Sunday, December 30, 2018

Met Silouan (Muci): Christmas in Our Parish

Arabic original here.

Christmas in Our Parish

How lovely it is to ask parishioners how they understand the Nativity of the Savior and bear witness to it in their life. It is an opportunity to see how Christ is truly born in them. This is what happened for me on my visit to one of our parishes, through what was revealed to me over many discussions with groups of different ages.

When I asked parishioners how they explain Christmas to those who don't know the feast, one of them answered, "In order to know what Christmas is, you have to always come to church!" Some spoke about the pardon, forgiveness, and love that God pours out upon every human being. Some talked about peace and by extension the topic expanded to how to acquire peace and live it, especially when we're experiencing a situation with more and more injustice, evil, corruption, the absence of justice and the the destruction of the dignity of the neighbor. All of this is appropriate for approaching a serious spiritual life based on coming back to oneself and building up the temple in which the Holy Spirit lives, even if this is the current state of affairs that we see.

With children, you start off with them towards knowledge of Christ through the Gospel, icons and chants that you teach them and especially through the togetherness that brings them together as brothers in the Church and in the group that they belong to. I see them as shepherds or magi, bringing you the joy of the Savior's birth with unambiguous cheer. So you accompany their gradual progress in faith, life and knowledge, like the growth of buds on a fruit tree, whose flowers you hope will blossom before your eyes, so that you may see the substance of the fruit that they will harvest from effort in education, guidance, prayer and constant accompaniment in the family, the Church, and daily life in general.

As for teenagers and youth, talking about Christmas comes to you from a cave different than the cave of Bethlehem, from the fleshly cave that grows within them-- that is, the temple particular to each one of them-- through their personal effort to approach questions of life in light of the faith the hold. Incidents from their daily life, like encountering death, cancer, old age, or people with special needs make them return to themselves in searching, in thanksgiving and prayer, beget in them the child in the cave to their surprise and what they are learning comes, incarnate in their personal reality and their responsible commitment to themselves and to their peers, while those who have reached greater maturity in their self-knowledge will talk to you about their struggle with mastering their tongue, so that perhaps they'll defeat their flaw. Between the faces of the youths and adults gathered together, you see a beautiful family, standing shoulder to shoulder in service. They have served each other with testimonies of what they have seen or experienced and they have been brought into harmony by the bonds of belonging to the One born in the cave, the One constantly born in their hearts, so long as they strive in faith and sincerity.

When you turn to talk about mothers, you discover the cream of education that they have poured into the souls of their children. What does each one of them tell her children? There are many things they tell them, but the most prominent of them were: for love to prevail among brothers; to preserve harmony in their families no matter what the cost; to be forgiving in all circumstances; to walk in truth; to cooperate with each other; to not miss church; to pray constantly; to keep their conscience alive; for their behavior to be in accordance with God's word. One of them cited the words of the Prophet David, "Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me" (Psalm 50:11 LXX) and then went on to say, "I don't stop pondering this verse, hoping that the Lord will spare me such a fate, after every work or activity." These mothers have offered their gold, frankincense and myrrh to their children and they are hopeful that they will experience the joy of the magi as they bowed down to the Savior when they see in their children the fruits of a childhood based on the lived Christian faith.

These are some of the messages I received at Christmas. Perhaps there are many like them. I was happy about these and I share them out of my certainty that they will help us to bear our daily cross as we walk in the footsteps of the One who was born in a cave and who has not abandoned any of us, because He loves us.

Metropolitan of Jbeil, Batroun and their Dependencies (Mount Lebanon)

Friday, December 28, 2018

Jad Ganem: A Lesson from History

Arabic original here.

A Lesson from History

In a lecture about the history of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the 20th century, Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Ephesus, of thrice-blessed memory, dean of the metropolitans of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, went into detail about the pressure exerted on the Holy Synod of Constantinople by civil authorities to force the bishops to elect the Metropolitan of America, Athenagoras, as Ecumenical Patriarch. He described how politicians supporting the patriarch turned on him during his tenure and how in 1970 the Turkish authorities issued a nine-point memorandum organizing the election of the next patriarch. This memorandum stipulated the establishment of three-person committee to oversee the nomination and election process and included a detailed for organizing the manner in which the list of candidates was prepared. It granted the government the right to conduct the proceedings to  investigate the candidates and remove those that it deems inappropriate and gave it the competency to appoint the patriarch if the synod does not keep to the specified time limit for electing the patriarch. This mechanism also supposes that a representative of the government will take part in the formal election process in order to ratify the soundness of the election and to confirm that it fulfills the legal conditions.

The metropolitan mentions that the Holy Synod of Constantinople strongly objected to the final paragraph, stressing that the election is a purely ecclesiastical process that takes place in the Church according to rules derived from ecclesiastical tradition which include the invocation of the Holy Spirit. The authorities' response, however, was choking,  as it expressed their being unconvinced by this argument, explaining that "elections in the Church of Greece and in the Church of Crete dependent on Constantinople take place in the presence of a civil servant delegated by the state, enjoying the same competencies as those that the elected delegate of the Turkish government will enjoy." Metropolitan Chrysostomos stated that he brought attention to this incident in order to warn that "what we are doing in the Orthodox sphere usually gives a bad example for others" which can come back to haunt us. I think that His Holiness the current Ecumenical Patriarch knows this incident very well, as he was the disciple and companion of Metropolitan Melitos of Chalcedon who was excluded from the list of candidates at that time after having been the strongest candidate and the one most prepared to succeed Patriarch Athenagoras.
Perhaps revisiting today the words of Metropolitan Chrysostomos will serve as a warning of the dangers involved in what the Phanar is doing in Ukraine, where the decisions that the Phanariots are making in cooperation with political authorities might constitute precedents from whose repercussions  neither the Ecumenical Patriarchate nor the other local churches will be spared in the future.

Will Constantinople reconsider her decisions and avoid being immersed in political plans and power politics? Will she put the brakes on the opression to which the legitimate Church in Ukraine is being subjected so as not to open the door for others to use this behavior as an excuse for persecuting the Church in the future?  Will we learn from the tragedies of our history and our mistakes?

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Jad Ganem: Does Constantinople Reject the "Council of Crete"?

Arabic original here.

Does Constantinople Reject the "Council of Crete"?

His Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch never misses an occasion to mention the "great accomplishment" that was achieved during his tenure, the holding of the "Council of Crete", which dissipate years of joint Orthodox work and cooperation towards holding a Great Council of the Orthodox Church. But a little more than two years after the holding of this council, even as the literature coming out of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its Holy Synod doesn't stop talking about "the importance of this council", it escapes them that the importance of any council lies in the Church's subsequent reception of its decisions. Here it is noteworthy that the first one to reject the decisions of the "Council of Crete" in practice is the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which took the decision to permit the marriage of priests who have been widowed or abandoned by their wives," in blatant contradiction of the decision about "the Sacrament of Marriage and its Impediments" issued by that council, which stipulates that "it is not permitted to hold a marriage after priesthood."

Constantinople's decisive rejection was, however, of the decision of the Council of Crete regarding "Autonomy and the Means by Which it is Proclaimed." This decision was formulated to make a fundamental distinction between the concepts of "Autocephaly" and "Autonomy". The autocephalous church has the exclusive right to grant autonomy to a part under its canonical authority falling within its geographical boundaries, taking into account that the granting of "autocephaly" is something that belongs to the universal Orthodox Church, according to what was agreed in the joint Orthodox work.

So if we concede for argument's sake that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the Mother Church in Ukraine, then according to the "Council of Crete" it cannot grant more than autonomy, and this only "after showing that it has fulfilled all necessary ecclesial, canonical and pastoral prerequisites."

But "In the event that two autocephalous Churches grant autonomous status within the same geographical ecclesial region, prompting contestation over the status of each autonomous Church, the parties involved appeal—together or separately—to the Ecumenical Patriarch so that he may find a canonical solution to the matter in accordance with prevailing pan-Orthodox practice."

Therefore, since the actions of the "unifiying council" in Ukraine blatantly contradict the principles decided by the "Council of Crete"-- to wit: the autocephalous church's competency only to grant autonomy; objective evaluation of all necessary ecclesial, canonical and pastoral prerequisites; appealing to the Church in a situation where two autonomous churches exist in a single geographic region-- it clearly proves that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has violated what it regards as a "Great and Holy Council".

Will the churches that participated in Crete move to save what they agreed on, or will they also acquiesce to a situation where the First without Equals is also above the Great Council?

Monday, December 24, 2018

Fr Touma (Bitar): The Mustard Seed and the Nativity

Arabic original here.

The Mustard Seed and the Nativity

Brothers, the Lord Jesus poses a single issue and there is no other besides it. The issue is the kingdom of heaven. "Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness and everything else will be added to you." In the kingdom of heaven, there is no king and citizens subject to him. In the kingdom of heaven, all are kings, priests and prophets. Everyone without exception possess these three privileges. As for the Lord God, whom we call the King of Kings, He has truly proven to be a king of another sort. After He emptied Himself and took on the form of a servant, He connected kingship and service in every sense of the word. God is love and His kingdom is a kingdom of love. So the entire concept of kingship is changed in the kingdom of heaven.

"The kingdom of heaven resembles a mustard seed." A mustard seed almost isn't noticed by a person, just as humankind did not notice the child in the cave. Thus, in this world people do not notice the kingdom of heaven. Moreover, people have no regard for the kingdom of heaven and assign it no value. They regard it as nothing. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is hidden from the eyes of most. It is not that God is the one who denies people the kingdom, because He desires that all be saved. But people's standards and concepts put them in a state where they ignore everything that has something to do with the kingdom of heaven. So the kingdom of heaven resembles a mustard seed. If those who do not believe and those who do not carefully and faithfully seek the truth are unaware of the kingdom, then we must be careful in our lives to pay attention to the small things before the big ones. We must pay attention to the details. Love in truth-- and the kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of love-- is manifested first and foremost in the details. Therefore, O brothers, every day of our life we pay attention to what is little, inconsiderable, what most people don't care about. Someone who pays attention to the details is someone who cares about the truth and who grows in spirit and in truth. The mustard seed is liable to grow. A person takes it and plants it in his garden. This person is each one of us. He must accept the mustard seed. He must accept the word, the word of God, because the entire kingdom is saved, is stored away, in this seed, in this word. Therefore the Lord Jesus said, "The words that I speak are spirit and life." One who gives no value to the word of God cannot give any value to the kingdom. Therefore each one of us must be careful to take up the word that the Lord God spreads within us. He must take it up. He must maintain it, plant it in his garden and care for it like the faithful, energetic farmer cares for his crop.

"It grew and became a great tree and the birds of heaven took shelter in its branches." The kingdom always starts tiny, a murmur, a word. And after that, it becomes a great tree, a symphony, a divine epic battle. You know that for the ancients, a tree is a sign of fertility. To speak of a great tree is to speak of the most perfect fertility, which a person acquires if he takes the word of God, plants it in his garden, in his heart, and maintains it until it gradually grows, without him knowing how, and becomes a great tree. Then the birds of heaven take shelter in its branches. The birds of heaven might be angels and they might also be humans. In reality, we are looking for the holy man in this world. The answer is the holy man and we have no other answer. By man, of course, what is meant is man and woman, a human being. This is the one who truly allows us to take shelter in his branches so that we may not burn, because the rays of the sun bear down upon us. The devil's rays bear down upon us. We are liable to burn in this age. Of course, without branches we can neither absorb God's kindness nor benefit from God's rays, from the sun of glory. Then everything turns to ruin, to dryness, to devastation, to death. Therefore we must take our candle, the candle of the true word, zealous of what belongs to God, and search for the holy man, so that we may take shelter with God in him. God comes to us with people and through them. A human being is saved by a human being. In any case, God is capable of coming to us directly, without the intermediary of a human being. But He Himself became a human. Therefore He commanded, "Bear one another's burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ." This is the new law. So the kingdom of heaven is a mustard seed. If a person is absorbed with the cares of this world, he can't notice it.

The kingdom of heaven also resembles leaven. Leaven works in secret, in the sense that it works in the heart. It works in very being. It works by grace. God doesn't come with commotion. He doesn't come announced. God comes in silence. We must learn to be silent if we want to stand before God in spirit and in truth. "Speak, Lord. Your servant listens." A person cannot hear so long as he loves to talk. Someone who always seeks to talk cannot hear because if he hears, he hears in order to talk. We must be silent in the sense that we must stand before God as ones not knowing, and ones who seek not only to know with the mind, but also to know with the heart. Knowledge with the heart is love. So we seek to enter into the sphere of divine love. Silence is tied to love. For this reason, the kingdom of heaven resembles leaven which works in secret, in silence, but with force. Simple leaven leavens much flour and a great dough. The woman took the leaven and hid it in three measures of flour. One who seeks to fulfill the will of God must always pay heed so that he is not like the hen who fills the world with crowing when she lays an egg, because the rat will not hesitate to come and snatch the egg. So we must work in secret. We must work as through we are hiding. The ascetics of Egypt believed that any virtue a person has that appears openly becomes a vice.

And so "she hid it in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened." Things have their timing. God's schedule is always different from people's schedules. He always comes when people don't expect him to come. When a person isn't sensitive to the kingdom, he treats things with a lot of confusion. Each one of us needs to submit himself completely to God and to God's work. The Lord gives us what He wants today, tomorrow or the next day. This is His affair and it is not our affair. It is enough for us to know that we stand before God and seek God. What He gives us or does not give us is His affair.

"Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as He made his way to Jerusalem." You know that the Lord Jesus spent most of His time in Galilee. Of course, He went several times to Jerusalem. But Jerusalem was always the place where the Lord Jesus had to go in order to die there. "As He made His way to Jerusalem." Each one of us is making his way to Jerusalem. Making his way, in practice, to complete death to the self before he dies in the body and is cast into the grave. One who has learned to die to himself every day is one who even if he dies, shall live. "And one said to Him: Lord, are there few who are saved?" A question of the mentality of the children of this world. "Are there few who are saved?" We are always concerned with gathering information and regarding this as knowledge. This knowledge has no value for God. The knowledge that God values is for a person to seek salvation, not for him to know whether or not those who are saved are few. What was the Lord Jesus' reply? He said, "Strive to enter by the narrow gate." One asked Him, but He replied to everyone. The question, in practice, is about each person's eternity. "Seek to enter by the narrow gate." Salvation requires one to strive. There is effort. There is toil. We must toil every day. We must strive to enter by the narrow gate. Of course, people always like to enter by the wide gate. Why do people enter by the narrow gate? They make an account of the hardship to which they will be subjected. But if they set their eyes upon what awaits them inside, when they enter by the narrow gate, they will be greatly consoled, since at that point they are ready to endure the hardship and difficulty. So we must always set our sights on seeking God. "Your face, O Lord, I seek." Let none of us get lost in the details. We are going to the heavenly city. Our destination is God's heart. We wish to settle in God's bosom, in His love. He whose heart is moved by love is ready to endure every hardship. We not only endure the hardship that comes to us from outside. We are all the more so hard on ourselves until we are accustomed to entering behind the veil, within the temple, within the kingdom.

The Lord Jesus continues and says, "Many will seek to enter and will not be able." Many will seek. So He is talking about a time to come. There is a time when the kingdom is available to all. And there is a time when it is no longer possible for one to enter the kingdom, even if he seeks with tears. Therefore we do not wait until tomorrow to repent. We must take the initiative to repent today. Why are they unable, as He says? They will seek to enter and they will not be able. Does this mean that the Lord will shut the gates in front of them? This is true. But it is also true that if a person practices estrangement from God for a long time, he will no longer be able to respond to God's word. Something in him dies. So let none of us surrender to his sin. We always commit sin out of ignorance, out of stupidity, out of weakness, out of obstinacy, out of self-affirmation. But if we let go and surrender to sin, then a time comes when sensitivity to sin dies. And then, sensitivity to divine things dies within us. A person is no longer able to respond. The most terrible loss that can afflict humankind today is for humankind to no longer be capable of seeking God. When the will dies within us, we die! So long as the will is alive within us, then it is always possible for us to return from our error. But when the will dies within us, then who do you think will bring us back? God has supplied us with a compass that shows us the way. He has given us His Word to be a guide so that we may know north from south and east from west. He has given us everything we need. After that, we cannot blame Him for anything. So we must beware of God's will dying within us, of the will for good dying, the will for salvation. And so the prophet said, "He has blinded their eyes so that they may not see with their eyes and return and be healed." When a person reaches the point of lifelessness with regard to his will for God, then God completely deprives him of a chance for salvation.

"When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from.'" One who does not want to know the word of God says, without knowing from where, that he does not want to know God. "Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.'" All of this is of no use. This trite familiarity is worthless for God. He was among us and we did not believe in Him. Can we easily benefit from His word? Impossible! "But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from.'" A stranger to God is a stranger to His commandment. "Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity." Workers of iniquity have no share with God. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth when a person is cast out, by his own will, by his own desire. Because he wanted that, because he insisted on that, because he was unshakeable in that, he is cast out of the divine sphere. One who is not of God's clay cannot be with God. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, while you are cast outside. We have one concern so long as we are in this life here: to enter within through the narrow gate. The important thing is for our names to be written in the Book of Life. This is the only concern. Man has no other concern. Everything in this world is given and added to us, so long as we need it, if we walk in faith with God.

"They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God." Here the Lord Jesus reaches out to us until the last day. It is as though He is responding indirectly to the question the person asked: "Are there few who are saved?" "They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God." God has many witnesses in this world. He knows them. One cannot know them or count them. One is only called to enter by the narrow gate and to work for his salvation through love of God and of others. After that, it is not fitting for him, if he is a child of the kingdom, to be concerned about something that is not useful. And that which is not of the kingdom is of no use! It is born dead.

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite-- Douma, Lebanon
December 23, 2018

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): Nativity Message

Arabic original here.

Nativity Message

"When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons" (Galatians 4:4-5).

When Christ came, He perfected time and the universe came to be without spans of time. This is because every span of tie became full of the presence of Christ, who exists eternally. Every moment of our life became full of the person of Christ.

The God-Man, life, all life came to us born under the law (as a man) so that we may be liberated from the law of this dying world and receive sonship-- that is, to become children of God by grace.

All of this is because God is now not only with us, but also in us, by His presence, His light, His commandments and all of His commands are light, peace, joy and love. Now we say in Christ that God is our Father. Thus we call God "our Father who art in heaven..." That is, we have familiarity with Him:

I am with Christ in one house. We die with Christ because we, like children are meek, humble like lambs, rising with Him in a foretaste of the kingdom.

The new man in Christ, who is born for a second time in Him, no longer knows anything but love. He goes even to the point of love for enemies. He transcends discipline, order, authority and politics.

He is no longer only a material man who buys and sells and keeps account. He only knows gratuitous giving, the giving of limitless love. And so the Lord was born in a manger for beasts in order to liberate us from our beastliness and as a child so that He may say to us, "Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3).

Beloved, we faithful Christians shall remain in the world that is oppressive in its rebelliousness as a leaven for God's love and mercy.

The Lord consoles us when He says, "Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms..." (Luke 12:32-33).

The fullness of time: we do not await another savior or another message. Yes, the fullness of time has arrived with the coming of Christ, so nothing in this world has meaning without Him.

If we belong the Christ, the Son of God, then we are inheritors of God in Christ (cf. Galatians 4:7).

That is, if you, O beloved, are truly with Christ today, loving God and everyone, "Do not fear," says the Apostle Paul, do not despair from everything that is happening in this world today: atheism, deviancies, wars, direct and indirect oppression. Do not fear, O little flock, if you are one with the Lord Jesus, with His suffering and resurrection.

You are already victorious: sincere love is stronger than death.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Met Silouan (Muci): Nativity Message

From here.

Orthodox Christian Archdiocese
of Byblos, Botris and Dependencies (Mount Lebanon)
Broumana (Lebanon), Nativity 2018
Pastoral Message for the Nativity of our Lord
of H.E. Metropolitan Silouan of Byblos, Botris and dependencies
"Where the Christ was to be born?"
(Matthew 2: 4)
While we celebrate the feast of the Incarnation of our Lord, I feel ashamed for not being able to find in me an answer to the question: "Where the Christ was to be born?" (Matthew 2: 4), however, I found it and I find it in your love and in your apostolic service, a service carried out with dedication, self-denial and sacrifice.
I found it and I find it in the faces bathed by the tears of abandonment, of loneliness, of need, especially in a distant land, but who stand firm in goodness, in truth and in prayer.
I found it and I also find it in a community and a parish that does not live by itself, but extends itself to others in a service whose colors are formed by synergy, solidarity and caring for others.
I found it and I find it in servants and ministers, who are only aware of their poverty of God and see the abundance of grace that the Lord pours out in their service.
I found it and I find it reflected in the bodies of the monks and their praying souls, reproducing the first fruits of the hymn of the angels at Christmas, and whose gaze makes misery and bitterness flee from the hearts of many, so that they may in return acquire divine peace and grace.
I found it and I find it in the faithful of a church who live with humility their repentance and their discipleship of the Gospel, and in a witness of love that does not seek its own.
I found it and I find it in those who bear such witness: being poor, yet grateful; being in sorrow, yet hopeful; bearing the pain of the absence or departure of a loved one, yet keeping their presence and memory alive; being rich, yet not exalting oneself; having joy and let others partake in it.
I found it and I find it in the prayer of those who seek prayer and try to find its beginning from the hands of the One who can give it; or in the hope poured out on behalf of those who do not approach the little grotto (in Bethlehem) or the great grotto in our temples (the Church); or in the love that offers itself despite not being able to do much, but persists till the end, until the impossible becomes possible.
I found it and I find it in the praise for all these "gifts" which I offer to you, to us who are bound by our fatherhood and brotherhood in Christ, so that your hearts may obtain comfort, as well as the hearts of the faithful who seek the Child born in Bethlehem and trying to go in His footsteps, so that joy may dwell in them forever.
Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Syriadirect on Idlib's Fading Christian Community

From here.

Property seizures by hardline rebels stoke fears among Idlib province’s fading Christian community
By Ammar Hamou and Avery Edelman

Under the rule of Islamist rebels, Christian life has been largely relegated to the shadows: religious garments forbidden in the streets, crosses in public spaces removed or destroyed and church bells silenced.

These restrictions have also been accompanied by outbreaks of targeted sectarian violence—assassinations, abductions and attacks on religious institutions not unlike those seen in other minority communities that have fallen under extremist rule in Syria: Christian communities outside Idlib, as well as Druze and Shia Muslim communities around the country.

“Everything is done to make the [Christian] population feel unwelcome in their own land, and to push them to leave,” says Hélène Rey, a researcher focused on Christian communities in the Middle East, who works with the international human rights organization Christian Solidarity International (CSI).

Many did. By mid-2015, when a coalition of Islamist factions captured Idlib city and established full rebel control of the province, the majority of Idlib’s Christians—followers of various denominations including the Greek Orthodox, Latin, Armenian and Catholic churches—had already fled their homes. Some sought relative safety in government-held areas of the country; others joined the millions of Syrian refugees seeking asylum abroad.

A number of towns in the province have been entirely emptied of their former Christian inhabitants as a result.

And in Idlib city, just one or two Christian families are thought to remain from a population that once numbered in the thousands.

But in the collection of majority-Christian villages where Abu Elias used to live, a small Christian community—Rey estimates a few hundred people at most—has stayed behind, despite most residents having fled since 2011.


Read the rest here.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): Orthodox Spirituality

Arabic original here.

Orthodox Spirituality

How can a person know God? How can he regain his immortality after having lost it through sin and disobedience? How can he conquer sin and death in Christ? How can the rich young man inherit eternal life?

Christ gives us the answer to this when He says, "‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself’" (Luke 10:27). The Apostle John says, "God is love" (1 John 4:16).

In his Gospel it says, "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3). Immortality comes, then, through knowledge of God, and true knowledge comes from love.

There is no love without a personal relationship, without persons.

Christ God, then, is a person.

God Himself, then, is not a vague idea. He is a person whom we know, whom we love .We have a personal relationship with Him: in Christ, in prayer, in fulfilling His commandments, in sincere love, in our neighbor.

God told Moses in the bush that was aflame but not consumed:

"I am that I am." God is a being of relation and we find His distinctive image in the icon of the Trinity, the icon of Abraham's hospitality toward God, to the three angels (cf. Genesis 18:1-2).

Here we find unity in love between the three hypostases, between the three persons.

"May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me" (John 17:21).

Here we also find unity in sacrifice because there is no true love without sacrifice: "All Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them" (John 17:10).

So we must find such a relationship, a relationship of love, in every human institution.

First, in the Christian family: the family is supposed to be a school of love, a school of sacrifice.

Second: we must find it in the parish and in the Church. "They had all things in common" (Acts 4:32). Likewise in a cenobitic monastery, if one's own will is cut off-- that is, self-denial as an expression of love, humility and obedience.

In the end, Christian obedience is nothing other than an expression of love. Obedience is not a military rule. What reigns in the monastery is not a rule, but love and self-sacrifice.

Here we also find the concept of true freedom in Christ, as described by the Apostle Paul.

"For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (Galatians 5:13).

All this causes us to know Orthodox spirituality as a spirit of peace, a spirit of joy and love, a spirit of gentleness, long-suffering and meekness. All these are fruits of the Spirit: all who acquire the Spirit and live according to Him, not according to the spirit of the world, receive divine consolation and a foretaste of the kingdom. Amen.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Jad Ganem: Let the Church Judge

Arabic original here.

Let the Church Judge

Yesterday, the "unifying council" was held at the Church of Saint Sophia in Kiev, which had been called by the Phanar after its experts decided that Ukraine canonically belongs to Constantinople, relying on a unilateral reading of history that ignores that the church in this country has belonged to Moscow for more than 300 years. As a preliminary analysis of this event, this observer concludes:

The legitimate church in Ukraine, apart from two of its bishops, did not participate in this council, which it regarded as a robbers' council.

The council was able to bring together and unite the two schismatic entities-- that is, the one known as the Kiev Patriarchate and what was known as the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church-- into a single entity.

The holding of this council occurred amidst an obvious political presence and with an open admission of the intervention of politicians in ecclesiastical affairs.

The excommunicated "patriarch" Filaret imposed his conditions on Constantinople and was able to impose his loyal disciple as head of the newly-created “church”.

All of this may lead to the following conclusions:

Constantinople, which expected the participation of at least ten bishops from the legitimate church, failed in realizing its goal and thus failed in holding a "uniting council" as it had planned. It appears that all it was able to achieve was to lend legitimacy to schismatics.

The legitimate church in Ukraine appeared as a church standing firm in her witness, deeply rooted in tradition and preserving the ecclesiastical canons, despite the threats and pressure to which her bishops and faithful were subjected.

The majority of autocephalous Orthodox churches appeared incapable of putting the breaks on Constantinople's rushing or of taking the initiative to make sure that the Orthodox Church avoids the schism and feuding that she is experiencing today.

What happened yesterday will have a negative impact on the entire Orthodox Church in the future and on the faithful in Ukraine who will be subject to pressure and struggle between the two parallel churches.

In closing, whether the autocephalous Orthodox churches will accept the decisions of the "unifying council" and whether Constantinople will be able to impose the head of the newly-created church onto the dyptichs are what will determine the correctness of the steps she has taken.

Orthodox Synaxis: The Special Bishop of Caesar

This overview of the history of the Patriarchate of Constantinople reveals much of the psychology behind why that church caused so much harm to Orthodoxy in the Middle East and the Balkans during the period of Ottoman rule, when the direct oppressors were more often Phanariots than Turks.

While criticism of the close relationship between the Russian Church and state is (with good justification!) common, less attention is paid to the fact that the Patriarchate of Constantinople exists and claims primacy solely due to its relationship with now-extinct civil authorities. But it is only this history that can explain much of Constantinople’s modern-day behavior. There is, to put it bluntly, an emperor-shaped (or, more accurately, a sultan-shaped) hole in Constantinople’s heart that forces Ecumenical Patriarchs to court the support of the most unexpected worldly powers, from Harry Truman in Athenagoras’ day to Petro Poroshenko today. Writing in 1911, the English Roman Catholic scholar Adrian Fortescue sketched the pathos of Constantinople’s role as ‘the special bishop of Caesar’ with equal erudition and acerbity:

Read the rest here.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Jad Ganem: The Conspiracy of Silence

Arabic original here.

The Conspiracy of Silence
For Metropolitan Onufry and his struggling Church

On this sorrowful day for the faithful belonging to the legitimate church in Ukraine, and along with them everyone around the world who loves the Church of Christ; on this sorrowful day that we have reached as a result of the recklessness immersion in the politics of this world of the one called "first" in Orthodoxy and the hiding of those called leaders in the shameful conspiracy of silence; on this day when hatred overcomes love, the desire for revenge overcomes the desire to build up unity, political considerations overcome ecclesiastical considerations, and nationalistic retrenchment and enmity overcome openness and reconciliation between peoples, this words of Metropolitan Georges (Khodr) serve as a reminder for us that "the Church that is impossible by human standards is made possible by the righteous."

"The Church, as the Bible describes her, is something that comes from Christ. In her situations, she is a human gathering that has the fragility of all institutions. In her, you receive the beauty, majesty and truth that come down upon her and in her you suffer your sins and the oppression that besets her sincere children. She is a place of unpleasantness that will repeatedly make you nauseous. This is the paradox. The Church is the place of splendor and stunning liturgies on the one hand and on the other hand the place of oppression and human banality.
The tragedy is that the man of sin sits "as a god in the temple of God" (1 Thessalonians 2:4). This may be related to "the lusts and bodily pleasures", as Chrysostom says, one who is "contentious, a lover of authority" as Ephrem says, irrational, unfit for teaching, intemperate, overbearing (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2-3). At that point, groups are led by the whim and fancy of sects that dream of God, but are a part of society's games and banalities, of influence-peddling, and the slyness of glory. The scepter often breaks the backs of those reaching the threshold of the kingdom. Shepherds relay liturgies that are not from them and might not be within them, if they are immersed in the conspiracy of silence and have traded eternity for the snares of this world... Only by disobedience does the Church devolve into an institution. At that point, her powers are enfeebled, her resources depleted and the Spirit is extinguished within her. She is a theater for great anger, great injustice, scandalous compromises, a playground for authoritarianism, a kingdom of fear.

Jad Ganem: Who will Protect Constantinople from the Phanariots?

Arabic original here.

Who will Protect Constantinople from the Phanariots?

Tomorrow, a "unifying council" will be held in the Church of Holy Wisdom in Kiev, called by His Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. The holding of this council comes as the crowning event of a political plan in which Constantinople has become embroiled, with the cooperation of temporal powers in the country, to establish a national church in Ukraine. This plan would have never seen the light of day were it not for the Ecumenical Patriarchate's disappointment with the fact that the Church of Moscow did not go Crete, where the "Great Orthodox Council" was supposed to be held and her desire to take revenge on her especially after this council turned into a meeting of disputed legitimacy that exposed Constantinople's inability to play the role of first among the Orthodox churches, the impotence of Patriarch Bartholomew, and his failure to lead this world and coordinate activities between its various constituent parts. 

All the above, moved Constantinople  complex of inferiority towards Moscow, her pathological fear of the specter of "Third Rome", and the hatred that rules over some of the Phanariots because of the numerical superiority of the Church of Moscow. This is connected to the lack of any critical analysis in Constantinople of the mistakes committed by her delegates during the preparatory meetings for the Great Council, their arrogant behavior and indifference to the concerns of the autocephalous churches, in addition to the hazy image that Constantinople has created of the situation of Orthodoxy in Ukraine.

These accumulating factors drove the Phanar to hastily enter the “Ukrainian minefield”, ignoring all the appeals and warnings from the leaders of the Orthodox world, who warned of the dangers of rewarding schismatics, dividing the Orthodox Church and weakening her unity.

Perhaps Constantinople seized the favorable political opportunity to use Ukraine not only to punish Moscow, but to establish her papism over the Orthodox world and to subjugate the churches and their leaders to the Phanar's synod. But it escapes her that this papism, which is alien to Orthodoxy, will sooner or later be expelled by the ecclesiastical body, just as the body expels strange things. But to describe the punishment and persecution of the faithful in Ukraine on account of being disappointed by Moscow as a "unifying council" that will only unite the schismatics in the face of the Church struggling there is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Hope remains that God will inspire the Phanar's leaders to realize that "hatred only kills the hater" and that repenting of unilateralism and imperiousness would protect the great Constantinople from the inevitable fate that the arrogance and historical hatreds of some Phanariots will bring upon her.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Fr Touma (Bitar) on Partisanship in the Church

Arabic original here.

Lest Vision be Lost in the Church

"...wounded for our transgressions..." (Isaiah 53)

When two people disagree about something in the Church of Christ, if mutual understanding is not reached between them, they go to a third, whom they agree will judge between them and they are completely prepared to accept what he decides, as though it is from God. If they harden their positions and don't agree on any judge as an intermediary, advisors suggest a third party to come to them on their behalf. If they accept him with soundness of heart, because he is delegated by the group and the group has its right and precedence over its members because the spirit of prophecy is in it, as the Lord says to Moses, "Gather to Me seventy men of the elders of Israel... elders of the people and officers over them... I will take of the Spirit that is upon you and will put the same upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you" (Numbers 11:16-17). Moses was not reckoned as one of the prophets, but as an image of the coming Messiah, and so the Lord God spoke through Moses, "face to face, even plainly, I speak with him" (Numbers 12:8). I say that if those who are in a disagreement accept the one that the group names, the disagreement is resolved in humility and by imitating the Spirit of the Lord. Otherwise, the entire group must act on its own to settle the matter -- that is, the advisors within it. Call upon each other! First with a verbal call, as a preface to holding a council on the matter. Bilateral meeting is important, but honesty and mutual support is more important. So if the meeting bears fruit, this one and that, that one and this, meeting and understanding each other, the path of truth becomes clear. Otherwise, something hidden and harmful becomes clear in the positions, something alien to the Spirit of the Lord and thus to the Church of Christ. In that case, what should those who are zealous for the house of God do? It is no concern if they are few, nor if they are regarded as small in their nation. Greatness is in truth and not in station. Greatness is in speaking the Spirit and for us to reach in speech and truth the point of saying with the the apostles, the elders and the brothers, "It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us...." (Acts 15:28). Those who are zealous, then, in prayer and fasting, speak the word no matter their number, as a testimony to God. What happens after that? The Spirit and the Word have their own way, and your Lord knows best. But if none of the traditional praiseworthy things happen, then we are without a doubt in a painful place. When witnesses who have been delegated by the group in the Spirit are no longer witnesses to the legitimate truth, God brings forth from the impotent visible presence a fruitful, unseen presence that bears witness. In the end, the word belongs to the Lord and not to those who reckon it to be theirs. The Church perseveres, no matter the circumstances, with the little flock, which your Lord alone knows, forever leavening the dough in the Church and in history until the end.

When two people disagree about something in Christ's Church, and each is hardened in his position, it is no longer possible or permissible for the issue to be, for you and for me, who is right and who is wrong, but rather who is in the truth. Each one regards himself as being right and his own position as correct, otherwise there wouldn't be a disagreement in the first place. The important thing isn't each one's perspective-- this we ear, examine and weigh-- but how they treat the issue. With what spirit? With a spirit of confusion or a spirit of understanding? With a spirit of listening to one another with the heart or a spirit of making pronouncements ex cathedra? With a spirit of aggression or a spirit of harmony? With a spirit of enmity or a spirit of peace? With a spirit of division or a spirit of unity? With a spirit of extermination or a spirit of reverence? With a spirit of submission to the powers of this world or with the fear of God? With a spirit of aversion or a spirit of friendliness? With a spirit of revenge or a spirit of conciliation? In a word, with the spirit of the world or the Spirit of God?

When the dispute broke out, then, I cannot consider myself-- you and I-- unconcerned with what is happening because in truth Christ alone is concerned; as it is neither fitting for me or for you to be partial to one side or the other, even if my conviction as a human inclines me one way or the other. Being satisfied to express an opinion at the level of who I think is in the right and who I think is not right keeps me at the level of human concern for the issues. But is there true human justice? In the Church, our concern rises above that! The question, in a situation of disagreement, is: what must we do to help both sides remain in the truth? That is, to keep the spirit of agreement, peace and unity in Christ between them, despite their disagreement. For us to really have an effective contribution in this regard, we need to mentally distinguish between the person and his position regarding the issue at hand. I am not committed to your opinion, whatever it may be, but I am committed to you. You are my brother by divine appointment! "You are all brothers," said the Lord Jesus. I may or may not like your opinion, I may or may not benefit from it. Here I am not talking about established dogmatic truths, but about procedural positions. And in procedural issues there are different opinions and the space for differences of outlook is wide. Factors of history and temperament, passions, sensitivities and similar things are not easily overcome. The matter requires that they be transcended with great humility and by the power of the Spirit in the soul. Therefore, the important thing in this case, in the absence of agreement, is for the Spirit of God to remain what brings together and for disagreements not to lead us into the depths of conflict. Therefore, you are my goal in the case of conflict, not your opinion. Confronted with people who disagree, you and I no longer have a position about what they say, but about who they are. We work hand in hand to affirm love in truth, despite all the difficulties. It is not only if we leave the disputants to harm Christ and His Church, and thus themselves, but we also participate in doing harm because he who is not with Me, so the Lord says, is against Me.

When the powerful are divided, the little ones are confused. And this at a time of weakness! Most are inclined to hesitation and reservation. They think over the steps to take a thousand times. Their primary concern is keeping what belongs to them. They go along, show deference and do not love. They say what they're not thinking and think what they're not saying. The priority for them is their own gains. Over the course of time, we have become accustomed to fearing the powerful in this world and likewise also in the Church, more than fearing God! This is even true with regard to those who are regarded as good. As for intruders in the Church-- and there are many of them-- there is no point to discussing them. As it appears, the spirit of weakness predominates. A very few walk in the spirit of bearing witness. Only a rare few accept do die for Christ's sake. Politics, in the worldly sense, has become a way of life in the Church, even if it has not generally kept pace with its malignancy and self-striving in the world. Dealing with God's wisdom, in love and truth, in a context of prayer and fasting, has little impact on the people of the Church in general. Most are satisfied with the wisdom of this world. This is because apathy overwhelms their souls. The warmth of the Spirit permits neither fabrication nor bargaining. And bargaining has, for the most part, become the accepted manner for resolving problems in the Church, just as it is in the world today, though naturally wrapped in an empty show of divine words. The exterior speaks of reason, logic, data and history, but where is the Spirit of God? Much talk and many arguments, but they embitter the soul, which means that the spirit behind them is unclean and not from the wisdom of God because the wisdom of God is peaceful, kind, full of mercy, without fear or hypocrisy. Has it not been said, "If you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there..." (James 3:14-16)?

Nothing justifies partisanship in the Church. The people of partisanship do not obey the truth (cf. Romans 2:8). The discussion of partisanship comes in the exposition of contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, backbitings, whisperings, conceits, tumults (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:20). Partisanship is a work of the flesh and not a fruit of the spirit (cf. Galatians 5:19). Thus there is no praise for partisanship, but rather a warning about it. Let us not consider ourselves better than others. Instead, "let each esteem others better than himself" (Philippians 2:3). Even if there is good in us, let us turn a blind eye to it and look for the good in others without favoritism, to the glory of God, so that the good may be our goal and not love of appearances and superiority over others. What is partisanship? It is when you are attached to a personality and thus to what he says and claim that this is from God and attack others who do not say what he says about procedural matters in the life of the Church! And when you attack him, you accuse him of unbelief, work to defame him, display his flaws, and invent things about him that do not exist in order to tarnish his image. Where does partisanship lead? To schisms and rivalries. Did the Chosen Apostle not warn about them? "May there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Corinthians 1:10). Neither Paul is what is important nor Apollos, nor Peter, but Christ in all and for all! So unity in Christ refutes partisanship and partisanship topples unity.

In confronting the repercussions of partisanship, holding fast to the spirit of unity, peace and agreement in the Church, you do not stand with someone against someone else, even for a moment. You might point out a point of truth that one side has or a fault in the other side. But in the present context, it comes as a presentation of falsehood even if it's true because it causes harm and is taken differently from its intent. Academic and historical arguments, in the context of an emotional confrontation, inflame the conflict and don't put an end to it. In a case such as this, every argument has its counter-argument. So what's the use? When the heart's intention is in the balance, the voice of reason is of no use. The heart is only calmed, if it is to be calmed, with the balms of gentleness and kindness. At the end of the day, man is a heart. "Give me your heart, my son!"

People form parties against each other out of ignorance of deceit. In either case, because they do not speak with the Spirit of God. If their intentions are good, your Lord finds a way to turn their path toward Him. If their intentions are wicked, they twist in abysses of loss, hatred and emotion, thinking that they are zealous for God in a good way. In the end, they are filled with bitterness and a sense of decline. They blame God's Church and accuse God of being unjust. They turn away from Him, as though they are the ones in the right and surrender themselves to great pains.

Within this framework, the issue of the Church and politics has its own dialectic. From the beginning, the Church suffers from the pressure of politics and politicians on her. In history, religion was a tool in the hand of rulers, to the point that kings sometimes considered themselves gods and demanded that they be offered worship. Authority, in this age, is inclined to seek worship. The temptation has always been that the only purpose for God or the gods is to support authority and those who wield it. This has gone on throughout history. Therefore, politicians have rarely refrained, practically speaking, in the history of the Church, from deifying themselves and then from eagerly working to lobby the Church or subject her to their aims. Since the Church by nature has no master but the One in heaven, even if she commands that what belongs to Caesar be rendered unto Caesar, freedom of conscience in Christ was generally not preserved in her, especially in lean times, except by undergoing violence, persecution, imprisonment, torture or martyrdom of blood. In this regard, there are great models from Saint Athanasius the Great to Saint Ambrose of Milan, Saint Basil the Great, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Mark of Ephesus and many others. Despite the occasional good times and many bad times that the relationship of the Church to the state has known, especially in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine system made the framework of the empire ecclesiastical and the emperor a representative of Christ in governing the oikoumene, in principle according to the faith of the Church, preserving and supporting her.

Today, with globalization, things have changed. We are faced with a sweeping current that is totally alien to Christianity. Politics has become completely worldly. It no longer has a religious character. It has its aims and its agendas and the Church in itself means nothing for it. Or perhaps, on a personal level, for very few. This being the case, if the Church is anything other than a moral force, politicians will attempt to seize her, wanting to dominate and exploit those belonging to her within the framework of a worldly vision that has absolutely nothing to do with the Church. In this sweeping system of globalization, if the Church holds fast to her traditional identity, she not only annoys policymakers in the world, but also constitutes a threat to their efforts and an impediment to their arrangements. Therefore, the politics of globalization seeks to fragment and dissolve the Church. On the level of the spirit, the Church is in an existential confrontation with the spirit of the world. Convergence is impossible. In a case such as this, without any exaggeration, the Antichrist, in the precise meaning of the term, comes today in the garb of politics, seeking, in disguise and putting on the appearance of Christ, to overthrow Christ the Lord in those who believe in Him.

"I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). This is the credo of one who holds fast to Spirit and to truth, in Christ and in his relationship with people wherever they may be, to whatever nationality they belong, and whatever country they are from. Constantinople, apart from Christ, means nothing to us! But the faithful who are zealous for the Spirit of the Lord, whether or not they are called by the name of Constantinople, wherever they reside, mean everything to us. We belong to them and they belong to us, for we belong to the same land: the land of the living-- that is, Jesus Christ. Everything else is external adornment, chatter and vanity. So too the Moscow of the faithful. They are dear because the Lord's Christ has made us their brothers in His flesh. And Ukraine, which has been sacrificed in history for Christ's sake, with the blood of her martyrs, the sweat of her ascetics and the toils of her faithful. This is what has meaning for us! And so, in this manner, in every place and region. The martyrs of Christ in Russia are our Church. The monks of Mount Athos are the body of Christ within us. The relics of the saints in the Kiev Caves are our bones! If the wounds of history divide us, what will dress the wounds, unless it is the Spirit of Christ, who alone brings us together? A church based on disagreement, coercion, enmity, division, hatred and struggle between brothers is the Church of Satan and not the Church of Christ! If canons, arguments and historical facts lead to estrangement between believers, then what do they have to do with us? Let them fall. Shadows and silhouettes do not quench our thirst for the Spirit of the Lord. Nothing brings together except the crucifiedness of your Lord. But the one who bows before his brother as the Lord bowed His head upon the cross alone stands in the truth. Everything else is false.

Do not call politics your imagining that in it you have a concern other than the concern of your Christ. Christ alone is the concern! Behold, Satan has sought you in order to sift you and beware of letting things go too far!

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite-- Douma, Lebanon
Sunday, November 4, 2018

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Patriarch Ignatius IV on Antiochian Identity

Arabic original here, with thanks to Jad Ganem.

Antiochian Identity

In his response to those who think that "If we speak as Orthodox, then we must be like each other," Patriarch Ignatius IV of thrice-blessed memory rejects the opinion that all the world's Orthodox must say the same thing about everything and stresses that Orthodoxy as a faith is one, but the Orthodox are not one. He sharply criticizes those who "believe that if you are different from them, you are not Orthodox enough," regarding this as "evidence that they themselves are not Orthodox enough. People are different and each expresses the one faith in a different way." He pauses on Antiochian identity and opines,

"From the age of the Apostles, Antioch was a bastion of Christians' encounter with peoples of different origins. Our church grew using the Greek language for a long time in an Aramaic and Syriac, then Arabic cultural environment. This multicultural context, alongside the fact that we have never been the church of a state or an empire, helped to form our identity, which is characterized by our deep conviction that the Gospel stands above every racial barrier and our unshaking attachment to Orthodoxy which, with its deep respect for the special gifts of every culture, should not discriminate between Greek, Russian and Arab, but rather just the opposite: it should believe that "Christ is all in all" (Colossians 3:11). Our identity is a loving openness toward the other churches and denominations, in constantly-renewed hope that we are working as servants of reconciliation. Due to historical contingencies, we have become 'the Church of the Arabs'. We have learned to always live face-to-face with believers of other religions and especially with Muslims. Although we have a long list of martyrs, we have chosen by our own free and resolute will to coexist and engage in profound dialogue without hatred, without compromises and without fear. On numerous occasions, when we were confronted with the spirituality of the Crusades and holy war, we chose firmly and without hesitation to commit to the spirit of the Cross. Our mission today is to continue to bear witness to all who speak Arabic in the Antiochian space and the western world, just as our vocation is to perfect this witness through full communion with the other concerned Orthodox Churches and cooperation with all."

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Orthodox Synaxis on the Problem of Romiosyne

The must-read blog Orthodox Synaxis has posted a translation of a speech by Patriarch Bartholomew where he speaks of the "precedence" of his people in Orthodoxy and as the center of "Romiosyne". Because this ideology lies at the heart of the Greek occupation of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, readers of this blog should take note of how His Holiness speaks off cuff on such issues.

 The introduction states:

In addressing the ongoing political and ecclesiastical conflict in Ukraine, many have rightly brought up the Russkiy Mir (“Russian world”) ideology promoted by many in the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. This ideology, concocted as a reaction to the loss of Russian control over Ukraine and Belarus after the fall of the Soviet Union, seeks to assert a spiritual and cultural unity of the peoples descended from the Kievan Rus, presumably under Russian leadership. Perhaps not totally unexpectedly, there has been much less analysis of the dominant ideology of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the concept of Romiosyne. This culturally and ecclesiastically irredentist ideology seeks to regain the preeminence in the Orthodox world that the Greeks of Constantinople enjoyed under the Ottomans, just as the Russkiy Mir attempts to regain the preeminence that Russia held under the Soviets.

The 75-year period of Soviet rule left an inescapable mark on the leadership of the Church in Russia, Ukraine and the other former-Soviet states and similarly the 500 years of Ottoman rule inevitably left its enduring mark on the worldview of the leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. We can see this in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s reliance on Ottoman-era documents to assert territorial claims in Ukraine and the way that recent statements (e.g., Patriarch Bartholomew’s 1 September address) borrow from the rhetoric of this period to speak of the Patriarchate of Constantinople as the “source” and “beginning” of the Orthodox churches.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s ideology of Romiosyne is a no less desperate attempt to cling to a bygone empire than Russia’s Russkiy Mir ideology even if, in the absence of military strength to back it up, its field of action is largely ecclesiastical. This can be seen on display in a recent speech by Patriarch Bartholomew to an audience of parishioners from Istanbul. In it, he speaks of the preeminence of their common genos in the Orthodox Church and triumphalistically mocks “Slavic” attempts at usurping it. The language that Patriarch Bartholomew uses is somewhat difficult to translate into English precisely because his is a post-imperial ideology rather than a nationalist one of the sort that we are more familiar with. That is, where one might use Hellenismos to describe the nationalism of the Greek nation-state (ethnos), Romiosyne describes a concept of Greekness that transcends nation-states and is centered more on the role of Greeks in the Orthodox Church than in worldly politics. The key term in this speech is the word genos, which is the origin of the word ‘genus’ and could be translated as ‘race’, ‘kind’, ‘sort’ or, as we’ve chosen to translate it below, ‘people’, though it is noteworthy (not to say alarming) that in this speech Patriarch Bartholomew uses the term phyle (‘tribe’ or ‘race’) as a synonym of genos.

Read the speech itself here.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Fr Touma (Bitar): For Those Who Want to See

Arabic original here.

For Those Who Want to See

Today is what is known as the Sunday of the Blind Man. This is the blind man of Jericho. In ancient history, when Joshua led the Hebrew people to the Promised Land, Jericho was a symbol of sin. For this reason, it was completely destroyed, like Sodom and Gomorrah. There are cities and towns which, in the Old Testament, came to have the meaning of sin, such as Jericho, Egypt, Babylon... This blind man was sitting on the road by the entrance to Jericho, as though he were representing, historically, the spiritual reality of that city.

It is true that this man was blind with his sensory eyes, but the discussion is, deep down, about blindness of the heart, which is the blindness of sin. Of course, the Lord raised the dead, healed the sick, returned sight to the blind and cleansed the lepers. His primary intention was not, however, to be a physician of bodies. His profound intention is to be a physician of souls. He healed the sick and raised the dead in order to give proof that he is capable of healing souls. The Lord's primary work is the forgiveness of sins. Absolutely nothing else is more important. If the one who was blind in the body was suffering to this degree, then how much more are we supposed to realize that inner blindness, which is sin, is painful, very painful? Sin is the pain hidden behind all human suffering. So the Lord God came first of all to forgive sins, to wash humanity which was defiled from within. As the Prophet David says in Psalm 50, "Cleanse me from my sin." Man primarily needs to be purified from his sin, to be washed on the level of the heart. On the level of the body, if we are not washed, a stench wafts from us, little by little. If it is not possible for us to bear bodily uncleanliness, then it is supposed that all the more so we will not be able to bear defilements of the heart, which are sin. The odor of sin is like hatred. The man who hates suffers from mold in his heart. The filthy heart hates. The filthy heart fornicates. The filthy heart judges. The filthy heart lies. All of this horrible stenches waft out from the heart. Man is in dire need of being cleansed, of being purified, in the heart, more than of being purified in the body, even if he doesn't know it.

Here in the Gospel, sin is equivalent to blindness and blindness must be healed so that man may see. Man needs to have his sin erased so that he may see in the heart, so that he may see the light. If sin remains, tyrannizing us, then the inner eye does not see. Man needs to be released from his sin so that he may see God's light, and then so that he may see God's light in others. For example, someone who only sees bad things in people is, without a doubt, blind. Of course there are bad things in people. Each of us has his bad things. But there rarely exists a person devoid of good. If the Lord did not find a little bit of good in him, He would not keep him alive. It is very important to see the heart, for one to see the good in others, not just sin. We are always ready to accuse others of being behind not only our personal worries, but also of being behind the world's worries. We rarely see someone blame himself. I remember during the events of 1975, there was an enlightened priest. Once we were talking. He suddenly opened his eyes and said of the civil war, "All this that is happening is my own fault." For him, he was a participant in the suffering happening to others. Let us never imagine that we are cleansing society when we accuse such-and-such and such-and-such of being wicked and it being necessary to get rid of them, at which point society will be made right. This is empty talk! In order for society to be made right, I must learn to see my sin and, at the same time, to see the good in others. When we reach that level of dealing with things, we have really started to be purified. When someone starts to be purified from within, society starts to really be purified because what happens in society is nothing other than the result of what occurs in the heart of man. As we clean the heart, society is cleansed. And as we keep the heart filthy, we find defilement in society to increase.

Let's return to the blind man of Jericho. "He was sitting in the road begging." I would like to linger a bit on the word "begging." He asks for charity. He does this because he is handicapped. He can't work. Perhaps he has a wife and children. In any case, he lives from the charity of others. One who is immersed in his sin lives from begging! In other words, there is no blessing in his life. He toils very much and receives little, like the disciples. Before the Lord Jesus came to them, the said to Him, "We have toiled the whole night and caught nothing." They were talking about fishing. Everyone's sin worries its owner and, in the end, only gives very little. It is as though he is begging, as though he is poor, while the Lord makes man the son of the king! He says, "Seek first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness and everything else will be added unto you." In other words, man's concern must be to sit at the right hand of God the Father. This is the concern. The concern is to be with the king, to be in the royal palace, in the presence of God the king. This is the concern and there is no other concern worthy of man. Everything else is given to us by the Lord from Himself and in abundance: "Everything else is added unto you." What do we need? Anything we may need, the Lord provides us with, in one way or another. Perhaps some of you remember this story: There was an ascetic monk sitting in his cell and he prayed day and night. He prayed and worked and during his work he prayed. Then he prayed and made prostrations and lifted his heart upward. He had only one job: delighting in God. That is, he constantly occupied his heart with the remembrance of God. This was his concern. This was his work. And because this was his work, he didn't work to earn money and eat from his toil. His entire concern was, as I said, delighting in God, praying to God, glorifying God, giving praise. When it was time to eat-- and monks in ancient times would only eat once, after the ninth hour, that is, after three in the afternoon, the time for vespers-- he looked out the window and found that the Lord had given him a loaf of bread. He took it, gave thanks and ate. That would happen every day! Once, he thought in himself about working and earning some money. Of course, the evil one wanted to turn him away from his prayer, so he accepted the idea and started to make baskets to sell and save up money for times of need, doubting in God's care for him. On that very day, he prayed and worked. When it was three in the afternoon, he prayed vespers and then looked out the window, but he did not find any loaf. He was surprised and disturbed and started to cry and say to the Lord, "Why have you deprived me of your grace?!" A voice came to him and said, "When you worked with Me, I sustained you. And now, you work for yourself, so eat from your toil." This is to say that God wanted us to be children of the king. We bear absolutely no concern, so that we may not beg, because we have no need for that. The Lord sends us, in ways that He knows, what we need. Whenever we complete His work as is fitting, whenever we walk in the divine commandment as is necessary, if we delight in God, if we praise, glorify, thank and put all our trust in God, then the Lord takes care of us in hidden ways we don't know. He provides what we need completely. One who works with the Lord is one hundred percent ensured. There is a monk who died in 2006. They asked him, "When you pray, does God answer?" He looked at those asking him with surprise and said, "If the Lord didn't answer, then why would I have anything to do with the Gospel? Of course the Lord answers!" If we do not reach profound conviction that God is alive and that He is in complete control, then what faith do we have? Faith is total surrender to God. If someone does not know how to hand his affairs over to the Lord God completely, let him learn. Such a person cannot truly be a believer. For someone to be a believer in his mind, convinced that there is someone who created the world, this has no value. The faith that we are talking about is surrender: total surrender, total trust in God, in the image of what the Lord Jesus said on the cross, "Into Your hands I commend My spirit." The believer commends his spirit to God every day, every moment. Of course, no one reaches this point without toil. One must toil. He must exercise. He must learn how to walk in the divine things as is proper. Do you believe that those saints are necessarily of better stuff than we are? No. We and they are of the same stuff. Many of them were wicked sinners, sometimes even more than us! But they realized at one point that sin leads them to the abyss. If man does not work to purify his heart, then he lives like an animal and dies like an animal. Those saints realized their true condition and endeavored to change. Then the Lord God saw their good intention and He started to open their hearts for them and clean them. They started to see more and seek Him more. They started to seek more and the Lord gave them more. And thus they grew until they became great saints, like Saint John Chrysostom. Don't think that a saint is someone who has no sin. Never! No one is without sin. A saint is a person who realizes that he is a sinner and is aware of his sin to the degree that he can no longer see any other sin. Indeed, his sin is so that he may say with the Apostle Paul, "Christ came to save sinners of whom I am first." If one does not feel his sin like a knife in his heart, he does not truly know his sin. Does a person know his sin with words? That is never enough. He must know it in his being, in his heart. He must feel it. If one of us gets a tiny splinter two millimeters long in his finger, he can no longer sleep at night because he feels it. We can't know our sin if we don't feel it. Those saints are a bundle of feeling. A saint is a bundle of feeling sin, and at the same time, a bundle of feeling that he is a handful of dust, no more and no less. A bundle of feeling that if the Lord did not build this house-- which is me-- then it will not be built; the builders toil in vain. His entire concern comes to be with what is above: "Help me, O Lord. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." His entire mind and heart come to be above, because he senses death every day. He feels that he is dust every day. He feels that he is nothing. Inasmuch as a person cannot bear something like this, the saint's sense of nothingness is transformed into a sense of the Lord God's greatness. Therefore he magnifies the Lord, glorifies Him, praises Him, remembers Him wherever he goes: "Lord have mercy on me a sinner! O Lord, help me! O Lord, come to my aid!" In this way one grows in grace.

What is man? If we want to define what man is in himself, then in himself he is a handful of dust! But the Lord God was pleased in His great love for His light to dwell in this dust. We are a little bit of clay and light. This is man, if we want to boil him down, and no more. All that you see, after a hundred years, will be dust. All of us will become a bit of bone that gradually disintegrates. In the end, in human terms, we are a handful of dust, but nevertheless the Lord was pleased to dwell within us! Therefore our entire concern, if our path is straight, must be to say and repeat, to pray: "Come and abide in us, cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O Good One." The Lord gives us salvation for free! The Lord granted that we become children of the king! What are we worried about? Everything that we see around us, if the Lord did not give it to us, then it would vanish. If the Lord did not give us rain, then people would die of hunger. If He gives us two hours of rain, then we live for the entire year off these two hours. All of this is to show that we live by God's grace, by God's mercy and nothing more. Someone who does not see, whose mind does not go in this orientation, has something deviant in his heart. Sin is truly the distortion of man. For this reason, we do not need to trade the simplest commandment of the Lord Jesus Christ for anything in the world. We hold to the simplest of the commandments completely so that if we die of hunger, since only the Lord can snatch us away, at a time that He knows, and fill us with His heavenly manna, from His body which He gave us, so that it may be heavenly food for us. For this reason, it is not fitting for a believer, if he is a believer in spirit and in truth, to live with worry. What do we worry about if the Lord has provided everything for us, if He has given us everything now, later and forever? He has given us eternal life! We must worry about one thing: how to stay attached to the Lord. This is the only concern and we may have no other concern. This is how one is supposed to live: staying attached to the Lord. So we say to Him, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Have mercy on me. That is, I ask Him to take me so that I may remain attached to Him. What is the deep meaning of "have mercy on me"? Does this mean that He gives me sight? No, for there is much more than that! When I say to the Lord, "have mercy on me, O Lord," I am asking for Him Himself, His Spirit. I am asking for Him! I am not asking for what belongs to God, but rather I am asking for God. When I say, "have mercy on me," I am saying to Him, "take me and place me inside you, in your bosom, in Your womb." The word "mercy" [ra7ma] comes from "womb" [ra7im], the woman's womb, where man comes together. This is his fundamental home, from which he goes out. When I say to Him, "have mercy on me," I say to Him, "Place me in Your bosom! I want to remain attached to You!" I want to be close to His heart just as John the Beloved was close to God's heart, to the heart of Jesus Christ.

So the one thing for which I must toil day and night is to remain enveloped in God's mercy. I must avoid anything that separates me from the Lord's mercy. At that point, I no longer need to worry about anything else at all. So the primary task of the believer in his life in the world is to seek God's mercy in every moment of his life. To strive for God's mercy by keeping the commandment in every moment of his life. To refuse to be separated from God's mercy at every moment of his life. One who proceeds in this manner never has a problem. Wherever he goes, the grace of the Lord precedes him. The grace of the Lord preserves him, carries him. The Lord says in the Sermon on the Mount: "Why do you worry? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Therefore, seek first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness and everything else shall be added unto you!" This blind man, it is true that he became seeing, but more important than that is that his heart became seeing. This is expressed in the text that was read to you today because the Lord said to him first, "Your faith has saved you." He didn't just open his external eyes. The Lord God opened the eyes of his heart. That is, He cleansed him of his sin. He forgave him his sins and saved him. This is truly salvation. The result was, as the text says at the end, "Immediately, he could see." His heart was opened and he followed Him. He went after Him. He ran after Him! He no longer had anything else to follow. He no longer needed to beg. He found the precious treasure. He no longer needed to have any worry. "He followed Him." He followed Him, giving glory to God. "When they saw this, all the people praised God." God is so sweet He makes you cry. Anyone who doesn't see the beauty of the Lord lives and dies without meaning. The important thing is that we behold God in His mercy, in His love, in His light. Glory to God for all He has given us!

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan-- Douma, Lebanon
Sunday, December 2, 2018