E-mail Conversations Winter 2001
This morning I received a remarkable letter from a friend, a native of Illinois, who visits here regularly:
I leave for Illinois in a few minutes. I'll be taking 1,087 acorns of various oak varieties (meticulously counted by my daughter last night) and several hundred maple and walnut tree seeds (which she was too tired to count after the acorns), and I'll spend a couple of days planting them while I am in Illinois. As a new resident of that state, you may have noticed the vast stretches of treeless prairie downstate, which in part explains why the farther one goes into the Midwest, the summers get hotter, the winters get colder, and the wind gets stronger. While I am appreciative of natural prairie ecology, I think that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, rising temperatures in urban areas, and soil erosion due to wind in the Midwest demand that we plant trees wherever there aren't any. I've been planting roughly the same number of acorns and other seeds for ten years now. So even allowing for the fact that some won't germinate and others will get trampled or cut while they are still young, there are still probably a couple of thousand trees that weren't there before. (In fact, since I mark on a map where I plant them, I have gone back in subsequent years and seen the trees that have come up.) Of course it's a drop in the bucket compared with the size of the problem, but you have to start somewhere.
Occasionally I get back down to Nelson County in Kentucky and take a look at several hillsides of pine, poplar, etc. that I helped him plant back in the 50s. They are very big now. This man changes the face of the earth by planting trees.
Fr. Patrick Reardon
Letter from Jerusalem
A difficult morning for us. Things still relatively quiet on our side, but Sr. Martha and I went with a friend to Bethlehem to look at bathroom tiles (the rooms for the girls who board at our school are being renovated). We got through the checkpoint and after checking out the tiles (most shops were closed in Bethlehem and the area around Rachel's Tomb looks like a disaster area), I suggested we go to Bet Djala and try to see our two youngest boarding girls who have been at their home during the recent troubles. Little did we know that this was the street where the Israeli missiles from Gilo hit last night.
Our girls live in a little building right next to the Church of St. Nicholas. The house across from them is where the family of one of our nuns, Sr. Pelagia, lives. Their house had two bullet holes in it. Less than a 100 yards down the street I saw the two apartments where Israeli missiles hit. One, in a Christian home, made a 10-inch diameter hole in the children's bedroom and went through another wall and through a washing machine. The people in the home showed a small icon of St. Nicholas that was retrieved from the fire that the missile caused. It was totally unscathed from the fire. Two cars parked outside the street were demolished by the shelling. A very nasty business here.
Snipers shooting from Bet Djala are not from there. The locals are saying that one of them was an Israeli collaborator. They fire with machine guns at an Israeli neighborhood 800 meters away (difficult to cause much damage at that distance) and run and then Israel retaliates with three hours of shooting on innocent civilians from tanks and helicopter gunships.
Keep our children in your prayers. We left the little ones at home for now, but we will probably bring them back to Bethany on Sunday. Also you might let people know we visited the French Hospital in Bethlehem which is an orphanage for abandoned infants. They had a shell in one of their walls too. So much for hi-tech Israeli military and their precise targeting. Thank God we are okay.
Sr. Maria Stephanopoulos
Abortion discussion continues...
It's really not the business of the government to decide whether or not a woman should have an abortion. In my opinion the abortion statistics reflect where the nation really is -- booming economic statistics to the contrary, we are a bankrupt culture. I think it is very important that we bear witness to the love of Christ in all dark places without getting involved in the legal issue. Offering shelter, support, love, adoption (and that's a place to put energy: making adoption less the bureaucratic horror it is now) -- all these are ways for Christians to support babies and mothers.
For five years I lived with and worked with unwed mothers, and went to the hospital with them for their deliveries, prevented violent boyfriends from killing their unborn children -- not by abortion but by physically attacking the mother to be. These women could and did call on me day and night, so that I never got or rarely got a full night's sleep. This why I am not sympathetic to rhetoric that never moves beyond the political realm.
Even the fact that Orthodox believe that abortion is an evil often does not seem to motivate direct involvement with the problem of unwanted babies. The idea, of or the descriptions partial birth abortions bring reactions of horror, but no call to action of the sort I describe above.
Christians who have from the beginning incarnated their love for others by rescuing babies left to die from exposure, by caring for the sick, by not fleeing town when the plague arrived and by burying the dead of plague and wars are a clear witness. Much of what we say here is muddy, unclear and moralistic. It seems sometimes that we seek the high ground morally without getting involved with the actual suffering people.
In Alaska the priests and monks and bishops defended their flocks vis--vis the Americans -- mostly the Americans who ran the homes into which the Native children were spirited away or kidnapped. The clergy were directly involved with the people they sought redress for. For me Christianity is personalist -- and my response to my neighbor is personal.
Abortion is the killing of an unborn child. It is the business of the government to prevent the killing of children. Therefore, it is the business of government to prevent abortions. If OPF members cannot say this much, then what good are we?
Fr. Pat Reardon
Alice said the government cannot keep women from having abortions. In a sense this is true. If the laws were changed tomorrow, wealthy women would still find ways to seek abortions across the border, and poorer women would resort to illegal means. The way it used to be, in other words, before Roe vs. Wade.
With a difference, I think. The moral climate of the country would change. Having gone through a "free choice" period of some thirty years, there would be a new consciousness about the humanity of unborn children. Not everyone would share it, but it would be supported by law and therefore would become part of the social fabric.
It would probably become easier to work for social support for the children born who would otherwise have been aborted, for adoption services and so on. By "easier" I mean not only that more funds would be available, but also that it would be understood as part of the community's responsibility, like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.
It seems to me that a two-pronged approach is required: the moral foundation provided by legislation, and the compassion implicit in social support. Without legislation, social support has no leg to stand on. It's an expensive way to solve a problem much more cheaply solved by abortion. But without social support, the legislation becomes truly "draconian." Then the heroes of the day would not be the women who go ahead with difficult pregnancies and the communities that support them, but doctors who provide illegal, safe abortions at the risk of their licenses and their future. And what a dreadful race of new martyrs that would be!
What we need is help to become good. Legislation goes a long way to that end. Ideally (and legislation always has to work from ideals, doesn't it?), legislation would stand behind frightened women who might otherwise be forced into abortions by boyfriends, parents or friends, and it would coax the community to be supportive. And lives would be saved.
What frustrates me personally in the recent exchange on abortion is that it ends up illustrating a sort of dualistic, reductionistic way of thinking -- itself a mirror of "the culture" at large and a photo of the wound inflicted by this culture on "the mind of the church." We need different categories, even a new language, in order to approach these problems as Orthodox. But I think we also need to transfer them into a different sphere, to be preoccupied with incarnating them before (not instead of) advocating them in the political domain.
The way I have experienced the "Orthodox way" is the way of the paradox incarnate in living saints. The saints among us (who pray and struggle in their nature for the world) do not do it by way of legislation, but by transfiguration. It is well and good to try to work with the "cultural categories" of democratically voted laws, persuading constituencies to shift their perspectives, etc.
However, unless we each struggle and die trying to undo in our own being the "killing choices" we all make, no laws in the world will make a dent.
All participants on this list agree that abortion is a great evil. My question is: what is it in America which has made it possible for the widespread slaughter of unborn human life to become perfectly legal? Abortion is one symptom, but it is imperative that we determine the nature of the underlying illness and start to address that in addition to opposing abortion. This is especially where we need the spiritual insight of our monastics and bishops.
Caring for those in prison
I've just gotten a distressing letter from a prisoner in New York State who is also an OPF member. He tells me that there is no Orthodox outreach and visiting program in his part of the US apart from a few overworked priests very occasionally coming to a few prisons to provide a Liturgy. I gather the situation is much the same in many other places.
This makes me wonder if there are OPF members who might try do more in this regard? It's extremely basic Christianity we're talking -- "I was in prison and you came to be with me." Yet for Orthodox Christians, apparently reaching out to prisoners it is not yet a priority.
Do you know about Orthodox Prison Ministry, a work of the Antiochian Archdiocese? They do good things, mainly of providing material for prisoners to work on their spiritual life. I can send along contact information if you don't already have it. I don't know what if any activity they have going on in the New York area.
Keep in mind that most Orthodox services can be celebrated by the laity as readers' services. Where priests aren't available, it might be some help for lay folk, tonsured readers, etc. to get a blessing to do typica services, compline, hours, vespers, whatever in these settings.
There are similar problems in many of the chaplain ministries. I work as a chaplain intern in Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. I knew of one Orthodox patient a few months ago. Much of the worship done in the hospital is Catholic or Protestant. I am the only Orthodox.
Let truth grow from the ground
For reflection: Jesus is leaving Galilee and traveling towards Jerusalem when he meets ten men outside a village on the border with Samaria. They call out to him, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us." Jesus cleanses them at a distance and tells them to go and show themselves to the priests so that they could be officially discharged of the disease. One of them, however, realizes that he has been healed and returns to Jesus glorifying God and throwing himself at Jesus' feet. The man was a Samaritan. The Jesus asks where the other nine men were and marvels that the only man who returned to glorify God was a foreigner.
It's evident from the context that the group of lepers were all Jews, apart from the one Samaritan. And herein we have the paradox which Christ makes us confront. For these Jews, the chosen people of God whom Jesus came to minister to (remember the story of the Syro-Phoenecian woman) did not recognize the truth of Christ's power. The one man who realized the enormity of what Jesus had done for him was a foreigner, a Samaritan.
Now, are we Orthodox not the chosen people of God? And, let us be frank, do we not frequently behave like the Pharisees of the gospels? And could it not be that the foreigner, the one outside the Church, is the one who often really appreciates what Christ has done?
The problem I have when we Orthodox start asserting that there is only one Truth and that is in the Church is the problem of pride. Because all too frequently the real thrust of this statement is not so much faith but a feeling of superiority over "the other." Yes, we are the children of Israel and they are the Samaritans. The woes against the Pharisees are aimed at us Orthodox. We are the ones who "betray You seven times a day" as the Akathist Hymn for Holy Communion (Kontakion 6) reminds us. Our inheritance of Christ's word should be for us a source of profound unworthiness and humility.
I am more and more coming to realize the centrality of 1 Corinthians 13. If I don't have love my faith is totally empty, if I don't have love my words are like a sounding gong or clashing cymbal, without love I could be a martyr and still perish. And if my love does not include the "other" then it is not love at all. If my love does not lead to the Cross then it is not love at all.
There was a myth that the Byzantines encouraged that the Byzantine Empire was invincible and would continue until the day of Christ's Second Coming. How deluded that all seems. And what delusion undergirded the myth of Moscow as the Third Rome. For it was in the corrupted soil of the unholy trinity of Autocracy, Nationalism and Orthodoxy that communism and anarchism was gestated and finally hatched in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. No, worldly power is foreign to Christ's kingdom. This is why I am very suspicious of those who would have Orthodox be more "influential". If we do not influence people by our love of Christ and His Church then any other influence is from the devil.
If God meant his Christian people to inherit worldly power He would have preserved the Byzantine Empire and made it expand to encompass the whole world. So there must be some reason why "other faiths" have prospered and why the Christian faith has splintered. For, let us be frank, we Orthodox are as disunited as the Protestants and, what is worse, we claim to have the same set of beliefs. My hunch is that God is working in His mysterious way to teach us continually the virtue of humility. It seems to me that everything that has happened to Orthodox is there to teach us humility, humility in proclaiming our faith and love for others; even those outside the church. For, what can I say to my wife (a Quaker/Jew) and my children, one of whom chooses not to accompany me to church, about my faith if I do not say it in a spirit of love and humility?
The Christian faith is a multifaceted diamond; when she is set in the crown of uncircumscribed love and burnished with the cloth of humility she shines above all others. But she wishes that all others could join together with her in a single crown worthy of the Lord Almighty.
Mark Isaac Pearson
A friend recently asked if it's true that the suicide rate in Holland is exceptionally high. I did some research today to find out, discovering in the process that in many countries suicide is happening far more often than it used to. Here is a summary of what I learned:
In the last 45 years suicides have increased by 60 percent worldwide. Suicide is now among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44. The highest suicide rate is among those over 65 but the rate among young people has been increasing to such an extent that they are now the group at highest risk in a third of all countries. While men are four times more likely to die from suicide, women, women are more likely to attempt suicide.
In the US, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death, topping homicide by 50 percent. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24.
Of five countries I checked, the Dutch suicide rate happened to be the lowest with 10.1 deaths per 100,000. In the US it was 11.4, in Canada 12.3, in Germany 14.2, in France 19!
A story of reconciliation
In 1492, two prominent Irish families, the Ormonds and Kildares, were in the midst of a bitter feud. Besieged by Gerald Fitzgerald Lad of Kildare, Sir James Outler, Earl of Ormond, and his followers took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick's Cathedral, bolting themselves in.
As the siege wore on, the Earl of Kildare concluded that the feuding was foolish. Here were two families worshiping the same God, in the same church, living in the same country, yet trying to kill each other. So he called out to Sir James and, as an inscription in St. Patrick's says, "undertooke on his honour that he should receive no villanie."
Wary of "some further treacherie," Ormond did not respond. So Kildare seized his spear, cut away a hole in the door and thrust his hand through. It was grasped by another hand inside the church, the door was opened and the two men embraced, thus ending the family feud.
The expression "chancing one's arm" originated with Kildare's noble gesture.
There is a lesson here for all of us who are engaged in "family feuds," whether brother to brother, language to language, nation to nation. If one of us would dare to "chance his arm," perhaps that would be the first crucial step to the reconciliation we all unconsciously seek.