Thursday, 23 July 2009

Paradise - Lost

To Vera and Otari Mirianashvili. I remember

I have a vivid memory - I walk uphill, up the steep stairs with my mother, picking pomegranates as we go, carrying bags from the market in the evening, then we turn right and open the gate... and the smell... Fig tree leaves in the evening, a very special smell... Or I thought it was fig tree leaves. I think that's what it smells like in the south (yes, silly us, we had exactly the same word for it as Norwegians do - no country, just south).

That memory came back when I first came to Naples, to visit my friend who lives halfway up Vesuvius. At that time, I haven't been further south than Prague in more that 15 years. I said, Oh my gosh, it smells like childhood!

I remember fragments. We used to walk this white seaside promenade. Streets were wide, so unlike dark and claustrophobic Riga. There were coffee shops, and grandpa used to sit with me for hours, drinking those tiny cups of turkish-style coffee made in hot sand, and talking to everyone he knew - they also happenned to drink coffee for hours - Greeks, Georgians, Abhazians... Yes, I actually remember the sand where the coffee was made. We drove from the airport, palm trees all around, and in the middle of the roundabout was a huge pig. Grazing. Or something. Well, it was no Four Seasons. We had to queue for drinking water on the junction of five streets (halfway up a mountain...), because the pressure of water pumps was not high enough. But then, there were grapes, and figs, and wine, and I played with cats and swam in the sea.

People visited all the time. One Russian man sold books. Grandma and grandpa had a library. Real LIBRARY. When I learned to read, I simply scanned the shelves in awe, picking books that I didn't even understand. They had a leopard skin on the couch, head intact. She was an artist, he - a retired military officer working in an enlistment office. She was the only person in our family with a gift for languages. She was Russian, he was Georgian. The white paradisial city where all lived happily ever after was Sukhumi.

There are moments I feel we are all gone with the wind of change. But while some things are just painful, this story is horrific in its brutality and meaningless suffering. There are no winners in wars. A war is a battle between God and devil for the souls of men. All of this is true. But wars also have faces. And when it comes down to faces, all wars are the same. The only difference is - some faces you know.

I remember leaving. I sat on a bus and I wept and I wept and I wept. Neither then nor now am I a person to weep in public. I must have been about nine, and while I couln't put my feelings into words yet, I think they were as real and authentic as anything I feel now. I was starting to understand that loving means hurting, that getting to know a place means saying good-bye to it, and the inevitability of this scared me. Every time the bus made another turn, which revealed more of the amazing mountain scenery, I wept even more. I saw mountain rivers, lakes, gorges and valleys, and I didn't want to leave. Years later, my mother mused whether I knew. I didn't, of course. But we never came back. We never will.

The war began in 1992. It was meaningless, like all wars are. It wasn't well covered, and somehow the the period 1992-1993 was rich in wars, all over the world. The Soviet Union collapsed, the communist money had to be divided, the land had to be divided... Then, it seemed unreal. This just couldn't happen. Would you imagine tanks in your favourite seaside resort? When peace came, everyone believed it would last. The children were ordered back to school under the threat of expulsion, the troops were disarmed, the families came back...

Sukhumi is now the capital of Abkhazia, a self-proclaimed republic that is not recognized by any country in the world but Russia. It was part of Georgia then. Actually, thanks to Stalin. The man (and he was Georgian...) loved to vacation there, he had a sense for beauty, remember, and beauty there was...

It was Georgian troops that were disarmed by September 1993, to prevent clashes between separatist Abkhazians and Georgian army, with Russia acting as a peace broker... Two weeks into the official school year, on September 16th, the war broke out again. This time, there was no hope. The people fled. They tried the planes, the planes were shot down. They tried the boats - most were sunk. The was a mountain pass, my aunt and cousin fled through it, as did many others. 500 died in the cold, most survived. Her parents stayed.

When the city was taken by Abkhazians... - what shall I say? People are dehumanized in war. Neighbours murdered their former neighbours, one nation had to eliminate the other, does it matter, does it have to be said? 20 000 people died. Do their stories deserve to be told? Raped, butchered, shot, burned, buried in their backyards, tortured to death... Russian women murdered for marrying Georgians. Do we need to know? A 70-year-old teacher of military education walked past a gas filling station (taken by Armenian militants) and saw a butchered body of a Georgian man hanging above, with a sign posted : Georgian meat for sale. He walked inside and blew up himself and all the miltants around.

I wonder if he knew grandpa. They must have been the same age. Am I being brutal? Do you think he was a terrorist?

The grandparents in Sukhumi died a natural death. I last spoke to grandma in 1997. My aunt did surprisingly well. She didn't come to a social security system, in fact she came to Moscow, a city where you can't even go to a doctor unless you have a registration stamped in your passport. But after surviving the mountain pass, they came to human warmth and love, their relatives, and open doors. She is now a Russian citizen and owns her second apartment in Moscow, no loan, no credit...

Most people who survived have learned this one thing. Something I remember learning too. Human life is precious. No matter our disagreements, no matter our colour, religion, backround, anger, hatred, desire, our past and present - human life is the most precious thing on this planet. Nothing is more precious than the life of another human being.

I met a guy from Sukhumi a few years ago in Oslo, he used the same route to escape. Well, there was just one route. He was sent back from Oslo to a city he hasn't seen for 10 years. It is still a beautiful place. But you don't want to live there anymore.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

I went to church to pray yesterday, and as I walked in, four people had just started praying the Rosary out loud in English. Why not, I thought? Even though I intended to spend 20 minutes in silence, the Lord may have wanted me to get to know His mother better, something we ex-protestants are always in need of...
It was very special. This unplanned-for Rosary praying reminded me of Maundy Thursday in Valletta this April. The Maltese have a tradition of visiting seven churches on Thursday night or Friday morning during the Holy Week. The Body of Christ is carried to an Altar of Repose that is usually decorated with flowers and statues and candles. After the Mass, the faithful would go to make seven visits to any of the Altars of Repose, spending any time from a couple of minutes to a quarter of an hour or longer before our Lord.
In Valletta, where I stayed, the number of churches far exceeds seven, so we never had to go anywhere far for the visits - which I thought were a good tradition to imitate. I wasn't prepared for the power of the moment, though.
The first church I entered seemed incredibly noisy. I am used to adoration, but I am also used to silence in church. This place seemed to buzz like a beehive. What an unusually talkative population we've got here! I admit thinking. Then, when my eyes and ears got used to the sounds and symbols around, I noticed a pattern in the noise. It sounded like prayer.
Oh but of course! The people were not chatting leisurely, they were praying the Rosary. Aloud. Two middle-aged British gentlemen behind me prayed a decade in English together and left for another altar. A family with a pram squeezed inside. Some were kneeling, some were standing, and reciting a decade, usually in pairs, husband and wife, mother and daughter, taking turns to say the Hail Mary, then perhaps linger awhile and leave to give space to the newcomers.
The Republic street was surreal that night. Filled with tourists by day and completely empty by night it looked like a scene from a typical pigrimage site that Thursday. Men, women and children with rosaries in their hands, candles on the ground, the buzz from the open overpacked twenty-something churches.
We took turns to pray the last decade in St.Dominic's just across the street from our house. Feeling sad that it was only seven visits, and not twenty-seven, I contemplated the two angels placed in fromt of the altar. One was holding a cluster of grapes and some wheat while the other was holding a cup. It was a beautiful thought that in his omniscience Jesus, the Incanate Word, may have drawn strength from our prayers during that hour at Gethemane that began His sorrowul passion...

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Some thoughts on Luther and Anabaptists...

Have you ever heard of the book The Martyrs Mirror?

It is an account of Christian/ Anabaptist/ Mennonite martyrs. I was once presented it (actually, parts of it) as a book "every Christian should read", and indeed I have often heard Martyrs Mirror mentioned by modern-day Baptists when they refer to the Protestant doctrine that the 'true church' has somehow persisted throughout the centuries, in direct opposition to the institutionalised Church (and we all know which one that is...).

The bottom line has always been that Martyrs Mirror is a dedication to all true Christians throughout the ages who have been persecuted, murdered by the Inquisition and finally given their voices by the advance of the Reformation.

The full text of the Mirror can be found here:

The rhetoric is easily illustrated by the following quotes on account of the rite of baptism:

"We do not find it stated by a single authentic author [...] that during the first two centuries any one departed from the foundation of Christ's true order of baptism, that is, from baptism upon faith, by changing this, the true baptism, into a vain or infant baptism; but it appears that in the third century there were men who not only originated, but also put it in practice and administered the same; yet it was adopted only in a few places."

"Ambrose was baptized in adult years, at Milan, though his parents were Christians. He advanced sound views on baptism, against war, of the sacraments, etc.
Ephrem, Gregory of Nyssa, the Councils of Laodicea and Elibertum, and also Optatus Milevitanus, give correct views on baptism
(by this the book mostly means that these sources confirm that baptism can be given to an adult person)

"We shall begin the fifth century, concerning baptism, with the fifth chapter of Jacob Mehrn. History of Baptism, [...] "Henceforth we shall not dwell upon quite so many testimonies taken from the ancient fathers and church historians, as had necessarily to be the case in the preceding centuries, in order to prove that during the first four centuries after the birth of Christ, infant baptism had neither in the holy Scriptures nor in the authentic books of the teachers of the church, a firm foundation; that is, that it had been ordained by Christ, or that it was an apostolic institution or tradition." "

So far so good. The Anabaptists' method of supporting their ideas is familiar: the Church Fathers, the Apostolic Tradition, the Counsils (and they seem to have undertood well that the Canon of the Scripture was not yet established in the centuries referred to). Note this last paragraph particularly - the authentic books of the teachers of the church, a firm foundation ... apostolic tradition...

Eventually, of course, the Church becomes institutionalised, and the account of the latter centuries is basically an account of the resistance movement of true believers, abounding with quotations and historical references, some of them quite interesting. The account ends with the 16th century, "the century in whichLuther in Germany, Zwingli in Switzerland, and afterwards Calvin in France, began to reform the Roman church; and to deny, oppose and contend with the authority of God's holy Word against the supposed power of the Roman Pope, and many papal superstitions, however, in order to avoid too great dissatisfaction, as it seems, they remained in the matter of infant baptism, in agreement with the Roman church".

Written by non-violent, Mennonite Anabaptists, the book seems to approve of the Reformers, and only accuse them of compromising the belief that had allegedly been held throughout the centuries - that of adult baptism - for the sake of pleasing people.

Alas, the Reformers were not equally non-violent. When it comes to Luther, the matter is straighforward, as usual. In 1530 he writes:

"If some were to teach doctrines contradicting an article of faith clearly grounded in Scripture and believed throughout the world by all Christendom - for example if anyone were to teach that Christ is not God, but a mere man and like other prophets, as the Turks and the Anabaptists hold - such teachers should not be tolerated, but punished as blasphemers" (Commentary on the 82nd Psalm)

Huh, Turks and Anabaptists? So much for the hidden one true church?
Is Luther exaggerating? As a matter of fact, no. He is speaking of different Anabaptists (there were many). Luther is referring to the Anti-Trinitarian Anabaptists, who may have been influenced by the writings of Servetus (Calvin strongly advocated death penalty for the latter). They held a council in Venice in 1550 and formulated a statement of belief, that declared, among other points, that Jesus Christ is not God, but man, born of Joseph and Mary, but filled with all the powers of God... Ironically, when the persecution started, this group sought refuge in the lands ruled by - yes, the Turks (cf. Latourette, A History of Christianity, v.II p. 792).

The Martyrs Mirror advocates a completely opposite view of Christ, that smacks of Monophysitism:
"and also another ..., who was censured because he held that the body of Christ was not of the substance of Mary" (an account of the martyrs of the second century-emphasis mine)

"They also asked me whether I did not believe that Christ had received flesh and blood from Mary. I said that Christ came by His divine power out of heaven, was conceived in Mary through the Holy Ghost, and born of her, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and became like unto us in all things, except sin, so that He was not born of the blood, nor of the will of the flesh, and did not receive flesh or blood from Mary"

"We also spake with the Jesuits, and with others, about the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, in which we did not agree, for they said that He had flesh and blood from Mary. And I said that He is the Son of God, who was born of the virgin Mary, since she had known no man [...]That which she received (mark well) did not come from her; else it would be of the earth, as was Mary, and as are all the children of Adam."

"who, among other things, believed and confessed with Menno Simons and all true believers, that the Son of God became man for our sakes, and that He did not receive His humanity from Mary or any other source, but that the eternal Word or Son, became Himself flesh or man."

So much for Mary.

I have read somewhere that in the ancient world it was widely believed that women only carried children in their wombs and gave birth to them, while it was solely a man's semen that actually produced a child. I can only speculate in regard to the origin of the doctrine of these particular Anabaptists, but this is certainly not the belief of the Church, ancient or not ancient. The Fourth Ecumenical Counsil of Chalcedon states in the year 451: "Following the holy fathers we all, with one voice, define that there is to be confessed one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ [...], of the same substance with the Father according to the Godhead, and of the same substance with us according to the manhood, [...] begotten of the Father before all time according to the Godhead, [...] born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God according to the manhood..." The parallelism of these lines is self-explanatory.

So when Martin Luther rages against the heretical doctrines of Anabaptists he does it with full authority and conviction of someone who is backed by Church history and the Word of God, as he understands it. That the same Word of God is understood differently is another matter, but here is what Luther writes:

"That seditious articles of doctrine should be punished by the sword needed no further proof. For the rest, the Anabaptists hold tenets relating to infant baptism, original sin, and inspiration, which have no connection with the Word of God, and are indeed opposed to it. . . Secular authorities are also bound to restrain and punish avowedly false doctrine . . ."

Just to clarify the matters - these were not mere words. Inquisition was not the only force behind executions (nor was Inquisition merely a Catholic invention - I am referring to the Orthodox equivalent, which is, however, beside the point here). According to Dave Armstrong, Mennonite historian John D. Roth estimated about 4000 Anabaptist martyrdoms in Europe, between 1525 and 1574: a little less than half of them were committed by Protestants, and about one-quarter of those (roughly 500) in Luther’s province of Saxony.

God bless those poor brave souls who gave their lives for what they believed in, and perhaps every Christian should read the Martyrs Mirror, but I would rather every Christian study history, and study it well...