The quiet cadence of prayer and fasting as Lent began was shattered with the invasion of Ukraine. Forgiveness Vespers was ridden with sorrow and disbelief. There was no escaping the sadness and helplessness as we prayed. As I quietly mouthed the words to “Open to Me the Gates of Repentance,” the full meaning of the words dawned on me. Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that we were averse to repenting, that we needed to pray that Christ may soften our hearts so we may return to him. I think of the words of my beloved spiritual father: “Where is Christ?” he would ask. In other words, he was asking, where was He in our lives, did we manifest His presence through our actions?
In Boston and New York, prayers were being offered for Ukraine at special services, but the news bore images that were daringly sacrilegious. The cold-blooded murder of sons and daughters and of children. As a mother of a son, I could not imagine what every Ukrainian and Russian mother was enduring. Everything I was feeling went against the beautiful prayer of St. Ephrem to which we prostrated every morning and evening at Holy Cross Chapel, Brookline. I had no right to be prostrating myself; I was so angry, so beside myself as I watched the script play out yet again. The countries of the Balkans, Palestine, Syria, Balochistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Burma, and countless peoples around the world whose right to freedom and land were being seized from them brutally.
Murder continues to be justified for political ends. In the midst of these atrocities, the icon of Christ crucified, His head bowed, His silence louder than words, His torment as brother murdered brother.
The recent dustup over Archbishop Elpidophoros borrowing the historic St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City for a celebration of the Divine Liturgy and then subsequently meeting with its rector, Bishop Dean Wolfe, highlights the perennial debate among Orthodox about how we ought to relate to outsiders. Throughout church history some have seen threats where others see opportunity. But opportunities can be threatening, because they imply risk and change. And for churches to make the most of opportunities requires leaps says Charles Taylor, the eminent Canadian Catholic philosopher and author of the widely praised A Secular Age: “There can and must be leaps. Otherwise no significant forward steps will be made in response to God. Someone has to break altogether with some historic forms” (669).
This conflict over relating to outsiders is as old as the gospels. Jesus made a point of engaging with people “outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:13). While this was refreshing for some, among religious leaders and traditionalists it mostly ignited opposition. They saw Jesus and later the Apostles as threats to familiar and even God-given customs and traditions. Time and again throughout the gospels we see Jesus standing his ground in the pursuit of the mission to open new opportunities to generously advance God’s Kingdom through compassion, healing, offering a spiritual oasis, simplifying and widening access to grace. He does this often quietly and secretly, but at other times in open defiance of religious leaders and the expectations of his own family and disciples. Here are a few examples:
Since the beginning of modern times, monastic spirituality has had to face both extreme fundamentalism and extreme liberalism, or in postmodern times, relativism. One reason is an incomplete or incorrect understanding of the human person and human identity. Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945), an Orthodox nun who left Russia after the 1917 revolution and settled in Paris, represents a monastic spiritual journey that moderates both fundamentalism and extreme relativism. She was creative and innovative in her spiritual journey, but at the same time she held onto the spiritual values of the Christian tradition of the past that, in a new context of exile, did not lose meaning. We can find inspiration for a non-fundamentalist but rooted monastic spirituality not only in Mother Maria’s life and actions but also in her theoretical presuppositions for the monastic journey, especially her understanding of the human person as made according to God’s image and likeness and her notion of human identity.
The fundamentalist notion of the human self affirms a strong identity. Postmodern liberal identity, on the other hand, is fluid and often unstable. Fundamentalist religious identity plays strongly on collective identity and thus denies to a certain extent individuality and authenticity. Postmodern liberal consumerist identity, however, seeks only individualism and authentic experience but often without a profound understanding of the past. Here, Mother Maria offers a position that moderates the two extremes: first, she speaks of collective identity as sobornost, but only together with the authenticity of individual identity; and second, she affirms rootedness in the past, but combined with dynamicity and the possibility of adapting Christian identity to the contemporary context—bringing it into the present. Continue Reading…