The First Duty of Love is to Listen
April 3, 2016
In memory of Archimandrite Athanasy
A very special priest died a few months ago. He was a priest who served as my spiritual father for many years. Archimandrite Athanasy, or simply Father “Ath” as many of his spiritual children called him, was a kind and gentle soul, who understood firsthand how difficult life can be, which made him a very compassionate person. Perhaps because he himself had a difficult life, full of illness and uncertainty, Father Athanasy understood the deep necessity for love, kindness, hope, joy and forgiveness in all people. He was a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and served in a few parishes in the US, Haiti as well as in the Russian convents in Jerusalem. He served in the most exalted of places, Jerusalem, and part of the forgotten world which is Haiti.
Perhaps because of his lifelong struggles, and a particular devotion to St. Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary, the Lord granted Father Athanasy a special gift, a charisma, to be the caretaker of an icon of St. Anna that streamed myrrh. He had the icon commissioned in the Holy Land by an Orthodox nun. Years later the icon began weeping. Such events remind us that not all in God’s created world can be explained by humans. Father often commented that St. Anna is not only the earthly grandmother of Christ, but also serves as the grandmother of us all. “Where she goes, she brings peace and love,” commenting on his extended travels with sacred icon. It was this message of peace and love that also characterized Father’s words and actions in life.
In the first years of my priesthood I often needed someone to listen to me and to advise me. Father Athanasy’s parish was not far from where I was serving in New Jersey, and so I found myself at his home often. Sometimes we would pray together, and other times we just shared a meal and talked. He did more listening than talking, and in a gentle way, eased my frustrations and guided my actions. When I told him, years later, after over twenty years of active ministry, that I was leaving the active priesthood, because I no longer could be alone in life and wanted to marry, he listened very carefully. He did not let me off the hook easily, but he had heard about this struggle from me before. Father met my future husband, and gave us his blessing.
The German Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich wrote “the first duty of love is to listen”. This idea is based off the Scriptural verse from the book of James (1:19): “Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Not having anything much materially to offer, Father Athansy offered to those he encountered, his gift of listening. He was not always listening just to respond, but he was listening to understand. There is a significant difference between hearing and listening. A listener needs to understand before being able to respond. Listening to understand is something that we all do precious little of, as we are frequently guilty of half hearing and quickly speaking. Thinking that we can multi-task, we rob many, especially those we profess to love the most, of the gift of listening to understand, listening to love. For indeed, the first duty of love is to listen.
Unfortunately the virtue of listening to understand is something that too few desire, let alone practice. Many in the Orthodox Church are guilty of not listening, especially not listening to its LGBT faithful. This is especially true of the hierarchs and priests of the Church. Many are so closed in isolation of their own creation that they have long forgotten about the world outside of their parishes and diocesan offices. In fact instead of listening, many are quick to lash out, ridicule, belittle and condemn. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than for gay people who are Orthodox Christians.
As the world wide Orthodox Church prepares for the Great and Holy Council to be held on the island of Crete, during Pentecost of this year, the bishops have claimed that have reached out to all people. In part of a document preparing for the Council, the affirmation is made that “every person, regardless of color, religion, race, gender, ethnicity, and language, is created in the image and likeness of God, and enjoys equal rights in society.” No mention of people regardless of their sexual orientation. Thus, the logical conclusion is that a Hindu priest, for example, or a female Episcopalian priest, is created in the image and likeness of God, as understood by the Orthodox hierarchs, but not a baptized Orthodox man, who is gay and in a loving relationship with another man. They have not listened to understand, they have not listened to reply, they have not even listened to condemn. “They condemn what they do not understand.”
Father Athanasy knew, and many other pious and good pastors of the Church know, that in order to serve the sheep of Christ, they need to listen, listen to our hurt, see our wounds, and touch our hearts not so much with words, but with an open ear and a sincere heart. The crisis is that there are not enough of these good priests, and these few are frequently silenced by those who desire to keep the status quo. These priests know that ultimately it is not their vestments and gold crosses that will save anyone, but a gentle and quiet spirit. (1 Peter 3:3-4) We listen better when we are quiet.
Memory Eternal to the servant of God, the priest Athanasy! Вѣчьна памѧть!
 A transcript of an interview with Father Athanasy about the icon can be read by following this link. The interview was conducted by Frederica Mathewes-Green. http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/82269.htm
 “Organization and Working Procedure of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church.”
 Attributed to the Roman scholar of the second century, Quintilian