Tag Archives: Jim Forest

A Letter from the (Retiring) Editor

the OPF newsletter in 1991
The OPF newsletter, The Occasional Paper, in 1991

This is the last issue of In Communion that I’ll be editing. Pieter Dykhorst, an old friend and long-time member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is taking over the job. After this issue goes to press, I’ll be joining the community of people helping as associate editors.

It’s not easy to stop doing a work that has been so significant to me, but – after twenty-one years at the job – it’s time. I’ll be turning seventy in November and want to clear more space in my life for reading, writing and wandering.

Books, newspapers, journals and magazine have figured in my life since I was in the very early stages of literacy. Would that I still had a copy of a one-page family newspaper I made by hand using an alphabet of my own design. A year or two later, having become reasonably literate, mother gave me a set of hard rubber type in several fonts and sizes plus a tiny rotary press with which I turned out a midget publication that could be read by others. By the time I was ten, there were afternoons when I hung around the local daily newspaper, The Red Bank Register, watching several men set type from molten zinc on linotype machines. Occasionally one of them set a headline with my name – an instant treasure. In seventh grade, I started a school paper that was christened The Flame. In high school, on the staff of a monthly student newspaper, I was aware how lucky we were to have as faculty adviser a man who had been a journalist for The New York Times.

The first publication of real consequence that I worked with was The Catholic Worker. Its monthly print run was about 90,000 copies and its circulation was international. Encouraged by Dorothy Day, I acquired enough experience eventually to be appointed managing editor. Later on I was assistant editor of a monthly magazine called Liberation, whose focus at the time was on civil rights and whose authors included James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King.

first issue of In Communion
First issue of In Communion, February 1995

Since then I have been involved with many other publications – newspapers, business journals, press agencies, news services, magazines – but none of these meant more to me or involved me for so long a time as In Communion.

I’ve seen the journal move from a simple two-page newsletter called The Occasional Paper (launched in 1987 by Mariquita Platov and Jim Larrick) to something more substantial after they asked me, late in 1990, to take over the job. It remained quite an occasional paper until 1995, when the newsletter became a quarterly journal named In Communion. (You hold the 61st issue in your hands.)

I don’t recall anything that, on reflection, I wish we hadn’t published. Articles have covered a very wide spectrum – the prevention and ending of war, the making of peace, hospitality, the protection of life at every stage and circumstance of its development, aspects of spiritual life, biblical studies, nonviolent alternatives and the lives of the saints. (Our year-after-year attention to the life and writings of Mother Maria Skobtsova may have played a part in her canonization.)

Thanks to the web, most of what we have published over the years is available at the click of a mouse button via the OPF’s much-visited In Communion site.

I’m delighted Pieter Dykhorst will be my successor. He has experience in all the key areas that the editorship of In Communion requires. It was during a two-year stint Pieter had in Albania that I first met him – I was then writing a book about the resurrection of the Albanian Church and he was working closely with Archbishop Anastasios, a member of our advisory board. Pieter was born in South Africa. He is now in the last stages of completing a master of science degree in international/inter-cultural conflict resolution. As it happens, he lives in Washington, DC, and thus is in the same area as Alex Patico, OPF’s secretary in North America, making face-to-face collaboration between them not only possible but easy.
I’m looking forward to the Fall issue.

– Jim Forest

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

The Real Saint George

by Jim Forest

illustration by Vladislav Andreyev for Saint George and the Dragon (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)

True stories become streamlined into legends and legends are compressed via symbols into myths.

The real Saint George never saw a dragon nor did he rescue a princess in distress. We are not even sure he had a horse or possessed a lance or sword. It is even possible he was a farmer. The name “George” means tiller of the soil. For this reason Saint George is a patron saint of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.

A Christian convert who was born late in the third century after Christ and died early in the fourth century, Saint George was one among many martyrs of the early Church. What made him a saint among saints was the completely fearless manner in which he proclaimed his faith during a period of fierce persecution when many other Christians were hoping not to be noticed. According to one ancient account, George went to a public square and announced, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested, tortured and beheaded in the town of Nicomedia (in the northwest of modern Turkey). His courageous witness led to the conversion of many and gave renewed courage to others already baptized. The probable date of his martyrdom was April 23, 303. His body was brought to his birthplace, Diospolis, later known as Lydda (and today as Lod in what has become Israel).

Saint George was one of the early victims of the anti-Christian persecution ordered by the Emperor Diocletian that began in February 303. Churches were destroyed and biblical texts burned. All Roman subjects were ordered to make ritual sacrifices to Rome’s gods. Those who refused risked severe punishment. Many were sent into exile as slave laborers in quarries and mines in Egypt and Palestine. Thousands were tortured and many executed. The attack finally ended in 311. With Diocletian in retirement and the emperor Galerius ill and close to death, Galerius published an edict of toleration allowing Christians to restore their places of worship and to worship in their own way without interference, provided they did nothing to disturb the peace.

Persecution ended, but the memory of those eight years of suffering would never be forgotten. George was one of the saints whose witness remained fresh. His icon hung in more and more churches. As centuries passed, he became patron saint not only of many churches and monasteries but of cities and whole countries.

In icons made in the centuries before the legend of the dragon became attached to George’s name, we see him dressed as a soldier and holding the cross of martyrdom.

Perhaps he was in the army, but it may be that George is shown in military gear because he so perfectly exemplifies the qualities that Saint Paul spoke of in his letter to the Ephesians in which he calls on Christ’s followers to wear the helmet of salvation and the armor of righteousness, to be girded with truth, to clad their feet in the Gospel of peace, to possess the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, and to protect themselves from the devil’s flaming arrows with the shield of faith.

Such symbolic use of a soldier’s equipment of war does not rule out the possibility that George was a soldier. People from every class and profession were drawn to the Gospel, soldiers among them. George may have been one of these.

It was only in later centuries that the dragon legend emerged. It has been told in many variations, but in its most popular form it concerns a dragon living in a lake who was worshiped by the unbaptized local people who, in their fear, sacrificed their children to appease the creature. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, to be sacrificed. While she was going toward the dragon to meet her doom, George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance. Afterward Elizabeth led the vanquished creature into the city.

According to the Legenda Aurea written by Blessed James de Voragine about 1260, the wounded monster followed Elizabeth “as if it had been a meek beast and debonair.” Refusing a reward of treasure, George called on the local people to be baptized. The king agreed, also promising to maintain churches, honor the clergy, faithfully attend religious services and show compassion to the poor.

From the point of view of journalism, the dragon story is a literary invention. Yet when you think about it, what better way to symbolize the evil that George actually confronted and defeated than to portray it in the form of a fire-breathing dragon? George fought and was victorious over an adversary which enslaved and terrified most of the people of his time.

The white horse George rides in the icon, a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider, represents the courage God gave to George as he faced the power of death. It is the courage God gives to any Christian facing martyrdom.

In many versions of the icon, the lance George holds is shown resting lightly in his open hand, meaning that it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil.

Notice how thin the lance is and that, in many Saint George icons, there is a small cross at the top of the lance. The icon stresses that it is not with weapons of war that evil is overcome but with the power of the Cross, the life-giving Cross that opens the path to the resurrection.

Similarly, George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. His tranquil face reminds us of Christ’s commandment that, even in conflict, his followers must love their enemies.

In many versions of the icon, the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing. This detail is

a reminder that whatever we do bears good fruit only if it is God’s will and has God’s blessing.

In more detailed versions of the icon there are scenes before and after the battle with the dragon. Sometimes a castle is in the background from which Elizabeth’s royal parents watch all that happens.

Following George’s victory, icons sometimes show Elizabeth leading the wounded dragon on a leash made of her belt – a victory of life over death similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Bringing a wounded but still living dragon back to the town provides us with a powerful image of the conversion rather than the destruction of enemies. The final fruit of George’s combat with the dragon is not victory over a monster nor financial reward for successful combat but bringing unbelieving people to conversion and baptism.


Finally, as is the case with any icon, the Saint George icon is not a decoration but is intended to be a place of prayer. It belongs in the icon corner of any home where courage is sought – courage to be a faithful disciple of Christ; courage to fight rather than flee from whatever dragons we meet in life; courage to prefer the conversion rather than the death of our adversaries;  courage to live in such a way that others may be made more aware of Christ and the life he offers to us. ❖

This text is drawn from the afterword of a new children’s book, Saint George and the Dragon, due out in September from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His most recent book is All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day.


 

Blessed Alexander Schmorell and the White Rose

White Rose memorial in front of the Ludwig Maximilian University is Munich

by Jim Forest

In May 1942, two young medical students in Munich secretly formed an anti-Nazi project they christened the White Rose. The work they envisioned was simple but daring: publication of a series of anti-Nazi leaflets. In the months that followed, four more friends joined the White Rose. Once launched, the group managed to publish and widely distribute six leaflets advocating active resistance by the German people to Nazi oppression and tyranny. Rejecting fascism and militarism, the White Rose called for a federated Europe committed to tolerance and justice. The leaflets quoted extensively from the Bible, Aristotle, Goethe, Novalis and Schiller. Following the German defeat at Stalingrad, the White Rose also carried out a night-time action of writing anti-Nazi slogans on walls such as “Freedom” and “Down with Hitler” as well as a white swastika with a red slash running through it.

In less than a year, all the principal participants in the group plus many collaborators had been identified, arrested and executed, but their memory lives on. Today not only has the White Rose become important to Germans, but it is internationally known. This is in part thanks to “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” the Oscar-nominated film that focuses on the youngest member of the White Rose, Sophie (only 21 when she died) and her brother Hans. There have also been several books, including Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, and numerous web sites.

Part of the initial inspiration for the activities of the White Rose came from a series of sermons by August von Galen, Catholic bishop of Münster, in which he denounced Aryan racism and the Nazi euthanasia program that resulted in the killing of members of society whom the Nazis regarded as unfit or unproductive.

“These are men and women, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters!” said Bishop von Galen. “Poor ill human beings. Maybe they are unproductive, but does that mean that they have lost the right to live?… If one adopts and puts into practice the principle that men are entitled to kill their unproductive fellows, then woe to all of us when we become aged and infirm! … Then no one will be safe: some committee or other will be able to put him on the list of ‘unproductive’ persons, who in their judgment have become ‘unworthy to live.’ And there will be no police to protect him, no court to avenge his murder and bring his murderers to justice. Who could then trust his doctor? He might decide that a patient is ‘unproductive,’ condemning him to death! One cannot even imagine the moral depravity, the universal mistrust that would spread even in the bosom of the family, if this terrible doctrine is tolerated, accepted, and put into practice. Woe to man, woe to the German people, if the divine commandment, Thou shalt not kill, which the Lord gave at Sinai amid thunder and lightning, which God our Creator wrote into man’s conscience from the beginning, if this commandment is not only violated, but violated with impunity!”

No German newspaper reported the bishop’s remarks. The Gestapo, while not daring to arrest and imprison so prominent a bishop, put von Galen under house arrest. After the war, it was revealed that Hitler had put von Galen on a list of people to be executed after the German victory in the war. Von Galen’s sermons, and their clandestine distribution far beyond Münster, helped inspire the founding of the White Rose. Although not a religious group per se, faith in God was one of the main strands uniting those involved in the White Rose.

Hans and Sophie Scholl with Cristoph Probst

Though the printings of the first few White Rose leaflets were small – obtaining the paper needed was a serious problem – the leaflets caused an immediate sensation. The Gestapo began an intensive search for the authors.

The White Rose founders and principal leaflet authors were Alexander Schmorell and Hans Scholl.

Hans Scholl, born in Ingersheim on September 22, 1918, came from a Lutheran family. Hans’s father Robert had served in World War I as a non-combatant medic because of his pacifist convictions. Active in liberal politics, in pre-Nazi times he had been a mayor. As a boy, Hans had been active in the Hitler Youth, but became disillusioned and developed anti-Nazi convictions.

Schmorell was a member of the Orthodox Church, attending the liturgy regularly. His friend Lilo Ramdohr recalls he always had a Bible with him and in various ways expressed his bond with the Orthodox Church. Schmorell was born in Orenburg, Russia, on September 16, 1917. Friends often called him by his Russian nickname, Shurik. His father Hugo was a physician – German by nationality but Russian by birth – and his mother was the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest. She died of typhus in 1919 when Alexander was only two years old. Hugo remarried the following year. His second wife, Elisabeth, though German, had grown up in Russia. In 1921, the Schmorell family plus their nanny, Feodosiya Lapschina, fled Russia for Germany to escape from the Bolsheviks and the civil war. They settled in Munich, where two more children, Erich and Natasha, were born. Within the home Russian was spoken. Elisabeth Schmorell was Catholic, as were Alexander’s siblings, but Alexander remained Orthodox, attending Orthodox church services as well as religion classes in Munich.

According to Nazi theories of race, Slavs (Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, etc.) were untermenschen, sub-human – a view no member of the Schmorell family could accept. At one point, Alexander had been part of the Scharnhorst Youth, but once the group merged with Hitler Youth he stopped attending meetings.

When Schmorell was drafted into the army and was required to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, he told his commanding officer that he could not do it, asking instead to be released from military duty. Though not discharged, remarkably he was excused from taking the oath and suffered no punishment. Before his participation in the White Rose, Schmorell had served in Czechoslovakia and in France and so knew first-hand of the crimes the occupying troops were committing.

Schmorell began his medical studies in Hamburg in 1939, but by the fall of 1940 he was studying closer to home at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. There he met Hans Scholl.

Scholl and Schmorell managed to obtain a duplicating machine – no easy achievement at the time, as such devices had to be officially registered – which they used in duplicating all the White Rose leaflets.

The first leaflet, issued in June 1942, declared that “Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes – crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure – reach the light of day? If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in the lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other of God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass – then, yes, they deserve their downfall.”

Alexander Schmorell's grave

A passage written by Schmorell in the second leaflet, issued in June 1942, contains the only known public protest by any German resistance group specifically against the Holocaust. “We wish to cite the fact that, since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in that country in a bestial manner. Here we see the most terrible crime committed against the dignity of man, a crime that has no counterpart in human history…. No crime of this dimension has ever been perpetrated against human beings.” The text blames the German people, in their apathy, for allowing such crimes to be committed by “these criminal fascists.” The leaflet declares, however, that “it is not too late to do away with this most reprehensible of all miscarriages of government, to avoid being burdened with even greater guilt…. We know exactly who our adversary is.” The text adds, “Please make as many copies of this leaflet as possible and pass them on.”

The third leaflet recognized that many people “do not see clearly how they can practice an effective opposition. They do not see any avenues open to them. We want to try to show them that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system. It is not possible through solitary withdrawal, in the manner of embittered hermits, to prepare the ground for the overturn of this ‘government’ or bring about the revolution at the earliest possible moment. No, it can be done only by the cooperation of many convinced, energetic people – people who are agreed as to the means they must use to attain their goal. We have no great number of choices as to these means. The only one available is passive resistance. The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism…”

The fourth leaflet had a theological dimension: “Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed. True, we must conduct a struggle against the National Socialist terrorist state with rational means, but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the concrete, the visible events, behind all objective, logical considerations, we find the irrational element: the struggle against the demon, against the servants of the Antichrist.

Archpriest Nikolai Artemoff of the Russian cathedral in Munich: panikheda at Alexander Schmorell's grave in 2005

“Everywhere and at all times demons have been lurking in the dark, waiting for the moment when man is weak, when of his own volition he leaves his place in the order of Creation as founded for him by God in freedom, when he yields to the force of evil, separates himself from the powers of a higher order, and after voluntarily taking the first step, he is driven on to the next and the next at a furiously accelerating rate.

“Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached the One God and who with His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.”

In the summer of 1942, Hans Scholl, Schmorell and another soon-to-be White Rose member, Willi Graf, were sent as medics to the Russian “Eastern Front.” For Schmorell it was a homecoming of sorts, the first time since early childhood that he could experience Russia for himself rather than through such writers as Dostoevsky. He told his friends that there was no way that he could shoot at any Russian, adding he would not kill Germans either. As a fluent speaker of Russian, he opened the door for his friends to make informal contact with ordinary Russian people as well as doctors and Orthodox priests. He, Scholl and Graf attended Orthodox liturgies together.

When they returned to Munich in October, the activities of the White Rose were redoubled. Several new people were involved – Christoph Probst, Sophie Scholl (Hans’s sister), Professor Kurt Huber and Willi Graf – as well as others in a supportive outer circle. Through Alexander’s friend, Lilo Ramdohr, contact was established with Falk Harnack, younger brother of Arvid Harnack, active in a resistance group in Berlin.

In January 1943, the fifth leaflet was ready. Asking if Germany was forever to be “a nation which is hated and rejected by all mankind,” the text called on its readers to dissociate themselves “from National Socialist gangsterism” and to “prove by your deeds that you think otherwise…. Cast off the cloak of indifference you have wrapped around you. Make the decision before it is too late…. Separate yourselves in time from everything connected with National Socialism. In the aftermath a terrible but just judgment will be meted out to those who stayed in hiding, who were cowardly and hesitant.” Thousands of copies were distributed all over “greater” Germany – that is, in Austria as well. Schmorell’s travels brought him to Linz, Vienna, and Salzburg.

Two weeks after the fall of Stalingrad on February 2, 1943, a sixth leaflet was produced. In it Hitler was described as “the most contemptible tyrant our people has ever endured…. For ten long years Hitler and his collaborators have manhandled, squeezed, twisted, and debased these two splendid German words – freedom and honor – to the point of nausea, as only dilettantes can, casting the highest values of a nation before swine. They have sufficiently demonstrated in the ten years of destruction of all material and intellectual freedom, of all moral substance among the German people, what they understand by freedom and honor.”

On February 18, Hans and Sophie Scholl were caught distributing the leaflet at the University in Munich. Two days later Christoph Probst was arrested. On February 22, the three were tried and executed by guillotine hours later.

A Gestapo manhunt was now underway for Schmorell. Assisted by friends, he tried to escape to Switzerland using a forged passport, but he was inadequately clothed for a winter crossing of a mountain route – he had no alternative but to return to Munich. On February 24, with the city under heavy bombardment, he was arrested after being recognized in an air-raid shelter. On April 19 he was tried and sentenced to death and executed by guillotine on July 13, 1943.

At his trial, Schmorell told the court of his work as a medic trying to save lives on the Russian front, his refusal to shoot “the enemy,” and also his earlier refusal to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler. The judge, the notorious ultra-Nazi Roland Freisler, responded by screaming, “Traitor!”

Schmorell’s body was buried behind Stadelheim Prison in the cemetery at Perlacher Forst. After the war, American forces built a base adjacent to the cemetery. Following closure of the base in the mid-1990s, the buildings, including a church, were turned over to the German government. Providentially the Russian Orthodox community was searching for a church building and was able to purchase it. As a result, Schmorell’s parish is across the street from where his earthly remains are buried, while in the church there is an icon of Schmorell.

Archbishop Mark of Berlin, head the German diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, says that in the near future Schmorell will be formally recognized as a martyr saint. In 2007, he led a pilgrimage group to Orenburg, Russia, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Schmorell’s birth, an event arranged by Igor Chramow of the Eurasia Foundation in Orenburg. During this trip, the pilgrim group met 87-year-old Nikolai Daniilovich Hamasaspian, who, while living in Munich, had been a friend of Schmorell. He had given Schmorell his Bulgarian passport for possible flight from the country. Hamasaspian recalled that Schmorell had often spoken with him about spiritual matters, since they were both Orthodox Christians.

Blessed Alexander Schmorell (1917-1943)

Katja Yurschak, a participant in the Orenburg pilgrimage in 2007, described to me in a letter how impressed she was by the comments Hamasaspian made over dinner one evening: “He said that his friend, Alexander Schmorell, loved his life and did not go around with the idea that he would become a martyr. It’s easy to forget that Alexander Schmorell, in many ways, was not so much different than most other 26-year-old young men at that time. I have always felt it easier to relate to Alexander Schmorell and the story of the White Rose because besides the story being amazing, it’s true, and in some ways, it’s easier to relate to people who are of a similar age, and who live in a similar type of world. In the bonus material for the ‘Sophie Scholl: The Final Days’ DVD, there’s an interview with Elisabeth Scholl Hartnagel, sister to Hans and Sophie. The part that especially hit me was when she said that she doesn’t like it when people call her brother and sister heroes because they tend to use it as an excuse – well, they could do what they did because they were heroes, but you can’t expect me to do anything of the same because I’m not a hero. It misses the point that it is more or less ‘ordinary’ people who work and struggle day by day to accomplish something bigger than themselves…. that the ‘cloud of witnesses’ is always around us, and that we can aspire to that in our lives. Alexander Schmorell was a young man with many talents. He had good friends and loved sculpture and music and literature. Apparently, he also was someone that young women became smitten with. All these things would point to a very bright future, but because of his faith, these alluring things did not hold him fast to this earth. Doing what was right was that much more important.”

In the letters Schmorell sent to his family from prison, he wrote about the deepening of his faith, assuring his family that, although he had been condemned to die, he was at peace, knowing he had served the truth. “This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary,” he wrote, “to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God?” In the last letter, written the day of his death, he told his family, “Never forget God!!” Just before he was taken to the guillotine, he told his lawyer, “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.” ❖

* * *

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His books include All is Grace: a biography of Dorothy Day (due out in March), Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, Ladder of the Beatitudes, Praying with Icons and Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness. A White Rose web link to visit: http://www.katjasdacha.com/whiterose/ .

The icon of Blessed Alexander Schmorell is the work of Deacon Paul Drozdowski and is located in St. Elizabeth the New Martyr Orthodox Church in Rocky Hill, New Jersey. Mounted prints can be ordered from Come and See  Icons at http://www.comeandseeicons.com/a/drz33.htm .

❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59

Dear Eric,

>> As things turned out, I’m not sure I earned the full $600 for the
first issue. Given that, however, I am wondering if it would be
possible to have an advance for the next? And, perhaps, if my work
proves to be more helpful this time around extend the trial to three
issues without further pay for the third?

Apologies for the two-day delay. We been hosting our 20-month-old granddaughter Lux and it has been labor-intensive, to say the least. What a show.

Don’t be distressed with round one in our experiment in editorial collaboration. Neither of us has ever before done anything like this — far from being in the same room we’re not even in adjacent time zones. You made my work esasier than it would have been and will probably help even more next issue as you now have a much better feel for this — and so do I.

Love,

Jim

PS I hope Amber will have check to you quickly.

* * *

The Road

by Jim Forest

Consider well the highway, the road by which you went.
– Jeremiah 31:21

One could spend long hours making a list of great human achievements, from the wheel to the great cathedrals to the discovery of DNA and the development of computers, and yet leave out one of the important attainments because it is too obvious, too ordinary and too ancient: the road.

The Ancient Appian Way south of RomeRoads are the circulatory system of the human race, and the original information highway. From times long before the written word, roads have linked house to house, town to town and city to city. Without roads there are no communities. Roads not only connect towns but give birth to them. They pass beneath all borders, checkpoints and barriers, connecting not only friend to friend but foe to foe. Far older than passports, the road is an invitation to cross frontiers, urging a start to dialogue and an end to enmity. Each road gives witness to the need we have to be in touch with other.

There was a time before roads when the world was pure wilderness, but even before Adam and Eve there would have been countless tracks and paths created by animals that moved in packs or herds, following their prey or migrating with the seasons. With the arrival of human beings, many of these pre-human pathways would have become roads for hunters, here and there providing ideal sites for encampments and villages.

Supreme collective endeavor that they are, roads reveal the cultures that made them. Roman roads tend to run straight as Roman laws, but in many cultures roads take many turns as they search out fords, avoid marshes, find higher ground, touch wells and pubs, and seek holy places.

Roads are life-giving. They provide the primary infrastructure of social life. Without them, there is no commerce. Without roads and the delivery systems they support, we would starve to death. Even more important than safeguarding weights and measures and punishing those who watered down the beer, it was the primary task of kings and queens to maintain and keep safe the highways.

Human history is the history of roads. Empires have been ranked according to the quality of their highways. Roman highways were so well built that even today, two millennia later, portions of them not only survive but remain in use.
Roads mark the way to safety. Paths tell the traveler how to get round a chasm or find a fording place in the river. They point the way through marshes and around quicksand.

If roads sometimes speed armies on the path of destruction, more often they guide pilgrims toward encounters with the sacred. They connect not only capitol cities and great cathedrals but remote churches that house the relics of saints. A saint’s relics have many times widened a road or even created a new one.

Roads not only take us toward each other but, when we need to be rescued from society, they lead us to solitude. The same road that leads to Rome is, in reverse and at its furthest reaches, a route to the desert.
Roads have a sacramental aspect: a road is a visible sign of a hidden unity. Roads are a map of human connectedness.
The road is a primary metaphor. In the Gospel Christ speaks of choosing the narrow path rather than the broad highway. Early Christians called themselves “followers of the way.”

The road has often been a place of religious breakthroughs: Two disciples walked with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, unaware of who he was. Later they took the same road back to Jerusalem where they related how Christ revealed himself to them in the breaking of the bread.

Paul – Christianity’s first great pilgrim – encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. Traversing the highways of the Roman Empire, Paul became one of history’s great men of the road.
Old roads still exist, in some cases quite visible and still in use, in some hidden under modern highways, in other cases grassy pathways once again, in places hardly more than faint indentations in the soil.

The old pilgrim road from Winchester to Canterbury is in turn all of these. A road as old as England, some parts are now rarely walked while other sections have become major motorways. Yet, in part thanks to a steady trickle of pilgrims still making their way to the church where St. Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170, the pilgrim path still exists from end to end. In 1904 Hillaire Belloc published his book The Old Road in which he managed to stitch together the road’s fragments into a continuous whole, which he himself walked in one of his many acts of pilgrimage.

One of the pilgrims of recent years, Shirley du Boulay, walked from Winchester to Canterbury in the early nineties and has left us one of the best contemporary memoirs of pilgrimage, The Road to Canterbury. Old roads, she writes, “are hallowed by time and the footsteps of men and animals. … We respond to old roads as to old buildings. Even their names – Watling Street, Ermine Street, the Fosse Way, the Maiden Way, Stane Street – echo in the imagination. I remember as a child being told, as we walked the Berkshire Downs, that we were on a Roman Road called Icknield Street. I remember too my pride thereafter in recognizing a long straight road as Roman…. A road does not just appear. It is the fruit of long years of trial and error. It is the supreme collective endeavor, a long experiment in which the individual can only be subsumed.”

It’s a special feeling walking an old road. The pilgrim may see no one else behind or ahead and yet be profoundly aware of not being alone. Hundreds of thousands of others have passed this way, generation after generation. At times the multi-generational river of travelers seems almost visible. If a file of medieval pilgrims were to appear before us on small horses, Chaucer himself among them, it would hardly be surprising.

Among those who walked or rode before us, not all were pilgrims heading toward a shrine. But many were, and even those on more prosaic errands may have traveled with the God-alert attitude of a pilgrim. Many were people aware that each step they took was an act of prayer. Roads that have been intensively used by people at prayer seem afterward to hold a rumor of prayer. The road itself becomes a thin place.

One of the celebrators of the road was the Oxford don, J.R.R. Tolkien, through whom an invented history of Middle Earth made its way into the modern world. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are celebrations of roads. For Tolkien it wasn’t roads in the plural but simply The Road, singular. However many intersections, however many forks along the way, however many rarely walked paths reach out from it, all the tracks human beings walk are connected and form a single system, like the body’s capillary system through which a single river of blood makes its way away from the heart to the remotest cell and back again.
Tolkien’s Bilbo sang the song of the road as he made his first step along a path that led at last to the edge of death in his encounter with a dragon. Bilbo’s heir, Frodo, sang it as he stepped out the door of his snug burrow on his way to overthrow a kingdom of evil, though at the time all he was aware of was his hope of delivering a magic ring to a place of safety: Rivendell.
The core text of Tolkien’s tales is Bilbo and Frodo’s song that celebrates stepping out the door into the unknown without the certainty that one will ever see one’s home again: The Road goes ever on and on / Down from the door where it began. / Now far ahead the Road has gone, / And I must follow, if I can, / Pursuing it with eager feet, / Until it joins some larger way / Where many paths and errands meet. / And whither then? I cannot say.

Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. This is a chapter in his book, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life (Orbis).

In Communion / Summer 2010 / issue 57

Salt of the Earth: An Orthodox Christian Approach to Peacemaking

by Jim Forest

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.” This verse from St. Matthew’s Gospel comes just after the Beatitudes.

But how many of us want to be become like salt? Perhaps we ought to advise Jesus that it’s time to revise the Sermon on the Mount? “Dear Lord, we revere your every word, but couldn’t you use more attractive metaphors? How about, ‘You are the sugar of the earth, but if the sugar should lose its sweetness, it is tossed out the doors and trodden under foot by men’?”

Living in a sugar-addicted world, surely sugar would be a much more welcome term for modern people. Salt is bitter. Sugar is far more appealing.

But for the time being we are stuck with the Gospel Christ gave us rather than the one we might write ourselves. He tells his followers that we are intended to be like salt, a substance normally used in small amounts.

Salt was more valued by our ancestors. In commentaries on this passage, the Church Fathers stress the value of salt as a preservative and thus a life-saving substance. “Salt preserves meat from decaying into stench and worms,”says Origen. “It makes meat edible for a longer period.”

St. John Chrysostom comments on the salt metaphor in these words:

It is a matter of absolute necessity that he commands all this. Why must you be salt? Jesus says in effect: “You are accountable not only for your own life but also for that of the entire world. I am sending you not to one or two cities, nor to ten or twenty, not even to one nation, as I sent the prophets. Rather I am sending you to the entire earth, across the seas, to the whole world, to a world fallen into an evil state.” For by saying, “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus signifies that all human nature has “lost its taste,” having become rotten through sin. For this reason, you see, he requires from his disciples those character traits that are most necessary and useful for the benefit of all.

There is a great deal of salt in the Gospel, and not much sugar.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ identifies peacemakers as God’s own children, but peacemaking is often a bitter, salt-like undertaking. To stand against hatred and killing in time of war (and when is it not time of war?) is no sweet task. One is likely to be regarded as naive, if not unpatriotic, if not a traitor.

Yet at every service, Orthodox Christians hear the challenge: “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” We begin the Liturgy with an appeal to God not just for a private peace or the peace of our family or the peace of the parish community or the peace of our neighborhood or the peace of our city or the peace of our nation, but “for the peace of the whole world and the union of all.” The Litany of Peace draws our attention to the world-embracing mission of the Church. We are, as St. John Chrysostom said, “accountable not only for [our] own life but also for that of the entire world.”

Prayer is not simply a request that God do something or give something. It is a summons to responsibility. What I ask God to do implies a willingness on my part to participate in God’s answer to my prayer. If I am unwilling to help in doing what I ask God to do, can it even be thought of as prayer? Why would God do at my request what I refuse to do? We are talking then not only about what we ask God to do but what we are asking God to equip us to do. If we ask for peace, the peace of the whole world, then we must be willing to become people actively doing whatever we can that contributes to the peace of the world.

Consider three key words: Orthodox, Christian and peace.

Often the word “orthodox” is used as a synonym for rigidity. Not often is it understood in its real sense: the true way to give praise, and also true belief. Attach it to the word “Christian” and it becomes a term describing a person who is trying to live according to the Gospel. He may have far to go, but this is the direction he is trying to take. “To be an Orthodox Christian,” said Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “is to attempt to live a Christ-centered life. We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

To be an Orthodox Christian means belonging to the Orthodox Church. It is not possible to follow Christ and remain alone. I am part of a vast, time-spanning community of people with a collective memory that goes back as far as Adam and Eve. It is a community that includes the Church Fathers, whose words we are encouraged to read.

It is also a Church of Councils. We hold ourselves accountable to the results of those councils even though they met many centuries ago. This means not letting my own opinions or those of my peers take charge of my faith. This requires guarding myself from the various ideologies that dominate the world I live in.

We are also a Church of saints. Day by day we remember them. We bear their names. We call on them for help. We remember what they did and sometimes what they said. We have icons of some of them in our churches and homes.

Attention to the Church Fathers and the saints can be a bewildering experience. For example we discover one Church Father showers the highest praise on marriage while another regards marriage as a barely tolerable compromise for those unable to embrace the real Christian calling: celibate monastic life. It can be disconcerting to discover that on various questions different Church Fathers may have different ideas or different emphases or just plain disagree.

Or we look at the saints and find one who was martyred for refusing to be a soldier, then the next day discover a saint who was a hero on the battlefield. Or we read about a saint who wore the rich clothing of a prince and then find another saint whose only clothing was his uncut beard. Here is a saint who was a great scholar while there is a saint who was a holy fool. Here is a saint who raced to the desert, while over there is a saint who refused to leave the city and was critical of those who did. Each saint poses a challenge and each saint raises certain questions and even certain problems. The puzzle pieces don’t always fit. We discover that neither the Church Fathers nor the saints on the calendar are a marching band, all in step and playing in perfect harmony.

Devotion to the saints solves some problems and raises others. In the details of their lives, they march in a thousand different directions. They also made mistakes. They were not saints every minute of every day. Like us, they had sins to confess. But their virtues overwhelm their faults. In different ways, each saint gives us a window for seeing Christ and his Gospel more clearly.

To be an Orthodox Christian means, as St. Paul says, that we are no longer Greek or Jew. Nationality is secondary. It is not the national flag that is placed on the altar but the Gospel. For us, even though we find ourselves in an Orthodox Church divided on national or jurisdictional lines, it means we are no longer American or Russian or Egyptian or Serbian. Rather we are one people united in baptism and faith whose identity and responsibility includes but goes beyond the land where we were born or the culture and mother tongue that shaped us.

On to the next word: peace. This is a damaged word. It’s like an icon so blackened by candle smoke that the image is completely hidden. “Peace” is a word that has been covered with a lot of smoke from the fires of propaganda, politics, ideologies, war and nationalism. In Soviet Russia there were those omnipresent slogans proclaiming peace while the Church was often obliged to take part in state-organized and state-scripted “peace” events. As a boy growing up in New Jersey, it was almost the same situation. “Peace is our profession” was the slogan of the Strategic Air Command, whose apocalyptic task — fighting nuclear war — was on stage center in the film “Doctor Strangelove.” In more recent years, there was a nuclear missile christened “The Peacemaker.”

Not only governments but peace groups have damaged the word “peace.” Anti-war groups often reveal less about peace than about anger, alienation and even hatred. It’s always a surprise to find a peace group that regards unborn children as being among those whose lives need to be protected.

In wartime talk of peace can put you on thin ice. I recently heard a story that dates back to the first Gulf War. Three clergymen were being interviewed on television. Two of them insisted that the war was a good and just war and had God’s blessing. The third opened his Bible and read aloud the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers Love your enemies ” But he was cut short by a shout from the angry pastor next to him: “That’s not relevant now! We’re at war!”

War does this to us. Parts of the Gospel are simply abandoned. They are seen as temporarily irrelevant, an embarrassment to the patriotic Christian. “Peace” is put in the deep freeze, a word to be thawed out after the war is over. Thus the salt loses it savor and sugar takes its place.

Part of our job is to clean words like “peace.” It’s a work similar to icon restoration. Otherwise it will be hard to understand the Gospel or the Liturgy and impossible to translate the Gospel and the Liturgy into daily life.

Peace is one of the characteristics of the Kingdom of God compressed into a single word. Consider how often and in what significant ways Christ uses the word “peace” in the Gospel: “And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it.” “And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!'” “And he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.'” “And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'” “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!'” “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!” “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” His greeting after the resurrection is, “Peace be with you.” In Mark’s Gospel, once again we come upon the metaphor of salt: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

In the Slavic liturgical tradition, the custom is to sing the Beatitudes while the Gospel Book is carried in procession through the church. Why? Because the Beatitudes are a short summary of the Gospel. These few verses describe a kind of ladder to heaven, starting with poverty of spirit and ascending to readiness to suffer for Christ and at last to participate in the Paschal joy of Christ. Near the top we come to the words, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Christ’s peace is not passive nor has it anything to do with the behavior of a coward or of the person who is polite rather than truthful. Christ says, in Matthew’s Gospel: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He means the sword metaphorically, as Luke makes clear in his version of the same passage: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” To live truthfully rather than float with the tide means most of the time to swim against the tide, risking penalties if not punishment for doing so. Christ had, and still has, opponents. Christ’s words and actions often brought his opponents’ blood to a boil. Think of his words of protest about the teachings of the Pharisees who laid burdens on others they would not carry themselves. Think of him chasing the money changers from the Temple. No one was injured, but God’s lightning flashed in the Temple courtyard.

Jesus speaks the truth, no matter how dangerous a task that may be. He gives us an example of spiritual and verbal combat. But his hands are not bloodstained. Think about the fact that Christ killed no one. Neither did he bless any of his followers to kill anyone. There are many ways in which Christ is unique. This is one of them. His final miracle before his crucifixion is to heal the injury of a temple guard whom Peter had wounded. He who preached the love of enemies took a moment to heal an enemy while on his way to the Cross.

In the early centuries, Christians got into a lot of trouble for their attitude toward the state. You get a sense of what that was like in this passage from second-century hieromartyr, St. Justin:

From Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.

The big problem for early Christians, a problem that so often got them into trouble, was their refusal to regard any ruler as a god. This doesn’t mean simply a ruler who claims to be a god, but the persistent tendency of so many rulers down to the present day to behave as gods and expect to be treated that way. Christians were obedient members of society in every way they could be without disobeying God, but were prepared to suffer even the most cruel death rather than place obedience to Caesar before obedience to God.

While eventually the baptismal requirements of the Church were relaxed, it was once the case that those who did not renounce killing, whether as a soldier or judge, could not be baptized. It is still the case that those who have killed another human being, even in self defense or by accident, are excluded from serving at the altar. Presumably this would also bar anyone whose words incite others to kill.

What’s the problem? Killing in war is often awarded with medals. Aren’t soldiers only doing their duty, however horrible it may be? Is there not virtue in their deeds, however bloody? I am reminded of an interview with an American soldier in Iraq that I heard on television recently: “A part of your soul is destroyed in killing someone else.” He might have said, but didn’t, that a part of your soul is wounded when you kill another. The Church looks for ways to heal such wounds.

Christ is not simply an advocate of peace or an example of peace. He is peace. To want to live a Christ-like life means to want to participate in the peace of Christ. Yes, we may fail, as we fail in so many things, but we must not give up trying.

How do we give a witness to Christ’s peace, especially in time of war? There are at least seven aspects of doing this.

The first is love of enemies. Love is another damaged word. It has been sentimentalized. It has come to mean a nice feeling we have toward a person whom we enjoy seeing and being with. The biblical meaning of the word is different. Christ calls on his followers to love their enemies. If you understand love as a euphoric feeling or pleasant sentiment, fulfilling this commandment is impossible. But if you understand love as doing what you can to protect the life and seek the salvation of a person or group whom we fear or despise, that’s very different.

Jesus links love of enemies with prayer for them. Without prayer, love of enemies is impossible. One of the saints who gave special emphasis to this theme was the 20th century monk St. Silouan of the Holy Mountain. Silouan’s stress may have its roots in the fact that, before becoming a monk, he nearly killed another young man. Not long afterward, he went to Mount Athos. Much of his teaching later in life centered on love of enemies. “He who does not love his enemies,” he insisted, “does not have God’s grace.”

The second aspect is doing good to enemies. Jesus teaches his followers, “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” (Luke 6:28)

Jesus’ teaching about a merciful response to enemies was not new doctrine. We find in the Mosaic Law: “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under a burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it.” (Ex 23:4-5)

In his letter to the Church in Rome, St. Paul elaborates:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by doing so you will reap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Christ’s teaching to do good to enemies is often viewed as unrealistic, but in fact it is a teaching full of common sense. Unless we want to turn the world into a cemetery, we must search for opportunities through which we can demonstrate to an opponent our longing for an entirely different kind of relationship. An adversary’s moment of need or crisis can provide that opening.

The third aspect is turning the other cheek. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other also.” (Mt.5:39; Luke 6:29) Contrast this with the advice provided in the average film or novel, where the standard message might be described as “The Gospel According to Hollywood.” This pseudo-gospel’s basic message is: If you are hit, hit back. Let your blow be harder than the one you received. In fact, as we saw in the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003, you needn’t be hit at all in order to strike others. Provocation, irritation, or the fear of attack is warrant enough.

“Turning the other cheek” is widely seen as an especially suspect Christian doctrine, an ethic that borders on masochism. Many would say it is Jesus at his most unrealistic: “Human beings just aren’t made that way.” For a great many people the problem can be put even more simply: “Turning the other cheek isn’t manly. Only cowards turn the other cheek.”

But what cowards actually do is run and hide. Standing in front of a violent man, refusing to get out of his way, takes enormous courage. It is manly and often proves to be the more sensible response. It’s also a way of giving witness to confidence in the reality and power of the resurrection.

The fourth aspect is forgiveness. Nothing is more fundamental to Jesus’ teaching than his call to forgiveness: giving up debts, letting go of grievances, pardoning those who have harmed us, not despairing of the other. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we are telling God that we ask to be forgiven only insofar as we ourselves have extended forgiveness to others: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

How hard it is to forgive! For we are wounded and the wounds often last a lifetime; they even spill across generations. As children, as parents, as husbands or wives, as families, as workers, as jobless people, as church members, as members of certain classes or races, as voters, as citizens of particular states, we have been violated, made a target, lied to, used, abandoned. Sins, often quite serious sins, have been committed against us. We may feel damaged, scarred for life, stunted. Others we love may even have died of evil done to them.

But we are not only victims. In various ways we are linked to injuries others have suffered and are suffering. If I allow myself to see how far the ripples extend from my small life, I will discover that not only in my own home but on the far side of the planet there are people whose sorrows in life are partly due to me. Through what I have done or failed to do, through what my community has done or failed to do, there are others whose lives are more wretched than they might have been. There are those dying while we feast.

But we prefer to condemn the evils we see in others and excuse the evils we practice ourselves. We fail to realize that those who threaten us often feel threatened by us, and may have good reasons for their fears. The problem is not simply a personal issue, for the greatest sins of enmity are committed en masse, with very few people feeling any personal responsibility for the destruction they share in doing or preparing. The words of Holocaust administrator Adolph Eichmann, “I was only following orders,” are among humanity’s most frequently repeated justifications for murder.

The fifth aspect is breaking down the dividing wall of enmity. In Christ enmity is destroyed, St. Paul wrote, “for he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of enmity that he might create in himself one new person in place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing enmity to an end.” (Eph 2:14-16)

Walls would have been on Paul’s mind at the time; in the same letter he mentions that he is “a prisoner for the Lord.” His words of guidance were sent from within the stone walls of a prison.

Consider Christ’s response to the centurion who asked him to heal a sick servant. It must have been hard for his more zealous disciples to see Jesus responding positively to the appeal of an officer in an occupation army and galling to hear him commenting afterward, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” In this brief encounter, the dividing wall of enmity collapsed.

We live in a world of walls. Competition, contempt, repression, racism, nationalism, violence and domination: all these are seen as normal and sane. Enmity is ordinary. Self and self-interest form the centering point in many lives. We tend to be a fear-driven people. Love and the refusal to center one’s life in enmity are dismissed as naive, idealistic, even unpatriotic, especially if one reaches out constructively to hated minorities or national enemies.

Many wars are in progress at the moment. The cost in money, homes destroyed, damaged sanity, in lives and injuries is phenomenal. So many deaths, and mainly non-combatants — children, parents and grandparents, the very young, the very old, the ill, all sorts of people. Countless hideous wounds, visible and hidden. There are also less tangible costs, spiritually, psychologically, for we have become a people who make war and preparations for war a major part of our lives. We hear of many people who expect to die a violent death and who live in a constant state of “low grade” depression. Fear and despair are widespread. Stress-relieving pills are selling better than ever in today’s world.

The sixth aspect is nonviolent resistance to evil. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil.” When Peter used violence to defend Jesus, he was instantly admonished, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” For several hundred years following the resurrection, the followers of Jesus were renowned for their refusal to perform military service. But for many centuries, Christians have been as likely as any others to take up the sword and often use it in appalling ways.

The refusal to kill others can be a powerful witness, yet Christian life is far more than the avoidance of evil. It is searching for ways to combat evil without using methods that inevitably will result in the death of the innocent.

Responding to evil with its own weapons, even with the best of motives, often results in actions which mimic those of the enemy, or even outdo the enemy’s use of abhorrent methods. When Nazi forces bombed cities, there was profound revulsion in Britain and the United States, but in the end the greatest acts of city destruction were carried out by Britain and the United States.

Yet what is one to do? Christians cannot be passive about those events and structures which cause innocent suffering and death.

For centuries men and women have been searching for effective ways of both protecting life and combating evil. It is only in the past hundred years, because of movements associated with such people as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day, that nonviolent struggle has become a recognized alternative to passivity, on the one hand, and violence on the other.

Such acts of nonviolent protest are far from unknown in the Orthodox Church. One powerful example occurred in Constantinople in the year 842 when, opposing the iconoclast Emperor Leo V, a thousand monks took part in an icon-bearing procession in the capital city. They were exhibiting images of Christ and the saints which, had they obeyed the emperor, should have long before been destroyed. Their act of civil disobedience risked severe punishment. Iconographers had been tortured, mutilated and sent into exile. Thousands of icons had been destroyed. The death of the emperor later that year was widely seen as heaven’s judgment. In 843 his widow Theodora convened a Church Council which reaffirmed the place of the icon in Christian life. The first Sunday of Lent was set aside to celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

There is one last element of peacemaking: It is aspiring to a life of recognizing Jesus. In his teaching about the Last Judgment, Christ tells us, “Truly, I say to you, what you did it to one of the least of these, you did to me.”

Occasionally the question is raised: “Why are we judged together and not one by one as we die?” It is because our life is far from over when we die. Our acts of love, and failures to love, continue to have consequences until the end of history. What Adam and Eve did, what Moses did, what Plato did, what Pilate did, what the Apostles did, what Caesar did, what Hitler did, what Martin Luther King did, what Mother Maria Skobtsova did, what you and I have done — all these lives, with their life-saving or murderous content, continue to have consequences for the rest of history. What you and I do, and what we fail to do, will matter forever.

It weighs heavily on many people that Jesus preached not only heaven but hell. There are many references to hell in the Gospels, including in the Sermon on the Mount. How can a loving God allow a place devoid of love?

A response to this question that makes sense to me is one I first heard in a church in Prague in the Communist period. God allows us to go wherever we are going. We are not forced to love. Communion is not forced on us. We are not forced to recognize God’s presence. It is all an invitation. We can choose. We can choose life or death. Perhaps we can even make the choice of heaven while in hell. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis has a tour bus leaving daily from hell to heaven. But the bus is never full and tends to return with as many passengers as it took on the trip out of hell. Heaven is too painful, its light too intense, its edges too sharp, for those who are used to the dullness of hell. In fact the older we are, the more we live by old choices, and defend those choices, and make ideologies, even theologies, out of our choices, and finally become slaves to them.

We can say, not just once but forever, as Peter once said of Jesus, “I do not know the man.” There are so many people about whom we can say, to our eternal peril, “I do not know the man,” to which we can add that he is worthless and has no one to blame for his troubles but himself, that his problems aren’t our business, that he is an enemy, that he deserves to die — whether of frostbite or violence matters little.

As St. John Chrysostom said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.” If I cannot find the face of Jesus in the face of those who are my enemies, if I cannot find him in the unbeautiful, if I cannot find him in those who have the wrong ideas, if I cannot find him in the poor and the defeated, how will I find him in bread and wine, or in the life after death? If I do not reach out in this world to those with whom he has identified himself, why do I imagine that I will want to be with him, and them, in heaven? Why would I want to be for all eternity in the company of those whom I despised and avoided every day of my life?

Christ’s Kingdom would be hell for those who avoided peace and devoted their lives to division. But heaven is right in front of us. At the heart of what Jesus says in every act and parable is this: Now, this minute, we can enter the Kingdom of God. This very day we can sing the Paschal hymn: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tomb he has given life!”

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Jim Forest, international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is the author of many books, including The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life and Ladder of the Beatitudes. The text is based on a lecture given at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Crestwood, New York.

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How St. Telemachus of Rome ended gladiatorial combat

Honorius, who inherited the empire of Europe, put a stop to the gladiatorial combats which had long been held at Rome. The occasion of his doing so arose from the following circumstance. A certain man of the name of Telemachus had embraced the ascetic life. He had set out from the East and for this reason had repaired to Rome. There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and stepping down into the arena, endeavored to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another. The spectators of the slaughter were indignant, and inspired by the mad fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death. When the admirable emperor [Honorius] was informed of this, he recognized Telemachus as a victorious martyr, and put an end to that impious spectacle.

— Theodoret of Cyrus (393-457); The Ecclesiastical History, book 5, chapter 26

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Fall 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 54

Fifty issues of In Communion

By Jim Forest

“Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”

– John 5:56-58

In Communion isn’t fifty years old, only an adolescent thirteen, but we are, as of this issue, fifty issues old.

Fifty is a number that provides a moment to express surprise – those of us who launched the journal were far from confident it would last this long – and also gratitude.

In Holland, where the journal has been edited since its founding, fifty is a number that has a special resonance due to a local custom rooted in a Gospel verse. Jesus was challenged by his critics for speaking of Abraham as someone he knew personally: “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” The Dutch have taken this to imply that once a person is fifty, perhaps he or she is old enough to have seen Abraham.

Dutch fiftieth birthday parties are celebrated in ways that underscore the possibility. In anticipation of the upcoming event, a special Abraham or Sarah cookie is ordered from a local bakery. Using hand-carved wooden molds that in some bakeries are many generations old, spiced dough is pressed into the shape either of Abraham or Sarah. Almonds are used for decoration. Once baked, the cookie is put in a special box, wrapped and ribboned, to be solemnly presented to the one who has become old enough to see the biblical couple who hosted the three divinely-sent angels under the oak of Mamre.

It’s a large cookie – big enough to be broken into enough pieces so that everyone at the party has at least a taste. (Perhaps we need to order an Abraham cookie and have a little In Communion party sometime in the coming weeks?)

Why did we start In Communion?

From the beginning, it was obvious that the Orthodox Peace Fellowship needed an accessible way of sharing some aspects of the Orthodox tradition that have long been neglected. In the early years this was done on a smaller scale, a publication of much fewer pages, modestly dubbed The Occasional Paper. Indeed it was very occasional, perhaps two thin issues a year. Only in 1993 did we have enough economic support to move to a quarterly schedule and make the journal more substantial and give it its present name.

From the start, we had a fairly clear idea of what we wanted to do.

We Orthodox have remembered how to celebrate the Liturgy in a way that astonishes Christians of other churches; we refuse to make time-saving economies in the way we worship God. We don’t welcome clocks in our churches.

But not everything the apostolic Church meant to pass on to us has been given similar care and attention.

Over the centuries, many Orthodox Christians have made their peace with war in a way our early Christian forebears could not have imagined and would find scandalous. We are also much less noted than they were for paying attention to the needs of poor, neglected and abused members of the society we live in. Too often we are turned in on ourselves, not infrequently along ethnic lines. There are Orthodox parishes in which it must be embarrassing to hear Paul’s words read aloud about the followers of Christ being “neither Jew nor Greek.”

Our mission was not to invent anything, not to propose any innovations, but to jog our own memories, and the memories of our fellow Orthodox Christians, about what had been forgotten. It is mainly a job of dusting off what is already there. So many of the writings of the Church Fathers about our social obligations had been placed in boxes and stored in the Church’s attic, available to scholars but seldom heard of by the ordinary Orthodox believer. So many of the stories of those we see on icons in any parish church are hardly known to those who kiss those icons.

How surprised we are to discover our own past. There were saints who gave up their lives rather than kill in war? St. Basil the Great founded a “city of mercy” to care for the homeless, the abused and the sick that was regarded as one of the wonders of the world? St. John Chrysostom said we would not find Christ in the chalice unless we first found him in the beggar we encountered on the way to church?

If much has been forgotten, then In Communion should be a way of helping resurrect buried memories of forms of sanctity and patristic teaching that are desperately needed in our own day.

And why was the journal named In Communion? It was a suggestion of one of the first members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship’s advisory board, Fr. Thomas Hopko, now retired but in those days dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

“My task,” he wrote in the first issue of In Communion, “is not to decide whether or not I will be in relationship with you but to realize that I am in communion with you: my life is yours, and your life is mine. Without this, there is no way that we are going to be able to carry on.”

A revised, expanded, all-color edition of Jim Forest’s book, Praying With Icons, has just been published by Orbis Books.

Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50

The Original Oneness of Adam & Eve

by Jim Forest

While browsing in our parish bookshop not long ago, I happened to notice in a rack of cards a reproduction of an image of Eve being lifted by Christ out of Adam’s body – a colorful miniature that comes from a 13th-century illuminated manuscript. Adam sleeps peacefully while Eve is wide awake. The right arm of Jesus suggests his power to create and also offers a sign of blessing, while his left arm grasps Eve’s wrists in a gesture that reminds me of a midwife pulling a child from the womb. Jesus contemplates both Eve and Adam with a expression of wordless love.

This special moment, recounted in the Book of Genesis, was a much-loved subject of Byzantine and medieval art. In churches, it is usually part of a cycle of wall images that begin with the creation of the cosmos and end with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. In each scene, Christ is the key figure. Though not yet incarnate, we see him as the man he was to become through the body of Mary. The Church Fathers saw the Second Person of the Holy Trinity as the one especially involved in the work of bringing matter into existence and shaping it into the vast array of life forms, with Adam and then Eve at the pinnacle of created beings.

While I found this illumination an especially fine version, just about any of the images that have to do with Adam and Eve fascinate me. Among the primary stories of the human race, there are few more primary than those revealing what our ancestors imagined the first human beings to be like. Remarkably, those whose memory shaped the Bible saw Eve’s creation as coming later than Adam’s. Her being called into being is the final great event in the creation narrative.

Such a story has almost nothing to do with what, these days, we think of as history. In fact we know very little about the first human beings. Much that we think we know is speculative. But the Adam and Eve story is profound. It stresses an original oneness in Adam and Eve, the two of them mysteriously sharing one body until the Eve is drawn out of Adam.

According to Genesis, before the Fall, Adam and Eve lived in a borderless paradise. They were not in competition with each other.

Was Eve made from one of Adam’s ribs? So the most familiar English translation of Genesis has it, but biblical translators point out that the Hebrew word in question, tsela, also means “side.” In that reading, Eve was one side of Adam. What is clear in either reading is that, before Eve emerged, she was an integral part of Adam. Adam carried Eve like a secret. Thus Adam’s maleness is coincident with his separation from Eve and the revelation of her femaleness. She is his other half, as he was her other half. Only in their complementarity, their actual oneness, are they whole. Both equally bear the image of God, and both equally bear the calling to acquire the divine likeness. As St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote: “One who is made in the image of God has the task of becoming what he is.”

At the same time there is the elusive but compelling memory that has long haunted the human mind of a primordial Eden – a paradise in which there was no conflict, no murder, no war. After Eve’s creation, man and woman live together in an unwalled oneness, a relationship with no trace of enmity. (The first murder, Cain killing Abel, occurs only after Adam and Eve have been expelled from Eden.)

But then comes the Fall. Eve is successfully tempted by a satanic serpent, Adam is tempted by Eve, and both eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. Suddenly they discover themselves not only naked but in a world in which walls are erupting all around them. In place of unity comes blame – Adam blaming Eve, Eve blaming the serpent, and neither repenting or appealing for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Ancient iconographic images of Adam and Eve often show them on either side of the forbidden tree, a wall-like barrier isolating them from each other. The unity they originally had is not altogether lost – it remains at the roots of human identity – but no longer is our original unity effortless. Men and women will in the future commit countless sins against each other. Men will even justify their domination over women as part of the punishment for Eve’s – not Adam’s – sin in Paradise.

Most of us live a long way from Eden. We live in a world in which “the war of the sexes” is the oldest war of all. The ongoing combat between men and women was touched on by a recent New Yorker cartoon. We see a newly married couple standing side by side next to a huge wedding cake. Each is holding a plate with a piece of the cake, while the bride says to the groom, “Your piece is bigger.” One wonders if this marriage will last through its first anniversary. Husband and wife are focused not on each other but on invisible scales: who is getting the better deal? At least, one assumes, the two cake-eaters have a carefully written prenuptial contract that will make their divorce slightly less complex.

Even so, it remains a great honor to be among the descendants of the first man and the first woman. An ancient Jewish commentary reveals our royal status by posing a question: Why was there only one Adam and only one Eve? The answer the rabbis gave is so that no human being could regard himself or herself as being of higher descent than anyone else.

The basic fact about all human beings is that we all belong to exactly the same family tree. More than that, we all bear equally the image of God and all bear the same calling to recover the divine likeness.

The human race has been far from paradise throughout known history. Who can guess in round numbers how many have been murdered down through the centuries? Most of the killing has been done by the sons of Adam, but often enough on behalf of Eve, if not with her fervent encouragement. These days, sadly, the daughters of Eve are increasingly joining the armed men on the world’s battlefields.

For Nancy and me lately, this image of Adam and Eve has acquired another level of meaning. On the last day of October, one of Nancy’s kidneys was removed from her body and implanted in mine. After five years of kidney illness and twenty-one months of dialysis, I now have a healthy kidney, my wife’s gift.

And what a gift it is. Renal failure had come on so gradually that I was barely aware of how sick I was even on the eve of the transplant. I knew in theory that each year on dialysis meant a life likely to be shortened by three years (which even so beats the rapid death caused by kidney illness without dialysis).

Now that the transplant has happened and has been a success, I suddenly realize just how much impact the illness had on me. I feel a little like Rip van Winkel waking up from a multi-year nap. Even in these first few weeks, while still recovering from surgery, I find I tire much less easily than was the case a month earlier. I was often sleeping eight-and-a-half or nine hours a night, and even then prying myself out of bed with a mental crowbar. Now seven-and-a-half hours is more than enough. The creatinine level in my blood, a key marker of renal failure, has fallen from 900, just before the transplant, to 120 or so. There are other markers. Food tastes are more vivid. The world seems brighter, colors more intense. I find myself looking at familiar things with an Adam-like sense of surprise. A friend told me how her brother, after receiving a donated kidney, felt like he was seeing the sky for the first time in ages. That’s a nice way of putting it.

All this is a gift from my wife, a daughter of Eve, from out of her own side.

Nancy and I have put this image of the oneness of Adam and Eve among the icons before which we pray morning and evening. It serves as a visual reminder of what God intends for man and woman: a mysterious unwalled oneness in which neither dominates the other but rather both collaborate – a partnership in which neither supplants the other and neither is complete without the other. This is the daily two-way traffic between the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve, a life of self-giving love.

Jim Forest’s most recent books are The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life (Orbis) and a children’s book, Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press). He and Nancy have an online journal about the kidney transplant: A Tale of Two Kidneys: www.ataleof2kidneys.blogspot.com.

 

From the Winter 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 48

A Saint Who Stopped an Execution

by Jim Forest

St. Nicholas of Myra was born in about 280 AD in the town of Patara within the Province of Lycia, Asia Minor. His life was later embroidered with many legends, yet there are several stories about him which seem solidly historical.

One of these relates how, while Nicholas was visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from Myra came to him with urgent news: the ruler of the city, Eustathius, had condemned three innocent men to death. Nicholas set out immediately for home. Reaching the outskirts of the city, he asked those he met on the road if they had news of the prisoners. Informed that their execution was to be carried out that morning, he hurried to the executioner’s field. Here he found a large crowd of people and the three men kneeling with their arms bound, awaiting the fatal blow. Nicholas passed through the crowd, took the sword from the executioner’s hands and threw it to the ground, then ordered that the condemned men be freed from their bonds. His authority was such that the executioner left his sword where it fell. Later Eustathius confessed his sin and sought the saint’s forgiveness. Nicholas absolved him, but only after the ruler had undergone a period of repentance.

In the late 19th century, when Russians were embroiled in controversy regarding capital punishment, the artist Ilya Repin made his comment with the painting reproduced on the cover. Having studied ancient icons in which St. Nicholas is shown grasping the sword with his bare hand, Repin reproduced the image, but in a realistic modern style in which each face reveals various altitudes regarding the bishop’s brave intervention – the shocked astonishment of the executioner, the pious resignation of the prisoner on his knees who is not yet aware his life has been saved, and the appeal of a red-cloaked flunky representing the governor, no doubt pointing out that Nicholas would do well not to interfere.

In this issue of In Communion, several authors reflect on aspects of the death penalty, still a punishment in many parts of the USA as it is in China, most Middle Eastern countries, regions of Africa in which Islam is dominant, and parts of Southeast Asia.

Needless to say, unlike the prisoners for whom St. Nicholas intervened, many on death row are guilty of murder. Yet knowing the disciplines of the early Church, one can safely assume Nicholas would have intervened for the guilty no less than the falsely accused. For what good is served by their killing? How is the God of mercy honored by bloodshed?

In the early Church those being prepared for baptism had to make promises regarding their future conduct. One of these was to not kill. This vow was required even of magistrates and soldiers. It is a requirement long ago abandoned and nearly forgotten, so that no one in our world is surprised when Christians take the lives of others or order others to shed blood. What a pity that we who claim to be followers of Christ give such a flawed witness to the kingdom of God.

May we live to see the death penalty abandoned. May our own efforts help speed that day.

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from the Summer 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 46

* * *

St. George the Great Martyr

True stories become legends and legends are compressed via symbols into myths. The St. George of myth was a knight in armor who fought a dragon to save a princess. The real George never saw a dragon nor did he rescue a princess in distress. We are not even sure he had a horse, possessed a sword, or was a soldier. It is possible he was a farmer – the name “George” means tiller of the soil, which explains why St. George is a patron saint of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.

A Christian convert who was born late in the third century after Christ and died early in the fourth century, George was one of the victims of the anti-Christian persecution ordered by the Emperor Diocletian that began in February of the year 303. Churches were destroyed and biblical texts burned. All Roman subjects were ordered to make ritual sacrifices to Rome’s gods. Those who refused risked loss of property and severe punishment. Many were sent into exile as slave laborers in quarries and mines in Egypt and Palestine. Thousands were tortured and many executed. Finally in 311 the attack ended. With Diocletian in retirement and the emperor Galerius critically ill and close to death, Galerius published an edict of toleration allowing Christians to restore their places of worship and to worship in their own way without interference, provided they did nothing to disturb the peace.

What made George a saint among saints was the fearless manner in which he proclaimed his faith during a period of persecution when many other Christians were hoping not to be noticed. According to one ancient account, George went to a public square and announced, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this George was arrested, tortured and finally beheaded. The probable date of his martyrdom is April 23, 303, in the town of Diospolis, later known as Lydda, in Asia Minor – Turkey as it is known today. His courageous witness led to the conversion of many and gave renewed courage to others already baptized.

In the oldest icons of St. George, he is shown dressed as a soldier and holding the cross of martyrdom.

It was only in later centuries that the dragon legend emerged. It has been told in many variations, but in its most popular form it concerns a dragon living in a lake who was worshiped by the unbaptized local people, who in their fear sacrificed their children to appease the creature. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, to be sacrificed. While going toward the dragon to meet her doom, Saint George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance. Afterward Elizabeth led the vanquished creature into the city.

According to the Legenda Aurea written by Blessed James de Voragine, the wounded dragon followed Elizabeth “as if it had been a meek beast and debonair.” Refusing a reward of treasure, George called on the local people to be baptized. The king agreed, also promising to maintain churches, honor the clergy, faithfully attend religious services, and show compassion to the poor.

– an extract from Praying with Icons (Jim Forest, Orbis Books)

Mrs. Jellyby and the Domination of Causes

by Jim Forest

Among the many memorable characters populating Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House is the formidable Mrs. Jellyby, a woman living in London who resolutely devotes every waking hour to a project in Africa that she refers to as the “Borrioboola-Gha venture.” Her goal is the resettlement of impoverished Britons among African natives, all of whom will support themselves through coffee growing. Mrs. Jellyby is convinced that no other undertaking in life is so worthwhile or would solve so many social problems, in both Africa and England, at a stroke.

A 19th century illustration from Bleak House
A 19th century illustration from Bleak House

Dickens’s interest is not in the project, however, but rather in Mrs. Jellyby, a person so wedded to her work that she has no time for her husband or their several children, with the exception of Caddy, her eldest daughter. When we meet Caddy, we see her conscripted as her mother’s secretary. Ink-spattered Caddy puts in nearly as many hours as her mother in the daily task of answering letters and sending out literature about Borrioboola-Gha. Unwilling conscript that she is, Caddy has come to hate the very word –Africa — or any phrase that has the remotest suggestion of idealistic causes. For her, “cause” is another word for the ruin of family life.

Meanwhile Mr. Jellyby is a man on the edge of suicide. Though he is still surviving his despair as the book closes, in our last glimpse of him he is resting his head despondently against a wall.

In the book’s postscript, we learn that the Borrioboola-Gha project failed after the local king sold the project’s volunteers into slavery in order to buy rum. Far from being deterred by this grim outcome, Mrs. Jellyby quickly finds another cause to occupy her time, “a mission with more correspondence than the old one,” thus providing new vistas for a permanent campaigner.

While few in the peace movement so radically neglect those in their care, unfortunately I cannot think of Mrs. Jellyby merely as a gross caricature. When my wife and I talked about her recently, we could think of several people, of both sexes, resembling her in many details: people with a certain legitimate concerns and noble goals who engage themselves so fully that their fixation wrecks havoc in the lives of those around them, driving many people they intended to influence, even their own sons and daughters, in the opposite direction.

I recall one activist who wasn’t able to attend his daughter’s wedding because he felt obliged to take part in a peace demonstration that day. Another man, more gandhian than Gandhi, also springs to mind. He was left in charge of the Manhattan office of a group called the Committee for Nonviolent Action while the staff was away protesting nuclear weapons. In their absence he nearly starved the office cat to death because he was conscientiously opposed to the domestication of animals. Whatever food that highly domesticated cat found during those austere weeks, it was not from this pacifist’s ideology-governed hand.

I wonder if the Mrs. Jellybys of this world, dedicated in theory to compassion as the bearers of utopian visions, are not at a deeper level driven by rage with those around them, perhaps especially their own families? By taking up a virtuous cause, they can punish their spouses, children and relatives with a clear conscience. After all, they are doing something entirely noble, so much more important than caring for the people they live with or are related to. Their impatience and neglect or abandonment of others around them is a necessary, even God-endorsed price of serving a higher purpose.

It is a dilemma that the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, discussed in one of his letters:

One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations. I think this is especially true when there are… elements that are not spiritually developed… There is the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence… In our acceptance of vulnerability, we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time… all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds, race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation… We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it.

[The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York; pp. 262-4]

Because of my particular life experience, I tend to think especially of the peace movement, but it hardly matters what movement it is that one belongs to: left or right, red or green, nationalist or trans-nationalist, large or small. It could be pacifism, feminism, Marxism, anarchism, vegetarianism, human rights, animal rights, some political party or one’s religion. In any case, ideology rather than love and compassion can easily become the driving force in one’s life.

Compassion, however much the word is used, does not easily thrive within the climate of movements and causes. In its place one may find a very narrow compassion focused like a spotlight on a carefully selected victim group whose needs legitimate the cause. Perhaps one of the main functions of ideology is to confine the area of compassion, so that, for example, one feels compassion for the baby seal being slaughtered for its fur but not for the man whose family may presently depend upon the fur trade; or compassion for one group of war casualties but not another; or compassion for the desperate mother posed to abort her child but not the unborn child (or vice versa)…

Cause-directed ideology also serves the function of keeping its users in a constant state of guilt and anger: guilt because one can never become the utterly dedicated person the cause requires and expects of its adherents; and anger because there are never enough people ready to join the group — and always those who either stand in opposition or don’t seem to care.

Many saints of the last hundred years would readily recognize Mrs. Jellyby and could identify her real-life counterparts. In Russia, for example, in the mid- and late-19th century there was an explosion of radical movements which, while dedicated to various social reforms, abandoned care of neighbor and relative as a bourgeois waste of time. Something similar, though not nearly so pathological, occurred in many countries in the 1960s and 70s.

No matter what the time or place, ideology draws borders: the community of Us versus the adversary, Them. We can more or less comprehend the Us community’s content and shape, although in the end it defines our shape.

In contrast, God is not comprehensible or definable. God is both unbearable light and infinite darkness.

The Church helps protect its members from ideologies and the us-versus-them way of seeing ourselves, if only by placing us in a community in which the Eucharist is at the center. Eucharistic life is something social movements generally avoid. Cause-driven movements aren’t drawn to sacramental mysteries, still less to the mystical life. In many groups dedicated to peace and justice, even ones with a religious basis, the word mysticism, if said at all, is pronounced with derision, as if to say: the true social activist has no time to be a mystic, for mysticism cannot possibly have anything to do with untying the knots in our disordered world. There is too much to be done, too many urgent needs to be met, to permit indulgence in liturgies, religious rites, penitential activities, examinations of conscience, periods of silence and withdrawal, etc. If religion is tolerated at all, it must be kept in a well-governed corner under the strict regulation of ideology and peer-group control.

This kind of movement climate, of course, remains spiritually shallow and inevitably results in many cases of burn-out — psychological and physical exhaustion that makes it impossible for the social activist to continue. In such cases burn-out might be seen as a healthy reaction to an unhealthy social situation.

How different our work for social healing would be if it were nourished by a deep spiritual life! As one of the Spanish mystics, John of the Cross, wrote:

“Let those that are great activists and think to circle the world with words and outward works note that they would bring far more profit to the Church and be far more pleasing to God if they spent even half [the time given to action] in being present with God in prayer…. Most certainly they would accomplish more with one piece of work than they now do with a thousand and do so with far less labor. For through prayer they would merit the result, and themselves be made spiritually strong. Without prayer, they would do much hammering but achieve little, even nothing at all or even cause harm.” (Spiritual Canticle, xxix, 3)

Perhaps we are at a moment in history, with many ideologies in a state of collapse, when we can imagine that a deep, disciplined spiritual life would lay a foundation for social action that would not only produce useful results but would also refresh us day by day as we seek to build up a nonviolent social order?

God is love. We move toward God through no other path than love itself. It is not a love expressed in slogans or ideologies, but actual love, love experienced in God, love that binds us to those around us, love that lets us know others not through ideas and fears but through God’s love for them: a way of seeing that transfigures social relationships.

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His books include The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell, Praying with Icons, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, and Ladder of the Beatitudes.