Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Majallat el-Nour: Preserving Orthodox Unity

This article appeared in the current issue of Majallat el-Nour, the magazine of the Orthodox Youth Movement.

Preserving Orthodox Unity

by Jad Ganem

1948 was a pivotal year for the Orthodox world. It was the year when the Orthodox church was thrust into the Cold War between America, the Soviet Union and their respective allies. That year witnessed the failure of Stalin's plan to move the leadership of the Orthodox world to the Soviet Union and establish an "Orthodox Vatican" in Moscow, after the decisions of the Orthodox conference held in Moscow in 1948 roused the free world vigilance in confronting the Soviet Union's plan to use the Russian Orthodox Church to promote Soviet policy and spread Communist thought in the Orthodox world. Political leaders in the West began taking practical steps to contain and confront Soviet expansion in the free Orthodox world. These steps began with pushing the Ecumenical Patriarch Maximos to resign. In his place Metropolitan Athenagoras of America, who was close to the American President Truman, was elected Ecumenical Patriarch. This was possible because the American, Greek and Turkish governments agreed on the election as part of a comprehensive plan to distance the latter two countries from the Soviet sphere, resulting in their joining NATO in 1951. Athenagoras arrived in Turkey in the American presidential plane and immediately upon landing he was granted Turkish citizenship at the airport. Thus, the Orthodox conference in Moscow achieved the opposite result of what its organizers had intended, as it led to the rediscovery of the Ecumenical Patriarch by the Western world. From that time, the West worked to raise his profile and transform him into a weapon for containing and confronting Soviet expansion into Orthodox countries outside the Iron Curtain, especially in Greece and the Ancient Patriarchates.

On both sides of the Iron Curtain, Orthodoxy paradoxically benefited from the circumstances of the Cold War. The Church of Moscow, which in the 20s and 30s had been on the brink of total annihilation under Soviet persecution, was able to reassert its presence within most of its pre-Revolutionary canonical territories and to reconstitute its episcopal body, which had been reduced to only four bishops on the entire territory of the Soviet Union.

During this period this church was likewise able to hold a synod to elect a new patriarch after having been unable for two decades to elect a successor to the martyred Patriarch Tikhon. The church was also permitted to revive a number of monasteries and churches and a some bishops, priests, monastics and believers were released from prisons and gulags as evidence of religious freedom in the Soviet Union.

During this period, the Ecumenical Patriarchate was also able to regain its role in the Orthodox and Christian worlds, which had been sharply diminished following the Greece’s loss in its war with Turkey and the population exchange mandated by the Treaty of Lausanne, which removed almost all Orthodox Christians in Turkey (apart from those living in Istanbul) to Greece. The Ecumenical Patriarchate further lost its freedom of action and ecumenical character when the Greek negotiator accepted that the patriarch’s role be limited to providing pastoral care to the Greek community in Istanbul and its surroundings and that the patriarchs and bishops be required to have been residents of the city before 1920 and of Turkish nationality, in order to prevent moving its headquarters from Turkey to Greece, as desired by the Turkish negotiator. It also was confronted with a schismatic body called the "Turkish Orthodox Church" whose leader occupied its headquarters for a time and called for its transformation into a Turkish national church. This group was even able to threaten the stability of the patriarchate and to take ownership of some of its most important properties in Istanbul for several years. The Ecumenical Patriarchate was, however, able in the mid-40s to regain some of these properties, just as it was able to elicit a degree of recognition of its role outside the borders of the Turkish state.

Changing political circumstances did not allow the period of détente between Constantinople and Moscow to last, as the systematic pogroms against the Greek community in Istanbul on April 6-7, 1955 led to the destruction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate's infrastructure and to the emigration of most of its flock. It is said that this led Patriarch Athenagoras to opine that the real fall of Constantinople occurred after these events. Throughout this time, Russian Church continued to suffer the horrors of systematic persecution and discrimination against believers.

Breaks in relations between Constantinople and Moscow and Turkey and the Soviet union, respectively, gave a positive impetus to the Orthodox world and all the churches were able to gather for the first time at a general conference held on the island of Rhodes in 1961. This meeting laid the foundations for arranging relations between the Orthodox churches and defined a shared mechanism for addressing controversial issues. This meeting resulted in an openness on the part of the Orthodox Church to dialogue and joint ecumenical work with the rest of the Christian world. It also inaugurated cooperation between the various local churches to find common solutions to issues that had arisen in the Orthodox world between the wars-- the most important of which were the issues of autocephaly and autonomy and organizing the Orthodox presence in the diaspora.

The Cold War left its mark on relations between the churches during this period, but they cooperated with each other, aware that each needed to adapt to the realities of its context. Political leaders also encouraged these meetings because they were an opportunity for each side to catch a glimpse of what was happening on the other side of the Iron Curtain, not to mention that it opportunities for propaganda and influencing the course of events on the other side.

Perhaps one could say that Orthodox activity attained its apex and made its more important achievements during the period of the Cold War. This period saw the Church of Moscow abandon its plan to lead the Orthodox world and accept the leadership role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as first in honor among the patriarchates and churches. It likewise witnessed the start of preparatory work for the Great Orthodox Council, which entailed  a great number of meetings where agreement was reached on the majority of items on its agenda. Three issues remained outstanding: the manner of signing a tomos of autocephaly, the conditions for granting autonomy and the issue of the diptychs. Joint Orthodox work, within the limited margins of freedom available at that time, relied on the fundamental premise of the acceptance by all the local churches of the existing boundaries of the local Orthodox churches, including the Church of Finland, which had separated from the Patriarchate of Moscow in the mid-50s and obtained autonomy from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This work likewise followed the principle of building consensus between the churches and until unanimity could be reached on all the topics.

The end of the Cold War coincided with the election of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who was elected without interference from the Turkish authorities, and the election of Patriarch of Moscow Alexei II by a synod that included all the metropolitans of the Russian Church and representatives from the clergy and laity. The post-Cold War period brought promises of overcoming the difficulties of the past and increased cooperation between the Orthodox churches, especially after the meeting of the first synaxis of the primates of the Orthodox churches at the Fanar, presided by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in 1992.

These promises were quickly dashed after Ecumenical Patriarchate decided unilaterally to grant autonomy to the Church of Estonia, which had been dependent on the Patriarchate of Moscow before the Bolshevik Revolution. This step worried Moscow, whose patriarch at the time had previously been Metropolitan of Estonia, as it understood this decision and the course of discussions with Constantinople to indicate a desire on the part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to change the existing boundaries of the Orthodox churches and to encourage the establishment of national churches within the canonical boundaries of the Patriarchate of Moscow. This step likewise alerted the patriarchs of the other Orthodox churches to a transformation in the Ecumenical Patriarchate's understanding and practice of primacy.

The issue of Estonia led to a break in communion between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Moscow for a number of months in 1996 and to the suspension of joint Orthodox activity for a decade. At the synaxis of the primates of the Orthodox churches in 2008, it was agreed that autonomous churches would be excluded from joint Orthodox activity and that the preparatory work for the Great Orthodox Council would recommence and complete the study of the three outstanding issues on its agenda. In practice, however, agreement was reached on the issue of autonomy and how it is to be granted, while agreement about the issues of the diptychs and the manner of ratifying a tomos of autocephaly was impossible. These two topics were excluded from the agenda of the Great Orthodox Council which, it was decided at the synaxis held in April of 2014, would be held on the Feast of Pentecost, 2016.

There did not appear during this preparatory work, and especially not in the study of the question of autocephaly, any positions implying a refusal to recognize the canonical boundaries of the autocephalous churches or a desire to revise these boundaries. His Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch repeatedly affirmed that the Ecumenical Patriarchate recognizes the Ukrainian Church dependent on the Church of Moscow as the legitimate church in Ukraine. Its head took part in the synaxis of the primates of the churches that was held in Chambésy, Switzerland in January, 2016 as part of the delegation of the Church of Moscow, where His Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch welcomed his presence.

The request of the churches of Antioch, Russia, Georgia and Bulgaria to postpone the Great Council, followed by their declining to participate in what became the "Council of Crete" in June, 2016, opened a new cold war in the Orthodox world. The Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Church of Greece responded by boycotting the celebrations of the centenary of the reestablishment of the Patriarchate of Moscow held in early December, 2017. The issue of Ukraine was re-opened a quarter-century after the schism of Metropolitan Filaret and his declaring the establishment of the so-called Patriarchate of Kiev, which is not recognized by any of the Orthodox churches.

The rhetoric of the Ecumenical Patriarchate changed after the Council of Crete and it started to state in its literature that it is the mother church of the Church of Ukraine and that this church was uncanonically absorbed by the Church of Moscow in the 17th century. On this basis, the Ecumenical Patriarchate declared that it considers itself as having the competency to grant this church autocephaly. Some of its bishops even went so far as to reject the rules that were agreed upon during the joint Orthodox work on the issue of autocephaly and the manner of its declaration and to state that what was agreed upon by all the churches is not valid for dealing with the issues that have been raised to the conscience of the Church in the current century-- especially given the ambiguity that still prevails about their opinion about what is meant by "mother church" with regard to the church in Ukraine, for example. They likewise questioned the principle of requiring the unanimity of the Orthodox churches, regarding it as too difficult to achieve, as demonstrated by experience during discussion of the document on granting autocephaly during the preparatory work for the Great Council. In addition to the issue of Ukraine, the issue of the Macedonian schism has been raised within the Patriarchate of Serbia and it has been suggested that a solution must be found for the issues of the churches in Montenegro and Moldova. A communique issued by the Ecumenical Patriarchate has stated that the mother church of the churches in the Balkans remains the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s statements have provoked a wave of anxiety in the Orthodox world and fears of schism. Several churches and bishops have expressed opinions that are not supportive of it. Senior officials in the Patriarchate of Moscow said that the day after the Ecumenical Patriarchate grants autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine could be likened to the day after the Great Schism between East and West. One of the bishops of the Serbian Patriarchate stated that any individual decision on the part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate regarding Serbia and Ukraine would be a grave mistake both canonically and spiritually and would be rejected by the universal Orthodox Church. He also stressed that the Orthodox churches regard the Ecumenical Patriarch as first among equals and not first without equal. On the other hand, a number of autocephalous Orthodox churches have kept silent and not taken any public position with regard to these developments, while other churches have expressed their support for the legitimate church in Ukraine dependent on Moscow. The Ukrainian and Macedonian crises have brought the Orthodox world into struggles that transcend ecclesiastical concerns and belong to the conflict between the West and Russia, just as Orthodoxy has embarked on internal conflicts, which observers fear, if allowed to worsen or if inappropriate steps are taken, will lead to schisms between and within the churches.

The Orthodox churches did not escape being influenced by political developments, since political leaders both inside and outside the Iron Curtain resorted to making use of the ancient rivalry between Second Rome and Third Rome over the course of the Cold War. At this difficult moment, when populism and nationalism are on the rise, borders are being redrawn, and a new order is slowly emerging out of the rubble of post-war arrangements designed to contain Soviet expansion, we must be vigilant against the exploitation of existing ecclesiastical disagreements for the sake of ephemeral political interests and nationalist projects. We must avoid the ethnic and political rivalries that have beset the Orthodox Church and fragmented it into national churches from the time of the Greek Revolution, which led to the Church of Greece declaring its autocephaly, an example that was followed as more countries gained their independence. The Orthodox churches must collectively address the notion that “every independent state has the right to an autocephalous church” and that “the borders of the church must change with changes in the political situation", not only because this idea subordinates the Church to political vicissitudes and fragments her into warring tribes, but also because it has never been the rule in the Orthodox world, since it is contrary to the nature of the Church.

The Ancient Patriarchates of the Orthodox Church have since ancient times transcended nations and ethnicities and they continue to do so. At the present, there are autocephalous churches whose territory only covers part of a state, as is the case for the Church of Greece. Other autocephalous churches extend over more than one state, as in the cases of the Church of Serbia and  the Church of Czechia and Slovakia, which remained one church after being divided into different countries. We must also remember that the system of autonomy as an ecclesiastical arrangement does not mean the subordination of a church to another church or another state. It in no way detracts from the sovereignty of a state in which an autonomous church exists. The autonomy enjoyed by the Churches of Finland and Estonia within the Ecumenical Patriarchate has never been regarded as detracting from the sovereignty of those two states, just as the island of Crete’s autonomy within the Ecumenical Patriarchate has never been considered a violation of the sovereignty of the Greek state, despite the disagreements between Turkey and Greece. The ecclesiastical, canonical and even political situations of these churches differ little in principle from the situations of the autonomous Ukrainian Church dependent on the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Macedonian Church dependent on the Patriarchate of Serbia.

The Orthodox Church must pay heed to the dangers that result from feeding nationalist sentiments and tying the future of the Church to political considerations. The greatest responsibility in this regard lies with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In order to fulfill its canonical role, it must put to use the primacy of service that it enjoys in order to assist the Churches of Russia and Serbia in healing the wounds caused to them by the Ukrainian and Macedonian schisms. This can only happen  by recognizing the boundaries of the Orthodox churches that have been established for decades and following the principle that the Mother Church is the church whose Holy Synod includes the bishops who are requesting autocephaly.

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): Mercy

Arabic original here.

Mercy

The word occurs in most prayers and supplications: Have mercy O God, according to Your great mercy, we ask You, hear us and have mercy! Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy great mercy: according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies blot out mine iniquity. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!

Here we also recall our favorite constant prayer, the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner:" Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.

All of these petitions, and especially the command "Be merciful even as your heavenly Father is merciful," describe God as merciful and call on us to imitate His great mercy.

Divine mercy [Arabic, ra7ma] is nothing other than God's expansive, infinite love, which resembles the expansive womb [Arabic, ri7m] that accept, embraces and nourishes the fetus.

This great divine mercy always strives for all people to be saved from sin and from death so that they may receive eternal life.

This mercy extends to even embracing enemies, to cooperating with people and loving them without waiting for anything from them in return.

Therefore in the Gospel (Luke 6:35-36), the Lord Jesus commands, "Love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful."

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, mercy is connected to the neighbor. The Lord Jesus asks, "Which of these three (i.e., the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan) do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?" And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” (Luke 10:36-37).

When Peter asked Jesus, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22). This is mercy tied to forgiveness.

Likewise, when Jesus visited Matthew the Publican in his home and spoke with the Pharisees, mercy is tied to compassion for publicans, for sinners, and for the sick: And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard that, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Matthew 9: 11-13).

Last but not least, mercy is connected to love, which first of all means control of selfishness. In the end, this requires sacrifice and looking to what benefits the other, to that which secures the establishment of a life of communion between people and real sympathy for others.

+Ephrem
Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Middle East Eye on the War's Toll on Mhardeh

Middle East Eye is a bit of a mixed bag, as on the one hand they publish a great deal of propaganda for Qatar, while on the other they do frequently publish worthwhile, unbiased articles about the region. This piece on the entirely-Orthodox city of Mhardeh is particularly worth reading. 

Excerpt:

[...]

Rebuilding Mhardeh

“Mortar, mortar, mortar,” Wakil repeats like a mantra as he drives through the city, pointing out extensive newly tarmacked sections of Mhardeh’s roads, damaged by seven years of bombardment.
Rebel attacks have killed 97 civilians and injured a further 156 over the last seven years but most of Mhardeh’s almost exclusively Christian population have remained in Syria.

This was encouraged by priests and senior members of the community who feared that, if locals fled, they might never be able to return, to an area where Christian communities have lived for nearly 2,000 years.

To ensure the city remained habitable, the local council facilitated the prompt rebuilding of homes damaged or destroyed in fighting, with repairs funded by the community and wealthy locals when families did not have the money themselves.

“We are such a tight-knit community that if you hit one of us, you hit us all,” explains Altouma.
Although the situation inside Mhardeh has stabilised, missiles fired from rebel positions are still able to hit the city, as they did last week, and its citizens live in fear of further attacks.

While morale in Mhardeh remains strong, Syria’s civil war and international sanctions have sent prices of most goods rocketing, and life remains tough. Every week, the Red Crescent in charge of distributing UN-supplied aid, is inundated by residents collecting boxes of essential foodstuffs.

“These aid supplies were very, very important to local people during times of siege by terrorists, when food was used like a weapon,” explains deputy head of the local Syrian Red Crescent, Wael al-Khouri.

“Now people can manage to live without this aid but it is still very helpful and all the items here are long-life so can be stored for future use.”

With the city no longer under siege and the end of the Syrian conflict finally in sight, Khouri says the Red Crescent is now starting to change its focus, upping its support to local widows, the war-wounded and, particularly, the many children who have been affected by the war.

[...]

Read the whole article here.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Met Antonius (el-Souri): Asceticism in the Orthodox Church

Arabic original here.

Asceticism in the Orthodox Church

On September first we celebrate Ecclesiastical New Year and Saint Symeon the Stylite.

In our patrimony, there are many stylites who practiced asceticism in many regions. Saint Symeon the Stylite was the first of them in this way of life. One might then wonder: is asceticism the subjugation of the body through unusual methods?

What is asceticism?

In Greek the word used is ἀσκησις, which means 'exercise'.

It is exercise in emptying oneself (κένοσις, cf. Philippians 2:7) of the ego. All passions and sins are tied to the ego and the ego is the source of the fall and estrangement from God and the other.

Most people think that asceticism is only for monks and ascetics, but this is something that is required of all believers. The Church teaches us how to live it through prayer, fasting and repentance according to the Lord Jesus' commandments to us.

Thus asceticism is the life of prayer, fasting and repentance with the goal of emptying ourselves of our ego so that God may become our ego, our life and everything for us.

Asceticism is escape from the self-- that is, from the source of the passions-- through setting aside the pleasures and passions that fight man within himself, his heart and his being, through personal effort, firm and sincere desire, and God's grace.

This is what is called the ascetic struggle or spiritual struggle. It is an activity that is shared between the will of man and the grace of the Holy Trinity, which we call 'synergy' (συνεργία).

Monks have become teachers of the spiritual life because they have left the world and all therein. They have sold it and distributed it in order to follow Christ. The first of them were taught by God directly, as He taught Saint Anthony the Great when an angel appeared to him and taught him to defeat weariness through work, prayer and spiritual reading.

Monks and ascetics, each according to his ability, began to struggle to control the body, acting according to the words of the Apostle Paul: "I discipline my body and bring it into subjection" (1 Corinthians 9:27). Saint Symeon the Stylite invented this manner of living on a pillar in heat and cold and others followed him in this.

Nevertheless, in the Orthodox Church, as we have mentioned above, asceticism is fundamentally the struggle of prayer, fasting and asceticism so that one may become practiced in knowledge of the self and purification of the heart  in order to ascend in his relationship with God and the other until he arrived, through unity with the Trinity, at unity with all creation and the service of God in man.

Beloved, the life, teachings, and traditions of our Orthodox Church are saturated with the spirit of asceticism, prayer and fasting. Our liturgy is filled with spiritual teachings that encourage repentance, humility, judgment of the soul, judgment of sin and love of the sinner.

In our Church we have a treasury of teachings of the fathers about how to combat the passions and confront temptations.

We must drink from the wells of grace that are in our Orthodox Church and the writings of her fathers, so that we may walk as those who came before us walked and become holy as they became holy. There is no Christian life without asceticism.

He who has ears, let him hear.

+Antonius
Metropolitan of Zahle, Baalbek and their Dependencies

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): Paul's Final Admonitions

Arabic original here.

Paul's Final Admonitions

Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians ends with the valediction "Maran atha", "come O Lord." He says to the Christian soldier, "Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love" (1 Corinthians 16:13-14).

Let us not forget that great hymn to love found in 1 Corinthians 13.

This summarizes Paul's admonitions throughout the entire epistle. This reflects the divine power that the believer receives in the Lord Jesus, who "is strengthened in the Holy Spirit" (cf. Luke 1:80 and 2:40).

"May your hearts be strengthened" (Psalm 30/31: 24).

 All of this is realized if there abounds love, which is the source of all virtues. After that, the Apostle mentions his helpers, the first of which is Stephen and his house, who are the first people that he evangelized in the region of Achaea. This family served "the saints." That is, the poor of Jerusalem.

His words in the epistle include greetings to Aquila and his wife Priscilla, his assistants in establishing the Church of Corinth and the Church of Ephesus (Acts 18:2 and 18).

Paul insists on the greeting among brothers and asks that this greeting be among them "with a holy kiss." This kiss comes out of the love, kindness and mercy that flow into the Divine Liturgy, expressing union in love and faith. Saint Justin Martyr the Philosopher (2nd century) testifies to this.

Today the bishop and the priests practice it while they are in the altar.

The followers of Christ cry out, "Maran atha." That is, come Lord Jesus, come! Amen. 

Hallelujah! It is said in Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, "the Lord is at hand" (Philippians 4:5) and also in the Book of Revelation 22:20, "Surely I am coming quickly." Come Lord Jesus!

This is the hope of the one to come. 

Do not fear, brothers! Do not fear, humankind: the Lord is at hand! Never despair: the Lord has come, is coming and shall come quickly!

He is the last true king of this world, also and especially king over the hearts of us who believe in Him:

This is the kingdom to come! Seek it first. It comes by way of God's grace. It comes by way of prayer. It comes by way of the neighbor, by way of service to those little ones, the poor. He is the true neighbor of every one of us (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:23).

The apostle's love, embodied in his last greeting, is an image of the Heavenly Father's love. This love never falls (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8).

+Ephrem
 Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies 

Friday, August 17, 2018

Archimandrite Jack (Khalil): The Orthodox Tradition

Arabic original here.

The Orthodox Tradition

Many people unjustly accuse the Apostle Paul of innovating in the faith, to the point that some people ignorantly regard him as having established Christianity in its current form.

Objective study, however, makes it clear that the Apostle Paul adhered to the words of the Lord Jesus, which were transmitted by those who had witnessed the Word with their own eyes and served it during the time it was preached earth, just as the Church has preserved it since the Apostolic Era.

The Apostle Paul teaches us in today's epistle [1 Corinthians 15:1-11] to remember that we have received the deposit of true faith by which we are saved if we hold fast to it and preserve it as a guide for our life.

The first thing that we learn from the words of the Apostle Paul is that the principles of the faith are not subjective, in the sense that they do not depend on what we find attractive or what we reject in them. We receive the faith as the apostles handed it down and we must hand it down just as we received it.

Otherwise, its ecclesial character disappears from it and it becomes an individualistic faith. In other words, the orthodoxy of the faith that the Church has taught us across the generations disappears, transformed into the faith of this or that person...

The chosen vessel Paul did not want to innovate a faith particular to himself. Nor did he inquire with his mind about the foolishness of the preaching that the wise men of this age did not comprehend. Rather, he also accepted, as he himself affirms in today's epistle, the foolishness of the cross that the Church preaches.

He accepted the wretched foolishness that brings people heavenly peace and joy and grants them healing, the splendor of salvation and the earnest of the Holy Spirit.

The Church has not known intellectual disdain for the "foolishness of the cross" like what we are witnessing today. Some have called the current era the "post-truth" era, in the sense that truth has become what I myself see to be true, not what has been made as clear as the sun.

People today do not flinch from denying objective truth and offering excuse after excuse to justify what they say and win if someone tries to argue with them.

But their rebellion against God's truth came generations before this and perhaps the truth has lost its luster in our days because people have loved falsehood more than truth and heresy more than the truth of the Gospel.

We preserve our ecclesial identity to the degree that we keep the tradition that we have received.

The orthodoxy of our church has been kept through worldly codes and canons only in name. Orthodoxy of faith is tied to intellectual submission to the apostolic tradition that does not change, does not develop and does not increase or decrease because we have received it from the One who does not change, but rather "remains the same yesterday, today and forever."

Therefore we submit to the faith and do not scorn it. We preserve the faith and do not subject its sanctity to our intellectual pride.

Perhaps our deep understanding of the faith begins with submission to what we have received, so that we may know and understand... A language is not understood if one has not learned it first.

The Apostle Paul hands down to us what he himself has also received and accepted: the Lord Jesus died as was buried and arose victorious.

In response to those who deem these words to be foolishness, the Apostle Paul takes recourse first of all to the proof of the Holy Bible, which had previously witnessed to God's salvific dispensation (cf. Romans 1:1-2).

For those who do not grant any significance to the Bible, the apostle affirms that hundreds witnessed the Lord risen and glorified.

The truth of the Gospel is not an intellectual system. Rather, it is an event that has entered into humans' history, shaped their present and alone guarantees their future.

Archimandrite Jack (Khalil)
Saint John of Damascus Institute of Theology

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Fr Touma (Bitar) on Chastity and Love

Arabic original here.

Chastity and Love

Why chastity? The fathers say that there is no virtue without it. It is the mother of virtues! This is the experience of the Church. But first, before we go on to discuss it, what is chastity? Is it that someone is not married? Or that he doesn't have sex? Not at all. Even Saint Basil the Great said that although he had never known a woman, he was not chaste. It is possible for a man to know his wife and remain chaste, just as it is possible for someone not to have sex and not be chaste. So chastity does not exclusively mean refraining from sex. The scope of one is not the scope of the other. It is possible for both to be practiced and for neither to be practiced. The role of chastity in the life of the believer is not the role of sex. Sex, in Christ, is for reproduction within the framework of blessed marriage and love. I say "love" after marriage or in marriage because what is known as "love" before marriage might be nothing but illusions, sentiments and feelings. What I mean by "love", particularly in marriage, is existential love, love as a communion of life, putting into action God's saying, "and the two become one flesh."

This is with regard to sex. But with regard to chastity, the purpose of chastity is virtue-- every virtue. If we speak of a virtue, we speak of love. Every virtue's purpose is love, otherwise it is not a virtue and it has no Christian value. For this reason, the Apostle Paul defined the purpose of the divine commandment for his disciple Timothy when he said, "Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith" (1 Timothy 1:5). Thus chastity is for love and there is no love without chastity!

If one wants to take a closer look at the profound relationship between chastity and love, he finds himself from the first moment confronted with a dilemma. Why? Because as we encounter love as a positive gift, we encounter chastity as a negative gift. So how can something positive emerge from something negative? To be chaste means to refrain from something, while to love is to draw near to an existential encounter on the level of the heart, seeking visceral unity between man and God and between man and his neighbor as a result of that, then finally between the individual man and all humanity. In love there is initiative, effort, giving and persistence in that orientation, no matter how much one wavers between success and failure. You have an expression like this about love coming spontaneously from the Apostle Paul to the Philippians in his epistle to them, "I have you in my heart... you all are partakers with me of grace. For God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection [the Arabic a7sha' here mirrors the Greek ἐν σπλάγχνοις, literally meaning 'in the inner parts' or 'the viscera'] of Jesus Christ..." (Philippians 1:7-8).

This definition of love, especially pertaining to the visceral affection of Jesus Christ, makes love spring forth from the innermost parts of the incarnate Son of God! So it is God's very own love that He pours out upon us. The innermost parts are at once the home of God's love and His life. So in Jesus Christ God gives us His love so that we may love with it and live in Him. Only His love within us makes our love for Him possible. Otherwise, there is no possibility of us having a relationship with Him. There can fundamentally be no relationship unless it is a relationship of love. The relationship cannot be a reaction. Reaction, in practice, does not constitute a relationship. In the relationship, there is consciousness, initiative, interaction, positivity and existential encounter-- and thus love! And God alone is love. So God alone is aware, takes the initiative and reaches out in the motion of love. If He created us to be in a relationship with Him, this is only possible once love abides in us. He gives us what is His. God is love, so He is a Trinity. The Trinity is perfect, unique love, beyond perfection and uniqueness. The love that exists in the Trinity is itself God's gift, so that we may have not only a relationship with Him, but a relationship according to the model of the Trinity among us. This gift is free. It is not from us, but from Him! Thus, the love of which we speak is not from chastity, but from God, while chastity eliminates what impedes the activity of God's love within us and prepares us for Him. What impedes this activity of love? Our love for ourselves. Our self-worship. This is the world's sin. And so to acquire love, one must die to himself, cause himself to perish, according to the biblical expression. That is, he must escape from the self or, one might say, from self-love, in order to be prepared for God's gift to him-- that is, God's love-- to be active in him, in order for one to be able to love. Otherwise, he cannot love, no matter what he does. This death to the self while seeking love, is precisely chastity and that which is realized by chastity. This is why we said that chastity is for love and there is no love without chastity.

Every person is, in his estrangement from God, full of himself. That's his state. He wants everything for himself. Automatically. Individually and collectively. This is what we call "the fall" and this is what the Book of Genesis expresses when it says, "The Lord said in His heart...'the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth'" (Genesis 8:21). This is a statement of reality. It not only indicates that there was a time when man was not like that, but it also indicates an inherited inclination toward evil with him that precedes consciousness. Otherwise, the world would not have been held captive by sin, evil and death. As soon as a person comes to awareness as a child, you find him becoming self-centered. This appears at first glance to be something natural and expected. We have often heard that a person starts out not distinguishing himself from his surroundings. Then when he becomes conscious of himself, distinguishing himself from his world, he starts to discover himself and then to discover his world and to interact with it. The popular conception is that consciousness implies the child's seeking everything for himself, as though this is the way of nature and as though by this he discovers himself. There is in fact an ambiguity in this conception. There is a need for distinguishing between the ego, the identity of the self, the "I, I, I" and the egotism that is a person's seeking everything for himself, the "mine, mine, mine." At this point of consciousness, I mean the child's first consciousness, egotism is hidden in the ego. If it is left to its own devices and those caring for the child, especially the mother, do not reign it in consciously and wisely within the framework of an early Christian upbringing, then this egotism will find for itself a nurturing environment that will cause it to grow and become by extension not only identical to the person's ego, but also it's driving force!

At that point, one's identity becomes equivalent to what he has, what he acquires. At that point, a person is compared to what he acquires. He is turned into an object! Then free reign is given to the passions hidden within him. He is transformed into an outburst of passions and he loses his identity, as though he were an instrument of passions. In this way one is proven to be not only a sinner, but evil from his conception. When sin is not accidental-- that is, unintentional-- there is no longer any distinction between it and evil. Sin explodes into evil and wickedness according to the circumstances. It is not, then, that a child is born evil, but rather that feeding his selfishness without any supervision or control, as though those around him were expressing their love for him by doing this, not realizing the severity of the harm they are causing him--- I say that feeding the child's selfishness in this manner raises him for brutishness-- that is, for persistence in self-love that, when the occasion arises, produces a brutality towards others, since it diminishes sensitivity to the other and what he suffers, which prepares him to commit every sort of evil.

In Christian terms, upbringing-- let's call it from the start "upbringing in chastity"-- actually starts from the womb [7asha- the same word that translates σπλάγχνον]. And so it does not first of all concern the fetus, but rather the father and the mother-- and especially the mother! The womb was, of old, polluted. Thus the repentance of David. He realized that "in sin did my mother conceive me." He longed from afar for the innermost parts of Christ the Lord. After Christ the Lord came from the virginal womb, we stand before a different horizon. We have come to talk about longing for others with the innermost affection of Christ (cf. Philippians 1:8), the innermost affection of the saints (cf. Philippians 8), and of brothers as innermost parts (cf. Philemon 12). And so, if we realize that Christ came to save sinners of whom I am first, then we also realize that our fundamental task is to acquire the innermost affection of Jesus Christ and that sin, after knowing Christ, can only appropriately be accidental, inadvertent or unintentional.

A woman guards her womb-- that is, her chastity-- first of all for the love of God and then for the future child, as though he is her womb. For his sake, not for her own sake. Only, at that time, what she does she does for God. Here the man is included in the woman. She is the womb par excellence. The way she is supposed to be is the way he is also supposed to be. This principled position is drawn from a new reality, that after being baptized for Christ, we no longer belong to ourselves, but rather have become a temple for God and God's Spirit dwells within us, according to the words of the Apostle Paul in the First Epistle to the Corinthians (3:16). Thus the warning: "If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are." How does a person defile the temple of God which is himself? Through fornication! Do I take members of God and make them members of an adulteress? Fornication is precisely, deep down, for me to act contrary to God in denying His commandment, in straying from His love, in immersing myself in love for myself. In fornication, there is worship of the self instead of God. This is the source of every idol and therefore of every evil. For this reason, God destroys the person. That is, He gives him over to darkness, degradation, perdition and death... And so, it is chastity for one to preserve himself from fornication, in the broadest meaning of the word. Every member within us, we purify through chastity, through the divine commandment, through refraining from what is reprehensible, to prepare it as a temple to God, to sanctify it. That is, we set it apart as a dwelling-place for God through the outpouring of God's love within us, in every member in us, in every one of our cells, so that we may become in our entirety God's inner parts.

An upbringing in chastity can only be, as a rule, by way of osmosis, example, imitation. Chaste behavior by adults, and thence the indwelling of God's love within them and the resting of God's spirit with them, is only transmitted to the young by spiritual seeking. The chastity within us involves a wisdom all of its own and this wisdom is what educates in chastity. In this way chaste adults bring up chaste children. This spreads on the level of the spirit. This is the language of the spirit. It is first of all a question of deep, existential osmosis. In love, one gives his spirit. Thus there was Pentecost. God transmitted His Spirit to us in His perfect love, so that we might extend Pentecost among ourselves, into our souls and our bodies. Caring for one another, bringing up one another, in chastity, for a love that is Pentecostal, or else it falls into the abyss of individual and collective selfishness. The Spirit of God is to be exchanged among ourselves! Christ is with us and among us-- He is and was and shall be! What I have I give to you and what I do not have is impossible for me to give you, no matter how much I talk about it. Scripture speaks of that which exists and does not take the place of that which exists. In the Spirit, each gives the other the spirit that is in him, like the lit candle with the extinguished candle, without diminishing. Otherwise, he has nothing to give apart from futility and non-existence, even if he is adorned with every flourish of knowledge, science and philosophy.

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite-- Douma, Lebanon
Sunday, August 5, 2018