Category Archives: IC 71 2017

That the World May Believe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Extra/Ordinary Hospitality of St. Herman House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Fossil or Leaven: The Church We Hand Down

Fossil or Leaven: The Church We Hand Down
Essays Collected in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of New Skete
New Skete Monasteries and Alexander Press, 2016, 239 pp.

There was once a renowned bakery which produced the best bread in the land. The bakers said it was because they used a special strain of yeast. One day, a group of marauders came and ransacked the bakery, forcing the bakers into hiding. A generation later, the old bakers returned to the shop to resume their bread making, but unfortunately the yeast had died and ossified. Understandably, the bread failed to taste any good. Then, some enterprising bakers decided to use the old recipe with a live yeast. These bakers were denounced as charlatans by the old bakers, who still kept making bread with the petrified leaven; but nonetheless the new bakers succeeded in recapturing the fame and taste of the original. For many years after this, a debate ensued in the baking community; which set of bakers produce the more authentically traditional bread from this bakery: the old bakers who used the original ossified ingredients, or the second group who used the same recipe with fresh ingredients?

Fossil or Leaven sketches an answer to this parable, only the book is not concerned with baking but with the Church. The book is a collection of reflections inspired by New Skete, a monastic community that attempts to be authentically Byzantine while also providing a leaven for society. New Skete was founded by a group of Byzantine Franciscans who recognized a certain decay in Eastern Rite monasticism within the Catholic Church, leading them to commit themselves to being as authentically Byzantine as possible. This led them to found New Skete and to leave the Roman Catholic Church for the Orthodox Church of America. They were encouraged in this mission by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, among others, who had a similar vision of renewal through the rediscovery of Byzantine traditions. This text, which contains thirty reflections by friends and members of New Skete (who happen to also be some of the most prominent voices in the Church today), perfectly encapsulates the life, vision, and legacy of New Skete. Some essays are explicitly on New Skete, others are on topics of particular importance to the monastery, such as liturgical renewal, women in the Church, hospitality, or prophetic witness. What unifies these essays is that they all provide an answer to the question: how can the Church be leaven for the world? In this way, the text instantiates what New Skete is about: proclaiming the salvation of the world through the renewal of Byzantine religious life.

One of the defining features of monasticism in the Byzantine Empire was its freedom. The first monastics lived in a variety of ways: in groups, in pairs, in scattered communities, on pillars, in caves, in deserts, or even in cities. Each monastic community, or hermit more or less had their own rules. Macrina and her brother Basil provided yet another rule, in their vision of a ‘new city.’ This led to an even wider variety of communities proliferating throughout the Byzantium, with some being Basilian in nature, some serving particular groups of vulnerable populations, some being for women, some just for eunuchs, and others still serving as retirement communities for aristocrats. The custom was that whoever founded the monastery was to write its rule (which would often include anathemas to those who would try to unjustly seize the land or in any other way interfere with the legal status of the monastery, a good way to protect your property from the Emperor). This led to quite a diversity of communities, and while various monastic traditions would crop up and continue across communities, the freedom and diversity of Byzantine monasticism prevented anything like monastic orders from arising. The desert monastics fled the cities to live a life of radical freedom, hoping to hold imperial and ecclesial authorities at a distance. The most significant monastic leaders of the empire thereafter, such as Theodore the Studite, Basil the Great, and Symeon the New Theologian, likewise led movements of reform and renewal, combatting the slow ossification and decay of the monastic witness. In short, the legacy of Byzantine monasticism is one that is perpetually attempting to leaven society, providing centers of renewal, faith, intellectual life, and charitable work.

The Eastern Roman Empire ended centuries ago, and due to the various political movements that have dominated the region since then (especially the Ottoman conquests and the subsequent nationalist reactions), many aspects of Byzantine society have become buried in history. Nonetheless, the religious traditions of the Empire have continued, albeit in a modified form, with monasticism among those traditions. Unfortunately, the collective trauma of centuries of living in another society, combined with the loss of the diversity of religious forms and the reification of extant forms (due in part to the success of the printing press), have left Byzantine monasticism today a shadow of its former glory. Monasticism no longer holds the prestige in society it once did, and the premier educational and social institutions of the world are no longer run by Byzantine monastics. Though there are those quite suspicious of efforts of renewal, fearing that innovation leads to the betrayal of the faith, renewal is necessary if Orthodox religious life is to stay true to the Byzantine tradition. As the parable recounted at the outset of this review implies, staying true to one’s traditions sometimes means renewal.

We stand today in a situation much like that of the leader of one of the greatest Byzantine monastic renewals in history: St. Francis of Assisi. As Byzantine historian Fr. John McGuckin points out, St. Francis is more of an eastern monastic than a western one. At the beginning of his ministry, Francis found himself praying in the San Damiano Church, in front of a cross painted in the Byzantine style with icons. The church was in ruins, and even if it were not a ruined Byzantine church (which existed at this time in Italy), it evidently had some contact with eastern monasticism, leading to the San Damiano cross. Francis responded to this call for renewal, reportedly from the mouth of the Byzantine cross itself, and lived not according to any western monastic rule, but instead in the pattern of the Byzantine fool-for-Christ. In this way, Francis successfully brought a vision of Eastern monasticism to the west. Francis’s vision of monasticism resonated deeply with the Byzantines of his day who heard of him, as evinced by the Greek liturgical service to St. Francis recorded in the Galatone codex, or the legend in Crete that Francis’s mother, Pica de Bourlemont, was actually Byzantine rather than French, or the popularity Francis icons and of the name Frangiskos in the Greek islands, such as Crete. Francis brought to the Church of his day the freedom of love characteristic of Eastern monasticism.

New Skete has done today what Francis, Theodore, and Symeon did centuries ago, reviving Byzantine monasticism in the face of the ruins of fossilized religion. This revival is not an updating or revising of the truth or way of Byzantine religious life, but a revival of it. The unique liturgy and way of life practiced by New Skete may seem to some as suspect, but it is nothing more than the carrying out of Schmemann’s vision (though perhaps more radically than Schmemann himself), a liturgy in the vernacular, simplified so that the laity may understand and participate. New Skete bears none of the marks of trauma which have inflicted much of the rest of the Church: fearful of outsiders, and clinging to received traditions as if survival depends upon it (for indeed during the intervening eras of persecution and occupation, survival did depend on it). Tireless scholarship has gone into making New Skete what it is today.

But the real work of the community is the work of loving one another, and living in harmony. The sign of Christian life is that we love one another, for we shall be known by our love, joyfully caring for each other “in the spirit of happiness.” This collection of essays encapsulates that joyful love. Each essay in it is no more than a few pages long, and makes for easy reading, as if one if gathered in conversation with the authors, who are in conversation with each other. The book will remind pilgrims to New Skete of the experience around the holy table at which meals are taken in the monastery. The table is always full of good food, good company, and lively conversation. This is a book of friends communing together, proving that the Byzantine religious tradition is alive in this century, and is capable of meeting the needs of people today as it used to in Constantinople. It is a book that I would recommend to anyone interested in Christianity, and especially to those Christians who call themselves Orthodox. Each essay is a gem of wisdom from eminent scholars such as Sister Vassa Larin, Peter Bouteneff, Michael Plekon, Pantelis Kalaitizidis, Paul Meyendorff, Bishop Seraphim Sigrist, and Kyriaki FitzGerald.

Christianity started as a small group of friends who would gather together to eat meals and to proclaim the truth. It was a small movement, but served as leaven to the world; just a little will change the whole batch, as Christ himself note. The first Christians faced persecution, but in the face of this they doubled down on what made the movement distinctive: love for one another. This was so attractive that the Church grew and become leaven, and within just a few generations the entirety of the known civilized world became Christian. In the first centuries, this happened through the Greek-Christian synthesis of St. Constantine, but the only reason this Semitic movement became Greek Christianity in its early days was because the dominant culture was Greek. As such one should expect the next great revival not to be Hellenist as with Constantine, or in Italian as with Francis, but in the vernacular, with English being the great international language in the world today. Just as Christianity began in the margins of a great empire as a movement reviving the prophetic Messianic traditions that had decayed in the second temple, so Francis worked in the ruins of a great empire, reviving the freedom and love of Byzantine monasticism. Today our challenge is the same as that which faced the first Christians, and which faced Francis. The Church faces many challenges, with violence plaguing many ‘traditionally Orthodox’ countries, and demographic decline that threatens the future of the Church. But the first Christian movement was not hindered by violence or limited by demographic realities. As leaven it transformed the entire society, converting the world to its vision of life. If the Church today doubles down on what makes it distinctive, on the love and freedom of Byzantine religious life (represented particularly in monasticism), then Byzantine Christianity can again sweep the world, as it did under Constantine, or in Italy under Francis. This is the challenge that New Skete presents to us and which it attempts to answer, namely, will we be fossil, or leaven?

The Gospel Command of Nonviolence


This is a pastoral letter from Metropolitan Tikhon of the OCA, issued August 10, 2014. Metropolitan Tikhon expresses solidarity with those suffering in war, and calls all Christians to be witnesses for peace, living out in their own lives “the Gospel’s command to adhere to peace and non-violence.”

We have preferred profane and material things to the commandment of love, and because we have attached ourselves to them we fight against men, whereas we ought to prefer the love of all men to all visible things and even to our own body.” (St Maximus the Confessor, The Ascetic Life, 7)

Our hearts have been deeply wounded by the stories and images of war and fighting throughout the world. The recent incidents of violence in the Middle East loom as tragic examples of an increasing disrespect for humanity and disregard for human life and dignity. The Orthodox Church in America joins those in the Middle East, in North America, and around the world who have raised their voices against the inhumane actions we are witnessing. We join all who condemn this blatant disregard for human dignity and life.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, whose ministry in the Middle East consistently witnesses to the Gospel of love of Jesus Christ and the Gospel’s command to adhere to peace and non-violence, has issued a strong statement condemning the attacks against Christians in Mosul, expressed in “coercion forcing them to change their belief, pay a tax or leave their homes, while having their property confiscated.” The statement calls on “states that provide fundamentalist groups with any direct or indirect foreign support to immediately stop all forms of material, logistic, military and moral support.”

The Orthodox Church in America expresses its solidarity with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch in its striving for non-violence and peace. We also express our solidarity with all the suffering Christian communities of Mosul, whose expulsion is ending the Christian presence there after nearly two thousand years.

Another story of violence is unfolding yet again between Israel and the Hamas organization in Gaza. In this violence hundreds of innocent civilians have already died, some of them Israelis, most of them Palestinians. This humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is overwhelming; hundreds of thousands of innocent people are losing their homes and struggling to survive without electricity and water.

Yet another narrative of violence continues in Syria. Many innocent people not involved in the fighting have lost their lives. A large proportion of the Syrian population has taken to flight, forced to live in refugee camps in the region. Millions have lost their homes, their livelihoods and their loved ones.

Those of us living in North America may feel a sense of helplessness when seeing and hearing of these tragedies. We ought to remember the words of St John Cassian, who writes that the “goal of peaceful improvement cannot be reached through the decisions of others, which is forever beyond our control, but is found rather in our own attitude. To be free from wrath is not dependent on the perfection of others, but stems from our own virtue, which is acquired through our own tolerance, not other people’s patience.” (Institutes, VIII.17)

St John is pointing to a fundamental spiritual principle: that real change only begins when we look within our own hearts. Rather than feeling helpless in the face of world tragedies, we need to recall our unity with all of mankind and to respond with prayer for the suffering and the departed. In addition, just as the ascetic struggles of the great saints, in their own time and place, have a cosmic effect, so our own effort to purify our own hearts will have an effect on the rest of the world.

Thus, a very concrete and practical way that we in North America can respond to the violence in the Middle East is to commit ourselves to establishing peace in our own families and communities. When the Holy Apostle James posed the question: “What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you?”, he immediately answers with a challenge for us to consider: “Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?” (James 4:1).

If we are truly concerned about the strife in the world today, let us begin by overcoming anger in our own hearts by striving for meekness and humility. If we are upset by the violence and destruction in the Middle East, let us direct our energy to bring peace to the conflicts within our own families. If we are horrified by images of human beings injuring and killing one another, let us offer an image of Christ by giving alms to those in need in our own neighborhood.

In this way, our deeds will be joined to our prayers, and by the action of divine grace, we will have the assurance that our merciful Lord will grant consolation to those who are suffering, will provide a place of rest for those who have departed and will bestow upon the world the peace that passes all understanding.

With love in Christ,


Living In Communion

From the OPF’s New Podcast:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Are You Fighting For?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Protection of the Mother of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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