As I write, Orthodox Christians are celebrating Whit Monday or, as we call it, the Day of the Holy Spirit, following on from the great feast of Pentecost yesterday, a week later than our sisters and brothers of other Christian traditions. We remember how that first Pentecost of the apostles, recounted in the Acts, gave birth to the Church. The dynamic power of the Holy Spirit drew all into unity, whilst preserving their individual uniqueness – the apostles were empowered to preach to each in their own language. In Christ we are all one, neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female (Gal 3:28). At the same time, the Holy Spirit bestows on each of us distinct charismatic gifts (Romans 12:6). We are, as the Church of Christ, a unity in diversity.
It is now nearly four months since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in a ‘special military operation’ which they thought would last a few days. Already, this conflict has seen devastating consequences: thousands of deaths, destruction of buildings, not only people’s homes and places of work but churches and monasteries. Most obviously for us in the U.K., there has been widespread displacement of people from their homes. We know well of the five million or so Ukrainians who have left the threat of danger in their own country as refugees, thousands of whom have found a home, for now, with British hosts. Perhaps less obvious are the millions of Russians who have fled their homes as a consequence of the present situation, unable in good conscience to accept it, and fearful of what kind of future may lie ahead within their own country.
On a wider scale, the war in Ukraine is playing a part in a devastating economic crisis with monumental consequences of food and fuel shortages. These world-changing events will take decades, if not generations, to stabilise.
In the horror of this situation, I have been touched by a prayer of the twentieth-century Russian mystic, Silouan the Athonite, who himself knew of the dystopia that resulted from the Communist revolution in his own country. St Silouan prays:
‘O Lord, grant unto us the gift of the Holy Spirit,
That we may perceive Your glory,
And live on earth in peace and love.
And let there be neither malice, nor wars or enemies,
But may love alone reign,
And there will be no need of armies, or prisons,
And life will be easy for everyone on earth.’
In connection with the wider political situation, there have recently been great tensions between the Orthodox Christian churches, many of which have been widely reported in the mainstream media. My own church community, made up of many different nationalities, but part of the Russian Orthodox Church has, mercifully, remained remarkably united. More than this, members of our community have rallied together to welcome refugees, as have so many others, both Christians and those of other faiths and none. Our unity has been a precious gift, which I think we all realise, is directly related to our focus on Christ. It seems that Orthodox Church communities work best at this on a small, local level, where our focus is one of common prayer and action, centred on and proceeding from our Eucharistic sharing at the Lord’s table, rather than on any other agenda.
A friend from eastern Ukraine, a monk whose monastery was recently badly damaged in the hostilities, had simple but powerful words to share about this unity in Christ. He reminded me that the early followers of Jesus came from a wide range of social, ethnic, political, class and cultural backgrounds. They included fishermen, Zealot revolutionaries, Pharisees, members of the Jewish Sanhedrin, tax collectors, to name a few – people who would normally have nothing to do with one another, and who might easily have had great animosity towards each other. As long as they stayed focused on Jesus, they had unity. ‘And we,’ said my monk friend, ‘must learn to be like them.’
Archpriest Stephen Platt is the Secretary for Inter-Christian Affairs and NEO for the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland. He is also the Rector of St Nicholas the Wonderworker Orthodox Church, Oxford.