by Mark Pearson
There can be no doubt about the absolute demands that the gospel of Christ makes upon an Orthodox believer. The Church of Holy Tradition is total in its claim. The goal of the spiritual life is the transformation of the believer, inwardly and outwardly. Body and soul are intimately linked in this salvitic process. For a person to be a peacemaker, a son of God, he must be prepared to deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ. It is not good enough for us to want to change the world; Dostoevsky said “everybody wants to change the world, but nobody thinks about changing himself”. If we want to transform the world we must start by looking at ourselves.
St Seraphim of Sarov said, “acquire inward peace and thousands around you will be saved” and it is in the acquisition of that inward peace that we become peacemakers in the world and not only for the salvation of our own souls but for others with whom we come into contact. Becoming a peacemaker starts then with our acknowledgment of our personal unpeacefulness, our fractured nature, our own fallenness. In this time of spiritual effort of Lent we are given a number of Biblical examples on which to pattern our lives which help us to shovel away the roadblocks to a peaceful heart. And so Christ gives us the parable of the publican and the pharisee (Luke 18:10-14). And the Church takes prayer of the publican, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”, and makes it the refrain of our lives. We sing :
Let us, the faithful, flee the boastfulness of the pharisee,
Let us repeat in reverence the publican’s prayer:
May our thoughts not be poisoned by pride, O Lord;
Grant us the grace to cry aloud from the depths of our hearts:
God, be merciful to us sinners!
(Matins Hymn of Light, Sunday of Publican and Pharisee)
Have mercy on us O Lord, have mercy on us. This is the Lenten refrain as we seek to purify our souls by repentance and gain the kingdom that is within. But we find that we do not even measure up either to the pharisee or the publican:
I surpass the publican in transgressions,
But do not even compete in his repentance!
I have not accomplished the good deeds of the pharisee,
Yet I boldly out-do his boasting!
By your infinite humility, o Christ God.
Establish in me the good deeds of the one,
And the humility of mind of the other,
Confirming in me the good intentions of each,
And save me, o Savior!
(Tuesday Vespers Apostikha in Tone 3, fourth week of Lent)
And humility of heart grants us great joy and peace, for “the gift of God and knowledge of Him is not a cause for turmoil or clamor; rather this gift is entirely filled with a peace in which the Spirit, love and humility reside” and “the heart brought close to hope … makes it peaceful and pours joy into it” as St Isaac the Syrian teaches us.
But still we judge others, we condemn the unworthy, we are filled with self-righteous anger at the wrongs in the world. How can we presume to make peace when we are filled with violent passions? Anger grips my soul and the devil roars in triumph. How can we possibly judge others when we are so deserving of condemnation ourselves? So the wise St Isaac reminds us, “Have clemency not zeal with respect to evil. Lay hold of goodness not justice. Do not find pleasure in judging…. if we become castigators, chastisers, judges, investigators, vindicators, and faultfinders, in what respect does our life differ from the life of the secular world? …. If you love gentleness be peaceful. If you are deemed worthy of peace, you will rejoice at all times. Seek understanding not gold. Clothe yourselves with humility not fine linen. Gain peace not a kingdom.” For God is a God of mercy not judgement. “Do not speak of God as “just’,” St Isaac tells us, “for His justice is not evident in his actions towards you.” And he goes on to say:
How can you call God just when you read the gospel lesson concerning the hiring of the workmen in the vineyard? How can someone call God just when he comes across the story of the prodigal son who frittered away all his belongings in riotous living — yet merely in response to his contrition his father ran and fell on his neck, and gave him authority over all his possessions? Where then is this “justice” in God, seeing that, although we were sinners, Christ died for us? If he is so compassionate in this, we have faith he will not change.
We acknowledge this in the communion prayer of St John Chrysostom when we confess with Simon Peter that “thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God” and we put ourselves first in line when we continue, “who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first”.
We struggle to follow Christ’s way; “the path to God is a daily cross. No-one has ascended to heaven by way of ease. We know where the easy way leads!”, advises St Isaac the Syrian. The path to peacemaking is the way of the cross. We cannot acquire a peaceful soul until we have acquired the virtues of the flesh; humility, repentance, self-denial, compassion, and of course love.
The timeless Lenten spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving give us the means of cleansing our souls. And once again, that wise Syrian sage of the seventh century, St Isaac, tells us, “prayer is the mother of all virtues; capture the mother and she will bring you the children”. And so we pray. And if we cannot pray, still we pray the prayer of the publican, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”.
And with prayer comes fasting. Jesus assumed that fasting was a part of a person’s spiritual life; “When you fast … ” He tells his disciples, and when they were unable to heal an epileptic boy, He tells them that some demons need to be driven out with prayer and fasting. Fasting fortifies the soul, self denial strengthens the body, humility heals the heart.
We pray from the Lenten Triodion:
The fast is here, the mother of chastity
“The accuser of sins, the advocate of repentance …
Faithful, let us cry:
O God, have mercy on us!
Again we cry:
Let us humble the flesh by abstinence,
As we follow the divine path of pure fasting.
With prayers and tears let us seek the Lord who saves us.
Let us put an end to anger, crying out:
Save us who have sinned against you!
Save us, O Christ our king, as you saved the men of Nineveh,
And make us partakers of your heavenly kingdom, o compassionate one!
Let us begin the fast with joy!
Let us prepare ourselves for spiritual efforts!
Let us cleanse our soul and cleanse our flesh!
(Forgiveness Sunday vespers, “Lord I call” in tone 2
Let us begin the pure fast, O people,
Which is the salvation of our souls.
Let us serve the lord with fear;
Let us anoint our heads with the oil of good deeds.
Let us wash our faces with waters of purity.
Let us not use empty phrases in prayer,
But as we have been taught, let us cry out:
Our Father in heaven, forgive us our trespasses,
For you are the lover of mankind.
(Apostikha in Tone 3, Tuesday Matins, First Week of Lent)
And with prayer and fasting we practice “almsgiving”. Peacemaking by another name, almsgiving is founded on compassion. As Christ, in His infinite love and mercy had compassion on those around him at the feeding of the five thousand, as He wept over Jerusalem, as he healed the woman of Samaria, so we too are called to compassion.
“What is a compassionate heart”, asks St Isaac, “it is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the animals, for the demons, for all that exists. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person’s eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart; because of his deep mercy he cannot bear to hear or to look upon any injury or the slightest suffering of anything in creation”.
And again, the Lenten prayer book, the Triodion, offers us invaluable counsel; “Come, faithful”, we are urged, “Let us perform the works of God in the light!”
Come, let us purify our souls with alms and mercy to the poor,
Not blowing a trumpet, or publishing what we do in charity,
Lest our left hand know what our right has done,
And vainglory steal from us the fruit of alms.
(Apostikha in Tone 8, Sunday Vespers, first week of Lent).
If we set our hands to doing good,
The effort of lent will be a time of repentance for us,
A means to eternal life,
For nothing quite saves the soul as much as giving to those in need.
Alms, inspired by fasting, deliver man from death.
Let us embrace this, for it has no equal;
It is sufficient to save our souls!
(Apostikha in Tone 8, Thursday Matins, second week of Lent)
By these means we struggle to carry our crosses to Golgotha. There we cry “remember me O Lord in Thy kingdom’, there like the wise thief we repent of our sins, of our sinfulness, and we turn to Christ. And we receive joy and peace. For, “through the cross joy has come into all the world”, the joy of the resurrection brings inexpressible peace to our souls.
I have talked about the process of acquiring inward peace, an effort involving body and soul. But I have not touched upon the subject of salvation. For the Orthodox Christian Christ, the Savior of our souls, is our teacher, He is the victor over death (expressed by the icon of the resurrection), but first and foremost He heals — “the physician of our souls and bodies’ as we pray in the Divine Liturgy. We are healed by becoming “sharers in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). God became incarnate in the form of a man to save not only individuals, not only the church, but all creation; the whole cosmos. And it is in this saving plan that the peacemaker plays a role.
I would like to conclude by telling a wonderful story. The Second World war was the occasion of suffering on an incomprehensible scale. We are familiar with the gut rending story of the Holocaust of European Jewry. But in the West we are almost wholly ignorant of the suffering endured by the countries of Eastern Europe as a whole. Twenty million people died in Russia alone by conservative estimates; censuses reveal that the population of Russia did not recover until the mid Seventies. With the background of shattered cities, starving people, haunted by terror, we come across the following story of forgiveness:
In 1944, the mother of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, one of the most loved Russian poets, took him from Siberia to Moscow. They were among those who witnessed a procession of twenty-thousand German war prisoners marching through the streets of Moscow:
The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women — Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear.
At last we saw it. The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebeian victors.
“They smell of perfume, the bastards,” someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.
All at once something happened to them. They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent — the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.
Then I saw an elderly women in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying, “Let me through.” There must have been something about her that made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.
Making Friends of Enemies by Jim Forest; Crossroads, New York]