Conversations by email: Pascha / Spring 2008

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 .

Letter from Pakistan: I want to thank all OPF members who, during the Nativity Fast, contributed funds to Orthodox Social Services in Pakistan to help us fulfill one aspect of our mission, giving assistance to orphans. It is thanks to your great effort that it was possible for Nadia and Rahbia to get wheelchairs. Your love, concern and sympathies will be remembered for good.

Fr. Andrew

Orthodox Social Services, Pakistan

Note: Photos of Nadia and Rahbia with their new wheelchairs:


The Church in Communist days: As an Orthodox from Romania of Communist days, I can testify that it was a deliberate political strategy of the state to compromise the Church in all "Eastern-bloc" countries by undermining people's trust in them and "splitting by smearing" campaigns. The principal of "divide and conquer" was used within the general population as well, with the consequence that no one completely trusted almost anyone else.

Most clergy were contacted by KGB or its local equivalent and attempts made to recruit or at least intimidate them. Some did cave in, really, yet the degree of damage could vary greatly, from loss of trust to minor "informing" to serious betrayals. It was always tragic and always affected everyone in and around the Church.

I have known Romanian martyr-priests who were in prison and later accused of "collaborating" with the Securitate (the KGB-like Romanian secret service) or at least of watering down their sermons in response to pressure or threats. One never knew...

Others, some of whose memoirs were recently published, lived in constant fear, always trying themselves in their own conscience for not speaking up or not defending others or decisions, etc.

It remains a wounding reality that the Church in Romania (but I know it's also true for the Russian Church) has not yet found a "public" way to speak openly about the agonizing dilemmas it had to face during the years of Communist persecution. A way must be found to confess mistakes (such as not protesting the demolition of churches and monasteries) and pray together with the wounded flock for forgiveness and healing of such long-standing affliction, which continues to affect the people's trust in the church and faith in the Lord Whose truth it proclaims.

I pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal a way to stand in that truth, if it is ardently desired.

Ioana Novac

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Not an ethnic club: One of the issues challenging Orthodoxy in America (I'll leave other parts of the world to speak for themselves) is that Orthodoxy has not primarily been here in a missionary capacity. Rather, in too many cases, Orthodoxy was here to help some people preserve their past, and to preserve a culture that was fading away in history.

Orthodoxy has not fully embraced the missionary task, and so spends much of its time proclaiming and recreating culture, rather than proclaiming Christ. But many people have been attracted to this "churchianity" which brings people into the flock who then go seeking others like themselves.

Orthodox mission in much of past history - whether Byzantine or Russian - was not only seeking to spread the faith but also meant to expand an earthly kingdom. When the Alaska natives converted to Orthodoxy, they were accepting the lordship of the Russian Tsar as well. The Orthodox didn't and couldn't distinguish between Christian mission and imperial expansion.

This has carried over into what we do as Orthodox in America.

We have never sat down and discussed what non-imperial Orthodoxy might look like - not only have we not discussed it but a fair amount of Orthodox leadership and clergy would find such a discussion to threaten Orthodoxy itself.

America presents us with the chance to realize there is a difference between the gift we have received (the Faith) and the packaging it came in. But so far we have not shown any ability to enter into this discussion and realize the opportunity God has presented to us.

I think Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff, among others, did understand this and worked hard to help us move forward, but they were paddling against the stream and knew it.

Imperial Orthodoxy will always speak to some, but the missionary issue is whether we can understand what is the core message of our faith and live it without imperial trappings.

Fr. Ted Bobosh

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A frequent convert: I have been a frequent convert in my life. I converted to Christianity when I was 17. I converted from Darwinism about the same time. I converted to patriotism when I converted my citizenship, and to super-patriotism when I became a Reagan Republican. I converted from Apartheid somewhere in my twenties (even as an American, I defended South African Nationalism. It took me a while to recognize how deep Social Darwinism infects even those who deny it when they accept certain "parent" philosophies.) I converted to conscientious objection. I vacillated and rejoined the Army. I converted to hyper-pacifism. I converted to pluralism and internationalism (and was shocked again how deep certain biases had gone when "parent" philosophies were in control). I converted back and forth from Calvinism a few times. I converted to Orthodoxy. The list goes on and covers many areas of my thinking and believing life. I finally converted from converting, thinking that I was a flake. Then I converted to thinking that I need to be converted all my life in every way and that my error was basically in two things:

1) There are only two sides, and 2) one is always wrong and one is always right.

In fact, there are many sides and truth lurks in the most unlikely places. When I choose the "right" side, I always choose against some truth.

C.S. Lewis said that the devil always sends errors into the world in pairs so that we are forced to choose the one that we like best or that offends least. It becomes the right side. The trick for Christians generally is to navigate safely between.

Pieter Dykhorst

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Re Church & Liturgy: The various Orthodox churches have managed to survive in spite of being subjected to centuries of suppression. The Romans, the Crusaders, the Turks, the Communists have all butchered Orthodox people who refused to surrender the beliefs of their ancestors. Many of us remember all too well the Soviet Union and its gulags. Most recently in Kosovo, priests have been murdered, churches, monasteries and cemeteries desecrated. Few in the West seem to know or care.

People often speak of the Orthodox Liturgy being shaped in the context of "Imperial" Byzantium but there has been no such empire for centuries. But the Liturgy itself has survived.

When I am in church, I consider the unchanged nature of the Liturgy to being an example of a small, shared miracle. I think about the desert mothers and fathers, the martyrs and how the Liturgy connects us all. That doesn't inoculate me from feelings of discomfort and irritation when the priest looks like he'd rather be anywhere else at the moment, or when fellow parishioners make it clear that those of other nationalities should go someplace else to worship.

My only religious training prior to converting to Orthodoxy was in Tibetan Buddhism. There are many shades of practice in that tradition. On one hand, a simple glimpse of an image of the Buddha generates merit.

On the other end of the spiritual spectrum one finds rarely offered initiations and highly detailed internal visualizations of specific deities conducted in the course of multi-year solitary retreats.

One of the lessons I take away from that period of my life is that there can be many different levels of ability, dedication and degree of participatory involvement that a worshiper brings to the Liturgy - and they all can be valid.

An Orthodox priest (also a dear friend of mine) once reminded me that many parishioners become preoccupied with following the written Liturgy in their hands (or minds) in order to understand each and every word of the service, but end up missing the Liturgy itself. He told me that being part of the spiritual assembly, was more important than scholarly achievement.

He suggested that when I found myself at a point in the Liturgy where I was beginning to feel bored, or more focused on getting home in time to watch football, I should use the time to repeat the Jesus Prayer. And what better time or place to do so?

Every religion has its drawbacks. There are points where the Church and I diverge. But I believe that our Church's underdog history has taught it a great deal about the value of compassion, and it retains a very human nature. Often it resembles a brawl at a family reunion, but I feel more at home amidst chaos. That context allows me to be more patient with whatever shortcomings I may perceive in Orthodoxy, while it continues to accept mine.

David Golden

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Joy and dark nights: Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, not a gift of the Spirit. The gifts vary from person to person and from time to time. The fruits do not. If a person does not have any one of the fruits of the Spirit, there is something wrong in that person's relationship with the Holy Spirit. Look at the other items in the list of the fruits. Would we ever say that God might give us love or might not? Or might give us gentleness or might not? Or might give us self-control or might not? No. All these are marks of a genuine relationship with God. They might be weak or strong depending on our willfulness or the depth of our repentance. But they should all be part of a Christian's normal relationship with God.

So if joy is lacking in our prayer and in our worship, this is a sure sign that something is amiss. It may be that God has withdrawn from us for reasons of His own, as St. John of the Cross in the West and St. Silouan the Athonite in the East tell us. But I think that is a fairly rare experience. Much of the time, if God withdraws from us, it is because our sinfulness has forced Him to. But it also happens that our distractedness removes our joy. We are not focused on the Lord; we are not seeing the world as it is. In any case, some kind of rupture has occurred in our awareness of the presence of the Lord. He is still there, but our minds are somewhere else.

But what about dark nights? For many years I was of the opinion that God never withdraws from us - rather we withdraw from Him. This was my heritage from the Methodism in which I grew up. Wesley said that we might endure "heaviness through many temptations" and that we might even be in a "wilderness state" because of our sins. He was very uneasy with the idea that God might withdraw from us even when we are not withdrawing from Him.

So was I and so I am. But I have come to see that there are times when there are no real sins that are pulling us away from God, but that God pulls away from us all the same. I think He does this in order to force us to grow and mature. It is rather like a parent who does not go with the kids when they go into the woods to play. The kids have to learn how to deal with things without depending on the parent to solve every problem, kiss every wound, make every decision, etc. It is not a punishment or a lack of love on the parent's part - to the contrary, it is real love. In the case of God's dealings with us, it is His way of making us become His friends and stop being just His servants. I think this is what St. John of the Cross was getting at with his notion of the dark night of the soul (which was a long way from an ordinary depressive episode, despite the loose use of his language current nowadays). I think that St. Silouan the Athonite had much the same idea, though not with the refinement of St. John of the Cross.

Even so, I think this is seldom the case. Most of us have not arrived at this level of spiritual maturity. Most of the time we have sinned in some way, flagrantly or subtly, or we are simply not attending to the divine reality around us. Hence our loss of the sense of God's presence. To assume that we are having a dark night experience is, as St. John of the Cross noted, often a sign of spiritual pride. It takes a discerning spiritual director to know it when he or she sees it.

David Holden

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Perseverance: David captures the reason why I was not disturbed by the recent revelations about Mother Theresa and her faith. In fact, I found the information regarding her barren inner life inspiring - even more inspiring than the witness of her actions with the poor and ill over so many years.

Given her tremendous and stalwart perseverance in her works of mercy, I can only suppose that this was a case of God enrolling her in the "advanced" course in holiness, one that you and I are very unlikely to have put on our schedule. She treated "the least" of her brethren with astounding compassion for decades, even as she experienced the Christ, in whose image they were made, as an absence, a blank where God should be.

This achievement, to me, far outstrips incessant prayer, perching on a column or living on air.

Alex Patico

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Absence of God: My response to Alex and David about the absence or presence of God and whether it is because of our sins or not strikes me as somehow too neat and tidy.

First of all, this sense of the "presence of God" may often simply be a sense of well being, that things are going well and so we attribute that to God. We can have just as much of a bourgeois comfort in religion as anything else.

Secondly, I would suggest that the basic condition of our life here in this world in our mortal bodies is the absence of God, at least existentially. In fact the very fact that we are having this sort of discussion points to God's absence! If God were truly present to our consciousness, we wouldn't be taking about him, we'd be basking in him!

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This is the human condition at its most anguished, at the deepest level of affliction. This is what makes Jesus truly our brother, his love for us in our most profound dereliction which is our just banishment from the life-giving presence of God. Jesus' love for us is so total that he is willing to step into the breach for us, to experience existentially in all its horror that which is our lot day-to-day, but which sometimes we manage to avoid in its full impact.

I remember that when I first read the story of Adam and Eve, after having myself been touched by God, I wondered - how can they have stood it for even one hour, to be banished from Paradise? And then gradually I realized that God in his mercy immediately mitigated the horror of his absence. He gave them skins to wear and many other things to "veil" his absence, even make it palatable. But he no longer "walked" with them. He was absent. I would suggest that existentially that is still our present human condition. God is absent.

I would also suggest that we can't really know God until all the mitigating compensations for God's absence are stripped away. Perhaps in his mercy he gives a brief flash of his presence to prepare us for the long road back to him.

Anybody who has experienced the profound joy of God's presence (such as St. Silouan), this ineffable "home coming," can only be totally dismayed, even panicked, when it gradually slips away. No one "deserves" this Paschal experience anymore than they deserve its absence. It is a gift. Its reasons are for God's good pleasure in the mystery of his Providence both for us and the world, a gift few knew was possible!

Do my sins block the grace of God and my ability to experience joy? Of course they do. I also think there's more to it than that. I think that periods of darkness can happen that are both related to and unrelated to our sins at various stages of our life.

Was Mother Theresa's dryness a sign of a higher spiritual state. Perhaps. Perhaps not. I heard she could at times be pretty nasty to her own sisters. But that's neither here nor there. I do know that the further one goes in the love of God and neighbor, the less one is concerned with whether one is repenting for one's own sins or that of others. Ultimately love erases all such boundaries. It certainly did for Jesus. That is the beauty of sanctity. The less one sins oneself, the more one is freed to pray/repent for the sins of others. Ultimately that can mean sharing in their dereliction. And when there is no sin than that identification becomes total. That is Jesus, the Suffering Servant.

I have always been very uncomfortable, even guilt ridden, at all this talk about joy (you know, authentic sign of God's life in us) because quite frankly there has been so little of it in my life, certainly in the conventional Christian sense. Certainly my sins have been manifold (no pious rhetoric here) and so tendency to dejection and discouragement at my manifest weakness has been dominant. What can God possibly do with me, spiritual neurotic that I am?! At the same time I know that there is no escaping that, like Silouan, God has touched me in a way I know few others have been.

But there has been one joy that has surprised me more and more with its paradoxical power, and that is the joy of repentance.

Paul del Junco

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Whole-life: A few thoughts on Fr Ted Bobosh's essay on capital punishment (pages 4-9), one that I will be keeping for future reference.

I appreciate Fr. Ted being so candid about moving from a position of supporting the death penalty to opposing it. I have made the same journey.

However I don't know if I can agree with his statement that he "[has] come to accept the consistent pro-life thinking," given his earlier statement that "Armies and wars are part of this fallen world, and though an undesirable inevitability, and even an evil necessity, a necessity none-the-less."

If mass killing is at times a lesser evil, then doesn't it follow that other evils might also be described as undesirable but in some circumstances sadly necessary? How about, "Adultery is part of this fallen world, and, though undesirable, in certain circumstances a lesser evil"?

It seems to me that evil can only become a necessity when we are out of righteous actions. Can this happen? Why should Christians accede to any type of evil when there is always the alternative of righteousness? I am not being idealistic. I am looking at Christ's life, not to mention many others that have followed in his footsteps when it comes to rejecting the option of mass killing as a solution.

In recent years, I have stopped calling myself "pro-life," not because I no longer oppose abortion, but I find the word "pro-life" too spattered with the gunk of political agendas and the strange belief that being against abortion (while ignoring killing in war or the execution of prisoners, not to mention poverty, wealth and many other issues) fulfills the "pro-life" criteria. So far the best phrase I can come up with to describe my views is "whole-life."

Renee Zitzloff

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Orthodox-Muslim Dialogue: This response to Pieter Dykhorst's letter in the winter issue of "In Communion" comes from Lord Hylton, member of the British House of Lords and a longtime subscriber to In Communion.

Friends, In the winter issue of In Communion, Pieter Dykhorst gave a helpful background, asking for humility on all sides and for understanding of the varying relationships between faiths and the state. I would agree with those who think that the gap between Christian and Muslim theologies is too great, for theology in itself to be a useful starting point for dialogue. John Brady's and Alasdair Cross's "neighborly ways" of living side by side, seem much more practical and realistic.

At local level this may involve muezzins and megaphones or church bells. Worldwide we should be discussing the details and difficulties of establishing peaceful co-existence, all the way from Israel and Palestine, via Iraq, to Indonesia and Nigeria, and elsewhere. Wherever the major faiths are living in proximity to each other, their leaders should agree to meet regularly to defuse problems before they arise and to respond non-violently to issues at the level of state or society. They will not always be able to agree, but a common mind on some moral issues and possible solutions would be very helpful.

Raymond Hylton

House of Lords, London

Wonderful issue: The winter issue of In Communion was one of the best yet. I especially appreciated Jim's article on Adam and Eve, Maria Khoury's article from Palestine, and Frederica Mathewes-Greens' piece on her grandson. The last really struck a chord as I have a good friend who's son has just been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome (not as severe as autism, but in the spectrum with it). It captured beautifully many of the sentiments their family has been going through. I sent it to my friend and she said she just cried as she read it. Thank you to Alex and everyone who gave their time and attention to this issue. It was a great blessing to me.

Monica Klepac

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Introducing OPF: Here is an exchange of letters between an OPF member who is looking into the possibility of starting an OPF group within his parish and a response for Alex Patico, OPF secretary in North America:

"There are a number of concerns," our member wrote, "that have stood in my way. One is uncertainty as to what type of activities would be presented to the parish. I do not believe that most parish members are comfortable with peace marches and demonstrations. Also advocacy of 'peace activities' in the current climate may appear to be 'political' and this prove to be divisive. Not everyone shares my concerns about the growing militarization of our nation and its heavy handed activities toward other nations. I would appreciate your thoughts and ideas."

To which Alex responded:

Even all of our members do not always see eye-to-eye. What I hope distinguishes OPF is that we focus on the importance of dealing with situations where there is conflict, rather than trying to avoid looking at them. This is not to say, however, that we take any joy in antagonism. Rather, we seek to create real peace, rather than just strife that is kept out of the spotlight and hurts that are never mentioned.

First, then, take the "Hippocratic" approach - try to do no harm. That is, in introducing OPF to your parish council or other members of the congregation, you will want to identify ways in which its message and function meet current needs of your parish and enhance its corporate life, rather than to provide "in-your-face" challenges to its members.

For example, if there is a book study group, could it take up a title that would bring its members to think about what it means to be a peacemaker, following Jesus' guidance in the Beatitudes? When there are decisions being made about social programs, can there be consideration given to aiding in the care of returning injured soldiers? When the subject is instruction of the young people in the parish, can the curriculum include tough questions about prevention of violence in the schools and the role of Christian families in that (which might later lead to discussion of prevention of violence on the international level)?

Common ground is usually the best starting point in any successful conflict management - ask yourself what you have in common with your brothers and sisters in Christ at your parish. Then, go on from there in love and honest sharing.

Let me know how it goes.

Alex Patico

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OPF Conference in Canada: On the second weekend of September, we invite not only Canadians but others to join us for a conference on "War and Peace in the Post-Human Era."

The speakers are Timothy Cooper, a physicist, whose topic will be environmental issues; David Goa, a renowned philosopher as well as adjunct professor of Religion at the University of Alberta; Scott Fast, professor of Political Science and Sociology at the University College of Fraser Valley; Ronald Dart, professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at UCFV; and Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, Orthodox Christian theologian and abbot of All Saints of North America in Dewdney, British Columbia.

The gathering will take place at the monastery. The registration fee is $50. The monastery can host only eight persons with sleeping accommodation, although camping on the monastery grounds is an attractive option for some.

To register, go to the following web page:

Archbishop Lazar

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From the Pascha / Spring 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 49