Saint Peter’s Basilica 1987

Gerringong, NSW

There are moments in our lives which leave us with such strong impressions that the picture fades little with the passing of time. One of those moments I experienced in Rome, in December of 1987. I was twenty-six years old and only recently ordained into the holy diaconate of the Eastern Orthodox Church, yet here I was about to witness one of the most important historical events in the relations between the two great churches since the “official” schism of 1054.[1] A few days earlier I had been travelling through Switzerland and was camped out in Zermatt by the foot of the Matterhorn but was able to arrange some fast changes to my travel itinerary, get on a train, and make it to Rome. It would be just in time for the highly controversial concelebration in Saint Peter’s Basilica between Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople. Some days earlier the two religious leaders issued a joint-declaration from the Vatican stressing “the fraternal spirit between the churches.” In a uniquely solemn ceremony the Patriarchs of East and West together recited in Greek the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed as originally expressed without the filioque.[2]

Outside in Saint Peter’s Square among the throng of thousands happy enough to witness the momentous event on the giant monitors, another smaller act was about to unfold. Entry into the famous Basilica on that day was by a special ticket, though it was plain enough to see that it was still hugely overcrowded. I was thinking how memorable it would be to witness it all from the inside, to be part of this historic occasion as it actually happened. It was then that I was approached by a nun who appeared to have been the superior of a small group of religious in her company. I could not rightly guess her age on account of her habit, but her face though angular and pale, was a handsome one. She smiled with the expected reserve of someone in her position and with a light tap to my wrist introduced herself, “Good morning Father, I am Sister Benedicta.” During this short exchange she kept her hands clasped neatly in front of her. I noticed an unusual silver rosary with a pearl crucifix intertwined between her fingers. She asked whether I would accept the biglietto of one of her group who at the last moment could not be there. “Thank you very much, yes, of course.” It would still prove quite a challenge to make my way to the entrance secured by the Swiss Guard. I would have liked to talk to this softly-spoken woman, whose accent betrayed a French background, to have asked something of her life, but before I could rightly thank her she disappeared into the growing mass of people. Many years later in Bucharest when I had similarly lost the “old man” in the maddening rush of afternoon traffic, I would once more remember losing her in the crowd.

I pushed and shoved through this vast sea of animated bodies to get through to my destination. At last once there, and after showing my ticket to the officials, I was treated with new found respect and escorted to the near front. My seat was only a few rows behind the impressive congregation of VIPs. Sister Benedicta’s friend, I thought, must have been somebody quite important to have been reserved a spot this close to the historic proceedings. Whose place did I take? There in the company of cardinals and bishops, and of politicians and celebrities, sitting inside an architectural wonder of Renaissance ingenuity (the breath-taking art of the great masters alone was enough to strike you dumb), I felt my chest puff up and my head begin to spin. The pomp and ceremony elevated to an undreamed-of degree intoxicated my senses. Not far, there immediately before us, the Papal Altar where the ancient tomb of Saint Peter lies directly below. One moment I wanted it all and knew that I could make it happen. A few minutes later I was sickened by these thoughts and realized that such high-places would never be for me. The truth? I was possessed with too much ‘bad’ pride and I would need to fight against it for the remainder of my life. At first chance when such opportunities might again present themselves, I would have to uproot. And flee quickly into the darkness in search of the ‘compensation’. “Oh, dear Jesus and Mother of God, what will become of me?”

[1] Meyendorff, J. The Orthodox Church, (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, New York 1981), ch. 3, 39-60.

[2] Siecienski, A.E. The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010).

The realms of unconditional love

Gerringong, NSW

I was fortunate that this truth stumbled upon me when I was broken enough to receive it. Pride is a barrier to all things really important and is never wholly defeated. One of the most difficult and ‘objectionable’ of prayers aimed directly at the ego: Lord, I pray for anonymity.[1] Had I been a younger man when I feigned to be inclusive of my heterodox brethren and when in reality I was fundamentalist almost to the core, I would have been too proud or too arrogant, probably both, to get off the high-horse and see past my own life-legend.[2] This truth which presses on us is amazingly straightforward yet one of the hardest challenges to a member of a believing community, in particular to a believer who has invested years in the building and defending of their life-legend. This is not difficult to understand.

Good religious people with sincere and honest intentions want for their ‘Myth’ to be the right one,[3] for this will validate their life and give reason and meaning to the suffering and to the wounds along the way. It has been correctly pointed out for instance, that if we are to look for the unifying theme in the writings of Dostoyevsky, it is his exploration of the human condition centred about the need to be sure of at least one thing. Kierkegaard before him would ask a similar question of his readers, do we will the one thing and what is this one thing? And yet a believer need not abandon the consolation of their spiritual home to concede that others may make comparable claims as to the comprehension of the Right Way. Here is found the delicious irony: the truer and more profound one’s own religious experience within the believing community, that is for instance, the ‘more’ Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim… the more humble and cognizant one is of their own lowly position before the Almighty Creator. Some like the German-Swiss philosopher Frithjof Schuon have spoken of that which underlies religion, the religio perennis, or the religion of the heart, the religio cordis

Within this atmosphere of the mutual understanding of the uniqueness and preciousness of our neighbour, the more tender and compassionate does the heart become in acknowledging the right of the other to exist and to explore and to love. At its crux, terrorism has nothing to do with the practice of religion but is a movement of violence which makes use of and exploits both religious rhetoric and sacred paradigms. This is exactly what the ‘anti-theists’ have not been able or have not wanted to understand. Cultural Marxism (at least in the West and certainly post 1920’s) has played a big part in the establishment of the “religion is violent” narrative. Diving deeper into the Divine (or into “the Aleph” as some mystics might say) takes you further into the realms of unconditional Love and into the opposite direction of the bomb makers whatever their stripe. Ultimately, the greatest force for change on earth which neither yields nor breaks and is ancient even beyond the oldest stars, is that energy which has its source in the Light. Let us then not underestimate our own possibilities, for light  too we have learnt, can be reflected from dust.

One of the great joys in my teaching life was when one of my under-graduate students at the University of Wollongong (UOW) came to my office to thank me for re-igniting the religious zeal in her heart. I was surprised but more so very deeply moved. This student was a Muslim and I her teacher a Christian. This gifted young lady would go on to earn a highly commended doctorate and inspired both Katina and myself, her two thesis supervisors, in equal measure. The busier we are trying to live and to work out our own religion, the less time we will have to bury our neighbour’s. On the problematical question of religious plurality or ‘Ecumenism’ I am in free-fall somewhere between Karl Rahner’s “Anonymous Christian”, and John Hick’s “mutually inclusive inclusivism”. For many years I have held to the Apokatastasis.[4] Not as a dogma, but as a theologoumenon which is a theological opinion. Nowhere am I suggesting that doctrine is not important. Precisely because it is that we should not spend our time fighting over it, but rather we should be immersing ourselves in the understanding of its eschatological and soteriological implications.

There is an extraordinarily beautiful and telling admonition aimed at Peter by Jesus in the last chapter in the Gospel of John which proved defining for me as I battled with issues of my own faith and ministry. Peter, pointing to the younger disciple John and curious as to his future, asks Christ, “But Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow me” (Jn 21:21-22). In other words: mind your own business, and go about your work.

George, Eleni, and Jeremy, my three beautiful children, should you ever read these little reflections from your dad when you are grown up, this is all that I would want for you to take away: hold fast onto the faith you have received and exchange it for nothing of the world and for nil of its promises; at the same time do not close your ears or limit your wonder to the unique stories of others who have gone on a different journey nor shut your eyes or your heart to the divine presence in the other who is standing before you; and be the first to offer to fill your neighbour’s cup with cool water. This alone would have made my life worth living.

[1] This little prayer uttered by an idealistic young clergyman in a hotel room in Athens one evening, might be better understood nowadays given the internet and the rise of social media, as more of a condition of the spirit and state of mind rather than an actuality or a possibility.

[2] By life-legend I simply want to term the story we write for ourselves to describe and to justify our decision making and personal history. That is, all of that which goes into the creation and development of our identity and world-view.  

[3] I will normally use myth close to the intentions of Carl Jung for whom “mythmaking” was a pathway for the unconscious part of our psyche to express itself. It is one of the ways of how the collective unconscious strives to become conscious.

[4] For an excellent summary of this theological opinion held by a number of the Church Fathers, see Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, (Penguin Books: London, 1993), 261-263.