Friday, October 30, 2009

The Antioch Centre

Although I've had a link to it on this blog for some time, it's probably worthwhile to draw more attention to the work of the Antioch Centre. Based in Oxford, the Antioch Centre is essentially the work of a single monk, Fr. Elia Khalifeh.

Fr. Elia is working to catelogue all extant manuscripts written or copied by Orthodox Christians of the Patriarchate of Antioch. This is an immense task, but one that is also immensely valuable. These largely unstudied documents provide information for the history of the Church in the Near East, both in their contents and in the colophons where copyists often recorded information about themselves and their times. Fr. Elia is often quick to point out how these colophons make manuscripts different from printed books because they are a personal document-- Orthodox copyists routinely ended works by signing their name and asking for the prayers of their readers and for readers' help in correcting slips of the pen. The beauty and humility in how Fr. Elia talks about working with these manuscripts show that he is a man of prayer as much as he is a scholar.

Another important aspect of his work is uncovering more information about how long the Syriac language remained in use Orthodox Christians in Syria and Lebanon-- in some regions, the lectionary readings were only translated from Syriac into Arabic in the 17th century! Orthodox Antioch's Syriac heritage has long been sadly neglected, but this is now starting to change...

The Antioch Centre produces a newsletter, the most recent issue of which can be found here. It includes information about some of Fr. Elia's most recent findings.

Also, a really beautiful interview with him can be found here.

The Antioch Centre's website contains much more information about the project, a few downloadable articles, and information about how you can help to financially support its work.

Please keep Fr. Elia in your prayers!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sayyidna Ephrem's Speech at his Consecration

The Arabic original can be found here. A French translation can be found here.

The Words of His Eminence Metropolitan Ephrem Kyriakos upon his Consecration in the Maryamiyya Church

Your beatitude Ignatius IV, patriarch of Antioch and all the East,
Your eminences the members of the Holy Synod,
The members of the diplomatic corps,
Reverend fathers,
Beloved brothers,

A word is required here, a word of thanks and a word of hope. A monk becomes a bishop. Why and how did this happen? A hidden secret that only the Spirit of God reveals. Words spoken by His Beatitude echo in my memory: “Every true Orthodox is a monk, no matter where he may be in the world.” Is this because of his belonging to God or because of his practical moral conduct? This topic merits profound meditation, but its basis is the inner foundation of man.

Beloved, our noble people loves singing and entertainment and speechmaking. Words do not always reach their real meaning, but remain entertaining poetry. But what is the difference between poetic words and words inspired by God? A profound inner sensation comes down from the Holy Spirit to the heart. This sensation works in one’s entire being, even to the extremities of the senses and opens one to others. It connects words to action. It comes from God and opens a heart of flesh to others.

Here I ask myself, “Why did you come here, brother? What is your calling? What does the Church ask from you, one so wretched and weak?” The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a sacrifice for many (Matthew 20:28). I came, then, to serve my Church first of all, and the whole world, that is, every person I find along my way. I serve and I will give of myself unto death so that there will be no distance between speaking and doing, so that the people will never again say, “there is a chasm between us and the leaders” and word spread that the Church is far from her people. I know very well that our people are good and that they want from us today to go to them, to seek them out wherever they are, to search out the lost and return them joyfully to the fold. They hunger and thirst for the Word of God.

Our Church is an evangelizing church. Let us restore this tradition. “Woe to me if I do not evangelize (1 Corinthians 9:16)” says the Apostle. The Gospel, according to those who know the state of the world today, is man’s return to God, leaving behind his lusts, his pleasures, his selfishness. Our Antiochian Church has a unique and exceptional mission that it must carry out and take to all the world, to every person.

Beloved, the ground upon which we tread is holy ground and its soil has been kneaded with the blood of martyrs and saints. “Let us redeem the time, for the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). Let us take advantage of the opportunity given to us before the moment slips away. Help me, O lovers of God, to not drown in the cares of this life, in its wealth and its pleasures, lest its thorns strangle me--- formalities, festivities, worldly banquets. I ask you to help me because without you I am nothing. One of the high priests said, “The Lord must die on behalf of the people, and not only the people, but in order to return to one all the dispersed people of God” (John 11:51-52).

Indeed, to die so that others may live, because service is servitude to God and to others, a servitude of love in which there is true freedom. I will not forget the prayers and trust of His Beatitude, which will watch over me, fortify me, and strengthen me throughout my life. I will not forget the prayers of all the metropolitans without exception. I will not forget the priests who will strive with me and those on whom I will especially rely. I will not forget the prayers of my brothers the monks and nuns and all the believers and especially the holy fathers at Balamand and on the Holy Mountain of Athos who begat me in Christ, my spiritual children and the nation and the Monastery of St. Michael and its monks and its beloved village of Nahr Biq’ata, who have caused me to relish the pleasure of true common life.

I will not forget my obligation: pasturing the new generation of youth, looking over them with nearness and love because “love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). This is so that they may never drown in the lusts and seductions and poisons of this world. Last but not least, I will not forget my brothers the poor, those little ones whom I must approach with God’s compassion so that I will not be judged for not loving them.

I thank you all for your trouble and your love. I thank God for all things, amen.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Shedding Some Light on the Judgement

The Arabic original can be found here.

Shedding Some Light on the Judgement

A wise man keeps his attention on the day his death before the days of his life. Before you make plans for tomorrow, remember the hour of your death! The day of death inevitably comes and can come at any moment, but another day of life might not come at all. Then, if you keep your attention on the day of your death, at all times and in all situations, you will no longer be concerned with your life on this earth, imagining that you will be there forever. Instead, you will take account of the fact that you will inevitably die today or tomorrow. This makes you, first of all, more realistic in your dealings with the matters of this world. Second, your consciousness of your reality gives you a profound sense that the things you deal with here, whatever they may be, are transitory. You are on a train taking you there and everything you see, here and there, are sights that pass each other by. Today you see them, and tomorrow they don't hesitate to pass behind you, as though they never were. Third, the things that you face in your day, at this moment, become well-ordered, because you accept them with greater ease, whether they're bitter or sweet, because your eye looks to the hereafter. Fourth and finally, if you become aware of the hour your death, that is, in practical terms, to the hour of judgment, then you will find yourself automatically pressed towards acting in an upright way, with mercy in your interactions with other people, because the hour is coming when you will find yourself having to respond to every detail of what has happened to you. For this reason, the remembrance of the of death and the hour of judgment is is an excellent and realistic way to order the affairs of life on this earth and an aid in freeing yourself from false imaginings and fantasies and a help for making your life, even in its simplest and most specific details, successful, peaceful, and joyous.

By no means think that if you keep your attention on the hour of your death that you will drown in sorrow and despair, that you will have no desire to continue any work here on this earth with all your heart. This is not true. The hour of death is only sorrowful and full of despair for those who do not believe in God and in Jesus Christ, glory to him. But for those who believe, the hour of death is the hour of meeting the One who has loved us, the hour of completion of man's preparation for eternal life. For this reason, this hour is the hour of joy par excellence. Indeed, in death we are not approaching nothingness, but rather fullness. It is not a loss, but a gain (Philippians 1:21). What awaits us is beyond imagining! "The eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).

So you should have no fear because you have sinned. All flesh and blood sins! We do not arrive at the hour of death without sin, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and no one is good except God (Matthew 19:17). What is important is that sin not become a natural thing in our life, that it not become us, that we not accept it as something desirable, that we not enjoy it without the slightest rejection on the level of the soul or the sense of prodding the heart against it. Did the Master not say, "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19)?. You will not be cast into hell and you will not be banished from the face of the Lord as long as sin does not become natural for you on the count of the depth of your heart's intimacy with it, as long as sin does not become a foreign body that has been assimilated within you, that is, an entity that has come to be united to you so that it has become you. The divine word warns you into the end and calls you to be violent with regard to your self: "If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire" (Matthew 18:8). No matter how much your sins have multiplied, have no fear. Your sins will not cast you into Hell, but rather your existential relationship to them. The Lord God is an ocean of mercy! All human sins are like a grain of sand before Him! They are like nothing before Him, since He wills that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). It is enough for you to weep! It is enough for you to repent from the depths! It is enough for you to feel pain in your heart! For you to say even just a word as a sigh: "Remember me O Lord, when You come into your kingdom!" "Make me as one of your hired servants!" And how will He reply? "Today you will be with me in paradise." "Bring out the best robe... bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this your brother was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found." The Lord does not ask for much. He asks for just a simple, painful, humble movement of the heart. How not, when "a heart this is broken and humbled God will not revile." The Lord God looks for the smallest reason to save man. God is all love! However smoky the candle may be, He does not extinguish it and however crushed the cane may be, He will not shatter it. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool" (Isaiah 1:18). Heaven is in mourning until the sinner repents, because "likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance" (Luke 15:7).

Does this mean that we can consciously sin without accountability and then repent at the last moment? Of course not! Some saints sinned and repented at the last moment, this is true. But they were sins of ignorance and weakness. Can one surrender himself to the enemy and then expect to escape as though he were on a walk? One who says that it will be easy to be saved, what does he mean? The goal of your enemy the Devil is to crush you forever with sin. Will you surrender yourself to that!? So, the danger of sin is that when one submits himself to it consciously, his heart hardens to dealing with it and becomes the object of a deadening of sensitivity to it. Then if a man thinks that he is able to sin today, knowing that in truth, and that he can repent tomorrow, then he has dreadfully fallen and he has added to his sins the greatest sin, because he has surrendered himself to sin willingly and out of obstinacy and out of self-love! That is unbelief itself!!! How can he repent when he has denied the Holy Spirit!? For he had knowledge of truth, but despite that he chose falsehood, and he acted as though the truth were false. He was capable of struggle, but despite that he chose to plunge himself into sin as though sin were more useful! This is precisely blasphemy against the Holy Spirit! The Jews knew that the Spirit active in the Lord Jesus is the Holy Spirit, but despite that they said of Him, out of jealousy and pride and obstinacy, that it was the chief of demons. They were able to be humble and submit to the truth, they knew, but they denigrated the Holy Spirit and made light of the truth and chose sin! This is what the Lord God said about it: " all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation" (Mark 3:28-29).

For this reason I strive to resist sin today, tomorrow, and to the end. As for the ignorant, it is our duty to teach them. "Make disciples of all nations." As for the weak, we help them through our prayers and the Lord will help them for the sake of His goodness, with us or without us!

And so we ask-- Are those who shall be saved few in number? We do not know, though we feel deep within ourselves that the One who is able to do all things and who desires that all be saved is able to save most, except those who, like Satan, do not want salvation because of stubbornness, who do not love the Truth, and who are not zealous for it. Whatever the case may be, judgement will begin at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). The Lord will judge us Christians first, because we have known Him, in a small way or a great way. After having known Him, we have ignored Him and made light of Him and we, who are called by his name, have become a cause for others to blaspheme! Had we preserved the faith and born witness in Spirit and in Truth, then we would have shared in the salvation of others. Most human suffering today is the result of Christians having departed from the truth of their Christ! For this reason, judgement will start with us, because from those to whom much has been given, even more will be asked. These words were not just for the Jews, rather they were especially for us Christians, if we do not repent, "tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you."

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite- Douma
October 25, 2009

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Melkite Icons

The following article is about Orthodox and Greek Catholic iconography in the Middle East is taken from the November/December 1971 Saudi Aramco World, of all places. Actually, though, being Saudis, they like to throw their money around, so if you send them a request, they'll subscribe you to their magazine for free. It's worth it just for their photography, though sometimes they'll also have a good article.

Arabs and Icons

by Karen Lewis

When most people think of icons they think of delicate Greek triptychs or the fabulous jeweled icons of Russia locked deep in the vaults of the Kremlin. Yet for almost three centuries, Arab artists, usually members of Christian religious orders, made icons in the Middle East. Icon is a Greek word meaning 'image' but on the basis of funeral portraits found in Fayyoum, Egypt, scholars have suggested that the iconic form itself may be Middle Eastern.

The Arab icons are called "Melkite" icons because they were painted by Arab artisans who belonged to the Greek Orthodox or Greek Catholic Church. Virgil Candea, a Rumanian scholar, first used the term when he was consultant for an exhibition of icons from Lebanese and Syrian collections produced by the Sursock Museum of Beirut in May 1969. His source was the derisive expression "Melkite" used by heretic Nestorian Christians to refer to communities which remained loyal to the Byzantine State Church after the early theological disputes over the nature of Christ. In the 18th century, after reuniting with the Roman Catholic Church, Greek Catholics used the term to distinguish themselves from their former Greek Orthodox brethren.
According to Sylvia Agemian, the discovery of the Melkite icons is very important scholastically. Mrs. Agemian, a researcher at the Sursock Museum and possibly the only specialist in Melkite icons in the Middle East, says: "For the first time it is being recognized that there were schools of iconographers in the Middle East which followed the Byzantine or Greek iconic tradition with the addition of Islamic elements."

Icons are an integral part of the religious life of Eastern Orthodox Christians. Like statuary and Gothic carvings they are seen as holy objects to be venerated, not merely appreciated as decoration. Yet just as decoration they are unique. Icons—original icons—are images painted onto a gold veneer applied to a smooth coat of plaster on a wooden board. Usually they were placed on a screen in front of the altar for the congregation to contemplate during the services.
Because the first icon was thought to be the image of Christ left on St. Veronica's veil which she had given him to wipe his face with when he was carrying the cross to Calvary, the early Church decided that portrayal of the divine could not be left to the imagination of the individual artist. Up to the 17th century, traditional Byzantine icon painters were forced to follow instructions in a church manual which decreed that holy persons must be as other-worldly as possible. To achieve this the artist imposed geometric molding on the body to make his subjects appear almost fleshless, and minimized any hint of the sensual by swathing them in heavy draperies. Since the saints were blessed with the Beatific Vision and therefore exuded an inner holy light, the artist painted fine white lines on the saint's cheekbones and hands to suggest the light.
As part of the formula to emphasize holiness, the artist also gave his saints heads that were disproportionately large, and formally molded beards and hair. Even colors were specified by the church guide. The Virgin's maphorion, a veil which covered the head and shoulders of all female saints, was always an ochre red to symbolize the tragic fate of her son.

If they appeared, mountains and buildings were highly stylized, bearing almost no relation to reality. But they didn't appear often. On orthodox icons divine persons were pictured against a background of gold with no terrestrial elements other than those associated with the particular saint: books for the Evangelists and Patriarchs, swords for martial saints such as St. George.

Melkite artists probably learned the form of the icon from icons brought to the Middle East by Byzantine Greek and Russian patriarchs and pilgrims, and from Greek artists who lived and worked in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. But the Melkite craftsmen also knew the Cretan works of the 14th and 17th centuries. On an icon of the Archangel Michael, which he did in 1726, the artist Hanna al-Kudsi, who worked in Syria and Lebanon during the first half of the 18th century, put an inscription saying it was based on an earlier Cretan icon. Melkite icons, however, differ from their Greek and Russian counterparts more in detail and treatment of subjects than in form. General traits like decoration, the faces and bodies of the subjects, the frequency of certain themes and, of course, Arabic inscriptions, distinguish the Melkite icon.

In the early days, Melkite artists naturally looked to the Byzantine Greek models for guidance. But as they matured they quickly began to express their own tastes and feelings. Although the Byzantine elements prevail in the majority of the early paintings, the presence of markedly Arab characteristics is apparent. All the faces painted by the Melkite artists—not just Middle East saints, but Christ and his angels too—have Arabized complexions. There is a more natural oval to the faces and a softer expression than in the Byzantine icon. The bodies are fuller and rounder with less of the modeling which is characteristic of traditional icon painting. In addition, there are Arab costumes, contemporary furniture and daily household objects—all in sharp contrast to the other-worldly and awe-inspiring Byzantine saints. In one early 18th-century Melkite work, for example, the baby Virgin Mary is rocked in a cradle still common to Syria and Lebanon today. In others, Abraham, preparing to sacrifice his son, wears a turban, John the Evangelist writes at an Arab writing desk and St. George brandishes an Arab sword.

The earliest Melkite works are characterized by sumptuous decoration which the Christian craftsmen borrowed directly from Islamic art. The intricate decorations found on brasswork, on Persian carpets, and on the brocades and wood panels of Damascus are all found on Melkite icons. The whole surface of the icon was covered with floral, vegetable and geometric designs; bent leaves, lotus flowers, pomegranates, lilies, tulips and palms are scattered on the borders, the halos and the clothing of the saints. This is not to say that all Melkite icons are ornately decorated; the 19th-century ones are often simple in the extreme.
ike European artists, the Melkite painters were influenced by their environment when they chose themes to illustrate. Local saints and legends that are typically oriental or have an oriental setting were popular: St. George, who, legend says, fought his battle with the dragon near Beirut, St. Saba, who headed a monastic order outside Jerusalem, St. Simeon Stylites who stood on his pillar in Syria for 60 years, St. Mary the Egyptian, the Virgin Mary in the Garden of Jesse and the Prophet Elie beheading the priests of Baal.

Even the dedicatory inscriptions on Melkite icons take on a distinctly Middle Eastern literary flavor. Whereas Greek and Russian inscriptions are succinct, those on Melkite works are long and flowery. For example, an icon of St. Spiridon given to a Rumanian church in 1749 by Sylvester, the Patriarch of Antioch, has not only the giver's name and the occasion but blessings and salutations covering about one-fourth of the icon.

Most of the early Melkite icons were made in Aleppo, where a family of Syrians and their students produced some of the finest examples of Melkite work. The priest, Yusuf al-Mussawwir; his son, Ne'meh; grandson, Hanania; and great grandson, Girgis, span two centuries, from the 17th to the 18th, with their works. The greatest of this family of iconographers was Ne'meh, who developed the Aleppo style. Though he did not completely break with the traditional Byzantine manner of icons, he preferred a stylized naturalism. Ne'meh's angels and women have more pronounced oval heads than in Byzantine painting, his young people have rounded faces and his men have large heads with bulging foreheads, prominent cheekbones and hollow cheeks. While their noses retain the slenderness of their Byzantine prototypes, his saints have the fine almond-shaped and heavily lashed eyes found among Arab people. Ne'meh, moreover, personalized his icons with alternating green and red borders covered with gold decoration.

The influence of the Aleppo School lasted until the late 18th century with an astonishing continuity and abundance. Shukrallah ibn Yuwakim, also from Aleppo, Kyrillos al-Dimashki and some anonymous painters belonging to the Basilian religious order adhered to Ne'meh's physiognomic types, general ornamentation and the characteristic green and red borders that mark the Aleppo School of painters.

Although anonymity remained the general rule among icon painters outside the Aleppo School, several independent Melkite craftsmen do emerge. Hanna al-Kudsi, who painted during the early 18th century, did mostly restorations and reproductions of earlier works, including some of Ne'meh's. His own works are closer to traditional icon painting. Mikhail al-Dimashki, who worked in Damascus about the same time as Hanna al-Kudsi did in Jerusalem, painted traditional icons of a popular nature with elements taken from western painters.

The works of Sylvester, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, though made in the Middle East, are strictly Byzantine in form. They attest to the controversy between the Eastern Church and the Church of Rome. Sylvester spent most of his life fighting Cyrillus V, the Patriarch of Aleppo and some of Cyrillus' bishops who, under the influence of Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries, left the Greek Orthodox Church and joined the Roman Catholic doctrine. Sylvester's paintings are formally Byzantine because he was countering the spread of doctrines like the Immaculate Conception, which is not a precept of the Eastern Church.:

By the 19th century, the demand for smaller, more popular icons, and the larger prosperity made personal ownership of icons a possibility. At the same time, however, individuals had less money to use on the ornamentation of an icon than did the church so instead of etching their subjects on gold, artists took to painting directly on the wood. With the increased demand for icons, especially from the newly established Greek Catholic churches, the artists had less time, so the elaborate ornamentation of earlier Melkite icons gave way to simpler decoration and by the second half of the 19th century decoration completely disappears. Instead of intricate designs which cover the surface and borders of the icons in works from the Aleppo School, there are simple clusters of flowers. Stylized bodies and faces totally disappear and the painters break completely with dogmatic artistic restraints.

In these later icons, Middle Eastern villagers and peasants are prominent, particularly in the works of Butros 'Agaimi, a Lebanese priest who worked during the beginning of the 19th century near Deir al-Kamar. His icon of St. Jean Climaque pictures the saint with a large fleshy face, a wide nose, big eyes, and rough workman's hands. He could just as easily be a Lebanese or Syrian laborer as the sixth-century priest who lived in Sinai and wrote a famous book of virtues. There is no gold at all used in this icon and the colors are earthy browns and grays.
A mid-19th-century Melkite painter who also favored the simple style is Ne'meh Naser from Homs, Syria. His works are characterized by their roughness. He worked directly on the wet plaster and the grooves are visible even through several layers of paint.

Although the influence of the Aleppo School dies out in the 19th century, in the middle of the century another school of painters appears in Jerusalem—the Kudsi. A group of three Melkite artists, Mikhail Mhanna, Yuhanna Saliba and Nicolas Theodorus, must have had a kind of assembly line workshop because they have so many icons of the same subject done in the same manner. Their works are characterized by large brush strokes and simplicity. Their saints have heads as round as oranges and faces that are touched with a sweet serenity.

The biggest influence on Melkite painters in the 19th century came from a Cretan painter, Michael Polychronis, or Michael the Cretan, who lived and worked in Damascus from 1809 to 1821. Almost every church of any significance in the Middle East has an icon done by Michael. Although his icons have Byzantine and Italianate elements, his works, which are done in oil, include decorative themes from the woodwork panels of Damascus in the draperies of his saints and so are classified as Melkite. The draperies of the robe are magnificently molded and his saints retain the fierce spirituallity of expression of the Byzantine world. Michael's significance is not confined to his achievements but to his influence on the average artist of his day. Outside the primitive painters like Butros 'Agaimy, every Melkite painter tried to imitate Michael's occidental style.

With the attraction of things western at the turn of the century, artists abandoned the local style. For decades the knowledge of Melkite icons was the privileged information of only a few Lebanese and Syrian collectors. With their rediscovery a valuable addition has been made to art and religion. Scholars are hoping, although the study of Melkite icons is still germinal, that they will provide new insights into the lives of the Arab Christians.

Karen Lewis is a graduate of Miami University of Ohio, a former Peace Corps teacher in Ethiopia and a former reporter for the New York Post. In Beirut she has contributed to the Washington Post and does news broadcasts for ABC radio.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sunday, October 18, 2009

+Georges Khodr on Corrupt Bishops

Here is the column Metropolitan Georges Khodr of Mt. Lebanon wrote in the newspaper an-Nahar for October 17, 2009. The original Arabic can be found (at least this week) here.

That the Bishop be Blameless

One who sees himself as nothing becomes something when spiritual men say it to him. No one approaches the divine glory by his own power. The divine glory pulls him in and if a person approaches it, he feels that he is nothing and he remains effaced in his own eyes until the Day of Reckoning. Indeed, each one of us needs to know his own talents because in this is a recognition of God’s gift. But one is lost if he thinks that his talents are his own possession. They only exist on account of God’s favor, which He takes back when He so wishes.

Thus in the Church of God we accept each responsibility as a gift. This is the meaning of service and service comes down to you from above. If you are entrusted with it, don’t allow yourself to feel that you deserve it. This is the meaning of God’s creating, that your Lord brings you into existence every day as a “new creation.” If you think that you have become vessel for God, do not forget that “we have this treasure in a vessel of clay.” Happy are you if you contain the treasure with which you have been entrusted and woe to you if you think yourself by your own virtue to be more than clay.

In light of this, I read the words of Paul: “If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work, so a bishop then must be blameless (1 Timothy 3:1-2).” At the moment I’m not going into the position of what today we call “bishop [usquf].” At the time of the writing of the epistle, the distinction between the bishop and the priest did not yet exist, or at least the arrangement of orders was not yet the same in all the churches. Nevertheless, in our reading today of the word “position of the bishop,” we must understand that it also means the position that we call in colloquial Arabic the mutran, which comes from the Greek metropolite, meaning the bishop of a major city.

Be that as it may, this does not mean that Paul was praising desire for the position of the bishop and was encouraging people to want it. It is a gift from God and desire is against divine giving. The meaning, as it appears, is that if you desire it, then know that you desire something immensely important. For this reason you must be without blame. Those with spiritual insight—and not you—will discover if you are without blame.

+ + +

As for one who has been witnessed committing a filthy act of the work of the devil, it is not permitted to pause at his name for a single moment. One who pauses for a moment has entered into his filthiness. One who is afflicted with filthiness leads in filthy things because a corrupt person is necessarily corrupting.

Among the examples of blamelessness, Paul mentions that a candidate for spiritual leadership must be “sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome.” One in whom these virtues do not abound is subject to blame. There is not space here to discuss every virtue in detail. He must be wakeful, watchful of himself, possessing self-control. This condition is so that he may wake others to adopt the path of the Lord. No one sleeps in the Church, so there must be wakefulness in prayer and attentiveness to it and love for all people and the unity of the Holy People of God in repentance and constant sacrifice for our brothers. But as for those who snore, the Church is no one’s bed.

I move now to the man’s being a good teacher, as Christianity is knowledge and teaching, since “In the beginning was the Word.” The church that is satisfied with rituals of which no one understands anything is worthless. One who was not given the gift of teaching and preaching is not worthy to be thought of for the position of priest or bishop. Such a one should be content to be a cantor or a silent monk or a servant in the temple, and these are blessed responsibilities, those of us who are appointed to them are content with them. Christianity is the explanation of the Holy Bible and the acts of worship and the tradition. Their study is at all levels and lasts a lifetime. If an ordinary believer is demanded to confess with his tongue, as the Apostle says, then it’s even more appropriate for a servant of the Word, as we call him during his ordination, to testify to this Word. For this reason, our Church of Antioch requires that one who advances to the episcopate must have perfected his theological knowledge and have kept company with scholars. A mute has no vocation in the Church, even if his holiness is loftier than all those who hold positions. When some faithful brought a man to John Chrysostom in order for him to make him a priest, he asked them what they knew about him. They said that he was pious. He replied that this is not enough, since all Christians must be pious. He must be knowledgeable.

+ + +

“Not violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome,” since the Lord said, “learn from Me, for I am humble and lowly in heart.” Why did the blessed Lord choose these two virtues to describe himself? Because they are the loftiest. Only if you are lowly will God raise you and will you by your lowliness raise others. Only if you have desired humility and lived it will you go to that sacrifice to which the Savior went.

I do not know the semantic difference between kindness and humility. In the epistle to the Galatians, the Apostle mentions kindness and humility together and makes them fruits of the Holy Spirit in us. If we relate this to previous words of his, we understand that the Spirit of God produces in us a spiritual way of life.

Since Paul said that the bishop should not be quarrelsome, in my meditating on this in a number of matters, I have discovered that the sharpest rebuke for a believer is one that is not accompanied by anger and that the best thing is to remind him, if he’s overcome with anger, because reminding is a return to God, both for yourself and for the one you’re reproaching.

When the Bible says that the bishop should be without blame, it means that such a person exists and that there are some matters that one can’t play around with. Those who are responsible must examine shine a close light on and study in detail the life of the one that they nominate and elect. They must set up barriers to advancement to lofty stations. Barriers mean that you do not make a blameworthy man a deacon, and if you made a mistake in ordaining him, he should not advance to the priesthood. If you make a mistake, he should not then advance to the episcopate. A worthless episcopacy subjects the church which that bishop tends to worthlessness. One who loves money causes those who engage in bribery to approach the leader, and likewise robbers, and so the temple becomes a den of thieves.

Because the canons of the Church recognize that it is possible for these sins to occur, they mention the judgment of priests and metropolitans and sometimes as a result of this, defrocking, that is, expulsion can occur. For me, the Church which does not judge cannot determine virtue. The Church is the place in which we are purified. Jesus wanted us to be purified through the apostles and the successors to the apostles. The corrupt are successors to their sins and not to the saints.

Reform in the Church starts with its leaders. The Church does not wait a long time for its priests and bishops to repent. She does not let the evil of those who have had a great fall to get out of control. Its end result is expulsion.

Saint Basil the Great once defrocked a priest because he committed adultery. After many years, this priest was at a funeral. He approached the casket and touched the dead man and the dead man rose. He went to Basil and said to him, “Do you need a greater sign than this of the holiness that I have acquired in order to send me back to my flock?” Basil replied, “Your holiness is between you and God, but I cannot return you to your flock because you scandalized them. It is not right for you to go to them again.”

Who will give us the like of Basil the Great so that we feel that the group we are a part of is truly the Church of Christ?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Fr. Touma (Bitar)'s Words to +Ephrem

The Arabic original can be found here. Part of the context of the letter is that +Elias Kurban, of blessed memory, was renowned for his efforts at building schools and charitable institutions, and there was some talk about the necessity for choosing a successor to him who would be a good manager of them.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Finally, after a long wait, following the repose of Metropolitan Elias Kurban of blessed memory, a new angel was chosen for the diocese of Tripoli, Koura, and their dependencies, on Wednesday, October 6th—the monk Archimandrite Ephrem (Michel) Kyriacos. Was this choice from above or was it the arrangement of people in this world? There is no doubt, and the conscience deeply testifies to this, that the Spirit spoke through the bishops and the Merciful One had favor in kindness on His flock in the diocese of the north and nothing is sweeter! Thus, in joy and thanksgiving we raise up our voice: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “You are great, O Lord, and wondrous in your works!” When the calls that have been lifted up here and there have gone idle, these cannot. The cries of the idle are forever just noise, but these alone are the whisperings of the Holy Spirit rending the veil and to stay in the depth of the Church and the hearts of the servants of God. “For the sake of the cries of the poor, for the sake of the shout of those in pain, I rise up, says the Lord.”

The most important thing that happened is that the Lord God gave us one whom we know. “That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.”

O our beloved brother and father Ephrem,

Today, they take you nailed upon the cross, that you may be bread which your Teacher will make into a sacrifice from His body, which he breaks to feed those who hunger for eternal life. You come broken, and tears are your companion, since it was written about you that we must bear in our bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus (Galatians 6:17). It is not easy for a man to go from monasticism to the episcopacy. Monasticism is, at its base, a cross and the emptying out of the self. Today, as you approach the episcopacy, you find yourself high upon the cross and in the depths of self-emptying. You have devoted yourself assiduously to the canonical monastic life for many long years, advancing deeply into the interior desert. The custom is for monks, when they have reached the spiritually strictest point, to choose their own private desert, out of a desire for the most perfect asceticism and the most complete solitude in which there is no consolation except from above. But you, today, and we know you and speak from knowledge, you are not one who chooses his own interior desert. Your Teacher has chosen it for you. As though in Him I speak to you: You have enjoyed traditional monasticism enough! You have stayed in Baskinta enough! Come, I will send you into the desert of the world! As a stranger you came to the Monastery of St. Michael, and now you have many loved ones and spiritual sons there. Lest you get to be at home there and become content, I want you to start anew, in new places, as even more of a stranger, so that I can increase grace upon grace in you, before you approach Me completely and remain in Me and unto Me.

You asked, my brother, that the Lord take this cup far away from you if he can. But your words were completed with “But let not my will be done but Thy will.” Like a lamb, today, being led to the slaughter. Are we not, in any case, the children of sacrifice? So it is not a problem for you! In accordance with your having been gone in the spiritual place which your Teacher chose for you, your angel is with you. The peace of Jesus is with you in your going out and your coming in, in your leaving and your arriving. Today the Lord deprives you of what you have accumulated in order to fill you with what he has accumulated for you.

They said, “You are a man of prayer and not an administrative man,” but they do not know that the administration of the church, in its profundity, is not a worldly science. Administration in the church is not administration in the institutions of this world. The two things that hold up the institutions of this world are organization and effectiveness. Some of this is useful in what pertains to the Church, because there is doubtlessly a human veneer over all this. But the basis, the basis is not in either of these two things and not with the two of them together. The basis is in these words of the Lord: “I send you out like sheep among wolves, so be as wise as serpents and as humble as lambs (Matthew 10:16).” Wisdom and humility! These two things are born of pure prayer! We are not involved with institutions and activities for their own sake! “The body is of no use. The spirit is that which gives life!” We bring the Word of God to the people in every organized endeavor. Our concern is to bring the people to the streams of salvation. “All things are for you, and you are for Christ, and Christ is for God.” We are not the guardians of earthly endeavors that those who preceded us undertook. We are the guardians of the poor that they be sated in Christ, after we have come to love Him and shared with Him in those things that we were given freely. We are the guardians of the wealthy, that they come to realize their poverty and need for Christ, after we provide them with love so that they may share with the poor in what they are given freely. For us, administration is for Christ to be with us and first among our concerns, for us to allow room for the Spirit of the Lord to direct us as He wills so that we may become one and move toward the One. Let us not make idols of our endowments and our institutions! They are for us, we are not for them. Our value and our honor is for us to treat all as our needed brother so that God may be glorified in us. In our poverty, not in our wealth do we enrich many. One who is wealthy and does not acknowledge his poverty before his Lord is content with worldly praise and neglects the poor on account of their poverty. The meaning of all this is that a man of prayer is an administrative expert in the Church of Christ because the Spirit teaches him and because he deals with people’s hearts first of all, not stone and money and communiqués. These all have their place, but the Spirit of the Lord within us is admistrator and administration together in every situation, He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

They said, “You are not a man who is comfortable facing politicians and especially prominent and important people. Trablus and Koura need someone who can face them.” By my life, it is not just for you to be judged in matters where you haven’t been tested yet. How are you not a man comfortable facing [such] when you have faced demons day and night, with the grace of God and your own resolve? You have faced the passions and burdens and temptations. If faced the tricks of the Enemy, how could it be harder for you to face the tricks of men? You are a teacher of the practice of facing [others] with kindness. It’s not a problem for you if they don’t understand you at first. What is important is for you to stand firm in what you were instructed from above and in the end they will understand you! In wisdom and humility you will triumph over anything the Enemy throws at you. One who knows how to face his own sin knows how to face the world!!!
For this reason, have no fear! He who helped you in the deserts that you have crossed up till now will help you in the desert that you now come to. All the while, you have remained a vessel for your Lord and have remained an instrument of prayer to him for the sake of the world. All the powers of sin, both demons and men, have been defeated before you. Rise up! Go, do not fear weakness, and do not hesitate! Don’t look back, lest you become a pillar of salt, far be it! The angels are with you and the demons, by the will of God, are under your feet! The Spirit of the Lord is stronger in you and we, your little brothers, are always there for you. God be with you!

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite- Douma
October 11, 2009

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Final Communiqué from the Recent Meeting of the Holy Synod

This is my own translation and has zero official weight, so don't parse the words too closely. The Arabic original is here. An unofficial French translation is here.

The 45th regular session of the Holy Synod of the Church of Antioch was held in Damascus between October 6th and 8th presided over by His Beatitude patriarch Ignatius IV and with the participation of their eminences the reverend fathers belonging to the Holy Synod of Antioch. Metropolitan Phillip Saliba (North America) was absent.

During this session, the metropolitan who was elected for the archdiocese of Tripoli and Koura, archimandrite Ephrem (Kyriakos), presented himself and was congratulated by the members of the Synod, who congratulated the archdiocese for his selection. Then, welcoming him in the name of the members of the Synod, His Beatitude addressed him and said:

“I know Sayyidna Ephrem in his service and his engagement. He is a brilliant man and a true monk. A monk can live as a monk wherever he wants, but he does not make a monastery of the diocese. The diocese requires a total giving away of the self. This bishop-elect is not a stranger to us. When we met today, I reminded him about when he stood up at the general meeting of the dioceses in 1993 when he spoke words the likes of which are rarely heard. I ask all of your prayers for the wellbeing of this elected brother and for the wellbeing of this archdiocese. His presence among us adds gifts and blessings upon the gifts and blessings in this Synod. I ask the Lord to grant a long life to Sayyidna Ephrem and the future will say and will confirm how the true consecrated ones are.”

The metropolitan-elect responded: “I thank you, Your Beatitude, and I thank Your Eminences the fathers because you have put this trust in my person. I hope to be able to bear this responsibility with the help of the Lord and your prayers. I say that I am weak like every human being, a vessel of clay, and I confess before you that I have loved the Lord and this Church and that I am ready to shed my blood for her.”

At the beginning of the session, their Eminences the fathers of the Synod addressed two letters to their Excellencies the presidents of the Republic of Syria and the Republic of Lebanon in which they affirmed to the two presidents the Church of Antioch’s support for the efforts made in the interest of the wellbeing of the two countries and they asked the Lord to make them strong so that they can continue to support the sons of the two countries.

This session was characterized by discussions between the fathers of the Synod about the pastoral aspect of service to the Church from every angle. They insisted upon priests in the parishes being the bearers of the teachings of the Church as well as the decrees of the Holy Synod to each home so that prayer be tied to service and so that our people may feel that they are loved and that they are borne in fervent and constant remembrance in the liturgical and sacramental prayer of their pastors. This also requires that the service of the pastors speak to current reality and current reality is in space and time, which change. Just like pastoral criteria, criteria of behavior, which cannot be removed from current reality, so that effective action be well-established in current reality, so too pastoring is the affirmation of the Incarnation of the Lord in His Church and in human history.

First of all, the Synod decided to elevate bishop Niphon (Saykali), the patriarchal vicar to the Church of Moscow, to the rank of archbishop.

Then, their eminences the fathers of the Synod studied the pastoral situation in the Sanjak (province) of Alexandretta [on Turkish territory] and learned about the pastoral efforts expended there. They decided to elaborate a plan of action with the necessary human and financial resources so that the people will feel that they are at the heart of the concerns of the Church of Antioch.

Then, the Holy Synod spent a long time on the topic of exchange between neighboring dioceses and on the importance of coordination with regard to questions of regional importance and that require a common approach. They decided to hold when necessary local meetings of the metropolitans of these dioceses in order to coordinate and to take advantage of different expertise. This is both in the dioceses of in the home countries and in the diaspora.
Given that communication is considered a priority in our current reality, communications, both in their pedagogical and their informative aspects, were an important area of discussion. The fathers learned about a project for an electronic newsletter for the patriarchate that will include spiritual topics and news from all of the dioceses of the patriarchate. They decided that it will be weekly and that it will have correspondents from the dioceses. They also decided to rely on experts to elaborate a comprehensive communications program that will use audio-visual media to serve missionary work.

Because where the bishop is, there is the Church and where the Church is, there is the bishop, and because the bishop as head of the priests and as pastor is an event in the life of the Church, and because the current reality of the Antiochian dioceses in the homeland and in the countries of the diaspora has evolved, the Holy Synod delegated to one of its members to prepare a study about the evolution of the episcopacy within the Orthodox Church from theological, canonical, and historical points of view so that the role of a bishop who is not a metropolitan and his position within the Church of today will be determined.

Because the people of our Church deserve that the service of their pastors within the parish be well-ordered and in order to give a proper form to the service, the Synod decided to put into place a pastoral guide for the priests that will be adopted by all the priests of the See of Antioch in their services. This is for an annotation of the Small Euchologion, especially the services of Baptism and Marriage.

The Holy Synod examined the question of the relations between the sister Orthodox churches and heard and report about the conclusions of the meetings of the Orthodox churches in Chambésy, Switzerland in preparation for the Great and Holy pan-Orthodox Council. They also heard a report about Catholic-Orthodox dialogue and affirmed, while raising up prayer, the desire of the Orthodox Church that communion of love and unity between churches be realized in Jesus Christ.

The Synod did not finish its work without reserving a large amount of time for the Saint John of Damascus Institute at Balamand, to study its conditions. They affirm that while this institute has an academic nature, because it is the place where Antiochian pastors are raise and their clerical, churchly sense is developed and they are prepared mystery of the washing of feet, it is a place of permanent prayer where knowledge rises up to the Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding. On this basis, the synodal commission presided by His Beatitude keeps watch that this goal is always brought to the attention of theology students.

In conclusion, the fathers of the Synod affirm to their children that, by the power of the Lord, they keep watch over the flock as faithful shepherds and they ask them to be strengthened and to stand firm and to not allow despair or sorrow or the cares of life and difficulties to dwell in their hearts because the Lord does not abandon the ship that is battered by waves in the middle of the storm without His peace. He is at the center of the Church, preserving His children from the Evil One though His All-Holy Spirit, until the end of days.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Antiochian Ecclesiology

The following is my translation of an article by metropolitan Georges Khodr of Mount Lebanon that was printed in the Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar on Saturday, October 3. Although its immediate context was anticipation of the election of a new bishop for Tripoli, it is worth reading in order to undertstand how the role of the bishop is understood among many in the Antiochian Church. The Arabic original may be found here.

The Conciliar System in the Eastern Church

The system of administration in the Orthodox Church is the embodiment of a theological teaching. For us, the people as a whole preserve the teaching of the Church. That is, the vision of the entire life of the Church is the vision of the whole of the faithful, the bishops among them. In keeping with the importance of the place in which the bishop sits, he listens to what the Spirit says to the whole of his flock. This does not mean that he relies upon the mass of his flock, but rather upon the pious and the actively practicing among his flock. They are the ones who are truly the Body of Christ insofar as they constitute Christ on earth.

However, the bishop is not only connected to the whole of the flock with which he is entrusted. He his connected as a member to the other metropolitans who govern the church that we call ‘local’ or ‘regional’ just as he is united to the right-believing bishops of all the world. However, current, day-to-day events determine the actions of the local church, like the Church of Antioch.
This Church is governed by the Holy Synod, comprising all the bishops of regions and is presided over by the patriarch who is the first among equals. The single mystery of priesthood makes them a single gathering, and it is hoped that they are of one mind, which is assumed to be the mind of Christ. This is the togetherness that they constitute, and which we hope the Holy Spirit breathes out and extends, so that it will serve with one spirituality all the faithful by way of the spiritual units that we call dioceses. Because of the unity of its members, a single synod, like the Holy Synod of Antioch, oversees all the regions because we assume that the bishops are joined to the mind of Christ and that they do not speak according to whim, and that they are striving for Christ, with the Gospel as their point of departure. For this reason they place the Gospel book in the hall where they gather in order to remind them that they are speaking His words and that they have no say apart from Him when they make a decision or put together a plan of action or clarify the faith or elect a new bishop or judge a bishop to have transgressed the canons of the Church.

For us, the patriarch is the guarantor of unity because he has achieved dispassion. By virtue of this purification they regard him as the first among them and they remain eager to honor his place, just as he is eager to build up their place. For this reason they do not gather without him and if God calls him to Himself, they do not gather except to choose his successor. There is no synod in the absence of the patriarch and no patriarch without a synod. In the event of schism, those who depart from the synod do not constitute a synod, no matter what their numbers may be- a minority, in a time of schism, which is presided over by the patriarch, is the synod.
Naturally, this system has no analogue in any worldly institution, be it a parliament or anything else. Thus, it is not true to say that Orthodoxy is a democracy. It is the concord or the harmony of the Holy Spirit. Just as you obey your bishop because God raised him up through the laying on of hands (that is, his consecration), so too you obey the Holy Synod not because it is an authority set up over you in a legalistic manner, but rather because hands were laid upon the head of each bishop on the day of his consecration. “The bishop is an icon of Christ,” as St. Ignatius of Antioch said. In obeying him, you obey Christ.

+ + +

However, bishops are humans and errors can creep up on them. If an error comes that damages the teaching of the Church, it is your responsibility to not obey, and here the synod makes a complaint to the other Orthodox synods. If your local bishop sins against the teaching of the Church and teaches an innovation then you must cut off his prayers and take up the matter with his colleagues, especially the patriarch. However, this occurs extremely rarely and in the past hundred years we haven’t seen such a matter, because the definition of the teaching of the Church is particular to ecumenical councils, not to the local synod.

The synod may not be wise in a pastoral or administrative matter. This is discussed in a session related to a complaint or to a justifiable objection and matters are settled locally.

Here pious priest, well-versed in the tradition of the church and wise and faithful laymen play a large role. The customary spirit of fatherhood sets matters right, especially because the teaching of the Church is that the clergy and the faithful are one body who deal with each other as its members in the Word of salvation which is defended with good intention and an upright heart.
There is no value in the Church for numbers. You do not obey the Synod for this reason. You accept it because it is an expression of the Church that is engaged in purification, that is, the entirety of those who pray. In the first centuries, the Church rejected synods made up of more than four hundred bishops and called them robber’s synods, though they only decided what they considered to be inspired by the Spirit of God. The synod is not its own master on account of its merely gathering but because we are sure that it is tied to the Lord. When God governs the synod by grace, it is a godly synod and you are only bound by that which is godly. Bishops are those to whom the divine mysteries are entrusted, as Paul says. If they act against that trust then they become nothing, since there is no ruler in the Church save God. In the Church of the seven ecumenical councils, a later council confirmed the truth of the council previous to it and in this way we draw close to certain truth. Certain truth is confirmed by the acceptance of the whole faithful when the bishops bring it forth when they gather. The great councils were not known just for their wisdom and for great theology, and for this reason we commemorate the holy fathers who gathered in Nicaea or in Constantinople. The holiness of those gathered constitutes the truth of their belief because there is no separation between belief and purity of life.

+ + +

Those upon whose purity we rely are called to an election when one of the dioceses is vacant on account of a death. In some churches, like in Russia for example, the clergy and the laity participate in the election directly. In other churches, there are nominating committees composed of priests and laymen who undertake nominations, that is, they present to the Holy Synod a list of names, one of which the synod will choose. In our country, the nominating committee is the diocesan assembly. If it does not meet, then the synod itself begins by putting forth nominations then performs the election in accordance with the nominations. Naturally, there are conditions that a nominee must fulfull, the most important of them are his spiritual life and his morals, then his attainment of an degree in theology, then the age requirement and his progress in service.

However, if all of these conditions are fulfilled, they are an approximation of an ideal and not a guarantee. You may choose, for example, a person who appears to you to be chaste and humble and the experience of power may corrupt him and make him oppressive to you. If you look at his academic theological achievement you may think that he is knowledgeable, but it becomes clear to you afterword that he is weak in his application of theological acumen. The good qualities that abound in a priest may not be enough to determine his suitability for the episcopate. New virtues may appear in him on account of his new vocation, so it is inevitable that members of the synod will differ in their choice. One may focus on the theological acumen of a candidate and another on his pastoral gifts, if such is known. Another may emphasize his administrative skill. But what is administrative skill?

We must not be surprised when our leaders differ in their criteria. One may be attracted by the intelligence and knowledge of a candidate. Another may be interested in his experience. Because the matter depends on the assessments of individuals, the unanimity that is in principle sought may be difficult. However, what will set you free form uncertainty is to seek in the one that you call to the episcopate a deep and firm love of the Lord. Learning should be added to this because what is sought in a man is precise knowledge of the matters of faith in order for him to preach and teach. As for what we call management of the Church’s property and income and wealth, the early Church saw fit for the elected bishop to name an administrator to oversee these matters, since a person who is steeped in theological knowledge does not necessarily have experience with things of this world. As for one who does especially have experience with them and does not have knowledge of God and his Word, he is unable to improvise the Word at all. Thus, good intentions and insightful opinions can center on the choice of a man who is full of the wisdom of God and he will additionally be given other kinds of wisdom in which the people and the times are well informed as long as he relies upon the wise and the pious among his flock.
The great problem is that the Gospel of Christ was given to people surrounded by the weakness because of their human nature and those of great spiritual stature are very few. The Church in this world has not reached the kingdom and we know, as Paul said, “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” In order to keep safe what is entrusted to you until the coming of the Lord, you must keep long vigil and bear hardships with the consolation that comes down to you from above.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

More on the Election of Sayyidna Ephrem

The following reaction to the election of Fr. Ephrem as metropolitan of Tripoli was written in French by Carole Saba, a member of the Antiochian parish of St. Stephen in Paris and the director of communications for the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops of France. The French original may be found here. Since there is so little available on internal Antiochian politics in English, and the obvious bearing some of the questions raised here have on the life of the Antiochian Church in the Anglophone world, I've decided to translate it. The opinions expressed, of course, are solely that of M. Saba. But, it was posted on the official website of the Archdiocese of Tripoli....

AXIOS! A big sigh of relief! There will be no battle of Tripoli! A consensus emerged in favor of a man of God, “a chosen-one of God”, Fr. Archimandrite Ephrem, a man of prayer, a worthy representative of the Athonite monasticism which we love, a monasticism that is demanding of the spirit, not of the letter, a monasticism acting in humility, transparency, and love after the image of the tradition of the spiritual fathers of Mount Athos.

On the first day of its regular fall session, the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch (which began its work today presided over by His Beatitude patriarch Ignatius IV)has just finished electing a new metropolitan for the metropolitan see of Tripoli (North Lebanon), an “angel” of the diocese, that is, its protector as our local tradition calls it. The new metropolitan-elect, archimandrite Ephrem Kyriakos, was until then abbot of the monastery of the Archangel Michael in Baskinta (Lebanon).

The fall synod has caused much ink to flow during the summer before the election! The election of the new bishop for the metropolitan see of Tripoli was there for a reason. This diocese had been vacant since the calling back to the Lord of His Eminence metropolitan Elias (Kurban) on July 30 at the age of 84, after having served the diocese of Tripoli for 47 years.

The capital of North Lebanon, Tripoli (from the Greek Tripolis, the city divided in three), with its seafront and its ancestral port, is the second largest city in Lebanon. The presence of Greek Orthodox goes back several centuries in this coastal region of Lebanon, bathed in the oriental sun. The “Rum” were deeply rooted in the heart of the city and also in the neighboring regions, that of the Orthodox stronghold of Koura. The diocese of Tripoli’s 91 churches and places of worship is an illustration of the hours of glory of that sociological rootedness. For a long time orthodox families populated the city of Tripoli itself and especially its mythical, half-Orthodox port neighborhood known as “al-Mina”.

A pastor admired by the faithful, considered one of the best cantors of the Church of Antioch, +Elias (Kurban) had been elected to the see in 1962 after having served in an Antiochian parish in Boston following his graduation from St. Vladimir’s Seminary. The long years of his episcopacy, spent in the service of the people of Tripoli, allowed him to develop his pastoral work and also to cause to flourish a number of socio-educational and charitable foundations, clinics, homes for youth and for the aged, as well as orphanages. The diocese currently has 42 parishes served by 51 priests and two deacons, as well as nine monasteries.

The new bishop-elect, Abuna Ephrem, is a man of God, a “chosen one of Christ”, one of the greatest contemporary spiritual figures of the Patriarchate of Antioch. Born in Reshaya, a village along the border between South Lebanon and the Bekaa in Lebanon, he was first off a man of science, an engineer who completed his studies in the late sixties at the Jesuit l'Université Saint Joseph. He even continued his studies by doing specialist work in Paris. After gaining professional experience, he chose the path of theological study on the hills of Balamand at the Saint John of Damascus Institute of Orthodox Theology, study that was completed at the Academy of Theology of Thessoloniki in Greece.

It was in Greece that he discerned his monastic vocation. A monk he wanted to be and a monk he became. He spent several years on the Holy Mountain under the direction of his spiritual father, the Elder Parthenios, abbot of the Monastery of Saint Paul on Athos, who tonsured him a monk and gave him the name Ephrem in honor of that saint of the orient, Saint Ephrem the Syrian. He returned to Lebanon by the express demand of His Beatitude the patriarch Elias IV (predecessor of the current patriarch), who asked him to take charge, during the period of the beginning of the Lebanese war, of the Saint John of Damascus Institute of Theology. He did this and was dean from 1979 to 1981, at which time he decided to found a monastic community in the village of Baskinta, on Mount Lebanon, a village perched at an altitude of 1200 meters, opposite Lebanon’s mythical mountain chain, Sannine. The monastery, which is in the jurisdiction of the diocese of Mount Lebanon, is under the omphorion of His Eminence metropolitan George Khodr. It is under the protection of the archangel Michael and its church is dedicated to Saint Ephrem the Syrian. Multi-lingual, knowing Arabic, French, Greek, and English, the new metropolitan is a man of great spirituality but also a man of science, in the model of that other great elder named Paisios.

For many years, over the past century the elections of metropolitan bishops in the Orthodox Church of Antioch have been, according to the situation, the object of deal-making and multiple struggles between the members of a current called “conservative” and those of the current called “reformist”. The former is made up of clerics formed in the traditional school while the latter is essentially nourished and inspired by the ideas and the members of the Orthodox Youth Movement (MJO).

Founded in the forties, notably by members who knew the theology of the Paris School and of the Saint Sergius Institute, the MJO fostered a necessary reform within the Orthodox Church of Antioch and sought to apply the precepts of an ecclesiology of communion, favorable towards more synergy between the different parts of the people of God.

The movement especially supported a greater role for the laity and better cooperation, “association” or “synergy” between the representatives of the “priesthood of service”- bishops, priests and deacons on one side- and on the other those of the “royal priesthood”, laity engaged in the life of the Church, conscious of the demands of their baptism and of their ecclesial responsibility in the building up of the Church, of its life and of its expression.

In retrospect, some argue that the breakout of the Lebanese war (1975-1990) prevented the proper application of the reforms, the introduction of which into the statutes of the patriarchate was facilitated by the arrival at the head of dioceses of bishops called “reformists”, notably coming from the ranks of the MJO. Others today think that the official end of the Lebanese war (in 1990) and the return of a sort of stability to the country should have, despite occasional backlashes, allowed the re-application of the reforms and the formation, within the dioceses, of diocesan forums that allow for more communion and synergy between the essential parts of the people of God in the “production” of ecclesial and pastoral life. In reality, however, in most cases ecclesial situations have not sufficiently evolved and this has caused during the past several years some regrettable incidents in the governance of the dioceses.

The discontent and the opinions that have been recently expressed during the run-up to the election of the metropolitan of Tripoli are a serious illustration of this.

For the first time in a while, questions of this nature (particularly, that of the degree of participation by the faithful, clergy and laypeople, of the diocese in the process of selecting the candidates for the metropolitan’s seat, to be elected by the Holy Synod), have gone beyond church circles and find, in one way or another, expression in a certain national press.

A journalist for the Lebanese Daily Al-Akhbar dedicated two articles, one on August 25 and the second on October 1, to the questions which, according to him, agitate the Orthodox around the election of the metropolitan of Tripoli. These articles have not found unanimity and were judged by some as being polemic al and by others as being half-right and sometimes erroneous and not taking into account the way in which the Orthodox deal with their internal ecclesial affairs.

In a totally different register, metropolitan Georges (Khodr), metropolitan of Mount Lebanon, a major point of reference for all of us and for the entirety of the patriarchate and even beyond, dedicated a very interesting editorial entitled “The Conciliar System in the Eastern Church” to these questions. In this editorial, published Saturday October 3 in the Lebanese national daily An-Nahar, +Georges explained Orthodox ecclesial tradition and the ecclesial and theological foundations o f Orthodox “conciliarity”, of which the Holy Synod is, in the Church, the ultimate expression.

Another toll of the bell, also versed in Orthodox tradition, came from archimandrite Touma (Bitar), abbot of the Orthodox monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite, located in the region of Douma, North Lebanon, considered a spiritual point of reference who expresses himself radically and audaciously. In a weekly article entitled “The Coming Holy Synod!”, published on Sunday October 4 2009 on the website of the Holy Trinity Family, archimandrite Touma indirectly challenged the members of the Holy Synod, indicating that “the image of the holy synods, generally, is not clear in our minds”. He attempted to explain the importance of what is at stake- “the choice of bishops is not like that of members of parliament or a municipal council”- and to put in relief the work of “synergy” between the bishops, the people of God, and the Holy Spirit for the choice of a bishop who is chosen as being “the chosen-one of the Lord [lit. “the messiah of the Lord”].” “We hope,” he writes, “for a choice by the bishops and the people of the of the one who is chosen by God as His messiah, His witness, and His servant after His own heart.”

The current debate indirectly poses the essential question of the governance of the dioceses and the way of organizing the spheres of communion within them in a manner which conforms to tradition while at the same time takes into consideration the current needs of witness.

Two models are indirectly clashing. On the one side, that of “direct governance” which advocates in a certain manner a “president” bishop who administers, governs, and finds himself in the first place in all diocesan forums, including the parishes. On the other, the model of “indirect” governance that makes the bishop less of an administrator but the true and unique ultimate “reference”, who inspires, gives impetus, blesses, and oversees initiatives and without whose advice and consent “nothing important” (according to the terms of article 14 of the Canons of the Holy Apostles) can be done within the diocese.

The first model could, in reality, favor the emergence of a “monarchic” structure, pyramid-shaped, putting the bishop at the head of a pyramidal structure while the second would more likely, being of a “conciliar” structure, guarantee better collaboration, conciliarity, and synergy between the different parts of the diocese, under the impetus, inspiration, spiritual direction, and blessing of the bishop who is and remains according to our Orthodox ecclesiology, as in the Divine Liturgy, at the “center” of the Church, around which, according to Affanasief, everything is organized.

It remains that the world today, both in the East and in the West, is an increasingly complicated world. The Church should, in order to confront the many challenges of this age, reinforce the circles of communion, necessitating close cooperation between the different parts of the people of God within the same diocese. Each diocese should have concern for communion with the others in order to extend the circles of “communion”, and to be the Church, the Body of Christ.

Thus, the setting up of diocesan lay-clergy forums which allow, under the direction, impetus, and blessing of the diocesan bishop and his parish priests, better synergy between all the members of the diocese with an eye toward “co-producing” the life of the church and of the parish, remains the basic question which the Holy Synod would be called to bring about through the election of a new metropolitan for the diocese of Tripoli, a response for the glory of resurrected Christ God and His Church.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

More on (soon-to-be) Sayyidna Ephrem

The following is my (hasty) translation of an article about Fr. Ephrem Kyriakos, Metropolitan-Elect of Tripoli and Koura that was posted on the site of the Orthodox Youth Movement. The Arabic original can be found here.

Congratulations, sons of Tripoli, Koura, and their dependencies, on your new pastor! Indeed, congratulations to us all! Congratulations to the Church of Antioch in its entirety for the intercessions of its holy pastor, Archimandrite Ephrem Kyriakos!

The Holy Synod of Antioch gathered yesterday morning, Wednesday 6.10.2009 under the guidance of His Beatitude Ignatius IV and with the attendance of their eminences +Georges Khodr (Mt. Lebanon), +Constantine Papastephanou (Baghdad and Kuwait), +Elias Awdeh (Beirut), +Yuhanna Mansour (Lattakieh), +Elias Kfoury (Tyre and Sidon), +Antonius al-Shadrawi (Mexico, Venezuela, and Central America), +Damaskinos Mansour (Brazil), +Sergius Abad (Chile), +Saba Esber (Hawran and Jebel al-Arab), +Georges Abu Zakham (Homs), +Bulus Yazigi (Aleppo), +Bulus Saliba (Australia and New Zealand), +Silouan Mousa (Argentina), Yuhanna Yazigi (Western and Central Europe), and +Basilios Mansour (Akkar). After discussing the candidates for the Archdiocese of Tripoli, Koura, and their dependencies, everyone moved to the church, where prayers were lifted up. The election was completed and Archimandrite Ephrem Kyriakos, abbot of the Monastery of St. Michael—Biq’ata. The sound of church-bells rang out in Tripoli, al-Mina, Koura, al-Minya, al-Danniyeh, and Zgharta rejoicing and giving praise for the blessed news.

The new metropolitan succeeds Metropolitan Elias Kurban who reposed this July after serving 47 years in the Archdiocese of Tripoli and who had been able to establish excellent church-state relations through the medical and educational establishments that he set up for the for the people regardless of their affiliation. The services for the consecration of the new metropolitan will take place in the Maryamiyya Cathedral in Damascus at a time yet to be announced.

The Monastery of St. Michael, which Archimandrite Kyriakos heads, is located on a hill overlooking the village of Biq’ata in the Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon. It is around forty kilometers to the east of Beirut. Its history goes back to the year 1856 and five monks lived there in the beginning of the twentieth century. After that, it became an elementary school until the sixties. On the 5 of March, 1984 the monastic life returned to this monastery when monks settled there. New chambers were added to the original monastery and the church was enlarged, the earth was sowed, and a hermitage was built in the forest near the monastery to be a place of calm for the monks. Many spiritual children now seek the monastery out.

Metropolitan Ephrem Kyriakos, pastor of the Archdiocese of Tripoli, Koura and their dependencies, was born in Beirut on April 15 1943. He is the son of Jamil Kyriakos and Elise Mansa. He lived with his family in Achrafiyyeh [East Beirut] until he entered the Theological Institute.

-He studied at International College in Beirut, then at the faculty of engineering at l’Université Saint Joseph, then he specialized in Paris in electronics and communications and worked in this field, taking part in the building of a subway station.

-He taught at the Jesuit University [i.e. St. Joseph’s], the technical institute in Dekwaneh, and the National Orthodox High School (Mar Elias)- al-Mina in Tripoli.

-He was the head of the Beirut center for the Orthodox Youth Movement.

-He speaks Arabic, French, English, and Greek fluently.

-He entered the St. John of Damascus Institute of Theology at Balamand University in 1972 and graduated with a degree in theology.

-He was in charge of the St. John of Damascus Institute of Theology in 1977-1978.

-He was ordained a deacon on August 15, 1974 a priest on October 15, 1978, and an archimandrite on November 8, 1991 by +Georges Khodre.

-He became a monk in the Monastery of Saint Paul on Mount Athos in Greece on October 16, 1983.

-He established the monastic community at the Monastery of Saint Michael in 1984.

-Among his writings: “Words from the Fathers”, “St. Ephrem the Syrian”, “The Gospel of Mark”, books about Sts. Gregory Palamas, John Climacus, Mary of Egypt, Jacob Brother of the Lord, Katrina, Barbara, and others, in addition to his writings in the yearly publication of the Monastery of St. Michael.

-Some samples from his teachings:

+ An Orthodox person is austere in his life, a monk in his household furnishings, in his labor, in his clothing, chaste in his senses and his thoughts. This is because he desires the Lord, loves his neighbor, has an open heart and an open mind to those of all religions and all ideologies though he holds strongly to his own belief. He denies himself. Here someone might hasten to ask, “Are these virtues not found in every Christian, even with every good person?” We answer: in Orthodoxy this spirit predominates. It is the inclination above all other inclination. The love of God dominates over the love of the world. The Orthodox person does not allow a worldly institution or even the law or the system to get a hold over him, to rule over him, to have exclusive power over him. A powerful inclination streams grace into his heart, ignites a fire in his heart.

+ In order for us to live according to divine wisdom, or the wisdom of the Gospel, we must defy the world. Let each one of us say: I will not live for myself alone, but for others and for God. This is the wondrous Christian philosophy—the philosophy of the Cross, if you will, or the philosophy of contradictions. All this society made up of families and states has the devil behind them, making them hide within their own shells, all while God created people to be in cooperation. As St. Basil says, “Man is a cooperative being”, meaning that he lives with others, for others, and for the sake of others.

مستحق! مستحق! مستحق!

Yesterday the Holy Synod of Antioch elected Fr. Ephrem Kyriakos, abbot of the Monastery of St. Michael at Biq'ata to be Metropolitan of Tripoli and al-Koura!

Fr. Ephrem is well-known both in Lebanon and abroad (he was in Canada just this past summer...) as a spiritual father. He is also highly educated and has translated a number of works from Greek to Arabic. He is a graduate of the theology faculty of Balamand University as well as the University of Thessoloniki. He was tonsured into monasticism on the Holy Mountain by the Elder Parthenios, abbot of the Monastery of St. Paul.

I'm not one to editorialize, but this is wonderful news!


NOCTOC on Fr. Ephrem and the monastery at Baskinta
A biography on the website of the American Antiochian Archdiocese