The Argument

800px-2_priests_checking_merchandiseBlessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.

For many years, two hermits lived together without any conflict or disagreement. One suggested they have a quarrel to see how others live. The other answered, “I don’t know how to start a quarrel.”

The first said, “Look, I’ll put this brick on the ground between us and claim it is mine. Then you insist it belongs to you. That’s how quarrels begin.”

They put the brick between them. One said, “That’s mine.” The other said, “No, that’s mine.” The first answered, “Yes, it belongs to you. Take it.” They were not able to argue with each other.

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Peacemaking is difficult. Peacemaking within the light of Truth is particularly difficult for it requires the healing of souls. Peace is not the absence of conflict – the gifts of God are never measured by “absence.” It is evil that is measured by absence (“the absence of good”). Rather, peace is substantive – a true gift of the Spirit. Thus St. Seraphim of Sarov can say, “Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you shall be saved.”

To make peace it is necessary to be at peace – and this again requires the healing of our soul. The acquisition of the Spirit of peace is the fruit of repentance and humility.

I have a strong memory from my teenage years. We had a guest speaker in one of my classes – someone who was well-known for his opposition to the war in Vietnam (which was at its height at the time). We were discussing the various issues surrounding that national debate when the discussion rose to the level of argument and beyond. I was an advocate of peace in those years (I was 17 at the time) but also quick to leap to an argument. Mine was probably the loudest voice in the room, my points as sharp and well-aimed as any.

After the class (if it can be called that after the near brawl), the guest speaker took me aside: “Stephen, there is more than one way to do violence to a man.” It would be another five years before I would read the words of St. Seraphim about acquiring the Spirit of peace. Another 33 years have passed and I am waiting to acquire that same Spirit.

Blessed, indeed, are the peacemakers.

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18 Responses to “The Argument”

  1. Sean Says:

    Father,

    Your post has coincided with an argument that has been raised on one of my YouTube profiles, where I post clips with chants. Although I state on my info section that the channel is mostly about music, not faith, there is a certain someone who seems to have taken upon themselves to prove that those chants make me (?) break in some way the 10 commandments (some of them at least). The person in question seems to think like this: “You are in a prison of superstition, remaining bound to the beliefs you were born in. I am trying to free you but out of your ignorance and arrogance you assume that you have chosen freel and that I am trying to harm you. Moreover, you think that – contrary to the truth – it’s me who is bound and imprisoned. But you are wrong”.

    I notice that, as in many other cases, so in this one, the argument is far more dangerous – and treacherous in some way – than any argument based on human greed. The argument in question is an argument between people who devoutly and sincerely believe that their faith is the true one. So far I have avoided confrontation (as I usually do in similar situations), yet the other side is very persistent, exactly because the other side firmly believes that I have erred and that I am on the wrong.

    Now, like many others I have wandered astray on my journey. I have been born in a country and a family that is Orthodox, yet I have passed from critical phases of atheism. There has been a period I was seriously considering converting to Roman Catholicism (that’s something I am saying for the first time, sorry if it’s shocking or offending to anyone). This was because I dared cut the ropes that bound me to my environment’s traditions, question my beliefs, read. And the more I tried to get rid of those ropes and wander away, the closer I seemed to come to the same faith (quite a paradox in my eyes to be completely honest).

    My point is, I have struggled with my own faith. I still question my practices and my preconceptions. And when someone comes arguing with such conviction about their own truth, bearing their criticism (even the well-meant one) makes the struggle with myself twice as difficult. Arguing back seems much the easiest way – not to persuade the other side, but ,indeed, myself of the truth of my own convictions..

  2. fatherstephen Says:

    Sean,
    Those arguments can be very alluring. I generally try to avoid them because I rarely see that they are actually arguments that in any way are inspired of God – but rather our hammering on each other with our passions and anxieties. In some religious traditions, such arguments are seen as extremely good works – trying to save the soul of another or rescue them from damnation and the like. But as well-meaning as all that sounds, I think it is often mistaken. I think it is important to speak the truth and do the truth, to whatever extent we know it and live it – but I am not responsible to make anyone agree with it – that is something that belongs to God. There are millions of possible places on the internet for me to visit where I will find ideas contrary to what I believe. Were I to take it on myself to go around correcting them (which someone is apparently trying to do to you) I would have no time for anything (God or prayer, eating or anything) and I would have nothing to show for it other than the noise I created and my own self-satisfaction (which is a false thing).

    May God keep you in peace and preserve you from those who want to “fix” you.

  3. Bruce Says:

    Could it be we are looking for Truth in all the “wrong places”?

    Doesn’t the consistent use of paradox to express Truth suggest that words are only signposts to Truth not the Treasure itself. This is one reason why I love poetry as a means of communicating theology. St. Ephraim and St. Issac are good examples of this for me. Their use of paradox in poetry and hymn often point me more clearly to the Truth than some logical argument or discussion.

    Aren’t all circumstances, opportunities to draw closer or further from Christ and His Truth? And thus, what I really have to examine is my reactions to the situations, emotions, and life circumstances I encounter. When I find myself at war or creating enemies, don’t I have an opportunity to advance in learning about Truth as I ask the Holy Spirit to teach me to Love those I see as hating me or I hating them.

    I really love the “Bless my enemies” poem from “Prayers By The Lake” by Bishop Nikolai. This prayer/poem points out how much of our growth as Christians is from the seeds of those we judge to be our enemies.

    I think I am learning something about Truth when I experience God empowering me to “Love my enemies”. I need my enemies desperately to teach me about God’s Love and His Truth. Thus, my enemies are truly friends allowing God to reveal more deeply the Truth of His love.

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    Bruce,
    Yes, I agree. It is not the “places” but perhaps to say: We’re “wrong-looking” for Truth in all places. To coin a very awkward word and just as awkward a sentence. If I could say the same thing in a bit of paradoxical poetry, I would have said it well.

  5. Bruce Says:

    Father Bless

    Excellent point. The “wrong looking” probably has alot to do with how real are my “eyes of faith” . When I know that He is “everywhere present, fillest all things, is treasurer of good gifts, and giver of life” my vision begins to allow him to “come abide in us, cleanse us of all impurities, and save our souls”…

  6. Marsha Says:

    “Peace is not the absence of conflict – ” a lesson I’m still learning. Thank you.

  7. Tricia Says:

    Father,
    This was much needed for me to hear. Again, your timing in things you preach or discuss tends to coincide with things going on in my life where I need to hear what you are saying. This too is a lesson I am learning in my life and situations…

    Thank you!

  8. Reid Says:

    In the second half of Romans 1 the Apostle Paul writes about the decay and corruption that men suffer who abandon the worship of God, calling this corruption the wrath of God. St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on the passage, takes this wrath as God’s severe mercy, giving men over to themselves that they might recoil at the consequences of their choices and return to the Lord.

    The gripping quote by St. Seraphim (I appreciate your repeating it here) seems to say that the opposite is true as well. If we give ourselves to the worship of God, the result is renewal and incorruption, and not only for ourselves. Indeed it suggests there is no other way to attain such an end.

  9. Ben Says:

    That picture kind of looks like Archbishop +HILARION of Volokolamsk. Who is it exactly?

  10. cipherchronicles Says:

    Father Stephen,

    Thanks for this post. Having grown up in Northern CA, raised by Vietnam protest-era parents and surrounded by acquaintances who have largely followed in those ‘protest-culture’ footsteps, I’ve often wondered why the protest mindset seems so alienating/off-putting to me.

    I don’t mean this as a problem of ideology (I was and am just as put off by the vitriol of those on the other ‘side’ of my parents and my acquaintances) but rather as a problem of formal orientation regardless of content. So much anger in service of peace, so much contempt for others in the pursuit of human rights, etc. has always seemed to me both hollow and dangerous. I see too, in the case of my acquaintances, that this particular approach, initiated by our parents with, in most instances, the best of intentions in mind, has become increasingly belligerent and nihilistic a generation removed. I found it chilling during my recent, first time reading of Dostoyevsky’s ‘Demons’ or ‘The Possessed’ (depending on translation) to witness this very same progression depicted among his own contemporaries.

    In any case, thanks again for your helpful words. As always they are among the few beacons of light beckoning to me as I attempt to crawl up from the dark abyss of my own life.

  11. leonard Nugent Says:

    Here is what it looks like when the brick is the church. I’m a Roman catholic but I spend a lot of time in both churchs so I’ve become particulary sensitive to this argument and very weary of it. Sometimes it strikes me as a 1000 year long episode of “men behaving badly”

    Only the Orthodox Church was able, through the grace of God, to retain the fullness of Christian Faith, worship and life through the centuries without addition, subtraction or distortion.

    The Second Vatican Council, in n. 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, stated that “this Church, constituted and organized as a society in this present world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although (licet) many elements of sanctification and truth can be found outside her structure; such elements, as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic unity”.

  12. Yannis Says:

    There is an Orthodox story relative to your fine point; i heard it from a contamporary Athonite Father, but its probably (much?) older. It goes likes this:

    There was once a Monastery famous for the virtue of its monks – it was said amongst the populace that every single one of them was a living saint and pilgrims from far and wide were travelling there for guidance and consolation.

    One day, an earie old man walked in the Monastery and took a good look at the monks going about their daily business for some time; he then walked out with a faint smile on his face and left.

    Later that day, a great noise and shadow fell over the Monastery; the monks were drawn outside their cells only to discover that a great multitude of magnificent birds were flying harmonically in formation high above their heads. The spectacle was nothing short of magnificent and while it lasted the monks admired it speechless.

    After some time, the birds were gone in the horizon, and one of the monks finally managed to speak; “Praise be to God! All those white birds flying together over us out of the blue, how beautiful they were…!”. “Indeed”, said another monk, “there were astounding as was their flight…only that” he paused thoughtfully for a moment, “only that they were black i thought and not white”. “Not that it matters of course but… i too thought they were white” said now a third monk. “The birds were black, brothers” said a fourth monk while others also were approaching the scene. Before long all monks had taken sides and their argument became a quarrel and the quarrel a fight.

    After some time, the fight stopped and they all withdrew embittered in their cells.

    After a long, uneasy and sleepless night, the two monks that had spoken first came out of their cells and met outside the Katholikon while the others watched them behind their cells’ doors and windows.

    As their eyes met, their faces, initially suspicious and hard, gradually soften and they’ve finally embraced in tears. “My dear brother” said the first, “what in heaven’s name came over us?” he cried, “why did we cared about those birds?”; “Amen Brother!”, said the other “the damn black birds were no concern of ours’… “.

    At these words the first monk’s face slowly turned serious again and he slowly steped back”You mean the damn white birds…” he said in low but determined voiced. The two looked each other for a while and their faces hardened again; they abruptly turned and reatreated back to their cells.

    It is said that the Monastery was deserted shortly after, and that no monks ever set foot there again.

    Best Regards

    Yannis

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    Ben,,
    I do not know who it is. Random internet photos.

  14. leonard Nugent Says:

    Yannis,

    I guess that what you’re telling us is that all the black birds came back and had the place to themselves.🙂

  15. Alexander Patico Says:

    There are, it seems to me, vast differences between the different traditions and how they handle doubt, debate and truth. NOTE: Pardon the (obvious) over-simplification.
    I’d say that Judaism has carved out such an honored place for doubt, discussion and debate, that engaging in it is not quite as “divisive” (oddly) as it may often be in other faiths. In fact, truth appears, for Jews, to be perennially evolving and elusive.
    In Islam, there is something of a split between those who believe interpretation (ijtehad) is a vital part of the tradition, and those who would minimize it.
    In Hinduism, pluralism (of god-forms, rites, etc.) seems to be the order of the day, so one can focus on very different “truths” while having no real disagreement.
    In Buddhism, reality is perceived as so transitory, ephemeral and even illusory that truth becomes a rather odd concept, by our standards.
    Greek (e.g. Aristotelian) philosophy, coupled now with Enlightenment ideas, gives precedence to logical syllogisms (if…then) and exclusive dichotomies (A or B, not both).
    Christian argumentation is an oxymoron, as our rulebook is the law of love. We can only, in piety, discuss/share/compare with one another, but not fight.

  16. Dharmashaiva Says:

    Alexander, there is a small correction. In Buddhism, mind and matter are transitory, but reality is not.

  17. Yannis Says:

    leonard,
    you mean the white birds…

  18. GVM Says:

    This is great and really helpful, Father. Thank you for sharing.

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