Tag Archives: Church Life

The Kiss of Peace

by Fr. Alexander Schmemann

We go to church for love, for the new love of Christ himself, which is granted to us in our unity. We go to church so that this divine love will again and again be “poured into our hearts,” so that again and again we may “put on love,” so that constituting the body of Christ, we can abide in Christ’s love and manifest it to the world. But that is why our contemporary, utterly individualized piety, in which we egotistically separate ourselves from the gathering, is so grievous, so contradictory to the age-old experience of the Church. While standing in the church, we continue to sense some people as “neighbors,” the others as “strangers”…

And thus the kiss of peace is disclosed to us in its full significance… I really don’t know the man who is standing across from me in church; I can neither love him nor not love him, for he is a “stranger” to me and thus no one. And we are so afraid of this hollow form, so utterly “sincere” in our individualism and egocentrism, that we forget the chief thing. We forget that, in the call to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” we are talking not of our personal, natural, human love, through which we cannot in fact love someone who is a “stranger,” who has not yet become “something” or “somebody” for us, but of the love of Christ, the eternal wonder of which consists precisely in the fact that it transforms the stranger (and each stranger, in his depths, is an enemy) into a brother, irrespective of whether he has or does not have relevance for me and for my life. That it is the very purpose of the Church to overcome the horrible alienation that was introduced into the world by the devil and proved to be its undoing. And we forget that we have come to the Church for this love, which is always granted to us in the gathering of the brethren….

We know we cannot of ourselves attain this love, just as we cannot acquire the peace of Christ “ which “surpasses all understanding” “ forgiveness of sins, eternal life and union with God. All this is given, granted to us in the sacred mystery of the Church; and the entire Church is one great sacrament, the sacred rite of Christ….

We must ask ourselves: do we go to the liturgy for this love of Christ, do we go as people who hunger and thirst not only for help and consolation, but for the fire that burns away all our weaknesses, all our limitations, and illumines us through the new love of Christ? Or are we afraid that this love will weaken our hatred for our enemies, all our “principled” condemnations, our discrepancies and divisions? Do we not more often desire from the Church peace only with those with whom we already have it, love for those whom we already love, self-affirmation and self-justification? But if so, we are not acquiring that gift that allows us to actually renew and eternally renew our lives, we do not venture beyond the limits of our personal “alienation,” and we are not really taking part in the Church.

An abridged extract from Fr. Schmemann’s book, The Eucharist, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. See pages 138-140.


Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

Traditional Christian Peacemaking

by Mark Pearson

athos10There 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

And again:

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.

[Quoted in Making Friends of Enemies by Jim Forest; Crossroads, New York]

Mark Pearson, a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, directs the Computer Center at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and is a member of St. Paul’s Orthodox Church in Dayton, Ohio.

Mark Pearson / 806 College Ave. / Richmond, IN 47374 / e-mail: [email protected]

text written: March 1997 / posted on the OPF web site March 22, 1997

Reflections on the Liturgy

by Mary Stavroula Ward


In an age when many cradle Christians are indifferent to entering a church, believing that it is a space equal to any other in which to commune with God; in a time when many who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” disdain churches as incapable of inspiring their spiritual quest, I would like to offer some reflections on Orthodox churches, icons and liturgy and the power that they can hold. These reflections describe how churches can affect individuals with a power apart from them. Karl Rahner, the German Catholic theologian, spoke of the modern phenomenon of the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, and how the culture does not see all of life as imbued with God’s grace in a sacramental way. But it seems, at least outside of Orthodoxy, that there is a perception that sacred space has been absorbed into the profane, leading to a cynical attitude that life can hold no mystery because it is limited to only what our minds can grasp.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine of Hippo explained that after his baptism on Pascha in April of 387, he often was moved deeply at the liturgy. As a later commentator wrote, “After that Holy Saturday, days of infinite sweetness began. Taking part in the liturgy moved him to tears. He cried not because he was in distress, but because he could finally breathe.”

Bishop Kallistos Ware met the “concrete and specific fact” of the Orthodox Church as “a worshiping presence” when., out of curiosity, he walked into an Orthodox Vespers in London many years ago. This professor of classics as well as bishop remarks how grateful he is that he first knew of the Orthodox Church through the act of worship rather than through books or social contact, theory or ideology. When he stepped off that London street and into the candle-lit darkness of the Vigil Service, he entered another world “that was more real” to him than his life outside. He did not understand a single word of the Slavonic service, but was convinced that he had come home. Not only did he find the sacred, but he found reality. [The Inner Kingdom, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press]

My own experiences of Orthodox liturgy have given me a sense of being home. And at times, during the months before I was chrismated, I would suddenly and inexplicably be moved to tears. I spent days, sometimes weeks of reflection and discussion with my spiritual father to attempt to understand with my mind what I was feeling in my deepest self. Some of it was sadness, but intermingled with a sense of forgiveness, relief and hope. I felt I was resting in the hand of God. Through my reading I discovered the accounts that I have described above, which are so striking in their similarities to my own.

Having lived almost all of my life as a Catholic, in the time before the Second Vatican Council changed the Catholic liturgy from Latin to the vernacular, I know something of an interior experience of the liturgy. Although I did not resist the changes, I was more than comfortable with worshiping in Latin; and found a measure of peace in these experiences. But nothing really prepared me for the dynamis of the Orthodox liturgy; its ability through grace to move the believer from one kind of existence to another.

A few weeks after I was chrismated at St. George Tropeoforos Greek Orthodox, I visited the Russian Orthodox Cathedral St. Nicholas for the vigil one Saturday evening. Recently restored, St. Nicholas is an architectural symbol and living spiritual witness to more than 1000 years of Russian Orthodoxy. It is now headed by Bishop Mercurius, Bishop of Zaraisk, administrator of the US parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate. The feeling I had upon entering the Cathedral was one of space and openness. Standing in that space invites a kind of active and communal prayer, lacking pews which could put barriers between yourself and others and in a sense to isolate and hide yourself in prayer. That choice is impossible. Two or three benches are placed in the back and on one side wall for the elderly and children. Everyone who enters the cathedral must be active, even if only by standing and gazing at the beauty surrounding you. When I stood in the middle of the expansive space with its soaring dome of Christ the Pantocrator gazing down, its gleaming wood floors and several shining candelabras, its enormous icons on the walls and splendid iconostasis, I was struck dumb. Even if I could have spoken Russian, which I think all of the congregation speaks, I wouldn’t have been able to say anything.

I purchased candles and approached an icon of Christ and another of a modern woman saint who was pale, in a scarf and plain dress. I didn’t know who she was, but the look in her eyes was of suffering and compassion at the same time. Vigil began; the choir sang and a deacon opened the left door, turned toward the iconostasis with arm raised and chanted in a deep bass voice. All was in Slavonic. The congregation of young and old, men, women and children crossed themselves, bowed, and many prostrated themselves, touching their foreheads to the floor. I noticed one young man, especially, tall and slender who found a place along the wall to pray and prostrate. The only time I had ever seen anyone assume such a position in the Catholic church was at the ordination of priests when the men lay prone on the floor in the sanctuary. It was powerful to observe then, and was no less powerful now. I crossed myself and bowed until my shoulder ached, but I did not prostrate. I was not prepared for that yet.

While this activity unfolded, I noticed an older woman in a black scarf which covered her head and forehead, black skirt and blouse and glasses tending to the candles — removing the ones almost burned away and placing them in a little bucket. She appeared to have dropped from another century and a land far away. Then I noticed other women who either maintained the candles or cleaned the icon glass which the worshipers kissed. They were young or middle aged and stylishly dressed. Some wore pants, but all had their head covered with a hat or scarf. They seemed quite comfortable crossing the line that our American culture has established between modernity and tradition and between the sacred and the profane. For them, there did not seem to be a division, but a co-existence, or perhaps an organic integration of both into their lives.

The choir was both ethereal, with women’s voicing floating above, and densely rich from the grounding of male voices. The music seemed more “call and response” than accompaniment or interjection to the prayers and chants of the clergy. Periodically, a chorus of male voices penetrated from behind the iconostasis, and much later I realized that the chorus was formed by the bishop, priests and deacons. At the end of the service, someone who I surmised was the bishop because of his crown, stood on the Ambo and anointed everyone with oil, using a brush from a golden cup. I went to the end of the line, watched everyone carefully, and received the anointing. I left the vigil feeling jubilant and tranquil at the same time.

I returned again at the feast of the Veneration of the Cross which coincided with the visit of the Tikhvin Icon. The ancient and much loved icon was on its way back to Russia and its home in the Dormition Cathedral in the Tikhvin Monastery after a stay of 55 years in the US. The line inside the church, five or six people wide, wound from the front of the church around to the opposite side. People waited silently to venerate the ancient and miraculous icon, left flowers, and many wept. The tradition of the Tikhvin icon goes back 2,000 years and many miracles ago and much history and change. She seemed to embody within her ancient tempura, jewels and precious metal, the faith and hope of the people who expect her to be with them in their suffering and in their joy.

While the icon was being venerated, the vigil proceeded for the Veneration of the Cross. Every liturgical feast was new to me, so I was not prepared for what occurred. I had no idea what was being sung or said, but not knowing the language has the advantage of forcing one to glean information through other venues. This time I noticed a rhythm to the service for the first time. There was an interchange between the chanting, singing and reading by the deacons and priests and their movements in and out of the iconostasis to pray, read and cense the icons and the congregation.

The entire church was packed with people, not only those for the Tikhvin icon, but for the vigil as well. Almost everyone who were there for the vigil was prostrating throughout the liturgy. I was in the front, surrounded by prostrating worshipers, I could not avoid it, nor did I want to. When Bishop Mercurius lifted the cross surrounded by flowers on his head and processed into the nave, I could feel the liturgy moving to a climax. He, together with the clergy and all the people, prostrated themselves before the cross. The music swelled during the prostrations, and I wept. My forehead was on the floor, my spirit was bowed but soared within me, and I wept. I was everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. I was in this world and somehow transcending it. And after almost two hours of standing and crossing and bowing, I became tranquil and at rest inside myself. My prayers for what to do and where to go were met with a quiet answer: be nothing, stop striving, to rest in God.

Like St. Augustine, I cried not because of sadness, but because I could finally breathe. Weeping and breathing are interrelated. The body releases its tension, we give in, we give up, we open our hearts, take in air and let the tears flow. Why? Possibly, as Isaac of Nineveh said, “When you reach the place of tears, then know that your spirit has come out from the prison of this world and has set its foot upon the path that leads towards the new age. Your spirit begins at this moment to breathe the wonderful air which is there, and it starts to shed tears.” [Mystic Treatises in the Philokalia, quoted in The Way of the Pilgrim]

Standing in prayer in St. Nicholas Cathedral reminded me of the dance. With all its elements, it binds the human with the divine, provides us with the opportunity to dance with God. Later this notion took on even more meaning when I read these words of Thomas Merton: “No despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not. Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.”

So we join in the dance with our bodies, souls and spirits in those churches which have inspired Christians for 2000 years. In these spaces set aside for their sacred purpose, let us set our cares aside, as the cherubic hymn reminds us, so

that we may receive the King of all.

Mary Ward has taught at Fordham University in New York City since 1995 as an adjunct professor and has lectured at American Academy of Religion conferences and at colleges and parishes.