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.

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