E-mail Conversations Spring 2001

A vigil for refugees

On Sunday afternoon, March 11, a vigil was held with Orthodox participants at the Border Hospice in Amsterdam. This was not a vigil in the liturgical sense, that is, a prayer service held before sunrise or on the evening before a feast. This event had more to do with the words of our Lord when he said, "Could you not keep watch with me for one hour?" (Matt. 26:40) -- a prayerful presence directed towards the refugees interned in the Border Hospice because they do not possess the papers required to settle in the Netherlands. They are kept for a long period of time and in most cases finally put out of the country.

The members of the Amsterdam Catholic Worker have been holding vigils every second Sunday of the month. Each year they also organize vigils for each Sunday of Lent which are the responsibility of participants from different Christian traditions. It was in this context that the Orthodox had the opportunity to participate.

Our prayer service took the form of a moleben celebrating the three young men in the furnace and the figure of our St. Nicholas of Myra, who came to the aid of several innocent men who had been condemned to death. We also recited Psalm 145, the Beatitudes, and the antiphonal responses of Psalm 81 as sung during the Liturgy of Holy Saturday preceding the reading of the Gospel.

I found that the Orthodox liturgical tradition does lend itself to circumstances like these, albeit with a bit of difficulty.

We were a small group, including two priests, Fr. Martin and Fr. Stefan. Everything went well, with incense, icons, etc., The vigil's Orthodox identity was clear.

Although I respect the fact that many people would prefer not to participate in such a vigil because they find they cannot offer a sound solution to the refugee problem, I think it's a good idea to take part in such gatherings of prayer, indignation and protest even without knowing all the answers. Such an action reflects the conviction that keeping refugees (also women and children) locked up for months at a time is inconsistent with both the Christian vision of the human being as bearer of the image of God and with the notion of how a constitutional state ought to function -- not to mention the fact that these refugees haven't done anything wrong.

A prison is a place of misery and darkness more than anything else, a place that is alienated from God's world. When icons are hung at this place of alienation, however, it is transformed into one of the most extreme outposts of the Church. I am convinced that our Church needs to be present at such "extreme outposts" beyond its own walls.

Albert Roessingh

The OPF web site

I want tell you thank you very much for your web site. I translated some articles into Arabic so everyone in my family here in Egypt can read it. Thank you. I especially like stories about saints on the OPF web site.

Taconui (Sister) Maria

St. Barsoum El-Erian Monastery

Helwane, Cairo, Egypt

OPF's ongoing abortion discussion

Christ did not name any agenda for us except to repent and to seek the Kingdom of God. We were not told that our first priority as Christians is to end sinful pagan practices such as infanticide, or even to reform governments. The necessity of loving others as ourselves includes the children we bring into the world, the children we can reach and help. "See how these Christians love children" is not the same as "stop those pagan killers."

All representative governments make murder a criminal, often a capital offense, because it is in their interest to do so. Abortion has not been recriminalized because it is not in their interest to do so. It is not the same as the abolitionist movement, which had the power of northern capitalism behind it.

I do not agree that we need the law to become good. This was the central argument of Baxter's Holy Commonwealth, a Puritan classic in which the promise of hell or heaven was merely to obtain obedient subjects. The purpose of the law is to maintain civil peace, not to reform the heart.

Criminalizing the women who had abortions in the past did not address the responsibility of the fathers of these children. It also made it easier for the rest of the culture to condescend to them, marginalize them and to treat them as cultural outcasts in need of reform. A Puritan culture is heavily invested with separating the godly and the ungodly and we are that culture. A Christian community is different -- we are all sinners. What could possibly change the reality of abortion except prayer and repentance?

A double standard that criminalizes anyone who kills you or me, but not those who kill unborn brothers and sisters, is evil. It makes hypocrites of us all.

Alice Carter

Opposing abortion is not a political position. It is a moral position. If a politician supported the decriminalization of pedophilia (not difficult to imagine in twenty years if the culture doesn't turn around. There are far more public voices for it now than there were previously as everything goes up for grabs) would that be a moral issue or a political issue? When the Greek bishop in South Africa decided that an Orthodox man involved in promoting apartheid would have to stop or be excommunicated, was he punishing someone for a moral or for a political position. This line of argument is confusing two very different things. A politician should not be excommunicated for views on matters where Christians can differ, but not on areas where the historic Church has been unanimous (e.g., murder, abortion). The proper political solution to an evil is a matter in which Christians may differ. However, a politician who promotes abortion is guilty of the sin of abortion just as much as an abortionist. Public sin requires a public response from the Church if it is to maintain its moral witness.

Daniel Lieuwen

We need to utilize Orthodox organizations like OPF to educate us to a sacramental view of all human life. Be faithful to the Tradition and encourage discussion about implications of this sacramental view of life for every killing.

We need to encourage hierarchs and priests to do more to educate us to what it means to love others as Christ loves us. Is one single person -- from all eternity (even before his/her moment of conception -- more loved by God than the entire physical universe? If true, why are we not prostrate before God begging forgiveness? Start with seeing folk as God sees them, then acknowledge our complicity with every killing. Specifics about legislating justice start with purifying ourselves.

Once the Church makes clear to all that this is the "faith of the fathers," we can do more to break down the double standard. Specifics? What about giving the weakest among us the same legal protections we claim for ourselves? Equal justice. What's strange about that?

John Oliver

The homeless

What offends me about so many press articles concerning the homeless is the lack of balance or fairness about these luckless folk.

Homeless people are acting just like most of us, but they have no margin for error. Drug abuse is rampant among the children of the well to do, but they have a huge margin for error. Their parents may drink to excess or have affairs, or gamble with other people's money -- but they also have a deep cushion. To make the cut at homelessness is to double the penalty. These people have no cushion and they are on the street the minute they break the rules. We can criticize their drug abuse because they present all of us with the consequences and are so pitifully visible. The hidden and well-housed drug abusers, alcoholics, etc., are no problem. They can pay for their addictions, and are only visible to their intimate friends and relations. The message we send to the poor is: don't have babies/addictions you can't pay for. Of course it is necessary to make shelter rules, to practice tough love (which I had to do with a one of my hippie kids in the late 60s). But both of those options indicate a real involvement and willingness to help. You make no distinction between the addicted and the mentally ill in assessing the cause of homelessness, and perhaps there is none. But the schizophrenic does not have the option of choosing in the future to become sane no matter how much she or he might desire it.

Their homelessness was not of their choosing. The de-institutionalizing of the mentally ill began in the 1970s as part of the economic rationalizations provided by pharmaceuticals and stingy legislatures.

I was invited to attend an "exit preparation" group for patients at Camarillo State Hospital. The therapists bullied the patients with the ultimatum and refused to listen to their fears -- all the patients asked who was going to take care of them. They were terrified. And they were lied to. And they are still roaming our streets today.

The last critique I have is that this kind of social critique grows out of a Protestant mindset which is alien to Orthodoxy, excepting those Orthodox who have become Protestant in their understanding of the Gospel as a consequence of living in a traditionally Protestant country. There is no valorization of the poor in Orthodoxy, they are not considered any more innocent than the rest of us, but we ignore them at our spiritual peril.

Alice Carter

Confession and confessors

In Dostoevsky's novels the characters become convinced that evil is something real, and even that evil has a life and power apart from the individual. This seems to me a necessary component in repentance. For example, Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, though still an atheist, has a conversation with the Devil. As Ivan realizes that the Devil in fact exists, he simultaneously comes to admit the possibility of God's existence. It seems to me that most people today do not believe that evil is real, or that they are capable of committing evil or being evil. People more often see themselves as making mistakes, but not really trying to do or be evil. Sin and evil have no real part in this type of thinking.

In America this disbelief in a true evil results in our thinking that education can cure most "evils." We don't think repentance is needed, just education. Or else, often in America the attitude is something like throw enough money at a "problem" and it will be cured. America labels Saddam Hussein as being evil. Our solution -- throw enough military money (in the form of power/might) and evil will be defeated.

On another level, our prisons are called correctional institutions. We assume that no one in their right mind will commit "evil." So we think we can correct them by our methods of incarceration (although many today probably assume there is no "corrections" which takes place, we simply remove people from society by imprisoning them). But our courts are not based on an idea that there might be "evil" -- that people choose evil -- we assume it is because they made a mistake, are mentally ill, were misguided, suffer from bad genes or poverty. No one is ever seen as choosing evil, being responsible for embracing such a choice. No effort to get people to admit responsibility, no effort to bring people to repentance.

No public leader ever admits responsibility or flatly repents. No nation does that either.

But the church is trying to bring people to repentance, not merely to enlightenment. As a confessor, I notice that many coming to confess are willing to admit to "mistakes" but few are willing to admit to choosing sin, or doing evil. People might admit to their mistakes, and even might call their mistakes sins, but almost none would say that their deeds were really evil. Few of us believe that we really do evil, though sometimes we will admit that some notorious murderer has done evil. Especially in America, we want to believe that we are creating a New Eden, where evil and sin have been crushed beneath the sign of the dollar.

Murder is not the only sin or evil identified in the Scriptures. Are not greed, wastefulness, lust, lying, drug addiction, pornographic addiction, fornication, anger, idolatry, failure to forgive, impatience, gluttony also evil?

The other side of all of this is that if evil is not real, then neither do we really need to be saved. If we are only making mistakes, then all God need do is send a few correctives, and forgiveness on His part is really easy and painless. Scripture of course paints a different picture. Scripture tells us the wages of sin is death, separation from God, enmity with God. Forgiveness is not without a price. God's revelation is that salvation not correction or even punishment is what is needed for humans to be restored to God. Human repentance is not enough for salvation, for it is necessary that the Christ should suffer and die. Without the cross of Christ, we are lost.

Part of the great difficult of the church's message in the modern world is not only do we have to convince people that God saves, we also have to convince people they need to be saved. People who don't think they are drowning, are not interested in being saved. Americans for the most part don't think they are drowning in sin. Rather they are convinced that the real problem is they don't have enough money.

In our culture, to say God saves from sin is like warning desert dwellers about snow storms. We don't see sin as a problem, so why tell us about it? You're telling us that God saves us from something that we don't even believe exists. Or if we think it exists, we don't really see it as a threat. Why doesn't God save us from scourges that are real like poverty, disease, old age? A God who saves us from sin and evil is not much of a power at all -- we have police, lawyers and armies to do that.

Fr. Ted Bobosh

Two years ago I attended Forgiveness Vespers service for the first time. I had no idea what to expect. When we began the prostrations and asking each member of the congregation for their personal forgiveness I was blown away. I could not believe the power of that seemingly simple act. The physicality was only matched by bending the spirit inside. By the time we completed the service, the sanctuary seemed alive in God's love. It both cleansed and rejuvenated. I walked out into the night sweaty and with a sore back, but I looked at everyone on the subway that night with new eyes. It was like a spring cleaning, inside and out.

Nilus Stryker

I am reminded me of something I have observed in, mostly, new Orthodox people. If and when they start trying to find their own special father confessor, there is in many, a real conflict of interests. On the one hand it can be a good thing that they are genuinely searching for someone who can help them grow spiritually. On the other, they are probably the worst person to decide which Fr. Confessor is really the best for them. Of course, each person, can get more out of each conversation and confession if both parties are on the same wavelength, but very often I see people shopping around, consciously or unconsciously, for someone who will agree with them, or at least go a long way with them in their own opinions.

It is my opinion that we cannot know within a short space of time if we have found the right father confessor for ourselves, but only perhaps after several years experience and (hopefully) growth. This makes it almost impossible to give any directions to those who ask for advice on different confessors, except perhaps that it is essential for them to be on the same wavelength and can understand each other.

Deacon John Sewter

Leo Tolstoy

I have a question: in the beginning of this year the director of Yasnaya Polyana, Vladimir Tolstoy, asked the Patriarch of Moscow about the possibility of Leo Tolstoy's rehabilitation by the Church. What is your opinion?

Sergei Romanov

It is one of the tragedies of 19th century Russia that Tolstoy went to war with the Orthodox Church. There is that sad moment described in Henri Troyat's biography of Tolstoy where we see him deciding to eat meatballs during the Great Fast in 1879 -- an event symbolizing his decision no longer to regard himself as an Orthodox Christian, a tragedy not only for him but for Russia, because he was (and remains) such an influential figure -- someone whose opinions became absolute truth for many others. It would have been a blessing for Russia had Tolstoy raised a prophetic voice within the Church rather than outside it. Instead he embraced and proclaimed a view of Christ which is far from Orthodox Christianity. He could not celebrate the Resurrection of Christ because he didn't believe in it. He denounced sacraments as absurd. In his will, written the year before his death, he declared: "I could no more return to the Church and take communion on my deathbed than I could use profanity or look at obscene pictures on my deathbed."

When he abandoned his wife and home on October 28, 1910, he visited the Optina-Pustyn monastery, staying there one night, but did not attend any services or meet with the staretz, Father Varsonofry. He records in his diary setting off to visit the staretz, then turning back." I shall not go to see the startsy of my own accord. But if they were to send for me, I would go." He left before there was an invitation.

From Optina Pustyn he went to the Shamardino convent, not far away, where his 80-year-old sister was a nun. He told her, "My sister, I have been to Optina. How pleasant it is there. I should be so happy to live there, performing the most menial and strenuous tasks. I would lay down only one condition: that I be exempt from church services."

From there, he began a train journey which he intended would take him to the Caucasus where he had the idea that he might live with a community living according to his writings, but when the train reached Astapovo he was too ill to go further. The station master provided his own house to Tolstoy and his companion.

Of course he was recognized every step along the way. Within days Astapovo was crowded with journalists, photographers, doctors and others drawn to the final drama of the great author's life -- all the more dramatic as his wife and children came. Chief among the children was his daughter Alexandra -- Sasha -- who was the gatekeeper of the room in which her father was dying. Tolstoy was never told his wife was in the town, desperately hoping to see him and to beg his forgiveness -- she only was permitted into the room after Tolstoy had lost consciousness. At least she was present, on her knees praying at the side of his bed, when he breathed his last on the 7th of November.

As soon as the news of Tolstoy's illness became known, the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg had sent a telegram to Tolstoy appealing to him "to repent before appearing for judgement at the throne of God" but, though many disciples were allowed into the room by Sasha, Tolstoy never saw the telegram or heard its text. Neither was he told that Staretz Varsonofry had come from Optina Pustyn to see him.

Perhaps, had not Sasha and the other disciples of his anti-Orthodox ideology not barred the way, Tolstoy might at the end have reconciled himself with the Church, but he was not given that possibility.

Neither was her allowed to see his wife, to forgive her and be forgiven by her.

I can easily understand why at a certain point the Orthodox Church in Russia felt it necessary to publically acknowledge that Tolstoy had left the Orthodox Church -- his writings make it so clear that this is the case. But I cannot see what good would be served for the Orthodox Church today to say it was mistaken in this matter and that in fact he had not left.

Perhaps the tragedy would have been avoided had the Orthodox Church been less willing to bless armies and wars. The Church was under state control and seems to have accepted this status with little resistance.

Jim Forest

I think that is so touching while at the same time it seems so prideful. But as I think about this I see a man who literally went to the "front door" and would not enter. He travels miles to this place but could only go so far. He yearned to be asked in, to have a reconciliation, yet he could not bend that last bit to humble himself enough to complete the return.

I think we all test people, institutions, God. We measure and judge and create both the borders and the conditions of our relationship to others and the Divine. I see this one sentence as a cry for help. In some ways it actually puts the ball in the Church's court. To see if the Church itself would or could bend itself to save a soul. It seems it made the effort but because of human miscommunication, foible, ill will by others the message never got through. Tolstoy never learned the final lesson that the church loved so much it bent, and asked him in. Death came between them.

Nilus Stryker