Tag Archives: “ Jim Forest

Three days in August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father Aleksy

Father Aleksy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

A Bishop who Stood in the Way

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

❖ Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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A Conversation in Volos about Church and State

by Jim Forest

Fifty Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant Christians from Europe and the United States met in Volos, Greece in mid-May for a discussion of “Forgiveness, Peace and Reconciliation.” Our host was Metropolitan Ignatios, the local bishop. The conference was organized by the Volos Academy for Theological Studies.

The most important and difficult issue speakers addressed was the relationship of church and state.

Because of space limitations, I will concentrate here on what the Orthodox speakers had to say.

Among those challenging an uncritical relationship between state and church was Metropolitan Neofytos of Morfou, Cyprus, an island divided between Greeks and Turks for more than three decades. He spoke of the need for self-criticism within the Church as a way of initiating “a process of healing.” This is a question of discovering the truth, however painful, “because only the truth is liberating.”

He described the negative impact of national ideas being transferred from Greece to Cyprus in the sixties. “Belonging to the Greek nation was regarded as equal to or even above being Orthodox. The Church was seen as acting for the splendor of the nation. Faith was regarded not as the path to Christ the Savior but the realization of national ideals. Basic Christian teaching was marginalized. I don’t mean to suggest that the Church should be indifferent to national issues. It has a part to play. We are taught to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But in Cyprus we lost the golden balance point. We came to see ourselves primarily as a political organism, with our politicians turning to the Church with the expectation of hearing the correct political words and phrases. There was an absence of forgiveness, an erosion of confession. We made the grave mistake of not praying for the enemy. Indeed there are Orthodox Christians who are scandalized even to be asked to forgive. We lost our way. Christian identity should never to used to divide.”

Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis, director of Volos Academy for Theological Studies, argued that wars, even when occurring in the name of religion, “are nothing but a result of the exaltation of collective egoisms. They only witness to the absence of real repentance, the denial of the Cross. Behind any conflict, we can easily discern an idolization of religion, tribe and nation, an odd paganism of earth, soil, homeland or of the ‘God-bearing’ people, of a claim of exclusivity, which is a real temptation.”

Dr. Vletsis Athanasios spoke of the problem “of unrepented sins committed collectively by Orthodox people, or even the failure to identify sins we have committed. The illumination of memory is needed. Otherwise we are doomed to persist in committing past sins.”

In a lecture on the Orthodox view of human rights, Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis of Holy Cross Greek School of Theology in Boston, pointed out that, while “Orthodox Christianity does not have a complete system of understanding the human person … It is wrong to assume that the ethos of Orthodoxy does not permit the development of human rights sensitivities and advocacy. Quite the contrary, the Orthodox view of human dignity supports the idea of human rights. The possibility for a greater sensitivity and advocacy of human rights issues by the Orthodox churches is highly probable since under the pressure of historic challenges people often find new meaning in traditional ideas.”

Dr. Athanasios Papathanasiou, editor of the quarterly journal Synaxis, published in Athens, spoke about war in the Orthodox tradition. “It is interesting to see how the tension between the historic necessity and the gospel criteria is depicted in the canons of the Orthodox Church,” he said. “I believe that the Church does not represent a compact body with a common view and unanimity throughout history. It is always formed by several trends, with various sensibilities and priorities; trends which are often in agreement, divergence or even in conflict.” Thus one finds, even among the Church Fathers, a range of views about war.

Dr. Petros Vassiliadis, professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, agreed that the religious factors have been a driving force in nearly every war. “All the shortcomings of Christianity,” he said, “are rooted in bad Christology. I have problems whenever we absolutize our own mission.”

Fr. Zivko Panev, professor at the St. Serge Institute in Paris, discussed the influence of the state on church life in Serbia following the restoration of the Serbian patriarchate, with the consequence that “national identity merged with church identify.” In fact, many Serbs who would identify themselves as Orthodox don’t believe what the Church teaches. Some are even convinced atheists. The problem in Serbia is made more complex because of an “idealization of religion that followed the collapse of communist ideology, with the Church perceived as being the principal guardian of national identity.”

Dr. Alexei Bodrov, director of St. Andrew’s Biblical Theological Institute in Moscow, spoke of various problems in Russia. These include the “traditional lack of tolerance – in principle we have tolerance, in practice we do not. There is still widespread anti-Semitism. Even the concept of human rights is regarded as highly suspect, having a much lower priority than state or national interest. There is in Russia today a highly politicized Orthodoxy that has little in common with Christian Orthodoxy. One notes the many ties between church and the military, church and police, church and other state bodies. This is partly due to Orthodoxy being made to take the place of Marxist ideology following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet though a high percentage of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, in fact less than four percent occasionally take part in church services.”

Fr. Vassilios Thermes, an Orthodox priest and psychiatrist living in Athens, said “there is no greater sin than war with its violence, hatred, cruelty, murder and fanaticism. Any kind of violence and hostility is an assault on the Holy Spirit. Who are the peacemakers that Christ calls on his followers to become? They are the ones that help us to overcome hatred. Each peacemaker is a carrier of the Holy Trinity. He is a child of God because he imitates God. You cannot convey to others what you don’t have.”

My own lecture emphasized the importance of the Church recovering the memory of its own resistance to violence in the early centuries of Christianity. “We Orthodox certainly have remembered how the early Church celebrated the liturgy. To the astonishment of other Christians, we are happy to stand in the church for very extended periods. But sadly we have forgotten a great deal of the social teaching and practice of the early Church and have become deaf to much that the saints had to say.”

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from the Summer 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 46

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The Pilgrimage of Illness

by Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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