Entries with tag faith matters .

Holding Space for Family

It’s 5:30 pm—almost dinner time in the home of the Chronos family. Mrs. Chronos has arrived home from work and frantically begins to pull something together for the evening meal. As she is chopping some onions, her 17-year-old son, Nicholas, breezes past the kitchen.

“Bye, Mom!”
“Wait, where are you going?”
“Soccer! Don’t you remember we have an extra practice tonight because of the championship this weekend?”
“Oh yeah, I forgot. See you later. Love you.”

Mrs. Chronos has mixed feelings about Nicholas’ involvement with soccer. She loves the values of recreation, teamwork, and discipline but is less than enthusiastic about how it impacts family time.

A few minutes later, through the front door comes Gracie, age 10, who was just dropped off by a friend’s mother.

“Hi, Sweetie! How was Megan’s?”
“We had fun. Mom, why can’t I have a TV in my room like Megan. It would be great. I wouldn’t have to bug you anymore, and I could just hang out in my room like Megan and I did today.”
“That’s all you did today at Megan’s, watch TV?”
“No, we played video games too.”

Mrs. Chronos groans—this kind of conversation is nothing new.

She then glances at her phone and notices a new text message from her husband.  “Have to stay back at work and will be late. I’ll grab dinner here. So sorry! Love you!” Mrs. Chronos’ heart sinks. Mr. Chronos’ job has been consuming him lately, and she misses his presence. After 25 years of marriage, their relationship is certainly grounded in mutual love, but she can’t remember the last time they enjoyed some time as a couple. Come to think of it, the times that the four members of Chronos family are all together seem to be decreasing.

This scenario plays out daily in homes across the country. When its occurrence is more of an exception than the rule, it’s not too concerning for family life. However when individual schedules fracture family unity with regular frequency, the concern is greater. The ‘busyness’ of life is pulling families further away from one another—further away from this vital connection. In his keynote address at the 2013 Family Ministry Conference, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios stated,

The demands of the modern life weaken the bonds between family members, between parents and children, between siblings, between grandparents and grandchildren… The net result is that family members spend more time with co-workers, with teammates, with paid caregivers, than with each other. The real work of parenting—which is to say, of developing character and life-skills in children—falls to coaches and teachers. The real joys of companionship are found in relationships outside of the home. Family life becomes a perfunctory routine rather than a fellowship of shared purpose.

The Joy of Companionship

God fashioned humanity so that it would exist through relationship.  After creating Adam, He declared, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). We were made by God to live in communion with one another.

Current studies on neuroscience show that we all need connections to thrive at every age—from cradle to grave. We all need to belong and be a valued member of a social/family structure. When people are significantly disconnected from others, there is a higher occurrence of depression and isolation which can adversely impact all aspects of daily function.

But what does real connection look like? In many ways technology has made us more connected than ever. Today, we have ways to stay connected to people under circumstances that would have been difficult just 10 years ago. We can Skype with grandparents that live far away. We can text a quick message of support to our spouse during a particularly trying day at work. These are particularly helpful ways of using technology to stay connected. However it is important that we avoid swapping connection through technology when face-to-face contact is viable—especially within the household. Deep relationships cannot be sustained through emojis!

Likewise, the internet has given us accessibility to many resources for learning more about the Church. We can listen to podcasts, chanting, and videos about any topic of the spiritual life we like. We can even watch services live as they are broadcast from various Orthodox parishes[1]. But true connection with Christ doesn’t happen online—it happens through encounters of prayer, repentance, and communion—living a life in His Church as a member of His family.

As Christians, our relationship with Christ forms the basis for all of our other relationships. In her book, Persons in Communion, Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald writes,

Human persons are meant to be in communion with other persons. Authentic human life requires relationships with others. A relationship with God cannot be separated from relationships with other persons. As human persons, we share a common origin in God’s creative love and we share a common goal in God’s transfiguring love. We are bound together in God and are by nature social persons. We are not meant to live our lives in isolation from others. Rather, we are meant to be in relationship with others.

God’s Transfiguring Love

God presents us with the perfect image for family in the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. United as one essence with unique individuals existing in perfect love with one another.  But somehow this image of family has been distorted greatly so that instead of abiding in the perfect love of the Trinity, we try to live with the distorted ideals held up by this world. If we allow ourselves to become seduced by the images we regularly see in conventional and social media, we lose perspective of how we are called to be in family. We become consumed with keeping up appearances. This is not God’s purpose for family. It is not the goal of family be perfect as the world would define it, but rather it exists to create communion where people are loved unconditionally and growing in grace for the purpose of their salvation.

Family relationships can be ‘messy’ and challenging—whether they are with our biological or Church family members. As exhausting as it can be, these difficulties need to be acknowledged and, in a sense, embraced as opportunities for spiritual growth. When we read the lives of the saints, we learn that many of them had difficult family lives and sometimes suffered blamelessly at the hands of fellow Church members. It is through these obstacles that they were transformed and—in the process—transformed others by their holy example. When we keep Christ in the front and center of our being, we are better able to see His will in our lives as well as our fellow family members. Mother Gavrilia is quoted in her biography as saying, “God is not interested in where you are or what you do…He is interested only in the quality and quantity of the love you give. Nothing else. Nothing else.”

The Love You Give

We should make time daily to engage one another eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart—monitoring our time in front of screens and carefully discerning the cyber world and its myriad of distorted images. Let’s thank God for whom we have in front of us in the present moment. We might create intentional rules for our families to spend time with one another and, short of unforeseen events, strive to keep that appointed time as sacred. The culture we live in—this is critical to realize—isn’t going to help us with this. We have to set these boundaries for ourselves as well as our families.

We need a revolution in our family life. We need to fire a shot heard round the world calling our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, to come together again and put aside the shackles of screen addictions and activities to make the church in the home. –His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America


[1] These broadcasts are meant to be an aid to those homebound and not as a substitute for physical attendance.

Melissa is the Associate Director of the Center for Family Care of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese where she has worked since 2001. Prior to her work at the Archdiocese Melissa worked for 10 years as a development specialist for an Early Intervention Program which worked with families with children from age birth to three who had special needs. She received her BA from Sacramento State University in California in child development with an emphasis in family education and an additional 2 years of studies for a credential in early childhood special education. Melissa and her husband, George, live in Tarpon Springs, Florida with their son, Nomikos. They have one son, Nomikos. Her passion is to teach about spiritual development and how we can live our faith daily in our homes and lives.

World Press Freedom Day

Christos Anesti! While many Orthodox Christians around the world recently celebrated Pascha, few of us are aware of another commemoration. On May 3rd, the international community honored World Press Freedom Day, which was designated by the United Nations in 1991.

What is World Press Freedom Day? 

“The rights to life and to liberty and integrity and security of person and also to freedom of expression are fundamental human rights that are recognized and guaranteed by international conventions and instruments.”

UNESCO RESOLUTION

I must admit I am a little embarrassed because, despite working as a communications assistant, I first heard of World Press Freedom Day was when I was approached to write this blog post. As I began researching, I realized how much we are affected, every day, by the wealth of media and information that journalists bring to us and just how much risk they take to tell the stories.

Think about that last thing you posted on Twitter this morning or about the article you shared on Facebook last evening. Now imagine your screen going blank; your account being deactivated or flagged. Picture the authorities knocking on your door just because you made a somewhat charged comment about one of the political candidates running for president. Imagine you are a journalist detained for speaking your mind as you traveled on assignment, or for exposing the truth about a powerful person or company?

While, for the most part, we – people in the Western world – are at liberty to express ourselves freely, what we take for granted as a basic human right just doesn't exist for many people. This restriction disempowers people and prevents social development.

According to the United Nations, as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Freedom of Expression is a fundamental human right:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

For some, the issue is truly a matter of life and death. Reporters without Borders reports on the severity of the problem:

In 2013 alone, 71 journalists were killed, 826 were arrested, 2160 journalists threatened or physically attacked, 87 journalists kidnapped, 77 journalists had to flee their country, 6 media assistants killed, 39 netizens and citizen-journalists killed AND 127 bloggers and netizens arrested.[1]

Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize

In 1993, in conjunction with World Press Freedom day, UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) established the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. The prize was named after Colombian journalist Guillermo Cano Isaza, who sought to expose the drug mafia for the havoc they were wreaking in his country. His hope was for the drug lords to be extradited to the United States for prosecution since Colombia's own institutions could do little to handle the problems the cartels had created throughout the country. In 1986, he received Colombia's National Journalism award for defending press freedom. On December 17, 1986 he was gunned down in front of his office building. His assassination was the first in a series of journalists throughout Colombia, making it the most dangerous country in Latin America to work as a journalist.

Each year since first established, the prize is awarded to a person (or organization) that has made an extraordinary contribution to the pursuit and defense of press freedom, especially when done at high risk.

2016 World Press Freedom Prize Recipient

Of course, freedom of press is not only affected by drug and criminal organizations looking to hide their activities. In most cases, national and local governments are the perpetrators. Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani investigative journalist and radio host, currently sits in prison. Ismavilova was arrested in 2014 on charges of “incitement to suicide.” In 2015 she was sentenced to seven and half years of prison under charges of “embezzlement and tax evasion.”  Her imprisonment was orchestrated by the government in retaliation for writing a series of articles revealing state-level corruption of Azerbaijan's first family. Azerbaijan's media is monitored strictly by its government. While the government itself never commented on the reports, two of which were declared best investigative reports of 2010 and 2011 by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Ms. Ismayilova was blackmailed, humiliated, harassed and arrested on false charges. In addition to this, Azerbaijan's National Assembly adopted amendments to laws that would protect such corruption and offer ex-Presidents and spouses lifelong legal immunity. Ms. Ismayilova’s brave decision to expose the truth, despite the hostile climate, is what earned her 2016’s World Press Freedom Prize.

Reporters Without Borders and The World Press Freedom Index

While governments and criminal organizations often hinder freedom of press, there are still other threats, as well. Terrorists, corporations, and power-hungry individuals also influence press freedom.

What is the World Press Freedom Index? Reporters Without Borders is an international nonprofit organization that promotes freedom of information and freedom of press. Their yearly-published World Press Freedom Index is compiled to be used as a standard for ranking 180 countries by the freedom it allows its journalists. It also includes statistics of the level of media freedom violations in each part of the world.

Which nations have the highest levels of freedom of expression? The top ten are all located in Europe, with Finland ranking at the top of the list. The Americas actually fell behind Africa this year with the United States at #42 for 2016. Whistle-blowing continues to be the main reason for debate in the US; journalists are still not protected by a federal "shield law" that would guarantee their right not to reveal their sources and other confidential work-related information.

What of the far end of the spectrum (complete censorship of news and any journalistic activity being illegal)? Incidentally, Azerbaijan ranks 163 this year. Overall, the Index shows there is a downward trend around the world, even in what might be considered “the media age”, where humans are so connected. What happens to society when information stops flowing freely? May 3rd reminds us that governing bodies around the world must continue to renew their commitment to press freedom and treat professionals in the field with respect.  It is a day to support journalists and also a day of remembrance for those who lost their lives trying to bring the truth to the public.

For more information on World Press Freedom Day, visit:

http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/freedom-of-expression/press-freedom/unesco-world-press-freedom-prize

http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/freedom-of-expression/press-freedom/unesco-world-press-freedom-prize/about-world-press-freedom-prize

http://en.unesco.org/themes/fostering-freedom-expression

http://rsf.org/en

http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/censorship-and-free-speech/press-freedom/world-press-freedom-day


[1] http://rsf.org/en/news/71-journalists-were-killed-2013

From Lesbos to Crete: The Orthodox Church and It’s Commitment to the World

by V. Rev. Dr. Archimandrite Nathanael Symeonides

In just a few hours, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew—the religious leaders of the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches—will once again have the opportunity to embrace each other as brothers in Christ. Since the Great Schism of 1054, which marked the division between the Church of the West and the Church of the East, the spiritual leaders of the Churches of Rome and Constantinople have met on twenty-two times. This doesn’t come as a surprise until one considers that prior to the schism between East and West, the two Primates only met on three occasions!

The road to reconciliation between the two Churches was largely paved by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, who, in 1964 invited Pope Paul VI to meet in Jerusalem after centuries typically marked by isolation and mistrust between the two Churches. The meeting in Jerusalem sparked a new era of dialogue, cooperation, and love between the two Churches. Evidence that the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches were committed to overcoming the differences that kept them from the “common cup” came a year later, when both the Churches of Constantinople and Rome lifted from the memory of the Church the common anathemas declared in 1054. Much more work was still needed for the two bodies to be joined once again.

Since his election in 1991 as the 270th Archbishop of Constantinople, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has worked tirelessly to build bridges between East and West. During his tenure as Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew has met with the Pope of Rome on sixteen separate occasions; he has met with Popes John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and Pope Francis. What is important to note about these meetings is that they represent far more than formal occasions to exchange gifts and good tidings, and they are certainly diachronic, transcending beyond the daily news cycle.

Since 2013, marking the election of Pope Francis as the chief-shepherd of the Church of Rome, both Francis and Bartholomew have become even more committed to the dialogue between their two Churches. Indeed, their actions lead one to believe that they have made a conscious decision to pivot and shift the dialogue from one primarily focused on the theology of words to a dialogue concentrating on the theology of deeds.

This is perhaps first seen in 2014, when Francis and Bartholomew met with Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas in Rome and encouraged them to find ways to bring about peace in the Middle East. The new dialogue of praxis is also recognized in the Ecumenical Patriarch’s and the Pope’s concern about the environment; for the first time in history, a Pope directly cites an Ecumenical Patriarch in a Papal Encyclical—Laudato Si’.

When the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch meet on the Greek island of Lesbos to express their prayerful solidarity and concern for the migrants and refugees that have fled their homelands in the Middle East, they will once again convey a message to the world. This time, however, the message will not only come via a common declaration, but will more importantly be expressed through their common initiative. Like Christ, the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch will approach and embrace those who are on the margins; they will give hope to the hopeless; they will praise the peacemakers; and they will commend the humanitarians.

Their work together on the island of Lesbos will not come to a close upon their departure. Both men understand the need for a common Christian response to ongoing humanitarian crises around the world—Lesbos represents just one example, albeit an acute one. The two Churches have much work to do in order to provide an appropriate response to such pressing conditions.

In June, on yet another Greek Island (Crete), Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will convene the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church. The Holy Council represents a singular opportunity for the Church to reaffirm that the Christian faith is one that invites individuals and communities to care for the world, especially for the downtrodden, marginalized, and afflicted. The Council’s agenda will include such topics as “The Importance of Fasting and its Observance Today,” “Relations of the Orthodox Church and the Rest of the Christian World,” and “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World.”

Many are hopeful that the Holy and Great Council will provide the faithful the guidance and clarity needed to navigate today’s turbulent waters. In this respect, the Council’s Decisions will play a pivotal role in the internal life and governance of the Church for years to come. At the same time, however, the Council will be convened to help us look beyond ourselves, to refine our focus on the condition of the world around us, and to respond to sighs of those in need.

Recognizing the importance and need for the Orthodox Church to meet in Council, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has remained committed to the conciliar process. After centuries, the Orthodox Church will experience once again a more profound degree of conciliar life, and in so doing, it will have the opportunity to form unified and universal vision concerning the nature of the Church, namely, that while the Church may indeed not be of the world, it never ceases to function in the world, and certainly always exists for the salvation of the world.

A Beacon of Hope, #NunsAgainstTrafficking

A Beacon of Hope, #NunsAgainstTrafficking

 

 

Human trafficking and modern day slavery are words often heard, yet seldom understood. It is a topic that makes many of us feel remorse and fall into despair. In such a climate, though, there is hope!  The Sisters of All Saints Monastery in Calverton, NY are swimming against the current. They are standing up and making a difference. With the blessing of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America, they have initiated The HOPE Project to help young women escape “the Life.”

What is meant by, “the Life”?  “The Life” is what prostituted women call their life circumstance, namely, a situation in which women are forced or coerced by a pimp into prostitution with “johns.” According to the Palermo Protocol at the United Nations, "Trafficking in persons" shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. To the surprise of many, what this suggests is that a person does not have to be taken across a border to be trafficked; it is a matter of exploitation rather than transportation.  This is not just a global problem but a local epidemic, as well. Anyone can be trafficked, regardless of socio-economic status, age, education, or gender. And, the majority of those trafficked for sexual exploitation are US citizens! In the United States, an estimated 1.5 million people are trafficked every year. Of these individuals, approximately 75-85% are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

So what can be done to address this epidemic? There are two leading approaches to tackling the issue of sex trafficking.  One model encourages the legalization of prostitution in order to regulate the “industry.” While this might make sense at first, the facts show that trafficking has actually increased in those countries where this model has been adopted. Legalizing prostitution has increased the demand for purchased sex. As a result, since most people do not willingly sell their own body, the new “entrepreneurs” (otherwise known as pimps) must traffic women and men to meet the high demand. This model, therefore, is not only immoral, but it has also proven to be quite unsuccessful. Another approach to eradicating sex trafficking is called, The Nordic Model. The Swedes correctly realized that most prostitutes do not act according to their own volition (i.e. they were trafficked). Therefore, they decided to implement a two-prong approach, which first prosecutes the pimps and “the johns” (the buyers) and second, viewing prostitutes as victims, provides them with programs and means to get out of “the Life.” In 1999, Sweden enacted a package of supporting laws, now known at The Nordic Model. These laws helped decrease the demand for purchased sex, created an unsuitable environment for traffickers to conduct “business,” and provided opportunities for the healing of victims and their reintegration back into society. Sweden, at the same time, allocated funding for education on human trafficking.

While laws in the United States still need to be reformed to prosecute the solicitors of paid sex and better support the victims, the Sisters of All Saints Monastery are doing their part to move the ball forward.  The HOPE Project is a holistic initiative that will provide female victims of sex trafficking with safe housing, medical care, psychological services, rehabilitation, and a variety of other social services. It will be a place for victims to regain control over their lives, rediscover their God-given dignity, and, simply put, recharge their batteries. In order for this to become a reality, the nuns remind us that this Project needs to be a communal initiative.

To find out more about All Saints Monastery and their initiatives, please visit their website at whitefieldfarm.org or on Facebook at facebook.com/wfieldfarm/

 

Nicholas Anton is the Coordinator of UN Programs for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org). He is an elected member of the CORE Group (executive committee) of the NGO Committee to Stop Trafficking in Persons at the UN (ngocstip.org).

The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.

 

Constantinople and Moscow: Two Churches, One Faith, and John Meyendorff

Historians increasingly attribute the origins of the modern West’s global ascendancy to Western Europeans’ superiority in technology and war making.  Indeed, in the case of Western Christian states, like Islamic polities in the Near East, the spread of their power and cultures was the direct result of military might and forcible, violent expansion.  For instance, just as the diffusion of the Arab Muslims’ faith and civilization in the Old World stemmed directly from invasion and conquest of foreign lands and peoples during the Middle Ages, the spread of Western power, culture, and Christianity across the New World, and later much of Africa and Asia, was accompanied by the brutal colonization, enslavement, and exploitation of foreign peoples and lands during more recent centuries.

In one of the most significant and enduring books on the expansion of Orthodox Christianity as a faith and civilization, Byzantium and the Rise of Russia, written by the late John Meyendorff, we are presented with an historical experience that stands in stark contrast to the Islamic and Western examples of cultural diffusion.  Today, Russia’s aggregate “historic lands” are home to the majority of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians.  Arguably, Russian society owes its faith, much of its culture, and perhaps even its early survival to Byzantium and its civilization.  Yet, Byzantine civilization and Orthodox Christianity did not come to the Russians through conquest and subjugation.

Precisely because the Byzantine-Russian historical phenomenon sheds light on the distinctions between different patterns of civilizational expansion, Meyendorff’s study is important for evaluating how the culture and religion of a society help shape its interaction with other peoples.  With its relevance to these larger aspects of global history obvious, Meyendorff’s book remains above all a seminal contribution to both Russian and Byzantine scholarship.  Indeed, first published in 1981 by Cambridge University Press, Byzantium and the Rise of Russia: A Study of Byzantino-Russian Relations in the Fourteenth Century is universally recognized as the definitive work on its subject.

John Meyendorff was one of the world’s most respected and prolific authorities on Orthodoxy and Byzantium.  From the time of his first publication in 1949 to his death in 1992, he authored more than 30 books and some 285 articles.  Born in France in 1926 to a tsarist Russian émigré family, and descended from Baltic aristocracy (among whom he was known as Ivan Feofilovich Baron von Meyendorff), he was raised near Paris and attended French schools.  Meyendorff completed religious studies at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris in 1949, and received his doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1958.  Ordained an Orthodox priest, Father Meyendorff immigrated to the United States in 1959 in order to take up a position as Professor of Church History and Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York.  In addition to his post at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, from 1967 he held a joint appointment in Byzantine History at Fordham University.  He also enjoyed longtime affiliation with, and played a very active role in the intellectual life of, Harvard University’s Center for Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C.  Both professional historian and theologian, John Meyendorff treated his two fields as interrelated, producing a corpus of work that was as original and distinguished as it was immense.

In Byzantium and the Rise of Russia, John Meyendorff argues that, through their Christian civilization, the medieval Greeks played a decisive role in shaping early Russia’s culture, formal institutions, and, ultimately, political life.  The geography and economy of the Black Sea region made contacts inevitable between Russians and Greeks.   From their principality’s capital in Kiev, the early Russian/Ukrainian/Belorussian people(s)—the “Rus”— dominated what is now most of European Russia, as well as Belarus and Ukraine.  Like other peoples who coveted the incomparable wealth and grandeur of Byzantium, the pagan “Rus” assaulted the empire, and Constantinople itself, on more than one occasion.  With time, however, conflict subsided and gradually gave way to friendship as the vibrant, creative, and alluring world of Byzantium drew Russia into a common civilizational space radiating from Constantinople—a cultural sphere often described as the Byzantine Commonwealth. 

On this phenomenon, Meyendorff wrote that, “‘New Rome’ on the Bosphorus was the unquestionable center of the civilized Christian world.  With a population close to a million, with its imperial palaces and hippodrome and, above all, its ‘Great Church’ of St. Sophia—by far the biggest and most magnificent building in the medieval world—Byzantium exercised on all the Slavic ‘barbarians’ a fascination with which no Christian center of the West could compete.  Thus it was able to win their allegiance not only by the force of arms, but by making them acknowledge the superiority of its Christian civilization.” 

Russia’s place in the Byzantine world order was cemented with the country’s embrace of Orthodox Christianity.  As a guest of Emperor Constantine VII, the Kievan princess Olga personally adopted Christianity during a visit to Constantinople in 957.  Olga’s grandson Vladimir followed her example.  Moreover, Prince Vladimir not only received baptism himself, he promoted Orthodoxy as Russia’s state religion, thus beginning in 988 the country’s official Christianization.  For the Byzantines, the “baptism of the Russians” signified their integration into a universal Christian structure unified through the imperial supremacy of Constantinople.  Indeed, Russia’s subsequent cultural and religious dependence upon Constantinople seemed to reaffirm the central role and purpose of the empire and the emperor in the “Christian inhabited earth,” understood as the oikoumene.

Meyendorff posits that, “since the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Kievan principality, the influence of Byzantine civilization upon Russia became the determining factor of Russian civilization.”  In this regard, the author proposes that the very extent of Byzantine influence on Russia should be understood by a consideration of the three main, essential elements which, in combination, determined the character and life of Byzantine society and civilization: Roman political tradition; Greek language and culture; and the Orthodox Christian Church and faith.

Obviously the connections between Constantinople and Kiev that existed before 988 acquired an entirely new significance when Russia accepted from Byzantium the Greeks’ religion, their ecclesiastical hierarchy, their literature in translation, and their art.  In this area, Meyendorff makes clear the vital contrasts between the religious conversion of Western Germanic peoples by Rome and the adoption of Orthodox Christianity by the Russians and other Slavs through an evangelizing Constantinople.  Whereas Byzantium accepted cultural and linguistic pluralism as a reality of the oikoumene, the increasingly authoritarian and centralizing tendencies of the papacy left no possibility for the development of indigenous literary languages and corresponding styles of art in the West. 

Indeed, while the papacy insisted upon linguistic and cultural uniformity and submission to a rigid Latin model in the West, Christians in the Orthodox East were free to worship and express themselves in their own literary languages and creative modes of expression.  In short, Byzantine cultural and religious influence, no matter how decisive, was not equivalent to domination.  To look to just one example, Meyendorff notes that as “faithful disciples of the Greeks,” the Russians, in their acceptance of Orthodoxy, “took for granted its doctrines and canons, but they also learned from the Greeks that doctrines could be expressed in liturgical beauty, in music, in the visual arts, and in patterns of ascetic behavior.  Those aspects of Christianity they loved most and developed very early in their own indigenous ways.”

In the realm of political thought, Meyendorff notes that from ancient Rome, Byzantium inherited the ideal and goal of a universal empire, which would supersede conflict between nations and establish world peace.  Inasmuch as this imperial goal was merged with the Christian aspiration for Christ’s universal kingdom, the Byzantines were able to make the distinction between their empire, albeit Christian, and the actual Kingdom of God.  Out of this worldview, the Byzantines produced a refined, cosmopolitan theory of Church and state, or symphonia.  One of the foundational principles of symphonia posited that “the first duty of the emperor consisted in protecting and sheltering the Church, which alone could give legitimacy to his imperial claims and reality to his responsibilities, as the promoter of the apostolic faith and the guardian of Christian truth in the life of human society.” 

Because the Church was universal, the empire and the emperor—entrusted as the latter was with the protection of the oikoumene—were in principle equally universal.  Consequently, even in Christian lands where the emperor did not exercise direct imperial authority, it was understood that such areas or polities accepted the principle of a universal Christian empire, and remained within that system through the Byzantine Commonwealth, or civilizational space. 

This acknowledgment of the universality of the Christian Roman Empire and the imperial supremacy of Constantinople did not compromise the autonomy or independence of Christian states outside the empire.  Instead, it helped establish the legitimacy of such states by formalizing their relationship with the acknowledged imperial and civilizational center of Constantinople.  This very model, in fact, characterized the relationship between Byzantium and the Christian West as well, at least before the beginning of papal pretensions to ecclesiastical supremacy in the ninth century.

The implications of this ideology were monumental for the Byzantine-Russian relationship.  If the ideal principle of a universal Christian empire had any practical significance, it was realized primarily through the Orthodox Church.  Indeed, precisely because Russia was never a part of the Byzantine Empire, “its acceptance of the Byzantine political worldview and of Constantinople’s cultural leadership represents the greatest of all spiritual conquests of the Byzantine Empire.  This conquest is so much more extraordinary that it never involved direct political dependence and was therefore accomplished almost exclusively by the Church.” 

Despite the unifying impulses of the Byzantine worldview, Russia itself was soon torn apart by a long series of civil wars and struggles for power.  Beginning in the middle of the eleventh century, the large, unified, highly developed state of the “Rus”—the Grand Principality of Kiev—fragmented over the next almost two centuries into no fewer than 64 principalities.  Severely divided, the Russian lands were quickly overrun and conquered by the Mongols, who destroyed Kiev in 1240.  Although many of the Russian principalities remained intact, they were reduced to petty vassal states, humiliatingly forced to pay tribute and provide military and other resources to the Mongols.  The Russians’ political freedom came to an end.  This condition would last until the vassal principality of Moscow would shift its policy, from cooperation to resistance, and lead a successful campaign of liberation against the Mongols in 1380.

Meyendorff regards the fourteenth century as a decisive period in Byzantium’s critical role in the development of Russia.  Despite the political and military weakness of fourteenth-century Byzantium, the energy of the Orthodox Church and Greek culture were, paradoxically, ascendant.  Indeed, throughout the period of Mongol rule over the “Rus,” as before and for some time thereafter, Byzantium exerted a continuous cultural and spiritual impact on Russia.  Moreover, inasmuch as the Metropolitan of all Russia—the head of the Russians’ Orthodox Church—remained an appointee of the Byzantine emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople, the empire’s influence in Russia was direct and significant.  Ironically, Byzantium’s ability to affect developments in the Russian lands, largely through ecclesiastical diplomacy, expanded considerably during the period of Mongol rule. 

The country’s acute political divisions and subjugation under foreign rule left Russia without any unifying institutions, save the Orthodox Church.  Consequently, the Church, with its widespread administrative network and corresponding web of cultural, community, regional, and “national” structures became overarching and indispensable to the Russians’ survival and eventual revival.  The Orthodox Church preserved the memory of a unified, free Russia and championed its restoration as part of the Christian Commonwealth.  Through the Church—the chief agency for Byzantium’s connection to, and influence in, Russia—the Russians received the message that culturally, politically, and religiously, they were part of a wider, universal community. 

John Meyendorff makes it clear that after the Mongol period of rule, the Russians’ political unification into a consolidated state under Moscow’s leadership could not have taken place as it did without the direct influence of the Orthodox Church—and hence indirect, but decisive, role of Byzantium.  Obviously, Moscow’s triumph in the process of Russian national integration cannot be explained by only one factor.  Nevertheless, the eventual relocation of the office of the Metropolitan of all Russia to Moscow after the destruction of Kiev, resulting in the Orthodox Church’s subsequent association with that new assertive principality in the country’s geographic center, figures prominently as a crucial, if not the most important, component in Russia’s unification and rise under Moscow.

John Meyendorff acknowledges that by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Western ideas made Byzantine political philosophy increasingly obsolete for many Russians.  Indeed, as early as the fourteenth century the princes of Moscow, although willing to invoke Byzantine principles and imagery when it suited their interests, were actually involved in a decidedly Western, non-universalist, project of building a proto-nation-state.  To complement that goal, Moscow succeeded in securing from Constantinople the elevation of Russia’s historic metropolitanate to an autocephalous patriarchate in 1589. 

Yet, despite the fact that Byzantium had fallen in 1453 and the Patriarchate of Constantinople became captive to the Ottoman Empire, the Patriarchate of Moscow and All Russia—even with its status as the only Orthodox patriarchate free from Muslim occupation, as well as eventually the most populous patriarchal jurisdiction—never sought to claim primacy over Constantinople.  The status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as the first among equals was unequivocal in Russia.  Indeed, this was a self-evident principle that even Russia’s ambitious, imperial tsars would not question or challenge.  Instead, Russian tsars and patriarchs alike always recognized the ecumenicity and spiritual aegis of the Patriarch of Constantinople in the Orthodox world.  Clearly, despite the victory of Western ideas in the country’s modern state formation, Byzantine understanding and Orthodox ecclesiastical tradition continued to be revered by both Church and state in both Muscovite and imperial Russia.  

“This deliberate ideological self-limitation of the Russians can be explained by a variety of considerations.  In no way did it prevent the Russian empire from spectacular growth, as a national state.  But precisely because of this national character of the Muscovite tsardom, some deep-seated consciousness kept reminding its leaders that the Byzantine political ideology excluded the right of any nation, as nation, to monopolize the leadership of the universal Orthodox Christian Commonwealth.”  Despite great changes in political and international conditions, this tenet of the Orthodox Church and precept of Byzantine Christian civilization is as relevant today for respecting the special bond between Constantinople and Moscow as it was more than a thousand years ago.  In this regard, the current ecclesiastical posturing and positioning of the Patriarchate of Moscow, a policy undoubtedly coordinated with and likely imposed by the geopolitical architects of the post-Soviet Russian state, represents a dramatic rupture with the historic tradition and ecclesial reality of the global Orthodox Church.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

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