Confession: Doorway of Forgiveness

by Jim Forest; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books; 174 pp, $15; ISBN 1570753865

Once a defining feature of Christian life, the practice of confession was abandoned by many people in the last few decades of the twentieth century, but now is coming back to life with the recognition that, without an acknowledgment of sin and the longing for forgiveness and reconciliation, the Gospel makes little sense. In Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, Jim Forest offers a moving and helpful reappraisal of this neglected sacrament, drawing on history, scripture, the lives of the saints and a wealth of personal stories.

“The best single book I have seen on a sacrament which is widely misunderstood. In this accessible and very helpful book, Forest places the sacrament of reconciliation solidly at the center of Christian tradition. I can imagine no better introduction.”

— Fr. John Garvey
author of Orthodoxy for the Non-Orthodox

“The mysteries of repentance, confession and forgiveness are at the core of Christianity. Jim Forest retrieves these powers for us at a time when confession and forgiveness are as necessary as air and water are for humankind to survive. Confession is a treasure to mine and practice.”

— Megan McKenna
author of Prophets

Jim Forest opens his new book with the following tale. It seems that a young priest in the feel-good 1970s was so taken with the latest bestseller I’m Okay, You’re Okay that he gave it a rave review in one of his sermons. Afterwards, an old parishioner acknowledged that the book was probably a good one, but added this: “I kept thinking of Christ on the Cross saying to those who were watching him die, ‘If everybody’s okay, what in blazes am I doing up here?'”

This wonderful story sets the stage for Forest’s wide-ranging reflections on confession. He isn’t content merely to examine confession as a sacrament. Instead, he correctly sees confession as a magnet that pulls together such topics as human nature, sin, individual integrity, community, and spiritual wholeness. Confession is more than just whispering a few faults into a priest’s ear. It’s an opportunity for renewal and rebirth, because one can only begin to heal if one first acknowledges that something’s broken. Defiant refusal to acknowledge individual guilt is bad enough; psycho-babbled insousiance is worse. Jim Forest does an especially good job of persuading us of the importance of honestly facing ourselves and God.

Along the way, he gives a short history of confession, reflects on several scriptural stories in which confession is illuminated (my favorite is his discussion of Mark’s account of the paralytic who was healed), includes a discussion of Dostoevsky on the need for reconciliation (to my mind, a gem-like essay in its own right), discusses some concrete tips for preparing for confession or self-examen and selecting a confessor, and closes with an interesting chapter of reflections on confession from clergy and laypeople. All in all, a remarkable book.

— Kerry Walters, on the web site

Here are a few chapters from Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness:

Confession: Doorway to Forgivness is published by Orbis Books.

Orbis Books
Maryknoll, NY 10545

free phone for book orders: 1-800-258-5838

* * *

The Wormwood File: Introduction

The introduction plus the first two letters from The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell


We may not pay Satan reverence, for that would be indiscreet, but we can at least respect his talents. A person who has for untold centuries maintained the imposing position of spiritual head of four-fifths of the human race, and political head of the whole of it, must be granted the possession of executive abilities of the loftiest order.

— Mark Twain

Demon-to-demon correspondence is not the kind of writing we often gain access to or even imagine exists. Aren’t devils a figment of our superstitious ancestors’ fevered imaginations? A pre-scientific way of explaining madness, illness, wars, plagues, famines and other misfortunes? A way of blaming invisible beings for all those actions once regarded as sins but now seen, in the clear light of scientific day, as mistakes or misunderstandings?

It’s not a bad age to be a demon. They have a freer hand so long as we regard them as nonexistent. How can what doesn’t exist do us any harm? Would that they were the nothings we imagine.

Unfortunately not only do they exist, but they are damnably clever. They even write letters.

How did I obtain an exchange of hellish e-mail? It was thanks to a chance meeting at a venerable but unpretentious pub in Oxford, the Eagle & Child, where anything that interferes with quiet conversation is unwelcome. Though most of the pub’s clients are known only to their friends and families, many luminaries have lifted a pint at this establishment, including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, yet there isn’t a clipping on the walls that suggests that such words as “hobbit” and “Aslan” were heard here before they were heard anywhere else.

This past May, while in that academic town for a conference and having ordered an ale at the Eagle & Child, I discovered the man standing next to me at the bar was an “I.T.” specialist. “Eye Tea?” I asked? “Information technology,” he replied, recognizing me as a throwback to the Gutenberg era.

Forgiving my ignorance, he went on to explain he was in the midst of a project being conducted at Magdalen College. His task was to find more effective ways to defend the university’s computers from viruses, worms and other unwelcome “e-guests.”

I said it sounded like tedious work.

“Sometimes it is,” he told me, “but there are occasional discoveries that make it more than worthwhile. Just yesterday I managed to hack my way through the firewalls of Hell.”

I chuckled. Clearly he was joking.

“I know it sounds altogether unlikely,” he responded, “but I’m not kidding. Using the Google search engine, I meant to type in the name of a fellow researcher whose web site I wanted to visit — a man named Wornwood. By a slip of the index finger I found a link to a web site for the domain ‘Wormwood’! It was a very austere page, simply the word ‘Wormwood’ in red gothic letters on a dark grey background — a page with a seriously diabolic look! But the site was password protected. I couldn’t stroll right in.”

He paused for a long sip of ale.

“You must understand that I’m the sort of person who finds locked doors a challenge. At least on the web, I’m pretty good at breaking and entering. But I might never have managed to find a way in, or even had the motivation, had I not been a C.S. Lewis fan. You must have heard of him, but have you ever read The Screwtape Letters? Very worthwhile. It’s is a collection of letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to a dense apprentice named Wormwood published sixty years ago during the last world war. Anyway, after several bad guesses, I typed ‘Screwtape’ into the password field on the theory that sometimes the simplest key is the one that works — and bingo, the door opened! As I was soon to discover, I was in that part of web that is furthest below sea level.”

I asked what he had found.

“Sadly, not a lot. Within minutes whoever guards the site was on to me. I lost my connection and my computer crashed. When I was up and running again, there was no longer a Wormwood site. It had vanished. But during my short visit, I had managed to download a file of e-mail sent by Wormwood to an up-and-coming junior devil named Greasebeek. Unfortunately Greasebeek’s half of the exchange wasn’t part of the file, though it’s easy enough to guess his side of it. If you care to see the archive, I can pass it on to you. Just give me your internet address. You do have one?”

Luckily I did. The file was waiting for me when I checked my e-mail that night.

I read it immediately, then responded with the suggestion it should be published. My new-found friend — let me call him Albion — said this was out of the question: “Believe me, my job prospects would not be enhanced by having my name on the cover of a collection of e-mail from Hell. The prudent scholar who wants to keep his academic career on the right track would do well not to confess his suspicion that there are demons about.” He suggested I take charge of the file. And so I have.

Several friends I’ve shared the file with have doubted the authenticity of the exchange. One colleague regards it as ridiculous to think non-physical beings, should they exist, would have any need for e-mail. (It’s my view that e-mail, being so radically a non-physical medium, is ideal for demons.)

One friend asked if I had done a “background check” on Albion? The answer is no.

I freely admit there is no way to prove these letters are what they claim to be, only that the man who passed them on to me has good taste in pubs and ale. He doesn’t impress me as suffering a compulsion to conduct seances or sell snake oil to the gullible. One of the striking things about him is that he has no interest in selling anything.

In a recent note he points out that, even for a hardened atheist, belief in Hell doesn’t require a leap of faith: “Any sensible person should find Hell a good deal easier to believe in than Heaven. All you need to do is think of how many ways we’ve come up with to harm each other, a list which gets constantly longer as we migrate from war to war. For most of us, glimpses of Heaven are not as easily come by.” These are not the thoughts of a man who has the Mad Hatter in his family tree.

No doubt there are those readers who will be tempted to think I’m the one who descends from the Mad Hatter. I console myself by recalling that Lewis must have endured similar suspicions when he published his collection more than half a century ago.

Jim Forest


TO: Greasebeek
FROM: Wormwood
SUBJECT: teamwork

My dearest, most congenial Greasebeek,

Of course I am at your service. “Teamwork” is a popular word among humans these days. We could use more of it in Hell. I also recall that I was once as clueless as you are.

Yes, you have had a setback. That’s obvious. But don’t be so quick to hit the alarm button! A cool head is always a good thing, no matter how hot the furnace. I agree your client’s situation is threatening, but only mildly so. There is no reason to regard him as a lost cause or yourself in a room with no exits. So he has bought a CD of monks chanting. I can assure you most people who buy recordings of Gregorian chant, Orthodox liturgies, Black spirituals and the like rarely become Christians. I know you will find this hard to imagine, but they barely listen to what is being sung. The words, even if in a language they happen to understand, are merely restful, pleasant sounds. These recordings are supposed to reduce stress — this is their main selling point. They are non-prescription tranquilizers. In any event your client will find music of this quality far more easily in music shops than in actual churches. There isn’t one church in a thousand that has music that compares favorably with what people buy in music shops. I’ve known people to give up on Christianity simply because the music in actual churches doesn’t measure up to recordings!

We had a case recently of a man leaving a certain parish because he didn’t like the sound system. He has yet to find a parish that measures up to his artistic standards. I doubt he ever will.

If you wore shoes, you would wear them out looking for a parish that provides music any record company would want to record.

You say your client is listening to these recordings on a daily basis while driving to work and occasionally at home. The thing to guard against is that he doesn’t connect the music with actual Christian belief. If he thinks of it at all, help him regard the Christian music he enjoys as primitive “folk art.” This is what you need to encourage.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that you should be complacent about the sort of music he is playing. Clearly the content is dangerous and even the music itself, as pure sound, suggests what the Enemy refers to as “the kingdom of heaven.” Beauty is always a danger. It does happen from time to time that even one phrase from a song or hymn sets ideas in motion which can undermine many years of hard work on our part.

If the “folk art” line of defense fails, at vulnerable moments plant the thought that the people who sing such music are doing it purely for the sake of art — better yet, for money — and don’t believe what they’re singing any more than a politician believes his own speeches.

You mentioned he has learned by heart a few stanzas of “Amazing Grace.” If you hear him humming that appalling tune, the danger will pass if you can make him recall some particularly ugly item in the news or hideous episode in human history. What good is “Amazing Grace” if terrorists are blowing up children or people are starving to death or plagues kill thousands? Stick with the slogan that “no good God would permit evil things to happen” and you will have nothing to worry about.

The man who wrote “Amazing Grace” was nearly ours, by the way — a slave trader much of his life. A sad tale, that one. His guardian demon, who failed to see what was going on right under his nose, is still paying the price for letting him fall into the Enemy’s hands. (Never forget for a moment that just as there are rewards for achievement, there are penalties for failure. There is more to Hell than you yet know.)

Happily, your client seems so put off by “organized religion” that there is probably no need to wave headlines or history books at him.

“Organized religion” — what a useful phrase that’s been! Isn’t it amazing how many people appreciate organized health care, organized education, organized garbage collection, organized mail delivery, organized beer breweries and organized film making, and yet without batting an eye embrace the idea that everyone would be better off without organized religion? Don’t you love it! The widespread acceptance of this term, pronounced as if it were a disease, has been one of our greatest triumphs, making your work a hundred times easier than it was in former times, and all the more so in simple, low level cases like the one you have.

Did you know that my mentor and uncle, the renowned Screwtape, was one of those who did the most to make this phrase so popular? He is an example to us all, though one has always to take care not to offend or disappoint one of his magnitude! You may have heard rumors of my near catastrophe at his hands not many decades ago when I was much less experienced in the management of souls. Luckily I happened to have discovered a few details about a failure of his that he was desperately eager should never be reported. This item of intelligence reversed my fortunes and even put me up a notch.

warmly yours,



TO: Greasebeek
FROM: Wormwood
SUBJECT: the real world

My dearest Greasebeek,

In your previous letter you were nervous about a shift in your client’s musical tastes, but can you imagine what might happen if he were to disconnect himself, even partially, from his TV? What good is a guardian devil who notices dust but overlooks boulders?

You consigned to a mere PS the decision made by your client and his wife — by the way, what do you know about her? — to shift their television from the living room to the spare room in order “to get it out of the center of their lives.” Especially disturbing is his remark about needing to take steps “to build up a spiritual life.”

At least they haven’t completely gotten rid of the TV. Even so, this has the potential of moving many things in the wrong direction. Your old instructor Grimshaw assured me you were clever but I begin to have my doubts. How could you fail to see this danger approaching and neglect to take appropriate preventative measures?

You might at least have suggested placing it in the bedroom, which in many cases is a better location for a television than the living room. It is not unusual for bedroom sets to run all night, with those who doze in the electronic glare waking up fitfully to catch disturbing fragments of whatever happens to be on as the night progresses — scenes of murder and mayhem, or often violent, semi-pornographic films. In fact these days there might be nothing “semi” about it. Even in the case of those who at last turn it off, the presence of bedroom television will usually mean less reading, less talking and less quiet unwinding before falling asleep — thus a more tired, more irritable person the next day. Most important, an active television, even when it is only running as background noise, means less prayer, or none.

But perhaps your man is another type and may succeed in reducing the time he spends paralyzed in front of a televison. You mentioned several programs your client used to watch regularly, programs generally regarded as “wholesome,” “inspiring,” etc., suggesting it might actually be in our interest that he intends to see less TV. You seem to think it’s a triumph that he might miss the occasional documentary about pilgrims making their way to some pathetic shrine or nuns serving the poor or something else equally distasteful. But all these things are entirely harmless so long as they are just images on a television screen. The viewer will feel virtuous simply because he is watching charitable ladies doing good deeds in distant places he will never visit among the sort of people he carefully avoids in real life. The main fact is that, watching these holy nuns, your man is safe in a dream world, doing nothing, not lifting a finger for anyone, not even saying a prayer or parting with his loose change. It hardly matters what he fantasizes about from time to time so long as it’s only star-gazing — or saint-gazing. (Yes, of course, demon gazing pleases us far better. You must do what you can to speed the day.)

What is dangerous is your client taking charge of his eyes. I don’t think you yet grasp that if we can turn a man’s eyes in the right direction, he’s ours right down to his toenails. Own a man’s eyes and you own the man.

I had a client once who attended church services for more than a year, even sang in the choir for several months. I was beginning to think she was a lost cause. Luckily for us, she never broke the habit of watching television whenever she was alone. There was always something to remind her that “the real world” has nothing to do “with some alleged all-powerful deity,” as she used to say, once she had seen the darkness. Finally she decided that going to church was as childish as believing in Tinker Bell. The lady died a few years ago and is today safely below.

Take heart. You have lost a battle but certainly not the war. At the very least, you can count on your client’s friends to be raising their eyebrows at this repositioning of the TV. If you play your cards right, he’ll soon be worrying that he is being seen by his friends as slightly cracked if not a total nut case. Keep in mind that peer group disapproval, even when only imagined, is no small thing. The average human being would rather be regarded as a criminal than a crackpot.

Yours warmly,


PS Kindly avoid the e-mail shorthand! After a little research, I’ve learned that LOL means lots of luck, but when writing me, write in complete sentences. I am not a teenager and this is not chatroom doodling.

copyright 2004 by Jim Forest, may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s written permission

The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell

by Jim Forest

Sixty years ago, C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, was published in England: an exchange of letters between a senior and junior demon. It appeared in a world in which participation in church life was society’s default setting.

Six decades later a fresh exchange of demonic correspondence, this time in the form of e-mail, has come to light: The Wormwood File. In Wormwood’s advice to Greasebeek, we discover that today’s demons are preoccupied with a new set of issues: New Age movements, war, abortion, pornography, the internet, a culture of self-affirmation. Yet a tempter’s goals haven’t changed since the days of the Garden of Eden.

The Wormwood File is a deadly serious exchange — with a humorous twist.

* * *

 Discovering Wormwood – introduction to the book’s Romanian translation

Click here to read the introduction and Wormwood’s first two letters.

* * *

At the end of C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (1941), the recipient of those missives on the art of temptation, the junior demon Wormwood, was in a pickle — indeed, might become a pickle, so to speak, for his uncle-advisor’s hellish delectation. Forest reveals that Wormwood survived and now advises yet-more-junior tempters, including one Greasebeek, whose first case is the subject of these e-mails. The “client” is a young married man who, when the correspondence begins, has bought a Gregorian chant CD. Not to worry, says Wormwood; most who buy such things “barely listen to what is being sung” and even “give up on Christianity simply because the music in actual churches doesn’t measure up.” Besides, the client disfavors “organized religion”: “What a useful phrase that’s been!” Wormwood crows. But, as in Lewis’ classic, things go from bad to better for the client. As they do, Wormwood’s comments on both contemporary spiritual fashions and age-old temptations illuminate by contrast the strengths of orthodox Christian belief. The Wormwood File is a worthy sequel to a perdurable popular-theology masterpiece.
— Booklist review by Ray Olson

The Wormwood File is a heavenly work by a helluva author! Not so much a treatise on temptation as an epistolary novel, it does what C.S. Lewis and others have done; that’s to say, describe the stalking of a soul by a satanic predator, but in a satiric way. Upon reading the novel, one can’t help but look over one’s shoulder, for, as Scripture tells us, we’re next on the list. Read now, laugh now, but also repent now!

—William Griffin, author of C.S. Lewis: Spirituality for Mere Christians

Relevant, up to date temptations and timely demonic advice. From the firewalls of hell, an insiders’ peak at demonic correspondence revealing the other side of allurements by Screwtape’s up-and-coming nephew. The Wormwood File captures the playful spirit of C.S. Lewis with modern temptations, postmodern issues, and new age dangers. Great satire!

— Michael J. Christensen, author, C.S. Lewis on Scripture

Available from many book shops as well as from the publisher, Orbis Books, on the Orbis web site.

Also from Amazon.

ISBN 157075554X

The Resurrection of the Church in Albania

by Jim Forest

In the last decade, with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the Church in Albania has gone through dramatic changes. Albania was the first officially atheist state in the world. After 1967 all forms of religious expression, even prayer in one’s own home, were forbidden. Since the fall of communism, the Orthodox Church, the oldest and largest Christian community in Albania, has been transformed from a repressed church into a vibrant, rapidly growing and inspired force for renewal and reconciliation in the country.

Jim Forest’s narrative presents a fascinating historical background and an inspiring story of current church witness. The traditions and life of this fellowship, so clearly portrayed, will help educate the wider Christian community about Albania’s diverse religious life and also the role religion can play as a potential force for both healing and peace in the Balkan region.

The book is illustrated with 65 photos.

The author: Jim Forest has written many books, including The Ladder of the Beatitudes, Confession: Doorway of Forgiveness, Praying with Icons, The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell, Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton, All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, Pilgrim to the Russian Church, and Religion in the New Russia. He is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of the quarterly journal In Communion.

Here are several chapters from the book:

An extraordinary story: Between 1944 and his death in 1985, Enver Hoxha, the Communist leader of Albania, carried out possibly the most extraordinary persecution of religion to be seen in any of the Communist Bloc. His aim was no less than the total eradication of all religion in the country, be it Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim. Not only did he destroy the churches, monasteries and mosques and proscribe all religious practices but he attempted to expunge the very idea of religious faith from people’s minds.

The full story of this horrifying forty years has yet to be fully documented but Jim Forest has made an extremely valuable contribution to the literature on the subject. The book’s main theme is the extraordinary way in which the Albanian Orthodox Church has literally come back from the dead under the leadership of the charismatic Archbishop Anastasios. In describing the resurrection of the Church, however, there is also a great deal of detail about the preceding persecution and the incredible courage of the believers shines through on every page.

Jim Forest is not a pundit or historian giving an “expert” analysis of the situation. He is a better and rarer creature than that; he is a listener. Almost all of the book comprises interviews with survivors of the horrors and participants in the resurrection, the predominant voice being that of the Albanian people rather than of Mr. Forest. The subtitle of the book is Voices of Orthodox Christians and it is these voices which give it an immediacy and vigour that bring the story to life. Where Jim Forest’s skill lies is in the sympathetic but penetrating questions he asks.

If you already know something of this extraordinary story, this book will fill out your knowledge with fresh insights. If you know nothing of the struggles of the Albanian Church, you jolly well ought to and this book is an excellent place to start.

— Christopher Moorey, author of “Traveling Companions: Walking With Saints of the Church”


World Council of Churches
WCC Publications
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published August 2002, 128pp, illustrated.
ISBN: 2-8254-1359-3
Price: Sfr26.00, US$15.95, UK£10.95, 17 euros.

The book can be ordered via the WCC web site.

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* * *

St. Paul and Women

by Nancy Forest

for the Sourozh diocesan conference, Oxford, June 2, 2002

St. Paul has been the victim of a bad press as far as women are concerned. Some have regarded him as an out-and-out misogynist whose basic message to women is to shut up, cover their heads and listen to their husbands. In the thirteen letters of St. Paul, there are probably no passages that are as difficult for modern Western readers as those having to do with women. It’s hard to read them without wincing.

My own introduction to St. Paul came when I was quite young, listening to the sermons of the Dutch Reformed minister of my childhood back in New Jersey. He was a man who loved St. Paul and could quote enormous passages from memory. I can still see him standing in the pulpit in his black robe, a great smile on his face and his arms outstretched, proclaiming, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s!” I remember the writings of Paul for their power and breadth, not for their knuckle-wrapping and border-drawing. Paul was a missionary, after all, who worked to expand the church beyond the initial small community of Jews to include an increasingly larger collection of Gentiles of every variety. So what are we to make of these difficult passages, which seem to exclude rather than include? How are we to understand them – without blinking past them and dismissing them out of hand? Can we see them as any more than an unfortunate justification for the shabby treatment that women have sometimes received inside and outside the church during the last two millennia?

My intention here is not to present a detailed exegesis of these passages, which I am not equipped to do. I’d simply like to discuss this question: why do St. Paul’s statements on women bother us so much? Is it his own background and milieu – in other words, is the criticism of Paul justified? Or is it us, our way of reading him – in other words, are we being careless and myopic? Do we have to look harder? Or is it a combination of these? What I hope to explain is that by probing this question we can come to a more profound understanding of some of the passages in question, and indeed of the whole body of Paul’s epistles. And we can learn something about ourselves in the process.

Let’s start with the passages themselves.

In 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 Paul writes: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” He goes on to say that “any woman who prays or prophesies” should keep her head covered, whereas a man should never cover his head, “since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.)”

In 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, Paul gives us the famous injunction, “… women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” This theme is taken up again in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, where women are instructed to dress modestly and to keep silent in church: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”

Ephesians 5:21-32 is the passage that is read at every Orthodox marriage ceremony, so it’s already quite well known to us. This is the passage in which women are told to be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord, which Paul repeats briefly in his letter to the Colossians (3:18). The husband, Paul explains, “is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” While women are to be subject to their husbands, so men are to love their wives “as their own bodies.” “This is a great mystery,” Paul says, “and I take it to mean Christ and the church.”

So what are we looking at when we read these passages? Let’s begin with Paul himself. Are these the words of a man with a problem? Was Paul a misogynist, as some feminists claim? Was he simply a woman-hater who couldn’t stand the idea of a woman with something to say? Did he regard women as lower in the Christian pecking order and thus further from the fullness of Christ, to be avoided by men who take their faith seriously?

Those who support this argument generally cite other passages which suggest that Paul preferred the celibate life and urged it as a model for the rest of the church. “It is well for a man not to touch a woman,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 7, apparently in response to a question. “But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” And later, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” All these passages have been used to support the idea that in terms of spiritual growth and development, the celibate life is to be preferred – that marriage is for the weak, those who aren’t cut out for the advanced ascetic effort required of celibacy.

There’s no denying that this kind of thinking exists. Christianity has always been plagued with a preference for celibacy over the married state, with a belief that marriage is a concession to the weak but celibacy is for the real spiritual athletes. In his book Woman and the Salvation of the World (pp. 26-27), Paul Evdokimov writes, “Certain forms of asceticism that prescribe avoiding one’s own mother, and even animals of the female sex, say a great deal about the loss of psychic balance. This loss explains the opinions about married love held by certain Doctors of the Church – opinions drawn, it seems, from manuals of zoology, whereby the couple is viewed from the perspective of breeding.” And so we get statements like those of Tertullian, who said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is the fatherland of eunuchs” (De monogamia, III, 8), St. Ambrose: “Married people ought to be ashamed of the state in which they live” (Exhortatio virginitatis, PL 16:346), and St. Clement of Alexandria: “Every woman ought to be overcome by shame at the thought that she is a woman” (Pedagogus, II, 2, PG 8:429).

But is it fair to pin this all on St. Paul? Was he really a misogynist? Perhaps not. First of all, he seems to have had great respect for women. After all, if he really had hated women so much he would have directed everything in his letters to men alone and would have spoken of women as if they were locked away in a closet. But women were full members of the church, full partakers in the life of Christ, just as much in need of his advice, encouragement and correction as men. One of Paul’s great themes is the church as the body of Christ into which we are all baptized, each of us with his or her own spiritual gifts, and no one is left out. “The parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable,” writes Paul in 1 Corinthians (12:22). And Paul’s analogy – that man is to woman as Christ is to the church – is well known to us. The unity and harmony we share in Christ transcends earthly borders: the border between Jew and Gentile, men and women, and slaves and free men. “For he is our peace,” Paul says, “who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.” (Ephesians 2:14-15) This doesn’t mean that the borders no longer exist in this life; Paul was not out to abolish slavery and to struggle for the social equality of women. As Elisabeth Behr-Sigel points out in her book The Ministry of Women in the Church, Paul “was not interested in the legal status of women or of slaves.” (p. 70) His overriding concern was not for the improvement of existing social structures but for the establishment of unity in the church, the one body of Christ. This means that in Christ – the new Adam – the division created between men and women by the Fall and the old Adam is healed. Paul’s understanding of the unity now held by men and women transcends any social divisions we may still recognize. So when Paul insists that women should not speak in church, he adds “as even the law says,” reminding his readers that this is the law and we’re all going to live with it. But women are no less “partakers of grace in Christ” than men.

And there’s another point: Paul depended on women to help him in his ministry, and he thanks them in his letters by name – Phoebe, a deaconess, who “has been a helper of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:2), Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians (4:2-3), who, he says, “labored side by side with me in the gospel.” If he really despised marriage, would he have spoken so warmly and repeatedly of the couple Prisca and Aquila, whom he referred to as “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I but also all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks.” (Romans 16:3-4)

And then there are the texts themselves. Not only does Paul address men and women equally in his letters, but he is also careful to point out that some of his comments are merely his own opinion. Throughout his letters, Paul emphasizes that what he is saying is the authorized Gospel of Jesus Christ and not simply his own ideology. But interestingly, in 1 Corinthians 7, when Paul seems to be urging Christians to adopt the celibate life, he also adds, “I say this by way of concession, not of command” and “I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” and finally “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you.” Paul seems to be going out of his way to impress his readers with the fact that what he is saying is his own suggestion, and nothing more. In Paul’s humble opinion, married life is a cause for so much anxiety that it distracts a person from his or her devotion to the Lord; this may have been Paul’s experience with marriage seen second-hand. Or perhaps he was concerned about what he feared was to be a future of great uncertainty and tribulation for the church – the “impending distress,” as he put it (1 Cor. 7:26) – and was giving what he felt was sound pastoral advice. This was no time to take on a complicated relationship.

So if Paul can be cleared of charges of misogyny, perhaps we can pin his attitudes towards women on these kinds of historical considerations: the concerns of the church at the time and Paul’s own background as an educated Jew, “a Pharisee and a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6) an intellectual heir to the hellenism that was so influential at the time. Paul, after all, was just as much a child of his age and upbringing as anyone else. In the Judaism in which he was trained, relationships between men and women were subject to the laws of ritual impurity. If a man so much as touched a woman at the wrong time of the month he could become ritually impure himself. In Leviticus, the law stipulates that a woman who has given birth to a daughter must undergo a period of purification twice as long as that for the birth of a son. And among the daily prayers (the Eighteen Benedictions) recited by Jewish men is this: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, for not having created me a woman.” So Paul grew up with a certain way of regarding women, and some of the comments he makes about women can probably be ascribed to his own background.

And then there’s the whole issue of the accepted social hierarchy. As Elisabeth Behr-Sigel points out, “In a Jewish and hellenistic milieu, the submission of the wife to the husband went without question as the foundation of the family order, and in turn, of the order of society.” The first Christians had been accused of rocking the boat, and Paul wanted to make it clear that Christians were not anarchists. In 1 Corinthians 14, for instance, a very interesting chapter, Paul discourages people from speaking in tongues, which apparently some were eager to do. “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit,” he writes (v. 12), “strive to excel in building up the church.” And later, “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (v. 19) “Do not be children in your thinking,” he pleads, “be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature.” (v. 20) “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” (v. 33)

The hellenistic worldview was one of order, not of chaos. Man did not impose order on the world around him; it was there already. Paul applies this notion of the cosmos – a word which in itself implies order and beauty (hence our own word cosmetic) – to the perfect beauty of the Kingdom of God. But the interesting thing is that within this order we are free, even free to create disorder and to choose to be enslaved by sin. “For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self,” Paul writes in Romans, “but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin, which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (7:22-24) And in Galatians, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.” (5:13)

Another of Paul’s big themes, then, is visualizing a social order that is based on love and mutual submission. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” he writes (Galatians 6:2-3). “For if any one thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” And again, “I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think,…we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans 12:3-5) In everything we do, Paul suggests, our basic attitude should be, what can I do, in love, to serve and strengthen my brother and sister? Is there anything I am doing now, even for my own spiritual edification, that might cause my brother and sister to stumble? For the fact is that “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.” (Rom. 14:7)

Seen within this context, then, Paul’s statements about women tend to take on a different tone altogether. Pull them out of context and they seem like an effort to consign women to the lower levels of Christian society. And unfortunately they have been interpreted that way, time and again, to the detriment of women and the church as a whole. But seen within the context of all of Paul’s writings they serve to reflect and reinforce the message of mutual submission in Christ.

So part of our problem with Paul lies with us – with our tendency to read his statements about women out of context and to point our enraged fingers at him. Not only that, but we must remember that we, too, are children of our age, and as we read Paul we are looking through all the intellectual lenses that we are heir to. The strongest of those lenses, perhaps, is our sense of justice and our demand for equality. We demand our rights – we demand equality – and with that in the forefront of our minds we turn to Paul. Of course he enrages us! Nothing has been drummed into us more than the importance of standing up for our rights. It’s what wars are fought for, what heroes suffer and die for. Great literature has been based on it, it stirs our hearts, it makes us weep. All American schoolchildren memorize these words from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Self-evident? It may have been self-evident to Thomas Jefferson, but it wasn’t to St. Paul. Paul wasn’t terribly interested in rights. Paul’s great vision of the church was that of the Body of Christ, whose members are united to each other in Christ, in love and mutual submission. Paul does not urge us to insist on equality or to fight for our rights. His message is quite different. It is this:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

The only time Paul discusses the issue of rights is in 1 Corinthians, when he points out that he has foregone certain rights, of his own free will, in the service of preaching the Gospel. (1 Cor. 9) “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful,” he writes. “All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” (1 Cor. 10:23-24)

Focusing on rights, and insisting on equality, forces us to look at our neighbor in a certain way. It forces us to adopt a constant attitude of comparison: how do I stand in relation to my neighbor? Does he have more than I have? Is he getting a better deal than I am? Should I try to get what he already has? Am I being fairly treated? In his recently published journal, Fr. Alexander Schmemann addresses this in an entry about the ordination of women to the priesthood. He writes:

There is deep falsehood in the principle of comparison which is the basis of the pathos for equality. One never achieves anything by comparison – the source of envy (why he, not I?), protest (we must be equal), then anger, rebellion and division. Actually, it is the genealogy of the devil. There is nothing positive; all is negative from beginning to end. In that sense, our culture is demonic, for at its basis is comparison. (February 11, 1976; p. 107)

This principle of comparison is just the opposite of the attitude that St. Paul tried to engender in the young church. The only language of comparison that Paul uses is when he calls himself “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), which has become part of the prayer that every Orthodox Christian prays before receiving Holy Communion. Not better than others, not even equal to others, but worse – the very worst.

The trick in adopting an attitude of submission with regard to your neighbor is to adopt it with integrity – not becoming like Uriah Heep, whose humility was really a manipulative strategy for gaining power over others, not humility at all but howling selfishness and greed. Paul’s message is to stop looking at yourself, to focus your gaze from yourself to the Other. The only way you can do that is to look out from the center of your Self, from your heart, from that center where Christ lives, so that it is not we who live, as Paul says, but Christ who lives in us, and to view the world from there. Insisting on equality forces you to abandon that center and to look at yourself from a distance, as if you were someone else, and to see how “you” stand in relation to the Other. This is no longer being who we really are, who God really calls us to be. It is the stance of the modern individual – the basis of the scientific method, of our entire approach to education. We spend the bulk of our lives developing this way of seeing things, viewing the world empirically, learning how to compare one thing to another, developing standards, quantifying, analyzing, testing. And when it comes to ourselves, then, we apply ourselves to the same kind of analysis and comparison, and see how we fit in – as if we were watching ourselves from the moon. But if Christ is living in me, if I have “taken on Christ,” I adopt the attitude to the Other that Christ did. If I as a women adopt an attitude of submission to my husband, Paul is suggesting, I am not doing it because I am essentially any less than my husband and I have no other choice; I am doing it as a radical exercise of my freedom, and I am entering – as is he – into the submission of Christ.

I’d like to return to the first passage I cited, 1 Corinthians 11:3. Here Paul writes, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” What struck me when I read this passage over carefully is the last part: “the head of Christ is God.” This, Paul says, is what it really means to regard someone as your “head.” It means to adopt Christ’s attitude towards God, which he explains more fully in Philippians 2:5: “Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

So the model for women is Christ himself, who was equal with God but freely chose to empty himself. This kind of submission is terribly hard – for men and women alike – but it’s probably even more difficult for women, who for so long have been the victims of twisted, misinterpreted caricatures of Paul’s teaching. The natural response, of course, is what we’re seeing in certain parts of the feminist movement – anger and militant insistence on a flattened, two-dimensional equality. The great challenge to Christian women, however, is not to insist on some kind of equality, which for Christians is a meaningless phrase. Nor is it to assume an attitude of exaggerated self-effacement. What both these attitudes have in common is that the main focus is the woman herself – they imply a person who has abandoned the center of her life and is out there looking back at herself, trying to decide who she is. The real challenge to Christian women is to learn to understand the difference between being a doormat and adopting the attitude of mutual submission – in freedom and love – that St. Paul has set before us.

A Letter on Marriage & Hospitality

Recently I heard that my friend Henriette is getting married. Henriette is famous for hating housework. As a wedding surprise, a mutual friend has called around asking people to send in “household tips” which she plans to put together in a book to give to Henriette at her wedding. This was my contribution.

Dear Henriette,

The most valuable household tip I ever had came from a very special person, Dorothy Day. As a young single mother, a recent convert to the Catholic Church, she decided to spend her life practicing hospitality — feeding people who were hungry, finding places to sleep for people who had no home. In the early years these were mostly men out of work because of the Depression. It started in her own apartment. Later she found a building in lower Manhattan where she and a few friends opened a soup kitchen. They never preached to the people they fed — they just fed them, gave them clothes and made them feel welcome. Some stayed there until they died, and then she made sure they got a decent burial.

One of the stories about Dorothy that has been important in my life has to do with a woman who was going crazy trying to keep her house clean, take care of her large family, and receive many guests. She asked Dorothy for advice. Dorothy answered, “Lower your standards.”

That’s great advice but that isn’t my tip to you. My real tip is not to lower your standards, but to practice hospitality. I don’t mean you have to find outcasts living on the streets. I mean get to know people by inviting them into your home, inviting them for a meal or for dessert.

Interesting things happen when you practice hospitality. Here are a few:

1. Your house stays clean! It’s quite mysterious. There’s no better motivation for cleaning your house than knowing that guests are coming.

2. Your problems fall into perspective. When you invite people in and they start telling you their problems, your life doesn’t look so bad after all.

3. You pick up a few more household tips. As long as the dinnertime conversation doesn’t start to sound like a detergent commercial.

4. It’s great for your marriage. Hospitality is something that you both do together.

5. It increases your circle of friends.

6. It makes you realize what’s really important in life. If you start the day wringing your hands because your windows aren’t clean, there’s something wrong! Lighten up! Chill out! Cool your jets! The most important thing in your life is the people in it. We’ve been living on this street for 15 years and we almost never wash our windows, and our neighbors still smile at us (though they probably think we’re a little strange).

Jim and I both wish you a life full of friends, happy evenings, delicious meals, and plenty of time for the things that matter most.

all the best,


[written August 1997]

Beauty Will Save the World

by Nancy Forest-Flier

Dostoevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” I used to think of this as a romantic idea, that we will be saved by the beautiful things around us, that the world will be saved if it can be made more attractive. The idea seemed romantic, something expressed by such sentiments as “there’s beauty in everything, if only we would stop and smell the flowers.” This suggests there is a gulf between the world and ourselves — we have to put on the right eyeglasses to see it properly.

Today I realized that what Dostoevsky meant is that beauty must be our principle of life — that beauty is not a perception, an influence, to be found outside us; it is the principle which must characterize the way we do everything. Everything we do must be done in beauty, with grace. The phrase “the beautiful gesture” kept coming back to me. Everything we do, even digging a ditch or scrubbing the floor, must be done in beauty. This does not mean that we are trying to make a beautiful ditch or a beautiful floor. It doesn’t mean that we are trying to become beautiful ditch diggers or floor scrubbers. It doesn’t even mean that we are trying to make a sort of ballet out of our ditch digging or floor scrubbing. It has to do with the way in which we execute the task, the way we live every minute as we do what we do; it has to do with being attentive to the activity at hand, acting without being concerned with how we look as we act. It is an innocent acting, not concerned with appearances or results or rewards; it is not concerned with being treated fairly, with getting even, with showing off, with making an impression, with getting the damn work out of the way, with wallowing in self-pity over one’s misfortune. I would think it is not even concerned with acing out of certainty that this is God’s will. I think it is simply making the beautiful gesture.

But why? Because this is the radical application of being at the center, where God is.

As I was cleaning the bathroom today, I was suddenly overcome with this sense that I must do this work as a beautiful gesture. This is the only free action available to me. If I act out of sense of resentment (because other people in the family are not doing what I’m doing), or anger (because the bathroom has a way of getting very messy very often), or self-pity (poor me!), then I’m a slave to my self and my work will be exhausting. Even if I work out of sense of pride (I’ve got to make this place shine) or some simple ethic of good behavior (God expects me to be a responsible wife and mother; this is how I become a good person), I’m still a slave to my self. The only way to go about it with joy, as a free person, is to work in the presence of God, in prayer. And this, I think, is how beauty will save the world.

I felt this all day long. I started the day making blueberry muffins, I finished the day making soup and pita bread, thinking all the while about the beautiful gesture.

The paradigm for living this way is the Liturgy. Every action that we perform in the Liturgy should be a beautiful gesture, from lighting candles and reverencing icons to receiving Holy Communion. It’s the school where we learn how to live from moment to moment. The climate of continual prayer, the entreaties of the choir washing over us, the attitude of attention all teach us how to be grace-full people.

But cleaning the bathroom as though you were standing at Liturgy? It sounds scandalous, but I think it’s true. A monk once told my husband you should wash the dishes as though you were washing the baby Jesus. Every gesture deliberate, beautiful and free.

Nancy Forest-Flier is a translator and editor as well as treasurer of the St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

published in In Communion, issue 6; the journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship

Russian Easter in Amsterdam

by Nancy Forest

published in The Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate for August 1988

The Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam is a community of contrasts. At no time was that more evident than during the Easter Liturgy this year, my husband and I being the first example of contrast with us: we are Americans living in the Netherlands who, looking for a place to pray and grow, came to St. Nicholas’. We find ourselves within a mixed community of Dutch, Russians, English, American, Eastern European — Christians who have also made this Church of St. Nicholas their spiritual home.

The Church itself takes up residence in an unused chapel of a huge Roman Catholic Church, “The Dove,” which had been slated for sale and demolition by the bishop but consequently was “squatted” by the congregation, who occupied it illegally until the city rescued it by declaring the building an untouchable monument. So we came together from West and East to celebrate the Resurrection this year, crowded into a corner of an old Catholic monument abandoned to the bulldozer by its own hierarchy. In this secular city, St. Nicholas is like a flame in the snow. [In 1995, the congregation needing larger space, the parish moved to its own building at Kerkstraat 342, not far from the chapel it formerly rented.]

We arrived at 10 PM on Saturday evening for the reading of the Acts of the Apostles. Boris Chapchal, the church’s reader, began in Dutch. The reading was delegated to others as they entered the church. My husband Jim and I both read from the English Bible we had brought. Some chanted, some read, and the reading proceeded as more and more people entered the darkened church.

At 11.30 PM, the reading ended and Matins began. The enlarged choir had gathered in the balcony above the church was packed — far more people than usual came: Romanians, Serbs, Greeks, Romanians, Georgians and others, each holding an unlit candle.

It was something that many present had grown up with, but it was my first Orthodox Easter. Our family had come through the Great Fast for the first time and had come to an entirely new understanding of the spiritual benefits of fasting. Far from being a penitential burden, the fast had served to clean the clutter from our lives and our hearts. We came to the Liturgy with a sense of pure, simple, attentive anticipation.

The procession took us out into the Amsterdam streets, busy with Saturday night activity. We walked into this vast, dark space, the choir singing with great power, and Fr. Alexis Voogd (a Dutchman) cried out in Slavonic, “Christ Is Risen!” we answered him, also in Slavonic, “He is Risen Indeed!” and the doors opened to the corridor that led us back into church where the wall could hardly contain us.

At the end of Matins, we fell to hugging, kissing and greeting each other, which went on for quite some time. Familiar faces unfamiliar faces, candles in hand, red-dyed Easter eggs, more joy than I have ever witnessed in a church at Easter, not to mention more joy than I have ever witnessed in a Dutch assembly of any variety.

The Liturgy followed and went on until 3.00 AM, Fr. Alexis repeatedly holding up the flower-garlanded cross and proclaiming “Christ Is Risen!” — in Slavonic Dutch, English, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, French, and German. Each time, those of us who knew the response in that language cried out, “He Is Risen Indeed!” It felt like Pentecost.

With the Millennium year, many in the West are learning about the Russian Orthodox Church for the first time. For some it is a curiosity, something peculiarly Slavonic and eastern, colored with national identity. But for many others, the Orthodox Church, with its wonderful spiritual treasures, is an unexpected gift from the East.

Practicing Advent Until We Get it Right

by Nancy Forest-Flier

The odd thing about Advent (I realize after have gone through forty-some of them) is that it’s a combination of the thrillingly unknown and the utterly predictable. It’s as exciting as the little paper doors and windows that our children open each day in the new Advent calendar; it’s as known and familiar as the words to the Advent songs that we can easily sing from memory. And somewhere in between these two extremes lies the meaning of Advent, its significance for us.

Advent is a season on the church calendar. It’s a specific period of time through which we must pass before we reach Christmas. It’s there for a reason. In times past, Christians fasted through Advent the way they fasted through Lent (in the Orthodox church this is still the case) because the church recognized that we need long preparatory periods in order to fully understand the major feasts. Advent, with its fresh newness and its comfortable sameness, is something we need to pass through. Why?

In my mind, these two aspects of Advent are like the front and back doors of the same house. Say it’s your house, and it’s during the weeks before Christmas. The front door is the door you decorate for the holidays. You’ve hung out a wreath, maybe you’ve strung up some Christmas lights. When Christmas comes your guests will enter through this door. They’ll be smiling, bearing gifts, maybe food, and you’ll open the door to welcome them. Who’s coming this year? Some of the people who come to your door may be invited; some may show up unexpected and surprise you. There may even be old friends who you haven’t seen for years. Christmas is that kind of event; it’s the time for visiting, for surprises.

Advent literally means the arrival of someone who is awaited. It’s a happy linguistic accident that advent and adventure are sister words in English, because it’s easy to see the adventure in waiting for the unknown. We are standing at the front door of our house and waiting for the arrival of Christ, and this always makes us happy because we know that Christ came to save us. We know how the story will end. We know that the church will be established and that the saints will be victorious. In fact, we know this so well that it tends to take the adventure out of Advent.

But during the first Advent, of course, the adventure was there in all its terrifying, harsh, bewildering reality. Mary was visited by an angel and waited for her baby to be born, not knowing what kind of life her son would lead or what kind of an impact it would have on her. The pregnancy burst in upon her and imposed a new direction on her life. All she knew was that she was bearing the Messiah, the Long-Awaited One. The rest was pure adventure.

I thought about this aspect of Advent a great deal in the early spring of 1993, when I went through a short pregnancy of my own. It lasted ten weeks and ended abruptly in miscarriage. It was not a planned pregnancy and our children (most of them teenagers) were both excited and embarrassed. (Gee, this is great. But really, Mom, don’t you think you’re a little — old?). As soon as the presence of a new baby became an established fact we began to talk about how we could fit another person into the family. We have little room in our small house for another child. Where would he sleep? I am running a translating and editing business from our home which accounts for a large share of the family income. How would I continue working? As the weeks passed we all realized that life as we knew it would never be the same. But in what way? Who could know?

As we continued on with the pregnancy some interesting things happened. We found that we were touching lives in a way we may never have done before. A dear friend, whose partner had recently died of AIDS, called me up just to put his heart at rest; with tears in his voice, he said he just wanted to be sure that we knew what the risks were, that we knew that children born to middle-aged parents have a higher likelihood of having medical problems. We assured him that we were aware of the risks, and he told us he was going to keep praying for us, and that he admired our courage. (But truly, it did not feel like courage to me. It felt frightening and confusing. What was going to happen to us?) A young woman friend, a doctor, sat on our couch in awe as we explained that we had refused amniocentesis because it seemed pointless; we would go ahead with the pregnancy no matter what the outcome. “I have never heard anyone like you before,” she said to us gratefully. (And I never had either. It seemed like everything I was doing was new. There were no precedents, no assurances.)

I recall only one day, early in the pregnancy, when I was unable to sleep because of fears about the future. And at breakfast, when I told my husband, he said to me, “You know, I figure all the plans we had made for our life before this are nothing but smoke. They’re all dreams. But this – this is reality. This is what our life looks like.” And that helped me embrace the adventure. I remember the weeks that passed after that as a time of deep peace, not because I had been assured of the future but because I was willing to live with enormous, unsettled questions. And when the miscarriage occurred we didn’t really know how to feel. Relieved? Sad? A little of both.

Passing through Advent gives us a chance to recognize that life often consists of cataclysmic interruptions, and that we have to stand at our front door and let in whoever’s coming. Indeed, it is this attitude of expectation and welcome that should characterize the Christian life. Jesus tells us that we will be judged according to our response to those who knock at our door, and he even goes so far as to identify himself with all those unknown visitors. “Into this world,” wrote Thomas Merton, “this demented inn, Christ comes uninvited.” With each knock on the door of our house we await the approach of the Messiah, knowing that truly every visitor is the Messiah and that our salvation depends on how welcoming we are.

Balancing this front door aspect of Advent, this excited expectation, is what happens at the back door. I don’t know about your back door, but in our house the back door is where we take out the garbage. It’s where we go to shake out dirty carpets and messy table cloths. It’s where we clean the dog mess off our shoes. The back door is where the most ordinary, tedious events of life take place. Christmas visitors rarely enter this way. It’s never decorated with wreaths and colored lights.

I say there’s a back door aspect to Advent because, really, who are we trying to kid? Waiting for the Messiah? We can go through the pretense of waiting for something new and exciting, but the fact is that we know very well what’s going to happen. Jesus is going to be born in Bethlehem, he’ll grow up and begin preaching, he’ll be crucified and he’ll rise from the dead. The church will take root and begin it’s well-known history. So what else is new? How can an event that we know so well, that we pass through year after year, have any impact on our lives? The question I’m really asking is, what is the wisdom of the church calendar, of going through long periods of preparation, of fasting, of prayer, of greeting the newborn Christ like a brand new baby?

A film I recently saw helped me understand this a little better. It was “Groundhog Day,” the comedy in which Bill Murray, playing a jaded television weatherman, is assigned to travel with his two-person film crew to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual appearance of the groundhog on February 2. Murray is an obnoxious, sarcastic, contemptuous bore and is particularly offensive to the female member of the crew. All goes well, the cameras are set up, the ritual takes place, the groundhog sees his shadow, and six more weeks of winter are predicted. Murray is barely able to muster enough civility to do the spot with a bit of grace, swearing under his breath that he’ll never cover Groundhog Day again. It’s all just too hokey, too quaint, for his worldly tastes. And to top it all off, Mr. Groundhog is right — a blizzard forces all the roads to close and Murray and his crew have to stay in Punxsutawney until the weather lets up.

The fun starts the next morning when the clock radio in his hotel room goes off, announcing, oddly enough, that it’s Groundhog Day! He’s puzzled. But wasn’t that yesterday? Didn’t we already go through all that? Apparently not. He arrives at the spot where the ceremonies are to take place, and sure enough, there’s his film crew, waiting to get started. He begins to wonder how much he had had to drink the night before. He begins to question his sanity. But he obediently does the spot once again. And as the day passes he sees that everything is happening exactly as it had the day before: groundhog sees his shadow; blizzard shuts down all the roads; the old school friend who he’d greeted so contemptuously on the main street hails him in exactly the same way he had the day before. Every single thing about Groundhog Day is the same.

And this becomes the framework in which Murray has the chance to change his life. Because every single morning he wakes up to the same old Sonny and Cher song, and to the same announcement that “It’s Groundhog Day!” Every day he has to do the same wretched television spot with people who apparently are unaware that they’ve been repeating all this day after day after day. Every day he has to come up with a fresh reaction to an outcome that he already knows. The groundhog is going to see his shadow, but it’s news to everybody around him. Every day he has to cope with being stranded in a dinky town in Pennsylvania with people he doesn’t particularly like (although his female co-worker is starting to look better and better).

Eventually, the repetition begins to look very much like ritual. Sitting in the park, he predicts the barking of a dog, the approach of a Brink’s truck, the moment when a passing woman will adjust her bra strap. His affection for his co-worker grows with each passing February 2nd, and he keeps getting new chances to figure out how to win her approval and affection. It takes a long time, and he makes an enormous number of blunders. But in the end he gets the girl, not by trying hard but by giving up trying. It’s the thorough turn-around — conversion — that suddenly makes him appealing to her, and in the end he is a much nicer guy. In the end he is saved.

Advent, and all the other seasons of the church calendar, are something like Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, only stretched out over a year. We need the repetition because, like the jaded weatherman in the movie, we need plenty of opportunity to get it right. We need to go through all that back-door activity day after day, year after year, taking out the garbage and keeping our shoes clean, and when it comes time to say, “Oh, look, Jesus is born!” we have to learn how to say it — not with ho-hum sarcasm, not with sentimental pretense, but with some kind of apprehension about what it all means for us. And for most of us this takes a lifetime to learn.

It’s within this necessary repetition of Advent that we come to learn how to welcome in all the surprises. Some of them are pleasant (sometimes we get the girl). Some of them are not (six more weeks of winter). Some of them are staggering in the demands they place on us. But thank God the church has given us a ritual life within which we can act out the splendid surprise of Advent again and again — until we get it right.

Nancy Forest-Flier is an editor, writer and translator. The essay was published by U.S. Catholic magazine.

Reflections on Marriage

by Nancy Forest

Having become Orthodox in the course of our marriage, Jim and I were blessed with the sacrament of marriage on September 10, 1995, at the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam. After the ceremony I spoke with several women, all of them non-Orthodox, who had had quite some difficulty with part of the wedding service. The part that caused the problems was the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33):

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ”For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

I was concerned that the people who had difficulty with this passage would let it overshadow all the things that they found good and beautiful about the wedding service and about Orthodoxy in general. So I decided to write a brief letter to them to try to address some of these problems.

The idea of women submitting to their husbands, and of a husband being ”the head of the wife”, is admittedly not the sort of thing that you might read in most modern literature on the subject. It seems to advocate a kind of marital state in which women’s opinions are secondary to their husbands’, a situation which the women’s movement has been trying to correct for several decades now.

Because it was our wedding, and because I feel strongly that the truth of this passage does not deny ”women’s rights”, I want to write something about what it means to me. I am not a theologian, and my knowledge of Orthodox theology is not strong. But Jim and I were married by civil authorities thirteen years ago, so we had many years of experience as a married couple before we were married in the church.

First of all, I think there are a couple of ways that you can easily dismiss the whole passage. You can simply say that it’s a matter of translation. One friend who objected to the passage told me that she had trouble with the Dutch word ”onderdanig”, which sounds much stronger than the English ”be subject to”. And when I looked the passage up in our biblical concordance I learned that there are several words in Greek that convey the idea of obedience and submission. The word used in this particular passage is exactly the same word that is used to convey submission to God. It is, in fact, a Greek military term meaning ”to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader”. But in ordinary, non-military use the word was used to mean ”a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden”. There is another word used in the Epistles which is translated in English as ”submit”, but this word suggests yielding and weakness. The word in the marriage ceremony, however, does not suggest weakness; it suggests cooperation.

By contrast, there are two other sections in chapter 6 in which Saint Paul discusses the obedience of children to their parents, and the obedience of slaves to their masters, and here he uses yet another word. So he chose his words carefully. He chose a word which suggests sharing burdens and cooperating, not yielding as the weaker party. We don’t have this kind of flexibility in English (or in Dutch).

One might also dismiss the passage on the basis of cultural differences. After all, Saint Paul also tells slaves to obey their masters, and today we all recognize the injustice of slavery. So might we not also say that Paul’s understanding of women is as outdated as his understanding of slavery? I suppose we might, but he clearly makes a distinction between his discussion of marriage (with the different verb) and his discussion of other kinds of obedience. The key sentence is ”This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” For Paul, there was a vital link between marriage and the love of Christ for the church. He does not say that the relationship of children to parents, or slaves to masters, reflects the love of Christ for the church. It’s only in marriage.

I think there are two important issues at stake here. One is the importance of freedom in Christian life. The other is the radical change that Jesus brought to hierarchical structures (although he did not eliminate them).

In his brief sermon after the wedding ceremony, Father Sergei Ovsiannikov talked about how essential it is that people who marry be free people. He said that in ancient times, slaves were not permitted to marry; this was a rite that was reserved for free people only. Both men and women enter into marriage out of freedom, out of a desire to submit to each other and a willingness to sacrifice their singularity and to create a new thing, a married couple, a single unit. This doesn’t mean obliterating their selves, but it implies a freely-chosen state in which there is a constant, active submission to each other. Freedom is important because it means that both men and women should struggle to make intelligent, mature, responsible decisions, to listen to each other, to have the courage to admit mistakes and to defer to their partner at times. People who are not free don’t behave like this. Women who are not free never disagree with their husbands and support them even when they are wrong. This isn’t a Christian marriage.

The word ”free” is an interesting one among the Indo-European languages. If you could trace it back through linguistic history to the ancient Indo-European language, the mother language of all modern Western languages, you would find some root word that is no longer spoken today. The scholarly guess is that the Indo-European root word of ”free” was ”pri”, which meant ”to love”. In ancient English, ”free” implied a relationship. It meant someone who was ”dear to the chief” and who fought for the tribal chief out of allegiance and love, not for money or because of coercion. The freeman was not a conscript or a mercenary. ”Free” implied sacrifice and submission as well. It didn’t mean that you were ”free” of all ties, as it does today. It meant that your ties were freely chosen because of your feelings of love for the person to whom you gave your allegiance.

If you trace the evolution of the Indo-European root word as it passed into other Western languages you would be surprised at what you find: all sorts of words that have to do with loving relationships: friend, “freund,” ”vriend,” ”vrijen,” and dozens of words in other languages, even to an Old Slavonic word ”prijateli,” or friend, and the Sanskrit words ”priya,” dear, and ”prn” to delight or endear. So the connection between freedom and love has been deeply imbedded in our culture.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to return to that Greek word which was translated as ”submit”. The definition of that word is ”a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.” There’s the same stress on freedom and the decision of the free person to give in to the other and to help bear a burden.

But to say that both husband and wife must be free people, loving people, may not satisfactorily address the problem of the husband being called the ”head” of the wife, and of women being instructed to be ”subject to their husbands in all things”. I think we can’t look at this problem simply from our Western, post-Enlightenment way of thinking; we can’t just insist that both the husband and the wife be regarded as separate, unique, equal individuals and leave it at that. The relationship, or the flow of love, or the dynamic that is always taking place in a marriage has to be described somehow.

Several times in this passage Paul says that the marital relationship is like the love that Christ has for the Church; he says, ”This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” There is no other kind of relationship that is described in this way in the Bible — not the Platonic love between men or the love of a subject to a king or the love between mothers and children or even the love of a spiritual leader for his flock, although these all are profoundly deep forms of love. None of them ”refer to Christ and the church” as marriage does. It’s almost as if Paul were saying that a married couple is an icon, a way of actually seeing the mystical truth of Christ and the church. So to say that the man is the”head” isn’t just a reference to traditional patriarchal sexist hierarchy; it’s a way of describing the structure of the marriage to reflect the mystical truth to which it refers. This doesn’t give men the license to lord it over their wives and beat them into submission; it should serve to direct the attention of the man and the woman to the relationship that serves as their model — the love between Christ and the church. So what is that model like?

This, I think, is where the second issue comes in, the radical change that Jesus brought to hierarchical structures, and the question of power and submission. I’m not a New Testament scholar, and I don’t have my finger on all the particular references in the New Testament, but I do know that the whole life of Christ was the story of the Son of God humbling himself and sacrificing himself for humankind. He was born in a stable, he lived in humble circumstances, he scandalized people by associating with the lower classes, he washed his disciples’ feet under their great protest. So the model of Christ’s love for the church is one of humility and sacrifice, not one of power and control.

There are many passages in the gospel in which the relationship between Christ and the church is described in terms of a bridegroom and a bride. I’m often reminded of this during the Liturgy, because it seems to me that the whole physical structure of the church itself and the movement of the Liturgy keep pointing to this relationship. The people coming into the church bearing candles (like the story of the wise and foolish virgins waiting for the bridegroom), the priest comes out from the sanctuary bringing the bread and wine — the bridegroom — to the church, and the church comes forward to receive him. The parallel between this and marriage is profound (as Paul says) and intensely physical at the same time.

I think that Paul insisted that in marriage we must understand the man as the ”head” of the woman because he felt very deeply that the mystery of marriage is a real mirror of the mystery of Christ’s love for the church. In saying this, then, Paul is implying that a man’s love for his wife should be as humble, as complete, and as self-giving as Christ’s is; and in saying that women should ”submit” to their husbands, Paul, in his choice of words, is implying that women should voluntarily, in freedom, consent to listen, cooperate, and bear their share of the burden of the marriage.

We have to face the fact that as children of our age, passages like this one are going to be very difficult for us, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. Submission is not a popular attitude today. So perhaps we have to go further than studying the etymologies of the words in Paul’s epistle. Perhaps we, as women, have to examine our own reaction to being told to submit, to acknowledge someone else as our ”head”. This is admittedly a very difficult thing for intelligent, educated, healthy people to do. We bristle at the very thought. In Western culture today, intelligent women are those who recognize their own individual worth; many women refuse to change their names as a way of asserting their individuality; women demand to be recognized as equal before the law. So when it is suggested that we submit to our husbands, men ought to understand what an extremely difficult thing is being asked of us. But it is being asked of us, because without our submission the icon of marriage is incomplete.

When I discussed this with a friend of ours recently, a priest with a broad understanding of Islam, he reminded me that in Islam the highest thing one can aspire to is submission, that ”Islam” itself means submission to God. And when we look to the Mother of God, who should be our model of the perfect response to God’s will, we see the same attitude of submission. But that’s submission to God, you say, and we’re talking about submission to husbands, to ordinary human beings. Perhaps this is where the mystery of marriage lies, and this is what Paul was talking about when he said that no other relationship bears the stamp of Christ’s love for the church. The submission of a woman to her husband is not a one-way street, because husbands are enjoined to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, that is, with the kind of sacrificial love that is full of respect and honor.

There is the temptation here to see marriage as a kind of balance, with husband and wife cautiously playing their submission and sacrifice cards in an ultimate effort to protect themselves and flatter their own egos: ”I’ll submit to you if you sacrifice to me”; ”I’ve done something selfless for you to show you how saintly I am, and I expect something in return. ”But this isn’t the way Christ loves the Church. If you enter into marriage with the idea that you’re going to struggle to protect your self, even by balancing out your acts of mutual sacrifice, you’ll never have a marriage at all. Marriage isn’t a deal. The flow of submission and sacrifice is a reflection of the flow of love among the persons of the Holy Trinity. We regard the Trinity not as three separate gods who love each other, but as one God who is Love itself. And perhaps here is the mystery: Paul is telling women to submit to their husbands, not primarily out of a sense of self (either submission as a way to enhance one’s ego or submission as a confirmation of one’s poor self-esteem) but without a consideration of self at all. The challenge of marriage for both women and men is that the marriage must become the primary source of identity for both of them, and that the energy that holds this thing together and keeps it alive and vital is submission on the part of the wife and sacrificial love on the part of the husband.

We are often given to understand that the challenge of marriage today is for the two partners to try to maintain their own identities. But it may be that this is a very questionable goal, and that indeed just the opposite is true. The challenge of marriage today is that in the face of a culture that forces us to dwell within the fortress of our own personality, with all the exhausting protection that such an enterprise entails, we are asked to tear down the walls and build something new with someone else. The enormous comfort of St. Paul’s epistle is his assurance that in doing so we are reflecting the love of Christ himself.