Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Prayer and holiness in the contemporary world. Louvain

November 1968
Theme: Prayer, Saints and Holiness, Discipline   Place: Churches, religious bodies   Period: 1966-1970   Genre: Talk


Before speaking about prayer and holiness in the contemporary world, I want to point out something that we always forget, namely, that the world is contemporary, new and unexpected only for us: God is contemporary with all ages of the world that he created, and this contemporary world is not a problem for Him: it is a reality in the making, he participates in it, He sets it in motion, and it has a profound meaning for Him. I think that if we want to look at this contemporary world of ours, we must know how to look at it with our own human concern, because we ourselves are in process of becoming – “in via”, and not only “in patria” – and at the same time, from God’s point of view

The two poles of holiness

This is a very important thing for the comprehension of holiness, which has two poles: God and the world. Its source, its fulcrum and its content is God; but its point of impact, the place into which it is born, where it develops and also where it is expressed in terms of Christ’s salvation, is the world, this ambiguous world which, on the one hand, was created by God and is the object of such love that the Father gave His only-begotten Son for its salvation, and on the other hand, has fallen into the slavery of evil. This pole of holiness which relates to the world thus has two aspects: a vision of the world as God willed it, as He loves it, and at the same time an asceticism which requires us to disengage ourselves from the world and free the world from the grip of Satan.

This second element, this battle is our vocation, is part and parcel of holiness. The Desert Fathers, the ascetics of early times, did not flee from the world in the sense in which modern man sometimes tries to escape its grip in order to find a haven of security, they set out to conquer the Enemy in battle. By the grace of God, in the power of Spirit they were engaging in combat.

One of the reasons why holiness is unsteady and why the holiness of the fathers and Heroes of the Spirit in the early days often seems to remote is that we have lost this sense of combat. The conception of the Church as the advance guard of the Kingdom, as men and women who have committed their ultimate weakness into God’s hands, knowing with certainty that the very power of God is able to manifest itself in their weakness, the conception of the Church as the Body of Christ, whose life is not taken from it but which gives its life, is a rare thing among Christians. More often we see that as soon as a community or an individual is confronted with danger, he turns to the Lord and says: “lord, help me, protect me, save me, deliver me!” Isn’t it the picture which the Polish writer Sinckevicz gave us years ago in “Quo Vadis” in which St Peter leaves Rome at the moment of persecution and at the gates of the city he meets Christ, Who is on His way there. “Where are you going, Lord?” he asks his Master. “I am going back to Rome,” the Lord replies, “to suffer and die there because you are leaving it.” Isn’t this what we constantly expect of God? Isn’t it our anguished, desperate appeal to the Lord as soon as life becomes dangerous: “Deliver me, Lord!” When the psalmist spoke of this deliverance, his position was quite different from ours; he belonged to the Old Testament. We belong to the New testament, we are the Body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. God sent us into the world by His Son, just as He sent His Son into the world.

And so in this respect there is a crisis of holiness which does not date from our time, for it is contemporaneous with many Christian generations, but we must face it, because holiness is our absolute vocation, because contemplative holiness is not an escape, and because the activism of our time which tries to be independent of any contemplation and to become a value in itself, lacks the content of complete holiness which Christian holiness ought to have, for the content of holiness is God himself.

If you would like to make a closer study of holiness from the point of view of the Old Testament, you can easily refer to the alphabetical index of the Jerusalem Bible. There you will find all the elements that have been considered since before Christ. I would like to single out one or two without dealing with the subject as a whole.

One alone is God – One alone is Holy

God alone is holy. To say that God is holy is not to define Him as having holiness as an attribute, because we do not know this attribute. In saying “God is holy”, we do not define Him, because holiness itself is unknown to us: it becomes perceptible to us in proportion to our discovery of God. For Israel holiness was that which is God. Reverential fear was linked to this notion; likewise the sense of irremediable separation: God is transcendent in an absolute way, He is beyond everything. Even when God is known, He remains unknowable; even when He approaches, He remains infinitely far away; even when He speaks to us, he is still beyond all communication. To approach Him is a danger: He is the fire that consumes; one cannot see His face and remain alive. All these images show us the attitude of a people who were conscious of the holiness of God and who were face to face with this Living God.

But the scandal of the New Testament, the impossible thing, is that the Inaccessible One has become accessible, the transcendent Has become flesh and dwelt among us. The holiness which surpassed every human notion and was a separation reveals itself to be otherwise: the very holiness of God can become infinitely close without becoming any less mysterious; it becomes accessible without our being able to possess it; it lays hold of us without destroying us. In this prospective we can understand the words of St Peter in his general epistle, that we are called to become partakers of the divine nature. In Christ we see something which could be revealed by God but which could not even be dreamed of by man: the fullness of Divinity in human flesh. Here is the crux of holiness. It is accessible to us because of the fact of the Incarnation. This does not lessen the mystery of God: a purely transcendent God is easier to understand or imagine than the God of the Incarnation. And when we see the crиche of the Nativity in our imagination or in plastic representations and can take the Child-God in our hands, we are confronted with a greater mystery than that of the imperceptible God. How can we understand that the full depth of infinity and eternity lies here, hidden and at the same time revealed by a frail human body that is fragile and transparent to the presence of God?

Here is the very crux of holiness, because our holiness can be nothing else than participation in the holiness of God. And this is possible only through Christ, although the Old testament was aware of a created holiness within the created world. Everything which God lays hold of and which becomes His own possession, such as the Ark, a person, a holy place, participates in a certain way in God’s holiness and becomes an object of reverential fear. There is a holiness of presence: the Temple there is a holiness disquieting for the neighbouring peoples: the people of God, who are the place of the Presence. But this place of the Presence, which was like a living temple, does not participate in God’s holiness in a personal way, in each of its members. It is only later, in the Church of the Living God, that the place of the Presence also becomes the place of a personal presence within and through each one: it is the Church, the Body of Christ, the Church which Christ is on the evening of His Resurrection, in the Holy Spirit Who takes hold of the Church, brings it to birth and become its life; but is is also the Church each of whose members, on the day of Pentecost and through the centuries by a continuation of that mystery, becomes the temple of the Living God. And the Church is not only linked to Christ as His Holy Body and to the Spirit, whose temple she becomes, but it is a Church in which each member in his particular uniqueness is linked to the father through the only-begotten Son. “Your life,” says St Paul, “is hidden in God with Christ.” This relationship of Christ with us, this bond between the One Who alone is holy and His creatures, this presence of the personal eternity and personal infinity that God is, this real and living participation in a divine holiness is the essential characteristic of the Church, or at least one of its central characteristics. I believe that the Church is holy, not simply blessed and sanctified by gifts of grace, but holy with a depth and intensity which surpass all measure, holy with holiness of God Who resides there, in the way in which a piece of wood glows with the fire that consumes it. And this holiness is a Presence in the Church. This is why the Church, in its position in relation to God, can acquire, possess and live this holiness only in Him.

On then other hand, just as god became man, just as His holiness was present in the flesh in our midst, living, acting and saving, so too now, through the mystery of the Incarnation, the Church participates in eternity, in the holiness of God, and at the same time also in the salvation of the world. The holiness of the Church must find its place in the world in an act of crucified love, in an active and living presence. But essentially it is the holiness, the Presence of God that we should manifest in the world. This is our vocation, this is what we are. If we are not this, we are outside the mystery that we pretend to express and in which we pretend to have our part.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to locate the position of the Church and that of the individual Christian in relation to the world. It seems to me that we have only two ways of doing this: on the one hand, we can try to understand, in the person of Christ and in divine love, what the world is for God and what the solidarity of God is with the world that He has created.

Holiness in Russian history

I believe that a careful study of the history of the saints will easily show us that throughout the ages holiness was the expression of love. In the very brief and condensed history of the Russian Church – it is hardly a thousand years since we became Christians – we can see something extremely important: the forms of saintliness have changed through the centuries without disappearing once they have come into being, and these changes express through the years the way in which God, in the hearts of the faithful, has loved the world. Scanning the history of the Russian Church – the one I know best – I see that at the beginning there is an act of faith: a man or a human group who believed, and who gave God to the surrounding people. St Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, believed. And because he believed passionately, radically, Christ entered into the history of his principality, and the social and human structures began to break up and be transformed. Yet he had no social purpose, no pious work in view: he simply could not live otherwise than he learned from God Himself. It is only because this man believed in the Gospel message that the relations and internal structures in his principality changed. It is curious to note this change during a period when there was certainly no talk of social security or of a state responsible for its citizens! We see in the first place that this man, who has been a man of war and violence, a powerful and authoritarian tribal chief, ceased to make war, opened the prisons and proclaimed the forgiveness of Christ. We see that this man, whose personal life was by no means a model of holiness, changed overnight with sharpness and clarity which confronted his people with a choice: to follow the old vision or a new one. We see that in the structures of this poor little city of Kiev, which was no more than market-town, the poor, the sick and the aged become the object of solicitude. All the poor who could still walk receive their daily meal in the courtyards of the Prince’s palace. For those who are too aged, too weak, unable to move about, the Prince sends carts loaded with bread and sustenance through the city and neighbouring hamlets. Here we have a picture of a social transformation as great, comparatively speaking, as the greatest of our time. It implies a change of mental habit more amazing than the improvements that we make from day to day within one mentality already acquired and given to us.

This is the first picture, living, active love, the diaconate of Christ.

Then, a little later, we have the witness of the martyr, a particular type of martyr. There is no doubt that the Russian church, like all the others, has known martyrs of the faith: people who set out to preach the Gospel to tribes that were still pagans had perished for their message. Among them are two men who expressed a type of holiness that we would call “social”. They were two princes, Boris and Gleb – and even the third, Igor – who chose to give up their power and principality and their very life rather than draw the sword. They allowed themselves to be killed rather than be defended and cause bloodshed. Here again is an example of holiness contemporaneous with an era of violence, one in which violence breaks out in new forms and in a new situation. Here again we see that the Gospel creates a situation of love, and that is love alone which defines holiness in this situation.

Then a dark age: Russia is invaded for three centuries and falls under Mongol yoke. At this time we find only two types of holiness, that of bishops and that of princes, both of which express the same thing. Their holiness arises out of the fact that both are hard pressed, being the defenders, advocates and protectors of the people committed to their charge, and they give their life, their blood, for the people. At this moment all the other forms of holiness that have existed – monastic holiness and others – become sporadic. A veritable epidemic of holiness begins: that of people who give their lives for their neighbour, truly taking responsibility for him according to the image of Kings and Priests which the old Testament gives us. They realize that sometimes, in so-called “better” times, the heads of the Church as well as those of the state forget that they stand on the threshold of two worlds: the world of men and the world of God; the world of unique, radiant, divine will directed to the salvation and plentitude of all things, and the world of multiple, discordant, violent human will opposed to that of God, – and that their role is to unite the two and to give their life for this work. Here again we see that it is love that takes the lead.

It is not a new invention in terms of holiness, it is not the search for a contemporary holiness: it is simply a response of the holiness inherent in the Church, of the love given by God to His Church, which has found a new form of expression. It was not the moment to withdraw into the forests or to choose other valid but different forms of holiness: it was the moment for giving one’s life.

The Mongol yoke withdraws; we enter a period of national anguish, a period in which the former suffering now changes to confidence. As long as this suffering was crushing the nation and destroying the very capacity to feel it, it was bearable. Now problems arise, internal ones which are not yet well expressed: God and suffering, the horror of the world which could be so frightful, and then the birth of hope and the search for a path for this hope. At this time we see giants of spiritual life one after the other abandoning everything, the highest tasks as well as the humblest circumstances, and withdrawing into the forests of northern and central Russia to seek God there. These men leave everything because they have understood that in torment, disorder and purely earthly seeking they will not find the answer to the problems of their contemporaries. They leave everything in order to be with God. Their purpose is certainly not social at this time. They have to find their souls again, and with their soul, the nation, the soul of their people, the soul of their contemporaries. They are not in flight: they take up a life so arduous, so laborious that it would be ridiculous to consider it as an escape. The living conditions in a forest in northern Russia at this time, the hunger, cold, physical dangers, wild beasts, all this should make it easy for us to understand that it is not an easy and comfortable life that they are looking for. They seek only God, and they find God in the depth of their souls, which surrender to Him. They seek only Him, but at the same time their love becomes deeper and deeper, and they welcome all those who, one after other, come in the same anguish, seeking the same haven of salvation. Monasteries grow up around them, this too by an act of love. A society of human help and work begin to appear. I will give two examples that are diametrically opposed.

In northern Russia beyond the Volga in the 15th century one of the great saints of Russia, St Nilus, settled with several companions in a desolate, swampy region. They lived in dreadful poverty, and in his Rule St Nilus said the a monk must be so poor that he cannot even offer physical charity beyond a piece of bread, but he should love the pilgrim or the vagabond or the brigand who has fled or the heretic who has broken away from the Church – let us say, the Church St Nilus belongs to – he should love him so much that he would be ready to give him all the spiritual experience, everything that his should contained. Here is a man who chose to know only Christ, and Christ crucified, who gave up everything, physically, and who could not give anything, for he possesses nothing but God alone, by Whom he was possessed. For one does not possess God: one is laid hold of by Him, filled with His breath and His presence, but one does not become the proprietor of all this.

The other man, his contemporary, lived in the region of Moscow and was an equally remarkable person. He founded a monastery in which about a thousand monks worked under the rule of incredible austerity. The monastery in such a cold region, was never heated, the monks were not permitted to wear anything but a hair shirt and a garment thrown over it. The offices lasted ten hours a day and the work in the fields or in the monastery was seven to eight hours. At times they groan and howl with indignation, saying, “We are hungry, our granaries are full… and you do not let us eat; we are thirsty and we have water… and you do not let us drink.” Their holy and fierce superior answers: “You do not work in order to be satisfied, you do not work in order to have a life of ease; you have no business to be warm, you have no business to be at rest. Look at the peasants round about, they are hungry, it is for them we must work; they are cold, it is for them that we must cut wood; they have many orphans, it is for them that you set up this orphanage; they are ignorant, it is for them that you have this school; the old people have no place to go, it is for them that you must maintain this old people’s home.” And these poor thousand monks, some of whom were doing their utmost to be holy, groaned and groaned… And nevertheless, under the strong hand of their Superior they lived a life which was love. There were moments when they kicked, when the flesh weakened, but they had a conscience in their midst: it was St Joseph, who did not allow them to fall as low as they would have. To use more modern terminology, he is, if you like, a collective super-ego. He is there with his absolute demands… And here we have another monastic type.

Other monasteries of the same kind formed round him. Hunger, cold, ignorance, neglect of the aged, neglect of the young: all this became the object of love. And if you read the works of life of St Joseph, there is no doubt there was nothing else but love, for he had no concern for anything else. He did not care about the consequences, nor did it matter what people thought of the folly of these things. What he said was that these people were hungry and in need of help, and that we who have known Christ, who know Who He is, must bring Him to them. And if it costs you your life, well, it costs you your life! If you read his writings, you will see few reassuring passages on the repose which the monks will have and a much greater number in which they are warned that if they do not toil hard, there is hell fire.

After this epoch we find ourselves in a period in which states begin to acquire a reality which we would now call secular. The principality of Moscow begins to grow in strength and size. It devours the neighbouring principalities by most unworthy means and asserts a kind of ethic, a state law. At this moment the Christian conscience rises up in a very curious. At this period, which was the time of renewal, when people were simply beginning to breathe again and also to attach themselves more and more to material goods – because they began to appear and because everyone was happy to be able to build a livable world at last – at this time a group of men and women, several dozen, appeared successively and simultaneously, who were called “God’s fools” or “fools of Christ”. On close inspection the folly in question can be interpreted in two different ways according to the various cases. There was the folly undertaken by people of clear intelligence, burning hearts and iron will. But there was also, in certain cases, the holiness of those whose intelligence was disturbed but who, basically, had God at the heart of their interior life. They were people who denied all the social values: wealth and impossibility living without many of the material things so dear to man: the most primitive human relations as well as the most demanding hierarchical relations. They were men who, in this icy Russia of the North, walked the streets with bare feet in winter, dressed only in a shirt, and proclaimed the fact that if you believe, you can live by the Word of God; if you believe, you can give up everything, whereas if you let yourself become involved in the new tendency to accept values that are only transitory, you are lost, you belong the world of Satan!

Was it an exaggeration or a vision of peace, a question of depth? I believe there is a question of depth here. I have no wish to say that we should all go out and do the same and that none of the human values which the Christian world formed in the course of centuries have any meaning. But I believe that if we have a religious vocation, if we have the sense of Eternity, the sense of Presence – and if we know that God is living and active in our midst and in us – we should have a Gospel on the subject. It would consist in saying: “Yes, all of that has a temporary, transitory, ephemeral and sometimes even necessary value taken as a whole, but we must not attach our hearts to it. We must toil with our backs and our hands, but our heart must not be put into it, for our heart should belong only to God.”

Then a more complex situation enters into the Russian history: the social life, the political life and the religious life gear into another in a way that is increasingly rich or increasingly impoverished, according to the moments. We find here all the types of Christian life that exists in the West, or in the Christian world taken as a whole, up to the moment when the Orthodox Church became the objet of persecution in communist countries. At this moment the Church and the world become linked in a new way. If you think of the martyrs of the first centuries, you find that they were distinguished by certain characteristics. They were men, women and children who had discovered that God and Christ were the ultimate value for them, that in Him resided all the meaning of life. He was all in all for them. And it was out of personal loyalty that when His name was blasphemed, when His Person was put in question, they could only die for Him. On the other hand, in this relationship between Christ and these who believed in Him, a profound change was taking place in them: they would die to be reborn. Recall the 6th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. They died the death of Christ and lived again by His Resurrection, they were in possession of eternal life, and it was eternal life that powerfully strengthened and gave direction to their temporal life. For them to die was not to perish but to be released from a transitory, ephemeral life with a view to attaining the fullness, the plentitude of eternal life in God. To live was Christ, but to die was a gain, for living in the flesh also meant being separated from God.

We see, however, that it was only indirectly, so to speak, that the martyrs brought about conversions: it was admiration, it was horror, it was the revelation of God by them which made conversions, but their intention seems to have been no more than to be witnesses of Christ, witnesses of the victory of God.

Since the revolution, in this world of incessant persecutions which are sometimes terrible and sharp, sometimes secret and hidden, a new mentality has developed. In this connection we can start with a thought that comes not from the Slavic world but from the West. Jean Danielou says that suffering is a meeting point of good and evil, of life and death. This is true, because evil is never something absolute, metaphysical and disincarnate; it always expresses itself in human persons, through human persons and to detriment of human persons.

Evil always slashes, plunges into human flesh or into human soul. There is always person-to-person relationship where there is suffering, hate, greed or cowardice. But the victory is decisive: evil falls into the hands of good, so to speak, because the moment we become victims, we acquire a right which is properly divine, to forgive. And then, just as Christ said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” so we can in our own turn say, as one of our bishops did before his death in the course of the Stalinist purges: “there will come a day when the martyr will be able to stand before the throne of God in defense of his persecutors and say, ‘Lord, I have forgiven in Thy Name and by Thy example; Thou hast no claim against them any more.’ “

This represents a new situation, a new mentality in the Church which is also one of the aspects of love, an aspect which surpasses our limits and is often so great for us because we are unable to do it on a small scale. How often are we able to forgive completely the little sufferings that are imposed upon us, the small inflicted on us? We have here a new upsurge of the love of God in human hearts, a new conquest by God. God manifests Himself once again, and the concept of the suffering Church and the personal martyr becomes at the same time a concept of the salvation of the other.

I hope that these examples will help you to grasp the fact that holiness is never in any way an individual act in the sense in which the word “individual” signifies the last term of a fragmentation, the point beyond which one can no longer divide, and that the holiness is always a situation and an act that imply not only the totality of the Church – since we are the living members of a body from which we cannot be separated and which cannot be separated from us – but also we are embers of the created world around us. Holiness is the love of God at work in a concrete, active, deliberate way, which applies itself with rigour and precision to situations that are always fresh and always contemporary with the eternal love of God and with the human presence of men, women and children who are possessed with this love and, being contemporaneous with their epoch, express it in a way that only they can choose, discover and put into practice.

The next point I wish to take up is one which, I think, is very important for the way in which we evaluate the world and our situation in the world: it is the notion of the solidarity of God with the world. I purposely use the word “solidarity”, which is neither theological nor pious, in order to avoid using a word, whatever it might be, that would put us right into the old rut where we could resolve without effort an extremely sharp and important problem.

Holiness and Solidarity

When we come to the subject of prayer in its relationship to holiness I shall try to give enough emphasis to the aspect of holiness which is oriented wholly towards God and whose content is God. Before doing that, I think it would be best to take a brief look at man, who is the object of incarnate holiness, the one towards whom the instances of human holiness are directed and with whom they often deal.

I should like to draw your attention to an important fact in our time. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was ideas and ideals which took precedence: man was their servant. In our time the value of man is so much to the fore, and in such a peculiar way, that doubt is sometimes thrown on the value of the ideas. There is certainly exaggeration in this; an equilibrium has to be found between the value of man and that to which he lives his life and dedicates his death. But none the less it is true that in the mentality of today, both within and outside the Church, man plays an essential role. He is not simply an object or instrument destined to accomplish works, nor is he the unique bearer of an idea. Man is seen to be more complex, he appears as a reality too rich to be reduced to the singleness of an ideology.

On the other hand, because he has attained this position in the mentality of today, it seems that man is now a point of real and extremely fruitful encounter between those who hold the most clearly opposing ideologies: faith and atheism. Man is the only object which they have in common. They visualize him and treat him differently, but the fact remains that it is man who is at the centre of both schools of thought. One could almost say that the modern interpretation of St Paul’s encounter with the altar “to the unknown God” would be to say that the unknown god is man, whom everyone is placing on the alter now. The atheist world sets up the empirical man and the collective man. The Christian world also places a man on the alter: the man Jesus Christ. The fact that the breadth of the vision of man in Christianity exceeds all the bounds of the created does not keep Jesus, the Son of God, the Word Incarnate, from being fully man in the total sense of the word “fully”.

I should like to draw your attention to two quotations, one from Marx and the other from St John Chrysostom. Marx says that the proletariat has no need of god because man has become his god. And St John Chrysostom: “If you want to measure the greatness of man, raise your eyes towards the throne of God and you will see the Word Incarnate, the bearer of our humanity, seated at the right hand of the glory.” Here are the two clearest expressions of the modern situation. And nevertheless in both cases it is man who is at the centre of everything.

For the atheist world of the stomach which one might call “gastric atheism”, about whom St Paul is speaking when he tells us, “These men’s god is their belly,” – but for the ideological atheist who bases himself on a concept of the world, theoretical man is truly a god. One might even ask what is the extent of this reality of the man-god for the atheist. The striking thing is that, on the one hand, the theoretical man is a god; at the same time the empirical man is a victim and a slave. This, I think, is explained by the fact that the theoretical man in question who is placed on the alter of atheism is not a personal man, he is not each man considered in his person, which is not only inimitable but also unique, but it is the collective man. And this theoretical-collective man, who is unique, challenges the rights of the individual man. The former is the man of the present and the future, not the concrete man living in the present nor the individual man who will live in the future, but humanity – or the “class” – and this is always a collectivity which has the right to make absolute demands on each of its members. In the matter of art, literature, civic conduct and conscientious inner conviction, this collectivity has totalitarian claims. And the concrete man, the individual, whose human course proceeds as if made up of little pieces like a mosaic, has only his small place in it: he cannot go beyond the place assigned to him; he only has the right to possess the position and colour that are imposed upon him.

It is necessary to emphasize very strongly the profound difference between the atheist notion of the collective and the notion of the Church, in which we are members of a living body; likewise between the notion of the “individual” and that of the “person” which is the condition of man within the Church.

The collective position is that in which an ideological minority becomes a de facto majority, having the right to impose its will on each member of the society. In the Church there is nothing of the sort. Even the will and Word of God have no authority in the sense of a law which is imposed. It is a Voice which reveals to us the reality and truth of things. If we respond to it, we do so because we are sensitive to the truth of what is proclaimed to us and we reach out towards this reality, which is the only means we have of becoming fully free and fully ourselves. The will of God is not a law nor an imprisonment. One of our Russian theologians of the 19th century, Khomyakov, who was one of the most passionate polemicists against Catholicism or Protestantism at the same time – and from this point of view was not exactly a forerunner of ecumenism! – tells us that the will of God is a malediction for the demon, it is the law for unregenerate man, and freedom for those who have attained salvation.

In these terms which are perfectly adequate o the theme, we see that it is not a question of a will imposed from outside, but a will that appears external to us in the measure in which we ourselves are external to our vocation and to our human reality. On the other hand, in the atheist world of the collectivity it is a will of iron that is imposed on its members: it pours scorn on the convictions and the most categorical imperatives of conscience, because the Truth is expressed by the Party, or else by such and such a human group that considers itself to be in possession of the truth and of the right to define it according to needs and convention. In this view man is seen as an individual who has no supra-personal life, no life which transcends him and means that he lives in others and others in him; he forms part of a gear, he is one of the constituent and replaceable elements.

We see the tragic working of it not only in the Russian Revolution in its full scope but even in the story of the members of the Party in the time of the Stalinist purges. One can read the book by Eugenie Ginsburg, who was a member of the Party before the revolution, passionately devoted to her party, and who spent eighteen years in concentration camp simply because she refused to sign a list of statements of confession to crimes that she had never committed but which were useful at the moment to her party’s line.

According to Marxist ideology, the individual is an interchangeable being; by contrast, the person is unique and irreplaceable; this is a profound difference that exists within and outside the Church. It is important in the matter of holiness, because each of us is unique, irreplaceable, and only knows God in a unique way that no one else could share. The replaceable individual, towards whom the work of holiness on the part of the Church is directed, should be transformed into that which he really is: a human person. I should like to indicate briefly the difference between these two terms by saying that an individual is the last form of fragmentation: it is not possible to divide further the individual. If you endeavour to go further in your attempt at dissection, you will get a corpse and a soul: you will no longer be in the presence of the whole human being.

The person is altogether different: this can best be defined by the passage from the Book of Revelation in which we are told that in the Kingdom of God each of those who enter will receive a white stone with a name inscribed on it – a name known only to God and to the one who receives it. This name is not the nickname by which we are known in ordinary life – surname, Christian name – it is a name that contains and defines all that we are and all we called to be. We can imagine it to be the mysterious word that God uttered in order to all us into being out of nothingness, out of radical absence from which we were drawn by the will of God. This name, which defines us completely and is known only to God and the one who hears it, defines the unique, unprecedented and unparalleled relationship that each of us has with God. In this relationship the persons are not opposable; individuals are indeed: we recognize them by opposing traits of character, external features, psychological and social traits; we speak of their colour, stature, weight, nationality. Here the question does not concern those things: it is a question of something very profound and unique, such that it is not by contrast nor by opposition nor comparison that we recognize the human person, but by the fact that he is himself and that no one has ever been or ever will be what he is, because if two persons could be identified with one another, they will be one. Thus we see clearly that the collective, which deals with individuals, and the Church, which is composed of members who are living, unique, irreplaceable and incomparable with one another, are profoundly different realities. Holiness belongs to the sphere of the Church as a body and the sphere of the person, while it is completely alien to the categories of the individual, who by definition is contrasted and distinguished, and the collectivity, which asserts itself and limits the individual’s own possibilities.

So if we as the Church are called to be a human presence of the kind which can be described in terms of sociology or history, we must nevertheless remember that this human presence is not the presence of ordinary society. It is not only the place of the presence of God, it is also that of presence of man, seen, conceived, lived in a unique way which is unknown to the world. And in our missionary work, in our enlargement of the limits of the holiness of the Church and of man in particular, if we lose sight of this, if we forget that it is God, and man in God, who is the objet of holiness, we have lost sight of the essential. We can create organizations which are more or less useful – and they will certainly be replaced some day by more effective social organizations, because the possibilities of the total socius are greater than those of the particular society that we are – but we will never attain the goal which is offered to us, to be this revelation of the holiness of God, Who is winning and assimilating the world to Himself, making us participants in the Divine Nature and temples of the Holy Spirit, the really living Body of Christ, and making our life hidden in God with Jesus Christ.

Thus the element of holiness in the Church is found to be connected with the two-fold vision of man, the one which is different from that of the world. In this confrontation, this encounter between ourselves and the world outside, we must make our contribution to what man is – and we cannot accept the vision of a lay holiness which knows nothing of the depths of man, of his bond with God, and which defines holiness in moral and pragmatic or practical categories.

In the Church we have a two-fold vision of man: empirical man and the man revealed in Jesus Christ. There is also the corollary fact that the Church is simultaneously a society in history and, invisibly yet transparently, a mystery. From the empirical point of view we are the Church, all of us such as we are, not only such as we are called to be, but is we are in frailty of the individual and in the insufficiency and implentitude of human becoming. From this point of view the Church can be defined in the terms used by St Ephraim the Syrian in the sixth century: “The Church is not the assembly of saints, it is a mass of sinners who repent, who, sinners though they are, have turned towards God and are oriented towards Him.” From this point of view it is true that the Church is the objet of history and of sociological studies, because from that aspect it belongs to the world, for it has not yet been liberated by holiness from the world’s grasp. The world is within it through us, insofar as each of us is not freed from the world in the ascetic sense.

But on the other hand, there is in the Church a vision of man which is not a theory of man. It is not the ideal man, it is not the invented man, nor man as we wish he were, and towards which we aim as a sort of created transcendence. No, it is a real man really revealed, for it must never be forgotten that among the people who form the Church of the Living God there is one such man, Jesus, the incarnate God, true man in the double sense of the word: he is true in the sense that he is in nothing different from us, he is not a superman, not a man who appeared in our midst from outside. He is flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone; he belongs to us entirely just as we belong to him entirely. That is why we can say, even with regard to the human existence of the Church, that we believe in the Church, for in Christ it is an object of faith, a vision of man which is not the empirical reality and which nevertheless already is empirical reality, because it is an empirical reality that we can observe in history. True Man, in the fullness of reality, has appeared to us in the Person of Christ, the Word Incarnate, a man who is genuine in the fullest sense of the word. Among Orthodox and Catholics I will also add that we have a vision of true Man in the Holy Virgin, who attained the fullness of her human vocation, as witnessed by our common faith in the Assumption, that is to say, in her bodily resurrection.

Since that time, for the people of the Church, to be a man was meant seeking this identification with the Christ-Man in the same way as He accepted His identification with the empirical man that we had become by our fall and that we are by definition in the created world. Thus action, service and contemplation within the Church are correlative and linked necessarily with one another, for it is only to the extent to which we can see, that we can grow to the measure of that which we see. Only to the extent that we can see and hear the God-Man in action can we act in conformity with the divine plan and take our part in the world.

As our holiness can only find its place in the created world where we are – I do not speak of society, because he authorities and hermits are equally a pert of the Church and have their part to play in the created world it is only as far as we can see and hear, that we can act, or rather be, according to the will of God, so that our being is a creative and saving act, an act of holiness that would be our sanctification but also a sanctification for the entire world. Here is where the notion of wisdom has its special place. It is a wisdom different from human sagacity. We see it in the prophets and patriarchs and New Testament saints: their inner capacity for profound peace, for absolute stability, for gazing earnestly and patiently at the world in which they lived in order to discern in it the trace of the passage of God, the way He followed, in order to follow that way, for it is He alone Who is the Way. And it is on this way that we can find and give the truth and the life.

This necessity of looking and seeking is expressed in a way which I find very beautiful in a narrative told by Nathaniel Hawthorne, relating a New World legend. In a village built on a high mountain cut by a stream and facing the little cluster of huts, very high up in the rock, a face has been carved in the rock from time immemorial, it is the face of the god of these villagers. It is a face of transcendent beauty, expressing an ineffable peace and compete harmony. And the villagers hand down a promise from generation to generation that there will come a day when this god will detach himself from the mountain and live among them. They admire this face, they are inspired by it – and they fall back again and again intothe cares of their poor community life. However, one day a child is born in the village who, from the moment he was capable of seeing, perceiving and responding, and submitting to external impressions, as soon as he could crawl from the hut where he was born down to the edge of the stream, was struck by the beauty, serenity and majesty of this face. One could always find him sitting beside the stream doing nothing but looking.

The years pass, the baby becomes a little boy and later a young man. A day comes when the inhabitants of the village, seeing him pass by, stop and exclaim, “Our god is in our midst!” By thrusting his gaze deep into this face he had become inwardly conformed to the whole expression and spiritual content of this human face; by gazing at it he had become imbued with it, he had allowed himself to be penetrated by the serenity, the grandeur, peace and love which radiated from that face of stone. And now his face had become that of the god whom he venerated and quite simply gazed at.

I believe there is something essential here in terms of holiness and also in terms of the place which human holiness can have within a complex pluralist society that in which we live. If only we knew how to gaze with all the depths of our being at the face of Christ, that invisible face which we can see only by turning towards our own depths and which we see emerging from there, then those around us would relive the impact of a serenity, a deepening, a peace, a power both strong and gently, and they would understand that there is holiness in the Church. And this holiness would have no need to make desperate efforts to manifest itself in order to make others believe that the Church is holy. Everyone would believe – which is so difficult to do when one looks at us!

The Holiness of God in us: Participation

I would now like to make a last point:

All holiness is God’s holiness in us: it is a holiness that is participation and, in a certain way, more that participation, because as we participate in what we can receive from God, we become a revelation of that which transcends us. Being a limited light, we reveal The Light. But we should also remember that in this life in which we are striving towards holiness, our spirituality should be defined in very objective and precise terms. When we read books on spirituality or engage in studying the subject, we see that spirituality, explicitly or implicitly, is repeatedly defined as an attitude, a state of soul, an inner condition, a type of interiority, etc. In reality, if you look for the ultimate definition and try to discover the inner core of spirituality, you find that spirituality does not consist of the states of soul that are familiar to us, but that is the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in us, by us and through us in the world. It is not fundamentally a matter of the way in which we express it!

There is an absolute objectivity both to holiness and to the spirituality which is expressed in it. Spirituality is that of the Spirit, didn’t St Paul tells us that it is the Holy Spirit Who touches us to say: “Abba, Father”? Doesn’t he mean that it is the Holy Spirit, God Himself, Who shapes in us the knowledge of God? And, furthermore, there is no other holiness than that of God: it is as the Body of Christ that we can participate in holiness, in Christ and in the Holy Spirit.

If such is the case, a question of tremendous importance arises. In view of our search for holiness, inasmuch as it is situated, whether we like it or not, within the framework of the created world and the world of men, the tragic, complex world in which we live, – if it is the presence of Christ Himself and the inspiration of the Spirit which the holiness of the Church should express in each of its members and in the totality of its body, where is the limit of this love? In other words, where is the limit of our sense of solidarity and responsibility? Is there a moment when we should detach ourselves and say: “I leave you, go your way; if you repent, if you change, we will find one another again, but as you are, I can no longer go with you?” Or are there no limits, not only to God’s condescension but also to this tremendous and passionate solidarity of God? Holy Scripture more than once places us in the presence of God’s love in terms of “Eros”, that is, a love and attachment that is total and passionate, which embraces everything, leaving nothing outside.

I should like to draw your attention to a quotation which is certainly not scriptural and has no authority in itself, but which seems interesting to me. In the seventeenth century a Russian priest, a man of burning convictions, wrote his autobiography. He wanted to show how a man of faith can remain faithful to what he believes to be the truth in spite of the treachery, of what he considered to be the treachery of the visible Church. A prologue is attached to this Vita, written by himself. At one point in it he speaks of the divine council which preceded the creation of the world and says: “In the light of what we know of God Incarnate, can we not say that one day the father said to the Son: “My Son, let us create a visible world and man.” And the Son replies: “My Father, let it be according to Thy will.” And the Father adds: “My Son, you know that if I make it through you, there will come a time when man will play us false and in order to bring him back to us you will have to die?” And the Son replies: “Let it be according to Thy will, my Father!” And the world was created. It is not apocryphal, inasmuch as it makes no pretense of expressing a scriptural reality in other terms, but it expresses a profound inner reality: God in His divine Wisdom willed and called the world into being in full awareness of the consequences which this divine call, which made a free world appear out of nothing, would have for God himself. This is a contest between God and the world, if we may say so, and the tragedy we so often complain about is more tragic for God than for the world!

Throughout the history of the Old and New Testaments we see how God afterwards takes His full responsibility for His creative act. Step by step He upholds the prophets, declares His will, reveals the depth of His thought. Didn’t Amos say that the prophet is he with whom God shares His thoughts? And he remains faithful when creation has become unfaithful – remember Hosea and the images he gives of the faithful husband of a woman who has deserted him. So underlying everything there is a unilateral act of God, but it is an act for which He takes total and final responsibility. This is important because if we are “in God”, we must share with Him, at least take our part of this divine responsibility. Our election to be the Church is not a paradising privilege. It is basically an election to share the thought and heart of God, but also to share Christ’s work in the Incarnation and the economy of salvation. I want here to insist on the intensity of this solidarity, simply turning your thought to those words of Christ, almost the last ones he uttered on the Cross: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

When we speak of the solidarity of Christ with men in the Incarnation, we continually think of the minor and major expressions of this contradiction. We consider the limitations which the Divine Word imposed upon Himself in entering time and becoming a prisoner of space: He is hungry, thirsty, tired. On the other level he seeks, he accepts the company of sinners. He lives in the midst of hatred and this hatred kills Him at a certain moment. These last two terms seem very weak to me… and this is their weakness: “human hatred kills him”, which prevents people from understanding what is special about the death of Christ. If it is in the terms of death, all those who have attained mortality die, and He did nothing that each of us will not have to do some day. If it is in terms of suffering, there are millions of people who have suffered infinitely more than He on the cross. Two thieves were crucified at the same time as He, they also died a human death on the cross. If we think of the 11th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, we see human suffering, human horror, even in terms of holiness, has surpassed all that we can imagine of the physical suffering of Christ.

The ultimate human tragedy, the only one that counts, the one out of which all the others arise, is mortality, and this mortality is linked with sin, with separation from God. And it is here that the death of Christ and His solidarity with us contain something more frightful than we can imagine. St Maximus the Confessor says in his Study of the Incarnation: “It is unthinkable that human flesh that is united indissolubly for ever with Divinity could, even as human flesh, be mortal.” To be mortal means to be separated. And he stresses the fact that from the moment of the Incarnation Jesus of Nazareth, by reason of the union of divinity with humanity, was immortal, free of the necessity of death. His death is not only a simple acceptance of human condition, it is conditioned by the ultimate experience of the human tragedy, which consists in losing God and dying because of this. Here we something extremely important, Christ in His Incarnation accepted not only the limitations but the depth of our tragedy. According to the old saying what Christ has not participated in remains outside the mystery of salvation. If Christ had not participated in our break with God, in our estrangement, in what one of our theologians called a psychological eclipse which made him lose sight of the presence of God, He would not have participated fully in our mortality, and our mortality would have been outside the mystery of the Redemption.

Thus we see how far divine love goes in this solidarity with us: Christ accepts not only being like one of us, not only participating in everything except sin, but in participating even in “estrangement”, in the fact of becoming a stranger, of withdrawing from the Father in order to participate in the unique tragedy of man: atheism.

The same idea is expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, when we say, “He descended into Hell.” Hell opens wide to seize a new prey in whom to press a final victory over God, without knowing Whom it is receiving. And into this Hell which receives a man God Himself enters. I believe there is a final touch here which explains what the psalmist has a foreboding of when he exclaims: “Whither should I flee before Thy face? To Heaven? But that is Thy abode. To Hell? But Thou art there also.” Nothing in the condition of the created, nothing in the condition of man, except sin, is now outside the experience of Christ, outside the reality of Christ. Everything is contained in Him, and there is not an atheist in the world who has known atheism, the loss of God, in the way Christ, the Son of Man has, who died on the cross with that cry of ultimate anguish and agony. Here again we see the breadth of divine love and the depth of this acceptance by God of everything which is the human condition. “Nothing human is alien to me,” said Tertullian. Perhaps he did not know how far this acceptance of the human condition wet for God. He died. He died without sin. With what death did he die? With ours, with a borrowed death. Is not this the divine vocation, to remain without sin and to die a borrowed death?

With these final questions I conclude these introductory words on holiness and on the position of the Church, which is the holy body possessed by the Holy Spirit and is a presence of the Holy Trinity in the world within society and our present human situation.


Sources of Prayer

I should like now to speak about prayer in connection with what has been said so far about holiness. Prayer and holiness seems to me to be rooted in a two-fold experience, not in two experiences but in two-fold correlative one. On the one hand there is the amazement that we feel in the short – but real – moments when we perceive God, when we almost touch the hem of His garment; these moments of wonder are flashing instances of contemplation, and they leave us in a contemplative state, in deepening prayer, meditation and interiority which are on the border of profound contemplation and life in God. On the other hand, at the other pole of this two-fold reality of prayer and holiness we find despair and compassion: despair such as we see, for instance, at the end of 10th chapter of St Mark, the despair of blind Bartimaeus at the gate of Jericho, the despair of a man who has been blind and has suffered from it, who has fought for his sight for years and finally, crushed by misfortune, has settled into his blindness. And then suddenly he hears that there is a man living in Galilee in Judea who has the power to give sight to a man born blind, to cure every sickness, to heal every infirmity. And this man is passing his way. And this moment when the last hope is passing by is a moment of reawakening of all the feelings of despair that he bears within him as well as the hope of which he is capable.

We can pray at moments when we become aware of our blindness – and we can include in this term whatever makes us blind to God and to all that surrounds us – and when we sense that the One who can cure us is passing near. Prayer arises at moment when we become deeply aware of our separation and of the fact that our life is suspended over death, that nothingness is within us and lapping round us from all sides, ready to engulf us. And when we turn our gaze towards others, in place of this despair linked to an ultimate hope, which is the hope that Bartimaeus had, it is compassion which awakes in us, the capacity to suffer deeply, intensely, not the suffering of the other – for one can never suffer the suffering of another nor ever understand another – but one can suffer from the fact that he is suffering, and in a mysterious way, beyond all experience participate, within this unity of the Body of Christ, in the common suffering which is his.


There is a link between contemplation and intercession, between the contemplation of God and this active, concrete prayer directed to the present and to the world in which we live. I should like to give you one example of this, taken from the book “The Undistorted Image”.

On the 24th of September, a man of extraordinary simplicity, named Silouan, died at Mt Athos. He had come there forty years earlier; there he lived a life of extreme asceticism and profound contemplation; he was a simple man, a peasant from central Russia. He had learned to write with a pencil, he had never learned to use a pen. And he left behind some notebooks which have been edited by one of his disciples, Father Sophrony, now the head of a small monastery in England. He had corresponded with a number of us in this childish handwriting, that of a man who never used his hands except for heavy work on the land or in the monastery workshops. I remember one text taken from his notebooks. At this time he was charged with the supervision of the workers in one of the workshops of St Panteleimon monastery at Mt Athos.

One day when the supervisors, the stewards of these shops were having their meal together, one of them said to him, “How is it, Silouan, that you never watch your men and they work honestly, while we spend our time watching them, and we don’t get anywhere?” And Silouan replied, “I don’t know, I can only tell you what I do and let you ask yourselves what you do. When I arrive in the morning and I see these young peasants from Russia gathered here to start a long, hard day’s work, and when I think how will only earn a few pennies and that is destitution that has driven them from their village and made them leave their families and thrust them into a climate and living conditions which they would not have chosen and which are so different from what they desired, my heart is torn with compassion. Then I look at them and weep with tenderness. Then I give them their task and leave them to it. The only thing that they know, perhaps, is that throughout the hours of their work I shall be praying for them. I withdraw into my cell, put myself in the presence of God and begin to pray for each of them individually, each with his needs and his troubles. I speak to God: “Lord, think of Nicolas: he is barely 22 years old; he left in his village a wife under twenty and a new-born baby; how great his agony must be and how painful his loneliness! How extreme must be the poverty that forced him to leave them, and how fearful he must be for them!” And thus I go on speaking to God out of the depth of the knowledge I have of this poor villager and all the needs which Nicolas, his child, his wife, his family may have. But the more I pray, with increasing tenderness, the more I sense the presence of God, which compels my attention. At first this presence makes the prayer easier, because the more present, concrete and real He is, the easier it is to put before Him the needs that I am speaking of. And then this presence becomes so insistent, so sharp, that I am no longer able Nicolas or his wife or their child or their village or their needs: I only perceive this Presence. And then it is no longer about Nicolas and all his needs that I speak to the Lord, it is about the Lord Himself: [it is to Him that I speak, or rather] I feel carried more deeply into the interior of this Presence, I feel seized and carried as by a river farther and farther into the depths of God. And suddenly at the heart of this Presence I find the love of the Holy Spirit, and in this love I again find Nicolas, his wife, his village and everything. And this love seizes me again, imbues me with compassion and brings me back to earth. But this time too I find myself face to face with God, as I pray my prayer of intercession, but it is no longer my human prayer that I am offering, it is the cry, the lamentation of the Holy Spirit which rises from the depth of my soul for those who need God. And then the presence of God becomes more and more urgent; I am less and less able to remember the earth. I forget it, detach myself from it, find myself again carried towards those divine depths, and there again – yet more deeply than before – I find God’s compassion, the crucified love of the Trinity, which brings me back to earth in the real and concrete incarnation of a life and a prayer.”

Obviously this is not a textual quotation: it is more than thirty years since I read the text; I was very much impressed with it at the time and have connected it with some other things I heard, especially with one thing that struck me very much. It concerned a Russian monk from a monastery which is now in Finland. He had spent fifty years in his monastery without consenting to make profession, saying: “I am unworthy, I don’t yet know how to love…” And when he was asked: “But what would you say a monk is, after all?” he answered: “A monk is one who can weep for the whole world”! Here we see a man who had spent about fifty years in a completely contemplative life, not oriented towards anything – in the last twenty years of his life he was bedridden because in the course of his work he had lost an arm, had lost a leg, had become blind – and nevertheless he refused the monastic profession because it seemed impossible for him to love and be a monk, that is alone with God, not in a withdrawn solitude but in the ardent and active solitude described by Silouan.

Thus there is a bond which does not allow a separation between contemplation in prayer, the adoration of God, and action, the prayer of intercession or physical presence. But it is only to the extent to which our physical presence is the presence of God through us, the presence of Eternity in time through us, that we remain the Church while remaining engaged in action. If our activity in the world becomes a disengagement in relation to God, we fall back into the condition of a human society which has an ideology but no transcendent reality.

Prayer of Stability.

If we want to be active and contemplative at the same time, if we want to follow the line of holiness, or communion with divine life, in a profound, intense, creative way while being at the same time in the midst of the world, whether in a cloistered order – for the cloister now is more than ever incapable of being radically set apart – or actively engaged in life, we must learn a way of prayer that permits inner stability – not psychological stability (which we lack, but the problem is not that, nor is the solution to be found on that level), but an inner stability which consists of standing immobile, face to face with the living God. We must attain to a prayer of presence, our presence with God and His presence in the world through us. This is one of the aspects of intercession.

I should like to say a few words about this aspect in order to be able to use it in what follows. I should like to give you the story of the Wedding in Cana as an example of intercessionary prayer defined as a presence.

You know the scene: a village wedding, poor and simple, with Christ, the Mother of God and His disciples who have been invited. Long before hearts were seized with joy, long before they were overflowing with that life, the human conditions for joy begin to run out. No doubt the lights are getting dim, the bread has been eaten and the wine is failing. At this moment the Holy Virgin makes an act of presence, not in the vulgar sense in which we speak of putting on an act as distinct from inner involvement, but she makes the act of being there, fully and completely involved. As you will see, she is involved exactly in that twofold way which makes contemplation active and action contemplative. She turns to the Lord and says to Him: “They have no more wine.” What is Mary asking? Would she really like the Lord to perform an act of magic and multiply the wine until the guests had drunk so much that they fall asleep under the tables? Is this the joy she wants for them? It is unthinkable. So there is something more in it; there is a premonition, a foreknowledge of the fact that if Christ gives them what the earth is now refusing, the gift will be one that is at the same time of the order of eternal life. Christ then turns to her and asks her a question: “What have you and I in common? My hour has not come.” I know that there are pious translations which try to avoid a sentence that seems incomprehensible and difficult, but that seems to be an insult to the Holy Virgin, and they do their best to translate this sentence too briefly to be perfectly clear semantically, by saying: “What does it matter to you and me?” But “What does it matter to us” would be an atrocious thing for Christ to say. “What is it to me that their joy is fading, what is to me that this party isn’t finished and doesn’t reach its perfection? Haven’t we who are sober had enough to eat?” Is that what he means? Certainly not, for “My hour has not yet come” is a statement that pertains to eternal life and the coming of the Kingdom, and not simply to the magistery of a miracle-worker. “What is there in common between you and me?” How are we to understand this sentence? St John Chrysostom comments on it in a way that seems to be more than strange: I believe he is in line with a certain modern psychology which always sees all the faults on the side of the parents. Here, according to him, not even the Holy Virgin has escaped this tendency of all mothers to believe that because they have brought a child into the world, they have imprescriptible rights over him until his death. So there she is intruding, giving herself rights … and Christ puts her back in her place. Saint though he is, I believe that in this case St John Chrysostom, not through the lack of devotion, has misunderstood the text. Other commentaries seem to be more adequate. “What have you and I in common? Why is it you who make this request? Is it because you are my mother according to the flesh that you feel you have rights over me?” (We are in line with St John Chrysostom). Or “has everything that you learned from the angel, everything that you kept in your heart and pondered in the course of your life, revealed to you that ‘I am here’, a presence which makes this human marriage unfold to the dimesions of the Wedding of the Lamb? If you are speaking to me because you are my mother according to the flesh, my hour has not yet come.” He leaves the question hanging. The Holy Virgin does not answer: “Am I not your mother? Don’t you know how much faith I have in you?” She answers him with a gesture, but it is much more convincing than all the phrases she could have uttered. She turns to the servants and says to them: “Whatever he tells you, do it.” She makes a total, integral, unlimited act of faith, the faith on which the Annunciation was founded; the faith that she bore witness to in being the mother of the Child-God now comes to light in all its fullness. Because she believed in a perfect way, she established at this instant, in this village wedding, the Kingdom of God. For the Kingdom of God is that in which we offer to God with a pure heart a faith without blemish. There is an old saying of Israel: “God is everywhere where man permits Him to enter.” The Holy Virgin, by this act of faith, established the conditions of the Kingdom and opened to God the doors of this village wedding. So it turns out that the hour of the Lord has come: it is the hour of the Kingdom, where everything is in harmony with God because man has believed. He blesses the exhausted waters, the useless waters, the waters soiled by washing, and transforms them into the wine of the Kingdom, into a revelation of something greater, which makes this wedding that had begun as a human event unfold to the measure of the Kingdom of God.

You see what this presence and this holiness can be: the presence of God, because one human person was present to God. When this takes its place in the world of the Church, we find ourselves in the presence of the People of God, which is the very place of the Presence. If we wish to pray within this situation, we must learn to pray in stability and silence: stability in the sense that we must find a way of praying while standing face to face in the immobility of deepening silence, contemplation, wonder and anguish that are due to God’s Presence. The reason we are often lose this Presence is that our very prayer, not only our life, keeps moving and shifting. We start with one idea and turn towards another; we continually change our terms of reference. God remains Himself constantly, but we offer Him prayer that is always changing, always expressing the external and internal changes, and even conditions them. If we say discursive prayers, we have to adjust our heart and spirit along a line that is often very complex and greatly lacking in sobriety in cases, whether the prayers are our own – often much to rich and ornate – or we find them in the Christianity of the middle Ages or that of Byzantine rhetoric.

Establishing ourselves before God

So it is first of all a question of establishing ourselves before God. An this is by no means different from action or incompatible with it, because the sense of internal tension, the sense of haste and of movement are internal states that are not connected with the circumstances of our life. You have surely seen people who are old or infirm loaded with a suitcase and trying with all possible speed to catch a bus which is about to leave. They run desperately. And nevertheless, objectively, their movement is slow and heavy, their change of position minimal. You also know how easy it is for us sometimes when we are on holiday, when we are not striving towards any concrete goal, to feel wholly within ourselves, collected. One of the fifth century Fathers said that we must establish ourselves firmly inside our skin with nothing protruding outside. At the same time we are full of vivacity, we move fast and are capable of acting quickly. Why? Because we are not reaching after anything, the aim and content of our life in this situation is to be where we are now, whereas ordinarily, and nearly all the time, we live as if we were trying to catch a bus…

Prayer and Time

We have an erroneous notion of time. The amazing thing in life, said a seventeenth century Russian philosopher, is that all the necessary things are simple and all the complicated things are useless. In fact, if we could only remember that time does not run away, that at a slow pace or at a gallop it rushes towards us, we should be much less fearful of losing it. Do you think that by going towards the hour of your death as fast as possible can prevent it from coming, or catch it? Do you think that if you go placidly, tranquilly listening to me, the hour of your deliverance will not come? In both cases it is time which is coming towards you, you have no need to run after it.

It is coming… and you will not escape it any more than it will escape you. Therefore we can – a priory – establish ourselves quite peacefully where we are, knowing that if the time ahead has a meaning that is necessary for us, it is inevitably coming towards us at a sure and regular pace, sometimes much more quickly than we could run to meet it.

Eternity is God

On the other hand, if we establish ourselves peacefully in the present, we are living in a world of realities, whereas if we hurry towards the future, we are moving towards a world of unreality. I think the importance of this is truly essential. We must know how to use time, the time within which we find – at least we can find – all eternity, for eternity and the time are incommensurable with one another. Eternity is not an infinite length of time; eternity is not the presence of time without end. The difference between time and eternity is that time is a category of the created: it appears at the moment when something which did not exist before begins to be and to become, and it exists as long as the becoming continues. Eternity does not answer the question “What?” It answers the question “Who?” Eternity is God, God is always contemporaneous with each moment of time; He is always there, completely stable, unchanged and unchangeable because he already has in Himself, before the first thing was, all the richness necessary to meet all things and all situations. He does not need to change in order to be contemporaneous.

Managing Time

If we wish to learn this prayer of stability, then, we must first realize that it is useless to look for God within time. He is in the time in which we are; He is in every instant, every “twinkling of an eye”, to use a formula of Romano Guardini’s who distinguishes the past, the future and, not the present, which seems to him too thick, but the “twinkling of an eye”, the instant which has hardly appeared before it is gone. If we want to draw on this prayer of stability, we must learn to manage time. We always know how to manage time when it is not a matter of God or of prayer; we do not know how when it concerns eternity! This remarkable, illogical situation is the constant experience of each one of us. Take, for example, what you do when you get on a train: you install yourself as comfortably as possible, you are at ease. From within this repose you look around you, you read, you speak, you think, I suppose you sometimes even pray… and you worry about nothing because you know that the train will arrive at the destination no matter what you do.

There are some rather simple and nervous people who sometimes try to go from the last carriage to the first in order to be a little closer to their destination. Those who have a little more sense realize that two hundred meters out of fifteen hundred kilometers make no essential difference and that one can simply allow oneself a few hours rest. Why do we never do this in prayer? Isn’t it remarkable that we should find this most natural thing in the world when it is a matter of getting to another place, simply because we are sure of what is happening as far as the train is concerned – and yet there are so many possible hazards – and we are never sure of what is going to happen with God! It feels to us as though unless we are quick, mistrustful and active, He will escape us. In fact, in a certain way He does escape us. And that is not because we do not look for Him but because we look for Him everywhere where He is not. I remember a brief dialogue heard in Russia. A young man said to an old priest: “But still, it is disturbing that Gagarin did not find God in space!” And the priest replied, “If he has never seen Him on earth, he will never see Him in the sky!” If only we could have wings; if only we could be somewhere else… God is not here, He is there. No. We are all stretching towards heaven: it is one of the wonders of the Gospel and of Christianity. From this point of view Bonhoeffer is with us when he says that Christianity is a religion without religion, if we understand by the word “religion” a system of methods that make it possible to catch God, to take Him captive, to get Him in a trap and keep Him there. Yes, in this case Christianity, and only Christianity, is a religion without religion, because God wanted to make Himself interior to our condition, and He wanted us to have no need to try to hold Him captive, Who became flesh in order to be with us. There is no need for us to try to use methods and techniques to make Him our prisoner.

Not only He is in our midst, but He created this Church, which is not just a human society oriented towards God, but it is the place of His Presence, the mystery of the union with God, an organism which is simultaneously and equally human and divine, where the plentitude of God resides with implentitude of men, leading little by little towards that accomplishment in which God will be all in all and the Church will encompass all things.

How to Manage Time

Hence it is a necessity for us to learn to master time in this way. For this there are techniques, techniques addressed to our restlessness, to our incapacity to believe in the Word of God Who has promised to be with us until the end of the ages.

The first thing we could do is to compel ourselves to place ourselves in the Presence of God and to remain there a few moments without trying to escape – and without trying to give to this presence a discursive content, whether of emotions or of thoughts. The ideal, perfect image of this attitude is given to us in a story taken from the life of the Cure d’Ars. On entering a church he found an old peasant whom he had often seen there sitting for hours on his bench and looking straight in front of him without even running his fingers over a rosary. And he asked him: “What do you do in all these hours you spend in the church?” And the old peasant replied, using a provincial word espy, which means ‘see’, ‘look at’: I espy Him and He espies me, and we are happy together.” Here is the situation of a man who knew how simply to sit in the presence of God and stay there: this is a stability that is complete, interior, revealed, perfectly simple… If you tried to do it, you would see that you are far from being a peasant of the Cure d’Ars. If you sit down in a room and say to yourself: “I am in the presence of God”, you will see that at the end of a moment you will be wondering how to fill this presence with an activity that will suppress your restlessness. Oh, for the first few moments you will feel fine because you are tired and it is a rest to be sitting comfortably in an armchair, and the silence of your room gives you a feeling of quietude. All this is true. But if you have to go beyond this moment of natural rest, and you remain in the presence of God when you have already received from physical nature all that you can get from it, you will see that it is very difficult not to wonder: “And now what shall I do? What should I say to God? How shall I address Him? He is silent. Is He there? How can I make a bridge between that mute absence and my restless presence?”

So one of the first things to understand is the importance of sitting and doing nothing in front of God. This does not seem to be very pious, and yet if you arrive at that repose which the mystical Greek Fathers at Mt Athos called Hesychia, a word which has given rise to a whole tradition, hesychasm, the tradition of Jesus Prayer, a tradition of silent and contemplative prayer – if you reach that, then within that silence and immobility you will be able to do something. But this immobility and silence, this presence with God must be learned. If you have learned it, you can try to do more difficult exercises: 1)make your presence with God a little longer; 2) learn to manage time, not when it is moving in a sluggish, meandering way, but at the moment when it is trying to rush like water from the burst pipe. It is simply a matter of saying at the moment when you are busy with something useful which must be done: “I stop doing this, I’ll keep still an instant and remain alone with God. All That I am doing can wait.” The Russians who are not oppressively active people when they can avoid it, have a point of view which I think has spiritual value. One said to me: “It is so wonderful: I can always be unhurried because if I do not die immediately I shall have time to do it, and if I die, it is useless for me to do it.”

Ask this question: Does the salvation of the world truly depends on the letter you are writing, the copper you are cleaning, the sentence full of wisdom that you are in the midst of pronouncing? Did the world not exist for millions of years before you said or did this or that? Will it not still live millions of years without your continuing to be a useful presence? So give it a chance now to enjoy your absence. Settle peacefully and say: “Whatever happens, I will not budge.” My father was a man who loved to pray. He lived in a room for a servant on the seventh floor of a Paris house. He had put on his door a little note which was absolutely clear and explicit: “Useless to knock. I am at home but I will not open the door.” Why not do that from time to time? Oh, you can do it in more polite and elegant way. But essentially that is it. Say to all those, visible and invisible, who come to disturb you: I am very sorry; I am here, but not for you…” This is what we are always doing: suppose we are in conversation with someone and another person knocks on the door, you answer: “I am sorry, I am busy.” If you are busy with God, you say: “I am sorry, go away.” What logic, what common sense in there in this? It is not even a matter of contemplation, it is a matter of being polite.

Learn to remain in interior repose, peacefully and tranquilly, in spite of the telephone, in spite of someone’s knocking at the door, in spite of the demon’s saying to you: “An you have forgotten this…; you still have to get this done by such-and-such an hour…; and the brass is not shiny enough, the sun is brighter than it… and if you added this sentence to your letter, you would be doing something worthy of the Fathers and the Mothers of the Church…” But you answer him: “If this comes from God, He will be quite able to remind me at an appropriate time, if it comes from you, I mistrust it…”

If you learn to stop time, to manage it in this way one, two, three, ten times a day, for longer and longer moments, you will come to the time when you can do it at any time, not matter what your activity, no matter what the word or thought, whether in the liturgy or in everyday life… Thus you will be able to be interior to yourself, constantly face to face with God, asking Him unceasingly what you must do, what you must listen to. You will be fundamentally in the position of a monk or a nun: obedience, which consists of ob-audire, listening, listening with the intention of hearing – which is not always what we intend when we listen to our neighbour – or understanding what he says, or grasping what he wanted to say and of perceiving the depths from which this word came and what it is meant to make us discover.

Forms of the Prayer of Stability and the Role of Silence

I remember something my grandmother told me when I was a child. She was talking to me about the Greek war of independence against Turkey… and she told the case of a soldier who, after the battle, in the dark night, called his lieutenant and cried: “Lieutenant, lieutenant, I have taken a prisoner!” – “Bring him here,” – answered the lieutenant. – “I can’t, he holding me so tight,” replied the soldier. This seems absurd… and yet I have the impression that very often it is the situation in which we find ourselves with respect to the world when we are prisoners of this world in a thousand ways – not so outwardly as inwardly – think that we can transform it and, we are aware that we can only begin to do it when we try to change our place and pull the world in our direction instead of staying in the midst of it where it is and imaging that our presence is enough to be a miracle of transfiguration. There is something very important here, I believe, for the way in which we will appraise active holiness, in the world we are.

Disengagement and engagement

In the Gospel there is a commandment which seems to me absolute, to disengage in order to engage ourselves in a new way: we are called to be “in the world” and not “of the world”. Not to be of the world is a radical disengagement. To be in the world is a total engagement, which has the same radical sense of totality as the Incarnation, which made of the Word of God, of the Eternal Word, a human Name and a Presence of God in the flesh for ever. And there is that Gospel about rejecting those who are closest to us at the same time as there is the Gospel call to love the entire world with complete love, with sacrificial charity, totally engaged. In this there is, if not a paradox, at least a tension that often seems irreducible to certainties. The fact is that it is only to the extent to which we are disengaged that we can engage ourselves in a fruitful way. You know that if someone is drawing, you must jump in to rescue him but not let yourself be grabbed, because otherwise you both will drawn… and you will get a posthumous medal for heroism, but that is useless. This is exactly the image of the Incarnation of the Son of God and of the incarnate way in which we must act in the world. We must be in the world without letting ourselves be caught hold of, we must be free of its grip. In terms of the theology of the Incarnation, this is called “without sin”. In terms of our life it would be an exaggeration to say so even in the sense of an intention or a hope. But one must be sufficiently disengaged not to be an integral part of the sin of the world, even if we do not succeed in freeing ourselves entirely from this imprisonment. We are called to disengage ourselves from the bonds which hold us prisoners, in order to give ourselves freely as Christ did: “Nobody is taking my life from me, I give it freely.” Thus we shall be able to live and die, but in Christ’s way, in the way of a Christian: to die freely and not by suffocation. Christ becomes fully man but without sin. He lived our life and he died our death without, however, participating in the evil which limits our life and provokes our death. As for ourselves, we must be in the world and not of the world. It is only under these conditions that we become capable of loving, not with a passionate love that imprisons us and imprisons others, but with a love that is free with the freedom of the children of God and that gives freedom.

Getting Free of Oneself

In this disengagement-engagement there are two points to be raised. First, the necessity of disengaging from oneself. We have an exaggerated tendency to think that we are prisoners of other people. In reality we are prisoners of ourselves., for if we could only release ourselves from the grip of our ego, other people would have no power over us. They have power over us only by reason of our covetous desires and our fears and dreads. In this liberation from oneself there are several points which I would like to make you understand through images.

An English writer whom I like very much and who has taught me a great deal, Charles Williams, in a book “All-Hallows Eve”, gives two images which, I think, are very illuminating. The story takes place in the city of London. A young woman has been killed in an accident… She is dead, but her soul still remains unmoving at the place on the bridge where death overtook her… She is dead, but her soul is not yet engaged in the invisible world nor disengaged from the visible world, because there is nothing in the invisible world that is familiar to her and to which she could attach herself. She is still engaged in the visible world because it is the only one which she knows. And nevertheless we see her standing there surrounded by a world of dead forms. She sees around her the banks of the Themes and the houses which line them. Sometimes they are dead blocks with dead windows… sometimes these windows are lighted. But she sees nothing besides this, because in the course of her whole life she has never loved anything but herself. She is not connected with any of the objects around her by the values of eternity, values that can survive the death of the body. She perceives the bridge on which her spiritual feet are weighting, and she sees as cadaveric effects everything around her: nothing has life, for nothing is joined to life either within her ot outside her, as far as she is concerned… At the certain moment something happens: her husband crosses the bridge and she sees him. He is the only person that she ever loved, – with an unstable love that has no great depth, was often possessive and selfish, – but this is nevertheless a reality of fondness and love outside herself. From the moment she perceives him a whole set of relations awakens in her: through this fondness, this love that she has for her husband and begins to rediscover things, human names which suddenly acquire significance in eternity, places, situations… I shall not tell you the story. What is important to understand that the perspicacity of this soul detached from the body and no longer able to be connected to visible things through the body and not yet linked to invisible things through an interior light, this clearsightedness of the soul is awakened only at the moment when love unites it to someone or something.

Here we have a beginning of liberation from the self: the moment we become capable of loving we begin to disengage ourselves from this prison which we are in relation to our person. There is in fact a complete connection between “loving” and “dying”. To love means to disengage little by little from the exclusive interest that one has in oneself and to transfer that interest and that concern to some one. The deeper our love is and the more all-embracing it is and the more it is disengaged from the large categories of last and fear, the more it frees itself from that aspect which C. S. Lewis so well describes as a diabolic love that consists in the wish to devour and assimilate the loved one, making of him a total prisoner. Ultimately, the more this happens, and the more the egotistic self gets free, the more free we are. Subjectively speaking, perfect love corresponds to death, that is, to a disappearance of our self-assertion, our affirmation of ourselves by contrasts and opposition in terms of aggression and rejection. And this woman makes her first discovery: it is only to the extent to which we become capable of loving that we become capable of seeing and perceiving. To se and perceive, whether it be God or the world around us, whether it be individual neighbour or the more or less complex situation that includes our neighbours, all this is possible only insofar as we love them and accept dying in order to be able to see, live and participate.

There is a second passage in the same novel by Charles Williams that permits me to take another aspect of these matters. We are surrounded by opacity, density: the world is not transparent to our gaze – and when I speak of the world I do not refer only to the cosmic world that surrounds us and that we may sometimes grasp in the light of God, because it does not present a danger to us: we can consider it in its natural beauty and its harmony, created or structured by man, without fear of being devoured or destroyed ourselves. But when we go back to our neighbour, whether in his individual aspect or in a wider collectivity as a social group, a society, he becomes more and more opaque because all the judgements that we pass, all the reactions that we have are defined by a “How?”: How does this person, this group affect my security, my integrity? To what extent is it a danger, or a possibility for expansion? When it is a possibility for expansion it is almost always in a very mitigated, and especially christianly mitigated, form of aggression. We make progress with our neighbour, in our group. We feel secure because we have increasingly put our hand on something. Or we ask: to what extent are we secure because the group is not attacking us? So we have a collection of opacities surrounding us. How are we to get through these opacities? In the story by Charles Williams we find a further passage in which this girl, who is called lesta, is beside the Themes. She sees it with her disincarnate eyes for the first time. For the first time she has no repulsion towards the sight of this Themes. Previously when she had looked at the river’s edge she had always had a feeling of disgust: those think lead-colored, greasy, heavy waters, which transport all the city’s refuse, had been repulsive to her because, having a body, she could only see them insofar as so imagined or thought of being able to drink them or jump in. But now Lesta is free of her body: she has no body, she is a soul, so she has no fear of contact with these repulsive waters and as soon as she no longer fears contact, these waters no longer repel her. As the author says, she sees them as a “fact”, but a fact which in itself has complete harmony. It is a harmonious fact because these oily, thick water that are carrying all the city’s refuse are exactly what the waters of this great river that goes through this big city should be. They correspond exactly to their own nature and their vocation, if I dare to use that word for a river. The moment she sees them as a legitimate fact which she can consider outside herself, she begins to distinguish a series of brighter and brighter patches of light. The deeper her gaze goes, passing through a greater opacity in order to reach a lesser opacity, the more she becomes aware that farther and farther away, closer to the bottom of the river, there is a light. And in fact, after first passing through opacities that diminish and then clear places that increase, at the heart of this river she succeeds in recognizing, with the eyes that death has given her, the primordial waters, the waters as God created them in the first chapter of Genesis. And more deeply still, giving them their brightness and revealing their ultimate vocation, that water of which Christ spoke to the Samaritan woman.

This process is exactly the reverse of what often happens to us. We go from clarity to opacity. A first meeting can reveal a person to us in the light. And then with the bad clairvoyance, or rather the progressive blindness given to us by selfishness, coldness, calculation, the fact that we think of everything in terms of ourselves, we begin to discern greater and greater opacities. It is only by an act of faith that we manage to say: “Yes, this is a child of light!” We say it, but very often we do not see it. And this is why it is so often almost impossible for us – and when I say ‘almost’ it is a polite exaggeration – it is almost impossible for us to see the face of Christ on the faces round about us. This is important because it is fashionable to look for God in one’s neighbour; it is not a new fashion: the desert saints of the third and forth centuries told us: “If you have seen your neighbour, you have seen God.” But they saw him, whereas we must often only say it. The fact is that in order to see the features of Christ on our neighbour’s face, which is sometimes very difficult to read, we have to have in us the vision of Christ so as to be able to project it on them. Then we see, in the light of these divine features, that even in this portrait that sometimes has become so hideous, we can recapture the features of His image. I am not referring to a momentary ugliness, superficial evil, but to a profound evil more important than what one does, the evil that corrodes and causes the does to lose the sense of the good – and the sense of what is luminous in himself – such people as one finds in prisons, everywhere, even in the churches.

And so, at this moment, it is absolutely necessary to be able to recognize the light places through the opacities and to the features of the portrait, retouched from generation to generation by the whole heredity of man, the conformity that we have with God, his image. It is a question of recognizing, beyond the heavy materiality which leaps to our eyes, that which transcends it. The world around us, including our neighbour, to the extent that we lack this clairvoyance, this insight into the depth, appears to us as an opaque mass. This mass, these volumes that surround us, which we collide with but almost never meet – for meeting someone is looking at him face to face, in depth – these opaque masses belong to a material world to which we implicitly deny depth. The material world has thickness: it has no interiority. I think I am not being too complicated in saying that if you are in the presence of glass sphere and you try to penetrate it with your gaze, the farthest you can reach is its centre: it is the ultimate point which cannot be transcended, there is no other depth beyond. If you go further, you come out again to the farthest surface. But all objects, even out neighbour, have only one density, one thickness, one heavy presence if we do not discover something more, that which is revealed concerning them by Holy Scripture, in which the psalm tells us: “The heart of man is deep.” It is not a matter of the heart of flesh nor of a measurable depth, it is a matter of infinity, that is to say, of the fact that the heart of man cannot be measured, for it opens into the depths of God.

This is why, in all our inquiries into prayer, it is an interiority that we must seek, not the interiority of the psychologists, of a depth psychology that belongs to the realm of the created and at a certain point permits us to touch bottom, like the final and ultimate point that is in the centre of a sphere. No, the depth we are concerned with is correlative with the fact that we are a will of God become tangible and visible. At the heart of our reality is the creative word of God. And the Word is the divine reality onto which we open in the depth. There is no use in looking for God round about. If we have not found Him within us, we shall never recognize Him in our neighbour, in historical events, in the heights.

If we have made a discovery of our neighbour in this way, if we have discovered that we have a depth that opens upon God, then we shall discover that very often our relationship with our neighbour can only be realized in silence. We all know in our everyday life those indescribable instants when at the most unexpected moment silence and peace descend upon us. When we are two who perceive this silence, when it envelops and lays hold of both of us, the words die on our lips and every gesture becomes a breaking of a relationship more important than anything one could express. If we let this silence penetrate us more and more deeply, there comes a moment when we can no longer express anything, when we feel that we are more and more close to a depth that we would never have known how to reach without the gift of God. When this silence has reached maturity, we shall discover that at the bottom of the silence there is a security and certainty that make us able to begin to speak. And then the words are sober: we search for them carefully before offering them; we utter them in a way that will not break this silence given by God.

There must always be, between us and God, a depth that we can reach – and I insist on this fact – that we should be able to reach. We should learn by the practice of the presence of God, by stopping time, by letting our being go deeper, to reach it almost at will, for it is our vocation to remain in the presence of the Lord. We should learn how to descend into ourselves when we are in the presence of our neighbour, whoever he is, – not the pious one, the easy one, of whom we are ready to write in large letters: “This is an image of God!” but the difficult neighbour, the unacceptable neighbour, the one who is an insult to all that we think of God and His Incarnation – we can then meet this neighbour in the place which no means of communication would enable us to reach, because we refrain from communicating on the level of words, gestures, external relations: we are not up to that, we are too small, too weak and friable for that.

If we take on our neighbour in this way, if we accept him in silence, we are making an initial act of essential importance: it is the act of justice – not an act of social justice, which is distributive, equalitarian – but a dangerous act of justice which consists, in the first place, of accepting our neighbour just as he is and giving him the right to be as he is, even if his way means our death and our destruction. It is an act of radical justice such as we see in God, Who accepted fallen man instead of rejecting and destroying him; who accepted man in his downfall, knowing that the downfall of man meant the crucifixion of the Son of God. This is the act of Christian justice, it is there that justice begins, and not when we distribute the spiritual or material wealth equally or selectively. It is the moment when we allow the other person to be himself, whatever the consequences. It is only at this price that we can look and see in the features of the other person a living and glorifying projection of the face of the Lord.


This implies something I have already spoken of: solidarity, such as we see in Christ. This solidarity within fallen man, man in his final agony, in his radical godlessness, or rather his relative godlessness – for only Christ’s is radical – this enables us to take up our responsibility. But here I must point out that Christian responsibility and solidarity have a quality that makes them inacceptable and impossible on a certain level, because they embrace both parties in conflict. A Christian can, in fact, support one human group against another, but he cannot undo his solidarity with the other in favour of the first. In a conflict, whether it be armed, social or psychological, the Christian should be present at the point of rapture and accept in a total way the responsibility for both sides.

I shall first give you an example in terms of canon law from Church history. St Basil established a canonical rule which has never been applied – like so many canonical rules – which says that in the case of armed conflict the Christian is called upon to take part in it “because if he had been a Christian worthy of his name, he would have been able to convert these around him to mutual love, and there would have been no armed conflict. But as it is he who bears the responsibility for the bloodshed, he should take part in this conflict. However, all the time the conflict is going on and for three years afterwards he must be excommunicated.” Here is a situation that is clear, precise, perfectly tenable theologically and of very great interest, which has never been applied because it implies at the same time the radical sense of bipolar solidarity and responsibility which is essentially identical to the Incarnation.

Interceding: a Step into the Heart of a Situation

This is a very important and I should to say a few words about it. First remember a passage from the book of Job. Towards the end of the ninth chapter Job in his despair turns to the empty, silent, cruel heaven and says: “Where is the man who will stand between me and my judge and put his hand on the shoulder of each of us?” Where is the one who will make an act of intercession? – for to intercede does not mean: to remind the Lord of what He has forgotten, as we so often do: “Lord, this man is hungry, this one is thirsty, and to stay there; there is the war in Vietnam, tensions in America; there is this and that, do what is necessary.” No, intercession does not consist in simply telling God what He has forgotten to do and leaving Him in charge of the situation. According to the Latin word, to intercede means to take a step which brings us to the heart of a situation of tension, violence or conflict, and to stay there once and for all. What Job sensed is that in this contestation between him and god, the only one who could place himself between the two would be someone who was the equal of each of the two, who could put his hand on the shoulder of the living God without sacrilege and on the shoulder of the man, in his agony, without destroying him. Here is a first victim of that which Christ will be, true God and true man, fully God and          fully man, the One in whom and by whom the plentitude of Divinity has lived in the flesh, in our midst. And this act of intercession by Christ which is the Incarnation – this is dogmatic theology – is a definitive act. Christ has not become man for a time: the Word of God is incarnated for all time.

This is what intercession is: at one and the same time an act which precedes prayer, a complete engagement which makes us simultaneously engaged and disengaged from the two sides, in solidarity with one side as well as with the other and, because of this, rejected by one a well as by the other. The Incarnate Word was killed by men because He was God; he was consigned to the cross because He was a man. He died a borrowed death which is a man’s death. He was not accepted because His witness was one that favoured God, from whom the people of Israel had already turned away. “We want to be like all the nations.” They had said to Samuel: “It is not you, it is I Whom they rejected.” And the final rejection consists in these words of the people before Pilate: “We have no other king than Caesar.”

The act of intercession is a prayer that is in itself an act, and an act that is a prayer. Thus the action appears to us a lived faith, something in which prayer becomes life. And if prayer and life are not the two faces of the same reality, one coin, neither one has authenticity.

Our Vocation in the Church

Amos said that a prophet is one with whom God shares His thought and who not only receives the thoughts of God but, like a true prophet, proclaims them, lives them, witnesses to them, becomes an act of God. And it is to this that we are called in the Church, to be an act of God in the midst of the world. This is the special activity of the Church which means that in all domains, political, social, economic, educative, the other functions in the world: it is an act of God and as such it can be in harmony with everything that goes on. One of the Christian obligations is precisely that of being not only the leaven in the dough but also the sword that divides the darkness from the light, truth from error, death from life, God from Satan, of being the stumbling-block, the scandal, the constant provocation, the constant affirmation that we are not seeking the kingdom of the beast, that we not accept a harmony based on apostasy, that we do not want a justice that is a denial of divine justice, a truth that is a refusal of the personal truth: “I am the Truth” and so on.

We are called to be that divine act by which God reveals Himself to the world, and, as such, our destiny can only be that of Christ. Yes, Christ did say to us: “You will do greater works than mine…” and it is true: in His power and in His Spirit we are called to complete a work in which His action was decisive but not final.

We must be a witness to the world of the Presence, of the Transcendence, of the fact that Eternal has become immanent and is in our midst: God is in us and through us, God Who has no common measure with man, the divine mystery… At the same time this God reveals Himself in an incredible way which man could not invent, in Christ, Who appears to us defenseless, vulnerable, abandoned to the discordant wills of men, surrounded by hate, rejected; who dies because of this and Whose victory is in His humiliation.

I believe that what I have just said can be referred back to the image that Christ gave us when He said: “I consecrate myself, I sacrifice myself for them.” I don’t know which of the terms should be used, because the Greek word is too rich to be translated by only one of them. It concerns a prime act of consecration, it belongs to God without limitations. It Is God, and not only that but in its very humanity it has only one will, a life with God, and this in a free act in which the two wills find themselves united in a perfect way, in which the two natures are inseparable, in which the Word of God listens in on the will of God and watches in the depth what the father is doing, then continues to act and work in the world, to accomplish now what the Father wills in the mystery of divine thought.

He sacrifices Himself. To sacrifice oneself now means to shed one’s blood or to impose limitations on oneself in favour of someone – this is the way we are always sacrificing ourselves, doing a very little bit for our neighbour – but “to sacrifice oneself” means “to make oneself sacred, to consecrate oneself”, and also to offer oneself or be given in sacrifice. Did not Christ say: “Nobody is taking my life, I give it.” He gives himself up, He dies.

What is our attitude in such a situation? It is not this combination of successive and disorderly images that I have tried to give you in the course of these talks? Is it not these images which should permit us to feel our way, in the oneness of the ever contemporaneous Presence of God, into the multiplicity of ways in which this total presence brings itself to bear, expresses itself, integrates itself into the variety of situations? But then our role also consists in being perfectly obedient, not in the sense of mechanical obedience, which would mean bearing orders and carrying them out, but in the sense of an obedience in depth which wants to listen in with vigilance, tension, alert vitality, in order to hear and express what it perceives.

And this can be harmonious with what the world is seeking, because the Holy Spirit is not at work solely in the Church but everywhere, with a power and a force that are sometimes impressive. It is God Who judges the Church at this moment by all that goes on around it, by the persecution, by the protestation, by the atheism, by the rejection of the caricature of God which we offer for man’s worship. And we must certainly must learn to assume our responsibility for the sins of the past, and not to bewail ourselves as we recognize them but to see in them the judgement of God as we endeavour to release that which is the Eternal Truth of God in the present situation.

I cannot give you recipes, I can only indicate three elements as a conclusion of these considerations.

  1. Interior contemplation, which is not a form of life but a position against God, a standing before Him in a deepened silence; the double and reciprocal presence of God with man and man with God.
  2. Prayer, in its active, human aspect, in its tension towards God, with the resulting inward state of orientation towards God and being present to God, and, lastly, its final state which is a position in the world where we are: the prayer of the world to God, the articulation of the cry of the entire world to the living God. – And this is obviously an ascetic exercise to the extent to which we are under our human vocation.
  3. Finally, there is action, but as I said a moment ago, this action must be an act of God, by our instrumentality. Let us first learn to listen, hear, see and understand God, the world and our neighbour. And then to act not solely according to human wisdom but, above all, primarily on the basis of the divine Wisdom which is revealed to us in Scripture, in life and in the sacraments – for the early Church strongly emphasized that these form the gateway to the knowledge of God and to action in the name of God. And if in all honesty we try to live in God and to live His presence in the world, I trust that in every situation God will teach us how to do His will: the ways may be different, opposed, incompatible… For if we read the Old or new Testament, you will see that there are no rules, no precepts, – still less recipes. There are divine responses which are mutually contradictory, because when God confronts this fragment of time that asks Him a question, He faces each situation with the whole of eternity.
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