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Recommended Reading Spring 2009

A Palestinian Christian

Cry for Reconciliation

By Naim Stifan Ateek

Orbis Books, 224 pp, $24

Fr. Naim Ateek has played a major role in promoting Palestinian nonviolent resistance. Rejecting the misuse of scripture by both Jewish and Christian Zionists, his book offers helpful insights to biblical texts that help sustain Palestinian Christians, descendants of the first Christians.

The book may be even more important for Christians in the West, however, who often have little knowledge of scripture’s rejection of domination and the violence of empires.

The author applies his knowledge of history and culture to stories and parables with such simplicity that they can be told to children. Writing about the Book of Jonah, for example, he shows how literalism and the lack of historical knowledge robs great literature of its power and meaning. He asks if readers today understand the revolutionary nature of the story or its implications for modern-day Israel and its relationship with Palestinians?”

Ateek founded of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem as a means of taking the Gospel beyond scholarship to discipleship and witness, to checkpoints, demolished houses, refugee camps, barrier walls and prisons.

Franz Jäggerstätter:

Letters and Writings from Prison

edited by Erna Putz

Orbis Books, $25, 260 pages

Franz Jäggerstätter, an Austrian farmer, devoted husband and father, was executed in 1943 for refusing to serve in the Nazi army. Before taking this stand, Jäggerstätter had consulted both his pastor and his local bishop, who instructed him to do his duty and to obey the law.

For years Jäggerstätter’s solitary witness was honored by the Christian peace movement, while viewed with discomfort by many of his fellow Austrians. Now, with his beatification by the Catholic Church in 2007, he has become better known a martyr as challenging to Orthodox Christians as he has been to Catholics.

Here is an extract from his last letter: “Dearest wife and mother, it was not possible for me to free both of you from the sorrows that you have suffered for me. How hard it must have been for our dear Lord that he had given his dear mother such great sorrow through his suffering and death! And she suffered everything out of love for us sinners. I thank our Savior that I could suffer for him, and may die for him. I trust in his infinite compassion. I trust that God forgives me everything, and will not abandon me in the last hour. … And now all my loved ones, be well. And do not forget me in your prayers. Keep the Commandments, and we shall see each other again soon in heaven!”

How could a humble farmer imagine he had a clearer conscience than those who led the Church in his homeland? We find in Franz Jägerstätter a living answer to such questions.

Jim Forest

The Evidence of Things Not Seen

by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo

Synaxis Press, 135 pages

In The Evidence of Things Not Seen, Archbishop Lazar moves with ease from specific topics in Orthodox theology to corresponding topics in physics, demonstrating that (in contrast to fundamentalist Christian religions) the Orthodox faith and modern physics are compatible.

Lazar distinguishes between facts and meaning. In a physical experiment, one can take very accurate measurements, but without interpretation they have no meaning. Lazar points out that an early astronomer, Brahe, took accurate astronomical measurements, but still ended up with an incorrect theory of cosmology. His facts were useless until they were correctly interpreted after his death by Kepler, his assistant.

Similarly the creation narrative, from the beginning up to the time of Abraham and Sarah, condenses enormous time and vast prehistoric oral tradition into a simple narrative. This narrative is about meaning, not historical or scientific detail. We are reminded that we derive our theology from meaning, not from supposed “facts.”

In comparing modern microphysics to Orthodox theology, Lazar points out that there is no separation between the observer and the observed. The observer in both instances is not extraneous to the observed, but is a participant at different levels of experience, being part of the process by seeking to understand and quantify it. In theology, the observer has intentionally involved himself, hoping to become part of it the living theology of Orthodoxy whereas in quantum physics the observer unavoidably impacts directly on the observation, becoming a part of the process being observed.

One of Lazar’s key points is that almost all apparent conflict between science and faith is the result of “models of reality” rather than of reality itself. When we become rigid and frozen in our models by, for example, using a journalistic understanding of scripture, we deprive ourselves of reality itself. As an historical example, Lazar goes to the year 1500 when the general model of reality for our universe placed a stationary earth at the center of the universe, around which the sun and other heavenly bodies were rotating. The great philosophers as well as the Scripture agreed that this was reality rather than a model of reality, so concrete as to be a dogma of faith.

But the observations of the heavens by Galileo proved the old model was wrong. Galileo came up with the more accurate model of reality in which the earth and the planets rotate around the stationary sun, which caused a conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church. Galileo’s doctrine was condemned by Rome and Galileo was forced to recant. But even Galileo’s model of reality was not the last word. The sun is no longer seen as a stationary object but a star racing through space as part of a spiral arm of a galaxy a better model, but one which may need to be modified as more discoveries are made.

“Orthodox Christianity is not an arbiter of facts,” writes Archbishop Lazar, “but the healer of humanity, the source of meaning, the path to the authenticity of life and the doorway to eternity and immortality.”

Dr. John Mavroides

The Healing Word

by Bishop Basil of Amphipolis

Darton, Longman & Todd, 13

It is not just the case that much of the universe is not seen; it cannot be seen. This was well known in patristic times, and it is consonant with biblical revelation and the tradition of the Church. In his sensitive and illuminating reading of scripture and the Fathers, Bishop Basil encourages us to look afresh at the creation by acquiring the mind of Christ through word and sacrament and membership of the Church. He is concerned to show that “the universe is ultimately a single integrated whole and in God each part of it is linked with every other.”

In “Healing in the Life of the Individual,” Basil helps us to see new truths in familiar texts by a kind of running exegesis, which assumes without laboring the insights of modern scholarship.

There follow chapters on baptism, forgiveness, the mystery of the Church and the Eucharist, ecumenism and the royal priesthood of the Church.

Bishop Basil breaks new ground in the third section, “Becoming a Healing Presence in the World,” in his use of the work of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite and of Maximus the Confessor.

Here are real treasures. I found myself putting ticks against every illuminating quotation from Maximus, just as I was putting question marks against much of Dionysius. But then so does Bishop Basil, who frequently has to fill out gaps in the Dionysian arguments himself.

“We cannot today ignore the development of science,” writes Bishop Basil, “if we are to present our case as Christians in the world in which we live.”

Dr. John ArnoldOne day, a man who was visiting Mount Athos asked several wise elders the following question: “What is the most important thing in your life?” Each time he was answered like this: “It is divine love; to love God and to love one’s neighbor.” He said: “I don’t have love, either for prayer, or for God, or for other people. What must I do?” And then he decided by himself: “I will act as if I had this love.” Thirty years later, the Holy Spirit gave him the grace of love.

Archimandrite Sophrony

Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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Conversations by email: Spring 2009

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 <[email protected]> or Jim Forest <[email protected]>.

Fear of the other: Thomas Merton wrote that fear is the root of war. If fear becomes our primary way of looking at things, if we look at everything and everyone through the lens of suspicion and fear, then we blind and cripple ourselves.

Fear of the “the other” appears to me to arise in part from recognition. We fear the “ourselves” that we see in “the other.” We hate most in others what we fear most in ourselves. Reconciliation with our own “self” is part of overcoming our fear and hatred of “the other.”

Archbishop Lazar

[email protected]

On giving: The latest New Yorker has a piece on the Wittgenstein family, whose best-known member is Ludwig the philosopher. The family was quite wealthy, and he had a large inheritance. At one point in his career he decided to renounce the world, give away his money and live a simple, rural life. He decided to give the money to his already-wealthy siblings, reasoning that more money wouldn’t corrupt them any further. A novel approach.

John Brady

[email protected]

Render unto Caesar: In an exchange recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (22:17), Jesus is asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Given the fact that the Roman army was an unwelcome occupying force and that there was widespread resistance to their presence, it was a controversial question. Jesus’ response was to ask the questioner for a coin (making clear in the process that he had no such coin himself). Drawing attention to Caesar’s image on the coin, Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Arthur Waskow, an American rabbi, comments that an older passage from Jewish Torah commentary mentions that the difference between Caesar (who called himself a god) and God is that, when Caesar makes coins in his own image, they all come out looking the same, but when God makes persons in His own image, each is unique. In this context, Jesus may have been saying, “render unto Caesar what is his” the currency of the realm stamped with Caesar’s his own face and leave to God what is His: humankind.

Jim Forest

[email protected]

Dying of sorrow: I was interested to read a newspaper article on the many health problems that result from eating too much red meat. But one point was neglected. Most people die from sorrow, broken hearts and a lack of understanding of God’s desires for them. This effects our bodies in ways hard to quantify.

Renee Zitzloff

[email protected]

Who would Jesus bomb? One of our recent visitors was Steve Jacobs, who arrived at out house wearing a t-shirt with the question: “Who would Jesus bomb?” Steve is one of the founders of St. Francis House of Hospitality in Columbia, Missouri.

One of the things we talked about is how best to respond to an annual military welcome-house at a Missouri military base. The event features a big tent in which kids are invited to play computer war games. It’s very popular.

An idea that emerged in our conversations was the possibility of setting up a “peace games tent” outside the base where, using borrowed laptop computers, kids (and parents too) could play peace games. Even if no peace game sells as well as war games do, we found there are a lot of peace games out there. Searching this string computer games peacemaking pulls up many hits.

We got to thinking about making a hand-out to give to families visiting the base, but also one that could be adapted for use at stores selling war games. A possible headline: “Not all computer games are about killing.”

A draft opening to the text: “Today our kids are being invited by the military to play war games games that make killing people seem like a fun thing to do. The truth is every act of killing is a tragedy, not only to victims and their families, but for all the soldiers who come home burdened with memories of killing real people. In many cases the hidden scars left by war never heal. That’s a big part of the reason why so many returning soldiers can’t hold down jobs, keep their families together, become homeless, turn to drugs, and even take their own lives.

“Do we want war to look like a game to our kids?

“Did you know that there are computer games that challenge kids and their parents to learn the skills of peacemaking?”

Jim Forest

[email protected]

OPF in Los Angeles: In the spring of 2008, we received word from an OPF member, Chris Apostal, that he wished to create a local OPF presence in his area, starting at his home parish, Holy Virgin Mary Cathedral in Los Angeles, California.

Chris developed a one-page proposal, outlining what he intended and informing his parish priest and the congregation about OPF. His initial agenda included voluntary participation by interested individuals in a monthly discussion, potential formation of committees to address different concerns, and of chapter activities related to them. He carefully drew a distinction between the chapter and the parish and also expressed a hope that this initiative would “allow enough freedom for each parish member to find what their conscience and the Holy Spirit leads them to, and to express that in constructive Christian service and efforts at reconciliation.”

A first OPF meeting was held at Holy Virgin Mary in June. Now there are twice-monthly meeting after liturgy. Those taking part have had animated discussions about issues of war, peace, capital punishment, forgiveness, and the relationship of peace to the environment. We saw a film entitled Forgiveness, a fictional story set against the backdrop of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and later the documentary, Soldiers of Conscience. At one meeting a parish member who is a poet read a poem about war, which served as a basis for discussion. Members prayed and send clemency appeals on behalf of a death row inmate who had recently converted to Orthodoxy.

Chris writes: “Our discussions usually come down to an impasse: The ‘pacifist approach’ contends that Christians have historically relied too readily on ‘carnal weapons,’ which betrays a relatively weak faith in the way Christ showed us the way of the cross. If we had enough faith, lived closer to the Lord, and worked at developing the “spiritual weapons” (faith, prayer, fasting, patient suffering, returning good for evil, etc.), we could disarm their foes without inflicting harm. The ‘lesser evil’ approach sees that view as naive and unrealistic, given the realities of the fallen world. It contends that there may be times when killing is a lesser evil than the alternative of refraining from violence. It holds that even if we decide to renounce violence in the defense of ourselves, that it is our duty to utilize violence when we have a responsibility (i.e., familial, governmental, to protect the ‘other’ who may be innocent and defenseless, or who may be depending on us.”

Although average attendance rarely exceeds a dozen, the chapter is now a year old.

We often say “all politics is local.” In the Church, we say that the Body of Christ is “catholic” meaning that in each local situation, even that of “two or three” gathered in His holy name, the fullness of the Church is present. Its very locality, though, acts to ensure that individual Christians learn to recognize the face of Christ in each other individual; they can exchange a Kiss of Peace, can take conciliar decisions, and can act in Christian solidarity with persons who know each other person-to-person. Such is the role of a chapter of OPF. The Los Angeles group has now blazed a trail and provided an example for anyone who might wish to follow their lead. May God bless their efforts and grant them many years!

Alex Patico

Note: For more information about the Los Angeles OPF chapter, contact Chris Apostal <[email protected]>.

Calling oil companies to account: Yesterday I participated in a protest at the oil company Chevron’s world headquarters in San Ramon, California, while the annual meeting of shareholders was going on inside. The protest was organized by a coalition of groups working together to support communities across the world being destroyed by Chevron.

The devastation caused by oil refineries to local communities is incredible: higher rates of asthma, cancer and miscarriages, ecological devastation, and, in many cases, support for military dictatorships.

Acting as proxies for shareholders in Chevron, folks from Burma, the Philippines, Nigeria, Ecuador were able to speak, in the face of ridicule, to the Chevron board of directors and to present an alternative Chevron annual report chronicling the many ways Chevron hurts people and the earth.

Outside the meeting speakers took turns highlighting the damage caused by Chevron and other oil companies, highlighting the hypocrisy of the oil industries’ “green-washing” ad campaigns.

At an opportune moment six of us with lock-boxes took charge of Chevron main entrance. For several hours we remained sitting, locked down, while others occupied the street, create a media spectacle. (To minimize negative publicity, Chevron decided not to have the police arrest us.)

A lawsuit is being filed in Ecuador that, if it’s won, will impose a multi-billion dollar fine on Chevron.

Want to know more?

Visit to download the alternative annual report.

David Costas

[email protected]

A change in direction: A recent Gallup survey found that 51 percent of those questioned call themselves “pro-life” on the issue of abortion and 42 percent “pro-choice.” It was the first time a majority of US adults have identified themselves as “pro-life” since Gallup began asking this question in 1995. (Last year, Gallup found that 50 percent termed themselves “pro-choice” while 44 percent described their beliefs as “pro-life.”) Gallup said shifting opinions lay almost entirely with Republicans, or independents who lean Republican, with opposition among those groups rising over the past year from 60 percent to 70 percent.

What this says to me is that the battle has essentially been won among conservatives. What is needed now is an educational campaign that is expressly tailored to appeal to and persuade progressives those who advocate social equality and fair and favorable treatment of minorities and who are more ready to believe that government can be helpful in people’s lives. Otherwise, we are looking at continuing polarization and demonization of each side by the other, and very little actual change in minds and hearts.

I believe that for most who favor women’s “right to choose,” the displaying of graphic photos of abortions is not persuasive. Similarly, for many the sanctity-of-life argument is not compelling either because they are not particularly religious or because they see a real tension between the loss of (fetal) life and the anticipated loss of quality of life and come down on the side of letting each person figure it out for themselves.

What could be tried is this: to have a debate, informed by science, faith, secular ethics and economics, which asks the question of how best to protect both life in an absolute sense, and quality of life as it is lived in various situations of parental age, family make-up, economic stratum, ethnicity, etc. Unless and until folks are willing to have such a difficult (and no doubt lengthy) joint examination of these things, we are doomed to firing mortars from one trench to the other and waiting for the cries from the opposing ranks to let us know we “scored.” It is incumbent upon those who feel that the unborn child should be protected to make this happen there is little impetus on the other side to have such a process, except for those who are extraordinarily driven by intellectual curiosity and moral humility.

I doubt that it will happen anywhere near the political arena (within parties and such) because everyone sees the issue either as a vote-getter or as a hot potato. Either way, there’s no incentive to open that can of worms when you don’t know how it will come out in the end.

As to the gender factor, I would love to see more men who assert their parental rights (to have the baby who is in utero allowed to be born), as long as they are also willing to take on the responsibilities of rearing the child to adulthood. Too often, the male is something of a bystander in the whole thing. When it comes to career choices, if an employer cannot see the value of having not only a happier, less-stressed employee, but a healthy, well-adjusted next generation, then other collectivities, such as church or government, should.

If it takes subsidies or tax breaks to balance out the salary differential and lost promotions of the child-bearer, so be it. I’m ready to pay higher taxes if it means that fewer children are aborted, fewer kids are forced to fend for themselves without supervision, are fast-tracked into the criminal justice system and eventually are either supported by the state or left homeless on the street or stuck in dead-end jobs.

A new wave of the young and independent-minded may make this a very different landscape than the one we have been seeing the past 20-30 years.

If protecting the environment can rise to respectability, who knows? Maybe life in general will gain some measure of popular esteem! I look forward to the day when Time Magazine has a cover emblazoned: “Life is the new wealth.”

Alex Patico

[email protected]

Ethics: One of the reasons discussion on the abortion issue is so complicated is because the discipline of ethics, both in philosophy and in theology, is something of a swamp. There is no fundamental agreement on how to do ethics. The teleological camp (e.g., Aristotle and the ancient Christian tradition) is a minority and its ontological-anthropological fundamentals are not granted by the majority in the academy. The deontological camp (e.g. Kant and much of the contemporary Western tradition) reigns supreme, but it lacks the ability to give reasons for ethical obligations; it actually posits that there is an unbridgeable gap between Is and Ought we should do right just because it is right, or maybe because God said so.

This is unconvincing to people without strict superegos. So the result is that a discussion of what is right in areas about which people disagree becomes virtually impossible (think not only of abortion but also of whether the rich should be taxed more, whether animals have rights, whether euthanasia is ever O.K., etc.).

C.S. Lewis remarks in one of the Narnia books, “Don’t they teach logic in schools any more?” There is no doubt that ethics has not been taught in an intellectually satisfactory way in a couple of centuries.

David Holden

[email protected]

Pornography: While pornography has become available new ways cable, the internet, satellite TV other cultures in other times were awash in pornography in their own ways.

Visitors to the ruins of Pompeii will recall seeing vivid sexual imagery everywhere brothel walls covered with paintings illustrating the kinds of sex acts customers could purchase.

Historians of the Roman world as it was at the time of Christ show a culture in which sexual violence and coercion was normal. Slaves were required by law to submit to any sexual act on the part of their masters. Death was the penalty for resisting. Those of higher social rank could demand sex with anyone man, women or child of lesser social rank. Upper class outranked lower class, men outranked women and children. Slaves were subject to every kind of degradation.

It may be that St. Paul reacted so strongly to sexual immorality because, in the ancient world, sexual acts were so often imposed a system profoundly repugnant both to Jews and Christians. Perhaps the reason monasticism and celibacy emerged as an idealized way to follow Christ was that the ancients could not even imagine a world in which sex could be pure or an expression of God’s love. Seeing sex as belonging to a fallen world, Christians in that world increasingly saw the rejection of sex as the only way to perfectly follow Christ.

Fr. Ted Bobosh

[email protected]

Co-suffering love: On the issue of pornography, it seems to me that there are two things to consider, and both have value. One is morality, or ethics, as they are expressed in the law, which has a protective value when it comes to pornography and sex-trafficking through prosecution by power.

The other is the morality in Christianity that grows out of love the healing kind found in co-suffering love of which Christ is the supreme model.

It also appears among His followers who, in relationship with Him, begin to act and speak out of love. Perfected, it leaves judgment and condescension behind and instead heals releases the sufferer from bondage to passions. The healer facilitates the work of the Holy Spirit, who helps the sinner see he or she has sinned against love and strengthens the desire for re-creation.

The weakness of power is that it draws strength or enforcement from the systems of this world that are passing away (or from Satan) and is easily corrupted (moving beyond jurisdiction or detection, false witness, etc.).

So law may have a preventive and even a prescriptive value, but not the healing value of re-creation that morality rooted exclusively in co-suffering love has.

Sally Eckert

[email protected]

Summer 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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News: Spring 2009

Albania urged to return religious property

Europe’s association of Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches has called on Albania to return all religious property seized from religious communities during 46 years of Communist rule that followed the Second World War.

“Even after 18 years of democracy, much of the property confiscated under Communism still has to be returned to the churches and other religious communities,” the Conference of European Churches said in a statement made public 11 February during a meeting in Tirana.

Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania hosted the meeting. He came from Greece to Albania in 1992 to head the Orthodox Church of Albania and to help rebuild its life. Since then, more than 150 new churches have been built, 70 monasteries and historical monuments restored and 160 churches repaired. At the same time, the Orthodox church has initiated activities in the fields of health, education, social engagement, agricultural development, culture, environment and interfaith dialogue. There are now about 140 clergy serving the Church in Albania.

Albania declared itself “cleansed of religion” in 1967, under its communist leader Enver Hoxha, and declared “the world’s first fully atheist state.” All religious activity, even in homes, was strictly forbidden.

The church grouping’s leaders welcomed the freedom of religion that now exists in Albania following the end of Communism in 1991. But they expressed concern about the failure of the authorities to return the property of religious communities. They urged the government to “reconsider, without delay, the return of all sacred places … with all their associated land.” [ENI]

Russian Orthodox Church and Vatican relations warm

Pope Benedict meeting Kirill before his election as Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church

Festivities in Rome in late May for the dedication of an Orthodox church, St. Catherine the Great Martyr, on the grounds of the Russian Embassy near the Vatican, attested to a marked warming of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican. If trends hold true, a meeting of the pope and the patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Russia may be close.

While in Rome, Orthodox clergy also conducted a service at San Clemente, one of Rome’s most ancient churches.

Pope John Paul long dreamed of visiting Russia and mending relations with its Orthodox church, the world’s largest, but he was never invited to Russia.

Relations have warmed since Patriarch Kirill’s election as the new head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In March, Pope Benedict XVI sent a message to a ceremony in Bari, Italy, where the Italian government handed back to Russia a church and pilgrimage center built in the czarist era. “How could we not recognize that this beautiful church awakens in us the nostalgia for full unity and maintains alive in us the commitment to work for union among all the disciples of Christ,” he wrote.

As Metropolitan of Smolensk, in 2006 Kirill wrote the foreword to the first Russian-language edition of Pope Benedict’s book Introduction to Christianity. “The traditionalism of Benedict XVI offers a profound view, a wise insight into the essence of things,” Kirill wrote. “It is my deep conviction that this must be the approach of all Christians desiring to remain loyal to the never-aging Tradition of the Ancient Church in the face of the latest in a series of onslaughts of totalitarian relativism, which we are observing today.”

Ironically, while shared theological values unite the new patriarch and Benedict, Kirill has been under attack by Orthodox fundamentalists in Russia, in part for an outgoing style and presence that more readily recall John Paul II.

Tensions between Moscow and some of the world’s Orthodox churches are a stumbling block to relations with the Catholic Church. Moscow and Constantinople have been wrestling for centuries over jurisdictional issues, and with renewed vigor since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Moscow Patriarchate chafes especially when the Patriarch of Constantinople is described as the Orthodox pope. [Sophia Kishkovsky]

Afghan civilian deaths rose steeply in 2008

The number of civilians killed in Afghanistan leapt by nearly 40 percent in 2008, according to a United Nations survey released in February. It provides the latest objective measure of how the intensifying violence between the Taliban and American-led forces is ravaging that country.

The death toll 2,118 civilians killed in 2008, compared with 1,523 in 2007 is the highest since the Taliban government was ousted in November 2001, at the outset of a war.

The report found that the Taliban and other insurgents caused the majority of the civilian deaths, mainly through suicide bombers and roadside bombs, many aimed at killing as many civilians as possible.

But the report also found that Afghan government forces and those of the American-led coalition killed 828 people last year, up sharply from the previous year. Most of those were killed in airstrikes and raids on villages, which are often conducted at night.

Civilian deaths have eroded public support for the war and inflamed tensions with President Hamid Karzai, who has bitterly condemned the American-led coalition for their share of the rising toll.

An interview with Syed Mohammed, an elderly survivor of one raid, was published in February in The New York Times. Mr. Mohammed recalled how one day last September his son’s family was wiped out in an American-led raid.

Mr. Mohammed said he was awakened in the early morning to the sound of gunfire and explosions. In a flash, Mr. Mohammed said, several American and Afghan soldiers kicked open the door of his home. The Americans, he said, had beards, an almost certain sign that they belonged to a unit of the Special Forces, which permits uniformed soldiers to grow facial hair.

“Who are you?” Mr. Mohammed recalled asking the intruders. “Shut up,” came the reply from one of the Afghan soldiers. “We are the government.” Mr. Mohammed said he was taken to a nearby base, interrogated for several hours, then let go as sunrise neared.

When he returned home, he went next door to his son’s house, only to find that most of his family had been killed: the son, Nurallah, and his pregnant wife and two of his sons, Abdul Basit, age 1, and Mohammed, 2. Only Mr. Mohammed’s 4-year-old grandson, Zarqawi, survived. “The soldiers had a right to search our house,” Mr. Mohammed said. “But they didn’t have a right to do this.”

Bullet holes still pockmarked the Nurallah home more than four months after the attack, and the infant’s cradle still hung from the ceiling. The day after the attack, a senior Afghan official came to the door and handed Mr. Mohammed $800.

The UN report also said the airstrikes that went awry were often those called in by troops under attack.

Under such circumstances, some of the normal rules may not apply. An American attack in the western Afghan village of Azizabad last August highlighted these tensions. An American AC-130 gunship struck a suspected Taliban compound, killing more than 90 people.

In May, approximately 140 civilians died in a single US bombing error. Bombs hit houses in two villages in western Farah province in which mostly women and children were hiding. There had been Taliban forces in the area, but survivors said they had left before the bombs were dropped.

A common date for Easter?

The hope that all Christians will celebrate Easter on the same day in the future was reaffirmed by an international ecumenical seminar in mid-May organized by the Institute of Ecumenical Studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

The problem is nearly as old as the Church itself. As Christianity started to spread around the world, Christians came to differing results on when to commemorate Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, due to the different reports in the four gospels on these events.

Attempts to establish a common date for Easter began with the Council of Nicaea in the year 325. It established that the date of Easter would be the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. However, it did not fix the methods to be used to calculate the timing of the full moon or the vernal equinox.

Nowadays the Orthodox churches use the 21st of March on the Julian calendar as the date of the equinox, while the churches of the Western tradition that is the Protestant and Catholic churches base their calculations on the Gregorian calendar. The resulting gap between the two Easter dates can be as much as five weeks.

All participants at the seminar, which included Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant theologians from a variety of European countries, endorsed a compromise proposed at a World Council of Churches consultation in Aleppo, Syria, in 1997. The proposal was to keep the Nicaea rule but calculate the equinox and full moon using the accurate astronomical data available today, rather than those used many years ago.

Participants at the seminar expressed the hope that the years 2010 and 2011, when the coincidence of the calendars will produce a common Easter date, would serve as a period during which all Christians would join their efforts “to make such coincidence not to be an exception but rather a rule” and prepare for an Easter date based on exact astronomical reckoning and celebrated by all Christians on 8 April 2012.

However, the seminar entitled “A common date for Easter is possible” did not turn a blind eye to what participants considered to be “the main problem”  “not the calculations, but the complex relations and lack of trust among different Christian denominations due to long divisions.”

Orthodox theologian Prof. Antoine Arjakovsky, director of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies, pointed out: “While the astronomic reckoning of the Nicean rule comes closer to the Gregorian calendar than to the ancient Julian one, the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches did take a step towards the Orthodox churches in Aleppo, accepting that the date of Easter should be established on the base of a cosmic calendar rather than by a fixed date as had been proposed prior to the inter-Orthodox meeting in Chambésy in 1977.”

Frequently asked questions about the date of Easter

More information about the seminar: activity/one.easter/.

Efforts to save a Cypriot monastery

The Conference of European Churches has criticized Turkey’s lack of legal protection of churches, and called on European institutions to protect the country’s Syriac Orthodox Mor Gabriel monastery, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world.

“The Conference of European Churches is deeply concerned about the threat to the survival of the monastery,” said Rüdiger Noll, director of the Church and Society Commission and associated general secretary of CEC. “We invite political leaders to do everything in their power to protect the continued existence of the monastery.”

Muslim village leaders from southeastern Turkey have begun legal action to take possession of lands belonging to the Assyrian monastery of Saint Gabriel. The monastery was established in 397 AD, and those who support its retention by its Christian inhabitants note that the monastery was founded before the birth of Islam.

In a statement issued in December, CEC urged the Turkish government to prevent the expropriation of the monastery and its land, calling on the government to respect the right for Christianity to be freely practiced within the monastery, and criticized what it described as the lack of legal protection for Christian churches in Turkey.

The Mor Gabriel monastery is in the Tur Abdin region of Turkey. The building belongs to the Syriac Orthodox Church and is headed by Archbishop Timotheos Samuel Aktas. About 60 monks, nuns and young people, who attend surrounding schools, live in the monastery. Around 70,000 guests visit the monastery every year.

CEC said that since mid-2008 it had received reports that Kurdish and Arab villagers in the neighborhood had occupied land belonging to the monastery.

Rabbi rues that religion is part of Middle East problem

Religion has been part of the problem in the Middle East, but now needs to be part of the solution, says Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Rabbis for Human Rights.

At the end of January, the Jerusalem-based group helped to bring religious leaders of different faiths to an Israeli hospital where both wounded Israeli soldiers and wounded Gazan civilians were being treated.

“We want to be the voice of peace of every single person to stand up and speak together and to be heard at this troubling time,” said Ascherman.

Pastors, priests, rabbis and imams mourned the dead from both sides and prayed for the healing of all the wounded, the organizers said.

At a separate ecumenical church meeting, Bishop Munib Younan, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church said, “The church, with its diverse denominations, can speak in unison about economics with ethics and politics with morals.”

Calling on the church to unite around working for justice, Younan pointed to circumstances in the Palestinian region of Gaza, saying, “The situation in Gaza will not be made right by relief. It will only be made right by justice… The Lord does not call for us to sympathize with captives but to release them.”

Rabbis for Human Rights organized the 27 January gathering in partnership with Jerusalem Peacemakers, an interfaith network of peace-builders. The two groups said they brought together the leaders of different faiths to “raise our voices to express our pain over the death and destruction inflicted on both Israelis and Palestinians”.

The religious leaders met in front of Sheba Hospital at Tel Hashomer, and representatives of the group visited both Palestinian and Israeli children wounded in the attacks.

Prayers of mourning in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions were read out and there were calls for justice, healing and reconciliation.

“There is some truth that historically religion has been part of the problem in this region and we believe it should be part of the solution,” said Ascherman.

Israeli forces withdrew on 18 January from Gaza after a three-week war that left more than 1300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

Israel said it had achieved its objectives of weakening Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which controls Gaza and which had been launching missiles into Israeli southern border towns for the past eight years.

Rabbis for Human Rights and Jerusalem Peacemakers said they were asking for God’s help to do teshuvah, the Hebrew term for repentance, which means literally to “turn to God,” and cheshbon nefesh, or accounting of the soul.

The gathering was “very somber and hopeful,” said Eliyahu McClean, co-director of Jerusalem Peacemakers.

“We wanted to give a message especially in the aftermath of the war where there is so much anger and hatred between Jews and Arabs within the State of Israel, not to mention Palestinians. that religious leaders are sticking together for reconciliation and healing,” said McClean. “Our destiny is a shared one and we need to find a path forward to reconciliation.”

Summer 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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Letter from Damascus

At the invitation of the Grand Mufti of Damascus, during the last week of April Archbishop Lazar Puhalo was in Syria to represent the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in a Christian-Islamic “Conversation.”  Here is his report:

Archbishop Lazar and monastery cat. Photo by Jim Forest

Our small group included various Canadian Christians plus several members of the Islamic community of Edmonton, Alberta. Two were Orthodox: David Goa (of the Chester Ronning Center of the University of Alberta) and myself (representing the Orthodox Peace Fellowship). We had come to hear an Arabic and Islamic perspective on justice and peace. We went to Damascus with little idea of what to expect.

Arriving late on 25 April, we were met by Sheik Ahmad Badereddine Hassoun, the Mufti of Damascus, and a small group of officials. Officials had arranged a swift passage through customs and passport control. We were then off to a sumptuous multi-course midnight supper of a kind that would only be seen in the Arab world.

It is a commonplace of conferences that more ideas are exchanged over meals and at in-between moments than during formal presentations. Conversation at the meal focused on Gaza, which remained the main topic at all such gatherings.

Our first semi-formal dialogue took place the following evening in the palace adjacent to the Umayyed Mosque in Damascus. Accompanied by Islamic clergy, civil officials and senior students, the Mufti arrived to preside. We were asked to speak briefly about why we had come to Syria. It was obvious that our hosts were “taking the measure” of each of us.

Speaking as a delegate of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, I suggested that our purpose was two-fold. First, we wanted to hear the concerns and aspirations of the Islamic community, and second, we wished to explore common ground in relation to social justice, peace and the ecological problems facing all mankind. Ecological problems threaten the Middle East in a catastrophic way.

It became clear that the agenda for this entire round of talks would be exploratory rather than concrete, and that the results of this visit would determine whether future conferences of more substance might be feasible.

Vocabulary always presents a problem in intercultural exchanges, and this was no exception. Differences in meaning also occur in discussions between Canadians and Americans, but with cultures that differ as deeply as ours and that of the Arab world, much time is spent in deciphering each other. When such emotionally charged words as love, peace, justice and security are used, how do we know what they actually mean when spoken by strangers from a very different culture? This is especially the case when one is as deeply traumatized as Islamic culture has been in our era. How do they know what we mean, even though we use the same words?

It is not simply a matter of the religious and ethnic cultural differences that form a nebula around these issues, but the economic realities of our respective regions also make a difference. When we speak about security, we tend to refer first of all to economic security. Where a general poverty prevails, economic security is not the central meaning of the word. Part of our goal in Damascus was to see to what degree we can resolve such differences in understanding.

It was my aim, as an OPF representative, to foster an awareness of the need for sharing earth’s dwindling resources in a more equitable manner, and ultimately this necessitates setting aside those particularities which incline us to identify our own needs and sensitivities above those of others.

At the same time, we should be aware of the absoluteness of Islamic religious-ideological foundations and be prepared to engage them graciously. Without this, there can be no progress in dialogue.

Our time was not only spent at events arranged by our hosts. There was free time for informal activities according to our own interests “ time to wander in the city and engage in chance conversations.

There is no question that Syria is an interesting place to be. Though it is a secular dictatorship, there is considerable freedom in the non-political aspects of life.

What was obvious on the street was the rapid Europeanization of the younger generation. In Syria, the iconography of this evolution is clear on the T-shirts, in clothing advertisements and the display of brand names. It becomes clear that many of the problems and much of the angst that faces Christianity in North America must also occupy the minds of Moslems.

It is just as clear that this ubiquitous metamorphosis which is homogenizing humanity is reversible neither by preaching, compulsion nor violence; and there can be little doubt that fear of these changes is a generating forces in stimulating terrorism in Islam. The era in which religion could be used to repress the human spirit and persecute the outcasts of society is slowly ending around the world.

We Orthodox Christians may yet be forced back to a living faith in place of ideological religion in order to continue to realize the Gospel as Christ Himself taught it.

The separation of cultural ideology and faith will take much longer in the Islamic world. The concept of the ulema, the theocratic state, is so much a part of the reality and ideology of Islam that it will be dismantled only with great stress and trauma, far more even than in America, where the fantasy of a covenant theocracy still lingers quite strongly in the “religious right.”    ❖

Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo) is a retired hierarch of the Orthodox Church in America. He is abbot of All Saints Monastery in Dewdney, British Columbia, Canada, author of numerous books, and initiator of the OPF group in Canada.


Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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Three days in August

Yeltsin on a tank in front of the Parliament Building on August 19th, 1991

On August 19, 1991, two months after Boris Yeltsin’s election as president of Russia, a junta led by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov made a nearly-successful effort to suppress the democratic movement that had emerged during the Gorbachev years. The junta announced formation of a “State Emergency Committee” that was “taking supreme power.”

Gorbachev, still president, was under house arrest, but president-elect Yeltsin remained free, having taken refuge in the Russian Parliament, a modern building on the Moskva River known, because of its white tiles,  as “the White House.” First using fax and telephone, then radio and television, Yeltsin summoned the citizens of Moscow to defend democracy. At 1 PM on the day of the coup, Yeltsin stood on one of the tanks the junta had placed around the White House, calling for public resistance. Muscovites streamed by the thousands to the White House, forming a human shield.

The news that ten of the tanks had gone over to the White House defenders quickly became known “ a defection that encouraged other in the military to side with the democratic movement. Elements of three army divisions sent to storm the White House were now supporting Yeltsin, including the elite Alpha Unit.

Yet the outcome remained in doubt. The junta still had the support of entire armored divisions plus much of the state bureaucracy. If the human shield was attacked, thousands would die.

Part of the credit for preventing a bloodbath that never happened belongs to Patriarch Aleksy, elected in June the year before to lead the Russian Orthodox Church.

One of Yeltsin’s first actions had been to appeal to Aleksy for his support, “The tragic events that have occurred throughout the night have made me turn to you,” Yeltsin said to Aleksy by radio broadcast. “There is lawlessness inside the country “ a group of corrupt Party members has organized an anti-constitutional revolution. Essentially, a state of emergency has been declared inside the country due to the extreme gravity of the situation. The laws and constitution of the USSR and of the sovereign republics of the Union have been grossly violated…

“At this moment of tragedy for our Fatherland, I turn to you, calling on your authority among all religious confessions and believers. The influence of the Church in our society is too great for the Church to stand aside during these events. This duty is directly related to the Church’s mission, to which you have dedicated your life: serving people, caring for their hearts and souls. The Church, which has suffered through the times of totalitarianism, may once again experience disorder and lawlessness.

All believers, the Russian nation, and all Russia await your word!”

Aleksy threw his full weight behind Yeltsin and against the coup.

Father Aleksy

Father Aleksy

As tanks filed into Red Square, Aleksy was on the other side of the Kremlin walls, in the Cathedral of the Assumption, where he was presiding at the liturgy for the Feast of the Transfiguration.

During the service Aleksy made his first gesture of opposition to the coup. In a litany which ordinarily would have included a prayer for the “authorities” and “the army,” he prayed instead “for our country protected by God and its people.” All those present, noting the changed text, instantly understood its meaning. Patriarch Aleksy had sided with Russia’s infant democracy.

The following morning, Aleksy faxed a letter throughout the country challenging the junta’s legality:

“This situation is troubling the consciences of millions of our fellow citizens, who are concerned about the legality of the newly formed State Emergency Committee. … In this connection we declare that it is essential that we hear without delay the voice of President Gorbachev and learn his attitude toward the events that have just taken place.

“We hope that the Supreme Soviet of the USSR will give careful consideration to what has taken place and will take decisive measures to bring about the stabilization of the situation in the country.

“We call upon all parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, the whole of our people, and particularly our army at this critical moment, for our nation to show support and not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood. We raise a heartfelt prayer to our Lord and summon all true believers in our Church to join this prayer, begging Him to dispense peace to the peoples of our land so that they can in future build their homeland in accordance with freedom of choice and the accepted norms of morality and law.”

The words “not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood” were understood by all as an appeal to the army not to obey orders to kill their fellow citizens.

By August 21, most of the coup leaders had fled Moscow. Gorbachev was freed and returned to Moscow. Yeltsin was subsequently hailed by his supporters around the world for rallying mass opposition to the coup. On November 6, 1991, Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party.

Yeltsin’s role will never be forgotten, and neither should that of Patriarch Aleksy, so often portrayed as a KGB agent.

“ Jim Forest (making use of Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Power in the New Russia by John Garrard & Carol Garrard; Princeton University Press, 2009)


Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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A Bishop who Stood in the Way

by Jim Forest

In 1941, after a period of neutrality, Bulgaria allied itself with Nazi Germany. This was a decision partly motivated by the Bulgarian government’s wish to regain neighboring territories that it had lost in previous wars. Early in 1943, the government in Sofia signed a secret agreement with the Nazis to deport 20,000 Jews. The deportations started with Jews in the annexed territories.

Between March 4 and March 11 of that year, soldiers rounded up thousands of Jews and prepared boxcars to take them to the Treblinka extermination camp in occupied Poland, where approximately 850,000 people almost all Jews perished.

Word of the planned deportation leaked out, triggering protests throughout Bulgaria. Opposing the deportation, Vice President of Parliament Dimitar Peshev managed to force its temporary cancellation; but it was only a brief delay.

On March 10, boxcars were loaded with 8,500 Jews, including 1,500 from the city of Plovdiv. The bishop of Plovdiv, Metropolitan Kirill (later Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church), along with 300 church members, showed up at the station where the Jews were awaiting transport. Kirill pushed through the SS officers guarding the area his authority and courage were such that no one dared stop him and made his way to the Jews inside the boxcars.

According to some accounts, as he reached them, he shouted a text from the Book of Ruth: “Wherever you go, I will go! Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God!”

Kirill whose protest had the blessing of Metropolitan Stephan of Sofia, the highest ranking Bulgarian Church official during the Hitler years opened one of the boxcars in which Jews had been packed like sardines and tried to get inside, but now SS officers stopped him. However, when one door is locked, often another is left open. Kirill next walked to the front of the train, declaring he would lie down on the tracks if the train started to move.

News of Metropolitan Kirill’s act of civil disobedience spread quickly. Some 42 members of Parliament rebelled against the government. Leaders of all the political parties sent protests to the government and the King. The next day the Jews were freed and returned to their homes.

The struggle was not over. On April 15, King Boris arranged a meeting of the Holy Synod at his palace to persuade the bishops to support anti-Jewish policy and the Nazi deportation plans. “After all,” he said, “other countries have dealt the same way with the ‘Jewish Problem’.” He called upon the patriotism of the Church to accept the laws enacted by the Parliament, but his counsel was rejected by Metropolitans Stephan, Kirill and other Synod members.

In May, Sofia’s Jews received deportation orders to the countryside. The Jewish community’s two chief rabbis, Daniel Zion and Asher Hannanel, asked Metropolitan Stephan to shelter them and pleaded for the cancellation of the deportation order. Stephan sent a number of messages to the King, pleading for him to have mercy on the Jews. “Do not persecute,” he wrote, “so that you, yourself, will not be persecuted. The measure you give will be the measure returned to you. I know, Boris, that God in heaven is keeping watch over your actions.”

The sudden death of King Boris in September 1943 stopped the deportation attempts once and for all.

At the beginning of World War II, the Jewish population of Bulgaria was 48,000. At the end it was 50,000, making Bulgaria the only country under Nazi rule to end the war with more Jews than at the beginning.

Metropolitan Stephan entered eternal life in 1957, and Metropolitan Kirill in 1971. In 2003, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem recognized both bishops as Righteous Among the Nations.

❖ Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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The Beatitudes: a selection of Patristic Comments

Christ calling Peter and Andrew. Duccio 14th Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origen of Alexandria: If I must utilize a bold explanation indeed, I think that perhaps it was through the word that is measured by virtue and justice that the Lord presents himself to the desire of the hearers. He was born as wisdom from God for us, and as justice and sanctification and redemption. He is “the bread that comes down from heaven” and “living water,” for which the great David himself thirsted. He said in one of his psalms, “My soul has thirsted for you, even for the living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God?” “I shall behold your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied in beholding your glory.” This then, in my estimation, is the true virtue, the good unmingled with any lesser good, that is, God, the virtue that covers the heavens… (Fragment 83)

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

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

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

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

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

Anonymous: The kind of compassion referred to here is not simply giving alms to the poor or orphan or widow. This kind of compassion is often found even among those who hardly know God. But that person is truly compassionate who shows compassion even to his own enemy and treats the enemy well. For it is written, “Love your enemies, and treat well those who hate you.” (Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 9)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anonymous: Peace is the only begotten God, of whom the apostle says, “For he himself is our peace.” So people who cherish peace are children of peace. But some may be thought to be peacemakers who make peace with their enemies but remain heedless of evils within. They are never reconciled in heart with their own internal enemies, yet they are willing to make peace with others. They are parodies of peace rather than lovers of peace. For that peace is blessed which is set in the heart, not that which is set in words. Do you want to know who is truly a peacemaker? Hear the prophet, who says, “Keep your tongue from evil, and let your lips not speak deceit. Do not let your tongue utter an evil expression.” (Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 9)

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

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

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

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

❖ ❖ ❖

St. Hilary of Arles (+449) came from a notable family of Northern Gaul, but, at the urging of St. Honoratus of Arles, abandoned honors and riches and embraced the ascetic life. After the death of St. Honoratus, the people of Arles drafted Hilary as their new archbishop. He assisted at church councils held at Riez, Orange, Vaison, and Arles. His writings on the Beatitudes are in “On Matthew.”

St. Jerome, born in Stridon about 340-2, went to Rome about 360, where he was baptized. He next went to Trier to begin his theological studies. About 373 he traveled to the East, first settling in Antioch, where he heard Apollinaris of Laodicea, one of the first exegetes of that time. From 374-9 Jerome led an ascetic life in the desert southwest of Antioch. Ordained priest at Antioch, he went to Constantinople (380-81), where a friendship sprang up between him and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. From 382 to 385 he made another sojourn in Rome, then returned to the East, reaching Bethlehem in 386, where he led a life of asceticism, study, correspondence, writing and translation. He is best known for his translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. He died in Bethlehem in 420. See his “Commentary on Matthew” for his treatment of the Beatitudes.

St. John Chrysostom, born in Antioch in 347, was famous for eloquence in public speaking and his denunciations of abuse of authority in the Church and in government. He was nicknamed chrysostomos, Greek for “golden mouthed.” Baptized in 370 and tonsured a reader, he was ordained deacon in 381 and priest in 386. In 398 he was called, against his will, to be the bishop in Constantinople. Concerned with the spiritual and temporal needs of the poor, in his sermons he emphasized almsgiving and living modestly. He often spoke out against the abuse of wealth and refused to host lavish entertainments. An irritant both to the imperial court as well as to worldly prelates, he died in exile in 407. His final words were “Glory be to God for all things!” He is regarded as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs, together with Saints Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. For his writings on the Beatitudes, see especially “The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 15.”

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was one of the pivotal figures in the development of Christianity in the West. Born in North Africa, he went to Carthage at age 17 to continue his education and later taught in the same city. In 383 he moved to Rome, and the following year to Milan to teach in the imperial court. The influence of St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, plus the impact of reading a life of St. Anthony, brought him to baptism in 387. He abandoned his career in rhetoric, quit his teaching position in Milan, and devoted himself to serving God. In 388 he returned to Africa, sold his patrimony and gave the money to the poor, keeping only enough to convert his family house into a monastery. In 396 he became bishop of Hippo. His sermons and other writings had. and still have, immense influence. For his insights on the Beatitudes, see his “Sermon on the Mount” and Sermon 53.

St. Chromatius of Aquileia (+406-407), one of the most celebrated prelates of his time, was in active correspondence with his illustrious contemporaries, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome. Himself a scholarly theologian, he urged his friends to the composition of learned works, St. Ambrose to write exegetical works and St. Jerome to undertake translations and commentaries. In the bitter quarrel between Jerome and Rufinus, Chromatius sought to make peace between the disputants. Chromatius opposed the Arian heresy with great zeal and gave loyal support to St. John Chrysostom when he was suffering oppression from the imperial court. His comments on the Beatitudes are in his “Tractate on Matthew.”

Origen (185-254) grew up in a Christian family in Alexandria. He was 17 when his father died a martyr’s death. When their property confiscated by the imperial authorities, Origen worked to support his family by teaching. Taking the place of Clement of Alexandria, who had gone to Palestine, Origen assumed direction of the city’s catechetical school while also devoting himself to studying Plato and the Stoics. He learned Hebrew, and often consulted Jewish scholars who helped him with translation questions. In his late 40s, by now a renowned Christian scholar and writer, he settled in Caesarea, Palestine, where he founded a school. During the persecution of Maximinus (235-37), he spent an extended period with his friend, St. Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Origen was over 60 when he wrote his “Contra Celsum” (his defense of Christian refusal to serve in the army) and his “Commentary on St. Matthew.” The persecution of Decius in 250 brought about Origen’s imprisonment. He died in 254, never having recovered from the torture he had endured. For centuries his tomb, behind the altar of the cathedral of Tyr, was visited by pilgrims, but today nothing remains.

Anonymous: Not all the names of the authors of ancient New Testament commentaries have survived. However, recognizing the value of their writings, surviving fragments have been preserved in collections of the writings of the Greek and Latin Fathers.

Note: All the commentaries used here are taken from the volume Matthew 1-13, edited by Manlio Simonetti, in the series The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. ❖

Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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The Pitiable Ahab

by Fr. Michael Gillis

But if it is you who have to sit in judgment on someone pray to the Lord to give you a tender heart, which the Lord loves, and your judgment will then be sound; but if you judge purely according to deeds, there will be errors in your judgment, and you will not be pleasing to the Lord. The purpose of judgment must be that the one you are judging should mend his ways, and you must be compassionate with every soul then peace will reign in mind and soul. Let us live in peace and love. St. Silouan of the Holy Mountain

The Old Testament used in the Orthodox Church is the Greek Septuagint, translated from Hebrew from about 250 to 100 BC. It is similar in content to the Latin Vulgate, but based on an earlier text that in many ways differs from the Hebrew text that exists today. Not only does the Septuagint contain more books than the Hebrew Bible, but the books that they have in common are sometimes slightly different. Some of these differences give a fuller picture of the lives and struggles of the biblical characters. One such character is Ahab, king of Israel, who in the Hebrew version of the story seems to suffer no remorse for the wickedness promoted by his infamous wife, Jezebel. While both versions of the story present Ahab as a culpable participant in Jezebel’s murders and other sins (because as king he could have stopped her, and, in at least one case, he benefitted from her act of murder), today’s Hebrew version does not reveal Ahab’s feelings about these acts. The Septuagint version shows a more complex picture of Ahab.

I would like to point out some of these differences and reflect on how an Orthodox Christian might interpret this other telling of Ahab’s life. Particularly, I assert that many of us may see a bit of Ahab in ourselves, even as we are called be Obadiah, the servant of Ahab who acted in ways that brought salvation.

The Hebrew Bible presents Ahab as a sinful man like no other: “But there was none like Ahab which sold himself to work wickedness.” The Septuagint, on the other hand, does not contain such extreme words about Ahab’s wickedness. The words, “But there was none like Ahab” are not in the Septuagint. We will come back to this later. Both the Hebrew and Septuagint versions of the story of Ahab contain his repentance/humbling after the prophet Elijah prophesies the grisly end of Ahab and his wife Jezebel. However, in several places, the Septuagint reveals Ahab as a much more pitiable character than the Hebrew version does, primarily because the Septuagint shows elements of Ahab’s remorse.

After the confrontation on Mount Carmel and the killing of all of the prophets of Baal and during the ensuing rainstorm, the Hebrew Bible says that Ahab “rode and went” to Jezreel. But the Septuagint says that Ahab “mourned [wept] and went” to Jezreel (1 Sam./3 Kings 18:45). This reading shows a contrite Ahab, an Ahab weeping and mourning. After the awesome and public display of God’s power over the false prophets, who ate at his wife’s table, and during the first rain in three and a half years, Ahab is humbled, according to the Septuagint, while the Hebrew reading says nothing of Ahab’s emotional response to God’s manifestation of his power in response to Elijah’s prayer.

Then there is the matter of Naboth’s vineyard. Both the Hebrew and Septuagint versions are about the same, except that the Hebrew places the story in Ch. 21 whereas the Septuagint places it in Ch. 20 (before the defeat of Benhadad in the Septuagint and afterward in the Hebrew). However, there is a telling addition in the Septuagint’s version of Ahab’s response to the death of Naboth. Or is it an omission in the Hebrew version?  In the Septuagint, after Jezebel tells Ahab of Naboth’s death, Ahab “tore his clothes and put on sackcloth.” Ahab’s initial response is repentant, humble, sorrowful. The Hebrew only says that he took possession of the vineyard, which the Septuagint says too, but after a period of mourning. The Septuagint even emphasizes Ahab’s sorrowful response to Naboth’s death by mentioning it again at the end of the chapter (v. 27). Here it is repeated that “he also put on sackcloth the day he killed Naboth the Jezreelite.” Ahab himself did not commit the murder Jezebel arranged it, only saying to Ahab, “I will get you the vineyard.” Ahab is nevertheless held responsible, as though he, himself, had killed Naboth. The Septuagint makes clear that Ahab mourned his indirect participation in murder.

A third difference between the two versions of this story is in verse 20/21:25. Here the Hebrew text includes the words, “But there was none like unto Ahab” (as mentioned above); the Septuagint not only doesn’t include these words, but adds the word “vainly/foolishly” to the text. Here is how it reads in the Septuagint: “Ahab sold himself vainly/foolishly to do what was evil.” The insertion of this word does not lessen Ahab’s guilt. Ahab is guilty of doing what was evil, or allowing what is evil to be done. However, the Septuagint presents Ahab as pitiable because he acted foolishly or vainly (i.e., without reason or purpose: “emptily”), as he was led astray or incited by Jezebel.

These three variances in the story of Ahab as it is found in the Septuagint help us interpret other aspects of the story in a way that presents Ahab not as the worst of the worst, but as a fool who has “sold himself” and become trapped. We begin with Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel, daughter of the King of Sidon. Sidon is the country just north of Israel and the buffer between Israel and Assyria, one of the major powers of the day; so Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel was certainly one of political convenience. Although marriage to foreign women is condemned in the Law, one cannot be too harsh on Ahab because most of Israel’s kings before him, including David, married some foreign women. Because of the political nature of his marriage to Jezebel and his dependence on the King of Sidon (and ultimately because of his lack of faith in God), Ahab let Jezebel kill the Lord’s prophets and maintain at her table 950 false prophets. However, Ahab’s right-hand man, Obadiah, hides a hundred of the Lord’s prophets in caves and feeds them during the three-year drought. While Ahab lets his wife get away with murder, perhaps out of fear of man, he lets his chief advisor get away with treachery, perhaps out of a weak but present fear of the Lord. Surely here is a man to be pitied.

How might an Orthodox Christian apply such a reading of the life of Ahab to his or her life? I think the first step is to realize that even the most wicked person may at some level “fear the Lord.” He may be trapped, or think he is trapped, in a terrible situation which compels him to acts (or to allow acts) that he regrets. While we can sometimes judge certain actions as evil, we cannot judge the actors so easily. Ahab wept, mourned and humbled himself at various times and sufficiently so (according to both versions of the story) that God postponed judgment on Israel (20/21: 29); yet, he is held responsible for all of the evil he lets his wife get away with, including the death of Naboth.

As Orthodox Christians, we must never assume that someone is too far gone to be touched by the Holy Spirit and a guilty conscience, even if that person is responsible for the deaths of hundreds or even millions of people. There may indeed be such a thing as a conscience seared beyond hope. God knows we don’t. While Ahab let his wife murder almost all of the Lord’s prophets, he also let Obadiah save a hundred prophets in a time of famine. One act does not “balance” the other. But that is not my point. Ahab will stand before God and answer for the murders he allowed. However, in the midst of an evil situation one that Ahab is partially responsible for Ahab at least weeps over his failures and allows someone to lessen the destruction.

When we speak prophetically to those responsible for terrible deeds, we must keep in mind that our goal is not to condemn the perpetrator, or the one we assume is the perpetrator, or the one who is the most visible among the perpetrators. Let God be the judge. Our job is to shine light, to show a way out, to lessen evil wherever possible.

How are we to know whether or not some modern-day Ahab, who could destroy everything, might find a way to allow our Obadiah-like actions to save some?

The first step toward being in an Obadiah-like position is to pity rather than condemn those who do evil. After all, at least from an Orthodox Christian perspective, “free choice” is never really very free at least only relatively free. How free is a man like Ahab, a fool, a weak-willed man married to a strong-willed woman, a double-minded man (see James 1:8) who fears the Lord a little but fears man more? Sure, he is guilty, but he is also pitiable and pity is a species of love, and love casts out fear and makes possible the ministry of righteous Obadiah even in the court of wicked Jezebel and foolish Ahab.

The second direction this Septuagint telling of the life Ahab cuts is in the direction of our own hearts. It is very easy to be a weak-willed fool who gets sucked into oppressive behavior. I have never been a king or a president or a gun owner. I have not been tempted to genocide, and I’m glad I haven’t, for when a man cut into a long line in front of me at an airport, I didn’t fare too well. I have also succumbed to buying lower priced goods in non-union stores just because it was more convenient. I didn’t even need to save money. And, yes, there have been times when I have spent more on pet food than on alleviating homelessness.

In my own way, I am guilty of violence. My position of relative economic and political weakness makes my sins look minuscule in my own eyes compared to the sins of the powerful. But the difference is one of degree, not of kind. Perhaps we will have more pity on the powerful fools, if we recognize our own weak-willed foolishness. And perhaps, if we learn to weep for our own sins, we will be able to discern the weeping of the more powerful fools whose degree of sin reflects their powerful positions. And perhaps, just perhaps, if we cooperate with the grace of repentance in our own lives, God will grant us the opportunity to speak and act in prophetic ways that will open the gates of repentance to others.

When I look at my own life, my mistakes, my weepings before the Lord, and my ensuing return to folly, I realize that I never want to sin. I am always enticed, deceived by my own rationalizations and driven by lusts and fears. It most often feels like an accident, a mercy from God, that I catch myself before it’s too late. I hear a word from a friend who might not have spoken, I read a passage that someone might not have written, I see an act of graciousness that might not have occurred. Somehow the Holy Spirit pricks my heart through one of His servants and I see my insanity, my foolishness, my Ahab-like tendencies. And of course this makes me wonder: how often have I refrained from speaking or writing or acting, how often have I let fear or laziness or hopelessness keep me from being a servant of the Holy Spirit in the life of one of my fellow Ahab-like brothers?

Fr. Michael Gillis is the managing editor of Again Magazine and pastor of Holy Nativity Antiochian Orthodox Church in Langley, British Columbia, Canada, where he lives with his wife Bonnie, an iconographer.

Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

I Love, Therefore I Am

By Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

Most of the time we think we know who we are. But do we, in fact, know in the full and profound sense who we are?

One text that is very important for the Orthodox understanding of the human person is Psalm 64:6 [LXX 63:7]: “The heart is deep.” That means the human person is a profound mystery. There are depths or if you would like, heights within myself of which I have very little understanding.

Who am I? The answer is not at all obvious. My personhood as a human being ranges widely over space and time. And indeed it reaches out beyond space into infinity, and beyond time into eternity. Our human personhood is created, but it transcends the created order. I am called to be a “partaker of the divine nature,” as Peter said in his second letter. I am called to share, that is to say, in the uncreated energies of the living God. Our human vocation is theosis deification, divinization. As St. Basil the Great says, “The human being is a creature that is called to become God.”

I am reminded of the story of the Fall at the beginning of Genesis, of the promise of the serpent, who says to Eve, “You shall be as God.” The irony behind that story is that this was exactly the divine intention. The humans were indeed called to divine life. But the Fall consisted in the fact that Adam and Eve grasped with self-will that which God, in His own time and way, would have conferred upon them as a gift.

The limits of our personhood are very wide-ranging indeed. We should adopt a dynamic view of what it is to be a person. We shouldn’t think that our personhood is something fixed. To be a person is to grow. To be on a journey. And this journey is a journey that has no limits, that stretches out forever, that goes on even in heaven. Some people have an idea of heaven as a place where you do nothing in particular. But surely that is deceptive. Surely heaven means that we continue to advance by God’s mercy from glory to glory. Heaven is an end without end.

St. Irenaeus remarks, “Even in the age to come God will always have new things to teach us, and we shall always have new things to learn.” Even in heaven, we shall never be in a position to say to God, “You are repeating Yourself. We have heard it all before.” On the contrary, heaven means continuing wonder and unending discovery. To quote J.R.R. Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Road goes ever on and on.”

Now there is a specific reason for this mysterious and indefinable character of human personhood. And this reason is given to us by St. Gregory of Nyssa, writing in the fourth century. “God,” says he, “is a mystery beyond all understanding.” We humans are formed in God’s image. The image should reproduce the characteristics of the archetype, of the original. So if God is beyond understanding, then the human person formed in God’s image is likewise beyond understanding. Precisely because God is a mystery, I too am a mystery.

Now in mentioning the image, we’ve come to the most important factor in our humanness. Who am I? As a human person, I am formed in the image of God. That is the most significant and basic fact about my personhood. We are God’s living icons. Each of us is a created expression of God’s infinite and uncreated self-expression. So this means it is impossible to understand the human person apart from God. Humans cut off from God are no longer authentically human. They are subhuman.

If we lose our sense of the divine, we lose equally our sense of the human. And that we can see very clearly from the story, for example, of Soviet communism in the 70 years which followed the revolution of 1917. Soviet communism sought to establish a society where the existence of God would be denied and the worship of God would be suppressed and eliminated. At the same time, Soviet communism showed an appalling disregard for the dignity of the human person.

Those two things go together. Whoever affirms the human also affirms God. Whoever denies God also denies the human person. The human being cannot be properly understood except with reference to the divine. The human being is not autonomous, not self-contained. I do not contain my meaning within myself. As a person in God’s image, I point always beyond myself to the divine realm.

I remember a visit in my student years in Oxford from Archimandrite Sophrony, the disciple of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos. He gave a talk on Orthodoxy, and there was a discussion afterwards. Towards the end, the chairman said, “We have time for just one more question.” Somebody got up at the back of the audience and said, “Fr. Sophrony, please tell us what is God?”

Fr. Sophrony answered very briefly, “You tell me what is man?” God and the human person are two mysteries that are interconnected, and neither can be understood apart from the other. “In the image of God” means there’s a vertical reference in our personhood. We can only be understood in terms of our link with the divine.

But then, let’s think of another point. “In the image of God” means in the image of the Trinity. As St. Gregory the Theologian says, “When I say God, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” That is what as Christians we mean by God. We don’t understand God as a series of abstractions. We understand God as three Persons. And that we see very clearly from the Creed. We begin in the Creed by saying, “I believe in One God.” And then we don’t continue by saying, “Who is an uncaused cause, who is primordial reality, who is the ground of being.” This is the way many modern theologians speak. But in the Creed we say, “I believe in One God … the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” We continue, that is to say, in specific personal terms.

God for us is Trinity. And if we’re in the image of God we’re in the image of the Triune God. What does that mean for our understanding of our personhood? Let’s think first of the Trinity, and then of ourselves.

“God is love” declares St. John in his first letter, and goes on to say, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.” In true love there is no exclusiveness, no jealousy. True love is open, not closed. God is love. There is no fear in love. And so God is not the love of one. God is not love in the sense of being self-love, turned in upon itself. God is not a closed unit. God is not a unit, but a union. God is love in the sense of shared love, the mutual love of three Persons in one.

When the Cappadocian Fathers in the fourth century are describing God, one of their key words is koinonia, meaning fellowship, communion, or relationship. As St. Basil says in his work on the Holy Spirit, “The union of the Godhead lies in the koinonia, the interrelationship, of the Persons.” So this then is what the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is saying: God is shared love, not self-love. God is openness, exchange, solidarity, self-giving.

Now, we are to apply all this to human persons made in the image of God. “God is love,” says St. John. And that great English prophet of the eighteenth century, William Blake, says, “Man is love.” God is love, not self-love but mutual love, and the same is true then of the human person. God is koinonia, relationship, communion.

So also is the human person in the Trinitarian image. God is openness, exchange, solidarity, self-giving. The same is true of the human person when living in a Trinitarian mode according to the divine image.

There’s a very helpful book by a British philosopher, John Macmurray, entitled Persons in Relationship, published in 1961. Macmurray insists that relationship is constitutive of personhood. He argues that there is no true person unless there are at least two persons communicating with each other. In other words, I need you in order to be myself. All this is true because God is Trinity.

From this it follows that the characteristic human word is not “I” but “we”. If we are all the time saying, “I, I, I,” then we are not realizing our true personhood. That’s expressed in the poem of Walter de la Mare, “Napoleon”:

What is the world, O soldiers?

It is I:

I, this incessant snow,

This northern sky;

Soldiers, this solitude

Through which we go

Is I.

Whether the historical Napoleon was actually like that or not, de la Mare’s point is surely valid. Self-centeredness is in the end coldness, isolation. It is a desert. It’s no coincidence that in the Lord’s Prayer, the model of prayer that God has given us, and which teaches what we are to be, the word “us” comes five times, the word “our” three times, the word “we” once. But nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer do we find the words “me” or “mine” or “I”.

In the beginning of the era of modern philosophy in the early seventeenth century, the philosopher Descartes put forward his famous dictum, “Cogito ergo sum”  “I think therefore I am.” And following that model, a great deal of discussion of human personhood since then has centered round the notion of self-awareness, self-consciousness. But the difficulty of that model is that it doesn’t bring in the element of relationship. So instead of saying “Cogito ergo sum, ought we not as Christians who believe in the Trinity say, “Amo ergo sum I love therefore I am”? And still more, ought we not to say, “Amor ergo sum”  “I am loved therefore I am”?

One modern poem that I love particularly, by the English poet Kathleen Raine, has exactly as its title “Amo Ergo Sum.” Let me quote some words from it:

Because I love

The sun pours out its rays of living gold

Pours out its gold and silver on the sea.

Because I love

The ferns grow green, and green the grass, and green

The transparent sunlit trees.

Because I love

All night the river flows into my sleep,

Ten thousand living things are sleeping in my arms,

And sleeping wake, and flowing are at rest.

This is the key to personhood according to the Trinitarian image. Not isolated self-awareness, but relationship in mutual love. In the words of the great Romanian theologian Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, “In so far as I am not loved, I am unintelligible to myself.”

If, then, we think of the divine image, we should not only think of the vertical dimension of our being the image of God; we should also think of the Trinitarian implication, which means that the image has a horizontal dimension relationship with my fellow humans. Perhaps the best definition of the human animal is “a creature capable of mutual love after the image of God the Holy Trinity.” So here is the essence of our personhood: co-inherence; dwelling in others.

What is said by Christ in His prayer to the Father at the Last Supper is surely very significant for our understanding of personhood: “That they all may be one, as you, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us” (John 17:21). Exactly. The mutual love of the three Divine Persons is seen as the model for our human personhood. This is vital for our salvation. We are here on earth to reproduce within time the love that passes in eternity between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Metropolitan Kallistos is a bishop of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Great Britain. From 1966 until 2001, he lectured in Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford. In 2007, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate elevated Bishop Kallistos to Titular Metropolitan of Diokleia. He is a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His books include The Orthodox Church, The Orthodox Way and The Inner Kingdom. This text (first published in Again magazine) is adapted from a lecture he gave in August 1998 at the Eagle River Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies in Alaska.

Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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The Mystery of the Present Moment

We can only meet God in the present moment. This is an area where God chooses to place limits on His own power. We choose whether or not to live in the present moment. Because we can encounter God only in that present moment, whenever we live in the past or in the future, we place ourselves beyond His reach.

We can only make decisions in the present moment. We can only enjoy sights and sounds in the present moment. We can only love or hate in the present moment. The present moment is the interface between ourselves and the rest of the universe, and, more importantly, it is the only point of contact between the individual and God. Of all the possible points of time, only the present moment is available for repentance. The past cannot be taken back and remade. The future remains forever outside our reach.

The present moment may appear to be tiny in duration – so much so that the human mind thinks it hardly exists at all – but in depth it is infinite. Actually, it has no shape or form. There is nothing to measure here, and that really infuriates the mind, since measurement is what the mind is good at. It is remarkable that this quality, so essential to our existence, has no shape. It just is. And it just is in a way which the past and future cannot be. The past is a done deal, the future is all guesswork. The formless present moment may be experienced as large or small. In some senses it is of almost no duration. In other ways, it is eternal life. Whichever we choose, it is, nevertheless, the only space within which we can operate. Indeed, this is the unique means through which we can confront the reality God gives us second by second.

It is odd that we do not consciously spend more time in the present moment than we do. Unfortunately, the mind blocks the availability of the present

moment whenever it has the chance to do so. The mind cannot trust the present moment, since it cannot control it, and is thus almost always at enmity with it. I think this may be part of what Jesus means when He contrasts “this world” with the Kingdom.

The mind cannot control the present moment, the time during which things can arise, so it pretends that it does not exist. This causes a person to behave in a completely unconscious way, forcing the individual to wait for the mind to absorb an event (which by then has become an event in the past) before she or he is allowed to experience it.

Archimandrite Meletios Webber an extract from his book, Bread & Water, Wine & Oil (Conciliar Press)

Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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