Conversations by email – Winter 2005

These are extracts from recent postings to the OPF's e-mail discussion list. If you are an OPF member and wish to take part, contact Mark Pearson -- -- or Jim Forest

Facing up to killing in war

When I think about the criticisms of various people have made of the OPF's Iraq Appeal, particularly to their objection to understanding the death of innocent civilians in war as murder, I think of my own experience "in the loss of life," having had a miscarriage some years ago.

The Church in its wisdom understands that being "involved in the loss of life, whether voluntary or involuntary" (in the words of a prayer for those who have suffered miscarriages) means you are "in sin." I know this personally. Anyone who has been involved in the loss of life knows this. I daresay any soldier in Iraq knows this.

Many argue that the war Iraq is just and virtuous. But when a soldier is involved in battle and the lives of the innocent are lost, I wonder whether these arguments are relevant to him. If a soldier drops bombs in an urban area, and he knows that as a result women and children will die, can such arguments help heal the torment he faces in the depth of his heart? When he comes home from the war and he cannot sleep, cannot eat, cannot make love to his wife, will these arguments bring him peace? I don't think so.

I sympathize with how upset some people are that the Orthodox Peace Fellowship not only spoke of the killing of the innocent but used the word "murder" in talking about the reality of war. Many people prefer to focus on heroism and the soldiers' noble intentions. The soldiers are doing their duty, this is what happens in war, in fact this is a good war, we are fighting a worthy cause, etc. The thing is, no matter how worthy the cause is alleged to be, no matter how much we appreciate a soldier's courage, he is the one who has to see death in war close up, he is the one who has to return to the scene of a raid and discover all the women and children lying there slaughtered - who died because of what he did. He is the one who has this etched in his conscience for the rest of his life. How can he not feel deeply wounded and guilty, and how can he not feel revolted at the ticker-tape parades and the nationalistic sentiment back home?

This is where the Church must serve him - not by trying to salve his pain with platitudes about duty and just causes and courage and how God is on our side, but by addressing the real sin and then going about healing it. It does not come up with an abstract argument to let you off the hook, because such a sinner knows in the depth of his or her heart that there is something that must be healed, and if the Church fails to address it, then it is failing its own members. Being involved in the loss of life, whether voluntary or involuntary, is to be in sin. Nothing anyone says about the virtue of war, the goodness of America or the badness of Saddam Hussein can change this.

I just finished reading a book that I highly recommend. I would urge that we all read, and read carefully, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning by Chris Hedges. Hedges worked as a journalist for the New York Times in some of the most war-torn spots of the globe - Nicaragua, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Iran. He has seen fighting and death over and over again. He has come to understand the myth of war that has to be told so that it can be carried out with any real purpose. He has come to understand that the strongest force in life is love, without question. Hedges also attended seminary and got a graduate degree in theology from Harvard, so he came to his work as a journalist with very interesting preparation.

Nancy Forest

No man is an island

Part of the significance of what Nancy presented to us is the vast difference between our ordinary modern stance toward death, or loss-of-life, and the biblical sense of its relationship with our fallen nature.

The traditional way of thinking - for which there is plenty of scriptural foundation - links the fall of Adam and the introduction of degradation and death into the world. I admit to never having yet figured out how exactly that works, but there it is, nonetheless.

For me, the most important part was that acknowledgment that a life being lost constitutes not just a "normal, natural part of life" (although we all face it), but is always something to mourn, to feel grief over, and to humble ourselves before - even when we are not sure that we committed any sin that is related to it.

Is death something that "just happens" and no one has take any responsibility or take it personally? Or is death a tragic loss, as in John Donne's "No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde."

Maybe such losses should always be approached in humility, solemnity and repentance - there might be fewer wars, fewer abortions - even, conceivably, fewer miscarriages, whether we understand how or not.

Alex Patico

Murder vs killing

In discussions of "murder" versus "killing," the often an underlying assumption is that "wrong" and "law" are the same. If it is wrong, it must be against the law, and if it is not against the law, it is not wrong. But we are struggling with what to call that which is wrong and outside the "law" and we are left with sin. At some level, I think this is correct.

One of the frustrations for me in U.S. politics and the whole debate over "moral values" is that we think that all things which are wrong must be illegal, and so if we think it is wrong, we need to make it illegal. Yet I don't think that the law is always the way to handle wrong. It is a relatively blunt tool. Critics of the OPF's Iraq Appeal seem to assert that anything that is not illegal is not wrong.

What is lacking in a society that thinks that the law defines what is wrong and all else is "right" is that there is no room for grief, no room to account for those things in our life which exemplify the ways in which our world is not the reign of God. The Church acknowledges that any loss of life is something to grieve.

While we need to be careful in using the term murder, how do we acknowledge the intentional and unnecessary loss of life? How do we point to the real need to grieve, which cannot but help our soldiers who come back with all sorts of psychological disorders that are exacerbated by a society who tells then that what they did is right regardless of how they feel about it, without calling it murder? And how do we talk about a loss of life that is not intentional, and an occurrence which may not be a result of any sort of voluntary or involuntary action, but is still a real loss? Is confession only for sin, or is it broadened to include anger, grief and loss? Does confession then begin (or continue?) to include what we normally put under the category of counseling (grief counseling, psychological counseling, whatever)? How do we grieve without blame?

Most American soldiers enlist because it is one of the few available jobs they have. It is not clear that soldiers have a full range of choices.

I think our use of language is important, and thus we need to be careful regarding the implications of the words we use, whether it is murder, miscarriage, abortion or sin. Is there room for tragedy, which might allow for grief without blame?

Maria McDowell

A voice from Britain

Some of us who signed the OPF Plea for Peace are not US citizens. The issue of Britain's involvement in Iraq is much more controversial here. Blair probably does not have the backing of the majority in the country and only got a Parliamentary vote for war, it is argued, by not disclosing the full truth about weapons of mass destruction.

There was no UN authority for the Iraq intervention. Basic principles of international law were breached by the US and Britain. Other EU countries took a very different line.

On the question of enlisting: Any Christian volunteering should ask, "Why am I doing this? Am I prepared to kill? If so how can I answer before God at the Day of Judgment?"

Surely, everything we do has to be tested in the Light of the Gospel?

Seraphim Honeywell

Recalling being wrong

A nice thing about being old is it positions me to see how many times I've been wrong. What follows are changing understandings of big sin in my lifetime. (These broad brush strokes don't fully paint the prevailing spirit of my world in these eras).

1940s: In my Scotch-Irish Presbyterian world, the worst to be said of one is that he/she is "un-American." Protestantism and progress were inextricably linked. Catholics were, at best, marginal Americans, apt to betray us at the orders of a foreign pope. The name "Un-American Activities Committee" captured the spirit of the times. If I now see this as nationalism trumping Christianity, I then saw "God and country" as one package.

1960s: In academia, the worst to say of one is that he/she is a racist.

1970s-80s. Still evangelical academia, the worst to be said is that one is a sexist.

1980s-90s: Exiting evangelical academic, growing numbers of peers saw the great sin as homophobia.

Arguably, while we can learn from each, we have all distorted the Gospel. So too smaller movements, even those pro-life and pro-peace. It's not them versus us. It's just us. Our common challenge is not to be trapped in our cultural skin.

Our challenge isn't to tag after these movements, which can rule our minds and our "guts." Those who set the agenda win. Our challenge - set our own the agenda, ask the right question, speak unrelentingly to it.

John Oliver

Orthodoxy & western civilization

It strikes me that when Christ spoke to us about being a light to the world or the salt of the earth, that his imagery is one where we remain somehow distinct from the main culture. It really doesn't matter whether the culture is 1st Century Jewish, 6th Century Byzantine, Western, Capitalist, Islamic, liberal or secular. We still are to be light and salt but not the culture itself. Jesus doesn't speak much about us having political, legal or social power over others.

The creation of a Christian culture/ empire/nation/society is an interesting experiment, but remember monasticism came into its own in reaction against a supposedly Christian culture/empire, not in reaction to a pagan world. The monks did keep that sense of being light and salt, not being the world - and they kept their distance from the world.

We are in the world, but not of it. It's not the culture which determines our role - we are to be salt and light no matter what culture we happen to live in.

It seems a temptation that Christians never can resist to get the culture/nation to pass Christian laws, to enforce Christian morality. Jesus resisted Satan's temptation to have power over all kingdoms of the earth, but the Church has not been able to resist that same temptation.

Legislating morality does not make people moral, let alone holy. We can order the removal of temptations, but we don't stop people from sinning. The Roman Empire embraced Christianity, and the monks fled the empire and flocked to the desert.

We are to be witnesses to the world, to Christ's love, to self denial, to helping the least of the brethren - including those tempted to abortion. Christ did not command us to form government, laws and police to enforce morality.

Orthodoxy constantly talks about fasting and self denial, yet when it comes to asceticism, to denying ourselves access to excessive wealth or pornography or abortions, we abandon voluntary martyrdom in favor of state-ordered morality. Do we find taking up our crosses, voluntary self-denial too hard and so we want the state to force us to do what we really don't want to choose? Is this the Christian freedom of which the Gospel speaks and Dostoevski brings to light in his Grand Inquisitor?

Christians have walked that path before of creating Christian societies, Christian laws, Christ loving armies and holy wars. But holiness, as hagiography shows does not result from government laws, but from personal asceticism, voluntary self-denial. Do we have even one saint in our history who would say that it was the laws of the nation or cultural Christianity which made them holy?

Fr. Ted Bobosh

OPF conference report

Presbytera Elizabeth, I and the kids just got back from the OPF Conference at St. Nicholas Ranch. Here is a quick rundown.

The conference was well attended. We had a little over sixty participants, of whom about fifty were paid registrants and the rest speakers or workshop leaders. The conference was opened with prayer by His Eminence Metropolitan Anthony of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. In attendance the first night was Elenie Huszagh, former president of the National Council of Churches. Jim's opening keynote address was fantastic, as were the presentations by Greg and Margaret Yova of Project Mexico and Fr. John Chryssavgis.

We had a very diverse group of attendees. There was a good young adult contingent, about seven or eight college students, and a nice range of ages. There were about a dozen or so OPF members, so the majority of those who attended were learning about OPF for the first time, which is to be expected since OPF is still relatively unknown on the west coast. About ten people joined OPF during the course of the conference.

Structurally, I think the conference worked quite well. We had a wide range of presentations on the many ways of living out the Similitudes, "You are the salt of the earth... You are the light of the world": bringing peace to situations of conflict, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, visiting the prisoner, protecting the unborn, giving dignity to the elderly and dying, preserving the natural environment. It was a very packed weekend content-wise, with a strong emphasis on the practical dimension. The schedule held together, the workshops were well attended, and people seemed genuinely impacted by what they saw and heard.

All in all, I believe we accomplished our goals, and made a very good start on establishing a more visible presence of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship on the west coast.

Fr. Paul Schroeder

The spirit of conflict

We are familiar with St. Seraphim's "Acquire the spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved." It's an appeal to strive firstly for personal, internal peace. Reading St. Nicholas Cabasilas's Commentary on the Divine Liturgy about the relationship between peace and agitation and prayer, I've been wondering if there is a sobering corollary to Seraphim's axiom, one that considers the cosmic consequences of those passions that burn within, such as anger, apathy, envy, lust, et al. Perhaps it would be, "Retain the spirit of conflict, and a thousand souls around you will be lost."

Fr. John Oliver

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Last spring the OPF was asked by the World Council of Churches if we wanted to nominate anyone for the "Blessed are the Peacemakers" award to be given by the WCC's Program to Overcome Violence. We nominated Joe May, founder of Matthew 25 House in Akron, Ohio, sending with the nomination the In Communion article by Joe that was published in our Winter 2003 issue. Here is a letter from Joe with the news that he has received the award:

"I wanted to let you know that yesterday I received the 'Blessed are the Peacemakers' award from the World Council of Churches. I cannot thank you enough for placing some attention on these guys who are living with us and just maybe the thought of living in a different way.

"Life is really blessed here. The men and women in our community really feel like family. Thank you also for entering the article into In Communion. The fact that these words are published and taken seriously has changed the syntax of my church community here in Akron.

"We do a First Friday Roundtable each month. This month it was on voluntary simplicity. A young lady named Alice from Iowa was visiting a professor friend of ours so she led the discussion. Alice and I spent the day together and in our visiting we had come to the conclusion that we know so many people who are bitter and rankled and saddened and tired and sick over the elections - feeling like we are losing or have lost the fight. It was funny because we both independently had come to the conclusion that it wasn't about winning the fight anyway. We have chosen to be joyful about God, joyful about all the blessings that we have. We resolve to just continue to love one another in small ways and also continue to speak the truth if the opportunity presents itself."

Joe May

Joe's most recent "In Communion" article, "The Gospel of Necessity," is posted at this website.

Mother Gavrilia

It was good to read in the last In Communion John Brady's presentation of Mother Gavrilia as she appears in Ascetic of Love. One remark, though, which jarred on me was that "in this time of heightened enmity between Islam and the West, it seems a miracle that only fifty years ago she traveled alone by bus from Jordan through Iraq and Iran to India - and that at every stop she was invited to enter the local mosque to 'pray to her God'." John Brady is here reflecting the text of the book, though the book suggests Islamic fundamentalism would now prevent Mother Gavrilia praying in a mosque.

May I comment on this, and add a little to the ongoing discussion in In Communion about attitudes to Islam?

I do not think anyone then or now would have seen Mother Gavrilia as a typical product of "the West." "The West" is more difficult to define than people sometimes think. It includes the US, but does it cover all of Europe? Does it cover Japan (for Europeans is the "Far East")?

Wherever one thinks the West is, a person like Mother Gavrilia who refused to have a bank account is hardly representative of it. And it is quite obvious that Mother Gavrilia herself related to people as created in the image of God. Points of the compass meant nothing to her.

It is a mistake to talk about Islam as a great undifferentiated (and for many people in "the West" threatening) block. There are Muslims living in many different countries. They are not only Muslims but schoolgirls, truck drivers, grandmothers, football fans, unemployed, nurses, builders, cooks, civil servants, farmers, people with handicaps, musicians, teachers, garbage collectors, young fathers, neighborhood gossips and much else. Mother Gavrilia will not have encountered small undifferentiated chips off the block of Islam but met specific people.

The Muslims whom she met on her journey to India will have seen her in the first place as elderly - thus deserving respect - and traveling alone - and so needing help. Anyone who has experienced the long-established Middle Eastern tradition of hospitality to travelers will not be at all surprised that Mother Gavrilia succeeded in making this journey. And if she could not travel back overland from India to Bethany on the West Bank (at the time part of Jordan), it was because of that 20th century plague, visa restrictions.

Muslims will also have recognized her holiness. True spiritual athletes transcend religious boundaries, and the fact that she was invited to pray in mosques is a sign of how far she had already progressed on the path to sainthood - in Muslim terms, how much of a "friend of God" she already was.

If it is true that nowadays "fundamentalist" Muslims would be against her praying in a mosque, remember that they are not the majority in the Muslim world. They are a vocal minority, on the increase in large part because of "the West's" policies towards certain regions of the Muslim world and because of the poverty brought about by globalization. (To be fair, one can ask oneself how many Christian communities would invite a Muslim of Mother Gavrilia's spiritual stature to pray in their churches.)

The way Mother Gavrilia approached people of other faiths is an inspiration to us to look at them, not as faceless monsters, but as brothers and sisters - people to love.

Hilary Waardenburg

Jesus the peacemaker

I am reading The Mountain of Silence, a remarkable book by Kyriacos Markides, and find a passage to share:

"The son of a prominent priest from Limassol, Lavros as a young man during the fifties took part in the guerrilla campaign against the colonial government, a campaign the British called terrorist. His task was to carry secret messages from one part of the island to another. But a particular episode during those dark years drastically changed his life.

"One day on his way to a village in the eastern part of the island on a special mission, he got lost and stopped his motor scooter near an open field. He suddenly noticed an unusual sight. In the middle of that field he saw a shepherd sitting on a rock and reading a book. He walked toward him to ask for directions when he realized the shepherd was reading the Bible. 'Before I give you directions,' the man replied, lowering his glasses to get a clearer look at Lavros, 'please answer this question for me. Had Jesus been the archbishop of Cyprus, do you think he would have taken a machine gun to fight the British?'

"'The shepherd's question changed my life one hundred and eighty degrees,' Lavros declared emphatically. 'Right then and there I became a pacifist and renounced violence as a means of solving human problems. That shepherd was either an angel or someone the angels had sent to help me see more clearly.'" (pp 236-7)

Alice Carter

Restoration of the deaconate

I am reading the writings of St. Maria Skobtsova. How I wish we could sit down and talk! When I was at Bussy over a quarter of a century ago, I met a couple of the old nuns who remembered her. They said there was no question but that she died a martyr's death and that she had a true vocation to the deaconate. They felt it as a sadness that she could not see more in some of the monastics around her. I'm not sure it was that cut and dried, reading her - but having come from where she came from and living in the midst of the Nazi horror, I can see that for her, she was being utterly honest and true to what God wanted for her.

I do think that is one of the difficulties for Orthodoxy in the West. The active religious orders were a re-establishment of the deaconate. St. Elizabeth of Moscow, the Grand Duchess, had the vision to begin a similar order. I am bringing that to the attention of our hierarchs who say "our church does not have deaconesses." Hers was a very viable attempt to live out the same sort of vision as St. Maria - although they could not have been more different people.

I do think the deaconate is an important issue - a deaconate of service, not necessarily of ordained liturgical function (a distinction the Grand Duchess was very careful to make), and for both men and women.

Mother Raphaela

Holy Myrrbearers Monastery

Otego, NY


It is a long and fascinating story - also very sad - how Tolstoy gradually entered into a one-man war with the Orthodox Church and many of its teachings and practices.

There is a symbolic moment that Andre Troyat describes in his excellent biography of Tolstoy when the famous author decides to eat meat balls at a Lenten meal (they were on the table for the benefit of the non-Orthodox English tutor). Tolstoy became a self-made would-be Russian messiah. One aspect of his objection to the Church, as you might expect, had to do with the Church's non-critical relationship to the state and its military activities. That's the part I find it easiest to sympathize with. However he came to disown the Trinity, the Resurrection and much more.

To its credit, the Church was not in a hurry to excommunicate Tolstoy, though he had long since excommunicated himself. Many efforts were made, right up to his death, the reconcile him.

He had a sister who was an Orthodox nun, and most of his family remained strongly Orthodox.

Ask a Russian which is his favorite writer, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, and you will usually find out at the same time what relationship the person you ask has to the Church.

Jim Forest