Saying Yes

Nancy holding a scan of her relocated kidney a few days after the transplant

by Nancy Forest

These are extracts from the journal I started in the Fall of 2007, shortly before one of my kidneys was transplanted into my husband Jim’s body. The entire journal, with entries made by both of us, is available in our blog, A Tale of Two Kidneys, at: http://ataleof2kidneys.blogspot.com/

October 24: What goes into making a decision like this, to offer a vital organ to someone?

It took me a long time. Several years ago, when Jim first learned that dialysis was in his future, the idea of a kidney transplant didn’t really hit me. Each time he went to the hospital for tests, we were apprehensive, then relieved to hear that his kidneys were still on the positive side. Then about twenty-one months ago the doctor told Jim he had crossed the line. Dialysis began the next day. From that day onward, Jim was at the local hospital three times a week for three-hour sessions of dialysis.

At first I reasoned that I couldn’t even begin to consider myself a possible donor because, self-employed people that we are, we simply couldn’t afford for me to be unable to work for what might be an extended period. In my darker moments, I imagined the possibility of being bedridden for months, weakened by the loss of the kidney, unable to do any translation work.

In May of 2006, a Canadian woman we had met at a conference amazed us with the offer to donate a kidney to Jim. We were touched and thrilled. She made contact with the transplant people at our hospital in Amsterdam, and they approved her offer. But some months later other factors in her life made it impossible for her to go through with it.

At that point I began to rethink my hesitations. Doing a lot of internet investigation, I learned that kidney donation is only very rarely debilitating. In fact it was more than likely that I wouldn’t be out of commission for long.

Such research is helpful and the internet makes it easy. But research isn’t the same thing as saying yes. You have to reach a certain point when you sit down, open your mouth, and say the words, “I want to donate a kidney to you.”

Recently people have told me how brave I’m being, but believe me, the bravest part of this whole process is just saying those words, getting yourself to that point where you overcome all your excuses and fears.

I kept thinking of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, who finally makes the decision to carry the ring in order to destroy it in Mount Doom. He must make this decision on his own, and when he finally says, “I’ll carry the ring,” he becomes the organizing principle for the entire story.

I have always believed that Tolkien was very deliberate in naming Frodo, and that his name could easily fit into the long etymological entry for the word “free” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Frodo – one who acts out of freedom.

Freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever you feel like if it’s in your interest, because sometimes you do things that you think are in your interest only to discover later on that you did them under some kind of compulsion – peer group pressure, fear of rejection, fear of loss. Acting under compulsion isn’t freedom. But acting out of love, sometimes doing something that’s downright dangerous, is what freedom truly is. (Interestingly enough, the word “free” and the word “beloved” and “friend” are related, as the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear.)

So I said yes. And when I did, I suddenly felt as if all the winds were blowing in the right direction, as if I had made a free decision that was somehow in line with a kind of cosmic truth. I realized that for all the months that I had been saying I couldn’t donate a kidney due to economic worries, I had made myself responsible for a kind of self-wrought logical argument that had to be constantly reinforced with my own insistence in order to stay in place. But the yes floated freely. The yes was borne up by something beyond me and my own logical arguments.

This is not to say that the coming days will be easy or that I feel confident and fearless. I’m still apprehensive. When I think about the operation, now only a week away, I feel my heart beating faster and my breathing becoming shallower. But I wouldn’t go back on this decision for anything in the world.

October 29: Yesterday, directly after the Liturgy, Fr. Sergei anointed us in preparation for the surgery just two days away. The anointing reminded me of our marriage in the church, a similar sense of standing in a zone of pure grace.

November 3: Yesterday – two days after the kidney transplant – was our 25th anniversary, Jim’s 66th birthday.

Jim is going great guns. He was doing e-mail the day after the operation.

In the evening, Dan, Wendy, Cait and Björn came to celebrate both the anniversaries plus the transplant. Having just decorated it, they brought me by wheel-chair down to Jim’s room. Dan took pictures and Jim showed a sonogram of his new (my old) kidney. All the indications are that the transplant was a complete success. Jim’s godson Silouan came, too, with Leonidas chocolates to pass around. Wendy brought a huge fruit basket. We’ve never had a party quite like this before!

Now that I can walk, the nurse said I would be able to go home tomorrow.

November 6: The transplant was a week ago today. I’m not yet up to spending a lot of time behind the computer, but I’m home. The plan is to veg happily and watch movies with the kids, which I think I’ll be able to stand for about a week.

November 10: It’s ten days after the operation. I’m finally beginning to feel enough energy to write. What I hadn’t realized – and should have, of course – is that along with my kidney Jim now has truckloads of energy, whereas I have to be very conservative about everything I do so I don’t wear myself out. My operation took twice as long as Jim’s, and recovery takes longer. In fact I don’t mind gliding around the house in slow motion. I had planned beforehand to take all of November off, so I don’t feel compelled to get back to work. I’m deep into the Harry Potter novels, which I’d never been able to read until now.

The post-surgery pain is over. I can easily get in and out of bed, up and down stairs. It no longer hurts to laugh or cough or sneeze. If I lift a frying pan, I can feel a kind of pressure in the wound area, but no pain. But moving around too much makes me feel a little dizzy.

My project now is to recover my strength and to try to grasp what I’ve done. The spiritual, psychological and physical hurdle of deciding to donate a kidney – and then actually doing it – is something that requires an enormous effort. Maybe that’s also contributing to the fatigue. I never had any doubts before the operation, but I remember a lot of anxiety. I also remember telling myself, “You’ll be glad you did this, and if you don’t you’ll kick yourself forever.” The night before we left for Amsterdam, I jokingly said to Jim, “Me and my big mouth,” but that’s really it – me and my big mouth. When I see him so glowing with energy, and not troubled by the terrible morning coughs that used to exhaust him, “me and my big mouth” takes on a whole different meaning.

November 24: Yesterday we celebrated Thanksgiving. There were ten of us around the table. It was glorious. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to manage such a feast this year, so soon after the transplant. I’m not supposed to carry anything heavy, which includes the turkey, and I’m not supposed to overexert myself. But nobody wanted to skip it, especially not this year when we’ve just come through such an intense family experience and everyone has so much to be thankful for. Cait took a day off work and organized the dinner, Anne picked up the turkey from the butcher, and everybody pitched in with the cooking and clean-up.

My mother said grace. It was hard for her to get through the tears. We loaded up our plates and sat around the living room together. Dan kept everyone laughing, as usual, and Kylie read us a Maori children’s story.

Jim told me later he has never in his life felt such a prolonged and intense sense of gratitude as he had since the transplant.

I’m grateful he’s feeling so well, grateful to all the kids for their amazing support and help all through this, grateful to the medical community both in Amsterdam and Alkmaar, for their constant care, grateful to Dr. Idu (our surgeon, whose skill is something we’ll take with us all our lives), to our friends for their cards, e-mails, phone calls and visits, to the church, both in Amsterdam and all over the world, for praying for us, for Fr. Sergei and Fr. Mel for bringing us Holy Communion, and for my translation clients who have been so patient during all this. But mostly I’m grateful to the mysterious God who gave me the opportunity to give this gift. It was the most difficult thing I have ever been called to do, and it’s almost as if my whole life had served as a period of preparation.

I am daily discovering how the transplant is affecting my sense of who I am and where I’m going. It is immensely humbling.

December 3: At last yesterday we were able to return to church. The welcome was remarkable, even from people whom we had never had occasion to speak with in the past (keep in mind that in recent years ours has become a large parish, with several hundred people present each Sunday). One of the women who speaks only Russian embraced us and, with many joyful exclamations, spoke to us at length. We understood hardly a word, but felt showered in love. An Eritrean woman who also speaks very little Dutch did the same in her native language.

December 12: It’s six weeks since the transplant. Most of the time I don’t even think about it any more. I can’t feel a thing, and the periods of fatigue have passed.

Last Wednesday we went into Amsterdam to attend our daughter Wendy’s graduation from the University of Amsterdam, where she received her Master’s Degree with glowing praise for a thesis on George Orwell. The celebration went on until late at night. We got home at midnight. I don’t think we would have been any less tired if we hadn’t had the transplant.

I’m back at work. I’ve alerted my translation clients that all is well, and the assignments have started to come in.

Life goes on. The big event, which I had been awaiting with quite some apprehension, is passed. All is well. Even the scars are barely visible.

And yet…

And yet there was that thing I did. There was that yes. There was that “fiat.”

When we returned to church the Sunday before last, it happened to be a Sunday with a guest priest assisting in the sanctuary, Fr. Stephen Headley, archpriest of the Russian Orthodox church in Vezelay, France. He preached a sermon on the Mother of God, and he told us that her life is the model of how we should live out the gospel. “Fiat” is the Latin translation of what she said at the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel came to her – let it be done according to your word. She was not a deus ex machina, handily inserted at the right moment to make sure the prophecies were fulfilled. No one said a word to her about prophecies. Gabriel simply explained the situation to her, and she said yes.

I spent many hours of my recovery time reading all seven of the Harry Potter books. One of the main themes is the futility of prophecies. In her creation of a world of witches and wizards, Rowling wanted to make it clear that she was not interested in having her plot hinge on the magical fulfillment of a prophecy. She has little patience with fortune-telling. The one teacher at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft who is responsible for teaching the prophetic arts is depicted as a well-meaning but ridiculous fraud whom no one takes seriously. In the end, Harry is not the victim of a prophecy but the hero of his own freely made decision to act out of love.

Before the transplant, during the early stages of the selection process when I was still undergoing test after test to see if I was a worthy donor candidate, I was asked to meet with the hospital social worker. We talked for about a half hour, maybe longer, and basically what she wanted to know was whether I was being coerced or guilt-tripped into offering my kidney. Donations made under pressure are not accepted. Only those who offer their kidney freely can get past the AMC social worker. This is as it should be.

After having said her yes, the Mother of God – as St. Luke relates it – sings a hymn of thanksgiving, the Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

What is she giving thanks for? For the fact that “henceforth all generations will call me blessed,” that her future reputation is secured? For having been chosen to be the Birthgiver of the Savior, for having won a cosmic sweepstakes? Or was she thankful for having been given the opportunity to make the decision in the first place, thankful for having been so fully challenged, thankful that God drew forth from her the full strength of her humanness, thankful that God put her in a place where she was required to fight her fears and to make a decision that was not based on what her friends might do, or what her parents might want, or what “common sense” informed by popular culture might instruct. Her yes was uttered from a deep trust that God would be with her, that her will and God’s will were aligned. This is really beyond obedience, because she didn’t surrender her will to God. She was not a victim of some almighty and unavoidable power. She decided to sing in God’s key, as it were, because she knew that it was the key of truth and love.

When you sing in that key, even if only for a moment, things can never be the same. That’s what I feel right now, even as the scars are fading.

* * *

When you’re smiling — the transplant, one year on

Nancy with granddaughter Lux

by Nancy Forest

Yesterday it was one year since the transplant, and we went out to our favorite Alkmaar restaurant to celebrate. We began talking about what it had been like one year before — coming out of the anesthesia, trying to eat a little bouillon — and my strongest memory was of just lying there in my hospital room, fresh from the operation, with a smile on my face. There was a purity of happiness during those days that still makes me smile.

What was it about that happiness that was so pure and joyful? At first I thought it was simply a matter of coming out of major surgery and knowing that I was still alive and that nothing had gone wrong, that all the weeks and months of stress and anxiety were over. But it was more than that. I’ve been deeply relieved before (when the SATs were over, for instance, or when I got my driver’s license), but I didn’t find myself just lying in bed with a smile of pure happiness. Then I thought it had to do with the joy of giving, the feeling you have when you give someone a big present, when you make a grand gesture. I’ve done that before, too, and it does make you feel good. But if you examine your good feelings about making grand gestures, there’s always that nagging sense that you’ve done the thing partly out of a sense of egoism — if I make this gesture, people will nod and say, “How generous she is.” Even if you don’t act from such a motivation, it’s always there, muddying up the waters.

But this was pure. There was no mud in the waters at all. I can’t remember when I’ve ever felt a happiness like this. And I think it has less to do with the gesture itself, the gift, than with happiness at having been given the opportunity to make the gesture in the first place. Before the operation I didn’t feel it so intensely. I remember at the beginning, when I first offered to give my kidney, how thrilled I was to learn that our blood types were the same, and with every test I was equally glad to learn that no problems or anomalies had been found. But there was a complexity of other feelings, too: anxiety about the operation, about how it would affect me to have only one kidney, about how long it would take to recover. I had crossed the threshold and had said my yes, but I still felt that I was moving relentlessly towards a great unknown.

Last night during dinner Jim and I talked about what it had been like the day before the operation, when we were being prepped in the hospital. Neither one of us was nervous. We remembered taking the early morning train to the AMC with our packed bags, traveling first class (which we rarely do), smiles all over our faces. At that point you’ve placed yourself into other hands — the hospital is waiting for you, the bed is ready, the surgeon has you down on his list and all you have to do is show up. Early the next morning, just before the operation, the nurse asked if I would like a pill to calm me down, and even though I didn’t feel apprehensive, my legs were shaking uncontrollably and I said yes. It was half of a little blue pill, and it was very effective. I don’t remember being wheeled into the operating room at all. By the time I got there I was out cold. Several weeks after the operation, a translation colleague who also works as an OR nurse at the AMC sent me an e-mail in which she said she had seen my name on the daily operation roster. She told me she had come up to my bed in the recovery room and quietly said, “Nancy,” and that I had opened my eyes and given her a “lovely smile” and gone right back to sleep. I don’t remember this.

The happiness of having been given the opportunity to do something out of love. That’s what it is. It’s gratitude. It’s gratitude that everything just happened to turn out right: the right blood types, the right tissue matches, the right outcomes on all the tests. It’s gratitude that the medical people in Alkmaar and Amsterdam were all so kind and supportive, and so incredibly skilled. But it’s also gratitude for the strength to cross the line to yes. Freedom is a very mysterious thing. Acting in freedom is not acting in a vacuum. Every yes or no we utter is the product of a lifetime of being exposed to examples, of being taught certain things and of having been loved — or not. Yet each yes or no is not predetermined by these things, and we’re responsible for every decision we make. We’re not doomed by our past to make decisions in a certain way, nor can we get away with taking the easy way out and pointing to our past as the rationale. Contexts are terribly important, and it’s important to give your children good examples and to tell them stories of courage and selflessness. Yet every yes or no we say is uttered, as it were, in eternity, and though it may be shaped by the past, it’s not inevitable. “Love without freedom is slavery,” said our friend Fr. Meletios Webber. Gestures of love must be made in freedom. And to be given the opportunity to make such a gesture is a great thing.

I think that’s what the smile was all about.

* * *

Love Your Enemies As Yourself

by Jim Forest

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…
– Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:44)

Passenger planes taken by terrorists fly into the two towers of the World Trade Center; the buildings collapse and thousands are killed. Many more are wounded. Still more now suffer from having breathed in the toxic airbourne debris.

During the Second World War, entire cities — London, Manchester, Birmingham, Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki — become targets of war. Everyone without exception was a target — children, the ill, grandparents, ordinary people. They died in countless thousands.

In the Soviet era, millions were taken away, some for immediate execution, some to labor camps in which it was a miracle not to die of disease, exposure, abuse, or violence. I recall visiting a place of executions in a Belorussian forest. Here, during the Stalin years, people were brought by the truck-load each day and one by one were shot in the back of the head and thrown into pits. When one pit was filled, another was dug. There were many pits and many similar places of execution.

We still aren’t sure how many millions were killed under the Hitler regime — Jews, gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals, Christians who dared to resist or people simply regarded as inconvenient. As in the Soviet gulag, many died simply of the consequences of living in such condition and being worked like slaves. A vast number were simply executed. The murders were done not only in concentration camps but also in hospitals. In the latter, people regarded as genetically or mentally inferior were killed. It was regarded as “mercy killing.”

In Communist Albania just to make the sign of the cross, to have an icon in one’s home. or to dye an egg red at Easter were regarded as criminal activities. Every church, monastery and seminary without exception was closed. The smallest indication of religious belief could be severely punished. Most priests and many lay people died in concentration camps.

One could spend hour upon hour briefly describing, country by country, the many horrors of violence that human beings have suffered just in the past hundred years. I mention a few examples only to point out that, when we talk about Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies, the beginning point is the recognition that we have enemies and that evil deeds occur every minute of the day. Often times nationalistic, racial or ideologically-driven movements develop in such a way that enormous numbers of people find themselves in grave danger.

There are people who seem to have entirely lost any sense of the sacredness of life and abuse and murder innocent people, even children — some on a large scale, others as a kind of hellish past-time. I think of my stepmother, Carla, who was shot and killed as she stepped off the bus one evening in San Francisco in 1966 after a day of service in a center for alcoholics. Such events were once rare; in more recent years they have become more common. While the rate of homicide is much lower in Canada than in the USA, probably here, too, most of us have stories to tell of awful things that happened — grave danger, abuse, or violence — to ourselves or to people we know. I am equally sure that many of us have memories of dreadful things we have done or said to others, under obedience, out of fear, or in a state of rage.

The reality of enmity is a central theme in the Gospels. The peaceful, star-illumined Bethlehem we see in Christmas cards tells us nothing at all about the hard life the people who lived there were enduring when Jesus was born. The years of Christ’s life described in the Gospels occurred in a small land under heavy, often brutal, military occupation. There was no concept of human rights. Torture and crucifixion were not rare punishments. It’s no wonder that there was a serious movement of Jewish armed resistance, the Zealots, and that conflict between Israel and Rome not many years later resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of thousands of Jews.

So when Jesus instructed his followers, as he did in his Sermon on the Mount, to love their enemies and pray for them, it was not a teaching that would have been offered in a state of naiveté by someone living in an oasis of peace, nor was it a teaching that would have been easily embraced by the suffering people who were listening to him. It’s not a teaching anyone, even in situations of relative social tranquility, takes to easily. What most of us do when we are abused by others is look for a way to return the abuse, even doing so in double measure. Say an irritating word to me and I’ll give you irritation back, multiplied by two. Hit me and I’ll hit you twice as hard. Few Jews had a kind thought regarding the uninvited Romans. Occupation troops are resented and despised. They often become the targets of deadly violence. (We see this even in cases where an occupation is meant to be humanitarian. Though on a mission that is in principle meant to be one of peacemaking and reconstruction, many Canadian soldiers have been killed or wounded in Afghanistan.)

Jesus is never just a man of words. Can you think of anything he taught that he didn’t give witness to in the way he lived and interacted with other people? I cannot.

He called on his followers to be peacemakers. In the Beatitudes, he says they will be known as God’s own children. In his own life, again and again we see examples of peacemaking and at the same time of courage and nonviolence. He repeatedly gave the witness of refusing to return evil for evil. His most violent action was to use a whip of chords to chase money-lenders from the Temple because they were profaning sacred space. Many were upset, but no one was harmed. The only life endangered by his action was his own. The total number of people killed by Jesus Christ is zero.

While many people are driven by anger and vengeance, Christ taught forgiveness and again and again gave the example of forgiving others. When asked by his disciples if they must forgive as much as seven times, Christ replied: seventy times seven. Forgiveness is one of the main themes of the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ask God to forgive us only insofar as we have forgiven others. Perhaps nothing is more impressive than seeing Christ praying for his enemies as he hung nailed to the cross: “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Indeed, it seems that none of those involved in crucifying him had any idea what they were doing. The idea that Jesus was king of the Jews and son of God was, for his executioners, nothing more than a joke. For some, a heretic was being punished. For others, he was a threat to the Jewish people. For the Roman soldiers, it was simply a grim duty they were under orders to perform.

Jesus also gave the witness of healing. Healing is another word for peacemaking. Peacemaking is the healing of damaged or broken relationships. On one occasion an act of healing was done in response to an appeal not from a fellow Jew but from an officer of the Roman occupation forces, the centurion who appealed to Jesus on behalf of a critically ill servant. Jesus was prepared to come to the officer’s home, but the man said there was no need for that; Jesus’ word was all he needed. Jesus later said that he hadn’t seen such faith in all of Israel. Can you imagine how annoyed, even scandalized, some of the witnesses to this exchange would have been? Doing a good deed for a Roman? Then speaking admiringly of a Roman’s faith?

If you take Jesus’s teaching about love of enemies out of the Gospel, you have removed the keel from the ship.

But then how do we go about living an enemy? The answer is given to us by Christ. He doesn’t simply command us to love our enemies, but to pray for them.

Without praying for our enemies, how would it be possible to love them?

Think about these two important words, love and prayer.

The love so often spoken of by Christ is not romantic love. Love is not about how we feel regarding the other but how we respond to the other. If you say you love someone, but you let him starve to death when it is in your power to give him food, in fact you do not love him. love. If you say you love God, but you abandon your neighbor, you love neither God nor neighbor.

Love is not the acquisition of pleasant feelings for an enemy, the kind of feeling we have for a sweetheart, a member of your family, or a cherished friend. The love Christ speaks of has very little to do with feelings and much to do with actions. Love is to do what you can to preserve another life and to bring that person toward salvation. Christ uses a metaphor: God’s love is like the rain falling equally on both wheat and weeds; or it is like the sun shining on both the just and the unjust. This doesn’t mean God doesn’t distinguish between the just and the unjust; but so long as a person lives, the possibility of repentance and conversion lives.

Think about the word prayer. Prayer is the giant step of taking into your heart, the center of your life, your appeal to God for the well-being and healing of another person’s life. It is not a sentimental action but an act of will and an obedience to God, knowing that God seeks the well-being and salvation of each person. After all, each person, no matter how misguided, no matter how damaged, is nonetheless a bearer of the image of God. If it pains you to imagine the intentional destruction of an icon, how much more distress should we feel when an human being is harmed or killed?

I’m talking now about the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — not the Gospel according to Hollywood. The latter provides us with a never-ending parade of stories about evil people killed by good people. The basic story tempts us to prefer armed heroism to the heroism of sanctity, or to confuse the two. A basic element of The Gospel According to Hollywood is that the evil people are so evil that there is no real solution short of hastening their death. Confronted by such pure evil, what else can one do?

But the teaching of Christ is not to kill enemies but to overcome enmity. It’s like the transformation of water into wine that Christ performed at the wedding feast in Cana. We are commanded to convert our enmity into love, and it starts with prayer.

But to pray for an enemy is no small or easy step. The fact is that the last people in the world we want to pray for are the people we fear or hate or regard with disgust. You know you have an enemy whenever you discover a person or community of people for whom you hesitate to pray. But once you recognize enmity, take note of it. Keep a list of the people you find it hard to pray for and then pray for them anyway. Do it as a religious duty.

Prayer is an invisible binding together. The moment I pray for another person, a thread of connection is created. I have taken that person into myself. Praying for him means to ask God to bless him, to give him health, to lead him toward heaven, to use me to help bring about his salvation. As soon as this occurs, my relations with that person or community of people is changed. You look differently at a person you are praying for. You listen differently. It doesn’t mean you will necessarily agree. You may disagree more than ever. But you struggle more to understand what is really at issue and to find solutions that will be for his good as well as your own. In fact, the saints tell us, that the deeper we go in the life of faith, the freer we become from worrying about our own welfare, and the more we worry about the welfare of others.

Some years ago, at a conference on the Greek island of Crete, I gave a talk in which I summarized Orthodox teaching about war. I pointed out that the Orthodox Church has never embraced the just war doctrine, a doctrine that evolved in the west. The Orthodox Church, I said, regards war as inevitably sinful in nature even in cases where no obvious alternative to war can be found. No one has ever been canonized for killing. Priests, deacons and iconographers are forbidden by canon law to kill or cause the death of others. Anyone who has killed another human being, even by accident, is barred from serving at the altar. Under all circumstances and at all times, every baptized person is commanded by Christ to love his enemies.

There was nothing remarkable in what I said, no novel doctrines, nothing borrowed from non-Orthodox sources, yet the lecture stirred up a controversy not only in the hall in which I was speaking but into the city itself as my talk and the translator’s words were being broadcast live over the diocesan radio station.

The debate continued that night when the local bishop, Metropolitan Irinaios, and I took part in a radio conversation with listeners phoning in with their comments or questions. Responding to a man who called in to denounce Turks as barbarians who only understood the language of violence, I summarized what Christ had to say on the subject of loving one’s enemies. “That’s all very well,” the caller responded, “but now let me tell you about a real saint.” He proceeded to tell me about a priest who, in the 19th century, played a valiant role in the war to drive the Turks off the island. I suggested he not dismiss the teaching of Jesus so readily and asked if he wasn’t perhaps confusing heroism and nationalism with sanctity.

In fact we have soldier saints, like Great Martyr George. But when we study their lives in order to find out why the Church canonized them, it was never for their courage and heroism as soldiers, but for other factors. Most were martyrs — people who died for their faith without resistance. There are saints who got in trouble for refusing to take part in war, in some cases dying for their disobedience. St. George dared to confess his faith publicly during a time of imperial persecution. The “dragon” he fought was Caesar. One saint, Martin of Tours, narrowly escaped execution after refusing to take part in battle; he went on to become a great missionary bishop. There is Ireland’s renowned Saint Columba, who is on the Church calendar not because he was co-responsible for a great battle in which many were slaughtered, but because he went on to live a life of penance in exile, in the process converting many to Christ.

All of what I’m saying probably sounds fine. It isn’t hard to admire saints. Most people realize that the Gospel is not a summons to hatred or violence. But what about our ordinary selves living here and now? What does this have to do with how we carry on our lives?

A beginning point is to admit we are only partial Christians — that is to say, our conversion has begun but is far from complete. When we go to confession, many of us don’t even try confessing all of our sins because no priest in the world would have time to hear them all. We try to identify the main ones, the sins that are most urgent and problematic, and focus on them, saving other sins for a later confession. Each of us is painfully aware that we have far to go. As the cartoon character Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

One of the great obstacles were up against is that it’s easier to be more nation-centered than Christ-centered. The culture we live in is a powerful influence. One is less likely to be shaped by the Gospel than by the particular economic, social, political and cultural milieu we happen to be part of.

If I am a German living in Germany in the 1930s, there is a good chance I will gravitate toward Nazism. If I am a white South African living in the era of apartheid, it’s more than likely that I will accept the justifications for racism, and the benefits that come from being part of a racist society. Our thoughts, values, choices, our “life style” — all these tend to be formed by the mass culture in which we happen to be born and reared. If we are Christians, we will try to adjust Christ and the Gospel to the national flag and the views of the people around us.

Yet we have in the Church many saints who provide us with models of what it means to follow Christ wholeheartedly — without holding anything back, without compromising with the demands of money or politics.

One such saint — canonized only two years ago — is Mother Maria Skobtsova, a Russian refugee in France who devoted herself to the care of the homeless and destitute, and also to the renewal of the Church. She and the community she was part of helped save the lives of many people, especially Jews, when France was occupied by the Third Reich. On one occasion she managed to smuggle children awaiting deportation out of a stadium in which thousands of Jews had been rounded up. It is hardly surprising that eventually she was arrested and ended her life in a German concentration camp, Ravensbrük, dying on Good Friday. Yet we find in her many letters, essays and the acts of her brave life not a trace of hatred for Germans or Austrians, even those who were captive of Nazi ideology. She was part of the resistance to Nazism and Hitlerism, but was no one’s enemy, not even Hitler’s. Her small community produced three other martyrs: the priest who assisted her, Fr. Dimitri Klepenin, her son, Yuri, who was then just entering adulthood, and her good friend Ilya Fondaminsky, a writer, editor and publisher.

At the core of their lives and many courageous actions was the conviction, as Mother Maria put it, that “each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” This is not some new idea that was discovered by a few saintly Christians in Paris in that grim time, but what C.S. Lewis referred to as “mere Christianity.” It is because each person is an icon of God that everyone in the church is honored with incense during the Liturgy.

Mother Maria had been married and become a mother before taking the monastic path. Before that happened, her husband left her and one of her children died of illness. She embraced a celibate vocation, but her understanding of monastic life was not the traditional one of withdrawal. Her desert was the city. She was opposed to living a life that might impose “even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.” Like any Orthodox Christian, the Liturgy was at the heart of her life, not as an end in itself but because it gave daily life a divine imprint.

“The meaning of the Liturgy must be translated into life,” she said. “It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.”

She was determined to live a life in which the works of mercy were central. As she wrote: “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.”

No one has lived in a more violent time than she, a time in which there were powerful temptations to keep one’s head down and quietly survive, making whatever compromises the demands of survival required. Yet instead she and those who worked with her give us a model of centering one’s life on those whose lives are threatened.

In Europe in those days it was especially the Jews. In our time the list of those in danger is much longer, including not only the born but the unborn as well as those who are handicapped or old. We live in what many people have come to identify as a culture of death. The only question each of us must struggle with is where to focus our life-saving activity. It is not just a question of saving lives but making clear to others, through our response to them, that they bear God’s image — thus we proclaim that there is a God, and that God is love.

We have met the enemy and he is us, as Pogo said. But the self is no small foe. In the days when India was struggling for independence, Gandhi sometimes said he had only three enemies — the British nation, his favorite enemy; the Indian people, a much more difficult adversary, and finally a man named Gandhi, the hardest enemy of all.

Each of us sees our most difficult enemy when we look into a mirror. Yet if we will only cooperate in Christ’s mercy, struggling day by day to die to self, day by day our conversion will continue, which will be good not only for ourselves but good for everyone else as well.

Let me close with these words from St. Cyprian of Carthage:

You have many things to ponder. Ponder paradise, where Cain, who destroyed his brother through jealousy, does not return. Ponder the kingdom of heaven to which the Lord admits only those of one heart and mind. Ponder the fact that only those can be called the sons of God who are peacemakers, who, united by divine birth and law, correspond to the likeness of God the Father and Christ. Ponder that we are under God’s eyes, that we are running the course of our conversion, and life with God Himself looking on and judging, that then finally we can arrive at the point of succeeding in seeing Him, if we delight Him as He now observes us by our actions, if we show ourselves worthy of His grace and indulgence, if we, who are to please Him forever in heaven, please Him first in this world. [“On Jealousy and Envy”, chapter 18]

Christ called on his followers to be peacemakers, calling such people the children of God. May each of us labor to become the peacemaker Christ intends. May each of us become people who love our enemies and pray for them with fervor.

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