In den beginne was er de Koe and de Koe was bij God, die de naam Ahuramazda droeg.
In the beginning was the Cow, and the Cow was with God, who bore the name Ahura Mazda.
Any Dutch person who is biblically literate will recognize this sentence as an adaptation of the first sentence of the Gospel of John from the Statenvertaling (1637) of the New Testament (“In den beginne was het Woord, en het Woord was bij God, en het Woord was God.”), but will also be reminded of the first verse of the book of Genesis from that same translation (“In den beginne schiep God den hemel en de aarde.”). So when it came to doing an English translation of that first sentence, it was a no-brainer: go for the King James Version (1611). And so I did. No translation struggles here.
But for me the question was: why did Kader Abdolah use these biblical quotes as his models for this very important first sentence? Would this choice have an impact on the rest of the book and on the way I would translate it?
The King is the story of Shah Naser of the Persian Qajar dynasty, who was born in 1831 and was assassinated in 1896. He was a man with his feet in two different worlds: the ancient world of his fathers in which autocratic rule, a large harem protected by eunuchs, and immense wealth were taken for granted, and the new world of technological innovation and political reform. He was the first shah to visit Europe; he introduced telegraphy to Persia and launched the publication of the country’s first newspaper. But he also had his vizier assassinated, regarding him as too progressive and threatening to his total power. And he found himself caught up in the international struggle between Britain and Russia to acquire rights to Persian oil, a natural resource whose immense value was barely appreciated by the Persians themselves.
This essentially is the story of The King, but it’s far more than that. In the introduction to the book Kader Abdolah begins by describing the traditional role of the Persian storyteller, for whom historical accuracy was always secondary to narrative momentum. He tells of the great Persian poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi, whose masterwork The Shahnameh, or The Persian Book of Kings, is a work of world literature little known in the West. And he holds up the work of Ferdowsi as his model for the story of Shah Naser. As I prepared to do my translation I picked up a copy of a new English translation of The Shahnameh, a much-abridged and beautifully produced Penguin classic. The Shahnameh begins with a story of origins, a Genesis if you will, and goes on from there. As I did more research I found that, like the ancient storytellers, like Ferdowsi himself, the narrator of The King is not particularly interested in historical accuracy. He’s interested in presenting a story of origins. In telling the tale of Shah Naser, the storyteller is helping us understand the birth of modern Persia, of Iran, but in a traditionally Persian way.
This, of course, accounts for that first sentence. The author knows his audience, and he knows that if he works with certain formulae he will elicit certain responses. A Dutch person reading “In den beginne” may realize that what is to come is a story that, like the stories in the books of the great Abrahamic religions, is based on history but is meant to convey a deeper truth. My job as translator was to make sure those buttons got pushed by my vocabulary choices and style. This influenced the choice I made for the end of the first sentence, “…die de naam Ahuramazda droeg.” I opted for the more archaic “who bore the name of.” Continuing on to the next sentence: “De Koe gaf nog geen melk. Ahuramazda zegende de Koe: ‘We hebben niemand als baas over jou aangesteld.’” My translation was, “The Cow did not yet produce milk. Ahura Mazda blessed the cow, saying, ‘We have appointed no one to have dominion over you.’” The phrase “have dominion” is pure King James. I also chose it as compensation, since I wasn’t able to duplicate the archaic dative “den beginne” from the first sentence in English and still retain the King James flavour.
I hasten to point out that Abdolah did not write the rest of his narrative in an overly contrived, antiquated style. The first few sentences did their work and so I, too, quickly left the biblical language behind.
“Acquire the Spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved.”
— St. Seraphim of Sarov
It was Father Germann, a monk I met in the Russian city of Vladimir, who first told me about Saint Seraphim of Sarov. He was showing me the local cathedral, still a museum in those days of Soviet rule. The tourists in the church were startled to see a living monk complete with long hair, full black beard and black monk’s cap — they couldn’t stop staring. It wasn’t only his appearance that attracted attention. He possessed a contagious joy and freedom. I mentioned to him that this church must have wonderful acoustics. Immediately he sang an unrestrained, banner-like, “Amen.” The church reverberated in an astonishing way.
I had traveled enough in Russia to be vaguely aware of Saint Seraphim, the icon of whose compassionate face seemed to grace the walls of every parish church and to have a place in many homes, but Father Germann was the first to tell me the saint’s life story.
“Saint Seraphim helped me to become a believer,” he said. Reaching into his pocket, he showed me a fragment of a large rock on which Saint Seraphim prayed for a thousand days. It was a gift from an old nun who knew a nun who knew a nun who had been in the Diveyevo convent near Sarov, a community closely linked with Saint Seraphim. The saint’s few possessions, among them the heavy cross he wore, were kept in the custody of the sisters at Diveyevo.
Father Germann explained that Seraphim was born in 1759, the son of a builder. He was still a baby when his father died. His mother took over the business while raising her children. While still a boy, he had what should have been a fatal fall from scaffolding. Miraculously, he was unharmed, an event which prompted a local “holy fool” to say the boy must surely be “one of God’s elect.”
When Seraphim was ten, he had his first vision of the Mother of God. Nine years later he entered monastic life where he began the regular recitation of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Later, following his ordination as priest in 1793, he was led to seek a hermit’s vocation in the forest, or, as he regarded it, his “Holy Land.” Here he lived alone, devoting himself to prayer, study and tending his small garden, with few aware he was alive apart from the wild animals he befriended with gifts of food, among them a bear who sometimes lay at his feet, a scene portrayed in some of the icons of Saint Seraphim.
During this period of social withdrawal, he was nearly beaten to death by robbers who had heard there was a treasure hidden in his cabin. The injuries he suffered made him walk with a bent back for the rest of his life, a stance occasionally shown in icons. After recovering from his injuries, he spent a thousand days and nights in prayer on a large rock in the forest, sometimes standing, other times kneeling, leaving the rock only for brief periods.
After his long apprenticeship in solitude, people began coming to Staretz Seraphim for confession and advice, a few at first, but finally they came in floods. One of the first pilgrims was a rich man, gravely ill, who was healed by Seraphim, so healed that he gave up all his wealth and embraced holy poverty.
During the last eight years of his life, Saint Seraphim spent many hours each day talking with those in need, some of whom had walked for weeks to reach him. Others came by carriage, among them Czar Alexander I, who later gave up the throne and lived a pious life in Siberia — some say under the influence of Saint Seraphim.
Among many remarkable stories left to us about Seraphim’s life, one of the most impressive comes from the diary of Nicholas Motovilov, who as a young man came to Sarov seeking advice. At a certain point in their conversation, Seraphim said to his guest, “Look at me.” Motovilov replied, “I am not able, Father, for there is lightning flashing in your eyes. Your face has grown more radiant than the sun and my eyes cannot bear the pain.” The staretz answered, “Do not be afraid, my dear lover of God, you have also now become as radiant as I. You yourself are now in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise you would not be able to perceive me in the exact same state.” Saint Seraphim asked him how he felt. “I feel a great calm in my soul, a peace which no words can express,” Motovilov replied. “I feel an amazing happiness.”
At the heart of Saint Seraphim’s teaching was use of the Jesus Prayer and continuing inner struggle to “acquire the Holy Spirit, the one treasure which will never pass away.” He reassured those who came to him that there is nothing selfish about seeking to save your soul. “Acquire the Spirit of peace and thousands of souls around you will be saved.”
Without a vital spiritual life, he said, we cannot love. “God is fire that warms and kindles the heart and inward parts. And so, if we feel in our hearts coldness, which is from the devil — for the devil is cold — then let us call upon the Lord and He will come and warm our hearts with perfect love not only for Him but for our neighbor as well.”
He was an apostle of the way of love and kindness. “You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives. All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a swamp that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.”
No matter what season of the year it was, he greeted visitors with the paschal salutation, “Christ is risen!” As another paschal gesture, he always wore a white robe.
Before his death, Saint Seraphim said to the sisters: “My joys, come as often as you can to my grave. Come to me as if I’m alive and tell me everything, and I will always help you.”
On January 2, 1833, Saint Seraphim was found dead in his cell, kneeling with hands crossed before an icon of Mary.
“Saint Seraphim is a unique saint,” Father Germann told me. “In him and his character, in his spirituality, we find the principal Christian characteristics — love for all people without exception, and a readiness to sacrifice. That’s why people love him so much.”
“We live in a time that pays special homage to advanced education and intellectual brilliance,” Father Germann added. “But faith isn’t just for the clever. Seraphim didn’t graduate either from university or seminary. All his ideals were gifts from God revealed through prayer and deeds. And so through Saint Seraphim many different people are drawn to belief — the intellectuals, the simple, and now not only people in the Russian Orthodox Church but other churches.”
“Saint Seraphim is the face of the Church,” said Father Germann.
Living in a period in which iconography had been influenced by western art, old icons of Saint Seraphim often resemble portraits while more recently made icons are usually in the simpler, more symbolic Byzantine style. The one reproduced here, showing Saint Seraphim praying on the rock, was made in 1992 by the iconographer Philip Zimmerman closely following an icon made earlier in the century in France by the monk Gregory Kroug. In all icons of Saint Seraphim, there is a prayer rope in his hands, a reminder of his devotion to the Jesus Prayer.
(an extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest — Orbis Books)
[a chapter from Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment by Jim Forest (Orbis Books); note that footnotes have been removed]
Among traditional Christian stories that challenge the Gospel According to John Wayne are tales of saints and beasts, the most well-known of which is the legend of Saint George and the dragon.
If we search for the elusive figure of the historical Saint George, we quickly discover that he never saw a dragon nor did he rescue a princess in distress. It’s even possible he was a farmer rather than a soldier — the name “George” means tiller of the soil; for this reason Saint George is a patron saint of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.
Saint George, born late in the third century, was one among many martyrs of the early Church. What made him a saint especially loved and remembered was the fearless manner in which he proclaimed his faith during a period of fierce anti-Christian persecution initiated by the Emperor Diocletian in February 303. George was among the early victims. Over an eight-year period thousands were tortured and many executed while others were sent into exile as slave laborers in quarries and mines in Egypt and Palestine. Churches were destroyed and biblical texts burned. Most Christians did what they could to avoid being noticed.
According to one ancient account, far from concealing his faith, George went to a public square and announced, “All the gods of the pagans are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this daring action Saint George was arrested, tortured and finally beheaded in the town of Nicomedia, in the northwest of modern Turkey. His body was brought to his birthplace, Diospolis, later known as Lydda and today as Lod in modern-day Israel. His witness led to the conversion of many and gave renewed courage to others already baptized.
In 311 the persecution ended. With Diocletian in retirement, the emperor Galerius (ill and close to death) published an edict of toleration allowing Christians to restore their places of worship and to worship in their own way without interference, provided they did nothing to disturb the peace.
A period of persecution ended but the memory of those eight years of suffering would never be forgotten. George was one of the saints whose witness remained fresh and challenging. Icons of him were painted and hung in more and more churches. As centuries passed he became the patron saint of cities and whole countries.
In early icons, made long before a dragon became attached to his name, George was depicted as a soldier holding the cross of martyrdom. Perhaps he was in the army, but he may also have been shown in military clothing because he so perfectly exemplified the qualities that Saint Paul spoke of in his letter to the Ephesians in which he calls on Christ’s followers to wear the helmet of salvation and the armor of righteousness, to be girded with truth, to clad their feet in the Gospel of peace, to possess the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, and to protect themselves from the devil’s flaming arrows with the shield of faith. However such symbolic use of a Roman soldier’s equipment does not rule out the possibility that George was in fact a soldier. People from every class and profession were drawn to the Gospel, soldiers among them. George may have been one of these.
It was only centuries later that the dragon legend emerged. The most widely circulated version is found in a medieval text, the Legenda Aurea (the Golden Legend), a collection of saints’ lives written by Blessed James de Voragine in about 1260. More than a thousand hand-written copies from the age before printed books have survived; it was a bestseller in its time. In the book’s chapter on George we meet a dragon which had been terrorizing the local people. In their fear they sacrificed their children, chosen by lot, to appease the creature’s appetite and protect themselves. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth. As related in the text by Blessed James:
Then did the king array his daughter as if for her wedding and embraced and kissed her, gave her his blessing, and then led her to the place where the dragon was.
When she was there Saint George passed by, and when he saw the lady asked what brought her to this place. She replied, “Go your way, fair young man, so that you will not perish also.”
Then said he, “Tell me what the matter is, why you weep, and fear nothing.”
When she saw that he insisted on knowing, she said to him how she was delivered to the dragon. Then Saint George said, “Fair daughter, have no fear for I will help you in the name of Jesus Christ.”
She responded, “For God’s sake, good knight, go your way and leave me here, for you cannot rescue me.”
While they were talking, the dragon appeared and came rushing toward them. Saint George was upon his horse. Making the sign of the cross, he rode bravely against the dragon which and struck him with his spear, wounding him badly and throwing him to the ground.
Then he said to the maid, “Take your belt and bind it about the neck of the dragon and be not afraid.”
When she had done so the dragon followed her as if it were a meek beast and debonair, leading him into the city.
The legend ends with George calling on the local people to be baptized. The king agrees, also promising to build and maintain churches, honor the clergy, faithfully attend religious services, and be generous to the poor.
From the point of view of history, the story is pure myth. Yet when you think about it, what better way to symbolize the evil that George actually confronted and defeated — the ruthless power of an emperor — than to portray it in the form of a fire-breathing dragon? George fought and, in embracing martyrdom, was victorious over a dragon-like adversary whose methods terrified and silenced most people at the time. We can understand the dragon as representing anything that makes us afraid and leads us to conform to a death-dealing society.
The white horse George rides in icons and paintings, a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider, represents the courage God gave to George in his disobedience to the emperor. It is the courage God gives to any Christian who would prefer to die rather than to collaborate with evil.
In many versions of the Saint George icon, the lance the hero holds is shown resting lightly in his open hand, meaning that it is the power of God rather than the strength of man that overcomes evil. The lance is usually shown as being pencil thin and often has a small cross at the top, thus stressing visually that it is not with weapons of war that evil is overcome but with the power of the life-giving Cross — the Cross that opens the path to the resurrection. Similarly, even in his battle with the dragon, George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. His tranquil face serves to remind the viewer of Christ’s commandment that his followers must love their enemies even in resisting them.
In more detailed versions of the icon there are scenes from before and after the battle with the dragon. Sometimes a castle is in the background from which Elizabeth’s parents watch all that happens. Icons sometimes show Elizabeth leading the defeated dragon on a leash made of her belt, the enemy made tame — a symbol of victory of life over death similar to Christ’s resurrection.
Bringing a wounded but still living dragon back to the town provides us with a powerful image of transformation. The final fruit of George’s combat with the dragon is not victory over a monster or financial reward for successful combat but the inspiration George gave to unbelieving people to embrace conversion. The time of worshiping dragons and sacrificing one’s children to them is over.
True stories become streamlined into legends and legends become compressed into myths, as the tale of Saint George bears witness, but there are many stories of the encounters of saints with beasts that may stand on more solid historical foundations.
One of them concerns one of the greatest medieval saints, Francis of Assisi. Toward the end of his life he received an appeal for help from the people of Gubbio, an ancient Umbrian walled town north of Assisi. Their problem was a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves as if for combat before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.
What the townspeople expected of Francis is not clear, but when Francis said he intended to meet the wolf face-to-face, they sought to dissuade him. They had no desire to cause the death of a neighbor who had long since sworn off the possession or use of any weapon. What chance could an unarmed man wearing a cloak of rags have against a wild animal? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint’s life:
Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp … and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.
While keeping a safe distance, some local peasants followed Francis. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running as if to attack. The story continues:
The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God … stopped the wolf, making it slow down and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, “Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.”
The wolf came up to Francis, lowered his head and then lay down at his feet as though he were a pet dog. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into his deadly enemy. Francis said:
“But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you any more, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.”
The wolf responded with gestures of submission “showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it.”
Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth “give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger.” In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. “And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis’s hand as a sign that it had given its pledge.”
Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the nervous local populace met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said “calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf which can only kill the body.” He called on the people to do penance in order to be “free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” Pledging himself as “bondsman for Brother Wolf,” Francis assured them that the wolf would now live in peace with them, but that they were now obliged to feed him every day.
After living harmlessly within the walls of Gubbio for two years, “the wolf grew old and died, and the people were sorry, because whenever it went through the town, its peaceful kindness and patience reminded them of the virtues and holiness of Saint Francis.”
Is the story true in the journalistic sense? Or is the wolf a storyteller’s metaphor for the effect Francis often had on violent, wolf-like men? While the story works on both levels, there is reason to believe there was indeed a wolf of Gubbio. A Franciscan friend of ours, Sister Rosemary Lynch, told me that, during restoration work, the bones of a wolf were found buried within a church in Gubbio.
Another saint remembered for peaceful relations with wild animals is Gerasimos of the Jordan, shown in icons holding the paw of a lion. The story behind the image comes down to us from Saint John Moschos, a monk of Saint Theodosius Monastery near Bethlehem and author of The Spiritual Meadow, a book written in the course of journeys he made in the late sixth century. It’s a collection of stories of monastic saints, mainly desert dwellers, and also can be regarded as a very early example of travel writing.
In the fifth century Gerasimos was abbot of a community of seventy monks who lived in the desert east of Jericho, a mile from the River Jordan. The monks slept on reed mats, had cells without doors, and — apart from common prayer — normally observed silence. Their diet consisted chiefly of water, dates and bread. Gerasimos, in ongoing repentance for having been influenced by the teachings of a heretic in his youth, is said to have eaten even less than the norm.
One day, while walking along the Jordan, Gerasimos came upon a lion roaring in agony because of a large splinter imbedded in one paw. Overcome with compassion for the suffering beast, Gerasimos removed the splinter, drained and cleaned the wound, then bound it up, expecting the lion would return to its cave. Instead the creature meekly followed him back to the monastery and became the abbot’s devoted pet. The whole community was amazed at the lion’s apparent conversion to a peaceful life — he now lived on bread and vegetables — and its devotion to the abbot.
The lion was given the special task of guarding the community’s donkey, which was pastured along the Jordan. But one day it happened that, while the lion napped, the donkey was stolen by a passing trader. After searching without success, the lion returned to the monastery, its head hanging low. The brothers concluded the lion had been overcome by its instinctual appetite for meat. As punishment the lion was given the donkey’s job of carrying water each day from the river to the monastery in a saddle pack fitted with four earthen jars.
A year later, it happened that the same trader was coming along the Jordan with the stolen donkey and three camels. The lion recognized the donkey and roared so loudly that the trader ran away. Taking its rope in his jaws, the lion led the donkey back to the monastery with the camels following behind. The monks realized, to their shame, that they had misjudged the lion. The same day Gerasimos gave the lion a name: Jordanes. The repentant trader afterwards delivered an annual gift of olive oil to the monastery.
For five more years, until the abbot’s death, Jordanes was part of the monastic community. When the elder fell asleep in the Lord and was buried, Jordanes lay down on the grave, roaring its grief and beating its head against the ground. Finally Jordanes rolled over and died on the last resting place of Gerasimos.
The narrative touches the reader intimately, inspiring the hope that the wild beast that still roars within us may yet be pacified, while the story’s second half suggests that, when falsely accused of having returned to an unconverted life, vindication may finally happen.
The icon of Saint Gerasimos focuses on a moment of physical contact between monk and lion — an Eden-like moment with an act of healing at its core. By the river of Christ’s baptism, the Jordan, an ancient harmony we associate with Adam and Eve before the Fall is renewed. Enmity is over between man and creation, at least for a time in the small island of peace brought into being through one man’s merciful action. The icon presents us with an image of peace — man and beast no longer threatening each other’s life.
But again the question arises: Is the story true? Certainly Abbot Gerasimos is real. Many texts refer to him. He was one of the participants in the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451 AD. Soon after his death he was recognized as a saint. The monastery he founded lasted for centuries, a center of spiritual life and a place of pilgrimage. He is remembered as one of the great elders of the Desert. But what about Jordanes? Might the lion be just a graphic metaphor for the Gerasimos’s ability to convert some of the lion-like people who came to him? Or might the story be as real as any event in today’s news reports?
Unlikely stories about saints are not rare. Some are so remarkable — for example the legend of Saint Nicholas bringing back to life three murdered children whose bodies had been hacked to pieces and then boiled in a stew pot — that the miracles related in the four Gospels seem not so impressive by comparison. Yet even the most farfetched legend usually has a basis in the character of the saint: Nicholas was tireless and resourceful in his efforts to protect the lives of the defenseless. On one occasion he prevented the execution of three young men who had been condemned to death. In icons that include biographical scenes, we find him grasping an executioner’s blade that was about the fall on one prisoner’s neck. It’s a story that has the ring of truth in the most prosaic sense. The miracle here is the saint’s courage in saving lives while endangering his own. Christ’s mercy shines through Nicholas’s act of intervention.
A Gerasimos-like story comes down to us from the life of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, one of the towering figures of eighteenth-century Russia. In some icons he is shown feeding a bear at the door of his log cabin. Living deep in the Russian forest, visitors occasionally found Seraphim sharing his ration of bread with bears and wolves. “How is it,” he was asked, “that you have enough bread in your bag for all of them?” “There is always enough,” Seraphim answered. He once remarked of a bear that visited him, “I understand fasting, but he does not.”
It’s not unlikely that Jordanes was as real as Seraphim’s bear. In the fifth century, lions could still be found in the wilderness along the Jordan. We can easily imagine Gerasimos as a man from whom all fear had been burned away by compassion.
Lions have a special place in the human imagination. From the classical world to our own era, the lion has chiefly been regarded as danger incarnate, the most iconic image of “nature red in tooth and claw.” And yet at times the symbol is transfigured. The lion becomes an image of beauty, grace and courage. In The Narnia Chronicles, C.S. Lewis chose a lion to represent Christ. The handsome stone lions on guard outside the main entrance of the New York Public Library have always struck me as guardians of truth and wisdom.
There is still one more wrinkle to the ancient story of Gerasimos and Jordanes. Saint Jerome, the great scholar responsible for rendering the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, long honored in the West as patron saint of translators, lived for years in a cave near the place of Christ’s Nativity in Bethlehem only a two-day walk from Gerasimos’s monastery. The name of Gerasimos is not very different from Geronimus, the Latin word for Jerome. Pilgrims from the West apparently connected the story told of Gerasimos with Jerome. Given the fact that Jerome sometimes wrote letters with a lionish bite, perhaps it’s appropriate that Gerasimos’s lion eventually wandered into images of Jerome. It’s rare to find a painting of Jerome in which the lion is absent.
The stories of the man-and-beast encounters of Francis of Assisi, Gerasimos of the Jordan and Seraphim of Sarov are parables of the conversion of enmity into friendship. For the would-be peacemaker, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have an icon of at least one of these saints somewhere in your home. Need an image to stimulate courage? Get an icon of Saint George battling the dragon.
One of the remarkable aspects of the earthly life of Jesus is that he killed no one nor gave any blessing to his followers to do so. His last healing miracle before the crucifixion was done on behalf of a man whom Peter had wounded in defense of Jesus. At the same time he told Peter to put aside his sword “for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” Far from blessing enmity, Christ called on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them. Jesus waved no flags — he was not a zealot. Though the word “nationalism” had not yet been invented, no one could describe him as a nationalist. In cleansing the temple of the money-changers, he used a weapon that could bruise but not wound. In a situation where execution was the penalty prescribed by law, he shamed a crowd of would-be executioners into letting their intended victim survive unharmed. One of his eight beatitudes declares that peacemakers are the children of God. In The Gospel of John, we hear Jesus saying, “I have come to give life and to give it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
Imitating their Savior, in the early centuries of the Christian era Christians were notable for their objection to war and bloodshed. To give but one example, in the fourth century St Martin of Tours — at the time a military officer — explained to the emperor Julian Caesar (later to be known as Julian the Apostate) his reason for refusing to take part in an impending battle. “I am a soldier of Christ,” he said “To take part in war is forbidden to me.” His explanation makes one recall a definition of the Church given by Clement of Alexandria in the second century: “The Church is an army that sheds no blood.” We still see a trace of this commitment in the canons that forbid anyone to serve at the altar who has killed another human being.
How very distant the words of Clement and the witness of St Martin seem to the modern Christian! Who today would imagine that Christians belong to an army that sheds no blood? In many parts of the Christian world, a conscientious objector to war would be regarded as belonging to a peculiar Protestant sect. The disease of nationalism has infected many of us — influencing us so powerfully that we are not ashamed to adapt our reading of the Gospel so that it does not impede the demands of national identity, whatever that identity may be. Thus in many wars we find Christians on both sides obediently killing each other as well as anyone else who has been identified as the enemy. God alone knows how many millions died in the wars of the twentieth century. Even today both Catholic and Orthodox Christians are killing each other in Ukraine, to give but one example from the many wars being fought as we meet in this pacific monastery. How many bishops have blessed the weapons of war, how few have been the bishops who blessed those who refused to use those weapons. We frequently say, sing and chant the words “Blessed are the peacemakers” but our complicity in fighting wars suggests many Christians would prefer Jesus to have said “Blessed are the warmakers.”
I am reminded of these challenging words from St John Chrysostom, who died in exile for displeasing the imperial court. He said:
It is certainly a finer and a more wonderful thing to change the mind of enemies and to bring them to another way of thinking than to kill them (especially when [we consider that the Apostles] were only Twelve and the world was full of wolves). We ought to be ashamed of ourselves, we who act so very differently [than the Apostles] and rush like wolves upon our foes. So long as we are sheep, we have the victory; but if we are wolves, we are beaten — for then the help of the shepherd is withdrawn from us, for he feeds sheep not wolves … [And can violent people dare to receive communion?] What excuse shall we have if, eating of the Lamb [of Christ], we become as wolves? If, led like sheep into pasture, we behave as though we were ravening lions? This mystery [of the Eucharist] requires that we should be innocent not only of violence but of all enmity, however slight, for this is the mystery of peace. [Homilies on Matthew, XXXIII; translation from St John Chrysostom: Pastor and Preacher by Donald Attwater (London: Harvill Press, 1959), p 72.]
May St John Chrysostom be with us in this conversation.
Here we are, a small gathering of Christians from both East and West who have come together in peace to explore the beatitude of peacemaking and how that beatitude might reshape our lives and renew our churches. We have heard some very helpful papers and now there are a few of us who have been invited to discuss what we have heard so far. The first part of the exchange will involve just the panelists, the second all of us.
There are five of us present at this table. Let me very briefly introduce us.
I start with Dr. Amal Dibo who comes to us from Lebanon. She is a former UNICEF program officer in charge of emergency assistance to the displaced; she was also responsible for a nationwide vaccination program that cut across lines of division and led education programs on human rights. She is one of the editors of Sawa, a magazine for children educating them about togetherness and peace. Presently she is teaching history of civilization at the American University of Beirut. She is active with several NGOs working for art, science, culture and peace. She has represented her church in the Middle East Council of Churches, work that allowed her to connect with such eminent Orthodox figures Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel and Olivier Clement. For many years she has worked closely with a great advocate and exemplar of peacemaking, Metropolitan George Khodr of Mount Lebanon. She has spent her life studying, working, writing and praying for peace in areas suffering the calamity of war.
Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis has been director of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies the past fourteen years. He studied theology in Thessaloniki, then went on to study ancient and medieval philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. His doctoral thesis dealt with the issue of Greek identity and anti-westernism in the Greek theology of the nineteen sixties. He has published three books and many articles dealing with such topics as the eschatological dimension of Christianity, the dialogue between Orthodox Christianity and modernity, theology and modern literature, religion and multiculturalism, religious nationalism and fundamentalism, and issues of renewal and reformation in Eastern Orthodoxy. He is editor of the English-language theological series “Doxa & Praxis: Exploring Orthodox Theology”. Besides his work at Volos, he teaches systematic theology at the Hellenic Open University in Thessaloniki and at St. Sergius Institute of Orthodox Theology in Paris. His most recent book has the title Orthodoxy and Political Theology.
Dr Konstantin Sigov is professor of philosophy and religious studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla in Ukraine where he also directs the Center of European Humanities Research. In 1992 he founded the cultural and publishing association “Spirit and Letter”, of which he is director. The project has involved such scholars and philosophers such as Paul Ricoeur, Reinhard Kozellek, Arvo Pärt and Kallistos Ware, and published such authors as Bartholomeos I, Walter Kasper, Rowan Williams, Enzo Bianchi and Michel van Parys. Much of his work has focused on the ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox. Since the year 2000, he has organized an annual international ecumenical forum. A prolific author, one of his areas of concentration has been the history of culture. He has lectured at the Sorbonne, Oxford, Stanford, Rome, Geneva and Louvain. The French Ministry of Education has conferred on him the order of chevalier in the Ordre des Palmes Academiques.
Alexander Ogorodnikov was born in 1950. At age seventeen, he was a lathe operator at a clock factory. Three years later he began philosophy studies at the University of the Urals in Sverdlovsk, only to be expelled in 1971 for “a dissident way of thinking incompatible with the title of Komsomol member and student.” He then went to Moscow where he studied at the Institute of Cinematography, from which he was again expelled, in this case for attempting to make a film on religious life. In 1974 he founded the Christian Seminar. Later he became a prisoner at Perm 36, the notorious camp for dissidents located in the Urals near the Siberian border. In 1987 he was finally released at the order of Mikhail Gorbachev. After his return to Moscow, he founded the Christian Mercy Society, a group assisting the hungry and homeless with a special concern for homeless children and adolescents. In 1995, Ogorodnikov set up the “Island of Hope” in Moscow, a center and orphanage for girls, victims of poverty, crime, drug addiction, parental neglect and extreme abuse. A biography of Alexander in English entitled Dissident for Life was published several years ago.
As for myself, I am Jim Forest. I come from the United States but the Netherlands has been my home for the past 37 years. In 1961 I was given an early discharge from the U.S. Navy as a conscientious objector. In 1969-1970, during the Vietnam War, I spent a year in prison for interfering with the military conscription system. In 1977 I was appointed General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, the work that brought me to Holland. Since 1988 I have served as International Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. I am the author of various books including Praying With Icons, The Road to Emmaus, Ladder of the Beatitudes and biographies of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. My most recent book is Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment. I am a member of St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.
The panel members met yesterday afternoon to reflect on issues raised in the various lectures do far presented. Here are seven questions for discussion:
1. A century ago, Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians were killing each other. No church said “No!” Today Christians, many of them Orthodox, in Ukraine and Russia are killing each other. For many it is both a religious and national duty. What can we and our churches say that might help bring peace?
2. Nationalism easily becomes its own religion, with churches often seen as guardians less of the Gospel than national identity. How can this be changed?
3. The shortest of questions: Does the church bless weapons and war? We have heard several people say no, but does the church in reality, in various ways, become an accomplice to war?
4. In the last century millions of Christians died, and now severe persecution is happening in the Middle East and other parts of the world. How can we respond?
5. We are told by Christ to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. How do we translate this into life in today’s world?
6. We have talked about the divine gift of peace in the soul and the always temporary gift of peace in the world. ls there the temptation of ignoring the second in favor of the first?
7. Fundamentalism is a problem in all religions. How do we respond to it as Orthodox Christians?