What is Orthodox Christianity?
What is Orthodox Christianity?
Enough of my friends and acquaintances have asked me this question; and really, it’s not that hard to explain.
If we look at the world, and we look at ourselves, it shouldn’t be hard to admit that something is wrong. We ought to be able to do better. These are actually our best moments, when we admit to ourselves that we could do better. And sometimes we really do try to do better, and sometimes we even succeed to a greater or lesser degree; but most times, we find it’s really hard.
It is a problem of our will. Our will is not very well trained. It’s difficult to train our will to take control of all our disordered desires in order to bring about temperance and inner harmony and to live according to our ideals of a good life. Desire can be violent, and the will tends to be weak.
True Freedom, and the Problem of Will
So how do we train our will? This is what is called askesis, or asceticism, the control of disordered desires. Now as soon as we mention this, we have all sorts of weird ideas about ascetics and their extremes, but this just shows that it really is not easy to accomplish. Askesis is a Greek athletic term, and here we apply it in a spiritual sense, or, if you wish, in a psychological sense. We want to train the will, to strengthen the resolve of the inner man.
If we turn to successful ascetics, to the real masters of the art, they tell us two things about ourselves. One, something in our nature is broken. We are a fallen race. This doesn’t excuse our failings, which are due to our own personal responsibility for our own freedom of will. It doesn’t give us an excuse to blame God for our failings, like we want to do; but it does help explain our weakness, our unexplainable tendency to do the wrong thing. Two, we can exercise ourselves against this very deep tendencies of our fallen nature, but we need severe determination, and we need God’s help. We cannot succeed without God’s help. Successful ascetics insist on this.
We also need guidance from those who have succeeded.
The ones who have succeeded are the Fathers and Mothers of the Church. Now here again, we have an immediate negative reaction against the very idea of Church Fathers. We have been told they were mean, nasty, women-hating men who wanted to club their silly doctrines into our heads. But I’m trying to show all this in an entirely different light than has even occurred to most people, and it would never occur to us at all without our being shown that the truth is very different. We really know very little about these Fathers. We hardly even know their names, let alone who they really were. We could name Augustine and Jerome maybe; but Augustine is actually not that good of an example. A lot of Western misconceptions about Christianity have come from Augustine, I am sorry to say, because in many ways he was a far better man than I will ever be. Now Gregory the Great of Rome, he was a true Holy Father, but how much do we really know about his life? Mostly we just accept the slander and lies we are told without really looking into it for ourselves, why should we? But what you find, if you look into the original sources, is very different. They were courageous but they were also very meek and humble, kind and loving. I am not making this up! And there are the great Greek Fathers, Basil and John the Golden-Tongued and John of Damascus, and even the great St. Nicholas of Myra the Wonder-Worker whose actual life far outshines the legend of Santa Claus, and about whom we Westerners know almost nothing! And then there are the Desert Fathers, great heroes of spiritual life whose names few in our culture know, the real masters of the psychology of the soul, whose guidance all the other Fathers followed.
Our Fallen Nature
So these Fathers tell us that we are broken: that we are fallen. Fallen from what? We don’t even know. Our understanding can’t even penetrate what kind of creature man was when he was first created. God made man in His Own Image, purely out of love and in order to share the Life and the glory of His Divine Nature with us as though with friends. This is why we have this nagging sense that life should be something more than it is! So again, when we dismiss the story of Adam and Eve in Eden as a silly children’s story, we are looking at it all wrong. We have to admit we have no idea what is meant by this story; we have to look at it with new eyes, like we have never seen it before. This is what is contained in Orthodox tradition: first of all, Adam and Eve were not meant to die. Not only that: the thought of death never entered their minds, nor did God intend it.
So what happened?
And so we are told this silly story about the apple, and God getting mad because Eve went and did just what He had said not to do – and then they noticed they were naked all that time.
At this point, the real explanation gets Cosmic. I’m sorry, but it just does. The Creation of the Cosmos included visible and invisible worlds, and among them visible and invisible creatures. Along with visible man, created body and soul one person, there were also the invisible intelligent beings, what we call angels. Like man, they were given inviolate free will, so that God will never interfere in personal choice. All free intelligent souls are responsible for their own decisions and actions.
Orthodox tradition accepts the existence of the unseen reality, which has a major influence upon our nature (just as we also can have a major influence on the unseen reality by prayer – or by thinking evil thoughts).
The problem of evil did not originate with God. It originated in the mind of a created being, one of the highest, Lucifer the Light-Bringer. He decided he wanted to be equal to his Creator, or maybe, even, to be greater! This was the birth of pride, and it cut off his relationship with his loving Creator; it stunted his spiritual growth, it ruined his whole being, and it affected the entire Creation catastrophically.
Because after the rebellion of the third part of all the created invisible powers, this devil (and yes, the word “devil” has its origin in the word “deity”) crept into Paradise. He dared not show himself openly, or Eve would never have listened to his suggestions. In her pure state, she would have recognized in his face how distorted and ugly pride had made him. He crept into a creature and hid himself. He made it look so natural that Eve didn’t even notice that suddenly one of the animals was talking. Only to man, among visible creatures, did God give the great creative power of word and speech! After filling Eve’s mind with subtle lies, he infected her, too, with his pride. Lies: “God doesn’t want you to become like him,” (paraphrasing his lie, because God did in fact want his creatures to become God-like, in time, but the devil viewed this in his own envious way); “your eyes will be opened”, (actually they were spiritually closed to God’s glory and grace after that); “you will not surely die”, (oops! Maybe not right away, but before this happened they would not have ever even known what death is).
Pride ruined man’s entire intelligent and physical being, and the ruin was tremendous. We can’t even clearly see how deeply it is ingrained in our nature; just as it is hard to understand what a great blessing is in true humility that is linked to trust in an all-powerful and loving God. Pride was the beginning of all evils; envy, hatred, despair and all the rest came out of pride.
God’s first action was not to condemn, but to heal man from this terrible sickness. He was greatly concerned that fallen man would be as lost as the fallen angels who, because of their immortality and power, only increase in pride. So this is why God imposed the new conditions on our existence that we have been told is the “curse”. He removed man from Paradise, and from the Tree of Life, so that he would not live forever. Again, He does intend for us to regain immortality, but not in our present fallen condition. Death, adversity and disease became the lot of man – so that by this means, man might be humbled and remember to beg for God’s help.
The word “sin”, which also has been rubbed into our mouths like soap so that it leaves such a bad taste, is also a Greek athletic term. It refers to archery, and it refers simply to an arrow falling short of the target. This is now the meaning of man’s life: falling short of the mark. All our sins, our shortcomings of envy and doubt and pride and lust and hatred, are bound up with anxiety over death. This is the fallen condition. The most terrible of all is our sense of distance from God, our exile from our Creator, our very discomfort with His Presence. It was not so in Paradise, where Adam and Eve walked intimately with God, with no sense of fear or separation. This changed suddenly, dramatically, as soon as they listened to the serpent and became filled with his pride.
So what was to be done? God saw the situation as it really was. He saw how fallen man was, and how much worse he could become. He had none of the illusions for ourselves that we hold.
Why God Became Man
That is why He sent his own Son to put things right. Without getting into the mystery of the Trinity, let us just simply say it this way: He came Himself. He made Himself into one of his own creatures, born of a woman in the same way, except without a human Father. It is easy to ridicule this notion of conception by the Holy Spirit until one remembers that this was, after all, God: the One who created man and the world out of nothing in the first place.
So He came as a man himself, out of tremendous love, so that He could speak to us in a way we could understand. But He did not just come in order to give us a set of teachings in our own language. What He did was much more than that. If we look at the very first things He did, before he taught anything at all: He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and raised the dead.
He was reversing the effects of the Fall!
Then when He began to teach, he did more than teach. His words had power, as they did in the moments of Creation, to heal the deepest afflictions of the inner man. When he said to those He healed, “Go and sin no more,” He put divine power into their souls to actually accomplish that. The will of the healed one was unbound and let free, and he saw his or her will had the power of freedom again, the power to choose not to fall into the trap of pride and the other sins. And we know from Orthodox tradition that many of those he healed became great early saints and apostles, and we still remember their names and the stories of their lives.
This great divine power that the God-man Jesus Christ brought into the world is what theologians call Grace of the Holy Spirit or Uncreated Energy. Its effect is not just to heal and purify, but further to make sacred. Jesus Christ, being God and man, put God’s divine Uncreated Life back into the fallen world of flesh with His very footsteps. His great actions, turning water into wine and multiplying loaves of bread in the wilderness, established a new Sacramental Life with power to transform man into a new creature. This Sacramental Life, which includes sacraments that still have power to make man sacred, is what is guarded in the life and tradition of the True Church. We really have come to believe that the church is a human institution with its own rules of behavior and membership and stamped and sealed dogma, and I will not deny that there have been and are churches like that, but that is not the Church that Christ came into the world to build with His own Godbearing Life-Giving blood.
What then is this new sacred-creating life? It is the Life of Christ, not just His teachings, but His Life.
The Power of True Christian Life
Of course we have to try to follow His teachings, and this is where askesis helps. If we exercise our will in renouncing our petty desires, we find that a new and greater desire is born in our hearts. It was always there, but buried: desire for God. If we really exercise our will to follow Christ’s teachings, we find they are illuminating, in a manner that is difficult to describe. His teachings are not always easy to understand even, but this is where we rely on the wisdom of the Fathers, not our own interpretations. We are never disappointed in the guidance of the Fathers. They are the ones who took these commandments of life seriously, followed them, were changed by them, and can show us their meaning.
So yes, we do have to try to practice these teachings, but that is not all He wants for us. Christ wants to give us His life, His Divine Energies, for a complete renewal.
Because the last thing that He accomplished as a man was death. He endured the same death we do. Actually, we were the ones who murdered him; and He submitted to that. As a man, He died. As God, that was not possible. He put all His Divine Energies into resurrecting the dead man. And He rose from the dead, not to show off His Godhead, but to show us that He will raise us from the dead also.
We will all be raised from the dead. Death is not a permanent condition; it is temporary. We will be raised to a condition not equal to that of the first Paradise, but greater, in spite of all our short-comings – if, that is, we accept salvation.
The Meaning of Salvation
Now, what is salvation?
If we understand the picture of the fallen life that the Fathers give, it is pretty easy to see what we are saved from. But what is salvation itself? This is an important question. We should not assume that we comprehend an answer.
Because there was one more thing that Christ accomplished during His life as a man. He went up on Mount Tabor with a few disciples, and suddenly He out-shone the sun. The disciples couldn’t even look at Him.
What was this? For a brief moment, He unveiled His Godhead. They saw God. They actually saw God! Again, He did not do this just to show off.
He was showing His disciples what it is that He intends for mankind to become.
He wants to bring us into His Glory so that we literally out-shine the sun: not figuratively, not symbolically, but literally our flesh and soul both to become so like God’s that we live immersed in Him, in His Uncreated Light – not so as to vanish and disappear in His Light, but each unique created personality grow in a unique relationship with our Creator into something unique and indescribably beautiful.
That is Sanctification!
We know it is so because we have the witness of saints in all ages who became such creatures. So when an Orthodox Christian is asked, what is salvation, he will take the inquirer into the church and show him the icons. He will tell the stories of the lives of saints, each one a unique example of salvation, each one remarkable and splendid.
These are the Fathers of the Church.
The Apostle Paul lived in a glory so intense that he was physically blinded by it until he was baptized; and after that, he was one of the great prophetic speakers of all ages, speaking in spiritual songs and hymns things unutterable for the human tongue, deep theological poems disguised as epistles. St. Nicholas the Wonder-Worker of Myra performed miracles all his life, and he still does to this day. St. John the Wonder-Worker of San Francisco died only forty years ago, and the Orthodox Church continues to produce saints today.
And there are great women as well, Holy Mothers. The Samaritan woman at the well became a great apostle, St. Photini (her name means “the Light”), as did Mary Magdalene (about whom so many new and shocking lies are spread, based on no historical or traditional foundation at all, but simply modern speculations based on a radically anti-Christian world-view).
Anyone who attends an Orthodox church for the first time will notice, of course, a solemnity of ritual. This is a very ancient aspect of Church life. More and more, Orthodox services in America are being conducted in English, so that one will notice that almost all that is sung (and almost everything is sung or chanted) is taken from Scripture. The Hours of Prayer are built around the Psalms, as they have been since even before the time of Christ. Of course, the Psalms have a new meaning since Christ. The arrangement of the cycle of services built around that new meaning is unchanged since the first century. What has been added since then is simply veneration of those saints in whom the Gospel has been fulfilled.
It should be pointed out that only God is worshipped in the Orthodox Church. The saints and their icons are venerated, that is, very highly respected, as one would respect an honored and venerable elder, but veneration is not at all the same as worship.
Many of the ritual trappings of Orthodoxy – vestments, liturgical movements, singing style – are Byzantine. These were based on apostolic tradition, developed out of simpler forms in the early Church. Orthodoxy has retained the high honor that Byzantium bestowed on its forms, not out of a sense of Imperialism, but rather out of respect for the high degree of sanctity associated with Byzantine-era monasticism. When we speak of the Byzantine legacy, we speak of the culture of Mt. Athos, the monastic center of Greece. In other words, what is preserved is the ideal of the saints’ influence upon a particular culture. In all Orthodox nations, Russia, Romania, Serbia and so on, the Byzantine influence is at the heart of their culture, and in each one it is different. In ancient Celtic Christianity, too, Byzantine influence was pronounced in manuscript arts and in church painting and music. The Book of Kells is an Irish variant of Byzantine illustration of the same era.
Singing of Scripture, accompanied by ritual, if performed with deep faith, has a profound effect on the soul. It can bring one into such a deep experience of prayer that one is brought into the Presence of God. When the emissaries of St. Vladimir first stepped into the great church of Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, during the Divine Liturgy, they reported:
“We could not tell if we were in heaven or on earth. All we know is that there, God dwells with men.”
This is the purpose of Orthodox worship. Its essence is the inner meaning of Scripture, the way of Sanctification. Such worship is supported by all the arts. Music, architecture, liturgical poetry, and painting all have their highest historical achievements in Church tradition, not in secular tradition. (See Ancient Tradition and Divine Inspiration: An Introduction to the Practice of Church Chant, https://orthodoxillumination.wordpress.com/2011/01/08/ancient-tradition-and-divine-inspiration/)
The Church, Ancient and New
Orthodox Christianity is not very well understood in Western Europe and America. As a result – and this must be said – Christianity is not very well understood. In the first place, the history of the Church as preserved in Orthodoxy is so much deeper and richer. Westerners generally know very little about history at all before the second millennium, when Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism recognized that their differences had become irreconcilable. Orthodox tradition of the first ten centuries is complete and vivid, not nearly as fragmentary as Western scholars assume. Moreover, the sanctity of the first century is the same as that of the sixth, or the fourteenth, or the twenty-first. It is that very sanctity, that inner life of Grace and miracles, that produces a historical horizon across which secular scholars cannot see, either in the primitive church or in the life of Mt. Athos today.
The Christian life is a very difficult life to fully enter into. It is harder than anything. It requires askesis, the exercise of renouncing worldly desires and ideas, under guidance of elders, and it requires God’s active Grace. The Orthodox tradition provides all the tools necessary, it provides the Sacraments that multiply the power of Grace, and it provides an inspiration that is simply not available anywhere else. This is what makes it a living Tradition, where the feet of Christ still walk, where one trembles under His hand, where His Face can still be seen.
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Next installment: What is Gnostic Christianity?