The Resurrection of the Church in Albania

by Jim Forest

In the last decade, with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the Church in Albania has gone through dramatic changes. Albania was the first officially atheist state in the world. After 1967 all forms of religious expression, even prayer in one’s own home, were forbidden. Since the fall of communism, the Orthodox Church, the oldest and largest Christian community in Albania, has been transformed from a repressed church into a vibrant, rapidly growing and inspired force for renewal and reconciliation in the country.

Jim Forest’s narrative presents a fascinating historical background and an inspiring story of current church witness. The traditions and life of this fellowship, so clearly portrayed, will help educate the wider Christian community about Albania’s diverse religious life and also the role religion can play as a potential force for both healing and peace in the Balkan region.

The book is illustrated with 65 photos. A selection of the photos can be seen at the Albania report page.

The author: Jim Forest has written many books, including The Ladder of the Beatitudes, Confession: Doorway of Forgiveness, Praying with Icons and Religion in the New Russia. He is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of the quarterly journal In Communion.

Here are several chapters from the book:


World Council of Churches

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published August 2002, 128pp, illustrated.

ISBN: 2-8254-1359-3

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The book can be ordered via the WCC web site.

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Changing a society which has devalued women and de-humanized the unborn

correspondence with the Fellowship of Reconciliation on the issue of abortion

Open letter to members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation National Council

February 1998

Dear National Council Member,

The Fellowship of Reconciliation is not known for avoiding controversial issues. Since its founding it has supported those who refused to take part in war, even during periods when pacifism was regarded by many as treasonable. When racism was far more acceptable than it is today, FOR members launched campaign after campaign on behalf of interracial justice, playing an important and constructive role in changing the way Americans respond to each other. We have opposed executions no matter what the crime, how grim the circumstances and how seemingly unrepentant the murderer was. In nearly every area of life, the Fellowship’s role has never been simply to say no to violence but to seek life-affirming alternatives. Ever since our founding in 1914, we have promoted a vision of a nonviolent culture affecting nearly every area of life.

Yet there has been one notable area of avoidance. If a person knew nothing more about America than could be learned from statements and publications issued by the FOR or its program initiatives, he or she would have only the faintest awareness that the issue of abortion has divided the country for the past quarter century. So far, the FOR response has been to look the other way. The tragic irony is that one of the most pro-life organizations in US history says and does nothing to defend human life while in the womb or to support women under pressure to kill their unborn children.

The reason for this silence and passivity is that abortion is an issue dividing rather than uniting the FOR membership.

But is not passivity and silence in fact consent to abortion? If we had responded to any war or any area of social injustice with silence and without resistance, would anyone imagine we opposed what was happening or had a vision of a nonviolent alternative?

As a member of the FOR National Council, you belong of a community of people helping to give direction to the Fellowship of Reconciliation. We appeal to you to consider ways that the FOR can sensitize its members and friends to understand that, for some members of the FOR, the sanctity of human life, realized at every stage of life, is a constitutive dimension of pacifism. We believe the FOR could play a significant role in looking for ways to support women under pressure to have abortion and in the process help reduce the frequency of abortion. The FOR should promote dialogue, in small groups and via the pages of Fellowship magazine, to try to reach common ground on this critical issue.

Each of us began life in our mother’s womb and no doubt some of our mothers had a lonely struggle on our behalf in bringing us into this world. Let us see what we can do to make it a little easier for pregnant women to find the support and encouragement they need in a society which has de-valued women and de-humanized the unborn.

Yours in fellowship,

William Anderson, Faye Kunce, Shelley and Jim Douglass, Daniel Berrigan, Carol and Dick Crossed, Marie Dennis, Dan Ebener, Marie Dennis, Jim and Nancy Forest, David Grant, Anne McCarthy, Don Mosley, Will O’Brien, Anne Symens-Bucher, Richard Taylor, Jim Wallis [a few other names were later added]

* * *

on the stationery of the
Fellowship of Reconciliation
Box 271, Nyack, New York 10960
(914) 358/4601 / Fax: (914) 358/4924


Jim and Nancy Forest

Dan Ebener

March 5, 1999

Dear Jim, Nancy and Dan:

Last spring we received a letter from you, signed by eighteen persons, asking for FOR to deal with the issue of abortion in a way that seeks life-affirming alternatives and promotes the vision of a nonviolent culture. We are grateful for your concerns.

Your letter has been taken seriously by the National Council. We have entered into discussion at our subsequent Council meetings about this issue. Both in plenary sessions and in committee meetings we have sought to deal with this issue in a sensitive and compassionate way that recognizes the wide spectrum of belief about abortion, the areas of difference, as well as the areas of common concern. We have discovered and reaffirmed that persons in the FOR with varying views on abortion also share many of the same concerns and all are seeking to form opinions consistent with our shared reverence for life.

Attached is a working internal document that developed out of committee efforts over the past few months. It was discussed at the Council meeting February 26-March 1 and has been amended to reflect suggestions coming from further Council discussions. We send it to you and to others that have inquired about this issue to indicate where we are at this time. As we will be bringing it before the Council at our spring meeting in May, after further reflection, we request you not to circulate this but we are sending it to you to indicate the seriousness with which we have taken your original letter.

Yours in fellowship,

Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson
Vice Chairperson FOR National Council

* * *

attached to the letter of Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson:

Working Internal Document! Not for Circulation or Publication (3-3-99)

FOR National Council

On Recognizing and Respecting Diversity Regarding Abortion

The FOR is an interfaith, international fellowship of women and men who are committed to nonviolence and reconciliation. Coming from a wide variety of religious, national, and ethnic backgrounds, we share a common identity in our reverence for life and the search for nonviolent ways of attaining justice. We oppose killing, whether in war or capital punishment or personal violence.

There is, nonetheless, a wide variety of opinion among committed FOR members on the issue of abortion. Some believe that abortion, from the moment of conception on, is always wrong. They believe that embryonic life is the beginning of human life and therefore should be accorded full human rights. Their belief in nonviolence leads them to protect women and the unborn.

Others, equally committed to nonviolence, do not equate embryonic life with the life of the mother. They believe that, especially in the early months, fetal life should be put in a context that considers such things as the health of the mother, fetal deformity and pregnancy arising out of rape or incest. They believe the pregnant woman should make the difficult decision herself. To forbid her this decision would be to deny respect for the individual and the belief that all persons should be free to follow their own consciences and the leading of the spirit.

There are many gradations between the above beliefs in the FOR, as there are in the wider society. Many who support either a pro life or a pro choice position do not see a constitutional or legislative solution as the best effort. Amidst our differences there are areas of agreement that we share:

* we are deeply concerned about women and children and lament the tragic dimensions of abortion.

* we believe that men need to be called forth to responsibility on this issue.

* we believe that women who are pregnant deserve health care, adequate nutrition, shelter and freedom from violence.

* we affirm efforts to reduce violence against women and efforts to enhance family planning so that the frequency of abortions will be decreased.

* we see the feminization of poverty as an injustice that must be addressed

* we would all seek to protect women from being coerced into a decision for or against abortion and we believe that women should have adequate support during pregnancy from family and community

* we deplore killing of doctors and the threat of violence against abortion providers and their families and groups providing reproductive services.

We believe that there needs to be space for respectful dialogue and compassionate listening on this issue. Such an endeavor will help recognize the differences among us and enable us to respect one another and reduce the violence and hostility on this issue. This will help further Martin Luther King’s vision of the Beloved Community and the call to nonviolence and reconciliation that we have received from our elders Mohandas Gandhi, Muriel Lester, A.J. Muste, Andre and Magda Trocme.

* * *

March 10, 1999

Dear Lou Ann Ha’aheo,

Thank you for sharing with me the draft text on abortion that will be presented to the FOR Council in May.

Unfortunately I find in it no recognition that abortion inevitably involves killing human life and that it thus raises an essential issue for an organization dedicated to protecting human life and promoting nonviolence. I find in it no commitment by the FOR to take any action that would result in there being fewer abortions. It basically says: “Some see it this way, some see it that way, and we in the Fellowship of Reconciliation find both points of view equally acceptable.”

The summation of the views of opponents of abortion is oversimplified. I doubt any FOR member would say there is never a reason for abortion. As far as I know, all anti-abortion campaigners agree that abortion is permissible when the life of the mother is threatened. Thus they would not say that “abortion is always wrong.” I also think that few if any would use the phrase “embryonic life” but rather “life in the womb,” “the unborn child,” or something similar.

In the next paragraph there is this sentence: “To forbid her this decision would be to deny respect for the individual and the belief that all persons should be free to follow their own consciences and the leading of the spirit.”

Can you not easily think of situations in which this principle would not apply? If someone says he is following his conscience in shooting those who carry out abortions and is doing so at the leading of the spirit, would we not object? I’m sure many racist and anti-Semitic actions have been carried out by people who claimed they were obeying conscience.

The text states: “We believe that men need to be called forth to responsibility on this issue.” I would say yes, of course, but why are not both men and women in this sentence?

Could you explain to me the term “the feminization of poverty”? It’s new to me. Mind you, I live in Holland.

The text states: “We deplore killing of doctors and the threat of violence against abortion providers and their families and groups providing reproductive services.” I’m sure every FOR member, no matter what his opinions on abortion may be, opposes killing doctors, but the last two words are an inappropriate euphemism. In fact we’re talking about abortion services, the opposite of reproductive services.

One last question: When are you sending this draft text to the other 16 signers of the letter which led to the creation of the groups that drafted this text?

Once again, thank you for your efforts on this very tough issue. I hope we meet one day.

friendly greetings,

Jim Forest

cc: Dan Ebener, John Dear

[there was no reply]

* * *

Date: Wed, 24 Mar 1999 15:39:52 -0800
From: Dan Ebener
To: “Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson”
CC: Jim Forest , John Dear , Richard Deats , Bill Ditewig
Subject: Abortion statement

Lou Ann –

Thank you very much for your thoughtful response to our group’s pro-life letter concerning the FOR’s lack of position on abortion. I understand the situation that this issue puts you in is a tenuous one. Clearly, the FOR diversity on this issue seems reflective of the culture we live in. While we may not easily come to an agreement on abortion, it is good and just for us to dialogue about it. I have been actively involved in the most intense efforts at pro-life / pro-choice dialogue in the country, for the past three years. Out of this experience, I offer these reflections / observations:

1. I hope that we could express more clearly a critical understanding of how the search for love and truth can lead toward pro-life pacifism. (Clearly, the draft which we have received is a committee document, and for that, I can only wish you my condolences. My experiences with committee writings is that you get a lot breadth and little depth. This draft certainly reads like a committee document.)

2. The three sentences intended to express the pro-life position are very weak. It is a rather superficial expression of the pro-life position. I would be glad to re-write them completely. Better yet, they could be written out of a dialogue experience. I would be ashamed to show them to my pro-life friends in Iowa; in fact, my pro-choice friends (who are members of the FOR) here would be embarrassed for the FOR. (One of our experiences with the dialogue process is that you must be able to express the other person’s viewpoint to their satisfaction. Some of the pro-choice people here have become so articulate in expressing the pro-life position that we kid them that we want them to speak at our press conferences. Maybe they could write the pro-life section for us.)

3. I know of no pro-life person who uses phrases like “embryonic life” or “fetal life”. This is clearly pro-choice language. In our local Common Ground group, we have recognized that use of the word “fetus” is a pro-choice term, “unborn child” is the preferred description for pro-life people.

4. The 3 sentences describing the pro-life positions are qualified by phrases like “some believe” or “they believe”. The same is true for the pro-choice paragraph until the last sentence, which makes a very bold pro-choice statement without any qualification.

5. It is an over-simplification to assume that pro-life people oppose abortions in cases of rape and incest. In fact, almost every law and regulation governing abortion excludes these cases. That’s not where the real debate is, except among philosophers and theologians. Politically, it is often used as a “wedge” to polarize the issue, not to bring people together. It is the proliferation of “elective” abortions which is the common concern of most good-intentioned people. There is no mention of this in the draft.

6. Even Bill and Hilary Clinton agree that abortions should be rare. But there is no mention of whether the FOR believes that abortions should be rare. Was this considered?

7. To single out men as the only ones who need to be “called forth to responsibility on this issue” sounds like a loaded and un-explained statement. What does it mean? Should not the mother and father of the baby function as a team in responding to the crisis pregnancy? The role of men is often to push for and pay for the abortion, even when the mother does not want to abort. Perhaps what you could say is that abortion provides an easy way for men to act sexually irresponsible and destroy the consequences.

8. While most pro-life people do not promote the Human Life Amendment any longer as a realistic solution to abortion (it is too quick and too drastic), we do promote a range of legislative regulations which might place reasonable restrictions on abortion. The way I see it, the reason for the violence and inflammatory language is the same as in war: We have set up a paradigm where there has to be winners and losers. Right now, the pro-life side is losing. 26 years after Roe, the pro-life movement is stronger than it has ever been. It is not going to go away. It gets stronger every year. (If a Human Life Amendment was passed tomorrow, we would witness a huge growth in the pro-choice movement, along with more violence from the pro-choice side, just as we witnessed in the years just prior to Roe.) For the FOR to deny the possibility of further legislative solutions to the issue is to condemn the pro-life side to a losing future. The only way the pro-life side will rest its passion for this issue is for some progress to be made toward a more pro-life policy. To deny that possibility, as this draft does, is to condemn all of us to more violence.

9. To be consistent, if we are going to condemn violence against abortion providers, as we should, we should also condemn the violence occurring against Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which I would be glad to document for you. (As I’m sure you know, just because it doesn’t get reported in the secular media doesn’t mean it does not exist.) Again, we need to be balanced and fair in our statements. I realize most FOR people are probably unaware of the violence against pro-life leaders and CPC’s, but we all understand that this is becoming a civil war, and once a conflict reaches those proportions, we know that the violence goes both ways. The role of the FOR, of course, is to bridge the gaps and bring greater understanding to both sides of the humanity of the other.

10. Could we consider some action steps in the statement? Perhaps express more directly a call for dialogue and understanding?

The Iowa Common Ground group, which has been featured on ABC News, the Wall Street Journal, Harper’s magazine, and many other media, would be willing to facilitate a process of dialogue on this issue for the FOR. I understand that it may seem like an overwhelming issue. It is. But I believe that it is the basis for an undeclared civil war in this country, and if the FOR is opposed to war and committed to the search for truth and the resolution of conflict, we need to be willing to step into the middle of this.

I would be glad to be helpful in whatever role you want me to play.

As requested, I have not circulated the letter to anyone. I believe that the signers of our original letter deserve a response directly from Nyack, so I have not contacted them either. They are all members of FOR and the national office would have their current addresses.

Again, thanks for your response.

In peace,

Dan R. Ebener

ph. 319-324-1911 fax: 319-324-5811

[There was no reply.]

* * *

From: Nancy Forest-Flier, [email protected]
To: Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson, [email protected]
Jim Forest, [email protected]
Dan Ebener, [email protected]
Richard Deats, [email protected]
Date: 05-04-1999 5:23 PM

RE: response to FOR statement on abortion

Dear Lou Ann,

As I am one of the three people personally addressed by FOR’s “On Recognizing and Respecting Diversity Regarding Abortion,” I would like to register my reaction to it. First, I want to thank you for your work in putting this document together and in getting such a dialogue started. It cannot be easy working with a committee to arrive at a single statement on such a divisive issue. But I think it is essential that this work be done and that it continue.

I have read both Jim’s and Dan Ebener’s responses to the statement, and I basically agree with both of them. The section that professes to express the pro-life position is quite weak and almost stereotyped. The first statement about the pro-life position (“Some believe that abortion, from the moment of conception on, is always wrong”) is grossly un-nuanced; in fact I would think that all pro-life people who are FOR members are willing to accept abortion when the life of the mother is at stake. There are loaded words used that pro-life people would never use (“embryonic life,” for instance, in the next sentence).

Finally, as Dan points out, the last sentence of the pro-choice paragraph is made without qualification (“To forbid her this decision would be to deny respect for the individual and the belief that all persons should be free to follow their own consciences and the leading of the spirit”). The problem I have with this sentence is that actually it applies to both pro-life and pro-choice people, yet you confine it to the ranks of the pro-choice. Pro-life people also believe that women should be free to make a choice; that women who believe in the sanctity of life since the moment of conception should be free to bear their child in a child-supportive, family-supportive, woman-supportive environment. But this is often not the case. It is not uncommon for women to be forced to have abortions by their partners or their parents, even when they sense that it is wrong. They may be young, they may never have thought very much about whether they are pro-life or pro-choice, yet suddenly they are supposed to make this staggering decision. The basically pro-choice society around them does little or nothing to support them. If they decide to go ahead with the pregnancy, they may be rejected by their partner or parents, or worse. They may know nothing about Pregnancy Crisis Centers. For these women, and there are many of them, such a phrase would be nothing but cynical posturing. Like the cynicism inherent in William Styron’s book “Sophie’s Choice,” the word “choice” has a hollow ring to it when it means deciding which of your children you are going to have killed.

You may be familiar with groups such as Pro-Life Feminists. These people see abortion more as a convenient way of society avoiding responsibility for women, children and families and for allowing men to behave in a way that is sexually irresponsible. The question for them is not only whether human life begins at conception, but whether the social problems that abortion represents should be offered only one solution: that woman endure a deeply invasive medical procedure that may have an enormous psychological impact on them for the rest of their lives.

I do not live in America, and the “civil war” that Dan talks about it distant from me. In Holland, where we live, the abortion rate is the lowest in the industrial world. This, the Minister of Health recently said, is something we are proud of. If lowering the abortion rate is enough to make a Minister of Health proud, then it must be worth pursuing. Holland is a country that has excellent sex education for young people, considerable social support for families, good medical coverage for everyone, and a major pro-life organization that prefers to help women in a non-accusatory, non-strident way. Perhaps the abortion rate of a country is a strong indication of that country’s social health. Look at Russia, where the abortion rate is soaring.

Finally, I wonder whether the title of the statement, “On Recognizing and Respecting Diversity Regarding Abortion,” doesn’t fail to recognize that there is a real problem here. It’s very nice to recognize and respect diversity, but the FOR also probably recognizes and respects diversity on many other issues — vegetarianism, for instance, or spanking your children, or use of alcohol or soft drugs. Should the FOR pat itself on the back for recognizing and respecting diversity on an issue that, unlike these others, is tearing the country apart?

I’d like to know whether the statement has been sent to the other signers of our letter. They should be made aware of how this discussion is progressing.

Finally, I hope that you take Dan Ebener up on his offer to be of assistance in this discussion.

Again, thank you for all you are doing.

Sincerely yours,

Nancy Forest

[There was no reply.]

* * *

On May 24, 1999, the following statement was approved by the Fellowship of Reconciliation National Council:

The FOR and Abortion

The FOR is an interfaith, international fellowship of women and men who are committed to nonviolence and reconciliation. Coming from a number of religious, national and ethnic backgrounds, we share a common identity in our reverence for life and the search for nonviolent ways of attaining justice.

There is a wide variety of opinion among committed FOR members on the issue of abortion and the beginning of human life. We have observed integrity and sincerity in members who are led to very divergent convictions on this issue, and we affirm and respect their place within the FOR.

Amidst our differences there are areas of agreement that we share:

* we are deeply concerned about women and children.

* we believe that women who are pregnant deserve health care, adequate nutrition, shelter and freedom from violence.

* we affirm efforts to reduce violence against women in a society where oppression of women, male domination and the open promotion of the subordination of women continue.

* we support efforts to enhance family planning so that the frequency of abortions will be decreased.

* we see the feminization of poverty as an injustice that must be addressed.

* we believe that women should have adequate support from family and community during and after pregnancy, and that men should be called to responsibility on this issue.

* we deplore murder and bombings directed at women’s health care clinics and their health care providers.

We believe that there needs to be space for mutually respectful dialogue and compassionate listening on this issue. Such an endeavor will help recognize the differences among us and enable us to respect one another and reduce the violence and hostility on this issue. This will help further Martin Luther King’s vision of the Beloved Community and the call to nonviolence and reconciliation.


* * *

to John Dear, executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation

June 19, 1999

Dear John,

In January, I wrote to you that I was considering resigning from the FOR because of its unwillingness or inability to recognize abortion as another form of murder similar in character to other acts of killing the FOR has opposed, or to make any initiative that would make abortion less common. You responded by asking me to hang in a bit longer in order to allow time for a dialogue on abortion at the February National Council meeting. You also asked how I could resign when the FOR has “a seamless garment advocate at the helm.”

Last night, after receiving the FOR National Council statement on abortion, it was clear to me that it was impossible any longer to remain an FOR member in the hope that the kind of change might occur which would renew my sense of connection. Thus my letter of resignation last night.

You mentioned in your letter that there would be a process of dialogue. I have to say I have had no experience of such a dialogue. I helped to write and was one of the signers of a letter to National Council members on the subject of abortion in which possible areas of FOR response were proposed — I attach a copy. So far as I am aware, only three of the letter signers (Nancy, Dan Ebener and myself) ever had a personal response to our letter. This came from Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson, vice chairperson FOR National Council. She sent us a draft text of a proposed declaration on abortion. She asked us not to send this to other signers of the letter. All three of us wrote back to her, among other things asking why those other FOR members who shared our concern were not allowed to see the draft. There was no response to this question or any reply to any of the more substantial comments any of us had made.

Did members of the National Council see our responses to that draft? What we said seems, so far as I can tell, to have had no influence at all in the text approved by the NC.

Is this dialogue?

It’s now 38 year since I joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I was 20 years old and living on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. I had lately left the US Navy as a conscientious objector and had become part of the Catholic Worker community (a movement that had come into existence in part because of Dorothy Day’s need to repent of an abortion she had had when she was a younger woman, though it wasn’t until I wrote a biography of Dorothy in the mid-80s that I became aware both of her abortion and its later impact on her life).

What drew me to join the FOR in the first place? Partly it was simply friendship with a staff member, John Heidbrink, who had the title Church Work Secretary. In those years membership in the FOR was probably 90-95 percent Protestant Christian. John was actively reaching out to Catholics, people like Merton, Dan Berrigan and Dorothy Day. Somehow he also wrote to me. I was excited to find a Protestant minister with such a warm heart for Catholics, something that wasn’t at all common in those pre-ecumenical years. I also came to appreciate John. He showered me with books and in many ways widened my world. We became good friends, a friendship that has lasted all these years. In 1964, he made it possible for me to take part in a small FOR group traveling to Paris, Rome, Basel, Prague and Moscow, a life-changing journey for me. He played a major role in the creation of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which during the Vietnam War brought many hundreds of Catholics into FOR membership. It was partly thanks to the CPF that the Catholic Church produced so many thousands of conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War.

But it wasn’t only friendship with John, and later with other staff members, that made me so deeply respect the FOR. Here was an organization that recognized the sanctity of life in a remarkable and consistent way, working tirelessly to overcome all those forces which make people enemies to each other. Agreeing fully with General Sherman’s observation that “war is hell,” the FOR encouraged people not to go to hell. It also opposed capital punishment, even in that less violent time by no means a popular position in the US. It struggled to overcome racial prejudice and injustice. It was not uncommon for Fellowship members to risk imprisonment and even violence against themselves in their effort not so much to force change but to change people. Its nonviolence was not merely something negative but what Gandhi called satyagraha: the power of truthful living.

My involvement with the FOR led me to three periods of FOR employment, first as Interfaith Associate, later as Vietnam Program Secretary, then in the mid-70s (not long after getting out of prison) as editor of Fellowship magazine, a job I left at the beginning of 1977 when I was appointed to head the IFOR in Holland. In the 11 years since leaving the IFOR staff in 1988, I’ve spent a great deal of time helping build the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. (It was experiences in Russia while working for IFOR that led me from an academic interest in the Orthodox Church to become an Orthodox Christian.) I’ve spent most of my adult life working for the FOR or its associated groups. Such a long commitment makes it not so easy to resign.

When I joined the FOR in 1961, I hardly knew there was such a thing as abortion. It wasn’t an issue I can recall people either in the Church or in any peace group discussing. It wasn’t until later in the decade, with the emergence of the women’s movement, that the issue came up. Part of an emerging consensus among feminists at that time was that a woman should not be forced to bear a child. Put that way, I couldn’t help but agree. There was at the same time growing concern about the “population explosion” — the planet and all creation was under threat because of too many human beings. The case seemed to me, as it did to many others, convincing — and it gave another reason to support abortion, not only as a woman’s right but as a way not to overfill the human lifeboat. The Catholic Church was at that time the only loud voice in society taking an opposing view and even I, a Catholic, wasn’t convinced by what the Church had to say on the subject. I was among those smiling at such one-liners as: “If priests were the ones to get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

On the other hand, I would be caricaturing myself if I said that I was an eager supporter of abortion. It seemed to me, at best, a tragic choice. I had to agree with the traditional Christian view that human life begins at the beginning — that we are no less human in the womb than out of it — and that the killing of an unborn human being was never something to cheer about. Nor could I accept the rhetoric that very often was applied to the unborn — “a clump of cells” — or the tendency among the more articulate to use technical words (embryo, etc.) to depersonalize and dehumanize the unborn.

It was only when the FOR was seriously considering expulsion of the Catholic Peace Fellowship from its list of associated groups — this because of a statement it had issued opposing abortion — that I was finally forced, reluctantly, to realize that I was letting peer group pressure get the better of me, overwhelming both truth and conscience. I began to realize that the minimum one could do was to actively look for ways to help those who were under pressure to have an abortion — and quickly discovered how much even the smallest gesture of support could mean to a pregnant woman.

During that period, the war in Vietnam came to its sudden end. Preparing the June 1975 issue of Fellowship, I wrote to a number of FOR members who had played a major role in the movement against the war, asking them to write briefly “on lessons learned … and the ways in which we can better become a peacemaking community within the world’s most violence-prone society.” Among those to respond was Dan Berrigan, your brother Jesuit priest, who had spent part of the war in prison. At the time he was teaching in Detroit and could see, he related, a billboard out the classroom window that read, “Abortions,” and provided a phone number. Dan said that whenever he looked at this sign, he recalled a question Bonhoeffer had asked: “How are the unborn to live?” The billboard made abortion seem as normal an activity as delivering groceries or selling used cars. At the time, Dan wrote, “nearly two-million nearly-born people in our midst have been so disposed of.” He went on to ask a series of questions, one of which was what can we do to “help everyone walk into the full spectrum and rainbow of life, from womb to old age, so that no one is expendable?”

Would that the National Council statement on abortion had opened with such a question and attempted to answer it!

For the last few years I have in various ways tried to raise this issue once again within the FOR, chiefly through correspondence with members of staff, finally joining with other FOR members in writing to members of the National Council, asking them “to consider ways that the FOR can sensitize its members and friends to understand that, for some members of the FOR, the sanctity of human life, realized at every stage of life, is a constitutive dimension of pacifism.” We expressed our belief that “the FOR could play a significant role in looking for ways to support women under pressure to have abortion and in the process help reduce the frequency of abortion.” We made a few modest suggestions for what the FOR could do, such as “promote dialogue, in small groups and via the pages of Fellowship magazine, to try to reach common ground on this critical issue.” In the spectrum of pro-life writings, our observations and suggestions could hardly have been more mild. But none of them have made their way into the NC statement.

I have been asked, “Isn’t it enough that we agree about certain things — let us hold together with our areas of agreement and not concentrate in our disagreements.” In general I am prepared to say yes. But for a fellowship of reconciliation (the lower case letters are intentional) not to be shocked at abortion and to fail to respond to it in a constructive way, undercuts the most basic point of all: that at no stage in life are human beings appropriate targets of violence, least of all in the womb.

This also raises the question as to whether the Orthodox Peace Fellowship should remain an associated group within the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I believe it should not and will be propose to our officers and board of advisors that we end this alliance.

This is already too long a letter. Let me end it simply by slightly revising Bonhoeffer’s question: “What can we do to help the unborn –and their mothers — to live?”

in Christ’s peace,


PS Though this is a letter first of all to you, John, I hope you don’t mind that I will be sharing it with other FOR members, hoping that it will help them better understand my reasons for resigning.

attachments: 1) group letter to the FOR National Council 2) draft text on abortion from NC working group 3) responses to that draft from myself, Nancy Forest-Flier and Dan Ebener 4) the text issued by the NC on May 24

[No reply was received.]

* * *

to Richard Deats
editor of Fellowship magazine and senior FOR executive staff member

From: Nancy Forest-Flier, forest_flier
To: Richard Deats, [email protected]
cc: John Dear, [email protected]
Date: 20-06-1999 11:22 PM
RE: abortion statement

20 June 1999

Dear Richard,

Thank you for sending the FOR statement “The FOR and Abortion”. You already have Jim’s response. I have been struggling with the contents of the statement and my own response to it for a few days now. I have been surprised with the depth of emotion that this exercise has revealed. I joined the FOR in 1974 — 25 years ago — and I recently turned 50, which means I have spent half my life as an FOR member. Jim and I met at the FOR in Nyack. Our first years here in Alkmaar were deeply entrenched in the FOR community both here and abroad. So trying to deal with the impact that this statement has had on me has meant some long, hard thinking about how much the FOR has been part of my life.

I understand that the statement on abortion is an attempt to search for areas of agreement. This is certainly admirable. At least now we know what the foundation is. But as I read down the list of articles, I realize that there is nothing in any of them indicating a courageous support of the “reverence for life”, which the first paragraph claims to be a basic part of membership in the FOR. Who indeed could not fail to agree with any of these points? You don’t have to be an FOR member, or even a pacifist, to agree with them. Having “concern” for women and children is something we expect of any normal person. The same is true for the rest of the statement. Is there any special way that the FOR, because of its “reverence for life” and aspiration for Martin Luther King’s “beloved community”, has something new and courageous to say to the world about this most important subject?

If the FOR’s aspirations were any less (say, like those of an environmental organization like Greenpeace), I would say, certainly the membership is divided on the issue of abortion. And I could live with that. But FOR’s aspirations are profound and very broad. They are nothing short of the search for truth, the establishment of a “beloved community” based on nonviolence, respect and justice.

Again, if abortion were any less of any issue (say, like vegetarianism), I would say every person is free to follow his or her own conscience. But whether you believe the unborn child is actually a child or simply a clump of cells, abortion is violent. It is profoundly violent. And no matter how I turn it, I cannot reconcile FOR’s high aspirations with this violence. I cannot. I cannot relativize the issue and say, it all depends on how you look at it. We are talking about violence and death here. Something (whatever it was) was once alive, and now it is dead, and it is dead because it was intentionally destroyed.

When I work all this into my own spiritual development, I realize that I cannot be part of a group that relativizes this issue. I cannot say on the one hand that abortion is a grievous sin, and on the other hand say “but it’s only a sin for me, because I’m an Orthodox Christian, it may not be a sin for you.” I must throw the weight of my entire life, my entire soul, my mind and my strength behind this truth and say it is a sin for everyone, no matter who they are. Otherwise my pursuit of truth is a joke, my prayers are empty, my confessions are hollow.

This is hard for me to get around. It has hit me right between the eyes these past two days. I fear that you will receive this news from me and from Jim and will say, they didn’t get what they wanted so they’re picking up their marbles and going home. But I implore you to realize that this is not the case. The fact is that I cannot be a member of an organization that claims to revere life on the one hand and then says that abortion has nothing to do with universal truth.

Richard, I am so, so saddened by this. I have felt myself growing further and further from the FOR in the last ten years. Even so, to make a definitive break, which almost seemed inevitable, is very hard. Yet I cannot continue with my membership.

love and peace,


[There was no reply.]

* * *

John Dear
Executive Secretary
Fellowship of Reconciliation
Box 271

Nyack, NY

December 4, 1999

Dear John,

This is not a letter I have been looking forward to writing but no doubt you have been expecting it.

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship will be ending its formal association with the Fellowship of Reconciliation as soon we have a US account operating, which seems almost certain to occur by the end of the month.

This follows a decision made within OPF not to affiliate ourselves with organizations which do not promote a consistent pro-life ethic. This would include attention to the unborn and their mothers, who often resort to abortion not so much from choice but under intense social or, in some countries, even legal pressure. The recent FOR National Council statement made it clear that the FOR and OPF take a very different view on this matter, which for us is central to our reason for being: protection of human life at every stage of development, from the womb to the death bed.

We will welcome opportunities to cooperate with the FOR on specific projects of common interest, insofar as we are able. The informal link is unbroken. We greatly admire many areas of FOR achievement and activity.

in Christ’s peace,

Jim Forest
Orthodox Peace Fellowship

* * *

Getting From There to Here

by Jim Forest

jim forest (1)
Jim Forest in Oxford

My parents were people radically out of step with the America of the cold-war fifties. In those days they both belonged to the Communist Party. I was a “red-diaper baby.” Yet religious inspiration played a major part in the lives of my parents as long as I can remember.

An orphan raised by a Catholic farming family in western Massachusetts, my father became active in the local Catholic parish, serving as an altar boy. Inspired by a saintly pastor, he was preparing to become a priest. But the old priest was sent to another parish and his successor was a rigid man who ordered my father to resign from the local Protestant-sponsored Boy Scout troop. His strict eyes picking out my father at Mass on Sunday, he preached against Catholic contact with those who were not in communion with Rome. My father walked out on Mass that day and never returned. Yet I gradually became aware that underneath the bitterness he had acquired toward Catholicism was grief at having lost contact with a Church which, in many ways, had shaped his conscience. Far from objecting to my own religious awakenings, he cheered me along.

My mother had been raised in a devout Methodist household but was also disengaged from religion. When I was eight, I recall asking her if there was a God and was impressed by the remarkable sadness in her voice when she said there wasn’t. Some years later she told me she had lost her faith while a student at Smith College when a professor she admired told her that religions were only myths but were nonetheless fascinating to study. Again, as she related the story, I was struck by the sadness in her voice. Why such sadness?

I wonder if my parents’ love of wild life and wilderness areas had to do with a sense of God’s nearness in places of natural beauty? For their honeymoon, they had walked a long stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Our scrap books were full of photos Dad had taken of national parks, camps sites, and forest animals. Mother used to say that Dad was a wonderful hunter, except the only thing he could aim at an animal was a camera. The idea of owning a gun was anathema to both of them.

They had a similar reverence for human beings, especially those in need or in trouble. In this regard they were more attentive to the Gospel than many who are regularly in church. Christ taught that what you do for the least person you do for him even though you may not realize it or believe in him. In this regard, my parents were high on the list of those doing what God wants us to do even if their concern for the poor had led them away from churches and into the political left. A great deal of their time went into helping people.

While I often felt embarrassed coming from a family so different from others in the neighborhood, my spiritual life was influenced by my parents’ social conscience far more than I realized at the time. They helped make me aware that I was accountable not only for myself, my family, and friends, but for the down-and-out, the persecuted, and the unwelcome.

My parents were divorced when I was five. Afterward my mother, younger brother and I moved from Colorado to New Jersey. Our new home was in the area in which my mother had grown up, though not the same neighborhood as her wealthy parents (both were dead by the time of her return).

Mother’s identification with people on the other side of the tracks had brought us to live on the other side of the tracks, in a small house in a mainly black neighborhood where indoor plumbing was still unusual and many local roads still unpaved. One neighbor, Libby, old as the hills and black as coal, had been born in slavery days. Earlier in her life she had worked in my grandparents’ house.

Among my childhood memories is going door-to-door with my mother when she was attempting to sell subscriptions to the Communist paper, The Daily Worker. I don’t recall her having any success. This experience left me with an abiding sympathy for all doorbell ringers.

We received The Daily Worker ourselves. It came in a plain wrapper without a return address. Occasionally Mother read aloud articles that a child might find interesting. But as the cold winds of the “McCarthy period” began to blow, the time came when, far from attempting to sell subscriptions, the fact that we were on its mailing list began to worry Mother. It was no longer thrown away with the garbage like other newspapers but was saved in drawers until autumn, then burned bit by bit with the fall leaves.

One of the nightmare experiences of my childhood was the trial and electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple accused of helping the Soviet Union obtain US atomic secrets. My parents were convinced that the Rosenbergs were scapegoats whose real crimes were being Jews and Communists. Their conviction, Mother felt, was meant to further marginalize American Communists, along with other groups critical of US structures, for the government wasn’t only after “reds” but “pinkos.” The letters the Rosenbergs sent to their children from prison were published in The Daily Worker and these Mother read to my brother and me. How we wept the morning after their death as she read the press accounts of their last minutes of life.

Music was part of our upbringing. Mother hadn’t much of a voice, but from time to time sang with great feeling such songs as “This Land is Your Land,” “Joe Hill” and “The Internationale” with its line, “Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the earth, for justice thunders condemnation, a better’s world’s in birth.” On our small wind-up 78 rpm record player, we played records of Paul Robeson, the Weavers, Burl Ives (who was a bit to the left in those days), and, of course, Pete Seeger. From these recordings I also learned many spirituals. The music of the black church was the one acceptable source of religion in the American left. I sometimes heard spirituals when I walked slowly past a nearby black church.

Despite my mother’s alienation from religion, she missed the Methodist Church in which she had been raised. During the weeks surrounding Easter and Christmas, her religious homesickness got the best of her and so we attended services, sitting up in the church balcony. One year she sent my brother and me to the church’s summer school. While this was a help for her as a working mother (she was a psychiatric social worker at a mental hospital), I have no doubt she hoped my brother and I would soak up the kind of information about the deeper meaning of life that she had received as a child.

The minister of the church, Roger Squire, was an exceptional man whose qualities included a gift for noticing people in balconies and connecting with children. His occasional visits to our house were delightful events. Only as an adult did it cross my mind how remarkable it was that he would make it a point to come into our neighborhood to knock on the kitchen door of a home that contained not church-goers but a Communist.

One of the incidents that marked me as a child was the hospitality of the Squire family to two young women from Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had survived the nuclear bombing but were badly scarred. American religious peace groups had brought them and others to the United States for plastic surgery and found them temporary homes in and near New York City not an easy undertaking for the hosts in the fifties when the word “peace” was almost a synonym for “Communism” and when many people had no desire to think about, not to say see with their own eyes, what American nuclear bombs had done to actual people. In fact, I could only guess at the results myself, as the two women were draped with veils of silk. I had an idea of faces partly melted. Through the Squires’ guests, I learned about the human cost of war and the effects of nuclear weapons, and through the Squire family I had a sturdy idea of what it meant to conform one’s life to the Gospel rather than to politics and the opinions of neighbors.

Yet the Methodist Church as such didn’t excite me. While I prized Rev. Squire and enjoyed the jokes he sprinkled in sermons to underline his points, long-time sitting was hard work for a child. I felt no urge to be baptized. Neither was I won over by the nearby Dutch Reformed Church which for some forgotten reason I attended for a few weeks or months and which I remember best for its unsuccessful attempt to get me to memorize the Ten Commandments.

The next big event in my religious development was thanks to a school friend inviting me to his church in Shrewsbury. It was among the oldest buildings in our region, its white clapboard scarred with musket balls fired in the Revolutionary war. The blood of dying soldiers had stained the church’s pews and floor, and though the stains could no longer be seen, it stirred me to think about what had happened there.

What engaged me still more was the form of worship, which was altar rather than pulpit centered. It was an Episcopal parish in which sacraments and ritual activity were the main events. (Being a parent has helped me realize that ritual is something that children naturally like; for all the experiments we make as children, we are born conservatives who want our parents to operate in predictable, patterned, reliable ways. We want meals to be on the table at a certain time and in a specific way, and in general like to know what to expect. We want the ordinary events of life to have what I think of now as liturgical shape.)

The parish was “high church” — vestments, acolytes, candles, processions, incense, liturgical seasons with their special colors, fast times, plain chant, communion every Sunday. I got a taste of a more ancient form of Christianity than I had found among Methodists. I loved it and for the first time in my life wanted not just to watch but to be part of it. It was in this church that, age nine or ten, I was baptized. I became an acolyte (thus getting to wear a bright red robe with crisp white surplice) and learned to assist the pastor, Father Lavant, at the altar. I learned much of the Book of Common Prayer by heart and rang a bell when the bread and wine were being consecrated. In Sunday school after the service I learned something of the history of Christianity, its sources and traditions, with much attention to Greek words. I remember Father Lavant writing Eucharist on the blackboard, explaining it meant thanksgiving, and that it was made up of smaller Greek words that meant “well” and “grace.” The Eucharist was a well of grace. He was the sort of man who put the ancient world in reaching distance.

But the friendship which had brought me to the church in the first place disintegrated sometime that year. I no longer felt welcome in my friend’s car, and felt awkward about coming to their church under my own steam though it would have been possible to get there by bike.

Perhaps the reason the car-door no longer opened to me was my friend’s parents became aware of our family’s political color. Given the times, it would have been hard not to know.

I had little grasp of the intense political pressures Americans were under, though I saw the same anti-communist films and television programs other kids saw and was painfully aware that my parents were “the enemy” — the people who were trying to subvert America — though I couldn’t see a trace of this happening among the real live Communists I happened to know.

It was about that time that the FBI began to openly exhibit its interest in us, interviewing many of the neighbors. One day, while Mother was out, two FBI agents came into our house and finger-printed my brother and me. Such were the times.

My father’s arrest in 1952 in St. Louis, where he was then living, was page-one news across America. Dad faced the usual charge against Communists: “conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence.” I doubt many read this hair-raising assembly of phrases closely enough to notice that in fact the accused were not being charged with any violent or revolutionary actions or even with advocating such activities, but with being part of a conspiracy to advocate them.

The afternoon of Dad’s arrest, my Uncle Charles drove up to our house, came to the door, and yelled at my mother while waving a newspaper that had the banner headline: Ten Top Reds Arrested in Missouri. He stormed off the porch, got back into his car, a black Buick, and drove away. I never saw him again. Until then he had been a frequent visitor though I was aware Mother took pains to avoid political topics when we were with him.

Dad was to spend half a year in prison before being bailed out. Several years passed before the charges against him were finally dropped.

While it was never nearly as bad for dissenters in the US as it was in the USSR — no gulag, no summary executions, no Stalin — nonetheless I have come to feel a sense of connection with the children of religious believers in Communist countries; they too know what it is like to have their parents vilified by the mass media and imprisoned by the government.

Though it was bad enough that Dad was in prison, I was still more aware of the pressures my mother was facing. The FBI had talked with her employers. Many Communists were losing or had lost their jobs; she took it for granted it would happen to her as well. This expectation was a factor in her not buying a car until well after my brother and I were full-grown, even though we lived pretty far off the beaten track. She took the bus to work and back again, or found colleagues who could give her a lift. When I pleaded with her to get a car, she explained we shouldn’t develop needs that she might not be able afford in the future.

Her only hope of keeping her job was to give her employers no hook on which to justify dismissal. Night after night for years she worked at her desk writing case histories of patients with whom she was involved. No matter how sick she might be, she never missed a day of work, never arrived late, never left early. I doubt that the State of New Jersey ever got more from an employee than they got from her. And it worked. She wasn’t fired.

My religious interest went into recess. Within a year or two I was trying to make up my mind whether I was an atheist or an agnostic. I decided on the latter, because I couldn’t dismiss the sense I often had of God being real. Like my parents, I loved nature, and nature is full of news about God. Wherever I looked, whether at ants with a magnifying glass or at the moon with a telescope, everything in the natural order was awe-inspiring, and awe is a religious state of mind. Creation made it impossible to dismiss God. But it was a rather impersonal God — God as prime move rather than God among us.

It wasn’t until 1959, when I was turning 18, that I began to think deeply about religion and what God might mean in my life.

At the turning point in his life, St. Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus. The equivalent moment in my own life is linked to a more prosaic setting: Saturday night at the movies. Just out of Navy boot camp, I was studying meteorology at the Navy Weather School at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The film at the base theater happened to be The Nun’s Story, based on the autobiography of a young Belgian who entered a convent and later worked at a missionary hospital in the African Congo. In the end, the nun (played by Audrey Hepburn) became an ex-nun. Conscience was at the heart of the story: conscience leading a young woman into the convent and eventually leading her elsewhere, but never away from her faith. I later discovered the film was much criticized in the Catholic press for its portrayal both of loneliness and of the abuse of authority in religious community.

If it had been Hollywood’s usual religious movie of The Bells of St. Mary’s variety, it would have had no impact on my life. But this was a true story, well-acted and honestly told, and without a happy ending, though in the woman’s apparent failure as a nun one found both integrity and faith. Against the rough surface of the story, I had a compelling glimpse of the Catholic Church with its rich and complex structures of worship and community.

After the film I went for a walk, heading away from the buildings and sidewalks. It was aware, clear August evening. Gazing at the stars, I felt an uncomplicated and overwhelming happiness such as I had never known. This seemed to rise up through the grass and to shower down on me in the starlight. I felt I was floating on God’s love like a leaf on water. I was deeply aware that everything that is or was or ever will be is joined together in God. For the first time in my life, the blackness beyond the stars wasn’t terrifying.

I didn’t think much about the film itself that night, except for a few words of Jesus that had been read to the novices during their first period of formation and which seemed to recite themselves within me as I walked: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have great treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.”

I went to sleep that night eager to go to Mass. I knew I wanted to be a Christian and was strongly drawn to the Catholicism.

The next morning I went to a nearby Catholic church but found the Mass disappointing. I feel like an anthropologist observing a strange tribal rite. I had only a vague idea what was happening. There seemed little connection between the priest and the congregation. Most of the worship was in mumbled, hurried, automatic Latin, except for the sermon, which probably I would have preferred had it been in Latin. People in the pews seemed either bored or were concentrating on their rosaries. At least they knew when to sit, stand, and kneel. I struggled awkwardly to keep up with them. At the end of Mass, there was no exchange of greetings or further contact between people who had been praying together. Catholic worship seemed to have all the intimacy of supermarket shopping.

Still resolved to become a Christian, I started looking for a church where there was engagement and beauty and at least something of what I had hoped to find in Catholicism. The Anglo-Catholic segment of the Episcopal Church, which I had begun to know as a child, seemed the obvious choice, and it happened that another sailor at the Weather School had been part of a high church parish. He shared his Book of Common Prayer with me and in the weeks that followed we occasionally read its services of morning and evening prayer together.

After graduating, I spent a two-week Christmas leave in an Episcopal monastery on the Hudson River not far from West Point, a joyous experience in which I thought I had found everything I was hoping for in the Catholic Church: liturgy, the sacraments, and a religious community that combined prayer, study and service. Stationed with a Navy unit at the Weather Bureau in Washington, DC, I joined a local Episcopal parish, St. Paul’s, which the monks had told me about.

Those months were full of grace. So why am I not writing an essay on “Why I am an Episcopalian”? One piece of the answer is that I had never quite let go of the Catholic Church. I could never walk past a Catholic church without stopping in to pray. A hallmark of the Catholic Church was that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved on or near the altar awaiting anyone who came in. Its presence meant this wasn’t just a room that came to life from time to time but a place where many of the curtains that usually hide God were lifted, even if you were the only person present. The doors of Catholic churches always seemed open.

Another factor were books that found their way into my hands Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

There were negative elements as well. One of these was an experience at the Episcopal monastery I occasionally visited. On the last day of an Easter stay one of the monks asked to see me. Once in the visiting room, he pulled me into a closet and embraced me. I struggled free and left the monastery in great confusion. Back in Washington, I wrote to the prior of the community, telling him what had happened. His reply wasn’t helpful. He might have pointed out that monks, like everyone else, suffer loneliness and have sexual longings of one sort or another and sometimes don’t manage it very well. Rather he said that homosexuality was often an indication of a monastic vocation. As my own sexual orientation was of the more common variety, I wondered if the prior meant I wasn’t the right sort of person to be visiting. After his letter, I had no desire to return. The experience underscored my growing doubts about remaining in the Episcopal Church.

Yet I still had reservations about becoming Catholic and so began to explore the varieties of Christianity in Washington, visiting every sort of church, black and white, high and low. Among them was a Greek Orthodox cathedral, but it seemed a cool, unwelcoming place; I sensed one had to be Greek to be a part of it. I returned several times to the black church on the campus of Howard University, a friendly place with wonderful singing, but felt that, as a white person, I would always be an outsider. If I could have changed skin color by wishing, I would have turned black in the Howard chapel.

As the weeks went by I came to realize that the Catholic churches I so often stopped in to pray were places in which I felt an at-homeness I hadn’t found anywhere else. On November 26,1960, after several months of instruction, I was received into the Catholic Church.

What had most attracted me to Catholicism was the Liturgy. Though in some parishes it was a dry, mechanical affair, there were other parishes where the care taken in every aspect of worship was profound. While for some people, worship in an ancient language is a barrier, in my own case I came to love the Latin. I was happy to be participating in a language of worship that was being used simultaneously in every part of the world and which also was a bridge of connection with past generations. I learned many Latin prayers by heart, especially anything that could be sung, and still sing Latin prayers and hymns. “To sing is to pray twice,” one of the Church Fathers says. How true!

In the early stages of liturgical change following the Second Vatican Council, I felt a complex mixture of expectation and anxiety. Despite my private love of Latin, I could hardly disagree with the many arguments put forward for scrapping it. I didn’t want to hang onto what apparently got in the way for others.

The Englishing of the Liturgy was not carried out by poets. We ended up with the English language in its flattest state. We lost not only Latin but Gregorian chant, a great pity. Most of the music that took its place was pedestrian at every level, fit for shopping malls and Disneyland. The sand blasting had also removed incense. The body language of prayer was in retreat. The holy water fonts were dry. Many bridges linking body and soul were abandoned.

Yet, again like most Catholics, I uttered few words of complaint. I knew that change is not a comfortable experience. And I thought of myself as a modern person; I was embarrassed by my difficulties adjusting to change. Also I had no sense of connection with those who were protesting the changes. These tended to be the rigid Catholics of the sort who were more papal than the Pope. (I had never been attracted to that icy wing of Catholicism that argued one must be a Catholic, and a most obedient Catholic, in order to be saved.)

If one has experienced only the modern “fast-food” liturgy of the Catholic Church, perhaps the typical modern Mass isn’t so disappointing. But for me there was a deep sense of loss. For many years I often left Mass feeling depressed.

All this said, there was a positive side to Catholicism that in many ways compensated for what was missing in the Liturgy. For all its problems, which no church is without, the Catholic Church has the strength of being a world community in which many members see themselves as being on the same footing as fellow Catholics on the other side of the globe; in contrast many Orthodox Christians see their church, even Christ, primarily in national terms. The Catholic Church also possesses a strong sense of co-responsibility for the social order, and a relatively high degree of independence from all political and economic structures.

This aspect of the Catholic Church finds many expressions. I joined one of them, the Catholic Worker movement, after receiving a conscientious objector discharge in 1960.

Founded by Dorothy Day in 1933, the Catholic Worker is well known for its “houses of hospitality” — places of welcome in run-down urban areas where those in need can receive food, clothing, and shelter. It is a movement not unlike the early Franciscans, attempting to live out the Gospels in a simple, literal way. Jesus said to be poor; those involved in the Catholic Worker struggle to have as little as possible. Jesus said to do good to and pray for those who curse you, to love your enemies, to put away the sword; and Catholic Workers try to do this as well, refusing to take part in war or violence. The Catholic Worker view of the world is no less critical than that of the Prophets and the Gospel. There was a remarkable interest in the writings of the Church Fathers. One often found quotations from St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, Saint Basil and other voices of the early Church in movement’s widely read publication, The Catholic Worker.

I found in Dorothy Day a deep appreciation of its richness and way of worship of the Eastern Church. She also had a special love for Russian literature, most of all the work of Dostoevsky. At times she recited passages from The Brothers Karamazov that had shaped her understanding of Christianity; mainly these had to do with the saintly staretz Father Zosima (a figure modeled in part on Father Amvrosi who was canonized by the Russian Church in 1988) and his teaching on active love. Dorothy inspired me to read Dostoevsky. It was Dorothy who first took me into a Russian Orthodox Church, a cathedral in upper Manhattan where I met a priest who, many years later, I was to meet again in Moscow, Father Matvay Stadniuk. (In 1988 he launched the first public project of voluntary service by Church members since Soviet power had launched its war on religion.) At a Liturgy she took me to I first learned to sing the Old Slavonic words, “Gospodi pomiloi “Lord have mercy, the main prayer of Orthodoxy.

One evening Dorothy brought me to a Manhattan apartment for meeting of the Third Hour, a Christian ecumenical group founded by a Russian émigré, Helene Iswolsky. The conversation was in part about the Russian word for spirituality, dukhovnost. The Russian understanding of spiritual life, it was explained, not only suggests a private relationship between the praying person and God but has profound social content: moral capacity, social responsibility, courage, wisdom, mercy, a readiness to forgive, a way of life centered in love. Much of the discussion flew over my head. At times I was more attentive to the remarkable face of the poet W.H. Auden, a member of the Third Hour group. I recall talk about iurodivi, the “holy fools” who revealed Christ in ways that would be regarded as insanity in the west, and stralniki, those who wandered Russia in continuous pilgrimage, begging for bread and reciting with every breath and step the silent prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

One of the people Dorothy was in touch with was the famous Trappist monk and author, Thomas Merton, whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been a factor in my becoming a Catholic. Through Dorothy I came to be one of his correspondents and later his guest at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Besides many letters, Merton used to send me photographs of Russian and Greek icons. Icons had played an important part in his conversion to Christianity and, as I was to discover in writing a book about him, in his continuing spiritual life.

Thanks to Merton and Dorothy Day, I was more aware than many western Christians of the eastern Church, but Orthodoxy seemed to me more an ethnic club than a place for an American with a family tree whose roots stretched from Ireland to the Urals, more a living museum than a living Church. My eyes were slow in opening to icons. While the music in Russian churches was amazingly beautiful, Orthodox services seemed too long and the ritual too ornate. I was in a typical American hurry about most things, even worship, and had the usual American aversion to trimmings. Orthodoxy seemed excessive.

As much of my life has been spent editing peace movement publications, one might imagine such work would have opened many east-west doors for me. Ironically, however, through most of the Cold War the peace movement in the United States was notable for its avoidance of contact with the Soviet Union. Perhaps because we were so routinely accused of being “tools of the Kremlin,” peace activists tended to steer clear of the USSR and rarely knew more about it than anyone else. Even to visit the Soviet Union was to be convicted of everything the Reader’s Digest had ever said about KGB direction of peace groups in the west.

In the spring of 1982, after five years heading the staff of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in Holland, I was on a speaking trip that took me to twenty American cities. At the time the Nuclear Freeze movement was gathering strength. It advocated a bilateral end to nuclear testing, freezing the manufacture of nuclear weapons, and halting development of new weapons systems. Millions of people, both Democrat and Republican, supported the Freeze. Yet I came back to Holland convinced that its prospects for success were slight.

The Freeze, like many peace campaigns during the Cold War, was built mainly on fear of nuclear weapons. Practically nothing was being done to respond to relationship issues or fear of the Soviet Union. All that was needed was one nasty incident to burst the balloon, and that came when a Soviet pilot shot down a South Korean 747 passenger plane flying across Soviet air space. The image of the west facing a barbaric and ruthless enemy was instantly revived. The Freeze movement crashed with the 747 jet.

The trip brought home to me that both in the peace movement and in the military, we in the west knew more about weapons than the people at whom the weapons were aimed. I began to look for an opportunity to visit the Soviet Union.

At the time it wasn’t easy to find an opening. The Soviet Union was at war in Afghanistan, an event sharply condemned by the organization I was working for. A seminar we had arranged in Moscow was abruptly canceled on the Soviet side. An editor of Izvestia whom I met in Amsterdam candidly explained that Kremlin was guarding itself from western pacifists unveiling protest signs in Red Square.

In October 1983, a few representatives of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation met several leaders of the Christian Peace Conference for a dialogue on the subject of “Violence, Nonviolence and Liberation.” We met in Moscow in an old wooden building used at that time by the External Church Affairs Department of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The meeting would have been useful no matter where it had happened. But for me it had an unexpected spiritual significance because it was in Russia. I experienced a particular sense of connection with the Russian Orthodox believers and longed to have the chance for more prolonged contact.

A year later I was in Moscow once again, this time for an exchange (sadly not real dialogue) with hardline Communists in the Soviet Peace Committee. For me the primary significance of the trip was the contact with Orthodox believers.

The high point was the Liturgy at the Epiphany Cathedral. This isn’t one of the city’s oldest or most beautiful churches, though it has an outstanding choir. The icons, coming from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were a far cry from Rublev and Theofan the Greek. And yet being in that throng of devout worshipers was a more illuminating experience than I have had in far more beautiful churches. The place became beautiful for me simply because it was such a grace to be there.

The church was crowded as a church in the west would be only on a major feast day. As is usual in the Russian Orthodox Church, there were no pews. There were a few benches and chairs along the walls for those who needed them, but I found it freeing to be on my feet. Though at times it was uncomfortable to be standing up for so long, being upright made me more attentive. It was like a move from the bleachers to the field. (I’d like one day to learn how chairs and benches made their way into churches. Is it connected with the Reformation’s re-centering of services around the sermon? Perhaps it happened when people got bored.)

I was fascinated by the linking of spiritual and physical activity. Making the sign of the cross and half bows were ordinary elements of prayer. Orthodox believers seemed to cross themselves and bow almost continually. As I watched the rippling of bowing heads in the tightly packed congregation, I was reminded of the patterns the wind makes blowing across afield of wheat.

All the while two choirs, in balconies on either side of the huge cupola, were singing. For the Creed and Our Father, the congregation joined with the choirs, singing with great force.

At first I stood like a statue, though wanting to do what those around me were doing. It seemed so appropriate for an incarnational religion to link body and soul through these simple gestures. It must have taken me most of an hour before I began to pray in the Russian style.

The sense of people being deeply at prayer was as tangible as Russian black bread. I felt that if the walls and pillars of the church were taken away, the roof would rest securely on the prayers of the congregation below. I have very rarely experienced this kind of intense spiritual presence. In its intensity, though there are many superficial differences, I can only compare it to the black church in America.

The experience led me to write Pilgrim to the Russian Church, a book which required a number of Russian trips; on one of these I was joined by my wife, Nancy.

In the course of my travels I came to love the slow, unhurried tradition of prayer in Orthodoxy, deeply appreciating its absent-mindedness about the clock. The Liturgy rarely started on time, never ended on time, and lasted two or three hours, still longer on great feasts. I discovered that Orthodox believers are willing to give to worship the kind of time and devotion that Italians give to their evening meals.

I became increasingly aware of how deep and mindful is Orthodox preparation for communion, with stress on forgiveness of others as a precondition for reception of the sacrament.

I enjoyed watching confession in Orthodox churches. The penitent and priest weren’t tucked away in closets but stood in front on the iconostasis, faces nearly touching. There is a tenderness about it that never ceases to amaze me. (While I still don’t find confession easy, I don’t envy those forms of Christianity that do without it.)

I quickly came to appreciate Orthodoxy for taking literally Jesus’ teaching, “Let the children come to me and hinder them not.” In our Catholic parish in Holland, our daughter Anne had gone from confusion and hurt to pain and anger after many attempts to receive communion with Nancy and me. She hadn’t reached “the age of reason” and therefore couldn’t receive the instruction considered a prerequisite to sacramental life. But a child in an Orthodox parish is at the front of the line to receive communion.

I came to esteem the married clergy of Orthodoxy. While there are many Orthodox monks and nuns and celibacy is an honored state, I found that marriage is more valued in Orthodoxy than Catholicism. Sexual discipline is taken no less seriously, yet one isn’t left feeling that the main sins are sexual.

I came to cherish the relative darkness usual in Orthodox churches, where the main light source is candles. Candle light creates a climate of intimacy. Icons are intended for candlelight.

Praying with icons was an aspect of Orthodox spirituality that opened its doors to us even though we weren’t yet Orthodox. During a three-month sabbatical in 1985 when we were living near Jerusalem, we bought a small Russian Vladimirskaya icon of Mary and Jesus and began praying before it. The icon itself proved to be a school of prayer. We learned much about prayer by simply standing in front of our icon.

All the while Nancy and I were continuing our frustrating search for a Catholic parish that we could be fully a part of in our Dutch town.

On the one hand there were parishes that seemed linked to the larger Church only by frayed threads; parishes were abandoning rituals, traditions and lines of connection which seemed to us worth preserving, and going their own way. There were other parishes that, in ritual life, were clearly part of a larger church but where there was no sense of welcome or warmth.

Finally Nancy and I became part of a parish where, by joining the choir, we felt more a part of a church community. But we were far and away the youngest members of the choir and still felt apart. None of our children were willing to come.

How we envied Russian Orthodox believers! Oddly enough it didn’t occur to me that there might be a similar quality of worship in Orthodox churches in the west. I thought that Orthodoxy was like certain wines that must be sipped at the vineyard. I also had the idea that Russian parishes in the west must be filled with bitter refugees preoccupied with hating Communists.

Then in January 1988, at the invitation of Father Alexis Voogd, pastor of the St. Nicholas of Myra Church in Amsterdam, Nancy and I took part in a special ecumenical service to mark the beginning of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Millennium celebration: a thousand years since the baptism of the citizens of Kiev. Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox, we were packed into the tiny church for a service that was a hodge-podge of speeches by clergy from various local churches interspersed with beautiful Russian hymns sung by the parish choir.

If it was just that ecumenical service, perhaps we might not have returned. But at the reception in the parish hall that followed, we were startled to experience a kind of interaction that I had rarely found in any church in any country, not to say in prudent, restrained, understated Holland.

Walking to the train station afterward, we decided to come back and see what the Liturgy was like. The following Sunday we discovered it was every bit as profound as it was in Russia. And that was that. We managed only once or twice to return to Mass in our former Catholic parish. Before a month had passed we realized that a prayer we had been living with along time had been answered: we had found a church we wholeheartedly could belong to and couldn’t bear not going to even if it meant getting out of bed early and traveling by train and tram to Amsterdam every week.

On Palm Sunday 1988, I was received into the Orthodox Church; Nancy made the same step on Pentecost.

In many ways it wasn’t such a big step from where we had been. Orthodoxy and Catholicism have so much in common: sacraments, apostolic succession, the calendar of feasts and fasts, devotion to the Mother of God, and much more. Yet in Orthodoxy we found an even deeper sense of connection with the early Church and a far more vital form of liturgical life. Much that has been neglected in Catholicism and abandoned in Protestant churches, especially confession and fasting, remain central in Orthodox life. We quickly found what positive, life-renewing gifts they were, and saw that they were faring better in a climate that was less legalistic but more demanding.


The religious movement in my life, which from the beginning was influenced by my parents, also influenced them. While neither followed me into Catholicism or Orthodoxy, in the early sixties my mother returned to the Methodist Church and remains much a part of her church to this day; she had resigned from the Communist Party at the time the Soviets put down the Hungarian uprising. Despite her age and failing eyesight, she continues in her struggle for the poor, much to the consternation of local politicians and bureaucrats. While my father never left “the Party” (to the end of his life he wore rose-colored glasses when looking at the USSR), he eventually became a Unitarian. He enjoyed the joke about Unitarians believing at most in one God. In the last two decades of his life he was especially active in developing low-income and inter-racial housing projects in California. A cooperative he helped found in Santa Rosa was singled out for several honors, including the Certificate of National Merit from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Always deeply supportive of my religious commitment, I recall with particular happiness hearing him reading aloud to my step-mother from my book, Pilgrim to the Russian Church. On his death bed in the spring of 1990, he borrowed the crucifix I normally wear around my neck. It was in his hands when he died.

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of its quarterly journal, In Communion. His most recent books are Praying With Icons and The Ladder of the Beatitudes (both published by Orbis). Earlier books include Religion in the New Russia, Pilgrim to the Russian Church, Love is the Measure: a biography of Dorothy Day, and Living with Wisdom: a Life of Thomas Merton. A book on the resurrection of the Orthodox Church in Albania is scheduled for publication by the World Council of Churches in the Fall of 2001. Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness will be published early in 2002. He has lived in the Netherlands since 1977 and is a member of the St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. The essay is reprinted from Toward the Authentic Church, edited by Thomas Doulis (Minneapolis: Light & Life Books, 1996). Photo taken in Oxford, May 2001, by Nancy Forest.

Jim Forest: an alphabet of his own design

Photo of Jim Forest Jim Forest’s activity as a writer began in New Jersey at age five, in 1946, when he produced a handwritten family newspaper using an alphabet of his own design. It was an excellent publication whose only shortcoming was that no one could read it.

A few years after achieving literacy, he was often found hanging around the office of the town’s weekly newspaper, watching linotypers set type from molten zinc, a form of typesetting now associated with Dark Ages if not the Paleolithic Era. Before long he was hawking The Red Bank Register on Broad Street, delivering newspapers door to door, and starting his own mimeographed publication using an alphabet that others could read.

His engagement in Christianity began about the same time that he was selling newspapers. At age 12 he was baptized in an Episcopal parish in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, though it wasn’t until he was in the U.S. Navy that he began to see his vocation in religious terms.

In 1960, while working at the U.S. Weather Bureau headquarters near Washington as part of a Navy meteorological unit, he joined the Catholic Church.

In 1961, after obtaining an early discharge from the Navy on grounds of conscientious objection, he joined the Catholic Worker community, led by Dorothy Day, in New York City; during that period he became managing editor of The Catholic Worker.

Later he was a reporter a New York City daily newspaper, The Staten Island Advance, and worked for Religious News Service, a press bureau.

Another dimension of Jim’s life has been peace work.

In 1965, he founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship, a group whose work in making known the option of conscientious objection was a factor in the remarkable fact that no religious community produced so many conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War as the Catholic Church.

In the late sixties, Jim was responsible for Vietnam program activities of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. One aspect of his work was to travel with and assist Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet.

In 1969-70, Jim was imprisoned for thirteen months as a consequence of his involvement in the “Milwaukee Fourteen,” a group of Catholic priests and lay people who burned draft records. After leaving prison, he was a member of the Emmaus Community in East Harlem, New York.

Starting in 1973, he was appointed editor of Fellowship, the magazine of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

In 1977, he moved to Holland to head the staff of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. He was IFOR’s General Secretary for twelve years.

In connection with work on two books about Russian religious life, in the 1980s Jim traveled widely throughout the former Soviet Union and was a witness to the final days of the USSR. His experiences in Russia were a factor in his becoming, in 1988, an Orthodox Christian. Jim is now international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and edits its quarterly publication, In Communion.

Jim is the author of many books, including The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, Praying with Icons, The Ladder of the Beatitudes, The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell, and Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness. He has written two biographies that remain in print: Living With Wisdom: a biography of Thomas Merton; and Love is the Measure: a biography of Dorothy Day. Earlier books include Religion in the New Russia, Pilgrim to the Russian Church, and Making Friends of Enemies. He has written several children’s books, most recently a true story about a community of rescuers in Nazi-occupied Paris: Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue. With Tom Cornell and Robert Ellsberg, he co-edited A Penny a Copy: Readings from The Catholic Worker. Translations of his books have been published in Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, Danish, Polish, Korean, Japanese, and Romanian.

An occasional teacher, in the early seventies, Jim taught at New York Theological Seminary and the College of New Rochelle. In 1985, during a sabbatical, he taught at the Ecumenical Institute, Tantur, near Jerusalem, and in 1999 was part of the summer faculty of the Department of Religion at the University of Dayton.

Jim has led retreats in the USA and England and has lectured at hundreds of parishes, theological schools, colleges and universities.

An influential factor in Jim’s life was his friendship with Thomas Merton, who dedicated Faith and Violence to Jim. Merton’s letters to Jim have been published in The Hidden Ground of Love.

In 1989, he received the Peacemaker Award from Notre Dame University’s Institute for International Peace Studies. He is also the recipient of the St. Marcellus Award presented annually by the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

After several years of being treated by kidney illness, in October 2007 Jim received a transplanted kidney donated by his wife, Nancy.

He is the father of six children and grandfather of five.

Since 1977 his home has been in Alkmaar, Holland, a city northwest of Amsterdam.

Want to know more?

Here’s an autobiographical essay, “Getting From There to Here.”

[Photo by Beth Forest, taken at The Cloisters, New York City.]

page updated in September 2009

Calendar for Jim Forest's Fall 2004 lecture trip

(as updated September 25, 2004):

Oct 26: fly to San Francisco via Minneapolis

Oct 27: talk after Vespers on “Everyday Mysticism” at Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral on Green Street in San Francisco

Oct 28: Erasmus seminar at USF, 2 pm

Oct 29-31: Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference, St. Nicholas Ranch, Dunlap, California

Nov 2: University of California, Santa Barbara; conatct Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges

Nov 7: Minneapolis, Minnesota

Orthodox Peace Fellowship/Fellowship of St George meeting

Nov 8: Winona, Minnesota

meeting with the local Catholic Worker community

Nov 11: lecture “Peace Is the Way” — Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Kaufman House, Bethel College, 2515 College Avenue, PO Box A, North Newton, KS 67117

Nov 12:

breakfast talk sponsored by People of Faith for Peace; contact Allison Lemons

morning talk to a class at Bethel

evening: book signing and talk at Eighth Day Books in Witchita

Nov 13: St. George Cathedral, Witchita

?? Nov 14 sermon at St. George Cathedral, Wichita ??

Nov 20: St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary, arrive by lunch time

Nov 22: fly back to Amsterdam

Practical questions…

How much does it cost?

I try to clear $1200 a day ($2500 for weekends) plus travel costs. Some hosts can manage more; sometimes I agree on less. While my default setting is yes, keep in mind the biblical injunction: “The laborer is worthy of his hire.” Also bear in mind that it isn’t just the time I’m speaking. A great many hours of preparation go into these trips. (Travel costs are shared out between hosts.)


At least a few weeks beforehand, place an order with Orbis so that copies of my recent books can be on hand: The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, The Ladder of the Beatitudes, Praying With Icons, Living With Wisdom, and Love is the Measure. Orbis will send them at a bookseller discount with the right to return unsold books. To place an order, call the marketing department at Orbis: (914) 941-7636, ext. 2575. (For details about ordering my book on the resurrection of the Church in Albania, see the corresponding article.)

Promotional resources

If you need a speaker photo and/or a biography, two are available on this web site: “Jim Forest: an alphabet of his own design” — a short biography, and “Getting From There to Here” — a longer biography of Jim Forest.

What sort of accommodation is required?

I try to avoid hotels and, even more, motels, preferring to stay in a host family’s guest room.

Special dietary needs?

Apart from being on a low salt diet, I am not a fussy eater.

Other needs?

It is helpful to have some quiet times for prayer, reading and correspondence between speaking events. If an art museum is not too distant, and there is time to visit it, I always welcome such opportunities.

Reflections on Marriage

by Nancy Forest

Having become Orthodox in the course of our marriage, Jim and I were blessed with the sacrament of marriage on September 10, 1995, at the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam. After the ceremony I spoke with several women, all of them non-Orthodox, who had had quite some difficulty with part of the wedding service.The part that caused the problems was the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33):

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and bejoined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Icon of Saints Anne and Joachim I was concerned that the people who had difficulty with this passage would let it overshadow all the things that they found good and beautiful about the wedding service and about Orthodoxy in general. So I decided to write a brief letter to them to try to address some of these problems.

The idea of women submitting to their husbands, and of a husband being “the head of the wife”, is admittedly not the sort of thing that you might read in most modern literature on the subject. It seems to advocate a kind of marital state in which women’s opinions are secondary to their husbands’, a situation which the women’s movement has been trying to correct for several decades now.

Because it was our wedding, and because I feel strongly that the truth of this passage does not deny “women’s rights”, I want to write something about what it means to me. I am not a theologian, and my knowledge of Orthodox theology is not strong. But Jim and I were married by civil authorities thirteen years ago, so we had many years of experience as a married couple before we were married in the church.

First of all, I think there are a couple of ways that you can easily dismiss the whole passage. You can simply say that it’s a matter of translation. One friend who objected to the passage told me that she had trouble with the Dutch word “onderdanig”, which sounds much stronger than the English “be subject to”. And when I looked the passage up in our biblical concordance I learned that there are several words in Greek that convey the idea of obedience and submission. The word used in this particular passage is exactly the same word that is used to convey submission to God. It is, in fact, a Greek military term meaning “to arrange [troopdivisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader”. But in ordinary, non-military use the word was used to mean “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden”. There is another word used in the Epistles which is translated in English as “submit”, but this word suggests yielding and weakness. The word in the marriage ceremony, however, does not suggest weakness; it suggests cooperation.

By contrast, there are two other sections in chapter 6 in which Saint Paul discusses the obedience of children to their parents, and the obedience of slaves to their masters, and here he uses yet another word. So he chose his words carefully. He chose a word which suggests sharing burdens and cooperating, not yielding as the weaker party. We don’t have this kind of flexibility in English (or in Dutch).

One might also dismiss the passage on the basis of cultural differences. After all, Saint Paul also tells slaves to obey their masters, and today we all recognize the injustice of slavery. So might we not also say that Paul’s understanding of women is as outdated as his understanding of slavery? I suppose we might, but he clearly makes a distinction between his discussion of marriage (with the different verb) and his discussion of other kinds of obedience. The key sentence is “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” For Paul, there was a vital link between marriage and the love of Christ for the church. He does not say that the relationship of children to parents, or slaves to masters, reflects the love of Christ for the church. It’s only in marriage.

I think there are two important issues at stake here. One is the importance of freedom in Christian life. The other is the radical change that Jesus brought to hierarchical structures (although he did not eliminate them).

In his brief sermon after the wedding ceremony, Father Sergei Ovsiannikov talked about how essential it is that people who marry be free people. He said that in ancient times, slaves were not permitted to marry; this was a rite that was reserved for free people only. Both men and women enter into marriage out of freedom, out of a desire to submit to each other and a willingness to sacrifice their singularity and to create a new thing, a married couple, a single unit. This doesn’t mean obliterating their selves, but it implies a freely-chosen state in which there is a constant, active submission to each other. Freedom is important because it means that both men and women should struggle to make intelligent, mature, responsible decisions, to listen to each other, to have the courage to admit mistakes and to defer to their partner at times. People who are not free don’t behave like this. Women who are not free never disagree with their husbands and support them even when they are wrong. This isn’t a Christian marriage.

The word “free” is an interesting one among the Indo-European languages. If you could trace it back through linguistic history to the ancient Indo-European language, the mother language of all modern Western languages, you would find some root word that is no longer spoken today. The scholarly guess is that the Indo-European root word of “free” was “pri”, which meant “to love”. In ancient English, “free” implied a relationship. It meant someone who was “dear to the chief” and who fought for the tribal chief out of allegiance and love, not for money or because of coercion. The freeman was not a conscript or a mercenary. “Free” implied sacrifice and submission as well. It didn’t mean that you were “free” of all ties, as it does today. It meant that your ties were freely chosen because of your feelings of love for the person to whom you gave your allegiance.

If you trace the evolution of the Indo-European root word as it passed into other Western languages you would be surprised at what you find: all sorts of words that have to do with loving relationships: friend, “freund,” “vriend,” “vrijen,” and dozens of words in other languages, even to an Old Slavonic word “prijateli,” or friend, and the Sanskrit words “priya,” dear, and “prn” to delight or endear. So the connection between freedom and love has been deeply imbedded in our culture.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to return to that Greek word which was translated as “submit”. The definition of that word is “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.” There’s the same stress on freedom and the decision of the free person to give in to the other and to help bear a burden.

But to say that both husband and wife must be free people, loving people, may not satisfactorily address the problem of the husband being called the “head” of the wife, and of women being instructed to be “subject to their husbands in all things”. I think we can’t look at this problem simply from our Western, post-Enlightenment way of thinking; we can’t just insist that both the husband and the wife be regarded as separate, unique, equal individuals and leave it at that. The relationship, or the flow of love, or the dynamic that is always taking place in a marriage has to be described somehow.

Several times in this passage Paul says that the marital relationship is like the love that Christ has for the Church; he says, “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers toChrist and the church.” There is no other kind of relationship that is described in this way in the Bible — not the Platonic love between men or the love of a subject to a king or the love between mothers and children or even the love of a spiritual leader for his flock, although these all are profoundly deep forms of love. None of them “refer to Christ and the church” as marriage does. It’s almost as if Paul were saying that a married couple is an icon, a way of actually seeing the mystical truth of Christ and the church. So to say that the man is the “head” isn’t just a reference to traditional patriarchal sexist hierarchy; it’s a way of describing the structure of the marriage to reflect the mystical truth to which it refers. This doesn’t give men the license to lord it over their wives and beat them into submission; it should serve to direct the attention of the man and the woman to the relationship that serves as their model — the love between Christ and the church. So what is that model like?

This, I think, is where the second issue comes in, the radical change that Jesus brought to hierarchical structures, and the question of power and submission. I’m not a New Testament scholar, and I don’t have my finger on all the particular references in the New Testament, but I do know that the whole life of Christ was the story of the Son of God humbling himself and sacrificing himself for humankind. He was born in a stable, he lived in humble circumstances, he scandalized people by associating with the lower classes, he washed his disciples’ feet under their great protest. So the model of Christ’s love for the church is one of humility and sacrifice, not one of power and control.

There are many passages in the Gospel in which the relationship between Christ and the church is described in terms of a bridegroom and a bride. I’m often reminded of this during the Liturgy, because it seems to me that the whole physical structure of the church itself and the movement of the Liturgy keep pointing to this relationship. The people coming into the church bearing candles (like the story of the wise and foolish virgins waiting for the bridegroom), the priest comes out from the sanctuary bringing the bread and wine — the bridegroom — to the church, and the church comes forward to receive him. The parallel between this and marriage is profound (as Paul says) and intensely physical at the same time.

I think that Paul insisted that in marriage we must understand the man as the “head” of the woman because he felt very deeply that the mystery of marriage is a real mirror of the mystery of Christ’s love for the church. In saying this, then, Paul is implying that a man’s love for his wife should be as humble, as complete, and as self-giving as Christ’s is; and in saying that women should “submit” to their husbands, Paul, in his choice of words, is implying that women should voluntarily, in freedom, consent to listen, cooperate, and bear their share of the burden of the marriage.

We have to face the fact that as children of our age, passages like this one are going to be very difficult for us, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. Submission is not a popular attitude today. So perhaps we have to go further than studying the etymologies of the words in Paul’s epistle. Perhaps we, as women, have to examine our own reaction to being told to submit, to acknowledge someone else as our “head”. This is admittedly a very difficult thing for intelligent, educated, healthy people to do. We bristle at the very thought. In Western culture today, intelligent women are those who recognize their own individual worth; many women refuse to change their names as a way of asserting their individuality; women demand to be recognized as equal before the law. So when it is suggested that we submit to our husbands, men ought to understand what an extremely difficult thing is being asked of us. But it is being asked of us, because without our submission the icon of marriage is incomplete.

When I discussed this with a friend of ours recently, a priest with a broad understanding of Islam, he reminded me that in Islam the highest thing one can aspire to is submission, that “Islam” itself means submission to God. And when we look to the Mother of God, who should be our model of the perfect response to God’s will, we see the same attitude of submission. But that’s submission to God, you say, and we’re talking about submission to husbands, to ordinary human beings. Perhaps this is where the mystery of marriage lies, and this is what Paul was talking about when he said that no other relationship bears the stamp of Christ’s love for the church. The submission of a woman to her husband is not a one-way street, because husbands are enjoined to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, that is, with the kind of sacrificial love that is full of respect and honor.

There is the temptation here to see marriage as a kind of balance, with husband and wife cautiously playing their submission and sacrifice cards in an ultimate effort to protect themselves and flatter their own egos: “I’ll submit to you if you sacrifice to me”; “I’ve done something selfless for you to show you how saintly I am, and I expect something in return.” But this isn’t the way Christ loves the Church. If you enter into marriage with the idea that you’re going to struggle to protect your self, even by balancing out your acts of mutual sacrifice, you’ll never have a marriage at all. Marriage isn’t a deal. The flow of submission and sacrifice is a reflection of the flow of love among the persons of the Holy Trinity. We regard the Trinity not as three separate gods who love each other, but as one God who is Love itself. And perhaps here is the mystery: Paul is telling women to submit to their husbands, not primarily out of a sense of self (either submission as a way to enhance one’s ego or submissionas a confirmation of one’s poor self-esteem) but without a consideration of self at all. The challenge of marriage for both women and men is that the marriage must become the primary source of identity for both of them, and that the energy that holds this thing together and keeps it alive and vital is submission on the part of the wife and sacrificial love on the part of thehusband.

We are often given to understand that the challenge of marriage today is for the two partners to try to maintain their own identities. But it may be that this is a very questionable goal, and that indeed just the opposite is true. The challenge of marriage today is that in the face of a culture that forces us to dwell within the fortress of our own personality, with all the exhausting protection that such an enterprise entails, we are asked to tear down the walls and build something new with someone else. The enormous comfort of St. Paul’s epistle is his assurance that in doing so we are reflecting the love of Christ himself.

Out of the Darkness

The voice of Marika Cico

Despite the extreme religious repression that reigned in Albania for so many years, thousands of people lived a carefully-hidden religious life. A few even dared to organize hidden churches, among them two sisters living in Korça, the principal city in the southeast of Albania. One of the sisters is still alive — Marika Cico (pronounced Tsitso), 95 years old when I met her. The Cico home — an old house behind a small courtyard in the center of Korça — was the location of many secret liturgies, baptisms, chrismations, confessions and marriages. These events normally happened late at night in a back room in which religious activity would least likely be noticed.

The trip from Tirana to Korça (19 km from the Greek border) was an unforgettable, at times nerve-wracking, experience, providing my first substantial encounter both with Albania’s mountains and the devastated condition of Albania’s roads. Though occasionally we encountered European-financed road improvement projects that provide a glimpse of a future day when travel will not be such a trial, for drivers at present travel in Albania is an endless search for that elusive part of the road that is least pitted.

But we had our rewards. There were amazing — also terrifying — vistas from narrow mountain ridges of unfolding valleys and other, still more dramatic peaks in the distance. Occasionally we looked down abrupt drops not just on one side of the road but both. It was along the narrow, winding route between Tirana and Elbasan that a young priest, Father Sotiri, his wife Marianna and one of their two sons was killed when their car plunged over the unguarded ledge of a cliff. (Remarkably, their other son survived the accident and is now living at the seminary near Durres.)

Later, driving along the edge of Lake Ochrid toward Pogradec, we stopped at a small restaurant, Shen Naumi, and ate freshly grilled koran, a fish for which Lake Ochrid has been famous since ancient times. A local fisherman had caught only three koran that morning.

It was in the late afternoon, after a first short visit with Metropolitan John, that my translator, John Lena, and I rang the bell of the Cico house.

Opening the door, Marika Cico crossed herself before leading us inside, bringing us into the kitchen. She was wearing a back dress and cap, in mourning not for a deceased husband — she never married — but for her dear sister Demetra who died in 1996. Yet there was no trace of sorrow or mourning in her face. Nearly blind, her wide eyes were made all the wider by the thickness of her glasses. She knew John already, clearly regarded him as a near relative, and assumed the very best of me as well. As it happened, there were two other visitors in the house, Frangji Kosti, a sister-in-law, and her niece, Anne Fiku.

“It is a blessing you came!” she said as we sat down at the kitchen table. She made her sign of the cross once again, then rested her hand on mine.

“First I wanted to thank God for two people, my parents. I thank God who made my mother and father faithful and who gave us a religious education. Our mother was very religious and gave all of us this joy. Mother always wanted a church here dedicated to Saint Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin, and now it is being built in the center of the city! It is a miracle. We suffered but God held us up high.

“Whatever we suffered we always remained happy because we had God. When we were little girls, my mother often read to us — she read the Gospels, not the newspapers. The important things in our lives were parents, Gospel, Church. We all suffered — Turks, King Zog, wars, many trials, Communists, property taken away — but God was always with us in our suffering.”

She sent Franji to bring a photo of her mother so we could see her face. As it happened, she and her sister Demetra were on either side of their mother in the photo.

“Also I thank God for my sister.” Again she crosses herself. “Until she died, she had the Gospel in her hand day and night. She was a woman of great wisdom and strength. She was able to strengthen me and many others.”

I mentioned to her the admiration Archbishop Anastasios has for her and her late sister.

“There is no bishop like this anywhere. He is a new saint God has sent to Albania. When he arrived, we were so happy we flew! He saved Orthodoxy in Albania. He brought us out of darkness. He has done so much for us — built churches, given us priests, helped people who were suffering. When refugees came from Kosovo, he helped them. The government wanted to kick him out but he is still with us! We could hardly believe it when we heard a bishop was coming here. My nephew said, ‘Make yourself ready. The bishop is coming.’ We three sisters — myself, Demetra and Berta, our sister in Christ — went to meet him. Then we were introduced to him! He embraced us with tears.” Again she crossed herself. “And when he saw we had health problems — eyes, heart, throat — he sent us to Athens for healing.”

Her niece Anne interrupted to pour tea, but Marika hardly paused.

“I must tell you more about my mother. When I was little, I had a very poor memory. I couldn’t remember any of the things I was supposed to learn in school though I tried and tried. I started crying. My mother heard me, came and gave me a blessing. ‘Why are you crying?’ she asked. When I told her, she said to go to the church and ask the Virgin Mary to help me remember things. I did as she said. I went to the church, prayed before the icon of the Mother of God, took courage — and my memory became better! After that I stopped in the church every morning. Of course in those days the church still existed and the doors were always open. You could pray day and night.

“But in 1967 they came and told us that the church would be closed. My sister heard it first — she was a chanter in the church. Now there would be no churches to sing in! They told us to get rid of the icons, so we hid them all right here — behind curtains, in drawers. Later they searched, but God made them blind and they didn’t find them! Then a theologian we knew brought us a statue of Jesus the Italians that left in Korça. We hid this also, right in the closet behind some clothing. Again they searched and even then they didn’t find it! God closed their eyes. God did not allow them to see what was under their noses. Because they were frightened, other people brought icons to us and we hid these as well.”

I asked how it was possible that liturgies were celebrated in their house.

“It happened that a friend from Vlora came and told us about a faithful priest, Father Kosmas [Qirjo], and asked if we would like to meet him. We learned it was his custom once a week to wake at midnight, walk to another house, sometimes as much as 10 km away, to read from the Bible with others and to celebrate a secret liturgy. The windows were covered with blankets and the candle put under rather than on the table.

“In 1967 he watched as his church was burned down — the Church of the Five Martyrs in the village of Bestrova, near Vlora. Afterwards, with his wife and two sons, he was sent to do forced labor on a cooperative farm. Finally they were allowed to return to their village but he had to do manual labor 14 hours a day beginning at 6 AM, often working in bare feet.

“He was very poor. His black raisa [priest’s robe] was so faded, it was almost white. He had seven children and lived in a muddy hut with only one window. It was a very poor family, but when we talked with him we realized he was an apostle. He talked with us all night long — night was the only time one could have such a conversation. We asked him what he needed and helped him and his family in every way we could. He had not been well-educated but he read the Bible by the light of the moon and God enlightened him. Like other priests in those years, he became a laborer, but he never gave up being a priest. ‘I am a priest,’ he said, ‘and I will remain in the church even if the church has no building. In my house I will dress as a priest, outside I will wear pants’.”

A cookie tin was opened and more tea poured.

“People wanted to be baptized, people wanted to be crowned [married], people wanted to confess — they would go to him in the middle of the night. He was far from here, on the other side of Albania near the Adriatic Sea. We could not easily communicate. We would send him a message — ‘Please find wool from the sheep so Frangji can make clothing for the children.’ This meant we are fasting — can you bring us Holy Communion? In the beginning there were about ten women in our group, all fasting through the week. On Thursday we would make candles and prosphora [bread for the Eucharist]. This was the day when Father Kosmas would arrive. Then on Friday night we could receive Communion!

“Five or six times a year, especially in the summer, he was able to come to Korça — to celebrate the Liturgy, baptize, bless marriages, hear confessions, and teach. One time he was stopped by the police and taken to the police station but they never looked in his bag — if they had, they would have found his vestments. God closed their eyes.”

Marika held her hand over her glasses so that I might see what God had done.

I asked how often Father Kosmas managed to come to Korça.

“When he came, the children would come very close to him. ‘Talk to us! Talk to us!’ they said. They didn’t want to leave him. They went to sleep. Our friends would arrive, coming one by one so as not to be noticed. The door was locked and the windows were closed with blankets. We slept a short time, then my sister made a table into an altar. She had everything that was needed. Father Kosmas would bring the wine. Then we did the Liturgy, celebrating until three in the morning. It was so beautiful. We were in heaven!”

Marika crossed herself three times.

“When we finished, we ate a little bread. Then one at a time, so that no one would notice, those who had come would go home. Sometimes there were baptisms, sometimes crownings. We did this regularly, contacting Father Kosmas whenever he was needed, though it was not easy to come — travel was difficult and there were always dangers.”

She told me that Father Kosmas had become the second Albanian-born bishop after the Communist time (the first was Metropolitan John of Korça, a spiritual child of Father Kosmas).

“Archbishop Anastasios wanted very much to have bishops who were born here, but when he arrived there were not even twenty priests still alive, many of them very weak, some close to death. It is the Orthodox rule that a bishop should be living a monastic rather than a married life. But in 1998 Father Kosmas and his wife embraced a celibate life, living apart so that he could serve as a bishop. Our dear Father Kosmas died on August 11, 2000, and we miss him. He lived the Liturgy every day. We were one body, this life we were living. I believe he was a saint.”

Marika paused. Tears were glistening in her eyes.

“For 23 years, from 1967 to 1990, this is how we lived. There was not one church open in all of Albania. Of course for many years before 1967 it was difficult — arrests, people exiled, even people shot — but still many churches were open.”

One of the people whom she had met before 1967 was Bishop Irineos, who was then living in exile.

“He was an educated man. He had studied in Belgrade. The Communists had taken everything from him. My sister sent me to him with olives and cheese. He was so happy when he saw me! So we sat at the table and talked and talked. I said, ‘With your blessing, please teach me something. Tell me what we should do, how we should act.’ It was because of this question that Bishop Irineos suggested to me what he called unsleeping prayer. He said there was a monastery in Yugoslavia that was in danger of being destroyed by a forest fire and that we should do unsleeping prayer to save it. I asked him, ‘What is unsleeping prayer? How can we do this? How is it possible with Communists all around?’ He said it was something we could do in turns. If you have 24 people, each person has one hour in the day — it could be 12 to 1 at night, for example. One hour, one person. When there are 12, each takes two hours. I returned to Korça and we agreed to do what he said. We did unsleeping prayer and on the sixth day the fire changed direction and the monastery was not destroyed. Even after the fire changed direction, we continued our prayer day and night for 40 days.”

She paused to sip her tea and catch her breath.

“That was the beginning — that was when churches were still open in Albania. When they were closed, many times afterward we did unsleeping prayer that the churches would reopen — and now they have! But we had to wait many years.”

I asked what actions they had undertaken in 1967.

“When the evil time came, I said, ‘Let us do unsleeping prayer again.’ We did it with twelve people and experienced a joy we had never felt before! We suffered many things, but still we were saved! One of my two brothers was sent into exile for five years in the worst village in Albania, but he survived. We also fasted. God took fear away from us! My brother said we must be careful, and we were, but we never stopped. This is how we were saved. And now, thank God, Communism has died and we are alive! And God gave us a big gift, these two bishops [Archbishop Anastasios and Metropolitan John of Korça]!”

Was their activity only in Korça, I asked.

“Sometimes we would go looking for mountain churches. There was an old villager who showed the way to one but he warned us to be careful — ‘They are listening!’ he said. We found the rocks where the church had been and we saw a woman kneeling there, praying in tears. She was frightened when she saw us but we told her not to be scared, we were also believers and we too had come to pray. In the night the old man who showed us the way let us stay in his own simple shed, an earth floor covered with hay. He said, ‘You sleep here.’ He shared his bread with us. In the morning we woke up early and said our prayers.”

A major event in the life of Korça’s hidden church was the arrival of Theofan Popa.

“Theofan Popa was a strong Christian well educated in theology and art history and employed with the Ministry of Monuments. He was able to save many churches by having them classified as monuments of culture. It was too obvious to his superiors that he was a Christian. As punishment, he was sent from Tirana to exile in Korça — but for us his arrival was a gift from God. At first he stayed in a hotel and there he asked someone he met in the hotel restaurant if there was anyone religious in the town and in this way he heard about my sister and me. We two were a choir, he was told. We came to our house and we talked for three hours. After that, we told him, ‘This is your house. Come whenever you wish. Don’t even ask.’ He was an angel to us. He was able to save many churches by having them recognized as monuments — also many icons were saved as ‘works of cultural importance’ because of him. They are still in the museum here in Korça. Had it not been for him, they would have been destroyed.”

The future bishop of Korça also found his way to the choir-of-two, the Cico sisters, and the hidden church that had formed around them.

“His name was Fatimir when we first met him — John after his baptism. He worked in a mental hospital because this was a place where he could do some good. When Father Kosmas baptized him, he said, ‘You will be like Saint John the Theologian.’ This is why he gave him the name John, and this is what happened — he became a theologian. I love him like a son.

“I remember there was an old woman in the hospital where he worked who wanted her legs washed — otherwise she would go crazy, she said. So he stayed at the end of each day to care for her. When a doctor found him staying late, he was surprised but respected the motives and gave him support afterward when support was needed. He even was ready to help him go to another country to study medicine at a time when travel abroad was almost impossible but he didn’t want to leave. He said, ‘But who will care for them? It is better to stay here. I can do more.’ And today he is Metropolitan John!”

She paused, crossed herself, and then remembered another important member of their community.

“I must not leave out our dear Papa Jani. We pray for him every day. Now he is a priest, one of the very first ordained after the time of no churches. In the hard years, he worked in a metal factory where he was able secretly to make crosses which he left in churches for visitors to find and take away.”

I asked when she could first sense the prohibition against religious life would finally end.

“Sometimes we would go in secret to roofless churches with no icons, only ruins, and pray in them. Once we did this when we had a sick nephew — we prayed and slept in a ruined church and he got better. That night there were two other people who came secretly with a candle to pray there and so discovered us. They were so frightened. The man was someone high in the government. We reassured them, ‘We are here for the same reason. You have nothing to fear.’ So we prayed together in that mountain church. The man told us that in one year the government would allow churches to be open again — we were so happy to know this! We started kissing his hand. But he said we must not tell anyone. It was a secret. I only told Father Kosmas.

“Finally [in 1990] the Communist time began to end. We were so happy, but all the churches were closed. In response to our request, the government in Korça decided we could have one church back and that we would be permitted to have the Liturgy there. The first service we prepared was for Theophany on the 6th of January in 1991. We had been preparing everything but we needed a bell! Then we found the solution, a large brass mortar used for grinding garlic! It rang perfectly.”

Franji got the mortar and together they demonstrated what a fine bell it could be in place of a real bell. Marika was beaming.

“You see how God helps us! But it was not possible for Father Kosmas to come to Korça for this event. We turned to another priest who lived near us in Korça, Father Kosta Kotnani. He had been afraid to act as a priest in the Communist time. He wanted to say yes to us but his sons were too frightened what might happen to their father if he served in public as a priest. They were not sure the danger was past. We had to pull Father Kosta out of the house. You could say we kidnapped him! Then in Korça everyone came out to take part. They heard the bell. The roads were filled. Everyone was trying to touch Father Kosta. Everyone was blessed with water, the whole city.”

“I am 95 years old and I no longer have any strength. I have little education but I have faith and love. Who knows why God has allowed me to live so long. It is a miracle. I would like to die in a monastery. I always wanted to live a monastic life but it was not possible. I can die tonight, I can die tomorrow. Blessed be God! I love you very much. God kept me alive so that I could talk to you, and I have never talked so much! God does wonders!”

Once again Marika crossed herself three times, tears spilling down her face. Then she led me by the hand into the book-lined room which had been used for liturgies so often from 1967 until 1990. We prayed silently in front of the icon corner before I took a photo of Marika, Franji and Anne.

“Now you are a person always welcome in our house,” she said as I left. “You are part of our family. God makes miracles!”

Extract from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches; do not reprint without the author’s permission.


The voice of Metropolitan John Pelushi

My first encounter with Metropolitan John was at the seminary, an impressive complex of new stone buildings on a hilltop a short distance inland from the port city of Durres. Though his main responsibilities are in Korça, he comes to teach at the seminary as often as he can manage the six-hour journey. For several years he had been the seminary’s director before his other responsibilities became too heavy. He has translated a number of books into Albanian including On the Holy Spirit by Saint Basil, The Orthodox Faith (a four-volume catechism by Father Thomas Hopko), and a collection of writings by and about Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain. Currently he is at work on an introduction to dogmatic theology, the first volume of which is now ready for publication. Two more are awaited. Born the first of January, 1956, he looks even younger than he is with his dense black hair and beard. His English is fluent. No translator was needed. He had studied for several years at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School near Boston in the United States.

I asked how he had been able to study in the USA.

“I went there thanks to a scholarship established by Albanians in America in memory of Bishop Fan Noli. During this period, when I heard that Archbishop Anastasios had arrived in Albania, I contacted him. He was very receptive, encouraging me to return to Albania in order to meet him. I was very impressed with his person and his devotion for the cause of the Church in Albania. During this meeting, I even happened to be present at his enthronement on August 2, 1992.

“The following year, after graduating from Holy Cross with a Master’s of Theological Studies, I returned to Albania and the Archbishop appointed me to teach theology at the seminary, as well as serve in other capacities within the Church. He ordained me as a deacon on February 27, 1994, then as a priest on December 4 the same year. In 1995 I received a scholarship from him and returned to the United States to pursue further studies. When I returned in 1996, I was appointed as director of the seminary as well as elevated as an archimandrite on November 19th. On July 18, 1998, I was elected as Metropolitan of Korça and enthroned two days later.”

I mentioned how impressed I was with the architecture and stone construction of the various buildings crowning the hill where we met.

“If you had seen this hilltop a decade ago, you could not have imagined that it would soon be a church, monastery and theological school. It had been an important monastery, a place of pilgrimage, in the past, but in 1967 everything was destroyed. Only a fragment of one building survived — part of two walls but no roof — and a few trees. You could not even discern the shape of the former church, though secretly people continued to climb the hill at night in order to pray. It was recognized as a sacred place. All that you see here has been built through the continuous effort of the Archbishop.

“My life in some ways is like this hilltop. I was converted to Christianity in 1975 during my last year at high school after a friend — an underground Orthodox Christian — loaned me a copy of the New Testament in French. He said it was to help me learn French, but he was really an evangelist.

“Part of my journey to faith was through reading. There were many religious books in the main library in Tirana. Luckily I knew the librarian and was able to borrow them discreetly — books by Orthodox, Catholic, Moslem and Jewish authors — to me it didn’t matter. Anyone who believed in God was somehow my ally, just as for the state anyone who believed in God was an enemy. The state was at war God, nothing less.

“The next step was becoming part of a small underground church group. It was such a different time! Not only you but your whole family could pay dearly if you were found praying with another person. Yet it was such a great joy! At last came the day when Father Kosmas baptized me. Until then I was called Fatmir (which means, “good luck”). In baptism I received the name John, after John the Theologian.

“It’s amazing. When he was made a bishop, I — so much younger, his spiritual child, one of the people he had baptized — was one of the consecrating bishops! It was in 1979 that he baptized me — a dangerous time to do such a thing. There have been Albanian priests executed for that. It was in the cellar of his house. His son stood outside on guard, watching. Now he is a priest, Fr. Ilia.

“Our small community used to meet mostly at the home of the Cico sisters in Korça, though we only had liturgy and communion rarely. Some used to take Holy Communion once a year and some others four or five times a year. Once we managed to go to Father Kosmas’s village where there was a liturgy in the middle of the night.

“We had to be very cautious. The years 1974-81 were the worst period for believers, though the anti-religious repression had started in a serious way in 1967. The atheist campaign intensified in 1974 after a so-called secret group was ‘found’ — these supposed ‘enemies of the state’ gave the government the occasion to launch a campaign of terror.

“When I left school I got a job organizing occupational therapy at a psychiatric clinic — very good cover for me! What better task for a follower of Christ than care of the sick? In fact the ‘insane’ were sometimes not insane — a family member would declare a person insane to prevent him being arrested and condemned.

“I know so many people who went to prison. My father was in jail in 1944 — ‘an enemy of the state.’ Many times they nearly arrested me. Once the secret police were going to raid my office — someone told them I had a Bible — but the director of the clinic was able to stop them. He had sympathy for me — and because he was a cousin of the director of the secret police he could protect me.

“We have so many people in our country who have suffered persecution and now must try to prevent the persecuted from becoming persecutors. This is why learning to forgive is so important in our country. In the Kanon of Lek — a medieval text that remains a monument in our culture — it is written, ‘If you forgive, it is an act of courage.’ I am happy to say that last year a committee in the north of the country, with Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim representatives, were able to get 800 families to agree to reconciliation. There was a big event in Lezha to mark this achievement.

“It was important that the three main religious communities took part in this effort. The religions in Albania must co-exist. We don’t meet enough but at least we have contact on each other’s feast days. If you know someone, it is hard to fight him! In our small country we already have so many divisions, we don’t need any more.

“I come from a Bektashi family, a form of Shia Islam, actually a kind of crypto-Christianity, a form of Islam not far from open Christianity. Bektashis have a kind of baptism, a kind of communion, even three ranks of clergy just as we have. They venerate saints. They use icons. They drink wine. Clearly some of their roots are Christian. However there are also many Gnostic elements, including belief in reincarnation. Less than two centuries ago, after several centuries of Orthodox Christianity, my region became Bektashi so that they wouldn’t have to pay the tax that Christians were forced to pay in the Ottoman Empire, yet keep many Christian elements and maybe ease their conscience a bit. But they are somewhat suspect in the view of some other Moslems. Today, many of them are coming back to the Church.

“People often say they are this or that religion because of their name. If you have a certain name, you are Muslim, another name you are a Christian. But in fact you may be a nothing or an atheist. We have many atheists with Christian names, many with Moslem names! We have so many nothings — especially people between 40 and 60. A lost generation. It is very hard for them. They have nothing.

“The church concentrates its efforts on the young but it can happen that the young rescue their parents and even grandparents. I was told the strange story of a grandfather who became Orthodox because his grandchild said it was a pity he didn’t pray and cross himself before he ate his food. ‘They won’t let me eat unless I make the sign of the cross!’ the grandfather told me. He finally decided not only to make the sign of the cross but to be baptized!”

Our next meeting was in Korça, first in his office, a room that also held the core of his substantial library, later over the table as his guest for a Lenten meal. I expressed my surprise at the huge church that was under construction on the western edge of the city’s main square. It was not simply impressive and ideally located, but a work of art that inspires prayer.

“This church was built while I was teaching at the seminary. Through Archbishop Anastasios’ initiative, we finally received land in the center of the city — but it was not easy. We had previously accepted another plot of land, not nearly as well located, but the government took it away from us after some controversy. Following much prayer and effort by many, we received the best possible piece of land in the city — right in the center, next to city hall. For us, this was a miracle. We could not have asked for a better place to build our cathedral.”

I asked about the building where we were meeting, both the administrative center of the diocese and, in several rooms on the top floor, his residence.

“It was built by the church in the pre-Communist time and was used in the same way. Then in the Hoxha years it became the local Communist Party training center! Now it has been returned to us — there is no more Communist Party. This also was restored by the Archbishop.

“We have a great deal to do here. There are now 200 churches in this diocese — a very heavy administrative load. On the other hand, there were 400 churches in the diocese before 1967. Being a bishop is not easy. You have to make a lot of decisions, you need a lot of prayer. Thank God there are some stupid — or perhaps crazy — people willing to be bishops. Bishops today must no longer live like princes. We are no longer living in the Byzantine Empire. We must be close to the people. An episkopos must be someone who guides, not a ruler.”

I asked if he hadn’t been tempted to stay in the United States after his studies were completed. The large Albanian community there would have certainly found a parish for him.

“It was suggested to me a number of times. I have other family members who moved to the US, but I decided to come back to Albania. This is my country. This is the Church that really needs me. Here I can make a difference. Yes, it is difficult here, but where is it not difficult? I was baptized here and had my first communion here. There were many good friends there who thought I was crazy to return, and there are people here who think the same — even people who say I am a CIA spy or that I get a lot of money by being a bishop. Otherwise why would I have come back? They cannot imagine any motive but financial gain.

“But what can we offer to the world as Orthodox Christians? Not money, but the spirit of sacrifice. We must teach the people the responsibility that comes with freedom — the Albanian word is liria. Such an important word!

“In a recent sermon I tried to explain that the Lord’s commandments are not the enemy of freedom — I compared the commandments to the barriers on mountain roads which help prevent cars from falling off cliffs. Now we are in the process of understanding that freedom is not mass debauchery. Freedom is not just to do as you please with no thought of consequences, no care for others. It is not a life free of love. The Prodigal Son thought he would become free and ended up as a slave. Without transformation and asceticism, freedom is not possible.

“Instead of a culture of freedom, we are in a culture of addictions. We find many people more and more addicted. Everything becomes uniform. Here in Albania it used to be done by force while in the west it was done voluntarily. Now we are following the western style. We think we achieve freedom by money.”

He went on to speak about obstacles to the spiritual life.

“The great sin is fear of the other. In a state of fear, everyone seems to be a threat. There are many symptoms of fear among Christians. The real meaning of the English word ‘gospel’ is good news, but one can find those who are more attracted to the Bad News Gospel. You can find religious circles more interested in the anti-Christ than in Christ, more interested in the number 666 than the Holy Trinity. This is a fear-driven, bad news orientation. Where such a mentality thrives, the Christian contribution to society is meager. Where faith, hope and love flourish, transformation occurs. Faith changes life. If life doesn’t change, clearly there is no faith. Saint John Chrysostom, preaching to perhaps 400 people in Antioch, told them, ‘If all of you were Christians, there would be no more pagans in the world.’ If you want to understand how Christianity spread so rapidly in the early centuries, it was because Christians were Christian.

“Sadly, in our time, we have lost the idea of the holy. Pagans at least understood the holy. They had a sense of the sacred. We have lost this capacity. This is our tragedy because more than ever the world needs the light of Christ, the genuine light.”

I asked how the Church in Albania communicates the faith to others? Metropolitan John laughed.

“We try everything! If you have a suggestion, we will try that too. This is why the Church is doing so many things that are valuable and useful in themselves but not essential, you might think, to the life of the Church. For example we are now preparing to offer an English course for young people in the region of Prespa. It is not an essential task of the Church to teach languages but this is another way of trying to make contact with young people who have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and cannot imagine pushing open the door of the Church. Of course this sometimes irritates people in the government. They wonder what the church has to do with school. Their idea is that we should only stand at the altar.

“It is not that we are trying to manipulate others into belief through this or that project. What we are trying to do is help young people see certain possibilities, certain paths. Our task is to guard their freedom so that they can choose their own path. In general they want to be told what to do. This is the fear of freedom. But they imagine they are free and that the Church is an enemy of their freedom.”

I noticed on a bookshelf several collections of stories and saying of the early monks, the Desert Fathers.

“For me these men and women of the desert have been a constant source of inspiration. For example there is the story of an elder and his young disciple going to Alexandria to preach. They shopped. They walked about. Finally the elder said to the younger monk, ‘Let’s return to our cells.’ The disciple said, ‘But weren’t we going to preach?’ And the elder said, ‘But we preached all day long — how we walked, how we spoke, how we ate. What more could we say?’

“Then there is the story of the theologian who went to St. Anthony the Great. He asked about the meaning of a certain text. Anthony said, ‘What is your opinion?’ The theologian gave a very detailed answer. Then Anthony asked another monk, ‘Abba Joseph, what is your opinion?’ He responded, ‘I don’t know.’ To this Anthony replied, ‘Blessed are you, Abba Joseph, you have understood because you said I don’t know.’

“The words ‘I don’t know’ are wonderful! This is why in the Orthodox Church we refer to any sacrament with the Greek word mysterion — mystery. We do this because there is the danger of putting boundaries to God. It is the academic danger: to pretend — to imagine — that you know. In reality the more you know, the more you don’t know.

“It is not through scientific investigation that you know another person. It is only through love. Only love can discover something unique. If you don’t love, you cannot discover the person. Love is a state of being. Love is a sacrament of being. The moment you feel a need to explain, love is gone.

“A problem we face is the cult of individualism. The Church doesn’t exist to make individuals but persons. An individual is someone in a state of separation, someone out of communion. A person is unique but at the same time exists in relationship with others. You cannot divide him from the whole. A person is a being who can never be repeated yet whose being includes others — without the other, the person does not exist. Without communion there is no being.”

I asked if he could imagine if, after all these years of destruction of faith, that Albania could become a religious society.

“I am not a staretz [spiritual elder, often a person who can foretell events yet to happen] — I cannot see the future. We must do what we can and not be overly attached to achieving results.”

I wondered if monastic life had been a hard choice for him.

“I didn’t see becoming a monk as a choice. It was for me what I must do — not to be better than others! — but because no other life seemed to fit me. I never encourage young people to embrace a celibate life. You do this only if you find that you have no other choice. But a celibate vocation is only possible if you live an ascetic life. This is why we have no TV in the house. Even if you are strong, it’s better not to put yourself in the path of temptation. When an ascetic discipline is missing, there is the problem of extreme loneliness suffered by many celibates. If you are full of the love of the Holy Spirit, you do not need other kinds of love.”

He told me a story of a community of exceptionally holy monks who, unfortunately, were also terrible singers.

“They sounded like a chorus of crows. But a gifted singer happened to visit. The monks were so impressed by his fine voice that they wouldn’t let him leave. He would sing the services so that heaven would no longer have to suffer from their awful singing. Days and days passed. Each service was beautifully sung by the professional singer. But one night an angel appeared in a dream to one of the monks and asked why they no longer heard the monks’ prayers. What had happened? The monk said the angel was a mistaken — ‘There is now a wonderful singer offering the prayers so much better than we can!’ ‘All the same,’ said the angel, ‘we hear nothing in heaven.’ The monk told the brothers his dream. Afterward the monks resumed their singing.

“I am like one of these monks with an awful voice, but it is the only voice I have and I must use it as best I can.”

He commented that one of the problems for priests in the modern world is a tendency to be embarrassed by the priestly vocation.

“We have to take care that in our desire to be close to people we try to become so like them that they hardly see us. The priest has to be visible, though taking care not to obstruct Christ’s presence.”

I asked about people and events that had shaped his life.

“I think this can be divided in two periods, first when religion was forbidden, and then when the church regained its freedom. In the first period, one of the most important persons for me was a man named Petro Zhei. I met him through providence. He was a translator but, more than that, he was a genius, an erudite man with a deep experience in the spiritual life. I was about 18 years old when a friend introduced us. He was 25 years older than I was. Despite the difference in age and experience, we had many deep conversations. The exchanges with him opened so many doors within me.

“In school I went through a very deep spiritual crisis. It brought on a kind of melancholy — depression — the feeling I was losing my childhood. I was reading books about psychology and philosophy that were really killing childhood. What finally saved my childhood was the Gospel. Reading it, I felt again a childlike happiness. I rediscovered something. Thank you, Gospel, for saving my childhood. Thank you for giving me back real joy. You can become an expert but it is of no value if you lose the joy. The Gospel so moved me whenever I read it. Even the memory of it moved me. As a child I had always loved adventure books — the Gospel was the fulfillment of this love. This was the ultimate adventure book. Perhaps someday I can find time to write about the theology of adventure stories and fairy tales.

In the second period, the one who most influenced me was Archbishop Anastasios. It happens both he and Petro Zhei were born in the same year. Often it’s not enough to have a clear idea and dedication, a spirit of sacrifice. We also need models to see our ideals actualized. The Archbishop was such an example for me. Through him I was able to see a concrete example of how to combine our dedication to God and man.

Our conversation shifted toward Church response to the poor, the homeless and the sick.

“There is no Christian community where there is no service of love. If we fail to respond to those who suffer, we turn our back on Christ. I will not be congratulated by God for writing a fine book about theology. I will be asked: ‘What about that poor old woman you ignored?’

“This is why we opened the ‘Service of Love’ free restaurant just across the street, to give one example. You can see it out the window. This was opened two times a week in 1995, through the initiative of the Archbishop. We have expanded it now to five meals a week. Normally we have forty to eighty people for lunch. All this is done by volunteers, a mixture of young and old, four or five in each group. Next we want to start a home for the elderly — people who are often completely alone. We are already helping old people in their homes or apartments, for example an old woman who had surgery and had no one to care for her. But they give us more than we give them. At the same time, we cannot romanticize the service of love. Often people with needs are somewhat mentally disturbed. They may curse you, curse the Church, even threaten you.

“There is the spiritual danger of seeing people as if they were carvings — it is a break in communion. The closer you get to another person, the more you understand this could be you. Everything can become a sacrament, the mystery of God’s presence.

“We look for many ways to help — we can never say we have finished. A week ago Sunday the Gospel of the Last Judgement was read during the liturgy — ‘What you did to the least person, you did to me.’ In my sermon I asked for volunteers to help us expand our Service of Love program — after the liturgy there were 28 volunteers, many of them young people. This means we can do more.

“You will not be saved by doctrine if you don’t practice it. If you believe in the power of medicine but only keep it in bottles, it will not save you. Saint Gregory the Theologian said that the knowledge of God starts with obeying the commandments; if you begin the journey you will experience the mysteries — the sacraments. Like Moses, we are granted an oblique view of God. This is a quest that surpasses every fairy tale, every legend.

“One of the things we learn in any project of service is that we cannot do it alone. Christ said he will be present whenever there are at least two or three gathered in his name — one is not enough.

“From such work we also learn gratitude. This is essential. The deep meaning of the word Eucharist is thanksgiving. Complaining is the disease of our time. Our sin is not being grateful. I visited recently an 83-year-old woman who had been blind since she was three. I have never met anyone as grateful as she is, someone so thankful. Whenever you met the Cico sisters, you would notice that each time they mentioned Christ, their faces were illuminated. Such gratitude! They have lived in the other world — they have enjoyed it and we experience their joy. This kept them alive. But in our present world if you don’t complain you are regarded as an idiot.”

I was reminded of the words a French Catholic poet, Leon Bloy, who said that joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.

“Yes! One Christmas I went to a cave in the mountains near here, a place many people were afraid to go to because of superstitions about ghosts. I built a small a fire and prayed. In that cave I was so full of joy! People who have not had such an experience cannot imagine. Joy? Joy in a cold cave in the middle of winter? They will think you are crazy. But I felt a great joy, and within me overflowed a deep prayer. This joy overwhelmed me for days — I could hardly work.”

Our conversation returned to the Hoxha years, when one would be very lucky to be regarded as crazy rather than criminal.

“Those years of persecution were hard but helpful. You certainly didn’t get a medal for being religious! In 1948 the head of our Orthodox, Archbishop Kristofor, was arrested and confined to the church of St. Prokopios in Tirana. Four years later, it was reported in the press that the bishop he had been found dead, but it is generally assumed he was poisoned. He died a martyr’s death.

“Another bishop, Irineos, had the courage to refuse to ordain as bishop a person nominated by the government and for this was exiled to the Ardenica monastery. Bishop Irineos was from Skodra in the north of Albania. He studied theology in Paris and Belgrade.

Irineos never wanted to be a bishop or even to be ordained as a deacon or priest, but accepted it during the Italian occupation of Albania to prevent a Uniate bishop being imposed on us. The Italians had intended to put a Uniate in the Synod as soon as there was a vacancy. After a week of prayer, Irineu accepted the proposal though he was a layman at the time. He was quickly ordained deacon, then priest, then bishop, all in one week! He served as bishop in Kosovo and part of Macedonia. Bishop Irineu was arrested and exiled to the Ardenica Monastery where he died in 1973.

“Religious life was something dangerous for many years. But in those days I felt strongly that you cannot live without religion. Such a life is a mutilated life. Now we have the impression that we can live without religion or that religion can be a hobby. We lived through a time of collective madness. You were condemned for any form of religion — it was a war against the idea of the holy, the idea of God.

“Yet to tell the truth, I often felt sorry for the persecutors — and still feel sorry for them. Really, they were the victims. They became sub-human. I don’t know how they feel now, but they have been badly damaged. Hell is life apart from God — it begins in this life. If we don’t become familiar with God in this life, how will we do it in the next?”

I mentioned that some of those who once persecuted religion are not only alive and well but still in government.

“Our sad history in the Balkans — so many invasions and occupations and acts of cruelty — taught people not to trust. Here there has always been war. It is regarded as normal. We who are Christians have to stop these endless cycles of hatred.”

Extract from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches; do not reprint without the author’s permission.

Only With Love

The voice of Raimonda Shqeva

Since 1995 Raimonda Shqeva has worked full-time with the Service of Love Women’s Group, which has its office in a small building adjacent to the Annunciation Cathedral in Tirana. In her late thirties, she has black hair and large brown eyes that communicate immense sensitivity. She immediately made me a cup of coffee. As I drank it, she showed me photos of some of the group’s activities: women bringing clothes and money to orphans in Elbasan, assisting at the summer girls’ camp at the Monastery of St. John Vladimir, visiting people at an old age home who have no family to assist them.

“Here we are with street children and beggars. We found about 40 children who had no parents. Now they have a place to live and a family. And here is a photo of a group baptism — 27 people!”

I asked what led her to the Church and to such activity.

“I grew up in a believing family. I remember my childhood with deep emotion — the carefulness of my father who believed so much in Jesus even in those very hard times. It was not in his nature to be silent about his faith but he had to tell me it was best not to speak to others about our faith. In 1967, when I was seven, all the churches were closed — not even one was left open. Thank God, I can remember the church before it was closed.

“When I was little, my father would tell me Bible stories but without explaining they were from the Bible. Time after time he told me the story of the Prodigal Son, always with so much love.

“I remember once asking my father about God, ‘This Father of all the world that you talk about — where does he live?’ My father was not an educated man and could not give clever answers, but he loved Jesus very much. I remember how red his face got when I asked my question, the anger he felt that I was thinking in such a way about God. ‘You must not ask such a question,’ he told me. ‘It is a mystery. No one knows where God lives. Only when you think about God, ask yourself, “Can you make yourself? Can you build something without work? How can things exist by themselves.” ‘ He spoke with conviction and feeling, in a simple way. I will never forget what he said! I hope I can pass on to my son and daughter, Spiro and Maria, the same fire in the heart. They are 11 and 9 years old.

“My father loved the Virgin Mary and always celebrated the Dormition on the 15th of August. He would explain, ‘This is the mother of all creation. We must pray especially to her because she can speak for us.’

“There were many promises I made to him about what I would do, how I would live. Sadly I did not keep all these promises. Now I try to keep them.

“When the Church reopened, I was 30 years old. By then my father had died and I had the fire of the loving God in my heart. I felt as if someone was pushing me forward, to some height. I dedicated myself to the Christian life.

“My husband is also a strong Christian. He never objects to the time I spend in church or involved in church projects — and it takes a lot of time!

“In 1994 I began my journey into diaconal service through involvement in the catechism program that was led by a nun from Athens, Sister Galini. She started this in 1992. This gave us confidence to bring the Gospel to others who don’t know it. Maybe they came from Orthodox families but they never heard the Gospel or only tiny fragments. We also began going to asylums for the blind, to people with other disabilities, to the very old, to prisoners.

“This is how our women’s group began. In the first year there were only seven of us, all very strong believers — now we are 25. Part of our work is cooking free meals and assisting needy and sick persons. We have special activities for Christmas and Easter. Also we organize special excursions to places like the Monastery of St. John Vladimir — the one with a church that was burned in the German time and which the government still refuses to return but where a few other buildings have been returned. We had a trip there not long ago for a group of blind people. We provide catechism lessons in several towns and villages to help people better understand the mysteries — the sacraments. You know there are many people who make the sign of the cross and kiss icons but don’t really understand the meaning of the cross or the meaning of icons. We also explain confession — how it is a way to clean yourself of sins. We explain the power of holy communion. We want people to see that it is possible to change the heart from a place of darkness to a place of light, to receive power from Christ so that you can follow his teaching.

“When Mother Theresa came to Tirana, I went to meet her and received her blessing. I am glad to be Orthodox and I believe the truth is in the Orthodox Church, but I respect all Christians. I don’t look down on anyone. It is a blessing to know Christians from other churches — some of them are very inspiring.

“Sometimes they are surprised I am Orthodox and ask me questions like why do we have icons? I tell them if you keep a photo of your father or mother or your children, you can also have an image of Jesus and his mother or those who followed him even to martyrdom. Sometimes I am asked why we Orthodox fast and I try to explain how this gives us strength to struggle against temptations and evil spirits. As Jesus said, there are some demons that can only be defeated through prayer and fasting. Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays helps us remember the betrayal and suffering of Jesus.

“Sometimes I teach others how to bake prosphora bread for use in the Liturgy. It is more than a recipe or a method — certain ingredients or the stamp on the top with the cross. You have to bake with love and prayer!

“It is sometimes hard to learn not to hate, not to attack — you can convert only with love. We must be very careful of each other and never use force. If someone cannot hear us, then let us pray for him. We each go at our own speed. St. Constantine was baptized only at the end of his life. Our archbishop has taught us that each person is an icon of God. We must not judge others! We must help anyone in need no matter what.”

I asked what problems the women faced in their charitable work.

“A big problem for us is deciding how much to help a particular person or family. You can help too much, so that the person lives entirely from charity and takes no initiative, but you can also help too little. We don’t want people to become completely passive, but there are people who are so damaged that sometimes there is very little they can do for themselves. Not everyone is capable of having a job. Sometimes we spend hours discussing a particular person’s situation and how much help we should give. My own tendency is that it is better to give too much than too little. My father taught me never to judge someone who begs, never to think he may just be pretending. Just be a Christian and try to live the Gospel. When people say we give too much, I think that at the Last Judgement no one will be condemned for giving too much or for forgiving too much.”

Extract from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches. Do not reprint without the author’s permission.