Tag Archives: love

Where Love Is Never Treason

by Jim Forest

mosaic in Chora Church, Istanbul
mosaic in Chora Church, Istanbul

One day Jesus asked the question, “Do people gather figs from thistles?” The answer is of course no––you harvest what you plant. Plant thistles and thistles take root and thistles they become. If you want to grow figs, you need to start with fig seeds. With this question, Jesus implicitly ridicules the idea that good can be brought about by evil means. Violence is not the means of creating a peaceful society. Vengeance does not pave the road to forgiveness. Spousal abuse does not lay the foundation for a lasting marriage. Rage is not a tool of reconciliation.

Yet, while figs do not grow from thistles, in the world of human choice and action, a positive change of attitude and direction is always a possibility. Sinners are the raw material of saints. The New Testament is crowded with accounts of transformations.

In the Church of the Savior in the Chora district of Istanbul, there is a fourteenth-century Byzantine mosaic that, in a single image, tells a story of an unlikely transformation: the conversion of water into wine for guests at a wedding feast in the village of Cana. In the background Jesus––his right hand extended in a gesture of blessing––stands side by side with his mother. In the foreground we see a servant pouring water from a smaller jug into a larger one. The water leaves the first jug a pale blue and tile-by-tile becomes a deep purple as it reaches the lip of the lower jug. “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana, in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

This “first sign” that Jesus gave is a key to understanding everything in the Gospel. Jesus is constantly bringing about transformations: blind eyes to seeing eyes, withered limbs to working limbs, sickness to well being, guilt to forgiveness, strangers to neighbors, enemies to friends, slaves to free people, armed men to disarmed men, crucifixion to resurrection, sorrow to joy, bread and wine to himself. Nature cannot produce figs from thistles, but God is doing this in our lives all the time. God’s constant business in creation is making something out of nothing. As a Portuguese proverb declares, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

Chora church, Istanbul

The convert Paul is an archetype of transformation. Paul, formerly a deadly adversary of Christ’s followers, becomes Christ’s apostle and his most tireless missionary, crisscrossing the Roman Empire, leaving behind him a trail of young churches that endure to this day. It was a miracle of enmity being turned to friendship, and it happened in a flash of time too small to measure, a sudden illumination. Witnessing the first deacon, Stephen, being stoned to death in Jerusalem must have been a key moment in setting the stage for Paul’s conversion.

Peter is another man who made a radical about-face. Calling him away from his nets, Christ made the fisherman into a fisher of men. At the Garden of Gethsemane, the same Peter slashed the ear from one of those who had come to arrest Jesus. Far from commending Peter for his courage, Jesus healed the wound and commanded Peter to lay down his blood-stained weapon: “Put away your sword for whoever lives by the sword shall perish by the sword.” For the remainder of his life, Peter was never again a threat to anyone’s life, seeking only the conversion of opponents, never their death. Peter became a man who would rather die than kill.

How does such a conversion of heart take place? And what are the obstacles?

It was a question that haunted the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who for years struggled to turn from aristocrat to peasant, from rich man to poor man, from former soldier to peacemaker, though none of these intentions was ever fully achieved. As a child Tolstoy was told by his older brother Nicholas that there was a green stick buried on their estate at the edge of a ravine in the ancient Zakaz forest. It was no ordinary piece of wood, said Nicholas. Carved into its surface were words “which would destroy all evil in the hearts of men and bring them everything good.” Leo Tolstoy spent his entire life searching for the revelation. Even as an old man he wrote, “I still believe today that there is such a truth, that it will be revealed to all and will fulfill its promise.” Tolstoy is buried near the ravine in the Zakaz forest, the very  place where he had sought the green stick.

Were we to discover it, my guess is that the green stick would probably turn out to bear a three-word sentence we have often read but have found so difficult that we have reburied it in a ravine within ourselves: “Love your enemies.”

Twice in the Gospels, first in Matthew and then in Luke, Jesus is quoted on this remarkable teaching, unique to Christianity:

You have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same?

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and to him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your coat as well. Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods, do not ask them again. As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

Perhaps we Christians have heard these words too often to be stunned by their plain meaning, but to those who first heard Jesus, this teaching would have been astonishing and controversial. Few would have said “amen.” Some would have shrugged their shoulders and muttered, “Love a Roman soldier? You’re out of your mind.” Zealots in the crowd would have considered such teaching traitorous, for all nationalisms thrive on enmity. Challenge nationalism, or speak against enmity in too specific a way, and you make enemies on the spot.

Nationalism is as powerful as an ocean tide. I recall an exchange during the question period following a talk opposing the Vietnam War that I gave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, back in 1968. I had recently been involved in an act of war resistance that would soon result in my spending a year in prison, but for the moment I was free on bail. During the question period, an angry woman holding a small American flag stood up and challenged me to put my hand over my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I said that flags ought not to be treated as idols and suggested instead that all of us rise and join in reciting the Our Father, which we did. Her anger seemed to recede a bit but I suspect in her eyes I was a traitor. I had failed her patriotism test.

We tend to forget that the country in which Jesus entered history and gathered his first disciples was not the idyllic place Christmas cards have made of it, a quiet pastoral land populated with attractive sheep, colorfully dressed shepherds and tidy villages crowning fertile hilltops. It was a country enduring military occupation in which most Jews suffered and where anyone perceived as a dissident was likely to be executed. In Roman-ruled Palestine, a naked Jew nailed to a cross was not an unfamiliar sight. To Jesus’ first audience, enemies were numerous, ruthless and close at hand.

Not only were there the Romans to hate, with their armies and idols and emperor-gods. There were the enemies within Israel, not least the tax collectors who extorted as much money as they could, for their own pay was a percentage of the take. There were also Jews who were aping the Romans and Greeks, dressing––and undressing––as they did, all the while scrambling up the ladder, fraternizing and collaborating with the Roman occupiers. And even among those religious Jews trying to remain faithful to tradition, there were divisions about what was and was not essential in religious law and practice as well as heated arguments about how to relate to the Romans. A growing number of Jews, the Zealots, saw no solution but violent resistance. Some others, such as the ascetic Essenes, chose the strategy of monastic withdrawal; they lived in the desert near the Dead Sea where neither the Romans nor their collaborators often ventured.

No doubt Jesus also had Romans and Rome’s agents listening to what he had to say, some out of curiosity, others because it was their job to listen. From the Roman point of view, the indigestible Jews, even if subdued, remained enemies. The Romans regarded this one-godded, statue-smashing, civilization-resisting people with amusement, bewilderment and contempt––a people well deserving whatever lashes they received. Some of those lashes would have been delivered by the Romans in blind rage for having been stationed in this appalling, uncultured backwater. Judaea and Galilee were not sought-after postings for Roman soldiers––or for the Roman Prefect at the time, Pontius Pilate.

Jesus was controversial. Not only were his teachings revolutionary, but the more respectable members of society were put off by the fact that many drawn to him were people who had lived scandalous lives: prostitutes, tax collectors, and even a Roman officer who begged Jesus to heal his servant. The Gospel says plainly that Jesus loved sinners, and that created scandal.

Icon in the Church of Panagia Dexla in Thessalonica, Greece

Many must have been impressed by his courage––no one accused Jesus of cowardice––but some would have judged him foolhardy, like a man putting his head in a lion’s mouth. While Jesus refused to take up weapons or sanction their use, he kept no prudent silence and was anything but a collaborator. He did not hesitate to say and do things that made him a target. Perhaps the event that assured his crucifixion was what he did to the money-changers within the Temple precincts in Jerusalem. He made a whip of cords, something which stings but causes no wounds, and set the merchants running, meanwhile overturning their tables and scattering their coins. Anyone who disrupts business as usual will soon have enemies.

Many devout people were also dismayed by what seemed to them his careless religious practice, especially not keeping the Sabbath as strictly as many Pharisees thought Jews should. People were not made for the Sabbath, Jesus responded, but the Sabbath made for people. Zealots hated him both for not being a Zealot and for drawing away people who might have been recruited. Those who led the religious establishment were so incensed that they managed to arrange his execution, pointing out to the Romans that Jesus was a trouble maker who had been “perverting the nation.” It was the Romans who both tortured Jesus and carried out his execution.

Any Christian who believes Jesus to be God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who entered history not by chance but purposefully, at an exact moment and chosen place, becoming fully human as the child of the Virgin Mary, will find it worthwhile to think about the Incarnation happening just then, not in peaceful times but in a humiliated, over-taxed land governed by brutal, bitterly resented occupation troops. Jesus entered by birth, lived in, and was crucified and raised from the dead in a land of extreme enmity.

Transposing Gospel events into our own world and time, many of us would find ourselves alarmed and shocked by the things Jesus said and did, for actions that seem admirable in an ancient narrative might be judged unwise and untimely, if not insane, if they occurred in equivalent circumstances here and now. Love our enemies? Does that mean loving criminals, murderers, and terrorists? Call on people to get rid of their weapons? Apprentice ourselves to a man who fails to say a patriotic word or wave a single flag? Many would say such a man had no one to blame for his troubles but himself.

It was a big step, and a risky one, to become one of his disciples. Had you lived in Judaea or Galilee when the events recorded in the Gospel were happening, are you sure you would have wanted to be identified with him?  IC

This is the first chapter from Jim Forest’s new book, Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment, being published by Orbis Books in September 2014. Jim is International Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment

Loving-Our-Enemies-cover-mediumLoving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest CommandmentJim Forest, Orbis Books, 2014, 160 pp

reviewed by Pieter Dykhorst

Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment may sound like the start of one of those tough theology lessons you want to dodge because you just don’t want to go through the pain of failing the exam. But it isn’t. Jim Forest isn’t a theologian—not in the way most of us think of them anyway—but somethi

ng undeniably of the theological arts resides in good story telling, and Jim is a first rate storyteller. Mixing theology up with stories is like giving medicine with a spoon full of sugar. Loving Our Enemies is filled with stories that make the medicine go down, stories of those who were compelled by Jesus loving them—we all start out his enemies—to begin loving their own enemies.

But Jim doesn’t rely solely on story telling. He clearly understands that “thou shalt” may be the least compelling start to a moral lesson if changing lives is the aim. Each chapter delivers what the book promises—a reflection, a devotion really, on the theme of actively loving our enemies despite how we may feel about them, the obstacles along the way, the hope and joy inherent in the effort, and the promise of potentially converting enemies to friends though there are no guarantees. By the time you finish, you will come to believe—you will have arrived there unawares somewhere in the middle— it is not only right and necessary but possible and desirable to love your enemies.

How does the reader get there? It’s fine to know who our enemies are—Jim defines them all the way down to the the one staring at us each morning in the mirror—and that we should love them, but that’s barely the start. Inspiration or feeling aren’t enough either. The subject isn’t just hard, it’s the hardest, too hard for any of us to accomplish on our own, and Jim knows that. So do we. Conversion, transformation, being made into new creatures for whom the hardest love is possible is what is wanted. This is the aim of the book, and each chapter takes the reader one step closer to going all in.

The essential oil of Christian theology is derived from the stories Jesus told, and by his life, death, and resurrection, he illustrated them, making theology something of a practical art. The reflections of Loving Our Enemies are about the possibility of transformation when knowledge, need, and inspiration move us to choice and action. That is when the anointing oil is applied and change takes place. Loving Our Enemies is about imitating what Jesus did and what many of his followers have been doing till now, and receiving the same grace they did to become new creatures capable of love.

“Making friends of enemies––and making choices not driven by enmity–– happens thanks not only to an inner act of will but still more to the grace we receive from the Holy Spirit. The word grace is often used to describe the transformed state of being that occurs at moments when God enters into our conscious lives. While the obstacles within ourselves often seem impossible to overcome—deeply entrenched boredom, indifference, prejudice, anger and hatred—the wind of grace can suddenly blow away walls that seemed immoveable and impenetrable. We can speak of “graced moments” when we see another person in such a light that we realize that, until that moment, we were blind. We “saw” but in so superficial and limited a way that we were unaware of God’s presence in that other life. The other was more a thing than a person.

“Invariably those graced occasions when God breaks through in us are turning points. We are changed and, even if held captive within the stone walls of a prison, we experience a deep freedom and unspeakable happiness. For the rest of our lives we know that what the French writer Leon Bloy said is true: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”

Ultimately, we don’t need to be convinced we have enemies, we need to know what to do with them. We need strategies, and Loving Our Enemies is about the hardest strategy, the counterintuitive strategy of love, introduced by Jesus to a desperate race wrongly convinced the only way to successfully deal with enemies is to neutralize, defeat, or eliminate them.

The book covers the tools needed for the journey: praying for enemies, confession, acts of mercy, regularly receiving communion, turning the other cheek, and more. All are amply illustrated by the lives of real people—many you’ll recognize, some appear frequently in Jim’s writing, a few might surprise you, and some you’ll likely meet for the first time. In many ways, in fact, Loving Our Enemies is not unlike Jim’s other books, but there is a key difference for me. More than any of his others, this book seems to contain more of the essential oil anointing Jim’s own life—I get the feeling as I read each chapter that I’m reading the words of someone who is beginning to close the circle, that Jim is now telling the lessons from his own life and using others’ stories to illustrate. I find few things more compelling than an old man telling his own story, having put-up as we say, but making me feel like it’s not about him.

Models of Self-Emptying Love

Fr. Alexander Webster

In imperial Russia several writers, among them Fyodor Dostoevsky, captured “the mind of the Church” on the issue of war and peace — at least that part of the Orthodox mind that upholds nonviolence, nonresistance, and universal forgiveness as moral and spiritual ideals: the “kenotic” model.

The Greek word on which the concept of kenoticism is based (kenein, to empty) appears only five times in the New Testament and only once in the sense that has become associated with kenosis. St. Paul declares in Philippians 2:6-7 that “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” The meaning of “empty” is metaphoric, suggesting voluntary humiliation. The same idea is present in the prologue to the Gospel of St. John, where the Word “came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:11), as well as in Hebrews 2:14-18, where Christ is referred to as being “made like his brethren in every respect” and having “suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.” Kenosis entails Jesus Christ’s willingness to identify with His human creation even to the extent of suffering unjustly.

Christ’s kenotic role is not, however, characterized by pathos alone. For a triumphant vindication of His absolute selflessness awaits the Lord at the end of His redemptive act. In the same text in which St. Paul employs the verb kenein, he declares about Jesus: “Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.” (Philippians 2:9) The Johannine imagery of Jesus being “lifted up from the earth” refers not only to Jesus’ eventual visible manifestation of glory through the resurrection but also to the “lifting up” of Christ on the cross, where victory was hidden in seeming defeat and the fullness of redemption contained in the last measure of selfless devotion.

Kenoticism was prominent in Kyivan Rus’. George Fedotov remarks that the Saints Boris and Gleb “created in Russia a particular… order of ‘sufferers,’ the most paradoxical order of the Russian saints.” Boris and Gleb — the voluntary, nonresistant sufferers for their evil brother’s designs — have been held in special esteem since their martyrdom in 1015 in imitation of Christ’s Passion.

Russian kenoticism was the object of a revival following the death of Tsar Peter I in 1725. Nadejda Gorodetzky observed that the “kenotic mood” was expressed through “meekness, self-abasement, voluntary poverty, humility, obedience, nonresistance, acceptance of suffering and death” in imitation of Christ. Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow (1782-1867) always referred to the kenotic passage in Philippians in his Christmas sermons on the Incarnation of the Son of God. Archimandrite Alexis Bukharev (1822-1871) often urged his fellow Russians to follow the “humiliated Lamb” and attempted to lead his own life as a “fool for Christ.”

Professor M.M. Tareev (1866-1934) of the Moscow Theological Academy honored the popular devotion to a “God’s man, humiliated and suffering.” In Foundations of Christianity, published on the eve of the Revolution, Tareev directly linked the doctrine of kenoticism to a pacifist emphasis on nonviolence and nonresistance. The Church, he argued, “cannot conquer the world in the Christian spirit unless by the victory of meekness.” The Sermon on the Mount occupied the center of his moral theology and represented for Tareev, as Gorodetzky observed, that “love which extends to the form of nonresistance.” Given “the duty of voluntary death” to which all followers of Christ are called, a Christian, in Tareev’s estimation, could only refuse to engage in violence against other human beings without exception. If the freedom to make of oneself a willing sacrifice were a moral necessity, then war and capital punishment were unmitigated evils that violated the freedom of mankind.

St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

Canonized in 1861, the mystical works of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (1722-1783) became standard texts in Russian seminaries and were widely read beyond theological schools. An inspiration to Dostoevsky, St. Tikhon was one of the models for Elder Zossima in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

St. Tikhon taught kenoticism in word and deed. Fr. Georges Florovsky referred to “his unremitting concentration on the memory and contemplation of Christ’s sufferings” even to the point of falling at times “into a helpless torpor, confinement, and immobility, when everything around him was dark, empty, and unresponsive.” Nadejda Gorodetzky observed that the saint believed that the true basis of Christianity was the “voluntary self-abasement of Christ, both in His premundane life as the Son of God and in His earthly life.”

Perhaps the best testimony of St. Tikhon’s practice of kenoticism is the memoirs of one of his monk servants at the Zadonsk monastery, Ivan Yefimov. Yefimov wrote that during his first few years at Zadonsk, St. Tikhon “had a violent temper” and punished his attendants severely “for the slightest fault.” But the saint prayed to God for some measure to teach him patience and humility. In a dream about an infant in a church the saint was slapped on the left cheek by the child with such force that the saint awoke. He deemed the dream a sign from God and henceforth “began to acquire patience and humility.” Whenever he rebuked his peasant servants such as his cook and suspected that he had offended the attendant, the saint “would bow before him, asking to be forgiven.”

Another story by Yefimov illustrates how deeply this spiritual transformation affected those around St. Tikhon:

One day the saint heard of a squire who mistreated his serfs. His Grace intervened and betook himself to the lord of that estate in order to remonstrate with him. The hot-blooded nobleman started to dispute. The Bishop answered him gently but firmly. The anger of the nobleman grew, and finally he forgot himself so far as to strike the Bishop on the cheek. His Grace then left the nobleman’s house. But on his way, true to the evangelical precept, he resolved to return to the man who had insulted him and to beg forgiveness for “having led him into such a temptation.” So, going back, he fell at the feet of his host. The story goes on to say that this unexpected act of the pastor who knew no anger so deeply impressed the nobleman that he himself fell on his knees at the Bishop’s feet, imploring forgiveness. From that day on his behavior toward his serfs was completely altered.

Elements of this anecdote apparently inspired Dostoevsky in his characterizations of Prince Mishkin in The Idiot (the slap in the face) and the Elder Zossima (prostrating himself before Dimitri Karamazov) in The Brothers Karamazov.

In his letters and treatises St. Tikhon revealed an unyielding kenotic commitment to voluntary suffering, forgiveness, nonviolence and nonresistance. He exhorted those imprisoned for failure to pay debts: “Remember that you are co-sufferers with the martyrs and confessors, and Christ our Lord was bound for our sins. After this you will reign with Christ with whom you suffer.” Always mindful that “a vindictive heart” or a state of anger pleases Satan more than any other passion, St. Tikhon counseled unreserved forgiveness: “We offend one another; therefore, we must forgive one another.” He knew in his heart that reconciliation is of far more lasting value than enmity toward another: “If you make peace with him, your love will be remembered until you die.” In his will the saint added, “I have forgiven, and I forgive, all who have offended me; may God forgive them in His gracious mercy. I too pray to be forgiven wherein I have offended anyone, being a man.” We may easily concur with Gorodetzky’s conclusion: “Any form of vengeance, injustice or violence, whether it came from those in power or from their subjects, was to him a breach of brotherly love — a civil war.”

There is no clearer evidence of St. Tikhon’s pacifist aversion to the violence and lack of both forgiveness and voluntary kenotic suffering inherent in war than a letter written in September 1773 toward the close of the Russo-Turkish War. He bluntly referred to that war as an occasion “for breaking the divine law, dishonoring the Law-Giver, and causing the loss of men’s souls.” As a result of the war, the saint perceived a providential punishment for the Russian Christians: “We see our fatherland sighing and groaning because of the bloody war in which we are engaged with the Moslems.” St. Tikhon’s opposition to war is revealed most eloquently in the following passage:

Once more our fatherland groans and sighs as foreign arms are turned against us: once more all are seized with confusion and fear; once more our brothers are wounded; once more is Christian blood shed; once more are thousands killed; once more is heard the weeping of fathers, mothers, wives, and children. The issue of this public calamity is as yet unknown, but I do know that without God’s help we can expect no good. For we are saved, not by arms, but by God’s omnipotent aid. But God has mercy upon those who repent, and saves them; He defends those who trust in Him and not in gold or other things, who appeal to Him with true devotion.

Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot

If we were to judge from occasional letters and journal entries, Dostoevsky was hardly a pacifist. In the June 1876 entry in Diary of a Writer, Dostoevsky proclaimed his belief in Russia’s predestined role in as protector of the Slavs, leader of Orthodoxy, and servant of all peoples, albeit for “for the sake of universal reconciliation.” Included in this grand scheme was the author’s expectation that “sooner or later, Constantinople must be ours.” Konstantin Mochulsky rightly criticized this aspiration, for “Russian messianism was converted into warlike imperialism.” However such militaristic language stands in sharp relief to Dostoevsky’s manner of life and with the attitudes that shine through his novels.

Among Dostoevsky’s fictional characters who illustrate the author’s pacifist leading is Prince Mishkin. In The Brothers Karamazov would come two others: the Elder Zossima, and young Alyosha Karamazov. All three reflects the classic Orthodox ideals of the absolute pacifist social ethical trajectory: nonviolence, nonresistance, voluntary kenotic suffering, and universal forgiveness. In exemplary rather than didactic fashion, Dostoevsky was, in the perceptive judgment of Metropolitan Antony Khapovitsky, “not a propagandist, tempting and tempted, but a preacher, confessing and causing confessions.” As Dostoevsky knew well, experience is the best teacher and the mother of spiritual growth.

The spiritual anguish that awaits the reader at the climactic scene of The Idiot may be unparalleled in the history of literature. Prince Mishkin’s reversion to “idiocy” is particularly troubling for the empathetic Christian who must wonder whether violent “evil” has triumphed and whether the “good” of nonviolent nonresistance is too weak and too ephemeral to endure. The anguish is intensified by the realization that Dostoevsky intended, as he wrote a friend, “to portray a wholly beautiful individual.” Mochulsky later termed the quality “the grace-filled image of the innate just man.” Mishkin is a fictional version of the nonviolent, nonresistant, Passion-bearing saint in the Orthodox moral tradition, an apotheosis of exemplary kenotic holiness.

Dostoevsky intended Prince Mishkin to be an exemplary figure. In a letter to a niece, he reiterated his goal of depicting a Christ-like character and referred to Cervantes’ Don Quixote as “the most perfect” of “all the noble figures in Christian literature.” Noting that the noble and the comic are inseparable, he continued, “The reader feels sympathy and compassion with the Beautiful, derided and unconscious of its own worth. The secret of humor consists precisely in this art of wakening the reader’s sympathy.”

Mishkin’s virtues are humility, forgiveness, justice, mercy, honor, courage, faith, hope, and self-sacrificing love. We see that those whom Mishkin encounters are frequently disarmed by the innocence of the Prince. When Natasha leaves Mishkin at the end of Part One, she calls him “the first human being I’ve seen.” Even the embittered Ippolit comes to appreciate the Prince for his inherent justice and goodness. According to an account of the delightful little Kolya Ivolgin, “Ippolit took hold of the prince’s hand and kissed it twice.” Others seem drawn to the Prince like moths to a pure flame even as they sometimes mock and deride him.

What allows Mishkin to be a truly exemplary religious figure is a reflection of the only original Beauty, the only real holiness. At least as well as any fictional character could be, Mishkin’s development is reminiscent of the Word described in John 1:11-12: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

What is it that subsequently makes Mishkin a human reflection of the divine? The Prince incarnates several attributes traditionally associated with the divine in Russian Orthodoxy or Christianity in the broader sense. The Prince is a “holy fool” (iurodiv’) who reveals Dostoevsky’s vision of voluntary suffering and nonresistance to evil.

Holy fools, or fools for Christ, have long been venerated in Orthodox Christianity. They voluntarily appear as imbeciles, renouncing all intellectual powers and forms of worldly wisdom in order to achieve the ideals of humility and self-denial. The personal value of this lifestyle as an extraordinary spiritual exploit, or podvig, was complemented by a useful social function. Like the court jesters in medieval palaces, the iurodivyi were able to exercise a critical prophetic role vis–vis those in political power, a role not easily assumed by others recognized as more “sensible.”

There is no better depiction in literature of the exemplary kenotic holiness of the iurodiv’ than Prince Mishkin in The Idiot.

In their initial encounter, Rogozhin, the primary antagonist, says to Mishkin: “You are a regular holy fool, Prince, and such as you God loves.” The motif of the holy fool pervades The Idiot from the title itself to the last page, where the often sensible Mrs. Lizaveta Yepanchin, deeply moved by the apparent demise of “this poor fellow,” the Prince, and, speaking to Radomsky, vindicates the witness of Mishkin by pronouncing “all this, all this life abroad, and all this Europe of yours… just a delusion.” She seems to be asking, “Who are the real fools in the long run?”

What the classic iurodivyi endeavored to effect, the Prince displays by the very constitution of his personality. Moreover, he is sometimes acutely aware of his seeming foolishness as a potential hindrance to his relations with others. “I know perfectly well myself that I’ve lived less than other people and that I know less of life than anyone,” he confesses in his first meeting with the Yepanchin women. “I’m afraid I talk rather strangely sometimes.”

Even when Mishkin wishes he could escape the strain of human discourse and “the idea of trying to solve the problems that filled his mind and heart to overflowing,” he reveals a beguiling tendency to blame himself for everything, a characteristic that strikes others intermittently as foolish or endearing.

Only a holy fool could address an assemblage of nobles, as does Prince Mishkin, in starkly critical terms mixed with self-condemnation: “It’s quite true that we are absurd and frivolous, that we have bad habits, that we are bored, that we don’t know how to look at anything or understand anything.”

Early in the novel, Dostoevsky recorded an incident that set the tone for the entire work. When he intervenes to prevent Ganya Ivolgin from striking his sister, Varya Ivolgin, Mishkin suffers a humiliating “resounding slap in the face” from Ganya to the horror of all the others in the room. At first Mishkin responds quietly, “Oh, well, I don’t mind you striking me, but I shan’t let you touch her.” Then, having repaired to a corner of the room and covered his face with his hands, the Prince says in a quivering voice, “Oh, how you’ll be ashamed of what you’ve done!” Here again in the emotion of the moment, without realizing what he has done, Mishkin has acted the holy fool in his prophetic role. For the significant effects of this critical prophetic statement are indeed profound. First, Rogozhin exclaims, “You’ll be ashamed, Ganya, of having insulted such a sheep!” — a choice of words pregnant with kenotic meaning (“the Lamb that was slain” referred to in Revelation 5:12) and indicative of the powerful religious effect of the Prince on Rogozhin.

In his address to the nobility at the Yepanchins’ party, the Prince, despite his at once endearing and distracting self-deprecation, offers sound practical as well as spiritual advice “to save you all, so as to prevent our class from vanishing for nothing into utter darkness, without realizing anything, abusing everything and losing every thing.” Virtually straight from the gospel message of Jesus Christ to His disciples, the Prince urges, “Let us stay in the front rank and be leaders. Let us be servants in order to be leaders.”

Mishkin displays an unrelenting desire to see the best in people. He perceives even the repulsive Antip Burdovsky as a defenseless and innocent man “who is being deceived by everybody.” Thus, as Mochulsky commented, Prince Mishkin “convinces unseemly and evil people that they are beautiful and good, persuades the unfortunate that they are happy, looks at the world lying in evil and sees only the image of pure beauty.” Far more than the noble but deluded Don Quixote, Mishkin is a fictional embodiment of the “the true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.”

Mishkin’s most impressive quality is his Christ-like kenoticism. When the Prince announces to General Yepanchin early in the narrative, “I’m in need of good, kind people,” the reader should begin to wonder whether Mishkin is sounding his death knell in advance. It becomes obvious that not only are those simple needs of the Prince not met, but Mishkin continually diverts all of his own energies to meeting the needs of everyone around him, ranging from the troubled Natasha to the presumptuous, hostile Burdovsky.

The climactic bedroom scene, toward which the Prince appears almost predestined, is indeed his crucifixion and descent into hell. When at last people come in, they find the murderer in a raging fever with Mishkin sitting motionless beside him. Every time the sick man bursts out screaming or begins to ramble, Mishkin passes a soothing hand gently over his hair and cheeks, but he no longer understands the questions he is asked or recognize anyone. He is truly become the idiot of the book’s title — a “suffering servant” or “co-sufferer” who, like the patristic teachers of vicarious atonement such as St. Mark the Ascetic and St. Symeon the New Theologian, so identifies with those others that their evil is redeemed by the overwhelming, empathetic sorrow that engulfs the Prince and drains him of his last moments of consciousness, doing so graciously and freely in imitation of Christ’s voluntary kenotic humiliation for the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. often said that all innocent suffering is redemptive. His insight applies perforce to the Prince as a Christ-figure.

Having achieved all that he could in this paradoxical, antinomian world of freely-chosen spiritual death, the Prince, through his mental death, demonstrates the full measure of his pacifist self-sacrifice for and devotion to those in whom he rejoiced in spite of themselves. In this respect, his “departure” to a presumably happier state is one of triumph, not defeat: terror is transfigured finally into pure transcendence as the morning light breaks over the Light that dwelled in the Prince. Any serious doubt as to the ultimate victory of the Prince may be dispelled by the enriched and transformed lives of those who knew him.

This is an abbreviated extract from chapter nine of Fr. Webster’s book, The Pacifist Option: The Moral Argument Against War in Eastern Orthodox Theology (available from Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Blue Ridge Summit, PA 17214; ISBN 1-57309-243-6; telephone 1-800-462-6420; hardcover $55, paperbound $31.50). Fr. Webster graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1977 and received his doctorate in theology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1988. He is parish priest of Protection of the Holy Mother God Orthodox Church in Falls Church, Virginia.

On the Love of Enemies

The Teaching of St. Silouan

by Jean-Claude Larchet

Although it is natural and usual to love those who love us and to do good to those who do good to us (Mt 5:46-47; Lk 6:32-33), to love our enemies is distasteful to our nature. One can say that it isn’t in our power but is an attitude that can only be the fruit of grace, given by the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Silouan the Athonite writes, “The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it.”

The Staretz repeatedly says that love of enemies is impossible without grace: “Lord, You have given the commandment to love enemies, but this is difficult for us sinners if Your grace is not with us”; “Without God’s grace we cannot love enemies”; “He who does not love his enemies, does not have God’s grace”; “He who has not learned to love from the Holy Spirit, will certainly not pray for his enemies.” On the contrary, St. Silouan always teaches that this attitude is a gift of the Holy Spirit: “The Lord has commanded us to love our enemies, and the Holy Spirit reveals this love to us”; “One can only love one’s enemies through the grace of the Holy Spirit”; “When you will love your enemies, know that a great divine grace will be living in you.”

This grace does not suddenly erupt in the soul, but rather shows itself in a divine pedagogy, where taking into account the weakness and the difficulties of man, the Holy Spirit progressively teaches him to love and teaches him all the attitudes and ways which will allow him to do so. “The Holy Spirit teaches us to love even our enemies”; “The Holy Spirit teaches the soul a profound love for man and compassion for the lost. The Lord had pity for those who were lost… The Holy Spirit teaches this same compassion for those who go to hell”; “I could not speak about it if the Holy Spirit had not taught me this love”; “The Lord taught me love of enemies… The Holy Spirit taught [me] to love.”

The grace of the Holy Spirit shows to him who possesses it the way to love his enemies. But it also reveals to him the foundation of this love: the love of God for all people and His will to save them: “No man can know by himself what divine love is if the Holy Spirit does not instruct him; but in our Church divine love is known through the Holy Spirit, and that is why we speak about it.” Grace also “gives man the capacity and the strength to love his enemies, and the Spirit of God gives us the strength to love them.”

Staretz Silouan insists that because love of enemies is a fruit of grace, it is essentially through prayer that it can be obtained. Several times he urges us to “ask the Lord with our whole being to give us the strength to love all men.” He also advises to pray to the Mother of God and the Saints: “If we are incapable [of loving our enemies] and if we are without love, let us turn with ardent prayers to the Lord, to His Most Pure Mother, and to all the Saints, and the Lord will help us with everything, He whose love for us knows no bounds.” The Staretz confesses that he himself constantly prays God for this: “I continuously beg the Lord to give me the love of enemies… Day and night I ask the Lord for this love. The Lord gives me tears and I weep for the whole world.” Wishing in his universal love for all men to receive such a gift, he links them to himself in his prayer: “Lord, teach us through Your Holy Spirit to love our enemies and to pray for them with tears… Lord, as you prayed for your enemies, so teach us also, through the Holy Spirit, to love our enemies.”

Yet obtaining the grace to love one’s enemies presupposes other conditions.

The love of enemies is completely bound to the love of God: we have seen that the principal foundation for the love of enemies is the love that God shows to all His creatures equally and His will that all people should be saved, and Christ gave us a perfect example of such love throughout his earthly life. The love of God leads man to accomplish His will and to imitate Him as much as possible, and so also to love his enemies. The Staretz also notes that he who does not love his enemies shows that he has not learned from the Holy Spirit to love God.

To love one’s enemies is also tightly bound to humility. The Staretz often associate these two virtues. Almost all the difficulties we encounter in loving our enemies are linked with pride: it is from pride that flows the affliction that follows upon insults, hated, bad temper, spite, the desire for revenge, contempt for one’s neighbor, refusing to forgive him and to be reconciled with him.

Pride excludes the love of enemies and love of enemies excludes pride: “If we love our enemies, pride will have no place in our soul.” The fact that humility goes hand in hand with love of enemies proves the presence of grace and the authenticity of love: “If you have compassion for all creatures and love your enemies, and if, at the same time, you judge yourself the worst of all people, this shows that the great grace of the Lord is in you.”

Indeed humility is the indispensable condition to receive and keep the grace that teaches us to love our enemies and gives us the strength to do so. The Staretz advises: “Humiliate yourself, then grace will teach you.” On the other hand, “pride makes us lose grace… The soul is then tormented by bad thoughts and does not understand that one must humiliate oneself and love one’s enemies, for without that one cannot please God.”

The Staretz sometimes also stresses the role played by penitence in connection with humility. “Regard yourself the worst of men,” he advises. This is an attitude of great humility that of its nature implies penitence. He who counts himself the worst of men necessarily thinks others better than himself; he will judge and blame himself, and not judge and criticize his enemies, for he tends to estimate them better than himself.

The Staretz also gives us the example of another penitential attitude — asking God’s forgiveness each time one has not loved one’s enemy: “If I judge someone or look at him angrily, my tears dry up and I fall into despondency; and again I start asking the Lord to forgive me, and the merciful Lord forgives me, a sinner. “Through such an attitude, by which the soul humbly recognizes before God its faults and shortcomings and obtains from Him forgiveness, an opening can be made that becomes bigger and bigger for grace and unceasing progress in love. As to a total absence of compassion for enemies, it shows the presence and the action of an evil spirit; sincere repentance is the only way to be freed from it.”

The insistence on prayer, humility and penitence shows that, although St. Silouan recognizes a determining role to the action of grace in acquiring love of enemies, he does not neglect the role played by the efforts that man makes. The Staretz is very conscious of the importance of the initial action; this is why he says, “I beg you, try,” and states, “In the beginning, force your heart to love your enemies.” The efforts one makes must manifest themselves in a general way in a straight intention and constant good will, stretched toward the realization of God’s command. God will not fail to respond.

For the person who feels discouraged by such a demanding task, St. Silouan reassures him: “Seeing your good intention, the Lord will help you in everything.” The Staretz who felt in himself so acutely human powerlessness and weakness seems to think constantly of these words of the Apostle: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Phil 4:13) and witnesses in his own experience the mighty help that everyone can receive from God.

For Christ there are no enemies

The Staretz would say that for Christ there are no enemies — there are those who accept “the words of eternal life,” there are those who reject and even crucify; but for the Creator of every living thing, there can be no enemy. So it should be for the Christian, too, who “in pity for all must strive for the salvation of all.”

Wherein, then, lies the force of the commandment, “Love your enemies”? Why did the Lord say that those who keep His commandments would know from very experience whence the doctrine?

…God is love, in superabundance embracing all creatures. By allowing man to actually know this love the Holy Spirit reveals to him the path of fullness of being. To say “enemy” implies rejection. By such rejection a man falls from the plenitude of God… “The whole paradise of Saints lives by the Holy Spirit, and from the Holy Spirit nothing in creation is hid,” writes the Staretz. “God is love and in the Saints the Holy Spirit is love. Dwelling in the Holy Spirit, the saints behold hell and embrace it, too, in their love.”

…[It] is possible to judge whether a given state of contemplation was a reality or an illusion only after the soul had returned to consciousness of the world; for then, as the Staretz pointed out, if there were no love for enemies and so for all creatures, it would be a true indication that the supposed contemplation had not been a real communion with God.

— The Monk of Mount Athos (London: Mowbrays, 1973) by Archimandrite Sophrony; pp 70-71

Jean-Claude Larchet is professor of philosophy and a specialist in Patristics living in France. This is a section of a longer essay published in Buisson Ardent by the Association Saint-Silouane l’Athonite in the society’s journal (Maxime Egger, secretary, Le Sel de la Terre, 79 avenue C-F Ramuz, CH-1009 Pully, Switzerland). As space allows, we hope to publish more of the essay in future issues. The translation was made by Mother Lydia of the Orthodox Cloister of St. John the Forerunner in The Hague.