Tag Archives: Pieter Dykhorst

Letter from the Editor

Dear friends, the summary in our last issue of Fr. Patrick Reardon’s report on his visit to Syria prompted a strong reaction from a number of readers. Several responses are in our from readers section, including one from an OPF member with contacts inside Syria, describing the peacemaking efforts of one Syrian monastery. While some wondered if we endorsed Fr. Reardon’s views or the violence of Bashar Al-Assad’s government, I assure you we do not, neither do we support any violence within or toward Syria or Syrians, from any quarter.

Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese in North America sent Fr. Reardon’s delegation, in response to concerns from within the Archdiocese, to investigate what he saw as contradictions between what was widely reported in the media and “the reality based on our many contacts there.” Because of the deep spiritual and cultural roots of the Archdiocese in Syria and Met. Philip’s concerns, the trip and the nature of Fr. Reardon’s views qualified as news.

The world is learning that the Christian support of Assad is a decades-old arrangement made to ensure political stability and the Christian community’s survival. But what today seems bafflingly self-serving should not be judged without understanding that Syrian Christians’ lives and fate hang, literally, in the balance between Assad and the opposition. Staying with Assad works if he wins but not if he loses, while joining the opposition brings uncertainty if they win but perhaps suicide if they lose. Their relationship with the government is like a loaded revolver that they placed at their own heads when they sided with Assad’s father as he rose to power.

All this has provided an occasion for raising necessary questions. What options exist for Syria? Are there only two, the choice between stability at the price of supporting a dictator or justice at the price of violence and war? Do paths exist that might lead without violence to just peace? What responsibilities have we who are doing the talking toward those whose lives are affected? Without belaboring the discussion, these questions bear on who we are and on our deepest conviction, and the answers either encourage us broadly as peacemakers or make us hypocrites at worst, merely confused at best.

Conditions of just peace don’t just happen. Peace is built into societies and systems slowly, deliberately, by careful architects. This has not happened in Syria. Long before the shooting started, peace became the first casualty, for offering support to a dictatorial, unjust, and oppressive regime in exchange for stability and safety is a fraud: a form of peace may exist for a while, but eventually it breaks down into the kind of violence now wracking Syria. Because justice and peace were not loved enough, stability has shattered as events spin rapidly away from peaceful change, out of the control of the principle actors and the Syrians whose lives are most affected. Now, in a climate of fear, self-preservation, hegemony, and revenge—violence begets violence—human lives are harvested as the fruit of neglect, and the work of building peace becomes exponentially more difficult.

It is not news that the commercial media love a crisis—that and change, for with these two, they foster our dependency on them, telling us what to know and how to think, pretending they have the only story to be told. That the various State actors also pursue their own self-interests relentlessly, spinning their own deceptive narratives and breeding all species of violence is also not news. The plot elements of religion, oil, the Clash of Civilizations, Islamism, Zionism, terrorism, nuclear weapons, regional hegemony, and political survival are well worn as Syria, its five neighbor States, the United States, Russia, and Iran each tell a tale.

Yet, we must not feel constrained to choose one myopic, self-interested narrative over another, each unstable, partially informed, leading to its own set of unhappy consequences. As C.S. Lewis wrote, the Devil “always sends errors into the world in pairs … of opposites,” and relies on our particular distaste of one to lead us to choose the other. Lewis reminds us of our calling to find the narrow way between errors. We Christians know that Christ calls us to consciously choose our narrative worldview by which the universe and life in it find meaning, coherence, and harmony. When we do not heed—wisely as the serpent and gently as the dove—the comprehensive claim of the Gospel on our minds, we become vulnerable to competing propaganda.

This is the bias of In Communion. As friends of Christ, we are enemies to none; accepting the love of God, we love even our enemies; loving wisdom, our ideology is to do justice, to love mercy, and to live humbly before God; as peacemakers, we advocate the Gospel principles of reconciliation, forbearance, and forgiveness; as human beings, we oppose all violence and tyranny against others, together with whom we share our humanity; as citizens of God’s Kingdom, we pledge loyalty to Him and His laws; as citizens secondarily of this world, we honor solidarity with our historical, cultural, and social groups where we share the burden of community governance, carefully in keeping with our calling; and as neighbors to all, we encourage dialogue and friendly social intercourse everywhere, imposing on no one. We must work out how we will conduct ourselves toward Syria within such a framework.

Meanwhile, we cannot be shy to speak our minds as we search together for understanding, humbly mindful of our ignorance and weakness. And, of course, we will pray that the way forward toward a just and lasting peace in Syria may soon be found before many more lives and communities are shattered or lost.

 Pieter Dykhorst

St. Moses the Black A Patron Saint of Non-Violence By Pieter Dykhorst

BLACK AS SIN and white as snow. That was Abba Moses, the 4th century, desert Saint, known not only for the dark color of his skin, but the deep stain of sin from which he was eventually cleansed and declared by his Bishop to “be wholly white.” A conspicuously large man with a particularly violent nature, he was once the leader of a gang of thieves, a carouser, and a brawler. Today, the region of Northeast Africa he once called home remains a tough neighborhood, without sufficient resources, and plagued by people who share Moses’ nasty disposition.Also known as St. Moses the Ethiopian, he was for a time a slave in Egypt. Nubia,Egypt, and Ethiopia (Moses was by one account, Nubian) together covered an area with a length nearly equal to the distance from San Francisco to New York, or from Gibraltar to Kiev, so it is difficult to say exactly where Moses was from, but we know from tradition that his robber gang traveled up and down the Nile, near the vicinity inhabited by the desert monastics. It was in the valley Wadi al-Natrun, then known as the Scetis Valley (from which we get skete as a type of monastic community), that Moses sought refuge from authorities seeking to capture him. And it was here that he would slowly convert to Christianity and eventually die a saintly Father of the desert Christians.

In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (also collected under various other titles),we find many stories of the life and words of Abba Moses. Two aspects of his life commend him to us and bring him to the pages of our journal. One is the nature of his life and conversion, notably that he struggled mightily and long with his violent nature, even as a monk, but eventually became known for his non-violence. The second is that he is African, and he is here today to draw our attention to his home in East Africa where millions in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia suffer from violence,disease, and famine.

Moses the man was once the furthest thing from Moses the Saint. An escaped slave, by one account dismissed for theft, he led a gang of 70 in marauding the countryside. In another account, he sought revenge on a man whose barking dog kept him from an intended robbery. He swam the Nile and found the man gone—hiding buried in the sand—so he killed two of the man’s sheep, swam back across the Nile with them, butchered them, feasted, and walked 50 miles to rejoin his gang.Several accounts note how for years he struggled with temptation to return tohis robber life after he had chosen the monastic way. Once, while alone in his cell,four robbers attacked him. He whipped them, tied them up, slung them over his shoulders and took them to the church where he dumped them, declaring that it was un-Christian to harm them and inquiring what to do with them. When the attackers found out who he was, they repented and joined the community.The Sayings include several stories of Moses’ struggle to keep his peace. In one account, he was insulted and abused but did not respond. When asked if he was as calm on the inside as he appeared on the outside, he replied simply no. Another time,a monk asked his own spiritual father, with specific reference to Abba Moses’ habitual outward calm, what was the value of outward peace if there was no inward peace. The simple reply was that while not perfect, outward calm prevented harm and facilitated God’s grace to others.

An aspect of Moses’ learned humility is captured in a story in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and is found on the icon on our cover. The story comes in a few form sand recounts a time when Abba Moses was asked to come help settle a disputes involving an offense committed by another brother. St. Moses refused. Eventually,he was prodded to come, so he arrived with either a basket or a sack on his shoulder width a hole in it, trailing sand behind him. When asked what this meant, he replied,according to a different version, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them,and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” At his words, the brother was forgiven, restored, and the meeting dismissed.

A deeply moving account tells of the day when “the barbarians” came to the monastic valley and Abba Moses was warned to flee. He refused. He told the monks under his care—the same number as his gang of robbers in his earlier life—to take care for themselves. They asked him again, would he flee? He stood his ground. They asked why, and he responded, neither hostile as in his past nor hopeful with the memory of when the four attacked him in his cell and were captured for Christ, but with clarity of understanding: “I have been expecting this day to come for many years past, so that might be fulfilled the command of our Redeemer, Who said, ‘Those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.’” He welcomed the visitors on that day to his community, and they killed him, along with the seven who stayed with him. His witness to us is not one of a gentle temperament, not one of naïve hope that those who do not live by the sword shall live long and in peace, but that faithfulness carries a price, as does sin. On that day, St. Moses exhibited outward calm but stood with perfected, inward peace. To some, St. Moses is appropriately the patron saint of non-violence.

St. Baromeou Monastery in the Scetis valley where the relics of St. Moses rest.Photo used with permission by A. Kahzarian
St. Baromeou Monastery in the Scetis valley where the relics of St. Moses rest.Photo used with permission by A. Kahzarian

But St. Moses is with us in this issue of In Communion for another reason. Quite simply, as he learned kindness, generosity, and hospitality during his long struggle to overcome his own violence and gluttony, he calls to us with a plea to share in prayer and hospitality with those who suffer in East Africa under the worst drought in decades. This has been much in the news, and we have included an item in our own news section, so no more will be said here. We ask simply that each of you would pray with St. Moses for the people of East Africa, that they may find peace and provision for their bodies and souls. And, if you are able and choose to, please consider contributing to International Orthodox Christian Charities (or to any other reliable charity you might prefer), which is working in the region to alleviate immediate suffering and on long term solutions to mitigate the impact of the natural draught cycles that affect the region. Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences,perhaps even a prayer, with the Fellowship on our blog.

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 62 / October 2011