Orthodox Thought for the Day


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A prison epistle from imprisoned Archbishop Jovan of Ohrid

This letter is the most recent we have to share, it is just over one year old. It reads as it was written. 


by the grace of God Archbishop of Ohrid and Metropolitan of Skopje to the Church he is appointed by God to oversee and to all the Churches of the oecumene assembled in the body of Christ through the link of the Holy Spirit, from Skopje Prison where he is imprisoned even for the sixth time during the past ten years,

Hereby forwards the following

When we acquire the love of Christ and the virtues, properly is to bear persecutions for Him as well, and to accept even an exile, even to hear the most impertinent defamation for ourselves, and yet to rejoice for all that, blessed Nicholas Cabasilas says. When divine love kindles in a man, and when virtues are lit in him, he is ready to bear not only sufferings, to suffer not only molesting and prison chains, but he is ready even to rejoice to them. Joy however, is not given according to merit, it is not a reward for deeds, but grace, wonderful and perfect gift of God’s grace caused only because the Father has chosen us to bring us into His joy (Matt. 25:21-23). Yet again, those who have entered into the joy of the Father, rejoice with the joy of Christ as well. So what does Christ rejoice in – He rejoices in those who are His and thus He rejoices in Himself intrinsically.

For you who are members of His Body and rejoice with His joy, you will easily recognize the joy which we are happy in. Put in chains for Christ again, we send you this second epistle written in prison to ask you to remember our chains and not be ashamed of us, because we are still chained by them.

When the divine Paul urged Timothy not to be ashamed of his prison (2Tim. 1:8), he did not do it to rebuke him because he was ashamed of Paul’s chains, but to encourage him to accept and endure his own chains, if need for it aroses. If somewhat may be allowed that Paul had a bit of doubt in the reluctance of some who were still not strong in their faith, and were fed on milk food (1Cor. 3:2), and at his first confession before the court no one backed him and all had left him (2Tim. 4:16), and therefore he told Timothy that the Spirit that God gave us is not a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, love and of a sound mind (2Tim. 1:7). We are not admitted to doubt you because you supported us at the first and at the second and so on, until the sixth confession of faith of ours before the civil courts in the Republic of Macedonia.

Thus, we do not write this letter with the intention to cheer your masculinity in the faith shown in your testimonies while we are in prison, but we send it to share with you the joy that our Lord rejoices in, joy that pours from the chains of Christ, and rejoices everyone who participates in bearing them one way or another. Those who prefer His chains before to any kind of physical liberty, they will understand our joy with which our heart rejoices when we remember you and your care for us. None other than the one that is wounded by the foolish love of God, does not know how to discover and recognize the joy that poured from suffering, sorrow, difficulty, imprisonment, persecution. However, he who has opened the heart to receive the grace of God and let to be wounded with that inconceivable love, not only allows to be wounded by it often, but appreciates the wounds caused by such love above everything.

Those who know that the temptations suffered for Christ increase the gift of joy, envy us for the shackles we are chained with in Skopje Prison, certainly not with a pathological envy, but with a jealous one. And such envy is not the same as the malevolent envy of those who are in every way trying to hinder us to achieve the goal aimed at the unity of the Church. Hence, the first ones envy undesigningly with envy that is recognized as a zeal for God, while the other ones envy us with malice and a genuine desire to harm, disdaining even the chains for Christ, just because they have became ours at the moment.

And what with it? One thing is of importance, the apostle says: “What then? Notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice” (Phil. 1:18). He who understands will understand what follows: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).

Someone can receive the death as a benefit only if the hardly bearable humiliations, mockeries, defamations, persecutions and imprisonments for the sake of Christ are received with joy (1Cor. 4:9-13). And only if he does not respond revengefully, angrily, with hatred and jauntiness to the injustice he bears in his virtues. For every kind of virtue darkens in contact with hatred. That is why the Apostle assures the Corinthians that mockeries should be responded with kind words, persecution with patience, slanders with friendly words.

The weapon of spiritual warfare is the weakness of the cross, the weapon which many people in this world do not believe cannot bring victory. In fact when it seems that we have lost all the power, then we are the strongest (2Cor. 12:10). Therefore we, who have chosen that way of struggle, are considered to be foolish, just as it was in the days of the apostles (1Cor 1:23-24). Who has suffered longer than the blessed Paul? Imprisoned many times, scourged with unimaginable cruelty, many times in danger of being killed. Gone through various kinds of perils in the city, in the wilderness, in the sea (2Cor. 11:23-29). ). But did that not contribute deeply inside him for engravement of the knowledge that temptation leads to patience and patience to tried character and tried character to hope. Hope, however, none of us will make ashamed (Rom. 5:3-5).

Can still a villainous say that Apostle Paul was so far from God and that the wrath of God had turned against him, so the aforesaid had happened to him? On the contrary, he had stood it with joy because God was with him. “My grace is sufficent for thee”, he said, “for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2Cor. 12:9). Blessed is the man who endured the temptations with hope. Because, if he endured them without confusing of the faith in what was promised, he will gain the reward of eternal life that God has promised to those who love Him (Jam. 1:12).

No ordeal is over the extent of the one who has been tempted. God who is connoisseur of our hearts and knows the depths of the human soul, knows everyone’s spiritual strength and abilities separately, so does not allow the temptations we endure to exceed the threshold of our endurance. He who believes, with every temptation that he receives simultaneously receives the exit from it as well (1Cor 10:13). But the exit is not always obvious from the very beginning. It is hidden in the tapestry of hope and patience and revealed when we prove to be patient in our hope (Jam. 1:4).

Sure, it is not God that sets us before temptations. Our wrongly directed will leads us to temptations (Jam. 1:13-14), but we can be set before trials and without the participation of our will by those who envy us, hate us, or set taking away what we own as their goal. Sometimes it means that neither the will of God nor a fault of ours is the reason we endure temptation, but in this case the crown that is prepared for us is greater than the one we would have gotten if we endured the temptation we have fallen in through wrong direction of our autonomy. It can be called suffering when others pull us into temptation. However the award for suffering that we have endured with gratitude and without defiance and that we have not darkened ourselves hating those who pushed us into unwanted suffering is greater than the one given for life adorned with virtues.

The blessed Job is an Example for this. When did he prove himself more worthwhile for the crown, when he shone with virtues: hospitality, pity, mercy, philanthropy, justice, diligence, gentleness, wisdom, restraint, and many more, or when he proved to be patient when suffering he had done nothing to deserve, and yet attacked because of the envy of the devil? Certainly the virtues of Job are undisputed and quite sufficient for the crown, but the endurance of the unjustly caused sufferings made him seven times more worthy. The endurance of suffering are the harder part of the fight in which great patience is needed to win, and great love for God is necessary as well.

When we suffer unfairly for the love of Christ, we actually become partakers of His unjust suffering, but at the same time, He becomes a participant in our pain. It is this oneness with Christ that gives us the greatest comfort in suffering. Our life is hidden in Christ and we have already died in Christ (Colos. 3:3), as he died for us once. But when the authorities in our country realized that the one who died in Christ was born again as a captive of His love, that suffering in prison cannot cause him no pain or wound, decided to reach for the most loved ones, for the precious Bishops and honourable presbyters, for the monks and the nuns, not omitting the flock nor the frail elders among them. They pressed charges against them, to make them accomplices in the misdeeds that they have assigned firstly to us, falsely and without any remorse. Thus they made themselves equal to the persecutors of the Church of the old times and become the persecutors of Christ Himself, for he who persecutes the members of His body, which is the Church, persecutes Him who dwells in each of us individually and in all of us together.

And if the chains of the prison had not broken us or kinked us with their weight, the pain caused by the sufferings of our brethren: the bishops, the clergy, the monastics and the faithful, slashed us as a sharp sickle and twitched us in bitterness as by drinking a cup of wormwood. Much more painful is the pain caused by the suffering of those we love, than the pain of our own suffering. Anyway, for one who has already died in Christ, it is the love for the loved ones that does not allow him to die himself really and completely. He who loves is put at the disposal of the one whom he loves and waits for the moment when need to die for his loved one arises. So teaches us the Saviour, who told us that there is no greater love than to give our life to the one whom we love (John 15:13).

And yet He told us more: “And fear not them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28). Our persecutors cannot harm our souls, although they already succeeded to harm the bodies of some of us. In spite of the help of the Government and its power, they failed to shake our faith in Him whom we wait to come and dress us in a new body, worthy for the preciousness of our souls with which our Lord embellished us. And when God is with us, who can be against us? God had not pity even over His only-begotten Son, the blessed Paul says, but He delivered Him over to death for our sake. So if He delivered to suffering His most beloved one for us, it means He will not stay carefree and idle when someone will try to reach out, not only for our body but four our soul as well.

We May be accused and slandered with false accusations and inappropriate defamations, tried and condemned, be imprisoned and persecuted, our physical sufferings may be multiplied with the power of coercion to which every irresponsible earthly authority may resort, up to the limit of unbearableness, but can they thus separate us from the love of Christ? Can sufferings, narrowness, persecution, famine, nakedness, dangers or martyrdom separate us from Christ? - Apostle asks the Romans. And he answers as everyone of us would answer who is wounded and enslaved by the foolish love of God: “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

So do not worry too much, nor for our shackles, nor for our persecutions that seem never to see their end. Here we have no permanent city of residence and we long for the one to come (Heb. 13:14). Try not to be alarmed either because of false accusations used against some of you aiming to make you accomplices in the defamations directed at us, or to abase our devotion to God and the Church. God teaches us not to make thoughts about what we say when we are brought to justice. He will enlighten us in that hour what to say, because we are not the ones who will face the court, but the Spirit of the Father will speak through us (Matt. 10:19-20). We who are in the Church and whom God had gifted with all the charisma of the Holy Spirit, because even the smallest participation in charisma makes us participants in all its graceful gifts, and it is inherent for us to speak the truth because it is life itself for us. However, take it as previous knowledge of ours by virtue of our not so little experience with the courts in our country and their unjust and unlawful judgments against us. When the decisions of the courts are more influenced by the political situation, as it happens with all court cases related to the Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric in the last 10 years, then justice is deprived and truth substantially harmed. Although it is established precisely to judge with justice and truth, courts judge us as if they intend to do just the opposite.

So, it seems that there will be no exit from this situation, but let us not despair. We are vessels made of clay; weak, brittle, crumbling, and according to some, probably worthless, but we have unsurpassed value before God (2Cor. 4:7). Let us lay all concerns before Him because He cares for us (1Pet. 5.7). The more we participate in the sufferings of Christ, the more we receive His support. Even when going through grief for unjust suffering that sometimes get by us in life; it is for our support and salvation. And when God supports someone who suffers, He supports those through the bond of love participating in the sufferings of the one who suffers.

So as the Corinthians who through the bond of love participated in the sufferings of the apostle Paul, and he therefore rightly expected to be helped by God (2Cor. 1:3-11), we expect and pray God to ignite your faith in His promise, to strengthen your faith and support you in the fight against temptations that pushed you to the malice of the schismatics, and finally deliver you from what would outpass your strength to persevere and win.

But those who have tasted the pain caused by the suffering which pushed them to the malice of their enemies, do not need further interpretation. “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man” (Ps. 118:8), and it is better to seek refuge in the Lord than to have hope only in man or in the rulers of this world (Ps. 118:8-9). Cruelty and insensibility of people can sometimes be greater than that of the devil, so David, inspired by God, accepted as better to fall into the hands of God, and to be punished by Him, than to fall into the hands of man and be a prey of human revenge (2Sam. 24:14).

Promises given by a man are inconsistent, variable and often depend on personal gain. God given promises are met with confidence, certainty and in due time, when the Lord decides it is the safest. What God promises, He seals and signs by the blood shed on the cross. Therefore, when we feel like to sigh bent double under the burden of suffering, lacking somebody else to rely on except God, let us sigh without disappointment: “Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee” (Ps. 73:25).

God, however, will certainly hear and comfort us, especially if we manage to show the most perfect example of what has been commanded to us: to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). To pray for the wellbeing of your pursuers, to ask for God’s blessing on them and not to curse them (Rom. 12:14). Oh, what grandeur, oh what excellence! To respect the authorities seem somehow natural after what the apostle Paul says (Rom. 13:1-7), and even to pray for them (1Tim. 2:2), but to pray for enemies, including among them even those rulers who are hostile to the Church, is indeed paradoxical. But isn’t the Church full of many other paradoxes? Isn’t it incomprehensible paradox the very incarnation of the hypostasis of the Son of God? Is not it a the immaculate conception of Christ and His supernatural birth by a Virgin a paradox? Isn’t becoming a member of the body of Christ eating bread and drinking wine, and thus participant in the life of God a paradox?

So, love your enemies, even when it is indeed paradoxical to ask for the mercy of God for them, but it is this paradox that makes us to resemble to God the most. The judgment and the vengeance belong to God. He said vengeance and remuneration belong to Him. God would justify the one who is wronged (Deut. 32:35-36) and it is a fearful to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31). He punishes the unjust always, and even when He punishes them, doesn’t He always do it with a visible punishment. For if we punish all the culprits in a row and when it is done by a visible punishment, then what will be left for the final judgment?

In this world, beloved brethren, both the good and the evil suffer. But though suffering is equal for those who deserve it and for those who have no guilt, still the difference between them does not cease, says blessed Augustine. There is a difference between those who suffer even when there is a resemblance of suffering, and even if the pain is the same, neither the condemnation, nor the assistance from God are the same. For as gold shines in the same fire where the reed burn, or under the same baking lid spikes break, and corn is done, so the same force hitting the good ones tries, cleanses and fixes them, while it punishes, breaks and destroys the evil ones. Hence, for the same trouble evil ones curse and blaspheme God, while the good ones pray and celebrate Him. So the matter is not how great the sufferings are and what are they, but how one endures them.

Lastly, aren’t the most blessed ones precisely those who are mocked, persecuted and detracted with false pretences for Christ (Matt. 5:11)? The top of the beatitudes is neither the meekness, nor the purity of heart, nor spiritual peace or peacemaking, not even the righteousness. The top is the gift to persist unfair ridicule, persecution and detracting for the life in Christ. And when a person reaches that peak, then joy alone follows, it does not come according to merit or as a reward for great feats, but as mentioned earlier, comes as grace, as beautiful and perfect gift of God’s grace.

This epistle, my precious and beloved in the Lord brothers and sisters, I send from the detention section of Skopje Prison where we are detained for almost 10 months now. Conditions in which we are accommodated are brutal, during the summer months we were without water almost all day long, with little food and almost no medical care, confined for 23 hours and 1 hour in the day we can go out in the fresh air. Any shipment that we receive is searched in detail, and we wait for months for the court to allow that anything written in a foreign language to be presented to us. However, man is an icon of God and has gifts to be adaptable to external conditions, so sooner or later, each of the detainees accepts the above described harsh reality and live in it and with it. Most of the detainees have not been convicted yet; they either wait for the day of hearing, or wait for the verdict. Precisely this uncertainty is something that is the most difficult thing while in detention. One gets used to the small space of only a few square meters shared with roommates in the cell, becomes able to adapt to life in moisture between the mouldy walls, even the lack of food and health care cannot affect him as can the waiting for the hearing and the passing of the judgment of the court shake him and discourage him.

Condition of the detainees could perhaps be compared to the one of the evil ones after death while awaiting the interim judgment. They will serve the final sentence even later, even after the final judgment, but the very awaiting for the sentence is already a punishment. If evil ones say that even before getting the deserved hell, they wait for it in a state of hell, so it can be said that detainees are in chains, often heavier than the ones they will receive after the trial and verdict.

So, after all that I have written we ask you in a manner as Paul asked the enlightened ones: “remember those who are in bonds as though you were bound with them, and those who suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body” (Heb. 13:3).

Remember us, but do not worry too much about us. Unjust suffering freed many from sins they have committed consciously or unconsciously. So that this suffering of ours, if it is for sin that we have committed against someone, then it is fair, but if we do not suffer for our sins, then this pain of ours bring us closer to Christ and to you just more empathetically. Unjust suffering, my beloved in the Lord, is the shortest way to the depths of the knowing of God. Of course if that suffering is accepted willingly, without defiance, disagreement, and even more so, with joy. Through suffering, especially when it is unjust, we discover and confirm how much we are actually close to God, or to put it better, how much he has approached us.

God becomes close to us and we are close to Him, when we participate in His sacrifice for the life of the world with our suffering. Our sacrifice alone is not sufficient to reconcile us with God; the sacrifice for Christ is necessary, but the sacrifice we endure can sometimes reconcile us with each other. If this little sacrifice that we offer to God voluntarily contribute to fully reconciling with the schismatics and to bridge the existing schism, then all that we endured during the last 10 years, among other things several imprisonments, evictions and more, is just our small stake for what is most precious to the Church, and that is its unity.

We supplicate only God the Father, to strengthen you and fortify your unity with His beloved Son, assembled in one body through the action of the Holy Spirit, to celebrate together God in Trinity, waiting for the coming of Christ, because Christ died and we sheltered our life together with Him in God. And when He – who is our real life, appears, then we will appear with Him glorified by His presence (Colos. 3:3-4). 

September 21 / 8, 2012
Nativity of the Theotokos
Detention section,
Skopje Prison

Yours in the Lord
Archbishop of Ohrid and
Metropolitan of Skopje

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