123: A Prophetic Voice Arises in the East

    Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, known in some parts of the world as “the Green Patriarch” for his outspoken activism on behalf of the environment, steps onto the world stage in a new way next week for Great Lent 2008. His eloquent voice is embodied in his first-ever book for a global audience, “Encountering The Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today.” The book hits bookstores on Tuesday, but you can click on the book cover below and jump to our review of it (where you could pre-order the book from Amazon, if you wish).

    BUT, first, let me tell you why you should care about this spiritual milestone, whether you’re a member of an Orthodox church -– or not.
    Having traveled in eastern Europe myself in 1990, as a journalist for Knight-Ridder Newspapers chronicling the tumbling of former Communist regimes, I understand that this is, indeed, a rare moment in world history.
    Now, nearly a decade into the 21st Century, Orthodox leaders and congregations finally have had a good chance to develop their ministries without fear of imprisonment or, even worse -– physical violence and death. In several areas of Eastern Europe in 1990, I had a chance to meet Christian leaders emerging, scarred but hopeful, after years of imprisonment and, in some cases, after extended periods of torture. This journey of restoration continues to this day in many Eastern European countries — and the nature of that restoration as it continues to unfold is important to all of us as global citizens these days.
    Bartholomew himself was not imprisoned -– but he understands that, even though nearly two decades have passed since revolutions swept across many Orthodox nations — we still are in this critically important rebuilding phase.

    In his new book, he writes that throughout much of “the 20th Century, the greater majority of Orthodox Christians throughout the world lived behind what was then known as the Iron Curtain. Many millions of these, together with many thousands of others elsewhere, experienced several decades of either persecution verging on martyrdom or else precarious toleration. Several millions encountered –- and some continue to encounter –- a religious intolerance that limited and even isolated them as minorities through social and economic pressures.”

    That’s why a rising voice from the Orthodox world in Great Lent 2008 is such a gift to the rest of Christendom.
    Especially in the United States, we’ve long been polarized in many ways within our Christian communities: sometimes due to divisions between Protestants and Catholics, or between evangelicals and progressive Christians, or between groups staring at each other across other theological chasms. We tend to forget that there is a voice of spiritual wisdom from the East with its own distinctive approaches to the Christian faith.
    That’s what I like best about Bartholomew’s new book.
    It embodies a prophetic voice for our times that will resonate in new ways in the West, if we give Bartholomew a chance to be “heard.”

    Now, a word of warning is in order: There is a whole lot of background information that the patriarch’s editors have chosen to lay before us as a kind of crash course in Orthodoxy 101, embodied in a roughly 70-page prelude that appears in this book before Bartholomew’s voice finally is able to reach its full eloquence. I suppose this was a wise choice, given that many American Christians, according to annual polls, cannot name the four gospels in the New Testament -– let alone describe the distinctions of the Christian world. So, a lengthy “Foreward,” then a “Biographical Note” about Bartholomew, then Bartholomew’s own summary of “Historical Perspectives” are perhaps all helpful orientations for readers.

    But, the true power of this book lies deeper between these covers. It lies in the way that Bartholomew knits together his Christian faith, his Orthodox tradition, his concern for the environment, his cautionary teachings about globalization –- and even his interfaith hospitality toward Jewish and Muslim communities.
    All of this, he tells us (once he really gets rolling in this book), are deeply rooted in the Orthodox understanding of our lives as part of a global community created by God. We are not alone –- nor are we alone with God as an isolated pair in the cosmos, as some spiritual seekers try to tell us today. In truth, he argues, we are part of a vast Creation, each responsible for the community that God calls us to form within that Creation.
    My summary of his teachings here may sound fairly abstract. If so, it’s because I’m summarizing more than 100 pages of Bartholomew’s book in a few sentences.

    Within the scope of his book, he moves chapter by chapter from very basic, tangible elements of daily life to the larger connections we must make in God’s world. For example, there’s a beautiful little passage in the book about his childhood home on the small island of Imvros off the coast of Turkey. He writes about how his mother arranged icons in one small corner of a room to connect their home spiritually with the larger sacred community.
    But, as he writes about where this basic upbringing and traditional faith have taken him in his life’s pilgrimage, he reaches farther and farther in making his connections. For example, he writes about the growing awareness around the world that we must protect the environment from irreversible damage.
    And, there’s so much more that we must do, he writes prophetically. Here’s a sample of his eloquence from later in the book:

    “We have to admit that while we have become more sensitive to environmental issues, we continue to ignore some fundamental issues of human welfare. This, however, amounts to an unbearable contradiction. In reality, extending our concern toward created nature implies and necessitates a change also in our attitudes and practices toward our fellow human beings. The world is a gift from God, and it is offered to us for the purpose of sharing. It does not exist for us to appropriate selfishly, but rather to preserve humbly. The way that we relate to God in heaven cannot be separated either from the way we treat other human beings or from our treatment of the natural environment on earth. To disconnect the two would amount to nothing less than hypocrisy. Whoever can discern this simple truth will no longer be surprised that the Christian God chose to be born in a manger.”

    To that, I must say: Wow! Amen!

    That’s prophetic weaving of major theological themes in a way that even the casual reader will get the full impact of Bartholomew’s argument. We can disagree with him –- or we might offer counter arguments on individual points –- but we are dealing here with a Christian visionary who sees a vast mosaic of meaning in the life all around us. That mosaic is not complete until we glimpse the links between the tiniest flower in a field to a bird in flight –- to the poor person on the other side of town -– or a needy family on the other side of the world –- to the people sitting around our dinner table each night.
    One might say it’s rather like Jesus’ own vision of these lessons, which we’ve been pondering on another area of the ReadTheSpirit Web site, called Our Lent, in recent weeks.

    I’m glad that Bartholomew and Doubleday have chosen to mark Great Lent 2008 with the release of this terrific new book. Many are preaching similar messages these days.
    But, I think millions may be able to hear this message more clearly –- coming, as it does next week in “Encountering the Mystery,” from someone with the global authority of a Bartholomew, speaking from a 2,000-year-old tradition that, only now, is getting solidly onto its feet again.

    AS AN EXTRA TODAY, you may want to visit the English-language version of the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s Web site. Specifically, considering some of the themes mentioned today, you may want to read some of Bartholomew’s annual messages on the environment. Of course, this is only a small part of his public teaching on this issue, but it’s a nice sampling of his talks. At the left side of that page, you’ll also find links to other intriguing resources from his headquarters.
    NOTE: The final photo with today’s story (below) is from the Patriarchate Web site, capturing a visit in 2005 when Bartholomew returned to tour the tiny island where he was born.
    WANT TO READ MORE about Great Lent?
    We are setting aside this special week, here at ReadTheSpirit, to celebrate
Orthodox writers. This is Part 4 in this series. If you missed the earlier pieces, you can read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.
    With all of our ReadTheSpirit stories, we ask our readers: Please, tell us what you think. Email me ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, or leave a Comment for other readers on our site.

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