Tag Archives: Jim Forest

Salt of the Earth: An Orthodox Christian Approach to Peacemaking

salt“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 immediately 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 Salt is out-of-date. 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 bitter substance normally used in relatively 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 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 that St. John Chrysostom emphasized in the passage I just read to you. We are, he said, “accountable not only for [our] own life but also for that of the entire world.”

Prayer is not simply a request that God to 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. It means I don’t let my own opinions or those of my neighbors 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 nor 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. And in American, as a boy growing up in New Jersey, it was almost the same. “Peace is our profession” was the slogan of the Strategic Air Command, whose apocalyptic work was work was on stage center in the film “Doctor Strangelove.” In more recent years, there was a nuclear missile officially 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. Sadly it’s a surprise to find a peace group that regards unborn children as 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.

The single word “peace” is one of the essential characteristics of the Kingdom of God. 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 participation in the Paschal joy of Christ. Near the top of the ladder of the Beatitudes 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 time to swim against the tide and to risk 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 of others they would not carry themselves. Think of him chasing the money changers from the Temple. No one was killed or 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 mean any person 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 are never permitted to 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 are encouraged to 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 compassionate 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.” (Exodus 23:4-5)

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.” (Rom. 12:20-21)

Christ’s teaching to do good to enemies is often viewed as unrealistic. 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 US 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, Saint 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 zealot-minded 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 the 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, 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 in 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.

Yet 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 in public 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. In The Orthodox Church, 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 the other: 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.” It is a scene represented in icons in many ancient churches, though not popular today.

Occasionally the question is raised: “Why are we judged together and not one by one as we die?” It is because each person’s life is far from over when he dies. 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 Dorothy Day 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?

One response to that question which 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 makes 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 he is worthless, 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 hated 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, 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 20 November 2004 at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Crestwood, New York.

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Rescued by Christmas

by Jim Forest

What shall we offer you, O Christ, who for our sake has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by you offers you thanks. The angels offer you a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer you a virgin mother.

(Nativity Vespers)

In a culture in which a sense of the presence of God is increasingly rare, many people see Christ as a long-dead, myth-shrouded teacher who lives on only in fading memory. There are scholars busily at work trying to find out which words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament were actually said by him. Yet even skeptics celebrate Christmas, at least in a limited way. The problem of miracles doesn’t intrude, for what could be more usual than birth? If Jesus lived, he was born, and so with little or no faith in the rest of Christian doctrine we can celebrate his birth whatever our degree of faith. Pascha is more and more lost to us but at least some of the joy of Christmas remains. Perhaps in the end this feast will lead us back to faith in all its richness. We will be rescued by Christmas.

The traditional icon of the Nativity, ancient though it is, takes note of our “modern” problem. There on the lower right we find a despondent Joseph listening to a figure who represents what we might call “the voice of unenlightened reason.” As icons are so deeply silent, we are free to wonder about Joseph’s morose condition. One explanation is that he cannot quite believe what he has experienced. Divine activity intrudes into our lives in such a mundane, physical way. A woman gives birth to a child as women have been doing since Eve. Joseph has witnessed that birth and there is nothing different about it, unless it be that it occurred in abject circumstances, in a cave in which animals are kept in cold weather. Joseph has had his dreams, he has heard angelic voices, he has been reassured in a variety of ways that the child born of Mary is none other than the Awaited One, the Anointed, God’s Son. But still belief comes hard. The labor of giving birth is arduous, as we see in Mary’s reclining figure — and so is the labor to believe. Mary has completed this stage of her struggle, but Joseph still grapples with his.

The theme is not only in Joseph’s face. The rigorous black of the cave of Christ’s birth in the center of the icon represents all human disbelief, all fear, all hopelessness. In the midst of a starless night in the cave of our despair, Christ, “the Sun of Truth,” enters history having been clothed in flesh in Mary’s body. It is just as the Evangelist John said in the beginning of his Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

The Nativity icon is in sharp contrast to the sentimental imagery we are used to in western Christmas art. In the icon there is no charming Bethlehem bathed in the light of the nativity star but only a rugged mountain with a few plants. The austere mountain suggests a hard, unwelcoming world in which survival is a real battle — the world since our expulsion from Paradise.

The most prominent figure in the icon is Mary, framed by the red blanket she is resting on — the color of life, the color of blood. Orthodox Christians call her the Theotokos: God-bearer or Mother of God. Her quiet but wholehearted assent to the invitation brought to her by the Archangel Gabriel has led her to Bethlehem, making a cave at the edge of a peasant village the center of the universe. He who was distant has come near, first filling her body, now visible in the flesh.

As is usual in iconography, the main event is moved to the foreground, free of its surroundings. So the cave is placed behind rather than around Mary and her child.

The birth occurs in a cave that was being used as a stable. In fact the cave still exists in Bethlehem. Countless pilgrims have prayed there over the centuries. It no longer looks like a cave. In the fourth century, at the Emperor Constantine’s order, it was made into a chapel. At the same time, above the cave, a basilica was built.

We see in the icon that Christ’s birth is not only for us but for all creation. The donkey and the ox recall the opening verses of the Prophet Isaiah: “An ox knows its owner and a donkey its master’s manger…” They also represent “all creatures great and small,” endangered, punished and exploited by human beings. They too are victims of the Fall. Christ’s Nativity is for them as well as for us.

There is something about the way Mary turns away from her son that makes us aware of a struggle different than Joseph is experiencing. She knows very well her child has no human father but she does not know her child’s future, only that it is clear from the circumstances of his birth that his way of ruling is in absolute contrast to the way kings rule. The ruler of all rules from a manger in a stable. His death on the cross will not surprise her. It is implied in his birth.

We see that the Christ child’s body is wrapped “in swaddling clothes.” In icons of Christ’s burial, you will see he is wearing similar bands of cloth, as does Lazarus in the icon of his raising by Christ. In the Nativity icon, the manger looks much like a coffin. In this way the icon links birth and death. The poet Rilke says we bear our death within us from the moment of birth. The icon of the Nativity says the same. Our life is one piece and its length of much less importance than its purity and truthfulness

Some versions of the icon show more details, some less.

Normally in the icon we see angels who are worshiping God-become-man. Though we ourselves are rarely aware of the presence of angels, they are deeply enmeshed in our history and we know some of them by name. This momentous event is for them as well as us.

Often the iconographer includes the three wise men who have come from far off, whose close attention to activity in the heavens made them come on pilgrimage in order to pay homage to a king who belongs, not to one people, but to all people, not to one age but to all ages. They represent the world beyond Judaism.

Then there are the shepherds, the simple people summoned by angels to respond to Christ’s birth. Throughout history it has in fact been the simple people who have been most uncompromised in their response to the Gospel, who have not buried God in footnotes. Not the wise men but the shepherds were permitted to hear the choir of angels singing God’s praise.

On the bottom right of the icon often there are one or two midwives washing the newborn baby. The detail is based on apocryphal texts concerning Joseph’s arrangements for the birth. Those who know the Old Testament will recall the disobedience of midwives to the Egyptian Pharaoh; thanks to one of them, Moses was not murdered at birth. In the Nativity icon the midwife’s presence has another still more important function, underscoring Christ’s full participation in human nature.

Iconographers may leave out or alter various details, but always there is a ray of divine light that connects heaven with the baby. The partially revealed circle at the very top of the icon symbolizes God the Father, the small circle within the descending ray represents the Holy Spirit, while the child is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son. At every turn, from iconography to liturgical text to the physical gesture of crossing oneself, the Church has always sought to confess God in the Holy Trinity.

The symbol is also connected with the star that led the magi to the cave.

Orthodoxy often speaks of Christ in terms of light and this, too, is suggested by the ray connecting heaven to the manger. “Our Savior, the dayspring from on high, has visited us, and we who were in shadow and in darkness have found the truth,” the Church sings on Christmas, the Feast of Christ’s Nativity According to the Flesh.

The iconographic portrayal of Christ’s birth is not without radical social implications. Christ’s birth occurred where it did, we are told by Matthew, “because there was no room in the inn.” He who welcomes all is himself unwelcome. From the first moment, he is something like a refugee, as indeed he soon will be in the very strict sense of the word, in Egypt with Mary and Joseph, at a safe distance from the murderous Herod. Later in life he will say to his followers, revealing the criteria of salvation, “I was homeless and you took me in.” We are saved not by our achievements but by our participation in the mercy of God — God’s hospitality. If we turn our backs on the homeless and those without the necessities of life, we will end up with nothing more than ideas and slogans and be lost in the icon’s starless cave.

We return at the end to the two figures at the heart of the icon. Mary, fulfilling Eve’s destiny, has given birth to Jesus Christ, a child who is God incarnate, a child in whom each of us finds our true self, a child who is the measure of all things. It is not the Messiah the Jews of those days expected — or the God we Christians of the modern world were expecting either. God, whom we often refer to as all-mighty, reveals himself in poverty and vulnerability. Christmas is a revelation of the self-emptying love of God.

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. This is an extract from his book, Praying With Icons (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997). The Ladder of the Beatitudes is due to be published in January.

THE HERESY OF RACISM

Want to add a useful word to your vocabulary? The term etho-phyletism (meaning love of the race, tribe or ethnically-defined nation) was coined at the Holy and Great pan-Orthodox pan-Orthodox Synod that met in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) in 1872. The meeting was prompted by the creation of a separate bishopric by the Bulgarian community of Istanbul for parishes only open to Bulgarians. It was the first time in Church history that a separate diocese was established based on ethnic identity rather than principles of Orthodoxy and territory. Here is the Synod’s official condemnation of ecclesiastical racism, or “ethno-phyletism,” as well as its theological argumentation. It was issued on the 10th of August 1872.

We renounce, censure and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers which “support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it and lead it to divine godliness.”

A section of the report drawn up by the special commission of the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Constantinople in 1872 reviewed the general principles which guided the Synod in its condemnation:

The question of what basis racism that is discriminating on the basis of different racial origins and language and the claiming or exercising of exclusive rights by persons or groups of persons exclusively of one country or group can have in secular states lies beyond the scope of our inquiry. But in the Christian Church, which is a spiritual communion, predestined by its Leader and Founder to contain all nations in one brotherhood in Christ, racism is alien and quite unthinkable. Indeed, if it is taken to mean the formation of special racial churches, each accepting all the members of its particular race, excluding all aliens and governed exclusively by pastors of its own race, as its adherents demand, racism is unheard of and unprecedented.

All the Christian churches founded in the early years of the faith were local and contained the Christians of a specific town or a specific locality, without racial distinction. They were thus usually named after the town or the country, not after the ethnic origin of their people.

The Jerusalem Church consisted of Jews and proselytes from various nations. The Churches of Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, Rome and all the others were composed of Jews but mainly of gentiles. Each of these churches formed within itself an integral and indivisible whole. Each recognized as its Apostles the Apostles of Christ, who were all Jews. Each had a bishop installed by these Apostles without any racial discrimination: this is evident in the account of the founding of the first Churches of God….

The same system of establishing churches by locality prevails even after the Apostolic period, in the provincial or diocesan churches which were marked out on the basis of the political organization then prevailing, or of other historical reasons. The congregation of the faithful of each of these churches consisted of Christians of every race and tongue….

Paradoxically, the Church of Greece, Russia, Serbia, Moldavia and so on, or less properly the Russian Church, Greek Church, etc., mean autocephalous or semi-independent churches within autonomous or semi-independent dominions, with fixed boundaries identical with those of the secular dominions, outside which they have no ecclesiastical jurisdiction. They were composed not on ethnic grounds, but because of a particular situation, and do not consist entirely of one race or tongue. The Orthodox Church has never known racially-based churches… to coexist within the same parish, town or country…

If we examine those canons on which the Church’s government is constructed, we find nowhere in them any trace of racism. … Similarly, the canons of the local churches, when considering the formation, union or division of ecclesiastical groupings, put forward political reasons or ecclesiastical needs, never racial claims…. From all this, it is quite clear that racism finds no recognition in the government and sacred legislation of the Church.

But the racial principle also undermines the sacred governmental system of the Church…

In a racially organized church, the church of the local diocese has no area proper to itself, but the ethnic jurisdictions of the supreme ecclesiastical authorities are extended or restricted depending on the ebb and flow of peoples constantly being moved or migrating in groups or individually… If the racial principal is followed, no diocesan or patriarchal church, no provincial or metropolitan church, no episcopal church, not even a simple parish, whether it be the church of a village, small town or a suburb, can exist with its own proper place or area, containing within it all those of one faith. Is not Christ thus divided, as He was once among the Corinthians, by those who say: “I am for Paul, I am for Apollo, I am for Cephas” (1 Cor. 1:12)? …

No Ecumenical Council would find it right or in the interests of Christianity as a whole to admit an ecclesiastical reform [whose membership was based on ethnic identity] to serve the ephemeral idiosyncrasies of human passions and base concerns, because, apart from overthrowing the legislative achievements of so many senior Ecumenical Councils, it implies other destructive results, both manifest and potential:

First of all, it introduces a Judaic exclusiveness, whereby the idea of the race is seen a sine qua non of a Christian, particularly in the hierarchical structure. Every non-Greek, for instance, will thus be legally excluded from what will be called the Greek Church and hierarchy, every non-Bulgarian from the Bulgarian Church, and so on. As a Jew, St. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, could only have been a pastor in one nation, the Jewish. Similarly, Saints Cyril and Methodius, being of Greek origin, would not have been accepted among the Slavs. What a loss this would have entailed for the Church! …

Thus the sacred and divine are rendered entirely human, secular interest is placed above spiritual and religious concerns, with each of the racial churches looking after its own. The doctrine of faith in “one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” receives a mortal blow. If all this occurs, as indeed it has, racism is in open dispute and contradiction with the spirit and teaching of Christ.

Reprinted from For the Peace from Above: an Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism, edited by Hildo Bos and Jim Forest.

Orthodoxy, Peace & Reconciliation

some reflections by Jim Forest for the St Nicholas Evening discussion at St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, Amsterdam, September 23, 2004

It’s the first St Nicholas Evening. Originally I was asked to talk about prayer with icons but the terrible recent events in Russia, Chechnya and many other countries made Deacon Hildo suggest a more difficult subject: Orthodoxy, Peace and Reconciliation.

My hope is that for a little while we can try to put aside some of the pain and anger we are feeling and, for a few minutes, look carefully at these three words. What do they mean? What do they have to do with us? What responsibilities do they point us toward?

Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy: it means both the true way to give praise and true belief. What we really mean by this is the true path of following Christ. Orthodoxy is not just a tribal designation: in this enclosure are the Orthodox Christians, over there are Roman Catholics, somewhere else, within different fences, all sorts of Protestants, etc etc. To be Orthodox is not simply a way of saying what I am not. It is a recognition that I am trying to live according to the Gospel: the word and the example of Christ.

It also means I belong to the Orthodox Church. I am part of a huge community of people with a collective memory that goes back as far Adam and Eve. It is a community that includes the Church Fathers, whose words we not only store on our books shelves but make some effort to discover, according to our spiritual and intellectual capacity.

We are a Church of Councils and hold ourselves accountable to the results of those council even though they net as much as seventeen centuries ago.

We are a Church of saints. Day by day we remember them. We bear their names. We call of them for help. We remember what they did and sometimes what they said.

Sometimes it gets confusing. One Church Father showers the highest praise on marriage, another regards marriage as a 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 Fathers may have different ideas or different emphases.

Or we look at the saints and find here is a saint who was martyred for refusing to be a soldier and here is a saint who was a hero on the battlefield of war. Here is a saint who wore the rich clothing of a prince and here is a saint who wore nothing. Here is a saint who was a great scholar but here is a saint who was a holy fool. Here is a saint who raced to the desert, but here is a saint who refused to leave the city. Each saint poses a challenge and each saint raises certain questions.

Also it isn’t always clear what in a particular saint’s life placed him or her on the Church’s calendar. Do we have icons of St Alexander Nevsky because he defeated the Teutonic Knights? Or because, preferring negotiations to war, to negotiated with the Golden Horde and made compromises with them? Or was it because, later in his life, he set aside military and political duties and instead embraced a repentant monastic life?

Saints do not solve our problems. In the details of their lives, they march in a thousand different directions. They also made mistakes. The were not saints 24 hours a day. They too were sinners. Like us, they went to confession seeking God’s forgiveness for their faults.

But in some way each saint did something which brightly reflects the light of the Gospel. This is finally what is most important about them. They give us in many different ways a window for seeing the Gospel more clearly. In some way each of them opens a door toward Christ.

One last comment about the word “Orthodox”: It means, as St Paul says, that we are no longer Greek nor Jew. In our on world that also means we are no longer Russian or American or Dutch or Serbian. Rather we are one people whose identity and responsibility goes beyond the land where we were born or the culture and mother tongue that shaped us. In my own case, I am not first American, then Orthodox, and finally — if there is some room left — a Christian. No. I am an Orthodox Christian — Orthodox is an only adjective — who also happens to be an American. But being American comes afterward. It is in parentheses. It is in small type.

Peace

On to the next word: Peace. Let us admit right away that this is a damaged word. It’s like an icon I once encountered in Moscow at the parish of St Cosmos and Damien that had been blackened by candle smoke that the image was completely hidden. I spent an afternoon watching two restorers at work. Little by little, using alcohol and little balls of cotton, they cleaned the icon until finally we could see it bore the image of St Nicholas. Beautiful colors began to shine. There he was, a saint who is, in the Orthodox memory, the model of the perfect pastor. I realized I was watching a tiny resurrection.

Peace is a word that has been covered with a lots of smoke from the fires of propaganda, politics, ideologies, war and nationalism. In Russia there were all those Soviet slogans about peace, so many posters with the words, “Mira Mir!” The Church was obliged to take part in state-organized “peace” events. And in American, when I was growing up, it was almost the same. When I was a boy, the slogan of the Strategic Air Command, the section of the military that was in charge of fighting nuclear war, was “Peace is our profession.” It may well be still the same. More recently one of America’s nuclear missiles was given the name “Peacemaker.” Such abuse of words, whether in Russia or America, is what Gorge Orwell called Newspeak in his novel “1984.” We have to do we what can to clean words like “peace.” Otherwise it will be hard to understand the Gospel or the Liturgy or to translate the Gospel and the Liturgy into daily life.

According to the first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, peace means: “Freedom from, or cessation of, war or hostilities; that condition of a nation or community in which it is not at war with another.” It goes on to describe peace within a nation — “Freedom from civil commotion and disorder; public order and security.” From there the writers of the OED go to deeper water, recalling that the Latin word pax, the Greek eirini and the Hebrew word Shalom all mean something more than the absence of war of civil discord. Understood biblically, peace means safety, welfare, prosperity.

One of the things I like about the Oxford English Dictionary definition is the use of the word “freedom.” The dictionary’s authors understood that peace is not simply the absence of war, a condition to be described in negative terms, but freedom from war. (One Russian word any non-Russian will quickly learn from the sermons of Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov is svaboda.) It’s not a freedom we know much about. From Cain and Able until today, war is history’s default setting. But we can imagine that not to be in a state of war is truly a liberation.

Think how often and in what significant ways Christ uses the word peace in the Gospel. Peace is a summing up of the Kingdom of God in a single word. “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.'” “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” “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.” And so forth. His greeting after the resurrection is, “Peace be with you.”

We sing the Beatitudes at almost every Liturgy. The Beatitudes are a short summary of the Gospel — this is why we sing them while the Gospel book is being carried in procession. These few verses describe a kind of ladder to heaven, starting with poverty of spirit and ending with the readiness to suffer and even die for Christ. It is near the top of that ladder that we come to the words, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”

We hear the word “peace” over and over during every Liturgy. “In peace let us pray to the Lord!” “For the peace from above and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord!’ “Peace be with you.” “For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls…” “For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy Churches of God and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord!” I am only mentioning a few examples. At the next Liturgy pay attention to how many times we speak about peace or are called to be in a state of peace. It is an absolute condition of eucharistic worship. How can we be in communion with God if we are in a state of enmity with those whom God has given is to love? It is that simple. Again and again we are warned not to approach the chalice if we have broken our communion with those around us.

We not only hear about peace from Christ and in the prayers of the Liturgy, we see peace in the life of Christ. We see it when he heals the sick servant of a Roman soldier — an officer serving in an army of occupation. We see it when Christ saves the life of an adulterous woman whom the crowd was ready to stone to death. We see it the way Christ related to every person who came to him seeking relief, healing, forgiveness, mercy. We see it in the prayer he taught to his disciples, which included the words, “Forgive us as we forgive others.” We see it even after his arrest. The last healing miracle before his crucifixion was to repair the ear of a man injured by the Apostle Peter. Then he then turns to Peter with those amazing words: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” We see peace when he is dying. He prays to his Father to forgive those who have beaten, tortured and crucified him: “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” These words were said aloud — not so his Father could hear the but so that we can hear them.

We also see that Christ’s peace has nothing to do with the behavior of a coward or of the person who is polite rather than truthful. Christ said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Think of his words of protest about the teachings of the Pharisees who laid burdens of others they would not carry themselves. Think of him chasing the money changers from the Temple. No one was killed or injured but God’s lightning flashed in the Temple courtyard.

Finally consider the simple fact that Christ never killed anyone, no matter how much we might regard him as justified in such an act had he done so. Neither does he bless any of his followers to kill. There are many ways in which Christ is unique. This is one of them.

In fact, in the early centuries, Christians got into a lot of trouble for their attitude toward the state. They refused to regard the ruler as a god. They were obedient in every way they could be without disobeying God, but they 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 not permitted to serve at the altar. The reason is that one who serves at the altar is supposed to be a person without blood-stained hands. In fact ideally this should be the case of anyone approaching the chalice, though the Church is a channel of Christ’s mercy and receives for communion those who have repented of their sins, even the sin of murder.

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 are never permitted to give up trying.

Reconciliation

Finally, the word reconciliation. Because I have already spoken too long, I only want to say a little. In fact not very much needs to be said. Reconciliation means being brought back to the relationships God intends for us. It is not his intention that his children should hate each other. It is not his intention that we should be each other’s murderer. It is not his intention that we should view ourselves as better than anyone else. I am Orthodox — heaven is for me. You are Moslem — to hell with you. Each person, not matter what his belief or even his disbelief, bears the image of God. As St. John of Kronstadt said, “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

Another word for reconciliation is healing. Not only can we seek the healing of ourselves when we, as individuals, are sick, but we should see our social brokenness as a sickness that also needs to be healed.

But national and religious divisions are so deep, and often so ancient, that reconciliation is almost impossible to imagine. You must be a kind of holy fool to seriously think reconciliation could ever happen. Not only do we fail to do anything to bring about reconciliation but we don’t even allow ourselves to think about it. It’s too crazy. At least there are many people who would think so or even regard me as a traitor.

I think this is why Jesus, in teaching his followers to love our enemies, immediately adds the teaching, “and pray for them.”

The beginning of reconciliation is prayer — prayer for the very people we wish were dead and might even be willing to kill with our own hands, like the people who blow up children, the people who behead hostages, people more cruel than wild animals. But if we pay any attention to the words of Jesus, we are obliged to pray for them — to pray for their conversion, to pray for their repentance, to pray for their healing. This kind of prayer is extremely difficult. I am still struggling with it after all these years. But without it, there is no beginning. Prayer is the first thread in the work of repairing the torn fabric.

There is much more that could be said about each of these three words but perhaps this will at least give us a starting point.

The example of five saints

Jim Forest’s talk for the Sourozh Diocesan Conference in Oxford, presented 31 May 2004

Becoming the Gospel: the example of five newly recognized saints

My theme, becoming the Gospel, is inspired by a sentence from Metropolitan Anthony:

We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.

These few words seem to me the underlying theme of all his books, lectures and sermons. To be a Christian is to devote one’s life to becoming the Gospel. The Gospel exists so that each of us can make of our lives a unique living translation of its stories, sayings and parables. Like no other book in the world, it is meant to be lived, to be lived in such a way that those who have not read the text might guess at least its major themes simply by knowing those who are absorbing the text into their lives.

Orthodox ritual goes to great lengths to draw our attention to the Gospel. This small book, containing only the texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, is enthroned on the altar. It is something we bow toward and often kiss. Side by side with the Cross, it is before us when we confess our sins. Held high, it is solemnly carried through the church in procession every week. It is decorated with relief icons. During services, it is not simply read but chanted so that the words of the Gospel might enter us more deeply.

Only a degree less important in the life of the Orthodox Church is our close attention to the lives of the saints, that is to those people who, to a remarkable degree, in some way became the Gospel. Each saint provides a unique translation of the Gospel. Each saint not only helps us see what the Gospel is about but also how diverse are the ways in which a person can become the Gospel. Each saint throws a fresh light on how the Gospel can be lived more fully in the particular circumstances of our lives.

I would like to look at the example given by several newly glorified saints: Alexis Medvedkov, a priest who died in 1934; and Mother Maria Skobtsova plus three others closely associated with her: the priest Dimitri Klépinin, her friend and collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky, a Jewish convert to the Orthodox Church; and Mother Maria’s son, Yuri. On the first weekend of May, in the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky in Paris, their names were added to the Church’s calendar of saints.

mmaria3

Their glorification was an amazing celebration of Orthodox unity. Archbishop Gabriel presided at these services, assisted by our own Bishop Basil and by Bishop Silouan, representing the Romanians. There were also priests and deacons from various jurisdictions. The cathedral was crowded as if for Pascha. One of the priests was Serge Hackel, whose biography of Mother Maria, Pearl of Great Price, was a factor in starting the process that culminated in the canonizations. Appropriately, Fr Serge wore a chasuble that had been made by Mother Maria for Fr Dimitri, who, incidentally, was ordained a priest in this same cathedral.

stalexis

I start with the least well known of the five, Father Alexis Medvedkov. Born in Russia in 1867, he went to seminary and afterward became a reader and choir director at a St Petersburg parish. He felt unworthy of the priesthood but finally, encouraged by St John of Kronstadt, accepted ordination. He was sent to serve a village 60 miles from the capital. As was the case for many priests, his meager salary was not enough. Side by side with his neighbors, he worked the land. Yet he also lived a life of mind and spirit, saving money to buy the writings of the Church Fathers. He was a parent as well — he and his wife had two daughters. His pastoral zeal was recognized — in 1916, age 49, he was made an archpriest. Then the next year, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, he was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death. Remarkably, his eldest daughter succeeded in freeing her father by offering herself as a hostage in his place. The effects of torture, however, remained with him for the rest of his life. Because of nerve damage, his right eye was always open wider than his left.

In 1919 the entire family managed to escape to Estonia where Fr Alexis worked in a mine and then as a night watchman. In 1923 he became assistant priest at a local parish, also helping in the parish school. In 1929, following prolonged illness, his wife died.

After this heavy blow, he was invited by Metropolitan Evlogy in Paris to come to France. He was sent to the town Ugine, near Grenoble, to serve as rector of St Nicholas Russian Orthodox church. A local factory employed 600 Russian immigrants.

He often celebrated the Liturgy on weekdays as well as Sundays and feast days. He was known for how carefully he intoned each word when he stood in the sanctuary. After services, he would stay on to do memorial services and meet whatever other needs were brought to him by his parishioners, never charging money.

His congregation proved difficult. The parish council was dominated by secular-minded lay people of a military background, men used to giving orders, whose main interest was politics. Some harassed Fr Alexis during services. Some were abusive. When insulted, he replied with silence. He patiently endured the criticism of those who regarded the services as too long or criticized him for not dressing better.

His health declined — doctors diagnosed cancer of the intestines. In July 1934, he was taken to hospital. His died on the 22nd of August. On the advice of a physician who warned that Fr Alexis’ cancer-ridden body would rapidly decompose, he was buried in a double coffin.

His parishioners, even those who had been hostile, came to remember him as an exceptionally modest man, shy, full of gratitude, prayerful, outgoing, compassionate, slow to criticize, eager to forgive, generous with what little he had, who never turned his back on anyone in need.

A friend who visited him during those final weeks of his life recalled him saying: “In my parish the true parishioners are the children … and if those children live and grow up, they will form the inner Church. And we too, we belong to that Church, as long as we live according to our conscience and fulfil the commandments … Do you understand what I mean? In the visible Church there is an invisible Church, a secret Church. In it are found the humble who live by grace and walk in the will of God. They can be found in every parish and every jurisdiction. The emigration lives through them and by the grace of God.”

It was a life of ordinary sanctity — small deeds of holiness performed day after day that were either taken for granted or ridiculed. He might have been entirely forgotten had it not been for a decision by the Ugine town council in 1953 to build flats on the site of the cemetery. The remains of those buried in the old cemetery were moved. On the 22nd of August, 1956, precisely 22 years after Fr Alexis’s death, workmen came to his grave and found that his double coffin had entirely disintegrated but his body, priestly vestments and the Gospel book buried with him, had not decayed.

I have left out many details of his life, but you see the main lines: great suffering, endurance, patient service to impatient people, belief in the face of disbelief, an uprooted life, the early death of his wife, his own hard death, a love of prayer, a constant witness to God’s love — and then a sign after death that served to resurrect his memory and inspired the decision that this humble priest ought to be remembered by the Church. The memory of the Church is the calendar of the saints.

Now let me speak about the four others glorified in Paris this month.

The central figure is Mother Maria Skobtsova. Born in 1891 and given the name Elizaveta, she grew up near the Black Sea and later in St. Petersburg. Her childhood faith collapsed following her father’s death, but as a young adult her faith was gradually reborn. Liza prayed and read the Gospel and the lives of saints. While regarding herself as a socialist, it seemed to her that the real need of the people was not for revolutionary theories but for Christ. She wanted “to proclaim the simple word of God,” she told Alexander Blok in 1916. She was the first woman to study at the theological institute in St. Petersburg. After Lenin’s forces took power, she narrowly escaped summary execution by convincing a Bolshevik sailor that she was a friend of Lenin’s wife.

One of the many refugees who fled Russia during the civil war, by the time she reached Paris in 1923 she had finished one marriage and started another and was the mother of three.

One child, Nastia, died very young — the kind of death that visited many Russian families struggling to survive in France in those days. Liza’s monastic vocation is partly connected with Nastia’s death in the winter of 1926. During her month-long vigil at her daughter’s bedside, Liza came to feel how she had never known “the meaning of repentance.”

[N]ow I am aghast at my own insignificance …. I feel that my soul has meandered down back alleys all my life. And now I want an authentic and purified road. Not out of faith in life, but in order to justify, understand and accept death …. No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end and without exceptions. And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden.

After Nastia’s burial, Liza became aware, as she put it, “of a new and special, broad and all-embracing motherhood.” She emerged from her mourning with a determination to seek “a more authentic and purified life.” She felt she saw a “new road before me and a new meaning in life, to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.”

In 1930, she was appointed traveling secretary of the Russian Student Christian Movement, work which put her into daily contact with impoverished Russian refugees in cities, towns and villages throughout France.

She took literally Christ’s words that he was always present in the least person. “Man ought to treat the body of his fellow human being with more care than he treats his own,” she wrote.

If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person, he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery …. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him — one that will demand his most dedicated efforts …. He will perceive that the divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil …. And he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image.

Metropolitan Anthony, then a layman in Paris studying to become a physician, recalled a story about her from this period that he heard from a friend:

[S]he went to the steel foundry in Creusot, where a large number of Russian [refugees] were working. She came there and announced that she was preparing to give a series of lectures on Dostoevsky. She was met with general howling: “We do not need Dostoevsky. We need linen ironed, we need our rooms cleaned, we need our clothes mended — and you bring us Dostoevsky!” And she answered: “Fine, if that is needed, let us leave Dostoevsky alone.” And for several days she cleaned rooms, sewed, mended, ironed, cleaned. When she had finished doing all that, they asked her to talk about Dostoevsky. This made a big impression on me, because she did not say: “I did not come here to iron for you or clean your rooms. Can you not do that yourselves?” She responded immediately and in this way she won the hearts and minds of the people.

While her work for the Russian Student Christian Movement suited her, she began to envision a new type of community, “half monastic and half fraternal,” which would connect spiritual life with service to those in need, in the process showing “that a free Church can perform miracles.”

Father Sergei Bulgakov, dean of the St. Sergius Theological Institute and her confessor, was a source of support and encouragement. He was a confessor who respected the freedom of all who sought his guidance, never demanding obedience, never manipulating. Another key figure in her life was her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy. He was the first one to suggest to Liza the possibility of becoming a nun. Assured by him that she would be free to develop a new type of monasticism, engaged in the world and marked by the “complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds,” in March 1932 Liza was professed as a nun and received the name Maria. Her goal was to create a model of what she called “monasticism in the world.”

Here again there is an interesting impression by Metropolitan Anthony if what Mother Maria was like in those days:

She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time in monastic clothes. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse and I saw: in front of a café, on the pavement, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.

Mother Maria’s intention was “to share the life of paupers and tramps,” but how she would do so was not yet clear. She knew that it could not be a life of withdrawal from the sufferings of the world. “Everyone is always faced,” she wrote, “with the necessity of choosing between the comfort and warmth of an earthly home, well protected from winds and storms, and the limitless expanse of eternity, which contains only one sure and certain item … the cross.”

With financial help and the encouragement of Metropolitan Evlogy, she started her first house of hospitality. As the building was completely unfurnished, the first night she wrapped herself in blankets and slept on the floor beneath the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. Donated furniture began arriving, and also guests, mainly unemployed young Russian women. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and instead slept on an iron bedstead in the basement. A room upstairs became a chapel while the dining room doubled as a hall for lectures and discussions.

When the first house proved too small, a new location was found — a house of three storeys at 77 rue de Lourmel in the fifteenth arrondisement, an area where many impoverished Russian refugees had settled. While at the former address she could feed only 25, here she could feed a hundred. A stable behind the house was made into a church. The house was a modern Noah’s Ark able to withstand the stormy waves the world was hurling its way. Here guests could regain their breath “until the time comes to stand on their two feet again.”

As the work evolved, she rented other buildings, one for families in need, and another for single men. A rural property became a sanatorium.

Donations were given and quickly spent, yet the community purse was never empty for long. She sometimes recalled the Russian story of the ruble that could never be spent. Each time it was used, the change given back proved to equal a ruble. It was exactly this way with love, she said: No matter how much love you give, you never have less. In fact you discover you have more — one ruble becomes two, two becomes ten.

She enjoyed a legend concerning two saints of the fourth century, Nicholas of Myra and John Cassian, who returned to earth to see how things were going. They came upon a peasant, his cart mired in the mud, who begged their help. John Cassian regretfully declined, explaining that he was soon due back in heaven and therefore must keep his robes spotless. Meanwhile Nicholas was already up to his hips in the mud, freeing the cart. When the Ruler of All discovered why Nicholas was caked in mud and John Cassian immaculate, it was decided that Nicholas’ feast day would henceforth be celebrated twice each year — May 9 and December 6 — while John Cassian’s would occur only once every four years, on February 29.

Mother Maria felt sustained by the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount: “Not only do we know the Beatitudes, but at this hour, this very minute, surrounded though we are by a dismal and despairing world, we already savor the blessedness they promise…”

Of course she had her critics. The house on rue de Lourmel, some charged, was an “ecclesiastical Bohemia.” There should be more emphasis on services, less on hospitality. But Mother Maria’s view was that “the Liturgy must be translated into life. It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.”

She had an unusual opinion regarding exile. In her view, far from being a catastrophe, it was a heaven-sent opportunity to renew the Church in ways that would have met with repression in her mother country:

What obligations follow from the gift of freedom which [in our exile] we have been granted? We are beyond the reach of persecution. We can write, speak, work, open schools …. At the same time, we have been liberated from age-old traditions. We have no enormous cathedrals, [jewel] encrusted Gospel books, no monastery walls. We have lost our environment. Is this an accident? Is this some chance misfortune?… In the context of spiritual life, there is no chance, nor are there fortunate or unfortunate epochs. Rather there are signs which we must understand and paths which we must follow. Our calling is a great one, since we are called to freedom.

She saw expatriation as an opportunity “to liberate the real and authentic.” It was similar to the opportunity given to the first Christians. “We must not allow Christ,” she said, “to be overshadowed by any regulations, any customs, any traditions, any aesthetic considerations, or even any piety.”

In September 1935 Orthodox Action was founded. It was a name proposed by her friend Nicholas Berdyaev. In addition to Mother Maria and Berdyaev, the co-founders included the theologian Father Sergei Bulgakov, the historian George Fedotov, the literary scholar Constantine Mochulsky, her long-time co-worker Fedor Pianov, and Ilya Fondaminsky, who had once had a post in the Kerensky government — one of the three others canonized with her. Metropolitan Evlogy was honorary president. Mother Maria was chairman. Its projects included hostels, rest homes, schools, camps, hospital work, help to the unemployed, assistance to the elderly, and publication of books and pamphlets. By now many co-workers were involved.

While many valued what she and her co-workers were doing, there were others who were scandalized with the shabby nun who was so uncompromisingly devoted to the duty of hospitality that she would leave a church service to answer the door bell. “For church circles we are too far to the left,” Mother Maria noted, “while for the left we are too church-minded.”

In October 1939, Metropolitan Evlogy sent a priest to rue de Lourmel: Father Dimitri Klépinin, then 35 years old. He had been born in Russia in 1904. He came to Paris from Belgrade in 1925 to study at the St Sergius Theological Institute. Like Mother Maria, he was a spiritual child of Father Sergei Bulgakov. A man of few words, great modesty and a profound love of the Liturgy, Father Dimitri proved to be a major partner in Mother Maria’s work.

The last phase of the life of Mother Maria and her co-workers — these now included her son Yuri — was shaped by World War II and Germany’s occupation of France.

Paris fell on the 14th of June 1940. France capitulated a week later. With defeat came greater poverty and hunger for many people. Local authorities in Paris declared the house at rue Lourmel an official food distribution point.

Paris was now a prison. “There is the dry clatter of iron, steel and brass,” wrote Mother Maria. “Order is all.” Russian refugees were among the particular targets of the occupiers. In June 1941, a thousand were arrested, among them Ilya Fondaminsky, a close friend and collaborator of Mother Maria and editor of various Russian expatriate journals. His long delayed baptism occurred within the makeshift Orthodox chapel at the prison camp in Compiegne. He died at Auschwitz the following year.

When the Nazis issued special identity cards for those of Russian origin living in France, Mother Maria and Father Dimitri refused to comply, though they were warned that those who failed to register would be regarded as citizens of the USSR — thus enemy aliens — and be punished accordingly.

Early in 1942, Jews began to knock on the door at rue de Lourmel asking Father Dimitri if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The names of those supposedly baptized were duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo. Father Dimitri was convinced that in such a situation Christ would do the same.

In June the Jews of occupied France were ordered to wear the yellow star.

There were, of course, Christians who said that the anti-Jewish laws being imposed had nothing to do with Christians and therefore this was not a Christian problem. “This is not only a Jewish question but a Christian question,” replied Mother Maria. “Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the Star. The age of confessors has arrived.”

In July Jews were forbidden access to nearly all public places while shopping by Jews was limited to one hour per day. A week later, there was a mass arrest. Nearly 13,000 Jews, two-thirds of them children, were brought to a sports stadium less than a mile from rue de Lourmel where they were held for five days before being transported to Auschwitz.

Mother Maria had often regarded her monastic robe as a God-send in aiding her work. Now her nun’s robes opened the way for her to enter the stadium. Here she worked for three days trying to comfort the children and their parents, distributing what food she could bring in, and even managing to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins.

The house at rue de Lourmel was bursting with people, many of them Jews. In this period, if anyone came to the house searching for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

Father Dimitri, Mother Maria, Yuri and their co-workers set up routes of escape to the unoccupied south — complex and dangerous work. An escaped Russian prisoner of war was also among those assisted. A local resistance group helped secure the food that was needed.

On February 8, 1943, Nazi security police entered the house Lourmel and found a letter in Yuri’s pocket in which Fr Dimitri was asked to provide a Jew with a false baptismal document. Yuri was arrested, and Fr Dimitri the next day. Under interrogation he made no attempt to hide his beliefs. Called a “Jew lover,” he responded by pointing to the cross he wore. “Do you know this Jew?” he asked. For this he was struck in the face.

Mother Maria’s arrest followed. At first she was confined at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris in the same building where Yuri, Father Dimitri and their co-worker of many years, Feodor Pianov, were being held. Pianov later recalled the scene of Father Dimitri in his torn cassock being taunted as a Jew. One of the SS officers began to beat him while Yuri stood nearby weeping. Father Dimitri consoled him, reminding him that “Christ withstood greater mockery than this.”

In April they were transferred to Compiègne. Mother Maria was able to have a final meeting with Yuri. Hours later, Mother Maria was sent in a sealed cattle truck to the Ravensbrück camp in Germany. In a letter Yuri sent to the community at rue de Lourmel, he said his mother told him “that I must trust in her ability to bear things and in general not to worry about her. Every day [Fr Dimitri and I] remember her at the proskomidia … We celebrate the Eucharist and receive communion each day.”

“Thanks to our daily Eucharist,” he reported in another letter, “our life here is quite transformed and to tell the honest truth, I have nothing to complain of. We live in brotherly love. Dima [Fr Dimitri] … is preparing me for the priesthood. God’s will needs to be understood. After all, this attracted me all my life and in the end it was the only thing I was interested in, though my interest was stifled by Parisian life and the illusion that there might be ‘something better’ — as if there could be anything better.”

For nine months the three men remained together at Compiègne. “Without exaggeration,” Pianov wrote after being liberated in 1945, “I can say that the year spent with [Father Dimitri] was a godsend. I do not regret that year…. From my experience with him, I learned to understand what enormous spiritual, psychological and moral support one man can give to others as a friend, companion and confessor.”

On December 16, Yuri and Father Dimitri were deported to Buchenwald in Germany, followed several weeks later by Pianov. In January 1944, Father Dimitri and Yuri were sent to another camp, Dora, about 20 miles away. On the 6th of February, Yuri was “dispatched for treatment” — a euphemism meaning sentenced to death. Four days later Fr Dimitri died of pneumonia.

A final letter from Yuri made its way to rue de Lourmel:

I am absolutely calm, even somewhat proud to share mama’s fate. I promise you I will bear everything with dignity. Whatever happens, sooner or later we shall all be together. I can say in all honesty that I am not afraid of anything any longer…. I ask anyone whom I have hurt in any way to forgive me. Christ be with you!

At Ravensbruck, Mother Maria endured for two years, an achievement in part explained by her long experience of ascetic life. A fellow prisoner who survived recalls how Mother Maria she would discuss passages from the New Testament: “Together we would provide a commentary on the texts and then meditate on them. Often we would conclude with Compline… This period seemed a paradise to us.”

By March 1945, Mother Maria’s condition was critical. On the 30th of March — Good Friday, as it happened — she was selected for the gas chambers and the following day entered into eternal life. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance.

Regarding her last day, accounts vary. According to one, she was simply one of the many selected for death that day. According to another, she took the place of a fellow prisoner, a Jew. Her friend Jacqueline Péry wrote afterward:

“It is very possible that [Mother Maria] took the place of a frantic companion. It would have been entirely in keeping with her generous life. In any case she offered herself consciously to the holocaust … thus assisting each one of us to accept the cross …. She radiated the peace of God and communicated it to us.”

Five saints — a humble priest who died of cancer, and four victims of one of the ideological insanities that destroyed so many millions of people in the 20th century.

Father Alexis of Ugine gives an example of the priesthood that from a distance seems in no way remarkable, yet his entire adult life was illumined by the Gospel. He reminds me of St Nicholas.

In Mother Maria, Fr Dimitri, Yuri Skobtsov and Ilya Fondaminsky, we see an extraordinary example of what perhaps could be called “the sacrament of the open door.”

Recently my wife asked me what is the most important thing in our house. I thought for a moment, then mentioned certain books and icons. “No,” she said, “it is the front door. Everything depends on how we open the door. Everything depends on hospitality.”

It was a startling thought. I’m sure all the newly canonized saints said very similar things many times. Indeed in one of her essays Mother Maria uses the term “the asceticism of the open door.”

Controversial in life, Mother Maria remains a subject of contention to this day and I expect this controversy will continue even now that she has been recognized as a saint. While clearly she lived a life of heroic virtue and is among the martyrs of the twentieth century, her verbal attacks on nationalistic and tradition-bound forms of religious life still raise the blood pressure of many Orthodox Christians. St. Maria of Paris, as perhaps she will now be called, remains an indictment of any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings.

All saints show us in certain ways what it means to become the Gospel. From such people, even if we knew nothing at all about the words of Christ, we could guess the outline of Christ’s teaching simply by the example given by these dedicated followers. Each of their lives provides a translation of the Gospel into the circumstances of their vocation and time.

All saints, whether from the first century or from our own era, provide a living witness to the Beatitudes, the foundation of which is Jesus’ declaration that “blessed are the poor in spirit.”

“Blessed” — not a word one finds in headlines nor does it often appear in conversation. In the Greek New Testament, each Beatitude begins with the word makarios. In classical Greek makar was a condition associated with the immortal gods. Kari means “fate” or “death,” but given a negative prefix the word means “being deathless, no longer subject to fate.” Being deathless was a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods were the blessed ones.

In Christian use, makarios meant sharing in the life of God, the ultimate joy. There is no higher gift. We are not simply capable of an abstract awareness that God exists, an infinitely remote Being whom we can faintly glimpse through an intellectual telescope. In the kingdom of God, the blessing extended to us is nothing less than participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity. It is being received into God’s immortality. It is being blessed with qualities that seem humanly impossible.

Understood in this way, the word “blessed” might be translated “freed from death” or “risen from the dead.” To be blessed is to participate in Christ’s resurrection. Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit. Risen from the dead are they who mourn. Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Risen from the dead are the merciful. Risen from the dead are the pure of heart. Risen from the dead are the peacemakers. Risen from the dead are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

To be risen from the dead is not simply a condition of the life to come. It has to do with our lives here and now. And this is what we see in each of these five saints: living in the kingdom of God even though the world has plunged itself into hell.

Let me finish by reading aloud one last passage from Mother Maria:

The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.

Note: The principal source of biographical material used in this text is Fr. Serge Hackel’s book, Pearl of Great Price, published in Britain by Darton Longman & Trodd and, in America, by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Chapter 2

DEFINING TERMS: DEFINITIONS FROM DICTIONARIES AND CHURCH AUTHORS

Nation

28. a. An extensive aggregate of persons, so closely associated with each other by common descent, language, or history, as to form a distinct race or people, usually organized as a separate political state and occupying a definite territory. In early examples the racial idea is usually stronger than the political; in recent use the notion of political unity and independence is more prominent.

A number of persons belonging to a particular nation; representatives of any nation.

2. The nations.

a. In and after Biblical use: The heathen nations, the Gentiles.

b. The peoples of the earth; the population of the earth collectively.

4. a. The nation, the whole people of a country, frequently in contrast to some smaller or narrower body within it.

Two nations: phr. used of two groups within a given nation divided from each other by marked social inequality; hence one nation, a nation which is not divided by social inequalities.

Attrib. and Comb. (see also sense 1 a ad fin.), as nation-building, the creation of a new nation, spec. a newly independent nation; hence nation-builder; nation-state, a sovereign state the members of which are also united by those ties such as language, common descent, etc., which constitute a nation; nation-wide a., as wide as a nation; extending over, reaching, or affecting the whole nation; also as adv.

Oxford English dictionary, 2nd ed.

Nationalism

Theology. The doctrine that certain nations (as contrasted with individuals) are the object of divine election.

Devotion to one’s nation; national aspiration; a policy of national independence.

A form of socialism, based on the nationalizing of all industry.

Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.

Ethno-Phyletism (racism)

Phyletism (from phyli — race, tribe) is the principle of nationalities applied in the ecclesiastical domain: in other words, the confusion between Church and nation. The term ethnophyletismos designates the idea that a local autocephalous Church should be based not on a local [ecclesial] criterion, but on an ethnophyletist, national or linguistic one. It was used at the Holy and Great [“Meizon” –“enlarged”] pan-Orthodox Synod in Constantinople on the 10th of September 1872 to qualify “phyletist (religious) nationalism,” which was condemned as a modern ecclesial heresy: the Church should not be confused with the destiny of a single nation or a single race; Orthodoxy is therefore hostile to any forms of racial messianism. Also, one should clearly distinguish between ethnicism (which has a positive content) and nationalism (which has a negative content and which in Greek is called ethnikismos [ethnicism]): the first should be considered the servant, the latter the enemy of the nation.

Course of Canon Law — Appendix VI — canonical glossary, By Grigorios Papathomas, Paris 1995

State

a. A particular form of polity or government. the state, the form of government and constitution established in a country; e.g. the popular state, democracy (cf. F. état populaire). state royal: a monarchy. Obs.

b. A republic, non-monarchical commonwealth. Obsolete.

29. a. the state: the body politic as organized for supreme civil rule and government; the political organization which is the basis of civil government (either generally and abstractly, or in a particular country); hence, the supreme civil power and government vested in a country or nation.

Distinguished from “the church” or ecclesiastical organization and authority. In the phr. church and state the article is dropped.

30. a. A body of people occupying a defined territory and organized under a sovereign government. Hence occas. the territory occupied by such a body.

(Without article.) All that concerns the government or ruling power of a country; the sphere of supreme political power and administration. The adjectival phr. of state (‘ F. d’état, It. di stato) is otherwise expressed by the attributive use (see 38) in state, in the sphere of government or politics.

Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.

Peace

I. 1. a. Freedom from, or cessation of, war or hostilities; that condition of a nation or community in which it is not at war with another.

(With article.) A ratification or treaty of peace between two powers previously at war. Also, formerly, a temporary cessation of hostilities, a truce.) In Hist. often defined by or with the name of the place at which it was ratified.

With possessive or of (the peace of any one, his peace, etc.): A state or relation of peace, concord, and amity, with him; esp. peaceful recognition of the authority or claims, and acceptance of the protection, of a king or lord. Obs. (Has affinities with senses 2, 4, 10 a.)

2. Freedom from civil commotion and disorder; public order and security. (See also 10.)

3. a. Freedom from disturbance or perturbation (esp. as a condition in which an individual person is); quiet, tranquillity, undisturbed state. Also emphasized as peace and quiet(ness).

In and after Biblical use, in various expressions of well-wishing or salutation. Following L. pax and Gr. eirini ‘peace’ often represents Heb. Shalom, properly ‘ safety, welfare, prosperity.

4. a. Freedom from quarrels or dissension between individuals; a state of friendliness; concord, amity. (See also 11 a, 15.)

Kiss of peace: a kiss given in sign of friendliness; spec. a kiss of greeting given in token of Christian love (see pax) at religious services in early times; now, in the Western Ch., usually only during High Mass.

5. Freedom from mental or spiritual disturbance or conflict arising from passion, sense of guilt, etc.; calmness; peace of mind, soul, or conscience.

6. a. Absence of noise, movement, or activity; stillness, quiet; inertness. (See also 13.)

15. a. To make peace: to bring about a state of peace, in various senses:

to effect a reconciliation between persons or parties at variance; to conclude peace with a nation at the close of a war;

to enter into friendly relations with a person, as by a league of amity, or by submission;

to enforce public order;

to enforce silence.

To make one’s, or a person’s, peace: to effect reconciliation for oneself or for some one else; to come, or bring some one, into friendly relations (with another). (In quot. c 1400, to admit a person to friendly relations with oneself.)

Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.

War

I. 1. a. Hostile contention by means of armed forces, carried on between nations, states, or rulers, or between parties in the same nation or state; the employment of armed forces against a foreign power, or against an opposing party in the state. For civil, intestine, etc. war, see the adjs. war to the knife [after Sp. guerra al cuchillo], see knife n. 1 b; war to the death, see death n. 12 c.

transf. and fig. Applied poet. or rhetorically to any kind of active hostility or contention between living beings, or of conflict between opposing forces or principles.

3. a. In particularized sense: A contest between armed forces carried on in a campaign or series of campaigns.

Freq. used with def. art. to designate a particular war, esp. one in progress or recently ended. Hence between the wars, between the war of 1914-18 and that of 1939-45 (cf. inter-war a.). Often with identifying word or phrase, as in the Trojan war, the Punic Wars, the Wars of the Roses, the Thirty Years’ War. holy war: a war waged in a religious cause: applied, e.g. to the Crusades, and to the jihad among Muslims. Sacred War in Gr. Hist., the designation of two wars (b.c. 595 and 357-346) waged by the Amphictyonic Council against Phocis in punishment of alleged sacrilege. War Between the States (esp. in the use of Southerners), the American Civil War. For servile, social war, see the adjs.

Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.

There are three very grievous kinds of war. The one is public, when our soldiers are attacked by foreign armies: The second is, when even in time of peace, we are at war with one another: The third is, when the individual is at war with himself, which is the worst of all.

Homily 7 on 1 Tim 2:2-4, by St. John Chrysostom

War is a great evil, even the greatest of evils. But because enemies shed our blood in fulfilment of an incitement of law and valour, and because it is wholly necessary for each man to defend his own fatherland and his fellow countrymen with words, writings, and acts, we have decided to write about strategy, through which we shall be able not only to fight but to overcome the enemy.

Byzantine Manual of Strategy (VIth c.), Anonymous

War is the wing of death which overshadows the earth; war opens the gates of eternity for thousands and thousands of people; war crushes established the bourgeois order, coziness and stability. War is a calling, war opens our eyes.

How war opens our eyes, by Mother Maria (Skobtsova)

Without doubt, from the Christian point of view, war is an evil and a sin, against which the Church is obliged to struggle.

The Church and national identity, by A. Kartachov, Paris, 1934

Identity

The world “identity” can be used in several ways. In its proper sense, as its etymology from the Latin word idem suggests, it means selfsameness, that which makes a given object to be one and the same yesterday, today and forever. But in everyday English (and possibly in other languages as well), it is also used in a looser sense, to mean individuality or personality, that which distinguishes a given subject from others, “the set of behavioural and individual characteristics by which a thing is definitively recognisable or known.”1 Thus, in the United States for example, we can speak of an underworld informant being given a new identity as part of a government witness protection program.

When referring to the Church, Orthodox theologians most often have used “identity” in the former sense, to mean selfsameness. Consider this passage from an essay by Fr. George Florovsky:

The Orthodox Church claims to be the Church… The Orthodox Church is conscious and aware of her identity through the ages, in spite of all perplexities and changes. She has kept intact and immaculate the sacred heritage of the early Church, of the Apostles and of the fathers, ‘the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.’ She is aware of the identity of her teaching with the apostolic message and the tradition of the Ancient Church, even though she might have failed occasionally to convey this message to particular generations in its full splendour and in a way that carries conviction.2

What gives the Orthodox Church her identity, Florovsky continues, is “living tradition.” This is not “just a human tradition, maintained by human memory and imitation.” Rather:

It is a sacred or holy tradition, maintained by the abiding presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The ultimate identity of the Church is grounded in her sacramental structure, in the organic continuity of the Body, which is always ‘visible’ and historically identifiable and recognisable, although at the same time it transcends and surpasses the closed historical dimension, being the token and the embodiment of the divine communion once granted and also the token and the anticipation of the life to come.3

Most Orthodox theologians would accept this understanding of the identity of the Orthodox Church, though like Florovsky they would usually add some words of caution against triumphalism. For, as Florovsky observes:

There is no pride and arrogance in this claim. Indeed, it implies a heavy responsibility. Nor does it mean ‘perfection.’ The Church is still in pilgrimage, in travail, in via. She has her historic failures and losses, she has her own unfinished tasks and problems.”4

And like Florovsky, most Orthodox theologians would locate the ultimate identity of the Church “in her sacramental structure, in the organic continuity of the Body” — in her sacramental and spiritual life, which “has ever been the same in the course of ages”5 despite the “historic failures and losses.” They also would be able to point to times when this underlying sacramental structure has been determinative for the course of church history — to the Byzantine Empire, for example, where the institutional claims of patriarchs and emperors and the charismatic claims of monastics were equally subject to the test of the Church’s sacramental ethos.6

A full account of how these distinctive characteristics have emerged and have gained prominence in Orthodox self-understanding would require many volumes. At the risk of oversimplification, we may identify two main ways in which this has occurred:

by emulation, i.e., by imitation or appropriation for oneself of the claims, institutions or practices of another; and

by contradiction, i.e., by rejection of the claims, institutions or practices of another and concurrent development of claims, institutions and practices more or less directly opposed to them.

— The Formation of Orthodox Ecclesial Identity, by John H. Erickson Balamand, 1997

Notes for chapter 2:

1 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, [1992]), s.v.

2 The Quest for Christian Unity and the Orthodox Church, Collected Works vol. 13 (Vaduz: Buechervertriebsanstalt, 1989) 136-44 at pp. 139-140, originally published in Theology and Life 4 (August 1961) 197-208.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 On the role of liturgy in maintaining Orthodox ecclesial identity see, among others, J. Meyendorff, The Byzantine Legacy in the Orthodox Church (Crestwood NY: SVS Press, 1982) 122-23, and also J. Erickson, “The Hermeneutics of Reconciliation. Perspectives from the Orthodox Liturgical Experience,” Reformed Liturgy & Music 30.4 (1996), 196-98.

Marginal quotations from chapter 2:

They [the Christians] dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign.

The Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter 5

We live in a time of savage, animal nationalism, of a cult of brute violence, we witness a genuine return to paganism. A process countering the christening and humanisation of human societies is taking place. Nationalism should be condemned by the Christian Church as a heresy.

N. Berdyayev, 1935

Pogroms are the victory of your enemies. Pogroms are a dishonour for yourself, a dishonour to the Church!

Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow, 1919

For us Christians the Jewish issue is by no means a question of whether the Jews are good or bad, but a question of whether we Christians are good or bad. From a Christian point of view, racist anti-Semitism is absolutely intolerable, it clashes in an unequivocal manner with the universality of Christianity. Modern racism means de-christening and de-humanisation, a return to barbarism and paganism.

N. Berdyayev, 1935

One who is in haste to desert a secular condition and enter on an ecclesiastical office is not wishing to relinquish secular affairs, but to change them.

Epistles, by St. Gregory the Great, Book 3, Epistle 65

Absolute states on earth are the image of man deified, of anti-Christianity, they are the incarnation of the spirit of the prince of this world, from whom it is said: “and to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority” (Rev. 13:2).

The task of the State of Christians is: serving Christian morality. However, such a service presupposes a certain spiritual equilibrium, where the state does not go beyond its own, legal tasks. Still even this situation always remains unstable; when the state crosses these boundaries, it turns into the beast.

Fr. Sergi Boulgakov, 1944

War is one of the tools in the hands of God, as well as peace.

War is a poison, which kills, but which at the same time cures and heals.

It is better to have one great and mighty river than many small streams which easily freeze in frost and which are easily covered with dust and filth. A war which gathers an entire people for a great cause is better than a peace which knows as many tiny causes at it knows people, which divides brothers, neighbours, all human beings, and which hides in itself an evil and hidden war against all.

Bishop Nikolai of Ochrid, 1929

Next

For the Peace From Above — Table of Contents

Chapter 6: REFERENCE TEXTS FROM CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS

REFERENCE TEXTS FROM CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS

Nation, Nationalism

Ethno-phyletism (Racism)

There have always been two races in the world; they exist today, and this division is more important than all other divisions. There are those who crucify and those who are crucified, those that oppress and those who are oppressed, those who hate and those who are hated, those who inflict suffering and those who suffer, those who persecute and those who are persecuted. It needs no explanation on whose side Christians should be.

— Christianity and Anti-Semitism (the religious destiny of Judaism), by N. Berdyayev, Paris, 1935, p. 30

Who Is Jesus Christ for Us?

When the question of the national (ethnic) origins of our Saviour comes in first position and overshadows the essence of the Christian teaching, a question naturally appears: who is Jesus Christ for us? A tribal leader, whose authority should facilitate national unification, or God, who saves us from malediction and death? For the believing mind the answer is self-evident, and those for whom Christianity is merely an ideology prefer, as Dostoevsky said, to stay with their own “truth” rather than with Christ.

For the leader of RNU, Jesus Christ is the tribal god of the Indo-Aryans, which will help us to establish a mighty national state, having placed us above all peoples. Remember: it was exactly this kind of Messiah that the majority of the Jewish people were expecting, because they had wrongly understood the prophecies of the Old Testament by giving them an exclusively earthly sense. Such an understanding fundamentally contradicts the preaching of Christ on the Kingdom of God, which is spiritual and above nature, a Kingdom which begins on earth and has no end.

By attempting to give a national character to Christianity, the leader of the RNU willingly or unwillingly attacks the very essence of Christ’s preaching. Christianity is not the national religion of the Indo-Europeans, nor is it an ideology. Christ is neither a national leader, nor a tribal chief. We believe in Christ, the God who saves us, the true, living God, the God of love. He says to us: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30). And, in the reply of the human soul top this appeal, in our striving towards Him, in the words of St. Paul, already “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:28-29).

Who needs such patriotism?

Patriotism is love for our motherland, our people with its customs and traditions, its sanctuaries and its faith. The patriotism of Mr. Barkashov has nothing in common with genuine patriotism, since it tramples on the foundations of the Orthodox faith of our people.

— In Whom Do We Believe?1, by Evgeniy Petrovskiy

(Syndesmos Eastern Europe Regional Representative)

From: Vstrecha Orthodox Student Journal, Nr. 3 (9), 1998

Ethno-phyletism and Orthodox Unity

As well as being a perversion of normal patriotic sentiment, racism is a real obstacle to cooperation between the Orthodox churches in the world and the worst enemy of the unity of the churches of the Orthodox East.

The predominance in the locally formed churches of the national character must be seen as responsible for … the dividing of peoples and churches. In principle such a division does not contradict the spirit of Christianity. But the principle of division by race, which came to prevail widely, assumed its worst possible form among some of these groups: that of pure racism or chauvinism, the worst enemy of peace, which destroys unity between the local Orthodox churches.2

… In reality, the Church organisation is based not on autocephaly, but chiefly on the principle, that one bishop stands for one church in one place. This, the local principle, makes quite plain by the unity and concord of the local church the unity of the new People of God, in which there is neither Jew or Greek, but a new creation in Christ.

— The Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church, by Metropolitan Maximus of Sardes, Thessaloniki, 1976

Orthodoxy and Identity

From a dogmatic and mystical point of view, the issue of Church and national identity is only a part of the great question of the relation of the Church with human history and cultural creation. However strange this may seem, after two thousand years of Christian history this question, notwithstanding its greatness and its actuality, has not yet found a conciliar answer within the Church. It has not found it, because it has not been raised in the Church. It has not been raised, because it has not been envisaged.

… The Eastern Orthodox non-humanistic world view experiences the tragedy of the “refusal of the world” with incomparably greater strength (than Western Christianity). Orthodox consciousness and the mysticism of Orthodox piety are deeply and essentially ascetic. The spirit of Palestinian, apostolic, eschatological Christianity, torn away from the concerns of history and resurrected in the spirit of monastic asceticism, still dominates in the heart of Orthodoxy. The century-long national-political inter-connectedness of Orthodox churches with Byzantine-style states didn’t shatter this intimate non-historicity of Orthodoxy.

… This radical asceticism of Orthodoxy seems to have little in common with its factual external history as a confession which is linked primarily, with almost pagan naivety to the life of specific nations, states and cultures. This cannot be explained by some positive inspiration of Orthodox mysticism and Orthodox ascetic piety on the tasks of human earthly history, but rather by a certain weakness and defenselessness of asceticism as such in all its forms. Christian asceticism knows an element of refusal of violent defence against evil.

… The Church should consider the values of national life according to the elementary analogy of the primacy of the spirit over the flesh. For Christianity, all is in second place to the mysteries of divine Revelation and the aims of the Kingdom of God. All other values are secondary and subject to spiritual and godly life, which is guarded by the Church. Lesser, relative values stand in opposition of the one greater and absolute value. The value of national origin is indisputable as well as the value of the self-affirmation of every individual personality, but they are relative values, easily changing into sinful egoism. They find their justification in their submission to the rule of absolute measures, the measures of the Church. From this point of view, relative values are unstable. In the judgement of the Church they may change into negative entities. Personal, natural egoism as well as national self-affirmation may from a relative good change, as a result of an orientation away from Christianity, into evil paganism.

What do we see in the reality of today? The patriarchal times when the national life of peoples would flourish and prosper under the good influence of the Church, have gone forever. The XIXth and particularly the XXth centuries have proved to be centuries of a new and stormy flourishing of national enthusiasms, but in a secular, lay and often simply an anti-Christian spirit. The recent self-affirming pathos of all small nations, not only in Europe but on all continents, is nothing but pagan nationalism. XIXth-century nationalism, although pagan in essence, in the great European nations still was only neutral in regard to the Church; it was anti-clerical and anti-church only as a result of practical and tactical clashes with the organised forces of the Church. (…) In the XXth century we witness a rather unexpected solidification of this anti-Christian lay spirit in some sort of religious paganism, with its own sort of mysticism, diametrically opposed to Christianity. Such is German racism with its resurrection of the religion of Thor, Odin and Wodan and Italian Fascism with its hysteric and artificial idolatry of the state and the physical Rome.

… In the face of this primitive and spiritually war-waging nationalism in the spirit of racism and fascism, the Church already has no grounds whatsoever for noble concessions. She is obliged to wage a tense war, if even defensive, against this demonic and perverse nationalism.

… The organisational task of the Orthodox churches is the gathering of the individual autocephalous churches, spread over tiny national areas, de facto submitted and sometimes enslaved by the state, into organised conciliar unions, capable of lifting up individual churches somewhat above the level of their nations. Fragmented as it is, Orthodoxy, particularly in our “communist” and “fascist” time, which loses no time being kind to any, let alone religious freedom, must hastily acquire some extra-territorial strength in its great ecclesial “monarchies” and ecumenical councils, as prescribed by the canons. The present moment demands for the Orthodox East to re-enter into the conciliar practice, mutual contact and extra-territorial unification, as a start by means of permanent inter-conciliar synods. This need is prescribed by the tasks of the Church as regards national life and the new dangers in this field which appear out of the forces of pagan nationalism.

— The Church and National Identity, by A. Kartachov, Paris, 1934

… While economic logic pushes in the direction of globalisation, interdependence and regional integration, political logic moves, in numerous regions, towards national fragmentation. This process is not accompanied by the decline of nationalisms. We are obliged to note that the global market and the universal Homo economicus don’t dissolve distinctive ethnic identities, either intra-national or supra-natural.

The paradox of globalisation, accompanying the development of a society of consumption and planet-wide entertainment, is that in producing homogenisation and uniformisation it exacerbates the need for distinction and recognition. The more individuals — and peoples — look alike, the more they will seek to underline their differences. The smaller the real differences are, the more their significance is underlined. To deny a similarity with the other may serve as a means for resurrecting a lost distinctive feature.

Citizenship is less and less a space for free encounters between persons. Men and women are often reduced to the roles assigned to them by the forces of the market or by those of neo-tribalism: from the one side, individuals defined by their needs and consumer capacities, from the other, the subjection of the individual to the interests — often pretended — of a community which is structured, in its head, by opposition to others.

Between relativist consumerism, including the religious level, and the re-appearance of ethnic or communitarian fanaticism, Orthodoxy is called to make its way to the future.

— Reflections on the Orthodox Identity in Today’s World, by Tarek Mitri3, Speech at the 10th congress of the Orthodox Fellowship in Western Europe, Paray-le-Monial 1999

Movements for the reaffirmation of religious identity have undergone a considerable change between 1975 and 1990. In fifteen years they have succeeded in transforming the confused reaction of their adherents to the ‘crisis of modernity’ into plans for rebuilding the world, and in those plans their holy scriptures provide the basis for tomorrow’s society. These movements have arisen in a world which has lost the assurance born in scientific and technological progress since the 1950’s. Just as the barriers of poverty, disease and inhuman working conditions seemed to be yielding, the population explosion, the spread of AIDS, pollution and the energy crises burst upon the scene — and all of these scourges lent themselves to presentation in apocalyptic terms. During the same period the great atheist messianic ideology of the twentieth century, communism, which had left its mark on most of the social utopias, went into its death throes, and finally succumbed in the autumn of 1989 when its most potent symbol, the Berlin Wall, was destroyed.

The Christian, Jewish and Muslim movements we have been observing are to be viewed in this dual perspective. Their first task was to fix labels on to the confusion and disorder in the world as perceived by their adherents, breathing fresh life into the vocabulary and the categories of religious thought as applied to the contemporary world. Next they conceived plans for changing the social order so as to bring it into line with the commands and values of the Old Testament, the Koran or the Gospels; for as they saw it, nothing else could ensure the advent of a world of justice and truth.

These movements have a great deal in common beyond mere historical simultaneity. They are at one in rejecting a secularism that they trace back to the philosophy of the Enlightenment. They regard the vainglorious emancipation of reason from faith as the prime cause of all the ills of the twentieth century, the beginning of a process leading straight to Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism.

This radical challenge to the foundations of secular modernism is uttered by its own children, who have had access to today’s education. They see no contradiction between their mastery of science and technology and their acceptance of faith not bounded by the tenets of reason. In fact, people like Herman Branover consciously symbolise the fact that a ‘God fearing Jew’ can also be a ‘great scientist’. And the self-image favoured by Islamist militants is that of a girl student, muffled in a veil with only a slit for the eyes, bent over a microscope and doing research in biology.

All these movements agree that the modern secular city is now completely lacking in legitimacy. But while Christians, Muslims and Jews all consider that only a fundamental transformation in the organisation of society can restore the holy scriptures as the prime source of inspiration for the city of the future, they have differing ideas of what that city will be like. Each of these religious cultures has developed specific truths which, insofar as they provide the basis for a strong reapportion of identity, are mutually exclusive.

— The Revenge of God: the Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World, by Gilles Kepel

Peace

I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and I wish that it were already burning.” (Luke 12:49)

Jesus Christ claims that his mission is to cast fire upon the earth. This fire has come and it is burning. It is the fire of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of grace and truth, of peace and joy, of justice and all embracing love. This Spirit has come. And where He breathes, there is freedom. “For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).

The organisation Syndesmos exists to be a “bond” which binds together many men and movements in the single unity of the one divine Spirit, in the single burning flame of the one divine Fire. As a World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth, Syndesmos takes its name from the apostolic words: “be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond — Syndesmos — of peace” (Eph. 4:3).

The world is not in peace. Neither is it in unity. The spirit of this world, which burns from the black ghettos of Chicago to the streets of Paris, from the Holy Land in the Middle East to the jungles of Africa, this spirit is not the Spirit of unity and peace. It is not a bond which can pacify and unite. It is a barrier which can only divide and destroy.

But the firm belief of Syndesmos, and its only reason for existence, is that there is a Spirit, not as this world gives, which is a power, a unity and a peace. There is a Spirit which can burn in men and movements and can empower them to go beyond every spirit of this world. This is the Spirit which Christ gives, the fire which He has cast upon the earth. And Syndesmos desires, as its only consuming desire, to be alive and burning with this spiritual fire.

— Jesus Christ in a Changing World, report of the VIIth, Syndesmos General Assembly, Introductory message, by Albert Laham, Syndesmos president, Rattvik 1968

War

The Role of the Church in Wartime

… Without doubt, from the Christian point of view, war is an evil and a sin, against which the Church is obliged to struggle. Here the Church, listening as a doctor with a stethoscope to the sick heart of the nation, should gather all the strength of its super-human impassivity and evangelic purity of consciousness, in order to show, when in moments of passionate nationalistic taking up of arms, by its non-earthly, prophetic judgement and its authoritative voice, both to its own people, to the enemy and to all mankind the way towards higher justice and towards better, nobler means to achieve it than the iron ultima ratio. This is the super-humanly difficult service the Church must render.

— The Church and National Identity, by A. Kartachov, Paris, 1934

“Just,” or “Holy” Wars

Our Church insists that religion is like a “secret balm” which should not be used by just anyone or in order to spark armed conflict. This balm is a gift of God, given to soften hearts, to heal wounds and to help persons and peoples establish bonds of brotherhood among them.

— “We pray God that peace and justice may once more reign in the Balkans”, Archibishop Anastasios of Albania, Tirana, 1999

There was another heresy as well — spiritualist this time — which tried to juxtapose itself to the materialism of the “equipment war,” to infuse it with an artificial soul. This was the ideology of a “holy war,” or a “crusade.” It had several nuances; the struggle for democracies, for freedom, for human dignity, for Western culture, for Christian civilisation, eventually for divine justice. I say “heresy,” because these ideas, although often justified by themselves, were not founded upon a living experience, They did not spring forth of a deep and healthy spring which only could have transformed them into “ideas-forces.” These words also sounded false, as all that is abstract. They sounded false especially because they wanted to present as absolute secondary and relative concepts and values. For even Christian civilisation, as a civilisation, is nothing but a product, a realisation, the exterior manifestation of an absolute reality, which is the faith of the Christian people. Holy wars are not waged over cathedrals, theological summae or missals. These are but the clothing of the Church — the clothing of Christ that was divided by the soldiers at the feet of the Cross. As for the Church, which is the source of these secondary goods, she has no need of our material defence, of our childish sword. It is useless to renew the naive gesture of Peter who cut the ear of the slave in the garden of Getsemani… War is not waged over absolute values: this was the great error of all wars we call “religious,” the main cause of their inhuman atrocities. It is not waged either over relative values which are tried to make absolute, over abstract concepts which are granted a religious character. Whether we oppose the idol of the “pure race” by the other, more humane idols of rights, liberty, humanity, — all the same these would be idols as well, hypostated and absolutised concepts; it would always remain a war of idols, not a human war… Human war, the only just (for as far as a war may be called just), is a war over relative values which are known to be relative. It is a war in which man — a being called to an absolute destiny — sacrifices himself spontaneously, without hesitation, for a relative value, which he knows to be relative: the soil, the earth, the motherland. And this sacrifice acquires an absolute imperishable value for the human person.

— Seven Days on the Roads of France (June 1940), by Vladimir Lossky4, Paris, 1998, p. 21

Conlict Between Ethnic and Religious Communities

Civilisation identity will be increasingly important in the future, and the world will be shaped in large measures by the interaction among seven or eight major civilisations. These include Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilisation. The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilisations from one another.

… The processes of economic modernisation and social change throughout the world are separating people from long-standing local identities. They also weaken the nation state as a source of identity. In much of the world, religion has moved in to fill this gap, often in the form of movements that are labelled “fundamentalist”. Such movements are found in Western Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as in Islam. In most countries and most religions the people active in fundamentalist movements are young, college-educated, middle-class technicians, professionals and business persons. The “unsecularization of the world,” Georges Weigel has remarked, “is one of the dominant social facts of life in the late twentieth century.” The revival of religion, “La revanche de Dieu,” as Gilles Kepel labelled it, provides a basis for identity and commitment that transcends national boundaries and unites civilisations.

… Cultural characteristics and differences are less mutable and hence less easily compromised and resolved than political and economic ones. In the former Soviet Union, communists can become democrats, the rich can become poor and the poor rich, but Russians cannot become Estonians and Azeris cannot become Armenians. In class and ideological conflicts, the key question was “Which side are you on?” and people could and did choose sides and change sides. In conflicts between civilisations, the question is “What are you?” That is a given that cannot be changed. And as we know, from Bosnia to the Caucasus to the Sudan, the wrong answer to that question can mean a bullet in the head. Even more than ethnicity, religion discriminates sharply and exclusively among people. A person can be half-French and half-Arab and simultaneously even a citizen of two countries. It is more difficult to be half-Catholic and half-Muslim.

… As people define their identity in ethnic and religious terms, they are likely to see an “us”versus “them” relation existing between themselves and people of different ethnicity and religion. The end of ideologically defined states in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union permits traditional ethnic identities and animosities to come to the fore.

… The fault lines between civilisations are replacing the political and ideological boundaries of the Cold War as the flash points for crisis and bloodshed. The Cold War began when the Iron Curtain divided Europe politically and ideologically.

The Cold War ended with the end of the Iron Curtain. As the ideological division of Europe has disappeared, the cultural division of Europe between Western Christianity, on the one hand, and Orthodox Christianity and Islam, on the other, has re-emerged. The most significant dividing line in Europe, as William Wallace has suggested, may well be the eastern boundary of Western Christianity in the year 1500. This line runs along what are now the boundaries between Finland and Russia and between the Baltic states and Russia, cuts through Belarus and Ukraine separating the more Catholic western Ukraine from Orthodox eastern Ukraine, swings westward separating Transylvania from the rest of Romania, and then goes through Yugoslavia almost exactly along the line now separating Croatia and Slovenia from the rest of Yugoslavia. In the Balkans this line, of course, coincides with the historic boundaries of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. The peoples to the west and north of this line are Protestant or Catholic; they shared the common experiences of European history — feudalism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution; they are generally economically better off than the peoples to the east; and they may now look forward to increasing involvement in a common European economy and to the consolidation of democratic political systems. The peoples to the east and south of this line are Orthodox or Muslim; they historically belonged to the Ottoman or Tsarist empires and were only lightly touched by the shaping events in the rest of Europe; they are generally less advanced economically; they seem much less likely to develop stable democratic political systems. The Velvet Curtain of culture has replaced the Iron Curtain of ideology as the most significant dividing line in Europe. As the events in Yugoslavia show, it is not only a line of difference; it is also a line of bloody conflict.

… On the Eurasian continent, the proliferation of ethnic conflict, epitomised at the extreme in “ethnic cleansing,” has not been totally random. It has been most frequent and most violent between groups belonging to different civilisations. In Eurasia the great historic fault lines between civilisations are once more aflame. This is particularly true along the boundaries of the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc of nations from the bulge of Africa to central Asia. Violence also occurs between Muslims, on the one hand, and Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Birma and Catholics in the Philippines. Islam has bloody borders.

— The Clash of Cultures, by Samuel Huntington, from: Foreign Affairs, Volume 72 No.3, Summer 1993

Killing and Bloodshed

Not only the Jews crucified Christ. By their acts, Christians, or those who call themselves Christians, have in the long course of history crucified Christ, they have crucified Him by their anti-semitism as well, they have crucified Him by their hate and their acts of violence, by their service to the powerful of this world, by their changes and deformations of the truth of Christ in the name of their own interests. … [I]t is better, when Christ is directly and openly denied, then when His name is used as a cover to act in the interests of one own’s kingdom. When people curse and persecute Jews for having crucified Christ, they clearly stand on the point of view of blood feuds, which was characteristic of ancient peoples, including the Jewish people. But blood feuds are absolutely unacceptable for the Christian consciousness; [replacing comma with semicolon] it fully contradicts the Christian understanding of human personality, of personal dignity and personal responsibility. Moreover, the Christian consciousness accepts no form of vengeance, neither personal or hereditary. Feelings of vengeance are sinful and we should repent of [for “in”] them. Heredity, blood, vengeance; all this is completely alien to pure Christianity and is introduced into it from outside, from ancient paganism.

— Christianity and Anti-semitism (The Religious Destiny of Judaism), by N. Berdyayev, Paris, 1935, p. 20

State-Church relations

Incompatibility of the Church with Absolute Statehood

Ap. 13:1: The beast in the given case clearly indicates the state, not just in the sense of the state’s organisation of legal order, which assists mankind on its ways (about which the Apostle speaks, when he says “there is no authority, except from God”, Rom. 13:1), but totalitarian statehood, attempting to become the sole determining and all-fulfilling principle of human life. Such a state that falsely exaggerates its own importance, constitutes by the very same not just a pagan principle, but a demonic one, the earthly face of Satan or the multitude of his faces. Such a state as an earthly kingdom affronts the Kingdom of Christ, wages war against it, and by the force of things constitutes — consciously or unconsciously — an anti-Christian force, a tool of the “prince of this world,” his kingdom, and the heads of such states become his masks.

Only in the Revelation of the New Testament the antagonism and struggle between the Kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the prince of this world reach their final incompatibility, and this is specifically expressed in the Revelation of St. John. Other texts of the New Testament, such as the letters of the Apostles Paul and Peter (Rom. 13:1-7, Tit. 3:1, 1 Tim. 2:12, Petr. 2:13-17) search and find a certain measure of reconciliation with the state, its recognition as the rightful order of things, which guarantees external peace. The state, here, serves humanity as a means and is not an end in itself; it is submitted to the norms of morality. In this sense, indeed, it was possible to say: “There is no authority, except from God.” (…) When considering the Christian state — for as far as it has ever existed and can possibly exist — or more precisely, the state of the Christians, new boundaries and tasks appear, namely: serving Christian morality. However, such a service presupposes a certain spiritual equilibrium, where the state does not go beyond its own, legal tasks. Still even this situation always remains unstable; when the state crosses these boundaries, it turns into the beast.

In general, absolute states on earth are the image of man deified, of anti-Christianity, they are the incarnation of the spirit of the prince of this world, from whom it is said: “and to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority” (13:2). Even though in the days when the Revelation was written, this apparently referred to the Roman Empire as the image of state absolutism, today this may be applied to all varieties of this principle, to Bolshevism and racism (without even mentioning Japanese pagan deification of the Emperor and others). (…)

“And the whole earth followed the beast with wonder. Men worshipped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast saying, ‘Who is like beast, And who can fight against it?'” (13:4). It is difficult to add anything to the simplicity of these words, which may be applied to the totality of world history. Today’s tsarism, both the Russian and the Germanic type, in their own way are new and almost unexpected parallels of Roman absolutism, as is its victorious self-affirmation, which leads entire peoples which are under its power to a state of madness.

— Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John, by Fr. Sergi Boulgakov5, Paris, 194, p. 100-104

Compliance with Existing National and State Structures

Christianity and the Christian churches in many ways are obliged to repent, not only on (their handling of) the Jewish issue, but also on social matters, on war, on the constant compliance to the most negative state systems.

— Christianity and Anti-semitism (the religious destiny of Judaism), by N. Berdyayev, Paris, 1935, p.6

Using all forces of the spiritual battle with the sinful world for the defence of the soul from the attacks of sin, for the endeavour of passive suffering, asceticism renounces active participation in the things of this world; it accepts them as inevitable fact in the way that the laws of nature, harmed by sin, an the worldly sinful will of men arrange them. Accepting this, asceticism finds some consolation in nations and states that accept baptism and the seal of Christianity. Under this condition, their sinful earthly national existence finds an ideal and hope, just as every individual sinner: to throw from oneself, by means of repentance and asceticism, the weight of sin, to free oneself from corruption and to approach the boundaries of a kingdom which is neither earthly nor fleshly, but already heavenly and spiritual.

This is the logic of asceticism, in its every-day, prosaic historical existence, which creates the acceptance, typical for the Orthodox churches, of all existing local national regimes and even the submission to them. In fact, a compromise is achieved which is perceived by the majority as sufficiently founded in Orthodox dogma and mysticism. meanwhile, no clear motivation for such a compromise is provided for the theological consciousness.

Thus an internal paradox in the attitude of the Orthodox Church towards the interest of national life is created; having a tragic (negative towards things of the world, ed.) ascetic principle, we see a non-tragic, passive cohabitation with national interests. In addition, simple psychology, dominated as it is, speaking in biblical terms, by “flesh and blood”, easily brings forth the leading type of ecclesial nationalism and justification of narrow, local politics by the blessing of the Church. Instead of a tragic demand posed by an ascetic Church to the pagan and natural sphere of national motives and passions, we witness not only the forbearance and tolerance of morally imperfect ways of national politics by the Church, but even a direct service to these politics, going to the extremes of the temptations of opportunism and enslavement.

— The Church and National Identity, by A. Kartachov, Paris, 1934

Spiritual Warfare

For the first time, doubt took hold of my heart. The territory of France, its expanse in space and time is restricted, limited. Is there another stronghold, another soil, unchanging and fixed for ever, a space impenetrable by enemy invasions? Hasn’t is been said: “Do not fear enemies who can kill only the body, but rather fear those who, with the body, kill your soul?” Therefore, our only expanse free of enemy invasions, our only vital space, infinite in its richness and forces, we find in God. And thus our combat will be transposed to another terrain, it will become unlimited in new resources, forgotten for centuries but always present in our spiritual sub-soil. And then it will no longer be a material war which we will have lost, it will not even be the human war we have not yet lost, but which we may lose (for man may well be a hero, he always remains limited in his forces); it will be an interior combat where God will fight on our sides, against ourselves in a purifying and salutatory combat.

— Seven Days on the Roads of France (June 1940), by Vladimir Lossky, Paris, 1998, p. 34

endnotes for chapter 6:

1 The article reacts to the claims by the leader of the organisation “Russian National Unity,” Alexander Barkashov, that real Orthodoxy proclaims Christ to be the national, Aryan leader of the Russian people.

2 Schmemann writes that “Admitting the positive value of nationalism in Christianity, we must not fall into the trap of idealising history, fixing our eyes on the light, and shutting out what is dark. The progress and earthly life of the Church is not an idyll. On the contrary, it requires struggles and a vigilant ecclesial conscience… The danger of nationalism lies in its subconsciously altering the hierarchy of values, so that the nation no longer serves Christian justice, truth or itself, and no longer evaluates its life in accordance with these qualities. Instead, Christianity itself and the Church begin to be assessed and evaluated by the extent to which they serve the state, the nation, etc.” (A. Schmemann, Tserkov’ i tserkovnoye ustroistro, in Messager de l’Exarchat du Patriarche Russe en Europe Occidentale, March 1949, XIV). H. Alivizatos was no less perceptive when he wrote : “National and nationalistic theories and an exaggerated emphasis upon nationalism in the Church have caused the individual autocephalous churches to commit unacceptable acts which destroy the ecclesiastical organism by simply making it share the nationalistic inclinations of their own people… There is no doubt that exaggerated stress upon national churches has been detrimental to the integrity of Orthodoxy, and the various churches’ unrestricted involvement in national antagonisms has damaged the great basic principles of the Orthodox consciousness in the whole of ecclesiastical life and has deeply and seriously wounded the internal unity of Orthodoxy” (H. Alivizatos, Peri tis enotitos en tis orthodoxo Ekklisia), pp. 169-170

3 Tarek Mitri is Professor of Sociology at Balamand Orthodox University in Lebanon and Head of the Office on Inter-Religious Relations of the World Council of Churches in Geneva. He is a former member of the Executive Committee of Syndesmos.

4 This book, published in 1988, contains the notes taken by one of the leading Orthodox theologians of the XXth century, Vladimir Lossky, during his attempts to join the retreating French army in June 1940. The present passage starts denouncing the “heresy” of those who tried, during those first days of the war, to reduce the “war to an industrial enterprise, a matter of capital.”

5 Fr. Sergi Boulgakov, Dean of St. Sergius’ theological Academy in Paris, wrote this commentary of the Apocalypse during the first half of the Second World War. Started as notes for his lectures, he finished a draft of the book version shortly before his death in 1944.

marginal quotation from chapter 6:

The point of view idea that there is a latent conflict between Islam and Christianity in Kosovo, and that this conflict has become one of the cause of the war, is completely wrong. Those responsible for this crisis have not acted in the name of a given religion. On the contrary, they have been raised and educated under a regime which had a deep contempt for religion. On the other hand, everyone knows that the vast majority of the NATO member countries belong the Christian tradition. It is very dangerous to exploit religious ideas and words in armed conflict. Any crime committed in the name of a religion is a crime against religion itself. Our Church insists that religion is like a “secret balm” which should not be used by just anyone or in order to spark armed conflict. This balm is a gift of God, given to soften hearts, to heal wounds and to help persons and peoples establish bonds of brotherhood among them.

— “We pray God that peace and justice may once more reign in the Balkans”, Archbishop Anastasios of Albania

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For the Peace From Above — Table of Contents

Chapter 10: Essays and Texts

ESSAYS AND TEXTS

endnotes for chapter 10

— apart from the Harakas essay, which has its own section of endnotes

1 Is. 9:6

2 Heb. 7:2

3 Col. 1:20

4 Matt. 24:6

5 1 Thess. 5:23

6 1 Pet. 3:4

7 Jn. 17:11

8 Heb. 12:14

9 Matt. 5:9

10 Mk. 9:50

11 Rom. 12:18; 2 Cor. 13:11

12 Tim. 2:1-2

13 Letter to Diognetes 6:1

14 Aristides, Apologia 15

15 Matt. 5:13

16 Lev. 2:13

17 Ex. 19:6, cf. Rev. 1:6;1 Pet.2:9

18 St Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians, 19:2-3

19 St. Basil, Letter 203, 2

20 Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names 11:5

21 Letter of Barnabas, 21,9

22 Jn. 14:27

23 Phil. 4:7

24 Pedagogus 2:2

25 Exhortation to the Pagans, 11

26 St Basil, Letter 11

27 1st Apologia 39, 3

28 On the Crowns 11, 1-7

29 Apostolic Tradition, 16

30 Against Celsus 5, 33

31 14th Homily on Philippians, 8

32 83rd ‘Apostolic’ canon

33 3rd canon of the 4th Ecumenical Council; 10th Canon of the 7th E.C.

34 Letter to Monks, 3

35 Eulogy of Constantine, 2:2

36 Griechische Kreigsschriftsteller, Leipzig, 1855, vol. 2, p. 56

37 Edited, with an English translation, by the University of Pennsylvania

38 Festal Menaion, trans. M. Mary and Bp. Kallistos Ware, p. 148

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For the Peace From Above — Table of Contents

Practical questions…

How much does it cost?

I try to clear $1200 a day ($2500 for weekends) plus travel costs. Some hosts can manage more; sometimes I agree on less. While my default setting is yes, keep in mind the biblical injunction: “The laborer is worthy of his hire.” Also bear in mind that it isn’t just the time I’m speaking. A great many hours of preparation go into these trips. (Travel costs are shared out between hosts.)

Books

At least a few weeks beforehand, place an order with Orbis so that copies of my recent books can be on hand: The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, The Ladder of the Beatitudes, Praying With Icons, Living With Wisdom, and Love is the Measure. Orbis will send them at a bookseller discount with the right to return unsold books. To place an order, call the marketing department at Orbis: (914) 941-7636, ext. 2575. (For details about ordering my book on the resurrection of the Church in Albania, see the corresponding article.)

Promotional resources

If you need a speaker photo and/or a biography, two are available on this web site: “Jim Forest: an alphabet of his own design” — a short biography, and “Getting From There to Here” — a longer biography of Jim Forest.

What sort of accommodation is required?

I try to avoid hotels and, even more, motels, preferring to stay in a host family’s guest room.

Special dietary needs?

Apart from being on a low salt diet, I am not a fussy eater.

Other needs?

It is helpful to have some quiet times for prayer, reading and correspondence between speaking events. If an art museum is not too distant, and there is time to visit it, I always welcome such opportunities.

Becoming the Gospel: the example of four saints

by Jim Forest

We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.

mmaria3

These few words from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom were the underlying theme of all his books, lectures and sermons. To be a Christian is to devote one’s life to becoming the Gospel. The Gospel exists so that each of us can make of our lives a unique living translation of its stories, sayings and parables. Like no other book in the world, it is meant to be lived, to be lived in such a way that those who have not read the text might guess at least its major themes simply by knowing those who are absorbing the text into their lives.

Orthodox ritual goes to great lengths to draw our attention to the Gospel. This small book, containing only the texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, is enthroned on the altar. It is something we bow toward and often kiss. Side by side with the Cross, it is before us when we confess our sins. Held high, it is solemnly carried through the church in procession every week. It is decorated with relief icons. During services, it is not simply read but chanted so that the words of the Gospel might enter us more deeply.

Only a degree less important in the life of the Orthodox Church is our close attention to the lives of the saints, that is to those people who, to a remarkable degree, in some way became the Gospel. Each saint provides a unique translation of the Gospel. Each saint not only helps us see what the Gospel is about but also how diverse are the ways in which a person can become the Gospel. Each saint throws a fresh light on how the Gospel can be lived more fully in the particular circumstances of our lives.

I would like to look at the example given by several people newly recognized as saints: Mother Maria Skobtsova plus three others closely associated with her: the priest Dimitri Klepinin, her friend and collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky; and Mother Maria’s son, Yuri. On the first weekend of May, in the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky in Paris, their names were added to the Church’s calendar of saints.

Mother Maria Skobtsova was born in 1891 in Latvia — then part of the Russian Empire — and was given the name Elizaveta. She grew up near the Black Sea and later in St. Petersburg. Her childhood faith collapsed following her father’s death, but as a young adult her faith was gradually reborn. Liza prayed and read the Gospel and the lives of saints. While regarding herself as a socialist, it seemed to her that the real need of the people was not for revolutionary theories but for Christ. She wanted “to proclaim the simple word of God,” she told Alexander Blok in 1916. She was the first woman to study at the theological institute in St. Petersburg. After Lenin’s forces took power, she narrowly escaped summary execution by convincing a Bolshevik sailor that she was a friend of Lenin’s wife.

One of the many refugees who fled Russia during the civil war, by the time she reached Paris in 1923 she had finished one marriage and started another and was the mother of three.

One child, Nastia, died very young — the kind of death that visited many Russian families struggling to survive in France in those days. Liza’s monastic vocation is partly connected with Nastia’s death in the winter of 1926. During her month-long vigil at her daughter’s bedside, Liza came to feel how she had never known “the meaning of repentance.”

“Now I am aghast at my own insignificance,” she wrote. “I feel that my soul has meandered down back alleys all my life. And now I want an authentic and purified road. Not out of faith in life, but in order to justify, understand and accept death …. No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end and without exceptions. And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden.”

After Nastia’s burial, Liza became aware “of a new and special, broad and all-embracing motherhood.” She emerged from her mourning with a determination to seek “a more authentic and purified life.” She felt she saw a “new road before me and a new meaning in life, to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.”

In 1930, she was appointed traveling secretary of the Russian Student Christian Movement, work which put her into daily contact with impoverished Russian refugees in cities, towns and villages throughout France.

She took literally Christ’s words that he was always present in the least person. She wrote:

If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person, he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery …. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him — one that will demand his most dedicated efforts …. He will perceive that the divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil …. And he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image.

Metropolitan Anthony, then a layman in Paris studying to become a physician, recalled a story about her from this period that he heard from a friend:

She went to the steel foundry in Creusot, where many Russian refugees were working. She came there and announced that she was preparing to give a series of lectures on Dostoevsky. She was met with general howling: “We do not need Dostoevsky. We need linen ironed, we need our rooms cleaned, we need our clothes mended — and you bring us Dostoevsky!” And she answered: “Fine, if that is needed, let us leave Dostoevsky alone.” And for several days she cleaned rooms, sewed, mended, ironed, cleaned. When she had finished doing all that, they asked her to talk about Dostoevsky. This made a big impression on me, because she did not say: “I did not come here to iron for you or clean your rooms. Can you not do that yourselves?” She responded immediately and in this way she won the hearts and minds of the people.

While her work for the Russian Student Christian Movement suited her, she began to envision a new type of community, “half monastic and half fraternal,” which would connect spiritual life with service to those in need, in the process showing “that a free Church can perform miracles.”

Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, dean of the St. Sergius Theological Institute and her confessor, was a source of support. He was a confessor who respected the freedom of all who sought his guidance, never demanding obedience, never manipulating. Another key figure in her life was her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy. He was the first one to suggest to Liza the possibility of becoming a nun. Assured by him that she would be free to develop a new type of monasticism, engaged in the world and marked by the “complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds,” in March 1932 Liza was professed as a nun, receiving the name Maria. Her goal was to create a model of what she called “monasticism in the world.”

Here again there is an interesting impression by Metropolitan Anthony of what Mother Maria was like in those days:

She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time in monastic clothes. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse and I saw: in front of a cafe, on the pavement, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.

Mother Maria’s intention was “to share the life of paupers and tramps,” but how she would do so was not yet clear. She knew that it could not be a life of withdrawal from the sufferings of the world. “Everyone is always faced,” she wrote, “with the necessity of choosing between the comfort and warmth of an earthly home, well protected from winds and storms, and the limitless expanse of eternity, which contains only one sure and certain item … the Cross.”

With financial help and the encouragement of Metropolitan Evlogy, she started her first house of hospitality. As the building was unfurnished, the first night she wrapped herself in blankets and slept on the floor beneath the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. Donated furniture began arriving, and also guests, mainly unemployed young Russian women. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and instead slept on an iron bedstead in the basement. A room upstairs became a chapel while the dining room doubled as a hall for lectures and discussions.

When the first house proved too small, a new location was found — a house of three storeys at 77 rue de Lourmel in the fifteenth arrondisement, an area where many impoverished Russian refugees had settled. While at the former address she could feed only 25, here she could feed a hundred. A stable behind the house was made into a church. The house was a modern Noah’s Ark able to withstand the stormy waves the world was hurling its way. Here the guests could regain their breath “until the time comes to stand on their two feet again.”

As the work evolved, she rented other buildings, one for families in need, and another for single men. A rural property became a sanatorium.

Donations were given and quickly spent, yet the community purse was never empty for long. She sometimes recalled the Russian story of the ruble that could never be spent. Each time it was used, the change given back proved to equal a ruble. It was exactly this way with love, she said: No matter how much love you give, you never have less. In fact you discover you have more — one ruble becomes two, two becomes ten.

Mother Maria felt sustained by the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount: “Not only do we know the Beatitudes, but at this hour, this very minute, surrounded though we are by a dismal and despairing world, we already savor the blessedness they promise.”

Of course she had her critics. The house on rue de Lourmel, some charged, was an “ecclesiastical Bohemia.” There should be more emphasis on services, less on hospitality. But Mother Maria’s view was that “the Liturgy must be translated into life. It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.”

She had an unusual opinion regarding exile. In her view, far from being a catastrophe, it was a heaven-sent opportunity to renew the Church in ways that would have met with repression in her mother country:

What obligations follow from the gift of freedom which [in our exile] we have been granted? We are beyond the reach of persecution. We can write, speak, work, open schools …. At the same time, we have been liberated from age-old traditions. We have no enormous cathedrals, [jewel] encrusted Gospel books, no monastery walls. We have lost our environment. Is this an accident? Is this some chance misfortune?… In the context of spiritual life, there is no chance, nor are there fortunate or unfortunate epochs. Rather there are signs which we must understand and paths which we must follow. Our calling is a great one, since we are called to freedom.

She saw expatriation as an opportunity “to liberate the real and authentic.” It was similar to the opportunity given to the first Christians. “We must not allow Christ,” she said, “to be overshadowed by any regulations, any customs, any traditions, any aesthetic considerations, or even any piety.”

In September 1935 Orthodox Action was founded. The name was proposed by her friend Nicholas Berdyaev. The co-founders included the theologian Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, the historian George Fedotov, the literary scholar Constantine Mochulsky, her long-time co-worker Fedor Pianov, and Ilya Fondaminsky, the editor of various Russian expatriate journals who had once had a post in the Kerensky government. Metropolitan Evlogy was honorary president. Mother Maria was chairman. Its projects included hostels, rest homes, schools, camps, hospital work, help to the unemployed, assistance to the elderly, and publication of books and pamphlets. By now many co-workers were involved.

While many valued what she and her co-workers were doing, there were others who were scandalized with the shabby nun who was so uncompromisingly devoted to the duty of hospitality that she would leave a church service to answer the door bell. “For church circles we are too far to the left,” Mother Maria noted, “while for the left we are too church-minded.”

Following the departure for England of the first chaplain, Fr. Lev Gillet, in October 1939, Metropolitan Evlogy sent another priest to rue de Lourmel: Father Dimitri Klepinin, then 35 years old. He had been born in Russia in 1904. He came to Paris from Belgrade in 1925 to study at the St. Sergius Theological Institute. Like Mother Maria, he was a spiritual child of Father Sergei Bulgakov. A man of few words, great modesty and a profound love of the Liturgy, Father Dimitri proved to be a major partner in Mother Maria’s work.

The last phase of the life of Mother Maria and her co-workers — these now included her son Yuri — was shaped by World War II and Germany’s occupation of France.

Paris fell on the 14th of June 1940. France capitulated a week later. With defeat came greater poverty and hunger for many people. Local authorities in Paris declared the house at rue Lourmel an official food distribution point.

Paris was now a prison. “There is the dry clatter of iron, steel and brass,” wrote Mother Maria. “Order is all.” Russian refugees were among the particular targets of the occupiers. In June 1941, a thousand were arrested, among them her friend Ilya Fondaminsky. His long delayed baptism occurred within the makeshift Orthodox chapel at the prison camp in Compiegne. He died at Auschwitz the following year.

When the Nazis issued special identity cards for those of Russian origin living in France, Mother Maria and Father Dimitri refused to comply, though they were warned that those who failed to register would be regarded as citizens of the USSR — thus enemy aliens — and be punished accordingly.

Early in 1942, Jews began to knock on the door at rue de Lourmel asking Father Dimitri if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The names of those supposedly baptized were duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo. Father Dimitri was convinced that in such a situation Christ would do the same.

In June the Jews of occupied France were ordered to wear the yellow star.

There were, of course, Christians who said that the anti-Jewish laws being imposed had nothing to do with Christians and therefore this was not a Christian problem. “There is no such thing as a Christian problem,” replied Mother Maria. “Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the Star. The age of confessors has arrived.”

In July Jews were forbidden access to nearly all public places while shopping by Jews was limited to one hour per day. A week later, there was a mass arrest. Nearly 13,000 Jews, two-thirds of them children, were brought to a sports stadium less than a mile from rue de Lourmel where they were held for five days before being transported to Auschwitz.

Mother Maria had often regarded her monastic robe as a God-send in aiding her work. Now her nun’s robes opened the way for her to enter the stadium. Here she worked for three days trying to comfort the children and their parents, distributing what food she could bring in, and even managing to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins.

The house at rue de Lourmel was bursting with people, many of them Jews. She told Berdyaev that, if anyone came to the house searching for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

Father Dimitri, Mother Maria, Yuri and their co-workers set up routes of escape to the unoccupied south — complex and dangerous work. An escaped Russian prisoner of war was also among those assisted. A local resistance group helped secure the food that was needed.

On February 8, 1943, Nazi security police entered the house Lourmel and found a letter in Yuri’s pocket in which Fr. Dimitri was asked to provide a Jew with a false baptismal document. Yuri was arrested, and Fr. Dimitri the next day. Under interrogation he made no attempt to hide his beliefs. Called a “Jew lover,” he responded by pointing to the cross he wore. “Do you know this Jew?” he asked. For this he was struck on the face.

Mother Maria’s arrest followed. At first she was confined at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris in the same building where Yuri, Father Dimitri and their co-worker of many years, Feodor Pianov, were being held. Pianov later recalled the scene of Father Dimitri in his torn cassock being taunted as a Jew. One of the SS officers began to beat him while Yuri stood nearby weeping. Father Dimitri consoled him, reminding him that “Christ withstood greater mockery than this.”

In April they were transferred to Compiegne. Mother Maria was able to have a final meeting with Yuri. Hours later, Mother Maria was sent in a sealed cattle truck to the Ravensbrück camp in Germany. In a letter Yuri sent to the community at rue de Lourmel, he said his mother told him “that I must trust in her ability to bear things and in general not to worry about her. Every day [Fr. Dimitri and I] remember her at the proskomidia … We celebrate the Eucharist and receive communion each day.”

“Thanks to our daily Eucharist,” he reported in another letter, “our life here is quite transformed and to tell the honest truth, I have nothing to complain of. We live in brotherly love. Dima [Fr. Dimitri] … is preparing me for the priesthood. God’s will needs to be understood. After all, this attracted me all my life and in the end it was the only thing I was interested in, though my interest was stifled by Parisian life and the illusion that there might be ‘something better’ — as if there could be anything better.”

For nine months the three men remained together at Compiegne. “Without exaggeration,” Pianov wrote after being liberated in 1945, “I can say that the year spent with [Father Dimitri] was a godsend. I do not regret that year…. From my experience with him, I learned to understand what enormous spiritual, psychological and moral support one man can give to others as a friend, companion and confessor.”

On December 16, Yuri and Father Dimitri were deported to Buchenwald in Germany, followed several weeks later by Pianov. In January 1944, Father Dimitri and Yuri were sent to another camp, Dora, about 20 miles away. On the 6th of February, Yuri was “dispatched for treatment” — a euphemism meaning sentenced to death. Four days later Fr. Dimitri died of pneumonia.

A final letter from Yuri made its way to rue de Lourmel: “I am absolutely calm, even somewhat proud to share mama’s fate. I promise you I will bear everything with dignity. Whatever happens, sooner or later we shall all be together. I can say in all honesty that I am not afraid of anything any longer…. I ask anyone whom I have hurt in any way to forgive me. Christ be with you!”

At Ravensbrück, Mother Maria endured for two years, an achievement in part explained by her long experience of ascetic life. A fellow prisoner who survived recalls how Mother Maria she would recite passages from the New Testament: “Together we would provide a commentary on the texts and then meditate on them. Often we would conclude with Compline… This period seemed a paradise to us.”

By March 1945, Mother Maria’s condition was critical. On the 30th of March — Good Friday, as it happened — she entered into eternal life. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance.

Regarding her last day, accounts vary. According to one, she was simply one of the many selected for death that day. According to another, she took the place of a fellow prisoner, a Jew. Her friend Jacqueline Pery wrote afterward:

“It is very possible that [Mother Maria] took the place of a frantic companion. It would have been entirely in keeping with her generous life. In any case she offered herself consciously to the holocaust … thus assisting each one of us to accept the cross …. She radiated the peace of God and communicated it to us.”

Four saints, all victims of one of the ideological insanities that destroyed so many millions of people in the 20th century.

In them, we see an extraordinary example of what perhaps could be called “the sacrament of the open door.”

Recently my wife asked me what is the most important thing in our house. I thought for a moment, then mentioned certain books and icons. “No,” she said, “it is the front door. Everything depends on how we open the door. Everything depends on hospitality.”

It was a startling thought. I’m sure all the newly canonized saints said very similar things many times. Indeed in one of her essays Mother Maria uses the term “the asceticism of the open door.”

Controversial in life, Mother Maria remains a subject of contention to this day and I expect this controversy will continue even now that she has been recognized as a saint. While clearly she lived a life of heroic virtue and is among the martyrs of the twentieth century, her verbal attacks on nationalistic and tradition-bound forms of religious life still raise the blood pressure of many Orthodox Christians. St. Maria of Paris, as perhaps she will now be called, remains an indictment of any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings.

All saints show us in certain ways what it means to become the Gospel. From such people, even if we knew nothing at all about the words of Christ, we could guess the outline of Christ’s teaching simply by the example given by these dedicated followers. Each of their lives provides a translation of the Gospel into the circumstances of their vocation and time.

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. This is a shortened version of a talk delivered at the Sourozh diocesan conference held in Oxford in May. The main source of biographical material used in this text is Fr. Serge Hackel’s biography of Mother Maria, Pearl of Great Price, published in Britain by Darton Longman & Trodd and, in America, by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.