Orthodox Survival Course – Class 69: Wars and Rumors of Wars, Part A – A Holy Week Reflection on the State of Our Souls

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Where Angels Fear to Tread 

Since the purpose of our Survival Course is to provide an Orthodox lens through which to see the course of history in order better to understand our situation today, it is only natural that, as did the “Corona” spectacle of the years 2020 and 2021, so also the 2022 drama du jour,  the war in Little Russia – known also as the Ukraine, or, more recently, simply as “Ukraine” – should prompt some of our readers and listeners to ask for a helpful way of looking at what is going on, from an Orthodox point of view.  Our audience are people who are serious about applying their faith to their lives, which means applying to their lives what our Faith teaches about how to understand the world around them.   They perceive that they presently have or probably will have moral choices to make, moments of personal crisis caused by crises in the greater world around them.   When faced with Something Big that everyone else is worried about, they naturally ask, “How should I react?”

   Indeed, should not the Church have something to say about it?  She is mater et magistra – mother and teacher – of the nations.  Her shepherds hold the keys of the kingdom of heaven, bestowed by Christ Himself upon St. Peter and through him to all the apostles and their successors the bishops. Has the Church nothing unique, more real, and more to the point, to tell us about this war going on right now, besides rehearsing the same boring humanitarian platitudes about solidarity with the suffering and the need to “pray for peace,” sterile and morally inexpensive sentiments that are also mouthed by every heretic, humanist, secularist, atheist, and downright heathen on the face of the earth? 

I ask forgiveness from those who expected me to say something about “Ukraine” earlier on, but, you know, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and I did not want to be a fool, or, at least, any more of a fool than I already am. Besides, one hesitates to talk about the same boring thing everyone else is talking about – one feels a little superfluous, if not ridiculous, adding to the noise.  In addition, the requests for saying something about the war came shortly before Great Lent, when the war had just started, and one does not like to comment on something that has just begun before observing it at least a little while.  For example, about two weeks into the Corona “event” in 2020, it was pretty obvious what was going on, yet prudent to wait a few months before saying anything.  It usually helps to wait awhile while mulling over something not entirely transparent to a distant observer.    

And in this case, with this spring of 2022 war “event,” we were going into Great Lent, and I thought that probably it was good idea to write about the Proverbs of Solomon that we read at Vespers during Lent, and not a good idea to attempt program notes for Big Brother’s absurd shadow play of Oceania vs. Eurasia for my fellow prisoners staring at the back wall of  the Platonic cave of the Great Stereopticon, as needed as that effort might be.    For those who have not been following these talks on Proverbs, they can be found on our other Spreaker “show,” called “The Beginning of Wisdom”:   https://www.spreaker.com/show/the-beginning-of-wisdom_1     A priest should eschew any kind of self-promotion, but for the sake of the souls of our listeners, I shall make so bold as to opine that if you listen to these readings from Proverbs followed by the little talks I give, your mind will be clearer and better prepared to study the current events in Eastern Europe than if you listen to 100 hours of your favorite media commentator holding forth on these events.   We did not manage a talk for every one of the thirty weekdays of Great Lent, but we did manage to do twenty.  

Now the sacred Forty Days have ended, however, and now the Great and Holy Week has begun.  Holy Week is the pre-eminent time to remember what the Lord has done for us and therefore also to reflect on our eternal destiny.   It is a time of crisis, a Greek word that means “judgment”: at every Great and Holy Week we remember the great crisis, the great judgment,  of the Lord’s standing before the Sanhedrin, when the leaders of the Old Testament Church made their fateful choice to reject the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was standing in the flesh before them, and instead to worship themselves, the idolatry which is the essence of what became the anti-Biblical religion of the Talmud.  It was really they, not Christ, who were being judged.  They were not judging Him but themselves by their own words; He was judging them by His silence.  

We are not the Sanhedrin, but we also have a choice to make, to worship the true God or something else that is not God.  Every Holy Week, when we hear the multitude shouting “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday and the same crowd shouting “Crucify Him” on Great Friday,  we realize that we are no better than they, for we betray our God every day, at least in our thoughts if not our words and deeds.   We come face to face with a crisis: we have the choice to renew our baptismal vows – not with our mouths but with our lives – or to reject the One whom they rejected. It is we, not Christ, who are being judged.  Holy Week is the climactic call to repentance that crowns all the many calls to repentance we heard during the Forty Days.   This could be our last Pascha on earth.  This is the Day of Salvation.  We know not the hour of our death.  Have we truly repented of all our sins of thought, word, and deed?  Maybe this is our last chance. 

Holy and Great Week, then, gives us the best lens through which to benefit spiritually from understanding the war in the Ukraine.  It is the lens of eternity.   Are we going to go heaven or to hell?   After all, is that not what counts?  Is that not why Christ died for us?    

Let us, then, use the present events in Eastern Europe as a prompt for reflection on the state of our souls as we commemorate that greatest Event of all,  that overshadows, judges, and gives meaning to all other events before and after, to the end of the world.    

The Salvation of Souls 

It is sobering – and disappointing – to note that most Orthodox people reacting to the present war are possessed entirely with the same questions as everyone else:  Whose fault is the war?  Who are the bad guys and who are the good guys?   What will be the effect upon the economy?  Is there going to be a World War?  A nuclear war?  It all boils down to, “Am I in danger?  Am I going to suffer too?”   But what is even more striking is that even the nobler sentiments of concern for the sufferings of those in danger  and expressions of sorrow over those who have died are entirely worldly – there is human compassion over their present sufferings or untimely deaths, which is praiseworthy in itself, but what is notably missing is concern over the One Thing that Counts:  What happens to these people after they die?  

We do not know exactly how many people have died in the war, and certainly we cannot know how many are going to die.   Such data are always manipulated by the combatant governments on both sides, and there is really no point in trying to get to the bottom of it.  That many who are nominally Orthodox Christians, both soldiers and civilians, have died and are going to die in this war is undoubted, however, and as Orthodox Christians our first concern should not be over their physical death, for, after all, we are all going to die.   Our great and overriding concern should be, “Were they prepared for death?   Did they die in a state of grace?  Were they really Orthodox Christians, in the true Church, or were they in a fake church under heretical, schismatic, or apostate bishops?  Did they make a good confession before they died? Did they receive the true Holy Communion?”  In short:  “Are they going to be saved?”    

The notable moral fall responsible for this spiritual disaster is not the wickedness of the secular Western establishment or the post-communist Russian government. Wickedness, after all,  is what we expect from such people, and their activities neither prevent nor promote our salvation; they only provide the background for our spiritual choices.  A much greater wickedness was going on for 100 years before the war, which is the worldwide apostasy of the historically Orthodox institutions, an apostasy manifest locally in the gross disarray of Church life in the Ukraine for long decades prior to the war.  How many of these Russian and Ukrainian soldiers marching off to die or civilians fearing death from the effects of war, thinking themselves to be Orthodox Christians, were really in the Church?   How many were really baptized?  How many had access to true Holy Mysteries before they died?   What were their last thoughts as they faced death?  Did they acquire heartfelt compunction and weep over their sins?  Did they forgive their enemies?  Did they commend themselves and all their life to Christ our God?   Did the most Pure Mother of God cover with her precious omophorion all the defects of their souls, whether caused by the faults of bishops and priests or their own negligence, and did God send bright angels to conduct their souls to Paradise despite it all?  In the end, this is all that matters.  Each soul is so precious in the sight of God.   It is over these things that we must weep and mourn;  it is  the inestimable tragedy of the eternal loss of one soul for which Christ died, that should form the main theme of our sorrow over the sufferings caused by this war, as we prepare to glorify His incomparable sufferings for our salvation.   

My Peace I Give You

On the night before He died, Our Lord said to His disciples, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”    On Thursday night of this week, at the Twelve Gospels service, we shall once again hear these words.   What kind of peace did the apostles have after the Lord’s triumph over death?   It was not peace as the world gives.  They left behind family, friends, and property.  They went forth to preach to the world, to face constant hatred and opposition, incredible sufferings, and finally a terrible and painful death.     This is not the world’s definition of peace, a word that to worldly people means simply an absence of conflict and disorder, enabling one to lead a comfortable life in this world for the gratification of one’s fallen desires.   True Christians, though grateful for whatever respite from troubles that are given by God in this life – for He knows the frailty of our nature and takes compassion upon it, not asking from us more than we can really do – nevertheless do not count on having a peace bestowed by this world, knowing that it will never be.  The only peace they hope for is the only peace that really exists, that which the world cannot give and cannot take away.   It is the peace deep within the heart, founded on a clean conscience that begets a firm hope in their eternal salvation, a gift of grace given to those who are in the Church and who are living in a state of grace, that is, a state of soul free from grave sins that are unconfessed and un-repented.   99% of our attention should be given to obtaining this peace, and one percent to the world’s vain cries for a peace in this life that will never come, or, rather, when it does, will be the work of Antichrist.  

Let us, then, take this crisis, this judgment that Holy Week works on us in this spring of A.D. 2022, as a gracious opportunity to be saved, and let us pray for the eternal salvation of those who are suffering from the effects of this war whose vain external epiphenomena threaten to distract our attention from the One Thing Needed. 

  As for a more complete Orthodox understanding of the war in the Ukraine based on theology, history, geopolitics, and so forth – well, as we say often about other pressing matters, “Let’s talk about it after Pascha.”  That will be Part B.  

    A blessed Resurrection to all! 

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