Under the Forest-Flier Tree

Reconciliation, Peace, and the Role of the Radical Outsider in Orthodox Spirituality

Archbishop’s Chapel, Lambeth Palace, London, 4 May 2006
Fr Sergei Hackel Memorial Lecture

by Jim Forest

Given that we meet in time of war, it is not surprising that the speaker should be asked to address the topic of peace and reconciliation in the light of his religious tradition, but perhaps it is surprising that the role of the radical outsider is included. On the other hand, this is a memorial lecture in honor of Fr Sergei Hackel, a radical outsider if ever there was one — not only a black sheep among white sheep, but a black sheep among black sheep.

r Sergei was the outsider par excellence: His Russian family was forced into outsiderhood by the Stalin regime. In the late 1920s, they fled St Petersburg for Berlin, where Sergei was born in 1931. With Hitler’s election as chancellor in 1933, dangers similar to those posed by Stalin led the family to move to the Netherlands. Again not many years passed before another move was imposed by the expanding borders of the Third Reich. With his mother, he escaped to Britain as the German Army overran Holland in May 1940, but his father remained behind. Sergei never saw him again.

From an early age Sergei Hackel was an expert outsider, a vocation he retained until his death.

He was not only an outsider, but a man out of step. In Britain, a society that many regard as exceptionally civil, complete with stiff upper lip, Sergei was a man who could easily ignite; anyone who knew him will have a memory or two of Sergei’s volcanic temper. Ignoring the rules of polite society regarding appropriate male attire, he did without ties, a small but telling gesture; ties were useful, he remarked, only if your trousers were falling down and you had misplaced your belt or braces. (For this event, I am wearing the Sergei Hackel Memorial Non-Tie.) In a largely Anglican country, a religious culture with a remarkable ability to adapt, he was Orthodox, a tradition remarkable for its refusal to change with the times. Yet, even in his own church, he was by no means a perfect fit. He was outspoken regarding the failings he perceived in the church he served as priest. In a church in which one can, without great effort, find anti-Semites, he was deeply engaged in campaigning against anti-Semitism, most notably through his active engagement with the Council of Christian and Jews. Also notable was his distress with Christians, Orthodox and otherwise, for their reluctance to see Christ in the poor. This resulted in his close association over many years with St Gregory’s Foundation and other missions reaching out to the hungry, the homeless, the displaced, the abandoned, the poor. Via the Russian Service of the BBC, he was a familiar and trusted voice to countless Russians during and after the Soviet era, carefully avoiding propaganda and the incitement of enmity.

For all his outspokenness, Fr Sergei Hackel, the radical outsider, could be a man of patience and diplomacy. His gentle, reconciling skills, when brought into play, were renowned.

It is no bad thing to be an outsider. The Greek word is xenos, which is part of the Greek word for hospitality is filoxenia, literally, love of the outsider. Cultures still exist in which the outsider, the stranger, the foreigner, the pilgrim is — by divine election — an instant guest. In such places there is no need of a hotel. Hospitality is not only a generic duty but a blessing, and a shared one at that. One can speak of the sacrament, or mystery, of hospitality. The guest is seen potentially as an angel in disguise, like those heaven-sent guests who were welcomed by Abraham and Sarah under the oak of Mamre. There are still societies in which one can experience filoxenia. Russian friends tell me that if you go to the village that lies adjacent to the Monastery of the Caves near the city of Pskov, all you need do to find shelter is knock on any door and say, “Gospodipoi miloi — Lord have mercy.” You will be the well-cared for guest of that household. I can personally vouch for the existence of a similar quality of hospitality in Palestinian villages. Sometimes it even happens in Britain and America, though one must be more cautious in these countries about arriving unannounced and unexpected.

One learns a great deal about a person by taking note of his library. Blok, Akhmatova and Dostoevsky were among the most important authors for Sergei Hackel. Another was Albert Camus. It is Camus’ writings that I want to focus on. In his novels and plays the theme of the outsider, the stranger, the exile is always prominent. Camus’ first novel, published in France during the time of Nazi occupation, had the title (depending on which translation you prefer) The Stranger or The Outsider.

Camus’ description was not second hand. He had witnessed the execution of Gabriel Peri, the radical journalist, by the Germans in December 1941. The event not only hardened his anti-Nazi convictions but galvanized his horror with the intentional killing of any human being. Until his death, Camus sought a way of life in which one is neither a victim nor an executioner.

It need hardly be said that Fr Sergei Hackel had a similar sensibility. He not only opposed not only capital punishment but the use of murderous methods to advance any social goal. For him a Christian lacking this sensibility had not yet encountered Christ’s Gospel.

I have no idea if Fr Sergei would have identified himself as a pacifist — it’s a question I never asked him. Probably he saw the war against Hitler and the Third Reich as a tragic necessity, yet nonetheless a war in which not all the war crimes were committed by the Nazis. Fr Sergei was a person who could not regard war, even in situations in which it was purely defensive, as anything less than a catastrophe for all involved. It was not only his private view. One notes that the Orthodox Church has never developed a “just war” theory. Fr Sergei was a person who took Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as a baseline for daily life. He saw terms like “just war” and “good war” as oxymorons, having no place in a Christian’s vocabulary. This was part of Sergei’s otherness.

Would that such otherness were less rare. The war-resisting, life-protecting witness given by Christians in the first centuries seems today incomprehensibly remote. Among contemporary Christians, there are not many who, in those moments when one has to choose between the Gospel and what might be described as patriotic duty, will opt for the Gospel. Better to find some way to explain the Gospel in such a way that it aligns Christ’s teaching with the demands of one’s nation. Time and again the cross is made into a flag pole. In every country and culture one finds pastors and theologians who exhibit a great talent for adjusting the Bible to fit the politics and ideologies of the moment. South Africa had its theologians of Apartheid, the United States has had theologians of Manifest Destiny, Nazi Germany had theologians who were rabidly anti-Semitic, and in any country in which slavery existed or thrived as a business, there were theologians who could demonstrate that slavery was God’s will. From the fourth or fifth centuries, there has never been a shortage of bishops and theologians willing to sing the praises of whatever war was underway.

Fr Sergei always sought to align himself with the Gospel rather than to adjust the Gospel to the nearest flag, or any flag.

The person trying to live according to the unabridged Gospel is sailing by to a different compass than the great majority of his neighbors. That compass is one’s faith-shaped conscience. Under no circumstances can a Christian just “go with the flow.” One is forced to live as a stranger and an exile. As St Paul said in his letter to the Hebrews: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”

It must have been the theme of strangerhood, pilgrimage and exile which drew Sergei so intensely to Camus’ novels. It also reinforced his aversion to any form of religion which was essentially tribal or nationalistic.

The writings of Thomas Merton in the sixties often address the state of plague we are facing and do so in a way that reveal how much Merton, like Sergei Hackel, had in common with Camus. As Merton wrote in one essay:

The awful problem of our times is not so much the dreams, the monsters, which may take shape and consume us, but the moral paralysis in our own souls which leaves us immobile, inert, passive, tongue-tied, ready and even willing to succumb. The real tragedy is in the cold, silent waters of moral death, which climb imperceptibly within us, blinding conscience, drowning compassion, suffocating faith and extinguishing the Spirit. A progressive deadening of conscience, of judgment and of compassion is the inexorable work of the Cold War [or any social matrix driven by fear and enmity].

[Passion for Peace, p 81]

One might also the describe the plague we face as the condition of individualism, separateness, isolation and loneliness that we experience in the quasi-religious, quasi-agnostic modern world.

An obvious contrast between Camus and both Sergei Hackel and Thomas Merton was that one had rejected Christianity while the latter two embraced it, but the difference is less substantial than it appears at first glance. What Camus rejected was a pseudo-Christianity that had become a mechanism for blessing the established order, a religion of accommodation that provides chaplains to witness executions without raising a word of protest. Far from blessing the guillotine or the hangman’s rope, Sergei Hackel represented the Christianity of the early centuries, when one could not be baptized without renouncing bloodshed, whether in war or as a means of punishment, a Christianity of care for the poor, a Christianity of hospitality, mercy and forgiveness. He labored for a Christianity in which sanctity is normal.

It would be impossible to devote a lecture to Sergei Hackel without speaking of a woman whose life and writings he studied carefully and introduced to many others. I am referring, of course, to Mother Maria Skobtsova. We see in her an example of a heroic yet modest Christian response to a world under attack by various ideological and political plagues. She provides a vivid example of what peacemaking, reconciliation and care for the outsider look like.

Born in Russia, she had arrived in Paris as a refugee in 1923. Earlier in her life she had been deeply engaged in the left, never a Marxist, but a dedicated socialist. Regarded with hostility by both the revolutionary Bolsheviks and the counter-revolutionary Whites, she narrowly escaped execution first from one side and then from the other. She decided at last that the only hope of survival for herself and her children was to seek asylum in the west.

Once in Paris, she became active with the Russian Student Christian Movement, an Orthodox association serving Russians living in desperate poverty. Later on, following the death by influenza of one of her children, her life took a deeper turn. The experience of her daughter’s suffering made her “aware of a new and special, broad and all-embracing motherhood.” She felt it as an absolute necessity to seek “a more authentic and purified life.” She saw a “new road” before her, “a new meaning in life, to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.”

She was fortunate to have a sympathetic bishop. Aware of her determination, he suggested she might become a nun who devoted herself to diaconal service among the very poor. This would be a new form of monastic life, not of seclusion but of immersion in the urban desert. Vested as a nun, Mother Maria opened a house of hospitality for the homeless. Within two years, she was forced by the scale of the need to obtain a larger building at 77 rue de Lourmel in the fifteenth arrondisement. While at the first address she could feed only 25, here she could feed a hundred.

“The way to God lies through love of people,” she wrote in a passage that sums up much of her theology. “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

She put her vision of the Christian vocation even more briefly in this passage: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world. We must venerate the image of God in each person.”

When the Nazi occupation began in June 1940, Mother Maria had no illusions about what they faced. Never a person to look at the world through rose-colored glasses, she saw the Nazi movement as a “new paganism” bringing in its wake disasters, upheavals, persecutions and wars. It was evil unveiled, the “contaminator of all springs and wells.” As for Hitler, he was “a madman who needs a straightjacket and should be placed in a cork-lined room so that his bestial wailing will not disturb the world at large.”

She and her co-workers soon found that hospitality now meant rescuing Jews. How many they saved only God knows, but it is not a small number.

Jews began to knock on the door asking Father Dimitri Klépinin, the priest who assisted Mother Maria, if he would provide them with baptismal certificates. The answer was always yes. The names of those “baptized” were also duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo. In March 1942, the order came from Berlin that the yellow star must be worn by Jews in all the occupied countries.

There were, of course, many Christians who said that such anti-Jewish laws had nothing to do with Christians and that therefore this was not a Christian problem. “There is not only a Jewish question, but a Christian question,” Mother Maria replied. “Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the Star. The age of confessors has arrived.”

The house at rue de Lourmel was soon bursting with people, many of them Jews. “It is amazing,” Mother Maria remarked, “that the Germans haven’t pounced on us yet.” In the same period, she said if anyone came looking for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

In July 1942 came the mass arrest of 12,884 Jews in Paris. The majority were brought to a sports stadium not far from Rue de Lourmel. Mother Maria had often thought her monastic robes a God-send in aiding her work. Now her nun’s clothing opened the way for her to enter the stadium. Here she worked for three days trying to comfort the prisoners, distributing what food she could bring in, even managing to rescue some of the children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins.

In February 1943, the long-awaited arrests occurred. Mother Maria was sent to the notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp. Her son, Yuri, and Father Dimitri were sent to a camp named Dora, where they died in 1944.

On the 30th of March 1945, after two years of captivity, Mother Maria was selected for the gas chambers. As it happened, it was Good Friday. She entered eternal life the following day. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance.

Controversial in life, Mother Maria remains a subject of contention to this day, a fact which may explain how slow the Orthodox Church was in adding her to the calendar of saints. While clearly she lived a life of heroic virtue and is among the martyrs of the twentieth century, her verbal assaults on nationalistic and self-satisfied forms of religious life still raise the blood pressure of many Orthodox Christians. Mother Maria remains an indictment of any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings.

Unfortunately, Camus and Mother Maria never met, yet Sergei Hackel serves as a link between them. On the one hand Camus’ writings contributed significantly to Sergei’s spiritual and intellectual development. On the other hand, Fr Sergei was among the first in the English-speaking world to become aware of Mother Maria and to see in her one of the most significant models of sanctity to emerge not only in the Orthodox Church but in Christianity as a whole in many a year. He wrote what remains the most complete English-language biography of Mother Maria, Pearl of Great Price. Without doubt, his writings played a significant part in the process that at last resulted in her canonization in Paris two years ago. On the same day, Fr Dimitri Klépinin, Yuri Skobtsov, and another martyred co-worker, Elie Fondaminsky, were also added to the church calendar.

Several bishops and many priests were involved in the canonization service at Vespers that Saturday evening, but visually the most striking was Fr Sergei. Among all the glittering vestments, he was wearing a hand-embroidered vestment of coarse fabric. There’s a story here, I said to myself. After the Sunday morning service, when Nancy and I met him outside the church, he explained that this was a vestment Mother Maria herself had made for Father Dimitri. (Nancy recalled that Mother Maria had on occasion written with disdain about nuns who embroider vestments for the clergy. So much for saintly consistency!)

I asked Fr Sergei if I might take a picture of the vestment. He was only too happy to oblige. You see the photo — the last one I took of Fr Sergei. Then we asked if we could touch the vestment, for it had now dawned on us that this was a relic both of Mother Maria and her martyred co-worker, Fr Dimitri Klépinin.

We asked how he came to have this vestment. He told us how, in 1967, a German film crew had come to Paris to do a film based on his biography of Mother Maria. He had been asked to serve as advisor. At the house on Rue de Lourmel, in a room that once served as the chapel vestry, Fr Sergei discovered some of the vestments Mother Maria had made. Because of moth damage, they were soon to be burned. Instead, at his request, they were entrusted to his care and were subsequently repaired.

It’s a pity Mother Maria never met Camus or read his novels. Had she lived longer, she would have appreciated – recognizing that at the heart of the story are two people whose response to disaster is an act of self-giving love in which no distinction is made between the worthy and the unworthy, for each and every life is worth saving.

In the lives of Mother Maria and Fr Dimitri, we see the same — unarmed warriors who battled the plague by saving lives, leaders of a community which never locked the door to anyone.

In Fr Sergei Hackel, we find yet another plague fighter. He was a man who broke all the molds: a religious bridge-builder, a broadcaster, a pastor, a missionary, a scholar, a friend, a father, a disturber of the complacent, an ally of the poor, a journalist with an eye for plague-battling saints. He was a polymath whose interests seemed to have no border. He was a man of laughter whose heroes of comedy included Jacques Tati, otherwise known as M. Hulot. He was a linguist equally at home in several languages. A lover of music, he was especially drawn to jazz — among those represented in his musical library were Bessie Smith, Jellyroll Morton, Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong. He possessed the ability to marry the instinctive, emotional, personal response to an icon, or a Kandinsky, with acute intellectual analysis.

In such a man, we catch a glimpse of Christ’s resurrection.

Serbian Orthodox Monastery Kovilje
Diocese of Žiča monastery, Serbia
32250 Ivanjica, Serbia
(Visit to the monastery is possible from 8 – 18 hours.)
tel: +381 32 760 020
email: manastirkovilje@gmail.com