Doing the Impossible: Loving Our Enemies

Loving Our Enemies cover aa sermon given at a retreat of the Orthodox parish of St Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam

By Jim Forest

Today happens to be one of the Sundays when the Gospel reading calls on us to do something — love our enemies — that seems completely impossible:

You have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same? [Matthew 5:43-46]

Love? We love persons who are dear to us. We love our families. We love certain works of art, certain pieces of music, certain writers, certain books, certain films, certain activities. We love good food. We love a certain restaurant. We don’t love enemies or even wish to love them. How can we love someone who has done us harm or even seeks our destruction, someone who is a threat to my family or my homeland?

Is Jesus Christ serious in commanding his followers to love those who, in fact, we hate?

Partly it’s a problem of definitions. It helps if we understand that when the word “love” is used in the New Testament, it means something very different than most of us imagine. The biblical meaning has almost nothing to do with sentiments. But most of us think of love as entirely about feelings. One widely used English-language dictionary defines love as “intense affection and warm feeling for another person; strong sexual desire for another person; a strong fondness or enthusiasm.”

Love in that sense was not what Jesus was speaking about. A much better definition, more complex and with theological content, is provided by The Oxford English Dictionary:

Love … [is that] disposition or state of feeling with regard to a person which … manifests itself in solicitude for the welfare of the object … [Love is] applied in an eminent sense to the paternal benevolence and affection of God toward His children, to the affectionate devotion directed to God from His creatures, and to the affection of one created being to another so far as it is prompted by the sense of their common relationship to God.

As used in the Bible, love is not what we feel but how we choose to relate to another person or group of people. Love has first of all to do with action and responsibility, not about liking someone. To love is to do what you can to provide for the wellbeing of another whether you like that person or not. In explaining his Father’s love, Jesus talks not about sentiments but about what God gives and does: “Your Father in heaven who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” [Matthew 6:45]

An act of love may be animated by a sense of gratitude and delight in someone else — wonderful when it happens — or it may be done despite exhaustion, depression, fear, aversion or anger; it may be done simply as an obedient response to Christ’s teaching; it may be done as a prayer and a response to God who is our common Creator, who links us all, in whose image each of us is made, in whom we are brothers and sisters, who has bound together love of God with love of neighbor.

If you want a vivid image of love in action, think of an exhausted parent awoken at three in the morning by a crying infant who, even after being held and fed, its diaper changed, carried and stroked and sung to, refuses to stop crying. It’s not a time when one feels grateful for the child or glad to be alive. Ignoring irritated feelings, you do what is needed and try to do it gently and patiently. This is an icon of actual love.

To become even vaguely aware of each person being a bearer of the divine image helps open the door to unsentimental love. According to Saint Paul the greatest gifts of God are faith, hope and love, and of these three the most important is love. Describing the qualities of love, Paul says nothing about emotions, only that love is patient and kind, without jealousy or boasting, without arrogance or rudeness, doesn’t insist on having its own way, doesn’t rejoice at wrong but rather in the right, and endures everything. [1 Corinthians 13:4-13]

One more word to think about is “enemy.”

The English words “enemy” and “enmity” come from the Latin, inimicus. Amicus means friend. Add the negative prefix in and change the a in amicus to i and you get inimicus. Defined broadly, an enemy is the opposite of a friend.

My son Daniel, when he was seven, offered a very crisp definition of what it is to be a non-friend when he told another boy to “go away and drop dead.” In the plain speech of childhood, an enemy is someone, anyone, who would do well to go away and drop dead.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives a more challenging definition. An enemy, it says, is an “unfriendly or hostile person, one that cherishes hatred, and who works to do ill to another.”

This is a double-edged entry as it points the finger not only toward another person or nation but also at oneself. We are used to perceiving others as enemies, never ourselves. But if I am unfriendly or hostile toward others, if I cherish hatred or participate in doing ill to others, or even if I am busy threatening or preparing to do ill, I have made myself into an enemy. Unless I make a break with enmity, the enemy of my enemy is me. If I wish to break the cycle of enmity, I had better keep in mind that the only enemy over whom I have much influence is myself.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, longtime captive in the Soviet chain of prison camps called the Gulag, discovered while a prisoner that the line of enmity ran not between himself and his adversary but through every human heart:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? [The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, “The Ascent.”]

Which of us can claim to have a heart entirely free of evil? Which of us isn’t someone’s enemy? And even an enemy of one’s self? The enemy we encounter most often is seen not through the window but in the mirror.

Once you recognize that you have enemies, the thing to do is to make it a daily habit to pray for them. As Jesus said, “Love your enemies, pray for them.” Prayer is the first step. Make a list of your enemies and keep it in your icon corner. Such prayer creates a thread of connection between you and the other. It can be a very simple prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on {so-an-so).” Little by little, prayer can open the door to compassion.

Let me end with a remarkable story of compassion toward enemies occurring on a large scale. It happened in Moscow in the next-to-last year of the Second World War. Among the witnesses was the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, then still a child. He was standing at his mother’s side on July 17, 1944, part of the crowd watching a procession of twenty thousand German war prisoners being marched across Red Square. Yevtushenko writes:

The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women — Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear.

At last we saw it. The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebian victors. ‘They smell of perfume, the bastards,’ someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.

All at once something happened to them. They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty, blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent — the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.

Then I saw an elderly women in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying, ‘Let me through.’ There must have been something about her that made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people. [A Precocious Autobiography (New York: Dutton, 1963), p 26]

It was a truly eucharistic moment initiated by the compassion of one brave woman. Food was in short supply — everyone in the crowd was undernourished. Even the smallest scrap of bread was valuable. Yet hungry women gave bread to hungry enemies. We might say it was a reenactment of the miracle at Emmaus. Once again Christ was known in the breaking of bread.

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Jim Forest’s most recent book is Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment. More about the book here: http://jimandnancyforest.com/2014/07/loving-our-enemies/
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text as of 23 December 2014

‘Lord, That I Might See’

Thomas Merton outside his hermitage during the November 1964 retreat on peacemaking (photo: Jim Forest)
Thomas Merton outside his hermitage during the November 1964 retreat on peacemaking (photo: Jim Forest)

presented at a conference held at Bellarmine University, 24-26 October 2014, marking the 50th anniversary of a retreat on the spiritual roots of protest and peacemaking hosted by Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in November 1964

by Jim Forest

Domine ut videam. This Latin prayer was used in Merton’s remarks at the opening session of the peacemaking retreat held at the Abbey of Gethsemani in November 1964. Lord, that I might see. The Latin words come from St Jerome’s Vulgate translation of St Mark’s Gospel. It’s Bartimaeus’s appeal to Jesus to heal his blind eyes: Domine ut videam — Lord, that I might see.

Looking back on that small gathering fifty years later, it strikes me that these few words were at the heart of our retreat. Peacemaking begins with seeing, seeing what is really going on around us, seeing ourselves in relation to the world we are part of, and seeing the image of God not only in friends but in enemies.

Blindness is a major topic in the New Testament, not only concerning those, like Bartimaeus, whose blind eyes cannot tell the difference between noon and midnight. I am thinking of those with eagle-like eyes who can read the small print on an insurance contract but fail to notice that we live in a maze of miracles in which God is, as declared in an Orthodox prayer, “everywhere present, filling all things.” What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives. Our constant challenge is to be aware of the divine presence — and at the same time be alert to the demonic, to be able to tell the difference between that which safeguards life and that which destroys.

At the retreat the theme of seeing was dramatized by the presence among us of A.J. Muste. A.J., then 79, was one of the true sages of the American peace movement. For many years he had been secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and was now chairman of the Committee for Nonviolent Action. He had devoted years of his life to working for nuclear disarmament and, before his death in 1967, would play a pivotal role in efforts to end the Vietnam War, then in the early stages of U.S. involvement.

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

It is not what A.J. talked about during the retreat, important though it was, that I recall most vividly. It was the fact that A.J. could see. Just days before the flight to Kentucky, A.J. had undergone successful surgery to remove cataracts from both eyes. At the Abbey of Gethsemani, A.J. was in a constant state of amazement, seeing everything as if he were Bartimaeus. I have never seen anyone look at the world around him so attentively, so full of awe. He made me think of a sentence from G.K. Chesterton: “I am astonished that people are not astonished.” A.J. was in state of ultra-astonishment. It was a contagious condition. I think he helped all of us open our eyes a little wider.

One of the elements of the retreat was taking a fresh look at technology, technology that, on the one hand, has the potential to solve many problems (Merton was grateful for the clever Coleman lantern that illumined his electricity-free hermitage) and, on the other, technology that can destroy cities in a blinding flash while incinerating millions of people. Again the problem of sight. We as a species have great difficulty seeing ahead — seeing the difference between the constructive and the destructive.

One of the sentences that stands out in my memory of the retreat is this: “If it can be done it must be done.” Once a technological possibility is envisioned, we are drawn to making the vision real as irresistibly as Pandora was drawn to opening the chest that had served as a prison for all evil spirits. The challenge of being members of a technological society is developing a capacity to envision consequences — for example that a weapon, once made, is sooner or later likely to be used and when that happens will mainly kill innocent people.

For me the most haunting question Merton raised with us was initially expressed in another Latin phrase: Quo warranto? — By what right? In the context of the retreat on the spiritual roots of protest this became, “By what right do we protest?” It wasn’t a question I had ever before considered. I was born into a radical family in which protest was a normal activity — protest of economic injustice, protest against segregation and racism, protest against war, etc. While not by nature a person drawn to protest, as a young adult I found myself seeing protest as an unfortunate necessity. I could not watch preparations for nuclear war and fail to raise a dissenting voice or refuse to participate in actions of resistance. To protest was a duty, period. But by raising the “by what right” question, Merton forced me to consider that protest, if it is to have any hope of constructive impact on others, has to be undertaken not only with great care but with a genuine sympathy and compassion for those who object to one’s protest, who feel threatened and angered by it, who regard you as a traitor. After all, what we are seeking is not just to make some noise but to help others think freshly about our social order and the direction we’re going.

As Merton put it to me in a letter several years after the retreat, peacemaking is in fact an apostolic work — work that seeks to contribute to conversion, both my own unfinished conversion and the conversion of the other. We need to remember that no one is converted by anger or self-righteousness. One has to use the hammer of protest very carefully. Protest can backfire, harden people in their opposition, bring out the worst in the other. In fact to really be effective protest needs to be animated by love, not love in the sentimental sense but in the sober biblical sense of the word. As St John put it, “Whoever says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.” Another way of putting it is this: Until we love our enemies, we’re not yet Christians. Once again, seeing is the challenge. For that to happen, we have to see our neighbor, even if currently possessed by evil, with God’s eyes rather than our own. It’s a question of seeing.

One of the people we talked about at the retreat was Franz Jägerstätter, a man few had heard of at the time. Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian Catholic farmer who, for his refusal to collaborate with the Nazi regime, was beheaded in Berlin on the 9th of August 1943. Jägerstätter saw with amazing clarity what was going on around him, he was aware of the demonic character of Nazism, he spoke out clearly and without fear to both neighbors and strangers about the hell Hitler’s movement was rushing into, and quite freely paid for his peaceful resistance with his life. He has come to be widely recognized as a patron saint of conscientious objectors. A few years ago he was beatified at the cathedral in Liinz, Austria, but during Jägerstätter’s lifetime no member of the Austrian or German hierarchy declared that it was a sin to join the Nazi Party or to fight and kill in Hitler’s armies. We can say the bishops closed both their eyes and their mouths — just as the vast majority of church leaders in the U.S. did during the greater part of the Vietnam War and the many wars that have followed.

A saint like Franz Jägerstätter, his eyes wide open, represents the holy act of saying “no”: “No, I will not be your obedient killer. No, I will not play it safe. I would rather die than take part in a parade to hell.”

Merton never spoke autobiographically during the retreat, but if one were to search the root structures of the retreat, one would have to recall Merton’s decision, made in the months prior to entering monastic life in December 1941, not to bear arms in World War II on the grounds that he could not envision Jesus killing anyone. As he wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain:

“[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”

Clearly, for Merton, the foundations of the retreat went back more than 23 years.

One of the results of the retreat was the role it played in shaping the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which was then in the process of formation. In November 1964 I was a journalist working for a New York daily newspaper. Just weeks later, in January 1965, I became the first person on the staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, very soon afterward joined by Tom Cornell. Merton was the most renowned member of our advisory board, with Dan Berrigan in effect our chaplain. Our main work was assisting Catholics who were seeking recognition as conscientious objectors — people saying no to war and seeking instead to embrace a life responsive to Christ’s declaration, “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

It all has to do with how we see each other. Domine ut videam. Lord that I might see.

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For more about the 1964 retreat with Merton, see Gordon Oyer’s book, Pursuing the Spiritual Roots of Protest (Cascade Books, 2014, ISBN 978-1-62032-3770-9).

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Breaking Bread at Emmaus House

emmaus 1Tuesday afternoon at 4:30 pm the front door bell rings at 160 West 120th Street. It’s the City Harvest delivery for Emmaus House. The back of the van is opened, revealing a mountain of fifty-pound plastic sacks of large, bright orange carrots. Eight sacks, 400 pounds in toto, are for Emmaus, plus two equally large bags of fresh green vegetables. I notice asparagus is included.

Luckily there are four of us plus the delivery man to unload the van. Bag by bag the produce is lined up on a long trestle table between the chapel and the kitchen on the ground floor of Emmaus House. The far end of the table already is loaded with at least a hundred loaves of recently delivered brown bread as well as about twenty cartons each packed with a dozen quart-sized containers of chicken broth. Between broth and vegetables space is reserved for packets of yoghurt that are presently being kept cool in a large refrigerator.emmaus 2

At five thirty the household gathers for Vespers in the chapel. In the center, over the altar, is an Emmaus icon — the two disciples at the moment of recognizing the stranger as the risen Christ as he breaks the bread.

Supper follows. By now ten or twelve people have arrived and more keep trickling in as guests have been invited for the evening to hear me read from my new book, Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment.

Shazia, a black Moslem women who had been one of the first to arrive takes, playful issue with the subtitle: “It’s not the hardest commandment — it’s the easiest — only people make it hard. Love is so much easier than hatred.”

I talk about the biblical meaning of the book’s keys words, love and enemy, and then read aloud a chapter entitled “The Gospel According to John Wayne.” Animated conversation follows. Before the evening is over a dozen copies of the book have been sold and signed. Conversation slides toward the history of Emmaus House and my memories of the founder, Fr David Kirk. It’s remarkable — perhaps a miracle — that David’s vision of an Eastern Christian house centered on the works of mercy has survived so many difficulties and occasional crises over the years. Yet here it is. The heartbeat is strong.

Wednesday morning begins with a cup of coffee followed by Matins in the chapel followed by last-minute preparations for food distribution. Several volunteers (Shazia, Tom, Veronica and myself) assist long-time volunteers Judith and Nora. The yoghurt is put on the table and a calculation made of how many packets can be given per person assuming about sixty people arrive: two packets of yoghurt per guest, it’s decided, plus two quarts of broth plus a loaf of bread plus as many carrots as they want plus green vegetables as long as they last.

emmaus 3At nine the first guests arrive and from then till nearly noon there’s a steady flow. Judith stands at the front door warmly greeting each person while Nora is sitting on a chair near the carrots noting each person’s name and getting their signature. What’s most striking about Nora is the fact not only that she knows so many names but the enthusiasm of her greetings. She has questions for many about this or that family member and how so-and-so is doing after a recent hospital stay, and whether this or that problem has been resolved. Much of Nora’s conversation with guests is in Spanish and the tone is quite merry. She asks one guest how to say “thank you” in Albanian. There is more than food being given away — there is a person-by-person reconnection. Meanwhile Veronica is bagging carrots and Tom handing out yoghurt, quarts of chicken broth and loaves of bread.

When the front door closes at noon, the trestle table is bare. All the food is gone except for a few fragments of carrot lying on the floor.

— Jim Forest
30 October 2014

a folder of Emmaus House-related photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/7215762722916756
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www.jimandnancyforest.com

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Thomas Merton’s Letter to a Young Activist

Thomas Merton (photo by John Howard Griffin)
Thomas Merton (photo by John Howard Griffin)

By Jim Forest

Early in 1966 I was hard hit by all sorts of troubles. I was also discouraged about the work I was doing. Despite the fact that opposition to the Vietnamar was steadily growing, week by week the war was getting worse — troop numbers rising, more and more bombs falling, and ever more casualties, the great majority of which were civilian. “Napalm” — a bomb-delivered jelly-like substance that clung to bodies like glue while it burned — was a new word in many people’s vocabularies. Pictures were being shown on TV of American soldiers using cigarette lighters to burn peasant homes. An Air Force general, Curtis LeMay, had recommended “bombing Vietnam back to the Stone Age.” There was even talk of taking “decisive action,” that is using nuclear weapons.

It was against this background that, on the 15th of February, I wrote an anguished letter to Merton:

Valentine’s Day has passed but no let up to the war in Vietnam. Love continues to find a different sort of expression there. Perhaps it is especially suitable that the Times this morning carries a story which has as it headline: “Vietnamese Peasants Are Victims of War.”

I confess to you that I am in a rather bleak mood…. For one thing, I am exhausted with ideological discussions. Earlier today I began to type out a few thoughts on your paper concerning protest. I was going to say that I think such words as “pacifist” ought to be forever thrown into the trash basket and that indeed we ought to try to find a new vocabulary for getting across our ideas to the public. But the question comes up, as I work on such a response, Who is listening? Yes, you, for one — you will read my comments, and perhaps in some way they will alter your thoughts on some subject, or strengthen them. Perhaps it will even inspire you to write something. Yet even if you do, who is listening? Your words will be dutifully noted by some … those Christians who care about baptism and membership in the Body of Christ may be influenced by your meditations. But meanwhile murder goes on without interruption. This appalls me to such a degree that I get weary writing it down. Bomb after bomb after bomb slides away from the bomb bays. For every sentence in this letter, a dozen innocents will have died today in Vietnam. The end of the war is beyond imagination.

This morning I wrote a letter to the editor of [a popular Catholic monthly magazine] in which I explained why a recent editorial … attacking the CPF’s Vietnam declaration was poorly reasoned and didn’t come to terms with the reality of the situation in Vietnam…. I felt like a man in Germany in the 1930s trying to explain why Jews ought not to be sent to the concentration camps.

It all seems so utterly clear. You do not murder. You do not kill the innocent. You do not treat people like blemishes on the landscape, or communities as parcels of real estate, or nations as squares on a chessboard.

Yet no group seems more distant from these facts than Christian (and Catholic) Americans. I have all but given up talking to Catholic audiences about Christ; I simply talk about justice, raw basic justice. I think I’ve come to understand why natural law made its way into our Church. It was simply an attempt to ask us to be, if not holy, then just. At least that.

How is it that we have become so insensitive to human life, to the wonders of this world we live in, to the mystery within us and around us?

And what can we do? What can be done? Who can we become that we are not? What can we undertake that we haven’t?

I do not wish to sound despairing. I have by no means given up on this work of ours. But truly I feel like an ant climbing a cliff, and even worse, for in the distance there seems to be the roar of an avalanche. There is no exit, so I will not bother to look for one. I will continue to work, and there are the saving moments, the saving friendships, the artists, there is in fact the faith.

But I write this thinking perhaps you will have some thoughts which might help. But don’t feel you have to have any. I don’t wish to treat you as a spiritual irrigation system. But your insights have helped me gain perspective at past times.[1]

Merton’s reply was the most helpful letter I’ve ever received:

Dear Jim,

Thanks for the letter and for the awful, and illuminating, enclosure [about the civilian casualties in Vietnam]. I can well understand your sense of desperation. And the “bleak mood.” And also I am glad that you wrote about it. As you say, there are no clear answers, and you can guess that I don’t have magic solutions for bleak moods: if I did I would use them on my own which are habitually pretty bleak too. But that is just part of this particular life and I don’t expect much else.

Actually, I would say one thing that probably accounts for your feelings, besides all the objective and obvious reasons, you are doubtless tired. I don’t know whether you are physically tired or not but you have certainly been pouring your emotional and psychic energy into the CPF and all that it stands for, and you have been sustained by hopes that are now giving out. Hence the reaction. Well, the first thing is that you have to go through this kind of reaction periodically, learn to expect it and cope with it when it comes, don’t do things that precipitate it, without necessity (you will always have to).

And then this: do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, as you yourself mention in passing, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell the truth, nauseated with ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.

This country is SICK, man. It is one of the sickest things that has happened. People are fed on myths, they are stuffed up to the eyes with illusions. They CAN’T think straight. They have a modicum of good will, and some of them have a whole lot of it, but with the mental bombardment everybody lives under, it is just not possible to see straight, no matter where you are looking. The average everyday “Catlick” is probably in worse shape than a lot of others. He has in his head a few principles of faith which lend no coherence whatever to his life. No one has ever sought any coherence from him or given him the idea that he needed any. All he has been asked to do has been to measure up to a few simple notions about sexual morality (which he may or may not quite make, but anyway he knows where he stands — or falls on his face) and he has been taught that the cross and sacrifice in his life mean in practice going off to war every twenty years or so. He has done this with exemplary, unquestioning generosity, and has reaped the results: a corresponding brutalization, which is not his fault and which he thinks has something to do with being a real human being. In this whole area of war and peace, no matter what the Council may have said about it, the average layman and the average priest are all alike conditioned by this mentality. Furthermore, when it is a question of a kind of remote box score of casualties which gives meaning to life each day, they no longer think of the casualties as people — it is just a score. Also they don’t want to think of them as people, they want casualties, they want somebody to get it, because they have been brutalized and this is a fully legitimate way of indulging the brutality that has been engendered in them. It is not only for country, it is even for God.

You can be as indignant as you like about this: and it is sickening, but being indignant has its disadvantages. It gets you into the same damn-fool game. Take the myth of “getting results.” What is the driving power behind the massive stupidity in Vietnam, with its huge expense and its absurd effects? It is the obsession of the American mind with the myth of know-how, and with the capacity to be omnipotent. Once this is questioned, we will go to any lengths, ANY lengths to resolve the doubt that has thus been raised in our minds. The whole cockeyed American myth is at stake in Vietnam and what is happening to it is obvious, it is tearing itself into little shreds and the nation is half nuts in consequence. The national identity is going slowly down the drain in Vietnam and a lot of terrible things are happening in the process. We are learning how bestial and how incredible are the real components of that myth. Vietnam is the psychoanalysis of the US. I wonder if the nation can come out of it and survive. I have a hunch we might be able to. But your stresses and strains, mine, Dan Berrigan’s, all of them, are all part of this same syndrome, and it is extremely irritating and disturbing to find oneself, like it or not, involved in the national madness. The fact that you and I and our type have a special answer which runs counter to that of the majority seems at first to make us sane, but does it really? Does it save us from being part of the same damn mess? Obviously not. Theoretically we understand that, but in fact our hearts will not admit it, and we are trying to prove to ourselves that (a) we at least are sane decent people, (b) sanity and decency are such that our sanity and decency ought to influence everybody else. And there is something to this, I am not preaching a complete anomie. Yet the others think the same way about themselves.

In a word, you have said a lot of good things, you have got a lot of ideas across, it has perhaps caused some good reactions among the bad and what has it achieved in terms of the whole national picture: precious little. The CPF is not going to stop the war in Vietnam, and it is not even going to cause very many Catholics to think differently about war and peace. It is simply going to become another image among images in the minds of most Catholics, something around which are centered some vague emotional reactions, for or against. Nevertheless, you will probably, if you continue as you do, begin the laborious job of changing the national mind and opening up the national conscience. How far will you get? God alone knows. All that you and I can ever hope for in terms of visible results is that we will have perhaps contributed something to a clarification of Christian truth in this society, and as a result a few people may have got straight about some things and opened up to the grace of God and made some sense out of their lives, helping a few more to do the same. As for the big results, these are not in your hands or mine, but they can suddenly happen, and we can share in them: but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

So the next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work and your witness. You are using it so to speak to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration, and confusion. I hope we can avoid a world war: but do we deserve to? I am not thinking so much of ourselves and this country but of all the people who would be killed who never heard of New York and of the USA even, perhaps. It is a pity that they should have to pay for our stupidity and our sins.

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand….

Returning to the idea of pacifism: I think the word is useless for our purposes. It does not in the least describe what CPF is trying to do, it seems to me, and only gives a false impression. To speak of pacifism today gives people an excuse for bellicism [war as a way of life]: it implies that there is an alternative. One can be a pacifist or a bellicist. But there is no alternative, and it is not a question of some ethical ideal or some cause, but as you say of the plain, basic human justice, the old natural law…

Enough of this. I wanted to answer your letter and I probably overdid the job. But it is at least a gesture, and if it is of no use it shows I would like to be of some use if I could. I will certainly keep you and Tom in my prayers.

All the best … in Christ,

Tom[2]

I shared Merton’s letter with Tom Cornell and a few other close friends. From time to time, when the sky was turning starless black, I reread it. Twelve years later, a decade after Merton’s death, I included much of it in an essay I wrote on Merton’s struggles with peacemaking for a chapter in Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox, a book edited by Gerald Twomey. [3] There it caught the eye of Robert Ellsberg, then managing editor of The Catholic Worker, who skillfully trimmed it in such a way that it became “Letter to a Young Activist,” the title the abbreviated version has ever since retained. In the years following, “Letter to a Young Activist” has often been reprinted and translated, even made into posters, bookmarks and greeting cards.

“Letter to a Young Activist” captures the heart of Merton’s advice to anyone in a similar burned-out state while eliminating portions that were more directed at me personally and the work of the Catholic Peace Fellowship as it entered its second year. Here in italics is “Letter to a Young Activist” as published in The Catholic Worker interspersed with my own commentary:

Do not depend on the hope of results.

What a challenge that is. Any action one embarks on is undertaken with the hope of positive, tangible results. One must have hope that what you do will have an impact. But to the extent you depend on success, your capacity to persevere is undermined.

When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.

Before receiving Merton’s letter it had never occurred to me that peace work is of its nature an apostolic work — quite a dignity but also quite a responsibility. It was not an altogether comforting linkage. Few if any of Christ’s Apostles died of old age. All of them experienced a great deal of failure and ridicule.

As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.

It’s not easy getting used to the idea that what you are doing is probably going to crash against a stone wall. The shift from focusing not on quickly measurable results but rather on the value, rightness and truth of the work one is doing requires a major shift of perception.

And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

That last sentence became for me one of the most important insights that I ever received from Merton: “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” I know it by heart and recite it often. It sums up incarnational theology. Words and slogans and theories are not nearly as important as how we see and relate to each other — the relationships we build — and not only with friends but with adversaries. In the context of peace work, it suggests getting to know, as best we can, the people and cultures being targeted by our weapons.

You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.

Social movements require words and often use slogans to sum up goals. These have their place but it’s secondary. In a talk to his novices, Merton — best known for his words —once said, “He who follows words is destroyed.” Like arrows, words point but they are not the target. One of Merton’s main contributions to many people who were involved in peace efforts was the witness given by his contemplative monastic life in which prayer and meditation were integral elements of every activity, each day having a liturgical and sacramental foundation. What he had to say helped reveal what couldn’t be said.

The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

I found these few words — “after all [personal satisfaction] is not that important” — especially helpful. It’s not important that we personally get to see the results of our efforts, however worthy our goals may be. Here Merton suggests what I have come to think of as a cathedral builder’s mentality, a metaphor that easily comes to mind as I live just a minute’s walk from a cathedral whose construction began in 1470 and which wasn’t completed until 50 years later. By cathedral building standards, half-a-century was fast work — Notre Dame in Paris took nearly two centuries. But even in cases in which construction took less than a century, those who helped lay the foundations of a great cathedral knew they had slight chance of living to see their building roofed. Perhaps they imagined their grandchildren or great-grandchildren having that satisfaction.

The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more, and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

Building an identity in one’s work is so basic an element for all of us living in a career-driven, results-oriented, fear-wired society that it’s hard to imagine another way of identifying ourselves. Asked who we are, we tend to respond with information about what we do. It’s not easy to think in other terms, and indeed any more basic answer (what would that be?) might be embarrassing. But if what you do is rooted in attempting to follow Christ, in trying to live a life in which hospitality and love of neighbor is a major element, a life nourished by the eucharist, that foundation may not only keep you going in dark times but actually, ironically, make your work more effective.

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths.

Merton meant myth in the sense of a purely fictitious narrative. In my own case the problem was not so much making myself the servant of a myth (truth often comes wrapped in myth) but the servant of an ideology. Even Christianity can be flattened into an ideology — a loveless closed system of ideas, theories and concepts, every spark of paschal fire smothered in ashes.

If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration and confusion….

It is after all Christ’s truth that matters, a truth we experience from time to time but which can never be adequately expressed in words or be obtained by movements and causes. Trying to live within Christ’s truth certainly doesn’t mean we will live an undented life, a life free of disappointments — there is a reason that Christianity’s main symbol is the cross — but it may help prevent frustration and disappointment from becoming despair.

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.

Thank you, Thomas Merton.

* * *

[1] My letter is in the Thomas Merton Center archives in Louisville.

[2] Letter dated 21 February 1966; full text in HGL, 294-7.

[3] Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox, edited by Gerald Twomey (NY: Paulist Press, 1978).

* * *

This is a chapter from The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers.

 

Translating the first sentence of Kader Abdolah’s De koning (The King) into English.

The King - Canongateby Nancy Forest-Flier

In den beginne was er de Koe and de Koe was bij God, die de naam Ahuramazda droeg.

In the beginning was the Cow, and the Cow was with God, who bore the name Ahura Mazda.

Any Dutch person who is biblically literate will recognize this sentence as an adaptation of the first sentence of the Gospel of John from the Statenvertaling (1637) of the New Testament (“In den beginne was het Woord, en het Woord was bij God, en het Woord was God.”), but will also be reminded of the first verse of the book of Genesis from that same translation (“In den beginne schiep God den hemel en de aarde.”). So when it came to doing an English translation of that first sentence, it was a no-brainer: go for the King James Version (1611). And so I did. No translation struggles here.

But for me the question was: why did Kader Abdolah use these biblical quotes as his models for this very important first sentence? Would this choice have an impact on the rest of the book and on the way I would translate it?

The King is the story of Shah Naser of the Persian Qajar dynasty, who was born in 1831 and was assassinated in 1896. He was a man with his feet in two different worlds: the ancient world of his fathers in which autocratic rule, a large harem protected by eunuchs, and immense wealth were taken for granted, and the new world of technological innovation and political reform. He was the first shah to visit Europe; he introduced telegraphy to Persia and launched the publication of the country’s first newspaper. But he also had his vizier assassinated, regarding him as too progressive and threatening to his total power. And he found himself caught up in the international struggle between Britain and Russia to acquire rights to Persian oil, a natural resource whose immense value was barely appreciated by the Persians themselves.

This essentially is the story of The King, but it’s far more than that. In the introduction to the book Kader Abdolah begins by describing the traditional role of the Persian storyteller, for whom historical accuracy was always secondary to narrative momentum. He tells of the great Persian poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi, whose masterwork The Shahnameh, or The Persian Book of Kings, is a work of world literature little known in the West. And he holds up the work of Ferdowsi as his model for the story of Shah Naser. As I prepared to do my translation I picked up a copy of a new English translation of The Shahnameh, a much-abridged and beautifully produced Penguin classic. The Shahnameh begins with a story of origins, a Genesis if you will, and goes on from there. As I did more research I found that, like the ancient storytellers, like Ferdowsi himself, the narrator of The King is not particularly interested in historical accuracy. He’s interested in presenting a story of origins. In telling the tale of Shah Naser, the storyteller is helping us understand the birth of modern Persia, of Iran, but in a traditionally Persian way.

This, of course, accounts for that first sentence. The author knows his audience, and he knows that if he works with certain formulae he will elicit certain responses. A Dutch person reading “In den beginne” may realize that what is to come is a story that, like the stories in the books of the great Abrahamic religions, is based on history but is meant to convey a deeper truth. My job as translator was to make sure those buttons got pushed by my vocabulary choices and style. This influenced the choice I made for the end of the first sentence, “…die de naam Ahuramazda droeg.” I opted for the more archaic “who bore the name of.” Continuing on to the next sentence: “De Koe gaf nog geen melk. Ahuramazda zegende de Koe: ‘We hebben niemand als baas over jou aangesteld.’” My translation was, “The Cow did not yet produce milk. Ahura Mazda blessed the cow, saying, ‘We have appointed no one to have dominion over you.’” The phrase “have dominion” is pure King James. I also chose it as compensation, since I wasn’t able to duplicate the archaic dative “den beginne” from the first sentence in English and still retain the King James flavour.

I hasten to point out that Abdolah did not write the rest of his narrative in an overly contrived, antiquated style. The first few sentences did their work and so I, too, quickly left the biblical language behind.

30 September 2014
written for the newsletter of the Athenaeum Boekhandel in Amsterdam
http://www.athenaeum.nl/nieuws/12888/kader-abdolah-the-king

Discovering St Seraphim of Sarov

Seraphim (narrow)

“Acquire the Spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved.”
— St. Seraphim of Sarov

It was Father Germann, a monk I met in the Russian city of Vladimir, who first told me about Saint Seraphim of Sarov. He was showing me the local cathedral, still a museum in those days of Soviet rule. The tourists in the church were startled to see a living monk complete with long hair, full black beard and black monk’s cap — they couldn’t stop staring. It wasn’t only his appearance that attracted attention. He possessed a contagious joy and freedom. I mentioned to him that this church must have wonderful acoustics. Immediately he sang an unrestrained, banner-like, “Amen.” The church reverberated in an astonishing way.

I had traveled enough in Russia to be vaguely aware of Saint Seraphim, the icon of whose compassionate face seemed to grace the walls of every parish church and to have a place in many homes, but Father Germann was the first to tell me the saint’s life story.

“Saint Seraphim helped me to become a believer,” he said. Reaching into his pocket, he showed me a fragment of a large rock on which Saint Seraphim prayed for a thousand days. It was a gift from an old nun who knew a nun who knew a nun who had been in the Diveyevo convent near Sarov, a community closely linked with Saint Seraphim. The saint’s few possessions, among them the heavy cross he wore, were kept in the custody of the sisters at Diveyevo.

Father Germann explained that Seraphim was born in 1759, the son of a builder. He was still a baby when his father died. His mother took over the business while raising her children. While still a boy, he had what should have been a fatal fall from scaffolding. Miraculously, he was unharmed, an event which prompted a local “holy fool” to say the boy must surely be “one of God’s elect.”

When Seraphim was ten, he had his first vision of the Mother of God. Nine years later he entered monastic life where he began the regular recitation of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Later, following his ordination as priest in 1793, he was led to seek a hermit’s vocation in the forest, or, as he regarded it, his “Holy Land.” Here he lived alone, devoting himself to prayer, study and tending his small garden, with few aware he was alive apart from the wild animals he befriended with gifts of food, among them a bear who sometimes lay at his feet, a scene portrayed in some of the icons of Saint Seraphim.

During this period of social withdrawal, he was nearly beaten to death by robbers who had heard there was a treasure hidden in his cabin. The injuries he suffered made him walk with a bent back for the rest of his life, a stance occasionally shown in icons. After recovering from his injuries, he spent a thousand days and nights in prayer on a large rock in the forest, sometimes standing, other times kneeling, leaving the rock only for brief periods.

After his long apprenticeship in solitude, people began coming to Staretz Seraphim for confession and advice, a few at first, but finally they came in floods. One of the first pilgrims was a rich man, gravely ill, who was healed by Seraphim, so healed that he gave up all his wealth and embraced holy poverty.

During the last eight years of his life, Saint Seraphim spent many hours each day talking with those in need, some of whom had walked for weeks to reach him. Others came by carriage, among them Czar Alexander I, who later gave up the throne and lived a pious life in Siberia — some say under the influence of Saint Seraphim.

Among many remarkable stories left to us about Seraphim’s life, one of the most impressive comes from the diary of Nicholas Motovilov, who as a young man came to Sarov seeking advice. At a certain point in their conversation, Seraphim said to his guest, “Look at me.” Motovilov replied, “I am not able, Father, for there is lightning flashing in your eyes. Your face has grown more radiant than the sun and my eyes cannot bear the pain.” The staretz answered, “Do not be afraid, my dear lover of God, you have also now become as radiant as I. You yourself are now in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise you would not be able to perceive me in the exact same state.” Saint Seraphim asked him how he felt. “I feel a great calm in my soul, a peace which no words can express,” Motovilov replied. “I feel an amazing happiness.”

At the heart of Saint Seraphim’s teaching was use of the Jesus Prayer and continuing inner struggle to “acquire the Holy Spirit, the one treasure which will never pass away.” He reassured those who came to him that there is nothing selfish about seeking to save your soul. “Acquire the Spirit of peace and thousands of souls around you will be saved.”

Without a vital spiritual life, he said, we cannot love. “God is fire that warms and kindles the heart and inward parts. And so, if we feel in our hearts coldness, which is from the devil — for the devil is cold — then let us call upon the Lord and He will come and warm our hearts with perfect love not only for Him but for our neighbor as well.”

He was an apostle of the way of love and kindness. “You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives. All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a swamp that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.”

No matter what season of the year it was, he greeted visitors with the paschal salutation, “Christ is risen!” As another paschal gesture, he always wore a white robe.

Before his death, Saint Seraphim said to the sisters: “My joys, come as often as you can to my grave. Come to me as if I’m alive and tell me everything, and I will always help you.”

On January 2, 1833, Saint Seraphim was found dead in his cell, kneeling with hands crossed before an icon of Mary.

“Saint Seraphim is a unique saint,” Father Germann told me. “In him and his character, in his spirituality, we find the principal Christian characteristics — love for all people without exception, and a readiness to sacrifice. That’s why people love him so much.”

“We live in a time that pays special homage to advanced education and intellectual brilliance,” Father Germann added. “But faith isn’t just for the clever. Seraphim didn’t graduate either from university or seminary. All his ideals were gifts from God revealed through prayer and deeds. And so through Saint Seraphim many different people are drawn to belief — the intellectuals, the simple, and now not only people in the Russian Orthodox Church but other churches.”

“Saint Seraphim is the face of the Church,” said Father Germann.

Living in a period in which iconography had been influenced by western art, old icons of Saint Seraphim often resemble portraits while more recently made icons are usually in the simpler, more symbolic Byzantine style. The one reproduced here, showing Saint Seraphim praying on the rock, was made in 1992 by the iconographer Philip Zimmerman closely following an icon made earlier in the century in France by the monk Gregory Kroug. In all icons of Saint Seraphim, there is a prayer rope in his hands, a reminder of his devotion to the Jesus Prayer.

(an extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest — Orbis Books)

Battling dragons, taming wolves, befriending lions

[a chapter from Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment by Jim Forest (Orbis Books); note that footnotes have been removed]

St George & Dragon - Vladislav Andreyev
illustration by Vladislav Andreyev for “Saint George and the Dragon”

Among traditional Christian stories that challenge the Gospel According to John Wayne are tales of saints and beasts, the most well-known of which is the legend of Saint George and the dragon.

If we search for the elusive figure of the historical Saint George, we quickly discover that he never saw a dragon nor did he rescue a princess in distress. It’s even possible he was a farmer rather than a soldier — the name “George” means tiller of the soil; for this reason Saint George is a patron saint of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.

Saint George, born late in the third century, was one among many martyrs of the early Church. What made him a saint especially loved and remembered was the fearless manner in which he proclaimed his faith during a period of fierce anti-Christian persecution initiated by the Emperor Diocletian in February 303. George was among the early victims. Over an eight-year period thousands were tortured and many executed while others were sent into exile as slave laborers in quarries and mines in Egypt and Palestine. Churches were destroyed and biblical texts burned. Most Christians did what they could to avoid being noticed.

According to one ancient account, far from concealing his faith, George went to a public square and announced, “All the gods of the pagans are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this daring action Saint George was arrested, tortured and finally beheaded in the town of Nicomedia, in the northwest of modern Turkey. His body was brought to his birthplace, Diospolis, later known as Lydda and today as Lod in modern-day Israel. His witness led to the conversion of many and gave renewed courage to others already baptized.

In 311 the persecution ended. With Diocletian in retirement, the emperor Galerius (ill and close to death) published an edict of toleration allowing Christians to restore their places of worship and to worship in their own way without interference, provided they did nothing to disturb the peace.

A period of persecution ended but the memory of those eight years of suffering would never be forgotten. George was one of the saints whose witness remained fresh and challenging. Icons of him were painted and hung in more and more churches. As centuries passed he became the patron saint of cities and whole countries.

In early icons, made long before a dragon became attached to his name, George was depicted as a soldier holding the cross of martyrdom. Perhaps he was in the army, but he may also have been shown in military clothing because he so perfectly exemplified the qualities that Saint Paul spoke of in his letter to the Ephesians in which he calls on Christ’s followers to wear the helmet of salvation and the armor of righteousness, to be girded with truth, to clad their feet in the Gospel of peace, to possess the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, and to protect themselves from the devil’s flaming arrows with the shield of faith. However such symbolic use of a Roman soldier’s equipment does not rule out the possibility that George was in fact a soldier. People from every class and profession were drawn to the Gospel, soldiers among them. George may have been one of these.

It was only centuries later that the dragon legend emerged. The most widely circulated version is found in a medieval text, the Legenda Aurea (the Golden Legend), a collection of saints’ lives written by Blessed James de Voragine in about 1260. More than a thousand hand-written copies from the age before printed books have survived; it was a bestseller in its time. In the book’s chapter on George we meet a dragon which had been terrorizing the local people. In their fear they sacrificed their children, chosen by lot, to appease the creature’s appetite and protect themselves. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth. As related in the text by Blessed James:

Then did the king array his daughter as if for her wedding and embraced and kissed her, gave her his blessing, and then led her to the place where the dragon was.

When she was there Saint George passed by, and when he saw the lady asked what brought her to this place. She replied, “Go your way, fair young man, so that you will not perish also.”

Then said he, “Tell me what the matter is, why you weep, and fear nothing.”

When she saw that he insisted on knowing, she said to him how she was delivered to the dragon. Then Saint George said, “Fair daughter, have no fear for I will help you in the name of Jesus Christ.”

She responded, “For God’s sake, good knight, go your way and leave me here, for you cannot rescue me.”

While they were talking, the dragon appeared and came rushing toward them. Saint George was upon his horse. Making the sign of the cross, he rode bravely against the dragon which and struck him with his spear, wounding him badly and throwing him to the ground.

Then he said to the maid, “Take your belt and bind it about the neck of the dragon and be not afraid.”

When she had done so the dragon followed her as if it were a meek beast and debonair, leading him into the city.

The legend ends with George calling on the local people to be baptized. The king agrees, also promising to build and maintain churches, honor the clergy, faithfully attend religious services, and be generous to the poor.

From the point of view of history, the story is pure myth. Yet when you think about it, what better way to symbolize the evil that George actually confronted and defeated — the ruthless power of an emperor — than to portray it in the form of a fire-breathing dragon? George fought and, in embracing martyrdom, was victorious over a dragon-like adversary whose methods terrified and silenced most people at the time. We can understand the dragon as representing anything that makes us afraid and leads us to conform to a death-dealing society.

The white horse George rides in icons and paintings, a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider, represents the courage God gave to George in his disobedience to the emperor. It is the courage God gives to any Christian who would prefer to die rather than to collaborate with evil.

In many versions of the Saint George icon, the lance the hero holds is shown resting lightly in his open hand, meaning that it is the power of God rather than the strength of man that overcomes evil. The lance is usually shown as being pencil thin and often has a small cross at the top, thus stressing visually that it is not with weapons of war that evil is overcome but with the power of the life-giving Cross — the Cross that opens the path to the resurrection. Similarly, even in his battle with the dragon, George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. His tranquil face serves to remind the viewer of Christ’s commandment that his followers must love their enemies even in resisting them.

In more detailed versions of the icon there are scenes from before and after the battle with the dragon. Sometimes a castle is in the background from which Elizabeth’s parents watch all that happens. Icons sometimes show Elizabeth leading the defeated dragon on a leash made of her belt, the enemy made tame — a symbol of victory of life over death similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Bringing a wounded but still living dragon back to the town provides us with a powerful image of transformation. The final fruit of George’s combat with the dragon is not victory over a monster or financial reward for successful combat but the inspiration George gave to unbelieving people to embrace conversion. The time of worshiping dragons and sacrificing one’s children to them is over.

True stories become streamlined into legends and legends become compressed into myths, as the tale of Saint George bears witness, but there are many stories of the encounters of saints with beasts that may stand on more solid historical foundations.

St Francis icon - FlorenceOne of them concerns one of the greatest medieval saints, Francis of Assisi. Toward the end of his life he received an appeal for help from the people of Gubbio, an ancient Umbrian walled town north of Assisi. Their problem was a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves as if for combat before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.

What the townspeople expected of Francis is not clear, but when Francis said he intended to meet the wolf face-to-face, they sought to dissuade him. They had no desire to cause the death of a neighbor who had long since sworn off the possession or use of any weapon. What chance could an unarmed man wearing a cloak of rags have against a wild animal? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint’s life:

Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp … and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.

While keeping a safe distance, some local peasants followed Francis. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running as if to attack. The story continues:

The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God … stopped the wolf, making it slow down and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, “Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.”

The wolf came up to Francis, lowered his head and then lay down at his feet as though he were a pet dog. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into his deadly enemy. Francis said:

“But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you any more, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.”

The wolf responded with gestures of submission “showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it.”

Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth “give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger.” In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. “And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis’s hand as a sign that it had given its pledge.”

Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the nervous local populace met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said “calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf which can only kill the body.” He called on the people to do penance in order to be “free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” Pledging himself as “bondsman for Brother Wolf,” Francis assured them that the wolf would now live in peace with them, but that they were now obliged to feed him every day.

After living harmlessly within the walls of Gubbio for two years, “the wolf grew old and died, and the people were sorry, because whenever it went through the town, its peaceful kindness and patience reminded them of the virtues and holiness of Saint Francis.”

Is the story true in the journalistic sense? Or is the wolf a storyteller’s metaphor for the effect Francis often had on violent, wolf-like men? While the story works on both levels, there is reason to believe there was indeed a wolf of Gubbio. A Franciscan friend of ours, Sister Rosemary Lynch, told me that, during restoration work, the bones of a wolf were found buried within a church in Gubbio.

St Gerasimos and the lionAnother saint remembered for peaceful relations with wild animals is Gerasimos of the Jordan, shown in icons holding the paw of a lion. The story behind the image comes down to us from Saint John Moschos, a monk of Saint Theodosius Monastery near Bethlehem and author of The Spiritual Meadow, a book written in the course of journeys he made in the late sixth century. It’s a collection of stories of monastic saints, mainly desert dwellers, and also can be regarded as a very early example of travel writing.

In the fifth century Gerasimos was abbot of a community of seventy monks who lived in the desert east of Jericho, a mile from the River Jordan. The monks slept on reed mats, had cells without doors, and — apart from common prayer — normally observed silence. Their diet consisted chiefly of water, dates and bread. Gerasimos, in ongoing repentance for having been influenced by the teachings of a heretic in his youth, is said to have eaten even less than the norm.

One day, while walking along the Jordan, Gerasimos came upon a lion roaring in agony because of a large splinter imbedded in one paw. Overcome with compassion for the suffering beast, Gerasimos removed the splinter, drained and cleaned the wound, then bound it up, expecting the lion would return to its cave. Instead the creature meekly followed him back to the monastery and became the abbot’s devoted pet. The whole community was amazed at the lion’s apparent conversion to a peaceful life — he now lived on bread and vegetables — and its devotion to the abbot.

The lion was given the special task of guarding the community’s donkey, which was pastured along the Jordan. But one day it happened that, while the lion napped, the donkey was stolen by a passing trader. After searching without success, the lion returned to the monastery, its head hanging low. The brothers concluded the lion had been overcome by its instinctual appetite for meat. As punishment the lion was given the donkey’s job of carrying water each day from the river to the monastery in a saddle pack fitted with four earthen jars.

A year later, it happened that the same trader was coming along the Jordan with the stolen donkey and three camels. The lion recognized the donkey and roared so loudly that the trader ran away. Taking its rope in his jaws, the lion led the donkey back to the monastery with the camels following behind. The monks realized, to their shame, that they had misjudged the lion. The same day Gerasimos gave the lion a name: Jordanes. The repentant trader afterwards delivered an annual gift of olive oil to the monastery.

For five more years, until the abbot’s death, Jordanes was part of the monastic community. When the elder fell asleep in the Lord and was buried, Jordanes lay down on the grave, roaring its grief and beating its head against the ground. Finally Jordanes rolled over and died on the last resting place of Gerasimos.

The narrative touches the reader intimately, inspiring the hope that the wild beast that still roars within us may yet be pacified, while the story’s second half suggests that, when falsely accused of having returned to an unconverted life, vindication may finally happen.

The icon of Saint Gerasimos focuses on a moment of physical contact between monk and lion — an Eden-like moment with an act of healing at its core. By the river of Christ’s baptism, the Jordan, an ancient harmony we associate with Adam and Eve before the Fall is renewed. Enmity is over between man and creation, at least for a time in the small island of peace brought into being through one man’s merciful action. The icon presents us with an image of peace — man and beast no longer threatening each other’s life.

But again the question arises: Is the story true? Certainly Abbot Gerasimos is real. Many texts refer to him. He was one of the participants in the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451 AD. Soon after his death he was recognized as a saint. The monastery he founded lasted for centuries, a center of spiritual life and a place of pilgrimage. He is remembered as one of the great elders of the Desert. But what about Jordanes? Might the lion be just a graphic metaphor for the Gerasimos’s ability to convert some of the lion-like people who came to him? Or might the story be as real as any event in today’s news reports?

Unlikely stories about saints are not rare. Some are so remarkable — for example the legend of Saint Nicholas bringing back to life three murdered children whose bodies had been hacked to pieces and then boiled in a stew pot — that the miracles related in the four Gospels seem not so impressive by comparison. Yet even the most far­fetched legend usually has a basis in the character of the saint: Nicholas was tireless and resourceful in his efforts to protect the lives of the defenseless. On one occasion he prevented the execution of three young men who had been condemned to death. In icons that include biographical scenes, we find him grasping an executioner’s blade that was about the fall on one prisoner’s neck. It’s a story that has the ring of truth in the most prosaic sense. The miracle here is the saint’s courage in saving lives while endangering his own. Christ’s mercy shines through Nicholas’s act of intervention.

A Gerasimos-like story comes down to us from the life of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, one of the towering figures of eighteenth-century Russia. In some icons he is shown feeding a bear at the door of his log cabin. Living deep in the Russian forest, visitors occasionally found Seraphim sharing his ration of bread with bears and wolves. “How is it,” he was asked, “that you have enough bread in your bag for all of them?” “There is always enough,” Seraphim answered. He once remarked of a bear that visited him, “I understand fasting, but he does not.”

It’s not unlikely that Jordanes was as real as Seraphim’s bear. In the fifth century, lions could still be found in the wilderness along the Jordan. We can easily imagine Gerasimos as a man from whom all fear had been burned away by compassion.

Lions have a special place in the human imagination. From the classical world to our own era, the lion has chiefly been regarded as danger incarnate, the most iconic image of “nature red in tooth and claw.” And yet at times the symbol is transfigured. The lion becomes an image of beauty, grace and courage. In The Narnia Chronicles, C.S. Lewis chose a lion to represent Christ. The handsome stone lions on guard outside the main entrance of the New York Public Library have always struck me as guardians of truth and wisdom.

Loving Our Enemies cover aThere is still one more wrinkle to the ancient story of Gerasimos and Jordanes. Saint Jerome, the great scholar responsible for rendering the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, long honored in the West as patron saint of translators, lived for years in a cave near the place of Christ’s Nativity in Bethlehem only a two-day walk from Gerasimos’s monastery. The name of Gerasimos is not very different from Geronimus, the Latin word for Jerome. Pilgrims from the West apparently connected the story told of Gerasimos with Jerome. Given the fact that Jerome sometimes wrote letters with a lionish bite, perhaps it’s appropriate that Gerasimos’s lion eventually wandered into images of Jerome. It’s rare to find a painting of Jerome in which the lion is absent.

The stories of the man-and-beast encounters of Francis of Assisi, Gerasimos of the Jordan and Seraphim of Sarov are parables of the conversion of enmity into friendship. For the would-be peacemaker, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have an icon of at least one of these saints somewhere in your home. Need an image to stimulate courage? Get an icon of Saint George battling the dragon.

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Bose: “Blessed are the Peacemakers” conference – panel discussion intro

Bose panel discussion 8 Sept 2014
Bose conference panel discussion 8 September 2014

One of the remarkable aspects of the earthly life of Jesus is that he killed no one nor gave any blessing to his followers to do so. His last healing miracle before the crucifixion was done on behalf of a man whom Peter had wounded in defense of Jesus. At the same time he told Peter to put aside his sword “for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” Far from blessing enmity, Christ called on his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them. Jesus waved no flags — he was not a zealot. Though the word “nationalism” had not yet been invented, no one could describe him as a nationalist. In cleansing the temple of the money-changers, he used a weapon that could bruise but not wound. In a situation where execution was the penalty prescribed by law, he shamed a crowd of would-be executioners into letting their intended victim survive unharmed. One of his eight beatitudes declares that peacemakers are the children of God. In The Gospel of John, we hear Jesus saying, “I have come to give life and to give it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)

Imitating their Savior, in the early centuries of the Christian era Christians were notable for their objection to war and bloodshed. To give but one example, in the fourth century St Martin of Tours — at the time a military officer — explained to the emperor Julian Caesar (later to be known as Julian the Apostate) his reason for refusing to take part in an impending battle. “I am a soldier of Christ,” he said “To take part in war is forbidden to me.” His explanation makes one recall a definition of the Church given by Clement of Alexandria in the second century: “The Church is an army that sheds no blood.” We still see a trace of this commitment in the canons that forbid anyone to serve at the altar who has killed another human being.

How very distant the words of Clement and the witness of St Martin seem to the modern Christian! Who today would imagine that Christians belong to an army that sheds no blood? In many parts of the Christian world, a conscientious objector to war would be regarded as belonging to a peculiar Protestant sect. The disease of nationalism has infected many of us — influencing us so powerfully that we are not ashamed to adapt our reading of the Gospel so that it does not impede the demands of national identity, whatever that identity may be. Thus in many wars we find Christians on both sides obediently killing each other as well as anyone else who has been identified as the enemy. God alone knows how many millions died in the wars of the twentieth century. Even today both Catholic and Orthodox Christians are killing each other in Ukraine, to give but one example from the many wars being fought as we meet in this pacific monastery. How many bishops have blessed the weapons of war, how few have been the bishops who blessed those who refused to use those weapons. We frequently say, sing and chant the words “Blessed are the peacemakers” but our complicity in fighting wars suggests many Christians would prefer Jesus to have said “Blessed are the warmakers.”

I am reminded of these challenging words from St John Chrysostom, who died in exile for displeasing the imperial court. He said:

It is certainly a finer and a more wonderful thing to change the mind of enemies and to bring them to another way of thinking than to kill them (especially when [we consider that the Apostles] were only Twelve and the world was full of wolves). We ought to be ashamed of ourselves, we who act so very differently [than the Apostles] and rush like wolves upon our foes. So long as we are sheep, we have the victory; but if we are wolves, we are beaten — for then the help of the shepherd is withdrawn from us, for he feeds sheep not wolves … [And can violent people dare to receive communion?] What excuse shall we have if, eating of the Lamb [of Christ], we become as wolves? If, led like sheep into pasture, we behave as though we were ravening lions? This mystery [of the Eucharist] requires that we should be innocent not only of violence but of all enmity, however slight, for this is the mystery of peace. [Homilies on Matthew, XXXIII; translation from St John Chrysostom: Pastor and Preacher by Donald Attwater (London: Harvill Press, 1959), p 72.]

May St John Chrysostom be with us in this conversation.

Here we are, a small gathering of Christians from both East and West who have come together in peace to explore the beatitude of peacemaking and how that beatitude might reshape our lives and renew our churches. We have heard some very helpful papers and now there are a few of us who have been invited to discuss what we have heard so far. The first part of the exchange will involve just the panelists, the second all of us.

There are five of us present at this table. Let me very briefly introduce us.

I start with Dr. Amal Dibo who comes to us from Lebanon. She is a former UNICEF program officer in charge of emergency assistance to the displaced; she was also responsible for a nationwide vaccination program that cut across lines of division and led education programs on human rights. She is one of the editors of Sawa, a magazine for children educating them about togetherness and peace. Presently she is teaching history of civilization at the American University of Beirut. She is active with several NGOs working for art, science, culture and peace. She has represented her church in the Middle East Council of Churches, work that allowed her to connect with such eminent Orthodox figures Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel and Olivier Clement. For many years she has worked closely with a great advocate and exemplar of peacemaking, Metropolitan George Khodr of Mount Lebanon. She has spent her life studying, working, writing and praying for peace in areas suffering the calamity of war.

Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis has been director of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies the past fourteen years. He studied theology in Thessaloniki, then went on to study ancient and medieval philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. His doctoral thesis dealt with the issue of Greek identity and anti-westernism in the Greek theology of the nineteen sixties. He has published three books and many articles dealing with such topics as the eschatological dimension of Christianity, the dialogue between Orthodox Christianity and modernity, theology and modern literature, religion and multiculturalism, religious nationalism and fundamentalism, and issues of renewal and reformation in Eastern Orthodoxy. He is editor of the English-language theological series “Doxa & Praxis: Exploring Orthodox Theology”. Besides his work at Volos, he teaches systematic theology at the Hellenic Open University in Thessaloniki and at St. Sergius Institute of Orthodox Theology in Paris. His most recent book has the title Orthodoxy and Political Theology.

Dr Konstantin Sigov is professor of philosophy and religious studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla in Ukraine where he also directs the Center of European Humanities Research. In 1992 he founded the cultural and publishing association “Spirit and Letter”, of which he is director. The project has involved such scholars and philosophers such as Paul Ricoeur, Reinhard Kozellek, Arvo Pärt and Kallistos Ware, and published such authors as Bartholomeos I, Walter Kasper, Rowan Williams, Enzo Bianchi and Michel van Parys. Much of his work has focused on the ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox. Since the year 2000, he has organized an annual international ecumenical forum. A prolific author, one of his areas of concentration has been the history of culture. He has lectured at the Sorbonne, Oxford, Stanford, Rome, Geneva and Louvain. The French Ministry of Education has conferred on him the order of chevalier in the Ordre des Palmes Academiques.

Alexander Ogorodnikov was born in 1950. At age seventeen, he was a lathe operator at a clock factory. Three years later he began philosophy studies at the University of the Urals in Sverdlovsk, only to be expelled in 1971 for “a dissident way of thinking incompatible with the title of Komsomol member and student.” He then went to Moscow where he studied at the Institute of Cinematography, from which he was again expelled, in this case for attempting to make a film on religious life. In 1974 he founded the Christian Seminar. Later he became a prisoner at Perm 36, the notorious camp for dissidents located in the Urals near the Siberian border. In 1987 he was finally released at the order of Mikhail Gorbachev. After his return to Moscow, he founded the Christian Mercy Society, a group assisting the hungry and homeless with a special concern for homeless children and adolescents. In 1995, Ogorodnikov set up the “Island of Hope” in Moscow, a center and orphanage for girls, victims of poverty, crime, drug addiction, parental neglect and extreme abuse. A biography of Alexander in English entitled Dissident for Life was published several years ago.

As for myself, I am Jim Forest. I come from the United States but the Netherlands has been my home for the past 37 years. In 1961 I was given an early discharge from the U.S. Navy as a conscientious objector. In 1969-1970, during the Vietnam War, I spent a year in prison for interfering with the military conscription system. In 1977 I was appointed General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, the work that brought me to Holland. Since 1988 I have served as International Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. I am the author of various books including Praying With Icons, The Road to Emmaus, Ladder of the Beatitudes and biographies of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. My most recent book is Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment. I am a member of St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

The panel members met yesterday afternoon to reflect on issues raised in the various lectures do far presented. Here are seven questions for discussion:

1. A century ago, Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians were killing each other. No church said “No!” Today Christians, many of them Orthodox, in Ukraine and Russia are killing each other. For many it is both a religious and national duty. What can we and our churches say that might help bring peace?

2. Nationalism easily becomes its own religion, with churches often seen as guardians less of the Gospel than national identity. How can this be changed?

3. The shortest of questions: Does the church bless weapons and war? We have heard several people say no, but does the church in reality, in various ways, become an accomplice to war?

4. In the last century millions of Christians died, and now severe persecution is happening in the Middle East and other parts of the world. How can we respond?

5. We are told by Christ to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. How do we translate this into life in today’s world?

6. We have talked about the divine gift of peace in the soul and the always temporary gift of peace in the world. ls there the temptation of ignoring the second in favor of the first?

7. Fundamentalism is a problem in all religions. How do we respond to it as Orthodox Christians?

— Jim Forest

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for details, documents and photos of the conference, see this section of the Bose web site: http://www.monasterodibose.it/en/hospitality/conferences/orthodox-spirituality/2014-blessed-are-the-peacemakers

a set of photos my own photos of the monastery and conference: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157647700948716/

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Becoming the Gospel: the Witness of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

Anthony 4
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (photo: Jim Forest)

a lecture given at the June 2014 Sourozh diocesan conference

By Jim Forest

For Metropolitan Anthony, the Gospel was the guidebook to life in the kingdom of God, a kingdom we approach — or turn away from — each and every day. As he said many times in lectures and sermons: “We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

This is, in a single sentence, the great challenge Metropolitan Anthony places before each of us — to become a unique but faithful translation of the Gospel. Becoming the Gospel is a lifelong project.

“It is only in becoming the living message of the Gospel that we can truly say that we have received the message,” he is quoted as saying in Gillian Crow’s biography of Metropolitan Anthony, This Holy Man. “The disciples of Christ should be such that people looking at them would be puzzled, perturbed, challenged by the awareness that they have encountered men and women who were like no one else, not on account of their wisdom or reasoning but because they were different: they had become new creatures.” [p xv]

Metropolitan Anthony sought to inspire us to live in such a way that the Gospel is expressed not only in what we say, but by who we are, by what we choose, by our readiness to love even our enemies and to pray for them, by our willingness to forgive, in all our attempts to allow God’s mercy to be manifest in our day-to-day lives.

It was from Metropolitan Anthony that I heard a haunting quotation that, as I recall, he attributed to St John Chrysostom: “In order for Christ to appear, the priest must disappear.” I’ve never found the citation. His attribution of quotations was not always correct. He was not an academic and didn’t bother with footnotes. But whatever the source, these words suit Vladyka Anthony. There was a transparency about him. He was someone through whom Christ shone — not each and every moment, but very often. He was never a person eager to be honored, praised or showered with medals. He was not at all offended if you failed to kiss his hand or make other gestures of respect with which Orthodox Christians normally greet a bishop.

He was as careless about personal attention as he was about his wardrobe. At the last Sourozh diocesan conference that he attended, his cassock was faded and frayed. He wore a well-used black sports jacket and a battered pair of running shoes. At another diocesan conference, he wore what looked liked a fisherman’s sweater. Nothing he wore seemed fresh off the rack. All in all it was not the usual episcopal attire.

I know nothing of the economic details of his life, but watching from a distance, it always seemed to me that here was a man fully embracing the deep poverty of the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” both in the sense of not having what isn’t needed and in the sense of preferring to give rather than receive. He saw both inward and outward poverty as gifts of freedom. As he said in an interview:

“To be poor financially is in a way much easier than to be poor inwardly, to have no attachments. This is very difficult to learn and something which happens gradually, from year to year. You really learn to value things, to look at people and see the radiant beauty which they possess — without the desire to possess them. To pluck a flower means to take possession of it, and it also means to kill it.”

Seeking to preserve rather than destroy all that is beautiful is surely a primary aspect of becoming the Gospel. It is giving a living witness to the Beatitudes, the text of which Orthodox Christians in the Slavic tradition normally sing when the Gospel book is carried in the first procession during the eucharistic liturgy. The Beatitudes are seen as a compact summing up of the Gospel.

In the usual English translation, each of the Beatitudes begins with the word “blessed”. Blessed is not a word one finds in headlines nor does it often occur in conversation. What does it mean? It’s harder to translate it into words than to see what “blessed” looks like in a saintly life. Still, given the key passages in which it occurs, “blessed” is a word worth thinking about.

“Blessed” — the word chosen in the seventeenth century by the English translators of the Authorized Version — means “something consecrated to or belonging to God.” In St Jerome’s translation of the Greek New Testament, the Latin word beatus was used. Beatus means “happy, fortunate, blissful.” The condition of beatitude is bliss. But neither “blessed” nor beatus seems quite equal to what we find in the Greek New Testament, where each Beatitude begins with the word makarios. It’s a rich word. In classical Greek makar was a condition associated with the immortal gods. Kari means “fate” or “death,” but given a negative prefix the word means “being deathless, no longer subject to mortality.” Being deathless was a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods were the blessed ones.

The great blessing suggested by the word makarios is sharing in the life of God, the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of chance running through it. To be human is not simply to be capable of an abstract awareness that God exists, an infinitely remote Being whom we can faintly glimpse through an intellectual telescope. In the kingdom of God, the blessing extended to us is nothing less than theosis — participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity. Our happiness — our being makarios — is being received into God’s immortality and sharing eternally in the divine love. It is being blessed with qualities that seem humanly impossible.

Understood in this way, the word “blessed” as used in the Beatitudes might be translated “freed from death” or “risen from the dead.” In living the Beatitudes we participate in Christ’s resurrection. Thus risen from the dead are the poor in spirit, risen from the dead are they who mourn, risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, risen from the dead are the merciful, risen from the dead are the pure of heart, risen from the dead are the peacemakers, risen from the dead are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

As one could readily see in Metropolitan Anthony’s life, to be risen from the dead is not simply a condition of the life to come. It has to do with our lives here and now. St Paul said, “They call us dead men and yet we live.” This is to say that our lives can and should already bear witness to Christ’s resurrection.

To live a life saturated with the resurrection is to become the Gospel. But in what is often called “the real world,” it’s all too usual to be in a state of semi-death long before burial — to be a person who hardly hears, who hardly sees, who barely or rarely loves, who refuses to forgive, who obeys vile orders, who struggles to possess rather than share, whose interest in God is mainly academic, a person for whom worship is either something to be endured or a waste of time.

In Vladyka Anthony we saw a person fully alive — and a fully alive person, as St Irinaeus of Lyons said, is the glory of God: Gloria Dei est vivens homo. Vladyka Anthony was fully alive even though he had grown up in exile, endured great suffering, lived through a world war in which vast numbers of innocent people and conscript soldiers died, lived under the military occupation of Vichy France for five years, in later life suffered chronic back pain, and made himself deeply vulnerable to the physical and spiritual pain of others.

I think of some of the other ways that he gave an example of what it is to become the Gospel.

One of the most difficult demands Christ makes on his followers is the love of enemies. Understood biblically, love is not a matter of sentimentality but of actual care for the life of another human being, including those whom we are inclined to hate, wouldn’t mind seeing dead, and under certain circumstances would be quite willing to kill or see killed on our behalf.

While one finds many examples of surprising, unexpected, unlikely love in Vladyka Anthony, for me one of the most compelling was his determination, as a young physician working in a French hospital soon after the German invasion, to save the finger of a wounded German soldier. Here is the way he spoke of it in the interview made by Timothy Wilson:

“In the hospital where I was working as a war surgeon, a German came in once with one finger smashed by a bullet. The head surgeon came round and looked at the finger and said ‘Take it off’. That was a very quick and easy decision — it would take only five minutes to do. Then the German said, ‘Is there anyone here who can speak German?’ I spoke with the man and discovered that he was a watchmaker and if his finger was removed he would probably never be able to work again. So we spent five weeks treating his smashed finger and he was able to leave the hospital with five fingers instead of only four. From this I learnt that the fact that he was a watchmaker was as important as anything else. I would say that I learnt to put human concerns first.”

Even in times of peace — as we might use the word when we mean “a time without war” — it is no easy thing to see a person as a fellow human being rather than a being who is first of all the bearer of a nationality, or as someone who is defined according to his social role — in this case an enemy soldier who was part of an army invading his country. And here was a young physician failing to obey an order from a superior officer. He had been told to do one thing — amputate a finger — and instead he did another, saving a man’s hand and with it the man’s vocation. In such a choice one becomes the Gospel. The action is a translation of the text commanding love of one’s enemies but also to the summons to place human needs before rules that are indifferent to life: “The Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Vladyka Anthony gave a tireless example of what Alexander Schmemann recognized as the most essential human attribute: the capacity to worship. The human being, Schmemann said, is not simply homo sapiens but homo adorans.

What is most dangerous about the decayed culture we live in is its marginalization or active dismissal of worship. In consumer societies, worship falls into the category of hobbies. But for Vladyka Anthony, as for any disciple of Christ, it is at the center of being, the well in the desert. It is at the core of love, not only love of God but love of a child, love of a spouse or love of a friend, love of an enemy soldier. Love is worship. Worship is love.

Love is also gratitude. I have never forgotten Vladyka Anthony’s response to a question he was asked during a workshop at the diocesan conference a few years before his death. Someone wanted to know if he had advice about how to become humble. “Humility is too exalted a goal,” he replied, “but perhaps you could aim for the halfway house of gratitude.”

Gratitude is a component of all worship. Gratitude is part of becoming the Gospel. Indeed the word “eucharist” means thanksgiving.

In Vladyka Anthony, we could see this quality not only in the way he served at the altar — absolutely calm, very attentive, unhurried, welcoming patches of silence — but in the way he paid attention to other people, whether well known to him or never met before. It could be unnerving to be looked at so closely, to be seen with such intensity, to be listened to so attentively, to experience such undivided concentration, to be met in so radical and pure a way. It’s not something we’re used to nor afterward can ever forget. We have often heard we were bearers of the divine image but in encounters with Vladyka Anthony, one experienced that awareness in his face.

It is deeply embedded practice among Orthodox Christians that we treat icons, even those that are second-rate from an aesthetic point of view, with respect and reverence. Would that we did the same with each other. Perhaps what was most remarkable about Metropolitan Anthony is that he normally treated people as if they were icons. Here too he was a living translation of the Gospel. As he explained on one occasion, “Christ saw the beauty of the divine image in every person who came to him. Perhaps it was hidden or deformed, but it was beauty nevertheless. We must do the same. Each of us resembles a damaged icon. When anyone gives us a painted icon that has been damaged by age or circumstances or profaned by human sinfulness, we always treat it with tenderness, with reverence and with a broken heart. It is what remains of its former beauty, and not what has been lost, that is important. And that is how we should learn to treat ourselves and each other.” [This Holy Man, p 194]

The experience of being the object of such undivided attention was at one with his theology of the mystery of the human person. In a lecture on “The True Worth of Man” that he presented in the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford in 1967, Vladyka Anthony explained:

“For centuries … within the Church we have tried to make our God as great as we could, by making man small. This can be seen even in works of art in which the Lord Jesus Christ is represented great and his creatures very small indeed at his feet. The intention was to show how great God was, and yet it has resulted in the false, mistaken, almost blasphemous view that man is small, or in the denial of this God who treats men as though they were of no value…. And yet this is not the vision of God about man…. When we try to understand the value which God himself attaches to man we see that we are bought at a high price, that the value which God attaches to man is all the life and all the death, the tragic death, of the Only-begotten Son upon the Cross. This is what God thinks of man, of his friend, created by him in order to be his companion of eternity.”

In that lecture, Metropolitan Anthony went on to tell the story of the Prodigal Son, one of the parables he most often commented on, as all who knew him will recall. Did he ever speak even for five minutes without telling at least one story, either a biblical story or a story that in some way drew one’s attention to the Gospel? To be a living translation of the Gospel implies a reliance on carefully-chosen stories. The Gospel is an anthology of stories and Vladyka Anthony was a teller of stories second to none, stories told with tremendous immediacy, even urgency, as if our lives depended on them.

He spoke with authority and courage. How often we fail to say things that need saying because they might mar the occasion. Not so with Metropolitan Anthony. To give one example, I recall my first encounter with him. It was during the 1988 Church Council at the Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra north of Moscow when the Thousand-Year Anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’ was being celebrated. Nearly everyone was congratulating the Church for the witness it had given in the course of ten centuries with no faults or failings noted. But not Vladyka Anthony. One passage from the speech he gave at the Council astonished me.

“The Millennium is a glorious feast,” he said, “but when we speak of the triumph of Orthodoxy, we must realize that it is the triumph of God over the Orthodox, of truth and light over our sinfulness and our lack of understanding. We must approach the Millennium with a sense of wonder and gratitude. Also we must offer to God and to the people around us both historical and personal repentance for the fact that, historically, the Russian Church failed the Russian nation throughout ten centuries, because otherwise millions of people would not have fallen away from their faith in Christ at the first challenge. This was because baptism was given but education was not.”

Memorable and truthful words. In one of our Orthodox prayers, we identify the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth, but in practice, it is no easy thing being truthful.

His manner of speaking was itself riveting. Perhaps there were occasions when it was otherwise, but I never saw him speak from a written text, though clearly he was following a line of thought he had mapped out beforehand, inserting stories as needed to make his points more vivid. It is a Gospel method of discourse.

In the course of time one would hear certain stories over and over, yet they never became stale because he was not simply reciting a script from memory but always renewing each story, seeing in it something new, something that deserved special attention.

Christ was always his main theme — a Christ who was not an abstract figure but someone who seemed better known to him than he knew himself. Even his autobiographical stories drew one to the Gospel. But mainly he told stories that came directly from the Gospel. He returned again and again to parables which, however familiar they were, however often we had heard them explained in sermons, somehow seemed new texts when he talked about them. I felt I wasn’t listening to an expert on Christianity, of which there are too many in the world, but simply a Christian — or something even more remarkable, an actual witness to the events recounted in the Gospel.

When I hear the term “Equal to the Apostles” applied to certain saints, I immediately think of Metropolitan Anthony. Yes, there are those who, despite the centuries that separate us from the New Testament world, somehow speak of those events as witnesses. Most of all, Metropolitan Anthony was a witness of the Resurrection.

He stressed that the Gospel is not something unreachable or impractical. The Gospel is not an idealistic document. The good news of the Gospel is that the Kingdom of God is something we can experience not after death but in the present. The Church equips us for such a life.

Let me emphasize that Metropolitan Anthony did not see the Gospel as an idealistic text — another utopian manifesto, another ideology about creating a heavenly future through hellish methods. Rather he saw the Gospel as an entirely practical way of life. The requirements of a God-centered life are not out of anyone’s reach. It may seem like hard work to forgive “seventy times seven” but in reality it is much harder to withhold forgiveness. It is like carrying an ever-heavier rucksack of bricks. Love of enemies may seem humanly impossible — love in the sense of seeking the health, well-being and salvation of the other — but when we see what happens when enmity is allowed to grow unchecked, the avalanche of horrors that such enmity eventually produces, and the cost in suffering and death, then we begin to understand why Christ calls on his followers to renounce judgments and hatred and call no one a fool. It is a difficult path but in fact, in the end, much less difficult than the alternative.

When I think of Vladyka Anthony’s impact in my own life, one aspect of it was to help free me from the grip of utopian ideologies.

He knew my work and something of my writings and was aware that I at times referred to myself as a pacifist, a word rooted in the Latin term for peacemaker but which has come to mean someone who refuses to take part in war. I soon discovered that he had a strong aversion to the word “pacifist,” not only because it sounded like “passive-ist,” but because of unpleasant encounters he had experienced with self-righteous people who loudly and proudly proclaimed their renunciation of violence and were quick to denounce those who failed to share their ideology.

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

A splendid story with a good laugh built in! One of course might wonder if his account of this exchange actually happened exactly as told. Metropolitan Anthony was not a journalist or court reporter; he didn’t hesitate to adjust a story in order to make its edge sharper, in the process creating an Anthonian parable. In reality pacifists do not stand by praying while their girlfriends are being raped. Between killing and passivity there is the option of using non-lethal force, just as a policeman would use if summoned to such a crime scene.

Metropolitan Anthony’s point is that it is not Christ-like to be passive in the face of evil. Time and again each of us is called, as we see in the St George icon, to battle dragons — and yet no human being is a dragon; at worst a human being is a slave of dragons. This is what it means to practice the Gospel of peace: to fight the dragon without despising the dragon’s human slaves, all the time attempting to act in such a way that the enemy’s conversion is at least not made less likely by our actions. Those who knew Metropolitan Anthony can bear witness to how many adversaries owe their conversion to him.

In one letter Vladyka Anthony reminded me that each of us is called to be “a man — or woman — of peace,” which meant, he explained, becoming a person “ready to work for the reconciliation of those who have grown apart or turned away from one another in enmity.”

In sermons he sometimes expanded on this theme, describing two estranged people who have turned their backs on each other and walked away, but eventually wonder what has become of the other, then turn and look back to see the other and discover the other, now at a distance, returning the gaze. Each is ashamed. Each realizes the need to forgive and end their estrangement. Who will take the first step?

Yes, one might say, on the person-to-person scale we must try to be peacemakers, but this is much more difficult when it is nation-to-nation conflict. It might be that in some circumstances we cannot find an alternative to violence — Metropolitan Anthony saw the war against Nazism as a lesser evil — but we are never allowed, even in wartime, to lose sight of the image of God in the other even if the other has become slave to a dragon.

Because he saw the image of God in a German soldier, he was able to save a watchmaker’s hand and — who knows? — perhaps his soul as well.

One final point about how we see in Metropolitan Anthony what it means to become the Gospel. He was a shepherd of the local Church in a way that welcomed people and cared for them no matter what their mother tongue, culture or citizenship. In a Church in which national identity is sometimes more important than Christian identity, he struggled to build a diocese not only that made space under one roof for different languages of worship but that would as much as possible resemble what one would have found in the early Church — neither Jewish nor Greek, rich nor poor, male or female, but a people who had become one in Christ, an association in which each person mattered and all voices could be heard: a church not of rulers and ruled but a eucharistic community of sobornost.

Let me conclude by quoting what Vladyka Anthony said while in Russia when the 40th anniversary of his consecration as a bishop was being celebrated:

“Some [of my fellow Russians] never understood why I lived in [England]. I remember a man with whom I was in the lift in Russia. He asked me questions about myself, and when he learnt that I lived in London he looked at me and said, ‘Are you a complete idiot? You live abroad when you could live at home?’ It had been my dream to live in Russia. But Providence decided otherwise. It was impossible in the beginning, when I might have done it, because I had no responsibility for the parish. But, it became possible when suddenly I felt, ‘I am responsible for people. I cannot abandon them. They trust me, I trust them unreservedly, we are gradually growing into being a true community, a real church in the image of the Early Church, when people of all nationalities, all languages, all mentalities, all classes, gathered together, united only by one thing: their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.’ And this is what I had dreamt of achieving and tried to do in [my adopted country] in the course of now almost fifty years of ministry and forty years of episcopal service.”

And in this ministry, too, Vladyka Anthony became the Gospel.

* * *

Learning to Love Our Enemies

St Columba icon - Aidan Hart (med)
St Columba of Iona (icon by Aidan Hart)

By Jim Forest

Every now and then my wife and I go on pilgrimage to the island of Iona. It’s so small and remote a place that one needs a detailed map of Scotland to find it — a comma of rock just off the southwest tip of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. It’s possible to walk around Iona in a day, but to do so you had better be in better shape than I am. Most of the way you would be walking on some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth, Lewisean Gneiss, an unpretentious dull grey stone that in another 200-million years will celebrate it three-billionth birthday.

For non-geologists, what put tiny Iona on the world map was a saint named Columba, a prince who became a monk, a monk who made Iona a major center for the spreading of Christianity. In penance for his role in a bloody clan war, Columba, along with twelve companions, sailed away from Ireland in self-imposed exile, arriving on Iona on Pentecost Sunday in the year 563.

The wattle-and-daub dwellings the monks lived in fifteen centuries ago are long gone. What today’s pilgrims find are the solid stone buildings Benedictine monks erected in the 13th century: the plain square tower of St. Mary’s Cathedral and the rectangular masses of the several slate-roofed adjoining buildings that surround the cloister.

Columban monastic life was far from sedentary. The monks of Iona traveled into the wilds of Scotland and, later on, much further as missionaries of the Gospel. They also served as a pacifying influence in a Europe of small kingdoms and constant war. Irish monasticism had a profound impact on the development both of Christianity and culture across Europe, even reaching to France, Italy and western Russia. Missionaries sent from Iona founded monasteries, schools and communities, winning in the process such a reputation for holiness that pilgrims were drawn to the remote isle from as far away as Rome. Iona became known as “the Jerusalem of the North” and Columba one of the most renowned saints of the first millennium.

One of the many stories told about Saint Columba has to do with a custom still familiar to Orthodox Christians who often bring an object that has special significance, for example an icon, and ask a priest to give it a special blessing. Columba was so highly regarded that a great many people came to him for such blessings. For Columba this must at times have been a distraction, something done when his thoughts were elsewhere. Thus it isn’t surprising that one day he unmindfully gave a blessing to a warrior’s sword. In the blink of an eye he realized he had made a mistake. The very last thing he wanted to do was bless a weapon of war. It was because of his complicity in war earlier in his life that he had sought penitential exile on Iona. The question now was what to do with this freshly blessed sword? Columba decided to give a second blessing. He called on God to keep the blade sharp only so long as the sword ws used by cooks and bakers. It would henceforth be a tool for the kitchen rather than the battlefield, perfect for slicing bread and cheese but useless for slicing men.

Not all legends told of the saints are true in the sense the word “true” would be used by a contemporary journalist or historian, but this story has the ring of unornamented truth about it.

Having witnessed the horror and fever of war, Columba had renounced swords and warfare. Once he arrived on Iona, he dedicated himself and his small brotherhood to a vocation of conversion and peacemaking. He sought a life modeled on the earthly ministry of Jesus and shaped by his words in the Gospel. Christ is a threat to no one. He blesses neither executions nor war. Instead he says, “I have come to give life and give it more abundantly.”

Christ told Peter to put aside his sword, but Christ’s attitude to enmity and conflict is not simply negative. It involves more than refusing to possess or use deadly weapons. Jesus builds on the commandment not to kill by adding a new commandment, the commandment to love, and to love not only friends but enemies.

Let me read the texts as given in Matthew and Luke:

You have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same?

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and to him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your coat as well. Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods, do not ask them again. As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

From the fifth century onward, many have sought to reduce these sentences to advice for the few rather than normative for ordinary Christians. We have been told that it is best to read such teachings and their associated parables allegorically rather than literally. At the same time many have gone to great lengths to distinguish killing from murder, with the result that one can get a medal for killing in state-authorized wars and the death sentence (in certain countries) for the kind of unauthorized killing we call murder. Christianity in the West developed a just war theory that has become so embedded in western Christianity as to be regarded as doctrine. What impact has just war teaching had on the practice of war? Has it prevented or restrained war? The list of wars denounced as unjust by hierarchs in countries at war is not long. I can only think of one example and it is fairly recent: the late Cardinal John O’Connor, archbishop of New York, had the courage to do so in the case of the US-initiated Iraq War. If you can think of any others cases, ancient or modern, please let me know.

The Orthodox Church, to its credit, has not embraced the just war doctrine — it has refused to attach the adjectives “just” or “good” to war and regards all war, of its nature, as sinful, at best a lesser evil. Even so, as far as I am aware, no Orthodox bishop or national synod has condemned or impeded any war in which its members were participating. The example St Columba gave of unblessing a weapon of war is very rare in both West and East, while the solemn blessing of weapons by bishops and priests has been quite normal in countless wars since the fifth or sixth centuries.

As for the call of Jesus that his followers become peacemakers, even in peacetime we rarely hear much about that. We are far more likely to hear sermons about aspects of chastity. (I am reminded of a comment made during the Second Vatican Council by the former Roman Catholic archbishop of Bombay, Thomas Roberts: “Had the Americans dropped birth control devices on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the Church’s condemnation would have been immediate and uncompromising.”)

As love of enemies is so central to the Gospel, perhaps it would be helpful if we consider what is meant by the words “love” and “enemy.”

In ordinary usage the word “love” has mainly to do with feelings — positive emotional bonds or longings or likings, from the trivial to the sublime: “I love the pizzas they make at Danilo’s.” “I love such-and-such a director’s films.” “I’m madly in love with (insert a name).” The term “love making” usually means sexual intercourse, an action that may or may not have anything to do with love. Along these lines the American Heritage Dictionary defines love as an “intense affection and warm feeling for another person; strong sexual desire for another person; a strong fondness or enthusiasm.”

Such a definition makes Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies incomprehensible. We can safely say that even Jesus was without intense affection or warm feelings for his judges, torturers and executioners. Yet he loved them.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides both a less emotional and more biblical definition:

Love … [is that] disposition or state of feeling with regard to a person which … manifests itself in solicitude for the welfare of the object … [Love is] applied in an eminent sense to the paternal benevolence and affection of God toward His children, to the affectionate devotion directed to God from His creatures, and to the affection of one created being to another so far as it is prompted by the sense of their common relationship to God.

As used in the Bible, love has first of all to do with action and responsibility, not about one’s emotions or liking someone. To love is to do what you can to provide for the well-being of another whether you like that person or not. In explaining his Father’s love, Jesus talks not about sentiments but about what God gives and does: “Your Father in heaven who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”

An act of love may be animated by a sense of gratitude and delight in someone else — wonderful when it happens — or it may be done despite exhaustion, depression, fear, aversion or anger; it may be done simply as an obedient response to Christ’s teaching; it may be done as a prayer and a response to God who is our common Creator, who links us all, in whose image each of us is made, in whom we are brothers and sisters, who has bound together love of God with love of neighbor.

Think of an exhausted parent awoken at three in the morning by a crying infant who, even after being held and fed, its diaper changed, carried and stroked and sung to, refuses to stop crying. It’s not a time when one feels grateful for the child or glad to be alive. Ignoring irritated feelings, you do what is needed and try to do it gently and patiently. This is an image of actual love.

In the final analysis love has little to do with moods, affections or affinities. “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy,” Thomas Merton wrote in Disputed Questions. “That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.” [“The Power and Meaning of Love” in Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy), p 125.]

According to Saint Paul the greatest gifts of God are faith, hope and love, and of these three the most important is love. Describing the qualities of love, Paul says nothing about emotions, only that love is patient and kind, without jealousy or boasting, without arrogance or rudeness, doesn’t insist on having its own way, doesn’t rejoice at wrong but rather in the right, and endures everything.

On to the word “enemy.” It comes from the Latin, inimicus. Amicus means friend. Add the negative prefix in and change the a in amicus to i and you get inimicus. Defined broadly, an enemy is the opposite of a friend.

My son Daniel, when he was seven, offered a very crisp definition of what it is to be a non-friend when he told another boy to “go away and drop dead.” In the plain speech of childhood, an enemy is someone, anyone, who would do well to go away and drop dead.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives a more clinical definition. An enemy, it says, is an “unfriendly or hostile person, one that cherishes hatred, and who works to do ill to another.”

This is an astute entry as it points the finger not only toward another person or nation but also at oneself. We are used to perceiving others as enemies, never ourselves. But if I am unfriendly or hostile toward others, if I cherish hatred or participate in doing ill to others, or even if I am busy threatening or preparing to do ill, I have made myself into an enemy. Unless I make a break with enmity, the enemy of my enemy is me. If I wish to break the cycle of enmity, I had better keep in mind that the only enemy over whom I have much influence is myself.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, longtime captive in the Soviet chain of prison camps he called the Gulag Archipelago, discovered while a prisoner that the line of enmity ran not between himself and his adversary but through his and every human heart:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? [Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, (New York: Harper & Row, 1974) vol. 2, “The Ascent;” translation by Thomas P. Whitney.]

Which of us can claim to have a heart entirely free of evil? Which of us isn’t someone’s enemy? And even an enemy of one’s self? Gandhi, the prophet of nonviolence who played a crucial role in India’s struggle for independence, made a similar remark: “I have only three enemies. My favorite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British nation. My second enemy, the Indian people, is far more difficult to influence. But my most formidable opponent is a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi. With him I seem to have very little influence.” Pogo, an affable American cartoon character whose comic strip flourished in the Fifties, put it in even fewer words: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The enemy we encounter most often is seen not through the window but in the mirror.

But of course there are also the enemies we have rather than the enemies we are.

An enemy is anyone I feel threatened by and seek to defend myself against. An enemy is a person or group of people whose defeat I would count a victory. What for them would be bad news for me would be good news. An enemy is someone whose death I would not mourn and might even welcome and celebrate, as did many Americans and others when Osama bin Laden was killed.

Enemies can be divided into two broad categories, those nearby and those faraway — those known by name and those who are strangers.

As any judge or policeman will tell you, most murders and other acts of abuse and violence occur between people who know each other — a member of one’s family, a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker. When a wife or husband is killed, at the top of the list of suspects is the spouse. Take away all the court cases involving intra-family disputes and thousands of advocates, barristers, lawyers and judges would be out of work.

The list of enemies includes those I know by name as well as people I see in terms of categories and stereotypes: Blacks, Whites, Muslims, Arabs, Jews, Asians, gays, punks, leftists, liberals, conservatives… The list can zigzag on for miles. It may well include people in political groups in opposition to my own or people in important roles of political leadership whose views and actions I detest. It is hard to imagine a president or prime minister who would dare appear in public without bodyguards.

Then there are the distant enemies. Internationally, an enemy is a mass of people I am encouraged, even all but required, to perceive as a threat to my nation and may, in case of war, be required to kill or whose killing I would regard as necessary, if not good — or, in the case of non-combatants, as an unfortunate consequence of a just war. Such enemies are not acquired through personal animosity but simply due to their birth and nationality — and mine. The enemy in such cases is not an individual but an entire people defined by national borders or ideology. Such enmity is remarkably impersonal and flexible — last year’s mortal enemy can become this year’s ally.

Political speeches, blog content on the internet, movies and fiction all serve to develop and reinforce enemy stereotypes so that little by little one can regard an entire nation or category of people as an appropriate target of war. News reports emphasize war crimes committed by the enemy while ignoring or down-playing the war crimes “our side” commits — for example the many noncombatant deaths caused by pilotless drones are rarely headline news in the press.

So we have our very personal enemies, even within our families and parishes, and we have those enemies who are seen as a threat to our nation. As Christians, how do we respond? Our Savior not only instructs us to love our enemies but, within the same sentence, he immediately gives a clear instruction regarding the first step to be taken: pray for them: “But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

If we have any interest in attempting to love our enemies, we must first admit we have enemies and, insofar as we can, to be able to identify them by name. In fact most of us are reluctant to use the word “enemy” in describing people who are part of our daily lives. But once I have admitted to myself that I have enemies, I have a starting point. Until then, the Gospel commandment to love one’s enemies and pray for them is a dead letter.

Now let me ask a potentially embarrassing question: You’re a Christian. Christ has told you to pray for your enemies. When have you last done so? How often? Regularly? Occasionally? Rarely? Never?

I have an exercise for you. Before you go to bed tonight take a piece of paper and make a list of people you have an aversion to praying for — your own enemies list.

Think about people you know who make you feel anger or fear, persons you dislike and whose company you avoid, individuals in your family, neighborhood, workplace or church whom it distresses you to see, individuals who have hurt you or hurt those in your care.

Give a thought to groups or categories of people you think of by national, racial, political or religious labels. Think of people who are the current or potential targets of weapons and armies that in some way you support, passively or actively, willingly or unwillingly, through your work, political alignments, payment of taxes or other activities.

As names occur to you, write them down. Do so even if you think the word “enemy” is perhaps too strong. In instances in which you haven’t got a name, use a label.

Once you have a first-draft of such a prayer list, try to make use of it on a daily basis. Make it part of your Rule of Prayer.

Another exercise: From time to time look again at what you have written down not so much for purposes of prayer but rather to think about each name or label.

Insofar as you are able, consider in each case how the enmity began. Consider incidents or reasons that explain or justify your feelings. Consider ways in which the enmity involved has shaped, limited, damaged or endangered your life or the lives of people dear to you.

Next step. Try and take the point of view of those you have listed. Are they actually your enemies? Or might it be truer to say you’re their enemy? Or is it half-and-half? In either case, what have you done or failed to do that might explain or justify their hostility?

Have you searched for points of common ground and possible agreement? Have you allowed yourself to be aware of qualities that are admirable in those you have listed or have you preferred to see only what, from your perspective, is flawed in them?

Consider what might happen to you, to others, if this enmity continues: separation, divorce, court battles, children caught in the crossfire, shattered friendships, division in your parish, division among co-workers, misery in the work place, loss of employment…

In the case of differences between nations, think of ways in which you participate in enmities that, if they worsen, could explode into war. In a world in which there are thousands of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, consider what war might mean in the worst case. Are you doing anything that might make war less likely or helping bring to an end a war in progress?

Prayer that doesn’t influence your own actions means little. Why should God pay attention to a prayer that has no influence on your own behavior? What steps have you taken to change relationships with those on your list? Have you talked to others who might help or intervene in a constructive way? Can you imagine what you could do that might help bring to an end any of the enmities you have listed. What can you do that might help convert enmity to friendship?

The Church, in recognizing saints, places before us diverse models of sanctity — people who, in most cases, also had to deal with enemies. By taking time to study the lives of particular saints, we are certain to find helpful examples.

Here’s an example. One of the masters of the spiritual life in the last century was Saint Silouan the Athonite. He was an uneducated Russian peasant who was born in 1866 and died in 1938. In his youth he was an immensely strong man who had a volcanic temper. During a feast day celebrating the patron saint of his village, he was playing a concertina when two brothers, both cobblers, began to tease him. The older of the brothers tried to snatch the concertina from Silouan and a fight broke out between them.

“At first I thought of giving in to the fellow,” Silouan told another monk later in his life, “but then I was ashamed at how the girls would laugh at me, so I gave him a great hard blow in the chest. His body shot away and he fell backwards with a heavy thud in the middle of the road. Froth and blood trickled from his mouth. All the onlookers were horrified. So was I. ‘I’ve killed him,’ I thought, and stood rooted to the spot. For a long time the cobbler lay where he was. It was over half an hour before he could rise to his feet. With difficulty they got him home, where he was bad for a couple of months, but he didn’t die.” [Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite (Essex: Monastery of St. John he Baptist, 1991), pp 14-15]

For the rest of his life Silouan felt that there was only the slightest difference between himself and a murderer. He had yielded to a murderous impulse. It was only by chance that his powerful blow hadn’t been deadly. Perhaps it’s not surprising that, as time passed, he found himself drawn towards a life of prayer and penance. After becoming a monk on Mount Athos, he thought long and hard about violence and its causes, in the course of which he developed a profound sense of human inter-connectedness. He realized that “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.”

Little by little Silouan came to the realization that love of enemies is not simply an option of Christian life, a possibility that few will attempt and fewer still achieve, but is, as he put it, “the central criterion of true faith and of real communion with God, the lover of souls, the lover of humankind.” Or, as he said on other occasions, “No one has ever known God without having loved his enemies.”

There is nothing new in this. The Gospel author St John said the same: “Whoever says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.”[1 John 4:20] Could anyone say it more simply or more plainly? Hatred of anyone blockades communion with God.

In appealing for God’s mercy, prayer warms our cold hearts. The moment I pray for someone, however reluctantly, I establish an intimate connection with that person. Even the smallest act of caring that prayer involves is a major step toward love, an act of participating in God’s love for that person. Prayer gives us a point of access to God’s love for those we would otherwise regard with disinterest, irritation, fear or active hostility.

Think of God as a weaver, in fact the weaver. All creation is part of that endless and ongoing and infinitely complex weaving. You and I are part of the fabric — and so are our enemies. To approach God is to discover connections, including the ways that I and my enemy are bound together like crisscrossing threads in the same tapestry. The moment we turn toward God the weaver, we turn toward a divine love that connects everyone, whether a nun caring for a dying beggar or a psychopath who has just raped and murdered a stranger. This is the economy of grace that Christ is describing when he speaks of rain and sunlight being given to all, not just the virtuous. We are part of an inter-connected human unity in which our worst enemy also exists. This doesn’t mean that God is indifferent to the sins we or our enemies commit, but we are nonetheless objects of God’s life-giving love and benefit from the divine hope that we might yet become what God intended us to become.

A starting point in prayer is being honest with God: presenting ourselves as we are, not as we wish we were or as we think God wants us to be, not dressing up for God but standing before God as naked as Adam and Eve before their exile from Paradise. If we’re going to present our spirits naked to God, there is no need to pretend to God that we love an enemy in an affectionate sense. Better to communicate our actual feelings. Perhaps something like this:

God, you must know I can’t stand [insert the name of whomever you are at enmity with]. I often wish him dead or at least wish he were miserable and far away. But I pray for him because you commanded me to pray for my enemies. Personally I don’t actually want to do it but I do want to be one of your disciples and I am trying to be obedient to your words. Help me to see him as you see him. Let me glimpse your image in him. May I live in such a way that both of us can lay aside our hostility and forgive each other. May I at least not be an obstacle to his salvation. I admit I find it hard to want anything good for him — help me to want it, help me to pray for him.

The simplest of prayers can also be used. You may find it helpful to repeatedly recite a variation of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on [the name of someone on your enemies list].”

By the way, be patient. Expect no quick results or even slow results. Or any result. You may pray for years for a person or group and see no changes at all, at least none that you were hoping for. (In fact prayer for a change even in one’s own behavior requires persistence.) In prayer for an enemy, at the very least there is a change in you — the creation of a bond of care for the other.

In praying for enemies, we are not hurling holy thoughts at them or petitioning God to make them into copies of ourselves. Rather we are bringing our enemies into that part of ourselves which is deepest and most vulnerable. We are begging God for the good of those whom, at other times, we wished ill or wished to harm. In praying for enemies, we are asking God to use us for the well-being of those we fear.

At the same time, we are asking to see ourselves as we are seen by those who fear us, so that we can see enmity not only from our side but from the other side, for we not only have enemies — we are enemies. We would do well to pray not only for the conversion of our adversaries but for our own conversion. We ourselves may be harder to convert than our adversaries. The most needed conversion may be my own.

Let me end these reflections by stressing that prayer for enemies is only a first step. On the foundation of prayer, one becomes more capable of doing good to enemies, turning the other cheek, forgiveness, breaking down the dividing wall of enmity, refusing to take an eye for an eye, and seeking nonviolent alternatives. But without prayer for enemies, how likely is it that we will become capable of transformative acts of love?

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This text is a slightly expanded version of a talk given to participants in the August 2014 Iona pilgrimage organized by Friends of Orthodoxy on Iona and led by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. It draws on material in Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment. See: http://jimandnancyforest.com/2014/07/loving-our-enemies/ .

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