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Cover letter for In Communion issue 31

Cover letter for the Fall 2003 issue of In Communion:

November 2003

It may be the most familiar of all icons: the Vladimir Mother of God. The Church regards this as one of the icons actually painted by the hand of St. Luke. The original is kept in a bullet-proof glass case in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Even in a museum setting, it inspires prayer.

The copy reproduced at the left — a lacquered paper print mounted on a thin piece of dark wood — has its own special history. It was a gift to OPF founder Mariquita Platov when she visited Russia in 1928. Quita — a young woman fresh out of college — had decided to visit the Soviet Union. It was then only a decade since the Revolution. The smoke from civil war was still in the air. Stalin was fully in charge. A nightmare time was underway in which Christians were suffering the worst persecution of the past two thousand years.

Quita was deeply touched by the wordless message of the icon: Christ embracing his mother; his mother supporting her son while drawing our attention to him; Christ’s bare feet — feet that walked on the same troubled world that we stand upon; the climate of love. Even in a copy, one can sense the history of Russia in the icon’s battered surface.

Until that trip, Quita had given very little thought to Orthodox Christianity. What most impressed her were not the Communist posters promising an earthly paradise but rather the way suffering believers gathered in any church that was still open, and the intensity with which they prayed. Her experience of Christianity in Stalin’s Russia marked the beginning of her journey to Orthodoxy. She was chrismated in New York City ten years later. (The icon was Quita’s gift to me when I was chrismated in 1988, not long before she asked me to serve as OPF secretary. For more of the story of OPF’s history, see the article “Learning to be Peacemakers” that starts on page 9 of the latest In Communion.)

It seems appropriate that this issue also includes an article about a Russian whose family was driven to the West by the Revolution. Metropolitan Anthony was one of the Church’s most remarkable bishops of recent times. An influence in shaping the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, he wanted us to be not pacifists but “men and women of peace.” You will see what he meant by this distinction in the article that starts on the first page.

While writing, let me once again appeal for your help to keep the Orthodox Peace Fellowship going. Subscription payments alone are not enough. Especially now that we have a staff person on each side of the Atlantic, we need to substantially enlarge our base of support. Please send a donation. There is already a community of donors who make monthly or quarterly donations. Might you join that core group? Without their help, OPF would have achieved much less. Could you manage 15 euros a month? Or 20? It would make such an enormous difference in our capacity to serve the Church.

Please help us take the next step forward.

in Christ’s peace,

Jim Forest, OPF co-secretary

Cover letter

Cover letter for the Fall 2003 issue of In Communion:

November 2003Quita's icon

It may be the most familiar of all icons: the Vladimir Mother of God. The Church regards this as one of the icons actually painted by the hand of St. Luke. The original is kept in a bullet-proof glass case in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Even in a museum setting, it inspires prayer.

The copy reproduced at the left — a lacquered paper print mounted on a thin piece of dark wood — has its own special history. It was a gift to OPF founder Mariquita Platov when she visited Russia in 1928. Quita — a young woman fresh out of college — had decided to visit the Soviet Union. It was then only a decade since the Revolution. The smoke from civil war was still in the air. Stalin was fully in charge. A nightmare time was underway in which Christians were suffering the worst persecution of the past two thousand years.

Quita was deeply touched by the wordless message of the icon: Christ embracing his mother; his mother supporting her son while drawing our attention to him; Christ’s bare feet — feet that walked on the same troubled world that we stand upon; the climate of love. Even in a copy, one can sense the history of Russia in the icon’s battered surface.

Until that trip, Quita had given very little thought to Orthodox Christianity. What most impressed her were not the Communist posters promising an earthly paradise but rather the way suffering believers gathered in any church that was still open, and the intensity with which they prayed. Her experience of Christianity in Stalin’s Russia marked the beginning of her journey to Orthodoxy. She was chrismated in New York City ten years later. (The icon was Quita’s gift to me when I was chrismated in 1988, not long before she asked me to serve as OPF secretary. For more of the story of OPF’s history, see the article “Learning to be Peacemakers” that starts on page 9 of the latest In Communion.)

It seems appropriate that this issue also includes an article about a Russian whose family was driven to the West by the Revolution. Metropolitan Anthony was one of the Church’s most remarkable bishops of recent times. An influence in shaping the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, he wanted us to be not pacifists but “men and women of peace.” You will see what he meant by this distinction in the article that starts on the first page.

While writing, let me once again appeal for your help to keep the Orthodox Peace Fellowship going. Subscription payments alone are not enough. Especially now that we have a staff person on each side of the Atlantic, we need to substantially enlarge our base of support. Please send a donation. There is already a community of donors who make monthly or quarterly donations. Might you join that core group? Without their help, OPF would have achieved much less. Could you manage 15 euros a month? Or 20? It would make such an enormous difference in our capacity to serve the Church.

Please help us take the next step forward.

in Christ’s peace,

Jim Forest, OPF co-secretary

* * *

Conversations by E-Mail – Summer 2006

In Communion / issue 42 / Summer 2006

Conversations by E-Mail

These are extracts from recent postings to the OPF’s e-mail discussion list. If you are an OPF member and wish to take part, contact Mark Pearson — markp[at]]earlham.edu — or Jim Forest — jhforest[at]cs.com.

Poor Excuse: It’s clear that the Gospel puts rich and poor in different categories. I recall a book by Donald Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom, on the Gospel’s world-view. After mentioning the Gospel’s preference for the poor, Kraybill notes that, in applying it, we should always put ourselves in the position of the rich. True, I think. This seems to me to mean two things at least:

œ We’re never entitled to puff ourselves up or see ourselves as having some moral superiority, even if we do it by saying “I’m one of the poor!”

œ No amount of objective poverty exempts us as Christians from founding our lives on love and service toward others. We’d consider Christ and the disciples poor – it seems they lived as wandering beggars (with a few un-poor donors) – but when speaking of “the poor” they typically meant not themselves but those that they were to serve. And the poor widow is praised for giving her last coin, putting herself in the position of the giver.

In our class-bound world it’s very hard for us with money and security to establish any kind of personal fellowship/friendship with poor people, and the temptation is to turn them into an abstaction.

John Brady

[email protected]

Backlash: There’s a vague backlash within Christianity idealizing the poor, but it sure doesn’t last very long or get much beyond the superficial. Most people don’t truly idealize anything about the poor. I have seen very few people in my life that learn from the poor, or find solidarity with the poor, or seek out the poor, or even accept the poor. Usually this “perfect poor” language is a way for one to feel better about not dealing with the scriptural texts dealing with money or is an attempt at a loophole, giving something of value to the poor and therefore not having to pay them any more attention – i.e., they are the spiritually rich, so why change their situation?

I remember working at a state psychiatric hospital for a year. I worked with the people that were rejected from society for many reasons, mostly stemming from their illness. One day at a chapel service, I looked over the group and had a sense that these people were the ones for whom God has a special place, the apple of His eye, if you will. I must admit, I had trouble understanding why. They didn’t always act lovingly to each other, they weren’t pure as people often want to make them, they were often undisciplined and repulsive. Perhaps it was just because they too are human, and yet we have so much trouble accepting that and treating them well. Perhaps it is just like a teacher looking at a class full of students and seeing them treat one student so badly because of the way she dresses, or because he may learn a bit more slowly. The teacher can see that they are really not very different, but the students think that they are vastly different. Perhaps God sees that we are not very different at all, but we treat the mentally ill as the worst members of our society, indeed we try to forget that they are a part of our society.

I think we do the same to the poor, either abstractly or individually.

Sheri San Chirico

[email protected]

Beyond individualism: The idea that salvation comes to us exclusively as individuals and that our wealth or poverty are irrelevant factors is not Orthodox. Since when do we enter as individuals, one at a time? Where is koinonia? Doesn’t the lesson of Matthew 25 say that our fates, the rich and the poor are intrinsically tied to the other? Where is our understanding of Eucharist or of incarnational theology here? Do we not pray for every corner of Creation in the Divine Liturgy?

This is a very tired conversation to say that “the church is not a social agency-or-who does or does not get a free pass to Heaven.” Shouldn’t we rather be talking about the scary consumption in this country and what a sin it is? Anyone who has been to the third world and seen first-hand the suffering that poverty brings will find it really hard to ever fully fit in any consumer society.

I am uncomfortable with any discussion that cannot see past the grace vs. works argument to know that the reason to pour oneself out for the least is because we are disciples of the Teacher of Poverty, Jesus. We do it because we love. It is the requirement of love. When it is pointed out that “everyone has to repent,” does that not mean that the rich need to repent from greed or oppression, as St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom so often warned? I don’t know what good comes out of a rich person telling everyone that the poor need to repent. Most of the poor that I have walked with, worked with and lived for years with are already painfully aware of their sins. We could learn a great deal from their humility.

Joe May

[email protected]

Romanian perspective: We mystify the poor in strange ways. Our experience of Orthodox culture in Romania tells us that. It is common to see beggars with an open hand and an icon of the Theotokos in the other. When receiving a gift, the beggar is expected to say a prayer or blessing. The donor feels vindicated and maybe more lucky, or less guilty, about not visiting a relative’s grave, but little is done for the root causes of poverty. Both rich and poor tend to be exploited and neither is doing anything out of relationship.

Someone said that for the poor, poverty is an economic problem, but for the rich poverty is a moral problem. I do believe Christ prefers the poor only in the way a mother “prefers” whichever child is in need at the time. It does not mean she loves one more, just differently.

Christ calls us to a spirituality which puts us in relationship with the poor. And in these encounters where the presence of Christ is sensed and the veil is lifted, rich and poor no longer exist and we are all only children of God in solidarity in our common human suffering. I do believe the poor can be “salvific” in the sense of purification and theosis. Relationship with the poor can get us in touch with our true neediness for God, call us to our knees, and get us to pray in new ways, “Let Your Kingdom Come… Give us this day our daily bread.” It is never the poor who save us rich people, but the suffering Christ, who is co-mingled in the suffering of the poor.

There is a certain pride in charity and helping out the poor guy. When they become your brother and you are powerless to really help them yet you stand with them before God crying out for them, them you are able to share in their powerlessness before God and cry out for His Kingdom to come. Blessed are the poor in spirit.

I agree that every person, no matter how poor, will enter as individuals, but again their poverty is only an economic problem, not a moral problem as it is for most of us.

God help us and save us.

Joel Klepac

[email protected]

In Communion: I just wanted you to know that I have really enjoyed the Spring issue of In Communion so much. And not just for the colorful cover. The articles were very timely for me and seemed maybe more down to earth and practical than other issues. I really appreciate all the work you and others do to put together a wonderful publication that I am proud to receive. I am thinking of translating parts of John Jones’ article on stigmatization for our Romanian newsletter. We want to do an issue on the Romani (Gypsy) people who are often the objects of stigmatization.

Monica Klepac

[email protected]

OPF meetings: I attended the OPF conference at St. Vladimir’s last summer and the OPF workshop in Akron with Sheri, Joe, Noel and others last weekend. We had a grand time together and with the folks not from OPF who joined us.

My recommendation is that we continue to arrange such gatherings. We need to think of “hubs” or “capitals” for OPF around the country, and go to those places as often as we can in a year. I doubt that I am alone in saying that I feel very alone sometimes, and the friendship and support of others in the OPF is very precious to me.

As for the weekend just past, the best part of it for me was the fellowship with other Orthodox. The workshop leader, Art Gish of the Church of the Brethren, was very gifted and insightful. I doubt that he agreed with all that we Orthodox believe, but he was very respectful of and curious about our tradition. He never said anything that contradicted our beliefs. Most of what he had to say was of a practical nature.

For me the most moving moment of the workshop was a remark from a Byzantine Catholic bishop who joined us for a couple of hours on Sunday. When our workshop presenter was introduced to the bishop, he said, “Thank you for giving a martyr to the Church.” He referred to one member of a peacemaking team in Iraq who was held hostage and finally murdered. How seldom do I risk anything for the Gospel!

David Holden

[email protected]

OPF’s Akron gathering: A quick report: The first day began with reasons for peacemaking from the Old and New Testaments, some of which I had not understood in the texts before or had not seen in the same light. In the afternoon, Art Gish taught us about Christian Peacemaker Teams, its history, and his own history with them (he winters in Palestine and has for many years now). The second day was practical techniques of peacemaking, especially focusing on ways to interact with aggressors to defuse or deflect their attack in loving ways.

The most important thing for me was to understand more fully how much we as a society depend on violence and military strength to bring about peace.

Let me know if you have an interest in taking part in the next such meeting.

Sheri San Chirico

[email protected]

DaVinci Code: It has been good to see reports that not only Christians but Muslims have been critical of The DaVinci Code. Muslims see it as an oblique attack on Islam. As a moderator of soc.religion.islam list, I get to see a lot of questions from Muslims asking why Christians are not more active in objecting to such books and films.

I started reading soc.religion.islam in 1989, when I decided to learn something about Islam after working on several human right cases involving people in Islamic countries. In 1995, I was asked to help moderate. I have, in fact, been one of the moderators since about six weeks before my baptism and chrismation as an Orthodox Christian, over a decade ago.

Catherine Hampton

[email protected]

Jurisdictionalism: Whenever I read any church history, I’m reminded that Orthodoxy continues by God’s grace, not thanks to human endeavor. The organizational history of the church is one long tale of treachery, greed, ambition, bribes, illicit political influence, occasional murders, etc. The positive side is the realization that, as bad as our “political” dimension looks right now, it’s really no worse than it ever was.

My opinion about the “organizational” canons is that they presuppose a Christian empire ruled by a Christian emperor. Trying to apply them helpfully in our time is almost useless. (A priest with whom I spoke about some of these issues said that the age of Christian emperors ended with Nicholas II.)

I took a Canon Law class at our diocesan seminary a few years ago. The teacher started out by saying that in Orthodoxy the word “law” probably shouldn’t be applied to the canons at all.

One section was devoted to the jurisdictional situation in North America. First we considered the claims of Constantinople, Russia, etc. with their various canonical justifications. The teacher concluded that, in his opinion, we have a new situation that was never anticipated by the canons and to which none of them apply – which would mean that the Church needs to get together and come up with a solution rather than keep making competing “canonical” claims. But this is unlikely to happen, he said, because the various churches would have to humble themselves in ways that he couldn’t imagine they ever would. I suppose this describes the situation in Western Europe as well as in North America.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on jurisdictionalism, and here’s how it seems to me at the moment: we all say jurisdictionalism is a problem, uncanonical, bad for the church. But in our hearts we love it. It suits our modern notions of freedom as the ability to shop for what we want. If I don’t like my bishop I can get a new one without even changing my address! It’s a little more difficult than changing my cell phone provider, but not much. So if our hierarchs got together, sat down, and came up with a proper system where each region was served by exactly one bishop, I wonder if, when we realized some of the consequences, we’d accept it.

John Brady

[email protected]

[end]

In Communion / issue 42 / Summer 2006

Peacemaking in the Parish:

Seeking the Peace from Above

by Fr. Stephen Headley

Most of us, as Orthodox Christians, have experienced the pain of waiting for members of the parish, a parish priest or a bishop to cease to behave in ways that are decidedly not Christian. Their behavior, their actions, strike us as failing to praise God as he deserves through humility, gentleness and mercy. The possibility that they have some good reason to behave as they do helps us to be patient until such time as we better understand their motives. When, as sometimes is the case, we imagine that their behavior is best explained by their weaknesses, the problem becomes more difficult. Shouldn’t we, as St. Paul suggests in his writings about teachers of false doctrine, correct them fraternally by prayer and supplication, and later, if need be, exclude them from our midst? So far as common sense is concerned, we feel justified. Nevertheless, a nagging voice of conscience should tell us that to take this course is to wander from the higher road to peace, aggravating the difficulties others have in dealing with us.

We have many strategies by which we fail to bring a genuinely Christian perspective to the problem of anger and enmity within both parish and family life. All these strategies seem to exclude the Cross. The faith with which Christ bears all that is unbearable leads finally to his death on the Cross. This Cross-centered perspective is the horizon we need to make our own. Unless we do, we will be deprived of our hope in Christian freedom and fall into a self-induced cynicism. Sooner or later we will conclude that the Beatitudes are fine ideals but do not apply to our daily lives.

Until such time as our sense of self-vindicating outrage subsides, in reality it is we, not they, who are ceasing to be Christian. This loss of sincerity, of openness to the destiny that God has offered us, occurs because of our refusal to be vulnerable to the other, even if the other seems to be persecuting us. In fact it is then that we are in great spiritual danger. In these moments we may not realize that our actual Christian dignity in fact resides in the patient suffering described in the seventh and eight Beatitudes:

Blessed are you, when men shall revile you and persecute you and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake … for so did they persecute the prophets who were before you. Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.

The problem is that we don’t recognize that the thoughts that are passing through our minds and hearts fail to reflect the revelation of Christ to us in his Sermon on the Mount. The superiority of values in the Beatitudes as a personal, ascetic path to Christ is only clear to those who actually enter the path. St. Dionysios, a Syrian monk of the sixth century, gave us the term hierarchy, meaning a sacred order, a progressive bestowing of God’s grace upon us in our ascent to heaven. If we bear our lot, we discover that the elevating effect of such a gracious hierarchy raises us to a higher level of vision and brings us into proximity with Christ. We are able to see the difficulties that hem us in as constituting our very own cross. We begin to carry that cross as a free choice.

The aspiration to patience helps us see the supposed “evil” of the other in a new light. We are no longer obliged to correct the other. I don’t say this moralistically. It has come to me after numerous mistakes and injustices committed by me in parishes in which I served, always because I had come to the point of feeling justified in saying “enough is enough.”

But what was I feeling? What had I had enough of? Enough of the other? Enough of being a Christian? Were my parishioners unworthy of my dedication? Why should I define their behavior by the limits of my comprehension? If a Christian way of life has any meaning, if it is in fact a witness of Christ’s passion, it is because my relations with others are not defined by my needs. Do I want to live a truly Christian life? If so it requires that I constantly seek to do to others as I would have them do to me.

Several times in my life my closest friends in the Church, persons toward whom I had great respect and with whom I shared an intimacy created by their qualities, since they lifted me to a higher plane of vision regarding my own life – these important friends have done things I would never have thought they were capable of. I was crushed. I grieved for months over what I thought was the destruction of our friendship, a brotherly bond which I felt had been destroyed by my friend’s misdeeds. I had needed him in order to be myself. The person I was sure he was gave me a stronger faith. He had offered me a hand up to a purer plane of existence.

At each Vespers we read Psalm 103 in which we hear that the Lord makes of his servants “flames of fire.” I had previously found that flame of the holy Spirit in my friend, but now where was it? I retreated and turned my back on him and denied him. It was as if I was a better judge of his soul than God, in whom he had put his trust, who was clearly in a position to pardon him, if pardon was needed, in His own time. I let the confidence I had placed in him slip through my fingers and in so doing, I lost confidence not only in him, but also in God.

Suffering misfortune with patience is perhaps the highest expression of confidence in the Lord. This is not because it punishes and purifies us from our sins in a sadistic manner, but because it gives us the opportunity to participate in the same fortitude that Christ manifested in responding to the constant and unrelenting adversity that he experienced. While being hounded from Galilee to Judea, Christ never wavered in proclaiming the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God in our midst. The horizon of his Father’s calling was never closer than when, on his knees in the garden of Gethsemane, he was enveloped in anguish and prayed to fulfill his Father’s will. As St. Maximos the Confessor showed, because of the Fall, our “gnomic will” (ƒÆƒÉƒÅƒÊƒ¿), as opposed to out natural will, no longer permits us to spontaneously choose the good which God offers us. The human-divine person of Christ presents us with the model of the redemption of our fallen will; henceforth human will is free to commune fully with God’s will for us.

If complaining makes cowards of us, long-suffering makes us clear-headed about how a fallen world operates. Much of human communication takes place on the level of provocation, usually over inconsequential matters. This is tiring. But if this is so, it is because the other cannot yet see us as a dependable friend. By testing our patience, he or she is trying to see how long we are willing to put up with him. Are we ready to “share spaces” with him, as Jessica Rose puts it in her book Sharing Spaces: Prayer and the Counseling Relationship? And what can we say inside ourselves while this is going on? Psalm 142, which is prayed every morning at Matins, shows us a path forward:

Deliver me, O Lord, from mine enemies: I flee unto thee to hide me. Teach me to do thy will, for thou art my God: thy spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness.

In the course of several decades I have served under five or six bishops, and I must admit that only one of them met my expectations – and finally even the failings of this exception were hard for me to accept. Why were “worthy bishops” so hard for me to find? I have of course obeyed them all, but I could have collaborated more fruitfully if I had been able to give them my confidence. Why was I withholding my confidence? I believe now that I had not realized that the confidence I failed to place in them would have emerged if I had gone ahead and collaborated whole-heartedly with these bishops rather than standing back and waiting until they proved their qualities to me. After all, they must have seen my own limitations, yet even so that did not prevent them from placing their trust in God when they ordained me deacon and later priest.

This was despite the fact that I had already learned some basic lessons when seeking out a “good” confessor. Early on, when my own confessor was far away, I had adopted the habit of going to confession with the priest for whom I had the least esteem. This exercise proved fruitful, for these men never failed to give me good advice and to sincerely pray for me. The need to respect a person, or to judge him as worthy of my admiration, had found a fitting limit, since even I had to confess that such judgment of others was incompatible with asking for forgiveness from God.

All this is formulated in the final exhortation of the Apostle James’s epistle, if one cares to read it with a open, undefended heart:

Be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble, brethren, against one another, that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the doors. As an example of suffering and patience, brethren, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we call those happy who were steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation. Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.

The Greek word ƒÊƒ¿ƒÈƒÏƒÍƒÆƒÒƒÊƒ¿, often translated weakly as “patience,” might better be rendered as “long-suffering.” This has to do with forging the future by waiting on the Lord. As we read in Proverbs: “Do not lose heart, because the Lord will be coming soon. Do not make complaints against one another, brothers, so as not to be brought to judgment yourselves… You have heard of the patience of Job, and understood the Lord’s purpose, realizing that the Lord is kind and compassionate.” (Proverbs 3:34)

The Apostle James exhorts us not to swear by heaven or by earth, which I understand to mean not to finalize our judgments. Rather he proposes that we should sing psalms with the joyful, and pray for those in trouble. So like Elijah, who prayed for rain until it did rain, we are encouraged to pray with our faith for the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again (whatever that “up” may be), and he will be forgiven. Saving a soul from death due to his or her sins, says St. James, covers a multitude of sins, presumably including our own. So here is the “reason” not to judge: so that we will not be judged and so that our sins will be forgiven.

To sum up, we have been in a critical situation ever since we were old enough to blame others for our own limitations. The fact that others have their own limitations does not change anything. We are constantly in danger of being hemmed in by the way we view others, by the ways we (and they) become disappointed and aggressive.

For a Christian, daily life is best compared with that of the Hebrews fleeing Pharaoh’s armies across the Red Sea. The only thing that could save them was their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Their ability to follow Moses across this sea and into the desert was what kept the walls of water from drowning them. If they had believed that the waters of that passage were more dangerous to them than Pharaoh’s charioteers, if they had harbored their own fears rather than trusting in the call of Moses to escape Egypt, they would have had no prospect of salvation.

Peter had the same experience as he attempted to walk towards Christ on the waters of the Sea of Galilee. The moment he turned his gaze away from Christ, he began to sink. The security of our own expectation was decried by Jesus:

It is the pagans of this world who set their hearts on these things. Your Father well knows you need them. No, set your hearts on his kingdom, and these thing will be given you as well. There is no need to be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the Kingdom. (Luke 12:22)

Each time we put the cross around our neck, it is recommended that we say the words of Christ: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)

This self-giving loss of life is the way to the deep self-knowledge that Christ has promised us: “Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built.” (Luke 6:47-48)

The rock is God’s divine law. Not the civil law, which is often little more than a screen hiding our collective sins that are the ruin of society, what the French call a cache-misre, but a law that, for those who follow it, makes us free and thankful to God for revealing his justice to us.

The whole of the Psalm 118 (119) describes how the Christian “treasures your promises in my heart … be good to your servant and I shall live … exile though I am on earth … my soul is overcome with an incessant longing for your rulings … I am sleepless with grief, raise me up as your word has guaranteed … I run the way of your commandments since you have set me free…”

The long-suffering patience of the psalmist derives its strength from waiting for the Lord to save him, an offer of loving intervention that gives him life. That life is God’s justice. God is just in all his works and does justice to his servant. We ask God to teach us his statutes. What does that mean? The Greek word for justice (ƒƒÇƒÈƒ¿ƒÊƒ¿) means both acts of justice towards man, justification of his creature, and God’s judgment regarding our acts.

In this sense the whole set of contemporary political proposals of universal human rights glosses over the more fundamental fact that it is God who has rights over man. It is this that makes the Beatitudes a realistic program for daily life. It is possible to be long-suffering since the Lord of great goodness is long-suffering with us. Herein lies the peace from above we have been thirsting after! Here is the peace that the life-giving Cross brings us, “for the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)

Fr. Stephen Headley is rector of the parish of St. Etienne the Proto-martyr and St. Herman of Auxerre (Moscow Patriarchate) in Vzelay, France. He is a researcher in social anthropology in the French National Center of Scientific Research, Paris, and a member of the board of advisors of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. The author of several books on religion in Indonesia, Fr. Stephen is currently involved in research on “The Transmission of the Orthodox Faith in contemporary Moscow.”

When Taking Cover Is Not Enough

In Communion / issue 42 / Summer 2006

Peacemaking in the Parish:

When Taking Cover Is Not Enough

by Fr. Meletios Webber

Get out of the head and into the heart.

– St. Theophan the Recluse

A statement of the problem: When I was little, I went to church with my family each Sunday. There were services morning and evening, with Sunday school in the afternoon. Since we lived more than a mile from the church and had no car, this level of commitment was actually very high. However, since that was all I knew, I did not complain … at least not very much.

I remember having favorites among the people at the church, and there was one in particular, Mrs. Ward, who was in charge of my section of the Sunday school. Looking back I have no idea why I liked her so much more than the others; I simply felt drawn to her. In later life I have observed that children can often have very strong personal likes and dislikes for no apparent reason, and Mrs. Ward (I never knew her first name) was one of my likes.

This particular lady, together with her husband, was one of those people who fall into the “almost indispensable” category in a parish situation. Apart from the Sunday school, they were both involved in all sorts of other activities; my fondness for her had many opportunities for expression since she was at the church every time I was there, and I was there very often.

As I grew older, however, I slowly became aware that, from my parents’ point of view, this hard-working couple were not quite the ideal people that I had imagined them to be. I am not suggesting anything untoward here – far from it. They were upstanding members of the community, somewhat conservative in their views, and very much at home in their own particular religious tradition. However, what gradually became apparent to me (probably over ten or more years) was that while they were very good people under most normal circumstances, if they happened to be present in a meeting (of any kind) they always managed to be opposed to the majority view. Moreover, their m.o. consisted of stating their opposition repeatedly, loudly and (almost) obnoxiously, and their performance often culminated in the ultimate threat: to leave the church if their views were not accepted.

This pattern of behavior was as predictable as it was successful, and they almost always got their way. In our house, the phrase “the Wards are anti” was a common way of describing any situation where tenacity and closed-mindedness won the day.

In my later years as a pastor and parish priest, I have been successful in finding people just like the Wards in almost every parish I have worked in: good, well-meaning people, hard-working and admirable in every respect except that if you find them in a meeting where views are being expressed (which is almost all meetings), they turn into raving banshees, incapable of seeing that it is possible to have a point of view other than their own, and shouting down any and all opposition to their vision of reality.

Indeed, sometimes such behavior gets so bad that one wonders how the church manages to survive at all, since in many cases you will see and hear things at annual meetings, parish councils and similar gatherings which would have to be categorized by an observer as “un-Christian.” Not just in meetings either. I learned the hard way that if a parish community is going to misbehave and turn into warring factions of undiluted hatred and boundless egotism, it is likely to happen either just before Easter (or any time when there is large scale flower-arranging) or, in the case of the particular parishes I served, in connection with the annual Greek Festival. People are tired and restless at such times, and even small difficulties can become pretexts for all-out war.

What exactly is it that turns pleasant, supportive people into raging maniacs?

Raiding the treasures of secular psychology, I would hazard a guess that people behave like this when two things happen – when they lack a clear self-image of themselves (i.e. they are not quite sure who they are in a given situation) and when they are engulfed by, and identify entirely with, the needs of their own ego.

Everyone has an ego, and the ego can be considered and defined in a number of ways. Generally it sums up how we view ourselves. Unfortunately, since we live in a fallen world, this view of ourselves is often wildly inaccurate, and contains toxic levels of fear and desire. Even though it is not really a “thing” at all, the ego slowly develops from childhood on, and is expressed as a story-line, complete with expectations (the “how things ought to be” section of our ever-churning imaginations), paranoia (“they” are out to get me, even when I am not quite sure who “they” are) and simple everyday self-centeredness (“I and my needs and opinions have to be heard, venerated and accepted by everyone else, or I am in danger of disappearing without trace”). The ego is forever in need of support and encouragement, since it sees itself failing miserably in its own task of dominating the universe. The ego is always in need of a boost: hence, “ego-boosting.”

What happens in meetings is that everyone present faces the temptation of using the occasion for a bit of ego-boosting. Of course, this does not occur on a conscious level, but it happens nevertheless. Ego-boosting is a very natural thing to want to do, even if it is not on the agenda of the meeting (which, of course, it is not… at least not in any obvious way).

So, when looking at the agenda of a meeting, everyone present who feels insecure about their role in the parish (almost everyone, including the clergy, office holders, and certainly everyone who expects to be influential) looks to find an item when they can project their ego, even if just a little bit.

Let me give some examples: Someone may want to remind the parish that they do the flowers every Tuesday – as if anyone would dare forget – so under “any other business” that person may ask a rather pointed question about the possibility of such-and-such a family having a memorial service on that day, “which is inconvenient for me since, as everybody knows, I am a very busy person and I do the flowers on Tuesday.” The point of the exercise has nothing to do with flowers, or Tuesdays, but is simply to elicit sympathy, a commodity greatly treasured by the ego, and to let everyone know how complicated and important the person’s life is.

Another example: Someone may have very strong views about Sunday schools. Everyone present at the meeting has heard this person talking on the subject many times before, but since his or her views have not been adopted as general policy, this person finds it necessary to talk at length about the subject once more. The unspoken title of the speech is actually “I am not being listened to” and not, as one may imagine, “Sunday schools.” So, in item seven there is something about the Sunday school wanting money to do something or other, and the possessor of the ego says, “Aha… this is my chance.” What results is yet another example of a lengthy list of the insecurities felt, rightly or wrongly, by the speaker, and expressed in terms of what the Sunday school needs to do. Of course, nobody points this out. They are too scared.

It belongs to the nature of the ego that it loves strong views, preferably the ones belonging to its owner. Strong views give people identity, make them feel important, give them an excuse to stand up and address the meeting, and above all they give one the satisfaction about being right about something. The ego loves to be right, more than anything else in the world.

As Orthodox, we have a particular relationship with the concept of “rightness.” It is actually written into the title by which we most often call our Church. I always thought “Orthodoxy” should be translated into something approximating to “right-glorifying” or “right-praising.” Indeed, I think I am right in saying that in Russian this is precisely what is meant by pravoslavni. Recently I have learned that the original Greek word also (or rather) contains the concept of “right teaching” (from dokeo, I teach, rather than doxa meaning glory).

Whichever interpretation is correct, we need to bear in mind that infallibility, in terms of Orthodoxy, lies at the heart of the experience of the whole Church, but not in any present-day decision, nor in the voice of any one person. The very idea that infallibility can be exercised in some active sense by one person (even a bishop, or a patriarch) is repugnant to Orthodoxy. Everything needs to be tried and tested against the experience of the Church of every age before it can be said to take on an infallible quality. However, to listen to some bishops speaking (let alone parish priests, parish council presidents and other local worthies) one would imagine that infallibility was a very common commodity indeed.

The faith of the Church is infallible. This means that I do not have to be – or to be more precise, it means that at no point does my ego have to feel that it is responsible for the truth of Christ expressed in the life of the Orthodox Church. Moreover, my internal experience of faith is usually expressed in terms of holding strong opinions about things, while, in reality, faith and strong opinions are quite different from each other. Indeed, holding strong opinions is not particularly useful in one who is a member of the Body of Christ. The louder we proclaim our opinions as a matter of faith, the more difficulty the Holy Spirit has of being heard.

“Being right” takes numerous forms. Sometimes simply stating how wrong everything is makes one feel right by comparison. Snatching the moral high ground (simply because no one else has) is another way.

Members of the clergy have a particularly difficult task in ensuring that the exercise of their ministry is not one of ego-boosting. Sitting in a meeting, it is very tempting for a priest to attempt to show all the skills of leadership that he may be required to display in the secular world, including being the figure-head, the source of authority and the person with the most influence in the parish. Some bishops may actually encourage this sort of leadership from their priests, since parishes run along these lines may appear to be the most successful, or at least require the least maintenance.

In the Church, however, the dynamic of authority and leadership is quite different from that which is deemed to be successful in boardrooms, union meetings or political parties. Coercion, manipulation and power-ploys are not the required tools. Members of the clergy, in particular, need to turn back time and time again to the Gospel sayings in which leadership is genuinely and obviously viewed as a mode of service – not in any metaphorical sense, but in a straight-forward “down on your hands and knees washing feet” sort of way. Whether regarded as the seat of passions or merely as a piece of fiction, the ego has to be placed aside before any such leadership-as-service can be exercised. The most powerful weapon in the repertoire of the clergyman is to bring his people back time and time again to the words of the Gospel… even during Church meetings.

The really bad stuff happens when a person at a meeting, priest or parishioner, identifies totally and completely with the needs of his or her own ego. This state is akin to being completely unconscious – a form of being absent. What is actually required is a state of very profound presence.

In times of peace, the ego sits around doing not very much, being just a small part of who a person is. Always on the look out for attack (such as someone pushing ahead of you in a line, or someone forgetting to use your correct title), it meanders through existence adding color, but very little else, to a person’s particular version of reality. However, when an ego gets challenged, it swells out to enormous proportions and can take over the operation of the entire person. Anyone standing nearby needs to take care and watch out, since the ego is vicious when threatened and there is very little anyone else can do except wait for it to subside to its more normal dimensions. From one point of view, an ego actually consists of pain and draws strength by feeding on the pain of others. It is entirely natural, then, that egos should provoke others, hoping to cause a painful reaction in those around them (in this case, the other people present at the meeting) so that they can have a good feed. Sharks feeding on a fresh carcass are tame by comparison.

The trouble is, when one person starts doing a little ego-boosting in a meeting, he (or she) is likely to be a threat to … every other ego in the room. This is how the ego sees the world: “I can only be absolutely sure of who I am if I know that I (and my entire world-view and everything about me) is safe from attack by you … and your world-view and everything about you.” Moreover, the ego long since discovered that the easiest way to defend is to attack, followed by a quick retreat behind an emotional wall which (as should be obvious to everyone) if you dare to breach, will result in me being well and truly “upset” … and you know you don’t want to do that.

I once worked for a bishop who used to run the diocese in a very idiosyncratic way and whose main tactic was to present things in such a manner that no one could challenge his actions for fear of upsetting him. As systems go, it worked very well, and may have been very productive if he had been the chairman of a company. The Church is not a company, at least not in the commercial sense.

At meetings, one of the favorite moves of the ego-booster in us all is to restate the problem being discussed, which everyone already knows, but in such a way to make the speaker feel better about him or herself – guilt-free, self-righteous or simply condemnatory. From the ego’s point of view, condemnation, whether justified or not, stems from a sense of superiority, so even if nobody present notices or cares, it still feels as if it has won a point by speaking out against something.

The result of a great deal of ego-boosting breaking out in several parts of the meeting room is the chairman’s (or the priest’s) worst nightmare (unless that person is also busy ego-boosting, in which case he will be too unconscious, too lacking in presence, to do anything about it). The meeting is no longer about whatever was up for discussion… it is now to do with power: manipulation, brinkmanship, drawing lines in imaginary sand, who can make whom do what and, ultimately, who has the strongest ego. Each person is equally (and indelibly) convinced that he or she is defending a point of view which is right, which thus justifies what is going on. Sometimes, in fact, everyone is in their head… no one is really present at all. This is a far cry indeed from the virtues listed in the Beatitudes.

Ego-boosting may be an entirely appropriate way of spending your time, unless (of course) you are committed to walking the spiritual path. Members of a parish are, by definition, on a spiritual path (even if we need to be reminded of this fact rather often). Ego-boosting is not something we need in the Kingdom.

A solution: The Fathers give a number of clues as to how to learn from this sort of experience, and what to do about it. While fully aware of the necessity to use the God-given ability to think, they point out that there is a dimension of thinking which, far from being helpful, actually hinders our spiritual progress. They called these thoughts the logismoi, and I think it is fairly safe to identify this word with the stream of thoughts which constantly and often very obtrusively courses through our minds almost twenty-four hours a day.

These logismoi are the source of most (if not all) of the turmoil in our lives. They are at the root of every sin, and provide an environment for the ego to develop. In fact, outside the context of these thoughts, these “logismoi,” the ego does not actually exist, since it needs the atmosphere of fear and desire which the logismoi create in order to be real. Since fear and desire have no obvious place in the Kingdom of Heaven, it is part of our spiritual walk to brush these thoughts aside… put them behind us, and to start to approach God in another way.

This other way is summed up in what the Fathers called the “nous” and which we (without getting into too much trouble) can perhaps call the “heart.” This definition stands in contra-distinction to the more general Western notion that the nous is to be identified with the mind. In patristic Greek thought, this is often not the case. There certainly exists a problem of terminology here, which naturally accompanies any attempt to define spiritual body-parts like “soul,” “spirit,” “mind” and “nous,” but finding a model by which we can make adjustments to our behavior is a pre-requisite, so that we might have a pattern to work with. Thus, “nous” here is used in this particular Greek and patristic way, meaning “the center of our God-given spiritual intelligence.”

The mind (or the head) is the playground of thoughts, and thus also of emotions or feelings which are the means by which the body reacts to these thoughts. (Here, feelings and emotions are linked to the mind, and not to the heart, as some would expect).Thoughts and feelings have no subtlety about them… they are unmistakable, even when they are difficult to interpret. For example, when someone is angry, it is usually obvious to everyone present that that is the case. Quite why the person is angry might be a little more difficult to understand.

The “nous” – or heart – is, by contrast, little disturbed by thinking (in this compulsive, involuntary and continuous sense) or by emotion. It simply “is” – but in a very profound way. The presence that results from this “being” is enormously powerful and yet very subtle. This subtlety is best appreciated in deep, inner silence. This “sound of silence” is the nous’s equivalent of thought. It constitutes very profound awareness, most often expressed quite wordlessly. In some respects it actually is the “place of the heart” of which the Fathers speak, the part of the human personality which is forever listening to God.

Having said this, it is now possible to return to the words of St. Theophan the Recluse and understand what he means when he says: “Get out of the head and into the heart.”

This is good advice from a saintly man, but never so practical as when applied to a parish, or a diocese, when it is meeting not at the Divine Liturgy (when the icon of the Church is most easily visible and where ego-boosting should be entirely lacking as being quite inappropriate to the task at hand) but as a quasi-democratic body, carrying out its work according to Robert’s Rules, or parliamentary or committee procedure.

Once everybody in a parish has found out what ego-boosting is all about, it is possible to start eliminating it from meetings. Of course, to do this, each person has to find a way of staying “present.” If this is done by using the Jesus Prayer, such a task is best developed in the context of Confession, since while there are many ways of achieving this state of presence, there is no “one size fits all” method. Any person who acts in the role of spiritual father, mother or friend has had to learn the art of prayerful presence if they are to be of any use to anyone else.

For those who do not have access to spiritual direction, please allow me to attempt to describe such an exercise in staying present (and avoiding the pitfalls of ego-boosting) in spiritually neutral terms. It goes something like this:

Stop listening to your thoughts – not the thoughts you have, but the thoughts that have you. They have nothing beneficial to offer you, and besides you have heard them all before. Brush them aside, and gently continue to brush them aside. Beyond their clamor and din there is available to you a level of greater awareness – a place of love, joy, peace and compassion. At first, it is difficult to “hear” it (since it is expressed in silence) but with practice you will start to recognize its voice, and a deeper state of presence will be yours.

In practical terms, it may be appropriate to invite people to be present at the beginning of the meeting, and to maintain their presence throughout, each monitoring his or her own level. If things start to get un-present it may helpful for someone to call for the equivalent of a spiritual “time-out.” Indeed, this can be done at any time by anyone present enough to use those words. Those who are busy ego-boosting are not going to be present enough to seek such a solution, so it may occasionally fall to somewhat unlikely people to take that particular role.

Gradually, people will learn to watch the process of ego-boosting developing in themselves. This is always more difficult than seeing it develop in others. A real breakthrough occurs in a parish the first time someone says something like: “Oh, I’m sorry… I realize I was about to indulge in a little ego-boosting.” Conversely, everyone needs to guard against using this statement as an accusation against someone else. That doesn’t work. Like all truly spiritual techniques, this one involves changing the world one person at a time, and that person is “me”!

In spiritually developed parishes where the Jesus Prayer is a regular part of parish life (even though normally a private affair), it may be entirely appropriate to break off a meeting for intensive use of the Jesus Prayer, even communally, until everyone at the meeting returns to presence. The words of the Jesus Prayer (and other similar short prayers) lead us to that place of presence… not in a perfect way (at least not for most of us) but so much more perfect than defending one’s beastly little ego that it makes all the difference in the world.

Another exercise which can be very instructive is to ask the members of the meeting to “become present” and then remain in silence until someone finds a solution to the problem at hand emerging from the silence. When someone has such a solution they state it quietly and without justification or commentary. The meeting then returns to silence, stilling all thought (which is likely to be nothing but reaction), and becoming more aware, until another person can do the same thing. Allowing everyone to speak if they want to, but restricting comments to positive suggestions, rather than a re-statement of the problem, allows the meeting to come to a consensus about what is being discussed. In spiritual decision-making, consensus is a victory. Compromise, by contrast, is the way of this world, and is rarely an acceptable solution.

I think it needs to be said that, even in spiritually ideal conditions, ego-boosting is very difficult to uproot, since it has been a dominant form of behavior for thousands of years. Nevertheless, since Orthodoxy is all about transformation and transfiguration (not about “thinking” about transformation and transfiguration) we need to encourage ourselves to believe that change, both positive and permanent, is within our reach.

In Scripture, we are commanded, “Be still and know that I am God.” Church meetings are a good, though not obvious, time to do just that.

No matter what our thoughts encourage us to believe, Jesus never once asked His disciples to be right. He asked them to be good. In His actions and words, Jesus displayed no ego, at least not in the sense being used here, and He did not praise His disciples when they were busy boosting theirs either. Consider James and John, the “Sons of Thunder.”

Yet it is that same John, the Beloved, who later leans upon the breast of Christ and listens to His heartbeat. The opportunity to be present like that in the Presence of God is the ultimate vocation of every single member of the Church; this is as true in church meetings of all sorts as it is in those precious “present moments” when we meet God in the Holy Mysteries. In order to be present, we need to get out of our heads, away from the anguish and relentless demands of our thoughts and feelings, and seek the warm, loving silence of the voice of God in our own hearts. Once present, the needs of the mind-contrived ego look petty, irrelevant and counter-productive to the work of the Church as a whole and that of each of its members… and the real work of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven a little bit closer begins.

Fr. Meletios Webber has been a Greek Orthodox priest for over thirty years, serving in England, Greece and the United States. During this time he has also been actively involved in counseling, psychotherapy and teaching. He is keenly interested in the possibilities of personal transformation through spiritual means, and the exercise of traditional wisdom in straightforward and practical ways. His first book, Steps of Transformation (Conciliar Press) investigates the program of Alcoholics Anonymous from an Orthodox point-of-view. His second book, Shaped in Mystery: An Orthodox Experience of God, continues to explore the theme of personal transformation, more specifically within the life of the Church. It will be published by Conciliar Press early in 2007.

Photo by Jim Forest of the altar of St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

Parish Ethics and the Teaching of Jesus

In Communion / issue 42 / Summer 2006

Peacemaking in the Parish:

Parish Ethics and the Teaching of Jesus

by Fr. John Breck

In this brief essay I would like to focus on what can be called “parish ethics,” and the scriptural background that underlies decision-making in the parish setting. Moral choices have to be made in many spheres of our life: in the family, on the job, at school – in fact, in every realm of personal and social interaction. The local parish, as much as the family, is a community of persons. Like parents and children, parish members relate to one another in a specific context and for specific mutual ends. Therefore, they too, both clergy and laity, are constantly faced with the need to make moral decisions.

If needless tensions and disagreements arise within the local parish, often it is due to the fact that we take our church life for granted. The Church is the realm of the holy: we experience the joy and peace of God’s loving presence with us through the Liturgy and Sacraments. We are nurtured by the reading of Scripture and the celebration of its saving message. We are edified by the singing of hymns that instruct us in our faith and give expression to that faith. Icons remind us that we commune with the saints, asking their constant intercession on our behalf. Although we know that we are called to struggle against temptation and sin – what the holy Fathers refer to as the “passions” – we seldom take that struggle very seriously. Everything is given in the Church: the content of our faith, the presence of God, eternal life itself. So our tendency – our great temptation – is to perform the Church’s rituals, create a vigorous social life within the parish, and assume that we are fulfilling God’s will and our Christian vocation. Nevertheless, when ritual performance and social function occur above all in order to preserve our ethnic identity and cultural heritage, then we can only admit that we have betrayed both God and our vocation.

Among all of us who share an Orthodox heritage, this is indeed the great temptation. The local parish, rather than being the Church, becomes our “possession,” a structure by which and in which we preserve our own heritage and promote our own agendas. Little wonder that we no longer perceive it to be a living and life-giving member of the universal Body of Christ, uniting the living and the dead in an eternal communion that reflects the boundless love of an infinitely merciful God.

It is no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of “problems” that arise within our parishes are due to this misperception concerning the nature of the local church. Problems between clergy and laity, between bishop and priest, and between various members of the community, can usually be traced to our sinful tendency to transform the parish from the Body of Christ into a kind of social organization whose purpose is to provide us with “spiritual” nurture and a communal identity, while imposing little or nothing upon us in the way of repentance, self-sacrifice and love. This situation represents a chronic illness within our church communities. But because it concerns basically our patterns of behavior, it signals as well an ethical or moral crisis.

IN THE MIDST of the pluralistic and relativistic culture in which we live, we are constantly called to rediscover and recommit ourselves to the true Church, the Church of Jesus Christ, our risen and glorified Lord. The foundation for such a rediscovery and recommitment is provided for us in Jesus’ own teachings. It is there that we find the “pathway” into the Kingdom of Heaven: a pathway that necessarily begins in our present life, and most specifically within the parish setting.

A useful place to begin is with Jesus’ teaching given in the framework of his Sermon on the Mount, recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 5-7. But this should be read with its parallel passage, given by St. Luke (ch. 6). These two sermons, using similar language and imagery, provide us with clear indications of what constitutes genuinely “Christian” moral behavior. They speak to Christian life in general, but perhaps with special eloquence to life within our parish communities.

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are the meek…blessed are the pure in heart.” They are addressed in the third person (“blessed are they”) and represent what can be considered as virtues to be acquired in the Christian life. St. John Chrysostom and other Eastern Fathers will speak of “poverty of spirit” as a spiritual value to be sought and cultivated. “Mournfulness” concerns repentance, compunction, the sense of profound sorrow over our sinfulness. “Meekness,” “righteousness,” “mercy,” and “purity of heart” are, in similar fashion, attributes of those who attain the ultimate beatitude of life within the Kingdom of God.

When we turn to St. Luke’s Gospel, however, the situation is different. Here (6:17ff), Jesus does not speak from a mountain side. He comes down to “a level place,” a plain, filled with crowds of people who are sick and poor. He addresses them directly, in the second person (“you”), and thereby he speaks to their own greatest needs and personal suffering. “Blessed are you poor, you that hunger, you that weep and are persecuted…” This doesn’t describe attributes to be acquired; it speaks rather to the harsh, painful reality of the people’s daily lives. Yet the promise is the same as in St. Matthew’s Gospel: insofar as we remain ultimately and completely faithful to Christ, his saving love will open before us the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven. That particular Way is then charted, in both Matthew and Luke, by further teaching that focuses above all on the theme of love: God’s love for us expressed through the ineffable gift of his own Son; but also through our love for one another, that which imitates and conveys God’s love within every aspect of our daily life.

The heart of the Sermon on the Mount is a triptych of almsgiving, prayer and fasting (Mt. 6:1-18). All of Christian existence takes shape about these three virtues. Fasting subdues the passions, strengthens the body, and opens the spirit to perceive the presence of heaven on earth, particularly in the framework of liturgical worship. This personal sacrifice is complemented by works of “social action,” primarily the sharing of our wealth with those who are less fortunate. This is a necessary function of the spiritual life, because each of us is nothing more than a steward of God’s gifts. If we possess wealth or talents, it is because God has bestowed them upon us for a single purpose: to use them for others, to demonstrate his love and to manifest his glory.

Yet these two, fasting and almsgiving, are never complete unless they issue from and lead toward prayer. Significantly, the focus of the central panel of this triptych is the “Lord’s Prayer,” the prayer Jesus taught his own disciples. In the life of faith, that prayer becomes our own. Because of God’s boundless love for us, we are granted the gift of addressing him by the tender and affectionate name Jesus himself used: the name “Abba” or “Dear Father.”

As the comparison between the Gospels of Ss. Matthew and Luke makes clear, however, we can never attain to life in the Kingdom without reaching out as Jesus himself did, to meet the needs of those about us, and to embrace them with understanding, compassion and self-giving love. This is the work of every Christian, but it is also the work of our ecclesial communities, our parishes. The Way into the Kingdom of Heaven, for ourselves as individuals and as members of the Body of Christ, is through an authentic stewardship of love. Without it, once again, our parish life degenerates into the life of a social club, which serves neither us nor God’s world.

A second major element of Jesus’ teaching that underlies what we can call “parish ethics” is found in his parables. Several of those, known as “parables of mercy,” appear only in the Gospel of St. Luke. There we find a number of passages that help prepare us for the Lenten season: the encounter between Zacchaeus and Jesus, but especially the parable of the Publican and Pharisee, and the parable of the Two Sons (often called “the Prodigal Son”).

In the first of these, Jesus makes a striking contrast between the noble and pious Pharisee, and the humble if sinful Publican or tax collector. We need to remember that in Jesus’ time tax collectors among his people were Jews who were in the employ of the Roman government. They earned their living by exacting more tax than the government demanded, then keeping the excess. The system was rife with exploitation, and as a result tax collectors were despised as traitors to their own people. In Rembrandt’s marvelous rendering of the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Pharisee stands boldly upright in the center of the temple, illumined by a bright shaft of light. Head raised, he is thanking God for his piety, grateful that he is not like other people. The depths of his hypocrisy would hardly be noticeable, if it weren’t for the figure of the tax collector, shrouded in the darkness of a temple corner. This man dares not raise his eyes heavenward, so conscious he is of his sinfulness. But despite the Pharisee’s very truthful claims to proper piety and ritual observance, it is the Publican who “goes down to his house justified.”

Jesus’ point is made by contrasting the repentance of a sinner with the self-proclaimed righteousness of one who feels he needs no repentance. The Physician of our souls and bodies has come to heal the sick. The tragedy of the Pharisee – and of so many members of the Church today – is that he does not realize that he is as “sick” as the Publican. He, too, despite his fidelity to ceremonial law and the “traditions of the elders,” is caught up in sin, death and corruption. He, too, has no claim on God’s grace without receiving the healing that God himself longs to bestow upon him. But that healing, grounded in repentance, comes only in response to genuine humility. God alone works the miracle of salvation and life. To receive that gift, however, we need to cry from the depths of our heart the prayer of the humble Publican: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Coupled with the name of Jesus, this has become the “Prayer of the Heart,” so dear to Orthodox piety. It is a prayer that eschews all exclusivism and triumphalism. It is an appeal grounded in utter realism about ourselves: that we too are sinful people, caught up in pride, selfishness, and an insatiable quest for comfort and amusement, however great the depths of spiritual and material poverty may be in the lives of people around us.

A similar emphasis appears in the parable of the Two Sons. When the Prodigal repents of his arrogant profligacy and turns back home, he finds the father waiting for him with open arms. Willing to be taken in as a hired servant, he is instead embraced and showered with gifts, to celebrate his “repentance,” his return to the father’s house. The older brother, however, is filled with jealousy. He has remained “faithful” to the duties expected of a son. He has, we can say, played the role of the faithful Pharisee, respecting the rituals of daily life, including required chores and prayer. Yet he condemns himself by comparing his deeds and attitudes to those of his younger brother. Rather than rejoice at his brother’s return, he becomes sullen and resentful. “The household is mine,” he thinks to himself; “I have remained faithful to it, and this fellow who left it of his own accord has no right to be received back.” How many of us harbor similar thoughts and feelings regarding those of other Christian confessions, or of no confession at all? “They abandoned the faith,” we think to ourselves, “therefore they have no business coming into our church, our parish!” And in the midst of this hypocrisy, we wonder why the Church is not growing, why some are predicting that our parishes will simply wither away…

Hypocrisy, though, whether of the Pharisee or of the Older Son in Jesus’ parables, is rooted in a refusal to love. This is the most basic ailment affecting church life today. We have fashioned the parish community into our own image and likeness, creating a style of “Christianity” that is comfortable and undemanding. Would anyone, looking in from outside, ever see in our midst evidence of authentic repentance and a concern for active mission? Would they perceive that we are in fact “Christian,” given that true faith in Christ necessarily entails bearing his Cross for the sake of others? Would they be convinced that we have heard Jesus’ one commandment that sums up every other: “Love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself”? Unless our parish life reflects at its deepest level that most fundamental concern for love, then we cannot claim that our parish is truly “of the Church” at all.

That love, however, needs to be directed to the inner life of the church community as much as to those who live beyond its walls. Within the parish dwell both the Publican and the Pharisee, both the Prodigal and the Older Son. Yet only God can judge the category into which any of us falls. It is never our place to attempt to do so. Parish life – communal life within the Body of Christ – is appropriately marked by an ongoing struggle on the part of each of its members to move from hypocrisy and sinfulness, to repentance and humility. Because we live in communion with one another, that movement or spiritual growth involves not only ourselves as isolated individuals. It involves us together as a living “community,” united in faith and love in the Name and in the Person of Jesus Christ. This most simple and basic truth has momentous implications for specific relationships, and the resolution of specific problems, within any parish setting.

THE MOST DIFFICULT moral problems we have to deal with in parish life concern relationships: on the level of church authority, between bishop, priest and parish council, and on the level of personal interactions among parishioners. To each of these, the solution is as simple and straightforward as it is difficult to realize, namely, to ground every thought and gesture, every word and decision, in the love of Jesus Christ.

We in the Orthodox tradition have developed our own form of clericalism that has wreaked considerable damage throughout the Church. The threefold hierarchical structure represented by bishop, priest and deacon, is a venerable and essential one that goes back to the late first century. It reflects the hierarchical relationships that exist within the Trinity itself, among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. A popular image, drawn from the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch (died ca. 117), likens the bishop to God and the priest to Christ. This image, however, has often been misinterpreted so that the authority implied by each ministerial function is invested in the human cleric rather than in the divine Person that cleric is called to reflect and to manifest. On the parish level, this takes an all too familiar form. We venerate the bishop and invite him to serve at the altar; we prepare a small banquet to welcome him and give him a chance to speak; and we breathe a sigh of relief when he leaves, thankful that nothing “went wrong,” that no controversies or delicate pastoral topics were broached, and that he came and went without obliging us to change anything of significance. We venerate the bishop, yet we hold him at a distance, afraid of saying the wrong thing, afraid of enduring his judgment upon us and our parish life.

Yet the bishop is elevated to his position within the ecclesial body to be a “father” in the image of God the Father. He is there as the pastor of pastors, the spiritual guide, the preserver of Holy Tradition, the celebrant of life-giving “mysteries,” and the living symbol of unity within the Church. Does he experience our support, our respect for the God-given authority he represents, and our concern to live and work in the closest filial relationship with him? Does he, in a word, experience our love for him? If not, we can hardly be surprised if our superficial welcome of him, and relieved parting from him, tend to push him into ever greater isolation and distance from ourselves and the concerns of our community. The loneliest ministry in the Church is often that of the bishop – precisely because we often place him on a pedestal and avoid him at the same time.

This is an ethical issue, once again, because it concerns our ways of behaving. Similar tensions arise within parish life because we behave in similar ways with regard to the priest, his wife, and the parish council. We tend to mistrust authority, as much as we may respect it. When the priest appears to usurp power that was once in the hands of parish council members, or a particularly influential lay person in the parish, we resent it. Often we talk behind his back, form alliances, and in general attempt to undermine the authority that is rightly his by virtue of his election and ordination. Yet the converse needs to be acknowledged as well. Often the priest, for various personal reasons, misinterprets the boundaries of his authority, ignoring the advice of the bishop or dismissing the counsel of his people. And the same, of course, happens with lay leaders in the parish.

Authority, in other words, can only effectively and faithfully be exercised in humility and in love. This means that concerted effort is needed – among bishop, priest and laity – to recognize problem areas in parish life and to seek resolution to those problems in an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation. This involves us together in prayer for mutual discernment and cooperation for effective and lasting solutions. The ultimate source of unity and of spiritual growth within the ecclesial community is Jesus Christ himself. The grace that works miracles, brings healing, and offers practical solutions to seemingly insoluble problems, is a grace that he alone bestows. But that grace comes in response to love: for him and for one another. By uniting ourselves as pastors and flock, in prayer and in genuine mutual concern, we can face any crisis, resolve any problem, and fulfill any mission, all to the glory of God and the salvation of his world.

With regard to ethical issues that confront us in the day to day activities of the parish, we can say the same. No program, no agenda, no “special parish event,” can have any but a destructive purpose, if it is not grounded in the love of Christ and his own work for the conversion and salvation of the world around us. We have recently crossed the threshold into a new millennium, one that will present to us as Christian people challenges and difficulties as great as we have ever known, including the periods of persecution that have so tragically marked our common Orthodox history. Yet the opportunities, especially here in the West, are as great as the potential problems. We need, for example, to look for new forms of ministry that will draw upon the talents and capacities of our women and our young people. We need to develop new models for Christian education in a society where our children are exposed every day to the corruption and denial of our most basic values. We need to find ways to bring the Gospel to areas of neglect, such as our inner cities and their lost teenagers, in order to extend the Church’s witness and mission to those who have never received it, or who rejected it because it was imposed without understanding and without love. We need also to open new avenues of witness and service to those who are the most vulnerable and the most readily rejected by our parishes: pregnant teen-aged girls, victims of AIDS, inmates in our prisons. And we need as well to develop new and caring ministries to the sick, the aged and the dying.

The challenges that face us, and the ethical decisions needed to respond to them, are daunting and seemingly overwhelming. If we rely, as we tend to do, only on our own resources – with the concern to preserve our own interests and foster our own agendas – then the Church will quickly lose its moral voice, as it loses its moral bearings, in what is increasingly a godless and demonic society. If, on the other hand, we unite ourselves in the love of Jesus Christ, determined to work together in order to further his mission within the world, then the grace of God will, without any doubt, lead us to fulfill that mission faithfully and successfully.

Such success is never measurable in human terms. It is not the product of structured programs, although those can be useful. It is not the product, either, of mere good intentions and hard work, although those, too, are instrumental to it. “Success” in Christian terms is measured as the fruit of an inner transformation, grounded in humble repentance and shown forth to the world and to one another as love: love that “is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful…does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.” Such love, reflecting the boundless forgiveness and inexhaustible mercy of God, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13). This love, originating within the Holy Trinity itself, is ceaselessly poured out upon us by the God of love. It is a gift, one that can underlie and reshape all of our relationships and all of our moral decisions within the Body of Christ.

Let me close with an appeal. We have recently come through the blessed period of Great Lent and Holy Pascha; we have celebrated once again the life-giving event of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. That victory can only become ours insofar as we respond to it in faith and love. Within our various parishes there are occasions every day for us to accept and rejoice in that victory as we interact with one another. Those occasions, however, require discernment. Yet discernment itself is a gift of the Spirit, granted in response to ardent and faithful prayer.

The key to resolving strife within our communities, to advancing the mission of the Church, and to following the pathway that leads into God’s Kingdom, is precisely that constant prayer for discernment in every aspect of our daily, communal life. May each of us, then, accept the challenge of the Apostle Paul, to “pray without ceasing” for the discernment that issues in acts and attitudes of healing love. May we learn to discern within the face of each other the very face of Christ himself, and so respond in all of our interactions and relationships with the self-sacrificing love of the Cross, that “bears, believes, hopes and endures all things” for the sake of the other’s salvation.

Fr. John Breck was Professor of New Testament and Ethics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary from 1984 to 1996. He is presently Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Ethics at St. Sergius Theological Institute, Paris, France. With his wife Lyn he directs the St. Silouan Retreat in South Carolina. He is co-author of Stages on Life’s Way: Orthodox Thinking on Bioethics.

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Book Reviews – Spring 2006

Stages on Life’s Way: Orthodox Thinking on Bioethics

by John and Lyn Breck

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 250 pp, $17

Fr. John and Lyn Breck provide practical, theological, and pastoral thinking on issues embroiled in controversy: the use of embryonic stem cells, gene therapy, new definitions of sexuality and marriage, treatment of addictive behavior and substance abuse, and end-of-life care. Taking the reader through the stages on life’s way, the Brecks provide an Orthodox perspective on some of the most important contemporary ethical topics.

Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions

by Fr. John Garvey

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 130 pp, $15

How should Orthodox Christians regard non-Christian religions? To treat this question, Fr. John Garvey provides a concise introduction to great religious traditions, East and West, and goes on to explore how seeds of truth may be found in them, while upholding the Orthodox Church’s claim of being the unique repository of the Christian tradition and the ark of salvation.

The title of the book is informed by St. Justin Martyr’s assertion that, “whatever has been spoken aright by any men belongs to us Christians.” Orthodox Christianity has typically held onto what is good in a culture even if it is of non-Christian origin.

Garvey provides summaries of the essential beliefs and practices of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Jainism and Sikhism. Another section briefly surveys the history of Orthodoxy’s interaction with Judaism and Islam.

Garvey draws on the works of St. Justin Martyr, St. Gregory Palamas and Archbishop Anastasios of Albania to show how dialogue with other religions can be approached in the modern context. Garvey encourages the reader to learn about other faiths in order to be a better neighbor and a better Christian.

“A Christian can learn much from dialogue with people of other religious traditions,” Garvey writes, “but there are limits and they involve both the respect we must have for other’s traditions and our own vocation as Christians. There is a tendency, especially in America to downplay differences as if they were embarrassments and to emphasize those things in common. There is a seemingly opposite, but related trend of celebrating all diversity as if it were good in and of itself to have a number of differing opinions, all understood to be equally valid and finally reconcilable. Emphasizing what we have in common is a good beginning point for inter-religious discussion, and even after we have identified those points on which we cannot agree, there are still fruitful areas of discussion and cooperation. But there are differences that may not be downplayed without betraying our own tradition, and in our attempts to seem companionable, we may be showing a lack of respect for the other’s tradition.”

Against the Current: Reflections on the Misuse of Religion

by Fr. John Garvey

Templegate, 124 pp, $13

In Against the Current, Fr. John Garvey takes on the ways in which we use religion to keep ourselves from experiencing it at its real depths. Our culture distorts our sense of religion, often by reducing it to a mere preference or a hobby. A “self-help” mentality can lead us to oversimplify the complexities of the spiritual struggle. Our need to be right — so often seen as a positive reinforcement in religion — is usually nothing more than a way of protecting the ego, and can keep us from humility and a kind of creative doubt. Finally, what do we do when the church itself seems to be part of the problem? Garvey addresses such difficult questions in fresh and creative ways.

“The greatest danger of our culture, in making a religious commitment something like a consumer choice,” Garvey writes, “is that we will not see that this commitment is finally a matter of life and death, for us and for a much larger community, one to which we have an obligation. Our culture allows us to take nothing seriously except what we perceive to be our needs and desires. Unless these have been informed by a relationship with the living God, they will mislead us.”

The Beatitudes: When Mountain Meets Valley

by Ron Dart

Fresh Wind Press, 91 pp, $13

“The Beatitudes do not merely call us to a higher ethical life,” writes Ron Dart. “They call us to become a different type of being.” The mountain represents serenity, contemplation, and insight, the valley suggests toil, struggle and pain. Dart points out that both are necessary and complementary aspects of our existence, yet our tendency is to elevate the one and downgrade the other. We romanticize the peak and its focus on the inner life or “inscape,” or we lose ourselves in the hustle and bustle of the valley, never withdrawing from the fray to get a fresh perspective on life. Dart sees the Beatitudes, as the key to living within the tension of mountain and valley.

Twice A Stranger

by Bruce Clark

Granata Books, 274 pp, 29

The pioneers of population exchange were the Greeks and Turks, who at Lausanne in 1923 faced what was then the greatest refugee crisis the world had yet seen. The dream of a Greater Greece stretching from the Ionian to the Anatolian interior had died an ugly death after the defeat of Hellenic forces by Turkish nationalists under Mustafa Kemal. When the Greek army retreated, the fate of more than a million Orthodox Christians in Asia Minor lay in the balance.

Greece, in turn, had nearly half-a-million Muslims within its borders. For nation-builders on both sides, and their British mediator Lord Curzon, the terrible logic of swapping minorities was irresistible. The emerging League of Nations provided a political fig-leaf for its execution.

The power of Clark’s book lies in his sympathy for the communities and individuals wrenched from their real homes and dumped in alien “homelands.” He takes the reader to the villages of northern Greece where the Turkish-speaking Christians of Anatolia washed up, and to the Muslims of once-Christian Ayvalik, who still yearn for the Crete from which their grandfathers were expelled. Their narratives are woven through a book that moves seamlessly from the great halls of Lausanne to the barracks of Constantinople, made a charnel house by the disease and chaos of a fleeing multitude.

Clark finds abundant space for the complex communities whose religion, language and customs no longer fitted in a world re-ordered by the dreadful simplicity of nationalist ideology. Yet the book is not a polemic against the Lausanne treaty, the brilliant Greek statesman Venizelos, or the extraordinary Ataturk. Clark argues that the Western secular nationalism that swept into the collapsing Ottoman Empire was an alien force that exacted an enormous cost. In bringing this cost to life, there is a plea for greater sensitivity from the West as it steps up its demands from these two countries today.

This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony

by Gillian Crow

Darton, Longman & Todd, 251 pp, €18

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh was one of the most respected churchmen and gifted spiritual writers and broadcasters of recent decades. Such books as School for Prayer, Living Prayer and God and Man have become classics. As leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain, he was one of the most prominent Orthodox personalities on the world stage.

The author searches for the inner man behind the public preacher and pastor. How did his life story and personality mold his Christianity? How did his work — as monk, doctor, bishop and, almost to the end, parish priest and spiritual father — affect his ministry and other writings?

Metropolitan Anthony was not the perfect man that some of his admirers took him to be. He was dictatorial, inconsistent, at times muddled as an administrator. He could be harsh, treating people as though they alone existed for him at one minute, treating them as strangers the next.

Gillian Crow, who worked closely with Metropolitan Anthony, presents a compelling portrait of a complex human being; both a charismatic, warm person, aglow with the joy of his faith, and someone who fought hard with inner demons of shyness, insecurity and depression.

Mount Athos the Sacred Bridge: The Spirituality of the Holy Mountain

Ed: Dimitri Conomos, Graham Speake

Peter Lang AG (Bern), 250 pp, €29

The papers included in this volume were presented at the first conference convened by the Friends of Mount Athos at Cambridge in 2003. The aims of the conference were to draw attention to the historic importance, the spirituality and the religious legacy of the Holy Mountain and to shed light on the contribution made by Athonite monasticism not only to worldwide Orthodoxy but to Christianity at large.

Many of the papers focus on individuals who from the fourteenth century to the twentieth have exemplified the spiritual traditions of Athos and whose memory as spiritual fathers, confessors, and ascetics continues to inspire their successors today. Authors include: Bishop Nikolaos Hatzinikolaou, Professor Andrew Louth, Bishop Kallistos Ware, Sister Magdalen, Fr. Nicholas Sakharov, Abbot Ephraim of Vatopedi, Abbot Elisaios of Simonopetra, and Fr. Alexander Golitzin.

The Cult of the Saints

by St. John Chrysostom

Translation and introduction

by Wendy Mayer with Bronwen Neil

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 288 pp, $17

Though St. John Chrysostom’s homilies are important witnesses to the cult of the saints that developed rapidly in the fourth century, until now few of his homilies on the saints and martyrs have been available in English. The cult’s original point of focus were those Christians who died confessing their faith.

The introduction pinpoints conceptual shifts that shaped the devotion to martyr saints: the imitation of Christ’s own death; the creedal declaration “I am a Christian”; the sense of privilege bestowed upon martyrs; the significance of relics; public veneration of the departed; and places made holy by the blood of martyrs.

Shadows of Yesterday

by Alvin Alexei Currier

Light & Life Books, $25

These lavishly-illustrated pages open a portal to what remains of the eastern European villages that so many Orthodox immigrants left behind when they came to the Americas. They are a trail lined with tales of the faith, fears, feasts, weddings and funerals that formed the daily life of the old world. With discernment, history and humor, the author welcomes us into this root of our roots.

The publisher deserves praise for so handsome a volume. All the photos are in color. The book is like an Orthodox edition of National Geographic Magazine.

Cassian and the Fathers: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition

by Thomas Merton

Edited by Patrick F. O’Connell

Cistercian Publications, 305 pp, $27

This book focuses on patristic figures preceding the time of St. Benedict, especially St. John Cassian, the most significant bridge between the early desert fathers and the development of monastic life in the West.

“Through Cassian I am getting back to everything,” said Merton. Merton’s lectures on patristic sources were revolutionary in evoking a monastic spirituality very different from the devotional piety and intellectualized meditation that was generally found in Roman Catholic communities at the time.

“If for some reason it were necessary for you to drink a pint of water taken out of the Mississippi River,” Merton observes, “and you could choose where it was to be drawn out of the river — would you take a pint from the source of the river in Minnesota or from the estuary in New Orleans? The example is perhaps not perfect. Christian tradition and spirituality does not become polluted with development. That is not the idea at all. Nevertheless, tradition and spirituality are all the more pure and genuine in proportion as they are in contact with the original source and retain the same content.”

The Mystical Language of Icons

by Solrunn Nes

Wm. B. Eerdmans, 112 pp, $30

In a time when what passes for religious art in the West is often deplorable, it is a sign of hope to come across an iconographer who represents the canon of authentic Christian art.

The book is lavishly illustrated in color with Miss Nes’s own icons, each in the style of one of the various schools with which she is most conversant. All are striking and luminous, and fully in accord with the tradition. Her work reveals how one committed prayerfully to the latter can nonetheless produce art of obvious creativity.

“The icon’s motif is based on a historic event through which God has manifested himself,” Nes writes.

“However, in so far as the motif has a current interest over and above the historic event, a style is used which underlines its universality and timelessness.

“As an expression of divine revelation the icon is subject to neither the laws of nature nor the reason of man.”

Conversations by e-mail – Spring 2006

Why so little protest?

Why is there so little anti-war protest in the US? One aspect is that there is no draft, but there’s more:

We love violence too much. Look at our video games. Look at the most popular sport in America, American football, and its ties to the military. My God, if people were as excited about the Triune God as they are for their favorite team, we’d have a problem fitting all the people in the pews! Violence is our sugar and spice.

Love of entertainment: This is sort of like hedonism, perhaps, though not necessarily stuff that you feel/touch. More what you see/hear. Let’s face it: wars are just not entertaining (unless the people the US are attacking are really vile, then it becomes a righteous Stallone/Norris/Schwarzenegger Hollywood blood fest). So we’re not going to dwell on them. We’re in a state of mind right now where logic and coherence have to be entertaining. Even our pundits are entertainers — Dennis Miller, Al Franken, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and Michael Moore. We’re not so informed as we are entertained.

Lack of creativity: Most of what is being done has been done before. The civil rights marches were profound for many reasons: the speeches, the sheer mass, sometimes the hostility shown to the marchers, etc. Now demonstrations are done with “permits” and with too many cameras, and with counter-demonstrations, press releases, etc. Each side can “mobilize” at a moment’s notice. I don’t know what would be creative about a war protest now. The predictability, the formality, the lack of innovation are things that I think are harming the peace/civil rights/whatever movement these days. Even having 50,000 people for a demonstration isn’t impressive these days.

Fear of the unknown (lack of security): Because we’ve been well taught to remember that terrorists attack innocent people, we’ve learned that some things must be accepted in order to have security: like spying and restrictions of civil liberties. We’re seduced here because we actually think that security is an inalienable right, or better yet, somehow God-ordained. To be honest, it is neither. “Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation…”

Lack of cohesion: When there were anti-war demonstrations here in 2003, a loose band of “anarchists” joined in and started smashing the windows of some of the ritzier local shops. That brought out the cops who dispersed everyone. What was peaceful was destroyed by a group of punks. Now there is a zero-tolerance policy in place for people who would choose to spontaneously assemble and demonstrate.

This point can be elaborated in this way: We are more in it for ourselves now. It’s me and my, not us and ours. The cohesion is not there because the communion is gone.

Fr. Gregory Long

Meditating not allowed:

Let me mention an incident that I experienced in liberal Denmark. Many years ago, when I was part of an East Indian Yoga group (which I would now name as a cult), I followed a discipline of wearing an orange robe and a veil which was reminiscent of a Christian nun’s veil. I also meditated four times a day wherever I was. Once, at midday, I found myself in a library in Denmark and thought it would be a nice, quiet place to meditate. So I sat at a table and closed my eyes. Almost immediately a woman who worked in the library came up to me and said,”We don’t allow sleeping in the library.”

“I’m not sleeping. I’m meditating'” I said, thinking that this quiet activity wouldn’t be a problem.

“Meditating is not allowed in the library.”

“Why not?” I asked in disbelief.

“It’s like praying.”

“What’s wrong with praying?”

“Well, how would you like it if I started praying in the library?”

“I would think that would be great, as long as it wasn’t noisy.”

“No,” she said. “It’s against the law to pray in the library. It’s a public place.”

When I recall this incident, it’s enough to make me want to run through the streets of Copenhagen shouting, “Glory to God.”

Martha Dage

Terminology:

Although I have no claim to great acumen about terminology, my definitional cast of characters looks like this:

Liberal religion: the Unitarianism that I grew up with contained within it the idea of “reverence for reverence,” as one theologian put it. I learned that faith can be a good thing, and thinking about God was edifying, sometimes even inspiring. Unfortunately, the Unitarian clan is not often comfortable saying in what one should have faith. Liberal religion, for me, was not so much wrong, as it was wholly insufficient — like the difference between just agreeing that love is probably a good thing, and actually loving.

Benign Secularism: the idea that we can co-exist happily, even with fundamental differences in our belief, because we can agree that toleration, understanding, reconciliation and peace are “goods.” This might be roughly equated to classical American political ideology about religion.

Malignant Secularism: this to me means that being secular is, in itself, a good. Like the librarian in Denmark or the government in Turkey, these folks seem to feel that the less religion “showing,” the better. They might not go so far as to say that God does not exist, or that religion is bad, but that holy beliefs and activities — like one’s hole-y underwear — it should not be seen by others, unless they are close family.

Atheism: the belief that faith is without foundation, and religion is meaningless.

Crusading Atheism: the idea that religion is not only unfounded, but intolerable; it must be opposed and rooted out.

Evil: the work of the Devil, who is perfectly willing and able to use any or all of the above to his advantage, and who does so regularly and vigorously.

Alex Patico

Flag-wrapped gods:

It seems that much of today’s religious fighting comes out of popularized forms of the various faiths that actually are little more than thinly disguised nationalism wrapped up in religious language. Liberalism is one way to coexist with other religions, but surely when mature forms of the faith come together dialogue, respect and mutual learning should happen without compromising our creeds.

Joel Klepac

Peace church:

Alex Patico wrote: “How incredible it is, when you think about it for a moment, that one can’t say ‘historic peace church’ and just mean ‘Christian.’ How could any church whose members are followers of Christ, the Prince of Peace, not be a peace church? How could any nominally Christian denomination resist claiming the title ‘peace church’? If Orthodoxy is not included in those considered ‘historic peace churches’ (and it is not), then isn’t it time to dust off some of our forgotten history — and maybe to make some new history.”

I think, Alex, that you found a fresh way of describing the vocation of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Of course the Orthodox Church was a peace church, but that was a long time ago. How to we renew that dimension of the Orthodox Christianity? It’s not something we need to make from new cloth. All we need to do is unwrap some packages that used to be on the ground floor and have somehow migrated to the attic and the garage — things never thrown away but forgotten, or almost forgotten.

Of course one can understand that there have been many times in the past twenty centuries when Christians could see no way to defend the weak and to expel invaders except by battle, but even then bloodshed was seen as sinful and requiring a time of penance before resuming Eucharistic life. But what a strange idea that is in the church today! Now we seem untroubled by bloodshed, even the fact that more often than not the casualties of war are innocent people: children, the ill, the aged. We do not run to their assistance or even raise our voices in protest.

Jim Forest

Mind of the Church:

In his rejection of the Union of Florence, St. Mark of Ephesus had some good words that are worth recalling. He distinguished the Mind of the Church from the sayings (and we might add, the doings) of any particular Saint taken in isolation. The Mind of the Church is the consensus of the Saints, so picking out the words or acts of a few can be misleading.

John Brady

Saints who blessed warriors:

Here is my response to a letter lately received:

“I wish someone from OPF would comment on St. Sergius of Radonezh and the battles against the Tartars. I believe that historians agree that St. Sergius blessed Prince Dmitrii Donskoj as he marched off to battle and even sent two of his monks along with the Prince. More controversial is the additional commentary that these two monks actually physically took part in the battle which turned Prince Dmitrii into a sort of Russian George Washington.”

Since the 4th century one can find examples of Christians taking part in wars in defense of their homeland. Even in these cases bloodshed was regarded as innately sinful. Prolonged penance was required before the restoration of Eucharistic life.

I have read about St. Sergius blessing Prince Dimitri before he set off on the battle with the Tartars. As no written texts survive from St. Sergius, it is not certain that this event is, in fact, something that actually happened or is, as often with saint’s lives, something added at a later date.

Assuming such a blessing was actually given, still its meaning is not clear.

For example if one of my children were to take part in war and asked me to bless him before departure, I would do so. With it would go my prayer for the safety both of my child and those “on the other side” whose life may depend on my child’s actions. My blessing would not a blessing of war.

But then we might say: perhaps St. Sergius gave a blessing which was meant to be a sign of his approval of this particular war. Perhaps he saw it as not so much a good thing — no Christian can regard war as good — but as unavoidable or a lesser evil. This reading of the story is not certain but it is possible. Even then, we cannot freely apply that blessing to any war but only to that war. St. Sergius, who himself only engaged in spiritual combat, did not give posterity a “blank check” blessing of bloodshed in general, no matter what the circumstances.

In the case of fighting the Tartars, it was a war of Russians fighting invaders and occupiers. It would be odd for Americans, who themselves have not been invaded since 1812 but have many times been invaders and occupiers of other countries (as now in Iraq and Afghanistan), to discover a blessing for their endeavors in St. Sergius. He was blessing those resisting an occupying power.

Another aspect of the question that others have already mentioned in their responses is that for Christians, as much as we revere the saints, it is not the saint we follow but Jesus Christ. We try to follow Him just as the saints tried to follow Him. We know no one follows him perfectly. Even the saints are sinners. Yet we see them as people who never gave up the struggle to come closer to Christ and to be more faithful to his Gospel.

One can find many examples of Orthodox Christians, including bishops, who have deeply implicated themselves in war — oftentimes in wars we look back on with revulsion and even horror. Countless innocent people have died in wars in which one cannot easily say, though there may have been many heroes, that there was great virtue on either side. God alone can count the innocents who were wounded or killed or the solders who, surviving war, came home with their conscience haunted by dreadful actions they witnessed or committed. We are all subject to letting nationalism and propaganda get the upper hand in our lives. It is a very contagious state of mind. We even find churches where the national flag is placed in the sanctuary.

“Let me close with a story about my Uncle George, a simple village priest in the Pelopennessus. When the Nazis came, Papa George took off to the mountains where he organized and led a band of guerrilla fighters. Being of large stature with his long, wild beard and hair, he became known as “Killer George” to the Nazis. At the end of WW II, Father George was summonsed by the Bishop of Tripolis to explain himself. Papa George strode into the Bishop’s office, rifle in hand and wearing his bandoleers. He took off the bullet belts and laid them with his gun on the Bishop’s desk with the words: now, I’m going back to my village and church. There he finished out his days.”

If I had such an uncle, I would regard him as a brave and honorable man. Living as I do in a country once occupied by the Nazis, I cannot help but respect those who, whether nonviolently or with weapons, resisted.

Even so, as an Orthodox Christian I would also have to consider that the canon laws of the Church require that a priest never kill another human being. Even if he does so by mistake, as with an auto, he is no longer supposed to enter the sanctuary. This is the Church’s unbroken tradition. That this is sometimes set aside by bishops as an act of economia cannot be disputed. And yet the canons remain to challenge us, and behind the canons stands the Gospel. Our Savior, as we meet him in the Gospel, never killed anyone nor gave his blessing for any of his followers to kill on his behalf.

Jim Forest

Lenten Desert Experience:

On Sunday, April 2, I went with a group called the Nevada Desert Experience to the desert to pray beside the Nevada Test Site for nuclear testing. Forty-some showed up, many coming from Catholic Worker hospitality communities.

I can’t reduce what transpired inside me into words, for it was as if I saw the face of God. Some crossed the line and were arrested, but I have never seen a gentler display of love. I did not cross, but found myself doing a prostration before all who were present, and before the earth.

The coming together of guards and demonstrators appeared to be a holy union. One in our group was a sheriff who arrested these folk last year.

For information see: www.nevadadesertexperience.org.

John Oliver

Lenten thoughts:

Here are some Lenten thoughts. They are listed not in any particular order, just things that occurred to me as the Great Fast wore on.

1) Adam and Eve were created in the image and likeness of God. The serpent tempted them, enticing them with an idea that they could become “like” God, not just in His likeness. It appears that for Eve and Adam, being like God meant to be God’s equal and in fact to displace God as One who had power over their own lives. They were unhappy with their unequal relationship with God and wanted to change the hierarchical nature of that relationship. They do not seek union with God but rather equality with Him. They disavow His Lordship over them. By attempting to change their unequal relationship with God, they ended up not being like God or equal to Him (as they aspired to), but rather they lost their natural position in the relational hierarchy and became even less human and their lives became more like the rest of creation over which they were supposed to have dominion. They lost their own God-given dominion/lordship over the rest of creation in their effort to claim God’s Lordship for themselves.

2) Deification requires us to work with God to attain it. Deification does not result from normal aging or maturation. It will only occur if we actively seek it out. In addition to cooperating with God, deification also requires that we begin to live in love with those around us. We each must apply ourselves diligently to seeking out this union with God.

3) In American thinking, the self is the center of our very being, whereas in Orthodoxy, the notion that humans are to be deified places God at the center of our being as well as our personhood.

4) The freedom we were given by God is not so much the personal freedoms to do as we please and to pick what we want, but the freedom to love others — there is no limit to this love or this freedom. It is boundless, enabling humans to aspire far beyond natural limitations, to become as godlike as we dare choose. It is in this ability to choose boundless love that we can be “like” God.

5) I am increasingly aware of how much we Americans believe we are each personally entitled to all the consumer goods that society can produce or to consume all the natural resources which the earth has to offer. Entitlement-thinking leads to wanting to limit or refrain or inhibit what others are doing that might interfere with what I believe I am entitled to. Entitlement-thinking effects individuals as well as our country as a whole. On the other hand, love-thinking encourages everyone to go beyond all limits to help others become as fully human (loving beings) as they are capable of being.

6) If we begin by thinking of a human person not as an individual who is free from the tutelage of others but rather as one who is always in relationship with others, we can understand how love rather than self-love is the highest good. True love is always oriented toward the “other.” Its opposite, self-love, is self-serving and self-directed. Love is a choice we can make toward others: we are not obligated to love them; we will it or choose it because love is not an emotion but an action, an energy. Free will and love are inseparable parts of being human. Striving to be free of others is a movement in the direction of becoming less human. In a sense, Orthodoxy sees the Enlightenment freedom of the individual FROM the control or influence of others as also an entrapment in the self which then separates you (the self), isolates you, alienates you from the rest of humanity, and thus from your own humanness.

7) The current focus in human rights thinking is a distortion of the way in which humans rights were originally conceived and promoted. Human rights thinking was originally based in the Christian notion of love for others. But it got twisted around to become self-serving, rather than serving others. Enlightenment rationalism severed the action (respecting the rights of others) from its root (love for others) and then replaced love as the reason for the action with love’s opposite: self-love. Now human rights thinking is not about the good of the other, but what’s good for me. Even charity towards others often is done for how it will benefit me (tax write-off, feel good, be admired, etc.)

8) If we each acted in love, justice would never be a concern.

9) Do human rights advocates ever think about “what is good for the community/society”? If they think beyond the individual, do they then assume “what is good for the majority/greatest number”? How often is it the case that what is good for the community is also what is best for the individual? Since we are by nature relational beings (God said in Genesis 2 “it is not good for man to be alone”), at what point should we be thinking about community, relationships and love, when we enter into any discussion of human rights? Human rights thinking would be much improved if it were also human relations conscious.

10) Which attitude is more Christian? We are blessed with good things in order to give to others (we get in order to give), or in giving to others we will get even more in return (we give in order to get)?

11) When humans believe they are the highest power in existence, they come to believe that they in fact are the arbiters of right and wrong. Socially this often leads to majority rule, or “might makes right” thinking. When this happens in individuals it leads to total moral relativism. In both cases, it becomes easy to justify/rationalize most any behavior. Individualism/total autonomy means no relationships have a right to put any demands on me that limit my personal freedom of action. The self is the all-important, all-determining factor for judging any issue. Even God is relegated to a minor role when human autonomy is held as the highest good. It is the kind of thinking that led Eve to partake of the forbidden fruit.

12) The person who always does whatever he/she wants to do whenever he/she wants to do it becomes a slave to self (or said in another way, the person who is guided purely by self-love ends up being selfish, self-determined, self-centered and self-limited). The person guided by love does whatever he/she wants for the good of relationships, for the good of others, for the good of humanity, for the good of the world. That person’s love is expressed in ways that also are socially conscious and responsible.

13) It has been said that in modern times globalization has changed how individuals relate to the world. Before the industrial age many people were engaged in activities that immediately benefitted themselves, their families, and their immediate communities — farming, blacksmithing, trade. People’s work and interest were locally geared and locally dependent. People shared a common life with similar interests and shared similar problems and local worries. The Church in those times served as that which connected the person and the local community to the rest of the world, to the big picture, to the cosmos and to God.

In the modern Western world, however, few people are engaged in work that immediately benefits or sustains themselves, their families or local community. People generally are working in and for global companies. Even the kid flipping burgers at McDonalds is working for a multi-national corporation! This globalization has also changed the way in which we relate to the world. Nowadays what relates us to the rest of the world is often our work, our employers. It is they who shape our world views, our worries, our relationship to the universe and thus to God. Thus, giving an individual a sense of place in the universe is no longer solely the work of the Church. The Church now finds itself competing not just with other religions but with industry and global economics in shaping the world view and beliefs of people. Not only has industrialization and globalization thus displaced what the Church saw as its eminent domain, but the mass media and now the Internet has increasingly taken over the role of being the source of information for how to understand and relate to the world. People aren’t looking solely to the Church for understanding the cosmos, nor do they have to, for the Internet brings the world right into their homes, shapes their thinking and in many ways forces individuals to relate directly to the world unmediated through the Church’s lens.

Some religions react against this by attempting to stop or control the effects of globalization and internet-ization, often by withdrawing from the modern world in one form or another. Many religious traditions are totally threatened by not being able to control the world view of their memberships. Orthodoxy is, I think, on the cusp of this issue right now. A number of Orthodox are trying the “withdraw from the world” approach — increasingly turning to home schooling, condemning all forms of mass culture, requiring eighteenth-century dress or values, attempting to portray the whole world except themselves as evil and dangerous, demanding what at one time were monastic practices of all members, embracing cultish and sectarian methods to control members.

But such actions by the Church do not help the Church to be salt or light to the world. Rather than engaging the world and loving the world as God loves it, they in fact abandon the world which God so loved that He sent His Son to save it. They leave the vast majority of people to the world while insisting that only the elite ascetics are worthy of being saved. They abandon love, the seeking of the lost, the saving of the sick, the healing of humanity, in order to “save” themselves by following a self-righteousness. The question we need to face: How are we to pursue holiness without abandoning the world?

Fr. Ted Bobosh

Souls in Motion: A Place of Hospitality

by Julia Demaree-Raboteau

Souls in Motion is a studio space in Manhattan’s Harlem district, a place to awaken and nourish the artistic spirit within each of us, a space for painting, for cooking, for gardening, for writing, for stretching, for sewing, for the fine art of listening, for silence and reflection, a place where each person is welcome, a room of hospitality. At Souls in Motion, we learn to make room for another just as Mary made room for Christ in her womb.

Before I came to Harlem to work, I had read a study by Susan Sheehan of a mental patient, Sylvia Frumpkin, that appeared in The New Yorker called “Is There No Place On Earth For Me?” The tragic shadow of Sylvia Frumpkin’s life changed me. I was amazed by the random chaos and downward spiral that characterized her life. Each day, Louise Rosenberg and I try to answer this plea with a resounding “Yes! There is a place — right here at Souls in Motion.”

For eighteen years, Louise and I, with the help of many others, have been trying to provide a safe haven against chaos. In the beginning, our dream was to foster creative expression within a daytime rehabilitation program. We were encouraged to develop small cottage industries. But as the years went by, the word “creativity” began to take on a broader meaning for us. Our project began to come alive under the aegis of community. Creativity in our relationships with each other assumed an equal footing with making the beautiful artifacts that grace our room.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that mental illness comes from unkindness to people when they are children. Whether you believe this or not, there can never be enough kindness to make up for the deep afflictions of painful, abusive childhoods. At Souls in Motion hugs are 98 percent of our job. Almost everyone wants one. Louise and I love the aesthetic beauty of our room, but we know that the main event is the hugging. My “off” days are when I forget this lesson.

The umbrella for Souls in Motion is Community Support System (CSS), a rehabilitation program in Harlem that has been providing psychiatric services for adults for over twenty-five years. CSS is housed in a former public high school building, the Oberia Dempsey Center, along with many other social services. The doors of Souls in Motion open early to offer breakfast to our clients and stay open seven days a week. We also provide lunch, travel cards, classes in reading, writing, current affairs, symptom management, recreational activities, counseling and medication, and we offer a limited number of shared living apartments.

Our clinical director, Willie James Prescott, was there when CSS opened its doors in 1979. A consummate father-type, he runs the program with a healthy balance of compassion and grit and is adored by our clients, now numbering over 100. His personal tone sets the stage for a dynamic and caring program. Our business officer, Ann Armoogan, might take time to cook a delicious meal for the clients. Retired staff members return to volunteer. Social work and psychiatric interns come from colleges in the city. Volunteers offer their gifts. Guests are numerous.

Souls in Motion is hidden away in a basement room reached through a maze of winding corridors that open into a large studio space often mistaken for a museum. The actual physical space is enormous and divided by low partitions that allow visibility into all of its parts. Everyone can see and hear each other. This arrangement helps to create a mutual respect for the people and the room. Clients who come regularly to work get their own desk or workspace, while others may come to enjoy the quiet, sleep off the effects of their medication, attend a small class, or pet or feed the animals. We try to strike a balance between privacy and community.

Our gifts define our respective roles in the studio. Louise cooks two delicious meals a day, tends to our menagerie of animals, directs the sewing projects and leads us in exercise classes. I promote art, take photographs, publish the clients’ books and tend the garden. Although we look quite different physically, it is common for people to confuse us and call us by each other’s names. They say we present with the same spirit.

One of the oldest desks in the room belongs to William. From the beginning we were given the gift of William who keeps a spiritual pulse on all things. He is able to transform his personal psychosis into selfless prayer to God. His sleepless nights are often spent listening to news on the radio and praying for victims of floods, earthquakes, starvation, shootings, wars, rapes, global turmoil and recently, the tsunami and the Katrina hurricane. His faith in God knows no boundaries. “God is Love” is often on his lips and in his drawings. He is also a visionary. He dreamt about the collapse of the Berlin Wall the night before it fell. In his dream, Louise and I, wearing nursing aprons, were giving first-aid to people. I asked him to do a drawing of his dream. We use his portrait of us as nurses on our calling cards. (His dream was doubly prophetic as we enrolled in an acupuncture program three years later.)

Not far from William sits Lorna — mother, cook, poet, peer advocate and gospel singer. We published her first book of poetry, Love Always, now in its third printing. Like William, she is filled with gratitude for the gift of life and prays at our children’s altar. Many of our clients’ children have been raised in the foster care system. Lorna prays from a little book that lists their names. She also leads us in intercessional prayer at the Orthodox altar in the small niche, a comforting place to be when our wounds and worries of the day overwhelm us.

Two of our favorite prayers come from one of our elder clients who says before she gets out of bed in the morning, “Thank you Lord for another day. A day I never saw before. And thank you for waking me clothed in my right mind and for having all the activity in my limbs.” At mealtime she bows her head to say, “Lord, we thank you for this food. By Thy hands we are softly fed. Give us, Lord, our daily bread. Amen. Amen.”

One day, when William was down in the dumps, Lorna wrote him a poem to cheer him up, “if I bite you, I ain’t gonna let nobody see me bite you, I’d love to hug you because you’re for real, you know the deal, I love your laughter, so if you’re gonna bite me, make it snappy…” The “if I bite you” poem became the impetus and the title for our first book of the clients’ writings and drawings.

Lorna is skeptical of “treatment” centers. She found us through her friend James whose enthusiasm for the studio had convinced her to at least visit. He promised her that Souls in Motion was something different. At our initial meeting, we all felt as if we had known each other for years. In 1999 she wrote these words for her presentation at a state conference that she and I attended:

“What I have received has been unbelievable. We are thankful for all the true love we have received. I have given much thought to this, not only as a human being, but also as a spiritual being. And I believe that Our Almighty Creator has guided me in my also becoming a peer counselor at Souls in Motion. I have been basically drawn out of the shell that I had been in. With the support I have been able to remain out of the hospital for five years, which is something that earlier on in life seemed to me to be an unbelievable impossibility. I also give credit to my hard work on myself, because in order for my medication to work, I have to work with my inner self as well as my outer self. I would like to see all of the clients progress, as they have many talented abilities.”

As a graduate of the CSS program, Lorna chose to stay and redefine her role in the program. She apprentices with Louise in the kitchen, checks in with Libbie, a weekly volunteer, about alternative health practices, and compares notes with another volunteer who used to be on psychotropic medication. She helps clients help other clients and encourages her peers to speak up for themselves. Her version of peer counseling is imbued with a spiritual dimension. She and her daughter, Renee, lead us in prayer and gospel singing.

Compassionate like his friend Lorna, James can pull himself out of his own depression to soothe another person’s suffering. Once he told me that if he hadn’t been eaten alive by mental depression and guilt, he would have become a social worker or a therapist. I told him that he was already one, and that his generosity was indispensable. For three years he has been at a state hospital and just recently returned to our community. Our doors are always open to welcome a returnee.

James’ gentle nature was acknowledged by Jack, our resident rabbit, who would make a sudden stop to let him pet him as he was hopping freely around the Souls in Motion habitat. Over the long span of his life, he allowed only a few people to pet him. With bared teeth, he set clear guidelines for touching. Yet he courted Louise by chewing on her velvet pant legs and circled Orville during his extensive philosophical pacing.

It is Ballerina, a white cat with soulful eyes, who has been queen of our roost. Scruffy and thin, she was sighted hanging out in the parking lot during the Raboteau wedding reception that was held at Souls in Motion. We adopted her just weeks before she gave birth to five kittens in a box under the computer. After some proper eating, her sleek body could be seen mock-hunting in the aviary, darting out playfully at Jack as he hopped by, and lying with Fred, our African Leopard tortoise, under his heat lamp. Her calm energy is a balm for our room and medicine for those clients who are afraid of cats. She allows gentle petting, alerts us to visitors entering the room, and sleeps muse-like in the large basket in the middle of the round table during the writing class.

Besides learning from our animals, we get many lessons from each other. One of our most delightful teachers is Ethel whose deep faith in God and immense love of life inspires us when life looks grim. Her buoyancy is a gift for the chronic depression that her husband James wrestles with. For many years their marriage has been an inspiration for other CSS couples. Against the emotional and economic difficulties of mental illness, and the years of being separated from her husband, she would seek out the calm waters of the Hudson River and light candles at St. John the Divine Cathedral. Her irrepressible love of life is captured in her autobiography, The Adventures of Ethel Jones. Lately year she has been a receptionist for CSS and sometimes dreams about working a “real” job. Our program encourages clients to graduate and move on when they can. We do some pre-vocational training and work with agencies that are set up for job training skills. They can also graduate and continue to attend the program. Our doors are always open.

One of our most talented artists is Joseph, who has never stopped drawing since childhood. He used to mount shows in his bedroom with the monster pictures made from his mother’s brown shopping bags for the delight of his friends. When his residence moved him to an adult home in Coney Island five years ago, Joseph’s attendance dropped dramatically, but our strong belief in his creative gift has spurred his return. Now when he makes the two-hour subway ride to Harlem, we see and applaud his new work, shore him up with art supplies, and exchange hugs. His work has been shown in an invitational show at the Ward Nasse Gallery in Soho, in a group show of Harlem Artists at Riverside Church, as a media and art event in our former Souls in Motion Garden, and was featured in Double Take magazine. He has a permanent show of his banners and pastels in our studio.

Five years ago, we were gifted by the presence of Anne, a painter from Paris. She began by doing quick black and white sketches of the clients and eventually moved to full-length oil portraits. Anne’s unabashed love of her subject matter made “the portrait experience” a spiritual gift for our clients.

We are also blessed to have a client who makes a mandola every day. He gives all his work away, announcing the name of the lucky recipient before he starts. Only occasionally will our studio get one and it’s a waste of time to beg for one! Most of them end up in the communal dayroom/cafeteria and in staff offices. For him, making art is a labor of love and is seen as a way to give another a gift of oneself or thanks for “services rendered.” This is an attitude towards the “art object” that makes complete sense to us.

Then there is Mary, creator of “Bummie Nose” dolls. (“Bummie Nose” is a term of endearment.) Mary cuts, sews and stuffs her cloth dolls with great speed, braiding and twisting yarn for their elaborate hairdos. I am in charge of sewing the faces and the clothes, though I simply can’t keep up with her swift hands. We have been quite successful at finding boutiques to sell Mary’s dolls.

No one is allowed to dip into Louise’s “Fabric Library” without her permission. This is a magical corner where rayon, cotton, velvet, tapestry, leather, rip stop, canvas and unbleached muslin are folded neatly on rows and rows of shelves. Mary and other clients often make quilts for their children or their grandchildren. Louise supervises the design and the sewing of these quilts, as well as the dolls, potholders and our specialty, catnip filled mice for cats. Some of the quilts were featured during African-American month in the Ethnic Hall at the Museum of Natural History.

Everything is made “from scratch.” Louise makes gingerbread by hand, grinding fresh ginger and Chinese herbs, and it is her famously healthy food that gave rise to the name “Soup Seminar” for Albert Raboteau’s weekly writing group that he has been teaching for nearly a decade. Before our midday meal on Thursdays, Al begins the class by suggesting a topic for the day. While the writers are making a new entry into their journals, all is quiet. Then we can hear their voices as they take turns reading their work. Often the thinking can stir up the “bittersweet” experiences of one’s life, especially for a newcomer to the group, and everyone listens respectfully. And then it’s time to eat!

Juliette, a regular in the writing circle, writes “The love that the Most High has lavished on us is the greatest love of all. / He has given us help in times of need / It is the greatest love of all. He has forgiven our sins. / It is the greatest love of all. He has given us hope in times of despair. / It is the greatest love of all. He has shown us kindness. / It is the greatest love of all. He has shown us mercy. /It is the greatest love of all.”

One of our young writers uses a series of poems to describe her journey into schizophrenia and the arduous struggle to bring clarity and purpose back into her life. She writes, “There are times when I do not understand how my life grew up in flashes. It is like a death sentence for a young lady wanting to be successful in life. I like to look at my life as a car ride where I drive off the cliff and survive.” Recently, we hosted our third book-reading event with the publication of her memoir, A Glance Into The Mirror.

Over the years we have seen many folks come and go, and then return, with both a surprised yet relieved “Oh, are you still here!” Layers of artifacts adorn our studio and bear witness to nearly two decades of much caring and spirited expression — masks made of clients’ faces, wreaths woven from grapevines from the huge garden William and I tended for twelve years, photo blow-ups of clients from the thousand of photographs that make up our photo library, paper dragons, reconstituted street furniture, drawings and sculpture, gifts from the many volunteers and visitors who have been part of our studio, and memorial scrapbooks for clients who have passed.

Our community has experienced many deaths. One that hit us hard was that of William Gibbons, who died young. An uncomplaining human being, he had managed to hide from us his painful stomach ulcers that eventually hemorrhaged in the middle of the night. In grieving and honoring him we became aware of the immense role he had played in our lives, and in memory, still does. He loved the Souls in Motion studio and was imbued with its free spirit. At breakfast, he might surprise us with “sweet potato pies” he had made at three in the morning. The fact that they often arrived upside-down only increased their value, disqualifying them as objects of perfection and making them acts of love. Louise bought him a double-tiered pie basket but no device, however well designed, could contain his effervescent style. In Al’s group he wrote a poem called “Recipe for a Hot Day”: “A tall glass of cool breeze with ice cubes. Water sandwich with two cushions of fresh air.” Yet his “lightness of being” public persona was deceptive. Privately, he spent hours amassing articles about the injustices that mankind inflicts on each other.

We invited him to Princeton to attend the luncheon and unveiling ceremony of Al’s portrait as Dean of the Graduate School. When I met his train, there was no William. Disappointed, we drove on to the Graduate Dining hall where a large wooden door opened up magically for us to enter. Behind the door was, of course, William who ritualistically presented Al with a turquoise champagne glass. During lunch, he sat with the Raboteau clan and was in heaven as President Shapiro made a toast to the first African-American Graduate School Dean in the history of Princeton University. Back in Harlem, Anne honored William in turn when she chose him as the subject for her first full length oil painting. He could hardly conceal his delight.

There were two memorial services for William: a small intimate one with live music and poems in his honor; and one at a funeral parlor that was attended to overflowing by his relatives and many of our clients. Among things we learned was that he frequently visited his fellow clients when there were hospitalized.

A week after he died, a new client, Robert, came to work in our studio, also filled with the desire to express the creative spirit. Whereas William’s spirit was airy, Robert’s is dense. Whereas Gibbon’s work fell apart with the slightest vibration, Robert’s work is firmly nailed together. Whereas Gibbon’s work disappeared from the studio overnight, Robert’s wooden sculptures seem to accumulate into a great forest. The Raboteau household is blessed with four of his artifacts, including a Sacred Heart of Jesus statue.

Al and I are hopeful about linking up different communities for the benefit of each of them. Lorna, James and Ethel and a few others have stayed with us in Princeton and visited our church, Mother of God, Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Mission. One of our elder clients spends a week with us during Nativity and Pascha. Two years ago, our choir, priest and parishioners from Princeton visited Souls in Motion for one of our holiday sales. Many folks from our Orthodox community-at-large have visited us. Distance and busyness are deterrents to implementing this dream but we are always on the lookout for new opportunities.

One year, when it looked as if the Souls in Motion program might close or change for the worst, we realized how fragile our creation really was. Our dear Orthodox friend Lyn Breck, consoled us by saying “You know, it will be okay. Souls in Motion is a place in the heart.”

Julia Demaree-Raboteau founded Souls in Motion Studio nearly twenty years ago, which she runs with her partner Louise Rosenberg. Now living in Princeton, she is a member of the Mother of God Orthodox Mission in Plainsboro, New Jersey. She commutes to Harlem several times a week.