Category Archives: IC 63 2012

Content IC 63 2012

Letter from the Editor

Dear friends, the summary in our last issue of Fr. Patrick Reardon’s report on his visit to Syria prompted a strong reaction from a number of readers. Several responses are in our from readers section, including one from an OPF member with contacts inside Syria, describing the peacemaking efforts of one Syrian monastery. While some wondered if we endorsed Fr. Reardon’s views or the violence of Bashar Al-Assad’s government, I assure you we do not, neither do we support any violence within or toward Syria or Syrians, from any quarter.

Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese in North America sent Fr. Reardon’s delegation, in response to concerns from within the Archdiocese, to investigate what he saw as contradictions between what was widely reported in the media and “the reality based on our many contacts there.” Because of the deep spiritual and cultural roots of the Archdiocese in Syria and Met. Philip’s concerns, the trip and the nature of Fr. Reardon’s views qualified as news.

The world is learning that the Christian support of Assad is a decades-old arrangement made to ensure political stability and the Christian community’s survival. But what today seems bafflingly self-serving should not be judged without understanding that Syrian Christians’ lives and fate hang, literally, in the balance between Assad and the opposition. Staying with Assad works if he wins but not if he loses, while joining the opposition brings uncertainty if they win but perhaps suicide if they lose. Their relationship with the government is like a loaded revolver that they placed at their own heads when they sided with Assad’s father as he rose to power.

All this has provided an occasion for raising necessary questions. What options exist for Syria? Are there only two, the choice between stability at the price of supporting a dictator or justice at the price of violence and war? Do paths exist that might lead without violence to just peace? What responsibilities have we who are doing the talking toward those whose lives are affected? Without belaboring the discussion, these questions bear on who we are and on our deepest conviction, and the answers either encourage us broadly as peacemakers or make us hypocrites at worst, merely confused at best.

Conditions of just peace don’t just happen. Peace is built into societies and systems slowly, deliberately, by careful architects. This has not happened in Syria. Long before the shooting started, peace became the first casualty, for offering support to a dictatorial, unjust, and oppressive regime in exchange for stability and safety is a fraud: a form of peace may exist for a while, but eventually it breaks down into the kind of violence now wracking Syria. Because justice and peace were not loved enough, stability has shattered as events spin rapidly away from peaceful change, out of the control of the principle actors and the Syrians whose lives are most affected. Now, in a climate of fear, self-preservation, hegemony, and revenge—violence begets violence—human lives are harvested as the fruit of neglect, and the work of building peace becomes exponentially more difficult.

It is not news that the commercial media love a crisis—that and change, for with these two, they foster our dependency on them, telling us what to know and how to think, pretending they have the only story to be told. That the various State actors also pursue their own self-interests relentlessly, spinning their own deceptive narratives and breeding all species of violence is also not news. The plot elements of religion, oil, the Clash of Civilizations, Islamism, Zionism, terrorism, nuclear weapons, regional hegemony, and political survival are well worn as Syria, its five neighbor States, the United States, Russia, and Iran each tell a tale.

Yet, we must not feel constrained to choose one myopic, self-interested narrative over another, each unstable, partially informed, leading to its own set of unhappy consequences. As C.S. Lewis wrote, the Devil “always sends errors into the world in pairs … of opposites,” and relies on our particular distaste of one to lead us to choose the other. Lewis reminds us of our calling to find the narrow way between errors. We Christians know that Christ calls us to consciously choose our narrative worldview by which the universe and life in it find meaning, coherence, and harmony. When we do not heed—wisely as the serpent and gently as the dove—the comprehensive claim of the Gospel on our minds, we become vulnerable to competing propaganda.

This is the bias of In Communion. As friends of Christ, we are enemies to none; accepting the love of God, we love even our enemies; loving wisdom, our ideology is to do justice, to love mercy, and to live humbly before God; as peacemakers, we advocate the Gospel principles of reconciliation, forbearance, and forgiveness; as human beings, we oppose all violence and tyranny against others, together with whom we share our humanity; as citizens of God’s Kingdom, we pledge loyalty to Him and His laws; as citizens secondarily of this world, we honor solidarity with our historical, cultural, and social groups where we share the burden of community governance, carefully in keeping with our calling; and as neighbors to all, we encourage dialogue and friendly social intercourse everywhere, imposing on no one. We must work out how we will conduct ourselves toward Syria within such a framework.

Meanwhile, we cannot be shy to speak our minds as we search together for understanding, humbly mindful of our ignorance and weakness. And, of course, we will pray that the way forward toward a just and lasting peace in Syria may soon be found before many more lives and communities are shattered or lost.

 Pieter Dykhorst

Letters from Readers


Dear IC: So Father Patrick Reardon found President Assad of Syria to be “cordial and personable…a man of obvious culture, refinement, modesty and gentility.” Perhaps if he and other Christians had been allowed to visit some of the “hot spots” in Syria, they might have gotten a different perspective. Assad is a petty tyrant, a liar, and a murderer! Once again, Christians are on the wrong side of history. Syrian Christians who support Assad will live or die to regret their actions. Hopefully, future IC publications will offer a more accurate version of events that does not give credence to Assad’s propaganda.

Michael Kearns 

Dear IC: What’s going on with IC? Winds of change? I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read the piece about Syria and Assad. This can’t be true! If you want to publish a different opinion, fine, but at least accompany it with some editorial comments. This is very dangerous, defending a dictator. Even if he were reasonably tolerant towards Christians. Even the Arab League condemns him. This report has nothing to do with responding to the whipping up of Western sentiment. I’m always wary of that myself, but here that is not an issue.

No, this is really a failure on the part of the Fellowship. And I sincerely hope this is not an indication of a new policy. That would mean my immediate departure.        Johanna Geers

Dear IC: I read with great interest the account by Father Patrick Reardon of his recent visit to Syria. Syrian reality is complex; allow me to add another alternative perspective, very much in line with the principles of the OPF. It is that of Deir Mar Musa’s efforts for peace and reconciliation.

The community of Mar Musa (St. Moses) at Nebek near Homs was founded by a Jesuit, Father Paolo dall’Oglio, some two decades ago with an ecumenical and interreligious vocation. The brothers and sisters are drawn from different Eastern and Western Churches and come from various countries. The monastery is also engaged in dialogue with the surround-ing Muslim communities.

Last September the community held a week of spiritual jihad (struggle), with fasting and prayer sustained by sakina (God’s peace), for the sake of recon-ciliation between Syria’s children. It invited all the brothers and sisters, Syrian citizens, and friends of the community to join it in this effort, either visiting the monastery or observing the week at home. In its invitation, the community mourned those killed, all members of the one Syrian family. It hoped to touch the hearts of those who had yielded to the temptation to use violence, justified by fear, self-interest, duty, religion or ideology, and it prayed for the miracle of reconciliation.

I quote some passages, in translation, from this invitation of 8 September 2011, which was posted on the monastery’s website ( at that time. (Each time I consult the website, there are fewer texts on it.)

“Syria is a wounded country, its inhabitants’ souls full of feelings of injustice and fear of the other. Everyone considers others a danger to their own community and has difficulty regarding them as human beings, deserving of the same rights and dignity as themselves.

“The evaluation of events varies enormously, with people being carried away by extremism, which removes the space for a possible national entente in the shared life of society. Even within one family or monastic community extremism divides people, sooner or later leading them to justify the violence used by the side they consider they belong to. How can we come safely out of this murderous whirlwind which deforms the humanity of all of us? How can we achieve for everyone the reforms which some want, while keeping the good aspects of the past which others are attached to? How can dialogue take place between two sides when each consider the other as liars, enemies of the fatherland and humanity?

“We believe that some paths to reconciliation exist, even if they must be the subject of discussion and negotiation. We want the door of freedom of expression and freedom of the press to be opened and the media to become more ethical, both inside and outside the country. For we cannot escape from lies except through having a plurality of sources of information.

“We also appeal to people’s desire to acquire a level of conscience which will enable them to resolve their conflicts peacefully in the great majority of sit-uations. We thus refuse both any inter-vention by a foreign army and any escalation by terrorists within the coun-try. We can also no longer accept the use of violence to repress the peaceful movement of democratic demands.

“We suggest to the Syrian government to invite the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and other non-partisan international human-itarian organizations to cooperate with the Syrian NGOs in attaining three aims: guaranteeing the pacific nature of the demonstrations; accompanying journal-ists to cover the events; providing the mediation through which the parties to the conflict can communicate with each other and attain reconciliation and peace.”

Father Paolo dall’Oglio has also put forward the concept of “consensual democracy” as a framework for the country’s political future.

At the end of November, the Syrian government issued Father Paolo dall’Oglio with an expulsion order. It is reported to have been suspended since, on condition that he makes no further public pronouncements which can be interpreted as political.

We can, however, all continue to pray for peace and reconciliation in Syria, inspired by the same vision as the community of Deir Mar Musa.

Sent by an OPF member with ties in Syria who is known to the editors but wishes to remain anonymous to protect friends and preserve safe passage in and out of Syria.


❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

Forgive Us…as We Forgive: Forgiveness in the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer, by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Metropolitan of Diokleia
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Metropolitan of Diokleia

Forgiveness in the Psalms: In order to deepen our appreciation of the mystery of forgiveness, let us turn both to the Old Testament and to the New; and let us consider how forgiveness is understood first in the Psalms and then in the Lord’s Prayer. Because of the central place that the Psalms have occupied in the liturgical life of the Church, in both the East and the West, the testimony that they bear to the meaning of forgiveness is particularly significant.

First, the Psalms contain a number of striking passages in which the worshipper pleads to God for forgiveness. The best known and most eloquent of these pleas is Psalm 51, “Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness,” recited no less than four times daily in the Byzantine Divine Office: at the Midnight Service, Matins, the Third Hour, and Compline. Another such plea is Psalm 130, “Out of the deep …”:

If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark what is done amiss,
O Lord, who could abide it? (vs. 4)
The same urgent cry for forgiveness recurs in many other Psalms:
For Thy name’s sake, O Lord,
Be merciful to my sin, for it is great (Ps. 25:10)
Deliver me from all mine offences…;
Take Thy plague away from me (Ps. 39: 9, 11)
I said, “Lord, be merciful unto me;
Heal me, for I have sinned against Thee” (Ps. 41:4)
O remember not our past sins, but have mercy upon us, and that soon:
For we are come to great misery (Ps. 79:8)

These and similar passages of the Psalms make it abundantly clear how greatly we need the healing grace of divine forgiveness. Without God’s mercy we are helpless. It is also made clear that we have no claims upon God. Helpless as we are, we can do nothing to earn or deserve God’s mercy, nothing to oblige or constrain Him to forgive us. We can do no more than wait in patience and humility for His free gift of pardon. “I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait for Him … A broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise” (Ps. 130:5; 51:17).

Second, the Psalms repeatedly insist that these pleas for divine forgiveness do not remain unheard. The Lord is a God of loving-kindness and tender love, ever eager to show mercy and grant healing. This is the theme in particular of Psalm 103, used daily at Matins in the Orthodox Church, and also regularly in the Divine Liturgy:

Praise the Lord, O my soul:
And all that is within me praise His holy name …
Who forgiveth all thy sin:
And healeth all thine infirmities …
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy:
Long-suffering and of great goodness …Like as a father hath compassion upon his children,
So hath the Lord compassion upon them that fear Him (vs. 1, 3, 8, 13).

In a memorable phrase, it is said that God covers our sin:
Blessed is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven:
Even he whose sin is covered (Ps. 32:1).

Elsewhere it is said that our sins are blotted out:
To Thee shall all flesh come to confess their sins:
When our misdeeds prevail against us, in Thy mercy do Thou blot them out (Ps. 65:2).

A leitmotif in the “historical” Psalms is the way in which, again and again in the story of salvation, the people of Israel have gone astray, and yet God in His faithful love has forgiven them (Ps. 78:38, 106:43-44, 107:13-16, cf. 85:1-3). God, it is said elsewhere, is like a shepherd who goes in search of a lost sheep (cf. Matt. 18:12; Luke 15:4):

I have gone astray like a sheep that is lost;
O seek thy servant, for I do not forget Thy commandments (Ps. 119:176).

Yet we are not presumptuously to take God’s forgiveness for granted, for His mercy goes hand in hand with His justice (cf. Rom. 11:22):

My song shall be of mercy and justice (Ps. 101:1).

Third, if we are in this way forgiven by God, then we in our turn are called to extend forgiveness to our fellow humans. This is not in fact affirmed in the Psalms very clearly or very frequently, but there are occasions in which it is at least implied, in the context of money-lending:

The ungodly borroweth and payeth not again:
But the righteous giveth and is bountiful …

The righteous is ever bountiful and lendeth:
And his children shall be blessed (Ps. 37:21, 26).

It is good for a man to be generous when he lendeth (Ps. 112:5).

This can perhaps be enlarged to include not only generosity over debts but other forms of remission and forgiveness. At the same time, a restriction has to be noted. We cannot grant forgiveness on behalf of others, in regard to offences that have been committed not against us but against them:

But no man may deliver his brother:
Nor pay a price unto God for him (Ps. 49:7).

Sadly, however, it has to be noted that there are grave limitations in the Psalms concerning the scope of forgiveness. If, as we have seen, there are only a few places where it is suggested that we should forgive others, there are unfortunately many other passages in which the Psalmist curses his enemies and prays for their destruction. God is invoked as a God of vengeance (Ps. 54:1; 94:1). We are to hate our enemies with a “perfect hatred” (Ps. 139:22). Particularly cruel is the punishment called down upon the daughter of Babylon:

Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children:
And throweth them against the stones (Ps. 137:9).

Most notably, Psalm 109 contains an imprecation daunting in its cruelty:
Let his days be few:
And let another seize his possessions.
Let his children be fatherless:
And his wife become a widow.
Let his children be vagabonds and beg their bread:
Let them be driven out even from their desolate places …
Let there be no man to pity him:
Or to have compassion upon his fatherless children (vs. 7-9, 11).

Such a passage does not stand alone: compare, for example, Ps. 83:9-17, 129:5-8, and 140:8-10. I have noted altogether over thirty passages in the Psalms asking God to inflict pain and suffering upon others, and this figure is almost certainly an underestimate. It is of course possible to explain away such passages by interpreting them symbolically, as referring not to our fellow human beings but to our evil thoughts or to the demons. But such was not their original intention.

Seventy Times Seven: When we turn, however, from the Old Testament to the New, we are at once impressed by a manifest and remarkable contrast. Nowhere in the Gospels does Christ instruct us to hate our enemies: He tells us, on the contrary, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). The law of retaliation is firmly abrogated: we are not to “resist an evildoer,” but to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39). There are to be no limits to our forgiveness: we are to forgive our brother “seven times a day” (Luke 17:4), and not only that, but “seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). We do not find such statements in the Psalms. Nor, indeed, do we find in the Psalms the statement that occupies such a prominent place in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). The Lord’s Prayer is comprehensive but extremely concise. If, then, in such a short prayer, nearly a quarter—no less than 13 words in the Greek text, out of 57—is devoted to the theme of forgiveness, this shows how crucially important it is in God’s sight that we should forgive and be forgiven.

This is certainly the view of Origen. If Christ places such strong emphasis upon forgiveness in the model prayer that He has given us, this is because there cannot be any true prayer at all unless it is offered in a forgiving spirit. St. Gregory of Nyssa goes so far as to claim that the clause “Forgive us … as we forgive” is the culminating point in the entire prayer; it constitutes “the very peak of virtue.” He adds, however, that—fundamental though the clause is—its true sense is not at all easy to grasp: “The meaning surpasses any interpretation in words.”

A valuable insight into the significance of forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer is provided by the literal sense of the verb “ forgive” in verse 12. The primary idea conveyed by this word is “let go,” “set aside,” “leave behind.” It denotes such things as release from captivity, the cancellation of a debt, or the remission of punishment. Unforgiving people grasp, retain, and hold fast; forgiving people let go. Yet, if we let go the memory of an offence, does this not suggest that we condone the evil that has been done? That, surely, cannot be the correct meaning of forgiveness. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what has happened seriously and not minimizing it.” To condone an evil is to pass over it, to ignore it, or else it is to pretend that it is not an evil, to treat it as if it were good. But to forgive is something altogether different. There can be no genuine forgiveness that is not truthful and realistic. Let us not practice any evasion. If an evil has been done, then this has to be frankly admitted.

Moreover, if the process of forgiveness is to be brought to full completion, the evil has to be frankly admitted by both sides, by aggressor as well as victim. It is true that, when we suffer wrong, we should endeavor to forgive the other immediately, without any delay, not waiting for the other to acknowledge the wrong. It was precisely in this spirit that Jesus prayed at His crucifixion, “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:24). If, however, the forgiveness is to come to proper interpersonal fulfillment, more is required. Forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered; and the one who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.

If forgiveness, in the sense of letting go, is not the same as condoning, should we say that to forgive is to forget? Shall we make King Lear’s words our own, “Pray you now, forget and forgive”? The answer seems to be yes and no. All depends on what we remember (or forget) and how we do so. Certainly there is no point in clinging to the memory of trivial misunderstandings and injuries. We should rather allow them to slip quietly away into oblivion, for we have better things with which to occupy our minds. There are, however, events in our personal lives, and in the lives of our communities, that are far too important simply to be forgotten. It would not be right to say to the members of the Armenian nation, “Forget the massacres of 1915,” or to the Jewish people, “Forget the Shoah in the Second World War.” These are matters that, for the sake of our shared humanity, none of us should forget, not least so as to ensure that such atrocities may never be allowed to happen again.

More decisive than what we remember is how we do so. We are not to remember in a spirit of hatred and recrimination, or for the sake of revenge. Dr Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, has rightly said: “Remember the past … but do not be held captive by it. Turn it into a blessing, not a curse; a source of hope, not humiliation.” Our memories are not to be repressed or negated, but at the same time they must be purified and healed. We need to remember, yet not self-righteously or with aggressive accusations, but in a spirit of compunction and mourning. We need to remember with love. But that is difficult.

Forgiveness, it can even be said, begins not with an act of forgetfulness, but with an act of mindfulness and self-knowledge. We have to recognize the harm that has been done, the wound that we or the other carry in our heart. Only after this moment of truthful recognition can we then begin to let go, not in the sense of consigning to oblivion, but in the sense of no longer being held prisoner by the memory. We must remember, but be free.

Responsible for everyone and everything: A dominant theme in the Patristic interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer is the unity of the human race. The early Fathers are in full agreement with the words of Julian of Norwich, “In the sight of God, all man is one man, and one man is all man.” They agree equally with John Donne “No man is an Island, entire of itself.” Our need to forgive and to be forgiven springs directly from the fact that we are all of us interdependent, members of a single human family. Indeed, this insistence upon coinherence is to be seen, not only in the clause “Forgive us … as we forgive,” but in the Lord’s Prayer as a whole. St. Cyprian of Carthage notes how the prepositions in the Prayer are consistently in the plural, not the singular: not “my” but “our,” not “me” but “us.”

We do not say “My Father who art in heaven,” or “Give me this day my bread,” nor does each one ask that only his own debt be remitted, nor does he request for himself alone that he may not be led into temptation or may be delivered from the evil one. Prayer with us is public and common, and when we pray, we do not pray for one person but for the whole people, because the whole people are one.

This perception of our human unity, in Cyprian’s view, has its foundation in the Christian doctrine of God. We believe in God the Trinity, who is not only one but one-in-three, not only personal but interpersonal. We believe in the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and so we human beings are saved, not in isolation, but in communion one with another.

This unity that marks us out as human persons, while underlined throughout the Lord’s Prayer, is particularly evident in the clause concerning forgiveness. In the words of Clement of Alexandria, when we say “Forgive us … as we forgive,” we are proclaiming that “all humankind is the work of one Will.” This is a point emphasized by St. Maximos the Confessor in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. Unity and mutual love, he says, constitute “the principle (logos) of nature” by which we human beings have been created. When, therefore, we pray for forgiveness, we are bringing our human will into harmony with the logos of our nature. Conversely, to withhold forgiveness is to “sunder human nature by separating ourselves from our fellow humans, even though we are ourselves human.” Our refusal to live in union with each other through mutual forgiveness is therefore self-destructive: “Failing such union, our nature remains self-divided in its will and cannot receive God’s divine and ineffable gift of Himself.”

St. Gregory of Nyssa likewise sees the refusal of forgiveness as self-destructive: “In condemning your neighbor, you thereby condemn yourself.” Giving a wide-ranging application to the notion of human unity, Gregory maintains that it extends through time as well as space. When saying “Forgive us” in the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking forgiveness not only for our own personal sins but also for the debts that are common to our nature, and more particularly for the ancestral sin that the whole human race inherits from Adam. Even if we keep ourselves free from personal sins—in fact, as Gregory comments, none of us can claim this of ourselves, even for an hour—we would still need to say “Forgive us” on behalf of Adam:

Adam lives in us … and so we do well to make use of these words Forgive us our trespasses. Even if we were Moses or Samuel or someone else of pre-eminent virtue, we would nonetheless regard these words as appropriate to ourselves, since we are human; we share in Adam’s nature and therefore share also in his fall. Since, then, as the Apostle says, “we all die in Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22), these words that suitably express Adam’s penitence are likewise appropriate for all those who have died with him.

A similar line of thought is found in St. Mark the Monk. In his opinion, we are called to repent not only “for our own sin” but also “for the sin of transgression,” that is to say, for the ancestral sin of Adam. Repentance is vicarious: The saints are required to offer repentance not only on their own behalf but also on behalf of their neighbor, for without active love they cannot be made perfect … In this way the whole universe is held together in unity, and through God’s providence we are each of us assisted by one another.

Even though there is no explicit reference here to the Lord’s Prayer, Mark’s line of argument can surely be applied to the petition “Forgive us … as we forgive.” If we can repent for the sins of others, then we can and should also ask forgiveness on their behalf. The principle of mutual solidarity applies equally in both cases: “we are each of us assisted by one another.” No one is forgiven and saved in isolation.

These statements by Gregory and Mark fall far short of a fully developed theology of original guilt, such as we find in St. Augustine. Mark specifically excludes the view that, in a juridical sense, we are guilty of Adam’s sin, considered as an act of personal choice. Yet, on a level more profound than legal culpability, there exists a mystical solidarity that unites us all one to another; and it is of this that Gregory and Mark are speaking. “All man is one man,” and so we are each “responsible for everything and everyone,” to use the phrase of Dostoevsky’s Starets Zosima. Even if we are not personally guilty, nevertheless we bear the burden of what Adam and all the other members of the human family have done. They live in us, and we in them. Here as always the vital word is we, not I. None of us falls alone, for we drag each other down; and none of us is forgiven and saved alone. Forgiveness is not solitary but social.

How far can the notion of vicarious forgiveness be legitimately extended? Can I forgive or accept forgiveness on behalf of others? So far as asking forgiveness is concerned, it is surely reasonable to request forgiveness on behalf of others, when those others are joined to me in some way, for example by kinship, nationhood, or religious allegiance. If, tracing back our ancestry, we become aware that our family tree is tainted with unresolved tensions and alienation, we can and should pray for the forgiveness and healing of our forebears. By the same token, the descendant of a slave-trader might rightly feel impelled to ask forgiveness in his heart—and perhaps by some external gesture as well—from the families of those whom his ancestor took captive and sold into bondage. Pope John Paul II acted as a true Christian when, during the visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to Rome in June 2004, he asked the Patriarch’s forgiveness for the sack of Constantinople by the Latin Crusaders eight hundred years previously. How I long for an Orthodox Church leader to ask forgiveness in the same way from the Catholics, for the many evils that we Orthodox have inflicted upon them! And all of us, Orthodox and Catholics alike, have to seek forgiveness from the Jews, God’s Chosen People, for the heavy sins that, over the centuries, we have committed against them.

Have we the right, however, not only to ask forgiveness on behalf of others, but also to offer it on their behalf? Here there is reason for us to be much more hesitant. For myself, I agree with the late Rabbi Albert Friedlander, and with Psalm 49:9, that one cannot forgive offences that have not been committed against oneself. It would be inappropriate, and indeed presumptuous, for me as a non-Jew to claim authority to forgive the suffering inflicted upon the Jews during the Shoah in the Second World War. It is not for me but for the Jews themselves to decide how those sufferings should be remembered, and how and when they should be forgiven. In the Lord’s Prayer, we do not say, “… as we forgive those who have trespassed against others,” but “… as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”

Issuing an Order to God: What light do the Fathers shed upon the central word in the forgiveness petition—indeed, the most puzzling word in the whole of the Lord’s Prayer—the word “as” in “Forgive us … as we forgive”? “No word in English,” states Charles Williams, “carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word “as” in that clause; it is the measuring rod of the heavenly City, and the knot of the new union. But also it is the key of hell and the knife that cuts the knot of union.” Truly it is a hazardous prayer. We dare to apply to ourselves with unmitigated rigor the principle laid down by Christ “The measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt. 7:2). “What you do,” warned St. Cyprian, “that you will also yourself suffer.” As St. John Chrysostom put it, “We ourselves have control over the judgment that is to be passed upon us.”

Not only is it a hazardous request to God but also a very strange one. It is as if we were issuing an order to God and instructing Him how to act. “If I do not forgive others,” we are saying to Him, “then do You withhold forgiveness from me.” Nowhere else in the Lord’s Prayer do we issue orders in this way. St. Gregory of Nyssa attempts to spell out the paradox in terms of what may be called “mimetic inversion.” Under normal circumstances, he observes, it is we who are called to imitate God; as St. Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). This is particularly the case when we forgive others. Since in the last resort, God alone has the power to forgive sins (Mark 2:7), it is only possible for us to forgive others if we imitate God. We cannot genuinely forgive, that is to say, unless we have been taken up into God and have ourselves “in some sense become God,” in Gregory’s phrase. The one who forgives needs to be “deified” or “divinized”; there can be no effective forgiveness without theosis. That is the normal pattern. But in the case of the Lord’s Prayer—and Gregory admits this is a “bold thing” to say—the customary order is reversed. On this occasion, we serve as an example to God. Instead of ourselves imitating Him, we are telling Him to imitate us: “What I have done, do You likewise; imitate Your servant, O Lord …. I have forgiven; do You forgive. I have shown great mercy to my neighbor; imitate my loving-kindness, You who are by nature loving-kind.”

Yet, in this clause “Forgive us … as we forgive,” precisely how strong a sense should be attached to the conjunction “as”? Should it be understood as causative, proportionate, or conditional?

Is the sense causative? In that case, we are saying to God, “Forgive us because we forgive”; our forgiveness causes His. This is indeed the way some Patristic authors interpreted the phrase. Clement of Alexandria suggested that, by forgiving others, we somehow compel God to forgive us. Yet a causative interpretation of this kind presents grave difficulties. As Calvin has rightly insisted, forgiveness comes from the “free mercy” of God. It is an unmerited gift of divine grace, conferred solely through Christ’s Cross and Resurrection; it is never something that we can earn or deserve. God acts with sovereign liberty, and we have no claims upon Him. As Paul affirmed, quoting the Pentateuch: “For God says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (Rom. 9:15-16; cf. Exod. 33:19). This is rendered abundantly clear in Christ’s parable concerning the laborers in the vineyard: to those who complain about their wages, the master replies, “Have I not the right to do as I choose with what is my own?” (Matt. 20:15). Moreover, the initiative rests with God and not with us. He does not wait for us to forgive others before He extends His forgiveness to us. On the contrary, His act of free and unrestricted forgiveness precedes any act of forgiveness on our part: “God proves His love for us, in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

If the word “as” cannot be causative, is it proportionate? Does it signify “to the same degree,” “according to the same measure”? Once more, this can hardly be the true sense. Between our forgiveness and God’s, there can be no common measure. He forgives with a fullness and generosity far beyond our wildest imagining: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord” (Isa. 55:8). The transcendent and incomparable character of divine forgiveness is underlined in another Matthaean parable, that of the two debtors (Matt. 18:23-35). In relation to God, we are like the slave who owed ten thousand talents (a talent being equivalent to more than fifteen years’ wages received by a laborer), whereas in relation to each other we are like the slave who owed a hundred denarii (a denarius being the usual day’s wage for a laborer). Even St. Gregory of Nyssa, after suggesting that in His act of forgiveness God is imitating us, at once goes on to qualify this by asserting that our sins against God are immeasurably heavier than any sins by others against us. Later he refers for confirmation precisely to the parable of the two debtors.

If, then, our forgiveness is neither the cause nor the measure of God’s forgiveness, what further alternative remains? There exists a third possibility: it is the condition. Forgiveness is indeed unmerited, but it is not unconditional. God for His part is always overwhelmingly eager to forgive. This divine eagerness is movingly expressed in the story of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15 : 11-32), which is read at the Orthodox Liturgy on the Sunday two weeks before the Sunday of Forgiveness. The father does not simply sit and wait passively for his son to return home. We are to imagine him standing day after day outside his house, anxiously scanning the horizon in the forlorn hope that at long last he may catch sight of a familiar figure. Then, as soon as the prodigal comes into view, while he is still far off, the father rushes out to meet his son, embracing and kissing him, and inviting him into the feast. Such is God’s great willingness to forgive us and to welcome us home. Later in the story the father again goes out, this time in the hope of persuading his elder son to come and share the feast. This double going-out on the part of the loving father is of primary significance if we are to appreciate the quality of divine mercy.

Yes, indeed, God is always eager to forgive—far more than we are to repent. In the words of St. Isaac the Syrian, “There exists in Him a single love and compassion that is spread out over all creation, a love that is without alteration, timeless, and everlasting.” Calling to mind Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane and His death on the Cross, we ask ourselves: What more could God incarnate have done to win us back to Himself, that He has not done? Forgiveness, however, has not only to be offered but to be accepted. God knocks at the door of the human heart (Rev. 3:20), but He does not break the door down: we for our part have to open it.

Here precisely we find the true meaning of the word “as” in the Lord’s Prayer. It is not that God is unwilling to forgive us. But if, despite God’s unfailing eagerness to forgive, we on our side harden our hearts and refuse forgiveness to others, then quite simply we render ourselves incapable of receiving the divine forgiveness. Closing our hearts to others, we close them also to God; rejecting others, we reject Him. If we are unforgiving, then by our own act, we place ourselves outside the interchange of healing love. God does not exclude us; it is we who exclude ourselves.

Our forgiveness of others, then, is not the cause of God’s forgiveness towards us, but it is certainly the condition without which God’s forgiveness cannot pass within us. Divine pardon is indeed a free gift that we can never earn. What concerns us here, however, is not merit but capacity. Our relation to God and our relation to our fellow humans are strictly interdependent. As St. Silouan of Mount Athos affirmed, “Our brother is our life.” This is true not in a sentimental but in an ontological sense. Love for God and love for neighbor are not two loves but one.

“Forgive us … as we forgive”: when we say these words, so Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh has rightly cautioned us, “we take our salvation into our own hands.”

Four Words of Counsel: As we begin to cross the Red Sea of forgiveness, let us remind ourselves of certain practical guidelines.

Do not delay, but do not be in haste. Do not delay: the time for forgiveness is always now. Maximize the moment. The devil’s weapons are nostalgia and procrastination: he tells us “Too late” or “Too soon.” But, where the devil says “Yesterday” or “Tomorrow,” the Holy Spirit says “Today.”

We are not to think within ourselves, “First, I will change for the better; then I will be ready to forgive.” Still less are we to think (what is far worse), “First, I will wait to see whether the other is really sorry for the wrong that he has done, and whether he has really changed for the better; then I will decide whether to forgive him.” Let us, on the contrary, be like the loving father in the story of the prodigal. Let us take the initiative and run out to meet the other. Forgiveness has to come first; it is the cause of the change in ourselves and in others, not the effect. To adapt a phrase of the Romanian Orthodox theologian Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, “In so far as I am not forgiven, I am unintelligible to myself.”

Yet there is another side to the question. Forgive now, in your heart; but in your outward actions do not be overhasty. Forgiveness signifies healing, and healing often takes time. Premature requests for forgiveness can make the situation worse. If we force ourselves upon the other, before seeking through imaginative empathy to discover what the other is thinking and feeling, we may widen rather than bridge the gulf that separates us. Without putting things off, often we need to pause—not with passive indifference but waiting with alertness upon God—until the kairos, the moment of opportunity, has become clear. Emperor Augustus was right: Festina lente.

Forgive the other, but also be willing to accept the forgiveness that the other is offering to us. It is hard to forgive; but often it is even harder to acknowledge that we ourselves need to be forgiven. Let us be humble enough to accept the gift of another’s pardon. As Charles Williams wisely observed, “Many reconciliations have unfortunately broken down because both parties have come prepared to forgive and unprepared to be forgiven.”

Forgive others, but also forgive yourself. Have we not sometimes said, or heard others say, “I will never forgive myself for that”? Yet how can we accept forgiveness from others, if we will not forgive ourselves? In the words again of Charles Williams, by remaining in this state of “half-anger, half-anguish,” we create for ourselves “a separate hell.” Judas regretted what he had done, but in his case self-knowledge brought him not to fresh hope but to despair; unable to accept God’s forgiveness, and therefore unable to forgive himself, he went out and committed suicide (Matt. 27: 3-5). Peter on the other hand took a different path. Brought to self-knowledge by the crowing of the cock, he wept bitter tears of remorse; yet this remorse did not reduce him to despair. Rather, seeing the risen Christ at the lakeside, he did not turn away from Him into a “separate hell,” but drew near with hope. Accepting Christ’s forgiveness, forgiving himself, he began anew (Matt. 26:75; Jn. 21:15-19).

Pray. If we cannot yet find within our heart the possibility of forgiving the other, then let us at least pray for them. In the words of St. Silouan, “If you will pray for your enemies, peace will come to you.” Let us ask God that we may not make the other’s burden more heavy, that we may not be to them a scandal and a cause of stumbling. And if, as we pray, we cannot yet bring ourselves to the point of actually forgiving, then let us ask God that we may experience at least the desire and longing to forgive. There are situations in which truly to want something is already to attain it. Like the man who brought his sick child to Christ and cried out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9 : 24), let us also cry out with tears: “Lord, I forgive; help my unforgivingness.” Slowly, gradually, there will come at last the moment when we are able to remember with love.

By invoking God’s help in prayer and by admitting our own helplessness, we are reminded of the all-important truth that forgiveness is a divine prerogative. It is not simply our action, but the action of God in us. To forgive, in a full and genuine sense, we need to be “in God.” “It is God who has shone in our hearts … the all-surpassing power is from Him and not from us” (2 Cor. 4 : 6-7). This all-surpassing power of God is communicated to us above all through the mysteries or sacraments of the Church; and, in the Patristic interpretation of “Our Father,” at least two of these mysteries are mentioned implicitly in the course of the Prayer. When we say, “Give us today our daily bread,” we are to think not of material bread alone but of the bread from heaven, the Eucharist . Then, in the petition that follows, “Forgive us … as we forgive,” we are to recall the forgiveness of sins that we have received in Holy Baptism. The Lord’s Prayer, according to St. Augustine, is in this way a continual renewal of Baptism: reciting the words that Christ has given us, “daily we are washed clean.” Our forgiveness, then, does not depend merely upon our feelings, or upon the decision of our will. It has an objective basis in the sacrament of our baptismal washing.

Flying Kites: After Orthodox Christians have knelt before each other at the Vespers of Forgiveness, asking and granting pardon, what do they do on the next day, the first day of Lent, known as “Clean Monday” (Kathara Devtera)? In many places it is still the custom to go out on the hills and have a picnic; and on this, the first open-air festival of the year, both children and grown-ups fly kites in the spring breeze. Such can also be our inner experience when we begin to forgive one another. To forgive is to enter spiritual springtime. It is to emerge from gloom into the sunlight, from self-imprisonment into the liberty of the open air. It is to ascend the hills, to let the wind blow on our faces, and to fly noetic kites, the kites of imagination, hope, and joy.

As his son said of the priest Papastavros, “He is free because he forgives.” IC

This article is the second of a two part series. The first part appeared in the Fall 2011 issue. The entire essay was presented as a paper by Met. Kallistos at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship Study Day in Amsterdam in 2010 and will soon be made available by the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in booklet form (the booklet will include all footnotes that are part of the original paper). It appears as a chapter in a book of essays by several authors called Meditations of the Heart: The Psalms in Early Christian Thought and Practice. Essays in Honour of Andrew Louth. The book was published by Brepols Publishers in August, 2011.

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

A Pilgrimage to Hell

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Auschwitz barrack interior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

Orthodox Roots, Bektashi Neighbors: Interview with Metropolitan John of Korca

Metropolitan John of Korca
Metropolitan John of Korca

Reprinted with permission from the journal Road to Emmaus

Your Eminence, one of the most remarkable things about the Albanian Orthodox Church is that you have been able to co-exist peaceably with your Moslem neighbors, which is a paradox for many westerners. The Albanian Orthodox worked hard to provide medical care, food, and housing to both communities during the Kosovo conflict—and that effort continues—but I wonder if there aren’t some other un-seen affinities at work between you, contributing to this balance?

Yes, there are. I think, as Christians, we have a strong dogmatic base for that. We see every human being created as an icon of God, and as the Orthodox Church we have tried to emphasize this to our people. But also there are many other unnoticed affinities, such as family, cultural, and historical ties. For example, respect for St. Cosmas of Aitolia is still very widespread among Albanian Christians and Muslims alike. During St. Cosmas’ life, southern Albania and northwestern Greece were one region—Ottoman ruled Epirus—and the Albanian ruler Ali Pasha, who governed Epirus in the early 19th century, had known the saint personally. He was a Bektashi Moslem, and even now the Bektashi use the prophecies of St. Cosmas, although they call him by another name. We Albanian Orthodox call him Shen Kosma (St. Cosmas). They call him Choban Baba. Choban means “shepherd,” and Baba, “father.”

The Bektashi also revere the saints who lived long ago, like St. Spiridon (whom they call Sari Salltik) and who is enshrined nearby on Corfu. Many saints are commonly venerated in the Orthodox and Bektashi Albanian communities. This feeling for the Christian saints was one of the reasons why the tyrant Ali Pasha ordered a church to be built for St. Cosmas over his relics.

There are many stories in southern Albania about St. Cosmas that have been handed down for centuries. Every village in my region has its story—when he passed by, what he said, that he sent a letter. Many are embellished, but there is still something in them.

Can you tell us any?

Yes. Several years ago I was in an Albanian village where there was a beautiful house that had fallen into ruin. The last male of this house died in 1944, and they still tell the story that when St. Cosmas came to the village he stayed in this house. He was respected, welcomed and given hospitality. In the morning he said, “I hope that your lineage will disappear before a certain time comes.” They said, “Are you cursing us, Father?” “I am blessing you,” he said, “because there will come a time that will be called ‘the time governed by women and young people,’ when it will be better not to be than to be.”

And this is like it is now—I go into most houses and ask the husband something and the wife answers, or the young daughters or sons from a corner. The husband and father often has nothing to say. As it happens, the last male of this family died in 1944. But “a time governed by women and young people” should not be understood only literally, but in the sense that it was used by the Fathers of the Church. For example, the Holy Mother Sarah said to the brothers, “It is I who am a man, you who are women.” With that she wanted to say that true manhood is not only in the differences of sex, but in character.

I also heard a story in Konitsa, Greece, that when St. Cosmas passed by the future home of Albania’s communist dictator, Hoxha, in Gjirokastra, where two centuries later he was born and raised, he said, “An anti-Christ will be born here.”

I’ve heard this story many times. It is difficult now to say if all of these stories are true or not, but sometimes it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter in the sense that what people want to emphasize is St. Cosmas’ gift of prophecy, that history is under the control of the Lord, so everything that happened to Albania under Hoxha was foreseen.

There is, of course, the famous story among us of how Ali Pasha was arrested by Kurt Pasha when the Pasha governed Berat. Ali was young then, sixteen or so. St. Cosmas came, and when he entered the prison he said, “Now is coming Ali, Ali Pasha.” He told him that he would become pasha, but that he would go to Istanbul with a red beard, predicting Ali’s death by beheading.

All of these stories were told and retold, and particularly about Ali Pasha because he was the pasha. He was a cruel tyrant, of course, but some of the others who were considered revolutionary “heroes” by the Greeks were just as cruel. I know these stories because on my mother’s side I am from Christian Souli. The family moved from Souli when it was destroyed, and the stories told about these Greek chieftains were no less cruel than those told of Ali Pasha. Those were the times, and that was what it meant to be a leader.

If, as you say, the pashas and even the heroes were cruel, why then was St. Cosmas allowed to preach and function in these areas, with his very Christian messages of love of God and justice to your fellow man?

The Moslem rulers, if they were Albanians, were not necessarily strict Moslems—their positions were motivated by a personal desire for political power, not religious ideology. Also, many of them had mixed allegiances—they still had cousins and friends who were Christians, or koumbari.

In Albania, it was a tradition until recently that many Moslems had Christian koumbari and some Christians had Moslems as koumbari. These are considered sacred ties. Strictly speaking, this wasn’t allowed, of course, but many of these families wanted to maintain these relationships, and sometimes spiritual kinship ties were made for political reasons. Also, as I mentioned earlier, many of the Albanians were Bektashi Moslems and they had traditions in common with Christians.

Weren’t the Bektashis originally Christians themselves who retained elements of their former faith?

Yes, to some degree, but it isn’t quite that simple. The Bektashi originated in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. In Asia Minor there were always groups of Christian gnostics circulating different traditions, and this heavily influenced the Bektashi. The Bektashi still use the Gospel of St. John and venerate almost all of the Orthodox saints.

Did they arise at the same time in Albania?

No. The Bektashi order isn’t native to Albania, but many Albanians are closer to it than other forms of Islam. When the Turks arrived, becoming Bektashi was one way in which people didn’t have to live under the social pressure or pay the special taxes applied to non-Muslims under the Ottomans, but being Bektashi, they could still keep icons and other traditions. The Bektashi in Albania have been here for centuries, and they are about 15 to 20% of the population.

Albania is now the center of Bektashism, and the head of the Bektashi order is here in Tirana, not in Turkey, because Mustafa Kemal Attaturk exiled the Bektashi from Turkey in the 1930’s. Attaturk himself was Albanian and became president of Turkey at the time of the Young Turk revolution, suppressing the Dervish orders and others as well. The head of the Bektashi order at that time was also Albanian, and he moved here because it was safer to be part of a large Bektashi population far from Istanbul. There were some Bektashis in Crete, but afterwards they joined the Orthodox Church again. There were others in Bulgaria and the Balkans, but most are in Albania now.

How close are they to the Shi’ite and Sunni Moslems?

They are not Shi’ite or Sunni. Their belief is more a combination of Christian influence mixed with the Islamic thought of Rumi and other teachers of Asia Minor. The Bektashi don’t have written doctrine, and rules and belief differ, depending on what an individual has been taught and whose influence he has come under.

Do the Bektashi have associations with Sufism?

Yes, but they are more open to Christianity, and we have outward similarities. For example, they have an ecclesiastical structure, they have monasteries—not just mosques or tekkes—but real monasteries. They also have three levels of church hierarchy: Dervish, which means a helper, a deacon; Baba, which is the “father,” the priest; and then the Gjysh, which can be translated literally as “grandfather,” who has the function of bishop because he can ordain the others. They have something similar to a diocesan structure and the whole area under the Gjysh is called the Gjyshata. They also have a kind of baptism; to baptize they use water mixed with the essence of roses, and a kind of communion service with bread, wine, and cheese. They also have something that is unique in the Moslem world: they have confession, and a prayer is said by the clergy over the sinner asking God for forgiveness. So, there is a strong influence here of Christianity.

Now that Orthodoxy is being revived in Albania, is there an interest among the Bektashi?

In general there is an openness towards Christianity, and mosty towards Orthodoxy, because we have those common elements. When the Bektashi come to an Orthodox church they don’t feel they are in a foreign place. This helps. As I said, we have many of the same saints, although we sometimes use different names for them, and we both circulate the same stories of the saints and their icons. They do use icons.

I understand you are a convert to Orthodoxy. Was your own family Bektashi?

Yes. Although most of my family is back in the Orthodox Church, I still have cousins who are Bektashi. When you speak of people being Bektashi, however, this can be misinterpreted—in Albania you may be referring to a region under their influence, but this doesn’t mean that everyone is a practicing Bektashi. In Bektashism, people only take part in the gatherings if they are initiated. Their baptism is a type of initiation and few besides those who go through it know what happens there, they keep it secret. Perhaps this secrecy is also the influence of the gnostics. The part of Asia Minor where the Bektashi were founded was one of the most renowned in the world for gnosticism, and their use of the Gospel of St. John is another sign of their origins. Most of the gnostics also use the Gospel of St. John.

Some Bektashi claim to have a famous, so-called “secret” doctrine descending from Adam or Seth (the third son of Adam) depending on whom you talk to. This is another common characteristic of gnosticism. All of this was eventually overlaid by an Islamic face. Because they lived in places where Islam had risen to power, they didn’t publicly differentiate themselves from the other Moslems. However, their doctrine is completely different.

How do the Bektashi look at the Lord? Is it a strictly Moslem view?

It depends. Because they don’t have a dogma, interpretations differ. You can read things in Sufi texts by Al-Ghazali or Jelalluddin Rumi, (who were very close in spirit to the Bektashis) that could be scandalous for a Moslem. A modern-day Bektashi could be a scandal for other Moslems in the same way. For example, the Bektashi greet each other on Christmas. They also come to church on Pascha and proclaim, “The Lord is Risen!”

For a Shi’ite or Sunni Moslem this would be impossible, so we can see the Bektashi are more open. In the case of Albania this has been a benefit, because it means that we don’t have a heavy block of Sunni. The Bektashi are also more tolerant, they emphasize that all people are the same. You can easily see the heavy influence of Christianity, particularly if you read the books of Rumi; every third or fourth story will be about a priest.

I remember that in Rumi’s stories, but I thought they were just translating imam into the English “priest.”

No, it really is “priest.”

There are other influences on the Bektashi as well. Some say there is even a Buddhist influence, although I doubt this, because the particular doctrine they are talking about, the transmigration of souls, also appeared in the Balkans and in Asia Minor. Their most known adherent was the famous mathematician Pythagoras. This was not the influence of far off Buddhism, it was a belief that originated in this region and, again, had a gnostic flavor. But certainly not all Bektashi believe in transmigration.

When western people hear “Moslem” they think of what they see on television of Iran and the Middle East, but things here are different. There were not only gnostic influences, but there is a kind of crypto-Christianity among the Albanian Moslems in general. Sometimes they are aware of it and sometimes they are not. But many know that they were Christians before the Turks. For example, the head of the Moslems here, the Kryemyfti—his name is Sabri Kochi. His last name, Kochi, is Albanian for Constantine. Their family names are still often Christian.

So, they might feel closer to Christians than they do to Arab or Indonesian Moslems.

Culturally, yes. Their ethics and psychology are closer. There may be a danger in the future if many students go to study in these Arab countries and are indoctrinated to some degree into more strict forms of Islam, but this outlook doesn’t represent the general view.

The Prophetic Role of the Church

To move on, the Church here is attempting the immense task of reaching out to all of Albanian society, and I believe that you once quoted a sermon by St. John Chrysostom in which he said, “If all of you in this church were Christians, there would be no more pagans in the world.” That was a direct hit to all of us.

Yes. He was right. And others have said the same. Mahatma Gandhi said, “I would have become a Christian if I’d ever met one.” Once a holy man was asked, “Why in the first centuries did Christianity spread so fast, and not now?” He answered, “In the first century, Christianity was preached by Christians.”

If we really understand this we won’t be so quick to see the faults of others. The famous “Mea culpa” is a basic doctrine of Christianity. St. Seraphim said, “If you receive the Holy Spirit, thousands around you will be saved.” We are not saving thousands because we aren’t saving ourselves. This is the essential thing, and it helps people understand humanity in another light, the light that gives love rather than hatred.

Most of the experience I’ve had of Christian fanatics is that they have a problem with belief themselves. They doubt and they try to repress every doubt that arises around them. Some of the most rigid Orthodox I’ve met, particularly from ex-Communist countries, are those who were previously members of the secret police, etc., because they cannot live without hatred.

Their identity, unfortunately, is a negative identity because it is built from this hatred. They say, “I am against this and that.” They don’t say what Christianity really is. They want an enemy they can point to. I’m not saying this to judge them, but it is a tragedy.

Perhaps this happens on every level of humanity, but here it is obvious. There are few people who can solve this puzzle and say, “I am.” Only if you participate in the true “I AM” can you say, “I am.” Instead, it is usually “I am not…” Only the Lord has the right to say, “I AM,” but everyone who joins Him takes on this identity.

That is something we’ve also seen in Russia and Serbia with the upsurge of extreme nationalists. These people often use Orthodoxy as a banner, but there is no Christian spirit behind it and it is frightening because simple people become confused and think, well, “I really should support this group because they are “Orthodox.”

Yes, but this abuse has always gone on. These people prey on the religious feelings of others because they know how much power religion has and they want to use it for their own benefit. For example, in Yugoslavia—Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia—most of the people living in these areas are atheists, and the so-called “religious war” simply doesn’t exist. I have coined a phrase, “a religious war of atheists,” because all the people involved in these wars are atheists. I know them personally. They are human beings, of course, but religion is something they use, not what they believe. It is very hard to escape from that.

The Orthodox Church in Albania has spoken out clearly against the misuse of religion. I believe one of the strongest voices is that of Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, whose motto has been, “the oil of religion must never be used to ignite conflicts but to soothe hearts and heal wounds.”

In Kosovo, the western press bought into appearances. It was always the Orthodox Serbs versus the Moslem Albanians.

It’s easier to think like that. To try to figure out the real reasons is too complex and confusing. They wanted a quick explanation.

Do you believe Kosovo was a war over culture and territory rather than religion?

It was an ethnic war. When, for example, either side destroyed mosques or churches it was not because of religion. They were an ethnic symbol.

Like the decades of violence in Northern Ireland, and how obvious it seems that these aren’t devout Catholics and Protestants fighting over religion.

Yes. Do you know the joke… someone asks an Irishman, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” The Irishman answers, “I am an atheist.” “OK, but atheist Catholic or atheist Protestant?”

This is why the prophetic role of the Church is so important. The prophetic role, as the Lord Himself said, means that we are all on the cross. There is a very costly phrase in scripture, that I often quote: “Thus saith the Lord.” In general, people don’t want to hear this. They want to feel that they are “better,” so they follow false prophets and kill the real ones. If we would always speak the Lord’s words, “Thus saith the Lord,” we would be in trouble, but because we don’t like trouble, because we avoid the cross, we don’t say it. We say what other people want to hear. This has been one of the main problems of the Church. We need to fulfill that prophetic role of the Church and speak on behalf of the Lord, to repeat His words.

One of the things that first woke me up to the resurrection of the Albanian Church was when, during the Kosovo conflict, feeling was running high in the West against the Orthodox Serbs oppressing the Moslem Kosovars. But then, little bits of coverage started slipping out about the Orthodox Church in Albania taking in hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Moslem refugees. It blew the preconceptions apart. Albania may be the first country in the modern world where the Orthodox Church has reached out not only to their own poor and unfortunate, but to their “enemies.”

What advice would you give to Orthodox converts about Christian life? In the West we tend to convert eagerly and read the early church fathers, or lives of saints like St. Seraphim, but often our Orthodoxy is a private affair and doesn’t touch our neighbors, our city or our country, at least not as I see the Albanian Church affecting things here.

First, as Christians, we shouldn’t have enemies, because having enemies and being a Christian at the same time is impossible.

Secondly, I joke many times (and this is a joke) that reading about St. Seraphim causes more damage than help. I say this because modern Orthodox often have a false St. Seraphim—which is a reflection of the fact that each of us creates a kind of pseudo-Orthodox self which really has nothing to do with us. For example, a prayer rope in one hand and a girlfriend holding the other, while we talk about St. Seraphim of Sarov. There is nothing in common with St. Seraphim here.

People don’t begin to understand St. Seraphim, they see only his glorification. They want to read about him being surrounded by light, but they don’t stop to think about what it meant to pray a thousand days and nights on a rock. This is a kind of false identification. We identify ourselves with something that doesn’t exist and then we judge others from this lofty viewpoint, forgetting that we are worse than them. We don’t try to save ourselves.

The famous Rabbi Zusya used to say, “God will not judge me because I was not Moses, He will judge me because I was not Zusya.” These people will not be judged because they are not St. Seraphim of Sarov. They will be judged because they were not real.

Everyone is looking for a place where they can feel secure, but this is only in the other world. The Monastery of Chora, in Constantinople, was dedicated to one of the names of Christ, “The Land of the Living.” This land exists, but it is not the pseudo-land of spirituality that we create in our imaginations.

You have been quoted as saying, “The Church doesn’t exist to make individuals, but to make persons. An individual is in a state of separation.” Later, when you were asked about the Church’s motive in offering English classes to young Albanians, you replied, “It’s not that we manipulate others into belief through our projects. We are trying to help young people see certain possibilities and certain paths. Our task is to guard their freedom so they can choose their own path.” Those two ideas seem to work together. Freedom and the individual.

Yes, and this is why we need unity—because we are different. Artificial systems of unity—communism, socialism, fascism—destroy the person. They attempt to make people the same, and use force to make them act the same. But now in the affluent West there is something even more dangerous than this. It is a kind of uniformity from inside oneself. People volunteer to be uniform. Often, before you even ask a person from one of these countries their opinion, you already know what he will answer. The same remarks, the same attitudes and complaints. This destroys the personality.

When we talk about personhood we mean an individual in relation to others, never in isolation. You can’t be a Christian alone. Onos Christianos, nomos Christianos, is a famous phrase. Between the community and the individual, only freedom and love can keep a balance. As Aristide Briant, the French politician, said about the famous classical painting in the Louvre of the embodied graces of Gratitude and Goodness embracing, “The poor things, they meet so rarely.” Freedom and love are the same.

But in critiquing modern life, I don’t want to go to extremes like Kierkegaard who said, “The last Christian died on the Cross.” The Lord says we must walk the narrow path, and this is not so easy. IC

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

The Fall by Aaron Haney

by Aaron Haney

I read about the fall of a bishop today
It makes me sad and prone to wander
I took my dog to the park and let her run

He was my first Archpastor in a new-found Faith
He is a lonely old man with an alcohol problem
I imagine he’s been feeling pretty small these days

I hear a voice pick up the leaves like wind and say,
“Bless God for the coming of a fall…”

Why do I use such shoddy materials to build a life?
I build indiscriminately, pell-mell, without much thought
It is a poor strategy, shortsighted, a flimflam thing

How long does it take for something so precarious to topple?
I need something to come and shake it daily, a test
Otherwise its collapse becomes inevitable, a matter of time

I hear a voice pick up the leaves like wind and say,
“Bless God for the coming of a fall…”

I think of a story of the foolish building on sand
of a myth where a boulder need continually be pushed up a hill
of the Golden Mouth praying for help to make a good beginning

The Sacraments as stones and the Spirit as mortar
My structure continually shaken without bringing despair
The grace of God to start again, more humble, more obedient, more careful

I hear a voice pick up the leaves like wind and say,
“Bless God for the coming of a fall…”

Written on a sad day, looking for meaning in the removal of a bishop from service and his placement in alcohol treatment.

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012


Orthodox Haiku: For the Lenten Season by John Kosmas Skinas

by John Kosmas Skinas

Tulips! How short lived,
like a burst of repentance
breaking through the dirt.

Daylight comes sooner,
but I hold on to the dark—
warm, comfortable.

A path to Eden
cutting through the wilderness:
the prayer of Ephraim.

Blown loose from the tree,
the plum blossoms fall and turn
the color of earth.

Small orange poppies,
Rooted in death and decay
Rise like little suns.

Suddenly white hail,
a harsh joy reminiscent
of fasting’s pleasure.

A beautiful day:
a gift, like eating salmon
on March Twenty Fifth.

No death, no fragrance—
the silk flower can’t please God
with its pretend life.

Christ is crucified
while nearby, in the church shed,
four kittens are born.

The April wind blows
out the candle’s Paschal flame
before I reach home.

The Resurrection
has come and I can only
think of lamb and beer.

Rejoice honored trees,
God was lifted up on you
and the world was healed.

Green daffodil stems:
each is supporting a sun
the earth couldn’t hold.

The Lenten spring shines;
the flower of repentance blooms;*
Eden calls us back.
*from Cheesefare Wednesday Vespers

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

Who of These Is Not Like The Others? by Alex Patico

by Alex Patico

The Traveler

He wonders, what did I do wrong? Should I have realized that this was a risky time, what with all the threats coming out of Tehran and Washington? Should I have postponed my trip, even though my aunt in Isfahan is not getting any younger and may not be around much longer? Was there something wrong in the way I answered their questions in the windowless side-room at Imam Khomeini Airport? Would it have been any different had I flown into Mehrabad? A thousand questions in order to avoid asking the only important question: Will I make it home alive?

The Interrogator

He does not like this job, but it is a job. Most of the young men in his family are unemployed, even the ones with university degrees. It could be worse; he could be one of the guys who work in the back end of Evin Prison, the ones who can use (in fact, who are encouraged to use) any technique they can think up—just like in the old days under the Shah. But still, his job is boring and tedious. The “right” answers rarely come, nor are they necessarily required, if the bosses decide to proceed with a prosecution. At least he is serving the Revolution, which seems to be getting off-track lately.

The Motorcyclist

He throttles down, partly to avoid having his wheels catch the edge of the joob (an open drainage ditch bedside the roadway, sometimes five feet deep), partly so as not to alert their target. He approaches the car, parked beside an apartment building in North Tehran. His companion readies the device so that it can be affixed to the car’s side panel, just behind the driver’s side door, and they can roar away before anyone in the car or on the street has time to react. They will be out of blast range at the crucial moment, ideally with no one having gotten a good look at them.

The Scientist

He thinks about the meetings he has scheduled for the afternoon, about going home to have lunch with his wife. He will change out of his office trousers and into comfortable, pajama-bottom-like shalvor while she brings his tea—served in a small glass, accompanied by the irregular lumps of sugar called qand. He will place the qand behind his teeth and sip the hot, flavorful tea through it. They will talk about the children, how they’re doing in school. He hears a slight “click” on the side of the car, before he hears nothing…ever again.

The Marine

He feels oddly ecstatic, though he’s not sure whether it is their victory in the skirmish, or just the fact that he’s alive, when he didn’t necessarily expect to be. Though buoyed by the “win,” he’s also still jittery, hopped up on battle adrenalin. And there is the bitter rage that bubbled up inside him when he saw his bunkmate get it in the head, not eight feet from where he was crouched. Taking a leak has always been “the pause that refreshes” but it never felt as good as this. Take that, he murmurs, as a crooked smile splits his face.

The Talib

He looks down on his now-useless earthly body, which he had put so much effort into building up. Now, he is beyond being surprised by anything that human beings might do. Still, it doesn’t feel right, to see the khareji, the foreigners, desecrating the body that Allah had given him to use. He wonders whether his family members will see the pictures the other young man is taking. He muses about what his brothers in Islam will do when they see it. They will take offense, he knows. They may be energized by this new insult to our honor. It may lead to more killing.

Comprehension Quiz

Which of these is a child of God?

0 The Traveler

0 The Interrogator

0 The Motorcylist

0 The Scientist

0 The Marine

0 The Talib

0 All of the above

From the blog, Red Horse Down. Visit Alex’s blog and read his thoughts on Iran. Alex was a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran in the sixties and since then has kept abreast of events in Iran even as he maintains relationships with Iranians and Iranian-Americans.


❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

News -Winter 2012

WCC Executive Committee: message to Syrian churches

The members of the World Council of Churches Executive Committee have sent a pastoral message to the churches in Syria extending solidarity as they face enormous challenges due to the ongoing violence in the country.

The message comes at a time when the situation in Syria continues to deter-iorate. The situation was discussed in a meeting at WCC headquarters in Geneva in late December, in which some twenty Syrian church leaders from various Christian traditions in Syria participated.

The message was crafted by the Executive Committee during their meetings last week from 14 to 18 February in Bossey, Switzerland. In the message they expressed hope for an end to violence and a national dialogue to emerge from the conflict, based on peace with justice, recognition of human rights and human dignity and the need to live together in mutual respect.

The message strongly supported a joint letter from the three heads of churches in Syria, sent out to congre-gations in the country in December, in which they condemned the use of all violence while encouraging their mem-bers not to fear and not to lose hope.

It also called on WCC member churches to “engage in concrete actions of solidarity” during this time of diffi-culties, and, quoting the WCC consti-tution, “as a fellowship of churches we are to express the common concern of the churches in the service of human need, the breaking down of barriers between people and the promotion of one human family in justice and peace.”

Syrian Christians Support Assad

After Russia and China had vetoed a United Nations Security Council reso-lution condemning the actions of the Syrian regime, some Christians inside the country celebrated. One man from the western Syrian town of Qatana called his relatives to congratulate them on the result of the vote. A bar frequented by Christians and Alawites in Damascus offered two-for-one happy hour drinks.

But in Christian homes around the country the prevailing sentiment is one of relief rather than delight—they link the Assad regime’s survival to their own. “Without Russia we are doomed,” said a Christian woman from Damascus. “Look what has happened in Iraq,” said the woman. “Assad in power means that won’t happen here.” Brushing off the latest violence, another Christian woman, said “The problems here are nearly over.”

As a fellow minority, Christians have long supported the Alawite regime in order to ensure protection and rights for themselves. Thousands of Christians are part of the regime’s security apparatus and employed in high-ranking govern-ment and military positions. Aware that some day the masses might rise up against the regime, Syria’s previous president, Hafez al-Assad, sought to consolidate power among the minorities, people he knew would unite when tested.

Furthermore, ties between Syria’s Christians and Alawites are not restricted to the spheres of politics and security. Alawites are seen by some Christians as being less Islamic in that many do not fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Many young Alawites frequent nightclubs and few wear the Islamic headscarf.

In the town of Qatana, 22 miles west of Damascus, a small Christian commun-ity is supportive of the army’s current operation to surround the town.  “They will keep us safe from the gangs and the extremists. We need them here,” said one resident reached by phone.

When a single shell smashed through the wall of a convent in the Christian town of Saidnaya last week, Christians took to Facebook to show how they were being targeted because of their religion. No group has claimed responsibility for firing the shell, which did not explode, though fighting between elements of the Free Syrian Army and regular forces have been taking place nearby.

The regime has repeatedly publicized its support for the country’s minorities and portrayed itself as fighting Islamic extremists. Priests regularly appear on state television praying with leading Sunni and Shia clerics. Regime-backed gangs have reportedly been shooting into the air around Christian neighbor-hoods since the early days of the revolt  in order, many believe, to drive them into the hands of the authorities.

A woman in the Christian quarter of Damascus blames international TV net-works for the “crisis,” not the regime’s violent crackdown. “Al Jazeera is causing all this trouble…. They are telling lies. Look around you–there are no problems here.” Others believe Qatar and Saudi Arabia are working to take control of Syria, pushed by the US and Israel.

“I think Russia will put pressure on Assad,” said an Orthodox Christian lawyer in Damascus. “I think they will tell him: ‘Hold elections or we will stop supporting you.’ It is not in Russia’s interest to keep supporting the Syrian regime’s crackdown. They’re being criticized internationally and I don’t think they’ll stand for that much longer.”

Priest Shot Dead in Syria

The funeral of Rev. Fr. Basilios Nassar took place on January 26 at the Church of Saint George in Hama, Syria a day after he was shot to death in the street while attempting to assist another man. Reports indicate that the thirty-year old priest received a phone call while at the Metropolis that a parishioner had been wounded. Nassar was struck by bullets when he went out to attend to the man. He was dragged from the street by a third man but died shortly before he was able to receive medical care. The source of the fatal gunshots remains unclear. The shooting occurred on the second day of intense fighting in the area.

American Bishops Protest State Decision

A recent decision made by the United States Department of Health and Human Services that requires religious insti-tutions such as hospitals, schools, and other affiliated organizations to provide full coverage for contraceptives was the subject of protest by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the United States, Canada, and Mexico in early February. The decision made by the DHHS requires that full coverage for contraception—including “morning after” pills that could induce abortions—be paid for through insurance coverage by institutions that view contraception or abortion as morally egregious and a violation of religious convictions. The Assembly of Orthodox Bishops joined the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as numerous other organizations, in voicing protest and concern regarding the decision.

The Assembly urged Orthodox laity to contact their Congressional represent-atives in order to “voice their concern in the face of this threat to the sanctity of the Church’s conscience.”

Opponents to the decision claim its definition of  “religious institution” is too narrow and does not include large net-works of social service organizations that are ministries or extensions of churches, synagogues, mosques. Catholic Charities, which employs seventy thousand people, and the University of Notre Dame, two examples, would not be exempt. They would be subject to fines totaling millions for violations of the mandate.

The decision has ignited a fight be-tween the Right, who accuse the Obama administration of an attack on Religion, and the Left, who claim to be defending full and equal access to medical care. The Obama administration is seeking compromise, but opponents are not yet satisfied and continue to demand more.

Alexander Schmorell Canonized in ROCOR Church in Munich

Alexander Schmorell
Alexander Schmorell

Alexander Schmorell, co-founder of the White Rose organization, which dis-tributed literature criticizing Hitler and advocating passive resistance to the Nazis, and his collaborators were executed in 1943 after little more than a year distributing pamphlets opposing the regime. Schmorell was recognized as a Saint in services at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Munich, Germany on February 4th and 5th, 2012. Though all the members of the White Rose were Christians, Schmorell, now known as St. Alexander Schmorell the New Martyr and Passion-Bearer, was the only Orthodox. Though not targeted for their Christian witness, their clandestine, anti-Fascist work was inspired and informed by their shared Christian faith. Born in Orenburg, Russia in 1917, he lived in Munich, the home of his German father, for most of his life. He is the first new Martyr canonically recognized by the reunited ROCOR and Moscow Patriarchate.

Russian Cleric Proposes War Readiness

Speaking on matters beyond the realm of the spiritual, a top Orthodox Church cleric said Russia must play a greater role in responding to ongoing global events that could deteriorate into a world war.

“There are many processes occurring in the world in which Russia should play a much more active role,” Vsevolod Chaplin, a high-placed cleric in the Russian Orthodox Church, said in an interview with the Svobodnaya Pressa (‘Free Press’) publishing house. “The economic and social contradictions that have cropped up in the world are so powerful that they are sure to blow up into serious military operations.”

Chaplin said Russia’s military must remain “combat ready” to prevent the outbreak of military incidents on or around its territory.

“In order to ensure that these military operations not unfold on our territory or in the vicinity of our borders, we need to keep our armed forces combat ready,” Chaplin said. Russia must actively participate in settling all situations that may lead to a war, be it the Middle East or Central Asia, where the situation is also tense, he added.

“By all accounts, we will not manage to escape a big war,” Chaplin warned, while adding that civilization’s current trajectory “may lead to the annihilation of cities.”

Forgiveness Sunday Not Best Day To Rally Against Enemies

The opposition has disagreed with the opinion of the head of the Synodal Department for Church and Society Relations Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, who said that Forgiveness Sunday will not be the best day for holding massive demonstrations in Moscow.

“As regards the Sunday, it would be interesting to hear Mr. Chaplin, were it a pro-Putin rally,” one of the leaders of the non-registered People’s Freedom Party Boris Nemtsov told Interfax on. The opposition is planning to hold a flash mob called Big White Circle on the Garden Ring in Moscow on Sunday. Yet another flash mob in the form of a street party will be held on the same day by Left Front on Revolution Square.

“This is first and foremost a day of forgiveness. If demonstrators forgive all those divided from them by grievances and frictions, it will be the best thing to happen on Forgiveness Sunday,” he told a press conference in Moscow on Friday.

Russian Spring?

Russian Spring

Thousands of anti-Kremlin protesters donned white ribbons and held hands along downtown Moscow’s 10-mile ring highway on Sunday, demonstrating the resilience of the protest movement and the continued dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin a week before he is to be on the ballot in a crucial presidential election.


❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

Recommended Reading – Winter 2012

On Earth As In Heaven: Ecological Vision and Initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

Edited by Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis
Fordham Univ. Press, 384 pp, $32
Reviewed by Fr. Ioannis Freeman

Considered the “Green Patriarch,” Bartholomew has devoted more attention to environmental concerns during his twenty years as Ecumenical Patriarch than any global church leader with similar tenure. The title of this third and final volume covering his twenty-year ecological legacy, edited by John Chryssavgis, draws upon a phrase in the Lord’s Prayer. “On Earth as in Heaven” indicates a present and future possibility that the will of God is to bring the orderliness and respect of His holy dwelling to the earth, as reflected in the order of the words in Greek: “as in heaven, so on the earth.”

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, in the book’s Foreword, traces how the future Patriarch provided “inspired (global) leadership” for bearing Christian witness to the aims of the World Wide Fund for Nature in 1986 at its twenty-fifth anniversary in Assisi, Italy. Philip had served as president to the WWF throughout the 1980’s, during which time the 1986 Assisi-based general conference created the Alliance of Religious Conservation.

Chryssavgis identifies keywords as themes in each of these encyclicals. The encyclical for 1992 is titled “Matter and Spirit.” Not only is this text the first of Bartholomew’s encyclicals for the first day of September annually, but it also sets a tone of paradoxical and analogical reasoning that characterizes Orthodox theology, anthropology, and cosmology in general, and Batholomew’s prodigious contributions in particular. Illustrating this tone is the following passage: “Thus, ‘autumn’ and ‘spring,’ which to most people might signify diametrically opposed factors, actually converge and coincide in the inauguration of the ecclesiastical year as one entity established by God.”

Bartholomew dedicates reflections on “Creation and Idol” to the year 1998. He considers the relationship between “the Holy Orthodox Church” and “the natural world harmonious” because the Church accepts that “…the entire creation is very good.” According to Bartholomew’s reasoning, real harmony between human beings and the natural world is not only a present and future possibility, but also a present and future reality within the “Holy Church.”

Bartholomew minces no words to describe an Orthodox view of ecological sin as idolatry, which is caused by refusal to accept simple limitations that must be self-imposed. The result of failure to accept limitations is abuse of nature. In turn, “nature rebelled against humanity, which abuses it.” Thus, “creation continues to groan” as “awareness” increases while “action” decreases.

Readers with even limited knowledge of Orthodox theology will appreciate the texts collected in chapter three, the largest chapter, “Orthodox theology and the environmental general addresses,” which holds 79 pages. Additionally, the clear link, in chapter five, between prayer and spirituality and the twin themes of transfiguration and sacrifice points out to the twenty-first century Christian that care for the environment is part of the journey of salvation.

For example, in Bartholomew’s opening address to the 1997 conference on the natural environment convened on Mt. Athos, Greece, he reflects: “This means that it would not be excessive if one were to demand of those who chose the monastic life out of their own volition to care less for convenience and more for the preservation of the natural beauty and the silent character of the Holy Mountain … And in order to sharpen somewhat our discourse, we remind you with paternal love of the exact stating of Abba Isaac: ‘God and His angels rejoice where there are needs, but the devil and his friends do so at times of ease.’” Therefore, prayer draws Christians toward self-sacrifice from at least some “modern” conveniences in order to protect the natural environment.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

by Amy Chua
Penguin Press, 256 pp, $25.95
Reviewed by Sheri San Cherico

Lost on many readers of Amy Chua’s now infamous Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is that it is satire. But this book is no joke.

The three-part story walks the reader through Chua’s conscious choice and subsequent battles of raising her two Chinese-American daughters in the style of “Chinese parenting.” Early on, she defines this style by describing what her daughters Sophia and Louisa were never allowed to do: “attend a sleepover, have a play-date, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, not play the piano or violin.” So begins Chua’s frontal attack on “Western” child rearing.

Frankly, to a Western reader, Chua’s parenting at times seems draconian. The most problematic moments are when Chua screams at her children, calling one lazy and stupid, and the other a disgrace as a daughter. Later she explains that everything she does is for them and for their futures, seemingly unaware that she could be fulfilling her own need for success. She drives her daughters hard, forcing them to practice their instruments for an hour and a half every day without fail, and for six hours a day on many occasions. She then includes moments of obvious satire and self-ridicule, such as when she describes her drive to Chinese-parent her dog, criticizing her husband for not having dreams for their daughters—and for their dog. Yet her satirical self-disclosure rings hollow, as she is still obviously trying to “win” the battle against the West in her pursuit of the alternative Chinese model.

For all of its scandal to our Western parenting sensibilities, two points shine: First, “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work.” Second, it is much better for a child’s self-esteem to teach her how to succeed rather than letting her simply give up—that is, a Chinese parent is protecting her child by “preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”

After reading Chua’s book, I was fairly disgusted with her notions of success: Carnegie Hall, the Ivy League, high paying jobs, prestige. She wants her daughters to be at the top of everything they do. This begs two questions, at least: Who did they have to step on to reach the putative summit? What does such a perspective do to the humanity of those who do not (or cannot) reach this summit?

Another question is even more pressing: To what end? Is it worth sacrificing my daughters’ friendships, the experience of other activities, or their having a choice in their own pursuits in order to be “the best”—not to mention the elusive nature of “the best”?

Chua did make me question the end for which I am now preparing my children. Perhaps I do not want to ensure Carnegie Hall. But to be able to identify and care for the marginalized in their surroundings? Perhaps not an Ivy League school. But the ability to grasp and defend their Church’s beliefs? To be able to overcome their anger, or work through conflict peacefully? To know the Liturgy so well as to understand and be vivified by it?

Chua reminds us that we do not have to accept the play-date, video game, affirmations-only world of Western parenting, but that we as parents have a responsibility to be actively and inten-tionally involved in preparing our child-ren for the adults they will become, and that we can demand a whole lot more of our children than we do. And that they’ll thank us for it in the end.


❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012