Tag Archives: Confession

Forgiving All in the Light of the Resurrection

by Elizabeth Gassin and Robert Enright

Acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands around you will be saved.

           —St. Seraphim of Sarov

This examination of forgiveness by Professors Gassin and Enright expands on the work of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s two part series (IC 62 and 63) by looking through an Orthodox Theological lens at the psychological dimensions of forgive-ness which is their area of professional and scholarly expertise. Having first intro-duced us to their work in Forgiveness Education (IC 62) and then to the scientific underpinnings of forgiveness (IC 64), they conclude our year-long look at forgiveness by first elaborating an understanding of the reasons for and process of being merciful to an offender from an Orthodox theological perspective before identifying forgiveness themes and practices in Orthodox life, both liturgical and personal.

Orthodox Theology and Forgiveness: Orthodox theology, of course, flows from an understanding of Who the Holy Trinity is. Eastern Christian theology, perhaps more so than Western, focuses on the re-lationship between the Persons of the Trinity, and therefore it is not surprising that the human individual, made in God’s image, is seen in more relational terms as well. Writings in the Eastern tradition often blur the boundaries between the triad of God, self, and other, and it is in this interconnection between persons and between persons and God that we find a unique foundation for forgiving. (Of course, God’s immanence emphatically does not prohibit God’s transcendence over His creation.)

Man was created in the image and likeness of God. Following St. Irenaeus and others, the Orthodox Church distinguishes between the image and likeness of God in man. The image of God encompasses basic characteristics such as freedom, creativity, rationality, and the potential for God-likeness, which includes the capacity to love. While the image remains after the Fall, each person must struggle, fueled by God’s energies, to resurrect His likeness within herself.  This struggle is salvation, the process of theosis. This likeness that is being resurrected is a more authentic communion with God and others that is based on divine virtue (mercy, justice, etc.).

As we will see, the process of theosis involves transforming passions (energy, impulses) within us, but this cannot be done in isolation. One’s relationship with other persons is a foundation of the process. As the Confessor Nikon of Optina wrote:

Greet each person, no matter who he might be, with good feelings and a hope to find in him only good, seeing before yourself the image of God…. Your salvation and your demise are in your neighbor. Your salvation depends on how you relate to your neighbor.

If we are tempted to think such directives extend only to those who do not hurt us, Father Thomas Hopko reminds us otherwise:

Loving those who abuse us is perhaps the ultimate sign that we have opened ourselves up to the life-changing power of God, are becoming the person that we will be in the age to come, and are bringing God’s Kingdom to others.

We explore further this particularly meaningful idea below.

Orthodox teaching about the person, developed largely in the context of the monastic life, sheds light on the psychological aspects of offering interpersonal forgiveness. Perhaps the foundation of this process is when thumos, the power of our souls that when distorted is vengeful anger, and epithumia, the aspect that is unhealthy attachment when distorted, are submitted to our logos (reason, thought, or word: for our purposes here, we can define the  logos of each individual as God’s purpose or intention for that person). According to St. Maximus the Confessor, each entity in creation is endowed with its own logos, which in turn is related to the Divine Logos, Christ, through Whom all things were created. The Divine Logos, of course, is inherently humble, loving, self-sacrificing, and yet also firm in Truth. Therefore, in submitting our epithumia and thumos to our logos, they are transformed into an energy that strives outward, not to hurt another but to do well for and by him, yet without compromising a clear account of the offense and its effects on the forgiver.

Psychological research on anger and interpersonal attachment provides evidence that the Fathers were correct in calling the energies of thumos and epithumia unhealthy when distorted. For example, much work has been done on the effects of the Type A personality, which consists of rigidity, feeling pressured by schedules and deadlines, being easily angered, and letting hostility fester. Many studies have demonstrated a relationship between the Type A personality and health. It is not surprising to us, then, that the most consistent sub-factor to be related to poor health is hostility. Thumos run amok, without the logos as guiding principle, is indeed poison. Regarding epithumia, a large body of literature on interpersonal attachment demonstrates that those with a clingy, “preoccupied” style of emotional connection report more psychological and interpersonal problems than those with a warm but self-confident style. Similar negative results are found for those with a cold, “dismissing” style of emotional bonding. Letting one’s thoughts and feelings be dominated by an offender, or coldly cutting her out of one’s life, parallel these two unhealthy attachment styles. Mental and physical health seem intimately tied to a habit of having compassionate relations to others and yet respecting oneself, both of which may be crucial aspects of the logos of a person. In this, healthy attachment looks much like forgiveness.

A person hurt by another works synergistically with God to make forgiveness happen. Participation in the Mysteries, seeking counsel of a spiritual father or mother, fasting, confession, prayer (in general, and specifically for our offenders), and acts of charity—among other spiritual disciplines—constitute our portion of this work. They are woven into a fabric with God’s grace that enables us to do all this and more. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, the energies within us that were directed towards revenge and either obsessive attachment or cold detachment are purified to become the motivation to think and say positive things about the person who hurt us, to act in a manner that benefits that person (at the very least, continuing to pray for him), and to hope that all goes well for him in life.

How does this process represent some of the theological points we mentioned earlier in this article? Clearly, this take on forgiveness involves a dance between three persons: God, the forgiver, and the offender. The salvation of the forgiver is bound up in participating in this dance. A certain perichoresis* exists between God and forgiver as God’s grace, His divine presence, enables the forgiver to extend mercy and care to an offender, who also bears the image of God. In doing so, the forgiver incarnates the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit” in the life of the offender and others touched by the hurtful situation. Paradoxically, in lifting one’s soul to God for help and directing one’s energy now for the good of the offender (rather than the “good” of self, at least as the world understands it), the forgiver has found his true self. Working with God in this endeavor, he has increased in himself that likeness of the loving, self-giving, relational Trinity that was lost in the Fall. And if the offender repents as a result of receiving forgiveness, the forgiver has also participated in the development of some of God’s likeness in that person, too.

In short, in the forgiveness process, the forgiver has traveled further along the path of salvation: God’s likeness is being resurrected in her as she grows in com-munion with Him and others. She participates in Christ’s Incarnation, allowing Divinity to infuse her human nature and extending mercy in the flesh. She joins in His Transfiguration, revealing the purity of the logos God has given her by the power of the Logos of God. She shares in Christ’s death on the Cross, in suffering submit-ting her own will to the will of the One who is Love, for the sake of others’ (and paradoxically, her own) salvation. She communes with the Resurrected Christ, being raised from her hell of anger and a desire for revenge, now bearing the promise of new life to the offender. She shares in His Ascension, taking fallen human nature—her own as well as her offender’s, via her prayers—into the realm of Divine Love and Truth. She participates in Pentecost, empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit to convey the Truth of love to the offender. And, as noted above, she helps in the advent of “the second and glorious coming” of the Lord, bringing a bit of God’s Kingdom into the fallen history of humanity. If, from an Orthodox perspective, salvation is union with the Triune God, forgiving one who has hurt us provides an opportunity like few others for this union.

Having set the theological context for forgiveness, we now turn to the forgive-ness journey itself. First, we look at how forgiveness is woven through communal Orthodox worship, providing ample encouragement towards and opportunity for forgiveness in the Church community. We then look at other aspects of an Orthodox Christian lifestyle that may be of help as one walks the path of a life of mercy.

Forgiving all ResurrectionOrthodox Worship and Forgiveness: A variety of liturgical practices in Orthodoxy illumine the process and importance of interpersonal forgiveness. Perhaps the most commonly celebrated one is the Divine Liturgy, at which the faithful receive Holy Communion. Forgiveness permeates this service, as the celebrants ask for forgiveness before beginning the celebration, at the beginning of the Eucharistic Canon, and right before Holy Communion itself. In some parishes, the celebrants request this forgiveness aloud, while in others the request is symbolically made by their silent prostration before the worshipers. In our experience, parishioners typically bow in response, honoring the request and symbolically entreating forgiveness as well. Likely this emphasis on mutual forgiveness is linked to Christ’s words in the Gospel of St. Matthew (5:23-24), directing reconciliation with adversaries before one brings his or her offering to the altar. And although not all Orthodox Christians practice a pre-communion prayer rule, it is worth noting that the standard rule directs the one wishing to commune to “first be reconciled with all who have grieved” him before even beginning the actual pre-communion prayers. Regarding this, we note two things. First, the directive in the prayer rule is to reach out not to those we have grieved, but to those who have grieved us (i.e., our offenders). In addition, we should think carefully about what “be reconciled” means in this context. It is hard to imagine Christ and the Fathers asking us to force ourselves on another person if that person does not wish to be in a functional relationship with us. Perhaps it is best to interpret the emphasis on reconciliation in the context of St. Paul’s directive to “live at peace with everyone, as far as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18). In such a case, the pre-communion directive to be reconciled may be understood as an instruction to root out anger and foster benevolence in ourselves towards an offender, and to reach out to him in love, but not to force him to repent and/or enter back into a relationship that is hurtful to both parties. In other words, the pre-communion directive is to forgive. This directive is not meant to be a grim obligation, but instead wise and joyful preparation for entering into communion with the Holy Trinity, who is Love.

Before leaving the topic of the Divine Liturgy, we visit the zenith of the liturgical year: Great Lent and Pascha. As most Orthodox know, during Great Lent the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil is served. This service is distinguished in part by the relatively long prayers during the Liturgy of the Faithful. In the lengthy prayer read after the consecration of the gifts, the celebrant entreats the Lord to remember and bless many categories of people, including “those who hate us.” While on the surface, this is a prayer intended to benefit an offender, we submit that it is also much more than that. We must recognize that it is chanted in the context of preparing and receiving Holy Communion. In this, we again encounter the idea that our salvation is heavily dependent not only on how we commune with God, but also with each other. The Body and Blood I receive have been consecrated not only for my salvation, but also for the salvation of those who hurt me. My destiny and theirs are intertwined at the deepest level when even I alone partake of the Holy Mysteries. I and my offenders are in some way united to one another in Christ via Holy Communion, and whether this is unto my salvation or judgment depends on the degree to which I have allowed God to love them through me.

Although the Resurrection is stressed at every Sunday liturgy, the Paschal ser-vice is, of course, unique in its content. One of the distinctive texts of the service is the Paschal Verses, in which we hear:

This is the day of Resurrection. Let us be illumined by the feast. Let us em-brace each other. Let us call “brothers” even those that hate us, and forgive all by the Resurrection.

There are probably various ways to understand the meaning of these verses, but in the context of this paper, we see Christ’s Resurrection being the motivator and the means by which we forgive. The power that raised the Lord from death is more than strong enough to raise us from our grave of anger and bitterness. In addition, Christ’s Resurrection was the event that lay the foundation for Ascension and Pentecost. All three of these feasts stress the intermingling of humanity and divinity. In forgiving an offender, that intermingling continues: our limited and fallen humanity becomes the expression of God’s powerful Kingdom of Love here on earth. Not only can we forgive all by the Resurrection, but in forgiving we bring the Resurrection to fruition again and again.

Metropolitan Kallistos has presented a beautiful and thorough exposition of another key Orthodox liturgical event related to forgiveness: Forgiveness Sunday. This capstone of the season of Lenten preparation provides a unique opportunity to usher more of God’s Kingdom into this world. His Eminence has described the process and background of this service. Therefore, here we will add only a few notes on some research that substantiates parishioners’ experience of Forgiveness Sunday, demonstrating the helpfulness of this ritual in the struggle to forgive. Gassin and Sawchak surveyed 178 persons online about the meaning and effect of the Vespers service that contains the forgiveness ritual. Most persons responded positively about the ritual. The most common themes included bringing one’s own psychological experience into conformity with the ritual and other Lenten practices, further development of identity as an Orthodox Christian, and sensing stronger ties to the parish community. A follow-up study involving more detailed interviews with six other Orthodox Christians confirmed many of the themes mentioned by the larger sample. These interviews revealed new emphases as well, such as using the ritual as a moral and spiritual learning experience for the younger generation. As Metropolitan Kallistos noted, however, not all react positively to the ritual. The occasional respondent in both studies noted the forgiveness ritual seemed empty, frustrating, or even scary, suggesting that clergy and other religious educators may need to incorporate more education about forgiveness and the ritual into pre-Lenten preparation, so that all parishioners may come to understand the beauty of offering and receiving mercy. Despite the occasional negative comment, the large majority of responses in the study were positive and theologically astute. This suggests that most people derive some sense of progressing on the path of salvation via the ritual, which in turn provides some evidence from psychological research that forgiveness can be a pathway through which God’s Kingdom comes “here on earth as it is in Heaven.”

Other Helps Within and Beyond Orthodoxy: Aside from participating in the sacraments and praying the liturgical texts during services, other aspects of the Orthodox tradition can also assist in one’s forgiveness journey. For example, reading the lives of saints can inspire with their rich examples of persons who were treated unfairly and yet forgave. The life of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr of Russia serves as an example. Soon after her husband was murdered, St. Elizabeth visited the assassin to offer her forgiveness. Many, many other holy people followed Christ’s example of forgiving His persecutors, and their stories are abundantly available to us, urging us on in running the race of mercy.

Prayer can also be a key part of the struggle to forgive. Aside from the liturgical prayers mentioned above, prayer at home can be crucial. Some prayers books, such as St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press’ Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, include prayers for enemies and prayers for the eradication of anger. Because humility appears to foster forgiveness of others, prayers that entreat God to grant us humility may also be useful in helping us to forgive. These include, but are not limited to, the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian and the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. Both are read during Great Lent, but they may be read at other times as well. Asking the inter-cessions of saints who have been models of forgiveness, and entreating the help of one’s guardian angel in warding off angry thoughts, also can be of benefit. The one striving to forgive may also read prayers for the health of an offender, or for their repose, if the offender is already dead. In doing so, one seeks to extend God’s mercy towards the offender, creating that “trinity” of God, self, and other, united in love.

The Orthodox individual striving to forgive may also find it helpful to attend to the persons and events portrayed in the iconography around him at home and church, realizing that just as he stands before these icons as a sinful person, so might the offender. For example, if one has an icon of Christ Pantocrator in the icon corner at home, she stands before that icon with a wounded soul, just as her offender might. If, at church, there is an icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell, it is worth considering that not only would Christ be there to rescue her, but also to rescue the offender. Such meditations before the icons may help to view the offender from a divine perspective and, paradoxically, promote a sense of kinship with the offender as a fellow human being. This, in turn, can stimulate compassion for the other.

Orthodox Christians may also make use of books on forgiveness written by psychologists. The most recent example of such material is The Forgiving Life, written by Robert Enright and published by the American Psychological Association. While we can recommend The Forgiving Life, the Orthodox Christian should be aware that authors of some books about forgiveness distort the concept and/or suggest thoughts and behaviors that do not dovetail with a Christian perspective. It is wise, then, to use these materials under the guidance of a spiritual father or with a trusted and mature spiritual friend.

Conclusion: The Christian tradition as a whole places a special emphasis on forgiving offenders as a way of living a Christ-like life. Within that general tradition, specific churches offer their own slant on the particulars of the forgiveness process. Eastern Orthodox Christianity’s emphases on the relationships within the Holy Trinity and on theosis of the faithful creates a perspective on forgiveness that may differ somewhat from other theological models. In addition, the monastic tradition, with its close attention to the development of the Christian’s soul, adds to our understanding of how one travels the path of interpersonal mercy. Finally, some aspects of the Orthodox liturgical tradition offer unique insights into forgiveness and opportunities to practice it on the deepest level. To draw on another key Biblical idea for Orthodox Christians, few endeavors can help us become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) like the salvific path of extending God’s forgiveness to one who has hurt us.   IC

(We thank Archimandrite Vladimir (Wendling) for reviewing this article. Any errors remain ours. –Authors)

Professor Gassin teaches at Olivet Nazarene University. Professor Enright teaches at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Both are part of the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. In Madison. Wi. A copy of this article with footnotes and references may be requested by writing to [email protected]rg.

* Ed. note: perichoresis is a term that means “to move around” or “to dance” and is developed by several Fathers in describing the “in and around and through” relationship between the Persons of the Trinity and sometimes to us in our relationship to God, as in “we are in Christ.” The English theological terms are “interpenetration” and “circumincession.” This has been referred to as the “Divine Dance.” This is most fully developed by St. John of Damascus.

❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

Erasmus of Rotterdam & The Church Fathers

by Ron Dart

Last June I was fortunate to spend time in Freiburg, Germany and Basel, Switzerland, the cities where Erasmus spent the final years of his life. From the 1520s to 1530s, the Roman Catholic and Protestant wars had heated up to such an extent that, when Protestants took control of Basel in 1529, Erasmus had to flee to Freiburg, returning to Basel in 1535 where he died a year later. Erasmus had a special affection for Basel—among other projects, it was here that he published many of his books on the Fathers of the Patristic era. While in Basel, I spent many an hour near Erasmus’s burial site in the cathedral pondering the relevance of Erasmus for today.

While Erasmus is best known as the author of The Praise of Folly and The Complaint of Peace, many of his other works are still widely read—his Adages and Colloquies and collections of his correspondence, especially those letters that document his clash with Luther. He also produced new translations of the Bible. Perhaps less well known today are his annotated editions of the Church Fathers.

Erasmus stood for a Christian humanist vision that was critical of the church as it existed in his lifetime and painfully aware of its urgent need of reform, yet refused to take part in or justify schism. Erasmus turned to both the Bible and Church Fathers in search of a fuller vision of church unity and as a call to peacemaking in the midst of conflict. In the war-ridden 16th century, with Christians slaughtering fellow Christians, Erasmus’s peace writings made him a voice crying in the wilderness.

Erasmus stood at a precarious place in history. Long before Luther and the protestant reformers came on the scene, he was one of the most rigorous critics of the Roman Catholic Church. Sadly, despite his loyalty, the Roman Catholic Church was profoundly suspicious of Erasmus. His writings were censured by the Sorbonne in 1526, the Spanish Inquisitor General held a conference to examine his writings in 1527, the theology faculty at Paris condemned some of his books in 1531, and in 1552, after his death, theologians at Louvain and the Sorbonne condemned Erasmus’s writings as “erroneous, scandalous, and heretical.” Finally, many of his books were placed on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books and remained there until the 20th Century.

Convinced that the Roman Catholic Church would only be fully renewed and reformed by turning again to the Bible as interpreted by the Fathers of the Church, Erasmus used all his learning and training to facilitate a phoenix-like resurrection of the Classical Christian tradition of the Patristic era. Only by returning to the Patristic tradition, Erasmus was convinced, would the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” find its firm and solid footing again. There was pure water in the Fathers for the simple reason that they were closer to the source and fount of the early church.

In turning to the Bible as the north star of theology and ethics, Erasmus was in the vanguard. Yet the fact that he dared to correct errors in Jerome’s Latin translation, the Vulgate, meant he had to face the ire of Rome. For the Catholic Church, the Vulgate was the scriptural gold-standard. Erasmus’s 1516 translation of parts of the Bible (original Greek text and revised Latin text making clear Jerome’s errors) was seen by Catholic traditionalists as sending a fox into the henhouse. Erasmus was accused of “laying the egg that Luther hatched,” or, as was said in those days, “Erasmus Lutheranizes and Luther Erasmianizes.”

When Erasmus visited Johann Froben in Basel in 1514, a new era was about to unfold. It has been said that the combination of Erasmus and Johann Froben “brought together the greatest scholar and the greatest printer in Transalpine Europe.”

The Froben Press was originally the joint venture of Johann Amerbach and Johann Froben. Both men were deeply committed to publishing updated editions the works of the Western Fathers. Before Amerbach died in 1513, they had put out editions of St. Ambrose in 1492 and St. Augustine in 1506, first fruits in the work of putting solidly in place the intellectual foundation stones for the renewal and application of Classical learning and its role in the reform of the church. The teaming together of Erasmus and Froben greatly furthered this enterprise.

St. Jerome was the Church Father Erasmus concentrated on in his early years of scholarship, and by 1516, Froben had published his nine folio volumes of St. Jerome. But this was only a beginning for Erasmus. (Luther, Calvin, and the Anabaptists were not yet in the reformation drama.) Froben wanted a better edition of St. Augustine than the 1506 edition and asked Erasmus to produce it. Erasmus faced a threefold task in dealing with St. Augustine: he had to separate the genuine from the spurious books that were attributed to St. Augustine, present different perspectives on and interpretations of St. Augustine, and treat critical concerns about aspects of St. Augustine’s theology at a variety of significant levels. Interspersing the task with other projects, Erasmus did not finish his work on St. Augustine until 1529.

While Froben’s special interest was the Church Fathers of the Latin West, Erasmus was convinced that renewed attention to the Church Fathers of the Greek East was equally important. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 meant that many were the Orthodox theological refugees coming into Europe via Italy and other gateways to the West. “I have turned my entire attention to Greek,” he said in a letter to his fried, Jacob Batt. “The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes.”

Erasmus immersed himself in the richness and the fullness of the Greek language and the work of the Eastern Fathers, and convinced Johann Froben to collaborate in the project. Greek learning and language (long held in suspicion by many in the West as the language of the schismatic Orthodox) again began to challenge the Latin world and to influence the “New Learning” of the Renaissance.

Professor Ron Dart
Professor Ron Dart

Froben published Erasmus’s work on St. Cyprian in 1520 followed by his commentary on St. Hilary of Poitiers in 1523, by which time Erasmus had become a target for both Luther and the Vatican. The Vatican was one with Erasmus on his commitment to the Biblical-Patristic tradition, but clashed with him over his perspectives, interpretations, and applications of the sources. The Reformers, claiming to be true to the authority of the Bible, opposed both Erasmus’s peace theology and his commitment to the unity of the historic church that was foundational to the New Testament and the Fathers of the Patristic Era. Erasmus was, in many ways, an exile in an age of ideologues. Yet this did not deter Erasmus from continuing his work.

The first of Erasmus’ volumes on St. John Chrysostom appeared in 1525. Though divided by many centuries, Erasmus and Chrysostom could not have been better companions. They each knew the price to be paid for speaking with an authentic prophetic voice to both church and society. Erasmus completed his five volumes on Chrysostom in 1530 and the homilies of St. Gregory of Nazianzen by 1531. Erasmus’s work on Irenaeus came out in 1526, and in 1527 Erasmus completed and updated St. Ambrose, a bishop, like Chrysostom, who dared to challenge the ecclesial and political establishments when they became enemies of justice and peace.

Erasmus also was drawn to the writings of Origen. Despite his controversial ideas, with the eventual condemnation of some of them, Origen was the most important theologian and biblical exegete of the early church, writing at a period when much was unclear and unsure. Erasmus had been a thoughtful reader of Origen throughout much of his adult life. In 1536, the final year of his earthly journey, Erasmus’s volume on Origen left the press. Again, Erasmus offered a thoughtful, nuanced, and measured reading of Origen’s contributions to the life of the church.

Thanks to Erasmus, Christians in the West were getting much-needed exposure to the Eastern Fathers—and thus to Eastern Orthodoxy, hitherto almost totally hidden behind the wall created by the Great Schism.  Erasmus sought to articulate a theological position that the Fathers held but had been abandoned in the West.

Erasmus often made the distinction between what is of the essence (esse) of the faith in areas of doctrine and discipline and what are matters of indifference (adiaphora). Erasmus believed that the post-apostolic tradition had at times equated esse with adiaphora, harming areas of doctrine and discipline in the process.

Again and again Erasmus returned to the esse-adiaphora distinction in areas of doctrine and discipline. He argued that in the early Creeds much was intentionally omitted that, centuries later, became central to creedal and confessional texts. Erasmus, like the Church Fathers, was wary of being too sure footed when attempting to clarify the essence or energies of God. The West, Erasmus argued, often tended to go too far when silence was a wiser position to take. By the addition of the filioque clause in the Creed, which Erasmus regarded as a grave error, the West played a significant role in bringing on the Great Schism.

Erasmus steadfastly refused to simplify or domesticate the Church Fathers to serve ecclesial agendas—he walked readers into the unresolved moments of their times. Such an approach annoyed those who sought to present the Fathers as rigidly agreeing on most issues and rarely struggling with the contents of the Creeds.

Relevant once more: Let me conclude with two points connecting Erasmus with our contemporary reality. First, the trauma of 9/11 brought home to North Americans the dangers of certain movements within Islam. However, circumstances were similar for Europeans in Erasmus’ time. In 1529, the Muslim Ottomans were poised to attack Venice. In 1530 Erasmus responded to the threat with a widely circulated essay On the War against the Turks (De Bello Turcico). In it, we can see the probing mind of Erasmus cautioning Europe not to overreact in a hawkish manner to the 16th century’s own version of a “Clash of Civilizations” scenario. Erasmus declared that the Turks had established an immense empire not because of their own merits but due to the sin of Christians. “We have angered God and caused him to send the Turks against us, just as he sent frogs, lice, and locusts upon the Egyptians long ago…. The Turks are men and, what is more important, half-Christian” and therefore deserve to be treated the same as any other people. Much could be drawn from Erasmus’ article to inform contemporary attitudes toward Islam.

Second, we can affirm the important parallel between the 16th century and the growing interest these days in reclaiming “the Great Tradition.” The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant traditions, from a variety of perspec-tives, are all part of this renewal of interest. Erasmus was very much part of bringing the Great Tradition to center stage in the 16th century, but he did it in a way that, in the daggers-drawn climate of the time, failed to please either Roman Catholic or Protestant ideologues. Might Christians—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—who seek common ground in today’s world find in Erasmus a guide and mentor?

a selection of quotations from Erasmus:

“Wherever you encounter truth, look upon it as Christianity.”

“There is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive, more deeply tenacious, more loathsome [than war]…. Whoever heard of a hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?”

Erasmus excoriated theologians who tried to justify war on the ground that Christ said “Let him who has no sword sell his mantel and buy one.” “As if Christ, who taught nothing but patience and meekness, meant the sword used by bandits and murderers rather than the sword of the Spirit. Our exegete thinks that Christ equipped the apostles with lances, crossbows, slings, and muskets.”

“I would be glad to be a martyr for Christ, but I cannot be a martyr for Luther.”

“It is no great feat to burn a little man. It is a great achievement to persuade him.”

“How can you say Our Father if you plunge steel into the guts of your brother? Christ compared himself to a hen: Christians behave like hawks. Christ was a shepherd of sheep: Christians tear each other like wolves.”

“I see you, while the standard of salvation is in one hand, rushing on with a sword in the other, to the murder of your brother; and, under the banner of the cross, destroying the life of one who owes his salvation to the cross. Even from the Holy Sacrament itself, (for it is sometimes, at the same hour, administered in opposite camps) in which is signified the complete union of all Christians, the warriors, who have just received it, run instantly to arms, and endeavor to plunge the dreadful steel into each other’s vitals. Of a scene thus infernal, and fit only for the eyes of accursed spirits, who delight in mischief and misery, the pious warriors would make Christ the spectator.”

Erasmus was disgusted by the incivility and humorlessness of militant Protestants: “I have seen them return from hearing a sermon as if inspired by an evil spirit. Their faces all showed a curious wrath and ferocity.”

In The Complaint of Peace, Peace herself rises to complain about how much her name is praised by one and all yet how few live peaceful lives. “Without me there is no growth, no safety for life, nothing pure or holy, nothing agreeable, while war is a vast ocean of all the evils combined, harmful to everything in the universe.”

“We must look for peace by purging the very sources of war—false ambitions and evil desires. As long as individuals serve their own personal interests, the common good will suffer. Let them examine the self-evident fact that this world of ours is the fatherland of the entire human race.”  IC

This essay is an abridged version of a lecture given by Professor Ron Dart at the 2012 Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference held at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia where Ron teaches courses on the interface between political science, philosophy, and religion. The conference was cosponsored by the OPF and the Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius, an organization bringing together Anglicans and Orthodox to discuss their mutual affinities in a spirit of unity (sobornost).

 

❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

Opening the Doors of Compassion: Cultivating a Merciful Heart

by Fr. John D. Jones

As Orthodox Christians, we recognize the ultimate goal of the Christian life to be theosis or divinization—becoming like God as much as is possible for human beings. Yet this process of theosis is not a matter of a discarnate spirituality that retreats from human need and suffering. The journey towards theosis is rather expressed through concrete acts of love and mercy in imitation of God, who is love. As St. Gregory the Theologian writes, ‘Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God. There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.’…[doing so] constitutes a sacred obligation for us to minister in Christ’s name to our neighbor; that is, to every person in need whom we encounter (cf. Luke 10:25–37).  —Metropolitan Anthony (Gergiannakis)

 

“Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God. There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.” So wrote St. Greogry the Theologian near the end of his Oration XIV, On the Love of the Poor. This theme is basic to the oration from the start:

St. Elizabeth the New Martyr
St. Elizabeth the New Martyr

Beautiful is contemplation (theoria=the knowledge and vision) of God, as likewise beautiful is action (praxis). The one is beautiful because it conducts our mind upward to what is akin to it. The other is beautiful because it welcomes Christ, serves him, and confirms the power of love through good works (sec. 4)…. Of all things, nothing so serves God as mercy because nothing else is more proper to God (sec. 5)…. We must, then, open our hearts to all the poor [and] those in distress from whatever cause (sec. 6).

But why, someone might ask, this stress on good works? Aren’t we saved by faith alone? Are good works really necessary for salvation? In the Orthodox tradition, salvation is a process of being healed from everything that estranges us from God and from one another. It is a process of growing in the communion and fellowship with the Trinity and one another for which God created us. It culminates in the gift of eternal life with God. None of us, individually or collectively, can save ourselves. Only Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost can save us. Indeed, just as we sing near the end of the Divine Liturgy: “We have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity who has saved us.”

While Christ’s victory “over death and sin…is indeed complete and definitive…. [Our] personal participation in that victory is as yet far from complete” (Metropolitan Kallistos). Created with free will, God cannot compel us to love Him. God won’t drag us into eternal life with Him. We have to freely consent to the gift of life which he offers us. Our faith in Christ, and thus the Trinity, is our consent to and acceptance of the gift of Christ Himself. But faith by itself does not save us.

Certainly, we only know and experience the Trinity through faith. But “faith by itself is dead if it does not have works” (James 2:17). When faith is active with works, it is perfected by those works (James 2:22). Indeed, St. James writes that we are justified or made righteous by works and not just by faith (James 2:24), that is, a faith that is not active with works. Blessed Theophylact develops this idea:

Many are God–fearing, but fail to do the will of God. One must fear God and do His will. Both faith and works are necessary…or, to express it in the most exalted terms, divine vision (theoria) and active virtue (praxis). Faith truly comes alive only when accompanied by God–pleasing deeds.… Likewise, works are enlivened by faith. Apart from one another, both are dead.

But what sort of works? In one sense, any action that conforms to God’s will is a good work: e.g., telling the truth to someone, worshipping God with reverence, etc. In a narrower sense, good works are often identified with giving alms or money to someone in need or to some charity. But alms in this sense narrowly translates a Greek word that literally means “a work of mercy.” God, after all, does not give alms of money to people but God “performs works of mercy and executes judgment for those who are treated unjustly” (Ps. 102:6). These works include giving food to the hungry, setting the prisoners free, giving wisdom to the blind, lifting up those who are bowed down, watching over the sojourners, and upholding the widow and the fatherless (Ps. 145:7–9).

Works of mercy comprise all our actions to assist those who are in need and distress, whether spiritual, mental, or physical. They include counseling people in spiritual distress; comforting people who are grieving; feeding, clothing, and providing medical help to people in physical need or illness; even simply providing a cup of water if we don’t have money or other resources. Works of mercy can and should extend to efforts to change social structures and policies on behalf of, as well as to advocate for, those who are poor, vulnerable, or treated unjustly. Our works of mercy should express the holistic view of the Orthodox ideal that, as Archbishop Anastasios writes, “embraces everything, life in its entirety, in all its dimensions and meanings…[and seeks] to change all things for the better,” that is, the transformation of all things in a life in Christ. Works of mercy also can be performed by the collective actions of Christian communities: cathedrals, parishes, monasteries, lay associations, etc. Christian communities have been performing such works since the very beginning of the Church.

The Holy Martyrs of Paris: SS. Maria, Priest Dimitri, Ilya, and Yuri
The Holy Martyrs of Paris:
SS. Maria, Priest Dimitri, Ilya, and Yuri

Opening the Doors of Compassion: We Christians should consciously perform works of mercy to imitate Christ and reflect His presence within us. Our intentions and our moral character—the kind of person we are—make all the difference in doing good works for the sake of Christ. It’s a great thing to work at a homeless shelter. But if I do so simply to gain praise or recognition from others or to get someone off my back about helping at the shelter, then I am acting out of selfishness and not out of a love for Christ or for my neighbor. What sort of character should we have? What kind of person should we be or become so that our good works imitate Christ and reflect His presence within us?

“God is love” (I John 4:8). Time and again in Scripture, in our hymns, and in the writings of the church fathers and mothers, God’s love means that God is merciful and compassionate. Recall from St. Gregory that “nothing else is more proper to God” than being merciful and, we can add, being moved with compassion. Compassion is not simply a feeling. Compassion is quite different from pity, from feeling sorry for others, or even feeling empathy for others. We can have all of these feelings and remain unmoved to connect with others or do anything for them. We can feel pity for people and feel quite superior to them.

The Greek verb splanchnizomai, found in the New Testament only in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is all too often translated as if it indicates the kinds of feelings I just mentioned rather than compassion. Sometimes it describes Jesus’ response to others, and at other times, Jesus uses the term in certain parables. But it is best translated in English as “being moved with compassion.” Compassion means “to suffer with another,” “to share the suffering of the other, to take it upon oneself” (Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy). Compassion moves us away from ourselves towards others. It expresses itself in actions for others and on their behalf. In the gospels, being moved with compassion always expresses itself in action.

Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:20–22): When the father sees his returning prodigal son at a distance, he is moved with compassion and rushes out to him (v.20). He embraces him and welcomes him back home as his son and not merely his servant. This father is one of Jesus’ images of Our Heavenly Father, “who so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). “The Father,” writes Boris Bobrinskoy, “[is] not insensitive in the face of the passion, the suffering, and the decay of humanity,” but moved with compassion, “He sends His Son into the world He so loved.”

Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37): Moved with compassion, the Good Samaritan comes to the place where a Jew, typically despised by Samaritans, has been beaten and left. And he acts: “beholding him,” the Samaritan “came to him and bandaged up his wounds … and he put him on his own animal…” (v.34). Jesus tells this parable to a lawyer who tested him with the question “Who is my neighbor?” At the end of the parable Jesus does not tell him who his neighbor is. Rather, Jesus asks the lawyer a question: “Which of these three men”—the Priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan—“was a neighbor to the man fell among the robbers?” The lawyer gets the point of the parable, for he says the Samaritan “who showed mercy” is the one who was a neighbor. Jesus’ point is that if you know how to be a neighbor, you won’t wonder who your neighbor is. True neighbors draw near to others with a God–like compassion and mercy that extends to everyone.

Our icons for this parable always represent the Good Samaritan by Christ. Origen identifies Christ, the Good Samaritan, as our neighbor. St. Clement of Alexandria elsewhere adds: “We call the savior our neighbor because he drew near to us in saving us.” And Blessed Theophlyact develops this idea: “Our Lord and God…journeyed to us…. He did not just catch a glimpse of us as He happened to pass by. He actually came to us and lived together with us and spoke to us. Therefore, He at once bound up our wounds.”

Being moved with compassion involves being attuned to others. The compassionate person, like our compassionate God, takes notice of others and is attuned to whether they are in distress from whatever cause and regardless of who they are. For St. John Chrysostom, compassionate attunement “is most especially characteristic of the saints. Not glory, nor honor, nor anything else is more precious to them than their neighbor’s welfare and salvation.” Compassionate people, in imitating God Himself, are moved to interact with others, to bear their burdens and sufferings with them, and to alleviate them as possible.

Several texts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke indicate that Jesus was moved by compassion. In every case, Jesus’ compassion leads Him to act or do a good work, a work of mercy. Here are some examples:

Moved with compassion, our Lord takes note that the crowds who have listened to Him are hungry and that it is late in the day. Our Lord then takes action to feed them (Mark 8:1–8, cf. Matt. 14:14ff.).

Moved with compassion, Jesus acts to heal two blind men by touching their eyes and restoring their sight (Matt. 20:33–34).

Moved with compassion for the widowed mother who has just lost her only son, Jesus stops the funeral procession and restores the son to life (Luke 7:11–16).

Moved with compassion for the multitude “because they were … like sheep having no shepherd,” He then acts by commissioning the disciples to go to the lost sheep of Israel: “And as you go,” Jesus tells them, “preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matt 9:34–37, 10:7–8, cf. Mark 6:34–44).

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:23–35) or, what the kingdom of heaven is like: Moved with compassion, a king forgives his servant who owes him a ridiculously large sum of money. The king releases him from debtor’s prison. But when this servant won’t forgive a fellow servant a small debt, he shows he doesn’t really understand the king’s action.

The servant rejects the sort of “economy” found in the kingdom of heaven. This economy is not a market economy in which we are encouraged to make as much money as we can for ourselves. It is not a barter economy in which we trade with others who can give us something in return. It is not a tit–for–tat or you–scratch–my– back–and–I’ll–scratch–your–back economy. It is not an economy in which we do business only with those dear to us or who can do something for us.

The economy in the kingdom of heaven is a gift economy in which we are all invited to participate. When he compassionately forgave the debts of the servant, the king gave a gift of forgiveness and compassion to the servant. The servant, however, did not pass that gift on by forgiving his fellow servant. He wasted both the compassion and forgiveness given to him. So, he excluded himself from the kingdom of heaven. As Blessed Theophlyact writes:

The person who lacks compassion is not the one who remains in God, but the one who departs from God and is a stranger to Him…The master in His love for humankind takes issue with the [unmerciful] servant in order to show that it is not the master, but the savagery and the ingratitude of the servant, that has revoked the gift.

The fundamental economic principle, if you will, in the kingdom of heaven is “freely you have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8). We freely receive the great gift of Christ Himself and His love for us in and through the Holy Spirit. What are we to do with this love? As Christ tells us, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). In passing Christ’s love for us to others, we return that love to Christ. That is what it means to do good works for the sake of Christ.

St. Herman of Alaska
St. Herman of Alaska

God’s love for the world is an ecstatic, energetic outpouring of Himself to the world. If we freely accept this gift, e.g., the Eucharistic gifts of the Body and Blood of our Lord, in true faith, what else should we do but join our love to Him and transmit His love to others? This is why faith in God, the Trinity, must express itself in actions. “Faith without works is dead” since such faith amounts to refusing the gift of love, who is Christ, and the Trinity. Faith without compassionate and merciful good works amounts to saying “Thanks, but no thanks” to God Himself and His love and mercy.

TrinityCultivating a Merciful Heart: St. Gregory the Theologian delivered his Oration On the Love of the Poor at a time when leprosy was a major illness. He hammers away at the utterly inhumane neglect and rejection that many Christians of his day showed to lepers. Lepers were often driven from cities, abandoned, denigrated as sub–human, and left to suffer in poverty and terrible pain because many people simply could not stand to be around them and thought they were cursed by God. In our modern societies, people with mental illnesses, serious physical deformities, people with AIDS, prisoners, the poor, immigrants, indigenous people, unborn children and others all too often have been treated like lepers.

If we are moved with a Christ–like compassion for others, then we will be moved to serve all others without any exception—even our enemies—because we affirm and experience all others as brothers and sisters in Christ who bear the image of Christ within them. Our Lord, after all, associated with all of the despised people of his time: prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the poor, Samaritans, etc. The Good Samaritan exemplified a Christ–like compassion when he rendered assistance to a Jew, for he broke down all of the common psychological and social barriers between Samaritans and Jews.

Serving and praying for others with compassion is not always easy, and not just because we may be unclear about how to respond to others with compassion.For instead of opening our hearts to others, we often close and harden our hearts, and push others away from us. Think of a time when you’ve been very angry with someone. Think of how your chest tightens, how your mind is filled with animosity towards that person, and how you push him or her away from you. So too, there are many homeless people in our cities. It’s not always pleasant to draw near to them (that is, be neighborly to them) especially if their behavior reflects a significant mental illness such as schizophrenia. They are, however, rarely if ever a danger to anyone. And yet when we see homeless persons, it’s very easy physically and psychologically to recoil from them and avoid them. If we harden our hearts to others in these ways, how can we be moved by compassion to serve them as our brothers and sisters in Christ? What are we to do with our hearts when they all too often become hardened to others and, at the same time, to Christ?

In the Orthodox Christian spiritual life, our hearts are the spiritual center of our existence. Our heart is not a place filled with mere sentimental emotions. It is the place in which each of us—body, soul, mind, and spirit—is able to stand in God’s presence. The heart, as Metropolitan Kallistos writes, is “the center of the person, the seat of wisdom…the meeting place between the Divine and the human…the place of divine indwelling, where…God is at work within me.” But the heart is also the place of all kinds of passions and thoughts that will close off this meeting place between ourselves and God if we yield to them.

We engage in prayer, fasting, repentance, and confession, and we participate in the mysteries or sacramental life of the Church to clear away the thoughts and passions that shut us up within ourselves. To nurture and protect the love and compassion which God bestows upon us, we must cooperate with the Holy Spirit to cultivate a merciful and pure heart, a heart overflowing with the love of God the Father in and through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14, which is used as the blessing at the beginning of the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy).

One traditional way of cultivating a merciful heart is through the frequent repetition of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” We do not repeat this prayer to lull ourselves into a meditative state. We do not repeat this prayer primarily for relief from some particular struggle which we are enduring. We repeat this prayer—which is based on the prayer of the Publican—to stand before God fully attentive to all of the ways in which we betray our love for Him and others, thereby pushing Him and them away from us.

The martyrs and saints were extremely conscious of how often their love and faith faltered. They knew—they experienced—that while God’s love for us never fails (Matt. 28:20, Rom 8:39), our love for God and for each other all too often does fail. They knew with great honesty and humility that we are too easily led astray by the passions and selfish desires that harden our hearts and close us off to God and to one another. The saints and martyrs constantly sought Christ’s mercy and forgiveness. If I am honest with myself—“No matter how often I repent, I appear a liar before God, and repent with trembling” (Compline Prayer to the Theotokos)—as the first among sinners, I become aware of my constant need for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

We do not, however, repeat the Jesus prayer to beat ourselves up with guilt and get stuck in our past. Rather, the deep awareness of our sinfulness should make us aware of our utter dependence upon God’s life and healing love. Our repetition of the Jesus prayer can make us aware that God’s healing love and forgiveness are an utterly merciful gift. Nothing we do, say, or believe merits this mercy. The message of Christ’s forgiveness is always a message of encouragement and healing: You’ve stumbled and faltered; ok, pick yourself up. “Arise, take up your bed and walk” (Mark 2:9, John 5:8), and get back to the business of forging a life grounded in faith, love, and mercy.

If our experience of God’s mercy penetrates our hearts and minds, if we become utterly humble before God, then the grace of the Holy Spirit can cultivate a merciful heart within us. The person with such a heart is enabled to become—better: is moved to be—merciful and compassionate to others. She bears their suffering and distress, and prays and acts for the relief of that suffering and distress. The person with a merciful heart bears the crosses that come with loving others. Here is St. Isaac the Syrian’s wonderful description of the person with a merciful heart:

And what is a merciful heart? It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for humans, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing….From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or see any injury or slight sorrow in creation.

We can only cultivate a merciful heart and open the doors of compassion to others through the uncreated grace, life, and energy of the Holy Spirit. The great gift we receive from living with a merciful heart is that we are enabled to radiate the love of the Trinity to the world and to bring Christ to others. In doing so, we participate in the process of our salvation, of sharing in the life, love, and energy of the Holy Trinity. Our life in Christ is inseparable from our communion and fellowship with the Trinity and with one another. We cannot, after all, say we love God if we don’t love our neighbor (I John 4:20).

theotokosPut simply, in manifesting Christ’s love in the world, we grow in likeness to Christ, and, thus, the Trinity for which we were created. This is what it means to be a living icon of God. The icon of the Theotokos of the Sign often graces the apse in many ortho-dox churches. In her purity of heart at the Annunciation, she freely consents to the incarnation of our Lord within her. She bears the Son of God in the flesh. That’s why we call her “Theotokos.” Consider too the wonderful way in which we refer to the martyrs and saints: “our ven-erable and god–bearing (theophoros) fathers and mothers.”

A living icon of God is a bit like a wind spinner. The wind blows; the spinner turns and passes the wind on. A well–made spinner doesn’t try to hold onto the wind or hoard it. While wind spinners blow in response to any sort of breeze, we have to be far more vigilant about the breezes to which we respond. There is the breeze of the Holy Spirit which blows us into the gift–economy of the kingdom of heaven. It enables us to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. There are, however, the many breezes of our own passions and thoughts as well as the seductive influences of our society. These breezes blow us away from God and our neighbors into the prideful individualism of seeking our own self–interest above everything else. The breeze of the Holy Spirit blows us in the direction of life; the other breezes, in the direction of death.

 

 

The Liturgy after the Liturgy: During the Divine Liturgy, setting “aside all earthly cares,” and drawing “near in faith and love and in the fear of God,” “we…receive the King of all invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts.” Immediately after the Divine Liturgy, we pray with St. Symeon Metaphrastes:

Freely You have given me Your Body for my food, You who are a fire consuming the unworthy. Consume me not, O my Creator, but instead enter into my members, my veins, my heart.… Cleanse me, purify me, and adorn me…. Give me understanding and illumination… Show me to be a temple of Your One Spirit and not the home of many sins.

When we return to all of our earthly cares, how can we bear the gift of the Divine Liturgy in the world? What should our liturgy after the Liturgy involve?

The Liturgy has to be continued in personal, everyday situations. Each of the faithful is called upon to continue a personal liturgy on the secret altar of his own heart, to realize a living proclamation of the good news “for the sake of the whole world.” Without this continuation, the Liturgy remains incomplete…. The sacrifice of the Eucharist must be extended in personal sacrifices for the people in need, the brothers [and sisters] for whom Christ died…. the continuation of Liturgy in life means a continuous liberation from the powers of the evil that are working inside us, a continual reorientation and openness to insights and efforts aimed at liberating human persons from all demonic structures of injustice, exploitation, agony, loneliness, and at creating real communion of persons in love (Archbishop Anastasios).

St. John Chryostom also emphasizes the Eucharistic character of our works of mercy on the altar that “is composed of the very members of Christ, and the body of the Lord becomes an altar. That altar is more venerable even than the one [in the sanctuary] which we now use. For it is holy because it is itself Christ’s Body [which] you may see lying everywhere [among the poor], in the alleys and in the market places, and you may sacrifice upon it anytime.”

St Theodosius the Cenobiarch
St Theodosius the Cenobiarch

Indeed, for St. Maximus the Confessor, “the person, who can do good and does it, is truly God by grace and participation, because he has taken on a proper imitation of the energy…of His own kindness.” This is exactly what St. Gregory the Theologian wrote: “Nothing is more Godly in humans than to do good works” since the more literal translation of that text is: “There is no better way for a person to possess God than to do what is good.”

All Christians are called to preach the Gospel, the Word of God, to the world. But we should never underestimate the powerful ways in which our works of mercy can proclaim the Word of God and bring Him, Christ, to others. As a young man and a pagan, St. Pachomius was a conscript in the Roman army. Confined to a prison while awaiting service, groups of Christians came and ministered to him and the other conscripts. Wondering why they did this, he was told that Christians are “merciful to everyone including strangers.” “Pachomius, the pagan, was moved by the charity of these Christians. It remained with him all his life; for him, a Christian does good to everyone.”

Lamenting the low level of social ministry by the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, Patriarch Alexis II wrote:

We all know that the Church is built not only by faith and by the preaching of the Word of God, but also by concrete works, without which faith is dead (James 2:18)…. An Athonite elder recently said that the world is tired of speeches. We now need not words but actions that bear witness to faith and mercy. These actions must be a sermon without words that are much more effective and convincing.

St Theodosius the CenobiarchFinally: St. Theodosius the Cenobiarch was well known for his great mercy and compassion to the poor, to those who were ill and dying, and many others. St. Symeon Metaphrastes commended St. Theodosius as “the eyes of the blind, the feet of the lame, the clothes of the naked, the roof of the homeless, the physician of the sick…” And so it can be for each of us—as individuals and as Christian communities— according to the grace and unique gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit; our strengths, weakness, and circumstances; and, above all, our willingness freely to accept and to pass on to others the gift of Christ’s love for us.

We offer prayers to the Theotokos to open the doors of her compassion to us. Let us also fervently pray that she helps us open the doors of our compassion to others and animate our lives with the good works that flow from a merciful heart. Let us be moved with compassion to serve Christ by serving others. Let us be especially attuned to the poor and to all of those in distress whoever they are and for whatever reason. Let us, then, work with the grace of the Holy Spirit to be perfected as living icons of Christ and to join “the cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1)—“our venerable and God–bearing fathers and mothers”—who through their faith, love, and good works bore Christ’s love—the Trinity’s love—in the world.

Priest John D. Jones is Professor{Anchor:_GoBack}, Department of Philosophy, Marquette University and Associate Priest at Saints Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church (OCA) in Milwaukee. This paper is a revised version of a lecture presented at the Orthodox Christian Women’s Association Conference, Doing Good Deeds, in October 2011. A copy of the paper with notes can be obtained by emailing Fr. John at [email protected]

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 64 / Spring 2012

Recommended Reading Spring 2012

25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics

Compiled by the Renovare Institute
Harper One, 2011, 390 pp.
Reviewed by Alex Patico

It’s an ambitious project, selecting just a score–plus–five books to represent the entire Christian literary resource. It takes chutzpah. But no one tackled this alone; this compendium was selected by a multi–denominational editorial board, which included Frederica Matthewes–Green (the only Orthodox Christian), Phyllis Tickle, Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr and others. They were asked to choose from over 400 titles that Renovar had assembled.

Subtitled A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics, the book obviously involved subjective judgments in culling through the possible selections. The authors do present their rationale for each selection, but some of those tend to be rather pedestrian or not much more than a regurgitation of the ideas presented in the work being treated. (Unfortunately, attribution of the authorship of these essays is not furnished.)

The works that made the cut include some that are likely well–known to Orthodox readers, such as The Philokalia, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Way of a Pilgrim, The Brothers Karamazov, and others. Other titles will likely be less familiar: Blaise Pascal’s Pensees, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law, or the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The selections range in age from St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, 4th C. to J.M. Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1992.

Each section also contains excerpts from the work itself, which serves to give readers a “flavor” of its tone, style, and content. Here are a few examples of those:

St. Augustine (b. 354), Confessions:

Fear shrinks from any sudden, unwonted danger which threatens the things that it loves, for its only care is safety: but to you nothing is strange, nothing unforeseen. No one can part you from the things that you love, and safety is assured nowhere but in you. Grief eats away its heart for the loss of things which it took pleasure in desiring, because it wants to be like you, from whom nothing can be taken away.

Dante Alighieri (b. 1265), The Divine Comedy:

he turned his footsteps toward an untrue path;

he followed counterfeits of goodness, which

will never pay in full what they have promised

Anonymous (ca. 14th cent.), The Cloud of Unknowing:

Every rational creature, every person, and every angel has two main strengths: the power to know and the power to love. God made both of these, but he’s not knowable through the first one. To the power of love, however, he is entirely known, because a loving soul is open to receive God’s abundance.

Thomas A Kempis (b. 1639), Imitation of Christ:

The person who understands all things as they are and not as they are said to be, is truly wise and is taught more by God than by others.… The person whose inner life is well–ordered and set in place is not troubled by the strange and twisted things that people do.

G.K. Chesterton (b.1874), Orthodoxy:

I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it…I [tried] to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.

In addition, a series of personal “best books” lists by various Christian leaders are interspersed with the other content. Interestingly those twenty-five writers, pastors and theologians do not often agree with the volume’s editors—fully 15 of them did not overlap with the book’s selections. One wonders if perhaps they interpreted their charge as being to submit their “favorite five,” rather that to assess each book’s standing in the Christian literary canon, or if they consciously tried to expand the catchment territory with their own picks.

The volume also includes, at the end of the book, a piece on “Best Contem-porary Authors”—writers such as Wendell Berry (b. 1934, author of A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997), Richard J. Foster (who founded Renovare, the organization responsible for the col-lection), progressive evangelical Brian McLaren and writer Anne Lamont.

I submit that the authors’ recom-mendation (in the Introduction) to read the text “in a nonjudgmental fashion” could, in fact, be the project’s downfall. If we treat all the sources as of equal validity, we find ourselves trying to square a number of circles, such as Calvin’s preoccupation with our “vileness, folly and impurity” as against Julian of Norwich’s identification of a “true, joyful and enduring soul-quality” in the human being. I submit that making such judg-ments—in a prayerful and open-minded way—is part of what being a Christian entails. God is the measure and even the “greats” are not all equally in tune with the Divine Will. This book could actually help the careful and watchful reader to divine it. At the very least, it provides a useful insight for the curious into what other Christians think about.

Blood Guilt: Christian Responses to America’s War on Terror

by Philip P. Kapusta

New Covenant Press, 2011, 530 pp.

Reviewed by Pieter Dykhorst

Blood Guilt delivers on its promised Christian responses to America’s War on Terror but in a couple of unexpected ways. The plural promised is seemingly contradicted on the first page of the introduction where the author states that the book is a compilation of his personal essays, which it is; but that would make his own response the sum of the thing, which it isn’t—a few chapters consist almost entirely of others’ words, though mostly included as a setup  of some central belief, idea, or point of either ideology or theology for Kapusta to knock down with his own arguments, always cogently and coherently argued. This results in 37 chapters of polemic aimed primarily at the war in Iraq, less the war in Afghanistan, and at the War on Terror only by application of the conclusions hammered home through-out its 530 pages. However, this stra-tegy exposes the reader broadly to the thinking of many of the most prominent leaders in America’s fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian Right on the subject of war.

Kapusta does his book a needless disservice by declaring early and with-out explanation that the book “uses the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as the backdrop for his personal essays about Christian separatism”. Notice the lower case “s” in separatism. Christian Separ-atism, on the other hand, is a  nutcase theology akin to those flourishing in the hills of Idaho, where adherents hide with guns pointed in all directions. Kapusta could set readers at ease and pique their interest by explaining that his brand of separatism is something else, more of a worked-out solution to the “in the world but not of the world” struggle of many Christians who seek to keep their loyalties unmixed while still living as responsible citizens who share the burden of community governance. He is clear throughout that he, unlike capital “S” separatists, is not against government or war—that would likely pit him against God—but that he simply does not support them, a compelling idea not fully developed but forcefully argued in the negative by making the hyper-patriotic, Christian nationalism of a significant block of American society so ugly that bagging that path looks like the only sane option. That Kapusta takes his non-violence seriously (again unlike most ideological Separatists) is demonstrated on nearly every page of the book.

Orthodox readers may find his arguments persuasive and thought-provoking, particularly those who, like this reviewer, have come from the uber-right background the author relentlessly exposes or have never really understood that perspective and want to. The reliance on negative persuasion easily crosses theological boundaries—the heretical thinking and stupid arguments in support of the war require little real theological training to knock down—so the lack of an Orthodox theological base should not deter an Orthodox reader.

Additionally, probably unintention-ally, this book may be a real help to those outside the Evangelical Right, not only Orthodox Christians, who want to understand crucial elements of that paradigm, namely the way that church and state can be separate yet conflated, placing America central to God’s plan of salvation for the world even while it holds all government in suspicion. This does help explain, for example, for those who find it nearly inexplicable, how George W. Bush won reelection—with-out this seemingly marginal but actually significant voting block, he would likely have been a one-termer. The shrillest and scariest of all the rhetoric heard from the White House during the war decade was in fact aimed at and an echo of what was weekly proclaimed from thousands of pulpits across America—echoes that resound throughout Blood Guilt.

What might ultimately make the book unsatisfying to the Orthodox reader is the tendency of the author to do what he criticizes others of doing. He relies almost entirely on his own ability to understand the Bible and to build good theological perspectives, and of course it is the failures in that effort of his ideological opponents that he criticizes. Now many Protestants have made an admirable job of such an impossible task, and Kapusta may well be one of them, but without the fullness of the mind of the Church under the leading of the Holy Spirit, the work is not fully compelling. Kapusta does quote from Church Fathers and theologians of various traditions (his own brand is not betrayed anywhere in the book) in numerous places, something better Protestant theologians do, but ultimately it is Kapusta all the way down (his interpretive take on the book of Revelation is interesting). He is not, however, alone out on a limb.

In the end, Blood Guilt is also a history book—using a decade of war as a case study—that chronicles the theo-logy, rhetoric, and spectacle of America’s trudge through the filth of a particularly nasty chapter in its war history and exposes how ready are significant segments of America’s Christian citizenry to blow the bugle. The book is heavily footnoted and gathers in its pages an impressive evidentiary case, taken from multiple sources, against not only the wars but one after another of the leaders of one of the most American of American movements, the Christian Right.

The book presents an occasional but  clear, if not complete, case for the promise of understanding the author’s separatist—small “s”—ideas. It is a niche book, but one well worth reading (one hopes it finds wide audience among conservative Christians in America), if you can bear the exhaustion of the work it takes to get through it and can set aside certain expectations to go after what the book forcefully delivers.

…and Listening

Angelic Light: Music From Eastern Cathedrals

Capella Romana

Reviewd by Kh. Rebecca Alford

The newest offering of the a capella choral group Capella Romana, Angelic Light: Music From Eastern Cathedrals, is a com-pilation of pieces from some of their earlier CDs. Fulfilling one of the group=s stated purposes, much of the music in-cluded on this CD is by 20th and 21st century composers. All the selections are liturgical music written for use in the services of the Orthodox Church.

The famous line from the first Blues Brothers movie: AWe have both kinds of music”—in that case, Country and West-ern—could also apply to Capella Romana. Under the leadership of founder and conductor Alexander Lingas, the singers expertly perform traditional Byzantine chant, skillfully embellishing the sonor-ous timbre of this ancient Eastern music. The example included on this recording is the Kontakion of the Mother of God for a hierarchical service dating around 1450.

Capella Romana is equally well-known for the performance of polyphonic music, which allows the combining and inter-weaving of many different parts to create a full, rich sound. Most of the music on this CD is in this style.

It may be a surprise to some that the question of which is proper for Orthodox worship, monophonic Byzantine chant or many-voiced polyphony and homophony, has been a controversial issue. The chant was the earliest music of the Church and remained the only expression, particularly in the East, for many centuries. When polyphonic settings of the sacred texts appeared at various times, it was usually during periods of greater Western in-fluence or in places where Western and Eastern cultures met. A lovely Paschal hymn by the 16th century Cypriot composer Hieronymos Tragodistes on this recording could easily be mistaken for an Italian Renaissance motet.

The bulk of the recording is made up of music by modern composers of sacred liturgical music who have chosen to follow the example of the creators of icons. When an icon is written, the artist does not attempt to innovate but rather follows the form, patterns, and methods estab–lished in the earliest days of the Church. By doing so, the artist ensures that the subject of the icon is readily apparent to the one venerating it, but his unique abilities and style nevertheless shine through. Most of the music on this CD has as its basis Byzantine chant—but chant which has been adapted, arranged, sometimes simplified, and harmonized by composers who have been educated in Western music composition, and the result is a wonderful cultural expression appropriate for Orthodox worship in the New World.

Six of the sixteen selections on this CD by Greek–American composers Frank Desby, Tikey Zes, and Peter Michaelides are based on the melodies of John Sakellarides (1853-1938), who was one of the most influential Greek composers attempting to move Orthodox liturgical music more in the direction of Western polyphony and away from what was at the time considered [email protected] style music. While these new compositions use the musical language of the West, they perfectly express the meeting of heaven and earth which the texts present and which is the purpose of Orthodox worship.

Other composers represented on this CD are Fr. Sergei Glagolev, another leading figure in the effort to create appropriate music for Orthodox America in English; Fr. Ivan Moody, a British-born composer who used polyphony and Byzantine chant alter-nately in his composition included on the CD; and Richard Toensing, whose choral piece in the style of an English carol uses a metrical version of a liturgical text adapted by Fr. Jack Sparks.

Capella Romana does a great service to many. The singers introduce Byzantine chant in its most traditional form to those who have never heard it; they present beautiful polyphonic settings of liturgical texts for those Orthodox worshipers who have never heard this kind of beauty in church; and they provide inspiration for choir singers and choir directors who strive to reach perfection in their more humble circumstances. And for those who merely wish to hear the most angelic sounds that a well–trained choral group can produce, Capella Romana will fit the bill. And they sing both kinds of music!

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 64 / Spring 2012

Orthodox Roots, Bektashi Neighbors: Interview with Metropolitan John of Korca

Metropolitan John of Korca
Metropolitan John of Korca

Reprinted with permission from the journal Road to Emmaus

Your Eminence, one of the most remarkable things about the Albanian Orthodox Church is that you have been able to co-exist peaceably with your Moslem neighbors, which is a paradox for many westerners. The Albanian Orthodox worked hard to provide medical care, food, and housing to both communities during the Kosovo conflict—and that effort continues—but I wonder if there aren’t some other un-seen affinities at work between you, contributing to this balance?

Yes, there are. I think, as Christians, we have a strong dogmatic base for that. We see every human being created as an icon of God, and as the Orthodox Church we have tried to emphasize this to our people. But also there are many other unnoticed affinities, such as family, cultural, and historical ties. For example, respect for St. Cosmas of Aitolia is still very widespread among Albanian Christians and Muslims alike. During St. Cosmas’ life, southern Albania and northwestern Greece were one region—Ottoman ruled Epirus—and the Albanian ruler Ali Pasha, who governed Epirus in the early 19th century, had known the saint personally. He was a Bektashi Moslem, and even now the Bektashi use the prophecies of St. Cosmas, although they call him by another name. We Albanian Orthodox call him Shen Kosma (St. Cosmas). They call him Choban Baba. Choban means “shepherd,” and Baba, “father.”

The Bektashi also revere the saints who lived long ago, like St. Spiridon (whom they call Sari Salltik) and who is enshrined nearby on Corfu. Many saints are commonly venerated in the Orthodox and Bektashi Albanian communities. This feeling for the Christian saints was one of the reasons why the tyrant Ali Pasha ordered a church to be built for St. Cosmas over his relics.

There are many stories in southern Albania about St. Cosmas that have been handed down for centuries. Every village in my region has its story—when he passed by, what he said, that he sent a letter. Many are embellished, but there is still something in them.

Can you tell us any?

Yes. Several years ago I was in an Albanian village where there was a beautiful house that had fallen into ruin. The last male of this house died in 1944, and they still tell the story that when St. Cosmas came to the village he stayed in this house. He was respected, welcomed and given hospitality. In the morning he said, “I hope that your lineage will disappear before a certain time comes.” They said, “Are you cursing us, Father?” “I am blessing you,” he said, “because there will come a time that will be called ‘the time governed by women and young people,’ when it will be better not to be than to be.”

And this is like it is now—I go into most houses and ask the husband something and the wife answers, or the young daughters or sons from a corner. The husband and father often has nothing to say. As it happens, the last male of this family died in 1944. But “a time governed by women and young people” should not be understood only literally, but in the sense that it was used by the Fathers of the Church. For example, the Holy Mother Sarah said to the brothers, “It is I who am a man, you who are women.” With that she wanted to say that true manhood is not only in the differences of sex, but in character.

I also heard a story in Konitsa, Greece, that when St. Cosmas passed by the future home of Albania’s communist dictator, Hoxha, in Gjirokastra, where two centuries later he was born and raised, he said, “An anti-Christ will be born here.”

I’ve heard this story many times. It is difficult now to say if all of these stories are true or not, but sometimes it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter in the sense that what people want to emphasize is St. Cosmas’ gift of prophecy, that history is under the control of the Lord, so everything that happened to Albania under Hoxha was foreseen.

There is, of course, the famous story among us of how Ali Pasha was arrested by Kurt Pasha when the Pasha governed Berat. Ali was young then, sixteen or so. St. Cosmas came, and when he entered the prison he said, “Now is coming Ali, Ali Pasha.” He told him that he would become pasha, but that he would go to Istanbul with a red beard, predicting Ali’s death by beheading.

All of these stories were told and retold, and particularly about Ali Pasha because he was the pasha. He was a cruel tyrant, of course, but some of the others who were considered revolutionary “heroes” by the Greeks were just as cruel. I know these stories because on my mother’s side I am from Christian Souli. The family moved from Souli when it was destroyed, and the stories told about these Greek chieftains were no less cruel than those told of Ali Pasha. Those were the times, and that was what it meant to be a leader.

If, as you say, the pashas and even the heroes were cruel, why then was St. Cosmas allowed to preach and function in these areas, with his very Christian messages of love of God and justice to your fellow man?

The Moslem rulers, if they were Albanians, were not necessarily strict Moslems—their positions were motivated by a personal desire for political power, not religious ideology. Also, many of them had mixed allegiances—they still had cousins and friends who were Christians, or koumbari.

In Albania, it was a tradition until recently that many Moslems had Christian koumbari and some Christians had Moslems as koumbari. These are considered sacred ties. Strictly speaking, this wasn’t allowed, of course, but many of these families wanted to maintain these relationships, and sometimes spiritual kinship ties were made for political reasons. Also, as I mentioned earlier, many of the Albanians were Bektashi Moslems and they had traditions in common with Christians.

Weren’t the Bektashis originally Christians themselves who retained elements of their former faith?

Yes, to some degree, but it isn’t quite that simple. The Bektashi originated in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. In Asia Minor there were always groups of Christian gnostics circulating different traditions, and this heavily influenced the Bektashi. The Bektashi still use the Gospel of St. John and venerate almost all of the Orthodox saints.

Did they arise at the same time in Albania?

No. The Bektashi order isn’t native to Albania, but many Albanians are closer to it than other forms of Islam. When the Turks arrived, becoming Bektashi was one way in which people didn’t have to live under the social pressure or pay the special taxes applied to non-Muslims under the Ottomans, but being Bektashi, they could still keep icons and other traditions. The Bektashi in Albania have been here for centuries, and they are about 15 to 20% of the population.

Albania is now the center of Bektashism, and the head of the Bektashi order is here in Tirana, not in Turkey, because Mustafa Kemal Attaturk exiled the Bektashi from Turkey in the 1930’s. Attaturk himself was Albanian and became president of Turkey at the time of the Young Turk revolution, suppressing the Dervish orders and others as well. The head of the Bektashi order at that time was also Albanian, and he moved here because it was safer to be part of a large Bektashi population far from Istanbul. There were some Bektashis in Crete, but afterwards they joined the Orthodox Church again. There were others in Bulgaria and the Balkans, but most are in Albania now.

How close are they to the Shi’ite and Sunni Moslems?

They are not Shi’ite or Sunni. Their belief is more a combination of Christian influence mixed with the Islamic thought of Rumi and other teachers of Asia Minor. The Bektashi don’t have written doctrine, and rules and belief differ, depending on what an individual has been taught and whose influence he has come under.

Do the Bektashi have associations with Sufism?

Yes, but they are more open to Christianity, and we have outward similarities. For example, they have an ecclesiastical structure, they have monasteries—not just mosques or tekkes—but real monasteries. They also have three levels of church hierarchy: Dervish, which means a helper, a deacon; Baba, which is the “father,” the priest; and then the Gjysh, which can be translated literally as “grandfather,” who has the function of bishop because he can ordain the others. They have something similar to a diocesan structure and the whole area under the Gjysh is called the Gjyshata. They also have a kind of baptism; to baptize they use water mixed with the essence of roses, and a kind of communion service with bread, wine, and cheese. They also have something that is unique in the Moslem world: they have confession, and a prayer is said by the clergy over the sinner asking God for forgiveness. So, there is a strong influence here of Christianity.

Now that Orthodoxy is being revived in Albania, is there an interest among the Bektashi?

In general there is an openness towards Christianity, and mosty towards Orthodoxy, because we have those common elements. When the Bektashi come to an Orthodox church they don’t feel they are in a foreign place. This helps. As I said, we have many of the same saints, although we sometimes use different names for them, and we both circulate the same stories of the saints and their icons. They do use icons.

I understand you are a convert to Orthodoxy. Was your own family Bektashi?

Yes. Although most of my family is back in the Orthodox Church, I still have cousins who are Bektashi. When you speak of people being Bektashi, however, this can be misinterpreted—in Albania you may be referring to a region under their influence, but this doesn’t mean that everyone is a practicing Bektashi. In Bektashism, people only take part in the gatherings if they are initiated. Their baptism is a type of initiation and few besides those who go through it know what happens there, they keep it secret. Perhaps this secrecy is also the influence of the gnostics. The part of Asia Minor where the Bektashi were founded was one of the most renowned in the world for gnosticism, and their use of the Gospel of St. John is another sign of their origins. Most of the gnostics also use the Gospel of St. John.

Some Bektashi claim to have a famous, so-called “secret” doctrine descending from Adam or Seth (the third son of Adam) depending on whom you talk to. This is another common characteristic of gnosticism. All of this was eventually overlaid by an Islamic face. Because they lived in places where Islam had risen to power, they didn’t publicly differentiate themselves from the other Moslems. However, their doctrine is completely different.

How do the Bektashi look at the Lord? Is it a strictly Moslem view?

It depends. Because they don’t have a dogma, interpretations differ. You can read things in Sufi texts by Al-Ghazali or Jelalluddin Rumi, (who were very close in spirit to the Bektashis) that could be scandalous for a Moslem. A modern-day Bektashi could be a scandal for other Moslems in the same way. For example, the Bektashi greet each other on Christmas. They also come to church on Pascha and proclaim, “The Lord is Risen!”

For a Shi’ite or Sunni Moslem this would be impossible, so we can see the Bektashi are more open. In the case of Albania this has been a benefit, because it means that we don’t have a heavy block of Sunni. The Bektashi are also more tolerant, they emphasize that all people are the same. You can easily see the heavy influence of Christianity, particularly if you read the books of Rumi; every third or fourth story will be about a priest.

I remember that in Rumi’s stories, but I thought they were just translating imam into the English “priest.”

No, it really is “priest.”

There are other influences on the Bektashi as well. Some say there is even a Buddhist influence, although I doubt this, because the particular doctrine they are talking about, the transmigration of souls, also appeared in the Balkans and in Asia Minor. Their most known adherent was the famous mathematician Pythagoras. This was not the influence of far off Buddhism, it was a belief that originated in this region and, again, had a gnostic flavor. But certainly not all Bektashi believe in transmigration.

When western people hear “Moslem” they think of what they see on television of Iran and the Middle East, but things here are different. There were not only gnostic influences, but there is a kind of crypto-Christianity among the Albanian Moslems in general. Sometimes they are aware of it and sometimes they are not. But many know that they were Christians before the Turks. For example, the head of the Moslems here, the Kryemyfti—his name is Sabri Kochi. His last name, Kochi, is Albanian for Constantine. Their family names are still often Christian.

So, they might feel closer to Christians than they do to Arab or Indonesian Moslems.

Culturally, yes. Their ethics and psychology are closer. There may be a danger in the future if many students go to study in these Arab countries and are indoctrinated to some degree into more strict forms of Islam, but this outlook doesn’t represent the general view.

The Prophetic Role of the Church

To move on, the Church here is attempting the immense task of reaching out to all of Albanian society, and I believe that you once quoted a sermon by St. John Chrysostom in which he said, “If all of you in this church were Christians, there would be no more pagans in the world.” That was a direct hit to all of us.

Yes. He was right. And others have said the same. Mahatma Gandhi said, “I would have become a Christian if I’d ever met one.” Once a holy man was asked, “Why in the first centuries did Christianity spread so fast, and not now?” He answered, “In the first century, Christianity was preached by Christians.”

If we really understand this we won’t be so quick to see the faults of others. The famous “Mea culpa” is a basic doctrine of Christianity. St. Seraphim said, “If you receive the Holy Spirit, thousands around you will be saved.” We are not saving thousands because we aren’t saving ourselves. This is the essential thing, and it helps people understand humanity in another light, the light that gives love rather than hatred.

Most of the experience I’ve had of Christian fanatics is that they have a problem with belief themselves. They doubt and they try to repress every doubt that arises around them. Some of the most rigid Orthodox I’ve met, particularly from ex-Communist countries, are those who were previously members of the secret police, etc., because they cannot live without hatred.

Their identity, unfortunately, is a negative identity because it is built from this hatred. They say, “I am against this and that.” They don’t say what Christianity really is. They want an enemy they can point to. I’m not saying this to judge them, but it is a tragedy.

Perhaps this happens on every level of humanity, but here it is obvious. There are few people who can solve this puzzle and say, “I am.” Only if you participate in the true “I AM” can you say, “I am.” Instead, it is usually “I am not…” Only the Lord has the right to say, “I AM,” but everyone who joins Him takes on this identity.

That is something we’ve also seen in Russia and Serbia with the upsurge of extreme nationalists. These people often use Orthodoxy as a banner, but there is no Christian spirit behind it and it is frightening because simple people become confused and think, well, “I really should support this group because they are “Orthodox.”

Yes, but this abuse has always gone on. These people prey on the religious feelings of others because they know how much power religion has and they want to use it for their own benefit. For example, in Yugoslavia—Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia—most of the people living in these areas are atheists, and the so-called “religious war” simply doesn’t exist. I have coined a phrase, “a religious war of atheists,” because all the people involved in these wars are atheists. I know them personally. They are human beings, of course, but religion is something they use, not what they believe. It is very hard to escape from that.

The Orthodox Church in Albania has spoken out clearly against the misuse of religion. I believe one of the strongest voices is that of Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, whose motto has been, “the oil of religion must never be used to ignite conflicts but to soothe hearts and heal wounds.”

In Kosovo, the western press bought into appearances. It was always the Orthodox Serbs versus the Moslem Albanians.

It’s easier to think like that. To try to figure out the real reasons is too complex and confusing. They wanted a quick explanation.

Do you believe Kosovo was a war over culture and territory rather than religion?

It was an ethnic war. When, for example, either side destroyed mosques or churches it was not because of religion. They were an ethnic symbol.

Like the decades of violence in Northern Ireland, and how obvious it seems that these aren’t devout Catholics and Protestants fighting over religion.

Yes. Do you know the joke… someone asks an Irishman, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” The Irishman answers, “I am an atheist.” “OK, but atheist Catholic or atheist Protestant?”

This is why the prophetic role of the Church is so important. The prophetic role, as the Lord Himself said, means that we are all on the cross. There is a very costly phrase in scripture, that I often quote: “Thus saith the Lord.” In general, people don’t want to hear this. They want to feel that they are “better,” so they follow false prophets and kill the real ones. If we would always speak the Lord’s words, “Thus saith the Lord,” we would be in trouble, but because we don’t like trouble, because we avoid the cross, we don’t say it. We say what other people want to hear. This has been one of the main problems of the Church. We need to fulfill that prophetic role of the Church and speak on behalf of the Lord, to repeat His words.

One of the things that first woke me up to the resurrection of the Albanian Church was when, during the Kosovo conflict, feeling was running high in the West against the Orthodox Serbs oppressing the Moslem Kosovars. But then, little bits of coverage started slipping out about the Orthodox Church in Albania taking in hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Moslem refugees. It blew the preconceptions apart. Albania may be the first country in the modern world where the Orthodox Church has reached out not only to their own poor and unfortunate, but to their “enemies.”

What advice would you give to Orthodox converts about Christian life? In the West we tend to convert eagerly and read the early church fathers, or lives of saints like St. Seraphim, but often our Orthodoxy is a private affair and doesn’t touch our neighbors, our city or our country, at least not as I see the Albanian Church affecting things here.

First, as Christians, we shouldn’t have enemies, because having enemies and being a Christian at the same time is impossible.

Secondly, I joke many times (and this is a joke) that reading about St. Seraphim causes more damage than help. I say this because modern Orthodox often have a false St. Seraphim—which is a reflection of the fact that each of us creates a kind of pseudo-Orthodox self which really has nothing to do with us. For example, a prayer rope in one hand and a girlfriend holding the other, while we talk about St. Seraphim of Sarov. There is nothing in common with St. Seraphim here.

People don’t begin to understand St. Seraphim, they see only his glorification. They want to read about him being surrounded by light, but they don’t stop to think about what it meant to pray a thousand days and nights on a rock. This is a kind of false identification. We identify ourselves with something that doesn’t exist and then we judge others from this lofty viewpoint, forgetting that we are worse than them. We don’t try to save ourselves.

The famous Rabbi Zusya used to say, “God will not judge me because I was not Moses, He will judge me because I was not Zusya.” These people will not be judged because they are not St. Seraphim of Sarov. They will be judged because they were not real.

Everyone is looking for a place where they can feel secure, but this is only in the other world. The Monastery of Chora, in Constantinople, was dedicated to one of the names of Christ, “The Land of the Living.” This land exists, but it is not the pseudo-land of spirituality that we create in our imaginations.

You have been quoted as saying, “The Church doesn’t exist to make individuals, but to make persons. An individual is in a state of separation.” Later, when you were asked about the Church’s motive in offering English classes to young Albanians, you replied, “It’s not that we manipulate others into belief through our projects. We are trying to help young people see certain possibilities and certain paths. Our task is to guard their freedom so they can choose their own path.” Those two ideas seem to work together. Freedom and the individual.

Yes, and this is why we need unity—because we are different. Artificial systems of unity—communism, socialism, fascism—destroy the person. They attempt to make people the same, and use force to make them act the same. But now in the affluent West there is something even more dangerous than this. It is a kind of uniformity from inside oneself. People volunteer to be uniform. Often, before you even ask a person from one of these countries their opinion, you already know what he will answer. The same remarks, the same attitudes and complaints. This destroys the personality.

When we talk about personhood we mean an individual in relation to others, never in isolation. You can’t be a Christian alone. Onos Christianos, nomos Christianos, is a famous phrase. Between the community and the individual, only freedom and love can keep a balance. As Aristide Briant, the French politician, said about the famous classical painting in the Louvre of the embodied graces of Gratitude and Goodness embracing, “The poor things, they meet so rarely.” Freedom and love are the same.

But in critiquing modern life, I don’t want to go to extremes like Kierkegaard who said, “The last Christian died on the Cross.” The Lord says we must walk the narrow path, and this is not so easy. IC

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

Interview with Jim Forest – Work Hard, Pray Hard. by US Catholic Magazine

By editors of US Catholic Magazine

Few have written authoritative biographies of the 20th-century spiritual giants Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, and Thomas Merton, the celebrated Trappist monk and writer. Fewer still knew them both. But Jim Forest, a former Catholic Worker himself, did, and his unique insight reveals the human side of two figures many Catholics revere as saints, if as yet uncanonized.

Why the interest in these two people, both dead for decades? “Merton is just a perennial, like certain plants that refuse to stop blooming no matter how many years pass,” says Forest of the monk, who died in 1968, but whose writings are still not all published. “There’s a new book by him coming out every year or two.” As for Day, with whom Forest lived as a member of her staff, “Her canonization proceedings have gradually made people more and more curious: Who is this Dorothy Day?”
The close friendship between Day and Merton, rooted in their common commitment to nonviolence and the works of mercy, is a fact known to few of their admirers. At heart, they shared a desire to restore to the church its early refusal of violence for any reason.

“If you were to be baptized in the early centuries, you had to make a commitment not to kill anybody, period,” says Forest. “How did we lose that? Merton and Dorothy were two of the people in the 20th century who helped to unpack those boxes that had been pushed up into the attic.

”Dorothy Day lived in New York City among the poor, and Thomas Merton was a monk in rural Kentucky. How did you come to know them both?

When I first came to the Catholic Worker in 1960, I was still in the Navy. I was 19 years old, working at the U.S. Weather Bureau as a young meteorologist and taking kids to Mass on Sunday from a little institution in Washington where I was volunteering in my spare time. I found copies of Dorothy’s newspaper, The Catholic Worker, in the library at this particular parish, Blessed Sacrament, and became curious about the woman. One weekend I went up from Washington to New York to see what the Catholic Worker was all about.

In New York I was given a bag of mail to take to her in Staten Island. She was sitting there with a letter opener at the end of a table with a half dozen people sitting around. One of the rituals of life, as I discovered, was Dorothy reading the mail aloud to whoever happened to be there and telling stories.

One of the letters was from Thomas Merton, and I was absolutely astounded that Dorothy Day, who was very much “in the world,” was corresponding with Thomas Merton, who had left the world with a resounding slam of the door. Of course, they were both members of the Catholic Church and both writers, but Merton had taken the express train out of New York City for good, and Dorothy lived at its very heart.

Dorothy periodically got arrested; Merton certainly did not. Dorothy was very much under a cloud from the point of view of many Catholics because of her anti-war activities, and Merton was regarded as one of the principal Catholic writers in the world. But if they had been brother and sister they couldn’t have been very much closer.

How would you introduce these two figures to someone who doesn’t know them?I might start with a photo: Dorothy Day between two policemen, awaiting arrest at age 75. It was her last arrest, and you can see that this is a person worth knowing about, somebody who never stopped being disturbed about things that were disturbing, and she did it without hating anybody. She had a gift for seeing injustice and responding without rage but with persistence.

She’s looking at these two policemen like a concerned grandmother of two kids who have their water pistols ready to open fire on grandma—but she’s definitely not in a state of enmity with these two boys and their big guns. In the case of Merton it’s more difficult because monastic life is so removed. The average age of a monk at Merton’s Abbey of Gethsemani now is 70. Today there aren’t a lot of young people thinking of becoming monks, whereas 50 years ago a lot of people were. I remember when I first saw Merton—there were no author photographs on his books, so you had no idea what he looked like—I sort of imagined some skinny person fasting all hours of the day, certainly not a person with a sense of humor. When I actually saw him for the first time in the monastery, he was on the floor with his feet in the air and clutching his tummy, laughing so hard that he was a shade of red.

What was he laughing about?

Merton had invited me to come down to the monastery, and I hitchhiked down because of my economic situation. It was in the middle of winter, 1962, and by the time Bob Wolf, one of my friends at the Catholic Worker, and I arrived, it had been two and a half days of the worst weather I’d ever experienced.

When we finally got to the abbey, we hadn’t had a shower in two and a half days, so we probably had a pretty rich aroma. I had gone into the chapel loft at the monastery to pray, as I was excessively pious in those days. Bob more sensibly had collapsed on his bed in the guest house. Soon I could hear in the distance this funny sound that seemed like laughter but, of course, it couldn’t be laughter because this was a monastery. I followed the noise into Bob’s room, where I found both Merton and Bob laughing. It was, of course, the “Catholic Worker perfume” that had been inhaled by Merton that set him off.

Why was meeting Merton such a big deal to you?

I can only compare it to meeting someone like Oprah Winfrey today. You could not walk into a bookshop in America then without finding Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. For tens of thousands of people, it was a life-changing book. It’s a perennial bestseller, probably the most important religious autobiography that had been written in 200 or 300 years. It was the beginning of a succession of books by Merton, all of which were automatic bestsellers. Most of the people who read it didn’t become monks. But they did discover a kind of monastic place inside themselves where they could live a more coherent spiritual life. They found a core, a center, an anchor of some kind, and it opened their eyes in ways they hadn’t been opened before.

Was Dorothy Day as well known?

No, but on the other hand you could not walk into a Catholic church in America and not run into somebody who knew about the Catholic Worker. There were Catholic Worker houses of hospitality all over the country. The Catholic Worker newspaper was one of the most widely read Catholic publications in the United States with 100,000 copies printed every month. And once you became interested in Day, you were likely to read her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.
How did Merton and Day become friends?

It was a friendship of letters; they never actually met. Their oldest surviving letter is from December 1956, from Dorothy to Merton. She had received the news that he had offered Christmas Mass for her and the Catholic Worker and wanted him to know that “this has made me very happy indeed.” She goes on to say, “We have had a very beautiful Christmas here and quite a sober and serious one, too. There have been occasions in the past when the entire kitchen force got drunk, which made life complicated, but you must have been holding them up this year. Please continue to do so.” You get a sense of the frankness of their exchanges.
The next letter that escaped the vicissitudes of time is also from Dorothy, from June 1959. It’s a reply to a letter from Merton, and she apologizes for not having answered more quickly and also recalls with gratitude the copies of The Seven Storey Mountain he had sent to her way back in 1948. That might have been the beginning, just Merton sending her a box of books. So Merton’s interest in Dorothy goes back at least to 1948.

Why do you think Merton was interested in Day and the Worker?

The big decision for Merton was whether to be part of Catherine Doherty’s Friendship House in Harlem near Columbia, where he was studying, which was like the Catholic Worker, or to go to Gethsemani and become a monk.

Monastic life tilted heavily toward prayer, and ultimately Merton realized there was just something mysterious in him that pulled him toward that vocation. He didn’t feel it was necessarily as high a vocation as the works of mercy, but it was the one that God was calling him to. But that tension was always there, and he had a sense of gratitude that the Catholic Worker existed. Having a relationship with Dorothy allowed him to be a part of the work he hadn’t been led to do. As he wrote to Dorothy in December 1963, “If there were no Catholic Worker and such forms of witness, I would never have joined the Catholic Church.”

How did they influence each other?

I think Merton probably had less influence on Dorothy than she had on him, actually. Merton was trying very hard to write through the church censors— the abbot-general of his order blocked some of his writings about war and peace, for example. But Merton mainly wanted to reach Catholics who were bewildered by the idea of nonviolent, disarmed life, with works of mercy as a core of Christian life. I think he tried harder than Dorothy to communicate with people who didn’t completely share a pacifist view, and she was impatient with him for doing so.

Dorothy was very outspoken: no footnotes, no commentaries, just bang, there it is. Merton would make a great effort to meet people midway, which I think was one of his talents.

Merton’s voice changed all the time depending who he was talking to. If he was talking to a Quaker, he might use Quaker vocabulary. The same if he was talking to a Muslim. He created spaces in which dialogue occurred that might not happen otherwise. Merton had this facility to study and appreciate radically different points of view and somehow integrate them into his style with some people.

Dorothy didn’t have a vocabulary for talking to Buddhists—she was so Catholic. I can remember having to argue Dorothy into publishing articles by Thomas Merton in The Catholic Worker because he wasn’t taking the pacifist position that Dorothy took. Can you imagine having to convince the editor of The Catholic Worker to publish an article by Thomas Merton? Did he influence her in terms of prayer? Dorothy was there already. She wouldn’t have lasted five years at the Catholic Worker if she didn’t pray.

Of all the people I’ve known in my life, including Thomas Merton, I haven’t known anybody with a more disciplined spiritual life than Dorothy Day: Mass every day, rosary every day, confession every week. A community of Benedictine monks sent us prayer booklets for use during the day at the Worker—lauds, vespers, compline. We used them until they were worn out and then they’d send us more.

How was Day’s approach to war and peace different from Merton’s? I can remember going with Dorothy one night when she was speaking at New York University on Washington Square. I was impressed by how much hostility there was from some of the students because of her antiwar stance. The Cold War was very cold, and anybody who was seen as a little short on the patriotic side—which meant an uncritical, enthusiastic support of the military activities of the United States government—came under suspicion. One of the students said, “Well, Ms. Day, you talk about loving enemies, but just what would you do if the Russians were to invade?” Dorothy said, “I would love them the same as I love anybody else that comes here. Jesus has said to love your enemies; that’s what I try to do. I would open my arms and do my best to make them feel welcome.”

It was an absolutely scandalous answer, but it was straight out of the New Testament. It was like a lightning bolt, this shocking simplicity of the gospel. Dorothy knew enough by that time to be able to speak that way without apology or embarrassment.
I suppose the young man who asked that question has never forgotten the answer. He probably will come back to it again and again and move from scandal and shock to maybe even thinking she was onto something. It wasn’t just words. Dorothy was in situations time and time again when she was confronted with people who were dangerous, and she did exactly what she hoped to do. She responded to them in a caring, motherly way. How do you think Merton and Day would respond to today’s wars? Dorothy would be doing the kind of things Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and other peace activists are doing: going to Iraq, going to Afghanistan, meeting with people, helping them, making known through writing and photography what the world is doing to human beings in these situations.

I saw a picture on a poster in Milwaukee a couple of days ago that peace activists use at a weekly vigil on the Marquette campus. It is an American soldier—helmet, battle fatigues, gun at his side—holding the dead body of a child, the soldier obviously weeping. That’s the kind of imagery we’re not seeing on the front page of any newspapers in America, but that’s the reality of war, and Dorothy would be encouraging young people to bring it out.

One of the things Merton stressed that we’re missing in our discussions of war is what he called the human dimension. We have to try to bring the face of suffering people to the fore and see what we can do to make that suffering happen less often, with less dreadful consequences. You’ve talked about Thomas Merton’s sense of humor. What about Dorothy Day? Was she ever funny?
One of my favorite stories of Dorothy was the moment when a quite well-dressed woman came in to the Worker. She took a diamond ring from her finger and handed it to Dorothy. Why she was moved to do that, I have no idea. Dorothy thanked her politely with no more fuss than she would if the woman had brought a dozen eggs.

A little while later a woman that we didn’t particularly enjoy seeing showed up. I think her name was Catherine, but we called her “the weasel.” She was, as far as we could tell, genetically incapable of saying thank you. Dorothy reached into her pocket and said, “I have something for you”—and gave her the diamond ring.

I don’t know if it was me or somebody else who went to Dorothy afterward and said, “You know, Dorothy, I could have taken that ring up to West 47th Street to the Diamond Exchange, and we could have paid her rent for years to come.” She responded, “Well, if she wants to sell the ring and go to the Bahamas, she can do so. But she might also like to just wear the ring. Do you think God made diamonds just for the rich?”

Despite their differences, how are Day and Merton most similar? You would think that they wouldn’t have much in common, but the more you look the more you see how much they complement each other.

I think they both represent a radical search for a deeply rooted spiritual life that is not separate from the world. We always hear the commandment, “Love God, and love your neighbor,” but one or the other usually takes priority. Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day were both remarkably successful in finding that balance point in terms of their own unique identities. The balance is slightly different, but the scales are very similar, which makes them convincing to us today, each in their own way. USC

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 62 / October 2011

Of Whom I am First: on the death of Osama Bin Laden

By Ágúst Symeon Magnússon

A news stand in Boston: covers of news magazines in mid-May 2011 (photo: Jim Forest)[
A news stand in Boston: covers of news magazines in mid-May 2011 (photo: Jim Forest)[

At the time of this writing most of the world’s newspapers and television channels are reporting on the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden at the hands of a special-operations Navy Seal Team. After ten years on the run following his involvement in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Bin Laden was finally found in a high-security compound in Pakistan. Bin Laden had become a potent symbol for militant Islamic extremism and countless terrorist groups throughout the world. The news of his death met with mixed reaction in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda operatives threatened retaliation and vengeance, Hamas condemned the killing, calling it a “continuation of the United States policy of destruction,” while the reaction of other governments in the area ranged from hesitant to jubilant.

In the West, especially in the United States, the news was met with nothing less than festal enthusiasm. Great crowds took to the streets of many cities, especially Washington D.C. and New York – both targets of the horrors of September 11 – cheering and waving flags, chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” as if at a sports event. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented that “Justice has been done,” and newspapers reported on Bin Laden’s death with a range of journalistic flair, from the relatively understated “U.S. Forces Kill Osama Bin Laden” of The Wall Street Journal to the more robust “GOT HIM! Vengeance at last! U.S. nails the bastard!” in The New York Post and the words “ROT IN HELL!” superimposed over a picture of Bin Laden in The Daily News.

All of these reactions are perfectly understandable. Bin Laden was generally seen as leader of an organization whose terrorist activities have cost the lives of thousands of men, women and children in the past decade. The bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 killed almost three thousand. The bombings on the public transit systems of London and Madrid, in 2005 and 2004 respectively, resulted in 247 deaths. Aside from these attacks on European and American soil, al-Qaeda has terrorized and murdered countless Muslim men, women and children in the past decade all throughout the Middle East, denying people their basic human rights and dignity in order to promulgate a philosophy of hatred, religious fundamentalism and death.

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Understandable as the jubilant reaction to Bin Laden’s death may be, it is nonetheless not a Christian one. Christianity demands of us an orientation towards a reality that is both supremely difficult and strange, a reality of mercy and love. This reality is the Life of God, the shared love of the Holy Trinity, and it stands in direct opposition to any worldly ideas we may have about justice, vengeance or retribution. We are told by the great seventh-century poet St. Isaac the Syrian that all the sins of the world are like a few grains of sand cast into the ocean of God’s infinite mercy. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that we may be assimilated to this mystical reality, entering into it by forgiving each other our sins so that we may fully be able to experience the mystery of God’s forgiveness. And in the sixth chapter of the gospel of Luke, Christ tells us to love our enemies and to neither judge nor condemn but rather to forgive absolutely and unconditionally.

What then would a proper Christian response to Bin Laden’s death be? Do we forget the horrors he inspired? Is our God not a God of justice as well as mercy? In thinking about such questions and exploring the mystery that lies behind them, perhaps we will come to better understand the mystical reality of God’s mercy. If nothing else, this event may be a catalyst for examining what lies at the center of these mysteries of forgiveness, repentance and communion. To enter into such a questioning is to take up the challenge given to us by Christ in the gospels to reconsider our relationship to one another and our understanding of good and evil.

To begin with we must be absolutely clear on the fact that the teachings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church unequivocally state that evil is very real and that it permeates the very fabric of our existence due to the consequences of the Fall. The only way to reorient our lives towards God and to accept the salvation that He so freely offers us in and through his Son, the divine Logos who became incarnate as Jesus Christ. God does not force his mercy upon anyone. If he did, his mercy would no longer be love. This means that the salvation of our souls is in fact dependent upon our own free will and to what extent we choose to orient our lives towards the Good. And this is exactly why it is more 1 than likely that someone like Osama Bin Laden would find himself in a place that is the metaphysical realization of the life he lived on this earth, a life that was defined by suffering and pain and the inability to love one’s fellow human beings, irrespective of their religion, nationality or past sins. Yet in accepting the reality of evil, we, as Christians, also believe in its ultimate defeat. Christ frees us from violence, hatred and death, opening a door towards a way of life (a Tao/Logos) that we can appropriate and assimilate ourselves to through the grace of God that He so mercifully grants to us. The question then becomes how we enter upon this path and become conduits for God’s love and mercy instead of proliferating yet more suffering for both ourselves and our brothers and sisters. The answer, mysterious and indefinable as it must be, seems to always center on the mystery of repentance.   Repentance is among the most difficult and complex spiritual and philosophical realities in the entire Christian tradition. It is the beginning of the spiritual life, the first commandment of both John the Baptist and Christ in the gospels, our entrance into the Kingdom that is “at hand” (i.e. among us – present in the here and now). To begin our treatment of this difficult subject we might examine a prayer that is both beautiful and bizarre in its implications. It is a prayer said by Eastern Orthodox Christians moments before they receive the body and blood of Christ in the mystery of Holy Communion in the Divine Liturgy:

I believe O Lord and I confess, that you are truly the Christ, the living God who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am first. Moreover I believe that this is truly your most pure body and that this is truly your own precious blood.

“To save sinners of whom I am first.” What astoundingly strange words. Surely there have been worse people than I – murderers, rapists, dictators and despots. People like Osama Bin Laden. Even though I fully acknowledge that I am sinful and that I struggle with a great many passions in deed, word and thought, I nonetheless have a hard time thinking of myself as the chief of sinners, as the worst of the worst. Is this perhaps a kind of psychological flagellation, a “woe is me a sinner” attitude so that we may feel our unworthiness in the face of the holy sacraments?

Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to begin to understand these strange words, we need to break down our preconceived notions regarding repentance and communion. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, repentance, confession and sin were never thought of in legalistic terms, nor was juridical language ever applied to these realities, which was a tendency that sometimes tended to dominate Latin thinking on these matters. Rather, these spiritual realities were – and still are – understood in terms of a kind of spiritual anthropology, a language grounded in the language of medicine and healing as opposed to rules and regulations. Sin is understood as a spiritual sickness from which all of us suffer, a metaphysical condition that permeates the entire cosmos and from which God in his infinite mercy has freed us through the loving grace of his only begotten Son and his Holy Spirit. Repentance, in turn, becomes not a matter of psychological guilt, nor of feeling as if one is unworthy or tainted. Rather, it is a matter of a spiritual reorientation. The Greek word is metanoia, literally a “change of mind” or a “turning around” of the soul. As Metropolitan Kallistos writes in The Orthodox Way:

Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings but upwards at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. To repent is to open our eyes to the light.

When Plato in the Cave Allegory in the Republic describes the freeing of the prisoner in the cave who then turns away from illusion and suffering towards the light of truth and beauty he uses this very word metanoia. There is a turning around of the soul from the realm of shadows towards the divine. Such is repentance of the Christian who now sees him or herself in the light of the Resurrection and the mercy of God. This opening of the spiritual eyes, the cleansing of the nous – as it was known to both the Greek philosophers and Church Fathers – lies at the center of the mystery of repentance. It not only changes our perception of ourselves but of every living thing, the entire cosmos, but primarily it affects how we view our brothers and sisters. No longer are we subject to the individualism and egotism that ensconce us ever deeper in the mires of sin where we constantly measure ourselves against each other, whether materially or spiritually. Instead, our eyes are opened to the love that is the very being of God, a reality where humility, sacrifice and compassion direct the course of our lives rather than our desires and passions.

What is paradoxical about this reorientation is that in opening our eyes to the beauty and goodness of God that permeate this world we also become ever more aware of the reality of suffering and pain and all the repercussions of the Fall. In repenting of our own sins, especially through the sacrament of confession, we become ever more cognizant of the spiritual sickness that permeates the very fabric of our world, the alienation, separation, violence, disease, hunger and pain.

Repentance is a softening of the heart and an opening up of the human being, a path that makes us more sensitive and humane, more aware of the suffering of our brothers and sisters. Through this mystery we break down the illusion of individualism where we view ourselves as separate atoms, each pursuing our individual gain apart from one another. Instead we enter into the life of God where love and communion become the very essence of our life, just as they do for the persons of the Trinity. To repent is to begin to understand our very being as communion, to borrow a phrase from the Orthodox philosopher and theologian John Zizioulas.

Through repentance we begin to experience God’s mercy, the healing salve that cures the world of violence and hate. (The Greek word eleos, usually translated in English as “mercy,” has the same root as the word for olive oil, one of the most common medicinal balms of the ancient Greek world.) Hatred, in fact, makes true repentance impossible. It turns us away from the reality of God’s love towards a reality that is entirely our own construct, a reality characterized by discord and separation. This is why we are told not to approach the Holy Eucharist unless we have purged our hearts of hate. The reality made manifest in the Gifts is entirely antithetical to hatred and to being controlled by fear, for it is primarily through fear that we begin to hate.

The response to Bin Laden’s death is one that is primarily characterized by fear. In many ways it is a justifiable fear, one based on the immense pain and suffering that this man had wrought upon the world. Yet fear, in all its forms, is a passion, something that separates us from God. If left unchecked, like all passions, it can lead towards an ever-deepening cycle of suffering, both for ourselves and those around us. Hatred begets only hate. Violence begets more violence. It is a cycle as old as humanity itself. Al-Qaeda has already promised revenge for the slaying of Bin Laden. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on. The jubilant response to Bin Laden’s death, even though it is understandable to an extent, is nonetheless primarily symbolic of the anger and hatred that feeds this cycle of violence and despair.

Repentance is the way out of this cycle. Repentance is to not only look at our individual sins and shortcomings, but to open ourselves up to the mercy of God. It is then up to us to extend that mercy to others. By telling us to love our enemies, Christ obviously did not mean for us to “like” them nor did He mean we should overlook the evil they have done. Rather, in loving them we are to manifest the Kingdom of God where our primary concern is not retribution or “justice,” but rather mercy as healing.

In realizing our own sins, our own entanglement in the web of suffering and pain, we free ourselves of the bonds of our sins through God’s mercy and in turn become more sensitive to the suffering of those around us. It is only at that point that we can begin to extend the healing of God to others, first and last through prayer but also through direct involvement and actions.

It is then that we can begin to address the injustice of this world, the innocent victims of terrorists such as Bin Laden as well as those who suffer because of the political machinations of foreign powers. Bin Laden’s death, instead of being an opportunity for revelry and glee, could have been one of quiet contemplation and prayer and a call to action for Christians that we do everything in our power to help those who suffer and to put an end to war, violence and economic oppression.

Among the revelry following news of Bin Laden’s death, there were also images of a very different kind – photos of people who came together to pray for the victims of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Perhaps some were also praying for Bin Laden himself. Images of people at peace, of candles being lit, heads bowed, orienting their minds towards God and their brothers and sisters, mindful of their suffering and the healing that is so desperately needed in this world. In the faces of people at prayer and in the silence that surrounded them one could see an alternative path to that of fear and hate– a Way given to us by the God of mercy and love.

Ágúst Symeon Magnússon is a philosopher, teacher, writer, husband and father who currently resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he works and studies at Marquette University. A native of Reykjavik, Iceland, he joined the Orthodox Church in 2005. His favorite pastimes are reading, drinking coffee and playing on the floor with his son Jóakim.

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1. The details surrounding the theological debate on universal salvation and to what extent the Orthodox Church has advocated such a position (at least as favoring a certain kind of theologoumenon) falls outside the boundaries of this text. There are various scholarly expositions on the matter, but Orthodox works of the catechetical sort usually address the issue in a succinct and intelligent manner. In The Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes: “Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have nonetheless believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God…. We must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception. No one must be excluded from our loving intercession. ‘What is a merciful heart?’ asked Isaac the Syrian. ‘It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for humans, for birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures.’ Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the devil.” (The Orthodox Church, new edition., p. 262).

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

Then and Now: Confessions of an Outreach Worker

Then, when I saw a homeless person, I saw the dishevelment, shuffling, and shopping cart. Now I see a person with a story. Not likely a happy story, but there might be some joy in it. Maybe grace.

Then I saw filth, poor hygiene, beards and thought, go to a shelter. Now I know that the street is safer for some people, and there are not enough beds to go around for the rest.

Then I noticed the skin sores and rashes, hacking coughs, missing teeth. Now I see the bigger problems: the Astructure resistance” keeping a person away from services; the bad receptions at health clinics; the perfunctory dismissals for inability to pay; the lack of dental providers even for those with benefits.

Then I saw the blank stares and the Aoff in their own world” look and thought mental illness. Now I know that it might be a sane defense against the constant stares and comments of others.

Then I thought, get a job. Now I know the devastation of untreated mental illness and substance abuse, the consequences of severe child abuse, the effects of 35 years in jail. I know that the simple lack of a shower and clean clothes can cost a person their job.

Then I asked, Why doesn’t someone solve this problem? Now I ask B what is your name? Do you have somewhere safe to sleep? Are you warm enough? Do you want to talk?

Confession: the Sacrament of Reconciliation

by Jim Forest

Without confession, love is destroyed.

It is impossible to imagine a vital marriage or deep friendship without confession and forgiveness. If you have done something that damages a relationship, confession is essential to its restoration. For the sake of that bond, you confess what you’ve done, you apologize, and you promise not to do it again.

In the context of religious life, confession is what we do to safeguard and renew our relationship with God whenever it is damaged. Confession restores our communion with God.

The purpose of confession is not to have one’s sins dismissed as non-sins but to be forgiven and restored to communion. As the Evangelist John wrote: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:9) The apostle James wrote in a similar vein: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (Jas 5:16)

Confession is more than disclosure of sin. It also involves praise of God and profession of faith. Without the second and third elements, the first is pointless. To the extent we deny God, we reduce ourselves to accidental beings on a temporary planet in a random universe expanding into nowhere. To the extent we have a sense of the existence of God, we discover creation confessing God’s being and see all beauty as a confession of God. “The world will be saved by beauty,” Dostoevsky declared. We discover that faith is not so much something we have as something we experience — and we confess that experience much as glass confesses light. The Church calls certain saints “confessors” because they confessed their faith in periods of persecution even though they did not suffer martyrdom as a result. In dark, fear-ridden times, the faith shone through martyrs and confessors, giving courage to others.

In his autobiography, Confessions, Saint Augustine drew on all three senses of the word. He confessed certain sins, chiefly those that revealed the process that had brought him to baptism and made him a disciple of Christ and member of the Church. He confessed his faith. His book as a whole is a work of praise, a confession of God’s love.

But it is the word’s first meaning — confession of sins — that is usually the most difficult. It is never easy admitting to doing something you regret and are ashamed of, an act you attempted to keep secret or denied doing or tried to blame on someone else, perhaps arguing — to yourself as much as to others — that it wasn’t actually a sin at all, or wasn’t nearly as bad as some people might claim. In the hard labor of growing up, one of the most agonizing tasks is becoming capable of saying, “I’m sorry.”

Yet we are designed for confession. Secrets in general are hard to keep, but unconfessed sins not only never go away but have a way of becoming heavier as time passes — the greater the sin, the heavier the burden. Confession is the only solution.

To understand confession in its sacramental sense, one first has to grapple with a few basic questions: Why is the Church involved in forgiving sins? Is priest-witnessed confession really needed? Why confess at all to any human being? In fact, why bother confessing to God even without a human witness? If God is really all-knowing, then he knows everything about me already. My sins are known before it even crosses my mind to confess them. Why bother telling God what God already knows?

Yes, truly God knows. My confession can never be as complete or revealing as God’s knowledge of me and all that needs repairing in my life.

A related question we need to consider has to do with our basic design as social beings. Why am I so willing to connect with others in every other area of life, yet not in this? Why is it that I look so hard for excuses, even for theological rationales, not to confess? Why do I try so hard to explain away my sins until I’ve decided either they’re not so bad or might even be seen as acts of virtue? Why is it that I find it so easy to commit sins yet am so reluctant, in the presence of another, to admit to having done so?

We are social beings. The individual as autonomous unit is a delusion. The Marlboro Man — the person without community, parents, spouse, or children — exists only on billboards. The individual is someone who has lost a sense of connection to others or attempts to exist in opposition to others — while the person exists in communion with other persons. At a conference of Orthodox Christians in France not long ago, in a discussion of the problem of individualism, a theologian confessed, “When I am in my car, I am an individual, but when I get out, I am a person again.”

We are social beings. The language we speak connects us to those around us. The food I eat was grown by others. The skills passed on to me have slowly been developed in the course of hundreds of generations. The air I breathe and the water I drink is not for my exclusive use but has been in many bodies before mine. The place I live, the tools I use, and the paper I write on were made by many hands. I am not my own doctor or dentist or banker. To the extent I disconnect myself from others, I am in danger. Alone I die, and soon. To be in communion with others is life.

Because we are social beings, confession in church does not take the place of confession to those we have sinned against. An essential element of confession is doing all I can to set right what I did wrong. If I stole something, it must be returned or paid for. If I lied to anyone, I must tell that person the truth. If I was angry without good reason, I must apologize. I must seek forgiveness not only from God but from those whom I have wronged or harmed.

We are also verbal beings. Words provide not only a way of communicating with others but even with ourselves. The fact that confession is witnessed forces me to put into words all those ways, minor and major, in which I live as if there were no God and no commandment to love. A thought that is concealed has great power over us.

Confessing sins, or even temptations, makes us better able to resist. The underlying principle is described in one of the collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Gerontikon:

“If impure thoughts trouble you, do not hide them, but tell them at once to your spiritual father and condemn them. The more a person conceals his thoughts, the more they multiply and gain strength. But an evil thought, when revealed, is immediately destroyed. If you hide things, they have great power over you, but if you could only speak of them before God, in the presence of another, then they will often wither away, and lose their power.”

Confessing to anyone, even a bartender, taxicab driver or stranger in an airport, renews rather than contracts my humanity, even if all I get in return for my confession is the well-worn remark, “Oh that’s not so bad. After all, you’re only human” — something like the New Yorker cartoon in which a psychologist reassures a Mafia contract killer stretched out on the couch, “Just because you do bad things doesn’t mean you’re bad.”

But if I can confess to anyone anywhere, why confess in church in the presence of a priest? It’s not a small question in societies in which the phrase “institutionalized religion” is so often used, the implicit message being that religious institutions necessarily impede or undermine religious life. Yet it’s not a term we seem inclined to adapt to other contexts. Few people would prefer we got rid of institutionalized health care or envision a world without institutionalized transportation. Whatever we do that involves more than a few people requires structures.

Confession is a Christian ritual with a communal character. Confession in the church differs from confession in your living room in the same way that getting married in church differs from simply living together. The communal aspect of the event tends to safeguard it, solidify it, and call everyone to account — those doing the ritual, and those witnessing it.

In the social structure of the Church, a huge network of local communities is held together in unity, each community helping the others and all sharing a common task while each provides a specific place to recognize and bless the main events in life from birth to burial. Confession is an essential part of that continuum. My confession is an act of reconnection with God and with all the people and creatures who depend on me and have been harmed by my failings and from whom I have distanced myself through acts of non-communion. The community is represented by the person hearing my confession, an ordained priest delegated to serve as Christ’s witness, who provides guidance and wisdom that helps each penitent overcome attitudes and habits that take us off course, who declares forgiveness and restores us to communion. In this way our repentance is brought into the community that has been damaged by our sins — a private event in a public context.

“It’s a fact,” writes Fr. Thomas Hopko, “that we cannot see the true ugliness and hideousness of our sins until we see them in the mind and heart of the other to whom we have confessed.”

This is an extract from Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness (Orbis Books, 2002). Jim Forest’s earlier books include Praying with Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes as well as biographies of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Confession: the Sacrament of Reconciliation

by Jim Forest

Without confession, love is destroyed.

It is impossible to imagine a vital marriage or deep friendship without confession and forgiveness. If you have done something that damages a relationship, confession is essential to its restoration. For the sake of that bond, you confess what you’ve done, you apologize, and you promise not to do it again.

In the context of religious life, confession is what we do to safeguard and renew our relationship with God whenever it is damaged. Confession restores our communion with God.

The purpose of confession is not to have one’s sins dismissed as non-sins but to be forgiven and restored to communion. As the Evangelist John wrote: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:9) The apostle James wrote in a similar vein: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (Jas 5:16)

Confession is more than disclosure of sin. It also involves praise of God and profession of faith. Without the second and third elements, the first is pointless. To the extent we deny God, we reduce ourselves to accidental beings on a temporary planet in a random universe expanding into nowhere. To the extent we have a sense of the existence of God, we discover creation confessing God’s being and see all beauty as a confession of God. “The world will be saved by beauty,” Dostoevsky declared. We discover that faith is not so much something we have as something we experience — and we confess that experience much as glass confesses light. The Church calls certain saints “confessors” because they confessed their faith in periods of persecution even though they did not suffer martyrdom as a result. In dark, fear-ridden times, the faith shone through martyrs and confessors, giving courage to others.

In his autobiography, Confessions, Saint Augustine drew on all three senses of the word. He confessed certain sins, chiefly those that revealed the process that had brought him to baptism and made him a disciple of Christ and member of the Church. He confessed his faith. His book as a whole is a work of praise, a confession of God’s love.

But it is the word’s first meaning — confession of sins — that is usually the most difficult. It is never easy admitting to doing something you regret and are ashamed of, an act you attempted to keep secret or denied doing or tried to blame on someone else, perhaps arguing — to yourself as much as to others — that it wasn’t actually a sin at all, or wasn’t nearly as bad as some people might claim. In the hard labor of growing up, one of the most agonizing tasks is becoming capable of saying, “I’m sorry.”

Yet we are designed for confession. Secrets in general are hard to keep, but unconfessed sins not only never go away but have a way of becoming heavier as time passes — the greater the sin, the heavier the burden. Confession is the only solution.

To understand confession in its sacramental sense, one first has to grapple with a few basic questions: Why is the Church involved in forgiving sins? Is priest-witnessed confession really needed? Why confess at all to any human being? In fact, why bother confessing to God even without a human witness? If God is really all-knowing, then he knows everything about me already. My sins are known before it even crosses my mind to confess them. Why bother telling God what God already knows?

Yes, truly God knows. My confession can never be as complete or revealing as God’s knowledge of me and all that needs repairing in my life.

A related question we need to consider has to do with our basic design as social beings. Why am I so willing to connect with others in every other area of life, yet not in this? Why is it that I look so hard for excuses, even for theological rationales, not to confess? Why do I try so hard to explain away my sins until I’ve decided either they’re not so bad or might even be seen as acts of virtue? Why is it that I find it so easy to commit sins yet am so reluctant, in the presence of another, to admit to having done so?

We are social beings. The individual as autonomous unit is a delusion. The Marlboro Man — the person without community, parents, spouse, or children — exists only on billboards. The individual is someone who has lost a sense of connection to others or attempts to exist in opposition to others — while the person exists in communion with other persons. At a conference of Orthodox Christians in France not long ago, in a discussion of the problem of individualism, a theologian confessed, “When I am in my car, I am an individual, but when I get out, I am a person again.”

We are social beings. The language we speak connects us to those around us. The food I eat was grown by others. The skills passed on to me have slowly been developed in the course of hundreds of generations. The air I breathe and the water I drink is not for my exclusive use but has been in many bodies before mine. The place I live, the tools I use, and the paper I write on were made by many hands. I am not my own doctor or dentist or banker. To the extent I disconnect myself from others, I am in danger. Alone I die, and soon. To be in communion with others is life.

Because we are social beings, confession in church does not take the place of confession to those we have sinned against. An essential element of confession is doing all I can to set right what I did wrong. If I stole something, it must be returned or paid for. If I lied to anyone, I must tell that person the truth. If I was angry without good reason, I must apologize. I must seek forgiveness not only from God but from those whom I have wronged or harmed.

We are also verbal beings. Words provide not only a way of communicating with others but even with ourselves. The fact that confession is witnessed forces me to put into words all those ways, minor and major, in which I live as if there were no God and no commandment to love. A thought that is concealed has great power over us.

Confessing sins, or even temptations, makes us better able to resist. The underlying principle is described in one of the collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Gerontikon:

“If impure thoughts trouble you, do not hide them, but tell them at once to your spiritual father and condemn them. The more a person conceals his thoughts, the more they multiply and gain strength. But an evil thought, when revealed, is immediately destroyed. If you hide things, they have great power over you, but if you could only speak of them before God, in the presence of another, then they will often wither away, and lose their power.”

Confessing to anyone, even a bartender, taxicab driver or stranger in an airport, renews rather than contracts my humanity, even if all I get in return for my confession is the well-worn remark, “Oh that’s not so bad. After all, you’re only human” — something like the New Yorker cartoon in which a psychologist reassures a Mafia contract killer stretched out on the couch, “Just because you do bad things doesn’t mean you’re bad.”

But if I can confess to anyone anywhere, why confess in church in the presence of a priest? It’s not a small question in societies in which the phrase “institutionalized religion” is so often used, the implicit message being that religious institutions necessarily impede or undermine religious life. Yet it’s not a term we seem inclined to adapt to other contexts. Few people would prefer we got rid of institutionalized health care or envision a world without institutionalized transportation. Whatever we do that involves more than a few people requires structures.

Confession is a Christian ritual with a communal character. Confession in the church differs from confession in your living room in the same way that getting married in church differs from simply living together. The communal aspect of the event tends to safeguard it, solidify it, and call everyone to account — those doing the ritual, and those witnessing it.

In the social structure of the Church, a huge network of local communities is held together in unity, each community helping the others and all sharing a common task while each provides a specific place to recognize and bless the main events in life from birth to burial. Confession is an essential part of that continuum. My confession is an act of reconnection with God and with all the people and creatures who depend on me and have been harmed by my failings and from whom I have distanced myself through acts of non-communion. The community is represented by the person hearing my confession, an ordained priest delegated to serve as Christ’s witness, who provides guidance and wisdom that helps each penitent overcome attitudes and habits that take us off course, who declares forgiveness and restores us to communion. In this way our repentance is brought into the community that has been damaged by our sins — a private event in a public context.

“It’s a fact,” writes Fr. Thomas Hopko, “that we cannot see the true ugliness and hideousness of our sins until we see them in the mind and heart of the other to whom we have confessed.”

This is an extract from Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness (Orbis Books, 2002). Jim Forest’s earlier books include Praying with Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes as well as biographies of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.