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St. Elizabeth the New Martyr: from Palace to Mine Shaft

by Lily Emilia Clerkx

Elizabeth Feodorovna was born in 1864, a German Hessian princess. Her maternal grandmother was Queen Victoria. At age 20, Elizabeth married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, brother of Czar Alexander III. She at once began to study the Russian language in order to become familiar with the culture and religion of her adopted homeland. She and her husband lived on a country estate in Ilinskoe, near Moscow, and there attended church regularly. It was here that young Elizabeth, shocked by the poverty of the peasants, first began her response to the poor. Aware that many children died soon after birth, Elizabeth convinced her husband to bring a midwife to serve the district.

In 1891 Elizabeth announced her decision to become Orthodox, assuring her Lutheran father that she had not been pressured by her husband, but was taking this step of her own free will. Her decision was not a response to the “outer charms” of the Church, she assured her brother, but rather was due to “pure conviction — feeling [Orthodox Christianity] to be the highest religion.”

Czar Alexander III appointed her husband governor of Moscow, after which the couple moved to the city. Elizabeth now had many social obligations — attending balls and concerts, receiving guests — but also visiting hospitals, old age homes, orphanages and prisons. Each day she was confronted by the enormous contrast between the luxury of court life and the terrible poverty in which large sections of the population lived. Putting her large income to good use, she did all that was in her power to alleviate the suffering of the poor.

In 1894 Nicholas, heir to the throne, became engaged to Elizabeth’s younger sister, Alice. Elizabeth rejoiced at her coming to Russia and did all she could to help her sister prepare for her role as empress. Unfortunately this could not be done gradually. The same year Czar Alexander III died suddenly. The following day Princess Alice was received into the Orthodox Church and was given the name of Alexandra Feodorovna. Her marriage to Nicolas took place a week later.

At the end of the 19th century, many changes were taking place as a consequence of industrialization, the rapid growth of an impoverished urban working class, and the growing influence of Western ideas. Many lived in expectation of social reform when the new czar was crowned. Nicholas, however, though a gentle and compassionate man, held fast to his belief in absolute monarchy.

In rapid succession four daughters were born to the imperial couple, and finally, in 1904, a son, a successor to the throne. Unfortunately it was soon apparent that he suffered from hemophilia.

During the war with Japan in 1904, Elizabeth organized relief for soldiers. Taking possession of halls in the Kremlin Palace, she set up workshops where thousands of women worked at sewing machines and packing tables, gathering clothes, food, medicines, gifts, icons and prayer books to be sent the front.

War enthusiasm quickly turned to war bitterness as reverse followed reverse in the contest with Japan. As casualty lists arrived from the front, social tensions rose sharply. There was increasing poverty and hunger, as well as renewed activity to promote social reform. Protests, strikes and terrorist actions were met with increased police and military repression. There were also plots to murder members of the royal family.

On February 4, 1905, with a climate of revolution gripping the city, Grand Duke Sergei was assassinated when a bomb was hurled into his carriage. Elizabeth hastened to the place of the tragedy and knelt by the mutilated body of her husband and embraced it. On the day of the funeral, she arranged that free meals be served to the poor of Moscow. Three days later, Elizabeth secretly visited the imprisoned murderer of her husband. She offered forgiveness on her husband’s behalf, begging him to repent of his sin and to seek a pardon. The man, however, regarded his act as a virtuous deed. Elizabeth left a Bible and an icon in his cell. Czar Nicholas rejected her plea for mercy. Eventually the man was hanged. Elizabeth had a large crucifix erected over the place of her husband’s death, with the text, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Affliction brought about a profound change in Elizabeth’s soul. She withdrew from social life, renounced luxury, and no longer ate meat. Her bedroom in the Nicholas Palace was done over in such austerity that it resembled a nun’s cell. She opened a hospital in Ilinskoe where she herself served men who had been injured in the war, then opened another small hospital in Moscow.

Two-thirds of her jewelry she gave away; the rest was used to buy a property with five buildings at Ordynka on the far side of the Moscow River where she resolved to found a religious community for women who would serve the poor.

She dedicated the community to Saints Martha and Mary in the hope that the sisters would “combine the lofty destiny of Mary — given to hear words of eternal life — with Martha’s service to Our Lord through the least of His brethren.” The community’s rule drew inspiration from the words of the Savior: “I was hungry and you fed me . . . sick and you cared for me.”

Elizabeth moved into a few simply furnished rooms. For several years she was busy furnishing the buildings so they could function as a church, hospital, polyclinic, a home for the nuns, school, orphanage, library, and priest’s residence. From the beginning, she made herself available to every person in need.

She hoped her work might help revive the ancient institution of deaconess: women ordained to carry on merciful service. Since her vision of religious life differed from what was then customary in Russia, which placed its stress on monastic withdrawal from the world, at first she did not receive the approval of the church authorities; one bishop accused her of Protestant tendencies. Finally Czar Nicholas II signaled his support with an imperial decree. The Church Synod gave its endorsement of the community’s typicon. (The Czar’s sympathy had not been easily obtained. From letters Elizabeth wrote to her brother-in-law, it is clear he found her vocational decision hard to accept. As she wrote to him: “Forgive me living differently than you would have wished, forgive that I cannot often come to see you [in St. Petersburg] because of my duties here. Forgive … and pray for me and my work.”)

On February 10, 1909, Elizabeth’s took off her widow’s habit and put on the robes of the Sisters of Love and Mercy. At the same time she was officially appointed Abbess of the community — only six women at the time. On the occasion she said, “I am leaving the brilliant world where I occupied a high position, and now, together with all of you [my sisters], I am about to ascend into a much greater world, the world of the poor and afflicted.”

Gradually more sisters joined the community. Their spiritual father was the greatly revered priest, Father Mitrofan Serebrenski, who moved with his wife into the priest’s house.

The daily schedule resembled that of a monastery: Liturgy, vespers and matins were celebrated daily, and on Saturday, the vigil. An akathist was prayed four times a week. The nuns’ tasks were to nurse the sick, visit the poor, and care for children. They also were given an education. While organizing the work, receiving guests, and writing many letters, each day Mother Elizabeth helped attend to the sick, sometimes staying at a bedside until dawn. She lived in strict accordance with the rule and was obedient to her spiritual father. Her life was a sober one and she prayed a great deal, with the Jesus Prayer at its core. Though her life was ascetic, she took pains to reassure relatives that she was in no way harming herself. “Some kindhearted busybodies are afraid I will end by breaking down my health, don’t eat enough, don’t sleep enough …. That is not true. I sleep eight hours, I eat with pleasure, I feel physically marvelous, well and strong.”

Since the turbulent years following the uprising of 1905, Russia’s circumstances had gradually become calmer. The Czar’s power was curtailed with the establishment of a State Duma. A number of civil rights were recognized. After 1910 the economy began to recover. Production increased, foreign companies invested in Russia, farming land was reclaimed in Siberia. Such stars of the Russia opera, theater, and ballet as Chaliapin, Pavlova and Diaghilev were acclaimed at home and abroad.

The Convent of Martha and Mary also flourished. The best medical specialists of Moscow worked at the free hospital. There was an orphanage and a soup kitchen. Mother Elizabeth herself went into the poorest neighborhoods, offering care and education in the convent to abandoned children who had been living on the street. Though the economy was improving, poverty was greater than ever. Every year in Moscow, thousands of babies were abandoned.

News of the outbreak of the First World War caused her to weep; she saw in it the destruction of Russia. When the casualties began to arrive, Mother Elizabeth and her growing community devoted themselves to the care of the wounded. Russian troops suffered staggering losses.

Mother Elizabeth kept in contact with the imperial family by mail. Her relationship with her sister, however, was strained by the Rasputin affair. The Czarina felt personally responsible for her son’s incurable hemophilia, an illness that mothers transmit to their male children. In desperation she consulted not only doctors but charlatans. The last was Rasputin, a peasant whom many regarded as a holy man. He alone seemed able to stop the hemorrhages of the Czarevitch. The Czarina saw him as God’s answer to her prayers. In time, through the Czarina’s influence, Rasputin became influential in state affairs.

In this matter Elizabeth again showed great spiritual insight. In vain she implored her sister to free herself of Rasputin, but talks with her sister only resulted in a cooling of their relationship, for the empress credited Rasputin with her son’s survival; she saw Rasputin as a “maligned saint.” Mother Elizabeth’s efforts to speak on this matter with the Czar also failed; he was about to leave for the front and had no time. In these events, Mother Elizabeth foresaw the end of the imperial rule. That same year Rasputin was murdered by members of the nobility, who blamed Russia’s defeats on the front on Rasputin’s influence in St. Petersburg. The situation in Russia was chaotic. There were millions of dead to lament; the economy was in tatters; there was a shortage of food everywhere. Rebellion, strikes, terrorist actions and repression increased.

During the February revolution of 1917, the convent was stormed by an angry mob convinced Mother Elizabeth was a German spy. In response, Father Mitrofan with Elizabeth and her nuns held a moleben in the church. At last the crowd left the convent. Mother Elizabeth was unharmed but her peril was obvious. Several times diplomats offered her a chance to escape, but she refused, determined to share the fate of Russia.

In March 1917, Czar Nicholas abdicated, and shortly thereafter, the family was interned in the Summer Palace. When Mother Elizabeth heard that they were arrested, she said, “This will serve for their moral purification and will bring them closer to God.”

For a few months after the Bolsheviks seized power in October, the Martha and Mary Convent was spared and was even provided with food and medicines, but the sisters no longer went outside. The daily schedule was not changed, although the prayers were longer. During the Liturgy the church was crowded.

Each day saw radical changes. Factories and private property were expropriated. In February the “new” (secular) calendar was introduced. In March the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty was signed. For the first time since the rule of Peter the Great, Moscow became the capital. Red flags were raised over cathedrals. The Czar, his wife and children, a doctor and three servants were deported to Ekaterinburg where they were closely guarded and roughly treated. Resignedly, Nicholas and his family accepted all humiliations.

In April 1918 Mother Elizabeth was arrested. Attempts by Patriarch Tikhon to obtain her release failed. She was taken away with Sister Barbara, who chose to share her abbess’s fate. On the way to prison, she was able to smuggle a letter to the community: “The Lord has found that it is time for us to bear His cross,” she said. “Let us try to be worthy of it. . . .Blessed be the name of the Lord for evermore.” She spent the last months of her life in prison in Alapayevsk, not far from Ekaterinburg. Other members of the Czar’s family and of the imperial household were imprisoned with her.

On July 18, 1918, the day after the Czar and his family were murdered, Mother Elizabeth and the other prisoners with her were thrown alive into an old mine shaft. When the executioners hurled her into the 60-meter pit, they heard her say, “Lord, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Because of ledges and projecting logs, not all died in the fall. A peasant who witnessed what happened said he could hear voices in the shaft singing the Cherubic Hymn from the Holy Liturgy. The executioners threw in one hand grenade, then another.

The following year priests were able to recover the bodies of Elizabeth and Barbara. Two years later, after long wanderings, the coffins were brought to the Russian convent at Gethsemani just outside Jerusalem. In 1991 the martyrs, Grand Duchess Elizabeth and Nun Barbara, were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. The feast day of Elizabeth is 5/18 July.

The convent survived for another seven years although the Communist authorities prohibited the community continuing its charitable work. The hospital became a state-run institution. Father Mitrofan and his wife were arrested in 1926 and died in the Gulag.

After the collapse of Communism, many brotherhoods and sisterhoods based on the example of the community of Martha and Mary, were established which are now devoting themselves to health care, relief of the poor and education.

* * *

If we look deep into the life of every human, we discover that it is full of miracles. You will say, “Of terror and death, as well.” Yes, that also. But we do not clearly see why the blood of these victims must flow. There, in the heavens, they understand everything and, no doubt, have found calm and the Truer Homeland — a heavenly Homeland.

We on this earth must look to that Heavenly Homeland with understanding and say with resignation, “Thy will be done.” Completely destroyed now is the “Great Russia without fear or reproach,” but “Holy Russia,” the Orthodox Church, the Church against which “the gates of hell shall not prevail,” exists and exists as never before; and those who believe, who have no doubts, have an “inner sun” that illuminates the darkness of the thundering storm,”

— from a letter of St. Elizabeth to her brother-in-law, the former Czar, when he was living under house arrest in April 1918

* * *

Lily Emilia Clerkx is an iconographer and a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship living in Amsterdam. Her essay uses material included in Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia by Lubov Millar, published by the Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society.

posted: January 27, 1998 / text published in the Theophany 1998 issue of In Communion

Icon: Sergey Proskunov

Dear In Communion reader,

May 2007

Dear In Communion reader,

In the Orthodox Church, one would be hard-pressed to find a baptized person over the age of five who doesn’t know at least fragments of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom by heart. It’s not necessary to belong to the choir. From infancy onward, week after week we hear the service that bears his name. We reverence his memory and would regard a church without his icon as incomplete. Yet few of us are familiar with Chrysostom’s writings or the writings of other Church Fathers, as we call the body of theologians who not only defended Orthodox doctrine in the face of heresies, but endowed the Church with clear teaching about the social obligations of baptized people. For example here are a few challenging sentences from John Chrysostom that are quoted in this issue of In Communion:

Let us therefore, both poor and rich, cease from taking the property of others. For my present discourse is not only to the rich, but to the poor also. For they too rob those who are poorer than themselves. And artisans who are better off, and more powerful, outsell the poorer and more distressed, tradesmen outsell tradesmen, and so all who are engaged in the market-place. So that I wish from every side to take away injustice.

Not only are such writings largely unknown, but it’s a rare day when such themes are taken up in sermons.

Part of the work of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship is to search for ways to make the words and examples of the saints better known, so that when we see their icons, we are reminded of how they lived and what they had to say to their contemporaries – and to us. May we become such people in our own time.

Would you take a moment to help keep OPF going? We need your support. Subscription payments and annual dues fall far short of our needs. We have two part-time staff members, myself and Sheri San Chico. We are paid very little for our many hours of work, but OPF’s income doesn’t justify more adequate payment. We also have a part-time web master, Michael Markwick. In addition there are all the usual expenses: office and publication costs, postage, telephone, travel, etc. (Once again, postal rate have gone up.)

If you have in fact made a recent gift or are one of those who makes regular donations or donate volunteer time, thank you! You are a God-send. If you aren’t, please consider becoming part of our community of committed donors. If you can’t manage a monthly or quarterly donation but can make an occasional special donation, please do so. Every gift helps.

We depend on our supporters to make at least one donation annually, but without those who give more than once a year, and give more than the minimum, we could not continue.

Jim Forest, editor

PS Donations can now be made via the OPF web site…

* * *

News: Spring 2007

In Communion / issue 45 / Spring 2007

Patriarch Bartholomew on unity

Speaking in Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople urged all Christians to overcome division and work for unity.

“Separated and split, Christianity loses its credibility,” Bartholomew said in a speech in March after being given the Cardinal Koenig Prize, an Austrian award given annually to honor attempts at tolerance and reconciliation between religions.

“We can live in unity and harmony, without suppression, without fanaticism, without exploitation, without polemics and without arguments,” he said. He appealed to all branches of Christianity “to overcome the scandal of division and strive for the unity Jesus himself desires.”

Bartholomew spoke of Pope Benedict as “our very much-loved brother.”

“Now, in this phase of the reorganization of Europe, we must help Christians and churches together.”

He called on believers to assist the 100 million Europeans living in poverty.

Bartholomew expressed concern about climate change and pollution, rebuking the faithful “for letting God’s creation, which today suffers so much, become an object of exploitation.”

“The clock is already striking twelve! If we do not immediately recognize the signs of the times and act accordingly, we can expect ever more devastating natural catastrophes for which egocentric humans alone are responsible.”

US economy leaving record numbers in severe poverty

The percentage of poor Americans who are living in severe poverty has reached a 32-year high, millions of working Americans are falling closer to the poverty line and the gulf between the nation’s “haves” and “have-nots” continues to widen, according to a study published in February.

A McClatchy Newspapers analysis of 2005 census figures, the latest available, found that nearly 16 million Americans are living in deep or severe poverty. A family of four with two children and an annual income of less than $9,903 – half the federal poverty line – was considered severely poor in 2005. So were individuals who made less than $5,080 a year.

The analysis found that the number of severely poor Americans grew by 26 percent from 2000 to 2005 – 56 percent faster than the overall poverty population grew in the same period.

The review also found statistically significant increases in the percentage of the population in severe poverty in 65 of 215 large US counties, and similar increases in 28 states.

Worker productivity has increased dramatically since the brief recession of 2001, but wages and job growth have lagged behind. At the same time, the share of national income going to corporate profits has dwarfed the amount going to wages and salaries. That helps explain why the median household income of working-age families, adjusted for inflation, has fallen for five straight years.

These and other factors have helped push 43 percent of the nation’s 37 million poor people into deep poverty, the highest rate since at least 1975.

About one in three severely poor people are under age 17, and nearly two out of three are female. Female-headed families with children account for a large share of the severely poor.

Nearly two out of three people (10.3 million) in severe poverty are white, but blacks (4.3 million) and Hispanics of any race (3.7 million) make up disproportionate shares. Blacks are nearly three times as likely as non-Hispanicwhites to be in deep poverty, while Hispanics are roughly twice as likely.

Addressing the Parliamentary Assembly of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe in January, Bartholomew said that dialogue between followers of different religions is essential, “especially in times such as ours when our planet is facing many warfronts all over the world.” Both in the past and in the present, “religious reasons were put forth to edge individuals, or even entire peoples, to warfare.”

Bartholomew noted that “the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek-Orthodox minority in Turkey feel that they still do not enjoy full rights.” Still, he said, “remarkable steps” had been taken by Turkey in recent years. “We have always supported the European perspective of Turkey in anticipation of the remaining steps to be taken according to the standards of the European Union.”

Canonical conflict resolved

Speaking on behalf of the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk announced that the canonical conflict centered on Bishop Basil “has come to an end.”

“The problem arising from the transfer of Bishop Basil Osborne to the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople,” said Kirill on 27 March, “has now been canonically completely regularized. The problem arose because Bishop Basil moved to the Patriarchate of Constantinople of his own accord, without any request coming from Constantinople, and without the consent of the Moscow

Patriarchate. Now Constantinople has asked for his personal file, in which it is normal to include a letter of release. This means that the Moscow Patriarchate has granted canonical release to Bishop Basil. The canonical conflict has come to an end.”

“We release Bishop Basil. He will now legitimately represent the Constantinople Church. We shall be able to concelebrate with him,” said Metropolitan Kirill.

Kirill noted that the resolution of the “canonical misunderstanding” was the result of the meeting in Geneva this winter between a delegation from the Patriarchate of Constantinople and a delegation from the Patriarchate of Moscow.

Israeli precondition for Patriarch’s appointment

Israel is demanding that the Greek Orthodox patriarchy conduct a census of all church property in Israel and the Palestinian territories ahead of its sale or long-term lease, and to give Israel the first right of refusal on the property. Israel is also asking that the property purchased by Jewish organizations in the area of Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate will “remain in the hands of the Israeli lessees,” according to a document that has reached journalists at the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz.

The document shows that a central issue for Israel is how to ensure that Greek Orthodox assets will be sold to Jewish bodies or to the state.

The document bears the signature of attorney Renato Yarak, a former senior State Prosecution official, attesting to the fact that Minister Rafi Eitan gave it to him. Eitan is a member of the ministerial committee dealing with matters pertaining to the patriarchy.

Yarak, the former head of High Court petitions in the State Prosecutor’s Office, and another attorney, Rami Mugrabi, said Eitan gave them the document on January 18. The two represent Theophilos, who was elected patriarch by the Greek Orthodox Synod about a year and a half ago, and who has since then been working to obtain Israel’s recognition as patriarch. Sources close to Theophilos said his attorneys were told that the acceptance of the clauses in the document were a condition to Israel’s recognizing him as patriarch. Theophilos’ attorneys rejected the conditions as an “illegal and extraneous” intervention in church matters.

The most problematic clause is the one dealing with properties at the Jaffa Gate. It states that the patriarch and the writer of the document must arrive at a process by which “the hotel” at the Jaffa Gate will remain in the hands of its Israeli lessees.

The property, consisting of three hotels, was sold to a company in the Virgin Islands, with members of the Ateret Kohanim association, which settles Jews in the Old City, acting as intermediaries.

The legality of the deal has been challenged in courts. Patriarch Irineos, who was dismissed from his post by the Greek Orthodox Synod after the sale of the hotels to Israelis came to light, claimed that he and the Synod had not approved the power of attorney as required by law. The demand by attorney Micha Kirsch, representing Irineos, that the deals be canceled, is now before the District Court in Jerusalem.

Catholic Peace Fellowship delegation to the Vatican

On the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq, three American Catholic peace activists paid a discreet but significant visit to the Vatican. The representatives of the Indiana-based Catholic Peace Fellowship were in Rome in mid-March to promote the issue of conscientious objection to war.

“It’s been a miraculous trip,” said Joshua Casteel. “We’ve received great support and open ears here. It’s encouraging to see that we are part of a tradition that’s very sensitive to peace issues.”

Casteel served in an Army intelligence unit in Iraq in 2004 and was an interrogator at the Abu Ghraib prison. After concluding that systematic torture was being used against mostly innocent people and that his own participation in the war was compromising his Christian witness, Casteel applied for and received conscientious objector status and left the Army after six years in uniform.

Casteel met Pope Benedict XVI on March 14, along with two other CPF representatives, Tom Cornell and Michael Griffin. Benedict has repeatedly expressed opposition to the war in Iraq.

Cornell, Griffin and Casteel proposed that the Vatican take a new look at the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on war and conscientious objection. The catechism notes that public authorities should provide for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience. But it says the main responsibility for evaluating the conditions of a just war “belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”

Griffin said that wording seems to imply that public authorities alone decide a war’s morality. It gives too little weight to an individual’s responsibility to evaluate the legitimacy of war in his or her own conscience, he said.

The CPF also visited the Congregation for Saints’ Causes to ask about progress in the cause of Franz Jgersttter, an Austrian farmer who was executed as a conscientious objector to service in the army of Adolf Hitler.

Jgersttter had a wife and three daughters. Many, including a priest and a bishop, advised him to think of his family and forget about resisting the military machine. He was also told he should follow the political authorities who had responsibility for such decisions. But Jagerstatter refused to serve, and after a military trial in 1943 he was beheaded. Before being executed, he wrote: “I am convinced that it is best that I speak the truth, even if it costs me my life.”

Conscientious objection focus of Vatican congress

Conscientious objection can be a testimony of help and service to life, said the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life at a conference – The Christian Conscience in Support of the Right to Life – held in the Vatican in February.

“Not only is there a legitimate place for the Christian conscience in the pluralist society,” said Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy, but it is useful “for the whole society when the Christian conscience can express itself and offer its contribution.” This requires “among believers true, certain and upright consciences, conditions that in no way can be taken for granted, or that are the result of improvisation, but rather of reflection, dialogue and at times of valiant effort.”

He pointed out that conscientious objection “is not the only instance of the Christian conscience in the health field,” but that above all “conscience calls for positive testimony in the service” for life. “But precisely because of the service to life, an honor that corresponds to every living man, it is necessary to avoid evil and, when it occurs, to activate conscientious objection and protest,” the Vatican official said.

It is specifically in “the sector of life and holiness” where a whole series appears “of new situations where doctors and other figures linked to their activities are called to activate the claim of objection,” he said. “In a society that wishes to be genuinely democratic, conscience must be able to speak for those who do not have a voice or are unable to express themselves. The aim of Christians, therefore, is also this: to give voice also to those who do not have an electoral voice, or economic power, but who have the same dignity as each one of us.”

Mandela backs Gandhi’s nonviolence approach

Nelson Mandela, who spent 28 years in prison for fighting apartheid before leading South Africa to multi-racial democracy as the country’s first black president in 1994, joined Nobel laureates and elder statesmen in calling for the “reinvention” of Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent approach to solving conflicts. At a conference in New Delhi, India, in January, Mandela said Gandhi’s nonviolent approach, which won India freedom from British colonial rule 60 years ago, was an inspiration.

“His philosophy contributed in no small measure to bringing about a peaceful transformation in South Africa and in healing the destructive human divisions that had been spawned by the abhorrent practice of apartheid,” said Mandela.

Referring to Gandhi as “the sacred warrior,” Mandela said the Mahatma combined ethics and morality with a steely resolve that refused to compromise with the oppressor, the British Empire.

“In a world driven by violence and strife, Gandhi’s message of peace and nonviolence holds the key to human survival in the 21st century,” said Mandela. “He rightly believed in the efficacy of pitting the sole force of the satyagraha against the brute force of the oppressor and in effect converting the oppressor to the right and moral point.”

Global warming means millions of climate refugees

A decade or so ago, environmentalists coined the term “climate refugees” to describe future victims of global warming. Today, experts say such refugees may already number in the millions and could reach 200 million by the century’s end, stoking conflict.

They point to Inuit communities undercut by melting ice in North America and Greenland to the thirsty peoples around central Africa’s fast-shrinking Lake Chad and the many thousands displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. In the future, these ranks could be swollen by refugees fleeing flooded homes, parched farmland or wrecked economies, from small island states in the Pacific to tropical Africa and the Mediterranean rim.

“The issue of environmental refugees promises to rank as one of the foremost human crises of our time,” said Norman Myers, an Oxford University professor.

“There is going to be a lot of population movement linked to climate,” said Thomas Downing, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Oxford. “Not all will be permanent refugees, but when you add climate to other forces that push people beyond the capacity to cope, the numbers will increase.”

A Red Cross and Red Crescent study in 2000 said 25 million people had left their homes because of environmental stress, roughly as many as the refugees from armed conflict.

Myers, an expert on the link between climate change and forced migration, says the number could double by 2010 and reach as high as 200 million “once global warming kicks in.”

For fragile island nations such as Tuvalu in the South Pacific and Maldives in the Indian Ocean, global warming poses a triple threat. Warmer seas spell a threat to the coral upon which islanders depend to attract both fish and tourists; decreasing rainfall threatens drinking water supplies; and higher sea levels pose a threat by storm flooding or even inundation.

In the densely populated flood-plains of Bangladesh, rising seas will not only ruin fertile flood plains but stoke the storm surges that periodically ravage the low-lying nation.

Drought or water stress is another problem. According to one study, the crippling heatwave that struck Western Europe in 2003 and left tens of thousands dead is likely to be commonplace by 2100, a scenario that is especially bleak for people on the Mediterranean coast and its hinterland.

754,000 homeless Americans

The United States has three-quarters of a million homeless people, filling emergency shelters through the year and spilling into special seasonal shelters in the coldest months, according to a government report published in February.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated there were 754,000 homeless people in 2005, including those living in shelters, transitional housing and on the street. That’s about 300,000 more people than available beds in shelters and transitional housing.

The 2000 Census pegged the number of homeless people at 170,700, but it was widely regarded an undercount.

Among the findings for people in shelters and transitional housing: nearly half were single adult men, nearly a quarter were minors, less than 2 percent were older than 65, 59 percent were members of minority groups, about 45 percent were black, and about a quarter had a disability.

Emergency shelters are more than 90 percent full on average nights, the report said. They would be over capacity if not for seasonal shelters.

“We ought to be looking for ways to move people from shelters into permanent housing,” said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “Building shelter beds doesn’t result in these people being housed, but clearly, short of housing, everybody should have a roof over their head. This points out that we are not there, either.”

A quarter of US war vets diagnosed with mental disorders

A quarter of the Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans treated with US government-funded health care have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, according to a study published in March by The Journal of the American Medical Association’s Archives of Internal Medicine.

When psycho-social disorders such as domestic violence were included, the number of war veterans suffering from mental illnesses rose to 31 percent.

The instances of mental illness among recently discharged troops and members of the National Guard are significantly higher than those of a study published last year which examined active duty troops, the lead researcher told Agence France Presse.

That study found that while a third of returning troops were accessing mental health services, only 12 percent were diagnosed with a mental illness or psycho-social disorder.

“That’s a big difference,” said Karen Seal, a physician and researcher at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The most common diagnosis was post-traumatic stress disorder among 13 percent of troops, followed by anxiety and adjustment disorders among six percent of troops and depression and substance abuse among five percent of troops.

Of significant concern was the finding that 56 percent of those diagnosed had more than one mental illness, Seal said. “When people have more than one diagnosis they become more challenging to diagnose and, more importantly, we believe are more challenging to treat.”

With a backlog of more than 860,000 medical claims and waiting times of up to a year for treatment, many of those coming home are not getting the help they urgently need, said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“War changes everybody and everybody is going to have to deal with it in one way or another. The military is not doing enough on the preventative side or the treatment side because the military’s role is to patch them up and send them to the VA [the Veterans Administration]. The VA is not doing enough because they did not prepare for the huge influx of new customers coming in from the wars and they haven’t budgeted for it.”

The researchers examined the records of 103,788 veterans of these operations who were first seen at Veterans Affairs facilities between September 30, 2001, and September 30, 2005.

About 29 percent of war veterans accessed VA health care facilities, the study found.

The troops most at risk were those aged 18 to 24, the study found, but mental illnesses were common among all subgroups.

New features on the OPF web site

A section has been added to the OPF web site that places on one page the articles on Peacemaking in the Parish that were published in recent issues of In Communion:

A similar page – Pro-Life Resources – has been added with links to numerous articles on the protection of human life from the womb to old age:

Also, it’s now possible to get an update message whenever new material is added to the OPF web site. Sign up at:

Our thanks to Michael Markwick, who maintains the OPF web site.

The Pilgrimage of Illness

by Jim Forest

Any trip, even a small journey from one prosaic location to another, has the potential to become a pilgrimage.

In my own case during these last few years, the most common of pilgrimages has been going from our house to the local hospital, a five-minute bicycle ride from our front door. I make that small pilgrimage three times a week, normally on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

It’s a journey that began several years ago when a routine blood test revealed that the creatinine level in my blood was higher than it should be. Our family doctor referred me for further tests to a specialist at the hospital. More tests made it clear that my kidneys were gradually failing, probably due to damage caused by high blood pressure. Sometime in the not-distant future, the doctor said, I would need to make use of an artificial kidney machine in order to stay alive.

Dialysis was something I passionately wanted to avoid. During the thirty months that followed diagnosis, I faithfully took all the medication my doctor prescribed, but I also looked into alternative treatments. My diet changed. I also found a local acupuncturist who made no promises but said acupuncture might help. As a result I spent many hours with needles placed in various areas of my body, from feet to ears. This therapy may have been a factor in retarding the progression of the disease, but tests showed that my kidney efficiency continued to decline.

I often prayed for a healing miracle, and many prayed for me. For several years I have been on a list of people for whom our parish prays at each and every liturgy. The fact that there has been no miracle is disappointing, and yet I have felt greatly helped by the prayer. I think it was a major factor in my gradually coming to terms with my illness, an inner shift that happened quite slowly. It may well have been the prayer of others that helped me realize I was on a pilgrimage. For the better part of three years, even while writing a book on pilgrimage, I’m embarrassed to say such a thought never crossed my mind.

In that period of regular hospital visits and frequent blood tests, far from seeing myself on a pilgrim’s path leading more and more deeply into the kingdom of God, it seemed to me that I was simply a victim of rotten luck. Each trip to the hospital was a painful reminder of a dark, confining future that was relentlessly coming my way. While I rejoiced each time my doctor told me that dialysis wasn’t yet needed, it was joy with a shadow, as he also made me aware that month by month my creatinine level was slowly but steadily rising, a sure sign of kidney failure. Whatever prayer, changed diet and acupuncture were achieving, at the very best the progress of my illness was simply being slowed.

During each visit to the hospital, I had a glimpse into the several wards where other patients were undergoing dialysis. It seemed to me a nightmare vision. Transparent plastic tubes filled with dark red blood ran from the bandaged arms of men and women into machines that looked like props from Star Wars. I hoped against hope that I would not eventually have to join them.

And yet I have. A year ago, soon after returning from a Christmas visit with my oldest son, his wife and two of our grandchildren in America, my doctor looked at the latest blood test results, then called the dialysis unit to make an appointment for me to start dialysis the next day.

What I had desperately hoped to avoid is now normal. I now spend nearly twelve hours a week – fifty hours a month, six hundred a year – at the dialysis clinic. Dialysis is part of the core structure of each week. Blood-filled plastic tubes now link my arm to a dialysis machine. Nurses that I saw caring for others now care for me. People who were unenviable strangers, dialysis patients, now are people I know by name. The “other” now includes me. We’re all in the same boat.

I’ve had to rethink how best to use my available work time. My work time has been radically cut. This has not been easy.

Yet there are significant pluses to report. It finally dawned on me that the hospital I dreaded visiting is actually holy ground. My main pilgrimage these days is the unprayed-for blessing of regularly going to a place where nearly everyone is sick, caring for the sick, or visiting the sick.

I’ve discovered that far worse things can happen than being chronically ill. Unlike people burdened with the illusions that come with good health, the sick are well aware that they are unable to survive on their own. We’re intensely conscious of our dependence on the care of others. It’s hard to be seriously ill and not be poor in spirit, the first of Christ’s Beatitudes. Because of that, the sick are by definition on the ladder of the Beatitudes. Each of us may still have quite some climbing to do, but, thanks to illness, at least we’ve made a start. We’re on the first rung.

In a culture which prizes individuality and independence, most of us are reluctant to realize how much we depend on others, though in reality there has never been a day of our lives when this wasn’t the case. We started that dependence the instant we were conceived and it continues without interruption until we take our last breath. We depended on others for love, for encouragement, for inspiration. We depended on others for food. We depended on others for the words and gestures that make communication possible. We depended on others for all the skills we slowly acquired while growing up. We depended on others for wisdom. And yet for much of our lives we managed to nourish the illusion that we were independent and had the right to pat ourselves on the back for whatever good things came our way. The phrase “thank you,” however often it was said out of social necessity, didn’t necessarily reflect a deeply felt attitude.

Being sick changes that. The words “thank you” begin to rise from the depths of the heart. In the community of the sick, there aren’t many people unaware of how much they depend on the care of others, even if most of them are people we don’t even know by name. It’s not only dependence on the doctors and nurses who directly care for us, but all those who have such unheralded tasks as doing laboratory analyses in rooms we never enter or people quietly keeping the hospital clean.

Directly or indirectly, what all these people are doing day after day is trying to keep us alive a little longer and, in the case of those we meet face to face, even trying to keep our spirits up in the process. They are professional life-savers, yet none see themselves as heroes. They do what they do with the matter-of-factness of a teacher writing 2 + 2 = 4 on a classroom blackboard or a plumber repairing a stopped-up sink. Yes, there are those for whom hospital work seems to be just a job, and perhaps not one they especially like doing; but my experience suggests such people form a small minority.

At the end of a session of dialysis, I sometimes say to the nurses who helped me that day, “Thank you for saving my life.” They always look surprised to hear such a declaration. Generally people are too polite to express appreciation that plainly, though anyone with a chronic illness knows he or she is living on borrowed time. Every dialysis patient knows that he or she, without dialysis, wouldn’t have long to live. The writer James Mitchner’s life ended a week after he decided to stop dialysis.

It’s not only the professional care-givers who make a hospital holy ground, but also those who visit the sick. Though the regulations in many hospitals attempt to restrict visits to predetermined hours that pose the least inconvenience for staff, in practice we find visitors arriving and departing throughout the day and rarely being told to go away. Typically they arrive carrying flowers, though some bring books, magazines, chocolates, juice, balloons, music or all sorts of others things they hope will communicate their love and give the patient a little extra energy for coping with illness.

It’s holy work, and often done despite a temptation not to be there. Hospitals, after all, are places exploding with reminders about human mortality. The most death-denying person knows that every day there are people breathing their last in this building. Also hospitals are obviously not the healthiest places to be in. Yet crowds of people each day manage to overcome their hesitation, even their fear, and cross the border. After all, it’s not easy to communicate the bond of love while physically avoiding the person you love. Greeting cards and phone calls aren’t bad, but they can never equal the reality of being there.

Visiting is a healing work as crucial and powerful as what the doctors and nurses are doing. There is nothing more healing than love. Love can be expressed far more openly by the visitor than the health-care professional. Whether visitors sit silently or talk non-stop, they manifest how much the sick person they are visiting matters to them. Whoever visits the sick is a pilgrim, for they are meeting not only someone familiar but Christ as well. It was he who said, “I was sick and you visited me.”

In my own case, I’m one of the lucky ones within the community of the sick. Kidney illness is certainly inconvenient, and it’s not painless being jabbed in the arm with two hollow needles several times each week. On the other hand, neither the illness itself nor dialysis (once you’re connected to the machine) is painful. Kidney illness has become treatable. You can live a long and full life on dialysis. You can even travel, though it’s not easy as one would like setting up appointments for care at places you might wish to visit. You might even be one of the lucky ones who eventually gets a transplant and no longer needs dialysis.

But in the meantime. As is the case with many diseases, dialysis is not without rewards. If you happen to love books, it’s an illness that gives you the possibility of hours of quiet reading time each week. In my life, that qualifies as an answered prayer. Prefer watching TV? Normally I don’t, but there’s a TV close at hand should I find myself too tired to read and yet unwilling to take a nap. I happened to catch an excellent program on monastic life the other day.

The pilgrimages of illness being made by others are often far harder than mine, or more difficult to bear. In other sections of the hospital I sometimes encounter children who are gravely ill. I often see people who are in great pain and distress. I see faces collapsing with discouragement and grief. There is usually nothing at all I can do but silently pray, which may in fact be an achievement in the face of the overwhelming powerlessness I sometimes feel when I witness what other people are up against. Prayer seems so meager a response – in moments of doubt, just another form of nothing. But not to pray is itself a kind of dying.

Being among the sick is being among those who include the dying. Just a few days ago, a frail dialysis patient in his eighties died before my eyes. I thought he had dozed off. So did the nurses. But at the end of his session, when a nurse attempted to wake him up, it was discovered he had quietly left this world. His pilgrimage was ended.

In fact pilgrimage historically was, among other things, a dress rehearsal for dying.

What better death is there than to die on pilgrimage? As each year many pilgrims die of accidents and illnesses, every pilgrim route acquires memorials to those whose lives were completed along the way. Among the monuments one finds on the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain is a pilgrim’s staff with a rusting bicycle set in a concrete pedestal, its front wheel raised toward heaven. The German who had been riding it died of a heart attack in El Acebo. Later on, an Irish pilgrim happened to find a bouquet of flowers along the roadside, picked it up, but found it awkward to carry. When she came upon the bicycle monument, she left the flowers there, realizing that, like the German biker, she “did not want to spend the last days or months of her life dying in bed.”

I recall a priest Nancy and I met at a Russian Orthodox church in Jerusalem twenty years ago who showed us a remarkable scrapbook nearly a century old – fading photos of Russian pilgrims coming in their thousands to the Holy Land until such journeys were made impossible, first by the world war that broke out in 1914 and then by the draconian restrictions imposed by the Soviet regime after 1917. He pointed out that many of the pilgrims we saw in the photos had buried others who died along the way, and that many more died either in Jerusalem or on the way back home.

“A pilgrim leaving Russia in those days never assumed he would return alive the way a tourist does these days,” he said. “They said goodbye as if for the last time, as indeed was often the case. But this thought did not disturb them. They saw it as a blessing to die on pilgrimage, and especially to die in the city where Jesus rose from the dead.”

Whoever is on the pilgrimage of illness cannot help but be more aware of last things than many others, but the job of the pilgrim is not dying but living. As St. Ireneaus, one of the theologians of the second century, said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”

Even if it is a life of confined borders, it is no less a life.

Jim Forest is editor of In Communion. His essay on illness is a chapter from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, to be published by Orbis Books in August. A children’s book, Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue, is being published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in July.

Hate Breeds Hate

By Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo)

Asullen, somber young man goes to a gun store in Virginia, where he will have no difficulty purchasing handguns. He is seriously mentally ill and many people around him are aware of it, but no one has succeeded in placing him under professional care; perhaps no one has tried. The clerk at the gun store has no obligation to know whether or not the man is mentally ill. There is no program for assessing who may buy a handgun. The only real requirement is that the buyer be at least eighteen years of age. A while later, the young man has massacred more than thirty classmates and teachers, then committed suicide.

The first thing that stands out among the details of this matter is how many people knew that this young man was seriously ill and yet apparently did nothing about it. On the surface, it looks as if some people cared; but the fact is that of the dozens of people who say they knew, and of the several who were in positions of authority, it seems no one took any action to intervene in his situation. The demons in this young man’s head were not of his own making. They only mirror the world of paranoia, fear and violence around him. His psychiatric condition inclined him to personalize all this.

His symptoms are well known. One should have expected some kind of violence from him, but perhaps no one looked carefully enough at him to be able to see it. We have twice had young men much like him show up at the monastery, and we got them into mental health care situations very quickly. I wonder how many tragedies might we would avoid if only we could open ourselves to the grace of God to be good Samaritans to the very troubled?

If we speculate about why things like this happen, it is often because human beings do not care enough about each other to prevent them from happening. In our society there is more to it than this, however. Violence has been given a value in culture and society. Television has made it graphic and the value given to it has made it difficult to distinguish heroes from anti-heroes. Victors in violent actions are noble, losers are evil, but there is little to distinguish them except which one won and which one lost. In the arena of actual warfare, it is only the losers who are guilty of war crimes, while the winners put them on trial, but in reality both committed atrocities, killed innocent civilians and wrought immense destruction.

Such episodes of personal violence as school and university mass murders can happen almost anywhere, but happen much more easily in the US because there is an almost idolatrous worship of guns. In the state of Virginia, one can own a rifle or shotgun at the age of twelve and one can legally purchase a handgun at the age of eighteen. How many people in those age ranges do you know whom you would want to have such weapons?

In a world and society which has in so many ways separated itself from God, it is difficult to ask “why does God allow…?” When many prominent religious leaders in the US are backing the death penalty, supporting war and even acting as advocates for the gun lobby, while almost openly hoping for Armageddon, practically reducing morality down to only sexual behavior, when the nation’s leaders think that violence and sowing death and destruction is the way to handle conflicts, who is listening to God anyway?

Moreover, when many Orthodox Christians no longer observe those ordinary ascetic disciplines of Church life which God has given us to teach and exercise us in self-control, what should we expect of the rest of the world? Look at how many Orthodox Churches actually sponsor meals that violate the fasts, and do so in parish halls. Too many Orthodox Christians, those who are supposed to be the salt of the earth and the lights set upon lampstands for the rest of the world to see, do not take the Christian life seriously. They reduce the faith to some philosophical positions or customs, but have no desire to apply the living faith to life itself in a transforming way. And yet, without the ingredient of self-control and self-discipline, how can violence and injustice be avoided? If we, who claim to have the truth, the “faith once delivered,” have no desire to learn or to teach our children self-discipline and self-control, what should we, then, expect of the world around us, or even of our own children?

How can we stop all this? We cannot avoid violence in this world. So long as Satan has the ear and heart of so many, we cannot stop it. We can pay more attention to each other and watch for symptoms in others that would alert us to the fact that they urgently need help, but we cannot stop violence in a fallen world in which violence itself appears to have value, a world in which we are taught by the example of national leaders and whole nations that violence is the solution to violence.

Stopping violence to a greater degree would require that we diligently search for root causes of the violence and seek, aided by prayer and fasting, for the Grace of the Holy Spirit to heal the root causes, not simply to bomb and shoot those whom we feel are responsible (we ourselves never are responsible, of course) for the violence. So long as nations and the leaders of nations deal with problems by resorting to violence and state terrorism, we have no reason to suspect that people who are mentally or emotionally unbalanced will not follow their example. Children tend to imitate adults, alas!

Prayer does have a healing power. We need to pray sincerely, and not just “because one is supposed to pray,” for the healing of mankind, for the healing of our world, and we should not neglect to pray for the young man who committed this most recent massacre.

What else can we do? Let us begin by trying to recapture the meaning of our Orthodox Christian life, the actual meaning of the parish, to discover again the sweet mystery of the parish, how the parish itself is intended to promote the healing of the fallen human nature and our assimilation into the life in Christ.

Physically, the only thing we can do to protect ourselves is to be alert. We live in a world that is dangerous, and we need to be aware of that, to pray about it and to live our lives in such a way that we do not contribute to it. We place our hope in God for our own lives. We must make proper use of our Christian faith as a source of healing in the world, not as a source of judgment, division and enmity toward others.

The less we endorse violence, the more we observe the disciplines of Orthodox Christian life, the more we can contribute to love, peace and healing in the world around us. We do so need to learn to love “the other,” those who are not “us” and not “like us.”

How shall we, as Orthodox Christians, make such contributions to the world if we cannot have peace, harmony, self-control and self-discipline even in our own parishes, among neighboring parishes of the same jurisdiction and among the local national Orthodox Churches? Did our beloved father St. Paul not tell us that though we may speak with the tongues of men and of angels, know all mysteries and even give our bodies to be burned in martyrdom, but do not have love, we are only clanging brass and it does not profit us anything?

We must see the image of the creator in every other human being, not merely in those whom we see as being also an image of our own selves, those who agree with us and think and act as we do. The Church has even given us a program of prayer and fasting to help us accomplish this. If we do not strive to accomplish it, then we become part of the problem rather than the seed of healing in a troubled and suffering world.

Archbishop Lazar Puhalo is Civil Liaison for the Orthodox Church in America, Archdiocese of Canada. He is founder and abbot of the Monastery of All Saints of North America near Vancouver, Canada. He is educated in physics as well as theology, and lectures internationally on science and religion. He is Canadian secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and director of the Canadian Institute for Biblical and Patristic Studies. He is the author of more than 40 books.

Prisoners We are Forbidden to Visit

by Paul Grenier

“I was in prison, and you visited Me.” These words from the Gospel remind us that Christianity is not a set of dogmas to be believed, but is a truth to be lived and practiced. Visiting those who are in prison is simply an extension of the foundational Christian practice – loving one’s enemies. The ideologue, by contrast, urges us to hate our enemies. The ideologue is always bent on destroying “once and for all” evils that exist outside his favored group. But Christ was not an ideologue and Christianity is not an ideology.

The New Testament is instead the antidote to ideological perversions of thought, and as such it focuses attention on the struggle against evils inside my own self. Apparently the most certain way of succeeding in this struggle is by practicing forgiveness and charity toward those whom we find repellant – toward those who are, in fact, our enemies, and who for that very reason tend to end up in our prisons.

Today, however, we Christians in America are often not allowed to visit Christ in prison. The Bush administration has declared that there are those in our prisons whom no one may visit, not even a lawyer. It is said that these secret prisoners must not be visited because the “alternative methods of interrogation” being used against them are among the United States’ “most sensitive national security secrets.”

One would think that every American would immediately rise up in indignation against such policies and demand an accounting from those who ever dared initiate them. And yet almost the opposite has happened. For the most part, we go about our lives as if all this was no big deal.

What has happened? It would appear that the following has happened. We have become a nation of security ideologues. We want “national security,” yes, but especially and at all costs we want guarantees of our personal security.

That is why we feel little distress about the millions of men and women who fester in our bulging prisons. And just as we spend more on military systems than any other country – indeed, than all other countries combined – so too we hold more humans in our prison system than any other country.

And yet, the most humane and wise of Christian voices have always held that the first task of a civilization, when it comes to the treatment of its prisoners, is to do its best to restore the moral and intellectual good health of the persons being punished. To be sure, the protection of society is also a crucial function of prisons; but in a Christian civilization, this task is subordinated to the first.

There is no time here to elaborate on this complicated subject. Suffice it to say that a just punishment always serves to increase rather than decrease the dignity of the prisoner. It might be added that, were our society to provide more security to its workers, and give greater emphasis to the moral and intellectual improvement of its children, there would be fewer domestic prisoners in the first place. But that too is a matter for another essay.

What must be addressed first – both in this essay and as a matter of public policy – is the treatment of “enemy combatants” captured during America’s current “war on terrorism.”

The barbarity of such practices as “extraordinary renditions,” and other cruel practices at locations known and unknown, would be just as great if these detainees were all guilty as charged. Yet many are clearly not guilty – or if they are, it is very strange, because many have never even been charged. They are simply being held.

What if they are guilty, and truly are our enemies? Such a circumstance should only increase our concern for their welfare. At any rate, that is what Christ said.

And to find out which of these detainees deserve this special measure of Christian concern, it behooves us to insist that our government at long last allow lawyers and courts to thoroughly investigate each of these cases according to a credible system of justice. This will have the additional benefit of allowing those who have been simply picked up by accident to be immediately released.

In the interests of fairness, it must be emphasized that cruelty is far from being an eternal truth about Americans. It is, rather, an alien trait we have acquired by falling prey to a spiritual temptation-the temptation of making security the final goal of our existence.

Indeed, it is this same all-consuming quest for security that induces so many of us to remain silent. With perfect logic we think to ourselves: “If they have treated other defenseless human beings this way, what will keep them from treating me with similar cruelty if I speak out?”

There is only one way to respond to this fear, and no one has formulated it better than the fearless Simone Weil: “To die for God is not a proof of faith in God. To die for an unknown and repulsive convict who is a victim of injustice, that is a proof of faith in God.”

Paul Grenier, a writer and cultural geographer, is the founder of The Common Task – The Common Task is a research center devoted to the humanization of culture, cities and economies. He is a member of St. Nicholas Cathedral parish, Orthodox Church in America, in Washington, DC.

Zealous for Truth

by David J. Goa

Someone who has actually tasted truth is not contentious for truth. Someone who is considered by people to be zealous for truth has not yet learnt what truth is really like; once he has truly learnt it, he will cease from zealousness on its behalf. – St. Isaac the Syrian (1)

The age of relativism is also the age of zealousness. They go hand in hand, codependent twins in service to the same human passion, symptoms of a shared dis-ease. Both are responses to the longing of the human heart. Relativism and zealousness are distinct ways of misunderstanding our deep desire for a firm truth. Both are misunderstandings in the strict sense for they fail to discern aright what stands under the desire we have for that which is true. In both we see this human desire turned into an appetite. Whatever we come to look at and care about is then forced into conformity with the idea, image, or ritual that we have erected as absolute. We begin to hang all our hopes and dreams on the truth of our chosen framework, our precious absolutes (including the relativists’ precious absolute that there is nothing of ultimate value). Our longing is captured by an absolute of our own making. It follows, almost without saying, that once we hang all our hopes and dreams on something that we claim as absolute, it is a short step to hanging all our fears on it as well. In this moment the holy longing of the human heart and mind that lies behind the search for absolutes becomes polluted. Zealousness for the truth frames how we see and understand and reshapes our response to the fragility of the life of the world.

It is this passion, this disease, that St. Isaac says we are freed from when we learn what truth is really like. But we are only open to learn what truth is like when our understanding of truth itself is transformed.

For the relativist this transformation requires the letting go of the deep disappointment in the discovery that no abstract value, no matter how ultimate it may appear, holds in all times and all places. The spiritual source of relativism is often if not always a result of the loss of faith in the god of the philosophers and it leads directly to cynicism. “If my absolute is not claimed by all, including god, then the search for absolutes is itself nothing but human foolishness.”

The zealous, often religious men and women, have yet to walk through the valley of shattered absolutes. They erect elaborate temples of truth, statement-by-statement, fact-by-fact, temples that have turrets strategically located, each well armed and poised to fire at a moment’s notice. Both the relativist and the zealous are spiritual adolescents at best, and in our fragile world, where the news media often shape the public discourse, they have bonded with each other to divert attention away from serious encounter with “what truth is really like.”

An Appetite for Enemies:

Recently I have listened to various people talk about Islam. Some are noted scholars. Others are journalists and others simply thoughtful men and women in the grip of fear. I have come to know some of these people. These women and men identify themselves, usually with vigor, with either the right or the left in both religious and political circles. They identify a discreet set of cultural diseases with our present age and I share at least a portion of their concern. Where I part company with both the right and the left – conservatives and liberals – and with their growing fraternities is when they prescribe antidotes to our cultural diseases based on their relativism or zealousness for the truth.

The antidotes of both are the offerings of law, surgery and war, the three last resorts brought forward when all else fails and our absolutes appear to be threatened.

It is tragic, to my mind, that the antidotes offered by both sets of true believers frighten so many otherwise sensible people into drawing back from even admitting that there are diseases within our society that need our healing touch.

It is this condition that has left us with the endless dialectical stand-off between conservatives (zealous for the truth) and liberals (zealous for relativism). Rather than seeking to heal the ills of society and culture, the zealous and the relativitists have, over the last fifty years, masterfully figured out how to use up all the social, cultural and political oxygen as they square off over and over again to wrongly divide “the word of truth.” Both contribute with equal passion to the emotional landscape that traps the human spirit somewhere between indignation, despair and cynicism.

This is not a conservative problem. It is not a liberal problem. It is a joint creation of the right and the left, of relativists and absolutists, the spiritually codependent twins of our age.

Triangulation and the Fraternity of Enemies: Let me illustrate with my recent gleanings from public and private commentaries on Islam and arguments about its current geopolitical situation.

A number of pundits who are zealous for the truth have begun to revive a thesis that we may understand the difference between Islam and Christianity simply by comparing the founding figures of the two faiths: Jesus Christ and Mohammad.

Each time I hear this starting point suggested by a person who stands on religious ground, I am taken aback. Neither a thoughtful Christian nor Muslim would stumble into this way of treating or defining Jesus Christ or Mohammad. Rather, this is a typical secular historian’s trick that reduces complexity and purpose to frame conclusions. It is what we have come to expect from journalists seeking easy copy and snappy headlines; from those who have spent too much time with the Jesus Seminar or with Bishop Sponge, Tom Harper or Marcus Borge.

From the perspective of the Christian tradition this is a false start for it begins neither at the heart of human nature or in the presence of God’s love. What the zealous commentators then proceed to do is paint a picture of the founding period of Islam through the military actions of the prophet Mohammad based on a set of historical facts. This reduction of Islam to a militant religion with an appetite for conversions by the sword runs like a set of threads through the European literature of the last seven hundred years. Its thesis and argument and its marshaling of facts and truths is claimed by a curious set of fellow travelers. Some of them are zealous for Christian truth. Some are deeply committed relativists. Enemies need enemies and thrive on each other’s presence. They claim, of course, to stand on different ground but this claim is simply a way of hiding from each other their relationship as codependent spiritual twins.

This picture of both the prophet and Islam was painted in pretty much the same way by the acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses. At the time, two decades ago, I pointed out in a forum how this remarkable writer, virulent secular thinker and refugee from Islam, was drawing on the standard tropes of medieval hate literature originating in the Western Church as a result of threats from both the outside and the inside: one side the expansion of Islam, on the other the collapse of the old order in the Roman Catholic Church in the face of the Reformation.

Rushdie’s depiction of the prophet led the Ayatollah Khomeini – on February 14th, 1989 – to issue a fatwa placing a death sentence on the author and publisher for blasphemy against Islam. This caught the attention of the West, and the international writers’ association PEN came to support Rushdie and argue that freedom of expression is a modern absolute, the denial of which is far more dangerous than the effects of hate literature. (The sentence was revoked under the Khatami regime in Iran in the late 1990s.)

Rushdie is not alone. Over a number of years I have conducted a research and documentation project in the Muslim communities of Canada. I have become friends with many who are devoted Muslims, with some who have moved away from the disciplines of their faith, and with others who are refugees from their childhood faith. Among the latter there are a few women with fine secular educations whom I have come to appreciate very much. They have led the protests at the outrageous treatment of women within countries where one form or another of Shariah law has been implemented. These women, seized by the horrors of brutality in the name of Shariah, also speak of Islam and its origins using the same tropes of medieval Latin hate literature found in Rushdie and the relativists and absolutists who have recently caught my ear.

The irony is that some of those who claim conservative Christian ground, and are zealous for the truth when it comes to Islam, have little sympathy either for Rusdie’s secularism or for feminists of any kind. Common enemies make strange bedfellows, and when we realize that they are bedfellows it may be useful to think again about how they frame their common ground.

For many, medieval hate literature is remote and perhaps unknown, and its similarity to the way Rushdie, PEN and the women’s movement understand Islam may have escaped most of those who have heard the contemporary commentators either from the right or the left. But for anyone who has even in a limited way been exposed to the international news in the last four years, there is a voice and perspective on Islam that we can all recognize as part of a tradition of the rhetoric of fear, of those who are “contentious for truth.”

In virtually all the broadcast videos of Osama Bin Laden, the militant extremist believed to be a major financier of international terrorism and head of the al-Qaeda network, and in the writings of his teacher and mentor, Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian literary critic, novelist and poet who was executed by Egypt in 1966, we hear and read a call to young Muslims cast in terms of military adventure and death dealing. They present the same argument about Islam that I hear from those who are contentious for the truth on both the religious and secular side of public discussion. It is Rushdie’s argument. It is the argument of the most deeply hurt feminist Muslims. It is striking and chilling. Both Qutb and Bin Laden reduce Islam to a militant religion that closes the circle of faithfulness, requiring that believers give their life in the process of destroying those identified as the infidel.

Why is the description of Islam given by Qutb and Bin Laden the same as that of scholars and journalists whom I have recently heard, while Muslims in general never reduce their faith to militant terms? What leads them, as well as Rushdie and some of those who critique Shariah, to the same body of images and ideas on the origin of Islam? Why this common narrative?

In Bin Laden’s case, you must take up arms to be faithful. It is as simple as that. In the narrative of those on the virulent right and left, including Christians, Islam is also reduced by arguing that its foundations, its essential nature, demand that the faithful engage in both conquest and destruction.

We may learn by reflecting on who our companions are in supporting particular positions we come to hold dear. A curious tradition of rhetoric stretches from medieval hate literature down to our own day. Militant Islamist movements claim this tradition. They have taken the infection into their body and seek to turn it into a virtue. This rhetorical landscape was central to Rushdie’s novel and to the fear that led the writers in PEN to respond as they did. It is central to the fine women I have known who have been shaken to their roots by the horrific treatment of women found in countries that have adopted some form of Shariah law. Osama Bin Laden comes a little closer to winning his war for the definition of Islam each time others voice his position and give young Muslim men – and increasingly women – something to die for amidst the complexities of our fragile world. When the religious right and secular left engage in such reductionism of the faith of Islam, they contribute to Bin Laden’s cause.

Zealousness as Spiritual Adolescence:

Each of these perspectives is driven by zealousness for truth. In each of them truth has become coterminous with a selected set of facts, real or imagined. The result is the profound disease that St. Isaac the Syrian seeks to help us see.

For St. Isaac, zeal for truth is itself a symptom of a spiritual disease. Or, perhaps, it is a condition that tends to develop at a certain stage in the spiritual life and is itself simply a marker of that stage. It is the spiritual equivalent of adolescence where the young try out all sorts of ideas and actions with the conviction that no one else has ever had these thoughts or feelings and they are exploring them for the first time. How can it be that no one else has ever seen just how important and ultimate these thoughts and feelings are?

Adolescence is not a disease, of course, although some parents may be inclined to treat it that way. Rather it is part of the process of maturation. Similarly, when a spiritual father or mother sees the “zealousness for truth” spoken of by St. Isaac, they recognize a stage in the spiritual development of the person. But just as with adolescence, if the condition persists, spiritual growth is arrested. One is stuck in the adolescent stage of the spiritual life.

I began by suggesting that our age is an age of relativism and absolutism. At least within some quarters of our public life, we have elevated relativism to a public dogma. Osama Bin Laden sees this as clearly as do many on the religious right. They share a religious vision, a way of seeing. A danger among some religious people is that they fixate on the cultural problem of relativism. When this happens their fear leads them to reduce complex issues and themes to what they have come to understand in their zeal. If this persists they also become captives of that stage of the spiritual life that Saint Isaac identifies with the zealousness for truth.

But St. Isaac points to another possibility when one has come to “taste the truth.” Contention fades away, he tells us. Why? He is pointing to one of the distinctive features of Christian Orthodoxy. Better than most wings of the Christian tradition, Orthodoxy has understood that the concern for truth and the question of truth are not anchored or bounded either by philosophical concepts or principles or by historical fact. Fact is not truth nor is truth merely fact. Truth is far beyond the reach of fact. That either philosophical ideas or historical facts are cast in the language of the Christian teaching does not make them any more a matter of truth. You can dress them up all you like, but they remain exposed for what they are, simulacrums for truth. They all indicate that one has not “tasted of truth.”

The Orthodox teaching shaped by Isaac the Syrian and other Church Fathers and Mothers is that we must “taste of truth” and be healed of our appetites for philosophical truth and historical fact, our predilection for getting our teeth into the truth and holding on, for competing in pitting truth against presumed truth. We need to be healed also of the historian’s habit of elevating facts to truth. We want the comfort of our truth statements, of our elevated theologically clothed philosophical doctrines. And we want them because we are addicted to the spiritual adrenalin we feel at the sudden rush of winning, at least in our own minds and hearts, the argument for truth. We want to be defender of the faith, the kind of person who knows he is right and takes pride in staking a claim to what is true no matter what the cost. It is not surprising that this attitude is growing in our day. The age of relativism deepens our inclination to be zealous for the truth and, tragically, it does this for some of the best and brightest among us as well, and dangerously so.

We are called to better. We are called to better precisely because in Him who is “the truth and the life” we are freed from the habit of taking refuge in abstract notions of truth. If we taste of truth at every Eucharist we know better. If we taste of truth every time we, like the disciples, find ourselves in Emmaus breaking bread with someone we didn’t know we knew, we know better. We know better every time our hearts are moved with compassion.

No wonder St. Isaac says that when we learn what truth really is we will cease being zealous for truth, cease responding as if it were our place to defend and protect truth. If the history of religions teaches us anything, and I think it teaches us much, it teaches us that one of the most serious religious diseases is zealousness. It was a deep concern to Jesus as he walked the valley of the Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem. And he finally healed us of its bondage when he spoke from the throne of the cross to those who were contentious for truth, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Dr. David Goa directs the Chester Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life at the University of Alberta campus in Camrose, Canada. He is a former curator of the fine arts museum in Edmonton.

1. Kephalaia IV.77; The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by Sebastian Brock, (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press Convent of the Incarnation, 1997), p15.

Voluntary Simplicity in the Bible

By W. David Holden

In the 20th and 21st centuries the practice of voluntary simplicity has rightly become a central virtue for Christians and others for whom social justice and environmental stewardship are vital concerns. The concept and practice of voluntary simplicity, however, are much older. Voluntary poverty has been a central tenet of monasticism since the days of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the fourth century. Voluntary poverty received renewed emphasis in the poverty movements of the Western Church in the late Middle Ages, most notably the asceticism of St. Francis of Assisi and his order of “lesser brothers.” The Mennonites, among whom are the Amish, and the Society of Friends (better known as Quakers) also made it a central practice of their traditions.

While the phrase “voluntary simplicity” is modern, the concept is to be found in the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity.

The writers of the Bible taught that human beings are to treat the earth as a garden, and in the past century it has become obvious that the earth will not be a garden for long if we continue to practice unbridled consumerism.

The Bible’s authors taught that wealthy people have obligations toward the poor. They also taught that gluttony, greed, and vainglory are obstacles in the relationship of human beings with God. These vices contradict Biblical teaching about wealth, which is always a gift to human beings from the boundless riches of God. They also refute the trust that the Lord will provide for human beings.

When researching biblical concepts, students customarily explore key words, in this case the terms “simple” and “simplicity” and the like, to see whether they refer to voluntary simplicity in a way similar to the way that phrase is used today.

The words “simple” and “simplicity” do in fact occur in English translations of the Bible, but they do not refer to voluntary simplicity in the sense that we have come to understand it in the past century. In the New Revised Standard Version, for example, the English word “simple” translates forms of the Hebrew word peti (). This word comes from a verb that means “open.” It refers to a person who is open to outside influences, whether for good or for bad. As an illustration of this meaning, Proverbs 14:15 reads, “The simple believe everything, but the clever consider their steps.” The same translation also has the adverb “simply” in three passages and the noun phrase “simple-minded” in one, but never in reference to the virtue of voluntary simplicity.

If the concept of voluntary simplicity is to be found in the Bible, it is more elusive than finding a word or word-family. If it is to be found, it must be embedded in other teachings. It seems to the present writer that it is found in three contexts: in the those passages that might be called the simplicity proverbs, in teachings about modesty, and teachings about quietness.

The Simplicity Proverbs:

The writers of the Bible taught the concept of voluntary simplicity in sayings in the wisdom literature that I call the simplicity proverbs. These are found in the books of Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach. All of these proverbs declare that it is better to live a simple life than to perpetuate some kind of evil. Here are four such proverbs.

Proverbs 15:16: “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it.” The fear of the Lord is, as Scripture says several times, the beginning of wisdom. The “trouble” referred to here is of a very particular kind. The Hebrew word is mehumah (), which refers to a tumult or uproar. The meaning here is perhaps indicated by Amos 3:9-10,10 which reads:

Proclaim to the strongholds of Ashdod, and to the strongholds in the land of Egypt, and say, “Assemble yourselves on Mount Samaria, and see what great tumults are within it, and what great oppressions are in its midst.” They do not know how to do right, says the Lord, Those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.

The point of the proverb is that obeying the divine commands to do justice to others may require one to lead a simple life.

Proverbs 17:1: “Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.” The second half of this proverb has been paraphrased in the New Revised Standard Version. The Hebrew literally says, “than a house full of the sacrifices of strife.” The ancient Israelites ate little meat. Livestock were more important for wool, milk, and work than for meat. To kill one’s livestock was unthrifty; one would do so only for good reasons. One reason to kill an animal was as an act of worship. When an animal was offered in sacrifice, the person who offered it usually ate it. Therefore, a house full of sacrifices would be a house full of feasting on choice food. But strife ruins any feast. The proverb means that a very simple meal, the merest mouthful of dry bread, when accompanied by some prosperity and peace and quiet, is to be preferred over delicacies with conflicts and legal disputes.

Psalm 37:16: “Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked.” (Septuagint: 36:16) The word for “wicked” (reshaim, ) can also be translated “cruel.” The proverb means that if a person obedient to God owns only a little bit, it is to be preferred to the wealth of many people who oppress others.

Ecclesiastes 4:6: “Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind.” The writer of Ecclesiastes seems to have regarded all work as no more meaningful than a child’s game of catching shadows. He said, “I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another.” While he may overstate his case, to the extent that envy motivates someone to work, his next observation is certainly on the mark: “This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.” The toil to which he refers is meaningless, pointless work. In this proverb the Septuagint is somewhat more literal in its understanding of the Hebrew than is the English. The Septuagint reads, “Better is a handful of rest than two handfuls of trouble and waywardness of spirit.” The meaning is that it would be better to have a single handful of anything than twice that much gained from a meaningless task.


The terms “modest” and “modesty” are rare in Scripture. They are not used in the New Revised Standard Version in its translation of the Hebrew Bible. The terms are used, however, to translate Greek terms in the books that Protestants call the Apocrypha and in the New Testament. Four Greek terms lie behind the English word, all of which may be translated with other English terms. Aidos in I Timothy 2:9 is a sense of shame; the cognate verb aideomai in II Maccabees 15:12 and IV Maccabees 8:3 means “to be ashamed to do something” or “to stand in awe, fear, or respect of someone.” These terms are used of both men and women: Paul in his letter to Timothy refers to the modesty of women, while the writers of the Books of Maccabees refer to the modesty of men. Another Greek term is aischynteros. which in Sirach 26:15 and 32:10 is an adjective meaning “bashful.” Also in Sirach (in 26:24) is the term euschemon, which means “elegant in figure,” “graceful,” or “becoming.” St. Paul uses the term for the virtue of temperance, sophrosyne, with the meaning of modesty in I Timothy 2:15.13
Clearly, the concept of voluntary simplicity can be derived from other teachings in the Scriptures. In the case of the teaching on modesty, however, St. Paul realized these implications himself. St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes” (I Timothy 2:9). The logic here is: If you are going to practice the virtue of modesty, then you must to some degree practice the virtue of voluntary simplicity. St. Peter gave a very similar instruction, but without referring directly to modesty. St. Peter, addressing the women in his churches, wrote, “Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight” (I Peter 3:3-4). In other words, if you wish to have a quiet and gentle spirit, then you must to some degree embrace voluntary simplicity.

Clearly, the concept of voluntary simplicity can be derived from other teachings in the Scriptures. In the case of the teaching on modesty, however, St. Paul realized these implications himself. St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes” (I Timothy 2:9). The logic here is: If you are going to practice the virtue of modesty, then you must to some degree practice the virtue of voluntary simplicity. St. Peter gave a very similar instruction, but without referring directly to modesty. St. Peter, addressing the women in his churches, wrote, “Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight” (I Peter 3:3-4). In other words, if you wish to have a quiet and gentle spirit, then you must to some degree embrace voluntary simplicity.

These verses, especially when combined with St. Paul’s teaching about the length of hair that is appropriate to the two sexes and to the propriety of a head covering for women, have fueled controversies about how men and women should dress, in church and elsewhere. Some Christian traditions have been very strict, insisting that women should never cut their hair, never do anything with it other than wash and comb it, and never wear any kind of jewelry or make-up. Other traditions have been less strict, but have still taught that male-female differences should be mirrored in dress and grooming. The questions raised are not merely relics of the ancient world. Modesty for both men and women is connected with the practice of voluntary simplicity. However cultures may differ on the details of modesty, the practice of voluntary simplicity as it is understood by the Apostles will be expressed in clothing as well as other aspects of ordinary life.


The simplicity and modesty texts already noted connect the virtue of living simply with the virtue of living quietly.

Proverbs 15:16: “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it.”

Proverbs 17:1: “Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.” The word translated “quiet” is not common in the Hebrew Bible. The word is shalvah and it refers to being in a state of quiet, abundance, prosperity, or peace. The Septuagint reads, “Better is a morsel with pleasure in peace [meth’ hedones en eirene].”The term in the Septuagint (and the concept in the Hebrew text) connects voluntary simplicity with peace and peacemaking, one of the central concepts of the theology and ethics of the entire Bible.
Psalm 37:16: “Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked.” Hamon is the Hebrew word translated “abundance.” The word also means “sound,” “murmur,” “rush,” or “roar.” It suggests loud and ostentatious wealth.

Ecclesiastes 4:6 contrasts quietness with trouble and futility: “Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil.” The author uses the Hebrew term nachat – more often translated “rest” than “quiet.” This noun is related to the verb nuach, which the Fourth Commandment uses in reference to the rest of the Lord after creating the world. The Septuagint translates that Hebrew word in Ecclesiastes with the Greek word anapausis, ordinarily translated “rest” in English. In the Fourth Commandment, the Septuagint uses a similar Greek term, katapauo. The Greek term in Ecclesiastes is also used in the great invitation of the Lord Jesus: “Come to Me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Ecclesiastes connects voluntary simplicity with the Sabbath, itself a foretaste of the Kingdom yet to come.
St. Peter, in his teaching on the dress appropriate to women, says that women should seek “the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (I Peter 3:4). The word translated “quiet” is the adjective hesychios. St. Paul used the verb related to this adjective when he said, “Aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands” (I Thessalonians 4:11). In other passages of the New Testament the English versions translate it and its cognates not only with the term “quiet,” but also with the terms “cease,” “hold one’s peace,” “rest,” “silence,” and “peaceable.” This term is especially beloved to Orthodox Christians, who have developed a profound system of prayer and ascetic practice around the cultivation of inner quietness.

Living quietly and simply are not, strictly and logically speaking, the same thing. It is possible for a person to live simply, but also very much in the public eye. But the passages under consideration teach that this is not ordinarily the case. Ordinarily people who seek to live simply will also seek to live quietly, out of the view of the public and the powerful. Voluntary simplicity is therefore not only about avoiding sin and wrongdoing and expressing solidarity with the poor. It is a way to embody peace and peacemaking, to anticipate the Sabbath rest of the coming Reign of God over the world, and a way to practice the deep silence of attentive listening to God.


No single word or phrase in the Bible teaches the concept of voluntary simplicity. Concepts are not always designated, however, by single words or phrases. Sometimes people hold to a concept without using these linguistic conveniences.

Voluntary simplicity is such a concept. Voluntary simplicity is taught in some of the proverbs and in connection with the concept of modesty. Furthermore, when the concept of voluntary simplicity is presented in the Bible, it is often connected with the concept of quietness, which itself has connections with the great Biblical themes of peace, Sabbath, and silence before God. In this light, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that while voluntary poverty may be a special calling, a way of life that only a few people are to follow, voluntary simplicity is a universal obligation for those who already live prosperously.

The slogan “Live simply, that others may simply live” and similar modern sayings are more than worthy sentiments. Living simply, from a biblical viewpoint, is an ethical obligation of a high order.

W. David Holden studied biblical languages at Duke University and received a Master of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. His spiritual journey brought him to Orthodoxy in August 1999. He is a professional counselor and clinical addictions specialist. He and his family live in the country outside Boone, North Carolina.

The Rich Young Man

by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” …. Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

– Matthew 1:16-24

In the Gospel story of the young rich man, the Lord warns us of how difficult it is for a man who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God. Does this mean that the Kingdom of God is open only to the destitute, to those who are materially poor, who lack everything on earth? No. The Kingdom of God is open to all who are not enslaved by possessions.

When we read the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” we are given a key to this saying: the poor in spirit are those who have understood that they possess nothing which is their own. We have been created as an act of God. We have been loved into existence.

We are offered by God communion with Him to which we have no right. All we are, all we possess, is not our own in the sense that we have not made ourselves, we did not create what is seemingly ours – everything which we are and which we have is love, the love of God and the love of people, and we cannot possess anything because everything is a gift that escapes us the moment we want to have possession of it and say, “It is mine.”

On the other hand, the Kingdom of God is really the kingdom of those who are aware that they are infinitely rich because we can expect everything from love divine and from human love. We are rich because we possess nothing. We are rich because we are given all things. So it is difficult for one who imagines that he is rich in his own right to belong to that kingdom in which everything is a sign of love, and nothing can be possessed – in which nothing can be taken away from others – because the moment we say that we possess something which is not given us either by God or by human care, we subtract it from the mystery of love.

On the other hand, the moment we cling to anything we become slaves of it.

I recall when I was young, a man telling me: “Don’t you understand that the moment you have taken a copper coin in your hand and are not prepared to open your hand to let it go, you have lost the use of a hand, the use of an arm, the use of your body, because all your attention is concentrated on not losing this coin?”

Whether we keep a copper coin in our hand, or whether we feel rich in so many other ways – intellectually, emotionally, materially – is irrelevant. We are prisoners. We have lost the use of a limb, the use of our mind, the use of our heart. We can no longer be free – and the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of freedom.

On the other hand also, how difficult it is to one who has never lacked anything, who has always possessed more than he needs, to be aware of the poverty or the need of another: poverty – material, emotional, intellectual, or any other lack. It requires a great deal of understanding and sympathy. It requires from us that we should learn to be attentive to the movements of other people’s hearts and to their material needs in order to respond to them.

There is a saying in Russian: “A satisfied person no longer understands a hungry one.”

Which of us can say that we are hungry in any respect? And this is why we do not understand the needs of people? Of those standing around us or of people beyond the confines of our congregation?

Poverty does not mean destitution; it means freedom from enslavement to an illusion that we are self-sufficient, self-contained, the creator of what we are and what we possess. It also means we are freed from enslavement to what is given us to make husbandmen of God.

Saint Paul said that whether he is rich or destitute, he is equally rich because his richness is in God and in human love. Let us reflect on this. Then we will be able, whether we possess material things or not, to be free of them, and to belong to God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom of mutual love, or mutual solidarity, of compassion for one another, of giving to one another what we were given freely.

From a sermon preached 18 August 1991. A collection of the writings and sermons of Metropolitan Anthony, Encounters, has been published by Darton Longman & Todd.

St. George the Great Martyr

True stories become legends and legends are compressed via symbols into myths. The St. George of myth was a knight in armor who fought a dragon to save a princess. The real George never saw a dragon nor did he rescue a princess in distress. We are not even sure he had a horse, possessed a sword, or was a soldier. It is possible he was a farmer – the name “George” means tiller of the soil, which explains why St. George is a patron saint of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.

A Christian convert who was born late in the third century after Christ and died early in the fourth century, George was one of the victims of the anti-Christian persecution ordered by the Emperor Diocletian that began in February of the year 303. Churches were destroyed and biblical texts burned. All Roman subjects were ordered to make ritual sacrifices to Rome’s gods. Those who refused risked loss of property and severe punishment. Many were sent into exile as slave laborers in quarries and mines in Egypt and Palestine. Thousands were tortured and many executed. Finally in 311 the attack ended. With Diocletian in retirement and the emperor Galerius critically ill and close to death, Galerius published an edict of toleration allowing Christians to restore their places of worship and to worship in their own way without interference, provided they did nothing to disturb the peace.

What made George a saint among saints was the fearless manner in which he proclaimed his faith during a period of persecution when many other Christians were hoping not to be noticed. According to one ancient account, George went to a public square and announced, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this George was arrested, tortured and finally beheaded. The probable date of his martyrdom is April 23, 303, in the town of Diospolis, later known as Lydda, in Asia Minor – Turkey as it is known today. His courageous witness led to the conversion of many and gave renewed courage to others already baptized.

In the oldest icons of St. George, he is shown dressed as a soldier and holding the cross of martyrdom.

It was only in later centuries that the dragon legend emerged. It has been told in many variations, but in its most popular form it concerns a dragon living in a lake who was worshiped by the unbaptized local people, who in their fear sacrificed their children to appease the creature. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, to be sacrificed. While going toward the dragon to meet her doom, Saint George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance. Afterward Elizabeth led the vanquished creature into the city.

According to the Legenda Aurea written by Blessed James de Voragine, the wounded dragon followed Elizabeth “as if it had been a meek beast and debonair.” Refusing a reward of treasure, George called on the local people to be baptized. The king agreed, also promising to maintain churches, honor the clergy, faithfully attend religious services, and show compassion to the poor.

– an extract from Praying with Icons (Jim Forest, Orbis Books)