Healing the Healers
A translation by Fr Alexis Vinogradov
We have finally reached a satisfying place in our OCA tragedy, satisfying because, as Fr Christopher Wojcik points out, we now have a basis for hope in moving forward. But this satisfaction also carries an inherent danger, the danger in delighting not that good prevailed over evil, but that the “good ones” have prevailed over the “evil ones”. The persistent desire for punitive consequences for individual leaders takes punishment from the hands of the Judge and arrogates it to human calculations and balances.
The justification for this desire is rooted in the claim that in assuming responsibilities leaders accept the consequences of their actions. Their failure to accept the consequences, nonetheless, does not exempt them from those consequences, and so the collective body, the Church (read here: the Good Ones), believes that it must mete out justice to the Bad.
My purpose in this post is simply as translator, to put before all of us a poignant essay which relieved my own broken heart in this, our current and continuing tragedy. Perhaps if we keep asking ourselves, why meet in Pittsburgh in November?, what good can come?, who will lead?, and so forth, the following reflection on the nature of the Eucharistic Body might be of great help.
This is a portion of an essay by Latvian priest Victor Mamontov who stands today in the leading line of Russian priests like Frs Men, Shpiller, Borisov, Chistiakov, Kotchetkov, and others who are intent on reviving and realizing concrete and active Eucharistic communities. The essay title, The Heresy of Life, uses Berdiaev’s idea that we lie about life not in our formal declarations, but in the actual way we realize, or rather fail to realize, the Eucharistic life.
Fr Schmemann spoke of the antinomies of ecclesial life, that one cannot discern life’s choices in black and white terms. How often he reminded us that while the Lord came “for the life of the world”, the Lord also warned us “not to love the world”; that the same Lord who from the Cross said, ‘Father, forgive them…”, said also, “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees…”. It is Pollyannaish and irresponsible to overlook the actual sins (and yes, crimes) perpetrated so many years against the trust of Church members, that is why the SIC report must be lauded for its directness, impartiality, clarity, and sobriety. But it is spiritually irresponsible (and yes, deadly) to pursue the isolation and demeaning of the perpetrators. The evidence of actions brought to light accompanied by a forgiving Eucharistic Body becomes the therapeutic context in which the sinning healer has the choice to turn and be healed. But if that door is closed, then it is the doorkeepers who will have to answer to the One who called Himself the Door (or Gate) to the sheepfold.
The essay below presents in concrete, local, and dynamic terms what Fr Robert Arida directs our attention to in his recent treatise on the foundations and ideal of Eucharistic ecclesiology (here):
I wish to give a brief account of how one of our local communities managed to deflect this heresy [he refers to Berdiaev’s “heresy of life”], though the danger was quite great. This is about the care of the flock for its shepherd.
The example might appear unusual, because we always expect the shepherd to care for the flock, which in turn accepts this nurture as its due. But in church life there are situations where the sheep must be nurturing of the shepherd.
In one Latvian community a group of parishioners, wishing to live a more intense communal life, to more effectively church their daily lives, met with some resistance from the pastor. They had to figure our how to solve their dilemma. This group of roughly ten souls decided to begin the process by themselves. They decided to go through a catechization without the pastor since he clearly had no experience in this and was consequently reluctant to meet their need. He had reacted to any conversations about catechization with the fear that it implied the danger of sectarianism, and is not germane to Christianity as he understood it.
These parishioners found support in other places where they saw a solid communal Christian life, and where proper preparation was available, with a good introduction into Christian faith and life.
It is instructive that this group never considered the possibility of engaging in conflict with their own pastor or leaving him or forgetting about him.
God’s love does not abandon anyone. Patriarch Athenagoras used to say, “Christ loved every person more than anyone else”. Love motivated this group to struggle on behalf of their pastor, to try to deeply understand his predicament. Such love cannot deny the brother who is in need of help. The justice of God is not man’s justice—it is love. God gives us only His love and wishes that we Christians would act only in love; that we would pray with hope that God stands at the door of every heart, even when it is closed, and if necessary He will patiently wait a whole eternity, until it opens.
They reasoned: “God gave us this living situation, this pastor, these brothers, this church, this city, this land, and it is our task to transform everything towards the best possible, to transfigure everything which is not yet transfigured by the love and patience of Christ.”
These parishioners did not oppose the priest, understanding that it was hard for him, possibly harder than for themselves, who had already tasted the joy and mystery of communal life. One of the brothers remarked, “We can’t take the path of conflict and division, we can’t ignore the person. If in the same family there is a sick person, then the sin is on me if I exacerbate another’s illness. What can a small community possibly offer for the healing of the Church if she cannot bear the frailties of her own members? The Church is our family as she is. Why must we be strangers to one another within this body?”
In our relations with friends we have the choice of power, of external influence, or then of being leaven, of a hidden inner influence. One of the brothers recently wrote me, “It seems to me that at the heart of everything lies the rejection of power. The worthwhile achievement of anything lies not in force but in the rejection of it. Rejection of power leads to prayer. Our Lord already rejected power on the Cross for us. He only waits for us to reject power for our sakes and for His.”
The brothers and sisters discovered what is most important: the ways of power and love are incompatible. Our Church is currently afflicted with hatred. But this disease is not healed through power.
Olivier Clement writes, “Historical Christianity is burdened with the fruits of willpower and authority, with the desire to convince through power. The Church must reject power, without relinquishing the need to be leaven, and indeed leaven in every sphere of life. Outside of all power she can live in light, varying in intensity, in relation to the times, and countries, and possibilities of history.
We need to jettison the temptation to externally influence society. We can only effectively influence anything internally, in hearts and minds through the rays of this light, through the many forms of our efforts.
The role of the Christian is not to fight secularization, which has effectively triumphed, but to transform it into a positive sign, by making the Church into leaven in its midst, rather than a competing power, and to affirm the ultimate answers about existence for which secularization offers no satisfaction.
Perhaps God awaits from Christians a certain creative spirituality which would become the spirit of the age, invisibly transforming the culture.
This is all quite critical because we are all exhausted from today’s Christianity as the ideology of the group, the nation, and government. We are exhausted from an Inquisition mindset, with worrying about influence and purpose. After all, we can be poor and free!
Perhaps for the first time in history Christians are indeed becoming poor and free. There appears openness to small things, to simplicity, to wider horizons and views, a return to sources. It is a joy about finding the one thing needful, to live by it in the Church, in the freedom of personal choice. This is a great treasure of our age.”
The choice of being an inner leaven became a fruitful one for the members of our small community in Riga. In their living relationship with everything transpiring in the parish, in their insistence on relentless love, they changed the spiritual atmosphere in the parish, they helped the pastor experience the joy of being the Body of Christ, a united spiritual family.
The day came when everyone received Holy Communion and the pastor exclaimed, “How wonderful. Today we all received Communion. We are as one family!”
This was the very first experience of full Eucharistic joy, when the community and its pastor became the One Body of Christ. Even though their common life in Christ is only beginning, there is no doubt that this was the substantial victory of powerless, poor and free Christians on their road to the formation of true communal life.
When love loses its ultimate goal—God and one’s neighbor—it becomes depraved, it becomes the power, not of unity, but of division. As the aphorism goes: from love to hatred—one step.
What is it that betrays God? All that which is not Him, which is beneath Him. What is it that betrays man? All that which is not him, which is beneath him.
When a Christian fights for an idea, for the letter of law, for a canon, without noticing it he falls into a “holy hatred” and begins to fight against man. It is awful to realize that so often “holy hatred” is not regarded as sin, as the perversion of the Gospel spirit. That’s why it is so contagious. Suffering from this disease a person readily brings affliction on his neighbor, considering it useful, fully necessary and justifiable. The final manifestation of this disease is fanaticism.
Nicholas Berdiaev wrote: “Truth is first of all the Orthodoxy of life, not the Orthodoxy of teaching. The heretic is not so much one who holds the wrong doctrine as one who walks a false spiritual path in life. Orthodoxy is first of all not doctrine, not an external organization, not an external norm of conduct, but spiritual life, the soul’s experience and spiritual path.”
A person is always higher than any idea, higher than dogma, higher than law. That’s why in our desire to change church life, to transfigure it, we must always begin with the person, with his personal healing, we must always remember him specifically, remember him with the memory of God, that is, with the memory of love and of co-suffering.
It is impossible in the pursuit of an ideal of a happy spiritual family, to reject one of its members and forget about him. There can only be a coexistence with him, and coexistence means always remembering one another. Individualism is foreign to Christianity. And if there is no YOU then there is no ME. WE, together, the many, are one body. But this gathering of various personalities into one body is a very tough and dramatic reality. One of our brothers writes: “ When despite all our conflicts and hatreds which we can’t remove from our relationships, when despite all our problems, hurts and pains, we still insist on gathering, in order to be together in Christ’s love, then that very effort becomes the foundation on which God transforms us into the Body of Christ. Separately we exist as sinful individuals, suffering from our sins, but gathered together we are the suffering Body of Christ, the Holy Church—the beginning of bringing the bloodless sacrifice to the Eucharist.
One can even say paradoxically, when there is a gathering of those who love each other, it not yet the Church, but when those who do not love gather in the name of Christ’s love, and God effects what no man can—there is the true Church”.