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Saying Yes

by Nancy Forest_

These are extracts from a journal Nancy started keeping a week before donating a kidney to her husband, Jim.

October 24: What goes into making a decision like this, to offer a vital organ to someone?

It took me a long time. Several years ago, when Jim first learned that dialysis was in his future, the idea of a kidney transplant didn’t really hit me. Each time he went to the hospital for tests, we were apprehensive, then relieved to hear that his kidneys were still on the positive side. Then about twenty-one months ago the doctor told Jim he had crossed the line. Dialysis began the next day. From that day onward, Jim was at the local hospital three times a week for three-hour sessions of dialysis.

At first I reasoned that I couldn’t even begin to consider myself a possible donor because, self-employed people that we are, we simply couldn’t afford for me to be unable to work for what might be an extended period. In my darker moments, I imagined the possibility of being bedridden for months, weakened by the loss of the kidney, unable to do any translation work.

In May of 2006, a Canadian woman we had met at a conference amazed us with the offer to donate a kidney to Jim. We were touched and thrilled. She made contact with the transplant people at our hospital in Amsterdam, and they approved her offer. But some months later other factors in her life made it impossible for her to go through with it.

At that point I began to rethink my hesitations. Doing a lot of internet investigation, I learned that kidney donation is only very rarely debilitating. In fact it was more than likely that I wouldn’t be out of commission for long.

Such research is helpful and the internet makes it easy. But research isn’t the same thing as saying yes. You have to reach a certain point when you sit down, open your mouth, and say the words, “I want to donate a kidney to you.”

Recently people have told me how brave I’m being, but believe me, the bravest part of this whole process is just saying those words, getting yourself to that point where you overcome all your excuses and fears.

I kept thinking of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, who finally makes the decision to carry the ring in order to destroy it in Mount Doom. He must make this decision on his own, and when he finally says, “I’ll carry the ring,” he becomes the organizing principle for the entire story.

I have always believed that Tolkien was very deliberate in naming Frodo, and that his name could easily fit into the long etymological entry for the word “free” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Frodo – one who acts out of freedom.

Freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever you feel like if it’s in your interest, because sometimes you do things that you think are in your interest only to discover later on that you did them under some kind of compulsion – peer group pressure, fear of rejection, fear of loss. Acting under compulsion isn’t freedom. But acting out of love, sometimes doing something that’s downright dangerous, is what freedom truly is. (Interestingly enough, the word “free” and the word “beloved” and “friend” are related, as the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear.)

So I said yes. And when I did, I suddenly felt as if all the winds were blowing in the right direction, as if I had made a free decision that was somehow in line with a kind of cosmic truth. I realized that for all the months that I had been saying I couldn’t donate a kidney due to economic worries, I had made myself responsible for a kind of self-wrought logical argument that had to be constantly reinforced with my own insistence in order to stay in place. But the yes floated freely. The yes was borne up by something beyond me and my own logical arguments.

This is not to say that the coming days will be easy or that I feel confident and fearless. I’m still apprehensive. When I think about the operation, now only a week away, I feel my heart beating faster and my breathing becoming shallower. But I wouldn’t go back on this decision for anything in the world.

October 29: Yesterday, directly after the Liturgy, Fr. Sergei anointed us in preparation for the surgery just two days away. The anointing reminded me of our marriage in the church, a similar sense of standing in a zone of pure grace.

November 3: Yesterday – two days after the kidney transplant – was our 25th anniversary, Jim’s 66th birthday.

Jim is going great guns. He was doing e-mail the day after the operation.

In the evening, Dan, Wendy, Cait and Bjrn came to celebrate both the anniversaries plus the transplant. Having just decorated it, they brought me by wheel-chair down to Jim’s room. Dan took pictures and Jim showed a sonogram of his new (my old) kidney. All the indications are that the transplant was a complete success. Jim’s godson Silouan came, too, with Leonidas chocolates to pass around. Wendy brought a huge fruit basket. We’ve never had a party quite like this before!

Now that I can walk, the nurse said I would be able to go home tomorrow.

November 6: The transplant was a week ago today. I’m not yet up to spending a lot of time behind the computer, but I’m home. The plan is to veg happily and watch movies with the kids, which I think I’ll be able to stand for about a week.

November 10: It’s ten days after the operation. I’m finally beginning to feel enough energy to write. What I hadn’t realized – and should have, of course – is that along with my kidney Jim now has truckloads of energy, whereas I have to be very conservative about everything I do so I don’t wear myself out. My operation took twice as long as Jim’s, and recovery takes longer. In fact I don’t mind gliding around the house in slow motion. I had planned beforehand to take all of November off, so I don’t feel compelled to get back to work. I’m deep into the Harry Potter novels, which I’d never been able to read until now.

The post-surgery pain is over. I can easily get in and out of bed, up and down stairs. It no longer hurts to laugh or cough or sneeze. If I lift a frying pan, I can feel a kind of pressure in the wound area, but no pain. But moving around too much makes me feel a little dizzy.

My project now is to recover my strength and to try to grasp what I’ve done. The spiritual, psychological and physical hurdle of deciding to donate a kidney – and then actually doing it – is something that requires an enormous effort. Maybe that’s also contributing to the fatigue. I never had any doubts before the operation, but I remember a lot of anxiety. I also remember telling myself, “You’ll be glad you did this, and if you don’t you’ll kick yourself forever.” The night before we left for Amsterdam, I jokingly said to Jim, “Me and my big mouth,” but that’s really it – me and my big mouth. When I see him so glowing with energy, and not troubled by the terrible morning coughs that used to exhaust him, “me and my big mouth” takes on a whole different meaning.

November 24: Yesterday we celebrated Thanksgiving. There were ten of us around the table. It was glorious. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to manage such a feast this year, so soon after the transplant. I’m not supposed to carry anything heavy, which includes the turkey, and I’m not supposed to overexert myself. But nobody wanted to skip it, especially not this year when we’ve just come through such an intense family experience and everyone has so much to be thankful for. Cait took a day off work and organized the dinner, Anne picked up the turkey from the butcher, and everybody pitched in with the cooking and clean-up.

My mother said grace. It was hard for her to get through the tears. We loaded up our plates and sat around the living room together. Dan kept everyone laughing, as usual, and Kylie read us a Maori children’s story.

Jim told me later he has never in his life felt such a prolonged and intense sense of gratitude as he had since the transplant.

I’m grateful he’s feeling so well, grateful to all the kids for their amazing support and help all through this, grateful to the medical community both in Amsterdam and Alkmaar, for their constant care, grateful to Dr. Idu (our surgeon, whose skill is something we’ll take with us all our lives), to our friends for their cards, e-mails, phone calls and visits, to the church, both in Amsterdam and all over the world, for praying for us, for Fr. Sergei and Fr. Mel for bringing us Holy Communion, and for my translation clients who have been so patient during all this. But mostly I’m grateful to the mysterious God who gave me the opportunity to give this gift. It was the most difficult thing I have ever been called to do, and it’s almost as if my whole life had served as a period of preparation.

I am daily discovering how the transplant is affecting my sense of who I am and where I’m going. It is immensely humbling.

December 3: At last yesterday we were able to return to church. The welcome was remarkable, even from people whom we had never had occasion to speak with in the past (keep in mind that in recent years ours has become a large parish, with several hundred people present each Sunday). One of the women who speaks only Russian embraced us and, with many joyful exclamations, spoke to us at length. We understood hardly a word, but felt showered in love. An Eritrean woman who also speaks very little Dutch did the same in her native language.

December 12: It’s six weeks since the transplant. Most of the time I don’t even think about it any more. I can’t feel a thing, and the periods of fatigue have passed.

Last Wednesday we went into Amsterdam to attend our daughter Wendy’s graduation from the University of Amsterdam, where she received her Master’s Degree with glowing praise for a thesis on George Orwell. The celebration went on until late at night. We got home at midnight. I don’t think we would have been any less tired if we hadn’t had the transplant.

I’m back at work. I’ve alerted my translation clients that all is well, and the assignments have started to come in.Life goes on. The big event, which I had been awaiting with quite some apprehension, is passed. All is well.

Even the scars are barely visible.

And yet…

And yet there was that thing I did. There was that yes. There was that “fiat.”

When we returned to church the Sunday before last, it happened to be a Sunday with a guest priest assisting in the sanctuary, Fr. Stephen Headley, archpriest of the Russian Orthodox church in Vezeley, France. He preached a sermon on the Mother of God, and he told us that her life is the model of how we should live out the gospel. “Fiat” is the Latin translation of what she said at the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel came to her – let it be done according to your word. She was not a deus ex machina, handily inserted at the right moment to make sure the prophecies were fulfilled. No one said a word to her about prophecies. Gabriel simply explained the situation to her, and she said yes.

I spent many hours of my recovery time reading all seven of the Harry Potter books. One of the main themes is the futility of prophecies. In her creation of a world of witches and wizards, Rowling wanted to make it clear that she was not interested in having her plot hinge on the magical fulfillment of a prophecy. She has little patience with fortune-telling. The one teacher at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft who is responsible for teaching the prophetic arts is depicted as a well-meaning but ridiculous fraud whom no one takes seriously. In the end, Harry is not the victim of a prophecy but the hero of his own freely made decision to act out of love.

Before the transplant, during the early stages of the selection process when I was still undergoing test after test to see if I was a worthy donor candidate, I was asked to meet with the hospital social worker. We talked for about a half hour, maybe longer, and basically what she wanted to know was whether I was being coerced or guilt-tripped into offering my kidney. Donations made under pressure are not accepted. Only those who offer their kidney freely can get past the AMC social worker. This is as it should be.

After having said her yes, the Mother of God – as St. Luke relates it – sings a hymn of thanksgiving, the Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

What is she giving thanks for? For the fact that “henceforth all generations will call me blessed,” that her future reputation is secured? For having been chosen to be the Birthgiver of the Savior, for having won a cosmic sweepstakes? Or was she thankful for having been given the opportunity to make the decision in the first place, thankful for having been so fully challenged, thankful that God drew forth from her the full strength of her humanness, thankful that God put her in a place where she was required to fight her fears and to make a decision that was not based on what her friends might do, or what her parents might want, or what “common sense” informed by popular culture might instruct. Her yes was uttered from a deep trust that God would be with her, that her will and God’s will were aligned. This is really beyond obedience, because she didn’t surrender her will to God. She was not a victim of some almighty and unavoidable power. She decided to sing in God’s key, as it were, because she knew that it was the key of truth and love.

When you sing in that key, even if only for a moment, things can never be the same. That’s what I feel right now, even as the scars are fading.

The complete “Tale of Two Kidneys” journal, including Jim’s entries, is on the web at http://ataleof2kidneys.blogspot.com.

From the Pascha / Spring 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 49

Living on the Wrong Side of the Wall

by Maria C. Khoury

The other side of a 27-foot wall is not a place I imagined I would be when I started my middle class family in Boston. In those days, we were going to hockey games to make sure we were keeping up with the Americans and Greek School to keep up with the Greeks – all the politically correct activities to fit into a society never meant for me. Having been married to a Palestinian Orthodox Christian, fate had a different life awaiting me.

When, in 1993, the Oslo Peace Agreement brought hope to Israelis and Palestinians, we were one of the first families living in the US to arrive, invest and live in Palestine. We wanted to help boost the economy.

After seven years of severe and awful conditions and the total failure of the Oslo Peace Agreement to deliver a just peace for all people, we were one of the few families willing and able to survive the harsh conditions that had developed. We refused to leave.

Even what we had considered “normal life” under the military occupation of the Palestinian Territories stopped September 28, 2000. Normal life ceased to exist.

September 28 was the day Ariel Sharon, accompanied by a small army of soldiers, visited the area surrounding the Dome of the Rock, the principal Islamic holy site in Jerusalem. Sharon’s message was “Jerusalem is Jewish.”

In fact, Jerusalem is a city holy to the people of three great religions – not only to Jews, but to Muslims and Christians.

Muslims comprise 98 percent of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza. Many of them responded to Sharon’s provocative action with protest. Young Palestinians were willing to protest at checkpoints and risk injury or even death in order to bear witness to their faith, to defend its holy sites, and to uphold the idea that Jerusalem is sacred to three religions, not just one.

In the terrible conflict which began with the creation of Israel in 1948, so many have perished. For those displaced by the event, the establishment of the State of Israel meant the Catastrophe of Palestine, with over five hundred Palestinians villages and towns destroyed and over four million Palestinians made refugees, pushed into a stateless limbo where they remain to this day. Just in the past seven years, more than 30,000 people have been injured and 6,800 have lost their lives – 5,600 Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis. Christ, have mercy!

Those of us who believe in nonviolent methods of struggle were stunned when Palestinians began to blow themselves and others up in the middle of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other places. The “Apartheid Wall” was the Israeli response to such extreme actions. The Wall not only isolates Palestinians and Israelis from each other, but it also makes life on the Palestinian side even harder than it was.

Among the many problems with the Wall (paid for by American taxpayers) was that it did not follow any recognized, internationally accepted border or even the 1967 Green Line referred to in UN Security Council Resolution 242; rather, it enlarged Israeli territory still farther and suffocated an entire population in retaliation for the violent actions of a small minority. Truly, it is making us lose our minds.

The Wall, erected entirely at the discretion of Israel, was a prison wall for the Palestinian people. Impeding or altogether stopping everything that makes life normal, it cut them off from their schools, work, hospitals, and grandparents. Even contacts with relatives in another town became difficult or impossible.

Some may joke that being cut off from your mother-in-law might not be such a bad idea, but in reality such intra-family barriers are a tragedy.

The simple things made possible by freedom of movement – the easy access that other people take for granted – are things that Palestinians now need military permits to accomplish. To go to Jerusalem, to the airport, to a seaport – all such simple, ordinary tasks require hard-to-obtain permits.

The actions of the Israeli army seem to be designed to clear the land of any remaining Palestinians and, in the process, to prevent the ever-shrinking Christian community from existing in the land where Christianity began 2,000 years ago.

Since the building of the Wall, life on the ground is pure misery. The conditions of our enclosure are dreadful and devastating. We find ourselves captives within an open prison.

Over the past fourteen years of living in the Holy Land, I have often felt I was psychologically and emotionally incarcerated; but in the last few years, the Israeli army has created an actual physical prison, complete with its towering concrete wall. The Wall is 450 miles (720 kilometers) long.

The result is psychological torture.

Hoping someone might want to boost the Palestinian economy by buying some of my books, I traveled to an Israeli post office to send four boxes in time for Christmas delivery. (Palestinian mail delivery takes three months.) After dropping them off at the post office, I tried to enter Ramallah for a World Vision gathering only to discover the gate I had used in the past has now been locked.

Looking for the next entrance to get to the other side, I began driving along the Wall. How frustrating a search it was to drive mile after mile and get lost in a maze of small zigzag roads! I felt I was in a labyrinth without an exit.

It’s a day-to-day torment just to move around for the most simple, everyday things. Each day I am faced by every panel of the Wall with its seeming message: “Wouldn’t you be happier in some other part of the world? Why stay here? We Jews will make good use of your land, your homes, your olive trees. The sooner you leave, the better.”

In a time and age where we should be building bridges of greater understanding and celebrating and appreciating our diversity, the Israeli government has succeeded in locking us up and imposing still greater suffering on all of us who live on the “other side” of the Wall; in destroying what is left of our fragile existence and reducing us to abject despair.

Even so, we Christians in Palestine continue to place our hope in Christ our Savior. We try to continue our witness.

We continue to hope and pray for walls to fall and bridges to appear.

May the light of Christ shine through us in a land of so much darkness.

“I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

May Christians, Jews and Muslims together share in the work of reconnection and healing.

Maria Khoury is Greek American married to a Palestinian Orthodox Christian who now serves as mayor of the town where they live, Taybeh, near Ramallah, in the West Bank. She is the author of Witness in the Holy Land and eight children’s books, including Christina Goes to the Holy Land and Coloring with Christina, a new coloring book about the holy sites in Palestine.

Note: Steve Leicester has produced a timely video on the Wall, especially the section that encloses Bethlehem. Here is a YouTube link www.youtube.com/profile?user=SteveLeicesterUK. A link can also be found on Steve’s website: www.amostrust.org.

From the Winter 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 48

The Barrier Wall

by Alexander Patico

One of the sources of Arab discontentment has been the erection of the “Defensive Wall,” as Israelis call it, separating parts of the West Bank from other parts, and creating hardships for those, both Christian and Muslim, who reside and work in the areas thus fractured. For example, the 170,000 residents of Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, cannot move freely in and out of their own town.

The International Court of Justice (an institution little known in the United States) ruled in 2004 that, under international law, the wall is illegal. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and others have called for removal of much of the structure.

The man who actually designed the Wall, Jewish settler Dan Tirza, has been quoted as saying, “There is a problem with hatred…The main problem now with this separation is that they don’t know us any more.”

Azmi Bishara, until recently a member of the Israeli Knesset, wrote: “Most of our children attend schools that are separate but unequal. According to recent polls, two-thirds of Israeli Jews would refuse to live next to an Arab and nearly half would not allow a Palestinian into their home.”

“A shrinking number of Israelis and Palestinians are studying each other’s language,” reported Scott Wilson in The Washington Post of April 1.

A teacher in a Palestinian cultural center in Hebron told the reporter that there used to be hundreds enrolled in his Hebrew courses. “Now, you can count them on one hand.”

The founder of a department of Arabic at Tel Aviv University was quoted as saying, “The attitude on both sides toward the other language, and by extension those who speak it, is very disappointing. Both sides are just very afraid of each other.”

In the Jerusalem area, thousands of Christians, including those whose families have been Christian since Jesus himself spread the Gospel there, are cut off from the churches, convents and monasteries that serve them.

The difficulties for Muslim Arabs are even worse. In May, at a Unitarian Church in Maryland, a local peace activist described her recent visit among the Palestinian people in a dozen communities. She described one Palestinian mother whose house happened to be adjacent to a dividing line. They had their front door (which now suddenly faced on “Israeli” territory of the West Bank) welded shut by soldiers. It was reopened after several months, but she then had to obtain a special permit (renewable after three months) to use the door of her own home; her mother was required to have her own permit as well.

Some 193 miles of roads on the West Bank are closed to cars with Palestinian license plates.

An Israeli poet, Alharon Shabti, wrote about the newly-erected barrier, calling it “a wall of fear, of hate, of incomprehensibility.” The wall is being built, said Shabti, “within the people themselves.” As it is a “barrier” for some, a “protection” for others, an “insult” to still others, Shabti says; the use of words in today’s Israel “ruins the fabric of the language itself.”

His critique is the same that George Orwell was known for – one that points to the signals and symbols that reflect inner attitudes and telegraph changes in values.

Katherine Von Schubert, author of Checkpoints and Chances: Eyewitness Accounts from an Observer in Israel-Palestine, wrote in an Easter 2006 e-mail:

A few hundred Palestinian Christians made their way yesterday – Good Friday – along the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem to walk as Jesus did, carrying his cross on route to his death. Many Palestinians from Ramallah and Bethlehem can no longer join the annual procession in their holy city because they are prevented from traveling by checkpoints and a pernicious permit system. The checkpoint around the corner from where I lived in East Jerusalem, for example, has permanently closed the road into Jerusalem for tens of thousands of Palestinians from the North who have had their ‘Jerusalem ID’ card taken away. The enormous concrete Wall has now shut off access to the Old City for many other Palestinians living in East Jerusalem dividing the heart of the city into many fragmented enclaves. Jerusalem has long been dying. So have Bethlehem and many other Palestinian towns….That the Wall’s route was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice has fallen on deaf ears. We have stood by and done nothing… Thousands of Palestinians are on the brink of survival. This is not a foundation for peace.

Alex Patico is the new coordinator of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America and guest editor of this issue of In Communion. He is a member of the U. Committee for the World Council of Churches Decade to Overcome Violence. His text is excerpted from Reining in the Red Horse, a forthcoming book.

From the Winter 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 48

Young Adam

by Frederica Mathewes-Green

Last summer we had a houseful at the beach, with our children and their spouses and the seven (soon to be nine) little grandchildren. The cousins don’t see each other much, so they splashed and ran and shouted, the wind tearing at their voices. But Adam, then four, stayed by himself. He moved along the edges of the dunes, circling the family like a silent satellite. Last year, Adam received a diagnosis of autism.

Adam is a beautiful child with a cream-and-rose complexion and clear blue eyes. He wasn’t quite two when, at a backyard party, he walked over to the cars parked in the yard and began reading aloud the license plate letters and numbers. No one had taught him this. He developed a fascination with the alphabet, words and numbers, maps and globes, and any repeating pattern (he loves M. C. Escher images). When he was evaluated at three-and-a-half, his cognitive level was that of a seven-year-old.

Ever since his toddler days, Adam has surprised us by coming out with things no one could recall teaching him, and it was sort of unnerving. I kept thinking we were going to find a bill from the University of Phoenix in his crib.

But talking – that’s different. When Adam began trying to talk, the strain was evident in his face and tender eyes. In photos from his first birthday, he looks worried and lost. Sometimes words would come out too loud, sometimes too soft, usually flat and expressionless, always halting and reluctant. Adam looks like someone who doesn’t speak English and is laboring to translate word-by-word in his head. I told his mom, “When God made him, he must have put in the Japanese module by mistake.”

So there’s a ring of silence around beautiful Adam. He doesn’t interact much. If you ask him a question, he’s likely to repeat it, or just ignore it. He isn’t interested in other children, and doesn’t have friends outside the family. He is remote, a space station overcharged with data, orbiting silently, far away.

The silence is what hurts. Parents don’t only love their children, they also crave to know their children. I’ve heard moms in the delivery room say to their newborns, “Open your eyes so I can see you!” – though they can see every inch of the baby but his eyeballs. A baby is a present you can’t unwrap all at once. It takes years of reading his eyes, learning what makes him laugh, watching him run and tumble with friends, hearing his bedside prayers. But with an autistic child much of this can be impossible.

When you think about it, language is a pretty tricky operation. It’s the thing that allows us to communicate, but also the thing that makes communication frustrating. The speaker must hike down to his scrambled storehouse of words and pick out ones that fit, more or less; then he hauls them back up and tips the bucket into the empty air between him and the hearer. The hearer receives the words sequentially, as each pebble hits the ground. He must gather them up and cart them back down to his own dictionary-storehouse; there they will jostle meanings and associations unanticipated by the speaker.

What a cumbersome muddle all of this is, and so complex that it’s amazing anybody ever gets it right. You can understand why an autist, finding this even more difficult than we do, might opt simply to withdraw.

Adam announces, “I am going to go off of the world.” He is going to be an astronaut, and go away in a space ship. This is his latest interest. “You” – here he pokes a forefinger into your arm – “you will stay here.”

Adam plans to go far away from this confusing, difficult place. Sometimes even non-autists can find that idea appealing. There are so many ways for us to misunderstand and hurt each other, and even when things are at their best a sense of separateness shadows our joy. We look at others from the outside, making guesses what they’re thinking about. We reach out, and the very skin that allows us to touch is the barrier that keeps us apart. The most that two people can be is two planets in a common orbit, and it’s at the happiest of times that we recognize this limitation. Maybe that’s why people cry at weddings.

The problem that autists have with other people is just an extreme form of the alienation that troubles us all. Autists have a bad case of the Human Condition.

Parents of autists may feel: if even the best human relationships are sadly limited, what hope is there for my child? A tragedy some years ago gave me unexpected light on another way – the only effective way – to be deeply connected with those we love.

When my father died in a car accident, I was 29. Our relationship still had lots of knots and tensions from my teen years – a different kind of communication difficulty than parents of autistic children have, but still a sad example of the pain that all humans who try to love each other know. But as I listened to the prayers and Scriptures at his funeral, it hit me that, from his perspective, all the confusion was over. He was standing in the searching light of God, where all things are made clear and all truth is known. That meant that, from his perspective, our relationship was for the first time perfect and whole, in a way it could never have been on earth.

Though I don’t yet have that perspective, I can still grasp its truth. The only place I can ever meet my father again is in the presence of God, who understands us both, perfectly – much better than we can understand ourselves. And even though he sees right through us, his response is endless love.

When we’re bewildered, lonely or hurt, when the futility of efforts to connect is too painfully obvious, we can relinquish our confusion to the Lord. He knows every heart from the inside, and “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). His love is the life streaming through all Creation. So even in this life we are connected with those we love through God, something we can barely grasp now, but which will one day flood our awareness.

Parents are pained by their inability to reach an autistic child; he’s only a few feet away at the other end of the sofa, but might as well be circling the dark reaches of space.

But he is known by God. He is transparent to the light of God, who shines through us all, who understands us and our children, and everyone we know, and everyone we don’t. Only in him will we one day love each other the way we want to, the way he already does. St. Paul writes, “Then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor. 13:12). We have been fully understood, even the least explicable among us, and one day we will rest in tranquil full communion.

Adam says, “I am going to go off the world. You will stay here. But I will come back to you. I will come back soon.”

Frederica Mathewes-Green, khouria to a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, is the author of many books – most recently The Lost Gospel of Mary: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts (Paraclete Press). Her article is excerpted from “Loving a Child with Autism” published on Beliefnet, April 13, 2007. She is a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

llustrations by Michael Mojher,from The Diaries of Adam & Eve by Mark Twain

From the Winter 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 48

Boundaries and Bridges

by Mother Raphaela

Most of us have heard the proverb “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Concern for boundaries is ancient and not confined to human beings. Animals, too, set up territories for themselves with boundaries they may even defend to the death. The sense of “boundaries that cannot be passed” is a Biblical theme as well. Even land, sea and air were separated by God with boundaries when He created the world from nothing. (cf. Genesis 1; Psalm 104).

Creation is an ordered affair. The universe has laws which form the basis for the whole of modern science. It is not surprising to discover that the first scientists were deeply religious people who believed in such laws and boundaries, nor that some of the best contemporary scientists continue to be so, as well.

Partly, perhaps, to reinforce this sense of boundaries, the Old Testament set up many rules against mingling: Plant only one crop in a field; do not weave a mixture of linen and wool; do not remove a neighbor’s landmark… (cf. Lev. 19:19; Deut. 19:14, Hosea 5:10). Indeed, we human beings are set in our own environment, apart from other creatures, living as individuals, families, communities, ethnic groups and nations. This is spelled out in many ways in most religions.

All of these boundaries create a livable environment for our existence. The life of a human being alone, without protection, would be snuffed out quickly.

Perhaps greatest of all is the boundary God placed between Himself and His creation. Since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden for their rebellion, we are reminded by Genesis that “man cannot look upon the face of God and live.”

The story of the Tower of Babel is a tale of men taking the raw materials of creation to build a proud assault against this boundary.

Today we find ourselves living once more in such a Babel-like cultural building, where God Himself is challenged and questioned, along with any boundaries of God’s making. If a technology exists, there are those who feel they should use it, no matter what may be destroyed in the process. We see terrorism, mass killing, genocide and global warming as the first signs that this modern tower of Babel will fall as surely as have all of its predecessors.

Human history is made up largely of following the growth, development, stunting and, at times, brutal destruction of boundaries – boundaries that begin with the first self-awareness of an emerging nation; a new group; an infant; the realization that one is no longer simply an extension of one’s parent.

On the level of churches, nations, communities or any human group, adults who fail to develop a healthy sense of boundaries create anew all of the sins catalogued in the Old and New Testaments. Those in authority may be tempted to see the people under them, even their own children, simply as extensions of themselves, existing to serve them as their own hands and feet serve them, if perhaps with less respect and care than they treat their own hands and feet.

Those not in authority, especially in a democracy, may have a similar temptation, seeing those elected to positions of responsibility as extensions of themselves, with the expectation that they will please them and carry out their will in every way. God Himself would not be capable of pleasing everyone.

Yet we hear Christ calling on those in authority, “the greatest,” to be the servants of all (Mat. 20:26; 23:11).

In fact it is appropriate for everyone at times to follow the instructions of others, to allow himself or herself to be trained.

None of us however – master, comrade, servant or disciple – will be able to accomplish our best if we cannot take responsibility for our own actions, perceptions and strengths. Wise masters gave even slaves the authority and tools to carry out work and obligations.

There is a saying that peoples, communities and groups get the leaders they deserve. I nod my head when I hear that said. Both leaders and people can enable each other in irresponsibility, corruption and abuse; can hobble each other into crippling inactivity, or, when we are at our best, inspire each other to greatness.

On a more intimate level, many of us have experienced families without proper boundaries between members. All sorts of abuse – physical, verbal and emotional – may go on when each person is seen as part of the undifferentiated family persona. The only boundary that may not be broken is that which shields this familial persona from the world. In public, each family member is expected to behave as if everything is perfect. Members of such families often have an outstanding presence in public. They do all they can to keep up the image of being part of a perfect family. On the outside, they seem to be charming, warm and compassionate, loving and considerate to all.

While it is good they have this side, this behavior creates great incredible pressure on those caught within. If a person tries to break free of the family secret, “blow the whistle” on what is sometimes even criminal behavior, the family will quickly retaliate, accusing them of lying. Outsiders may well reinforce this as well, preferring to see only a model family, with each member a “nice person.”

It is a well-known phenomenon amongst “twelve step” groups that often the spouse and children of an addict may seem crazier in public than the addict himself. The addict is able to switch behavior on and off instantaneously, often leaving other family members to appear to an outsider as very flawed, while the actual addict is regarded as a lovely, sensitive person who has been “driven to drink” or to some other dysfunctional behavior by a spouse or other family member.

One who marries into such a family is in for a nasty shock. Until he or she is seen by the others as irrevocably one of the family, the sick, abusive family behavior may never manifest itself.

In 19th-century literature, this is a classic theme, with the sheltered, sweet Victorian bride who had known only sweetness and light, discovering on her marriage night that she has entered a nightmare world with no exit.

Communities and religious groups can also fall into this same type of behavior. We reflect on the Lord’s well-known accusation: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Mat. 23:15).

And the reverse may happen: a relatively healthy, peaceful and happy family or group may be joined by someone who perhaps even unknowingly projects their own abusive standards and behavior onto those he or she is with.

This happens in monasteries as well. Especially people who come from abusive backgrounds may not be aware that they have these “two sides,” for denial may have been the only tool they had as children to survive in such an environment. Such people appear wonderful and charming as visitors and perhaps even for their entire period of probation. When they begin to feel secure in their community position, however, things begin to change. While guests and outsiders will still see the wonderful person, the community will begin to see an irrational display of depression, anger and jealousy, normally accompanied by accusation of others, since such a person has been formed truly to be blind to him or herself.

When I first entered the monastery, I recall being told by a wise old nun that every time I was bothered by observing what seemed to me someone else’s wrong words or behavior I was probably seeing in them what I was unwilling to see in myself, to the extent that they might not even be thinking, saying or doing what I thought I felt, heard and saw: I was projecting what I would be thinking, saying and doing if I were in their position. I have since then learned that this wisdom comes straight from the Desert Fathers.

Until we are able to learn proper boundaries, we build instead the walls of our own prison. When we do not love ourselves enough to accept our own healthy boundaries and limitations, along with our many gifts and talents, we cannot love others properly.

Proper boundaries allow us to see another person with true detachment – and love. Without them, we will tend to swing between two extremes: we may feel totally “at one” with others, when they behave as we feel they should, seeing them as extensions of ourselves; or, when they speak or act in ways that make us feel threatened, we will feel totally alienated, needing to defend ourselves with ever greater physical, emotional or spiritual barriers.

When others try to live with us, they soon realize that they have no clues as to what “set us off” that time. They find themselves in a mine field, never knowing when the next step will cause yet another explosion, while we will be feeling all the while misunderstood, frightened, angry, and unable to face what we may unconsciously fear as hugely destructive forces within ourselves.

This is where blind trust and obedience can be life-saving for us. Some of us literally cannot see where we end and another person begins.

May we be given the grace to pray to begin to see this blindness of ours; to begin to accept at least some of what others tell us of their own vision. We need to find at least one other person whom God has led to health and trust them as blindly as we have previously followed our own destructive path, even when that person’s words may seem to strike painfully at the very roots of our own sense of self and identity.

Such a healing process should not last forever, but it will need to last as long as our blindness exceeds that of our guide.

I believe it is good to seek such a healing process, although we should use every possible means first to be sure that we are truly choosing a doctor and not a fellow patient; a ship’s captain, not just another drunken sailor, as St. John Climacus says of finding a monastic guide in The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Step 4:6).

While it is wonderful when we can find such a guide or mentor in our community, parish or church, we should seek out such a person wherever he or she may be found, however distant. That person need not be an authority in every area of our life. We may not need their training in theology, choir directing, bread baking or writing essays. But we do need to accept that in those areas where we are still “babes in our thinking,” as St. Paul says (I Cor 14:20), we must start from the beginning in all humility.

What we are seeking is the ability to reach out in a healthy way to build godly bridges that in eternity will cross over boundaries to unite people, churches, nations in the unity of the Kingdom of God.

Mother Raphaela Wilkinson is abbess of the Community of the Holy Myrrhbearers in Otego, New York. Her books include Living in Christ and Growing in Christ: Shaped in His Image, both from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. She is also a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Her text is a condensed extract from a two-part essay, “Boundaries and Bridges.”

From the Winter 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 48

Conversations by email: Fall 2007

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 Memories of Fr. David Kirk:

We appreciated Fr. John Garvey’s article about the late Fr. David Kirk that was in the summer issue. We knew him well. He was a large, burly man whose speaking voice was surprisingly gentle but firm with a soft Southern accent. His manner of speaking also betrayed his Southern roots. Contrary to our usual linear style, he spoke by circling around a topic, as if we had all the time in the world, and he spoke in stories, delightfully entertaining but craftily pointed stories. We would wonder “Where is he heading?” and suddenly be brought up short by the aptness of the comment he was making right to the point. Though his health was failing and his energy limited, Fr. David was clearly a man who loved the art of conversation, which is, after all, a

form of communion.

After his death, the staff members and friends of Fr. David told story after story, some of them poignant with grief, others filled with humor, about him.

Two consistent themes kept repeating over and over. Fr. David had an amazing ability to forgive – to forgive repeatedly, even those who stole from him, who lied about him, who betrayed him, who were ungrateful to him. He always forgave. And he had the ability to look at others and to see in them the beauty and goodness that they often could not see in themselves.

It was clear from our conversations that Fr. David loved and was deeply influenced by Dorothy Day. He deliberately bought a plot for himself close to her grave at Holy Resurrection Cemetery on Long Island. It was fitting and touching that we were able to place a wreath from his grave on Dorothy’s grave a few paces away. He recalled that during his first days at the Catholic Worker House in New York, he simply followed her around, observing everything she did closely from peeling potatoes to welcoming guests. Finally someone observed “Kirk, you don’t do any work.” He remarked to us that “I was determined to model myself upon Dorothy.”

There is a beautiful Orthodox chapel just as you come into Emmaus House. Father David’s large black cassock still hangs on a hook on the back of the door. It is a reminder that this house of hospitality was driven by a man of the cloth, and as a priestly father whose word was imbued with a spiritual dimension he attempted to empower his residents. As Albert and I spend more and more time at the house with everybody, I am aware of how fatherly he was on the earthly plane as well. Like all good fathers, he wants his “children” to do well, personally challenging and directing their potential, encouraging them to reach further than they thought they could go and making these goals possible with concrete suggestions. Today, though still without a director, they are adhering to his legacy, continuing to hold a weekly food pantry, attending classes in the city, pursuing their GEDs.

Fr. David frequently spoke about the need to recall the social justice tradition of Orthodoxy, a tradition that he observed in the ancient church fathers’ adamant concern for the poor.

Fr. David had an immense love for food. He was often present in the kitchen, wondering what was cooking, offering Southern recipes and relishing Popeye’s fried chicken [Cajun-style chicken fried in cayenne pepper batter] whenever he could get it.

Albert and Julia Raboteau

raboteau @princeton.edu

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Fr. David Kirk web site:

I’m excited to announce the online version of Father David’s archive: www.fatherdavidkirk. org. This first release represents a small portion of the content that will eventually be hosted on the site. I envision this website to be a collaborative effort from many of Father David’s friends. Please send photos, letters, etc. that would enhance the archive.

Kirk A. Barrell

kbarrell @flash.net

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Orthodox-Jewish relations:

I have been involved in Jewish-Christian Relations for over thirty years, the last twelve in and with the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania – www.muhlenberg.edu/cultural/ijcu/ – where for two years I edited an online preaching resource called Other Images.

One of the problems in Orthodox-Jewish relations is that we do not use the same lectionary as the Western churches. Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and others use a three-year lectionary. Resources such as the one I edited are not as relevant as they could be for Orthodox usage, since they are based on the cycles of the Revised Common Lectionary. The principle, however, remains solid: the commentators offered resources for preaching the texts from a Jewish perspective and with suggestions for Jewish sources, i.e. Talmudic and rabbinic writings and tales. The point of the series was not to offer alternative interpretations so much as it was to enrich preaching through the inclusion of resources from our mothering faith.

Short of such resources, let me offer some suggestions:

1. Pray to be delivered from anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, which are two different prejudicial patterns, which overlap but can work in a person’s heart separately. Repent of the failures of understanding in your own life and resolve, with God’s help, to move forward into a new day of interfaith understanding and peace.

2. Hook up with a center that works in Jewish-Christian relations, should you be fortunate enough to live in such an area; short of that,

3. Forge a working relationship with a local synagogue and rabbi. Most rabbis offer Torah study as a regular part of their ministry in their congregations. It can be very useful to spend some time in such a group to discover how Jews hear scripture.

4. Discover some of the many written resources on the market to enable Christians to locate Jesus Christ in his historical setting as a Jew. The writings of Geza Vermes and James Sanders do this well, from a Jewish and a Christian perspective.

5. Understand that Christianity is always tied to Judaism and begin to think from that perspective. The “New Testament” is based on the “Old Testament.” Much of the New Testament is puzzling if you don’t understand the Old Testament background, beginning with the concepts of sacrifice that surround and inform the figure of Christ.

6. Connect with one of the main online resources in Jewish-Christian relationships, for example http://www.jcrelations.net/en/.

Fr. Gabriel Rochelle

gabrielcroch @aol.com

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Amnesty and abortion:

Despite pleas from many supporters, Amnesty International has now adopted a new policy which ignores human rights documents it has historically advocated for. The UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child states that every child “needs special safeguards and care, including legal protection, before as well as after birth.” AI has stated that abortion should be decriminalized and the governments should see that there is access to it in particular cases. While it maintains its previous stand against blatantly forced abortions, the pressures that coerce and abandon women to abortion have been ignored. AI decision-makers appear unaware that women who have had abortions make up one of the largest constituency groups of the anti-abortion movement.

The AI International Executive Committee took this action despite indications that substantial numbers of members disapproved. Internal polling in AI’s U.K. chapter showed a plurality against it. The results of an on-line vote of members in the United States last Fall have yet to be announced. A member who tried to leaflet other members on this issue at the U.S. national conference on March 24 was barred, and when she asked if she was being censored, she was told yes. For more details and documentation, see www.consistent-life.org/ai.html.

Rachel MacNair

[email protected]

[email protected]_________________

We’ve got a date!

A date has been set for the kidney transplant operation: October 31st. Nancy is the donor, I’m the recipient. We don’t yet know how many days we’re going to be in the hospital, but we’ll at least be able to start making definite plans for help here at home. By the way, November 2 is my 66th birthday – and our 25th anniversary. We’ll be celebrating in the hospital! Please keep us in your prayers.

Our daughter Cait has helped us set up a blog re the transplant:

http://ataleof2kidneys.blogspot.com.

Jim Forest

jhforest @gmail.com

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A compromised hierarchy?

In Exploring the Inner Universe, the Romanian Orthodox priest, Fr. Roman Braga, says that when they were in prison they would pray that the hierarchy would “do something” to keep the churches open. While he has referred to the hierarchs as “weak,” he didn’t condemn them. As he wrote:

“When we were in prison we used to pray for the hierarchy, hoping that they would do something to keep the churches open. I do not know the difference between the hierarchs under the Communist regime and St. Genadius the Scholar, who, when Constantinople was conquered by Mohammed II, signed the great compromise not to ring the bells, not to have processions on the streets with holy relics, not to have services outside the church building – and he is a saint in our calendar. Our hierarchy, though, who managed to keep all the churches open during the Communist occupations are blamed and condemned. What is the difference between one situation and the other? I strongly believe that if the Sacramental life of the Church was guaranteed by the hierarchy during the Communist regime it was the Spirit of God which worked through them. What is more important than to save this Sacramental life, which is in fact the salvation of the people?”

About the Church confessing faults under Communism: I think we have no ground to judge what that was like. What Fr. Roman said is accurate: in other ages, people were called saints who found a way to live and keep the Church alive under oppression. It’s not our place to judge, decades later, from our comfortable armchairs. We have no idea what they suffered. It’s a place for us to be humble. I’m sure there were tragic injustices, but it’s really not our place to judge. We could never gather adequate information, if nothing else.

Frederica Mathewes-Green

frederica @aol.com

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Betrayal:

Does a priest’s betrayal of others invalidate the sacraments? I have had some experience with this question, in that our former priest did betray people close to me, and it led to our family’s leaving his parish – in part because of the prospect of accepting communion at the hands of a “non-priest” as we have come to see him.

I know this may not be good theology, but there is something very problematic about a person who is too flawed and is continuing to administer holy rites, isn’t there? Would a priest who abused your son be a person from whose spoon you would comfortably take wine and bread? Forgiveness is another issue; I accept that forgiveness of that man is a duty and pray for the grace to do that. But we are talking about a special relationship when we talk of the church’s mysteries.

Having said that, I suppose I do not believe that the sacrament is itself invalidated, because it is a gift from God, who can use any instrument He chooses; but still….

Alex Patico

alexanderpatico @aol.com

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The hand of God:

I’ve spoken to Fr. Roman several times through the years. I suspect he would see the hand of God in everything. I vividly recall his thanking God for the Communists who imprisoned him, as that imprisonment formed him a monk.

I’m not sure of my personal reaction to a priestly betrayal, although I know all priests are sinners. I rather think that just as one would leave an abusive father, one should also leave an abusive priest, yet that doesn’t make him less of a father in the process. Just as parental rights can be terminated, so too can canonical “rights” (using the term loosely) be terminated, resulting in the recognition legally that the paternal relationship no longer exists.

Marty Watt

marty @wattfamily.org

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Purity of faith:

I wonder if there are different meanings of the word “sacrament” in this exchange. I take Father Roman to refer to the fact that the churches were kept open and thus access to the sacraments continued when he speaks of saving the sacramental life. Betrayal of individuals is of course a serious issue, but the fact that a priest or hierarch betrayed any number of people would not of itself invalidate the sacraments in any sense, would it? I suppose an analogy (and forgive me for this) might be the way in which members of armed forces salute the rank, not the individual.

A priest or hierarch in good standing remains a priest or hierarch, no matter how wicked or venal we may believe him to be…

The purity of faith is God’s gift, I think, and precious little to do with our efforts.

Alasdair Cross

alasdairx @mac.com

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Valid sacraments:

I think maybe two things are being mixed up in this conversation. Obviously an abusive or otherwise immoral priest ought to be deposed or removed from the parish, or at least disciplined in some appropriate way, and the Church is clear about this in its canons. But the question of “validity of the sacraments” – to use a very Western phrase – is different. Suppose your priest, unknown to you and your fellow-parishioners, has secretly been a gross sinner for 20 years – say, abusing children. (Not unheard of, as we know.) Does that mean that for 20 years you haven’t actually been receiving the life-giving Body and Blood of Christ at the chalice? God forbid. Of course you’ve truly been receiving the Eucharist, otherwise your whole life in Christ would be damaged, unknown to you and for reasons you knew nothing about.

John Brady

hamartolos @gmail.com

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Not passing judgment:

It’s just not possible for us, remote from the people and pressures and events during the Communist persecutions of Christians (among others!) in the last century even to have any opinion about the actions of churchmen and lay believers alike – let alone pass moral judgment on them.

For myself as an old celibate monk, I think it would be relatively easy for me to take torture and death (which is coming soon for me, anyway) rather than to collaborate with the enemies of Christ or compromise the Church.

But if I were a 35-year-old married priest with a wife and family, and the commissars said that I’d have to cooperate with them or they’d torture my kids and prostitute them and my wife – or worse – I can’t say for sure what I’d do. I just don’t know.

I can make choices only for myself at the same time as I’m obliged to protect people who depend on me, and that remains just as true in both theoretical scenarios. I might choose a martyr’s suffering and death for myself, but I have no authority to co-opt anyone else’s choice either way.

If the Lord gives me strength to remain faithful to him as a monk and a Christian, and if my example then inspires my spiritual children, friends, and acquaintances to follow me to martyrdom – well, wonderful! And glory to God!

And if as a married man (priest or not) my wife and children were to do the same – well, wonderful! And glory to God! But that would be up to them.

Monk James Silver

frjsilver @optonline.net

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Dr. John Boojamra:

I notice that Dr. John Boojamra was a founding member of OPF. I have been doing extensive research on education within the Orthodox Church, and have been thick in his book Foundations for Christian Education for probably two years now. I have been frustrated by the lack of biographical information available on him that would help me understand him more as a person as well as a scholar and laborer of the Lord. Does anyone know of a biography or other resource that could help with this?

Today, I printed a short bio written by Bishop Basil upon Dr. John’s departing, as well as Jim Forest’s text on the history and mission of OPF, which I see contains some references. I’m looking for something with dates listed for significant transitions in his life and work, the wheres and whens. Thank you for any help!

Seraphima Sierra Butler

St. Athanasius Church

Santa Barbara, CA

sbutler @westmont.edu

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A good man:

I had classes with him at St. Vladimir’s He was a good man and very principled. Some of his ideas about education in church were a little impractical (like that we could preach with blackboards). But I remember him having a strong sense of economic justice and a strong concern for kids’ psychology (e.g., he had grave reservations about bringing gay issues into the psycho-sexual confusion of the high school he worked in as science teacher). He was deeply wounded by his wife’s premature death. I ran into him when he was traveling for some talk or something when we were living in San Francisco Bay area, and found him searching for a church kid he knew from out East who was in some sort of trouble. A good man!

Fr. Elijah Mueller

elijahnmueller @sbcglobal. net

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A new OPF treasurer:

We have a new treasurer for OPF-North America, Amber Raggie. Many thanks to Elizabeth Tutella, who has been our treasurer for the past three years.

Amber is a member of All Saints Orthodox Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her career has included archaeology, museum management, web site design, nonprofit administration, and web analytics. She joined the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in 1998 and is thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute her time and bookkeeping talents to the organization.

OPF’s new address is North America:

Orthodox Peace Fellowship-North America

PO Box 6009

Raleigh, NC 27628-6009

Sheri San Chirico

sherihopesc @yahoo.com

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OPF group on Flickr:

A web site for OPF-related photos now exists: www.flickr. com/groups/opf/. Suggestions, photos, comments are all welcome.

Peter Brubacher

phool4xc @gmail.com

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47

Saint Marcellus: Military Martyr

[Photo: The relics of St. Marcellus are preserved within the altar of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indiana.]

In the ancient Roman Empire, many Christians refused to serve in the imperial armies, finding it was in conflict with their baptismal vows and the teaching and example of Jesus.

In The Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, written in the second century and attributed to one of the first Bishops of Rome, renunciation of killing is a precondition of baptism: “A soldier under authority shall not kill a man. If he is ordered to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take the oath. If he is unwilling, let him be rejected. He who has the power of the sword or is a magistrate of a city who wears the purple, let him cease or be rejected. Catechumens or believers, who want to become soldiers, should be rejected, because they have despised God.” (Canon XVI: On Professions)

But what about soldiers who were converted to following Christ? One could not simply walk away from the Roman army. To be a soldier was like any other trade: it was not done for a few years but throughout adulthood, until one was too old or infirm to continue. Some were fortunate – their duties did not require the exercise of deadly force. A few – for example, St. Martin of Tours – were able to obtain a special discharge. Some took the path of martyrdom.

St. Marcellus the Centurion, after some years of army service, found he could no longer continue in military obedience. One day in 298, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, Marcellus’s unit in northern Africa was celebrating the pagan emperor’s birthday with a party. Suddenly Marcellus rose before the banqueters and denounced such celebrations as heathen. Casting off his military insignia, he cried out, “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors and I scorn to worship your gods of wood and stone, which are deaf and dumb idols.”

Marcellus was immediately arrested for breach of discipline. At his trial, he admitted that he had done that of which he was accused. He declared that it is “not right for a Christian man, who serves the Lord Christ, to serve in the armies of the world.” Found guilty, he was immediately beheaded. According to the ancient testimonies, he died in great peace of mind, asking God to bless the judge who had condemned him.

As part of a protest against military training on campus, last year a play about

St. Marcellus was performed at Notre Dame by members of the Catholic Peace Fellowship. The text, by Tom Hostetler, closely follows the actual trial transcript.

The Passion of Saint Marcellus

Lucius, the narrator, comes out with helmet in hand, standing on the grassy knoll, north of a gazebo. The crowd gathers around.

Diocletian
[Photo: Diocletian, emperor at the time of Marcellus’s martyrdom bust in the Istanbul Archeological Museum]
What is the price of conscience? How far will a Christian go to be obedient to the teachings and example of Jesus? And how long will a faithful witness be remembered? Today we present the drama of St. Marcellus, a centurion in the Roman Battalion, who laid down his sword in order to serve Jesus Christ, and laid down his life in order to be faithful. It is presented briefly, and in the simplest form, from what is known in the historical records, so that you may know of his courage, sacrifice, and conviction. It is a true story, from the year 298 A.D., and one that belongs to all Christians. I invite the crowd to come closer, so that you may hear, and to follow us from place to place as the scene changes. In this drama, I portray the part of Lucius, Marcellus’s friend and fellow soldier. Let us begin.

 

Lucius: Marcellus, I beg you to take back this sword.

Marcellus: I cannot. You know I cannot.

Lucius: If you go in there and tell them this, they won’t understand. I don’t understand!

Marcellus: Lucius, you’ve been my friend for eight years in the Legion. I thank you for that. Never has there been a more loyal companion in any battalion. We’ve fought together, marched together, been ready to die together every day in service to the Empire. We’ve spilled rivers of blood, and I, just as you, thought of the enemies of Rome as little more than dogs to be slain.

Lucius: But they are enemies. Even if you are now a Christian, you can’t tell me that you love them now.

Marcellus: They are children of God.

Lucius: They’ve killed our friends.

Marcellus: As we’ve killed theirs. And God is willing to forgive.

Lucius: Well, the vice-praetorian prefect is right over there, and he’s not going to be forgiving.

Marcellus [placing a hand on Lucius’s shoulder]: It doesn’t matter. Christ is my commander now, and I will not betray him. You have heard the words of the Master; how he said to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Now that I belong to Him, I must turn the other cheek.

Lucius: Marcellus, this will end badly. You will pay with your life.

Marcellus: Perhaps… I pray not… But still, my life is a small thing. Since my Lord has surrendered His life for me, can I now withhold my own? The Lord Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those that can kill the body, but fear the one who owns body and soul.”

Lucius [as guards approach]: They’re coming. Marcellus, take back the sword!

[Marcellus refuses; all salute as guards arrive.]

Guard: Centurion Marcellus, you are ordered to appear before lord Aurelius Agricolanus, the vice-praetorian prefect.

Marcellus: I am at his command.

[All walk briskly to the court set.]

Herald: Come near to the court of our lords the Augusti and Caesars on this third day before the calends of November, to state business before lord Aurelius Agricolanus, the vice-praetorian prefect. Let all those who wish justice to be served announce their presence.

Cecilius: My lord, I am the consular official Cecilius, sent by the praeses Fortunatus, with a letter concerning this centurion before you.

Agricolanus: Let it be read out.

Cecilius: Yes my lord. [reads from scroll] “Manilius Fortunatus sends greetings to his lord Agricolanus. On the most happy and blessed anniversary of our lords the Augusti and Caesars, when we were celebrating the festival, this centurion Marcellus, seized by what madness I do not know, wantonly disgirded himself of belt and sword and decided to hurl down the staff which he was carrying before the very headquarters of our lords.

Marcellus stated before me these words: “I tell you today, loudly and in public, before the standards of this legion, that I am a Christian and cannot observe this oath unless to Jesus Christ the Son of the Living God.” I have decided that it was necessary to report what was done to your power, even for him to have been sent to you also. My lord, this man is so presented to you.

Agricolanus: Did you do those things which are recorded in the praeses’s record?

Marcellus: I did.

Agricolanus: Were you serving as a centurio ordinarius?

Marcellus: I was.

Agricolanus: What madness possessed you to cast aside your oath and say such things?

Marcellus: No madness possesses him who fears God.

Agricolanus: Did you make these separate statements which are recorded in the praeses’s record ?

Marcellus: I did.

Agricolanus: Did you hurl down your weapons?

Marcellus: I did. It is not proper for a Christian man, one who fears the Lord Christ, to engage in earthly military service. What I have stated before to the praeses Fortunatus, I now state before you. I am a Christian, and call only upon the true God and King, Jesus Christ, whom I love more than all the honor and riches of this world. By His law and command, we are forbidden to take another man’s life or even to bear arms. By His example, we are taught to forgive those who harm us, and have mercy upon our enemies. Those who call upon His name are children of peace, with no ill will toward anyone upon earth. Those who are conformed to the image of Christ know of no weapons other than patience, hope and love – and these are only weapons to break the flinty hearts that never have been affected by the heavenly dew of the holy word. We know of no vengeance, however we may be wronged. We do not ask for vengeance, but with Christ we pray, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Agricolanus: Do you not remember that you took your military oath, in rites over which all the gods presided, when you confessed the Emperor’s deity. Have you forgotten how you received the standards upon which the image of the gods themselves were placed for your protection?

Marcellus: I will no longer sacrifice to gods and emperors, and I disdain to worship your wooden and stone gods, who are deaf and dumb idols. I serve Jesus Christ, the everlasting King! So far am I from seeking to escape suffering for the name of Christ, that I, on the contrary, consider it the highest honor which you can confer upon me.

Agricolanus: Enough! [Standing, addressing the crowd] Marcellus’s actions are such that they must be disciplined. It therefore pleases (the court) that the Christian Marcellus, who defiled the office of centurion which he held, by his public rejection of the oath and, furthermore, according to the praeses’s records, gave in testimony words full of madness, should be executed by the sword. Let the record so state. Take him away.

 

Agricolanus [to the guard and Lucius]: You both will carry out the sentence immediately.

[Agricolanus, Herald, and Cecilius exit. The guard takes Marcellus offstage (out of sight) and Lucius begins to go with them, but pauses midstage and turns to the crowd.]

Lucius: Marcellus was martyred for the cause of Christ and Christian conscience on that very day. His heart was steadfast and valiant. He did not fear death; nor was his life taken from him, but was changed into a better one. Among all of those who laid down their lives for the testimony of Christ, Marcellus produced within me a desire to know His Master, and to take his confession upon myself.

I do not know if others will follow this path he has forged, but I am ready now to lay down my own sword, and call only upon the true God and King, Jesus Christ.

[Lucius throws down his sword and staff and exits stage.]

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47

Iran: The Next Evil Empire?

by Alex Patico

Children playing at the Fin Garden in Kashan, Iran. photo by Tilo Driessen

To us in the West, Iran has been known as a place of ancient trade routes, exotic images and romantic poetry, and more recently as a place of religious and political movements that we struggle to understand. The road to the present impasse between the US and Iran has been as hard to navigate as the bus route from Zanjan to Sanandaj in northwestern Iran – magnificent views and pastoral scenes, but the ever-present danger of a precipitous fall into a rocky abyss.

Americans have been both heroes and villains to Iranians. A Treaty of Friendship and Commerce was signed during the presidency of James Buchanan, and the first US legation was set up in Tehran in 1883. Americans played a midwifery role in Iran’s first attempt at constitutional government in Iran between 1906 and 1925; other Americans were at the heart of innovations in Persian governance and development in the years that followed.

In his book Iran and America: Rekindling a Love Lost, Dr. Badi Badiozamani wrote, “Between 1830 and 1940, hundreds of Americans had established through their good and impressive activities a vast ocean of goodwill between Iran and the United States.” This goodwill has lasted even until today among the people of Iran.

Then came World War II. Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Iran. Iran appealed to Roosevelt “to take efficacious and urgent humanitarian steps to put an end to these acts of aggression.” The appeal fell on deaf ears. In 1943 the US Secretary of State advised Roosevelt, “From a more directly selfish point of view, it is to our interest that no great power be established on the Persian Gulf opposite the important American petroleum development in Saudi Arabia” – unless, of course, it would be the US. Thus began a long tug-of-war over Middle Eastern “black gold.”

George V. Allen, who assumed the post of US Ambassador to Tehran in 1946, wrote back to the Department of State, “The best way for Iran to become a decent democracy, it seems to me, is to work at it, through trial and error. I am not convinced by the genuinely held view of many people that democracy should be handed down gradually from above.” But, as Dr. Badiozamani observes, “Unfortunately, neither Allen nor his successors followed this advice. Time and again, when the Shah took a critical step toward autocratic rule, they either applauded and justified his action or maintained an approving silence, explaining their behavior as ‘non-interference.'”

In 1953 came the event that more than any other colors Iranian perceptions of the government of the US and its intentions toward Iran. When the elected leader of Iran, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, rejected the exploitative arrangements that governed Iran’s supplying oil to the West and nationalized its oil resources, he was overthrown in a coup orchestrated in part by the American CIA. The operation (acknowledged publicly by the US government decades later) was called “Probably the most egregiously sinister policy the US pursued in the Middle East” by Lee Smith, a journalist associated with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The monarchy was reestablished, and would endure, with its secret police aided by intelligence from the US and Israel’s Mossad, until the “Islamic Revolution” in 1979. Never again would American motives be taken at face value by Iranians.

American antagonism toward Iran stems largely from the taking of hostages in Tehran in the early days of the Islamic Revolution. America became the “Great Satan.” Iran was viewed first with shock and bewilderment, later with fear and hatred, by many Americans. We failed to gauge correctly the anger of ordinary Iranians sparked by US support of the semi-democratic and often brutal reign of the Shah. It was their own loved ones who had been informed upon by the secret police, who had suffered in the Shah’s prisons and had been broken by his torturers. When the hostages were taken, it was not just a political or even religio-political move; it was also personal. The US came to stand for dictatorial rule as well as for economic exploitation, ill-considered modernization and cultural discord.

Now the situation is still more grave. A National Security document of March 16, 2006 asserted, “We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.” The document states as fact that Iran possesses weapons of mass destruction, though the IAEA has found no evidence of such. Again the abyss of war beckons.

Schoolgirls visiting the Chahel Sotun Palace

in Esfahan, Iran, May 2006.

According to Michael Chossudovsky, writing last year for the Global Research organization, the US military has “war-gamed” doomsday scenarios involving Iran. World war may be difficult for most of us to imagine, but it is always an item on someone’s to-do list. For the non-military reader, the current US presence in the Persian Gulf is hard to visualize. Just nine of the ships deployed there this year carry some 17,000 US personnel, added to 20,000 already in the area. According to reliable reports, the Pentagon has drawn up plans for a military blitz that would strike 10,000 targets in the first day of attacks. The proposed targets include airports, rail lines, highways, bridges, ports, communication centers, power grids, industrial centers, and even hospitals and public buildings.

A February 2006 analysis by the UK-based Oxford Research Group describes the likely scenario: “An air attack would involve the systematic destruction of research, development, support, and training centers for nuclear and missile programs and the killing of as many technically competent people as possible. A US attack, which would be larger than anything Israel could mount, would also involve comprehensive destruction of Iranian air defense capabilities and attacks designed to pre-empt Iranian retaliation. This would require destruction of Revolutionary Guard facilities close to Iraq and of regular or irregular naval forces that could disrupt Gulf oil transit routes…” An element of surprise would be considered critical. This means that there will be no opportunity for people to move away from likely target areas.

Why should it have been impossible, during the almost thirty years of the Islamic Republic’s existence, for us to have developed a way for our two governments to communicate? Neither country is the same as it was when the Islamic Revolution took place, yet leaders of both act as though frozen in time.

However, a policy shift has taken place. It presents, as former President Carter has said, “a radical departure from all previous administration policies” in its aggressive unilateralism and its embrace of preemptive or preventive action. Though a majority of Americans consistently favor limiting attacks by states to self-defense, this is not reflected in the administration’s approach to Iraq and Iran.

The two countries are hardly two peas in a pod. Scott Ritter, former IAEA arms inspector and a US Marines officer, made his first trip to Iran in 2006. He wrote in The Nation, “I recently returned from a trip to Iran, where over the course of a week…. I had my eyes opened…. Iran is nothing like Iraq. I spent more than seven years in Iraq and know firsthand what a totalitarian dictatorship looks and acts like. Iran is not such a nation…. [It is] a vibrant society that operates free of an oppressive security apparatus such as the one that dominated Iraqi life in the time of Saddam Hussein…. Iran has functioning domestic security apparatus, but it most definitely is not an all-seeing, all-controlling police state…”

The signals coming from Iran over the past few years have shown both assertiveness and flexibility, both stubbornness and hints – sometimes broad hints – of possible compromise. But can we get past the one, in order to build on the other?

Recent indications are that we cannot. Though little has changed between our two countries since the 80s, the drum beats of war grow ever louder. Suddenly, women’s dress codes and human rights concerns seem to matter far more than in the past. Yet these concerns are, in truth, based on meager substantive knowledge. Not only is our hard intelligence on military, political and technical matters sorely lacking, but our direct familiarity with contemporary Iranian culture, and especially with the individuals who sit across the bargaining table, is nearly non-existent.

A February 2007 report by Network 2020 stated, “In the context of tensions between the US and Iran, American Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told us that the US and Iran maintain only limited back-channel contacts. Burns reported that he himself has never been in a room with an Iranian official and that the State Department does not have a cadre of Farsi speakers. ‘There is no one in my generation who’s ever served in Iran,’ Burns said. ‘There’s no one in my generation who has ever worked with the Iranians in any way, shape or form.'” More recently, in a June 8 roundtable with The Wall Street Journal editorial board, Condoleeza Rice “confessed that she couldn’t figure Iran out.” “I think it’s a very opaque place,” Rice said, “and it’s a political system I don’t understand very well.” Rice is our most senior foreign policy official.

I flew to Iran last May as part of a peace delegation of 22 Americans. After changing planes in Paris, I spoke with a young Iranian man on his way home. He had just visited a cemetery in Paris where several noted Iranian writers are interred, including one we both admired, the novelist Sadegh Hedayat. I recalled to him the opening line of Hedayat’s dark novel, Blind Owl: “In life there are sores that tear and eat at the soul, like cancer.” We agreed that the will to make war is one of these sores. Balancing the voices of bellicosity, there must be heard voices of charity and humanity. A young anthropologist in the group said, “If all I have done as a result of this trip is begin to dispel the myths that circulate about Iranians, then I have done a lot. And if I can hold up a mirror, then I have done even more. Violence begins in the smallest of spaces. Peace then, must as well.”

But instead, within America, there has been a disturbing sea-change in what has become acceptable in the public sphere. Such conservative TV commentators as Bill O’Reilly voice the opinion that Iran should be bombed into non-existence. Talking about the crash of an Iranian airliner, Don Imus remarked, “When I hear stories like that, I think: who cares?” Senator John McCain, now running for president, answered a reporter’s question on policy toward Iran by chanting, “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” Many in his audience cheered. An internet merchandiser is selling T-shirts, sweat-suits and underwear with a map of Iran emblazoned with the words “NUKE ‘EM!”

What is happening here? Isn’t it the process that Chris Hedges warned about in his book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning – the need to demonize the enemy before the launching of an attack can become psychologically supportable? It was done with “the Japs,” “the Huns,” “the Gooks” and “the Towel Heads”; now it is the “Axis of Evil.” In this process, the other becomes a creature unworthy of our compassion.

While we are busy tarring the Islamic Republic with the brush of malevolence, the US has reached an all-time nadir in terms of how we are regarded outside our borders. We who dare to call ourselves Christians should be known, per the scriptural standard, according to how we “love one another,” yet we have a reputation as people who hate all those who are not like us. In poll after poll, fewer and fewer people around the world look up to us as a country with something of value to teach the rest of the world. A Pew Center poll, done in May 2006, showed that people in six Muslim countries – Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey – perceive the “Christian” West as “selfish, arrogant, immoral and greedy.”

For we who are Christians, the single criterion for evaluating any action or attitude is this: does it conform to the example of Jesus Christ? We are to refrain from focusing on the “speck” in the eye of the other, in this case the Iranians, without first remembering to take the “plank” out of our own eyes. Better to err in the direction of forbearance than to tilt toward smug and superior chauvinism.

Some will worry that pursuing such a path carries a risk that the adversary will take advantage of our delay. But could that not be said about any conflict situation? When, exactly, would it be prudent to “turn the other cheek”? The law of love represents a higher calling than prudence or even self-preservation. Looking at the full biblical context, we must admit that Jesus’ approach was truly radical: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:38-44)

The monk and author Thomas Merton, in his essay “St. Maximus the Confessor on Nonviolence,” wrote: “The love of enemies is not simply a pious luxury, something that [the Christian] can indulge in if he wants to feel himself exceptionally virtuous. It is of the very essence of the Christian life, a proof of one’s Christian faith, a sign that one is a follower and an obedient disciple of Christ.” (Passion for Peace: The Social Essays of Thomas Merton, Crossroad, 1995)

Alex Patico is co-secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America. His text is condensed from a forthcoming book, Reining in the Red Horse: An American Christian Looks at Iran. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran 1968-69. He is a member of the US Committee for the Decade to Overcome Violence, a co-founder of the National Iranian American Council, and a congregant of Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church, Linthicum, Maryland. His most recent visit to Iran was in May 2006.

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47

St. John Chrysostom, Almsgiving, and Persons with Disability

by Ephrem Gall

St. John Chrysostom, having sought the face of God through the strictest forms of asceticism in the mountains near Antioch, only to find his health fail in the process, returned to the city. He rose through the deaconate of service to the poor to the priesthood, where his gift for preaching made him “the right hand man” of the archbishop. His faith and talents were noticed. Eventually he was chosen for the archbishop’s throne in Constantinople.

Among the vices which he encountered in the capital, St. John found that the many destitute persons of the city were being neglected or altogether ignored. He responded by delivering sermons that to this day remain among the most powerful expositions of the Christian faith. One of his major themes was the challenge to recognize Christ in the poor.

Many were brought to repentance, but St. John also made many powerful enemies, including the Empress. Eventually he was sent into exile. His fragile health failed on the way to a remote place of banishment. His life in this world ended on September 14, 407.

St. John usually worked his way through a book of Holy Scripture from beginning to end. In the latter part of each homily, he would apply the Scriptural content to an aspect of contemporary life. Two of his major subjects were, negatively, denunciations of time wasted on entertainment, especially the theater, which some preferred to Church services, and, positively, the encouragement of almsgiving, not only in the monetary sense, but the gift of time and attention to those in need.

It’s not difficult to relate his exhortations to those tempted by the allurements of popular culture. As to the other matter, the poor are still very much with us. So let us pay attention to his words on almsgiving.

While many of St. John’s exhortations encourage giving money to the destitute, one also finds passages in his sermons that bring out the deeper aspects of almsgiving, involving a more comprehensive approach to the support of those with special needs, such as persons with developmental disabilities.

Commenting on the text in First Corinthians: “Not many mighty, not many noble are chosen. Rather, God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise,” St. John says, “Persons of great insignificance are chosen to pull down boasting.” He warns the self-confident that it is faith that saves, not one’s reasoning ability. In fact, lines of reasoning can lead one into subtle traps away from God. “The Faith, received with trust, is a sure foundation. As the Lord says, we must become like a child.” And so the “insignificant,” simpler people are not objects of pity, but the bearers of a frame of mind that is essential for all of us to acquire.

As Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). St. John comments that jostling for position, vanity, and ambition are foreign to a childlike disposition. Children are generally uncomplicated and humble, and eager to be taught. St. John says the Lord means by “children” grown men and women who are “simple and lowly, and abject and contemptible in the judgment of the common sort.”

Those of us who work in group homes and other settings with persons having developmental disabilities can attest to the way that the simple, straightforward, and trustingly appreciative character of these people brings us down to earth. While there are irritations involved, in the end we receive, within ourselves, more than we give. Simply the words, “Good night, I love you,” repeated night after night, water a seed within our souls.

Persons with developmental disabilities typically exemplify, into their adult years, the childlike qualities Jesus calls for. They are icons by which these qualities may be learned. But often their simplicity is despised in the community, for cleverness serves to advance selfish ambitions that retain a fierce grip on the heart unless the cross and the Kingdom are seized “with violence.” Persons with developmental disabilities thus often suffer neglect to the detriment of their sense of belonging and their development, or socialization, and those who ignore and neglect them, unless they repent, face the judgment of God.

St. Paul, speaking of roles in the Body of Christ, writes, “The parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22). In a homily on that text, St. John asks, “What in the body is more insignificant than a hair?” Yet the removal of eyelashes or eyebrows not only endangers the eyes, but endangers their function. Showing greater honor is urged toward weaker members, St. John says, so “that they might not meet with less care.” The result is “equal sympathy.” But these dynamics do not operate automatically; effort is needed.

The gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 are a non-exhaustive list that shows the dimensions of almsgiving. St. John asks, in homily 32 on 1 Corinthians, “What is, ‘helps?’ … To support the weak … this too is a gift of God.” Helping, he says, must flow from real sympathy, which leads to a bond of charity and a thorough, mutual fervency between helper and helped, resulting in friendship.

Friendship Community residents in Millersville, Pennsylvania

Money sent to pan-Orthodox ministries is certainly almsgiving, but it cannot take the place of face-to-face involvement in one’s family, parish, and community. “By developing such bonds of hand and heart,” St. John says, “one becomes “a loving and merciful soul, a fountain for all his brethren’s needs.”

Day-to-day life and friendship with persons with developmental disabilities has its moments of mutual fervency and celebration – birthday parties are major events – as well as its stresses, but these stresses can ultimately be related to the Cross, through which “joy comes into all the world.”

The efforts that are made in a group home to honor all the successes which our friends with disabilities struggle to achieve in daily living provide a premonition of the disproportionate “eternal weight of glory” our Lord has promised to His faithful strugglers. In saying “Well done!” to the proper setting of a dinner table, we see the great Banquet of God coming into view. Frequent, sincere commendations of our friends as well as asking their forgiveness when we have misunderstood them have been key elements to the maintenance of our mutual fervency.

In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, St. John identifies the dealers of oil as the poor, and the oil is alms. He warns against wasting goods for “luxury and vainglory. For before Christ’s judgment seat you will have need of much oil … Let us contribute wealth, diligence, protection, and all things for our neighbor’s advantage. Nothing pleases God so much as to live for the common good.”

St. John refers to the parable of the sheep and the goats before Christ’s glorious throne of judgment (Matt. 25) as “this most delightful portion of Scripture, unto which we do not cease continually revolving.” He asks why brethren would be called “least,” and responds that “the lowly, the poor, and the outcast” are the sort that the Lord most greatly desires to “invite to brotherhood.” The Lord’s way of valuing people is contrary to what is typical in human society.

In his homily on St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, St. John Chrysostom asks whether his hearers would rather take part in a sumptuous banquet with the rich and famous or enjoy a simple meal with the poor and those with disabilities. He gives his reasons for choosing the latter. I encourage you to find and read that homily in its entirety, to discover his entire answer and to enjoy a full meal of St. John’s golden words. (“Chrysostom” means golden-mouthed.)

Almsgiving affects one’s personal transformation as well. St. John says, “There is no sin, which alms cannot cleanse; it is a medicine adapted to every wound.” Genuine, sympathetic almsgiving heals the giver as well as the receiver. He also says, “Let us hold fast to Mercy: she is the teacher of that higher Wisdom.”

He explains that habitual attention to suffering leads to being able to bear slights, and finally, to the love of enemies. “Let us learn to feel for the ills our neighbors suffer, and we shall learn to endure the ills they inflict.” Contributing to the full socialization of others, including persons with developmental disabilities, leads to one’s own transformation into the likeness of the Lord Jesus. (Homilies 14 and 25 on the Acts of the Apostles)

St. John Chrysostom exhorts us all:

If you ever wish to associate with someone, make sure that you do not give your attention to those who enjoy health and wealth and fame as the world sees it, but take care of those in affliction, in critical circumstances, who are utterly deserted and enjoy no consolation. Put a high value on associating with these, for from them you shall receive much profit, and you will do all for the glory of God. God Himself has said: I am the father of orphans and the protector of widows [Ps. 67:6]. (Baptismal Instructions, 6.12; Paulist Press, 1963)

There is much in St. John Chrysostom’s words for us to reflect upon. He expresses an Orthodox Christianity that is robust and compassionate. A fuller study of his exhortations reveals a standard of personal commitment, relinquishment, and community that has monastic roots. Yet, while he could be thunderous in his denunciations, he often gently gave suggestions on how to approximate the narrow way he held high, such as recommending a simple, no-frills lifestyle focused on generosity, and the monastic life for those who are able to accept that calling. Much more could be said on his practical exhortations to married couples and families. See St. John Chrysostom on Marriage and Family Life (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

We are all disabled in some way, by sin and in our weaknesses, which mercifully drive us from narcissism to community. And we all have a special intelligence given to us by God to contribute to the community. As we discern our communion in the Body of Christ, let us remember this aspect as well.

Ephrem and his wife Margaret are house parents of a Friendship Community group home for persons with developmental disabilities in Millersville, Pennsylvania. They are also members of St. John Chrysostom Orthodox Church in York, where they were chrismated in 2000. Ephrem has written a thesis for the Antiochian House of Studies, “St. John Chrysostom and the Socialization of Persons with Developmental Disabilities,” which is available on the “About” section of the web log “Arms Open Wide: Orthodox Christian Disability Resources” (http://armsopenwide.wordpress.com). A good resource on St. John Chrysostom’s life and writings is found online at www.chrysostom.org/life.html.

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47

The Protection of the Mother of God

The account of the appearance is to be found in the Life of St. Andrew “the Fool in Christ” (died 956). It is at the church of Blachernes [in Constantinople], where the robe, the veil and part of the girdle of the Holy Virgin are preserved, that the appearance occurred. During the office of the vigil, about four in the morning, St. Andrew and his disciple Epiphanius saw a majestic woman advancing towards the ambo, supported by St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, and accompanied by several saints. On reaching the center of the church, the Mother of God knelt down and remained long in prayer, her face bathed in tears. When she had prayed yet again before the altar, she took off the shining veil which enveloped her and, holding it above her head, extended it over all the people present in the church. Andrew and Epiphanius alone were able to see the appearance of the Mother of God and her veil which shone like the glory of God, but all who were present felt the grace of her protection. This invisible protection of the Mother of God, interceding with her Son for the whole universe, protection that St. Andrew could contemplate in the form of a veil covering the faithful, constitutes the central idea of the festival of October 1st: “The Virgin is today present in the church: with the choirs of the saints she prays to God invisibly for us. Angels and bishops prostrate themselves, apostles and prophets rejoice: for the Mother of God intercedes for us before the eternal God.”

The Mother of God is seen standing on a small cloud, hovering in the air above the faithful. She has both arms outstretched in a gesture of supplication, expressing her prayer of intercession. Two angels hold by either end a great veil which billows in the form of a vault over the Mother of God. The procession of saints which surrounded the Queen of the Heavens at the time of her appearance is represented by two groups of apostles and prophets with St. John the Forerunner. On his scroll: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.”

To the right of the ambo, two persons in the foreground are detached from the crowd of the faithful. They are St. Andrew and St. Epiphanius, the witnesses of the appearance of the Mother of God. St. Andrew is turned towards his disciple showing him the appearance with a gesture of the right arm extended towards the Mother of God.

– from The Meaning of Icons by Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press

In Communion / Fall 2007 / Protection of the Mother of God