The Rome of the Martyrs

Here are some reflections coming out of a two-week stay in Rome, 28 May to 11 June, 2008. The focus is on our last full day, when we visited the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura (St Laurence Outside the Walls). A folder of photos relating to this essay are here:

The full set of photos taken during our days in Rome are posted here:

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The Rome of the Martyrs

by Jim Forest

How to compare the Rome of the Caesars with the Rome of the martyrs… I was entering a city that had been transformed by the Cross.
— Thomas Merton (The Seven Storey Mountain, p 106)

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
— Tertullian (155-222 AD)

“Look to your left, look to your right, and try to enjoy.” Nancy and I heard this brief instruction from a fast-moving guide leading a tour group through one of the long galleries of the Vatican Museums. If those in her charge had time to look on either side, at that moment they would have had a blurred glimpse of colorful frescoed maps of various cities and regions of Italy, including two views of the entire Italian peninsula in the days when much of Italy was under papal rule.

Church of St Laurence Outside the Walls

Two weeks in Rome gives time to move slowly. Nancy and I not only looked to our left and looked to our right but ahead and behind and up and down, more often than not doing so slowly or not moving at all.

What touched us most deeply was a consequence of visiting a number of ancient churches founded on places where martyrs of the early church were either killed or buried. Some of their names are familiar to any Christian — Paul and Peter, Stephen, Cosmas and Damien, Laurence, Agnes, Theodore, Cecilia — while others are hardly known (for example the sisters Prassede and Pudenziana). All these names and others daily took on greater significance.

The only ancient churches in Rome not named after martyrs are those dedicated to Mary. Each of the martyr-linked churches is a place for passing on memories and stories of those who lives inspired the conversions of many others, not only in ancient times but today as well. Such churches serve as points of access to what might have seemed the remote past, but then suddenly becomes part of the present day. This happened to us. We left Rome with a far more acute and intimate sense of connection not only with the martyrs of the early church who are remembered by name, but with a deepened sense of being linked to the many thousands, the names of the vast majority now forgotten, who are part of what St. Paul called “the cloud of witnesses.”

To write about all the churches we visited would require either a book-length text that might take a year to write, or something brief but no more interesting than a catalog. Instead I’ll focus on the church we visited on our last full day in Rome, the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura (St Laurence Outside the Walls).

All over the world there are churches that bear Laurence’s name (including the medieval cathedral a hundred meters from our house in Alkmaar, Holland), but this particular church to the northeast of the center of Rome is the first and oldest.

It was about a three- or four-kilometer walk from the convent hospice on the Via Cavour where we were staying. Setting off after breakfast, we walked past the nearby Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, then down a boulevard of shops and street venders that led to a neighborhood park, then up a side street to a tunnel that allowed us to pass under the tracks that lead to Rome’s main train station, Termini, then through a gate that took us outside the Aurelian Wall, the barrier that enclosed the city’s seven hills, meant in its day to protect Rome from barbarian invaders. Finally we walked along the Via Tiburtina, one of the old roads connecting Rome with the world beyond. A few hundred years ago, we would have been passing not apartment buildings, shops, cafes and bus stops, but enjoying the open air of the Italian countryside. At last we found ourselves standing before the gates of the Campo Verano, Rome’s biggest cemetery and also the place where the basilica of San Lorenzo was built.

Not at first seeing the church, we entered the cemetery, thinking the church must be somewhere within. Instead we spent half an hour or more looking at gravestones. The ones that we were most drawn to were decorated with photos of people who had died in the nineteenth century — usually colored ovals, an elderly matriarch in one, an equally aged patriarch in the other, and carved in the stone not only particular names but again and again the word “Famiglia” — family. Old graves or new, the cemetery seemed more than anything a monument to families, though there were also numerous indications of those families being Catholic (crucifixes and images of the Madonna).

The cemetery with all its tomb stones is above what started out as an extensive ancient catacomb, far beneath our feet. It was here in the year 258 that the roasted body of Laurence was brought, carried by a procession of Christians who followed more or less the same route we had just walked. His body was placed in a narrow niche along one of the underground passageways, then walled in with mortar and an inscription made, probably on that day just his name plus the word “sanctissimi” — most holy — done quickly in red lead paint applied with a brush. Only later on was the marble sarcophagus provided that the pilgrim approaching the saint’s relics sees today.

In Laurence’s day, the bodies of most Romans would have been burned and their ashes placed in urns, but the Christians opted for burial. In Rome, partly thanks to geological factors, almost all Christian burials were in catacombs — a less costly and more democratic option, both of which greatly appealed to the Church at that time. The catacombs — narrow passageways craved out of soft tufa stone with shallow niches, six or seven stacked one above the other — could be extended horizontally, and also be extended downward, gallery beneath gallery. Many thousands were buried in a single catacomb.

By the end of the second century AD, the Church in Rome had founded burial societies in order to be sure that even the poorest baptized person would be properly buried in one of the many catacombs that existed outside the city walls. Rank was of no consequence. In the catacomb of St. Callisto, a few kilometers outside the city walls to the southeast along the Appian Way, six popes and many martyrs were entombed among thousands of ordinary people.

At last we found the basilica. It proved to be a surprisingly simple structure. Most ancient Roman churches have been modified and embellished over the centuries by popes, cardinals and wealthy benefactors: side altars added, gilded ceilings created, fashionable art substituted for older, unfashionable art. In many churches the lily had not only been gilded but re-gilded, then gilded yet again. The basic shape of the church survived, but simplicity had been replaced by complexity, austerity by lavish displays of wealth. But at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, a small miracle occurred. Both inside and out, no overlays or major renovations had been made — no decorative overlays for the facade, no elaborate, gilded ceiling, no cherubs, none of the theatrical interventions of the counter-reformation or baroque periods.

Probably all this is thanks to its providential location as a church outside the city walls in what was for most of its history a rural area. When the population of post-imperial Rome plummeted to just a few thousand people, the monastery of San Lorenzo (now a Franciscan friary) remained active but isolated. No wealthy philanthropist bothered to “improve” the church. The result is perhaps the most unspoiled ancient building in Christian Rome, though a few churches inside the walls (such as Santa Sabina, San Clemente, Ss. Cosmo e Damiano and Santa Prassede) come close.

Under a tiled roof held up by six tall pillars, the visitor steps down a meter or so below ground level into a spacious porch built in the thirteenth century. On the inner wall of the porch, access to the church is provided by smaller doors to the left and right plus a large entrance in the center that is guarded at floor level by two Romanesque stone lions, neither of whom seem on their way to baptism. One has a child in its claws, the other a lamb — graphic images of the world which condemned people like Laurence to death. One is reminded of a passage in one of the letters of Peter: “Brethren, be sober and watchful. Your adversary, the devil, like a roaring lion, goes about seeking to devour you. Resist him strong in the faith” (Not all lions are seeking someone to devour. Inside the church, close to the altar, there is another pair, but these seem to have taken the New Testament to heart. Their eyes are deeply thoughtful and, in the case of the lion on the left, meek and compassionate.)

The main event on the church porch isn’t its pair of lions but the frescoes, those concerning Stephen, the first Christian martyr, on one side, and Laurence one the other. (Stephen’s relics were brought to this church in the seventh century, at the time when Palagius II was pope.)

One can almost see the crowds of people who have gathered on this porch down through the centuries listening to those who knew the stories the frescoes illustrate. No doubt the stories were recited unhurriedly and passionately, and with great attention to every detail in each fresco. Thus actual entry into the church was proceeded by a visual and verbal immersion in the lives, deaths and burials of the two great saints. (Fifteen years ago, when our daughter Anne was ten and we were all visiting a cathedral in Palermo, she called a similar set of linked images “the first comic book.”)

Sadly, these days it must be rare for visitors to hear such recitations, but if one knows at least the bare bones of the stories, a visitor fill in many of the blanks by “reading” these panels in sequence.

The Stephen narrative is on the left side of the porch, with his stoning in Jerusalem part of the top row. Other panels portray the later bringing to Rome of the body of Stephen in order to place it side-by-side with another deacon-martyr, Laurence.

On the right hand side of the door, the subject is Laurence, a Roman who received his religious instruction in preparation for baptism from Archdeacon Sixtus, later Pope Sixtus II. When Sixtus became Bishop of Rome in 257, he ordained Laurence a deacon (from the Greek word for servant), entrusting him with administration of the material goods of the local church and, still more important, care of the poor. In a panel that shows Lawrence washing the feet of a poor man, it is striking that Laurence concentrates his attention not on the man’s feet that he is washing so gently, but on the man’s face, in whom no doubt he recognizes Christ. Other panels focus on the persecution initiated by the Emperor Valerian in 258. As a result, many Christians were put to death, while Christians belonging to the nobility or the Roman Senate were deprived of their goods and exiled. Among the first victims of this persecution was Laurence’s mentor, Pope St Sixtus II, who was beheaded on August 6.

One of the early accounts of Laurence’s life was told by St Ambrose of Milan. Laurence, he related, met Pope Sixtus on his way to his execution and asked him, “Where are you going, dear father, without your son? Where are you hurrying off to without your deacon? Before you never mounted the altar of sacrifice without your servant, and now you wish to do it without me?” Pope Sixtus responded, “After three days you will follow me”.

Following the death of Pope Sixtus II, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church — meaning its chalices, candlesticks and anything else of monetary value. Laurence asked for three days to gather together the church’s treasure, during which time he worked swiftly to distribute as much church property to the poor as was possible in order as to prevent its being seized by the government. Then, on the third day, he presented himself to the prefect, bringing no gold or silver, but the poor, whom he assembled in ranks — the crippled, the blind, the suffering, the widows and orphans, all of whom were cared for by the Church in Rome. “These were the true treasures of the Church,” he told the prefect. “In its poor, the Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.”

It was this act of defiance that led directly to Laurence’s martyrdom. The prefect told the young deacon that not only would he follow the path of martyrdom as Pope Sixtus had done, but in his case, it would be “a death by inches.” Lawrence, bound to the iron grill of an outdoor stove, was roasted over a low fire. During his torture, Lawrence is said to have told his executioner, “I am already roasted on one side. If you would have me well cooked, it is time to turn me on the other side.” Laurence’s final prayer was for the conversion of Rome.

Later that day, as the porch panels relate iconographically, Laurence was buried in a section of catacomb under what later became the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura.

Rome’s visitors and their guides daily express skepticism about the stories linked with saint’s lives and relics. Did Laurence actually ask to be turned over so that he might be better cooked? Perhaps. Perhaps not. What is obvious is that, both in the way he lived and died, Laurence gave so remarkable a witness to his faith in the risen Christ that it touched Romans in an extraordinary way, contributing to the conversion of a many people from every class. According to Church Father Prudentius, Laurence’s courage under torture had significant consequences for the population of Rome, high and low, marking a decisive moment, Prudentius states, “in the death of idolatry in Rome.”

The catacomb in which Laurence was buried immediately became a place of pilgrimage. People who had been indifferent to Christianity, or hostile to it, were among those now praying with tears at the saint’s tomb. For eighteen centuries, even during the centuries when Rome was little more than a village, the tomb of St Laurence has been a place of pilgrimage. (Remarkably, Laurence and Stephen’s relics are among the few that were never transferred inside the city walls even at times when the city was under siege.)

Having done our best to decipher the porch frescoes, we entered the church.

It’s a breathtaking view that must stop most visitors, even tour guides, in their tracks. The space is deep, quiet, austere and multi-layered, a place unlike any other we have ever seen. While we had been in many beautiful churches in Rome, none made us move so slowly and quietly as this one. The space seems just a deep breath away from heaven.

The oldest part of the basilica, the section at the far end, was built in the seventh century by Pope Palagius II. It replaces another structure built in the fourth century with the support of the first emperor to respect Christianity, Constantine the Great. Though Constantine was not himself baptized until he lay on his deathbed, after publication of the Edict of Milan in 313, he made Christianity a privileged rather than persecuted religion.

Digging into a hillside, the seventh-century church was built so that Laurence’s catacomb tomb would be immediately beneath the church’s altar, with steps leading down to the crypt beneath so that pilgrims could pray in the very place where Laurence’s body was placed on the day of his martyrdom.

Later, in the thirteenth century, another church (the one with the porch) was built adjacent to the old one. In time the two buildings were unified, creating the single large building that exists to this day (though parts of the building and its monastic cloister had to be restored due to damage caused by allied bombs in July 1943).

The building is something like a Russian matriushka toy — a doll within a doll within a doll within a doll. At the its core is the altar and the relics beneath. Standing around and over the altar is a ciborium — a stone canopy supported by columns. The most famous of Rome’s ciboriums, made by Bernini in the seventeenth century, rises monumentally over the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. The one at San Lorenzo’s is smaller and lighter, not at all a triumphal monument but a delicate structure that serves as an airy border marking the heart of sacred space. The four columns of purple marble are said to have been part of a similar ciborium that stood over the altar of the fourth-century church Constantine had sponsored.

On three sides of the sanctuary are two deep galleries, one above the other, through which light filters from windows that are out of sight. Above the upper gallery, just beneath the low-pitched roof, is a row of arched windows containing a pattern of small circles filled with light-bearing selenite. (The same material is used in a similar way at the fourth-century Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill.)

Crossing the border from the thirteenth-century area of the church to the part built in the seventh century, the visitor passes under an arch on the altar side of which is a mosaic spanning the width of the church. As is the case with nearly all the church mosaics of the early centuries, Christ is in the center with saints on either side. In some of these, Christ is standing, but in this instance he is seated on a blue globe that represents the whole of creation. His right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing while the left holds a thin staff which, when looked at closely, proves to be a cross. On his left and right, again following the pattern of other ancient churches in Rome, are Peter and Paul — Peter (also holding a cross) with his familiar dense, close-cropped grey hair and beard, and Paul, bearded but nearly bald, with a scroll in his left hand representing the many letters he sent to local churches. To Peter’s left is Laurence, also holding a cross, and next to him, but without a halo, Pope Pelagius, holding a model of the seventh century church. On the other side, to the right of Paul, is the proto-martyr Stephen, and then, on the far right, Hippolytus, shown holding a golden crown. While there are various saints named Hippolytus, this is probably the Roman army officer named in “The Acts of St Laurence” who had been assigned to guard Laurence while he awaited execution and who, soon afterward, was converted to Christianity and died as a martyr.

As is always the case with iconography, there is a deep quietness and stillness about the mosaic. It seems to exist in a place where all means of measuring time have vanished or have no meaning, suggesting “is-ness” rather then temporality. The background of the mosaic is gold, symbol of the eternity and the kingdom of God.

The altar end of the church is higher than the thirteenth-century nave. Steps take the visitor up into the area surrounding the altar, while a narrower set of steps lead down into the small chapel-like space beneath the altar where the relics of Stephen and Laurence are located. In earlier times, from dawn till nightfall, there must have been a continuous ribbon of pilgrims walking slowly around the wrought iron enclosure that surrounds the relics, each visitor briefly touching the sarcophagus and the red cloth that is laid across its open top, each touch a gesture of prayer. Perhaps the most common prayer made by all these pilgrims was the appeal that, when the time comes in one’s life to lay a bed of fire, to do so as Laurence did — or, when rocks fell on one like rain as they did on Stephen, to die forgiving those who threw them and to hope one’s death might help bring others to conversion. (Such things happen. The Apostle Paul, as a young man, was present at the stoning of Stephen. In the porch fresco of Stephen’s stoning, Paul is standing to the left, not hurling a stone but his right arm extended in what appears to be a gesture of approval.)

We were fortunate to be in the church at such a quiet time of day. Later on in the morning, after we had spent time in the monastery cloister adjacent to the church, we came back inside to discover a well-attended funeral in progress, probably the first of several that would occur that day, given that the church is surrounded on three sides by Rome’s largest cemetery.

Some churches help one pray while others seem to make prayer more difficult. The basilica of San Lorenzo was one of those churches in which it seemed impossible not to pray.

For us, being at the church forged a much deeper sense of connection with both Stephen and Laurence. Much the same had happened to us in the other martyr-associated churches in Rome.

Thanks to the guidebooks we had carried with us to Rome, later in the day we realized that the place of Laurence’s actual death was just around the corner from the hospice where we were staying, on the Via Panisperna. After our last supper in Rome, we decided to walk along Via Panisperna to see if one of the several churches we had passed by time and again wasn’t built where Laurence died. The answer, of course, is that there is such a church. By the time we found it, it was closed, but we stood at the locked gate, looking across a stone-paved courtyard with the church on the far side. It didn’t seem important that we were unable to go inside. It was blessing enough to be where we stood.

It seemed a providential ending to a pilgrimage that made us far more aware of the truth, as Tertullian put it, that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

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For those inclined to do more reading, here are a few titles:

Ancient Churches of Rome: From the Fourth to the Seventh Century
by Hugo Bradenburg
Brepols Publishers, Turnhout, Belgium, 2004

This is an expensive but extraordinary (and magnificently illustrated) book that would be essential for anyone with a special interest in Rome’s oldest churches.

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The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church
by Margaret Visser
North Point Press, 2000

This is about the church of Saint Agnes Outside the Walls in Rome. We learned about this book from Patricia Burton, who writes: “Visser explores the meaning and symbolism of quite ordinary things, and presents it in an informative, un-stuffy way, thereby often awakening us to how much we take for granted or simply don’t see. In this case she walks through an ‘ordinary church’ and gives its meaning at each step.” Use the “look inside” features on the book’s Amazon page to read the book’s very engaging opening pages:

But you may well prefer to buy a used copy via Abebooks — $5 instead of $50.

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The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions
by Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai, Fabrizio Bisconti and Danilo Mazzoleni
Schnell & Steiner, Regensburg, Germany, second edition 2002

Probably this is the best study now available of the catacombs of Rome. It includes a great many well reproduced color photos plus many maps and drawings. The authors are members of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology.

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The Companion Guide to Rome
by Georgina Masson and John Fort
Companion Guides; Revised edition, 2007

Perhaps the best single guidebook to Rome. While not the book to choose for visual content, the text (more than 700 pages) is outstanding. Well worth taking to Rome despite its weight.

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Eyewitness Travel: Rome
published by Dorling Kinderly

This is an excellent, sturdily-made 450-page guide to Rome updated annually. It offers lots of photos, cross-sections and maps, short but useful entries on nearly all the places a visitor might wish to see plus details about how to get there and opening times, plus practical information about how to get around by bus, tram and metro, how to avoid being pickpocketed (but also what to do if it happens), how to find medical help if needed, etc., etc.

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The Wikipedia entry about the church is here:

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text written in June 2008, revised 16 January 2009

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“Dona Nobis Pacem” – Grant Us Peace

a talk by Jim Forest to be given on 24 May 2008 in Schoorl to the Iona Group, Netherlands

We use the word “peace” a great deal. Often the context is war. We live in Europe, a region that has endured more wars than anyone can count. Few Europeans have romantic ideas about war. Many of us have been part of endeavors initiated by various peace groups to either prevent war or hasten its end. Wars cause suffering, death and destruction on a huge scale. What kind of people would we be if we made no effort to encourage nonviolent ways of dealing with conflict between nations?

But peace work is not only about war and relations between nations. Peace is a way of life — not that we are always the peaceful people we wish to be, but that we choose peace as a basic direction in which we are attempting to move.

Peacemaking is in fact something quite ordinary. It has to do with daily life. Most of us are doing peace work without even thinking of it as peace work. In the context of daily life, the word “peace” sounds too grand, too ambitious.

But all of us are making frequent efforts to help peace happen — in our families, in our work places, in our neighborhoods, in the wider world. Anything we do that draws us closer to each other, that inspires forgiveness, or that brings about real dialogue is work for peace.

Peace is something we do all the time. A neighbor is sick and we shop for her. A tourist is trying to find his way and we stop and help. There is some trash on the street and we pick it up and put it in a garbage container. We turn off lights not being used and use less water rather than more and try not to waste anything. All these little things, hardly worth mentioning. But anything we do that brings us a little closer to each other is peace work — work that contributes, even if in very tiny ways, to the healing of the world.

Peace work is healing work. In fact, this is one way of defining peace. Peace work is what we do to repair damaged relationships — healing between ourselves and God, healing between one person and another, healing between divided communities and nations. Those who work for peace are in fact working for healing.

No doubt some of you are involved in work that has a healing dimension — health care, care of the aged, care of people with special needs, or helping people struggling with stress or depression.

Peacemaking is an ordinary part of family life — the daily struggle to bring husband and wife, parents and children, a little closer together, efforts to heal irritations and resentments. Domestic peacemaking is often very hard work and sometimes quite discouraging!

Perhaps it helps to recall that the peaceful results we seek are not entirely in our hands. The phrase “dona nobis pacem” — grant us peace — suggests that in fact we ourselves cannot make peace. It is something not made but given. The words “dona nobis pacem” are a short, urgent prayer.

This simple prayer serves to remind us that peacemaking requires a spiritual life, a life rooted in God’s Spirit. A spiritual life means to be living in the Spirit — God’s Holy Spirit.

It’s striking that people widely recognized as great peacemakers are almost always people with very deep religious roots — such people as Martin Luther King and Gandhi. The wisdom and inspiration they needed to give shape to their lives and work had much to do not only with ideas and theories, but, more importantly, with a profound faith that God, the giver of peace, is constantly ready to help us, yet will force nothing upon us. What God gives to us requires our cooperation and assent. We have to say and live our own “Yes” to God.

Somehow all of us here today find ourselves connected to Iona, an island in the Inner Hebrides that’s so small one can walk around its edge, even the hard parts, in a single day. A map has to have a great deal of detail for Iona even to be seen on it. Yet beginning in the sixth century, tiny Iona became of place of great importance in the history of Europe. A large part of the christianization of Europe was the achievement of the monks of Iona and their many daughter communities.

For centuries Iona was one of most important centers of evangelization and peacemaking. These two threads were, for them, one single cord.

St Columba and the twelve monks who traveled from Ireland in the year 563 made Iona their adopted home and then the base from which they reached out to others, traveling greater and greater distances as the years and then the generations passed. The Celtic monks traveled throughout the British Isles, to Scandinavia, to Holland, to Germany and France, to Italy, to eastern Europe and even to Russia. I happened to be the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Novgorod, a church a thousand years old, when archaeologists found an ancient Celtic standing cross under the floor of the church. It was through courage and holiness of those Celtic monks that countless people — many of them warriors and pirates who killed for treasure and adventure — decided to become Christians

Many stories about how the roles they played in preventing wars or ending them have come down to us. What they did is summed up in the legend of St Columba’s encounter with a great sea monster.

With several other monks, Columba was sailing in one of those lightweight little coracles used by the Celts when a dragon-like creature raised its head out of the sea, blocking their way. Columba’s response was to face to creature and make the sign of the cross. The sea dragon then peacefully submerged itself and the monks sailed on. Here is the way Adomnan describes it in his biography of Colima.

“[Columba] raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, ‘Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.’ Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to [their brother monk] Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.”

Of course it’s possible there actually was such an encounter — in Scotland, people are still on the lookout for the Loch Ness Monster, affectionately known as Nessie. Perhaps Nessie is down in the depths somewhere, occasionally raising her shy head above water but, thanks to her meeting with St Columba, no longer terrifying anyone.

But what is more likely is that the real “monster” Columba and his monks faced time and again was, on the one hand, their own fear, and on the other hand, the many actual dangers they had to face in meeting people who might kill them. The pacifying of the sea monster sums up in a simple, vivid image the pacifying both of ourselves and our potential adversaries. It also reminds us that our goal isn’t conquest or victory — the dragon isn’t killed or harmed — but conversion, the conversion of the adversary, the conversion of ourselves.

What the monks of Iona and their monastiuc descendents achieved would have been impossible without their faith. It was not the mild faith that we are used to in modern times, in which Jesus is seen as a rabbi who survived death only in the sense that his teachings lived on, but a faith centered in Christ’s actual resurrection, and the astonishing courage the fact of the resurrection gave them.

Courage was necessary, for they were very often risking their lives in standing either before or between adversaries. What they achieved was always linked to their resourceful efforts to spread the Gospel message, a message of God’s love and Christ’s peace, in a world whose cultures glorified war and those who fought in wars.

A question for us is what can we learn from St Columba and all those monks whose extraordinary efforts, near and far, made Iona — that remote pinprick on the map — into the greatest center of pilgrimage in the north of Europe? So many pilgrims came to Iona that it didn’t take long for it to become known as “the Jerusalem of the North.”

One of the realities that we see in Columba and those who lived a similar life is their great love not only for friends and fellow Christians, but even for their enemies. I don’t mean love in the emotional sense, but in its biblical sense. Love is not an emotional condition but how we actually relate to others. It is not a matter of feelings but of doing. Love is what we do to help others live. It is what we do to benefit their souls and bodies.

This is what so many of the stories of Columba and his monks is all about. To be a missionary, Columba understood, was to be someone communicating to others the astonishing fact that God is love, and that those who live in love live in God. To allow God’s love to pass through one’s life is to be in heaven, not in the future but here and now. Those who participate in God’s love are living in what Jesus calls the kingdom of God.

To be a missionary in this sense is more than bringing non-believing people to baptism and setting up a local church. It means being concerned about how those whom we meet are living and what problems they face. No one is just body and no one is just soul. We are all body and soul, and the one cannot be separated from the other. This is why you find Christ so concerned about hunger and illness. You cannot love anyone and not care about his or her well-being, both spiritual and physical. If such actions have the support of our feelings, fine. But what finally matters is what we do, not how sentimental we are.

“The word ‘love’ has been only a form of mouthwash for many Christians,” said George MacLeod, the man who inspired the rebuilding of Iona. “We need to learn to put it into practice.”

Or as Dostoevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov: “Love in practice is often a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

One of the most revealing of the stories that come down to us about Columba’s life concerns a sword. It was the custom of people who visited him not only to seek a blessing for themselves, but also for some item of personal property. One day, absent-mindedly, Columba blessed a sword that was put before him, only to realize immediately afterward that this was something that might well be used in battle. Swords, after all, are not for healing. Columba was horrified to realize he had accidentally blessed a deadly weapon. He thought for a moment and then gave the sword a second, more careful blessing, praying that the blade would remain sharp only so long as it was used for cutting bread and cheese, but would acquire a dull edge if ever used to harm any living thing.

This is a very different sort of story than the one about the sea dragon. I have no doubt it’s as true as a weather report. In Columba’s world people had swords and they used them not to decorate the house or for cutting meat in the kitchen but to kill men in battle.

I would love to know more of the story of that particular sword. Did the owners safeguard its use and retain both the sword’s special blessing and its everlasting sharp edge? Or was it stained with blood and its edge made dull? Let’s hope that it remains sharp and unstained by war to the present day.

It is helpful to recall that Columba’s coming to Iona in the first place was an act of penance for having been involved in war. As a penitent monk, he was determined to do all that he could to discourage bloodshed and in its place encourage all who came to him to devote themselves to living a peaceful life, a life of healing, a life that gives witness to Christ’s resurrection.

Columba of Iona and the monks who came after him didn’t succeed in all their goals. While they helped bring about the conversion of Europe, despite their saintly efforts they did not cure all their converts of enmity and war or create a Christianity with deep enough roots to retain unity even among Christians. But we are in their debt for all that they achieved and are free, if we choose, to carry on their work according to our possibilities.

Surely they knew and used the prayer, “Dona nobis pacem.” Let us use it often and from the heart, finding in it an invitation to participate more and more deeply in Christ’s peace so that we too can face dragons and use ours swords only for slicing bread and cheese.

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Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

Forest-Flier web site:
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site:

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Nancy and I have been keeping a journal that follows our recent kidney transplant. A blog has
been set up for this purpose — A Tale of Two Kidneys. See:
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Personal reflections regarding Dorothy Day

This is the text of the talk I gave on May 1, 2008, at the European Catholic Worker gathering in Dülmen, Germany.Frits ter Kuile, of the Amsterdam Catholic Worker house, asked if I would say something about my memories of Dorothy Day and also what I consider “the special charism of the Catholic Worker movement … its special gift to the world, its place in the Mystical Body.” He also wondered if I could identify any “constant undertones in the movement” or if I observe any “new tones or changes in the melody.” He also asked me, as someone who has been close to the Catholic Worker movement for nearly half-a-century, if I had noticed any shortcomings those who identify with the Catholic Worker might struggle with…

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Some personal reflections regarding Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement

by Jim Forest

A key element of the Catholic Worker movement’s charism has been a quality that Dorothy Day possessed in abundance — a gift to see not only what is wrong in the world, but to see beauty and to discern signs of hope. Dorothy loved a sentence from St. Augustine in which he said, “All beauty is a revelation of God.” She put it in another way to her atheist husband, Foster Batterham, “How can there be no God when there are all these beautiful things?” Read just about anything she wrote and you will see what I’m talking about. She was profoundly attentive to beauty and managed to find it in places where it was often overlooked — in nature, in a piece of bread, in the smell of garlic drifting out a tenement window, in flowers blooming in a slum neighborhood, in the battered faces of people who had been thrown away by society. Dorothy saw news of the resurrection in grass battling upward toward the sky between blocks of concrete. Dorothy often used the phrase “the duty of hope.” If we were to understand that theologically, it would mean always seeing everything in the light of the resurrection. To be conscious of beauty, even damaged beauty, is a hope-giving experience.

The absolute heart of the movement that Dorothy founded is an endeavor to give witness to the Gospel message, with a particular emphasis on the works of mercy, and to make better known basic Christian social teachings. In the first issue of the paper, Dorothy put it in these words: “The Catholic Worker … is printed to call [its readers’] attention to the fact that the Catholic Church has a social program — to let them know that there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare.”

From the very beginning, there was a stress on hospitality. It wasn’t long after the first issue of The Catholic Worker was published that the first Catholic Worker house of hospitality was opened, and they quickly multiplied in other cities. In every case, such houses were a practical response to local urgent needs. The stress was always on a non-bureaucratic, non-institutional hospitality. Dorothy saw houses of hospitality as being less than ideal but necessary because so few people were willing to welcome those in need into their own homes. Ideally, both she and Peter Maurin said repeatedly, every Christian home would have its “Christ Room,” a room to welcome someone in need.

Unlike many purely charitable endeavors to help the down-and-out, the Catholic Worker is also well known for acts of social protest. This aspect also dates back to the movement’s early days. Over the years protests have been linked to such issues as the abuse of working people, efforts to prevent workers from organizing unions, homelessness, racism, anti-Semitism, conscription and war. The protest aspect of the Catholic Worker is an outgrowth of commitment to the works of mercy. For example, if we are called by Christ to offer a welcome to the homeless, by implication that means taking appropriate action to try to prevent people from being made homeless, either by poverty or war.

The Catholic Worker movement is moored in the Gospel, the Patristic and Conciliar tradition, the writings of the Church Fathers (as the major theologians of the first millennium are known), the witness of the saints, the Church’s liturgical life, and the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church.

To the extent these basic elements are missing in a particular community, what Dorothy meant by the Catholic Worker movement is incomplete, damaged or exists in name only. Tom Cornell, a longtime managing editor of The Catholic Worker and one of the people who worked closely with Dorothy during the last twenty years of her life, told me recently that there are Catholic Worker houses today where Dorothy, if she were to speak her mind, wouldn’t feel welcome. This is not because she had any objection to non-Catholics or estranged Catholics, or even altogether non-religious people, being part of Catholic Worker communities. In the case of the New York house, there has been, for example, at least one Lutheran placed by Dorothy on the masthead of The Catholic Worker as an associate editor. But she expected all who came to help in the work to respect the Catholic tradition even if it was not their own.

Each community that identifies itself as being part of the Catholic Worker movement needs from time to time to ask itself: Are we in fact Catholic? Or have we embraced some form of post-Catholic or ex-Catholic thinking and thus owe it to ourselves and others to make this clear in whatever labels we use in describing our activities and beliefs? Perhaps in reality there are not quite so many Catholic Worker houses of hospitality as currently identify themselves as such. How many are actually Catholic in a sense Dorothy would understand, or indeed any ordinary person, I have no idea. Many, no doubt, but not all.

I am speaking to myself as much as to anyone else. In my own case, in fact I am no longer able to apply to myself the word “Catholic” — that is Catholic with a capital “C,” meaning someone in communion with the bishop of Rome. Twenty years ago, my wife and I were received into the Orthodox Church. We belong to a Russian Orthodox parish in Amsterdam. I am catholic, but only in the lower-case “c” sense of the word, that is part of the universal — but sadly divided — church. Nonetheless, I still feel a deep bond with the Catholic Worker movement and, for that matter, with the Catholic Church. I sometimes say I am in the Orthodox wing of the Catholic Worker movement.

As of today, it’s seventy-five years since the first issue of The Catholic Worker was handed out — the first of May, 1933, on Union Square in Manhattan. My father, a Communist who had earlier in his life had aspired to be a Catholic priest, was there on Union Square that day and was one of those who was handed free of charge a copy of this oddly named penny newspaper. It amazed him to meet Catholics with a radical social conscience!

Seventy-five years of the Catholic Worker — that’s a long time for something so haphazard and so minimally structured. During more than a third of these many years, it has happened without Dorothy’s physical presence. She died in 1980.

People used to wonder: Could the Catholic Worker survive without her? Many assumed the answer was no.

The day of Dorothy’s funeral, a journalist asked the question of Peggy Scherer, a member of the New York Catholic Worker community and at that time managing editor of the paper. Peggy responded, “We have lost Dorothy, but we still have the Gospel.”

“We still have the Gospel.” These are words Dorothy would have strongly agreed with. The Catholic Worker movement has never been about Dorothy Day — it is about following Christ. But one could learn a great deal about following Christ by knowing Dorothy Day.

I first met Dorothy in 1960 when, having found a stack of back issues of The Catholic Worker in a parish library in Washington, DC, I began coming to Manhattan to help out when I had free weekends. At the time I was in the military, working with a Navy unit at the US Weather Bureau headquarters just outside Washington, DC. In the spring of 1961, I left the Navy, having obtained a special discharge as a conscientious objector. At Dorothy’s invitation, I became part of the full-time Catholic Worker community.

I was a little intimidated by her at first. She was then not quite as old as I am now but seemed to me at the time older than Abraham and Sarah.

I had read enough by and about her to know that she was the founder of the Catholic Worker movement — the person who started the newspaper and decided what went in it, the person whose cramped apartment became the first Catholic Worker house of hospitality, the person who after all these years still led the Catholic Worker movement. What I only learned gradually was how modest she was, even shy. She never said anything about being founder. In fact she did her best to play down her role. Because of who she was and what she did, she was often in the spotlight, but she never sought it. She would have much preferred that Peter Maurin, whose ideas had helped her discovery her vocation, be regarded as the founder.

Public attention was something Dorothy had to endure but in which she took no delight. Any form of adulation distressed her. She felt that, if those who thought of her as a living saint knew her better, they wouldn’t be so quick to see a halo over her head. Though at the time it wasn’t clear to me what had been left out of her autobiography, I became aware she felt she had misled people by excluding aspects of her past about which she felt deep shame. The most painful event, I eventually learned, was the abortion of her first child when she was in her early twenties.

I recall how upset she was when I asked her if I might read her first book, The Eleventh Virgin. Somehow I had become aware that, before her conversion, she had written such a book. She didn’t have a copy, she told me, regretted that it had ever been written, appealed to me not to mention it again, and asked me not to look for a copy. It wasn’t until years later that a friend who dealt in rare books and was aware of my Catholic Worker background presented me with a copy of The Eleventh Virgin. Only when I read it could I at last understand why Dorothy had responded with such distress when I asked about the book. The end point of this highly autobiographical novel is her abortion, carried out in the desperate hope that the man she was in love with at the time, her unborn child’s unwilling father, would not leave her. He left her even so.

Yet the book she so hated nonetheless played a positive role in her life. “God writes straight with crooked lines,” as the Portuguese put it. When the book’s film rights were sold, Dorothy used some of the income to buy a beach cottage on Staten Island. While living there, part of time with Foster Batterham, she not only became pregnant a second time but this time gave birth. This truly seemed a miracle to her — she thought her abortion had made her sterile. It was the miracle of Tamar’s life that brought Dorothy into the Catholic Church. If you want to make a list of co-founders of the Catholic Worker movement, not only should it include Peter Maurin but also Tamar. While a great many things and people helped prepare Dorothy to launch the Catholic Worker, from her growing up in a family of journalists to the profound debt she owed to Dostoevsky’s novels, had Tamar not been born, I doubt we would ever have heard of Dorothy Day nor would the Catholic Worker movement exist.

It wasn’t only the knowledge that she had been responsible for the death of her first child, but so many other things that made her feel that the Dorothy Day so many people admired wasn’t the Dorothy Day she saw when she examined her conscience, which she did regularly and unflinchingly. She went to confession each week not simply because it was, at that time, a widespread Catholic practice, but because she always found that by the end of the week she had a lot to confess.

Confession was at the core of Dorothy’s life. On the first page of her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she writes about the hard work it is going to confession, “hard when you have sins to confess, hard when you haven’t … you wrack your brain for even the beginnings of sins against charity, chastity, sins of distraction, sloth or gluttony. You do not want to make too much of your constant imperfections and venial sins, but you want to drag them out to the light of day as the first step in getting rid of them.” Note that sins against charity are at the top of her list.

Confession was, for Dorothy, a means of overcoming the sense that one was fighting a losing battle. She once gave her co-worker Joe Zarrella a holy card on the back of which she had written: “We should not be discouraged at our own lapses … but continue. If we are discouraged, it shows vanity and pride. Trusting too much to ourselves. It takes a lifetime of endurance of patience, of learning through mistakes. We all are on the way.” Rosalie Riegle tells me that Joe carried the card in his wallet until his death two years ago.

No one knew her shortcomings better than Dorothy herself, as becomes clearer than ever in the publication this week of her journals. She was, she knew, often impatient, sometimes manipulative, could be judgmental, and at times (if sufficiently provoked) could lose her temper. Dorothy was painfully aware that there were those who came to live in community with her who looked back on the experience with more regret than gratitude, nor could she blame them. She also felt that, due to the demands of leading the Catholic Worker movement, she had at times failed at being the mother she so wanted to be. On the other hand, given the circumstances, it’s remarkable how good a mother Dorothy was, and later a devoted grandmother. In 1964 she took off four months to take care of her grandchildren in Vermont while Tamar was taking a course in practical nursing. This is the sort of thing one rarely hears about when people ask what sort of mother Dorothy was.

One of Dorothy’s gifts was that she was never reluctant to apologize when she felt she had been either wrong or too harsh. She could do so with a passion and without reservation. I am among those who received letters from Dorothy in which she begged forgiveness for something she had said or written or done which, on reflection, she deeply regretted. The last such letter I had from her along these lines was spattered with tears that had made the ink run. It had been written, she said, on her knees.

I doubt there has ever been an article written about Dorothy since she died that didn’t include what has become her best known quotation: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

There is a real bite in those few words. Mainly the text draws our attention to the problem that canonization has often functioned as a way of distancing ourselves from those who follow Christ too wholeheartedly. We feel less threatened if we can see such people as a race apart with hardly any connection to ordinary human beings. We like to think that saints are possessors of a rare sort of DNA that the rest of us, rank-and-file human beings that we are, didn’t happen to receive.

But, if you focus just on the first five words, “don’t call me a saint,” bear in mind that Dorothy had intensely felt private reasons for regarding herself as totally unworthy of having an exalted place in the memory of the Church.

Even so, she strongly believed sanctity is what each of us is called to. In 1968, when Tom Cornell and I were editing the first edition of A Penny a Copy, an anthology of Catholic Worker writings, we read through 35 years of back issues, roughly 400 in all. The front page that most impressed me had a banner headline — the kind of ultra-bold, all-caps headline that in a conventional newspaper would be used only for the assassination of a president or the outbreak of war — that declared “WE ARE ALL CALLED TO BE SAINTS.”

The headline sums up something Dorothy regarded as absolutely basic. Why else would anyone receive communion? Why receive Christ unless you hope to become more Christ-like? Why call yourself a Christian if you have no interest in trying to live the Gospel?

Yet Dorothy also knew that the word “saint” is a damaged word. Many saints had been stripped of a large part of their humanity by well-meaning hagiographers who were more creative writers than historians. They felt it was their religious duty to fictionalize the lives of their subjects, adding edifying tales while removing any mention of sins the saint had to repent of or temperamental characteristics he or she had to fight against day by day. For the most pious of motives, saints have been made into a remote race of people who are far less subject to temptations than Jesus was, people able to perform miracles that make the miracles in the Gospels look like minor achievements. The saint is often thought of as someone who never knew a moment of doubt and never committed a sin from infancy to the grave.

If some day Dorothy is added to the church’s calendar, one benefit is that we will have a saint whose sins and shortcomings will be hard to airbrush out. She will be a saint who really bears witness to the possibility of flawed people with pasts that embarrass them nonetheless never giving up in their efforts to stumble along in the general direction of the kingdom of God.

When I became part of the New York Catholic Worker community, there was only one house in Manhattan, St. Joseph’s, a not at all spacious three-storey building located at175 Chrystie Street. Only one person actually lived there, a guy named Keith — a recluse who had a room in the back of the third floor — whom we rarely saw and then only briefly. The rest of us, Dorothy as well, lived in small $25 a month cold-water flats located in the neighborhood. By chance, Dorothy’s room was next to mine. We were on the sixth floor of in a run-down tenement on Spring Street. Each floor had four apartments, the occupants of which shared a toilet located in the hallway.

I doubt anyone at St. Joseph’s House in those days thought of Dorothy as a saint, though no doubt most of the staff greatly admired her. There were some in the community, myself among them, whose lives had taken a different direction partly thanks to her writings and the influence of the Catholic Worker newspaper, but she was much too real and unpredictable to think of as anything but the formidable woman she was.

I said “community,” but it would not be accurate to portray the Catholic Worker community in New York as very communal. In fact at that time we were a deeply divided group. We had no community meetings. When a decision had to be made, it was made either by the particular person or persons responsible for a certain chore, or by Charles Butterworth, who in those days could sign checks, or, if necessary, by Dorothy herself.

Part of the problem was that Dorothy wasn’t around all the time — far from it. While we saw a good deal of her, Dorothy’s presence in Manhattan was more the exception than the rule. She spent a great deal of time on Staten Island. Sometimes it was at her beach cottage — the place where she did most of her writing — and sometimes it was at the Catholic Worker farm several miles further south, in those days as rural a place as still existed in New York City. She also traveled a great deal, visiting other Catholic Worker communities that lay scattered between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And there were her many trips to Vermont, some of them prolonged, to be with Tamar and her nine grandchildren. I doubt anything mattered more to Dorothy than being a help to Tamar and a presence in the lives of her grandchildren.

In Dorothy’s absence, there was really no one in the community who came close to filling her shoes.

Perhaps it is partly because Dorothy was so often away that there was so much stress in the staff. The main thing that held us together was the work we were doing. Each of us volunteers had our chores — to beg or buy food, to cook meals and serve them, to wash dishes, to clean, to sort and distribute clothing, to help in one way or another those who were either part of what we called “the family” — referring to the people who had arrived years before for a bowl of soup and never left — or those who came in for meals but whom we hardly knew or people in the neighborhood whose particular needs somehow had become evident to us. There was also the work of helping in various ways to get the paper out, which in those days was published eleven times a year. It had to be edited, printed and mailed to about 80,000 addresses.

But our interests, our motivations, our temperaments, our cultural inclinations, our theologies or ideologies, our attitudes toward Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular, pulled us in different directions. Not everyone liked everyone. It really astonished me how much tension, at times hostility, there was in the community.

One of the ways the community expressed its disputes was by posting paragraphs from Dorothy’s Catholic Worker columns on the community bulletin board. I wish I had made notes at that time of specific passages that were used — it would be interesting to look at them again. One that stands out in memory was a clipping from an “On Pilgrimage” column in which Dorothy urged her readers to be ready to roll up in newspapers and sleep on the floor in order that a homeless person would have a bed to sleep in. A day or two later someone else posted a rejoinder, another extract from a different “On Pilgrimage” column, this time one in which Dorothy talked about how essential it is that we accept our human limitations and not stretch ourselves to the breaking point.

The contrasting quotations from Dorothy Day were many. A lot of tacks were needed. She wrote a great deal and on many topics. Her views weren’t always consistent. Her month-to-month comments often had to do with thoughts that crossed her mind while visiting one of the many Catholic Worker communities. If you searched her columns long enough, chances are you could find Dorothy saying something that suited your side of whatever argument was going on at the time at the New York house. It was a battle in which quotations from Dorothy Day were hurled back and forth like stones from a slingshot.

Soon enough the actual Dorothy Day would reappear and attempt to sort out areas of contention — such issues as how to use the occasional donation of eggs or butter. Do such treats go to the last person in line or first? The regulars? Or the staff? You would be amazed at the theological and ideological aspects of the question.

When I look back on how heated such disputes were, I’m impressed with Dorothy’s common sense, kindness and patience in trying to get us back in gear with one another.

Most of the time, she had a remarkable gift for appreciating the people, mainly young and contentious, who came to help out and only occasionally lost her temper. Eventually two members of the staff in that period left, trailing smoke, because they found the actual Dorothy Day wasn’t quite the Dorothy Day that they wanted her to be. A few others were expelled because, as Dorothy saw it, they were simply using the Catholic Worker selfishly, for their own counter-cultural ends, and putting the Catholic Worker at risk in doing so.

The early sixties was one of the notably stressful times in the history of the Catholic Worker movement, at least in the case of the New York house. How Dorothy survived such stormy periods I cannot tell you. I didn’t. Though I remained close to Dorothy for the rest of her life and still regard her as one of my non-genetic parents, finally I was too worn out by all the tension to continue. When I was poised to get arrested for participating in an act of civil disobedience protesting nuclear weapon tests, Dorothy insisted that instead I go south to Tennessee and write about a project she admired. I said that, having been one of the organizers of the protest in Manhattan, I couldn’t back out and could only go to Tennessee afterward. Dorothy — who that day had good reason to be in a truly volcanic state — said, “Either go to Tennessee or you are no longer part of this community.” Had it not been such a stressful day, I later realized, she would have been much more open to discussion. But at the time, I felt I had no option but to leave.

Only as I got older, having gone through the teen-age years of my own children, did I realize that had I gone back to Chrystie Street once I got out of jail — I spent about a month locked up on Hart’s Island — no one would have been happier to see me than Dorothy. But I was too young to realize the about-faces Dorothy could make after a good night’s sleep or a Saturday night confession. It took me perhaps a year to renew my relationship with Dorothy.

Dorothy died nearly thirty years ago, but I notice the battle fought with contrasting Dorothy Day quotations is still far from over, only now it involves not just one Catholic Worker house but many of them. Inevitably, each of us finds ourselves attached to certain aspects of Dorothy Day and, just as inevitably, there is the temptation to fit all of her into those characteristics of Dorothy that we personally find most compelling.

Are you drawn to Dorothy’s piety? Do you wish more people in the Catholic Worker were better Catholics? Or that they were at least in some state of approximate harmony with the Catholic Church and its teachings? There are lots of quotations from Dorothy Day you can hang on the wall that will meet your need. Not only did she attend Mass every day, but she found time each day for intercessory prayer, which she preferred to do on her knees in a church or chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. She kept long lists of people, living and dead, for whom she prayed daily. If you asked her to pray for you, or for anyone, she did so. She was as devout a Catholic as I have ever known, and one of most appreciative about being part of the Catholic Church. Yet she also appreciated non-Catholic Christians, not to mention non-Christians. She had an especially deep respect for the Orthodox Church. Committed Catholic that she was, Dorothy would be dismayed, saddened and even angered at some of the writings found in publications issuing from various Catholic Worker communities, but she wasn’t inclined to self-righteousness and, however heatedly she might express herself at times, would seek dialogue. In such moments, she might well use a quotation from Pope John XXIII that was dear to her: “Let dialogue begin by seeking concordances, not differences.” Unless a person was in some sort of leadership role in which he or she was seen as representing the Catholic Worker or some other Catholic movement, I don’t recall her ever criticizing anyone for failures in their religious life. She prayed the rosary every day, but she didn’t insist that others do the same.

If Dorothy pressed no one to follow the example she gave, nonetheless she encouraged volunteers to move toward the deeper waters of religious faith. In my own case, this was made especially clear in the ways she expressed to me her extraordinary respect for the Orthodox Church. She once brought me with her to a meeting of a small discussion group called the Third Hour to which she belonged. It had been started by her friend Helene Iswolsky, daughter of the last ambassador of czarist Russia to France. The group brought together both Catholic and Orthodox Christians plus at least one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden, to talk about the many threads of connection linking eastern and western Christianity. She took me with her one day to an eastern-rite Slavonic liturgy and sometime later to the Russian Orthodox cathedral in upper Manhattan, where I met a priest whom I came to know better in Moscow many years later. It impressed me that when Dorothy spoke of things Russian, she would invariably use the phrase, “holy mother Russia” — the Russia of churches, chant, long liturgies, holy fools, great saints and gifted writers. Dorothy was always recommending books that had been important in her life, but the writer she was most intent I should discover was Dostoevsky. She described his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, as “a fifth gospel.” It was a great joy to Dorothy when, late in her life, she managed to go on pilgrimage to Russia and pray at the grave of Dostoevsky, who might be considered yet another co-founder of the Catholic Worker, so great was the impact of his writing on Dorothy in the years leading up to her conversion.

Are you alienated from the Catholic Church or from Christianity in general? You will certainly find passages in Dorothy’s writings that you can identify with, as when she speaks of some of the bishops and priests that were caught in Peter’s net as resembling sharks and blowfish. She did not refrain from expressing, in word and print, her many bitter disappointments in some of the declarations and actions of popes, bishops, priests and other fellow Catholics, not to mention Christians in other churches. She often repeated a quotation about the Church being “the Cross on which Christ was crucified.” It scandalized her that so many Christians, including a great many pastors, had made themselves so comfortably at home in a world of violence and injustice, a world of so many abandoned, broken people. Among photos of Dorothy, you will find one of her picketing with the grave diggers of the Archdiocese of New York when they went out on strike.

Only don’t forget her devotion to the Church and the intense sacramental life she lived, her theological orthodoxy, and her mainly successful efforts to build positive relations with Cardinal Spellman and many other politically conservative bishops. In the brief period when I was the paper’s managing editor, Dorothy once reminded me, “Just keep in mind that we don’t save the Church — the Church saves us.” Like Peter Maurin, her main idea about reforming the Church was simply to set an example.

She said much the same to Robert Coles, as he records in a book based on their conversations: “I didn’t become a Catholic in order to purify the church,” Dorothy told him. “I knew someone, years ago, who kept telling me that if [the Catholic Workers] could purify the church, then she would convert [to Catholicism]. I thought she was teasing me when she first said that, but after a while I realized she meant what she was saying. Finally, I told her I wasn’t trying to reform the church or take sides on all the issues the church was involved in; I was trying to be a loyal servant of the church Jesus had founded. She thought I was being facetious. She reminded me that I had been critical of capitalism and America, so why not Catholicism and Rome? … My answer was that I had no reason to criticize Catholicism as a religion or Rome as the place where the Vatican is located …. As for Catholics all over the world, including members of the church hierarchy, they are no better than lots of their worst critics, and maybe some of us Catholics are worse than our worst critics.”

Do you like thinking of yourself as an anarchist? There is a lot in Dorothy to cheer you along as she consistently called herself an anarchist. The word had Greek roots, she explained to me one day. An anarchist was a person without a king. She told me that having Jesus Christ as one’s king was enough of a challenge, and that his kingdom was not of this world. She was not very interested in politics. I don’t recall her ever expressing strong views either on would-be presidents or presidents-in-office — John Kennedy at the time. Trying to better understand what Dorothy meant by anarchism, I got a subscription to a British journal called “Anarchy.” When I showed an issue to Dorothy, she warned me that reading such publications was a waste of time because most people who called themselves anarchists were atheists and also tended to be people who preferred publishing manifestoes and arguing with each other to helping people in need. The only anarchist writings she urged me to read were several books by a nineteenth century Russian prince and scientist, Peter Kropotkin, a remarkable man who had been outraged by the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest (an idea Ebenezer-Scrooge-type capitalists found hugely attractive). Kropotkin posed against the pseudo-scientific enshrinement of competition his own insights and observations about cooperation and mutual aid, arguing persuasively that human beings do best when they help each other, not when they treat each other as commodities or ladders.

Are you especially drawn to the Dorothy Day who committed acts of civil disobedience and went to prison time and again? Many are. It’s easy to find good quotations from Dorothy on this topic. She wrote a great deal about her acts of civil disobedience and what she learned and whom she met during times when she was locked up. But for those — I was one of them — whom she felt were inclined to put too much time into social protest activities, she struggled to convince us that, important as protest can be, the main thing about Christianity, and an essential dimension of sacramental life, is the daily practice of the works of mercy. The main thing is hospitality. Even protest actions should have a dimension of hospitality. They should be rooted in hospitality toward one’s opponents rather than the contempt for them. Protest is scarred when it is fueled by contempt or enmity. Dorothy expressed her own dissent with some of the forms of protest that emerged in the late sixties. She opposed acts of property destruction. She wrote of her disagreements in The Catholic Worker, yet characteristically did so without denouncing anyone whose actions seemed to her to fall short of what she regarded as “real nonviolence,” by which she meant actions whose driving force was the hope of opening the door of conversion both to oneself and to one’s opponent. Her disagreements with the Berrigans, myself and others, however, did not damage her friendship with any of us. She wrote to us regularly when we were in prison, no doubt prayed for us daily, and welcomed us back when we were free again.

To bring this to an end: Dorothy Day doesn’t fit into any collection of quotations by Dorothy Day. The actual Dorothy Day was far too complex to fit into anyone’s portrait of her. No matter who you are, probably you will find something in her that you can identify with, and — given time — perhaps discover other aspects of her that will help you become a more complete human being — more welcoming, more patient, more forgiving, more Christ-like. And she will do this despite all the personal faults she struggled with every day of her life. In fact her faults may even serve as a bridge. If Dorothy Day can do what she did, perhaps I can as well.

Let me end with a quotation that connects with what I said at the start. Brian Terrell, at the time a member of the Catholic Worker community in Manhattan, recalls a journalist asking Dorothy if she thought the Catholic Worker movement would survive her. “Why shouldn’t it?” Dorothy responded. “It has already survived more than forty years of me!”

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Jim Forest is the author of Love is the Measure, a biography of Dorothy Day published by Orbis Books.
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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

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Schuldbelijdenis: Een Sacrement, Dat Heelt

This is a Dutch translation of a booklet I wrote several years ago for Conciliar Press.

Door: Jim Forest

Vertaald door Enja. M.J.S. Katsoulis-Jansen

Een jonge monnik zei tegen de grote Abba Sisoes: “ Vader wat moet ik doen? Ik ben gevallen.” De oudere zei: “ Sta op!” “Ik ben opgestaan, en toen ben in weer gevallen”, zei de jonge monnik. De oudere antwoordde “ Sta weer op!” Toen vroeg de jonge monnik: “ Voor hoelang moet ik opstaan als ik gevallen ben?” “ Tot je dood aantoe!” antwoorde Abba Sisoes. (Gezegden van de Woestijnvaders)

“Toen ik naar mijn eerste biecht ging,” vertelde een vriend tegen me, “ kwamen de tranen in plaats van de zonden, die ik van plan was op te biechten. De priester zei, dat het niet nodig was om alles uit te spinnen en dat het alleen maar ijdelheid is om te denken, dat onze eigen zonden erger zijn, dan die van de anderen. Iets wat trouwens een opluchting voor me was, omdat het me niet mogelijk was om alle zonden van mijn dertigjarige leven te herinneren. Het deed me denken aan de manier waarop de vader zijn verloren zoon ontving – hij liet zijn zoon niet eens zijn nauwkeurig voorbereide speech uitspreken. Het is werkelijk verwonderlijk.”

Een andere vriend vertelde me, dat hij zo zenuwachtig was over alles wat hij te belijden had, dat hij besloot om het op te schrijven. “ Dus maakte ik een lijst van mijn zonden en nam die mee. De priester zag het papier in mijn hand, nam het me af, keek het in, verscheurde het en gaf het aan me terug. Toen zei hij:”Kniel neer.” En hij vergaf me. Dat was mijn schuldbelijdenis, mijn biecht, hoewel ik geen enkel woord gezegd had! Maar ik voelde toch, dat mijn zonden verscheurd waren en ik vrij van ze was.”

Alleen al het woord “biecht” maakt ons zenuwachtig, omdat het alles wat diep in onszelf is, onthult. Hebben we vrienden bedrogen, mensen verraden, verbroken beloften, geloof verloochend – dit en nog veel meer kleinere daden, die het begin van zonden zijn.

Biecht is pijnlijk, toch is een Christelijk leven zonder schuldbelijdenis, zonder biecht, onmogelijk

Biechten is een belangrijk punt in het Evangelie. Zelfs vóór Christus Zijn werk hier op aarde begon, lezen we in het Evangelie van Matthéüs, dat Johannes de Doper, van degenen, die naar de rivier de Jordaan kwamen om gedoopt te worden voor een symbolisch afwassen van hun zonden, verlangde eerst hun zonden te belijden. ” En ze werden gedoopt, nadat ze hun zonden beleden hadden.” (Matt. 3:6.)

Dan zijn er ook de verbazingwekkende woorden van Christus tegen Petrus:” Ik zal u de sleutels geven van het Koninkrijk der Hemelen, en wat gij op aarde binden zult, zal gebonden zijn in de hemelen, en wat gij op aarde ontbinden zult, zal ontbonden zijn in de hemelen.” (Matth. 16:19).

De sleutels, die binden en ontbinden kunnen, werden niet aan een apostel gegeven, maar aan alle discipelen van Christus, en – op een sacrementele manier – aan alle priesters, die de zegen van de bisschop hebben om de biecht af te nemen.

De Evangelieschrijver Johannes waarschuuwt ons ervoor om onszelf geen rad voor de ogen te draaien: “ Indien wij zeggen, dat wij geen zonden hebben, misleiden wij onszelf en de waarheid is in ons niet. Indien wij onze zonden belijden, Hij is getrouw en rechtvaardig, om ons de zonden te vergeven en ons te reinigen van alle ongerechtigheid.” ( 1 Joh.1:8 en 9).

Het sacrement van de Doop, de intreding in de Kerk, is altijd verbonden geweest met berouw.

” Bekeert u en een ieder van u late zich dopen op de naam van Christus, tot vergeving van uw zonden en gij zult de gave des Heiligen Geestes ontvangen ” ( Hand. 2:38). In hetzelfde boek lezen we in Hand. 19:18 : “ en velen van hen die gelovig geworden waren, kwamen hun schuld belijden en uitspreken wat zij bedreven hadden.”


Een geschiedenis uit het Evangelie waarin we schuldbelijdenis tegenkomen, is de gelijkenis van de verloren zoon. (Lucas 15 :11-32). Hier beschrijft Christus een jongeman, die zo ongeduldig is om aan zijn erfenis te komen en onafhankelijk te zijn, dat hij in feite tegen zijn vader zegt: “Voor mij ben je eigenlijk al dood. Geef me nu maar wat ik na je begrafenis zou krijgen. Ik wil niets meer met jou en met dit huis te maken hebben.”

Met een vrijgevigheid als van God, geeft de vader alles wat zijn zoon vraagt, hoewel hij zijn zoon goed genoeg kent om te weten dat alles wat de jongen krijgt netzogoed in de kachel verbrand kan worden. De jongen neemt zijn erfenis en verlaat het huis, eindelijk vrij van zijn ouders, vrij van moraal en goed gedrag, vrij om te doen en te laten wat hij wil.

Nadat hij zijn geld verspild heeft, vindt hij zich terug, vernederd tot boerenknecht, die de varkens moet voederen. Mensen, van wie hij altijd gedacht had, dat het zijn vrienden waren, bespotten hem. Hij weet dat hij het recht om iemands zoon te zijn verspeeld heeft, toch durft hij in zijn wanhoop te hopen, dat zijn vader hem tenminste zal toestaan als een knecht terug te keren. Vol van afkeer van wat hij tegen zijn vader gezegd heeft en van wat hij met zijn erfenis gedaan heeft, gaat hij op weg naar huis in zijn vodden, klaar om zijn zonden te biechten en om werk te smeken en een hoekje om te slapen. De zoon kan zich niet voorstellen hoe lief zijn vader hem heeft of dat ondanks de moeilijkheden, die hij gemaakt had, hij toch vreselijk gemist werd.

De vader was helemaal niet blij dat hij van de jongen af was. Dag na dag stond hij biddend op de uitkijk, in de hoop op de terugkomst van zijn zoon.

“ En toen hij nog veraf was, zag zijn vader hem en werd met ontferming bewogen. En hij liep hem tegemoet, viel hem om de hals en kuste hem.”( v.20). Als hij niet op de uitkijk had gestaan, zou hij zijn kind in de verte niet ontdekt hebben en begrepen wie het was, die daar aankwam. In plaats van rustig te staan wachten had, tot zijn zoon de deur bereikt had, rende hij hem tegemoet, omhelsde hem en stortte een vloed van blijde en verwelkomende woorden uit, geen verwijten en bestraffingen.

“ En de zoon zeide tot hem: Vader ik heb gezondigd tegen de hemel en voor u, ik ben niet meer waard om uw zoon te zijn,” (v.20). Hier is de schuldbelijdenis van de zoon uitgedrukt in een enkele zin. Het is de zuivere inhoud van iedere schuldbelijdenis: de terugkeer naar onze Vader, die ons gemaakt heeft en voortdurend op onze thuiskomst wacht.


Er bestaan ontelbare artikelen en boeken die gaan over menselijke mislukkingen onder verschillende benamingen, zonder dar er ook maar één keer het woord zonde genoemd wordt. Handelingen, die traditioneel als zondig beschouwd werden, worden tegenwoordig gezien als natuurlijke perioden, die bij het opgroeiingsproces horen; een resultaat van slechte opvoeding, de gevolgen van een mentale ziekte, een onontkoombare reactie op sociale voorwaarden of ziekelijk gedrag, veroorzaakt door de een of andere verslaving.

Maar wat is er aan de hand als ik meer zou zijn dan een robot, die geprogrammeerd is door mijn verleden of mijn omgeving of door mijn financieële toestand, stel je voor dat ik een bepaalde verantwoording – of schuld –zou hebben voor mijn doen en laten? Heb ik geen dingen gedaan waarvoor ik me diep schaam, die ik nooit meer zou doen als ik terug kon gaan in de tijd en waarvan ik zou wensen, dat niemand er ooit achter zou komen? Wat maakt me zo afkerig om deze daden “zonden“ te noemen? Is dat woord werkelijk verouderd? Of is het een probleem dat het te direct en te snijdend is?

Het hebreeuwse werkwoord chata, “zondigen”, net als het griekse woord amartia, betekent gewoon: van de weg af raken, verdwalen, het doel missen. Zonde – uit de koers raken – kan opzettelijk zijn of onopzettelijk.

De schrijver van het bijbelboek Spreuken noemt zeven dingen, die God haat: Een trotse blik/ Een liegende tong/ Handen, die onschuldig bloed vergieten/ Een hart, dat gemene plannen smeedt / Voeten, die vlug naar de slechtheid rennen / Een valse getuige, die liegt / Iemand, die onenigheid tussen broeders zaait. (Spr. 6:17-19).

Trots staat op de eerste plaats. “Hovaardij (trots) gaat vooraf aan het verderf, en hoogmoed komt voor den val.”(Spr.16:19). In de hof van Eden probeert satan trots op te wekken in zijn gesprek met Eva. Eet van de verboden vrucht en “ gij zult als God zijn “ (Gen.3:5).

Het verlangen om anderen vooruit te zijn, meer gewaardeerd te worden dan anderen, hoger beloond te worden dan anderen, in staat te zijn anderen voor je te laten sidderen, de onbekwaamheid om je fouten toe te geven of om excuus te vragen – dit zijn de symptomen van trots. Hoogmoed maakt de weg vrij voor ontelbaar meer zonden, bedrog, leugens, dieverij, geweld, en al die andere daden, die de gemeenschap met God en degenen om ons heen verbreken.

Toch verbrengen we een groot deel van ons leven ermee om onszelf ervan te overtuigen, dat het toch niet zo erg was wat we gedaan hebben en dat het zelfs als goed beschouwd kan worden, gezien de omstandigheden. Zelfs tijdens de biecht leggen veel mensen uit wat ze gedaan hebben, inplaats van gewoon toe te geven, dat ze dingen gedaan hebben, die vragen om vergeving. “ Toen ik pas geleden ongeveer vijftig mensen de biecht afnam in een normale Orthodoxe gemeete in Pennsylvania, “ schreef vader Alexander Schmemann, “ was er niet één bij, die toegaf, dat hij ook maar één zonde bedreven had!”

“ We zijn in staat om heel wat gemene dingen in ons leven te doen,” merkt de verhalenschrijver Garrison Keillor uit Minnesota op, “ niet al deze dingen zijn het gevolg van slechte communicatie. Sommige zijn het gevolg van slechtheid. Mensen doen slechte, vreselijke dingen. Ze liegen en bedriegen en beduvelen de regering. Zij vergiftigen de wereld om ons heen. En als ze gepakt worden tonen ze geen enkele spijt – zij gaan in therapie. Zij hadden een voedingsprobleem of zoiets. Zij leggen uit wat ze gedaan hebben – en zij voelen zich er helemaal niet slecht bij. Hen treft geen schuld. Het is psychologisch.”

Voor de mens, die een erge zonde heeft begaan, bestaan er twee vitale tekens – de hoop, dat niemand erachter komt, en een knagend gevoel van schuld. Dit is tenminste het geval voordat het geweten volledig ongevoelig wordt – dat gebeurt als het patroon van de zonde zodanig een levensaard wordt, dat de hel, in plaats van een mogelijke hiernamaalservaring, de plaats is, waarin men zich in dit leven bevindt.

Het is een frappant feit in de menselijke opbouw, dat we willen, dat sommige daden geheim blijven, niet wegens bescheidenheid, maar wegens een onbetwist gevoel een wet, te hebben overtreden, die grondzettelijker is dan welke wet in een wetboek ook – de wet, “die in ons hart gegrift staat.”, waar Paulus op wijst in Rom.2:15. Het is niet alleen maar, omdat we bang zijn voor straf. Het komt, omdat we niet door anderen als een mens, die zulke dingen doet, willen worden gezien. Eén van de belangrijkste obstakels om te biechten is de ontzetting dat iemand te weten zal komen, wat eigenlijk niemand weten moest.

Eén van de eigenaardigste dingen van de tijd waarin wij leven is, dat we een schuldgevoel aangepraat krijgen over het zich schuldig voelen. In ons huis hangt een striptekening waarop de ene gevangene tegen de andere zegt: “ Onthoud nou goed – het is in orde om schuldig te zijn, maar het is verkeerd om je schuldig te voelen.”

Een schuldgevoel – de pijnlijke gewaarwording van een zonde begaan te hebben – kan levensvernieuwend werken. Schuld geeft reden voor berouw, wat op zijn beurt kan leiden tot schuldbelijdenis en bekering. Zonder schuld bestaat er geen zelfverwijt en zonder zelfverwijt bestaat er geen mogelijkheid tot bevrijding van zonde.

Toch bestaan er vormen van schuld, die doodlopende wegen zijn. Als ik me schuldig voel, dat ik het niet voor elkaar gekregen heb om de ideale persoon te worden, die ik af en toe wil zijn, of waarvan ik denk, dat anderen willen dat ik ben, is dat schuld zonder goddelijk aanknopingspunt. Dat is gewoon een geirriteerd ik, denkend over een geirriteerd ik. Chistendom draait niet om een voorstelling, om wetten, om principes of het bereiken van onberispelijk gedrag, maar om Christus Zelf en om deelneming aan Gods herscheppende liefde.

Als Christus zegt: “ Gij dan zult volmaakt zijn, gelijk uw hemelse Vader volmaakt is.” (Matth.5:48), spreekt Hij niet over het behalen van een volmaakte uitkomst bij een test, maar over het volledig worden, een staat van gemeenschap (communicatie) met God, van een volledig meedelen in Gods liefde.

Deze toestand van wordt aangegeven op de ikoon van de Heilige Drieëenheid van de H.Andrej Rublev : deze drie op engelen gelijkende figuren, die rustig bijelkaar zitten rond een avondmaalsbeker op een klein altaar. Zij symboliseren de Heilige Drieëenheid: de gemeenschap, die bestaat binnen God – geen gesloten gemeenschap, die alleen tot henzelf beperkt is, maar een open gemeenschap van liefde, waarin we niet alleen maar uitgenodigd worden, maar verwacht worden om eraan deel te nemen.

We voelen een gezegende schuld als we ons realiseren, dat we onszelf afgesneden hebben van deze goddelijke gemeenschap, die de gehele schepping omstraalt. Het is onmogelijk om in een heelal zonder God te leven, maar het is gemakkelijk om Gods aanwezigheid niet te beseffen of er zelfs kwaad over te zijn.

Het is een algemene misleidende mening, dat iemands zonde privé zijn of slechts maar op een paar mensen betrekking hebben. Te denken, dat onze zonden, hoe verborgen ook, geen uitwerking op anderen hebben, is hetzelfde als denken, dat een in het water geworpen steen geen ribbels veroorzaakt. Zoals Bisschop Kallistos Ware opmerkt: “ Er bestaan geen volkomen privé zonden. Alle zonden worden zowel tegen mijn naaste begaan, als tegen God en mijzelf. Zelfs mijn meest geheime gedachten maken het in feite moeilijker voor degenen om mij heen om Christus te volgen.”

In plaats van verborgen te zijn, is iedere zonde een nieuwe barst in de wereld.

Eén van de meest gebruikte Orthodoxe gebeden is het Jezusgebed, slechts één zin: “ Here Jezus Christus, Zoon van God, ontferm U over mij een zondaar!” Hoe kort het ook is, worden er toch veel mensen, die zich ertoe aangetrokken voelen, afgeschrikt door de laatste twee woorden. Aan degenen, die het gebed onderwijzen, wordt vaak gevraagd:” Maar moet ik mijzelf een zondaar noemen?” In feite is het einde va dit gebed helemaal niet belangrijk – het enige onontbeerlijke woord is “Jezus” – maar mijn moeilijkheid met het identificeren van mijzelf als zondaar onthult veel. Wat houdt me tegen om over mijzelf in zulke simpele woorden te spreken? Breng ik het er niet goed af om de aanwezigheid van Christus in mijn leven te verbergen in plaats van te tonen? Ben ik geen zondaar? Om dit toe te geven is een startpunt.

Op de zonde zijn twee antwoorden mogelijk: rechtvaardigen of berouw tonen. Er bestaat geen middenweg.

Rechtvaardigen kan met de mond zijn, maar daadwerkelijk neemt het de vorm van herhaling aan: ik doe hetzelfde steeds weer om aan mijzelf en aan anderen te laten zien, dat het toch eigenlijk geen zonde is, maar iets normaals of menselijks of nodig of zelfs goed. “ Bega twee keer een zonde en het lijkt geen misdaad meer,” zegt een Joods spreekwoord.

Aan de andere kant is berouw de erkenning, dat ik niet zo kan leven als ik gedaan heb, omdat ik op die manier een muur bouw tussen mijzelf en God en de anderen. Berouw is verandering van koers. Berouw is de deur naar de gemeenschap. Het is ook een voorwaarde tot vergeving. Vergeving is onmogelijk waar geen berouw is.

De H. Johannes Chrysostomos zei zestien eeuwen geleden in Antiochië:

Berouw opent de hemelen, brengt ons in het Paradijs, overwint de duivel. Heb je gezondigd? Wanhoop niet! Als je elke dag zondigt, heb elke dag berouw! Als er kapotte gedeeltes zijn in oude huizen, vervangen we ze met nieuwe en we houden niet op met de zorg voor de huizen. Op dezelfde manier moet je over jezelf denken: Als je vandaag je leven bezoedeld hebt met zonden, reinig je dan onmiddelllijk door berouw.


Het is onmogelijk om zich een gezond huwelijk of een sterke vriendschap voor te stellen zonder schuldbelijdenis en vergeving. Als we iets gedaan hebben, dat een relatie schade toebrengt, is schuldbelijden wezenlijk voor het herstel. Ter wille van die band, belijden we wat we gedaan hebben, we verontschuldigen ons, we beloven om het niet meer te doen; en dan doen we alles wat in onze macht is om onze belofte te houden.

In het verband van het godsdienstig leven, is de schuldbelijdenis, de biecht, een voorzorg en een vernieuwing van onze relatie met God, wanneer die schade heeft opgelopen. Biechten herstelt onze gemeenschap met God en met elkaar.

Het is nooit gemakkelijk om iets waar we spijt van hebben en waar we ons over schamen toe te geven. Ook niet om iets, wat we geprobeerd hebben geheim te houden of we ontkennen gedaan te hebben of een ander de schuld van geven, en misschien beredeneren – netzo goed tegen onszelf als tegen anderen – dat het eigenlijk geen zonde was, tenminste niet zo erg als sommige mensen zeggen. In de moeilijke arbeid van het opgroeien, is een van de pijnlijkste taken te leren om te zeggen: “ Het spijt me!”

Toch zijn we ontworpen voor de biecht. Geheimen zijn moeilijk te bewaren, maar onbeleden zonden gaan niet alleen nooit meer weg, maar hebben de gewoonte om zwaarder en hardnekkiger te worden met de tijd – hoe groter de zonde, hoe zwaarder de last. Schuldbelijdenis is de enige oplossing.

Om de biecht in sacrementele zin te begrijpen, moet men eerst met een paar grondzettelijke vragen klaarkomen: Waarom is de Kerk betrokken bij de vergeving van zonden? Is de biecht in aanwezigheid van een priester werkelijk nodig? Waarom eigenlijk in de aanwezigheid van een menselijke getuige? Als God werkelijk alwetend is, dan weet Hij toch alles al over mij. Mijn zonden zijn al bekend, voordat het in me opkomt om ze gaan biechten. Waarom zou ik me uitsloven om God te vertellen wat Hij toch al weet?

Jazeker, God weet het. Mijn biecht kan nooit zo volledig of onthullend zijn als Gods kennis over mij of alles wat in mijn leven gerepareerd moet worden.

Een vraag, die betrekking heeft op het feit, dat we ontworpen zijn als sociale wezens, moet in overweging genomen worden. Waarom wil ik zo graag verbonden zijn met anderen in alle aspecten van het leven, maar niet in dit aspect? Waarom zoek ik zo ijverig naar excuses, zelf met theologische beredeneringen, om mijn schuld niet te belijden? Waarom probeer ik zo ernstig mijn zonden weg te redeneren, totdat ik besloten heb, dat ze niet zo erg waren of dat ze zelfs als goede daden beschouwd kunnen worden? Waarom vind ik het zo gemakkelijk om zonde te doen, maar ben ik zo terughoudend om in het bijzijn van iemand anders toe te geven, dat ik ze gedaan heb?

We zijn sociale wezens. Het individu als een autonome eenheid is een waanvoorstelling. De Marlboro Man – de persoon zonder gemeenschap, ouders, echtgenoot of kinderen – bestaat alleen maar op reclameborden. Het individu is iemand, die het gevoel van gemeenschap met anderen kwijt is of probeert in verzet tegen de anderen te leven – terwijl de persoon bestaat in gemeenschap met andere personen. Op een conferentie van Orthodoxe Christenen in Frankrijk een paar jaar geleden, gaf een theoloog toe in een gesprek over het probleem van individualisme: “ Als ik in mijn auto zit, ben in een individu, maar als ik eruit kom ben ik weer een persoon.”

Wij zijn sociale wezens. De taal, die we spreken, bindt ons aan degenen om ons heen. Het voedsel, dat ik eet, is geteeld door anderen. De bekwaamheden die mij geleerd zijn, werden door de eeuwen en honderden generaties ontwikkeld. De lucht, die ik inadem, het water, dat ik drink, zijn niet uitsluitend voor mijn gebruik, maar is in veel lichamen geweest voor mij. De plaats waar ik woon, de gereedschappen, die ik gebruik, het papier, waarop ik schrijf werden door veel handen gemaakt. Ik ben geen dokter of bankier of tandarts alleen. Als ik mijzelf ontkoppel van de anderen, ben ik in gevaar. Alleen zal ik sterven, en ook nog snel. Met anderen in gemeenschap zijn, is leven.

Omdat we sociale wezens zijn, neemt de biecht in de Kerk niet de plaats in van de biecht tegenover degenen tegen wie ik gezondigd heb. Een wezenlijk element van de biecht is alles te doen waarmee ik goed kan maken wat ik verkeerd heb gedaan. Als ik iets gestolen heb, moet ik het teruggeven of betalen. Als ik gelogen heb, moet ik die persoon de waarherid gaan vertellen. Als ik kwaad was zonder een goede reden, moet ik mijn verontschuldiging aanbieden. Ik moet vergeving vragen, niet alleen aan God, maar ook aan degenen, die ik benadeeld heb of kwaad gedaan.

Wij zijn ook sprekende wezens. Woorden zijn een manier van gemeenschap hebben, niet alleen met anderen, maar ook met onszelf. Het feit, dat de biecht onder getuige gebeurt dwingt ons ertoe om onder woorden te brengen, groot of klein, meer of minder, hoe ik leef alsof God niet bestaat en er geen gebod voor liefde is. Een verborgen gedachte heeft grote macht over ons.

Zonden belijden, of zelfs maar verleiding tot zondigen, helpt ons beter om tegenstand te bieden. Het principe, dat erachter zit wordt beschreven in een van de verzamelingen van de gezegden van de Woestijnvaders:

Als gij geplaagd wordt door onreine gedachten, verberg ze niet, maar vertel ze meteen en aan uw geestelijke vader en keur ze af. Hoe meer een mens zijn gedachten verbergt, hoe meer ze zich vermenigvuldigen en aan sterkte winnen. Maar een slechte gedachte, die onthuld wordt, wordt onmiddellijk vernietigd. Als gij dingen verbergt, krijgen ze grote macht over u, maar als u er alleen maar over kan praten voor God, in tegenwoordigheid van iemand anders, dan verschrompelen vaak en verliezen hun macht.

Schuldbelijden aan iemand, zelfs een onbekende, werkt meer vernieuwend, dan dat het aan mijn menselijkheid afdoet, zelfs als alles wat ik terugkrijg voor mijn verontschuldiging de volgende opmerking is: “ O, het is niet zo erg, uiteindelijk ben je ook maar een mens.” Maar als ik mijn schuld kan toegeven tegen iedereen en overal, waarom kan ik dat dan niet in de Kerk in aanwezigheid van een priester? Het is geen gemakkelijke vraag in kringen waar de uitdrukking “ godsdienst als instelling “ vaak gebruikt wordt met de verkapte boodschap, dat godsdienst het geestelijke leven noodzakelijk ondermijnt.

De biecht is een Christelijk ritueel met een gemeenschaps karakter. Biecht in de Kerk verschilt van het toegeven van je schuld in je huiskamer, op dezelfde manier waarop het trouwen in de Kerk verschilt van zomaar samen wonen. Het gemeenschappelijke aspect van de gebeurtenis heeft de neiging om die veilig te stellen, om die duurzamer te maken en iedereen verantwoordelijk te stellen is, zowel degenen, die de ceremonie uitvoeren, als de getuigen.

In de sociale structuur van de Kerk, wordt een groot netwerk van plaatselijke gemeenten bijelkaar gehouden in eenheid. Iedere gemeente helpt de andere en ze nemen allemaal deel aan een algemene taak. En iedere gemeente heeft en speciale plaats, m.a.w. een kerkgebouw, waar de belangrijke gebeurtenissen in een mensenleven gezegend worden van de wieg tot het graf, van de doop tot de begrafenis. De biecht is een wezenlijk deel van deze opeenvolging. Mijn schuldbelijdenis is een daad van weer verbonden worden met God en met de mensen en schepselen, die zich op mij verlaten en door mijn tekortkomingen zijn gekwetst en van wie ik mij verwijderd heb door daden tegen de gemeeschap. De gemeenschap wordt gerepresenteerd door de persoon, die mijn biecht aanhoort, een gewijde priester, aangesteld om te dienen als getuige van Christus, die voor leiding en kennis zorgt, zodat die ieder die berouw heeft, geholpen wordt om over het gedrag en de gewoonten, die hem doen ontsporen, heen te komen. Hij stelt vergeving vast en brengt ons terug in de gemeenschap. Op deze manier wordt ons berouw in de gemeente gebracht, die door onze zonde benadeeld was – een privé gebeurtenis in een openbaar verband.

“Het is een feit,” schrijft vader Thomas Hopko, rector van het St. Vladimir Seminarium, “ dat we de werkelijke lelijkheid en gemeenheid van onze zonden niet kunnen zien, totdat we ze gezien hebben in geest en het hart van degene, aan wie we schuld moesten belijden.”


Naar de Liturgie gaan en aan het Avondmaal ( Communie, Gemeenschap) op zondag en grote feestdagen is altijd het hart van het Christelijke leven geweest, de gebeurtenis, die het leven een dankzeggende dimensie en middelpunt geeft. Maar Communie – Christus in onszelf ontvangen – kan nooit een routine worden, nooit iets dat we verdienen, wat ook de gesteldheid van ons leven is. Bijvoorbeeld, Christus waarschuwt ons tegen het naderen van het altaar als we vijandschap voelen tegen iemand. Hij zegt ons : “ Laat uw gave daar voor het altaar en ga eerst hen, verzoen u met uw broeder, en kom en offer daarna uw gave.” ( Matth.5:24). In een van de gelijkenissen, beschrijft Hij een persoon, die van het bruiloftsfeest weggejaagd werd omdat hij geen bruiloftskleren droeg. Voddige kleren zijn figuurlijk voor een leven leiden, dat het geweten tot vod terugbrengt. ( Matth. 22: 1-14).

Christus te ontvangen in de Communie tijdens de Liturgie, is de sleutel tot het leven in Gemeenschap – God, met de mensen en met met de schepping. Christus leert ons, dat God liefhebben en uw naaste liefhebben de som van de Wet is. Een manier om een erge zonde te beschrijven, is te zeggen, dat het een daad is, die onze band met God en met onze naaste verbreekt.

Daarom is het onderzoek van het geweten – als het nodig is, biechten – een deel van de voorbereiding op de Communie (Avondmaal). Dit is een voortdurend proces van proberen mijn leven en handelen duidelijk en eerlijk te bezien – mijzelf, mijn keuzes en welke richting ik inlsa bekijken, zoals God die kent. Het onderzoek van het geweten is de gelegenheid om mij aan mijn erge zonden te herinneren, die ik gedaan heb sinds mijn biecht, maar zelfs het begin van een zonde.

Het woord geweten is afgeleid van een grieks werkwoord, dat ”algemene kennis hebben” betekent of “ kennen met iemand “, een begrip, dat geleid heeft tot “getuige zijn van iemand”, in het bijzonder van onszelf. Geweten is een innerlijke mogelijkheid, die ons leidt in het maken van keuzes, die met Gods wil overeenstemmen, en dat ons beschuldigt als we de gemeenschap met God en onze buurman verstoren. Geweten is een weerspiegeling van de goddelijke beeltenis in het diepste van iedere persoon. In De Geheiligde Gift van het Leven , wijst vader John Beck erop, dat “ de onderwijzing van het geweten voor een groot gedeelte tot stand komt door onszelf te verdiepen in het ascetische leven van de Kerk: het is het leven van gebed, sacrementele en liturgische diensten, en bijbelstudie. De onderwijzing van ons geweten hangt ook af van het verkrijgen van kennis van degenen, die verder zijn dan wij in geloof, liefde en kennis van God.

Geweten is de fluisterende stem van God binnenin ons, die ons roept tot een manier van leven, die Gods tegenwoordigheid onthult, en ons aanspoort om te weigeren handelingen te doen, die gemeente en gemeenschap vernietigen.


Vader Alexander Schmemann, biedt ons deze samenvatting van de drie sleutelgedeelten van de schuldbelijdenis aan:

Relatie tot God
: Vragen over het geloof zelf, mogelijke twijfel of dwalingen, onoplettendheid bij het gebed, verwaarlozing van het liturgische leven, vasten, enz.

Relatie tot onze naaste : fundamenteel egoistisch en egocentrisch gedrag, onverschilligheid tegenover anderen, gebrek aan oplettendheid, belangstelling, liefde. Alle handelingen van feitelijk aanstoot geven – jaloersheid, roddel, wreedheid, enz. – moeten genoemd worden en als het nodig is moet hun zondigheid getoond worden aan de schuldbelijder.

Relatie tot zichzelf : Vleselijke zonden gezien de Christelijke visie op zuiverheid en gezondheid, respect voor het lichaam als een beeldtenis van Christus, enz. Misbruik van het leven en levensbenodigdheden; afwezigheid van elke echte poging om het leven te verdiepen; alcoholmisbruik of andere drugs; goedkope ideeën over “ leuk”, een leven gericht op amusement, onverantwoordelijkheid, verwaarlozing van familie relaties, enz.


In de strijd om het geweten te onderzoeken, hebben we hulpmiddelen, die ons kunnen bijstaan, bronnen, die zowel kunnen helpen bij de vorming als bij het onderzoek van ons geweten. Daaronder zijn de Tien Geboden, de Zaligsprekingen en verschillende gebeden, zowel als lijsten van vragen, geschreven door ervaren biechtvaders. In dit kleine boekje zullen we alleen kijken naar de Zaligsprekingen, die eigenlijk een kortbegrip van het Evangelie zijn. Iedere Zaligspreking onthult een aspect van de verbintenis met God.

Zalig zijn de armen van geest, want hunner is het Koninkrijk der hemelen.

Armoede betekent hier ervan bewust zijn, dat ik Gods hulp en genade meer nodig heb dan wat dan ook. Het is weten dat ik mijzelf niet kan redden, noch geld of macht mij lijden en dood kan besparen. En dat, wat ik ook in dit leven zal bereiken, het veel minder zal zijn dan ik wil, als ik mijn hebberige hoedanigheid de overhand laat krijgen. Het is de zegen te weten dat, wat ik heb, niet van mij is. Het is een leven zonder overheersing van de angst. Terwijl de uiterlijke vormen van armoede verschillen van persoon tot persoon en zelfs van jaar tot jaar in een zeker leven, afhangend van ieders roeping en speciale omstandigheden, zoekt iedereen die, deze zaligspreking naleeft, met hart en ziel Gods wil te doen en niet zijn eigen wil. Gods moeder is het grote voorbeeld van armoe van geest met haar onvoorwaardelijke overgave aan de wil van God: “ Zie de dienstmaagd des Heren, mij geschiede naar uw woord.” (Luc. 1:38). Netzo als bij de bruiloft te Kana, dan zegt ze tegen de dienaren, die aan tafel bedienen : “ Wat Hij u ook zegt, doe dat.” (Joh.2:5). Wie deze woorden naleeft, is arm van geest.

Vragen om over na te denken: We worden gebombardeerd door reclames, die ons voortdurend herinneren aan de mogelijkheid om dingen te bezitten of om toe te geven aan allerlei bijzonderheden en verleidingen. Het simpele doel van armoe van geest lijkt verder weg, dan de maan. Bid ik wel regelmatig of God mij armoede van geest wil schenken? Als ik ertoe verleid wordt om dingen te kopen, die ik niet nodig heb, bid ik dan om sterkte om het niet te doen? Houd ik mij aan de vasten, die de Kerk voorschrijft om mij te helpen deze zaligspreking na te leven? Streef ik er werkelijk naar om Gods wil te kennen en aan te nemen in mijn leven? Ben ik bereid om als vreemd en dom beschouwd te worden door degenen, wiens leven overheerst wordt door het tegenovergestelde van deze zaligspreking?

Zalig die treuren, want zij zullen vertroost worden.

Treuren is van het zelfde laken een pak met armoe van geest. Zonder armoe van geest, ben ik er altijd op uit om hetgeen ik heb voor mijzelf te houden, of op mijzelf te blijven, of voor die kleine kring van mensen, die ik als”eigen” beschouw. Een gevolg van armoede van geest is gevoelig worden voor pijn en verlies van anderen, niet alleen, degenen, die ik ken, maar ook van diegenen, die vreemden voor mij zijn. “ Als we sterven,” zegt Johannes van de Ladder, die in de 7e eeuw abt van het Katerinaklooster op de Sinaï was, “ zullen we niet veroordeeld worden omdat we geen wonderen hebben gedaan. We zullen niet beschuldigd worden omdat we geen theologen of denkers waren. Maar we zullen wel degelijk aan God moeten uitleggen waarom we niet voortdurend getreurd hebben.”

Vragen om te overdenken: Huil ik met degenen, die huilen? Heb ik gerouwd om mijn familieleden, die gestorven zijn? Laat ik mijn gedachten en gevoelens gaan over het lijden en verlies van anderen? Probeer ik ruimte te maken in mijn geest en hart voor de rampen in het leven van anderen, die ver weg zijn en niet eens mijn taal spreken of mijn geloof delen?

Zalig zijn de zachtmoedigen, want zij zullen de aarde beerven.

Zachtmoedigheid wordt vaak gezien als zwakheid, toch is een zachtmoedig mens geen lafaard noch zonder ruggegraat. In de Bijbel wordt bedoeld met zachtmoedigheid, het maken van keuzes en het uitoefenen van macht vanuit een godvrezend standpunt, in plaats van een maatschappelijk standpunt. Zachtmoedigheid is de wezenlijke kwalitiet van de mens, die een relatie met God heeft. Zonder zachtmoedigheid, kunnen we ons niet overgeven aan Gods wil. In plaats van nederigheid, geven we de voorkeur aan trots – trots op wie we zijn, trots omdat we doen wat we willen, trots op wat we bereikt hebben, trots op onze nationale of ethnische groep waartoe we behoren. Zachtmoedigheid heeft niets te maken met blinde gehoorzaamheid of sociale onderwerping. Zachtmoedige Christenen laten zich niet meeslepen op het getij van politieke machten. Dergelijke roerloze mensen hebben hun eigen geweten toegesnoerd, Gods stem uit hun hart gebannen en hun door God gegeven vrijheid weggegooid. Zachtmoedigheid is een kenmerk van het volgen van Christus, wat er ook voor risico aan verbonden is.

Vragen hierover: Als ik de Bijbel lees of de geschriften van de heiligen, denk ik dan aan de invloed van die woorden op mijn leven? Als de inhoud niet overeenkomt met de manier waarop ik leef, laat ik me dan uitdagen door die tekst? Bid ik tot God om leiding? Zoek ik voor antwoord op moeilijke vragen om hulp bij de biecht? Heb ik de neiging om keuzes te maken en ideeën aan te nemen, die me zullen helpen om in de groep te passen waarbij ik wil horen? Ben ik bang voor kritiek of om uitgelachen te worden om mijn pogingen om een leven te leiden, dat het Evangelie tot middelpunt heeft? Luister ik naar anderen? Zeg ik altijd de waarheid, zelfs in zeer moeilijke omstandigheiden?

Zalig die hongeren en dorsten naar de gerechtigheid, want zij zullen verzadigd worden.

In zijn onderwijzing over Het Laatste Oordeel, spreekt Christus over honger en dorst: “ Ik heb honger geleden en gij hebt Mij te eten gegeven, Ik heb dorst geleden en gij hebt Mij te drinken gegeven.” (Matth.25:35). Onze verlossing rust op onze zorg voor de minste persoon zoals we zouden doen als hij Christus zelf was. Om te hongeren en te dorsten voor iets is geen zwak gevoel, maar een wanhopig verlangen. Om naar gerechtigheid te hongeren en te dorsten betekent een dringend verlangen naar wat eervol is, naar juistheid en waarheid. Een rechtvaardig persoon is een mens die juist leeft, een zedelijk, onberispelijk leven, op goede voet met God en zijn naaste. Een rechtvaardige sociale orde zou er een zijn waarin niemand verlaten wordt of weggeworpen, waarin mensen in vrede met God leven en met elkaar en met de wereld, die God ons gegeven heeft.

Vragen om in overweging te nemen: Stoort het me om in een wereld te leven, die het tegenovergestelde is van het Koninkrijk der Hemelen? Als ik bid, “ Uw Koninkrijk kome, Uw wil geschiede zowel in de hemel als op aarde,” bid ik dan of mijn eigen leven beter Gods voorkeuren laat zien? Wie is de “minste” in mijn dagelijkse wereld? Probeer ik het beeld van Christus te zien in hem of haar”

Zalig de barmhartigen, want hun zal barmhartigheid geschieden.

Eén van de strikken van het najagen van de gerechtigheid is, dat men zelfvoldaan kan worden. Daarom is de volgende sport op de ladder van de zaligsprelingen het gebod tot barmhartigheid. Het is de bekwaamheid tot zelfopofferende liefde, van edele daden voor de behoeftigen. Christus maakt twee keer in het Evangelie de woorden van de profeet Hosea de Zijne: “ Want in liefde heb ik behagen en niet in slachtoffer.”(Hos.6:6, Matth. 9:13, 12:7). We zijn in ontelbare gebeurtenissen getuige van barmhatigheid in de beschrijving van Christus’ leven in het Nieuwe Testament – vergeving, genezing, bevrijding, verbetering, zelfs de reparatie van een de wond van een man, die gewond werd door Petrus in een poging om Christus te beschermen, en de belofte van het Paradijs aan de man , die naast Hem gekruisigd werd.

Steeds weer stelt Christus vast, dat zij, die Gods vergeving willen, anderen moeten vergeven. Dit principe is ook ingesloten in het enige gebed, dat Christus aan Zijn discipelen heeft geleerd: “ En vergeef ons onze schulden, gelijk wij ook onze schuldenaren vergeven.” (Matth.6:12). Hij roept Zijn volgelingen op hun vijanden te vergeven en voor hen te bidden. De moraal van de gelijkenis van de barmhartige Samaritaan is dat de naaste iemand is, die een vreemdeling in nood helpt (Luc.10: 29-37). Terwijl hij huichelarij openlijk veroordeelt en de genadelozen waarschuuwt, dat zij zich zelf veroordelen, horen we Christus nergens in het Evangelie voor iemands dood pleiten. Bij het Laatste Oordeel ontvangt Christus degenen, die genadig geweest zijn in het Koninkrijk der Hemelen. Hij is de Genade zelf.

Vragen, die gesteld kunnen worden: Wat is mijn reactie als ik een vreemdeling in nood zie? Is de genade van Christus te zien in mijn leven? Wil ik degenen, die mij daarom vragen vergeving schenken? Ben ik gul met mijn tijd en mijn aardse bezit ten opzichte van hulpbehoevenden? Bid ik voor mijn vijanden? Probeer ik ze te helpen als ze in nood zijn? Ben ik een vijand van iemand geweest?

Genade ontbreekt hoe langer hoe meer, zelfs in kringen met Christelijke wortels. In de V.S., is de doodstraf weer ingesteld in de meeste staten en wordt door vele Christenen vurig aangehangen. Zelfs in de vele landen, die terechtstellingen hebben afgeschaft, wordt de doodstraf vaak opgelegd aan ongeboren kinderen – abortus wordt nauwelijks beschouwd als een morele beslissing. Wat betreft de zieken, bejaarden en zwaar gehandicapten zijn “euthanasie” en “ hulp bij zelfdoding” veel gehoorde uitdrukkingen. In hoeverre ben ik beïnvloed door slogans en ideologieën, die dood tot een oplossing bevorderen en verkapte moord tot genade? Wat doe ik ervoor om de maatschappij meer verwelkomend te maken, zorgzamer en meer beschermend tegenover het leven?

Zalig de reinen van hart, want zij zullen God zien.

Het verstand wordt voorop gesteld in de wereld en het hart wordt ondergewaardeerd. Het hart werd altijd gezien als de plaats van Gods handelen in ons, het onderkomen van de menselijke identiteit en geweten, verbonden met onze bekwaamheid om lief te hebben, de kern van ons fysieke en geestelijke leven – de bodem van de menselijke ziel. In onze maatschappij waar het verstand in het middelpunt staat, verwonderen we ons erover, dat Christus niet gezegd heeft: “Zalig zijn de briljanten van geest.” Hij zegende juist de reinen van hart.

Het griekse woord voor rein is katharos en betekent vlekkeloos, smetteloos; intact, ongebroken, volmaakt; vrij van valsheid, bedrog of bevuiling. Wat is dan toch een rein hart? Het is een hart zonder bezitterigheid, een hart, dat in staat is tot rouw, een hart dat dorst naar het rechte, een hart vol genade, een liefdevol hart, een hart, dat niet beheerst wordt door hartstochten, een onverdeeld hart, een hart, dat Gods beeld in anderen herkent, een hart, dat zich tot schoonheid aangetrokken voelt, een hart bewust van Gods aanwezigheid in de schepping. Een rein hart is zonder minachting voor anderen. “ Een mens is werkelijk rein van hart als hij alle menselijke wezens als goed beschouwt en geen enkel geschapen ding onrein of vuil is in zijn ogen,” schrijft de H. Isaac de Syrieër.

Tegenstander van reinheid van hart is iedere soort begeerte – naar rijkdom, erkennig, macht, wraak, sexuele uitspattingen – of er nu daadwerkelijk aan toegegeven wordt of in de verbeelding. Geestelijke deugden, die het reine hart verdedigen zijn, herinnering, bewustzijn, waakzaamheid, oplettendheid, hoop, geloof en liefde. Een regelmaat van gebed in het dagelijkse leven helpt om te genezen, te bewaken en het hart heel te maken. “ Houdt uw verstand altijd in uw hart,” onderwees de grote leraar van gebed de H. Theophanos de Heremiet. Het Jezusgebed – het gebed van het hart – is een deel van de overlevering van het geestelijke leven, dat helpt om het centrum van het bewustzijn van het verstand naar het hart te verplaatsen. De reiniging van het hart is het streven om het verstand onder de heerschappij van het hart te stellen, hetwelk de analytische en organiserende kant van het bewustzijn vertegenwoordigt. Het is de macht van een voortdurend krachtig bidden, een zoeken naar het zich volkomen bewust zijn van Gods aanwezigheid, zodat er geen ruimte in het hart over is voor haat, hebberigheid, begeerte of wraak. De reiniging van het hart is een levenslange strijd om meer en meer een leven te verkrijgen, dat God als middelpunt heeft, een hart verlicht door de aaanwezigheid van de Heilige Drieëenheid

Vragen om te overdenken: Zorg ik ervoor om geen dingen te lezen of te bekijken, die begeerte kunnen opwekken? Vermijd ik woorden te gebruiken, die mijn mond bevuilen? Let ik op schoonheid in mensen, de natuur en de kunst? Ben ik hatelijk over anderen? Is er een gebedsritme in mijn dagelijkse leven? Bereid ik me zorgvuldig voor op het Avondmaal (Communie), terwijl ik het nooit als vanzelfsprekend beschouw? Houd ik me aan de vastendagen en perioden? Ben ik me bewust en dankbaar voor Gods gaven?

Zalig de vredestichters, want zij zullen kinderen Gods genoemd worden.

Christus wordt vaak de Vredevorst genoemd. Zijn vrede is geen passive situatie – Hij zegent hen, die vrede stichten. Een vredestichter is iemand, die helpt om verstoorde relaties weer in orde te maken. Door het hele Evangelie zien we Christus vrede stichten. In Zijn laatste toespraak voor Zijn arrestatie zegt Hij tegen Zijn apostelen: “ Vrede laat Ik u, Mijn vrede geef Ik u…uw hart worde niet ontroerd of versaagd” ( Joh.14:27). Na Zijn opstanding begroet Hij zijn volgelingen met de woorden “ Vrede zij met u.” (Joh.20:19). Hij leert Zijn volgelingen bij het binnengaan van een huis als eerste handeling de zegen uit te spreken: “ Vrede zij dezen huize.” (Luc.10:5).

Christus is zegt het meest tegensprekende als Hij zegt: “Meent niet, dat Ik gekomen ben om vrede te brengen op aarde. Ik ben niet gekomen om vrede te brengen, maar het zwaard” (Matth.10:34; n.b.dat in dezelfde passage in Luc.12:51, het woord “verdeeldheid” gebruikt wordt in plaats van “zwaard”). Degenen, die proberen Christus’ vrede na te leven, kunnen zich in gevaar begeven, zoals we zien bij de dood van de martelaren. Jammergenoeg is voor de meesten van ons de vrede waarnaar we verlangen niet het Koninkrijk der Hemelen, maar een lichtelijk verbeterde uitgave van wereld die we al hebben. We zouden uit het conflict willen komen zonder de geestelijke en materieële factoren, die ons er in de eerste plaats ingetrokken hebben, uit te roeien. De vredestichter is iemand, die zich er van bewust is, dat het doel nooit gescheiden kan zijn van het middel: vijgen groeien niet aan distels; noch onstaat er een gemeente door haat en geweld. Een vredestichter is er van bewust, dat alle mensen, zelfs degenen, die door een boze geest geleid schijnen te worden, gemaakt zijn naar het beeld en de gelijkenis van God en in staat zijn om te veranderen.

Vragen hierover: Ben ik schuldig aan zonden, die verdeelheid en conflict kunnen verdiepen in mijn familie, mijn parochie en onder mijn medewerkers? Vraag ik om vergeving als ik me realiseer, dat ik verkeerd zit? Of ben ik altijd aan het goedpraten wat ik doe, ondanks het verdriet en de pijn, dat ik er bij anderen mee veroorzaak? Beschouw ik het als tijdverspilling om met mijn tegenstanders te communiseren? Luister ik oplettend en respectvol naar hen, die mij irriteren? Bid ik voor het welzijn en verlossing van tegenstanders en vijanden? Laat ik de mening van anderen of wat de pers zegt mijn gedrag tegen hen, die ik nog nooit gezien heb bepalen? Onderneem ik positieve stappen om verdeeldheid op te lossen? Bestaan er mensen, die ik niet beschouw als Gods evenbeeld en vindt ik dat ze en aangeboren slechtheid bezitten?

Zalig de vervolgden om der gerechtigheid wil, want hunner is het Konikrijk der hemelen.

Zalig zijt gij, wanneer men u smaadt en vervolgt en liegende allerlei kwaad van u spre ekt om Mijnentwil. Verblijdt u en verheugt u, want u loon is groot in de hemelen; want alzo hebben zij de profeten voor u vervolgd.

De laatste sport van de ladder van de Zaligsprekingen bereiken het Kruis en gaan zelfs verder dan dat. “ We moeten het Kruis van Christus dragen als een gloriekroon,” schreef de H. Johannes Chrysostomos in de vierde eeuw, “ Want door het Kruis is alles, wat we hebben verworven, verkregen….. Wanneer gij het teken van het Kruis op uw lichaam maakt, denk er dan aan wat het Kruis betekent en zet uw woede opzij en iedere andere hartstocht. Wees moedig en vrij in uw ziel.”

In de oude wereld werden de Christenen voornamelijk vervolgd, omdat men dacht, dat ze de sociale orde verstoorden, ook al waren ze in de meeste opzichten voorbeelden van gehoorzaamheid en goed gedrag. Maar de Christenen hielden zich ver van de cultus rond de vergoddelijkte keizer, ze wilden niet offeren aan de goden, die hun buren aanbaden, en ze waren bekend om hun afkeer van het vergieten van bloed in elke vorm. Het is gemakkelijk te begrijpen dat een gemeenschap, die naar die standaard leefde, hoe goed men zich ook gedroeg, beschouwd werd als een dreiging voor de regering. “ Zowel de bevelen van de keizer als anderen aan de macht moeten gehoorzaamd worden zolang ze niet het tegendeel zijn van de geboden van de God van de Hemel,” zei de H. Euphemia in het jaar 303, tijdens de regering van Diocletianus. “ Als ze dat zijn, dan moeten ze niet alleen niet gehoorzaamd worden; we moeten ze weerstaan.” Nadat ze gemarteld was, werd ze gedood door een beer – een dergelijke dood hadden duizenden martelaren tot ver in de vierde eeuw, hoewel het grootste aantal Christelijke martelaren tot de twintigste eeuw behoort. In veel landen bestaat nog godsdienst vervolging.

Vragen om te overwegen: Speelt angst een grotere rol in mijn leven, dan liefde? Verberg ik mijn geloof of leef ik het op een timide manier na, niet helemaal van harte? Als mij bevolen wordt iets te doen wat tegen Christus leer ingaat, aan wie ben ik dan gehoorzaam? Ben ik me bewust van degenen, die lijden vanwege de gerechtigheid, zowel in mijn eigen land als in andere landen? Bid ik wel voor hen? Doe ik iets om hen te helpen?


Netzo als niet elke dokter een goede geneesheer is, is niet iedere priester een goede biechtvader. Soms gebeurt het dat een priester, hoe goed hij ook in andere dingen is, niet geschikt is voor het aanhoren van schuldbelijdenis. Hoewel priesters, die schelden een grote uitzondering zijn, moet er toch rekening mee gehouden worden, dat ze kunnen bestaan. God heeft ons vrijheid van keuze gegeven en ieder mens van een geweten voorzien. Het is niet de rol van een priester de plaats van het geweten in te nemen of om iemands drilmeester te zijn. En goede biechtvader zal ons helpen om beter naar de stem van ons geweten te kunnen luisteren en vrijer te worden in een leven dat hoelanger hoemeer God als middelpunt heeft.

Gelukkig zijn goede biechtvaders gemakkelijk te vinden. In het alsgemeen is het de priester, die het dichtst bij is, die men vaak ziet en de omstandigheden van uw leven kent: dat is de priester van de parochie. Laat u niet tegenhouden door zijn jonge leeftijd, zijn persoonlijke tekortkomingen of misschien zijn gebrek aan geestelijke gaven. U moet bedenken, dat iedere priester zelf ook gaat biechten en misschien meer te belijden heeft dan u. U belijdt uw schuld niet aan hem, maar aan Christus in zijn aanwezigheid. Hij is de getuige van uw biecht. Men zal nooit een persoon zonder zonden vinden om die getuige te zijn. ( De Orthodoxen maken dat duidelijk door de schuldbelijder naar de ikoon van Christus te laten kijken, in plaats van naar de priester.)

Wat uw biechtvader zegt op het gebied van raad kan vol van inzicht zijn, of hard, of het zal zich als een cliché aanhoren en niet erg betrokken, maar er zal toch altijd iets zijn, dat helpt als u het maar wil horen. Soms is er een voorstel of een inzicht, dat een keerpunt in het leven kan worden. Als hij een straf oplegt – gewoonlijk vermeerderd gebed, vasten en daden van genade – zou dat deemoedig aangenomen moeten worden, behalve als er iets is, dat het geweten of de leer van de Kerk geweld aandoet in uw mening.

Denk niet, dat een priester minder respect voor u zal hebben door wat u onhult in zijn aanwezigheid of dat hij zich al uw zonden herinnert.” Zelfs een pas gewijde priester zal snel ontdekken, dat hij zich 99 procent van wat mensen biechten, niet herinnert” vertelde een priester mij eens. Hij zei, dat hij het hinderlijk vindt, dat mensen van hem verwachten nog te weten wat ze hem in een vorige biecht gezegd hebben. “ Als ze me het vertellen, herinner ik het me soms, maar zonder dat, is mijn geest gewoonlijk blank. Ik laat de woorden, waarnaar ik luister door mij heengaan. Ook is het zo, dat wat ik hoor in de ene biecht veel lijkt op wat ik hoor in de andere – alle biechten vermengen zich. De enige zonden, die ik me goed herinner, zijn mijn eigen zonden.”

Een ander priester vertelde me over zijn moeilijkheden om te voldoen aan de verwachtingen , die soms blijken tijdens de biecht. “ Ik ben geen psycholoog. Ik heb geen speciale gaven. Ik ben alleen maar een medezondaar, die probeert om op het rechte pad te blijven.”

Een russische priester, die de geestelijke vader van vele mensen is, vertelde me over de blijdschap, die hij vaak voelt als hij een schuldbelijdenis hoort. “ Het is niet, dat ik blij ben, omdat iemand zonden heeft, die beleden moeten worden, maar als je komt biechten betekent het dat de zonden van het verleden zijn en niet van de toekomst. Schuldbelijdenis maakt een keerpunt, en ik ben de gelukkige, die de mensen deze omkeer ziet maken!”

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Remembering Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

anthony of sourozh(published in “In Communion” issue 31, Fall 2003)

By Jim Forest

“We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.” — Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

One of the significant events in the Orthodox Church this year was the death from cancer on August 4th of a remarkable, indeed saintly, bishop: Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. He was 89. For many years he headed the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Great Britain.

Though he was not a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship’s advisory board, Metropolitan Anthony’s letters and conversations with those responsible for OPF played an important role in the path the Fellowship has followed. He passionately believed that peacemaking required active, warrior-like combat with evil. He had a strong aversion to the word “pacifist,” not only because it sounded with “passive-ist” but because of unpleasant encounters with self-righteous people quick to denounce those who failed to share their ideology. He preferred the phase “a man — or woman — of peace” which meant, he explained, a person “ready to work for the reconciliation of those who have grown apart or turned away from one another in enmity.” He was unhesitating in declaring that hatred is incompatible with Christianity, but saw the use of violence against Nazism in the Second World War as a lesser evil.

He sometimes told the story of an encounter he had during a retreat for university students. “After my first address one of them asked me for permission to leave it because I was not a pacifist.” “Are you one?” Metropolitan Anthony replied. “Yes.” “What would you do,” he asked, “if you came into this room and found a man about to rape your girl friend?” “I would try to get him to desist from his intention!” the man replied. “And if he proceeded, before your own eyes, to rape her?” “I would pray to God to prevent it.” “And if God did not intervene, and the man raped your girl friend and walked out contentedly, what would you do?” “I would ask God who has brought light out of darkness to bring good out of evil.” Metropolitan Anthony responded: “If I was your girl friend I would look for another boy friend.”

Yet, while hating passivity in the face of evil, his own commitment to reconciliation had deep roots in his life. During the years the German army occupied France when he was a physician active in the Maquis, a section of the French resistance, he had occasion to use his medical skills to save the life of a German soldier. Condemned for this act of Christian mercy by colleagues in the resistance, it was an action which almost cost him his own life. He was nearly executed. It was in that crucible of expected death that he decided, should he survive the war, that he would become a monk.

On another occasion, the roles were reversed: it was a German who saved his life. He had been arrested by the occupation forces. During a long interrogation, he was asked what he thought of National Socialism. “I assumed that I was going to be carted off to a camp anyway,” he recalled, “so I decided to tell the truth. I told them that I hated their system, and it would soon be overthrown by their enemies.” After a long pause his interrogator replied: “Quickly, out through that door. It isn’t guarded.” Thus he escaped.

He faced life-threatening situations many times. When the war ended, he found himself among Charles de Gaulle’s bodyguards during de Gaulle’s triumphal entry into Paris. He remembered taking cover from snipers while the General ignored the bullets.

Metropolitan Anthony stood ramrod straight. To the end of his life one could easily imagine him as an military officer if only he changed from his monastic robes into an army uniform. No one could have imagined, when he was a youth, that monastic vows, ordination as a priest and consecration as a bishop lay ahead or that he might become one of the great Christian missionaries of his era.

He was born Andrei Borisovich Bloom on the 19th of June 1914 in Switzerland, where his father was serving as a member of the Russian Imperial Diplomatic Corps. His mother was the sister of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. Molotov, Stalin’s comrade, was also a relative. Shortly before the First World War, the family returned to Russia, but soon left again for a diplomatic assignment in Persia. His vivid memories of Persian shepherds, “minute against the hostile backcloth of the vast Persian plain” while protecting their flocks, made him a convincing preacher on the parable of the Good Shepherd.

After the Russian Revolution, the family set out through Kurdistan and Iraq. When they sailed for Britain in a leaking ship, he hoped to be shipwrecked — he was reading Robinson Crusoe at the time. Instead, he was put ashore at Gibraltar where the family’s luggage was mislaid. Some fourteen years later it was returned with a bill for ?1.

In 1923, the family at last settled in Paris, adopted home to thousands of impoverished Russian refugees. Here his father became a laborer while his son went to a rough school. Andrei evinced an early suspicion of Roman Catholicism, which prompted him to turn down a place at an excellent school when the priest in charge hinted that he ought to convert.

After reading classics, he went on to study physics, chemistry and biology at the Sorbonne School of Science. In 1939 he was qualified as a physician.

Like so many of his contemporaries, he grew up with no belief in God and at times voiced fierce hostility to the Church. But when he was eleven, he was sent to a boys’ summer camp where he met a young priest. Impressed by the man’s unconditional love, he reckoned this as his first deep spiritual experience, though at the time it did nothing to shake his atheist convictions.

His opinions were undermined, however, a few years later by an experience of perfect happiness. This came to him when, after years of hardship and struggle, his family was settled under one roof for the first time since the Revolution. But it was aimless happiness, and he found it unbearable. He found himself driven to search for a meaning to life and decided that if his search indicated there was no meaning, he would commit suicide.

After several barren months, he reluctantly agreed to participate in a meeting of a Russian youth organization at which a priest had been invited to speak. He intended to pay no attention, but instead found himself listening with furious indignation to the priest’s vision of Christ and Christianity.

Returning home in a rage, he borrowed a Bible in order to check what the speaker had said. Unwilling to waste too much time on such an exercise, he decided to read the shortest Gospel, St. Mark’s. Here is his account of what happened:

While I was reading the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning-point. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the crucifixion of the prophet of Galilee was true, and the centurion was right when he said, “Truly he is the Son of God.” It was in the light of the resurrection that I could read with certainty the story of the Gospel, knowing that everything was true in it because the impossible event of the resurrection was to me more certain than any other event of history. History I had to believe, the resurrection I knew for a fact. I did not discover, as you see, the Gospel beginning with its first message of the annunciation, and it did not unfold for me as a story which one can believe or disbelieve. It began as an event that left all problems of disbelief behind because it was a direct and personal experience.

During the Second World War, Metropolitan Anthony worked for much of the time as a surgeon in the French Army, but also, during the middle of the war, was a volunteer with the French resistance. In 1943, he was secretly tonsured as a monk, receiving the name Anthony. Since it was impractical for him to enter a monastery, the monk who was his spiritual father told to spend eight hours a day in prayer while continuing his medical work. When he asked about obedience, he was told to obey his mother. He continued to live a hidden monastic life after the war, when he became a general practitioner.

In 1948, when he was ordained priest, revealing then that he had been a monk for the previous five years. The following year he was invited to become Orthodox chaplain to the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius in England. The Fellowship had been founded in 1928 by a group of Russian Orthodox and Anglican Christians to enable them to meet each other and to work together for Christian unity. It was at St. Basil’s House in London, the Fellowship’s home in those years, that he began to meet Christians in Britain and to exert a growing influence in ever-widening circles. Shortly afterwards Father Vladimir Theokritoff, the priest of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Parish in London died suddenly. Father Anthony was the obvious choice to succeed him.

In 1953 he was appointed hegoumen, in 1956 archimandrite, then in 1962 archbishop of the newly created Diocese of Sourozh, encompassing Britain and Ireland. (The name Sourozh comes from the ancient name of a city in the Crimea.) In 1963 he was named acting Exarch of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in Western Europe. By the time of his death, the Sourozh diocese had grown to twenty parishes.

Services in the London parish, which ultimately moved to the church which became All Saints Cathedral at Ennismore Gardens, not only met the spiritual needs of Russians living in or near London but attracted many people eager to experience Orthodox worship or seeking guidance in their own search for God. Many people who had no Russians in their family tree became Orthodox Christians thanks to his sermons, broadcasts and writings.

During the long years of Soviet rule, Metropolitan Anthony played an important part in keeping the faith alive in Russia through countless BBC World Service broadcasts. Perhaps still more important were the annual BBC broadcasts of the All-Night Paschal Vigil service at the London Cathedral. As Matins began, Metropolitan Anthony would emerge from behind the iconostasis to encourage the congregation, as they stood waiting in the dark, to speak up with their responses as this would be the only Paschal service that many in the Soviet Union would hear.

Beginning in the sixties, he was able to make occasional visits to Soviet Russia, where he not only preached in churches but spoke informally to hundreds of people who gathered in private apartments to meet him and engage in dialogue. Books based on his sermons were circulated in samizdat among Russian intellectuals until they could be openly published in the 1990s.

During the past decade, his declining health ruled out trips to Russia but he corresponded with many church members, stated his opinion on controversial issues of church life in letters to the Patriarch and the Councils of Bishops, and continued to preach his message of Christian love and freedom — not always welcome in the post-Communist Russian Church — through books and tapes.

One of the stories he sometimes told late in his life was about a letter he received from a monk in Russia who wrote there were “three great heretics” living in the west whose books were being read in Russia — Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff and Anthony Bloom. The letter writer asked the assistance of Metropolitan Anthony in finding out more about “this Anthony Bloom.”

For years Metropolitan Anthony was a familiar voice on British radio. The BBC had grave doubts when it was first proposed that he do English-language broadcasts. It was feared that the combination of his Russian-French accent and his refusal to use a script would lead to problems. But his transparent spiritual qualities and ability to speak fluently for a set number of minutes made him an instant success. At the height of his fame, Gerald Priestland, the renowned BBC religious correspondent, called him “the single most powerful Christian voice in the land.”

One of his most memorable broadcasts was a discussion with the atheist Marghanita Laski in which he said that her use of the word “belief” was misleading. “It gives an impression of something optional, which is within our power to choose or not … I know that God exists, and I’m puzzled to know how you can manage not to know.” (The transcript of their exchange is included in The Essence of Prayer.)

Outspoken on many issues, at times his plain speech landed him in hot water with the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1974 he was deprived of the position of Exarch for having written to The Times, in his name and that of the clergy and believers of the Sourozh Diocese, disowning criticism of Alexander Solzhenitsyn made by a senior hierarch in Moscow. Nevertheless, he remained head of his diocese. No attempt was made to prevent him continuing his visits to Russia.

His several books were widely read. Living Prayer, a best seller, has been translated into ten languages. It was later reprinted as a section of The Essence of Prayer.

In great demand as a speaker, Metropolitan Anthony spent much of his time preaching in non-Orthodox churches, leading retreats, giving talks and hearing confessions. He regularly spoke in hospitals, particularly about death, drawing on his experience as a cancer specialist. He received honorary doctorates from Cambridge and from the Moscow Theological Academy.

After the liberation of the Church in Russia, some priests and bishops proposed nominating him when elections for patriarch were held in 1990. But Metropolitan Anthony declined, citing his age. “If this had only happened ten years earlier, I might have agreed,” a relative quoted him as saying.

Earlier this year, Patriarch Alexy II, in an open letter, appointed Metropolitan Anthony to be in charge of a new Metropolia which, it was hoped, would embrace all Orthodox Christians of Russian tradition in Western Europe, and might eventually become the foundation for a Local Orthodox Church.

Citing age and poor health, Metropolitan Anthony had several times offered his resignation as head of the Sourozh Diocese but each time it was declined by the Moscow Patriarchate. Only five days before his death did the Holy Synod finally relieve him of his official duties, handing over to Bishop Basil (Osborne) of Sergievo the direction of the diocese.

Few bishops were more accessible to their flock, but this sometimes had comical results. When one parishioner rang to say that “Peter” had died and asked for prayers, Metropolitan Anthony immediately complied, then asked when the funeral would be. “Oh, there won’t be one,” he was told. “We flushed Peter down the loo.” Peter turned out to be a parakeet.

He was attentive to the person to whom he was listening, no matter who it was, to an astonishing degree. “In my life no one else had ever looked at me with such absolute attention,” people would often comment.

He loved going to children’s camps, allowing himself to be drilled and taking part in playlets, usually as a surgeon, dressed always in his monastic garb. “I always wear black when I operate,” he would say with a chuckle.

He would sometimes remark that he was quite prepared to be told he was a crackpot, but added, “Even if I am a crackpot, I’m a lot steadier and more normal than some people you might call normal. I’ve been a doctor and a priest without showing much sign of mental derangement.”

His faded and frayed black robe seemed nearly as old and worn as he was. Once, while visiting Russia, he was lectured by another monk who had no idea that this was the famous Metropolitan Anthony and was angry to see him awaiting their special guest from London in such tattered clothing. Metropolitan Anthony accepted the criticism meekly.

“He always seemed to me an actual witness of Christ’s resurrection,” said a regular participant in the annual Sourozh diocesan conference in Oxford, “not someone who believed it because he heard a report from a trustworthy source or read about it in a book, but someone who had seen the risen Christ with his own eyes. In meeting Metropolitan Anthony, I can understand why in the Church certain saints are given the title ‘Equal of the Apostles’.”

* * *

This text is drawn from various articles and obituaries published since the death of Metropolitan Anthony. Many of his sermons are posted on the web site of the Sourozh Diocese:

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A Round-About Journey to the Orthodox Church: an interview with Fr Alexis Voogd

Fr Alexis and Tatiana Voogd

Interview made by Jim Forest at the Voogd apartment in Amsterdam on the fifth of April, 1990.

[starting the tape recorder]

This looks serious! But will my English make sense?

I admire your gift for languages.

Oh, Jim! There are blank spots in my English and they are getting more and more.

Can you tell us something about where and when you were born?

I was born on the 3rd of April 1927 in a house in newly-built part of The Hague, behind the dunes west of Scheveningen. The North Sea was nearby. With the windows open and the wind from the west, you could hear the unbroken roar of the beakers and, in fog, the melancholy sound of the foghorn. The first years of my life were closely bound up with the elements: the sea, gales, the smell of the sea and — not to forget — the little fishing port of Scheveningen, much less mechanized in those days. There were many things for a growing boy to be happy about in that little world behind the dunes — an endless source of discoveries!

Have you brothers or sisters?

A sister, Helena, two years older than me.

A very Orthodox name!

Yes. I can’t say that about mine — Alewijn — a name of Celtic origin.

Can you say something about your family?

My father and mother had very different backgrounds. My grandfather on my father’s side came from the shipping world. My father was a naval officer with years of service behind him in the Dutch East Indies — Indonesia as it is now. He had already retired when I was born. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a university lecturer in Spanish — he compiled the first Spanish-Dutch dictionary. Before that he was for years a civil servant in the East Indies.

Were they people with a religious faith?

Neither were positively religious. Neither had been baptized. Nor were my grandparents connected with any church. Among my father’s books were a few about religion. I remember one title: “The Fool Says…”. It was about the Christian faith.

Did you ever talk to your parents about religion?

I can’t say that my parents had a harmonious marriage. Perhaps that’s a rather strange reply to your question. What I mean is that, where there is tension, it can be difficult to have intimate talks about, for example, religious belief. But I say this without any bitterness. My parents certainly did their best to give us a settled home life. There were a lot of creative activities going on in our home. My mother was a talented pianist and among her friends there were many professional musicians with whom she often played. There was much music in our house. It left a strong impression on us. My memories are tied up with music. In the evening we would ask her to play our favorite pieces. I was very fond of Grieg. Probably I felt in him a strong bond with nature.

When I look back on those years, I see myself always roaming around somewhere, in the dunes or by the sea. Here I had my first “religious” feelings, the feeling of the mystery behind things, as I see it now. Nature had a very strong influence on me. I often got up very early — very, very early! My parents were amazed and wondered: “Where on earth is the boy going at such an hour? The day hasn’t even begun and he’s already gone!”

I think of those blessed moments when the sun rises, the glow over everything, as if the world were being created anew, and I’m sitting on top of a tree, being gently rocked by the wind. I sit and sit, just looking, breathing and listening. Since then I have read about people who, in moments of intense concentration, experience the unity of all things. The unity of everything! In a flash the experience of the words, “And God saw that it was good.”

How old were you then?

Nine or ten.

These copses at the edge of the dunes — amazing what a child can make of them in his imagination! For me they were vast woods with pleasant and unpleasant places, trees with friendly and unfriendly faces. At that age I started reading about the North American Indians, the “Redskins.” Fascinating! I read everything I could find about their way of life and their beliefs. Through this reading I had the experience of how it’s possible to be completely carried away, to become one with, to identity with, persons and events. As far as the “Redskins” were concerned, this meant that I could so identify with their situation that sometimes, after an argument with other boys, I could hardly stop myself from threatening them with spear and arrow. Yes, really! Imagine it!

For a longtime I felt a sort of hate for those who destroyed the Indians.

Did you feel lonely as a boy?

I couldn’t share those nature-centered feelings with friends.

Now I realize that all these feelings had to do with my religious development. In those years I was inclined to have the same gods as the Indians had. I even prayed to those gods.

You asked about the feeling of loneliness. I think that this ability to identify — to be one with — makes it possible not to feel lonely. I had such a strong feeling of being part of everything, birds, the wind, leaves. All this filled me.

But it was all something that you experienced alone.

Yes, certainly. But I also had lots of friends in the neighborhood.

What later raised your interest in the Slavic countries?

I am sure that had to do with the war. In May 1940 our country was occupied by the Germans. I was 13. I had just finished primary school.

How did you experience the invasion?

In a childish way. It was something unusual, in a certain sense even fascinating. I longed for extreme situations, and here I had an extreme situation!

In terms of study, had you already decided what subject to concentrate on?

Not yet. I must say that school was a painful experience for me.

Were you happier as an Indian than a school boy?

Yes, most certainly. Especially in the last year of primary school and the first year of secondary. At the Lyceum I had no real friendships with other children. In general they were further on than I was. I hadn’t yet got “out of the woods.” Sitting at a school desk was torment. I promised myself that later I would never idealize my school years. Above all I had difficulty with the sciences. I found mathematics very difficult. My father secretly hoped that I would follow in his footsteps and become a naval officer, but for that I needed to do well in mathematics.

Was it difficult for him to accept that you were not going in the direction he wanted?

He didn’t complain and wasn’t angry. He was somewhat stoical in accepting disappointments. No, he never let me be aware of it. Nevertheless he did his best to give me some understanding of mathematics.

Meanwhile time was passing. The occupation meant that life became more and more difficult. Then in 1943 my father fell ill with cancer. At that a Jewish man was hidden in our house. One day the Germans discovered this. Someone had betrayed us. My sister and I came home from school to find the doors and windows wide open with mother gone, the Jew gone, and the house in chaos. After six weeks my mother was released from prison, and that only because of my father’s death — he died in March — and because there was no one else to look after my sister and me. Otherwise we would have been sent to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration in Germany. But our Jewish guest was less fortunate. He never returned from Auschwitz. This event signaled a definite break between “before”and “after.”

Soon after followed the period when we had to make trips to find food. The summer of that year was the first that I spent in the countryside. It was somewhere in the Betuwe, the area between the two great rivers, the Rhine and the Waal. I watched farmers — how they worked their land. In those days they were still working with horses, loading their hay into splendidly-made carts, digging the ground, standing bent over for hours as they cut the corn, and milking their cows by hand. It was an overwhelming experience. That was life! From that time, every holiday I went to the country and worked on a farm. It didn’t take me long to make my decision. I wanted to go to an agricultural college so that I could become a farmer.

My mother was soon resigned to the decision. My father could no longer oppose it, but he would not have been happy about it.

The trouble was that, as a boy from the town, I couldn’t be accepted just like that into the agricultural college. First I had to work for a year on a farm. In October 1943 I managed to find a place on a farm in the northeast of our country. For the first time I had the feeling of being “abroad” — far from home, in a foreign land, among foreign people who spoke an almost incomprehensible dialect. At first I did all the dirty work, as would any apprentice, but quite soon I learned to milk cows and look after horses. Then came the day when I was allowed for the first time to take the cart to the field alone with “my own team of horses.” How proud I was!

If you include the years at the agricultural college, this part of my life lasted until 1951. After that I went to do something I had dreamed of in the dark time of the war.

What kind of dream was that?

I had a friend with whom I often spoke of what we were going to do after the war. One of our favorite past-times was looking at maps and imagining journeys to all sorts of countries. The strongest dream of was to go to Scandinavia. After I had finished college, this dream was fulfilled. I worked for a year as a lumberjack in the Swedish forest.

Did you learn Swedish?

Yes, I managed that fairly quickly. Swedish is in the same group of languages as Dutch.

Did you already have an interest in Russian at that time?

Actually that began during the war. In 1944, the year before the Liberation, I was taken away by the Germans and forced to work in the neighborhood of Assen, in the province of Drente. We had to dig trenches and build bunkers. Not far from the place where we worked was a camp of Russian prisoners of war who were being used as slave laborers. Every morning as we went to our place of work, we met them on the way to their work. They were going in the opposite direction under guard of German soldiers. They looked dreadful — dirty, emaciated, clothed in rags. But they sang! This made a deep impression on me.

I remember one of their songs. It was a song about a Cossack who, far from home, thinks about his country. These impressions meant a great deal to me. Something was born in me. Also the fact that Russia was our ally in the war against Germany played a role in this.

Another factor in my interest was Dostoevsky. In Sweden I read his short stories — not yet his novels — in Swedish. On the radio I found a station that often broadcast Russian music. A new world opened up for me — my interest in Russian language and the people. Back in Holland I began learning Russian on my own.

Why did you do that?

At first it was just a question of feeling. The Russians attracted me as a people. Also their literature and music. Russian became a passion for me. All my free time was given over to it. I was working then at the Agricultural Research Institute at Wageningen. The burning question was: Was I to stay there or start studying Russian? Finally I chose Russian.

That took me to the University of Amsterdam in the autumn of 1952. I had an appointment with Professor Becker, a Russian, the founder of the Department of Slavic Studies in the Philological Faculty. I had written him a letter from Wageningen telling him what had led to this decision. He asked me why wanted to do this study. It was hard to give him a clear and rational answer. And still I cannot do so. There are motives that are so deep-seated that it is difficult to say why you do something, but you have to do it! I felt that I had to study Russian. Intuitively I felt that this language could bring me to a deeper understanding of the meaning of life. I had the impression that Russians had a strong grasp of its essence — sometimes given positive expression, sometimes negative.

Professor Becker took me in. He was a teacher of the old school, very strict. You had to prepare carefully for his lectures. You had to be on time. But he gave himself fully to his students, lending them books from his own library. At that time it was often impossible to get the books you needed from the university library.

Was he Orthodox?

He wasn’t a believer. He was a real humanist. He respected anyone who has a genuine religious belief.

Was your interest in the Russian language connected with other aspects of Russian culture?

My interest in the language meant in the first place a feeling for the Russian people, for the country of Russia. I couldn’t at that time separate the Russians from their political system. Obviously it was necessary to make this distinction but I couldn’t — how it had all started, how it had developed, Stalin and so forth. I must admit that at first I thought that in Russia a new world, a new society was being built up and that they had solved the problem of capitalism.

Then in 1958 I went with Tatiana to Russia and came into real contact with actual life and the system there.

Did you think of yourself as a Marxist in those years?

No, not at all! But I wanted to know about everything out of a sort of curiosity: how was it possible for such a system to become established in Russia and how could part of the intelligentsia have accepted such an ideology?

Had you then thought at all about the Russian Orthodox Church, or was that still distant?

Actually I must turn back in time because I missed a most important moment. My coming to Amsterdam, to the university, meant that I met Tatiana. She came to the Netherlands from Odessa in 1944, had then studied and was appointed to a post in the university as assistant to Professor Becker. When I appeared there, she was already giving lectures. At that time there were only a few students studying Russian. Professor Becker was struck by my burning interest in Russian and spoke to his students about it. They decided to invite me to join the Slavic debating society. Tatiana was given the job of asking me. She found me and introduced herself. In this way we met each other in December 1952. The following June we married.

In order to become a member of the society, I had to give a talk. I decided to speak about a book I had read shortly before, Walter Schubart’s European Man of the Future. It was a book that was fairly popular in the years after the war.

In those years I did little else but study, continually study. I had started my studies fairly late ands felt that I had to make up for much lost time. I was very hungry for knowledge — about the Russian language and history and culture.

I worked for two years cataloging books in the Russian section of the library of the Institute of Social History. In this way many books about Russia passed through my hands. They were good years. I learned a great deal.

Getting to know Tatiana meant that I was also introduced to the Orthodox Church. She was a practicing Orthodox. She took me to an Orthodox church here in Amsterdam, a parish of the Russian Church in Exile, which still exists. There were services once a month and choir practice every week. It was a surprise for me to discover that the services were conducted in Old Church Slavonic. Church Slavonic was an important part of Slavic studies at the university. Although I was not a believer I was allowed to sing in the choir. I had a good voice and could read music, though it was an unusual experience to sing in a language that I thought to be dead. I liked singing and was fond of the music even though having no idea what it really meant. My involvement in the service was restricted to the choir. It was impossible then for me to go deeper into the meaning of the Liturgy, to its essence.

Besides I was still in a state of admiration for life in Russia, not criticizing the system. I was, as it were, pulled in opposite directions. Morever I couldn’t close my eyes to the negative role the Church had played in the social history of Russia. The problem continued to bother me.

The attitude of the Church in Exile was a typical example of reactionary response to social problems, an attitude which, it seemed to me, was an important cause of the Russian revolution.

Only much later I came to understand that this “revolution” almost destroyed the Church, doing everything it could to annihilate it. But then it wasn’t important for me to understand why there was so strong a bond between Church and State and why the Church reacted so strongly against socialism and socialism against the Church.

In this frame of mind we went to Russia in 1958. For me it was the first time while Tatiana was returning after a thirteen-year absence. It was difficult to get a visa. It was the Khrushchev period. Stalin had been dead five years. While he was still alive Tatiana would never have dared to enter the Russian Embassy — she would have been counted among the traitors, those who weren’t willing to return to the fatherland. But in 1958 Khrushchev’s campaign against the Church hadn’t yet begun.

To go to Russia was a wish I had fostered for a long time — to be there, to see the people, to hear the language. I came to Russia not as a tourist through the official Soviet travel agency “Intourist” but as Tatiana’s husband. That was an impressive difference!

I found myself in an old-fashioned Russian family where I was welcomed unreservedly. All of them were believers and closely connected to the Church. To my brother-in-law, Nikolai Poltorazki, husband of Tatiana’s sister, I am deeply grateful. He had a profound knowledge of Russian religious philosophy — Berdyaev, Bulgakov, S. Frank, Florensky. Some of them he had known personally. His fervent interpretation of their writings has been of great importance to me on the way to the faith.

When I got back to Holland, I began in earnest to study Berdyaev. As I look back on that period now, I realize how much Berdyaev has meant for me, what a role he played in my life in those years. He inspired me, gave me a vision. As a young man Berdyaev, though not a Marxist, was not that distant from Marxists. I felt myself involved with the problems he was trying to solve — the truth of Russian Orthodoxy but also the untruth of Orthodoxy linked to the state — an unholy alliance. Berdyaev spoke about general social problems, about Eros, about the place of art in society. His style of searching appealed to me: “follow the way back.” He was a Russian who had thought deeply about the source of Russian culture, and this finally brought him to Orthodoxy. Gradually he came to a new understanding of Orthodoxy, an Orthodoxy freed from ties with the state and from the reactionary attitudes to progress.

This thinking was very enriching for me, though not that all aspects of his teaching are authentically Orthodox.

I have spoken already about my near-mystic experiences as a child. It was intuition without a clear idea about God. But after the trip to Russia, after the discovery of Berdyaev, I became convinced that I had to come to terms with the fundamental questions of life. I had a feeling of now or never! I realized that if I didn’t come to an understanding now, I should never do so. I would continue to read interesting books, piles of them, without making any real progress in my spiritual life.

There followed a time of intense search that brought me to a crisis.

In 1962 and ’63 a new system of language learning was introduced at the University of Amsterdam — the language laboratory. This meant a great deal of extra work designing and writing a new Russian course. The professor of Slavic languages, Carl Ebeling was — indeed still is — a brilliant man of tremendous energy. He was very enthusiastic about these innovations. He was also very patient about my way of teaching. I found it hard to concentrate only on language, because it was difficult for me at that time to separate out language from the spiritual problems in which I was immersed. Luckily Ebeling understood all this.

We worked together literally day and night on the new course, but this turned out to be more than I could stand. It led me unavoidably and suddenly to the point of a complete breakdown.

And into this crisis appeared the figure of Metropolitan Anthony…

How did that happen?

At the beginning of the ’60s, while in Moscow, Tatiana met the great Russian pianist, Maria Yudina. Yudina was a deeply religious woman, a convinced Orthodox Christian. She heard from Tatiana about the desperate situation I was in and said, “Why doesn’t he go to Metropolitan Anthony?” Tatiana asked, “Who is that?” Yudina’s answer was, “What! You live in the West and you don’t know who Metropolitan Anthony is? He has just been visiting Moscow and has helped many people with their problems! He is an exceptional preacher and moreover a physician. Let Alexei Jacovletisch go to him!”

Tatiana wrote a letter to him and shortly after I received an invitation to visit him in London.

My situation was this. I had read a great deal about the faith. Much had become clear to me. Intellectually I was convinced of the truth of the faith. But how to go further? It is amazing how you can be intellectually convinced of the truth of the Christian faith and yet not be in a state to embrace it, not able to give this rational conviction a place in your heart and soul. You can, for instance, be a great specialist in church music, but still that doesn’t make you a Christian.

I spent a few days in London with Metropolitan Anthony and told him my story. He listened very carefully, understood my problem and gave me a simple piece of advice. He asked if I knew the Gospel? Had I read it thoroughly and systematically? I said, “No.” He urged me to do this and gave me advice as to how to do this. It forced me to interiorize the Gospel, to find myself in the Gospel. It is the principle of identification. This had happened to me once before in my life, when I was a boy and read about Indians! Now I had to identify with all the people I met in the New Testament. It took me a year to go through the Gospel, word by word, story by story.

After this first visit Metropolitan Anthony sent me to Father Barnabas, a monk who had a small hermitage in Hastings, not far from London. This was my first experience of a monastery. There I met a young monk, Brother Vincent, a man with whom I could talk fully and at length. Father Barnabas had no objection to this, but now and then did want reassurance that we were talking about spiritual matters.

When I returned to Amsterdam I was already over the worst of my crisis, but I can’t say it was the end of my troubles. I was still dependant on tranquilizers. Metropolitan Anthony had warned me not to stop taking these drugs abruptly. He compared them to a stick that helps you walk — “Eventually you will be strong enough to walk without a stick.”

I did not follow his advice. While in Odessa a month later, I decided to stop taking the pills and threw them away. Thus put me into a wretched state. Suddenly I had to manage without medicine. Traveling alone, the journey I had to make back Holland via Romania, Austria and Germany was a nightmare. But then I spent ten days I spent in the countryside, immersed in the Gospel and in prayer, and this brought me back to health.

Can you tell me more about the way of reading the Gospel that Metropolitan Anthony recommended?

He gave me a booklet made by members of a Christian student organization in Petrograd on the twenties. This little book, written in Russian, I later translated into Dutch. The principle was — to transfer yourself into the given situation of the Gospel. When Christ heals a blind man, you are that blind man. When a man is robbed and beaten and left at the side of the road, you are that man. And you are also those who pass by without helping…

How long was it between your first meeting with Metropolitan Anthony and your entry into the Orthodox Church?

I was baptized in 1967 on the 22nd of July — Metropolitan Anthony’s name day. We were in Italy and heard about a French monastery in Provence given to the Orthodox Church and that Metropolitan Anthony would be there in July. Tatiana had not yet met him. So we traveled from Italy to see him in France. I still had doubts about being baptized. Was I actually ready for it? But Vladika Anthony said, “Here am I, here are you, here is Tanya, here’s the Gospel, there’s the river. Why shouldn’t we baptize you now?” And he baptized me in the river under the walls of the monastery.

How did the founding of the Amsterdam parish come about?

After my baptism we went more and more to the parish in The Hague. There was much to do there. For example there was hardly a choir. That had to be established. Father Benjamin gave me every opportunity to enlarge it and soon a reasonable choir was formed. I had to learn the services and arrange for the choir to practice during the week. That required yet another weekly journey to The Hague. To be able to prepare everything properly I used to stay over Saturday night. In the spring of 1973 I was ordained deacon and Anton du Pau — now Father Anton — was ordained reader.

Is that when you took the name Alexis?

No, earlier, at baptism.

Which Alexis?

Alexis, Man of God, a saint of the undivided early Church. He was born in Rome. The life of the Holy Alexis was very popular in the Middle Ages, also in the western Church. But now he is almost entirely forgotten in the West, along with Saint Mary of Egypt, though her name is connected with the tiny Synodal church in Amsterdam.

You sang in the Synodal church, but when you became Orthodox you changed to the Moscow Patriarchate. What was behind this change?

When we were in Russia and told the family that we sang in the choir of an Orthodox parish in Amsterdam, they asked at once, “In what church?” Tatiana answered, “In the Russian Orthodox Church.” “Yes, but which church? From which jurisdiction?” We had no idea what that meant. We knew nothing about all the divisions and jurisdictions in the Orthodox Church. That meant that we and our family in Russia were in different jurisdictions and were joined through the sacraments. So on our return to the Netherlands, we went to the parish in The Hague, St. Mary Magdalene, which is part of the Moscow Patriarchate. We wanted to belong to the Mother Church and not to a church that had broken away from it. That was our decision.

Of course by now I understood the reasons why the Synodal Church existed and why it regarded the Moscow Patriarchate with so much enmity. But I wanted to belong to the Mother Church, the suffering Church in Russia. There were people in the Synodal parish who maintained that we had been “brain-washed” in Russia and that for these reasons had gone to the Patriarchal parish in The Hague. Nonetheless, I have much to thank that little parish for!

Somewhere along the way you had also become a father…

Yes, that happened in Moscow at the end of our first trip in 1958 when Tatiana and I were taking part in the International Congress of Slavists. We had prepared everything for the birth of our child in Amsterdam. But Aliona decided to be born in Moscow where she was baptized shortly after.

When was the parish of Saint Nicholas founded?

In 1973 a small group had formed, five or six people — myself, Tatiana, our daughter Aliona and Stefan Royé, who was then not Orthodox but interested. There was also Anton du Pau, who had recently become Orthodox. We talked together about how good it would be to have an Orthodox parish in Amsterdam.

Through God’s providence we got to know a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Father Janko Stanic, who had been given by his bishop the task of setting up a Serbian parish in Amsterdam. Thanks to the help of Pastor Boiten and influential friends from the Roman Catholic Church we obtained the use of a space in an annex of the big Saint Nicholas Church opposite Central Station. Father Janko was financially supported by the Diaconal Council of the Dutch Reformed Church. Father Anton had his own income, as did I from the university. Father Anton painted icons, was a good organizer and could turn his hand to everything. In a few months, a nice little parish was created! At the end of 1973 we started our choir practices. In 1974 on the 4th of May the first Vigil service was celebrated by Metropolitan Anthony. On the 5th — the Dutch Liberation Day as it happens — Metropolitan Anthony and Bishop Laventrie consecrated our church and celebrated the Divine Liturgy.

Was it a Serbian parish?

No, both Serbian and Russian. Originally we hoped to found a pan-Orthodox parish for Serbians, Romanians, Russians and Greeks, but it wasn’t possible. So a parish was formed under the joint direction of the Moscow and Serbian Patriarchates. Father Janko served with us twice a month. The other Sundays he was with Serbs in other parts of the country.

The problem for us in Amsterdam was that the Russian part of the parish had no priest. We solved this by inviting priests from other parishes for those Sundays when Father Janko was absent — — for example, Father Adrian from the monastery in The Hague or Father Stefan Bakker from Amersfoort or Father Jozef Lamien from Brussels. Once Father Vladimir, the former priest at the Russian parish in The Hague, came to celebrate. When no priest was available, I served as deacon at Vespers on Saturday and again at Matins on Sunday. In that way the continuity of the services was ensured. Unfortunately I could never serve as deacon at the Liturgy — I had to lead the choir.

How did the independent Russian parish come into being?

At the end of 1978, following a series of events. With a group of parishioners we went to London where I was ordained priest and Father Anton deacon by Metropolitan Anthony. My first Liturgy was in London the next day — the 19th of December, the Feast of Saint Nicholas.

It was a severe winter. In the Saint Nicholas Church in Amsterdam where we had our chapel the water pipes had burst. The chapel and the steps leading to it were all under water and then frozen. We couldn’t use it. We celebrated the Christmas Vigil on the 6th of January in the main part of the church and then the next day had the Nativity Liturgy in Pastor Boiten’s tiny Saint Joris Chapel at Ouderzijds 100.

What had led to your ordination as priest?

The Russian part of the parish had by then grown considerably. Though often on Sundays we had no priest, my serving as a deacon on Saturdays and Sundays was good experience.

Despite being without a priest, we were coming together, and that had a positive influence, spiritually speaking, on the formation of a parish. We worked also on the translation of liturgical texts into Dutch, since during the first five years of our existence the services were all in Old Church Slavonic.

I often return to the same point — the Russians have retained their rich traditions in a distinctive manner. They have the most complete services, rich services with a clear rhythm and incomparably beautiful vocal music. All this we must wanted to bring as much as possible it into the Dutch services. It’s not a question of imitation. Imitation in the spiritual life is not what we need — rather inspiration: illumination through the Spirit. I haven’t found better forms than the Russian ones. And I believe that, to a certain degree, we have managed to carry over the spirit of the Russian services into the Dutch ones.

Was it difficult to be both a university lecturer and priest at the same time?

Yes, that was difficult. But gradually I realized that my place was in the Church. I found it more and more difficult to be in academic circles. It is strange to have two identities. When we started the parish, I had already worked in the field of Slavic studies for thirteen years. I had studied and lived with academics — students and professors — for years, but in doing so I had missed a whole important aspect of life. Yet I know I owe an infinite debt of gratitude to many people with whom I came into contact via the university. It is a gift of fortune, the many years with them.

But — there’s always a “but” — it was all on the level of reason. Perhaps that’s why it was so difficult for me to make the jump from the theoretical to the living faith, the faith of heart and soul. Knowledge in itself is not enough to make a real believer — just as knowing what sickness you have doesn’t mean that you are cured of it.

When you spent that year reading the Gospel, was there a certain moment, a certain text, that gave you a feeling of a door opening?

I understand your question and it would have been natural for there to have been such a moment, but I cannot say there was. So many parts of the Gospel were a revelation to me. Yet I will cite one text: “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me. If any man’s will is to do His will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking by My own authority.”

Metropolitan Anthony had taught me a most important principle: “Be attentive, be watchful. Every time you are touched by certain words you read, you must know that God has touched you, even if such a touch is not always pleasant.”

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The Original Oneness of Adam & Eve

by Jim Forest

Eve's creation from Adam's sideWhile browsing in our parish bookshop not long ago, I happened to notice in the postcard rack a reproduction of an image of Eve being lifted by Christ out of Adam’s body — a colorful miniature that comes from a 13th century illuminated manuscript. Adam sleeps peacefully while Eve is wide awake. The right arm of Jesus suggests his power to create and also seems to offer a sign of blessing, while his left arm grasps Eve’s wrists in a gesture that reminds me of a midwife pulling a child from the womb. Jesus contemplates both Eve and Adam with an expression of wordless love.

This special moment, recounted in the Book of Genesis, was a much loved subject of Byzantine and medieval art. In churches, it is usually part of a cycle of wall images (fresco or mosaic) that begin with the creation of the cosmos and end with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. In each creation scene, Christ is the key figure. Though not yet incarnate, we see him as the man he was to become through the body of Mary. The Church Fathers saw the Second Person of the Holy Trinity as the one especially involved the work of bringing matter into existence and shaping it into the vast array of life forms, with Adam and then Eve at the pinnacle of created beings.

While I found this illumination an especially fine version, just about any of the images that have to do with Adam and Eve fascinate me. Among the Primary Stories of the human race, there are few more primary than those revealing what our ancestors imagined the first human beings to be like. Remarkably, those whose memory shaped the Bible, saw Eve’s creation as coming later than Adam’s. Her being called into being is the final great event in the creation narrative.

Such a story has almost nothing to do with what we think of these days as history. In fact we know very little about the first human beings. Much that we think we know is speculative. But the Adam and Eve story is profound. It stresses an original oneness in Adam and Eve, the two of them mysteriously sharing one body until Eve is drawn out of Adam.

According to Genesis, before the Fall Adam and Eve lived in a borderless paradise. They were not in competition with each other.

Was Eve made from one of Adam’s ribs? So the most familiar English translation of Genesis has it, but biblical translators point out that the Hebrew word in question, tsela, also means “side.” Thus we may understand that Eve was one side of Adam. What is clear in either reading is that, before Eve emerged, she was an integral part of Adam. Adam carried Eve like a secret. Thus Adam’s maleness is coincident with his separation from Eve and the revelation of her femaleness. She is his other half, as he was her other half. Only in their complementarity, their actual oneness, are they whole. Both equally bear the image of God, and both equally bear the calling to acquire the divine likeness. As St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: “One who is made in the image of God has the task of becoming what he is.” [“On the Creation of Man,” section16; an extended extract of the text is included in Genesis 1-11, p. 35, edited by Andrew Louth, in the series Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.]

At the same time there is the elusive but compelling memory that has long haunted the human mind of a primordial Eden — a paradise in which there was no conflict, no murder, no war. After Eve’s creation, man and woman live together in an unwalled oneness, a relationship with no trace of enmity. (The first murder, Abel slain by Cain, occurs only after Adam and Eve have been expelled from Eden.)

But then comes the Fall. Eve is successfully tempted by a satanic serpent, Adam is tempted by Eve, and both eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. Suddenly they discover themselves not only naked but in a world in which walls are erupting all around them. In place of unity comes blame — Adam blaming Eve, Eve blaming the serpent, and neither repenting, neither appealing for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Ancient iconographic images of Adam and Eve often show them on either side of the forbidden tree, a wall-like barrier isolating them from each other. The unity they originally had is not altogether lost — it remains at the roots of human identity — but no longer is the practice of oneness effortless. Men and women will in the future commit countless sins against each other. Men will even justify their domination of women as part of the punishment for Eve’s — not Adam’s — sin in Paradise.

Most of us live a long way from Eden. Our world is one in which “the war of the sexes” is the oldest war of all. The ongoing combat between men and women was touched on by a recent New Yorker cartoon. We see a newly married couple standing side by side next to a huge wedding cake. Each is holding a plate with a piece of the cake, while the bride says to the groom, “Your piece is bigger.” One wonders if this marriage will last through its first anniversary. Husband and wife are focused not on each other but on invisible scales: who is getting the better deal? One can imagine that the two cake-eaters have signed a carefully written a prenuptial contract that will make their divorce slightly less complex.

Even so, it remains a great honor to be among the descendants of the first man and the first woman. An ancient Jewish commentary reveals this by posing a question: Why was there only one Adam and only one Eve? The answer the rabbis gave is so that no human being could regard himself or herself as being of higher descent than anyone else.

The basic fact about all human beings is that we all belong to exactly the same family tree. More than that, we all bear equally the image of God and all bear the same calling to acquire the divine likeness.

The human race has been far from paradise throughout known history. Who can guess in round numbers how many have been murdered down through the centuries? Most of the killing has been done by the sons of Adam, but often enough on behalf of Eve, if not with her fervent encouragement. These days, sadly, the daughters of Eve are increasingly found among the male warriors on the world’s battlefields.

For Nancy and me lately, this ancient image of Adam and Eve has acquired another level of meaning. On the last day of October, one of Nancy’s kidneys was removed from her body and soon after surgically implanted in mine. After five years of kidney illness and 21 months of dialysis, I now have a healthy kidney, my wife’s gift.

And what a gift it is. Renal failure had come on so gradually that I was barely aware of how sick I was, even on the eve of the transplant. I knew in theory that each year on dialysis meant a life likely to be shortened by three years (which even so beats the rapid death that is caused by kidney illness without dialysis).

Now that the transplant has happened, I suddenly realize just how much impact the illness had on me. I feel a little like Rip van Winkle waking up from a multi-year nap. Even in these first few weeks, while still recovering from surgery, I find I tire much less easily than was the case a month earlier. I was often sleeping eight-and-a-half or nine hours a night, and even then prying myself out of bed with a mental crowbar. Now seven-and-a-half hours is more than enough. The creatinine level in my blood, a key marker of renal failure, has fallen from 900, just before the transplant, to 120 or so. There are other markers. Food tastes are more vivid. The world seems brighter, colors more intense. I find myself looking at familiar things with a sense of surprise. A friend told me how her brother, after receiving a donated kidney, felt like he was seeing the sky for the first time in ages. That’s a nice way of putting it.

All this is a gift from my wife, from out of her own side.

Nancy and I have put this image of the oneness of Adam and Eve among the icons before which we pray morning and evening. It serves as a visual reminder of what God intends for man and woman: a mysterious oneness in which neither dominates the other but rather both collaborate in a partnership. Neither supplants the other and neither is complete without the other. This is the daily two-way traffic between the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve, a life of self-giving love.

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The Adam and Eve image is posted on our Flickr site in this folder:

Also see our on-line journal about the transplant, A Tale of two Kidneys.

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third revision; text as of January 15, 2007
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The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life

In an age of tourism, the great challenge is to see ourselves at a deeper level: the dimension of pilgrimage. Being a pilgrim might involve a journey to distant places associated with God-revealing events, but it has more to do with simply living day by day in a God-attentive way. The Road to Emmaus assists the reader to see one’s life as an opportunity for pilgrimage, whether in places as familiar as your living room or walking the pilgrim path to Santiago de Compostela. Drawing on the wisdom of the saints and his own wide-ranging travels, Forest leads us to a range of “thin places,” including Iona, Jerusalem, the secret annex of Anne Frank, the experience of illness, the practice of hospitality, and other places and occasions where we may find ourselves surprised by grace.

“The Other Side of Silence”, a chapter from The Road to Emmaus:

Jim Forest is the author of several award-winning books, including Praying with Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes, Love Is the Measure: A Biography of Dorothy Day, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, The Wormwood File: E-mail from Hell, and Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton. He lives in the Netherlands.

This is a book which will hold the attention of any reader from the first page to the last, and such reading will have been in itself a pilgrimage both with and towards Christ.
—Benedicta Ward, S.L.G., author of In Company With Christ

This is a wise and penetrating exploration of pilgrimage as metaphor. Jim Forest reflects on milestones along every life’s journey such as the Road itself, maps, relics, illness, unexpected encounters and the warm welcome of an open front door. The interior journey from fear to peace can be as long and as full of incident as the Road to Santiago itself and Jim Forest is an excellent companion to have on the way.
— Shirley du Boulay, author of The Road to Canterbury

“They knew him in the breaking of the bread.” These words describe the experience of two disciples who met the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The mysterious stranger had accompanied them on the road, explaining the scriptures to them in a way that made their “hearts burn within” them. But only at supper, when he broke the bread and blessed it, did they recognize him as “the Lord.” And then he was gone.

Jim Forest’s new book, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, deals in part with the traditional practice of pilgrimage to holy sites, whether Jerusalem, Iona, or Canterbury. Some of the chapters deal with “maps,” “the road,” and “walking,” topics familiar to any pilgrim. But Forest’s book is about something larger. It is about a way of living in the spirit of pilgrimage, a way of living that opens us to the unexpected encounter with Jesus in our daily life. “Whether the journey is within your own backyard or takes you to the other side of the world, the potential is there for the greatest of adventures: a journey not only toward Christ but with him.”

Living in this spirit lifts daily life, with its routines, drudgery, and frustrations, to another level. Even suffering and sorrow take on a different quality. In one of the most moving chapters, Forest writes about his own experience as a dialysis patient, hooked up for many hours each week to tubes and machines that keep him alive. In the spirit of pilgrimage the experience of illness becomes yet another opportunity to encounter Christ.

It is this openness to a transforming encounter that distinguishes pilgrimage from mere tourism. And it occurs to me that this distinction applies to many aspects of our lives — even reading a book. How often have we read a newspaper or a book just as a way to pass the time, or just to provide an interesting topic for conversation? But then a crisis occurs — perhaps an ethical challenge, or the death of a friend, or a child’s illness–that puts us on what the novelist Walker Percy called “the Search.” Suddenly we become attentive to signs and clues around us. We seize on words of compassion or insight, whether from a stranger or from a book, that can illuminate the path ahead.
— Robert Ellsberg, author of All Saints and The Saints Guide to Happiness

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Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue

Silent as a Stone is a children’s book about a community of rescuers in Nazi-occupied Paris. The central figure is Mother Maria Skobtsova, an unconventional nun who choose to emerge herself in urban life and the urgent needs of her neighbors.

Confronting the horror of Nazi brutality, Mother Maria devised an ingenious plan to save Jewish children destined for extermination camps: Paris garbage collectors, upon her urging, hid the children in trash cans. They were later taken to safe havens outside the city.

For her selfless rescue activities, Mother Maria perished in a gas chamber in Ravensbrück camp in Germany in 1945. Today, she is among the “righteous gentiles” honored by Israel and a canonized saint in the Orthodox Church.

The book includes a three-page afterword for older children, parents and educators with more information about the life of Mother Maria and her collaborators.

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Mother Maria is a saint of our day and for our day; a woman of flesh and blood possessed by the love of God, who stood face to face with the problems of this century.” — +Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

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Silent as a Stone captured the attention of my little ones from the moment we began reading the beautiful story together. The rich prose and artwork combine seamlessly to tell a captivating story of survival, hope, and the deepest faith in God’s power to provide for those who call upon him in earnest. Part holocaust history lesson, part hagiography, part inspirational tale, the book illumines this brief chapter in Mother Maria Skobstoba’s life in a way that will cause readers young and old alike to crave more stories about this wonderful modern saint.

— Heather Zydek, author of Basil’s Search for Miracles

In the spirit of Allen Say’s Grandfather’s Journey and Patricia Polacco’s The Keeping Quilt, Silent as a Stone conveys the hope and heartbreak of life in a bite-size form that children can manage. Stunningly illustrated and tenderly told, Silent as a Stone tells the story of three unforgettable lives and the countless lives they touched. Mother Maria, Yuri, and Fr. Dimitri serve as examples to us all — and especially to our children — who must find the path of love through our broken world.”

— Jenny Schroedel, author of The Blackbird’s Nest: Saint Kevin of Ireland and The Everything Saints Book.

Silent as a Stone is an incredible resource for the Orthodox Christian community to learn about the heroic and courageous deeds of Mother Maria. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press should be commended for bringing this story to light and honoring Mother Maria with such a beautifully illustrated and inspiring book.

— Rachel Kamin, Director, Temple Israel Libraries & Media Center

sample pages

Jim Forest has brought us many wonderful books about the spiritual life, looks at icons and praying with them, a recent exceptional vision of pilgrimage as a way of life: The Road to Emmaus, his fine biography of Thomas Merton, Living with Wisdom, and The Ladder of the Beatitudes, to cite only a few. This children’s book takes the reader into a terrible time, one in which whole families were swept up, put into horrendous conditions of imprisonment in concentration camps, the result for most being disease and death. In the midst of such darkness we encounter the light and hope and goodness of a woman honored after her own death as “Righteous among the Gentiles.” This is the new saint, Mother Maria Skobtsova, a fascinating, unusual example of holiness in our time. Jim Forest weaves his lovely, spare text with Dasha Pacheshnaya’s extraordinary color drawings, most based on historical photos fo Mother Maria, Fr. Dmitri Klepinine, the hostel at Rue de Lourmel in the 15th arrondisment of Paris and the cycling stadium, Vel d’Hiver, where the French Jews were held. The story though turned into a narrative is based on first hand accounts of what Mother Maria was able to do in her visits to the stadium in th sweltering June days of 1942, as those rounded up awaited transport to the camps. Not only children but all of us need images of goodness in the face of great despair and evil. This wonderful story provide just that.

–Michael Plekon, author of Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church

“No matter how much love you give, you never have less.” Mother Maria said long ago. Mother Maria shows this in the book, Silent as a Stone. When Mother Maria of Paris finds out that the Nazi soldiers are going to send Jewish men, women, and children to concentration camps, she is crushed. When she goes to comfort all of the Jewish people, almost all of them have one request, to save their children. She knows she must help in some way. So, she constructs a plan with her garbage collecting friend, Pierre, to put Jewish children in trash cans. There, they must be silent as a stone.

Dasha Pancheshnaya really did a wonderful job with the illustrations in this book. She showed how characters felt in her drawings. Everyone and everything looks so realistically drawn, especially the detail work. Her drawings complete the story.

My absolute favorite part was the historical note. It tells you a lot about how Elizaveta Plenko came to be Mother Maria. She grew up in an Orthodox Christian home with her parents in Latvia. She was known a Liza by her friends and family. Liza’s father died when she was fourteen, and she didn’t believe in God for a period of time. It was a while until she believed again. By that time, she was in Paris and had a family. When her daughter died of influenza, she became devastated, and turned to God for help. Then, her eyes were opened, and she now knew her purpose in life was to help people and teach the way of God. It was then she became Mother Maria.

Over all, I give this book five stars. The book left me speechless. I was enthralled by Jim Forest’s writing. Dasha Pancheshnaya’s colored pencil drawings are amazing. If you like historical fiction and vivid pictures, Silent as a Stone is for you!

— Review written for Jacob’s Well by Elisabeth Graham, a sixth-grade student in New Jersey

Silent as Stone is based on the real life of Mother Maria, a Russian woman who immigrated to Paris during the Revolution, and later became a nun. During World War II, Mother Maria was a beacon of hope for many people, including French Jews. This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of how she managed to save Jewish children during the war. In 1942, when the Jews of Paris were herded into a stadium, Mother Maria went there to see what comfort she could provide. Seeing the fear and misery all around her, she plotted with the French trash collectors working there to smuggle out Jewish children in trash cans.

She worked tirelessly to save as many people as she could until she was arrested and sent to a concentration camp, where she later died.

This inspiring story demonstrates that anyone can choose to do the right thing, even in the face of the worst kind of danger. It is a story of hope, courage and faith that is a welcome addition for any library.

— Nancy Austein, in recommending the book for the 2008 Sydney Taylor Book Award given by the Association of Jewish Libraries

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The Author: Journalism and peace work have been major ingredients in author Jim Forest’s life. He is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, In Communion. He is a recipient of the Peacemaker Award from Notre Dame University’s Institute for International Peace Studies. He is a prolific writer of inspirational, historical, and bio-graphical books, most recently of The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell. Jim makes his home in Alkmaar, Holland, near Amsterdam. He is father to six children and grandfather to four. Silent as a Stone is his third children’s book.

The illustrator: Dasha Pancheshnaya was born in Moscow, Russia in 1980 and immigrated to the United States with her family in 1991. She holds a BFA in Illustration from the Fashion Institute of Technology and presently participates in various disciplines of visual art including graphic design and illustration. Influenced by Russian artists of the nineteenth century, masters of the Italian Renaissance, and Art Nouveau, she currently is a student of the Prosopon School of Iconology.

ISBN 978-088141-314

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Impressions of a Four-Day Conversation on Peace in Volos, Greece

by Jim Forest

May 17-20, 2007, fifty Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant Christians from Europe and the United States met in Volos, Greece, for a discussion of “Forgiveness, Peace and Reconciliation.” Our host was Metropolitan Ignatios, the local Orthodox bishop. The conference was organized by the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in collaboration with the Boston Theological Institute and the World Council of Churches. The event was a contribution of the Church of Greece to the World Council of Churches’s Decade to Overcome Violence program, whose particular focus this year is on Europe.

In their presentations, the speakers looked at various aspects of the conference theme. A panel of speakers from Cyprus, Serbia, Russia and the Middle East discussed Orthodoxy in situations of conflict. Members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, the St. Egidio Community in Rome and the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland participated in a concluding round table on “Christian Churches Contributing to a Culture of Peace”.

Each participant in the conference will have his or her highlights to report. My account reveals what especially caught my attention but also reveals blind spots, both because I missed two sessions of the conference and also because I had difficulty at times following some of the lectures in simultaneous translation.

It seemed to me that the most important and difficult issue addressed at the conference was the relationship of church and state, a matter of passionate debate in Greece as it is in many other countries. At one end of the spectrum was the experience some of the conference participants had in attending the Orthodox Liturgy Sunday morning at the Church of St. Nicholas in Volos. It happened to be a service that ended with a commemoration of the mass killing of many thousands of the Greeks of the Pontos region by Turks during and after World War I. At a certain moment in the service uniformed representatives of the main branches of the Greek military came to the front of the church. One had the impression that the border between church and state is so thin as to be hardly visible.

There were many voices raised at the conference challenging so uncritical a relationship between government and church. One of the interventions we heard came from Metropolitan Neofytos of Morfou, Cyprus, an island that has been divided between Greeks and Turks for more than three decades. He spoke of the need for self-criticism within the Church as a way of initiating “a process of healing.” This is a question of discovering the truth, however painful, “because only the truth is liberating.” He described the negative impact of national ideas being transferred from Greece to Cyprus in the sixties. “Belonging to the Greek nation was regarded as equal to or even above being Orthodox. The Church was seen as acting for the splendor of the nation. Faith was regarded not as the path to Christ the Savior but the realization of national ideals. Basic Christian teaching was marginalized. I don’t mean to suggest that the Church should be indifferent to national issues. It has a part to play. We are taught to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But in Cyprus we lost the golden balance point. We came to see ourselves primarily as a political organism, with our politicians turning to the Church with the expectation of hearing the correct political words and phrases. There was an absence of forgiveness, an erosion of confession. We made the grave mistake of not praying for the enemy. Indeed there are Orthodox Christians who are scandalized even to be asked to forgive. We lost our way. Christian identity should never to used to divide.”

Pantelis Kalaitzidis, director of Volos Academy for Theological Studies, argued that wars, even when occurring in the name of religion, “are nothing but a result of the exaltation of collective egoisms. They only witness to the absence of real repentance, the denial of the Cross. Behind any conflict, we can easily discern an idolization of religion, tribe and nation, an odd paganism of earth, soil, homeland or of the ‘God-bearing’ people, of a claim of exclusivity, which is a real temptation.”

Dr. Vletsis Athanasios, professor at Munich University, spoke of the problem “of unrepented sins committed collectively by Orthodox people, or even the failure to identify sins we have committed.” What is needed, he said, is the “illumination of memory.” Without a “purification of memory,” he said, “we are doomed to persist in committing past sins.”

In a lecture on the Orthodox view of human rights, Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis, of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston, pointed out that “Orthodox Christianity does not have a complete system of understanding the human person. The human being is an inexhaustible mystery. At the core of that mystery is the fact that each person is made in the image of God.” He spoke of the “apophatic dimension of Orthodox anthropology, with its total repudiation of all ideologies.”

“It is wrong,” he said, “to assume that the ethos of Orthodoxy does not permit the development of human rights sensitivities and advocacy. Quite the contrary, the Orthodox view of human dignity supports the idea of human rights. The possibility for a greater sensitivity and advocacy of human rights issues by the Orthodox churches is highly probable since under the pressure of historic challenges people often find new meaning in traditional ideas…. Recently important contributions have been published defending the notion of human rights and attempting to embed them within an Orthodox understanding of being human as communion in the context of the Trinitarian faith.”

Dr. Athanasios Papathanasiou, editor of the quarterly journal “Synaxis,” spoke about war in the Orthodox tradition. “It is interesting to see how the tension between the historic necessity and the gospel criteria is depicted in the canons of the Orthodox Church,” he said. “I believe that the Church does not represent a compact body with a common view and unanimity throughout history. It is always formed by several trends, with various sensibilities and priorities; trends which are often in agreement, divergence or even in conflict.” Thus one finds, even among the Church Fathers, a range of views about war.

Dr. Geiko Muller Fahrenholz, a German theologian who is organizing a concluding conference for the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence, stressed the part played by humiliation in conflict and the importance of expanding forgiveness of sin to include the healing of humiliations. This requires an awareness of how one’s sin not only alienates the sinner from God but has profound social consequences. Sinful actions often “ignite the desire for retaliation, with humiliation taking on a life of its own.” Acts of revenge, unfortunately, have no liberating power but simply prolong the cycle of death and counter-death “until there is no one left except old women dressed in black.” Reconciliation, however, “is a process of liberation both for sinners and those sinned against…. Everyday life is only bearable to the extent we have learned to forgive.”

Canon Paul Oestreicher, Anglican priest and the former director of the Centre for International Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral in England, made an impassioned appeal for Christians in today’s world to give a witness against bloodshed similar to that of Christians in the early centuries. “Abandoning the example and teaching of Jesus as irrelevant to political life, the great majority of Christians have engaged in war even to the point of treating it as holy and as God’s will, usually on both sides. We have put nation and often our religion above humanity. The Western churches have, since Augustine, paid lip service to peace as an ideal, while engaging in wars deemed to be just, all part of a necessarily fallen world. The medieval doctrine of the just war in theory rules out most actual wars. In practice almost every war has — perhaps with exceptions like Iraq now — been held to be just. Even in the most questionable wars, military chaplains in uniform are an undisputed presence and aid to military morale. Even Hitler’s aggressive war had the explicit support of nearly all German church leaders, Protestant and Catholic, including those who had the courage to oppose Nazi ideology. There were only individual objectors. The churches gave them no support.”

Dr. Rodney Petersen, director of the Boston Theological Institute, concentrated on “the seriousness with which religion must be considered in the quest for human security.” Religion, he said, “is a multivalent force. It can be a force for good, a force for chaos and conflict, or both simultaneously. Religion has been mobilized to sanction violence, drawn on to resolve conflicts, and invoked to provide humanitarian and development aid. In all of these capacities, religious leaders, organizations, institutions and communities are especially important in shaping the direction of conflict prevention or reconstruction efforts in fragile states. “

Dr. Petros Vassiliadis, professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, agreed that the religious factors have been a driving force in nearly every war. “All the shortcomings of Christianity,” he said, “are rooted in bad Christology. I have problems whenever we absolutize our own mission.”

Fr. Zivko Panev, professor at the St. Serge Institute in Paris, discussed the influence of the state on church life in Serbia following the restoration of the Serbian patriarchate, with the consequence that “national identity merged with church identify.” In fact, many Serbs who would identify themselves as Orthodox don’t believe what the Church teaches. Some are even convinced atheists. The problem in Serbia is made more complex because of an “idealization of religion that followed the collapse of communist ideology, with the Church perceived as being the principal guardian of national identity.”

Dr. Kostas Zorbas, theologian and sociologist as well as director of the Observatory of Social Issues of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, spoke of various problems in European Union, especially concerning the security in Europe. These include the policies of the European Union regarding Kosovo, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He noted that European Institutions have started to engage in regular dialogue between Christian churches and other religions.“Today in Europe we have to address new forms of insecurity,” he said, “including problems of immigration, terrorism, environmental pollution, refugees, etc. Churches should not rely on military intervention. Military intervention only worsens and complicates problems. We want our believing citizens to have confidence in Europe by seeing the values they all hold dear, values based on human dignity, reflected in Europe’s policies.”

Dr. Alexei Bodrov, director of St. Andrew’s Biblical Theological Institute in Moscow, spoke of various problems in Russia. These include the “traditional lack of tolerance — in principle we have tolerance, in practice we do not. There is still widespread anti-Semitism. Even the concept of human rights is regarded as highly suspect, having a much lower priority than state or national interest. There is in Russia today a highly politicized Orthodoxy that has little in common with Christian Orthodoxy. One notes the many ties between church and the military, church and police, church and other state bodies. This is partly due to Orthodoxy being made to take the place of Marxist ideology following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet though a high percentage of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, in fact less than four percent occasionally take part in church services. There is widespread ignorance concerning religious questions.”

Rania Flavie Touma of the Youth Department of the Middle East Council of Churches, a Syrian Orthodox Christian, said that in her homeland, Syria, peace is simply “a longing to lead a stable life without the fear of being kicked out or killed. Peace is hard to imagine in our circumstances. Our whole area is burning. For Christians, our vocation in such a context is to be the changer we want to see in others. We need to be a Church that reveals the kingdom of God and is not merely a church of national identity.”

Dr. Joan Patricia Back from Centro “Uno” for the Unity of Christians, the ecumenical secretariat of the Focolare Movement in Rome, spoke of the spirituality of reconciliation as experienced in this movement, which now exists in 182 countries and involves Christians of many churches. She stressed that one of the central elements of this spirituality is kenosis in order to bring about reconciliation and unity. It implies a self-emptying love as shown by Jesus on the cross. It is a path which entails embracing “nothingness.” She said, “This ‘nothingness’ is not something negative or passive, but rather something positive and very active.” Living as Jesus Forsaken, that is living the “nothingness of ourselves to live Him” in order to be able to love according to his measure. It is an active ‘nothingness’ because it means making ourselves ready to receive the other, ready ‘to make ourselves one’ in order to build a costructive dialogue with the other.”

Fr. Vassilios Thermos, an Orthodox priest and child psychiatrist living in Athens, said “there is no greater sin than war with its violence, hatred, cruelty, murder and fanaticism. Any kind of violence and hostility is an assault on the Holy Spirit. Who are the peacemakers that Christ calls on his followers to become? They are the ones that help us to overcome hatred. Each peacemaker is a carrier of the Holy Trinity. He is a child of God because he imitates God. After all, you cannot convey to others what you don’t have.”

Dr. Aruna Gnanadason, a staff member of the World Council of Churches and member of the Church of South India, stressed the problem of domestic violence, the principle targets of which are women and children. “Women have borne pain and hurt for centuries, silently many times,” she said, “standing on the threshold of a violent death in the hands of the men they live with because they have been taught that this is how they live their faith. Many women experience marginalization and even exclusion rather than acknowledge even for themselves that something is gravely wrong and they need not accept such abuse. This acceptance of violence is imposed on women by the strict mores and values of our societies – it is certainly not a biblical notion…. The churches need to become a ‘sanctuary of courage’ … a safe space where violated women know they will be nurtured and surrounded by care. The churches can become that space where women who experience violence can find safety, to recount for themselves their experiences so that true healing and reconciliation will take place.”

Dr. Claudia Jahnel, lecturer in religious and mission studies and intercultural theology at the Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen, Germany, spoke about the problem of “otherness.” “The assessment of ‘the other’ and the process of judging other cultural symbols bear signs of the age-old Eurocentric relationship with ‘the other’,” she said. “What is happening here is the prolonging of the historic monologue of the West on ‘the other’, the follow-up of the continuous subsummation of ‘the other’ … an act of epistemic violence. While, in former centuries, ‘the other’ – other cultures, religions, societies – have been ‘discovered’ by European explorers and only from then on seemed to be ‘born’ – as childlike, immature, and primitive societies – today, again, there is a tendency to conceive of ‘the other’ from a European-Western and so-called ‘enlightened’ point of view which perceives the West as the developed and active pole: the West integrates and harmonizes the differences, brings peace and justice to other parts of the world, minimizes conflicts and proclaims the ideal of civilization.”

In a session on the healing of memory, Dr. Geraldine Smyth, a Dominican nun who is senior lecturer at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Dublin, focused on the role of memory in the process of peacemaking. “Someone once said that civilization began with cemeteries,” she said. “Honoring the memory of the dead betokens civility, humaneness, spirituality…. In Northern Ireland, where a divided people is emerging from prolonged violence, the besetting temptation is to remember not wisely but too well the ‘chosen traumas’ and ‘chosen glories’ of their own community, culture or church. Here the prospect of making peace with the past is difficult and painful. For when society begins to think of how to memorialize grievous loss, often a pain too deep for tears is stirred up, and perhaps even a preternatural anger not easily biddable to the conscious mind. Many who have longed to forget, remain haunted by overpowering images of terror and an upsurge of grief or desire for revenge. Survivors of war or violent abuse, may, in the process of therapy, discover that their bodies hold memories even after conscious memories have faded. The art of remembering well means including the operations of mind and will, but also requires us to admit of a shifting, subjective emotional field. In these circumstances, such axioms whether to ‘forgive and forget’, or ‘remember and forgive’, may belittle people’s sense of abandonment and betrayal. This is not simply a matter of making a moral choice. It is no easy matter to reconnect memory with life rather than death, or to be ready to ‘re-member’ and include both the victims and perpetrators of grievous hurt into a restored life in community. Forgiveness is above all a sharing in the divine life and a gift of grace.”

Also addressing the issue of memory, the Rev. Meletis Meletiadis, an Evangelical pastor whose parish is in Volos, spoke of his experience of rejection while growing up in Greece, being labeled a heretic and shunned by classmates whose hostility was encouraged by teachers and school administrators. Such traumas “left deep wounds.” Later, while studying theology in the United States, he met Orthodox Christians who were not filled with contempt for non-Orthodox, and this was a life-changing event for him. “I realized for the first time that while Orthodox Christians have often built an impenetrable wall of self-justification around themselves, I was doing the very same thing in my own way…. For many years we not only hurt one another, but we hurt our Christian witness.”

The final session of the conference was on how various Christian churches focus on the creation of a culture of peace.

David Porter, a Protestant on the staff of the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland, described the initiative he and others took beginning twenty years ago in launching a biblical challenge to a nationalistic Protestant theology. It was an initiative that has born much fruit, contributing to the recent breakthrough.

Dr. Claudio Betti, Roman Catholic and a member of the St. Egidio Community in Rome, spoke of the Christian vocation of overcoming a culture of fear and violence. “I think that the role of the churches today confronting violence and striving to work for a culture of peace is that of starting once again from our faith. It is not courage that enables us to overcome the culture of fear, the feeling of powerlessness. It is faith that carries us beyond the narrow boundaries of prohibition, fear and intimidation. I think that our churches will be able to affirm a culture of peace if they are able to renew their faith by returning with humility and love to the Word of God, to prayer and to the liturgy. This is always the starting point.”

Jim Forest, secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, spoke about the importance of the Church recovering the memory of its own resistance to violence in the early centuries of Christianity. “We Orthodox certainly have remembered how the early Church celebrated the liturgy. To the astonishment of other Christians, we are happy to stand in the church for very extended periods. But sadly we have forgotten a great deal of the social teaching and practice of the early Church and have become deaf to much that the saints … had to say.”

He concluded with a quotation from St. John Chrysostom: “We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart.”

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Photos taken in Volos:

Test of Jim Forest’s lecture:

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands
tel : 072-515-4180 (outside Holland: 00-31-72-515-4180)
e-mail: [email protected]
Jim and Nancy Forest web site:
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