I’m sort of thinking aloud here and may not be expressing myself well.

This is more than a day late for the feast of Saint Nicholas, and the things I had been considering saying on the punching of heretics will have to wait. But as I drove around Cape Town yesterday, seeing flags flying at half mast and feeling shaken by the news of Nelson Mandela’s death, I couldn’t help being moved by the appropriateness of him dying on the eve of the feast of the great saint of Myra. (Sister Catherine Wybourne has some thoughts on this connection here and Deacon Stephen Hayes has written on what it means to speak of Madiba as an icon here).

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this seems appropriate – they were, after all, two very different figures and comparisons are probably dangerous. There is also a danger in viewing Madiba in ecclesial terms which are inappropriate for him – to speak of a secular saint is a contradiction in terms.  Plus there is the real danger of trivializing his legacy as those who once did everything in their power to work against him now seek to co-opt the once-banned image.

But as I drove around thinking about this, I kept being reminded of Father Thomas Hopko’s words about Saint Nicholas. In The Winter Pascha, he writes that Saint Nicholas is not known for anything extraordinary, but that what stands out about him was that he was a genuinely good man. Father Hopko continues: (more…)

Christ died once. He was buried once. Nevertheless he wants ointment to be poured on his feet each day. What are the feet of Christ on which we pour ointment? They are the feet of Christ of whom he himself says, “What you have done for one of the least of these, you have done to me.” The woman in the Gospel refreshes these feet. She moistens them with her tears when sin is forgiven of the lowest of persons, guilt is washed away, and pardon is granted. The one who loves even the least of God’s people kisses these feet. The one who makes known the favour of his gentleness to those who are frail annoints these feet with ointment. The Lord Jesus himself declares that he is honoured in these martyrs and apostles.

St Ambrose of Milan, Letter 22, quoted in Arthur A. Just (ed). Luke (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture) 129.

Since posting on my response to Evangelicals and the substitutionary atonement, I seem to have got involved in some discussions with some Evangelicals. I am still trying to work out whether this is a good thing or not, but it has prompted me to want to post something on Orthodox understandings of salvation. I recently listened to a lecture on “Salvation in Christ” by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia. This was part of The Way course, (which I have been meaning to post about, but that will have to wait). In any case, it seemed like a worthwhile introduction to the topic of how salvation should be understood in Christian tradition and so I decided to summarise it and make it available here. Part of my motivation in doing so is that many western Christians, perhaps particularly in South Africa, seem to automatically identify salvation with the substitutionary atonement theory. Or, when they come to reject that, they move into something totally subjective. And if I can help to make people aware that the Tradition is actually broader and deeper than these rather sterile alternatives, then that will probably be a good thing. In any case, I’m posting this here. It’s long, but is worth reading….

Metropolitan Kallistos begins recounting a rather typical story of being asked “Are you saved?” by a man on a train. How is one to answer such a question? And how are we to understand Christian salvation?

He then proceeds by pointing out that the New Testament does not provide a single way of understanding the saving work of Christ, but rather “a whole series of images and symbols set side by side. They are symbols of profound meaning and power, yet for the most part they are not explained but left to speak for themselves.” He suggests that we should not isolate any one image of Christ’s work but should rather view them together. In this talk he will highlight possible models of salvation, but these are not exhaustive.

Underlying all six models is one fundamental truth, namely that “Jesus Christ, as our Saviour, has done something for us that we could not do alone and by ourselves. We cannot save ourselves; we need help. … We could not come to God, so He has come to us.”


In reality, a monastic community consists of broken people living a life of repentance. Like all broken people, monastics come into intense conflict with one another, conflict which visitors and pilgrims never see because monks and nuns tend not to “wash their dirty linen in public.” What the visitor to a monastery experiences in the gracious hospitality and respectful distance is absolutely genuine, but it has little to do with the experience of the monks and nuns themselves. Outsiders who visit a monastery may consider the members of the community to be “perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless.” Members of the community know better. The basic difference between monastic life and parish life in this respect, then, is that the problems in a monastery become far more severe, but the solutions become even more profound and life-changing.

They say that in any average monastery nine out of ten who come to try the life end up leaving. It’s all about handling the pressure of interpersonal relationships. Either you give up and go away or you stay and make it work. Ultimately there is only one way to make the monastic life work—by demonstrating the willingness to resolve conflict by forgiving others, asking their forgiveness, reconciling with them, and by humbling yourself even when you think you are right. This process does not take place in every monastery, and as a result the monasteries which are healthy are very, very healthy, while the monasteries that go bad go very, very bad. In either case, they serve as an example to the parish, either a good example or a bad example.

What monastic life, at its best, has to offer the parish is a vision of what the Kingdom is like when we make our relationships with other persons work, because ultimately healthy relationships – with other human persons and with God – are the only thing that matters.

Monk Cosmas Shartz in the current issue of In Communion, journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship of the Protection of the Mother of God, February2011, p. 35, also available here.

Do not hate the sinner. We are, indeed, all laden with guilt. If for the sake of God you are moved to oppose him, weep over him. Why do you hate him? Hate his sins and pray for him, that you may imitate Christ Who was not wroth with sinners, but interceded for them. Do you not see how he wept over Jerusalem? We are mocked by the devil in many instances, so why should we hate the man who is mocked by him who mocks us also? Why, O man, do you hate the sinner? Could it be because he is not so righteous as you? But where is your righteousness when you have no love? Why do you not shed tears over him? But you persecute him. In ignorance some, who are considered to be discerning men, are moved to anger against the deeds of sinners.

Be a herald of God’s goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are. Although your debt to Him is so very great, He is not seen exacting payment from you; and from the small works you do, He bestows great rewards upon you. Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good’, He says, ‘to the evil and to the impious.’ How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I choose to give unto this last even as unto thee. Or is thine eye evil because I am good?’ How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it, and thus bore witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change.

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, I, 51, translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. 251.

Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action. To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as an other self, we resort to the ‘impersonal law’ and to abstract ‘nature.’ That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, it demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him … and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who ‘saves himself’ in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.

Thomas Merton, in a letter to Dorothy Day, December 20, 1961, quoted by Jim Forest in “Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day: a Special Friendship,” a lecture given at Bellarmine University in Louisville on 13 October 2010.

Now in the narrative of the paralytic a number of people are brought forward for healing. Jesus’ words of healing are worthy of reflection. The paralytic is not told, “Be healed.” He is not told, “Rise and walk.” But he is told, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven you.” The paralytic is a descendent of the original man, Adam. In one person, Christ, all the sins of Adam are forgiven. In this case the person to be healed is brought forward by ministering angels. In this case, too, he is called a son, because he is God’s first work. The sins of his soul are forgiven him, and pardon of the first transgression is granted. We do not believe the paralytic committed any sin [that resulted in his illness], especially since the Lord said elsewhere that blindness from birth had not been contracted from someone’s sin or that of his parents. …

Furthermore, so it could be understood that he was in a body and that he could forgive sins and restore health to bodies, Jesus said, “That you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins,” then he said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your pallet and go home.” First he granted remission of sins; next he showed his ability to restore health. Then, with the taking up of the pallet, he made it clear that bodies would be free from infirmity and suffering; lastly, with the paralytic’s return to his home he showed that believers are being given back the way to paradise from which Adam, the parent of all, who became profligate from the stain of sin, had preceded.

 Hilary of Poitiers in Manlio Simonetti (ed), Matthew 1-13 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture), (InterVarsity Press, 2001) 174, 175.

In the third chapter of The Compassion of the Father, Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues his discussion of the mystery of forgiveness. He begins by pointing out that in the Liturgy, the Lord’s Prayer follows the epiclesis and that it is only in this context of the invocation of the Holy Spirit who transforms us into the Body and Blood of Christ, that we can live the Our Father – with its petition to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” – to the full. Indeed, “if we expect God to forgive us to the extent of our own forgiveness, it is a vain hope because we ourselves are not able to forgive.” (74)

In the Bible we encounter the primacy of the forgiveness of God which would seem to contradict the words of the Our Father “forgive us … as we forgive.” Here Father Boris distinguishes two degrees of forgiveness. The first is universal and absolute, that in Christ God has forgiven us. This is unconditional, for God loved us when we were still sinners. But there is also second degree of forgiveness:

through the action of the Holy Spirit we are called to be collaborators with the work of God by assuming this mystery and this achievement, the fruit of the forgiveness of God. Universal forgiveness is offered by not imposed. The human being remains free – this is the great mystery of the Christian faith – in the presence of the love of God, the forgiveness of God, the light of God, which we may accept or reject. Thus our refusal of God is part of the mystery of His love. (75)

Moreover, in the prayer of Christ on the cross – “Father, forgive them…” – we encounter the supreme reconciliation with the Father. This prayer encompasses all times and space.

Being in solidarity with his executioners, we are all concerned with this prayer of forgiveness that Christ addresses to the Father. The slightest refusal of God, indeed the smallest rejection of His love, unites us with those who tempted Christ during His life, and with those who crucified Him. Thus the prayer of Christ is truly an epiclesis to the Father. (76)

But sin is more than simply individual deeds. Behind it there is a personal power that seeks to subdue and destroy humanity. It divides them, whereas Jesus died in order to gather together the scattered children of God. (Jn 11:52) Sin breaks our “communing” character, isolating us from God, from other people and from ourselves. God comes to be seen as far away and harsh. Human relations become characterised by hate, incomprehension and vengeance. And the human being disintegrates, losing integrity and unity of being.

The deep heart, the immaterial place in the image of God, though indestructible, becomes alienated, seriously overshadowed, darkened, and locked up in its own depth. The human being becomes a stranger to his or her identity and ultimate vocation, roaming like a suffering soul between heaven and earth. In this state of multiple dissociation, the human being is at the same time a victim of possessive Satanic powers and enslaved to his or her own desires. (77)

However, this does not take away our own responsibility – “Responsibility and guilt remain because the image of God continues to glow in the depths.” (78) Forgiveness means that when God wipes the sin away, He heals the underlying wound and creates a new heart.

Man cannot truly heal himself: he does not have the strength for it because the wound in him is too big; it continues to bleed and cause suffering. Only God can forgive. (78)

Thus forgiveness means us allowing God to heal the wound of our own heart.

When we hear the words of the priest at the eucharistic liturgy, “Let us lift up our hearts” and the response of the choir, “We lift them up unto the Lord,” what happens at that moment? What does it mean “to lift up one’s heart to God?” This can be understood in the sense of forgetting all that is earthly, human, secular, and of turning to God in a relationship of absolute verticality, of prayer, adoration, and total supplication. That, however, is only a way of perception because whether we like it or not, our heart is a universe. Our heart is wider than the world because it contains it; it knows that the world does not know this mystery it carries within. When our hearts are filled with everything that make up our existence, our joys, our sorrows, all our loves, all our hatred and sufferings, what can we do? We are not able to tear all this from our hearts. Thus, we can only lift up our hearts to God. Just as we expose the sick part of our body to radiation that can heal it, so do we lift up our sick hearts and ask the Lord to penetrate them; we ask Him to enter into our sick and beseeching hearts with all His power, His grace, His love, with all the presence, the light and the fire of the Spirit to consume what must be, to transform and recreate what must remain for the kingdom. (79-80)

In this process we also learn not to place ourselves at the centre of things – for “who am I not to forgive?” – and repentance becomes the key to forgiveness.

When I ask for forgiveness while viewing myself as “the least of men and the chief sinner,” the forgiveness of the other assumes another resonance. Therefore I cannot forgive unless I ask forgiveness from all and each. This is the preliminary and inner dimension of forgiveness. When I forgive, it is still the me that is at the center. Conversely, when I ask for forgiveness, I break this proud me; the forgiveness of the neighbour, or of the one whose neighbour I am, becomes necessary.

The mystery of repentance is the first work of the Holy Spirit, which is to bring us to recognise ourselves as sinners, aliens, and orphans. “Give your blood and receive the Spirit,” a patristic adage states. The Spirit descends on the world in tongues of fire, in dew of living water to quench the thirsty, in healing the wounds of sin, in leading the lost sheep to the house of the Father, when I discover myself – and me alone – as a sinner and guilty (1 Tim 1:15). I ask forgiveness from all and each, but above all from God who alone can forgive: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk 2:7) (81)

In the second chapter of The Compassion of the Father, Father Boris Bobrinskoy addresses the theme of loving one’s enemies. The work of salvation involves a long, painful pedagogy, for the germ of evil is deeply rooted in the human heart. Nor are the categories of a fallen world enough to protect us from the demands of the Gospel.

The standard concepts of “brother,” “neighbour,” “adversary,” or “enemy” should be reconsidered in the light of the new law. There is no watertight barrier between them, but a passage from the one to the other. From the beginning, the law of sin is spread out over the entire earth like gangrene. It penetrates into the inmost human heart, where it breaks the integrity and inner unity. Man is divided, alienated from himself, from God, from his brothers; he becomes an enemy to himself, of God, of his brothers.

The history of Cain and Abel, like that of Joseph and his brothers, is at the same time decisive and emblematic of all our fraternities, all our natural relations. Ancestral sin, even before the murder of Abel by Cain had already introduced enmity like a universal germ of hostility into human relationships. Friendship and natural love, whether of a parental, fraternal, or conjugal order, sometimes hide hatreds and tenacious resentments behind a smiling face. Let us recall the words of the Lord on the whitewashed graves. They concern not only the Pharisees of His time, but also all of humanity. (69)

Behind the mystery of evil we can discern the profile of the Adversary who personifies hatred. He is the one whom Jesus confronts and overcomes. And it is this personification that allows us to appropriate some of the cruellest texts of the Old Testament.

In their spiritual reading, the Fathers teach us to see in the children of Babylon or the children of Egypt, a symbol of sin, of hatred, of Satan. Thus we try to smash all these offshoots of evil and sin that try to live in us against the Rock, Christ. (70)

Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and love for enemies finds its ultimate truth in His prayer for His executioners and it is only in Him that we can find the peace that abolishes the law of retaliation. It is His peace that we need to penetrate in order to become truly peaceful. And we are enabled to do this through His gift of the Holy Spirit.

To the extent that we enter into the mystery of Christ, who died for us when we were all sinners and under the wrath of God, our hearts in our deepest being is transformed. The heart, once inhabited by the forces of darkness and hatred, becomes the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. It is no longer I who live – this detestable I – but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). He is the one who lives, who loves, who forgives. He is the one who prays and intercedes. Jesus on the cross makes heavenly intercession, as the one whom the Epistle to the Hebrews and the entire Christian tradition calls “the high priest.” Essentially the risen Christ prays that we might enter into His prayer and forgive. In the breath of the Spirit who sighs in us, “Abba, Father,” He is the one who is poured out in our hearts. This is the gift of Pentecost, the gift of tongues, the anti-Bablel. (71)

If we are attentive to this sighing of the Holy Spirit within us, we will be able to repeat the words of Staretz Saint Siloaun:

The Holy Spirit teaches that one should love one’s enemies so much that one will have compassion on them as one would on one’s own children. The one who does not love his enemies does not have the grace of God. (71-72)