversary. Aware that we are in need of conversion not only in the way we relate to other people but to the world God has put into our care, we try to change our lives in order to live as priests of God’s world, asking continuously for the Holy Spirit to descend and transfigure the earth. We seek to cooperate with efforts to protect and preserve the environment which do not involve violence, coercive methods of population control, the promotion of particular political agendas, or violations of the sanctity of human life.

Our work includes:

Theological research: Much needs to be done within the Church to better understand ways in which Orthodox Christians should respond to division, conflict, injustice, war, and the relationship of the believer to the state. We encourage research on peace in the Bible, peace in the Liturgy, examples of ways Orthodox people and churches have responded to war from ancient to modern times, and the collection of relevant quotations and stories from the Fathers and the saints. One significant result of this effort is the book, For the Peace from Above: an Orthodox Resource book on War, Peace, and Nationalism, edited by Hildo Bos and Jim Forest and published by Syndesmos, the international association of Orthodox youth. The full text of this reference book is also on the OPF web site.

Publication: Our quarterly journal, In Communion, not only provides its readers with helpful essays and news but serves as a forum for dialogue. The main articles from past issues of In Communion plus many other resources are made available via our web site: OPF members are also invited to take part in the OPF List, a news and discussion forum.

Practical assistance in conflict areas: As one of our members, a priest in the Republic of Georgia, points out: “Activity of the OPF is of particular importance in those Orthodox countries going through war and the horror of national conflict. The OPF can help Orthodox people to practice peace and tolerance and to show that war and national conflict are satanic traps.”

Structure: The Orthodox Peace Fellowship has members in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Its international secretariat is in The Netherlands. Decisions are made by the OPF secretaries and officers in consultation with each other, with counsel from members and the Fellowship’s Board of Advisors. Our largest branch at present is in North America. There are occasional meetings and conferences in the United States and Canada as well as in Europe. We encourage the formation of local and national chapters.

A description of our vocation:

We are faithful sons and daughters of the Church, not the Church’s rescue committee. Fr. John Meyendorff once said to a member of a schismatic Orthodox group, “We do not save the Church. The Church saves us.” Our modest task is not to invent anything or announce a new theology or reorganize the Church but simply to reopen forgotten or neglected Church teachings regarding day-to-day life in a world in which enmity is always a problem, in which millions suffer from hunger, thirst, and homelessness, and in which war is rarely not occurring somewhere on our small planet.

The Church has preserved the Liturgy down through the centuries. It has preserved the Bible and the Creed. It has preserved the writings of the Church Fathers and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. It has developed and maintained a calendar of sacred time. But it has been somewhat less attentive to calling us to account for the teaching it has preserved. Over the centuries, when state and faith were in conflict, we have more often been obedient citizens than obedient Christians.

We believe in a hierarchy of identities. We are not first people of a certain country, then Orthodox Christians. It is the other way around. We are first Orthodox Christians, then people of a particular state, national, or tribal affiliation. We renounce none of these identities nor do we ignore any of their obligations, but when the requirements of one identity clash with another, we are required to know which comes first.

We try to remind ourselves and our neighbors that there is no such thing as a good or holy war––that it defames God and the Gospel to use adjectives associated with sanctity and heaven in that most hellish of all activities, the organized killing of human beings and the destruction of the environment upon which all life depends. Every possible effort must be made to avoid war, but not by cowardly avoidance or failure to recognize evil for what it is and to resist it. Chamberlain was not a peacemaker. Those who fail to see and resist evil are its accomplices. Yet we believe that prayer and fasting are also weapons of struggle, that there is such a thing as spiritual combat, and that what we seek is not the killing of evil people—such a task would require a holocaust that would destroy the human race—but their conversion, which is also our conversion, for the line dividing good from evil runs not between people or classes but, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us, right through each and every human heart.

We are people attempting, with God’s help, to love our enemies as Christ commands his followers to do. This is not a sentimental undertaking but a soul-saving quest to be liberated from enmity. In the seventh century, St. Maximus the Confessor put it in these words: “‘But I say to you,’ the Lord says, ‘love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.’ Why did he command these things? So that he might free you from hatred, sadness, anger, and grudges, and might grant you the greatest possession of all, perfect love, which is impossible to possess except by the one who loves all equally in imitation of God.”

Our concern about the sanctity of human life is not limited to war. We seek to protect the lives of the unborn—not by denouncing women who feel they have no other choice, but to help them bring their children safely into this world and to do whatever is in our power to make the world more welcoming. With the same motives, we do not regard euthanasia as an acceptable solution for those whose illnesses seem to be incurable or who are severely handicapped. We do whatever we can in support of hospices for the dying, including effective pain relief for those who are suffering. At the same time we oppose taking extraordinary measures to prolong life when in the natural order a person is beyond hope of recovery.

Our view of peace is not borrowed from secular ideologies or political movements. It is not based on the life of Gandhi or Martin Luther King or any of the heroes of nonviolence, even though we greatly admire such people and learn from them. It comes from the Gospel. We understand peace both through the words of Jesus and through his actions. We experience peace in the Liturgy and the eucharistic mystery and try to bring it with us when we return to ordinary life. Day by day we discover peace as the mystery of healing—within ourselves and between each other—the healing that comes from forgiveness, repentance, and love.

Peacemaking is not an idea or principle. It is how we live. It is Christ’s life in us. It is less a refusal to do terrible things to others than doing those things which communicate the love and mercy of God.

We have heard it many times, but let us never stop remembering what Jesus teaches us about the Last Judgement: What we do to the least person we do to him. May God preserve us from harming the least person. May God give us the love which empowers us to be merciful to the least person.

Peacemakers are not rare. We find them everywhere: the parent sorting out a dispute within his or her family, the parish council member finding a solution to a conflict that might tear a parish to shreds, the priest hearing confessions who helps a penitent experience God’s mercy, the missionary who helps awaken faith in another and points the way to baptism, the volunteer who lives a life of hospitality in a neighborhood others avoid, the driver who responds to dangerous actions on the highway with a prayer rather than a gesture of hatred. We could spend the rest of our lives noting acts of peacemaking.

Our fellowship exists to give witness that peacemaking is something absolutely ordinary. It is an integral part of everyday life. It has to do with how we pray, for whom we pray, how we listen, how we speak, what we do with our anger and frustration, our willingness to forgive, and our attempts to serve as a bridge between those who hate each other.

May God give us strength to persevere in being instruments of the divine mercy.

Must I be a pacifist to join the Orthodox Peace Fellowship?

No. Pacifism is not a Christian ideology. The term was coined in the late 19th century as a political philosophy and has since been used to describe a wide variety of philosophical and political attitudes toward various forms of violence at different levels of relationship from personal to international. The Gospel of Jesus Christ predates and excludes all political ideologies even while many are influenced by Christian teaching. Pacifism as is generally understood is a Western idea formed in a Christian civilizational milieu and often bears marks of Christian virtue but does not capture or fully reflect the ethos of the Gospel peacemaking vocation. But in its most simple definition, “the belief that all conflict should be resolved peacefully,” pacifism is a great idea! The OPF does not reject the idea but does not endorse pacifism in any form. Some OPF members are pacifists; some are not. Instead, we simply look to Christ and our Orthodox faith and tradition for guidance in becoming fully Christian peacemakers.

The aspiration to eliminate violence as a means of conflict resolution is something all sane people have in common, yet few would say that they would never use violent methods to protect the innocent. All we can do is attempt to find ways of responding to injustice that are consistent with the Gospel. Clearly nonviolent methods are to be preferred to violent.

Peacemaking is not something optional for Christians. A major element of Christ’s teaching is his call to become peacemakers. They are among the blessed and are witnesses to the Kingdom of God. To be a peacemaker, Christ says, is to be a child of God. In the years of Christ’s life described in the Gospel, one of the most notable aspects is that he killed no one but healed many. He is not a warrior king. Caesar rides a horse while Christ enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Even when he clears the Temple of people who have made a place of worship into a place of commerce, he does so using nothing more than a whip of cords, not a weapon that can cause injuries; the only life endangered by his action was his own. His final instruction to Peter before his crucifixion is, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword.” Saying that, he healed the wound Peter had inflicted on one of the men arresting him.

In the chapters prior to the story of Jesus and his disciples in the garden, Matthew records Jesus describing in several narratives what life on earth would be like, what the Kingdom of God is like, about the end and his return, and the final judgement. Then after the Last Supper came the Garden, where Peter, thinking he had finally put all the pieces together, drew his sword. After telling him to put it away, Jesus said a remarkable thing that is frequently left out in telling this story but when taken in full context, frames Jesus words about living and dying by the sword. Jesus asked Peter “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”

When we consider the choice Jesus faced in the garden, we see it was not either swallow hard or chicken out, but was rather a choice between implementing God’s way of salvation or…what would the other choice have been? The alternative had to include slaughtering his enemies! The plan Satan offered Jesus in the desert involved glory, bounty, and bloodshed; surely the world’s template for victory remained an option for Jesus here. Indeed, it seems we too face the legitimate option of violence in dealing with our enemies. Jesus seems to have said not that we have no right to choose, but rather “How will scripture be fulfilled if you do it your way?”

And then, on the cross, far from calling down his Father’s vengeance on those who participated in his execution, Jesus appeals for mercy: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Again and again, throughout his earthly life Christ gives his followers a witness of making peace and restoring communion through forgiveness, love, mercy, and sacrifice.

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Living in communion: A revisit with Fr. Thomas Hopko, IC70

Living in Communion: Interview with Father Thomas Hopko

4 Ladder of Divine Ascent Hopko

IC: Father Thomas, many people recognize there is a value in forgiving and being forgiven but see it only on the human level without a theological dimension. Would you say forgiveness is a divine act?

Fr. T: If a person is inspired by the spirit of God, he or she can forgive, certainly. People can forgive. But I’m not sure you can say that in general there is the feeling that forgiveness is of value. I have met people who would say, “I don’t care. I can go on and live my life; it really doesn’t matter to me. If I’m not bothering you and you aren’t bothering me, why be reconciled?” This is plain indifference.

Another reason why people don’t value forgiveness is that they consider it to be collusion with evil. They feel that if a person has done something really terrible, he or she should be reminded of it until death and, moreover, that the evil should be avenged. And of course, most of us feel that any offense committed against us is irreparable. Nothing that the other person does can ever cancel it. If you kill my child, for example, there is nothing you can do in reparation, and for me to forgive would simply be to condone the evil. So I’m not sure that most people value forgiveness.

When you look at it from the point of view of justice, there is no reason for forgiveness. Only if God exists and we realize that there is either a world with evil or no world at all can we understand that we are going to have to undergo the trial of evil. But if that is not there, I don’t know why anyone would forgive. Or want to. But I do think that people who are not believers in God, by the fact they are made in God’s image, can have the sense that reconciliation is better than allowing the evil to go on. By definition, forgiveness is breaking the chain of evil, beginning with recognizing that evil really has been done. People tend to think forgiveness means something bad was not really done, that a person didn’t understand the consequences, or whatever. If that were the case, there would be no need for forgiveness; it could be seen simply as a mistake. Forgiveness has to admit, and rage over, and weep over a real evil, and only then say, “We are going to live in communion one with another. We are going to carry on.” Never forgetting––you can’t, at any rate—but carrying on in a spirit of love without letting the evil poison the future relationship. Certainly that is what happens theologically. The striking thing in the Gospel is that God refuses to let evil destroy the relationship. Even if we kill him, he will say, “Forgive them.”

IC: Implied in what you say is that relationship is the highest aim, and that an obstacle to relationship is what calls the need for forgiveness.

FR. T: I prefer the word communion to relationship. The Orthodox approach is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that God is a Trinity of persons in absolute identity of being and of life in perfect communion. Therefore, communion is the given. Anything that breaks that communion destroys the very roots of our existence. That’s why forgiveness is essential if there is going to be human life in the image of God. We are all sinners, living with other sinners, and so seventy times seven times a day we must re-establish communion—and want to do so. The desire is the main thing, and the feeling that it is of value.

The obsession with relationship—the individual in search of relationships—in the modern world shows an ontological crack in our being. There is no such thing as an individual. He was created, probably, in a Western European university. We don’t recognize our essential communion. I don’t look at you and say, “You are my life.”

Modern interpretations of the commandment in the Torah reflect this individualistic attitude. The first commandment is that you love God with all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength, and the second is that you love your neighbor as yourself. The only way you can prove you love God is by loving your neighbor, and the only way you can love your neighbor in this world is by endless forgiveness. So, “love your neighbor as yourself.” However, in certain modern editions of the Bible, I have seen this translated as, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” But that’s not what it says.

I recall a televised discussion program in which we were asked what was most important in Christianity. Part of what I said was that the only way we can find ourselves is to deny ourselves. That’s Christ’s teaching. If you cling to yourself, you lose yourself. The unwillingness to forgive is the ultimate act of not wanting to let yourself go. You want to defend yourself, assert yourself, protect yourself. There is a consistent line through the Gospel—if you want to be the first you must will to be the last. The other fellow, who taught the psychology of religion at a Protestant seminary, said, “What you are saying is the source of the neuroses of Western society. What we need is healthy self-love and healthy self-esteem.” Then he quoted that line, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He insisted that you must love yourself first and have a sense of dignity. If one has that, forgiveness is either out of the question or an act of condescension toward the poor sinner. It is no longer an identification with the other as a sinner, too. I said that of course if we are made in the image of God it’s quite self-affirming, and self-hatred is an evil. But my main point is that there is no self there to be defended except the one that comes into existence by the act of love and self-emptying. It’s only by loving the other that my self actually emerges. Forgiveness is at the heart of that.

As we were leaving a venerable old rabbi with a shining face called us over. “That line, you know, comes from the Torah, from Leviticus,” he said, “and it cannot possibly be translated ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ It says, ‘You shall love your neighbor as being your own self.’” Your neighbor is your true self. You have no self in yourself.

After this I started reading the Church Fathers in this light, and that’s what they all say—“Your brother is your life.” I have no self in myself except the one that is fulfilled by loving the other. The Trinitarian character of God is a metaphysical absolute here, so to speak. God’s own self is another—His Son. The same thing happens on the human level. So the minute I don’t feel deeply that my real self is the other, then I’ll have no reason to forgive anyone. But if that is my reality, and my only real self is the other, and my own identity and fulfillment emerges only in the act of loving the other, that gives substance to the idea that we are potentially God-like beings. Now, if you add to that that we are all to some degree faulty and weak and so on, that act of love will always be an act of forgiveness. That’s how I find and fulfill myself as a human being made in God’s image. Otherwise, I cannot. So the act of forgiveness is the very act by which our humanity is constituted. Deny that, and we kill ourselves. It’s a metaphysical suicide.

IC: You are making a distinction here between the individual and the person.

Fr. T: The individual is the person that refuses to love. When a person refuses to identify in being and value with “the least,” even with “the enemy,” then the person becomes an individual, a self enclosed being trying to have proper relationships—usually on his or her own terms. But again, we would say that the person only comes into existence by going out of oneself into communion with the other. So my task is not to decide whether or not I will be in relationship with you but to realize that I am in communion with you: my life is yours, and your life is mine. Without this, there is no way that we are going to be able to carry on.

IC: Forgiveness is not an achievement, an act, so much as the development of an understanding of reality?

Fr. T: It is a decision in the sense that you have to will it. You have to choose life. A person can choose death by not forgiving. So there is a sense in which you can destroy yourself by not saying yes to the reality that actually exists. That’s the choice: yes or no to what truly exists. Forgiveness is the great yes. So there is a choice. In the Greek patristic tradition, the more a person is a person, the more we realize and will our communion with others in the act of love, the less we choose. So the freer we are, the less choice we have.

That’s almost opposite to the post-Enlightenment, secular Western thought. We tend to think the freer we are, the more choice we have. For example, if you would sin against me and I want to love with the love of God, then I do not have a choice whether or not I should forgive you, I only have a choice whether or not I will. And I must, if I want to be alive. If I were truly holy, I wouldn’t even choose—it would be a spontaneous act.

As an individual, if someone insults me or offends me or betrays me, it is impossible to forgive them, lacking this understanding of the reality of our interconnectedness. So this understanding is needed because one suffers from not being able to forgive.

I think that in our culture the willingness to admit there is real evil is difficult for us—it is such a violent and awesome position towards life. Of course, people in tremendous pain—rape victims, incest victims, etc.—have to forgive if they are going to go on living. But the main forgiving that needs doing in everybody’s life, the central act of forgiveness and one that indicates spiritual maturity in every case without exception, is the forgiveness of the parents. We tend either to blame parents or idealize them—both of which cripple life. In order to forgive them, one must first admit the offense, and that may mean enduring incredible pain. Rage and sadness have to be faced in order to forgive. The reason that we can’t forgive is because we don’t want to face the pain and rage, to admit what really happened.

So people try to live without facing all this. Or when that becomes impossible, it can mean trying to lose oneself in a cult or other form of collective. You sell your soul so that you don’t have to choose anymore. This wish to escape is what fueled a great deal of what happened in the 1960s and since. People wanted to lose themselves; they couldn’t handle the individual freedoms, because they weren’t on a deep enough level. So there was a flight. I think even the feminist movement is a response to this. In The Flight from Woman, Karl Stern shows that in Western culture there has been an almost pathological flight from the feminine, from woman, which means a flight from communion, a flight from the other. The individualistic, radical, fallen, male values became the values for the culture as a whole, and that’s the cause of the Western neuroses.

The burden of freedom is cruel—“how cruel is the love of God.” But that’s what we are called for. The individualistic or the collectivistic solutions will not work. We are persons made for free and voluntary communion––in love, in truth, and in reality––with other persons. This means that in the way we experience life, mercy, and forgiveness are at the heart of it, beginning in one’s own family. That’s where it’s so, so painful.

My feeling, being a radical Orthodox Christian, is that God is not removed from the world but rather enters into the world and gets nailed to a cross. Unless we accept Christ crucified, which is a scandal to those who want God to be some kind of power figure and total foolishness to those who want it all to fall into place intellectually within their own terms, there’s no Gospel. But if Christ crucified is at the heart of the matter, then evil is real and forgiveness is real and freedom is real, and there’s no other way to deify life but through an act of mercy.

IC: There are some who feel that to understand all is to forgive all. If we could see the entire chain of causality, there would be no reason to forgive, because we would understand.

Fr. T: I wouldn’t agree. Actually, when you see things clearly, you can see that certainly we are victimized. There’s a woman I’m thinking of who must forgive her father and her uncle for raping her over a period of years when she was a child. Once she begins to see things, she can admit that her father was also a victim, that in many ways he was conditioned—that’s what the Bible means when it says sins visited to the fourth generation. There is such a thing as a tradition of evil. That’s why I like to use the expression that forgiveness is breaking the chain of evil. But everyone is given that possibility to break that chain. As long as I’m understanding, justifying, or explaining, I become just one more link in the chain of evil.

IC: Could you explain what you mean by evil?

Fr. T: In Orthodox theology, we speak about evil, or sin, as either voluntary or involuntary, conscious or unconscious. We would not define sin as the cold-blooded, freely sovereign and intellectual act whereby I perpetrate some evil—destroy someone’s life, for example. It’s much more complicated. One of the points of the Adam story is that we are not born in Paradise. It is anything but Paradise. A child of a hysterical, drug-addicted parent is going to be born drug addicted as well. There is a tendency toward evil in us, biologically, psychologically, genetically. Father Alexander Schmemann used to say that the spiritual life consists in how you deal with what you have been dealt. We’ve all been dealt something. Our theological claim is that where you have a good measure of faith, and love, and forgiveness, you can restore human nature. You can pass on a more healthy, integrated, peaceful, joyful humanity to your progeny. You can be a presence of forgiveness and mercy, but you can also be a presence of the opposite. In order to be a presence of mercy, you must admit tragedy; you can’t just explain it away in terms of genetics, or economics.

There is a freedom: what you do with what you have. It’s not a sovereign freedom as though I were just emerging as a pure, pristine angel. No. But the point is if you could see the causes and influences, you would come to the conclusion that there is a great deal of victimization, but at the same time, there are opportunities for people to break the chain of evil, to forgive and not to allow it to go on. Sartre says you make a choice every second. A choice about what? A choice about what you are going to do about where you are. At the very heart of that choice is always going to be an act of forgiveness.

In The Pillar of Fire, Karl Stern writes that what the modern person cannot accept is forgiveness and grace. We would rather take our punishment, as it were. God says, “No, I forgive you whether you like it or not.” That’s the only fire of hell—this loving forgiveness of God. That’s why Jesus says there is only one unforgivable sin—the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. And what is that? It is the unwillingness to be forgiven and to forgive. The proud cannot accept grace.

IC: Much is being written about the need to forgive oneself. Does that make sense in Christian terms?

Fr. T: Of course. Forgiving oneself means accepting forgiveness from God—and from other people. Evagrios of Pontus, a fourth-century writer, said that there are in us many selves, really, but at base there are two: the real self, which is the Christ-self, and a legion of other selves, which are the Adamic selves. What happens when we hear the word of grace is that we are split down the middle. We don’t want grace because of the pain we have to face, the fears and so on. But one of the things that happens—one of the lies of the Devil, so to speak—is the conviction that we are not worth it. It isn’t for us. We are too bad, worthless. Then there comes a point, as Evagrios said, when the Christ-self needs to be convinced that “yes, I exist, and I am acceptable,” and so to have pity and mercy on those other selves.

IC: Do you see a difference between evil or sinful acts and a larger attitude that chooses darkness rather than light? Evil is not outside of us, isn’t that so?

Fr. T: For many people evil resides in someone else. But I think your distinction is very good, because our understanding of the Christian view is that we will sin until we die. Even baptism is for the forgiveness of sins “all the days of our life.” Baptism puts us in the context of forgiveness and mercy, which then allows what is called the invisible warfare, the unseen struggle, to go on. You are going to be sinful—that’s why Jesus says “seventy-times-seven.” It is inherent in the human life. Sin is to be expected, but the loving of the darkness is not.

IC: In the Christian view, we are reconciled, we are forgiven. Paul Tillich, in a sermon on the parable of the sinful woman and the Pharisee, points out that repentance comes after being forgiven. It is not a payment in order to be forgiven.

Fr. T: It’s both. However, it’s important from our perspective what the woman in the parable then does. She does not live happily ever after but enters into a life of tremendous struggle.

Chrysostom says you are baptized in order to struggle. Take Mary of Egypt, the classic example of the forgiven harlot: she went into the desert and wept the rest of her life, not to win God by her tears or to earn forgiveness, and not to make reparation, but out of the love of God for being liberated and for the sense of what sin really is and the desire not to fall into it again. One problem in both the liberal and the fundamentalist forms of Christianity is the absence of an ongoing ascetic dimension. If you don’t have to pay for your sins because Jesus has, this can open the door to a life of profligacy. The more liberal line is: this is the way I am, this is the way God made me. God loves me, God forgives me, and so there’s nothing for me to do but carry on with my life.

IC: What do you mean by the ascetic dimension?

Fr. T: It is making nothing an end in itself except God, that is, ordering the natural passions to their proper end, which is God himself and love itself. The passions are part of our nature but must be directed in the service of love, meaning the good of the other, the affirmation of the other. This nature must affirm the truth, the reality of things the way they are. The metaphysical base is a communion of love and being and truth for which we have been created. To say yes to that is the deified life. But to say yes to that, in the fallen world, means that you must, as Saint Paul says, crucify the flesh with its passions and desires. You must kill the ego. The “old Adam” has to die, and he always dies kicking and screaming. The multiplicity of these false selves must be exposed, and that is not easy. The evil of other people has to be named and forgiven, which is also not easy.

In the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, you find that the moment of grace is usually a violent moment. To see things clearly, to realize, as O’Connor says, that “even the virtues will be burnt up,” very often requires an incredibly violent act. We often need to be shaken into that realization. It seems to me that that’s the meaning in the scriptures of trials and sufferings and afflictions and so on—to have people realize what and who they are, really. That’s the ascetic dimension, because the minute a person says, “I will work to show mercy,” every devil in hell will work to try to stop him.

IC: You spoke of the division in us between the Christ-self and the legion of other selves—two natures at war within us. Is it that one nature has ultimately to be transformed? You also spoke about a person who is free and yet has no choice—this is a totally transformed being, isn’t it?

Fr. T: We would say there’s a human nature that when it is truly itself is full of the grace of God and in communion with God and is, therefore, deified and becomes one with the divine nature. On the other hand, there is the human nature that is broken, fragmented, estranged from its real foundation and in need of salvation. The transforming power of grace is there. But in a sense, it takes all of time to be deified. There are no miracles on this level. The degree of suffering that has to take place is very great.

IC: It’s an incarnated struggle on this level.

Fr. T: Yes, and I believe it can’t be done alone. You need a community.

IC: Our culture places great emphasis on improving oneself. There is a difference between that and being made whole, being brought to your true nature.

Fr. T: The saints speak about spiritual hedonism, where you want peace and joy but you don’t want reality. That’s why Saint Paul says that you can give your body to be burned but if you have not love, you are nothing.

You find people who love religion, love the Jesus Prayer, spend their whole life searching for pure prayer, yet they miss the mark. I once met someone who met a monk at Mount Athos who was in a very bad state, very dark, very bitter, very angry. When asked what was the matter, he said, “Look at me; I’ve been here thirty-eight years, and have not yet attained pure prayer.” This fellow was saying how sad he thought this was. Another man present said, “It’s a sad story all right, but the sadness consists in the fact that after thirty-eight years in a monastery he’s still interested in pure prayer.” You can make pure prayer an idol, too. Those are the worst forms of idolatry.

A person must be helped to want joy, to see that it is possible. And then what is difficult is that all of these other things have to be acknowledged for what they really are, together with all the pain that has to be experienced.

The other day a woman said to me, “It’s not enough for me to say I have to forgive my father. I can’t do that until I experience the rage and the sadness and the anger over how my childhood was. And that’s what I have been afraid to do.” Just because you know with your head that someone has offended you, that you ought to forgive them—that’s not forgiveness. But how do you achieve the actual reconciliation where you are really at peace with the other? One must experience in full the pain of the actual harm that was done. That’s the hardest part of forgiveness. That’s the block for most people. It has to be gone through again and again, and layer after layer has to come up.

When forgiveness is needed, one of the hardest things is to face the fact that the way I handled being harmed wasn’t always the best, that I have a certain responsibility for allowing myself to have been harmed. One does have to admit, very often, that there were choices for one as well. There’s always some form of symbiosis at work. That’s why Chrysostom could write that the world is filled with evil but no one can harm him who does not harm himself.

The great example for Christians would be their Christ-like martyrs who have not allowed themselves to be touched by that evil, what Evagrios calls “allowing the devil to rejoice two times.” You are sinned against, and the devil rejoices. You react with vengeance or without forgiveness, and the devil rejoices two times. Never give the second joy.

So forgiveness is not just the healing of the other, it is the healing of yourself, too. If you don’t forgive, you allow yourself to be poisoned. That’s why Jesus says, “Do not resist the evildoer.” The minute that you resist or react in kind, you become part of the evil yourself. That’s the radical teaching of the Cross.

Ultimately it comes to this. We are forgiven whether we like it or not. If we accept it, then we, too, become forgivers, and it’s called Paradise. But if we don’t accept it, it is hell. When you reject the forgiveness, you destroy yourself. You refuse communion.  IC

Father Thomas Hopko, the author of many books and essays, was a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. He fell asleep in the Lord on March 19, 2015 at the age of 76.

The Beatitudes: A Selection of Patristic Comments, IC70

The Beatitudes: A selection of Patristic Comments

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
5 sermon-on-the-mount-romania Beatitudes
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

St. Hilary of Arles: The Lord taught by way of example that the glory of human ambition must be left behind when he said, “The Lord your God shall you adore and him only shall you serve.” And when he announced through the prophets that he would choose a people humble and in awe of his words, he introduced the perfect Beatitude as humility of spirit. Therefore he defines those who are inspired as people aware that they are in possession of the heavenly kingdom. Nothing belongs to anyone as being properly one’s own, but all have the same things by the gift of a single parent. They have been given the first things needed to come into life and have been supplied with the means to use them.

St. Jerome: Do not imagine that poverty is bred by necessity. For he added “in spirit” so you would understand blessedness to be humility and not poverty. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” who on account of the Holy Spirit are poor by willing freely to be so.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

St. John Chrysostom: The sorrow [of those who mourn] is of a special kind. Jesus did not designate them simply as sad but as intensely grieving. Therefore he did not say “they that sorrow” but “they that mourn.” This Beatitude is designed to draw believers toward a Christian disposition. Those who grieve for someone else––their child or wife or any other lost relation, have no fondness for gain or pleasure during the period of their sorrow. They do not aim at glory. They are not provoked by insults nor led captive by envy nor beset by any other passion. Their grief alone occupies the whole of their attention.

St. Chromatius: The blessed of whom [Jesus] speaks are not those bereaving the death of a spouse or the loss of cherished servants. Rather, he is speaking of those blessed persons who do not cease to mourn over the iniquity of the world or the offenses of sinners with a pious, duty-bound sentiment. To those who mourn righteously, therefore, they will receive, and not undeservedly, the consolation of eternal rejoicing promised by the Lord.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

St. Chromatius: The meek are those who are gentle, humble and unassuming, simple in faith, and patient in the face of every affront. Imbued with the precepts of the gospel, they imitate the meekness of the Lord, who says, “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.”

St. John Chrysostom: What kind of earth is referred to here? Some say a figurative earth, but this is not what he is talking about. For nowhere in Scripture do we find any mention of an earth that is merely figurative. But what can this Beatitude mean? Jesus holds out a prize perceptible to the senses, even as Paul also does. For even when Moses had said, “Honor your father and your mother,” he added, “For so shall you live long upon the earth.” And Jesus himself says again to the thief, “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” Today! In this way he does not speak only of future blessings but also of present ones.

St. Augustine: “Inherit the earth”…means the land promised in the psalm: “You are my hope, my portion in the land of the living.” It signifies the solidity and stability of a perpetual inheritance. The soul because of its good disposition is at rest as though in its own place, like a body on the earth, and is fed with its own food there, like a body from the earth. This is the peaceful life of the saints. The meek are those who submit to wickedness and do not resist evil but overcome evil with good. Let the haughty therefore quarrel and contend for earthly and temporal things. But “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.” This is the land from which they cannot be expelled.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Origen of Alexandria: If I must utilize a bold explanation indeed, I think that perhaps it was through the word that is measured by virtue and justice that the Lord presents himself to the desire of the hearers. He was born as wisdom from God for us, and as justice and sanctification and redemption. He is “the bread that comes down from heaven” and “living water,” for which the great David himself thirsted. He said in one of his psalms, “My soul has thirsted for you, even for the living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God?” “I shall behold your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied in beholding your glory.” This then, in my estimation, is the true virtue, the good unmingled with any lesser good, that is, God, the virtue that covers the heavens.

St. John Chrysostom: Note how drastically he expresses it. For Jesus does not say, “Blessed are those who cling to righteousness,” but “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness” not in a superficial way but pursuing it with their entire desire. By contrast, the most characteristic feature of covetousness is a strong desire with which we are not so hungry for food and drink as for more and more things. Jesus urged us to transfer this desire to a new object, freedom from covetousness…. Those who extort are those who lose all, while one who is in love with righteousness possesses all other goods in safety.” If those who do not covet enjoy such great abundance, how much more will they be ready to offer to others what they have.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

St. Chromatius: By a great number of witnesses indeed, just as many in the Old Testament as the New, we are called by the Lord to show compassion. But as a shortcut to faith we deem enough and more than enough what the Lord himself in the passage at hand expresses with his own voice, saying, “Blessed are the compassionate, for God will have compassion for them.” The Lord of compassion says that the compassionate are blessed. No one can obtain God’s compassion unless that one is also compassionate. In another passage Jesus said, “Be compassionate, just as your Father who is in the heavens is compassionate.”

St. John Chrysostom: Jesus speaks here not only of those who show mercy by giving worldly goods but also of those who demonstrate mercy in their actions. There are many ways to show mercy. The commandment is broad in its implications. What reward can people expect if they obey the commandment? “They obtain mercy.” The reward at first glance appears to be an equal reimbursement, but actually the reward from God is much greater than human acts of goodness. For whereas we ourselves are showing mercy as human beings, we are obtaining mercy from the God of all. Human mercy and God’s mercy are not the same thing. As wide as the interval is between corrupted and perfect goodness, so far is human mercy distinguished from divine mercy.

St. Augustine: You may overflow with temporal things but remain in need of eternal life. You hear the voice of a beggar, but before God you are yourself a beggar. Someone is begging from you, while you yourself are begging. As you treat your beggar, so will God treat his. You who are empty are being filled. Out of your fullness fill an empty person in need, so that your own emptiness may be again filled by the fullness of God.

Anonymous: The kind of compassion referred to here is not simply giving alms to the poor or orphan or widow. This kind of compassion is often found even among those who hardly know God. But that person is truly compassionate who shows compassion even to his own enemy and treats the enemy well. For it is written, “Love your enemies, and treat well those who hate you.”

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

St. John Chrysostom: In the same vein Paul wrote, “Pursue peace with everyone and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” He is here speaking of such sight as it is possible for one to have. For there are many who show mercy, who refuse to rob others and who are not covetous but who still may remain entangled in sins like fornication and licentiousness. Jesus adds these words to indicate that the former virtues do not suffice in and of themselves. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, bore witness concerning the Macedonians, who were rich not only in almsgiving but also in the rest of the virtues. For having spoken of the generous spirit they demonstrated toward their own possessions, Paul says, “They gave themselves to the Lord and to us.”

St. Augustine: To behold God is the end and purpose of all our loving activity…. Whatever we do, whatever good deeds we perform, whatever we strive to accomplish, whatever we laudably yearn for, whatever we blamelessly desire, we shall no longer be seeking any of those things when we reach the vision of God. Indeed, what would one search for when one has God before one’s eyes? Or what would satisfy one who would not be satisfied with God? Yes, we wish to see God. Who does not have this desire? We strive to see God. We are on fire with the desire of seeing God.

But pay attention to the saying, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” Provide yourself with this means of seeing God. Let me speak concretely: Why would you, while your eyes are bleary, desire to see a sunrise? Let the eyes be sound, and that light will be full of joy. If your eyes are blind, that light itself will be a torment. Unless your heart is pure, you will not be permitted to see what cannot be seen unless the heart be pure.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

St. Chromatius: The peacemakers are those who, standing apart from the stumbling block of disagreement and discord, guard the affection of fraternal love and the peace of the church under the unity of the universal faith. And the Lord in the Gospel particularly urges his disciples to guard this peace, saying, “I give you my peace; I leave you my peace.”

Anonymous: Peace is the only begotten God, of whom the apostle says, “For he himself is our peace.” So people who cherish peace are children of peace. But some may be thought to be peacemakers who make peace with their enemies but remain heedless of evils within. They are never reconciled in heart with their own internal enemies, yet they are willing to make peace with others. They are parodies of peace rather than lovers of peace. For that peace is blessed which is set in the heart, not that which is set in words. Do you want to know who is truly a peacemaker? Hear the prophet, who says, “Keep your tongue from evil, and let your lips not speak deceit. Do not let your tongue utter an evil expression.”

St. John Chrysostom: Here he not only responds that they [who follow Jesus] should not feud and become hateful to one another, but he is also looking for something more, that we bring together others who are feuding. And again he promises a spiritual reward. What kind of reward is it? “That they themselves shall be called children of God.” For in fact this was the crucial work of the Only Begotten: to bring together things divided and to reconcile the alienated.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.

St. Chromatius: The martyrs above all are the epitome of those who for the righteousness of faith and the name of Christ endure persecution in this world. To them a great hope is promised, namely, the possession of the kingdom of heaven. The apostles were chief examples of this blessedness, and with them all the just people who for the sake of righteousness were afflicted with various persecutions. Due to their faith they have come into the heavenly realms.

St. John Chrysostom: Don’t be discouraged if you don’t hear the kingdom of heaven granted with every single Beatitude. For even if Jesus names the rewards differently, he still puts all of them in the kingdom of heaven. For in fact he says, “Those who mourn will be comforted, and those who show mercy will receive mercy, and those pure in heart will see God, and the peacemakers will be called sons of God.” In all these things the blessed One does nothing but hint at the kingdom of heaven. For people who enjoy these things will certainly reach the kingdom of heaven. So do not suppose that the reward of the kingdom of heaven belongs only to the poor in spirit. It also belongs to those who hunger for justice, and to the meek and to all these blessed others without exception. For he set his blessing upon all these things to keep you from expecting something belonging to this material world. For if one wore a prize or garland for things that are to be dissolved together with the present life, things that flit away faster than a shadow, would that one be blessed?  IC

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

Dia-Logos with the Cosmos

by Stephen Muse, Ph.D.

What is man that Thou art mindful of him or the son of man that Thou visiteth him?  (Psalm 8:4)

Eternity knows no duration of time but contains in itself the full compass of the centuries. Eternity without space includes in itself all the expanses of the created world. —Archimandrite Sophrony

6 christ-creating Dia Logos

Astronomers recently discovered a planet six hundred light years away from earth with seventy degree temperatures in just the right position from its sun to support life as we know it. A mere six hundred light years is of microscopic proportions in comparison to the estimated size of the known universe, the whole of which may already be infinite. Beyond that we don’t even know if ours is the only universe there is.

A light year is one of those concepts we use as if we know something, yet are totally unable to comprehend what we are saying in any meaningful way that connects with our experience. There are so many such imponderables in our lives that to go about thinking we are in control of anything or that we understand how the universe all fits together is a sure sign of madness.

I was watching an ant careen back and forth over a stone in our walkway. It was moving fast––perhaps fifteen times the distance of its own body in a second. If a six foot man moved fifteen times the length of his own body in one second he would be able to keep up with cars on the highway at speeds over sixty miles per hour.

“Now wait just a darn minute!” you say. “If that were the case, you could hardly even see the ant moving.” Relativity is all about scale and proportion. The ant only looks slow to us because we are giants on a scale logarithmically beyond the world of the ant. It’s not unlike how jets appear as tiny stars blinking in the night sky, barely seeming to move.

Some physicists have recently confirmed that neutrinos, part of the sub-atomic world that comprises the substance of the known universe, have been clocked moving faster than Einstein’s now proverbial speed of light. Think about it, these little wave-particle dualities are flying around in our bodies at speeds we can’t comprehend let alone notice.

Relatively speaking, there is as much distance between the electrons circling the nucleus of an atomic particle as there are between the planets circling the sun. These “clouds of energy” are what constitute the solid molecules that comprise the cells of our bodies. With that much space between the clouds of energy and wave particles racing through our bodies, we shouldn’t even be able to see ourselves. Come to think of it, maybe part of us could make that trip to that new planet discovered only six hundred light years away after all, if only we knew how to switch back and forth from mass to energy like those electrons.

Appearing to stroll about at three miles per hour while spinning round and round, upside-down and right-side-up in a circle at one thousand miles per hour fastened only by gravity to the 24,000 mile circumference of the earth, which is itself orbiting the sun at close to 67,000 miles per hour, in a universe expanding outward at 180,000 miles per hour in our sector alone, is a trick few of us would attempt if we realized what we were doing!

The intricate, complex balance of all these gyrations is miraculous beyond comprehension. Considering that ants are moving at sixty-plus miles per hour under my feet while neutrinos pulverize and X-ray the vast emptiness of my body alternately as both particles and light waves while everything in the universe races toward infinity, I have concerns about how it is I am able to hold it all together from day-to-day.

Most of us are accustomed to operating as the center of our individual universes. We don’t even break a sweat while managing the many spatio-temporal acrobatics of the greater cosmic dance, blissfully unconcerned how strangely empty and isolated we are. Popular religion often masks our awareness of this stunning reality that might otherwise bring us to our knees in awe. If I “believe in Jesus” (on the same scale as believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny), I may conclude that this entitles me to an insurance policy for the afterlife while I continue to live however I want without regard for obeying a larger plan than my own self-satisfaction and individual preservation.

When truly troubled by my inability to live by conscience, I can calm myself by holding forth with something like “substitutionary atonement!” That’s Seminarian-speak for “Jesus took the heat so I don’t have to. God loves everybody. Nuff said?” Such casuistry serves as an excuse to go on unawares, doing whatever I wish without any consistent daily attempts to discover the degree to which self-love rules me instead of a God-centered frame of reference. The real situation is more that we are each flung into life with-out a choice, and then just as we seem to be gaining a foothold, we are yanked out at a moment not of our own choosing and dispossessed of all we have tried to possess in between.

In the publicly shared kingdom of “consensus reality” where reason and materialism are touted as king and queen, it is actually impulsivity driven by pleasure and pain of bodily appetites and the emotionality of likes and dislikes rooted in self-love that hold power. We eat and sleep, marry sometimes and procreate, and invent and accumulate things, all the while taking for granted that the world is pretty much the way we see it and want it to be; and whatever isn’t, is too far away or blessedly unknown to be relevant to our daily lives. But why would the Creator of the universe go to the trouble of placing such tiny, insignificant creatures on such an insignificant planet on the outskirts of the galaxy in a cosmos so gigantic that we’d be afraid we were lost if we weren’t so dazzled by all the toys we have to play with in the meantime? If we live for eighty, ninety, or even a hundred years, it is still less than a nanosecond in cosmic time in comparison to the universe’s fourteen billion years of existence. Are our ordinary daily lives all we really need to be concerned with?

For five thousand years or more, the prophets of Israel, Zoroaster, the sages of the Upanishads, the Buddha, Jalal’udin Rumi, and of course Jesus have borne witness to a world that cannot be seen or comprehended by the narrow-minded “manmade” complacency we live 99.9 % or our lives believing in and conforming too. They all tell us that human life is not merely eating and drinking, marrying, and working. And they say that these cannot be what they are intended to be without recognition of the invisible world in our midst.

When the cosmopolitan, sophisticated, wealthy, and well-educated Nicodemus approached Jesus by night with the opening salvo of “Rabbi we know you are a teacher come from God because of…,” he was presuming to comprehend the mystery of God on earth according to what he already knew, based on lifelong study, reason, and the sense impressions that govern the narrow band of academic and common-sense knowing that constitutes everyday life. Jesus challenged his presumption immediately: “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born from above.” That is, unless they have encountered the Holy Spirit who noetically awakens us to the presence of an uncreated world permeating and giving rise to this one, where God, who is sovereign and source of all life, communicates with the human heart.

The greatest tragedy of our lives is that we reduce our Messenger from beyond the known universe and his prophets to fit within our paltry socially-constructed and democratically agreed upon understandings of the world as we already are familiar with it, rather than seek to encounter the One who alone can lead us out of our present darkness into a love and meaning beyond our wildest comprehension.

Apart from this set of magnitudes, Jesus all too easily morphs into insipid cultural shibboleths, redirecting us back to the comfortable and well worn paths of a civil religion acceptable in the public square. The sharp edges of Truth and the authenticity of dialogue with the Absolute God incarnated as a human being, are removed in order to seem inclusive and avoid offense. Christian faith is reduced to the magic of Disney-belief in a slot-machine deity who passes out tickets to paradise based on legalistic or sentimental adherence to religious slogans repeated by rote without heart, repentance, or obedience.

Or God serves merely as a convenient shape-shifting metaphor for fundamentalist intolerance or touchy-feely “luv” and a political correctness that reaches no higher than the natural emotional bonds of family and species that include those we like, are related to by blood, or with whom we share business transactions, while excluding others who challenge the accumulated power and privilege afforded by being in the world me-first. We are “monomeists” pretending to be monotheists.

In order to do all this without being disturbed by conscience, we console ourselves with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap Grace.” But the Message and the Messenger are far greater than this sort of theological flat-earth perspective. When asked by someone “if only a few would be saved,” Jesus responded by pointing to a difficult truth:

“Strive to enter through the narrow way, because many I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last” (Luke 13:24-30).

This narrow way begins with metanoia––repentance––which is the discovery that as we are, we are not in our right minds. We are not in our right minds because our minds belong in our hearts where grace can affect us beyond mere words and the illusions of comprehension that console us, where it can change our lives. It will take a lifetime of struggle to respond to the Divine Life.

People who have lost their worldly minds from having personally encountered the Messenger and the Message, begin to travel in a different universe, one Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Worldliness is no longer their primary frame of reference. One who considers the reality of an uncreated God who is entirely separate from human consciousness, in whose image we are made yet who is closer to us than our breath, awakens to and gains interest in and response-ability to someone greater than ourselves, someone who loves the whole of creation’s riot of diversity expressing the joy and solidarity of the Creator with beings of all colors, shapes, and sizes. One who is seized by this kind of wonder and humility begins a new vocation!

There is a Buddhist saying to the effect that it is rarer to be born a human being than for a turtle swimming in the great ocean, surfacing once every five hundred years, to surface with its neck in a single ring floating on the surface of the water. Perhaps so. I suspect this is true. What a responsibility! Unlike Descartes, I do not take for granted that “I am” simply because I appear to think or move or breathe or make money, write a book, run a company, complete a university degree, have a baby, or do any other number of things that appear to be mine in the small localized scheme of things. The fact is we can be more certain of the existence of God than of our own. How then to be responsive to the purpose of God for human life on earth and for my life in particular? What am I here for? What is the aim of my life?

These kinds of questions begin to irritate (or depress) a lot of people if they have to consider them for longer than a brief moment. As entertainment they suffice. Like the ancient Athenians observed by the Apostle Paul two thousand years ago, every-body likes the latest news for its entertainment value, but as a real moral problem to be considered over a lifetime with the seriousness that Einstein considered unified field theory or Jesus pondered over Jerusalem, it is another matter. To consider the reality of God beyond and separate from my own consciousness starts to open up those uncomfortable questions of obedience and response-ability again.

Sustain these questions long enough and they begin to reveal a hidden world that cannot be known apart from repentance, ascetical struggle, prayer, worship, and the humility that comes from being dethroned from the center of the universe. Thankfully, what disturbs our paltry “self-esteem” is also what opens the door to the Great Mystery where the journey begins. It is a path that can only be walked by those who have discovered they are paralyzed by complacency and surfeit, can only be seen by those who have discovered they are blind to the uncreated world, can only be heard by those who are deaf to counterfeit worldly ways, can only be begun by those willing to leave behind attachment to what is past at the first hint of invitation from the One to whom the path leads in the present moment.

Once having crossed this threshold, when the forces of resistance question me, as to who it is that is putting me up to all this—creating these questions and disturbing the status quo, revealing to me that I am in the world but not of it, I shall be very careful with my reply and, like Moses, when I refer to “I AM WHO I AM,” at least I will know that it is not me that I’m talking about.  IC