War and Peace: an Orthodox Christian view

lecture for the annual meeting of the Fellowship of Saint Andrew, given by Jim Forest at the Cathedral in Dunblane, Scotland, March 11, 2000

Christ healing the blind man (engraving by Eric Gill)
Christ healing the blind man (engraving by Eric Gill)

Several years ago I was among the speakers at a conference on war and peace in Europe, an event sponsored by Syndesmos, the Orthodox youth movement, in cooperation with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. We met in the newly opened diocesan conference center in Chania, Crete. Our host was the local bishop, Metropolitan Irinaios of Kydonia and Apokoronas.

Those of you who know Crete are aware how bitterly Cretans recall the humiliations and sufferings of their ancestors during the period of Turkish rule and how proud they are of their forebears’ success at finally expelling the invader, but I confess that until my visit this aspect of European history was simply a distant fact, not something haunting my thoughts. After all, though transplanted in Europe 23 years ago, I come from a country which has only invaded other countries, never itself been invaded since Europeans took control centuries ago. Unless we were sent away to battlefields in Europe or Asia, war was an abstract topic, something we learned about from films, books and news reports. One could climb without bruises to the high moral plain of pacifism, or, for that matter, think of war in idyllic terms without ever having to experience its hellish reality.

For the people of Crete, though untroubled by war since May 1945, the ground is still damp with blood. There are many painful memories of the German occupation during World War II, yet it is their long struggle with the Turks that seems to press hardest in their memories. Everyone remembers the costly struggle to drive the Turks back to Turkey which began in the 17th century and ended in 1898. The island’s motto is “Freedom or death.” Events of the 18th and 19th centuries are described with such immediacy that I had the impression I was listening to witnesses.

The battle for freedom is preserved in patriotic folk songs which Cretans still sing. Metropolitan Irinaios would sometimes translate the words for me as these ballads were being sung. In one of them, Cretan freedom fighters announce joyfully that they are setting off “to make women into widows and children into orphans.” The words of this rousing anthem were sung with enthusiasm by members of a local Orthodox parish — good Christian people who had no plans to take up arms, glared at no one, and certainly didn’t intend to startle or scandalize their guests.

I had been asked to give the conference’s opening lecture, the theme of which was Orthodox teaching about war. I pointed out that the Orthodox Church has never embraced the just war doctrine, that the Church regards war as inevitably sinful in nature, that priests are forbidden by canon law to kill or cause the death of others, and that under all circumstances and at all times we are commanded by Christ to love our enemies. There was nothing remarkable in what I said, certainly no novel doctrines, yet the lecture stirred up a controversy not only in the hall in which I was speaking but into the city itself, as the translator’s words were being broadcast live over the diocesan radio station, Martyria. Before I had finished, one person following the conference by radio arrived to take passionate issue with me. (I am happy to say we eventually parted on good terms.)

The debate continued that night when Metropolitan Irinaios and I took part in a radio conversation with listeners. Responding to a man who called in to denounce Turks as barbarians who only understood violence, I summarized what Christ had to say on the subject of loving one’s enemies and pointed out that Christ lived, died and rose from the dead in a country suffering occupation, yet he neither blessed nor took part in the Zealots’ armed struggle against the occupiers. “That’s all very well,” the caller responded, “but now let me tell you about a real saint.” He preceded to relate the story of a priest who, in the 19th century, played a valiant role in the war to drive the Turks off the island.

I have often thought since then how that late-night exchange in Crete revealed the usual contours of Christian discussion about war: we feel the need to justify wars fought by ourselves or our forebears and often turn to the calendar of saints — or people we think of as saints — rather than the Gospel to do so.

Let us consider the saints. To a certain extent, we can find whatever we like among those included in the Church’s calendar. Their company ranges from kings and emperors to desert hermits and holy fools, from those who wore armor to those who wore nothing. Some were soldiers, others had given up their lives by refusing to be soldiers. Still others were already soldiers when they were baptized and became martyrs because of disobedience. Still others, like Martin of Tours and Alexander Nevsky, had been able to leave their military attire behind and devote the remainder of the lives to the Church. Yet for all their astonishing variety, each saint gives us an example of heroic discipleship, of death to self and the readiness to lay down their lives for others. If you study the acts of canonization, you discover that no one has ever been canonized for his success in killing or for his exploits in war. They are placed on the calendar because, despite all their imperfections, Christ shines through them.

And yet saints have at times been made into the heavenly patrons of war and defenders of those under arms, the best known being the Great Martyr George, who so far as we know never killed anyone and in fact didn’t even kill the dragon he battled with. It is impossible to imagine an Orthodox church without the icon in which we see a beardless young man on a white horse in combat with a dragon.

It is very nearly seventeen hundred years since George’s martyrdom, time enough for all sorts of stories and traditions to have attached themselves to his name. According to a medieval legend that became well-known throughout Europe, a dragon lived in a lake in the province of Lybia, a region of Cappadocia in Asia Minor, who “envenomed all the country” and was worshiped by the terrified local people, who fed him first their sheep and later their children to assuage his appetite and subdue his rage. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter Elizabeth to be sacrificed. She was going toward the lake to meet her doom when providentially the young knight Saint George appeared on horseback. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then wounded the dragon with his lance, afterward leading the vanquished creature into the city. According to the Legenda Aurea written by Blessed James de Voragine, the wounded creature followed Elizabeth “as if it had been a meek beast.” Afterward George called on the local people to be baptized. The king offered George great treasures but he asked that these be distributed to the poor.

Such wonderful tales came centuries after George had died a martyr’s death. The actual George never saw a dragon. Living in the time of the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian, when many Christians were being arrested and taken away to torturers and executioners, this young man, possibly a newly baptized soldier, had the courage to walk into a public square and shout, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested and, like so many other Christians in that period, put to death after suffering from red-hot irons. His witness is said to have led to the conversion of many and given courage to others who were already baptized.

The familiar icon of Saint George slaying the dragon, while not based on an actual event, reveals through symbols the most essential elements of a true story. The icon also offers symbolic metaphors for our own struggle. The dragon represents the power of evil and the rule of fear in our lives. The white horse Saint George rides is the courage God gives us when we overcome our fear and refuse submission to evil. The pencil-thin lance the saint holds is not a weapon of war but the holy and life-giving Cross: the power of self-giving love. Notice that the cross-topped lance it is not tightly grasped but rests lightly in George’s hand — it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil. George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. In the upper corner of the icon the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing.

The dragon myth offers yet another level of meaning. In the legend, the people came to worship the dragon, feeding him first their livestock, then their children. Is there not a familiar human tendency to worship power — to seek survival by submitting to those powers which destroy property and, through war, eat our children? Yet the myth is given a profoundly Christian treatment. Its theme is conversion, not retribution. The Christ-like Saint George battles and defeats the dragon but doesn’t take its life. The princess — an image of Christ’s mother — leads the pacified dragon into the town. The people will afterward have the opportunity to take care of the dragon just as the wolf tamed by Saint Francis afterward became the guest of his former enemies, the inhabitants of Gubbio.

We may think stories of saints like George and Francis make wonderful bedtime stories but have little bearing on real life, “real life” meaning the world we live in — the world of wars and “ethnic cleansing” — the world that again and again gives birth to such human dragons as Hitler and Stalin plus all the murderers and maniacs close at hand who speak our own language and roam the domestic headlines — armed people who go into schools and shopping center and start shooting — such a person as Thomas Hamilton, who shot dead 16 children and one teacher here in Dunblane four years ago.

The basic message we run into all the time, not only in the objections of others but in our own thoughts, is that the Gospel, sadly, doesn’t help us very much in our relations with the world we live in. The dragons are too real — in fact far more terrifying than the reptile in the icon. In any event we are not Saint George and have no fearless white horse.

Yet we are called not to be well-adjusted, respected, dragon-fearing citizens but God-fearing saints, and must work out as best we can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, what this means in our own lives, times and circumstances.

It is worth paying attention to the heroic example others are giving in our times, for example the monks of Decani Monastery in Kosovo who, while civil war was being fought around them, set about rescuing neighbors who might otherwise have been murdered.

Just a year ago in the area of Decani monastery, local ethnic Albanians fled their homes and hid in the woods. “The Serbs were setting all the houses and our apartment building on fire,” aid Imer Lokaj, a school principal. “They wanted to burn us alive.” Father Sava and another monk came down from the monastery in a van, searching for those who were hiding. “Come with us,” they said. “We will keep you safe.” Vanload after vanload of local Albanians were brought to safety within the monastery walls. “Without them,” said the 58-year-old Albanian painter and art teacher Nimon Lokaj, “my whole family would be dead.”

As you may have heard, this community of monks, like Kosovo’s Bishop Artremije, has been outspoken in its criticism of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and for years has sought a solution for Kosovo which would allow for every ethnic community to live in security and peace side by side.

As you can imagine, hatred still simmers in Decani, yet Nimon Lokaj’s 24-year-old son, Artan, said he will always be grateful to the monks of Decani even though they are Serbs.

“Our mission is fighting against evil,” explained Decani’s abbot, Theodosie. “Now I think we will have more of a job to do.”

The abbot’s comment is central to our understanding of peacemaking. It is not enough that we try to live peaceful lives. We are called on to combat evil. As one of the rector of our parish in Amsterdam, Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, has said, “It may be that a Christian should not be a soldier but it is essential that he be a warrior.”

For Christians, our combat is first of all spiritual combat. We are obliged by Christ not only to love our enemies but to pray for them. Without prayer, without God’s help, love of enemies is not possible.

Our great hope in this spiritual combat must be for the conversion rather than destruction of our adversary. This is certainly not a utopian fantasy. It was this great struggle without weapons in the early Church which brought about so profound a change of heart within both people of the Roman empire and barbarian tribes outside the empire’s borders as far away as Ireland.

The same commandment that calls on us to pray for enemies instructs us to do them good. A significant example of this was recently given by Greeks in their compassionate response to the devastating earthquakes that occurred in Turkey last year. Far from rejoicing in the suffering of their historic enemy, Greeks quickly raised great sums of money to help earthquake victims. Turks responded in kind when an earthquake caused destruction in Athens. The result is that for the first time in many years relations between Greece and Turkey have taken a turn for the better. In January Patriarch Bartholomeos said, while visiting Thessaloniki, that he believed “Turkey will now have a rapid course toward integration with the European Union.” Days later the Greek Foreign minister visited Ankara, the first such visit in 38 years. “There are very difficult problems that have not been solved,” said his Turkish counterpart, “but looking back six months ago, if we had said we could have achieved what we have achieved today, no one would have believed us.” In a situation so often tending toward war, one can begin to hope that peaceful relations may occur.

What impedes us as peacemakers?

First there is the failure of our imaginations. Though we have changed, thanks to the help of others and God’s grace, too often we cannot imagine others changing. We are convinced they are always going to have all the faults we currently perceive in them. We see all efforts to change them, even prayers on their behalf, as a waste of time. While it’s true that leopards don’t change their spots, thank God people do.

Then there is the factor of fear. “The root of war is fear,” wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. My Marxist father disagreed, arguing that the root of war is bad economics, but years later told me that he come to realize that the root of bad economics is fear. The opposite of love is not hatred but fear. So many decisions in our lives are the consequence of fear — the vocation one is drawn to rejected out of fear, trips not taken because of fear, words left unsaid because of fear, gestures of love not offered because of fear, the faces of strangers hiding rather than revealing the image of God because of our fear. If you are wondering what to confess the next time you go to confession, you might think about the role of fear in your life, not fear of God but fear of others. “The essence of sin,” observes Metropolitan John Zizioulas,”is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God.”

Not only do we need to be aware of the way fear tends to impede God’s love in our lives, but how much our actions and even thoughts are unconsciously shaped by social forces which may be demonic rather than divine in character. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, we abhor being cut off from those around us. It isn’t because of an innate attraction to evil that so many Germans and Austrians once cooperated in Hitler’s wars and assisted in the Holocaust, nor because white South Africans are worse than us that so many of them embraced apartheid. Through slogans, propaganda, fear, the manipulation of pride and prejudice, the idea of national or racial superiority, the individual can find himself drawn into social movements that acquire a tidal force so overwhelming that finally hardly anyone dares utter a word of dissent. I mention this not simply as an interesting observation but because we too are carried along by various currents of ideology, class, career, peer group pressure, propaganda, national identity, etcetera, and often hardly realize how cramped our spiritual life becomes in the squeeze of all these other items.

And then there is the problem of nationalism. Nation is an ancient word but nationalism is a modern term. Thank God, at least in Britain, nationalism is something one can occasionally laugh at. “The English, the English, the English are best, so up with the English and down with the rest,” Flanders and Swann used to sing. This is nearly every nation’s song, except of course the principal noun has to be changed to match the particular border. Americans are second to none in this regard. It astonishes and distresses most Americans I talk to in my travels if they discover that Nancy and I are now Dutch citizens. It is as if one has a national identify only by virtue of possessing a passport to prove it. Not that there is anything wrong with having a national identity. What a sad thing it would be not to have one. But national identity is not nationalism. On the one hand, for Americans like me, there is the annual feast of stuffed turkey with cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, on the other — malignant — hand, there is believing I belong to a new chosen people, a super people, for whom ordinary morals don’t apply. We Americans bask in our power and wealth, regarding ourselves as the greatest of democracies, the society most dedicated to the defense of human rights, the society which provides a model for others to emulate and imitate — God protect them if they decline. It is not that we are a people without redeeming qualities, but our collective vanity is massive.

Not that one need be American to experience the problem. Some of you will recall that war fever that swept through Britain at the time of the Falklands War. People who one day couldn’t have located the Falkland Islands on the world map had you paid them five pounds were ready and eager a day or two later to go to war on their behalf. O what a lovely war! My Argentine friend, Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, was barred from entering Britain in that period. It was counted an act of journalistic courage for The Times to publish an article by Adolfo while the war was being fought.

We have seen lately the appalling price paid for the collision of nationalisms in Kosovo. NATO intervened, siding with the Kosovo Albanian side. As a result Serbia was massively bombed, the Danube is still blocked by fallen bridges, the economy of the entire region is in ruins, and now Kosovo is under occupation. Ethnic cleansing continues, with NATO forces seemingly powerless to protect the Serb minority, which probably is regarded as deserving whatever violence comes its way. It is a situation in which on is hard pressed to find heroes, though one is pleased to say that the Serbian Orthodox Church has been remarkable in the depth and breadth of its response, condemning extremists on both sides, again and again raising its voice in opposition both to the policies of the Serbian government and also NATO’s actions, and assisting the war’s victims no matter what their ethnic or religious identity might be.

In Russia, by contrast, the Russian Orthodox Church repeatedly expressed its enthusiastic support for the war in Chechnya, saying not a word of protest against the destruction of Grozny or any other population center. One can assume there have been Russian conscientious objectors to the war, but one cannot presently imagine the Church offering them any support or encouragement. One understands that Russia has been fighting forces in Chechnya that seem to have no moral scruple, but neither has the Russian side been notable for its respect for the lives of those caught in the middle. One senses within the Russian Church a habit of uncritical support for the government no matter what. Not since the Bolshevik revolution and the civil war that followed has the Church raised its voice against whatever the government was doing.

But the purpose of this talk is not to criticize the failures of the leaders of national churches — bishops often make an easy target — but to focus on what we can do ourselves as persons trying to live the Beatitudes, including the Beatitude of peacemaking. How dare we to expect more of our bishops than we do of ourselves? Our main problem is what to do with the face in the mirror. How can I respond to conflict — within my family, within my parish, within my diocese, between the various jurisdictions and Churches, between segments of society, between nations? How can I live the peace of Christ?

It is not learned in a classroom or from a book or from a guru. We have the Liturgy to both teach and nourish us in this undertaking.

In the Liturgy we have no sooner heard the priest announce “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” then find ourselves confronted with the first petition, “In peace let us pray to the Lord.” Peace is a precondition of worship — peace with God, peace with each other. How can we love God if we despise his image in others? We go on to ask “for the peace from above, and the salvation of our souls. . . . For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all. . . . For seasonable weather, for abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times. . . . For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger and necessity,” finally asking God to “help us, save us, and have mercy on us, and keep us . . . by your grace.” Later, as the eucharistic liturgy begins, we attempt “to lay aside all worldly cares” — all hostile feelings toward any other person, all division, all fear and personal anxiety in order to approach God in a state of profound peace.

Repeatedly during the service the priest offers a blessing of peace to all who are present, and they immediately return the blessing of peace to him. The Gospel reading is introduced with the words, “Peace be unto all.” Then in the Litany of Supplication we appeal to God “that the whole day may be perfect, holy, peaceful and sinless.” We ask for “an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies.” We call on God for “all things that are good and profitable for our souls, and for peace in the world.” We ask God’s blessing “that we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance.” Later we are summoned to “stand upright and stand in fear . . . that we may offer the Holy Oblation in peace.” Finally, at the end of the Liturgy, we are sent away in peace. Having been privileged to take part in the Eucharist, we are returned to the world as ambassadors of Christ’s peace among those who, in many cases, hardly know who Christ is.

The Liturgy is our school, our hospital, our place of healing, where peace — the Person of Christ — reenters our lives. Afterwards we bear Christ into the world through deeds of peace which reveal his presence.

Prayer for busy people

notes for opening talk by Jim Forest at a retreat at La Casa de Maria, Santa Barbara, CA; Nov 8-10, 1996

We all regard ourselves as busy people or we wouldn’t be taking part in a weekend retreat on prayer for busy people. I have been wondering, though, in what way, if any, would the actual content of the weekend be different if had been called Prayer for People with Lots Free Time on Their Hands. Or Prayer for Lazy People. Of course some of you — maybe most of you — wouldn’t be here. You would be too busy.

But prayer is prayer whether you have a simple or complicated life.

We cannot say prayer would be easy if we were not busy people. A life that isn’t busy probably means we’re in ill health, unemployed or retired. But for most people here and now, life is heavily loaded. Most of us probably feel like the pair of jeans in the Levis symbol being pulled by horses in opposite directions, only we are being pulled in more than two directions. We have perhaps half a dozen horses testing our rivets: work, family, friends, religious life, recreation, health … plus perhaps one or to addictions or semi-addictions, passions we can either just barely control, or can’t control.

Probably we sometimes feel a little guilty about being so busy. But even more often we feel guilty that, busy though we are, we aren’t doing more.

The truth is: busy-ness by itself is not a bad thing. We shouldn’t aspire to anything less than life full to the brim. we are meant, as human beings, to live an engaged and responsible life, a life in which we have keep making choices that stretch us intellectually and spiritually.

On the other hand, the word “busy” can suggest another definition. It can mean being frantic — too many things happening, no sense of control, no sense of life having a center or of the pieces fitting together and reinforcing each other.

Probably for many of us life is more than busy. A lot of people feel harried, exhausted, frightened, powerless, with little or no sense of meaning.

Probably this is something that rings a few bells for us. But we are, after all, people of our time and place. We live in an age that in many ways is hard on the spiritual life — or just plain hard on life.

Let’s think about what we are up against.

There is the problem of living in the “information age.” No previous generation had to absorb so much information that had to do with events that were beyond the range of sight and sound or had such access to information resources. First newspapers, then radios, then television, now the Internet and the World Wide Web. The positive aspect of these tools is that we’re more aware of inter-connection and inter-dependence; we are better able to respond to needs and build relationships. Within hours we know about important events happening in any part of the world — a scientific discovery, a hurricane or earthquake, a war, an act of heroism. The negative aspect is that we become simply information junkies. We know far more than our grandparents but understand less than they did and live less responsible lives.

You probably saw the film “Amadeus” and so recall the scene where the Emperor told Mozart there were “to many notes” in his opera, “The Marriage of Figaro.” “The human ear can only absorb so many notes.” In fact there seems no limit to the number of notes we can absorb but there is a limit to have much information we can usefully absorb and respond to. I can easily get into a numbing state of information exhaustion.

Another factor that seems more modern than ancient is the pace of life. Things change and change at unprecedented speed. Technology changes. Family patterns change (to the point that there is hardly any family life).

If we were looking for a symbol for our era perhaps the clock would be a good choice. There aren’t many of us not wearing a watch. If we start counting the time-keeping devices in the average home, it will at least equal the number of icons you might find in the home of a pious Orthodox family of the old school.

At it’s best, the clock is simply a benign and essential tool of social coordination. At its worst, it is a tool of social disconnection. How many things of real importance do we fail to do because we haven’t got time?

I often think about an experience I had during the late sixties when I was accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was giving lectures in the United States. We were at the University of Michigan, waiting for the elevator doors to open. I noticed my brown-robed companion was looking at the electric clock above the elevator doors. Then he said, “You know, Jim, a few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.”

He was right. The clock is a religious object in our world, one so powerful that it can depose another.

I also recall a story related in his journal by Daniel Wheeler, a Quaker engineer who had come from Britain to Russia at the time of Tsar Alexander I to take charge of draining swampland near St. Petersburg. A group of peasants was sent to his house with an urgent message, knocked on the door, got no response, and went inside to look for the engineer. First things first, however. Once inside, one’s first duty as an Orthodox Christian is to find the icon corner and say a few prayers, but this proved difficult. Nothing looked like an icon. The peasants knew things were different in other countries. What would a British icon look like? What impressed them most was the mantelpiece clock. They decided this was a British icon and so crossed themselves, bowed before the clock, and recited their prayers.

In a way the peasants were right. They had identified a machine which has immense power in the lives of “advanced” people.

I think too of an experiment in the sixties at a theological school in America. A number of students were asked to prepare sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. These weren’t to be publicly delivered but recorded on tape for grading by a professor of homiletics. It seemed an ordinary assignment, but those responsible for the project were interested in more than what the aspiring pastors would say about the parable. Without their knowledge, the students had been divided into three groups. Some were to be called on a certain morning and told that they could come to the taping room any time in the day; others were to be told that they had to be there within the next few hours; and the rest were to be told that they had to come without delay.

The testers had arranged that, as each student arrived at the building where the sermons were being recorded, they would find someone lying on the ground by a bench near the entrance, seemingly unconscious and in need.

What were the results? Among all those preaching sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, barely a third took the time to stop and do anything for the person lying on the ground. Those who did stop, it was discovered, were mainly the ones who had been told they could come any time that day. They felt they had time, and that sense of having time gave them time to be merciful. They weren’t overwhelmed with deadlines and overcrowded schedules — the constant problem of many people, not least clergy and lawyers, which perhaps is why Jesus cast a priest and Levite in those unfortunate parts in his parable.

In reality everyone has time but people walking side by side on the same street can have a very different sense of time, so that one of them is so preoccupied by worry or fear or plans for the future that he hardly notices what is immediately at hand while the next person is very attentive. Each person has freedom — to pause, to listen, to pray, to change direction. Learning to pray in an unhurried way can help us become less hurried people.

Another crucial factor effecting us is fear. Fear is reinforced by the front page of every newspaper, every TV news program, by events in daily life that reach us directly, and even by most of what we call “entertainment.” A great deal of what we see and hear seems to have no other function than to push us deeper into a state of dread. Being fearful seems to be a reasonable state to be in — fear of violent crime, fear of job loss, fear of failure, fear of illness, fear for the well-being of people we love, feat of failure in our primary relationships, fear of collapse of our pollution-burdened environment, fear of war, and finally fear of death. Fear itself becomes a kind of death sentence. There were many elderly people who died in a heat wave in Chicago one summer simply because they didn’t dare leave their apartments, for fear of muggers, in order to get to the air-conditioned shelters the city had provided. They died of fear.

It is a fact that fear impedes spiritual life. I don’t mean the fear of God. Paradoxically, the fear of God puts all other fears in their place. The fear of God is nothing like all those fears which undermine our being. It means to stand in awe of the incomprehensible, the Creator of the universe with all its wonders and mysteries, God who is both more intimate than breath and as remote as the darkness beyond the furthest star. But a person overwhelmed with anxiety tends to limit prayer to complaints and appeals. Keep in mind the advice that angels give in nearly every biblical account we have about them: “Be not afraid.” A vital prayer life opens the door for God gradually to help us move fear from the center to the edge of daily life.

Still another problem confronting is embarrassment about being seen to be a religious person. Isn’t religion for stupid people? If smart people believe in God, it had better be some blind force, something as impersonal as gravity. This is the age of the Jesus Seminar — the age of people with doctorates who have buried the Bible in footnotes. The G word itself is a problem. The G word is God.

So let’s look at the G word. How are we going to talk about prayer if we don’t? To whom are we praying? And better yet with whom are we praying? We mainly find out who (rather than what) God is by praying.

Buy often times we are impeded in finding an answer because we think we already know it. We know who God is. We learned it as children . He is, for starters, all powerful. We’ve heard it thousands of time. In fact we have quite a few words about God we’ve heard a thousand times. God is love. God is just. God is truth. We also have a few images of God that are somehow very familiar. The God of the White Beard: the Lord Chief Justice God. The image of Gentle Jesus with the children; or Teaching Jesus on the hillside preaching the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus on the Cross. Jesus in the manger. The Child Jesus in the arms of his mother.

But often we know God no better than we know the Great China Wall. Or, in case you have been there, then say no better than we know the North Pole. We know it exists though we haven’t been there. We know God as a fact of reality. And so far as it goes, thank God for that. It’s a lot better than imagining there is no God.

But prayer is what we do not simply to show respect to the idea of God or to recite to God a list of God’s various qualities. It is more than anything else our effort to experience the reality of God, so that finally we come to know the truth about God that the Evangelist John insists on again and again as being most central: God is Love. God is not a concept, a principal, an organizing force — God is love. If we don’t know that yet, prayer will more and more bring us to that love. If we know it already, prayer will taker is more deeply into that love.

Prayer is the on-going discovery of God.

Through prayer the real bridges are built. The same John who says God is love says this: “Whoever says he loves God and hates his neighbor is a liar.” John is a bit rude, isn’t he. Just how loving was he to speak in that way? But real love is truthful. Love doesn’t lie. Love doesn’t mislead. Love doesn’t take us off the track. Love is not a door into the fog.

“We who says he loves God and hates his neighbor is a liar.” Plain speech. It can’t get any plainer.

It turns out the door to God is the very same as the door to my neighbor. We can’t love someone and not pray for that person. Acts of love have their roots in prayer.

Many people pray and don’t even realize they are praying and would be embarrassed to think of their caring thoughts as prayer. But they pray from the core of being. Because we are human, we are not capable of not praying, though it may be that we can be so damaged that the faculty is practically destroyed — just as an ear can be too damaged to hear. But we are born to pray. It is even more central to the design than the faculties of hearing and seeing.

Confession in the Age of Self Esteem

Talk for the Fellowship of Saint James, All Saints Orthodox Church, Chicago, 7 November 2002

by Jim Forest

Among the hottest best-sellers of the 1970s was a book that had the catchy title, I’m Okay, You’re Okay. One of its enthusiastic readers, a young priest in Boston, gave a sermon about it which was a rave review. He wished he could give everyone he knew a copy. The book’s message was simple: To love others started with loving yourself, and loving yourself meant acquiring self-esteem.

At the end of Mass, standing at the door, the priest asked one of his older parishioners how he had liked the sermon. The man wasn’t eager to criticize but responded, “I haven’t read the book. If what you say is true, it’s better than the Bible. My only problem was that I kept thinking of Christ on the Cross saying to those who were watching him die, ‘If everybody’s okay, what in blazes am I doing up here?'”

The problem is I’m not okay and the chances are neither are you.

I’m Okay, You’re Okay was one of the pioneering books in launching the self-esteem movement which has gone on to produce a Niagara Falls of books, magazine articles and television shows that remind us that, to the extent that we lack self-esteem, we are unhappy, our marriages doomed, our careers stunted, while a society whose citizens are blessed with high levels of self-esteem will be more stable, more prosperous, and less troubled with anti-social or criminal behavior. In 1986 the California State Legislature created the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.

Unfortunately recent studies in America and other countries suggest that self-esteem isn’t delivering on its promises.

“A preoccupation with self-esteem may be inevitable in a society where self-worth is often defined by a diploma from Harvard, a size 4 dress or a mansion in Southampton,” commented New York Times journalist Erica Goode in a report published in October 2002. She noted that one of the findings of recent self-esteem studies is that criminals often have more self-esteem than people who are not a danger to their neighbors.

One of the researchers she quoted, Dr. Jennifer Crocker, a psychologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, argues that the frantic pursuit of self-worth as measured through external trappings exacts a high personal and social toll.

“The pursuit of self-esteem has short-term benefits but long-term costs,” says Crocker, “ultimately diverting people from fulfilling their fundamental human needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy and leading to poor self-regulation and mental and physical health.”

Crocker found that people whose sense of self-esteem is based on good looks, favorable reception of others, academic or vocational achievement, recreational performance or similar yardsticks are actually more at risk of difficulties, relationship conflicts, aggression and an increased likelihood of drug or alcohol dependence.

In a study of 642 college freshmen, Crocker found that students whose self-regard was based heavily on academic performance reported more stress and more conflicts with their teachers than did their peers. They spent more time studying than other students but did no better in their classes. Freshmen who invested heavily in appearing attractive reported more aggressiveness, anger and hostility than others, more alcohol and drug use and more symptoms of such eating disorders. They also became more depressed as the year wore on.

In contrast, it’s striking that students who judged themselves by more internal measures such as religious faith or virtue were less likely to show anger and aggression and more restrained in their use of alcohol and drugs even though some of them had to cope with greater feelings of loneliness for being outside the main currents of social life on campus.

While it should hardly come as headline news, Dr. Crocker’s studies show that an obsession with external markers of self-worth leads to self-absorption. The correction for an exclusive focus on the self, Crocker argues, cannot be found in self-esteem classes that encourage children to believe that their personal success and happiness are of paramount importance. “Not everything is about ‘me,’ ” Dr. Crocker said. “There are sometimes bigger things that we should be concerned about.”

While I hardly dare imagine that publication of such a report in The New York Times suggests the high water mark has been reached in the self-esteem movement, still it is encouraging to see this pseudo-gospel being challenged.

A different, more intimate kind of evidence that self-esteem mania is being challenged greeted me a few days ago at the Matthew 25 House in Akron, Ohio. The founder is Joe May, a member of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in the same city and a graduate of Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary. In what was formerly a crack house, Joe and those who work with him take in homeless men. At the moment the guests include a number of refugees from Latin America and also some US-born ex-convicts. In the house library there was no sign of the I’m Okay, You’re Okay type of book, but in adjacent bathroom, next to the mirror, was a small sign that read:

I am not a big deal.
I am not a big deal.
I am not a big deal.

Over lunch I asked what was behind this surprising message. Joe explained that during confession his priest once suggested that every morning he repeat the words “I am not a big deal” three times. Just to make sure he remembered, Joe put the text in the place where he shaves each morning.

One might also say:

I am not okay.
I am not okay.
I am not okay.

Not only am I not okay but it may well be that I will never be okay this side of heaven. In fact I am, to put it bluntly, a sinner. I am not just a sinner but I dare to say I am an expert sinner. At my age, I’ve had a lot of practice.

Forty years ago, when I was a catechumen preparing to be received into the Catholic Church, I recall what a hard struggle I had in trying to understand the word “sin.” I was bewildered with the idea that, if you knew God didn’t want you to do something, you might do it anyway. How could any sane person consciously and intentionally disobey God?

A legalistic definition of sin, which was what my catechism provided, never quite cleared the air for me. It helped later on coming to know the Hebrew and Greek words — chata’ and hamartia — normally translated as “sin” simply mean staying off the path, losing your way, going off course. “You shoot an arrow, but it misses the target,” as a rabbi once explained to me. “Maybe it hits someone’s backside, someone you didn’t even know was there. You didn’t mean it, but still it’s a sin. Or maybe you knew he was there — his backside was what you were aiming at. Now that’s a sin!”

The Jewish approach to sin tends to be concrete. The author of the Book of Proverbs lists seven things which God hates:

A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked deeds, feet that run swiftly to evil, a false witness that declares lies, and he that sows discord among the brethren. (6:17-19)

As in so many other lists of sins, pride — that is to say, self-esteem — is given first place. “Pride goes before destruction, and a disdainful spirit before a fall” is another insight in the Book of Proverbs (16:18). In the Garden of Eden, Satan seeks to animate pride in his dialogue with Eve. Eat the forbidden fruit, he tells her, and “you will be like a god.”

Pride is regarding oneself as god-like. In one of the stories preserved from early desert monasticism, a younger brother asks an elder, “What shall I do? I am tortured by pride.” The elder responds, “You are right to be proud. Was it not you who made heaven and earth?” With those few words, the brother was cured of pride.

The craving to be ahead of others, to be more valued than others, to be more highly rewarded than others, to be able to keep others in a state of fear, the inability to admit mistakes or apologize — these are among the symptoms of pride. Pride opens the way for countless other sins: deceit, lies, theft, violence, and all those other actions that destroy community with God and with those around us.

“We’re capable of doing some rotten things,” the Minnesota storyteller Garrison Keillor remarks, “and not all of these things are the result of poor communication. Some are the result of rottenness. People do bad, horrible things. They lie and they cheat and they corrupt the government. They poison the world around us. And when they’re caught they don’t feel remorse — they just go into treatment. They had a nutritional problem or something. They explain what they did — they don’t feel bad about it. There’s no guilt. There’s just psychology.”

So eroded is our sense of sin that even in confession it often happens that people explain what they did rather than admit they did things that urgently need God’s forgiveness. “When I recently happened to confess about fifty people in a typical Orthodox parish in Pennsylvania,” the Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!” [Fr. Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 3 (Fall 1961): 38-44; also posted on the web — www.schmemann.org/byhim/reflectionsonconfession.html. ]

Confession is not a rite of self-esteem but is rather the recognition that there is rubbish in my life — things done and undone — that damage my connection with God and with those whom God has given me to live among, people I know and people I don’t know, people I love and people I fear. Confession is facing up to all in my life that I find it painful to know about myself and struggle to keep hidden or camouflaged from those whom I want to love or respect me. It is a gradual return to wholeness, a return to communion, not because I have been made admirable by the church’s sacraments but at least am pointed in the right direction and am trying not to delude myself about how excellent I am when left to my own devices.

For the person who has committed a serious sin, there are two vivid signs — the hope that what he did may never become known; and a gnawing sense of guilt. At least this is the case before the conscience becomes completely numb as patterns of sin become the structure of one’s life to the extent that hell, far from being a possible next-life experience, is where I find myself in this life. (Rod Steiger in the film The Pawnbroker, in a desperate action to break free of numbness, slammed a nail-like spindle through his hand so he could finally feel something, even if it meant agonizing pain — a small crucifixion.)

It is a striking fact about our basic human architecture that we want certain actions to remain secret, not because of modesty but because there is an unarguable sense of having violated a law more basic than that in any law book — the “law written on our hearts” that St. Paul refers to in his Letter to the Romans. [2:15] It isn’t simply that we fear punishment. It is that we don’t want to be thought of by others as a person who commits such deeds. One of the main obstacles to going to confession is dismay that someone else will know what I want no one to know.

Sin is linked with guilt, which is one of the themes of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins. The central figure of the novel is Dr. Thomas More, a descendent of St. Thomas More, though the latest More is hanging on to his faith by a frayed thread. The latest More doesn’t seem to be in danger of becoming a martyr for the faith. Dr. More is both a physician and a patient at a Louisiana mental hospital. From time to time he meets with his colleague Max, a secular psychologist eager to cure More of guilt.

Max tells More, “We found out what the hangup was and we are getting ready to condition you out of it.”
“What hangup?”
“Your guilt feelings.”
“I never did see that.”
Max explains that More’s guilt feelings have to do with adulterous sex.
“Are you speaking of my fornication with Lola…?” asks More.
“Fornication,” repeats Max. “You see?”
“See what?”
“That you are saying that lovemaking is not a natural activity, like eating and drinking.”
“No, I didn’t say it wasn’t natural.”
“But sinful and guilt-laden.”
“Not guilt-laden.”
“Then sinful?”
“Only between persons not married to each other.”
“I am trying to see it as you see it.”
“I know you are.”
“If it is sinful, why are you doing it?”
“It is a great pleasure.”
“I understand. Then, since it is ‘sinful,’ guilt feelings follow even though it is a pleasure.”
“No, they don’t follow.”
“Then what worries you, if you don’t feel guilty?”
“That’s what worries me: not feeling guilty.”
“Why does that worry you?”
“Because if I felt guilty, I could get rid of it.”
“By the sacrament of penance.”
“I’m trying to see it as you see it.”
“I know you are.”
[For the full text, see pages 110-20 of the Farrar Straus & Giroux edition of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins published in 1971.]

Percy’s novel reminds us that one of the oddest things about the age we live in is that we are made to feel guilty about feeling guilty. Dr. Thomas More is fighting against that. He may not yet experience guilt for his sins, but at least he knows that a sure symptom of moral death is not to feel guilty.

Dr. Thomas More — a modern man who can’t quite buy the ideology that there are no sins and there is nothing to feel guilty about — is battling to recover a sense of guilt, which in turn will provide the essential foothold for contrition, which in turn can motivate confession and repentance. Without guilt, there is no remorse; without remorse there is no possibility of becoming free of habitual sins.

Yet there are forms of guilt that are dead-end streets. If I feel guilty that I have not managed to become the ideal person I occasionally want to be, or that I imagine others want me to be, then it is guilt that has no divine reference point. It is simply me contemplating me with the eye of an irritated theater critic. Christianity is not centered on performance, laws, principles, or the achievement of flawless behavior, but on Christ himself and participation in God’s transforming love. When Christ says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), he is speaking not about the perfection of a student always obtaining the highest test scores or a child who manages not to step on any of the sidewalk’s cracks, but of being whole, being in a state of communion, participating in God’s love.

This is a condition of being that is suggested wordlessly by St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity: those three angelic figures silently inclined toward each other around a chalice on a small altar. They symbolize the Holy Trinity: the communion that exists within God, not a closed communion restricted to them selves alone but an open communion of love in which we are not only invited but intended to participate.

A blessed guilt is the pain we feel when we realize we have cut ourselves off from that divine communion that radiates all creation.

The figure of Dr. Thomas More in Walker Percy’s novel at least doesn’t suffer from the common delusion that one’s sins are private or affect only a few other people. To think our sins, however hidden, don’t affect others is like imagining that a stone thrown into the water, so long as it’s small enough, won’t generate ripples.

This is a topic Garrison Keillor addressed in one of his Lake Wobegon stories.

A friend — Keillor calls him Jim Nordberg — writes a letter in which he recounts how close he came to committing adultery. Nordberg describes himself waiting in front of his home for a colleague he works with to pick him up, a woman who seems to find him much more interesting and handsome than his wife does. They plan to drive to a professional conference in Chicago, though the conference isn’t really what attracts Nordberg to this event. He knows what lies he has told others to disguise what he is doing. Yet his conscience hasn’t stopped troubling him.

Sitting under a spruce tree, gazing up and down the street at all his neighbors’ houses, he is suddenly struck by how much the quality of life in each house depends on the integrity of life next door, even if everyone takes everyone else for granted. “This street has been good for my flesh and blood,” he says to himself. He is honest enough to realize that what he is doing could bring about the collapse of his marriage and wonders if in five or ten years his new partner might not tire of him and find someone else to take his place. It occurs to him that adultery is not much different from horse trading.

Again he contemplates his neighborhood:

As I sat on the lawn looking down the street, I saw that we all depend on each other. I saw that although I thought my sins could be secret, that they are no more secret than an earthquake. All these houses and all these families — my infidelity would somehow shake them. It will pollute the drinking water. It will make noxious gases come out of the ventilators in the elementary school. When we scream in senseless anger, blocks away a little girl we do not know spills a bowl of gravy all over a white table cloth. If I go to Chicago with this woman who is not my wife, somehow the school patrol will forget to guard the intersection and someone’s child will be injured. A sixth grade teacher will think, “What the hell,” and eliminate South America from geography. Our minister will decide, “What the hell — I’m not going to give that sermon on the poor.” Somehow my adultery will cause the man in the grocery store to say, “To hell with the Health Department. This sausage was good yesterday — it certainly can’t be any worse today.”

[Garrison Keillor, News from Lake Wobegon, “Letter from Jim,” on the first of four compact discs, a Prairie Home Companion recording, 1983, PHC 15377.]

By the end of the letter it’s clear that Nordberg decided not to go to that conference in Chicago after all — a decision that was a moment of grace not only for him, his wife, and his children, but for many others who would have been injured by his adultery.

“We depend on each other,” Keillor says again, “more than we can ever know.”

Far from being hidden, each sin is another crack in the world. As Bishop Kallistos Ware observed:

There are no entirely private sins. All sins are sins against my neighbor, as well as against God and against myself. Even my most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it more difficult for those around me to follow Christ.

[Bishop Kallistos Ware, in a talk “Approaching Christ the Physician: The True Meaning of Confession and Anointing” at an Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, France, in April 1999.]

One of the most widely used prayers, the Jesus Prayer, is only one sentence long:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Short as it is, many people drawn to it are put off by the last two words. Those who teach the prayer are often asked, “But must I call myself a sinner?” In fact that ending isn’t essential, but our difficulty using it reveals a lot. What makes me so reluctant to speak of myself in such plain words? Don’t I do a pretty good job of hiding rather than revealing Christ in my life? Am I not a sinner? To admit that I am provides a starting point.

There are only two possible responses to sin: to justify it, or to repent. Between these two there is no middle ground.

Justification may be verbal, but mainly it takes the form of repetition: I do again and again the same thing as a way of demonstrating to myself and others that it’s not really a sin but rather something normal or human or necessary or even good. “After the first blush of sin comes indifference,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. [“On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.”] There is an even sharper Jewish proverb: “Commit a sin twice and it will not seem a crime.”

Repentance, on the other hand, is the recognition that I cannot live any more as I have been living, because in living that way I wall myself apart from others and from God. Repentance is a change in direction. Repentance is the door of communion. It is also a sine qua non of forgiveness. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann points out, “There can be no absolution where there is no repentance.” Repentance, on the other hand, is the gateway to heaven. As St. John Chrysostom said sixteen centuries ago in Antioch:

Repentance opens the heavens, takes us to Paradise, overcomes the devil. Have you sinned? Do not despair! If you sin every day, then offer repentance every day! When there are rotten parts in old houses, we replace the parts with new ones, and we do not stop caring for the houses. In the same way, you should reason for yourself: if today you have defiled yourself with sin, immediately clean yourself with repentance.

It is impossible to imagine a vital marriage or deep friendship without confession and forgiveness. If you have done something that damages a deep, loving relationship, confession is essential to its restoration. For the sake of that bond, you confess what you’ve done, you apologize, and you promise not to do it again.

In the context of religious life, confession is what we do to safeguard and renew our relationship with God whenever it is damaged. Confession restores our communion with God.

The purpose of confession is not to have one’s sins dismissed as non-sins but to be forgiven and restored to communion. As the Evangelist John wrote: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). The apostle James wrote in a similar vein: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jas 5:16).

Confession is more than disclosure of sin. It also involves praise of God and profession of faith. Without the second and third elements, the first is pointless. To the extent we deny God, we reduce ourselves to accidental beings on a temporary planet in a random universe expanding into nowhere. To the extent we have a sense of the existence of God, we discover creation confessing God’s being and see all beauty as a confession of God. We discover that faith is not so much something we have as something we experience — and we confess that experience much as glass confesses light. The Church calls certain saints “confessors” because they confessed their faith in periods of persecution even though they did not suffer martyrdom as a result. In dark, fear-ridden times, the faith shone through martyrs and confessors, giving courage to others.

In his autobiography, Confessions, Saint Augustine drew on all three senses of the word. He confessed certain sins, chiefly those that revealed the process that had brought him to baptism and made him a disciple of Christ and member of the Church. He confessed his faith. His book as a whole is a work of praise, a confession of God’s love.

But it is the word’s first meaning — confession of sins — that is usually the most difficult. It is never easy admitting to doing something you regret and are ashamed of, an act you attempted to keep secret or denied doing or tried to blame on someone else, perhaps arguing — to yourself as much as to others — that it wasn’t actually a sin at all, or wasn’t nearly as bad as some people might claim. In the hard labor of growing up, one of the most agonizing tasks is becoming capable of saying, “I’m sorry.”

Yet we are designed for confession. Secrets in general are hard to keep, but unconfessed sins not only never go away but have a way of becoming heavier as time passes — the greater the sin, the heavier the burden. Confession is the only solution.

To understand confession in its sacramental sense, one first has to grapple with a few basic questions: Why is the Church involved in forgiving sins? Is priest-witnessed confession really needed? Why confess at all to any human being? In fact, why bother confessing to God even without a human witness? If God is really all-knowing, then he knows everything about me already. My sins are known before it even crosses my mind to confess them. Why bother telling God what God already knows?

Yes, truly God knows. My confession can never be as complete or revealing as God’s knowledge of me and all that needs repairing in my life.

A related question we need to consider has to do with our basic design as social beings. Why am I so willing to connect with others in every other area of life, yet not in this? Why is it that I look so hard for excuses, even for theological rationales, not to confess? Why do I try so hard to explain away my sins until I’ve decided either they’re not so bad or might even be seen as acts of virtue? Why is it that I find it so easy to commit sins yet am so reluctant, in the presence of another, to admit to having done so?

We are social beings. The individual as autonomous unit is a delusion. The Marlboro Man — the person without community, parents, spouse, or children — exists only on billboards. The individual is someone who has lost a sense of connection to others or attempts to exist in opposition to others — while the person exists in communion with other persons. At a conference of Orthodox Christians in France not long ago, in a discussion of the problem of individualism, a theologian confessed, “When I am in my car, I am an individual, but when I get out, I am a person again.”

We are social beings. The language we speak connects us to those around us. The food I eat was grown by others. The skills passed on to me have slowly been developed in the course of hundreds of generations. The air I breathe and the water I drink is not for my exclusive use but has been in many bodies before mine. The place I live, the tools I use, and the paper I write on were made by many hands. I am not my own doctor or dentist or banker. To the extent I disconnect myself from others, I am in danger. Alone I die, and soon. To be in communion with others is life.

Because we are social beings, confession in church does not take the place of confession to those we have sinned against. An essential element of confession is doing all I can to set right what I did wrong. If I stole something, it must be returned or paid for. If I lied to anyone, I must tell that person the truth. If I was angry without good reason, I must apologize. I must seek forgiveness not only from God but from those whom I have wronged or harmed.

We are also verbal beings. Words provide not only a way of communicating with others but even with ourselves. The fact that confession is witnessed forces me to put into words all those ways, minor and major, in which I live as if there were no God and no commandment to love. A thought that is concealed has great power over us.

Confessing sins, or even temptations, makes us better able to resist. The underlying principle is described in one of the collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Gerontikon:

If impure thoughts trouble you, do not hide them, but tell them at once to your spiritual father and condemn them. The more a person conceals his thoughts, the more they multiply and gain strength. But an evil thought, when revealed, is immediately destroyed. If you hide things, they have great power over you, but if you could only speak of them before God, in the presence of another, then they will often wither away, and lose their power.

Confessing to anyone, even a stranger in an airport, renews rather than contracts my humanity, even if all I get in return for my confession is the well-worn remark, “Oh that’s not so bad. After all, you’re only human” — something like the New Yorker cartoon in which a psychologist reassures a Mafia contract killer stretched out on the couch, “Just because you do bad things doesn’t mean you’re bad.”

But if I can confess to anyone anywhere, why confess in church in the presence of a priest? It’s not a small question in societies in which the phrase “institutionalized religion” is so often used, the implicit message being that religious institutions necessarily impede or undermine religious life. Yet it’s not a term we seem inclined to adapt to other contexts. Few people would prefer we got rid of institutionalized health care or envision a world without institutionalized transportation. Whatever we do that involves more than a few people requires structures.

Confession is a Christian ritual with a communal character. Confession in the church differs from confession in your living room in the same way that getting married in church differs from simply living together. The communal aspect of the event tends to safeguard it, solidify it, and call everyone to account — those doing the ritual, and those witnessing it.

In the social structure of the Church, a huge network of local communities is held together in unity, each community helping the others and all sharing a common task while each provides a specific place to recognize and bless the main events in life from birth to burial. Confession is an essential part of that continuum. My confession is an act of reconnection with God and with all the people and creatures who depend on me and have been harmed by my failings and from whom I have distanced myself through acts of non-communion. The community is represented by the person hearing my confession, an ordained priest delegated to serve as Christ’s witness, who provides guidance and wisdom that helps each penitent overcome attitudes and habits that take us off course, who declares forgiveness and restores us to communion. In this way our repentance is brought into the community that has been damaged by our sins — a private event in a public context.

“It’s a fact,” writes Orthodox theologian Fr. Thomas Hopko, rector of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, “that we cannot see the true ugliness and hideousness of our sins until we see them in the mind and heart of the other to whom we have confessed.”

Though we often dread it, confession itself is something beautiful.

I think of Zacharia, a large, round-faced Ethiopian woman of a grandmotherly age with a faded cross tattooed on her forehead, who is often the first person in line for confession in our parish in Amsterdam. The priest receives her, as he does all penitents, by reciting words that remind her that he is only a witness to the confession about to be made and that it is Christ the physician, invisibly present, who heals and forgives. Zacharia speaks little Dutch, still less English, and not a word of Russian, Greek, or German — thus no language that any of our priests understands. It doesn’t matter. She stands before the icon of Christ, her upraised hands rising and falling rhythmically, relating in her incomprehensible mother tongue whatever is burdening her. As the priest grasps not a word of what she is saying, he does nothing more than quietly recite the Jesus Prayer until Zacharia is finished. Then she kneels down while he places the lower part of his priestly stole over her head and recites the words of absolution: “May our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, by the grace and compassion of his love for man, pardon all your faults, child Zacharia, and I, the unworthy priest __________, by his authority given me, pardon and absolve you of all your sins: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

With these last words, he traces the sign of the cross on the head of this African woman who misses the liturgy only if ill. Then Zacharia rises, turns to face him, and receives a final blessing before the next person comes forward and the confessions continue.

Parents often bring infants and children with them when they confess. This is their gradually unfolding introduction to the sacrament. On a recent Sunday in our parish I noticed Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, rector of our parish, hearing a young mother’s confession while holding her baby in his arms.

I recall of an over-crowded church, St. Cosmas and Damien, in Moscow on a Sunday morning. Three priests are hearing confessions. There is a long line for each of them. The priest I happen to be standing nearest was Fr. Georgi Chistiakov, an ascetic man who looks something like a Russian Icabod Crane, only Fr. Georgi’s face seems mainly full of a joy. Penitents, aware of how many people are awaiting their turn, tend to be brief. In some cases they simply hand Fr. Georgi a piece of paper on which they have written what they have to confers. In these cases he reads the paper, tears the paper in half, and gives the fragments back to the person, as if to say, “Your sins are now in the rubbish bin.”


Christ Pantocrator (Lord of Creation) icon

by Jim Forest

In English the first verses of the Sermon on the Mount are called “the beatitudes.” The traditional Russian phrase is “the commandments of blessedness.” The first word of each beatitude isn’t an everyday word. We have to ask ourselves before going further what blessed and beatitude mean.

Beatitude comes from the Latin word beatus, meaning happy, fortunate, blissful. In the context of the gods in Elysium, it meant supremely happy, in a state of pure bliss. In the late fourth century, beatus was the word Saint Jerome opted for in his translation of the “blessed are” verses.

“I would expect that, like so many other Latin writers, Jerome was assuming that the meaning would enlarge within its textual context,” Latin scholar Harold Isbell tells me. “However don’t overlook the possibility that because Greek is a more nuanced language, it conveys degrees of meaning which the hard-headed Roman would not suspect. Then there is ‘beatific,’ as in ‘beatific vision,’ which in the Christian tradition of the west refers specifically to the vision of God, an entirely appropriate but quite unmerited fruit of God’s creative act.”

While most English Bibles use “blessed,” some modern translations prefer “happy”: “How happy are the poor of spirit . . .”

“‘Happy’ isn’t good enough,” Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild once told me. “The biblical translator who uses such a word should change jobs, maybe write TV comedies with nice, tidy, happy endings. The problem is that, if you decide you don’t like ‘blessed,’ there isn’t a single English word which can take its place. You might use a phrase like ‘on the right track’ or ‘going in the right direction.’ Sin means being off the track, missing the target. Being ‘blessed’ means you aren’t lost — you’re on the path the Creator intends you to be on. But what you recognize as a blessing may look like an affliction to an outsider. Exchanging ‘blessed’ for ‘happy’ trivializes the biblical word. You might as well sum up the Bible with a slogan like, ‘Have a nice day .’”

“Happy” in some respects makes for an unhappy translation. Its root is hap, the Middle English word for “luck.” The word happen is a daughter word. A happenstance approach to life is to let things happen as they will, to depend on the roll of the dice. To act in a haphazard manner is to do things by chance. To be hapless is to be unlucky, but to have good luck is to be a winner. The lucky person, the happy person, has things going his way. We say certain people were born under a lucky star — they seem to get all the breaks, everything from good looks to money in the bank.

The founding fathers of the United States, in declaring independence from Britain, recognized “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights. For them, the pursuit of happiness meant each person had the right to seek his own good fortune and not simply be the servant of another. In our era, in which happiness is somewhere between a human right and a social duty, many people feel guilty for failing to be continually happy.

But what about the word “blessed”? This was the word chosen by the translators of the Authorized Version in the seventeenth century. Blessed meant something consecrated to or belonging to God.

All the Gospels were first written in Greek. In those passages where “blessed” is a verb, the Greek is eulogeo (“to bless”) — an action associated with praise, thanksgiving and consecration, and therefore used in liturgical contexts. For example: “And as they ate, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘Take, eat, this is my body’.” (Mark 14:22)

Where “blessed” is used as an adjective, it is a translation of makarios. It is makarios which is used throughout the beatitudes. We also hear it also in such texts as, “Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear” and, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Mt 13:16, 16:17)

In classical Greek makar was associated with the immortal gods. Kari means fate or death, but with the negative prefix “ma” the word means being deathless, no longer subject to fate, a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods, the hoi Makarioi, were the blessed ones.

“The interesting thing about ashre [the Hebrew word for blessed] is that it is never, so far as I know, applied to God,” Archimandrite Ephrem Lash points out. “On the other hand the Greek makar starts life as precisely something which the gods are, though the related adjective makarios is more commonly applied to humans.”

In Christian use, makarios came increasingly to mean sharing in the life of God, the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of happenstance running through it. There is no higher gift. We are not simply capable of an abstract awareness that God exists or of studying God as an astronomer might study the night sky all the while knowing the stars are unbridgeable distances away, that their light may be centuries old by the time it reaches our eyes and that the objects which produced the light may no longer exist. The blessing extended to us is participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity, sharing in God’s immortality, and being blessed with qualities which seem humanly impossible.

So what does “blessed” mean? It means those who are already, in this life, risen from the dead, people whose choices are not driven by fear and death. “Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit… Risen from the dead are they who mourn…”

* * *

[This is a slightly shortened extract from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, 1999; not to be published without the author’s permission]

* * *

Resurrecting Easter

by Jim Forest

Anastasis (Chora Church in Istanbul)

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton describes a British explorer setting off to discover a new island in the South Seas but by miscalculation landing instead at the Pavilion at Brighton — a pagan temple, he assumes, used by the local cannibals.

The explorer who merely discovers his own back yard may look like a blockhead to the detached observer, Chesterton comments, but his mistake is really an enviable one. For “what could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”

Chesterton’s point was that it is time for Christians to rediscover their own religion, at the very center of which is Christ risen from the dead.

Easter is, of course, as familiar to us as the Brighton Pavilion is to the English. Pascha (from the Hebrew word for Passover) is celebrated in every church whatever its theological and liturgical tendency. In even the most holiday-resistant Quaker Meeting, at least one voice will be raised out of the silence on Easter Sunday to take note of the resurrection.

But within Christianity today, the great guardians and celebrators of Easter are the Orthodox.

It is striking that in the western Church the preeminent holiday is Christmas, though this wasn’t always the case. In fact there was no celebration of the nativity of Jesus in the early Church.

Perhaps the reason we in the west have especially taken to Christmas is because of the Age of Reason and all that led up to it and has been stamped by it. The birth of Jesus is something the most reasonable person can accept effortlessly — if Jesus lived, surely he was born. Whether we think he was God Incarnate or simply an itinerant rabbi who unintentionally created a movement we call Christianity, still we can celebrate his birthday. But nothing is more at odds with reason than believing a murdered man rose from the dead. Therefore Easter is an embarrassment to many, something best explained allegorically: “The disciples had an inner experience of Christ after he was dead and buried…”

Meanwhile, down through the centuries the Orthodox have centered their religious lives on the most ancient and central of Christian feasts. Go to any Orthodox Church for the last hour or two of Lent and you will find it so packed that, as they say in Russia, “an apple cannot fall.”

My first experience of such an Easter occurred in 1987 at a parish church on the outskirts of Kiev. I was staying with one of the parish priests and therefore arrived somewhat early — 10 pm — but already a steady stream of people was walking up the dark hillside. By the time the service began these must have been 2,000 people jammed inside and again as many around the church.

My host, Father Boris, thought it best to put me on the altar side of the iconostasis where there was space and even a few ancient chairs. I was, at first, disappointed. A true Orthodox Easter is spent standing in the crowd. But at that time I was new to the Orthodox tradition of standing prayer and perhaps wouldn’t have been able to take a full five hours on my feet at a time when normally I would be asleep.

Through the central doors of the iconostasis, I had a view of a table heaped with Easter bread — kulich — and beyond it a sea of faces illumined by candle light.

Among those who stood out from my vantage point was a group of teen-agers who seemed never to have been in church before. Unlike those around them, they didn’t engage in the body language of Orthodox prayer: didn’t cross themselves, didn’t bow. The girls were without scarves. The tallest, a young woman, had short blond hair cut in punkish style and blue-shadowed eyes. What alert eyes! — round as saucers, watching everything with wonder. Now and then she pointed out to the boy next to her something that had caught her attention. There was great excitement in her face. I wondered if someday I might return and discover her wearing a scarf and crossing herself.

Four priests and a deacon were gathered around the altar. The dean of the church, Father Nicholas, was a handsome man with a moustache and goatee. Across from him was an older priest, an especially joyous character, despite a stroke that gave him little use of his left arm and leg. With his right hand, the old man directed the clerics in their singing, offering many gestures of encouragement and appreciation.

At times it seemed like anarchy at the altar, with whispers and sign language about what to do next. One of the priests would start singing something and another would cut him off with an urgent whisper, “Not yet, not yet!” Then someone else would take the lead. The scene at times was wild and disordered but always amiable.

Lent ran its final hour in a somber tone yet charged with expectancy. We were like people standing outside the tomb containing Christ’s dead body, at the same time awaiting a flash of lightning that would shatter death itself.

Easter itself began with a procession, three slow turns around the church. Those already outside parted to make way for the procession. In every hand was a candle. Then came a sung reading of the resurrection story from the Gospel. After incensing the icon of Christ standing on the broken gates of hell while raising Adam and Eve from their tombs, the dean sang out the announcement, “Christos voskresye!” Christ is risen! To this everyone responded in one voice, “Veyeestino voskresye!” Truly he is risen! The procession made its way back into the church, everyone singing again and again the Easter hymn:

“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death
by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.”

During the procession there was an explosion of bell-ringing. Russian bells sing their own Easter hymn in a particular pattern of sound that rejoices in the victory of life over death.

It is impossible to put on paper how this mixture of singing and bell-ringing sounds in the dead of night amidst many hundreds of candles and clouds of incense. The sound was like a deep shudder in the earth.

Back inside the church there was hardly air to breathe. The priests arranged themselves in front of the iconostasis and sang the opening five verses of the Gospel According to St. John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” This was done first in Church Slavonic, then in Ukrainian, Russian, Greek, Latin, English, French and German. “The more languages we use in singing the Easter Gospel,” a friend from Moscow explained, “the better we like it. I was in a church once where they sang the Gospel text in twelve languages. It made the whole world present.”

Later came the traditional reading of the Easter sermon of St. John Chrysostom: “Enter then, all of you into the joy of our Lord. First and last, receive alike your reward. Rich and poor, dance together. You who have fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice today. The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it…[and] let none go away hungry. Let none lament his poverty; for the universal Kingdom is revealed. Let none bewail his transgressions; for the light of forgiveness has risen from the tomb. Let none fear death; for the death of the Savior has set us free….”

After the five-hour service — vespers, Easter proclamation, morning prayer, Eucharist — the crowd outside parted to form a pathway about two yards wide which was lined with baskets full of food, each basket feebly lit by a candle struggling against the wind. A priest lavishly dowsed every basket with water blessed at the Easter service, at the same time showering everything and everyone. So many people were there to have their baskets blessed that the circles kept reforming. It took more than an hour for the four priests, working in turns, to bless every basket.

Even then the night was far from over. While the congregation walked back to Easter morning meals in their own apartments, the staff went into the parish house, an old one-storey wooden building that clung precariously to the edge of the hill, where a heavily laden table awaited us: brightly painted Easter eggs, high loaves of kulich, a pyramid-like mound of pascha (in this case referring to a treat made from butter, icing sugar, cream cheese and a bit of congnac), home-made sausage, sliced meat, wine and vodka. We remained together until after dawn.

That night in Kiev in 1987 was far from my first Easter, and yet (here I am like Chesterton’s explorer) it was. My exhaustion, my entrapment in the ordinary, my preoccupations, ambitions and worries — all had vanished into joy.

If the main gift I have received again and again from the Orthodox Church has been nothing less than Easter, this is something that has become inseparable from the austere richness of Great Lent. I have come to understand that Orthodoxy guards the treasure of the resurrection by preserving the disciplines of spiritual life that make us more capable of experiencing Easter.

In Orthodoxy, Lent doesn’t begin abruptly but takes root gradually over several weeks. The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee is followed by the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, both of which point to the season of repentance the Church will soon enter upon. Next comes “Meat-fare Sunday” after which abstention from meat begins. And then “Cheese-fare Sunday,” after which the fast excludes dairy products and eggs. This day marks the final border crossing into Great Lent.

In my own mind, the real entry into Lent is Cheese-fare Sunday, also known as Forgiveness Sunday. On this day, directly after the Liturgy or later in the day at vespers time, each person is called upon to seek forgiveness from everyone else in the parish, and to offer forgiveness to them. “Let us call brothers even those who hate us,” declares one of the Easter verses sung in Orthodox churches, “and forgive all by the Resurrection.”

This annual face-to-face asking for forgiveness is a ritual as yet hardly known outside of Orthodoxy, though perhaps in time it will become part of ecumenical life. It is certainly not a ritual anyone could dismiss as empty. In my parish this year, before the whole congregation, one of our priests begged his wife to forgive him for his neglect and frequent times away. Each of us has something quite burdensome to confess to at least one other person in the church. There are many tears and much embracing.

Orthodox see mutual forgiveness as an essential precondition to our individual and corporal passage through Lent toward Easter. Fast by all means, for we live our spiritual life in body as well as soul, but even more important, repent and forgive.

One of the most striking characteristics of Orthodox spiritual life is the way in which the spiritual and physical are always connected — just as the spiritual life is seen as connecting us to those around us and requiring our physical as well as spiritual response to their urgent needs. (As I heard it put in an Easter sermon in Kiev that year of my first Russian Easter: “Bread for myself is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question.”)

Christ was raised from the dead in body and soul. Easter underlines the oneness of body and soul. This is why Orthodox pray not only in soul but in body, inner activity finding its outer “clothing” in various gestures, from making the sign of the cross to occasionally prostrating oneself on the floor. We bow toward the Gospel as it is carried through the church, for Christ is present in his Word. We kiss the icons and the cross: these are signs of connection to the communion of saints and the instruments of salvation. We light candles: the flame of prayer struck within us becomes one with the main source of light in the church. Again and again, inner action is reinforced by outer action, and vice versa. There is something of Easter in all these linkages.

Similarly there are also specific physical actions associated with each liturgical season. In a season especially set aside for repentance and forgiveness, the meatless Lenten diet is a proclamation of peace with the animal kingdom. At least for the 50 days or so leading up to Easter, we eat the fare of Adam and Eve.

If one is used to eating meat, it is something of a jolt to ban it from one’s table. We live in a secular age that tends to regard religious belief as more or less odd, and religious ritual as even worse, while fasting (unless justified for reasons of health) is a word that seems to belong to another century. But once the step is made, and not only meat but wine and beer and other treats disappear from the table, the freshness of mind that one experiences reveals unarguably the wisdom contained in liturgical tradition and its associated disciplines. Dietary restrictions entered upon for penitential reasons prove not to be hairshirts after all. Thus one begins not only to look forward to Easter but to Great Lent as well.

And the reason is simple: What makes us ready for the resurrection is itself illuminated by the resurrection.

* * *


the Easter sermon by St. John Chrysostom traditionally read during the all-night Easter service in Orthodox churches

If any be a devout lover of God, let him partake with gladness from this fair and radiant feast. If any be a faithful servant, let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord. If any have wearied himself with fasting, let him now enjoy his reward. If any have labored from the first hour, let him receive today his rightful due. If any have come after the third, let him celebrate the feast with thankfulness. If any have arrived after the sixth, let him not be in doubt, for he will suffer no loss. If any have delayed until the ninth, let him not hesitate but draw near. If any have arrived only at the eleventh, let him not be afraid because he comes so late. For the Master is generous and accepts the last even as the first. He gives rest to him who comes at the eleventh hour in the same way as to him who has labored from the first. He accepts the deed, and commends the intention.

Enter then, all of you into the joy of our Lord. First and last, receive alike your reward. Rich and poor, dance together. You who have fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice today. The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it. The calf is fatted: let none go away hungry. Let none lament his poverty; for the universal Kingdom is revealed. Let none bewail his transgressions; for the light of forgiveness has risen from the tomb. Let none fear death; for the death of the Savior has set us free.

He has destroyed death by undergoing death. He has despoiled hell by descending into hell. Hell was filled with bitterness when it met thee face to face below: filled with bitterness, for it was brought to nothing; filled with bitterness, for it was mocked; filled with bitterness, for it was overthrown; filled with bitterness, for it was put in chains. It received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven. O death where is thy sting?

O hell, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou art cast down. Christ is risen and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns in freedom. Christ is risen, and there is none left dead in the tomb. For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of those that slept. To him be glory and dominion to the ages of ages.

Bright Week in Kiev: Seeing Repentance

scene from the film “Repentance”

This is an extract from Pilgrim to the Russian Church, originally published in 1988 by Crossroads Books, New York

Kiev, 22 April 1987: In the afternoon Fr. Boris, Lydia, Volodya and I went to see Pokayaniye (“Repentance”). Last February, in Moscow, I tried to get a ticket to see the film. It was showing in seventeen cinemas around the city but tickets were completely sold out. It was easier to see the Bolshoi Ballet. Tickets were unavailable in Leningrad as well — instead Fr. Boris and I went to the opera. But here Fr. Boris finally succeeded in getting tickets. Even then there were only a few vacant seats in the theater despite the early hour and the fact that it was a weekday. “It’s said that Gorbachev ordered enough copies of the film to be made so that everyone will see it,” Volodya told me. If the rumor is true, Gorbachev must be pleased.

The film, directed by Tengiz Abuladze, was made in 1984 in Georgia, the Soviet Republic where Stalin was born. It ended up on ice with all but a few prints destroyed. That even one print survived is credited mainly to Eduard Shevardnadze, who backed Abuladze in making the movie. At the time Shevardnadze was First Secretary of the Communist Party in Georgia. Now he is Foreign Minister of the USSR and one of those most identified with Gorbachev. Following Gorbachev’s election and the subsequent overthrow of the Brezhnev-era old guard in the film-makers’ union, Goskino, the film was finally released.

Ostensibly about the mayor of a Georgian city, Repentance is really about Stalin. The dictator is a parable-like figure named Varlam who not only resembles Stalin but Hitler, Mussolini and Napoleon. Varlam is one of those people who, even after death, have a continuing awful presence among the living, becoming objects of veneration to those who are dazzled by cruelty and raw power. Their death is a kind of nap. In one scene we see Varlam/Stalin waking up in a lidless coffin, grinning dangerously at the camera, then rolling over to make himself more comfortable.

After Varlam’s burial his body, black boots and all, keeps re-appearing, propped up in the garden of the family villa. Death seems unable to contain this man responsible for the deaths of millions. The family, who thought they had seen the last of the Great Man, become increasingly distressed and call in the police to put an end to all these undesirable resurrections. A night watch in the cemetery reveals that there is nothing magical about Varlam’s post-mortem mobility. The daughter of two of his victims has been digging up the corpse and is using it to haunt Varlam’s slick, modern, high-living descendants.

The story centers on the parents of the grave-digger. We meet them earlier in their lives, when their daughter was eight or nine. They are a young couple, both artists. In our first glimpse of the couple their faces are lined with apprehension as they watch Varlam give a speech from a balcony facing their home. On a gallows in the background a vulture sits complacently on the cross beam. In the sky, Varlam’s portrait is suspended from a balloon. (In fact there were similar pictures of Stalin decorating the Soviet sky fifty years ago.)

The man has a Christ-like face, the woman looks like Mary and wears a cross. In a prophetic dream suffered by the mother she sees herself and her husband buried in the earth. Only their faces are uncovered, their eyes open and alive.

The couple are trying to save a local church that has been turned into a scientific laboratory — Fr. Boris guessed it was meant to represent the huge Savior Cathedral that once stood across the Moscow River from the Kremlin, now the site of an outdoor swimming pool. The camera slowly explores the peeling frescoes of biblical scenes before it discovers the shining apparatus of high technology that has taken the place of worshippers.

Varlam, flowers in hand, visits the artists’ home and seeks to win their support with an excess of charisma. In fact Stalin occasionally sent flowers to those whom he had added to his death list. Varlam pretends sympathy with their desire to save old buildings, but after his departure, the church is burned and the two artists — first the husband, then the wife — are swallowed up in the gulag. We see the man again when he is dying under torture. As the camera closes in on his suffering face, one realizes that it is also the face of Christ dying on the cross.

There is a heart-rending scene of his wife, warned that she is about to be arrested, trying to escape with her daughter in the dead of night, but grabbed as she steps out the door of their dingy flat.

The couple’s daughter survives. By the time of Varlam’s death, she is devoted to baking cakes modeled as churches, each steeple crowned with a golden baptismal cross such as her mother wore. One of Varlam’s admirers in the film is a curiously stunted man wearing an old soldiers’ uniform who, paying more attention to the newspaper than what he is doing, takes the steeple from one of her edible churches and, cross and all, stuffs it in his mouth. His eyes are held by the headline announcing Varlam’s death.

The film’s images have the brilliant clarity of dreams. In one scene people are waiting in line at a prison gate to deliver letters to relatives. If a letter is accepted, relief floods the face of the person who brought it. But for many the voice behind the gate refuses the letter, saying only, “Left, no forwarding address.” Those who wait know the awful meaning of the words. This is no film-maker’s visualization of nightmares but simply how it was.

In another scene several women are in a muddy timber yard searching the ends of the logs. One fortunate woman finds her husband’s name and, weeping, caresses the rough wood as if it were her husband’s face. Over supper I asked Fr. Boris if this was a dream scene. “It was no dream,” Fr. Boris said. “It was common for people to search among logs for names. Prisoners working in the forests carved their names and dates as a sign that, at least until the date on the log, they were still alive. What you saw happened many times.”

Repentance spans three generations. So little of the terrible truth has reached the third generation that Varlam’s privileged grandson has no idea of the horrors that are buried in the family past. His discovery of them leads him to accuse his father, a powerful man living elegantly in his mansion. “You don’t understand,” the father angrily tells the son, “you don’t know how it was! We did our best!” The boy barricades himself in his room and shoots himself.

His death drives the father to repentance. He goes into the cellar of the house where paintings that had belonged to the murdered young artists are stored. The room is now a kind of chapel illumined by vigil candles. In this setting the paintings resemble icons. Varlam’s son gazes at himself in a cracked mirror and watches his own image dissolve into the face of Varlam leering at him, laughing satanically. The image fades. In the darkness near the mirror a half-visible figure silently raises a fish to his shadowed face — the face of Christ — and eats it. In the darkness, in repentance, there is eucharist and forgiveness.

More than anything else, this is a religious film. In the final scene we see an old lady asking the woman who makes church-like cakes, “Does this street go to the church?” “No, it is Varlam Street — a street named after Varlam can’t lead to a church.” “What good,” asks the old lady, “is a street that doesn’t lead you to a church?” The film ends as we watch this babushka hobbling down the barren street.

Repentance is destined to be seen in many countries but only in the Soviet Union can one see not only the film but the stunned faces of the audience as it files silently out of the theater.

* * *

And Cleanse Us From Every Impurity

by Jim Forest

(lecture for the 1999 Sourozh diocesan conference, 29-31 May, Oxford, England0

The prayer, “Cleanse us from all impurity,” reminds me of something that happened several years ago while a guest of the parish of Saints Cosmos and Damien in central Moscow. I was sitting at a desk just outside Father Alexander Borisov’s office making notes for a talk I was to give that night. I had been at work only a short time when two icon restorers arrived with a large icon so dark one could only guess it was Saint Nicholas peering out of the gloom. The heavy panel — one restorer estimated it was 300 years old — was placed on a table. As the decades had passed and thousands upon thousands of candles burned before it, the image had become increasingly hidden under the smoke-absorbing varnish until it was almost black. Using a clear liquid — perhaps it was alcohol — and balls of cotton, the two worked side by side. Gradually their painstaking efforts began to reveal sharp lines and vivid colors. After an hour’s work, part of the face of Saint Nicholas had been brought back to life. I found myself the fortunate witness of a small resurrection.

It was a minor act of repair that would soon grace this recently reopened place of worship which had for many years housed a printing plant. It was also a gesture containing in microcosm the great housecleaning that the church was undergoing throughout Russia after so many years of destruction, vandalism, neglect and great suffering.

But icon-cleaning has still wider implications.

As a writer, nearly each day I am reminded of how damaged language is. So much of our vocabulary has been blackened by the smoke of politics, economics, our culture of consumption and entertainment, the “new-aging” of old words.

As someone who has been especially concerned about war and peace, I have long been aware of how difficult it is to use the word “peace.” In the Soviet era, “peace” was incessantly enlisted by those who ruled as the word summing up all they were doing or intended to do on the name of Marx and Lenin. Not only Russians were the victims of such bizarre Newspeak, but anyone in earshot of Soviet propaganda. It was a much-battered word in the west as well. Peace was as much the goal of America’s ever-smiling politicians as of those grim men in thick overcoats supervising military parades from atop Lenin’s tomb. I can recall as a child growing up in New Jersey, watching on our small black-and-white television screen the explosion of nuclear weapons on the Nevada desert, an amazing act of political theater in those relatively innocent days when no one worried about radioactive fallout. In that era the same government was canceling postage stamps with the message, “Pray for peace.” The slogan of the Strategic Air Command, the wing of the Air Force in constant readiness to fight nuclear war, was “Peace is our profession.” Peace could be assured, we were told, only by the threat of “mutually assured destruction” — a much-used phrase at the time which for some reason we no longer hear though the military structures produced by this doctrine remain intact. The acronym, appropriately, is MAD.

There was on the other hand the sentimental, absolutely otherworldly use of the word “peace” in churchly contexts, where it was reduced to an emotional or spiritual condition which had no connection at all with the world we live in or the nature of the Christian’s social responsibilities, certainly not as a word which might make one take exception to the direction America and NATO allies were taking.

When a word becomes its own antonym, one cannot use it without first attempting to repair the word. One of the best ways to restore the word “peace” is to pay close attention to its various uses within scripture and the Liturgy, but that must be the subject of another lecture.

It is not only our understanding of “peace” which cries out for restoration. The list of damaged words would fill a dictionary.

Now why am I talking about blackened icons and damaged words? Because their impurity becomes part of our impurity. When primary images and words are damaged, eye, ear and tongue are damaged. The heart and soul are damaged. We are damaged.

The restoration of icons provides a metaphor of the spiritual life, the ascetic struggle to be cleansed of all impurity, the paschal struggle to trample down death by death in our own lives.

The prayer “cleanse us from all impurity” is linked with the beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” To be cleansed from all impurity is to be given a pure heart.

First, think about the word “pure” — clean, spotless, stainless; intact, unbroken, perfect; free from admixture or adulteration; unmixed, unalloyed; free of anything that defiles, corrupts, impairs; without taint. The Greek word is katharos. It can be applied to anything without blemish or impurity: a wine which has not been watered down, gold without alloy, fresh spring water, bread made of the best ingredients; it can also refer to language unpolluted by lies, half-truths or slogans, or signify a person without vices — an official who would never take a bribe or a person who is perfectly truthful and straightforward.

Then consider the word “heart.” The brain has come up in the world while the heart has been demoted. The heart used to be widely recognized as the locus of God’s activity within us, the hub of human identity and conscience, linked with our capacity to love, the core not only of physical but spiritual life, not only of consciousness but of the unconscious, not only of the soul but the spirit, not only of the spirit but the body, not only of the comprehensible but the incomprehensible — in a word, the absolute ground zero of the human soul. Unfortunately, lately the heart has been reduced to machinery: a blood-circulating pump, part of our physical “hardware,” unrelated to the “software” of the mind.

In our brain-centered society, we ought to be scandalized that Christ didn’t say, “Blessed are the pure in mind,” or better yet, “Blessed are the brilliant in mind.” We are, after all, a people who tend to regard not the heart but the brain as the core of self. It’s high praise to be described as bright. No one aspires to be labeled “slow” or “dense.” Those recognized as clever have a shot at joining the aristocracy of the intelligent and may find themselves hugely rewarded. It is a sign of the poverty of our culture that “stupid” is nearly a curse word and at times even a license to kill. A pregnant woman who knows she is bearing a child with Downs Syndrome will almost certainly be urged to have an abortion.

What then is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart which thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, a heart not ruled by passions, an undivided heart, a heart aware of the image of God in others, a heart aware of God’s presence in creation. “A person is truly pure of heart when he considers all human beings as good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him,” wrote Saint Isaac of Syria.

Purification of the heart is the lifelong struggle of seeking a more God-centered life, a heart illuminated with the presence of the Holy Trinity. Purification of the heart is the moment-to-moment prayerful discipline of seeking to be so aware of God’s presence that no space is left in the heart for hatred, greed, lust or vengeance. Purification of the heart is the striving to place the mind under the rule of the heart, the mind representing the analytic and organizational aspect of consciousness. “Always keep your mind collected in your heart,” instructed the great teacher of prayer, Saint Theofan the Recluse. The Jesus Prayer — the Prayer of the Heart — is part of a tradition of spiritual life which helps move the center of consciousness from the mind to the heart.

A pure heart is a heart through which the mercy of God flows toward others, as is related in a story from the Egyptian desert which dates from the fourth or early fifth century.

A young brother went to an elder and confessed he was constantly enduring sexual fantasies. The older monk, who himself had been spared such temptations, told his visitor that he was not fit for monastic life. Agreeing that he was unworthy, the young man set out to return to the world. In God’s providence Abbot Apollo was coming toward him, saw his despair, and questioned him about its cause. “Think it no strange thing, my son, and do not despair, for I too, even at my age and in this way of life, am hard pressed by just such thoughts as these,” Abbot Apollo confessed. “Therefore do not give up when tested in this way. The remedy is not in our anxious thoughts but in God’s compassion.” The young monk took heart and returned to monastic life.

But the story goes further. Abbot Apollo walked directly to the cell of the monk who had been so lacking in compassion, so complacent about his own strengths, and stood silently outside his dwelling, praying that the elder would be visited by the same temptations the young man had suffered. In minutes the elder hurried from his cell, staggering as if he were drunk, going down the same road the young man had taken, convinced he could no longer be a monk. But Abbot Apollo stopped him, saying, “Go back to your cell, recognize your weakness, and look to yourself, for either the devil had forgotten you until now or was contemptuous of you, not finding in you someone worthy of battle. Did I say battle? But you could not even withstand attack for a single day. But all this has befallen you because when the young man came to you for help against our common adversary, instead of anointing him with words of comfort, you sent him away in desperation.”

A pure heart is a heart without contempt, a source of hope and patience and compassion. Those with a pure heart are a source of encouragement to others.

The more pure the heart, taught Saint Isaac of Nineveh, the Syrian, the more aware one becomes of the Creator in creation. He laid great stress on ascetic struggle — prayer, fasting, voluntary poverty, generosity to the poor — as the way to purify the heart. A warrior against passions of the world, this seventh-century bishop was passionate in his love of creation, not only the human being made in God’s image but everything which God has graced with life.

“What is purity?” Saint Isaac asked. “It is a heart full of compassion for the whole of created nature . . . And what is a compassionate heart? . . . . It is a heart which burns for all creation, for the birds, for the beasts, for the devils, for every creature. When he thinks about them, when he looks at them, his eyes fill with tears. So strong, so violent is his compassion . . . that his heart breaks when he sees the pain and suffering of the humblest creature. That is why he prays with tears at every moment . . . for all the enemies of truth and for all who cause him harm, that they may be protected and forgiven. He prays even for serpents in the boundless compassion that wells up in his heart after God’s likeness.”

I realize that for many of us, such words seem intended for others far more elevated in the spiritual life, not our ordinary selves. Few of us are praying for dumb beasts nor, by the way, do we find in the Gospel any imperative to do so. What we do find is the solemn commandment to love our enemies, to do good to them, and to pray for them. We also find the commandment to forgive. About this there is no ambiguity nor is such teaching only for those seeking a place on the calendar of saints. Christian life without love, forgiveness and mercy is no longer Christian. These things are basic. We are reminded of them with every Liturgy and each time we read the New Testament. Yet it we find it extraordinarily difficult to put these commandments into practice. Why?

Our difficulties give some indication of how far we are from purity of heart.

It is helpful to consider specific influences and impurities which make it difficult to love or care for others, especially strangers and those whom we regard as enemies. I would like to comment on three of these: tribalism, fear, and living in a hurry. (I limit myself to three on the advice of Bishop Kallistos.)


One aspect of our fallen human nature, bringing with it the illusion of separateness, is a strong tribal tendency. While the life of anyone in this room could be saved by blood donations given by a Latin American Aztec, an Alaskan Inuit or an African Zulu, we prefer to recognize ourselves as chiefly linked with those who share our nationality, language and primary stories, or — when tribalism has a religious character — with those who share a similar ritual life. Within our tribal boundaries, we are willing to make notable sacrifices, even to give our lives if there is no honorable alternative. Yet the tribe excludes more than includes. We see ourselves as radically and everlastingly separate from the vast majority, though in reality they are our brothers and sisters, equally descended with us from Adam and Eve, and equally the object of God’s love and mercy. There is a rabbinic commentary that says the reason there was only one Adam and one Eve was that so no one could regard himself as being of higher descent than another.

“The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God,” writes Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon. “Once the affirmation of the ‘self’ is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam in his freedom chose to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary precondition for reconciliation with any ‘other’.”


Then let us consider fear, fear being the greatest force restraining us from acts of love. If we would sum up the angelic message in a few words, it would be this: “Be not afraid.”

In his essay “The Root of War is Fear,” written nearly half a century ago, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton noted that it is not so much the fear people have of each other “as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves. . . . Only love — which means humility — can exorcize the fear that is at the root of war.”

This was an essay which I mailed to my father, a Marxist, who soon after responded with appreciation but said he could not agree. “The root of war,” he said, “is bad economics.” Years passed without either of us mentioning Merton’s essay. I only discovered he had continued thinking about it when I received a letter in which he told me, “I still think about what Father Merton said and want you to know that I have come to realize that the root of bad economics is fear.”

Not only war and social injustice but any failure in moral life, private or collective, often has its deepest roots in fear. Fear of rejection by our peers, with all its potentially dire consequences, is an extraordinarily powerful force in life, far more potent for most of us than the word of Christ or the witness of the saints.

Christ tramples down death by death; similarly the cure of fear is fear — not fear of others but fear of God. Fear of God gives the strength to swim against the tides of hatred, enmity, propaganda, and socially-organized murder in which we are made complicit even if others do the actual killing. Let me add that fear of God is not similar to the terror someone might feel if he had to stand before Hitler or Stalin’s desk, but something vastly different — a condition of absolute awe and adoration which must overwhelm any person aware he stands before the Holy Trinity.

The fear of a tyrant cannot open the gateway of love — only the fear of God does this. To love another — that is to be willing to lay down one’s life for another — is never one’s own achievement but only God’s gift, specifically a gift of the Holy Spirit who purifies the heart. Even love of one’s wife or husband, one’s children or parents, is God’s gift. It is impossible to love without God’s grace, yet only that love is perfect which sees and responds to God’s image in those whom we have no familial or social obligation to love. “The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit,” taught Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain, “does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it.” As a young man, this Russian monk once nearly killed a neighbor. Later in life he goes so far as to say, “He who does not love his enemies, does not have God’s grace.”

Living in a Hurry

Finally, let me mention one other obstacle to the purification of the heart — the problem of being too busy, too caught up in the structural demands of daily life, finding ourselves prisoners of rush-hour traffic. While busy-ness was a problem familiar to our ancestors, few of them could imagine a culture living at such high speed as our own.

I recall an experience I had during the late sixties when I was accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was visiting the United States. He was about to give a lecture at the University of Michigan on the war in Vietnam. Waiting for the elevator doors to open, I noticed my brown-robed companion gazing at the electric clock above the elevator doors. Then he said, “You know, Jim, a few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.”

He was right. The clock is a religious object in our world, one so powerful that it can depose another.

I also recall a story related in the journal of Daniel Wheeler, a Quaker engineer who had come to Russia from Britain at the time of Tsar Alexander I to take charge of draining swampland in the Ochta region south of St. Petersburg. Several peasants had been sent to his house with an urgent message. They knocked on the door, got no response, and went inside hoping to find the engineer. First things first, however. As Orthodox Christians, they first looked for the icon corner in order to say a prayer. In an austere Quaker house, this proved difficult. There was no vigil lamp and nothing looked like an icon. The peasants knew things were different in other countries. What would a British icon look like? The settled on the mantelpiece clock. Standing before it, they crossed themselves, bowed, and were reciting a prayer when Daniel Wheeler walked in the door.

Were the peasants mistaken? The ticking icon on the mantle or the quartz watch on the wrist may not often be kissed but surely it is devoutly venerated by “advanced” people in our post-Christian world.

I think too of an experiment in the sixties at a Protestant theological school in America. A number of students were asked to prepare sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. These were to be taped for grading by a professor of homiletics. It seemed an ordinary assignment, but those responsible for the project were interested in more than what the aspiring pastors would say about the parable. Without their knowledge, the students had been divided into three groups. Some were to be called on a certain morning and told that they could come to the taping room any time in the day; others were to be told that they had to be there within the next few hours; and the rest were to be told that an error had been made — they should have been called with their appoiment time the day before and they had to come without delay.

The testers had arranged that, as each student arrived at the building where the sermons were being recorded, they would find someone lying on the ground by a bench near the entrance, seemingly unconscious and in need.

What were the results? Among all those preaching sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, barely a third took the time to stop and do anything for the person lying on the ground. Those who did stop, it was discovered, were mainly the ones who had been told they could come any time that day. They felt they had time, and that sense of having time gave them time to be merciful. They weren’t overwhelmed with deadlines and over-crowded schedules — the constant problem of many people, not least clergy and lawyers, which perhaps is why Jesus cast a priest and Levite in those unfortunate parts in his parable.

In reality everyone has time, indeed nothing has been given us so equally, but people walking side by side on the same street can have a very different sense of time, so that one of them is so preoccupied by a demanding schedule, or worry or fear or plans for the future, that he hardly notices what is immediately at hand, while the next person, though living a life full of obligations, is very attentive. Each person has freedom — to pause, to listen, to pray, to be late for an appointment, to change direction. The purification of the heart makes us freer, more capable of hearing and seeing those around us and responding to their needs.

It can be hard work learning how to get off the speedway inside our heads. Our own Metropolitan Anthony suggests as a basic exercise of spirituial life sitting down and saying to yourself:

“I am seated, I am doing nothing, I will be doing nothing for five minutes,” and then relax, and continually throughout this time (one or two minutes is the most you will be able to endure to begin with) realize, “I am here in the presence of God, in my own presence and in the presence of all the furniture that is around me, just still, moving nowhere.”

There is of course one more thing you must do: you must decide that within these two minutes, five minutes, which you have assigned to learning that the present exists, you will not be pulled out of it by the telephone, by a knock on the door, or by a sudden upsurge of energy that prompts you to do at once what you have left undone for the past ten years.

So you settle down and say, “Here I am,” and you are. If you learn to do this at lost moments in your life when you have learned not to fidget inwardly, but to be completely calm and happy, stable and serene, then extend the few minutes to a longer time and then to a little longer still.

[The Essence of Prayer (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1989); pp 181-182. This section of the book was also published separately as School for Prayer.]

The more engaged we are in the world, the more troubled by the destruction of the environment or the murderous violence or war, of injustice and cruelty, of abortion and other forms of killing, of the decay of civil life occurring in so many places, the more we need to take to heart such subversive advice as given by Metropolitan Anthony. Whatever we do stands on the foundation of prayer and stillness before God. Neglect these foundations and the most well-intentioned efforts are likely to go badly off course. Our work will be as impure as our hearts.

Let me finish with another story from the Desert Fathers. Perhaps you will remember it long after you forget everything else you heard in this lecture:

Abba Joseph came to Abba Lot and said to him: “Father, according to my strength I keep a moderate rule of prayer and fasting, quiet and meditation, and as far as I can I control my imagination; what more must I do?” And the old man rose and held his hands toward the sky so that his fingers became like flames of fire and he said: “If you will, you shall become all flame.”

Brothers and sisters, let us seek the blessing of the Holy Spirit, asking God to help us become all flame.

Following Christ in a Violent World

Talk for the Orthodox Student Association of Finland conference, Kaunisniemi Camp, January 31-February 2, 2003

by Jim Forest

Our Orthodox Christian belief is that Jesus was not simply a great rabbi whose brilliant teaching and short but praiseworthy life inspired a legend of resurrection and the creation of a new religion. We know him as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who became incarnate for our sake, entered history purposefully, rose from the dead and is constantly giving himself for the life of the world.

Consider the circumstances of his birth as a human being. Do we think it was an accident that he was born as the son of Mary in a certain Jewish village two thousand years ago? Not at all. He was born at a chosen moment in a chosen place.

What sort of place and moment? Not the star-lit dream Bethlehem of the modern Christmas card, but a humiliated, over-taxed land kept within the Roman Empire by brutal, bitterly-resented occupation troops — in many ways very like the actual Bethlehem we have today. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, was born, lived, crucified and resurrected in a land of extreme enmity — a land in many respects resembling countries that were suffering German occupation 60 years ago.

He whom we try to follow was not born in ideal times nor did he possess the traits of the usual sort of hero. Think of the primary characteristics of Christ’s life recorded by the Gospel authors. He told stories in which the major themes are forgiveness and mercy. We healed many people who were chronically ill or were possessed by demons. On several occasions he raised the dead. He also raised a voiced of protest, condemning those who pile burdens on others they do would never carry themselves. Using a whip, he chased money changers from the Temple. He was not socially indifferent. He wasn’t simply doing good deeds while keeping silent about a corrupt and violent social order. It was not for his healing miracles or for the parables he told that the religious and political authorities of those times ordered his execution.

Yet we must also reckon with the fact that, despite his opposition to oppression, he never became part of the Zealot movement of violent opposition to the Roman presence nor did he bless anyone to join such the nationalist groups which was using violent methods to seek recovery of national independence.

We notice that Jesus neither assisted the Romans nor threatened their lives. We see in him following a third way, a way which is neither violent nor passive but centers on conversion, for it is only through conversion that we can live in what he calls “the kingdom of God.”

One of the most remarkable things about the Jesus we meet in the Gospels is that he treats no one as an enemy. Consider his encounter with the Roman centurion who came seeking his help — an officer who was part of the occupation army. Jesus not only responded positively to the appeal for help made to him but openly admired the centurion’s faith, describing it as being greater than those of his own countrymen. You can imagine how some of those who heard Jesus’s express respect for an enemy’s faith must have spat on the ground and muttered to themselves, “Traitor! These Romans are filth.” But we can also wonder whether, following his encounter with Jesus, if the centurion’s life afterward didn’t take a turn. It seems more than likely that he was one of the first Romans to place himself under the rule of Christ rather the Caesar.

Not once in the Gospels do we find a deadly weapon in Christ’s hand. His most violent action was to use a whip of chords to chase money changers out of the Temple because their activities were profaning a place of worship. It was a fierce action but one that endangered no one’s life but his own. We can imagine that it was after this event that those religious leaders who profited from the trade inside the Temple decided that this troublemaker from Galilee, the so-called Messiah, must die.

Again and again we see Christ healing people. Think about the last miracle before his crucifixion. Do you remember what it was? It is the most surprising healing miracle recorded in the Gospel, even more surprising than bring Lazarus back to life after four days in the tomb. Jesus healed the wound of one of the men who came to arrest him in the garden of Gethsemani. It was an injury caused by the Apostle Peter who was only trying to defend his Lord. Consider what Jesus said to Peter at that frightful moment: “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.”

“Put away your sword!” These words of Jesus were taken deeply to heart in the early Church. In the early centuries of the Church we find many indications of Christians refusing to shed the blood of others, including converted soldiers involved in war. Even after the age of Constantine, the Church imposed severe penalties on those who killed even if they did so in war.

In a criticism of Christians written in 173 AD by the pagan scholar Celsus, Christians were sharply condemned for their refusal to serve in the army. “If all men were to do as you [Christians] do,” wrote Celsus, “there would be nothing to prevent the Emperor from being left in utter solitude, and with the desertion of his forces, the Empire would fall into the hands of the most lawless barbarians.”

One of the responses to this criticism that comes down to us was written by the North African Christian apologist, Origen: “Christians have been taught not to defend themselves against their enemies,” he said, “and because they have kept the laws that command gentleness and love of man, they have received from God that which they would not have achieved if they were permitted to make war, though they might have been quite able to do so.” The Christian refusal of military service, he went on, did not indicate indifference to social responsibility, but response at the level of spiritual combat: “The more devout the individual, the more effective he is in helping the Emperor, more so than the soldiers who go into the lines and kill all the enemy troops they can…. The greatest warfare, in other words, is not with human enemies but with those spiritual forces which make men into enemies.”

In the same century, St. Justin the Hieromartyr wrote along similar lines: “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war … swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks.” Elsewhere he writes, “We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies but, that we may not lie or deceive our judges, we gladly die confessing Christ.”

Late in the second century we find another North African, Clement of Alexandria, calling on those not yet brought to the Christ’s Church to enlist “in an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without wrath, without stain — pious old men, orphans dear to God, widows armed with gentleness, men adorned with love. Obtain with your wealth as guardians of body and soul such as these whose commander is God.” “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.”

At the heart of these and similar writings from the early Church is the conviction that we are, through baptism, people under the rule of God, obeying the rulers of this world only insofar as their regulations are not in conflict with God’s law. As St. Euphemia, a martyr of the early fourth century, declared, “The Emperor’s commands and [those of anyone in authority] must be obeyed if they are not contrary to the God of heaven. If they are, they must not only not be obeyed; they must be resisted.”

In the Church in Asia Minor in the early fourth century, it was declared: “Let a catechumen … if he desire to be a soldier, either cease from his intention, or if not, let him be rejected. For he has despised God by his thought and, leaving the things of the Spirit, he has perfected himself in the flesh, and has treated the faith with contempt.” One finds similar declarations in other parts of the Church throughout the Empire in the pre-Constantinian era.

Yet we know that the Church was seeking converts throughout society, including in the army. There was no profession, high or low, respected or detested, which were seen as excluded from the Gospel message. Soldiers, prostitutes, tax collectors, criminals — these and every sort of people were seen as potential converts.

Beginning at the end of the second century, we find burial stones indicating soldiers who had been baptized. The oldest known Christian grave marking indicating the deceased had been in the army dates from 197. Keep in mind that the army was not something you served in for a few years and left — you were a soldier from youth until retirement due to old age. Often times you were born into the military — if you were a healthy male and your father was a soldier, so were you. Nor was there provision for special discharge because you had been converted to a religion opposed killing.

What about those who came to baptism faith while in the army? They were told they must never take anyone’s life. “Anyone who has received the power to kill. . . in no case let them kill, even if they have received the order to kill,” stated the Canons of Hippolytus of the Church in Egypt in the mid-fourth century. This is similar to St. John the Baptist’s instructions to soldiers: “Do violence to no one, accuse no one falsely, and be content with your pay.”

Anyone guilty of actually killing another person was subject to grave penances and prolonged exclusion from the Eucharist. The Canons of Hippolytus stated: “If anyone has shed blood, let him not take part in the [eucharistic] mysteries, unless he has been purified by penance, by tears and groans.” We notice that even today canons survive from the Ecumenical Councils which require that priests and iconographers be persons who have never shed human blood.

Records survive of Christians being martyred for their refusal to accept military service in a period when other Christians were willing to accept conscription. For example in 295, a young Christian, St. Maximilian, was brought before the Roman Proconsul, Dion, in North Africa. His testimony is recorded in the ancient Acts of the Saints.

“I will not be a soldier of this world,” Maximilian said, “for I am a soldier of Christ.” “But there are Christians serving in the army,” the Proconsul replied. “That is their business,” said Maximilian. “I too am a Christian, and cannot serve.” Condemned to death, he proclaimed, “God lives!”

A generation later, in 336, we find St. Martin of Tours, an army officer who later became a missionary bishop, applying for discharge. “I am a soldier of Christ,” he declared. “It is not lawful for me to fight.” As his request was made on the eve of a battle, Martin was accused of cowardice. He responded by volunteering to face the enemy and to advance unarmed against their ranks. Julian Caesar instead ordered Martin imprisoned, but soon after St. Martin was permitted to resign from the army.

Late in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom compared the violent with wolves: “It is certainly a finer and more wonderful thing to change the mind of enemies and bring them to another way of thinking than to kill them, especially when we recall that [the disciples] were only twelve and the whole world was full of wolves…. We ought then to be ashamed of ourselves, we who act so very differently and rush like wolves upon our foes. So long as we are sheep we have the victory; but if we are like wolves we are beaten, for then the help of the shepherd is withdrawn from us, for he feeds sheep not wolves…. This mystery [of the Eucharist] requires that we should be innocent not only of violence but of all enmity, however slight, for it is the mystery of peace.”

How strange all these texts seem even to us in the Orthodox Church. We are famous for our careful preservation of the ancient Liturgy and for maintaining many other traditions of the early Church. We are rightly scandalized and saddened when we notice new distortions of the faith in other sections of Christianity. Yet there is much from the Church’s first centuries that we have forgotten as completely as everyone else.

When did the change begin? Perhaps the crucial years was 313, when the Emperor Constantine ended the persecution against the Church by issuing the Edict of Milan. No longer the object of suppressive actions by the state, Christianity soon became the most favored religion of the empire — in a matter of a few generations, the only legal religion. Those who wanted to advance in the world had first to accept the Emperor’s religion and quickly lined up for baptism — though it is striking to notice that Constantine delayed his own baptism until he lay on his deathbed.

The relationship between the Church and state was drastically changed. Before Constantine, Christians had, in effect, been either barred from the army or permitted to serve in areas where their work was what today is done by police and firemen. Within a century of Constantine’s death, all non-Christians were excluded from the army. As St. Jerome wrote from his cave in Bethlehem late in the fourth century, “When the Church came to the princes of the world, she grew in power and wealth but diminished in virtue.”

Within the Orthodox Church for the past fifteen centuries, only monks, priests and iconographers are seen as having a vocation which, of its nature, bars them from bloodshed. They are required to live by a standard that had once been normal for all followers of Christ.

Late in the fourth century the foundations of the “Just War Theory,” as it is called in the Western Church, were laid by St. Ambrose of Milan and Blessed Augustine of Hippo. While both maintained the traditional view that the individual Christian was barred from deadly violence in self defense, they proposed that armed defense of one’s community was a different matter. Yet even for the soldier, they maintained that Christ’s command to love one’s enemies remained in full force.

In the course of centuries the just war theory gradually evolved, obtaining the main elements in its development by the thirteenth century. According to this doctrine a war could be considered just only if declared as a last resort by the state, fought for a just cause, with the burden of guilt clearly on one side, undertaken with a just intention, employing just means, and respecting the lives of the innocent and of noncombatants.

Has the just war doctrine had any influence on the actual conduct of war or prevented certain wars that might have been? We can fairly say that whatever influence it may have had was long ago. What is most striking about modern war is how completely all restraints are ignored. In the past 150 years, there has been an ever-growing percentage of noncombatant victims in war. Today the person most likely to survive a war is the soldier while the typical casualty is a non-combatant. Modern war relies on methods which inevitably result in massive numbers of noncombatant deaths. We now have the hellish term “collateral damage” in our working vocabulary — Newspeak for killing innocent people.

Development of the just war doctrine occurred chiefly in the west, gradually becoming a well-established doctrine if one without the authority of dogmatic teaching. While we can early find examples of Orthodox hierarchs fervently supporting war, it is noteworthy that in the Orthodox Church the just theory never acquired dogmatic status. In researching patristic sources, Byzantine military manuals, and a wide range of Orthodox declarations about war, the respected Orthodox theologian Father Stanley Harakas was startled to discover “an amazing consistency in the almost totally negative moral assessment of war coupled with an admission that war may be necessary under certain circumstances to protect the innocent and to limit even greater evils. In this framework, war may be an unavoidable alternative, but it nevertheless remains an evil. Virtually absent in the [Orthodox] tradition is any mention of a ‘just’ war, much less a ‘good’ war. The tradition also precludes the possibility of a crusade. For the Eastern Orthodox tradition … war can be seen only as a ‘necessary evil,’ with all the difficulty and imprecision such a designation carries.” Nonetheless, he continues, “the pacifist emphasis is retained in liturgy and in clerical standards.”

We find what Father Harakas describes as a gradual “‘stratification of pacifism” in the Church. “Clergy were to function as pacifists, uninvolved in any military activity, even prohibited from entering military camps.”

Despite the gradual acceptance of military service that followed Constantine’s act of peace with the Church, Christianity and war have never been happily joined. If the great majority of Christians came to regard war in some situations as the lesser of two evils, and military service an honorable calling, there has never been a period in Christian history without its nonviolent teachers and witnesses, nor a time without those who taught Christianity as a way of love rather than violence and coercion.

Reflecting on the word and example of Christ, we can identify seven aspects of spiritual life that are essential aspects of Christian peacemaking: love of enemies, prayer for enemies; doing good to enemies; turning the other cheek; offering forgiveness; breaking down walls of division; and resisting evil in ways which may lead one’s enemies toward conversion.

Love of Enemies: As used in the Bible, the word “love” has first of all to do with action and responsibility. The stress is not at all upon sentiment. It doesn’t refer to how you feel. To love is to do what you can to provide for the spiritual and physical well-being of another, whether you like that person or not, whether you feel like it or not. What God does is love. In explaining his Father’s love, Christ talks about what God gives. He offers the metaphor of rain falling on both the just and the unjust.

An act of love may be animated by a sense of delight in someone else or, more significantly, it may be done despite anger, exhaustion, depression or fear, done simply as a response to God, our common Creator, “who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”

Paul taught that the greatest gifts of God were faith, hope and love, and, of these, the greatest is love. Genuine love, he wrote, is patient and kind, without jealousy or boasting, without arrogance or rudeness; it doesn’t demand its own way, does not rejoice at wrong but rather in the right, and endures everything. These are the essential qualities of any peacemaker.

Prayer for Enemies: Inseparable from love of others is prayer for them. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Prayer is the primary form of connection — an invisible reaching out, first toward our Creator, but also toward other people, whether loved or feared, through God. The moment I pray for another human being, I am connected to that person. He may be unaware of it, but a relationship is established in prayer.

Without prayer for enemies, how can we possibly love them? In fact the only love we can offer anyone, friend or enemy, is God’s own love. Prayer can give us access to God’s love for those we would otherwise regard with disinterest, irritation, fear, contempt or active hostility.

We are given a witness to the power of prayer in the life of Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain. He was a Russian peasant born in 1866 who fell asleep in the Lord in 1938 after many years of monastic life on Mount Athos. He devoted all his adult life to prayer. Earlier in his life he had an intimate experience of his own violence, nearly killing a neighbor in his own village. In his many years of spiritual combat as a monk, Saint Silouan learned that the love of enemies is not simply an aspect of Christian life but is “the central criterion of true faith and of real communion with God, the lover of souls, the lover of humankind…. Through Christ’s love, everyone is made an inseparable part of our own, eternal existence…for the Son of Man has taken within himself all mankind.”

Doing Good to Enemies: Jesus calls us not only to prayer but to action: “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” Prayer is not an alternative to action; in fact prayer may empower us to take personal responsibility for what we wish others would do. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul says: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by doing so you will reap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This is what the Samaritan was doing to the Jew he found dying on the side of the road in Jesus’ parable of the compassionate enemy. In offering help to an enemy in his distress, he transformed the wounded Jew’s idea of Samaritans. He could never again think of Samaritans simply as enemies. If we were to tell the story in modern terms it could be a Turk assisting an injured Greek or a Christian helping a Muslim.

Turning the Other Cheek: Jesus says to his followers, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other also.” How different this is from the advice provided in the average Hollywood film or politician’s speech! There the constant message is: “If you are hit, hit back. Let your blow be harder than the one you received. In fact, you needn’t be hit at all in order to strike others.” Provocation, irritation, or the expectation of attack is warrant enough.

Turning the other cheek is often seen as a suspect doctrine, even dismissed as masochism. We hear it is Jesus at his most unrealistic: “Human beings, but especially my enemies, just aren’t made that way.” For a great many people the problem can be put even more simply: “Turning the other cheek isn’t manly.”

The conversion of the ancient world had much to do with Christians turning the other cheek in many acts of courageous witness that can never be forgotten. In the 20th century such witness was offered again by countless believers persecuted in the Soviet time.

Forgiveness: Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us only insofar as we ourselves have extended forgiveness to others: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Christ also says: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own?” On another occasion, Peter asks Jesus how often he must extend forgiveness. “As many as seven times?” Jesus responds, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” It is such teaching that inspires the verses we sing every Easter: “Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection.”

The Desert Father Abbot Moses was once asked to take part in a meeting in which the community was planning to condemn a certain negligent brother. Abbot Moses man arrived carrying a basket from which sand was pouring out through many openings. “Why are you doing that?” he was asked. “You ask me to judge a brother while my own sins spill out behind me like the sand from this basket.” The embarrassed community was moved to forgive their lax brother.

Nothing is more fundamental to Jesus’ teaching than his call to forgiveness: giving up debts, letting go of grievances, pardoning those who have harmed us. We are called to forgive. We need to seek forgiveness, offer forgiveness, and accept forgiveness. We are followers of Jesus who taught us forgiveness even when his hands were nailed to the wood of the cross: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

Breaking down Walls: In Christ enmity is destroyed. As St. Paul wrote to the church in Ephesia: “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of enmity…that he might create in himself one new person in place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing enmity to an end.” Jesus gives the example himself many times, for example in his encounters with the Roman Centurion and the Samaritan women at the well.

We live in a world of many walls of separation: racism, nationalism, all sorts of tribalism. Nothing is more ordinary than enmity. Far from living in communion with others, we tend to flee from communion. Metropolitan John of Pergamon comments: “Communion with the other is not spontaneous; it is built upon fences which protect us from the dangers implicit in the other’s presence. We accept the other only insofar as he does not threaten our privacy or insofar as he is useful to our individual happiness…. The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God.”

Resisting evil while seeking conversion: We are obliged to oppose evil and, as we are both flesh and spirit, we must use both flesh and spirit in our acts of resistance. But in what way ought we to resist? Certain kinds of resistance are clearly rejected in the Gospel: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil.”

Responding to evil with its own weapons, though it can seem an obvious good, results in a life that is centered on evil. Very often people who live in fear of violent men become violent men. They take up the same weapons and even adopt characteristics and hated practices of the adversary. When the Nazi forces bombed cities, there was immense revulsion in Britain and the United States, but in the end the greatest acts of city destruction were perpetrated by Britain and the United States.

But then what are we to do? Are Christians supposed to do nothing more than pray in the face of injustice and oppression? Are there not warriors as well as pacifists among the saints?

We see in the example of many saints that our choice is not limited to passivity on the one hand and bloodshed on the other. There is the alternative of unarmed resistance. This is a form of combat that begins with the refusal to collaborate with injustice but which actively assists the victims of oppression, which protests evil, and finally which prays and works for the conversion of adversaries. Among the saints of this century, Mother Maria of Paris is an example of these qualities. The houses of hospitality she founded in France became, in the time of Nazi-occupation, centers for rescuing Jews and others whose lives were in danger. She herself finally was sent to a Nazi concentration camp, dying on Good Friday, 1945. We see in her that nonviolent, spiritually-rooted struggle is not without risk and great suffering. It can easily cost us our lives, just as happens in armed struggle. But we prefer to put our own lives at risk rather than the lives of others. Only we must not be cowards.

This approach to conflict begins with a conscious aspiration to find solutions rooted in respect for life, including the lives of our enemies, and our hope that they too may be saved. We cannot be sure we will always discover a nonviolent solution, but what we fail to seek we certainly will fail to find. As in expressed in the membership statement the Orthodox Peace Fellowship: “While no one can be certain that he or she will always find a nonviolent response to every crisis that may arise, we pray that God will show us in each situation ways of resistance to evil that will not require killing opponents.”

This a way of life that many men and women witnessed in the great Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov, who lived in peace with everyone around him and who sometimes fed a wild bear from his own hands.

“Men cannot be too gentle, too kind,” he said. “Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. But remember, no work of kindness or charity can bring down to earth the holy breath, unless it be done in the name of Christ. When it is, joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives. All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other, not even those whom you catch committing an evil deed. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a morass of filth that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Keep away from the spilling of speech. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgement. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against the evil that creeps around.”

Let us consider the Beatitudes, that short summing up of the Gospel that we find at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The beatitudes are only eight. No Christian dares be inattentive to any of them. The seventh is the Beatitude of peacemaking.

In the early Church the whole world was astonished at how Christians witnessed to the peace of Christ, not only refusing to shed the blood of their enemies but trying in every possible way to save their enemies. May we do all in our power to renew such faithful witness in our time.

How desperately we need such people! We need them not only in places where wars are being fought or might be fought, but we need them in each household and we need them within the church and within each parish. Even the best and most vital parishes often suffer from deep divisions. And who is the peacemaker who is needed? It is each of us. Often it is harder to forgive and understand someone in our own parish than an abstract enemy we see mainly in propaganda images on television. Even within our Orthodox Church that we don’t simply disagree with each other of many topics but often we despise those who hold opposing views. In the name of Christ, who commanded us to love one another, we engage in a war of words in which, far from loving our opponent we don’t even respect him. But without mercy and forgiveness, without love, I am no longer in communion either with my neighbor or with Christ.

At the deepest level, the peacemaker is a person being used by God to help heal our relationship with God — for we get no closer to God than we get to our neighbor, that is any person regarded as “different” and a “threat.” St. Silouan of the Holy Mountain taught that love of enemies is not simply an aspect of Christian life but is “the central criterion of true faith and of real communion with God, the lover of souls, the lover of humankind.”

Let us recall those challenging words of Mother Maria Skobtsova of Paris, a martyr who died in 1945 in a German concentration camp:

“The bodies of fellow human beings must be treated with greater care than our own. Christian love teaches us to give our brethren not only spiritual gifts, but material gifts as well. Even our last shirt, our last piece of bread must be given to them. Personal almsgiving and the most wide-ranging social work are equally justifiable and necessary. The way to God lies through love of other people and there is no other way. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked if I was successful in my ascetic exercises or how many prostrations I made in the course of my prayers. I shall be asked, did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners: that is all I shall be asked.”

Orthodoxy, Peace & Reconciliation

some reflections by Jim Forest for the St Nicholas Evening discussion at St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, Amsterdam, September 23, 2004

It’s the first St Nicholas Evening. Originally I was asked to talk about prayer with icons but the terrible recent events in Russia, Chechnya and many other countries made Deacon Hildo suggest a more difficult subject: Orthodoxy, Peace and Reconciliation.

My hope is that for a little while we can try to put aside some of the pain and anger we are feeling and, for a few minutes, look carefully at these three words. What do they mean? What do they have to do with us? What responsibilities do they point us toward?


It means both the true way to give praise and true belief. What we really mean by this is the true path of following Christ. Orthodoxy is not just a tribal designation: in this enclosure are the Orthodox Christians, over there are Roman Catholics, somewhere else, within different fences, all sorts of Protestants, etc etc. To be Orthodox is not simply a way of saying what I am not. It is a recognition that I am trying to live according to the Gospel: the word and the example of Christ.

It also means I belong to the Orthodox Church. I am part of a huge community of people with a collective memory that goes back as far Adam and Eve. It is a community that includes the Church Fathers, whose words we not only store on our books shelves but make some effort to discover, according to our spiritual and intellectual capacity.

We are a Church of Councils and hold ourselves accountable to the results of those council even though they net as much as seventeen centuries ago.

We are a Church of saints. Day by day we remember them. We bear their names. We call of them for help. We remember what they did and sometimes what they said.

Sometimes it gets confusing. One Church Father showers the highest praise on marriage, another regards marriage as a tolerable compromise for those unable to embrace the real Christian calling, celibate monastic life. It can be disconcerting to discover that on various questions different Fathers may have different ideas or different emphases.

Or we look at the saints and find here is a saint who was martyred for refusing to be a soldier and here is a saint who was a hero on the battlefield of war. Here is a saint who wore the rich clothing of a prince and here is a saint who wore nothing. Here is a saint who was a great scholar but here is a saint who was a holy fool. Here is a saint who raced to the desert, but here is a saint who refused to leave the city. Each saint poses a challenge and each saint raises certain questions.

Also it isn’t always clear what in a particular saint’s life placed him or her on the Church’s calendar. Do we have icons of St Alexander Nevsky because he defeated the Teutonic Knights? Or because, preferring negotiations to war, to negotiated with the Golden Horde and made compromises with them? Or was it because, later in his life, he set aside military and political duties and instead embraced a repentant monastic life?

Saints do not solve our problems. In the details of their lives, they march in a thousand different directions. They also made mistakes. The were not saints 24 hours a day. They too were sinners. Like us, they went to confession seeking God’s forgiveness for their faults.

But in some way each saint did something which brightly reflects the light of the Gospel. This is finally what is most important about them. They give us in many different ways a window for seeing the Gospel more clearly. In some way each of them opens a door toward Christ.

One last comment about the word “Orthodox”: It means, as St Paul says, that we are no longer Greek nor Jew. In our on world that also means we are no longer Russian or American or Dutch or Serbian. Rather we are one people whose identity and responsibility goes beyond the land where we were born or the culture and mother tongue that shaped us. In my own case, I am not first American, then Orthodox, and finally — if there is some room left — a Christian. No. I am an Orthodox Christian — Orthodox is an only adjective — who also happens to be an American. But being American comes afterward. It is in parentheses. It is in small type.


Let us admit right away that this is a damaged word. It’s like an icon I once encountered in Moscow at the parish of St Cosmos and Damien that had been blackened by candle smoke that the image was completely hidden. I spent an afternoon watching two restorers at work. Little by little, using alcohol and little balls of cotton, they cleaned the icon until finally we could see it bore the image of St Nicholas. Beautiful colors began to shine. There he was, a saint who is, in the Orthodox memory, the model of the perfect pastor. I realized I was watching a tiny resurrection.

Peace is a word that has been covered with a lots of smoke from the fires of propaganda, politics, ideologies, war and nationalism. In Russia there were all those Soviet slogans about peace, so many posters with the words, “Mira Mir!” The Church was obliged to take part in state-organized “peace” events. And in American, when I was growing up, it was almost the same. When I was a boy, the slogan of the Strategic Air Command, the section of the military that was in charge of fighting nuclear war, was “Peace is our profession.” It may well be still the same. More recently one of America’s nuclear missiles was given the name “Peacemaker.” Such abuse of words, whether in Russia or America, is what Gorge Orwell called Newspeak in his novel “1984.” We have to do we what can to clean words like “peace.” Otherwise it will be hard to understand the Gospel or the Liturgy or to translate the Gospel and the Liturgy into daily life.

According to the first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, peace means: “Freedom from, or cessation of, war or hostilities; that condition of a nation or community in which it is not at war with another.” It goes on to describe peace within a nation — “Freedom from civil commotion and disorder; public order and security.” From there the writers of the OED go to deeper water, recalling that the Latin word pax, the Greek eirini and the Hebrew word Shalom all mean something more than the absence of war of civil discord. Understood biblically, peace means safety, welfare, prosperity.

One of the things I like about the Oxford English Dictionary definition is the use of the word “freedom.” The dictionary’s authors understood that peace is not simply the absence of war, a condition to be described in negative terms, but freedom from war. (One Russian word any non-Russian will quickly learn from the sermons of Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov is svaboda.) It’s not a freedom we know much about. From Cain and Able until today, war is history’s default setting. But we can imagine that not to be in a state of war is truly a liberation.

Think how often and in what significant ways Christ uses the word peace in the Gospel. Peace is a summing up of the Kingdom of God in a single word. “And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it.” “And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!'” “And he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.'” “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” “And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'” “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!'” “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!” “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” And so forth. His greeting after the resurrection is, “Peace be with you.”

We sing the Beatitudes at almost every Liturgy. The Beatitudes are a short summary of the Gospel — this is why we sing them while the Gospel book is being carried in procession. These few verses describe a kind of ladder to heaven, starting with poverty of spirit and ending with the readiness to suffer and even die for Christ. It is near the top of that ladder that we come to the words, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”

We hear the word “peace” over and over during every Liturgy. “In peace let us pray to the Lord!” “For the peace from above and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord!’ “Peace be with you.” “For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls…” “For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy Churches of God and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord!” I am only mentioning a few examples. At the next Liturgy pay attention to how many times we speak about peace or are called to be in a state of peace. It is an absolute condition of eucharistic worship. How can we be in communion with God if we are in a state of enmity with those whom God has given is to love? It is that simple. Again and again we are warned not to approach the chalice if we have broken our communion with those around us.

We not only hear about peace from Christ and in the prayers of the Liturgy, we see peace in the life of Christ. We see it when he heals the sick servant of a Roman soldier — an officer serving in an army of occupation. We see it when Christ saves the life of an adulterous woman whom the crowd was ready to stone to death. We see it the way Christ related to every person who came to him seeking relief, healing, forgiveness, mercy. We see it in the prayer he taught to his disciples, which included the words, “Forgive us as we forgive others.” We see it even after his arrest. The last healing miracle before his crucifixion was to repair the ear of a man injured by the Apostle Peter. Then he then turns to Peter with those amazing words: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” We see peace when he is dying. He prays to his Father to forgive those who have beaten, tortured and crucified him: “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” These words were said aloud — not so his Father could hear the but so that we can hear them.

We also see that Christ’s peace has nothing to do with the behavior of a coward or of the person who is polite rather than truthful. Christ said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Think of his words of protest about the teachings of the Pharisees who laid burdens of others they would not carry themselves. Think of him chasing the money changers from the Temple. No one was killed or injured but God’s lightning flashed in the Temple courtyard.

Finally consider the simple fact that Christ never killed anyone, no matter how much we might regard him as justified in such an act had he done so. Neither does he bless any of his followers to kill. There are many ways in which Christ is unique. This is one of them.

In fact, in the early centuries, Christians got into a lot of trouble for their attitude toward the state. They refused to regard the ruler as a god. They were obedient in every way they could be without disobeying God, but they were prepared to suffer even the most cruel death rather than place obedience to Caesar before obedience to God. While eventually the baptismal requirements of the Church were relaxed, it was once the case that those who did not renounce killing, whether as a soldier or judge, could not be baptized. It is still the case that those who have killed another human being, even in self defense or by accident, are not permitted to serve at the altar. The reason is that one who serves at the altar is supposed to be a person without blood-stained hands. In fact ideally this should be the case of anyone approaching the chalice, though the Church is a channel of Christ’s mercy and receives for communion those who have repented of their sins, even the sin of murder.

Christ is not simply an advocate of peace or an example of peace. He is peace. To want to live a Christ-like life means to want to participate in the peace of Christ. Yes, we may fail, as we fail in so many things, but we are never permitted to give up trying.


Because I have already spoken too long, I only want to say a little. In fact not very much needs to be said. Reconciliation means being brought back to the relationships God intends for us. It is not his intention that his children should hate each other. It is not his intention that we should be each other’s murderer. It is not his intention that we should view ourselves as better than anyone else. I am Orthodox — heaven is for me. You are Moslem — to hell with you. Each person, not matter what his belief or even his disbelief, bears the image of God. As St. John of Kronstadt said, “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

Another word for reconciliation is healing. Not only can we seek the healing of ourselves when we, as individuals, are sick, but we should see our social brokenness as a sickness that also needs to be healed.

But national and religious divisions are so deep, and often so ancient, that reconciliation is almost impossible to imagine. You must be a kind of holy fool to seriously think reconciliation could ever happen. Not only do we fail to do anything to bring about reconciliation but we don’t even allow ourselves to think about it. It’s too crazy. At least there are many people who would think so or even regard me as a traitor.

I think this is why Jesus, in teaching his followers to love our enemies, immediately adds the teaching, “and pray for them.”

The beginning of reconciliation is prayer — prayer for the very people we wish were dead and might even be willing to kill with our own hands, like the people who blow up children, the people who behead hostages, people more cruel than wild animals. But if we pay any attention to the words of Jesus, we are obliged to pray for them — to pray for their conversion, to pray for their repentance, to pray for their healing. This kind of prayer is extremely difficult. I am still struggling with it after all these years. But without it, there is no beginning. Prayer is the first thread in the work of repairing the torn fabric.

There is much more that could be said about each of these three words but perhaps this will at least give us a starting point.

The Resurrection of the Church in Albania

by Jim Forest

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

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

The book is illustrated with 65 photos.

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

Here are several chapters from the book:

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

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

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

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

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


World Council of Churches
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published August 2002, 128pp, illustrated.
ISBN: 2-8254-1359-3
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