O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
The prayer of Scotland‘s national poet – for a better sense of how we appear in other people‘s eyes – is one in which all Orthodox Christians can join. That doesn‘t mean, of course, that we should be obsessively concerned with our ‘image‘ in the world. On the contrary, there are times when we are positively obliged to behave in ways that most other people may find idiosyncratic or downright wrong. But it is also generally true that for any small, and (to most people) unusual group, some minimal awareness of public perceptions is a necessary condition for survival. As individuals and as a whole, the participants in such a group have to make careful judgments about how much, and precisely how, their beliefs and practices should be shared with the rest of the world. That doesn‘t imply systematically deceiving outsiders; but it does imply wise discernment of the best starting-points in any interaction with people who belong to other groups, or no particular group. That is precisely the challenge facing most Orthodox Christians who live in the West – and are surrounded, for the majority of their waking hours, by work-mates, team-mates, neighbours or fellow-students to whom Orthodox Christianity is utterly foreign.
Sometimes we are brought face to face in a comical way with how other people regard us. Let me tell a couple of stories from my work as a journalist. A few years ago, I found myself in Jerusalem, spending the evening of (Orthodox) Easter Sunday with three colleagues: one a devout but politically moderate Jew, another an Englishman who specialises in Palestinian affairs, and finally, a very distinguished English lady who has spent a lifetime writing and editing stories from the Middle East. Perhaps because it was the most neutral topic of conversation, the three of them spent much of the evening asking me about the Paschal celebration I had just experienced. Then the Englishman asked: ‘How do your colleagues react to the fact that you‘re an Orthodox Christian?‘ Sensing my slight discomfiture, the lady from London interjected: ‘The fact is that we‘re all pretty odd….‘
Odd indeed, but we vary in the degree and modality, so to speak, of our perceived oddness. Let me also tell about a harmless but maybe revealing piece of teasing which I faced recently. Early on a Thursday morning, the editorial team of our magazine assembles and we read one another‘s copy. A correspondent had made the controversial assertion that the Celtic cross, in Italy at least, was regarded as a neo-fascist symbol. So the cry went out – is that something we can agree with? And I immediately piped up that I wear a Celtic cross, and certainly don‘t regard myself as a neo-fascist. A colleague retorted: ‘No, Bruce we think of you more as an old-time fascist, a paleo-fascist….‘ Well, it‘s always nice to be appreciated.
What both these little incidents recall is the dilemma faced, I would imagine, by almost every faithful Orthodox Christian in this country: how do we keep our integrity, and at least in a quiet way bear witness to our faith, in environments, especially work environments, where the discourse and practice of Orthodox Christianity appear utterly unfamiliar, and per-haps ridiculous, to most of our colleagues? How do we steer a course between proselytizing in an aggressive or condescending way and conceding all the ground to our colleagues? In an ideal world, what are the things about Orthodox Christianity that would somehow be picked up by our colleagues and fellow-citizens? If we were faithful to our calling, what would people make of that calling? What should be the hallmarks of our faith that inspire at least respect among those who find the contents of our beliefs (or indeed the idea of any elaborate and systematic religious practice) strange or bewildering?
I would like to share a few thoughts about this dilemma. First, if we are true to our faith, it must be the case that in practical as well as theoretical ways, we remain perpetually open to the mystery of the human personality. That is something we talk about a lot in our theological discussions, sometimes coherently, sometimes not. But in the work-place and in other situations of temporary intimacy (travelling, for example), the mystery of humanity can crowd in on us in entirely unexpected ways. People of whom we know very little may suddenly open to us and reveal parts of themselves (their deepest hopes, fears and insecurities) that are far from obvi-ous on the outside. Indeed, some relationships at work and in other contexts, are almost of necessity one-dimensional. Every day for ten years, I may greet the person who mends the photocopying machine, or despatches the post or guards the entrance to my building, without ever exchanging more than a few polite words about the weather or other anodyne topics. And then suddenly the relationship changes, because of some incident, some snatch of conversation, which enables us to see that person in an entirely new light. Even with very close associates – people with whom we are obliged to co-operate and accomplish complex tasks – there are always features of their lives that we would never have imagined, and about which it would be quite wrong to ask intrusive questions. And when people around us do open up, showing part (it‘s never the whole) of their mystery and personhood; we have to be ready for that moment, while at the same time being extra careful to avoid the temptations of pride and power which arise almost instantly whenever you are on the receiving end of some-body‘s confidences and vulnerability. I would like to think that readiness for such a moment is or should be a hallmark of an Orthodox Christian.
Closely related to this, I think, is the willingness to forgive colleagues and other associates who offend us and harm our interests (often because we have harmed theirs) without trivialising or simply repressing the extent of the mutual hurt. It is a hard fact of human life that in any group – of work-mates, campaigners for a cause, members of a political party – people are going to hurt one another, either wilfully, or by accident. Where a professional tie is longstanding, and for some reason unbreakable, the danger exists of wounds that fester and spread. To state the obvious, it is relatively easy to forgive people from whom we can detach ourselves, people with whom we share no real community of fate. And modern urban life allows us plenty of opportunity to detach ourselves from those we find unbearable; we can change jobs, social groups, cities, countries and of course spouses and life-partners with an ease that would have been inconceivable in most other eras of human history. And yet there are people to whom we have to remain close, because of the place where we work, the causes we support, or for more subtle reasons; and we will all give an account to God of how we dealt with those people and handled the difficult-ties that were bound to arise.
On forgiveness, ‘Western‘ Orthodox Christians may have something to learn from the Orthodox heartland. I certainly don‘t idealise the reality of historically Orthodox cultures, or assume that these cultures perfectly reflect the Orthodox faith. But I do think that, compared with most modern Western societies, Orthodox countries – which are, of course, different from one another – have a better sense of the need for forgiveness in human affairs, without underestimating the difficulty of forgiveness. In a paradoxical way, this may reflect the deep traumas that many Orthodox lands experienced in the twentieth century, and the absolute need for some mutual forgiveness if communities are to survive. Scratch the surface of any town in Greece, and you will find memories of the most appalling acts of cruelty that individuals or families perpetrated upon one another in the course of the German occupation, the civil war or the military dictatorship. It hardly suprising that some deep grudges are borne, and that these grudges continue to affect personal relations half a century after the events that gave rise to them. What is more striking is that there are plenty of cases of people who were on opposite sides during these terrible events who somehow managed to bury the hatchet, to say ‘Perasmena, Xehasmena‘ – what is past is forgotten.
To outsiders, the Orthodox Christian world must often seem exceptionally vindictive and quarrelsome. But there is at least some heartening evidence to the contrary. If you are familiar with the Greek Orthodox scene, you will remember the intensity of the dispute that raged between the late Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, over jurisdictional questions in northern Greece. During 2003, the dispute was close to becoming a national obsession in Greece, with newspapers stirring the pot by adopting one side or the other and making personal attacks on the other camp. But that wasn‘t the end of the story of the relationship between those two clerics. In the final months of the Archbishop‘s life, he was battling with liver cancer, and Patriarch Bartholomew made a point of visiting the Archbishop and offering whatever comfort he could as a pastor, a fellow Christian and a human being. And the dying Archbishop expressed the wish that the Patriarch should lead his funeral. In January 2008, the Patriarch left his modest quarters at the Phanar and led a funeral procession of about 200,000 people through the streets of Athens. And through that act of reconciliation between the two clerics, there came a broader reconciliation between the Archdiocese of Athens and the Patriarchate.
So I don‘t think that it is being excessively idealistic to say that cradle Orthodox know how to quarrel but they can also forgive. I‘m sorry to say that when I became an Orthodox Christian in 1996, I often found there was more evidence of the former quality than of the latter among the small, disputatious community of Orthodox faithful in Britain. Indeed it seemed to me, and it still seems to me, that as groups of people go, the Orthodox Christians of this country are exceptionally prone not just to hurt one another but also to nurture grievances for years and years. ‘Love keeps no score of wrongs‘ – that is the New English Bible translation of a famous verse in the letter to the Corinthians. It seems to me that many of us are exceptionally zealous in keeping a score of wrongs. Unless we show more forgiveness to one another, we shall never be able to bear witness – even silently – to anybody else. We should bear in mind that, whatever we do, people are likely to think of us as cranky, obsessed with obscure details and even narcissistic. That is how any elaborate religion seems to anybody who does not follow such a practice – in other words, to the vast majority of people around us. If we compound that impression of self-obsessed crankiness by behaving vindictively (to one another, or to outsiders), the message that we send to the world will be a truly dire and dreadful one.
To lighten the tone a bit, I would like to suggest a third way in which we communicate with one another, and through which Orthdodox Christians can communicate something of their deepest selves to people who know nothing of our faith. And that is through humour: the very important signals we send by what we laugh at, and what we don‘t laugh at. I wouldn‘t have mentioned either of those workplace anecdotes at the beginning of my talk if I hadn‘t been confident that my colleagues‘ words were meant in the most kindly way. One of the hallmarks of a devout Orthodox Christian is an ability not merely to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep, but also to laugh – joyfully – with those who laugh. The everyday details of life between people who are very close to another, and trust one another, are very funny. We all tend to take ourselves a bit too seriously – but at the same time, we can eventually be made to see the funny side if somebody punctures our pomposity. The line between cruel humour and the gentle sort can be quite a fine one, but it is a very important one to maintain. Many of the holiest people of our time, and of other times, have been very funny characters: mimics, raconteurs, adept practitioners of self-mockery. In the first chapter of St John‘s Gospel, we find the rhetorical question: can anything good come out of Nazareth? Whatever other meanings this enquiry may contain, there is surely a piece of light local humour – rather like saying, as I was taught in my Northern Irish childhood, that if somebody asks you for sixpence before answering a question, you know you‘re near Ballymena. But the dividing line between gentle humour and cruel mockery – mental torture, if you like – is quite thin. It is surely an important Christian duty, in any social situation, to watch that line very carefully – and to protect anybody who is a victim of collective cruelty.
What else should Orthodox Christians try to be in their dealings with a world that is neither Orthodox nor in any serious way Christian? In an ideal world, we would be perpetually prepared to bear witness to our faith, its teaching, its values – on those occasions when we are called on to do so. We would have the knowledge and also the discernment to understand the level at which our faith can be shared in any particular situation.
Yes, we have to be extremely sensitive to how other people see us, and at the same time we need to be very careful not to accept unconditionally other people‘s perceptions of where and who we are. If other people view us as odd or eccentric – and use that perception as a way to cope with the fact that we are different – so be it: Christians have been, and still are, called much worse things than that. But that doesn‘t mean surrendering to the rest of the world or internalising its judgements. To restate that paradox in a different way, it is a matter of common sense that we have to speak the language of the place where we live; but that doesn‘t mean that we have to speak or think in the same way as other speakers of that language. In this context, language means far more than a form of speech like English, Spanish or Swahili: it means the entire set of symbols and references by which meaning is communicated. If it seems to us that people around us are speaking a language that somehow incorporates false values, that leaves no room for sacredness, transcendence or awe, we must look for ways to start ‘re-forming‘ that language – but the only starting-point for this process is the particular set of signs and symbols now in use.
Modern culture is very powerful and intrusive; it seems to imprint its electronic images, its artificial sounds, its computer-generated values, deep inside the consciousness of every human being. We have to be sufficiently in tune with that culture to communicate with people who know nothing else; and at the same time, refuse to be imprisoned by that culture. Among people who would only use the word ‘God‘ or ‘Jesus‘ or ‘prayer‘ in an ironic or blasphemous way, we have to suggest, somehow, that these words have primordial meanings that are infinitely more important. When people try to guess at these primordial meanings, it may be that the only real evidence they have is the effect these words have on us: what do we, who claim to be believers, seem to be saying when we speak of the importance of God in our lives? What do we mean when we say that ‘God created the world….‘; that ‘God loved the world‘; that ‘God‘s Son died for the world‘? By the lights of modern culture, these statements are on the verge of being meaningless; that is why, even as Christians, we don‘t often use such words in public places. (It is no accident that when people from right outside Christian culture suddenly have a glimmering of what it‘s all about, it‘s very often through some non-verbal symbol, such as an icon or a piece of music that seems to speak of another world.)
But most of the time, language in its present, rather defaced form is the only tool of communication available to us, unless we happen to be talented composers or artists. Finding the right, simple words to express ourselves – and build a bridge to those who use words in a different way – is never simple matter: it requires ingenuity, and in the deepest sense, inspiration. Perhaps that it is part of what Our Lord meant when he taught that as we go about our daily lives in an indifferent, hostile or uncomprehending world, we must be ‘as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves‘ (Mt 10:16).