Becoming the Gospel: Remembering Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (photo by Jim Forest)
This is an unpublished text that was written for the Sourozh Diocesan Conference of 2004, less than a year after the death of Metropolitan Anthony. In the end, instead I presented a paper that focused on five newly canonized saints, including Mother Maria Skobtsova of Paris. See:
Still, as I read the draft text again nearly four years later, it seems worth preserving and sharing as a personal reflection on the life of someone who profoundly influenced a great many people, myself among them, and to whom many credit their conversion to Christ.
– Jim Forest
When a founder dies, people wonder if the structures he or she created can possibly survive in the founder’s absence. The question arises even in the case of ecclesiastical structures. In the last year of Metropolitan Anthony’s life, deep cracks appeared within the Diocese of Sourozh that made the question all too real for many of us. There were letters, floods of e-mail, petitions, articles in the secular press, loud arguments between members of the diocese, the exchange of furious glances, and at least one instance of physical violence. All of us lost sleep. No doubt all of us prayed for God’s help. We don’t yet know if this is entirely behind us. In any event, we are like survivors of an earthquake who can no longer feel complacent about the earth beneath our feet.
The tribulations within the diocese remind me of my travels in India twenty years or so ago during which I visited many of Gandhi’s followers. At that time I was General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, a movement that promotes nonviolent approaches to overcoming injustice and preventing war. Gandhi is, of course, someone very interesting for anyone concerned about effective alternatives to violence. Getting around mainly by rail, in the course of several weeks I spent a good deal of time with many people who had worked closely with Gandhi, from the Prime Minister of that time to people involved in a wide range of national and local projects.
One day while in Delhi, I went to visit the house where Gandhi had been staying as guest the final days of his life and discovered the house and its grounds were being occupied by film-makers with a large crowd of extras. Richard Attenborough was directing his movie about Gandhi and had reached the point in the production schedule of reenacting Gandhi’s assassination.
As perhaps you recall, a fellow Hindu had decided that Gandhi was a mortal enemy of authentic Hinduism and made it his personal duty to kill him. Gandhi was unarmed and had no bodyguards. While walking through a crowd of admirers, he made an easy target.
In the course of my travels in India, I came to see that not only had Gandhi died that day but unity among those who had worked closely with him also began to die. Today in India there are various movements that in one way or another bear witness to Gandhi’s values and ideas, all of them doing work of value, yet one can easily find Gandhians who have nothing good to say about other Gandhians. Though Gandhi remains a national icon, his face on stamps and coins, his statue in many places, the sad fact is that many Gandhians hardly speak to each other.
My travels among Gandhians in India reminded me of the fragmented state of Christianity and, when you think of it, also the state of the Orthodox Church. Though thank God the Orthodox Church still holds together, there has been prolonged tension between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Constantinople. We also have lately had a period when Church in Greece and the Patriarch of Constantinople were not on speaking terms. Various rows boil hotly in other parts of the Church.
How will we in the Diocese of Sourozh fare in the absence of Metropolitan Anthony?
Of course, as he would insist, the situation is fundamentally different. Gandhi was a leader of a social movement that was largely his own invention. Metropolitan Anthony would remind us that he was never the basis of unity, only someone who, as bishop, attempted to be a guardian of unity. Whatever unity we have, he would remind us, is in Christ. No matter whom we lose, no matter how huge a role a particular person may have played in our lives, we have not and cannot lose Christ. Whatever we have lost, we have not lost the Gospel. We have not lost the Creed. We have not lost the saints, the calendar, the Ecumenical Councils, the writings of the Church Fathers.
For Metropolitan Anthony, the Gospel was the guidebook to life in the kingdom of God. On at least one occasion he said: “We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”
Perhaps this one sentence sums up all he hoped be bring about: to inspire us to live in such a way that the Gospel appears not only in what we say but is shown in who we are, what we choose, in our readiness to love, our willingness to forgive, in all our attempts to let God’s mercy become visible in our lives.
Perhaps it was from Metropolitan Anthony that I heard a haunting quotation which I believe was attributed to St John Chrysostom: “In order for Christ to appear, the priest must disappear.”
Whatever the source, these words suit Vladica Anthony. There was a transparency about him. He was someone through whom Christ shined — not each and every moment, but very often. He was never a person eager to be honored, praised or showered with medals. He was not at all offended if you failed to kiss his hand or make other normal gestures of respect with which Orthodox Christians greet a bishop. He was as careless about personal attention as he was about his wardrobe. The last time I was him, I noticed he was wearing a well-used black sports jacket and a battered pair of running shoes — not usual clerical attire. His black robe was faded and frayed. Indeed nothing he wore seemed fresh off the rack. When he spoke about confession in this room four years ago, he wore what looked liked a fisherman’s sweater. I know nothing of the economic details of his life, but watching from a distance, it always seemed to me that here was a man fully embracing the poverty of the first Beatitude, both in the sense of not having what isn’t needed and in the sense of preferring to give rather than receive. He saw both inward and outward poverty as gifts of freedom. As he said in an interview:
“To be poor financially is in a way much easier than to be poor inwardly, to have no attachments. This is very difficult to learn and something which happens gradually, from year to year. You really learn to value things, to look at people and see the radiant beauty which they possess — without the desire to possess them. To pluck a flower means to take possession of it, and it also means to kill it.”
Seeking to preserve rather than destroy all that is beautiful is surely a primary aspect of becoming the Gospel. It is giving a living witness to the Beatitudes, starting with the first: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
“Blessed” is not a word one finds in headlines nor does it often appear in conversation. What does it mean? It’s harder to translate it into words used in everyday life than to see what “blessed” looks like in a saintly life. Still, given the key passages in which we find, “blessed” is a word worth thinking about.
“Blessed” — the word chosen by the English translators of the Authorized Version in the seventeenth century — means “something consecrated to or belonging to God.” In St. Jerome’s translation of the Greek New Testament, the Latin word beatus was used — “happy, fortunate, blissful.” Beatitude is bliss. But neither “blessed” nor beatus seems quite equal to what we find in the Greek New Testament, where each Beatitude begins with the word makarios. In classical Greek makar was a condition associated with the immortal gods. Kari means “fate” or “death,” but given a negative prefix the word means “being deathless, no longer subject to fate.” Being deathless was a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods were the blessed ones.
In Christian use, makarios came to mean sharing in the life of God, the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of chance running through it. There is no higher gift. We are not simply capable of an abstract awareness that God exists, an infinitely remote Being whom we can faintly glimpse through an intellectual telescope. In the kingdom of God, the blessing extended to us is nothing less than participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity. It is being received into God’s immortality. It is being blessed with qualities that seem humanly impossible.
Understood in this way, the word “blessed” might be translated “freed from death” or “risen from the dead.” To be blessed is to participate in Christ’s resurrection. Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit. Risen from the dead are they who mourn. Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Risen from the dead are the merciful. Risen from the dead are the pure of heart. Risen from the dead are the peacemakers. Risen from the dead are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.
To be risen from the dead is not simply a condition of the life to come. It has to do with our lives here and now. St Paul said, “They call us dead men and yet we live.” This is to say that our lives can and should already be a witness to Christ’s resurrection. To live a life saturated with the resurrection is to become the Gospel.
But in what is often called “the real world,” it’s all too usual to be in a state of semi-death long before burial — to be a person who hardly hears, who hardly sees, who barely loves, who refuses to forgive, who struggles to possess rather than share, who is indifferent to God, a person for whom worship is either something to be endured or a waste of time.
In Vladica Anthony we saw a person fully alive — and a fully alive person, as one of the Desert Fathers said, is the glory of God. Vladica Anthony was fully alive even though he had grown up in exile, endured great suffering, lived through a world war in which vast numbers of innocent people died, lived under military occupation for five years, suffered chronic back pain, and made himself deeply vulnerable to the physical and spiritual pain of others.
I think of other some of the other ways that he gave an example of what it is to become the Gospel.
One of the most difficult demands Christ makes on his followers is the love of enemies. Understood biblically, love is not a matter of sentimentality but of actual care for the life of another human being whom we are inclined to hate, wouldn’t mind seeing dead, and under certain circumstances would be willing to kill.
While one finds many examples of such surprising, unexpected love in Vladica Anthony, for me among the most compelling was his determination, as a young physician working in a French hospital during the Second World War, to save the finger of a wounded German soldier. Here is the way he spoke of it in the interview made by Timothy Wilson:
“In the hospital where I was working as a war surgeon, a German came in once with one finger smashed by a bullet. The head surgeon came round and looked at the finger and said ‘Take it off’. That was a very quick and easy decision — it would take only five minutes to do. Then the German said, ‘Is there anyone here who can speak German?’ I spoke with the man and discovered that he was a watchmaker and if his finger was removed he would probably never be able to work again. So we spent five weeks treating his smashed finger and he was able to leave the hospital with five fingers instead of only four. From this I learnt that the fact that he was a watchmaker was as important as anything else. I would say that I learnt to put human concerns first.”
Even in times of peace — as we might use the word when we mean “a time without war” — it is no easy thing to see a person as another human being rather than a being who is first of all the bearer of a nationality, or a person who is first of all defined according to his social role — in this case a soldier of an occupation army. And here was a young physician being disobedient. He had been told by a supervising doctor to do one thing — amputate a finger — and instead he did another: saving a man’s hand and with it the man’s vocation. In such a choice one becomes the Gospel. The action is a translation of the text commanding love of one’s enemies but also to the summons to place human needs before rules that are indifferent to life: “The Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
As one of those persons in whom the content of the Gospel could be guessed simply by observing him, Vladica Anthony gave an tireless example of what Alexander Schmemann recognized as the most essential human attribute: the capacity to worship. The human being, Schmemann said, is not simply homo sapiens but homo adorans.
What is most dangerous about the decayed culture we live in is its marginalization or active dismissal of worship. In consumer societies, worship falls into the category of hobbies. But for Vladica Anthony, as for any disciple of Christ, it is at the center of being. It is at the core of love, not only love of God but love of a child, love of a spouse or love of a friend. Love is worship. Worship is love.
Love is also gratitude. I have never forgotten Vladica Anthony’s response to a question he was asked during a workshop at this conference a few years ago. Someone wanted to know if he had advice about how to become humble. “Humility is too high a goal,” he replied. “Humility is very difficult. But perhaps you could aim for the halfway house of gratitude.”
Gratitude is a component of all worship. Gratitude is part of becoming the Gospel.
In Vladica Anthony, we could see this quality not only in the way he served at the altar — absolutely calm, very attentive, not at all a prisoner of time — but in the way he paid attention to other people, whether well known to him or never met before. It could be a bit unnerving to be looked at so closely, to be listened to so attentively, to experience such undivided concentration, to be seen in so radical and pure a way. It’s not something we’re used to nor afterward can ever forget. We had often heard we were bearers of the divine image but in encounters with Vladica Anthony, one experienced it in his face.
The experience of being the object of such undivided attention was at one with his theology of the mystery of the human person. In a lecture on “The True Worth of Man” that he presented in the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford in 1967, Vladica Anthony explained:
“For centuries … within the Church we have tried to make our God as great as we could, by making man small. This can be seen even in works of art in which the Lord Jesus Christ is represented great and his creatures very small indeed at his feet. The intention was to show how great God was, and yet it has resulted in the false, mistaken, almost blasphemous view that man is small, or in the denial of this God who treats men as though they were of no value. And these two reactions are equally wrong. The one belongs to people who claim to be children of God, God’s own chosen people, who are the Church. They have managed by doing this to make themselves as small as the image they have of men, and their communities as small and lacking in scope and greatness as their constitutive parts. The other attitude we find outside the Church, among the agnostics, the rationalists and the atheists; and we are responsible for these two attitudes and we shall be accountable for both in history and at the day of judgment. And yet this is not the vision of God about man…. When we try to understand the value which God himself attaches to man we see that we are bought at a high price, that the value which God attaches to man is all the life and all the death, the tragic death, of the Only-begotten Son upon the Cross. This is what God thinks of man, of his friend, created by him in order to be his companion of eternity.”
In his lecture, he went on to tell the story of the Prodigal Son. Did he ever speak for more than ten minutes without telling at least one story, either a biblical story or a story that in some way drew one’s attention to the Gospel? To be a living translation of the Gospel implies a reliance on stories. The Gospel is an anthology of stories and Vladica Anthony was a teller of stories second to none, stories told with tremendous immediacy, even urgency, as if our lives depended on them.
He spoke with authority. Perhaps there were occasions when it was otherwise, but I never saw him speak from a written text, though clearly he was following a line of thought he had mapped out beforehand, inserting stories as needed to make his points more vivid. It is a Gospel method of discourse.
In the course of time one would hear certain stories over and over and yet they never became stale because he was not simply reciting a script from memory but always renewing each story, seeing in it something new, some that deserved special attention.
Christ was always his main theme — a Christ who not an abstract figure but someone who seemed better known to him than he knew himself.
One of his often-told stories concerned the turning point in his own life — how he had met Christ, truly met him, as a skeptical young man who had decided to read Mark’s Gospel rather than another Gospel because none was so short as Mark and he wanted to get it over with.
Here is how he put it in on one occasion:
“While I was reading the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning point. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the crucifixion of the prophet of Galilee was true, and the centurion was right when he said, ‘Truly he is the Son of God’. It was in the light of the Resurrection that I could read with certainty the story of the Gospel, knowing that everything was true in it because the impossible event of the Resurrection was to me more certain than any event of history. History I had to believe, the Resurrection I knew for a fact. I did not discover, as you see, the Gospel beginning with its first message of the Annunciation, and it did not unfold for me as a story which one can believe or disbelieve. It began as an event that left all problems of disbelief behind because it was a direct and personal experience…. I became absolutely certain within myself that Christ is alive and that certain things existed. I didn’t have all the answers, but having touched that experience, I was certain that ahead of me there were answers, visions, possibilities. This is what I mean by faith — not doubting in the sense of being in confusion and perplexity, but doubting in order to discover the reality of the life, the kind of doubt that makes you want to question and discover more, that makes you want to explore.”
Even his autobiographical stories drew one to the Gospel. But mainly he told stories that came directly from the Gospel. He returned again and again to parables which, however familiar they were, however often we had heard them explained in sermons, somehow seemed new texts when he talked about them. I felt I wasn’t listening to an expert of Christianity, of which there are too many in the world, but a simply a Christian — or something even more remarkable, an actual witness to the events recounted in Gospel.
When I hear the term applied to certain saints “Equal to the Apostles,” I immediately think of him. Yes, there are those who, despite the centuries that separate them from the New Testament world, somehow speak of those events as witnesses. Most of all, Metropolitan Anthony was a witness of the resurrection.
He stressed that the Gospel is not something unreachable or impractical. The Gospel is not at an idealistic document. The good news of the Gospel is that the Kingdom of God is something we can experience not after death but in the present. The Church equips us for such a life.
Let me stress that Metropolitan Anthony did not see the Gospel as an idealistic text — another utopian manifesto, another ideology about creating a splendid future through hellish methods. Rather he saw the Gospel as an entirely practical way of life. The requirements of a God-centered life are not out of anyone’s reach. It may seem like hard work to forgive “seventy times seven” but in reality it is much harder to withhold forgiveness. It is like carrying a tower of bricks. Love of enemies may seem humanly impossible — love in the sense of seeking the health and salvation of the other — but when we see what happens when enmity is allowed to grow unchecked, the avalanche of horrors that such enmity eventually produces, and the cost in suffering and death, then we begin to understand why Christ calls on his followers to renounce judgments and hatred and call no one a fool. It is a difficult path but in fact, in the end, much less difficult than the alternative.
When I think of Vladica Anthony’s impact in my own life, one aspect of it was to help free me from the grip of idealistic ideologies.
He knew my work and something of my writings and was aware that I at times referred to myself as a pacifist. I soon discovered that he had a strong aversion to the word “pacifist,” not only because it sounded like “passive-ist,” but because of unpleasant encounters he had experienced with self-righteous people who loudly proclaimed their renunciation of violence and were quick to denounce those who failed to share their ideology.
He told me the story of an encounter he had during a retreat for university students. “After my first address one of them asked me for permission to leave because I was not a pacifist.” “Are you one?” Vladica Anthony responded. “Yes,” said the young man. “What would you do,” Metropolitan Anthony asked, “if you came into this room and found a man about to rape your girl friend?” “I would try to get him to desist from his intention!” the man replied. “And if he proceeded, before your own eyes, to rape her?” “I would pray to God to prevent it.” “And if God did not intervene, and the man raped your girl friend and walked out contentedly, what would you do?” “I would ask God who has brought light out of darkness to bring good out of evil.”
Metropolitan Anthony responded: “If I was your girl friend I would look for another boy friend.”
One cannot be passive in the face of evil. Under certain circumstances each of us is called, as we see in the St George icon, to battle the dragon — and yet no human being is a dragon; at worst a human being is a slave of dragons. This is what is means to practice the Gospel of peace: to fight the dragon without despising the dragon’s slaves, all the time seeking their conversion. Vladica Anthony reminded me in one letter that each of us is called to be “a man — or woman — of peace,” which meant, he explained, a person “ready to work for the reconciliation of those who have grown apart or turned away from one another in enmity.”
It might be that in some circumstances there was no alternative to violence — he saw the war against Nazism as a lesser evil — but we were never allowed, even in wartime, to lose sight of the image of God in the other even if the other has become slave to a dragon.
Because he saw the image of God in a German soldier, he was able to save a watchmaker’s hand and — who knows? — perhaps his soul as well.
One final point about how we see in Metropolitan Anthony what it means to become to Gospel. He was a shepherd of the local Church in a way that welcomed people and cared for them no matter what their mother tongue, culture or citizenship. In a Church that is sometimes a prisoner of national identities, he struggled to build a diocese not only that made space under one roof for different languages of worship but that would as much as possible resemble what one would have found in the early Church — neither Jewish nor Greek, rich nor poor, male or female, but a people who had become one in Christ, association in which each person mattered and all voices could be heard: a church not of rulers and ruled but a eucharistic community of sobornost.
Let me conclude by quoting what Vladica Anthony said while in Russia not quite four years ago, when the 40th anniversary of his consecration as a bishop was being celebrated:
“Some [of my fellow Russians] never understood why I lived in [England]. I remember a man with whom I was in the lift in Russia. He asked me questions about myself, and when he learnt that I lived in London he looked at me and said, ‘Are you a complete idiot? You live abroad when you could live at home?’ It had been my dream to live in Russia. But Providence decided otherwise. It was impossible in the beginning, when I might have done it, because I had no responsibility for the parish. But, it became possible when suddenly I felt, ‘I am responsible for people. I cannot abandon them. They trust me, I trust them unreservedly, we are gradually growing into being a true community, a real church in the image of the Early Church, when people of all nationalities, all languages, all mentalities, all classes, gathered together, united only by one thing: their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.’ And this is what I had dreamt of achieving and tried to do in [my adopted country] in the course of now almost 50 years of ministry and 40 years of episcopal service.”
And in this, too, Vladica Anthony became the Gospel.
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