November 23, 2015 Length: 24:00
Fr. Seraphim was in Paris shortly after the November 13 attacks. He reflects on what our response as Christians should be. How do we hold on to our Christianity? What is our role as peacemakers? He reminds us that we fight for is not of this world.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I am recording this episode in Paris, so this may be one of the noisiest so far, and I do apologize for that. I’m here for a week, working in the archives at the Centre Pompidou. It is part of the work I do for the University of Oxford, and it’s been a very tough week to be in Paris. I came shortly after the attacks. They happened on Friday night, and I was here already on Sunday. It is a very sad time, and you can feel it in the city. You can feel it in people and their behavior. They do try to move on with their lives, but there is a certain type of lack of engagement somehow, and distance. A distance, that is the word. I’ve seen it before, in people as well as in larger communities, and it seems to be the reaction after something horrible.
I’ve tried to make sense all week of what has happened and what is happening at large. I’ve tried to make sense of that as I hold onto my faith and things my faith, Christ, ask of me. I can tell you two things that I’m sure are very common. On the one hand, nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense about Christianity, and that is all right. There is no logic in Christ’s asking us to be children of peace, makers of peace in the world. There is no logic in Christ’s commandment to allow ourselves to be crucified for the sake of our neighbor, to die for the sake of our neighbor and the world we live in. There is absolutely no connection; there is no way to fit the two together. But that is all right. It took me, again, a few days to understand that it is absolutely all right, because we are not part of this world, and we should not fit into it. It is painful, but it is the truth.
And the second thing I’ve understood is how small, how horribly small my heart really is, because as I walked the streets of Paris and as I felt this cloud of sadness just overcoming everything and everyone, as I kept on praying, as I kept on putting on the mask of a Christian, I clearly perceived in my heart a hope—a secret, horrible, disgusting hope—that while I look away and against my formal approval, somebody somewhere, some nation from somewhere, will in fact do so that this whole horrible thing is ended.
There is a fight at all times in my heart—and I’m sure many of you can identify with it—between my faith and Christ’s commandment for peace and love and self-sacrifice, and my instincts, which are naturally towards survival, my personal survival, the survival of the communities and groups I’m part of, the survival of my family, my friends, my nation, my church, my culture. And because these two do not fit in moments of crisis and because I’m too much of a coward, really, to choose either Christ or the world, I develop ways in which I fake everything. I am a Christian. I am called to make peace in the world. I hold onto that image, but in my heart, as I pray, Christ has clearly showed me that instincts are still alive.
It is disappointing after so many years of monasticism to perceive this in oneself. It’s almost like saying, “I shall look away and pretend that I don’t know what you’re doing, and as I do that, you go ahead and just bomb them all.” And that is not Christianity. That is not Christ’s call. And it is definitely not the path to salvation.
So for the last week or so—because this hasn’t started in Paris; this started a long time ago… There were attacks everywhere in the world. There’s a new one even today in Mali. And for a long time I’ve tried to just make sense in a spiritual way of what my actions should be, what my response should be to this, and Christ has given me an answer. It just is so difficult to formulate. This is the 16th attempt to record this episode, and I’m already tempted to just press delete again, because there are things we get revealed and told in our hearts that sound so feeble and illogical when you try to express them. So I’ll just tell you what happened.
I was walking towards Notre Dame, just because I love to be close to the sea, close to mountains, close to rivers, and once you are in Paris or in London, the only, well, presence of nature, really, are the rivers, the Seine or the Thames. I was walking down the river, praying and hoping for an answer, to basically the question: What are we going towards? Where will this all lead to? And how do we hold on to our faith and to Christianity? How will it all end? Is this the end of our faith: with wars in the Orient, horrible nationalism in most Orthodox countries, and perfect secularism in the West? Is this where we’ve got to, two thousand years after Christ?
And the answer I received is that this is not mine to worry about, because I am not the Maker of heavens and earth. I am not the Maker of anyone and anything. This is Christ’s worry. My worry and my responsibility is to hold on to Christ and his commandments, and if he says, “Be a maker of peace,” I should be a maker of peace, even as the whole world crumbles down around me, because this perception of life, as a chronological time, as a type of evolution or progression—history as progression—is a horrible temptation, as this fake, unChristian, anti-Christian idea that things should get better.
Progress is not something that happens in time. The right word should be, rather, to become, to grow, into something. Not to grow in the sense of getting from a seed to a fruit in time, because that implies time. Not to become in the sense of changing from one version of ourselves to a better version of ourselves. This whole way of thinking in time and space has nothing to do with Christianity, and it makes us think there is something to be won in this life and something to be lost in this life, when in fact there is absolutely nothing to be won, nothing to be lost. The only thing at stake is our salvation. Everything else is dust.
There is no time, there is no history, there is no evolution, and we must try to go back to thinking in a Christian way before we can even hope for things to make sense. The saints have tried to get out of this prison of time and space and idea of a progression in life. Think again of St. Brendan. We spoke of him last week. Think of his physical attempt to get away from the world and to free himself of the world’s vision of life, a vision where things happen in time, and you get from point A to point B to point C. Think of St. Columba and his lack of progression, of his failure, which then Christ turned into one of the most beautiful stories of Christianity. Think of the 68 monastics who were killed on Martyrs’ Bay in the ninth century by the first Viking attack. Think of all the others who were killed everywhere in the British Isles by the Vikings. Not one has fought back. Not one has taken a gun to fight back and protect himself, his brothers, his community, or his island—because what they were fighting for does not belong to this world.
It’s just what Christ was trying to say. If his aim had been to rule the world here, to rule this dust which he created, he would have fought. He would have brought armies to fight against those who crucified him. And as he apparently didn’t fight and as he apparently was defeated, he was actually fighting back and winning the battle, but not here, not over this dust, but over the kingdom, the eternal kingdom of peace.
All these monastics who died in the Celtic isles—not fighting back, butchered by barbarians the same way things happen today—all of these are beautifully represented on their tombstones, and they are represented as frightening, powerful, heavily-armed soldiers because they were frightening and they were powerful and heavily-armed in their fight for the kingdom. Yes.
We might die and our families might die and our culture and civilization might die, but if we die in the name of Christ, we have won. Whereas, if we win, abandoning Christ and his commandments, if we win and rule this dust at that expense, we have, in fact, lost.
As I was walking that day, I understood again that there is an essential difference between the mind of someone who is a believer, someone who functions by faith, and someone who functions by logics. Yes, there are religions on this planet—there have been before, and there will come long after we die—there are religions on this world who think in terms of ruling the earth, in terms of taking over the world and ruling it. There are religions that think in terms of progression and that rejoice in the fact that there were a thousand of them 20 years ago and there are a hundred thousand today. In that quantity, they see a sign that their religion is progressing and growing, but that is not the true faith.
In the true faith, things do not happen in time. I am not here so I can lead to the next generation. I am not here so I can leave behind some sort of heritage for those coming after me, because there is no future and there is no past. There is nothing to leave behind, because there is no “behind.” There is nothing to build for the future, because there is no future. The battle, the fight, happens here and now in me and in you. The kingdom is in me and in you and in each and every one of the people created.
The world does not need more soldiers; the world needs more saints. There is no question whether you or I should fight, because we are fighting, even against our will. We are all involved in this battle. We are all soldiers, but we can be the type of soldier that fights for a kingdom over dust and become a warrior, a terrorist, who [is] any kind of person who kills another person; or we can become the kind of warrior that fights for the kingdom to come, that fights for the kingdom of love, that fights for the kingdom of peace, which Christ promised to all those who make peace.
I have not succeeded to express what was on my mind. I know that, as I finish this; I know that. I will try again next week, or maybe in a text on the website of the monastery. Please forgive me. It is difficult to put into words and to structure things that have to do with the heart and the soul.
Let’s pray for peace, for all of us, everywhere. Amen.