To all who follow my blog:
The following is a distillation, in epistolary form, of an interview which I was blessed to have in privato with our father in Christ, His Beatitude, IGNATIUS IV, Patriarch of Antioch, during his visit to Boston over a few days at the end of October and beginning of November, 2008. The Patriarch had founded an Orthodox university in Lebanon some 20 years ago, Balamand University. His visit to the USA was in the role of promoting the university, as well as participating in the session of the Holy Synod of our (American) Self-ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.
Our local bishop, our father in Christ, His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH, had arranged this interview in response to the Patriarch’s request to meet other “adult-convert” clergy who could provide further insights concerning Orthodox conversions in America. Bishop JOSEPH thought that I could provide something toward this end, along with another priest from our diocese who also participated in the interview. In the epistle which follows, I provide a distillation of His Beatitude’s utterances. The epistle, as written, is fictional; however, its contents are not. They are the actual teaching which I heard and noted down. Indeed, my last request of His Beatitude was the following: “please give my parish a word for our salvation, as though you were present to speak directly to the faithful.” So, here is “a patriarchal epistle for St Peter the Apostle parish, of southern California.”
To the faithful in Christ of St Peter the Apostle parish,
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all! My beloved children in the Lord, your love for God and for His Church, and your zeal for the Orthodox faith stand as a signet on your parish community for all the world to see. The gnawing spiritual hunger of confused and seeking souls can find its satisfaction in the fresh spring of life in the community of your parish, in your gatherings for worship, in your agape meals, and in your holy teaching and care one for the other. You struggled and found the sweet well of Orthodoxy. You embraced the Holy Tradition, which is nothing other than the very life of God incarnate–the life of Christ, the divine energy which leads to compunction, repentance, transfiguration, and a restoration to the likeness of God.
However, as many converts do, you face the temptation of idealism. Idealism is a framework of thinking which holds that one can find a certain specific doctrine and practice which, if taken as the sole standard, will answer all questions and lead the idealist to a life free from troubles. Idealism is a false god, something like a fairy-tale ending which you Americans like to see in your movies and novels: the so-called “happy ending.” Idealism is, from a theological point of view, a kind of monophysitism: the idealist says, if one is Orthodox, he becomes swallowed up with the divine! This however is wrong. We are sinners, we all struggle and we all must reckon with countless others around us who are not Orthodox and see no need to become Orthodox. Christ loves them as well–and so should we. Therefore, beware that your zeal does not fall into idealism. Translate your zeal for the faith into Christian action–holy praxis–which will give you a mission to love everyone as Christ does, regardless of their response. Do not be concerned with converting souls to Orthodoxy as much as loving them where they are. Remember how you were deeply moved when someone gave you the attention and care you needed. You would not want to be proselytized or drafted for the Church; you wanted only to find spiritual relief to your problems in life.
This is our Orthodoxy; to love as Christ loves, to care as He cares. Remember, God did not only give us a word through the prophets. He Himself came into our lowly estate. He BECAME us! We must then become what our neighbors need for their salvation. Live as Christ does–always looking out for the care of your neighbor and weeping with them, as you care for their life. In this way, you will never fail to prosper as a holy community. One profound way in which you can show your Christian love is in your patient listening. Be careful in your prayerful way to listen deeply to the heart-beat of the one who is speaking to you. Listen through the words to the pain, the sorrow, the concern, the fear, the ache, of each person’s heart. So few people know how to listen today! Everyone has an agenda; everyone wants to promote his or her ideas. Where can anyone confess their sins to be saved from them? The parish priest has his role in the sacrament of Holy Confession, to be sure. However, this listening must be the mission for all of us. It is a wonder, indeed a true miracle, when one truly encounters his neighbor without any other agenda than to love.
In conclusion, my word to you as a holy community is to love as Christ loves. This is the evangelical commandment: “that you love one another as I have loved you.” May you then follow our Master in the sacred ministry of selfless love for the reconciliation of those in whose area you live and work. You can be assured of my constant gratitude before God for you and my prayers for your ever-deepening experience of the Great Mercy.
In Christ, your father,
IGNATIUS (IV) of Antioch