Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fr. Touma (Bitar) on the Spirit of Poverty

An old one, but a good read. Arabic original here

Faith and the Spirit of Poverty

Poverty is one thing and poverty of spirit is something else. Poverty is an economic condition. One who is poor is someone who does not possess anything. Poverty of spirit is not like this. When you refrain from things in the world around you, when the love of money does not rule over you, if you do not seek for yourself in everything, then you have the spirit of poverty. The spirit of poverty is a great virtue and it has ripe fruit on the level of perceiving the universe and perceiving oneself and on the level of one's relationship to God and to other people. In contrast, a poor person who does not enjoy the spirit of poverty desires to possess things and seeks for himself, though he suffers from an inability to grasp them. This engenders bitterness in himself, frustration and resentment, and casts him into jealousy and envy. He makes various accusations against the wealthy. Some of these may be true and some may not be. He speaks from rejection, evaluates out of hatred, and lashes out from failure because within the framework of his personal situation and the political, economic, and social order under which he lives, he finds himself impotent, shackled, and good opportunities are not available to him. He might be right about this or he might be passing blame, justifying his own failure or dullness. Whatever the case, the spirit that is active within him is the same spirit that is active within the powerful, the spirit of wealth! And so, if he gets and opportunity for something good then he would be no better than those whom he criticizes, takes vengeance upon, and for whom he has enmity, secretly or openly, within his heart or in his reaction, politically or on the streets! Within this context, neither the rich nor the poor are innocent! The struggle between them is a struggle of passions! This is what it is deep down. Externally people are quite capable of justifying themselves and blaming others, of making themselves seem poor and of taking on the role of the one who is persecuted. As long as people take this position and treat things on this level, then no one is better than anyone else. And so they oppose each other corruptly! And so faces change while society and souls remain the same! You have your choice of slogans to titilate and satisfy people's egos, even if it is just a speck of dust in the eye. All of it is hollow, false, misleading, words in the wind. People believe and rush forward, spending their effort and their blood for the same things that the people before them sacrificed, in order to arrive, not realizing it, at the same results that their forbears had arrived at-- that which is at the base of the stifling reality that they had rejected, in principle, and revolted against, spending their effort and their blood to change it! It is a cycle with no end, not because the systems are necessarily corrupt, but because souls are sick! And how can sick souls produce sound systems? People are not concerned with the beauty of truth, the beauty of human production, on any level, but rather in applying make-up! Unfortunately, the typical concern is not with improving people's misery but rather with how they should look!!! Institutionalized lying is the rule!

What we are suffering from is the result of the disappearance of the spirit of poverty in our souls!

"The love of money is the root of all evils" (1 Timothy 6:10). This the lust to accumulate, the desire to acquire, the pleasure of storing up! This is the spirit of wealth!  When this spirit governs your relationship with God and with others, when your deepest concern is what you can obtain through your relationship with others, then there is no longer any possibility of creating relationships with anyone, human or divine. In your eyes, others automatically turn into  chickens that lay golden eggs! Your disguised concern for politeness, feigned emotions, flattering speech, then, is the means for obtaining it! Acquisition, profit, personal interest, seizing opportunities, and exploitation, are what is hidden at the bottom of what you approach, what you concern yourself with, what you are enthusiastic for! As long as you are frought with this spirit, no matter how much you try to put a different face on it, other people are things for you, not beings! The spirit of wealth within you makes God and people into objects for you! You are neither able to believe in God or to love people anymore! Your heart turns into a well of corruption! This is why the chosen apostle Paul, after speaking the words quoted above, that the love of money is the root of all evils, he adds that, "some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows" (1 Timothy 6:10). This is what is called, in the Epistle to the Galatians, "the lust of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16), on account of which some people in the First Epistle to the Corinthians are characterized as fleshly (1 Corinthians 3:1 and 3). Within this context in the Epistle to the Ephesians, the greedy are called "idol-worshipers" (Ephesians 5:5) as well as in the Epistle to the Colossians (3:5). In the Epistle of James it is considered "earthly, sensual, demonic" wisdom (James 3:15).

So if the love of money is the root of all evils, then the spirit of poverty is the root of all virtues and good things! The spirit of poverty is the root of true faith!

The spirit of poverty is, first of all, the spirit of being satisfied with what is necessary for life. In the words of the Apostle Paul to his disciple Timothy, "having food and clothing, with these we shall be content" (1 Timothy 6:8). If one cannot be satisfied with what is necessary, he cannot be satisfied by anything! Then the eye of one who seeks poverty of spirit is neither focused on acquisition nor on ambition, nor on elevation, nor on lust in this world. He does not love the world or the things in the world.  Everything in this world, to his eye, is vanity. He is present here, but he is not concerned with what is here. He is passing to what is beyond and rising up. "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). Naturally, as long as he is here he uses what is here, but for the sake of what is beyond. He is aware, in the depths of his soul, that storing away is ignorance and foolishness (Luke 12:20). Naturally, he does not despise money. He does not despise money, he does not glorify it, and he does not strive to accumulate it for the sake of the pleasure of accumulation. Money is a means and he uses it as a means, but within the bounds of labor, since the Word of God from the fall has been, "By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread" (Genesis 3:19). If he saves the surplus, beyond what is needed, he only saves it because it is not appropriate for us to squander God's blessings upon that which has no value! So he does not save in fear of dark days because the One who gave us the kingdom promised us that everything else will be added to us in its time (Matthew 6:33). "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things" (Matthew 6:34). One who seeks the spirit of poverty fears wealth, lest he be tempted by it, and he fears poverty as well, since it is a temptation also. And so he lifts up a prayer to his Lord, "Give me neither poverty nor riches— feed me with the food allotted to me, lest I be full and deny You, and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God" (Proverbs 30:8-9).

If one who seeks the spirit of poverty uses money, within the bounds of labor, he sets in his heart to use his surplus, in all honesty and trustworthiness, within the bounds of communion, within the bounds of taking care of the disabled and needy, in order to reach the equality that the Lord God commanded, "love your neighbor as yourself," and realizing the words of the chosen Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, "that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality" (2 Corinthians 8:14). This is why someone who seeks the spirit of poverty spends what he has according to need, as long as he has money. However, when, in pressing cases, he must choose between spending on the poor, the sick, or those in need and keeping it for himself, then he should choose to get rid of what he has, in all good conscience, for those who are in urgent need of it, certain that the Lord God is testing him and wanting him to place his hope completely on Him!

One who seeks the spirit of poverty must, first and last, seek heavenly riches, as it is said, "“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal" (Mathew 6:19-20). The riches for which one seeking the spirit of poverty strives are the keeping of the divine commandments, walking in virtue, and participating in the heavenly mysteries. In the end, faith that is active in love (Galatians 5:6) is his greatest wealth on earth!

And living faith in Jesus is tied, corporeally, to the spirit of poverty. Outside the bounds of the spirit of poverty, faith is not real. One who loves money cannot truly be a believer, even if he memorizes the Bible by heart, preaches, teaches, and builds churches and monasteries! One who loves money can only use God and exploit what belongs to God for his personal ends and his real, inner purposes! One who loves money can only love himself and he only feigns love of God for himself, whether he is one who is usually called a believer, a priest, a monk, a bishop, or a patriarch!

Not everyone who claims to be a believer is a believer, but rather the one who walks in the spirit of poverty, who struggles and toils and prays to empty himself and to take on the image of a servant following the model of his Teacher (Philippians 2:7). It is only by the spirit of poverty that a person can be filled with faith. And by true, living, active faith he is filled with the Lord's Holy Spirit! He is purified, made holy, and deified!

(Within this framework, there is what is good and what is better. It is good to give to the poor person who comes to you, but it is better to search out the poor in order to give to them. Likewise, spending everything beyond what you need on the poor is even better than these two things. However, putting the needy ahead of yourself is the best of all. Each according to what the Lord puts in his heart. Let the one who can do this, do this!)
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan- Douma
May 15, 2011

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Met. Paul Yazigi on Heresy and Schism

Arabic original here.

Heresy and the Blood of Christ

Paul taught in Ephesus for three years, "not ceasing day and night from giving each one counsel with tears" and he established in that city a living church. Now he's quickly passing through this city headed toward Jerusalem in order to reach there on the feast of Pentecost. He stops in Miletus and calls upon the priests of Ephesus, encouraging them and reminding them of the price of the Church in which the Holy Spirit established them as priests, the Church that was bought with the precious blood of Jesus. Paul warns this living and growing church about the appearance of "savage wolves who will not spare the flock. They will speak perverse things to draw away the disciples after themselves." The Church chooses this text to commemorate the First Ecumenical Council of Niceaea which we celebrate today, where 318 fathers gathered from all the inhabited world to preserve the unity of faith and communion.

There is a distinction between two kinds of dangers in Paul's words and this has been clear in the history of the Church. Paul describes heretics as savage wolves who have no mercy on the flock. It appears that there are two reasons for this. The first is that they "speak perverse things" and the second is that they want to "draw away the disciples after themselves." This is the source of heresies: first of all from the introduction of strange teachings and second from partisanship within the body of the one Church. For this reason there are two terms that have almost the same meaning in the history of the Church: "heresy" and "schism." And so those do do not bear the faith (that is, the Church's way of life) become a "faction" in the sense of a group that is foreign to the body of the true Church. Heresy is a word that denotes departure from the unity of faith, while schism means the departure from unity of communion.

In its long history, Christianity has witnessed many divisions, starting in the years of its initial growth. The body of the Church in the world has been torn apart across the ages, in the East, the between the East and the West, and then in the West. For this reason, unity has become one of the most important real criteria for expressing the true and sound like of the Church. The people of the Old Covenant did not witness divisions like the ones in the Christianity which came after it. Judaism knew factions such as the Pharisees and Saducees, but the Christian world has suffered more, greater, and deeper schisms. The reason for this is the structural difference in faith between the two covenants. In the Old Covenant, the Law gave religion its limited interpretations and so prevented personal interpretations. Likewise, the old religion focused on keeping some commandments (which turned into a law) and these commandments were revealed scripture, so no person had the right to interpret or alter it. On the contrary, the new religion, Christianity, by elevating its dogmas-- especially the mystery of the Incarnation-- over the commandments  and through its methodology that transcends laws and and statutes and opens up spiritual struggle to the world of grace and freedom, unfortunately made it very easy for there to be splintering off of heresies and partisan groups.

Christians emphasize the "Seven Ecumenical Councils" and this basic title has profound spiritual and historical meaning in the life of the Christian Church. Most Christians today are ignorant of the value of this title! What happened during these councils, and what was it that was so very necessary for putting an end to schisms and divisions in the body of Christ, the Church, in some time and place?

Each of these councils struggled for two things. The first is to define the correct interpretation of the Christian faith, to define its general framework that if one departs from, one departs from the life of the Church and her faith. In this way the councils offered defense and protection that guards Christians from intellectual deviations and keeps them from departing from the body of the one holy Church on account of a trick of logic and confusion of philosophies. As for the second thing, it is that these councils emphasized their ecumenical nature. That is, that "all should be together" and should decide to remain together, just as Paul did here at Ephesus, when he called all the bishops (priests) of Ephesus, "knelt with all of them ,and prayed." The problems that these councils addressed were not always problems faced by all the churches in the world. Perhaps these heresies were particular to one place more than to others and a local church suffered locally here more than another church there. But the council is not for responding to an error of logic or interpretation. The council, at its base, is for expressing togetherness and unity, that "all bow together" and pray. If the councils correct deviations from the faith, at the same time they emphasize remaining together in unity without schism. This is why our Orthodox Church is  not making preparations for an eighth ecumenical council, but rather for an expanded Orthodox gathering. In their attachment to unity with sister churches, the Orthodox want to preserve the name "ecumenical council" for the Church when it is healed together, east and west, and from all the inhabited world. This is out of respect for dialogue. The unity is very deep and it indicates brotherly love that many ignore.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils succeeded in setting up a wall around the Christian faith with expressions and concepts that prevent the stripping away of a member from the body of the Church on account of errors in concepts and interpretations. Unfortunately, however, since then the Church has been unable despite the holy councils, in preventing schisms! The history of the Church has proven that intellectual heresies have almost disappeared because matters of dogma have been defined. But other heresies started to grow, partisan schisms. One is for Paul and another for Apollos, and both preach Christ! It is a politics of factionalism where some teach in order to "draw away the disciples after themselves" and not to win them for Christ! This has been especially witnessed by our Christian East, where each of our Christian families has been split among Orthodox and Catholics. And so the Greek Catholics split from the Greek Orthodox, the Syrian Catholics from the Syrian Orthodox, and likewise the Armenian Catholics split from their Orthodox family, and so forth. In principle, this was not on account of faith but on account of affiliation, which is schism. This is why we find these families using the same ritual and the same feasts... but love was wounded between them when they left Paul to belong to Apollos in the name of Christ. "Paul sewed the seed, Apollos watered, and God is the one who caused it to grow." This is Paul's response to schism.

There is a very powerful weapon for defeating schisms and intellectual errors. Christians tried to use the emperor (temporal authority) as a weapon to preserve unity among the churches, but they found that he turned into an element of schism, becoming another Paul or Apollos. However, the Apostle Paul who leaves the people of Ephesus and says goodbye to them with a warning about intellectual schisms and partisan strife, leaves them a fearsome weapon: the blood of Christ, with which the Church was bought.

Every schism is a squandering and a mockery of Christ's precious blood. Contemplating this exorbitant price should cause each one of us to tremble at compromises in the body of Jesus and His Church in history. The Holy Spirit established bishops, priests, and all the servants of the Church "to guide the Church of Christ which He acquired with His blood." Contemplating the price of Christ's blood causes us to put love above an issue that "draws the disciples after ourselves." Contemplating the price of Christ's blood causes us to put the teachings of the faith above enjoying perverse interpretations. One who knows the value of Jesus' blood stands before the teachings of the councils in humility, study, and contemplation. One who knows the value of Jesus' blood does not go following anyone but rather "bows down on bended knee with all and prays." Amen. 

Metropolitan Paul (Yazigi)
Metropolitan of Aleppo and Iskanderun

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Fr. Touma (Bitar) on Law and Private Property

 The Arabic original can be found here.

As the Train Whistles

Law is a failed project. In human terms, it is a failure... But we cannot do without it!

In theory, law is an instrument to preserve what are considered to be "human rights": the right to life, the right to  property, the right to work, the right to dignity... However, these are ambiguous words even if they are granted  as postulates and considered axiomatic! Why? Because law, in its content, is an instrument for legislation and the protection of people's right (!) to be selfish and to freely practice their selfishness according to their whim and with the protection of the law and of the authority that ensures the application of the law.

In legal practice, each person seeks their own interest over an issue. It is "his right," they say! The space in which law is effective fluctuates between making it possible for you to gain possession of what is actually yours, on the one hand and, on the other, what is not yours, because you are greedy for it as though it was yours, through the claim that it is yours. When you succeed, it is through manipulating the law or exploiting it, overtly or covertly, by means of your cleverness, power, influence, and tact, to corrupt things for your private goals!

For this reason, the law is, in all simplicity, a failure. Its scope is a failure because the horizon within which it moves is in every case at its base human selfishness, even if we do not allow ourselves to call things in this matter by their real name!

However, there is no doing without law and the practice of law because its basic concern, which is implicitly conceded, is for society, unfortunately with only a few exceptions, not to escape its selfishness but to preserve it, to consider it to be an axiom of human existence, to unquestioningly uphold it safe and sound! And so the law is a project of social organization whose goal is to order people's selfishness among themselves by establishing basic rules for common selfishness and by placing safeguards to prevent the collision of social selfishness in such a way that would constitute a danger for individuals' rights (!) and general life, by upholding the "constitutionality" of selfishness for all citizens! All this so that society does not become a jungle of wild beasts preying on each other to the point of mutual destruction! But wait! The choice is not between being or not being a wild beast. Within this context, except for a tiny group, the choice in the best of situations is between being a wild and savage beast and being a polite, civilized beast! In any case, selfishness is being content with your being an individual, valuing remaining in your internal isolation, in solitude. That is, effectively, in a state of savageness of the passions. You are content with it and are satisfied with it because it is your lot. You rely on your weapon, inwardly, to defend your right (!) against those whom you feel constitute a threat to the individual, passionate environment that is your own, with the teeth and claws of anger! I say your right(!) to live as king in the lair of your own isolation and self-worship... until death!

This, more or less, is the existential climate in which what is known as "human rights" are dealt with. But are these things rights? I don't think so! I think that this is what general social consciousness falsely considers to be a person's "rights" but it is not a right at all! What is not a right is not the "right" of someone to use! He can use it if he desires. His free will permits him to use it, not his right within society. As for us, within the context of true humanity, we cannot permit it to anyone or encourage anyone toward it. We do not have the right to permit someone to use something that is false. The truth has to be our concern and what we encourage people toward.  But selfishness is false! As long as selfishness is a false value, it is not possible to mandate falsehood as a general right, to attribute falsehood to truth, to call falsehood truth, or to consider falsehood to be a human right!

Once, while Jesus was passing through a field, His disciples took corns of wheat as they were walking, hungry, rubbed them, and ate them (Mark 2:23). The Pharisees objected because this was on the Sabbath. The Lord did not say to His disciples, "Do not do this!" To the contrary, He let them eat and defended them regarding the Sabbath. I do not want to go into a discussion of the Sabbath here. It is enough to proceed with the topic of this investigation: did Jesus' disciples have the right to enter a field that probably was not theirs and eat its fruits? Legally, according to today's practice, this was theft and they were trespassing on someone else's property! And so, it was the right (!) of the property's owner to accuse Jesus and His disciples and for them to be fined or even imprisoned! The Lord Jesus is found here violating our social norms! But this does not condemn Jesus. Rather, it condemns the law!

The Lord Jesus' understanding of the issue is different from that of the law. He has a different approach to matters related to this. "The earth is the Lord’s in all its fullness,the world and those who dwell therein," (Psalm 24:1) said the Psalmist. And so no one is the possessor of even a clod of dirt on the earth! The Lord's is the earth in all its fullness! Someone who claims that he has private ownership of it here is either a fantasist or an embezzler! When the Lord God took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden, He wanted him to "tend it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15), not to possess it! When he fell, He said to him, "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground from which you were taken" (Genesis 3:19). And so man tends the earth in order to eat from it through his toil, not just for himself and not so that he can store its produce in warehouses, like the foolish rish man whose estate was fertile (Luke 12:16-21). Naturally, the laborer deserves his wage (Luke 10: 7), but as a faithful and wise steward, "whom his master will make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of food in due season" (Luke 12:42). Everyone is a servant! Everyone serves the Lord and is made a servant and steward for the servants of the Lord within the scope of the Lord's gifts. The servant, in the understanding of that time, is a slave. That is, he is not anything in himself and he does not own anything. Rather, he derives his identity and his value from belonging to his lord. What he possesses, even the smallest thing, is not his but his lord's. Among humans, there is no lord upon this earth, not one! The Lord is one and he is in heaven. He alone is Lord of heaven and earth. The rest is just pretense and fantasy! For us to be honest, our view of ourselves must be that we are slaves before Him! What we must keep in mind is that we must realize His purposes in complete trustworthiness and otherwise we shall be cast outside! Only, if we regard ourselves as slaves before Him, in His great goodness He gives us everything! He allows us to become His beloved ones (John 15:15)! He gives us the kingdom of heaven (Luke 12:32)! We possess everything (2 Corinthians 6:10)! He allows us to become gods (John 10:34)!

And so, when someone is hungry it is self-evident that he may eat anything in the world that is edible, here, there, and everywhere. This is like the parable of the birds. There is no law that has the right to prevent a person from taking food when he is hungry and there is food in front of him! Even if he eats food that is not considered to be his own, according to the standards of this age, he is not considered by his Lord to be a transgressor! What he does is self-evident, and the Law is from above! On the contrary, those who impose arbitrary human laws are transgressors and rapists! Everything in the earth belongs to those who need it, not to those who put their hands on it and confiscate it! It is granted from your Lord that you may fill your hunger with the good things of the earth with joy, peace of mind, and thankfulness, wherever you may be! No law has the right to protect those who accumulate those good things for themselves when they have no immediate need for them. Rather, it protects those who meet their need from anyone preventing them from doing so! The theif is the one whose cupboard  is full while the hungry are outside, unable to find anything with which to assuage their hunger! This is the one that the law must prosecute, seize everything in excess of his needs, give it to those who have a right to it, and punish him! True law opens the storehouses of the monopolists so that the needy may eat freely. It does not protect the merchants whose concern is to hoard gold that they have acquired through selling that which in principle belongs to those who go starving and are shivering outside in the cold! The law that protects the wealthy against the widow, the strong against the weak, those clothed in silk against the naked, is a savage law, devoted to human savageness!

And so, you may eat whenever you are hungry, and no law on earth has the right to prevent you from this! But be careful! You may only meet your need for today. Do not extend your hand to save up for tomorrow! If you do this, then you are a thief, from the perspective of what belongs to others in a society of law and private property, and ungrateful from the perspective of the Lord of all this earth. For the One who feeds you today when you are hungry, will feed you tomorrow when you are in need! Perhaps you may wonder and ask, and you are fully within your rights to do so: Are we not all, those of us walking in God's truth and those who are not, gathering up in storehouses and saving away in banks? Indeed! This is an effect that the general corruption of conscience has on us! The best way to be is not like this! The best way to be is the way that the Paradise of the Fathers talks about, one who works every day in order to eat, without adding to his need and without sleeping before distributing the rest to others who need it, only to start completely over again the next day! And if his Lord provides him with someone in need, even of his own food, he gives it to him completely and remains hungry until the next day, putting his hope in the One who is capable of all things, believing and submitting to the divine words, "The eyes of all look expectantly to You and You give them their food in due season. You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing" (Psalm 145: 15-16). I do not say this to make comparisons. We are blessed by the coat-tails of such as these. However, it is not enough for us to point out what is desirable! We who bear the name of Jesus must, even if we save, be aware that what we save is strictly speaking not our'. Rather, all of it is for us and for those who need it. We should treat what we save as ones who have been entrusted with it, as stewards for the provision of the needy. If the Lord provides us with someone who is in greater need of what we have than we are, we must be prepared to give it to him and place our hope more perfectly on the One who chose us, so that we might not be considered unjust stewards! The Knower of hearts, in any case, knows the content of hearts and judges! It is only when we honestly walk in spirit and in truth that we are able to turn what has been corrupted by the Fall into what has been repaired by the Lord Jesus in His flesh, by walking in the newness of life that He has entrusted with us, for our happiness and for us to contribute to the salvation of the universe!

For this reason, we forever anticipate a law that protects love in society and not people's selfishness, that encourages giving and not keeping, that makes up for lack of human initiative in loving each other. It is not for human rights to preserve individual ownership, but rather to preserve the right of the people of all the earth to all the good things of the earth, according to need. It is not to provide each person the opportunity to express himself according to his whim, but rather to direct freedom of expression toward that which builds up others, their well-being, and their interest. In reality, expressing yourself is cannot exist in isolation from the building up or the tearing down and exploitation of others. Tearing others down or exploiting them is a crime. One who expresses himself and does not pay attention to the impact of his expression on others is harmful chatter, even if, in this corrupt age, it is considered to be clever politics, great art, or outstanding literature!

Are these mere hopes and dreams in a society where most people have become mired in self-love? Perhaps! It is our conviction that this fallen world in its narcissism judges, through its continued existence, not persistence in brutality and its excesses of existential isolation, but rather that handful of madmen who still cling to love and prayer as a point of ascension and a horizon. These are the salt of the earth. These are the ones who remain unseen until the final hour. But as for the train that most people thought was a fable, the hour will inevitably come when it will whistle and all the nations will hear its sound! We look to what is to come because even now we can taste it. "That which we have seen and heard we declare to you" (1 John 1:3).

"Come, Lord Jesus!"

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St Silouan the Athonite- Douma
27 May, 2012

Friday, May 25, 2012

Fr. Georges Massouh on Orthodox Christians and the Arab Spring

 Arabic original, published in Majallat al-Nour, here.

For God So Loved the World

"The Movement rejects blind prejudice and sectarian politics..."
-The fifth principle of the Orthodox Youth Movement

In the midst of the serious events that are occuring in the Arab world, there are considerable questions that pose themselves to the consciences of Christians in general and Orthodox Christians in particular and there are challenges that face them in the course of their decisions and destinies. These questions and challenges require profound consideration and answers that spring from the heart of the tradition of our Orthodox Church. However, as far as what concerns us here, what is the role of the Orthodox Youth Movement and of our young people amidst these circumstances that surround us?

We must begin by pointing out the two open wounds on the body of this region: tyranny in all its forms and sectarianism or confessionalism. These two wounds, from which result all the other wounds and which are behind all the wars and internal conflicts, are steadily growing to the point that they are nearly putting an end to the diverse and pluralistic societies in which we have lived for centuries. And this is something that is born of revulsion and refusal to stay in our countries. It is something that constitutes a basic cause of emigration and the emptying of the region of a good portion of its faithful children.

Putting an end to these two wounds requires on the part of Christians boldness and fearlessness about the future. Political domination or grasping after a monopoly on authority is not what will protect the Christians or give them security in difficult days to come. Empires have vanished, sultanates have ceased, and many dictatorial regimes have disappeared, the last of which was the mighty Soviet Union. Whenever we cast an eye around us, we see the fate of the Christians of Iraq after the collapse of the regime that claimed to protect them, as they believed what was nothing but a mirage, pipe-dreams, and fantasies.

Neither is sectarianism what will secure the rights of Christians within the state and its institutions. The regime-- any regime-- cannot last forever. The sectarian solution has done harm to the Christian presence and to the witness of Christians in our diverse society and it has in no way secured their existence or their effectiveness. Because it is a balance of numbers and figures, sectarianism is of no use to those whose numbers are lacking or whose numerical proportion relative to others is lacking for a variety of reasons, including emigration and imbalance in birth rates, and the search for economic and social well-being.

We do not see ourselves as required to make a choice between tyrannies hovering over our necks and tyrannies emerging on the horizon. We reject them both, because they kill the freedom that God sowed within the human person to distinguish him from other creatures. They are both evil, but there is no "one of them is unavoidable." Tyranny, whether political, partisan, or religious, remains tyranny and there is no differentiation between them. To make one look good in comparison to the other is to accept the suppression of freedom-- the suppression of the image of God in man.

We do not see ourselves compelled to choose between various proposals, each one based on sectarian divisions. Sectarianism, in turn, is not "a necessary evil." Rather, it is an absolute evil because it is contrary to the spirit of citizenship based on absolute equality of rights and responsibilities for all children of the nation. Any discrimination in rights and responsibilities on the basis of religion, creed, or sect, is no less of an evil than racial and ethnic discrimination. Perhaps it even surpasses them in evil because it takes the principle of faith that is equal among all God's creation and makes it into the basis of superiority, arrogance, and bullying.

We are not required merely to make a single choice with two mutually necessary aspects, one of which cannot be complete without the other. Freedom and citizenship are our only choice, the sole basis on which we can build our views and opinions. Every viewpoint that ignores freedom and citizenship, or even that simply minimizes them, is treachery to the Christian presence and to the Christian tradition, which is based on the principle of the centrality of humankind to God's ordering of existence. It was for humankind and not for anything else, that the Eternal Word became incarnate, was crucified, and rose on the third day.

The basis of God's ordering of existence is that "God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). How did God love the world? He had mercy on the sick and healed them. He dressed their wounds. He washed their feet. He fed them in the desert. He helped the poor, the wretched, widows and orphans. He consoled the sorrowful and the forlorn... He was the Good Samaritan, the host of the party to which "the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame" were invited.

Thus love is nothing other than the opposite of tyranny and injustice. Saint Ambrose of Milan said something to the effect that, "One who stays silent in the face of injustice is a partner with the unjust." So what about someone who is not silent but is even outspoken in his support of the unjust? This is why we must cast aside fear from our souls. Fear is the opposite of hope, one of the three pillars of Christianity: faith, hope, and love, which if one falls, they all fall.

"In the world you will have tribulations. Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Trusting in the Lord means, first of all, that we are not afraid to speak the word of truth in a time of hypocrisy. Beyond that, we must rely on God.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Prayer from Tripoli in Troubled Times

This prayer was sent out to the email list of the Archdiocese of Tripoli. Please pray for the people of Tripoli, Akkar, and North Lebanon.

In these difficult times, let us lift up prayer and say:

Merciful Lord, enlighten the eyes of the peoples so that they may know you and realize how much You love us.

Merciful Lord, bestow Your grace upon all the peoples of the earth, that they may know You because if a person is deprived of Your Holy Spirit, he will not know You and he will not understand Your love.
Lord, cause all the peoples to know Your love and the sweetness of the Holy Spirit so that the world may forget earthly passions, empty itself of every evil, and cling to You in love, so they may live in peace and fulfill Your holy will unto Your glory.

Merciful Lord, save all the peoples by your great goodness.

Lord, teach us by Your Holy Spirit to love our enemies and to pray for them with tears.
Lord, I want Your peace to rest upon all peoples. You limitlessly loved them, without reservation, and You gave Your only Son so that all the world may be saved through Him.

Lord, all the peoples are the work of Your hands. Incline their hearts away from hatred and evil toward repentance, so that all of them may know Your mercy.

O Blessed Comforter, I ask You with tear-filled eyes, comfort sorrowful souls and grant all the peoples to hear Your voice which says to them gently: Your sins are known. Yes, Lord, You alone are able to work miracles and there is no miracle greater than a sinner's love in his falleness. It is easy for us to love the saint who is worthy of all honor. Yes, Lord, hear and answer the prayers of the world, for all the peoples are drowning in sorrows. They have all been made weary by sin. All of them have been deprived of Your grace and live in darkness.

I ask You, Lord, pour down the grace of the Holy Spirit upon humankind so that they may know Your love. Warm their wearied hearts so that they may glorify you in praise and joy and forget the passions and torments of the world.

Lord, give them Your grace so that they may know You and love You in peace and in love and so that, like the Apostles on Mount Tabor, they may say, "It is good, O Lord, for us to be together."

Arabic original after the jump.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Fr. Georges Massouh: The Resurrection and Witness to the Truth

The Arabic original can be found here.

 The Resurrection and Witness to the Truth

"Christ is risen. Indeed He is risen," Christians call out during the glorious Feast of Pascha. Christianity, at root, is based on faith in Christ's resurrection from the dead after He was crucified and buried. Without the Resurrection, Christianity is futile. Paul speaks of this in his first letter to the Corinthians: "If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty" (1 Corinthians 15:14). The Apostle himself confirms that Christ's resurrection precedes the resurrection of the faithful in Him, when he says, "Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:12).

This faith in the Resurrection made the first Christians face dangers, persecutions, tortures, and martyrdom without fear or hesitation. Their conviction was deeply-rooted that death is merely a passage into true, everlasting life: "So why do we stand in jeopardy every hour?" (1 Corinthians 15:30). Thus the Resurrection freed man of his earthenness and released him into a space of freedom that leads him to profess the truth, no matter how high the price.

Christianity is not limited to a system of beliefs, slogans, and ethics. It is a way of life based on imitating Christ in all things. Christ said to His disciples after washing their feet on the night He was given over for crucifixion, "I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you" (John 13:15). The cross is the most important thing that He gave them as an example in their life: "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Mark 8:34). And so, the beginning of faith in God is man's denial of himself.

Christ did not come with philosophical theories, a complex dogmatic system,  a rigid law, or transcendent reflections about the reality surrounding man. He called for practicing the act of absolute love: "This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends" (John 15:12-13). The life of love, which sometimes requires sacrificing the self to the point of death, is the sole criterion of true faith.

Christians are not acting truthfully if the cross is for them merely a banner that they wave here and there or an ornament that they place on their chest to boast and flaunt. They are not acting truthfully if celebration of Christ's resurrection does not mean faith in their own resurrection along with Him, and an absence of fear in facing whatever fate awaits them. They are not acting truthfully if they lose hope in bearing witness-- in word, in deed, or in death-- that they believe in Him. All dogma becomes vain and untenable when it is not lived and practiced in the depths of those who believe in it.

"For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth" (John 18:37), said Christ at His trial before the governor Pilate. The Islamic tradition confirms this when it insists that Christ is "the word of truth" (Surat Maryam 34). The price for this witness to the truth was death on the cross, but also resurrection from the dead. Christ does not need for people to rejoice in His resurrection, but rather He desires that they bear their cross just as He bore His cross. And so they rejoice and He rejoices with them in their resurrection that, without a doubt, shall come. It is hoped that He will rejoice in them more than they rejoice in Him and in what He did for their sake and for the sake of the world.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Cyprus and the Church of Antioch

From the Great Cyprus Encyclopedia, translated by this blog's favorite blog, NOCTOC.

Among the hierarchs of the Cypriot church who served in the patriarchate of Antioch, were Anthemios (17th-18th century, bishop of Helenoupolis and patriarch of Antioch from 1724 until his death in 1813), Sylvester (18th century, patriarch of Antioch from 1724 until his death in 1766), Anthimos (18th century, bishop of Irinoupolis (Baghdad) of the Patriarchate of Antioch) and Ioannikios (18th century, bishop of Epiphaneia of the Patriarchate of Antioch). It is also worth mentioning the case of Athanasius, patriarch of Antioch, a non-Cypriot, who later became Archbishop of Cyprus (Athanasios II of Cyprus, Athanasios III of Antioch). Of Cypriot origin was also the patriarch of Antioch Spyridon I (late 19th century). We should also mention the Cypriot in origin (from his father's side) Nectarios, Bishop of Aleppo.

The Church of Antioch was the Church which raised several claims for control over the Church of Cyprus during the first centuries after Christ, with the excuse that Christianity prevailed in Cyprus through Antioch. The proof from the finding of the relics of Barnabas the Apostole, the apostolicity of the Church of Cyprus  put an end to these claims and patented the autocephalous Church of Cyprus. However, Antiochian designs on the Church of Cyprus still occurred during that period and later, in various forms. One example is the prerogative of the patriarchs of Antioch to ordain their own bishops. Attempts had been made to implement this privilege also in Cyprus, since 431 by John of Antioch, but the Cypriots did not succumb. Another attempt at interference by the Church of Antioch, which was aimed at the destruction of the autocephalous Church of Cyprus, was in 1600 (during the Ottoman period) by Patriarch Joachim. Taking advantage of the disruption which was caused in Cyprus by the acts of Archbishop Athanasius I (1592-1598), the patriarch intervened into the affairs of Cyprus on the grounds that the Church of Cyprus was subject to his spiritual jurisdiction rather than that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate which in turn felt that Antioch had incorrectly interfered.  The patriarch of Alexandria Meletius Pigas, who was at the time acting as Vicar of the Ecumenical Throne of Constantinople and who was asked by the Cypriots to investigate their accusations against archbishop Athanasius, successfully opposed his claims over Cyprus.

During the Ottoman period, the poverty that plagued Cyprus did not, apparently, put the island in a more difficult position than that of the Patriarchate of Antioch during the early 18th century. At the end of 1735, the patriarch of Antioch Sylvester (who was Cypriot in origin) came to Cyprus and conducted fund-raising on the island for the economic relief of the patriarchate. Even though Cyprus was in a horrible socioeconomic  position, Sylvester managed to collect the sum of 1,680 piasters from the Cypriot people.

The Patriarchate of Antioch, as the nearest to Cyprus, was asked repeatedly by the Ecumenical Patriarchate during the Ottoman period to act on the island, especially in cases of ordinations. Indicatively, we mention here the command of the Grand Vizier to the Ecumenical Patriarch Gabriel IV in 1783, and then of Gabriel to the Patriarch of Antioch Daniel, that the latter should send to Cyprus bishops to ordain new hierarchs (uncanonically) for the Church of Cyprus as replacements for Archbishop Chrysanthos and the bishops, upon the request of the tyrant of Cyprus Muhassil Haci Baki Agha.

In this case, judging correctly, the patriarch of Antioch considered any election of new prelates in Cyprus to be improper and refused to intervene.

Another case was in 1821, when, after the decapitation of archbishop Kyprianos and the bishops, Seraphim of Antioch sent three bishops to Cyprus (Cypriot Ioannikios of Epiphaneia, Gennadios of Seleucia and Methodius of Emesa) for the ordination and the establishment of new prelates for the island.

The Church of Cyprus was involved to some extent in the so-called Antiochian issue (1897-1909)  in the early 20th century even though it faced a formidable issue regarding its own archbshop. The Antiochian problem was created when the last of the Greek patriarchs of Antioch, the Cypriot in origin Spyridon (1891-1898) was forced to resign and, with Russian intervention, an Arabic-speaking patriarch was elected, Meletius Doumani. A schism occurred which was not resolved until 1908, but since that time an Arabic-speaking patriach is elected who, however, retains all the Greek Orthodox traditions and has regular relations with the other patriarchates, as with the Church of Cyprus.

Today, the Patriarchate maintains good relations with the Church of Cyprus. In recent times, we will mention the involvement of the patriarch of Antioch Elias at the ecumenical synod in Nicosia which was convened by Archbishop Makarios III in June 1973. This synod defrocked the Cypriot bishops Gennadios of Paphos, Anthimos of Kition, and Kyrianos of Kyrenia.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fr. Georges Massouh: Man the Miracle-Worker

Arabic original here.

Man the Miracle-Worker

God is capable of all things, so it is no surprise that He works miracles. He does not need to offer evidence and proof to confirm His all-surpassing power. A priori, He would not be God if He was unable to work miracles. For this reason, miracles have no importance in themselves, but rather in their fruits. Repenting towards God, returning to Him, is the only goal that God desires man to strive towards. The same is true whether repentance is achieved by virtue of miracles or without them.

When people brought the paralyzed man to Jesus in order for Him to heal him, He did not heal him right away. Instead, He immediately addressed him saying, "My son, your sins are forgiven." Then, when He saw the legal scholars' disapproval of what He had said, since God alone has the authority to forgive sins, He said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your bed, and go to your house." So he got up, took his bed, and walked (Mark 2: 1-12). This event shows that Jesus' priority is not healing man from his bodily ailments, but rather healing him from the ailments of sin. Bodily death on account of illness does not do away with a person's life, while sin destroys him forever.

After Jesus healed the paralytic for the second time, he warned him saying, "You have been healed, so do not sin again, lest something worse afflict you" (John 5: 1-14). What is worse is that which results from sin and it is more harmful than bodily disabilities. The basic lesson of these words is that the sickness of sin is more insidious than all other sicknesses. In death, man becomes dust and the members which had been healed, through miracles or through medicine, are healed for a time and not forever. However, healing from sin, for the faithful, remains and lasts into eternal life.

God is capable of all things, but He does not compel man to do something that he does not want to do. He created man free, reasonable, and rational according to the consensus of the Church's tradition. Man does good or does evil according to his freedom. God desires for each person to come to Him by his own choice and free will. Man is capable, through the reason, heart, and free will that God has given him, of working miracles. Is going up to the moon, for example, or the world of communications and computers, the discovery of drugs and medicines and the prolongation of human life... not forms of miracles, especially when they are related to what has been happening for decades.

However, the most important miracle is something that every human being can do, without a doubt. It is moving from a state of sin to a state of repentance. This is more important than moving a mountain from one place to another. Zacchaeus, the chief tax-collector, after his repenting, said to Jesus, "Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house" (Luke 19:1-9). The reward for repentance is eternal salvation, while the healing of the body is limited to this earthly life. Repentance is a miracle whose fruits are much more valuable than the fruits of a miracle that is limited to bodily healing.

Our purpose is not to compare the healing of the soul to the healing of the body. In the healing of the body there is mercy for man, and great love. But it is expected of man that he not neglect his repentance, that all his life he strives to purify  himself from the stain of sin. In this way he becomes a miracle-worker and a partner with God in life.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Met. Ephrem Visits Mount Athos

Arabic original, with more information and pictures, here.

The Greek Orthodox metropolitan of Tripoli and al-Koura, Ephrem Kyriakos, visited Mount Athos in Greece for six days, at the head of a delegation of clergy and laity that included: Archimandrite Antonius el-Souri, Subdeacon Parthenios Abu Haidar, the writer Mazen Abboud, and the engineer Gaby el-Murr. They were greeted with open arms by a number of the abbots of the monasteries that they visited, taking part in liturgies and prayers , and exchanged gifts.

Metropolitan Ephrem first visited the capital of Mount Athos, where he was received by the governor of the Mountain, Elder Barnabas, with whom he discussed matters pertaining to the Mountain and the Church.

He then visited the abbot of the Monastery of Vatopedi, who had  recently been imprisoned  on account of a real-estate dispute with the Greek government after an intensification of the economic crisis in Greece. Archimandrite Ephrem, abbot of the second largest monastery on Mount Athos, received the delegation and remarkable welcome and gave Metropolitan Ephrem a crosier, thanking him for his love and support.

Metropolitan Ephrem presided at the divine liturgy at the Monastery of Saint Paul, along with the abbot of the monastery, Archimandrite Parthenios, and a group of priests and deacons. Metropolitan Ephrem thanked the abbot for his invitation and warm greeting.

Metropolitan Ephrem and the delegation likewise accepted the invitation of the Monastery of Simonopetra, Archimandrite Elisha, for them to stay at the monastery. Metropolitan Ephrem met both Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of the Greek Orthodox Church in Great Britain and the head of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams, there at a breakfast held in their honor.

He then visited the Cell of the Resurrection, where the departed Father Isaac Atallah had practiced asceticism.

Before completing the visit, Metropolitan Ephrem participated in the liturgy at the Monastery of Xenophontos, where he was received by the abbot of the monastery, Archimandrite Alexios, on his final day on the Mountain.

Attempt to Assassinate Greek Priest in Libya

Greek original here.

Members of the Greek Orthodox community of Tripoli [Libya] are intensely troubled and saddened  by the recent attack against the church and against our priest, Fr. Joachim Vasilakou, Vicar General of our Holy Metropolis.

On Wednesday, May 2, between 9:00 and 9:30 AM, when Fr. Joachim was entering the Church of St. George and was within the church's courtyard, a fanatic Muslim "brother"-- probably a foreigner and not a Libyan national-- fired a Kalashnikov at the priest from a building adjacent to the church.

The bullet struck ten centimeters in front of Fr. Joachim's feet, lodging itself in the floor.

He immediately informed the president of the Greek community and the Ambassador of Cyprus, who immediately rushed to the Greek Charge d'Affaires in Tripoli. At the same time, in cooperation with Libyan friends of the community, the head of security for the Old City was contacted. He rushed to the church and made an investigation, finding with his own eyes that the bullet was not accidentally fired, but was rather an assassination attempt. 

Both the Cypriot and Greek embassies made strong protests to the Libyan government and the Greek embassy has requested police protection for the Greek Orthodox Church, the only one in Libya and surrounding cities.

On Friday, the Divine Liturgy was held and all the Greek community prayed for peace in our region and throughout the world, asking our patron saint, Saint George, to protect the church and our community.

The Ambasador of Cyprus, Pericles Stoibaros, the Greek Charge d'Affaires, Ioannis Mitzalis, President of the Greek Community in Tripoli, Dimitrios Anastasiou, and other figures in our community were present.

Thus they expressed their sympathy and support for our Holy Metropolis, to Metropolitan Theophilaktos, and to Father Joachim.