Orthodox Church Spirituality

Orthodox Spirituality

Prayer is the search for God, encounter with God, and going beyond this encounter in communion. Thus it is an activity, a state and also a situation; a situation both with respect to God and to the created world. It arises from the awareness that the world in which we live is not simply two dimensional, imprisoned in the categories of time and space, a flat world in which we meet only the surface of things, an opaque surface covering emptiness. Prayer is born of the discovery that the world has depths; that we are not only surrounded by visible things but that we are also immersed in and penetrated by invisible things.

And this invisible world is both the presence of God, the supreme, sublime reality, and our own deepest truth. Visible and invisible are not in opposition neither can they be juxtaposed like in an addition sum. They are present simultaneously, as fire is present in red hot iron. They complete each other in a mysterious way which the English writer Charles Williams describes as ‘co-inherence’: the presence of eternity in time and the future in the present, and also the presence of each temporal moment in eternity, past present and future all-at-once eschatologically, the one in the other as the tree is in the seed.

Living only in the visible world is living on the surface; it ignores or sets aside not only the existence of God but the depths of created being. It is condemning ourselves to perceiving only the world’s surface. But if we look deeper we discover at the heart of things a point of balance which is their finality. There is no inwardness to geometric volume. Its finiteness is complete. The world of such forms is capable of being extended but cannot be deepened. But the heart of man is deep. When we have reached the fountainhead of life in him we discover that this itself springs from beyond. The heart of man is open to the invisible. Not the invisible of depth psychology but the invisible infinite, God’s creative word, God himself. Returning to ourselves is thus not a synonym for introversion but for emerging beyond the limits of our limited selves.

Saint John Chrysostom said ‘When you discover the door of your heart you discover the gate of heaven.’ This discovery of our own depths goes together with the recognition of the depths in others. Each has his own immensity. I use the word ‘immensity’ on purpose. It means that the depth cannot be measured, not because it is too great for our measurements to reach it, but because its quality is not subject to measurement at all. The immensity of our vocation is to share the divine nature, and in discovering our own depths we discover God, whom we could call our invisible neighbour, the Spirit, Christ, the Father. We also discover God’s immensity and eternity in the world about us. And this is the beginning of prayer, the recognition of a three-dimensional world of time, space and a stable but ever changing depth.

Prayer is the relationship between man the visible and the invisible x. This is why I said that prayer is a search, an exploration of this invisible world of our own depths which God alone knows and he alone can reveal to us. And it is by prayer, gropingly at first, in the dawn of a new vision, that we seek and find God and ourselves in a co-relative way. Then later, when a clearer light has shown us what we can see of the invisible and the visible transfigured in the light of its own immensity and the eternity in God, prayer becomes a state. It also constantly remains a situation, as I said at the beginning.

While we are seeking, part blind with partly restored sight, our first steps in prayer take the form of astonishment, reverent fear and a sense of sadness. We are astonished at the discovery of ourselves which is also the beginnings of knowledge of God; we are astonished to see the world open out towards God’s infinity. We are afraid, glad and terrified when we come into the presence of God’s holiness and beauty. We are also sad, both for ourselves and the world. It is sad to be blind, it is sad to be unable to live the fulness of our vocation, to be trapped again and again in our own limitations. It is sad to see our world without God, vacillating between life and death and unable to choose life once and for all or to escape once and for all from death. Wonder and sadness are thus the two sources of our prayer. Both arise from our encounter with the world’s depths, which have begun to be revealed to us in their totality. Without this encounter, our world and the forces at work in it are incomprehensible and often monstrous; we are bewildered and afraid.

Thus encounter is central to prayer. It is the basic category of revelation, because revelation itself is an encounter with God who gives us a new vision of the world. Everything is encounter, in scripture as in life. It is both personal and universal, unique and exemplary. It always has two poles: encounter with God and in him with creation, an encounter with man in his depths rooted in God’s creative will, straining towards fulfilment when God will be all in all. This encounter is personal because each of us must experience it for himself, we cannot have it second-hand. It is our own, but it also has a universal significance because it goes beyond our superficial and limited ego. This encounter is unique because for God as for one another when we truly see, each of us is irreplaceable and unique. Each creature knows God in his own way. Each one of us knows God in our own way which no one else will ever know unless we tell them. And at the same time because human nature is universal, each encounter is exemplary. It is a revelation to all of what is known personally by each.

We should try and analyse this encounter carefully, because if we do not know the laws it follows we may let it slip away. It is always a mutual encounter. It is always a discovery not only of the other but of ourselves. It is always a relationship. Perhaps the best image for it is a stained glass window. The light shining through it shows up its design, its colours, its beauty and its meaning. But at the same time the window itself by its design, colours, beauty and meaning reveals for us the invisible light beyond it. Thus the window and the light are discovered in relationship to one another. Discovering God in his serene eternity and in the man of sorrows who was the incarnate word, is also a discovery of the greatness of man. When we discover the depths in man, we go beyond the front he presents to us and discover his destiny which is not individual but personal. This destiny makes him more than an example of humankind; it makes him the member of a mysterious body, the whole of mankind, which is where God’s presence is.

From: Courage To Pray by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom and Georges LeFebvre OSB, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY 2002

The Orthodox Church has always attracted the attention of all those who are active in matters liturgical. They have a natural sympathy for the East, and this for several reasons. Dom Olivier Rousseau, the Roman Catholic historian of the Liturgical Movement, wrote recently that the Eastern Church is the liturgical Church par excellence. He even goes so far as to say that the Orthodox Church needs no liturgical revival because it has preserved intact the great liturgical prayer of the early Church. This, I think, is an overstatement. We all need a liturgical revival, and the “liturgical” Churches may be in need of it even more than the non-liturgical ones.

But it is true that the great names of St Basil and St John Chrysostom are not to be discovered in our tradition. They are there. Our liturgy is still deeply “patristic,” and from this point of view the western Liturgical Movement has been in many respects a rediscovery of some ideas and principles which in the eastern tradition are “natural.” Take, for example, Dom Odo Casel and some other leaders of the Liturgical Movement in Europe. They all attempt to rediscover the patristic idea of the liturgy and therefore are so deeply interested in the unbroken liturgical tradition of the Eastern Church.

There exist, of course, less valid reasons for this interest in the eastern liturgy. Some people love it for its liturgical “exoticism” and “Orientalism,” for its being different from the western patterns. This is, of course, a superficial approach. The real Liturgical Movement did not grow out of a “rubricistic” curiosity or an interest in liturgical colors. It began with a strange shock experienced by some Christians when, after centuries and centuries, they realized of a sudden that Christ really said, “Take, eat, this is my Body” — and it is not taken, not eaten. Or, as a Roman Catholic priest wrote, “I was a priest for forty years before I knew what Easter meant in the life of the Church.” And this is why we all need a liturgical revival.

It so happened that in the West the liturgical revival was first of all a return to the corporate idea of worship. The underlying ecclesiological principle was that of the Church as the Body of Christ; and the whole movement took mainly that direction. And probably it is one of the most needed, most essential aspects and merits of the Liturgical Movement. But from the Orthodox point of view (and this is what justifies my appearance here), there are also other dimensions of the liturgy that must be rediscovered, brought back into our corporate experience of worship. To focus your attention on them is my purpose in this short paper.

At the beginning of my liturgical studies, I of necessity read the various theological and liturgical explanations of the Eucharist. I found that virtually all of them were symbolic explanations. Author after author, theologian after theologian, was making the same affirmation: that the Divine Liturgy is a symbolic representation of the earthly life of Christ. The Entrance with the Gospel, which we have at the beginning of the rite, “represents” Christ going to preach, and the altar boy who precedes him with the candle is the “symbol” of John the Baptist — and so on, through the whole service. If you take a Byzantine classic, Nicholas Cabasilas’ Explanation of the Divine Liturgy, you will see that every detail of the service has a symbolic explanation, and sometimes not one but as many as four or five. Thus the exclamation: “The doors, the doors!” can mean at the same time that the doors of our hearts must be closed to earthly temptations and open to the spiritual reality, or then that the doors of the Church are open to those who believe and closed to the heretics. But the partisans of “symbolism” are never embarrassed by contradictions.

And yet, all theologians agree that within this “symbolic” liturgy, at one precise moment, the “symbolism” disappears and is replaced by “realism.” When dealing with the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, the term “symbolic” is out of order and sounds heretical. We have thus a long “symbolic” representation, one point of which and one point only ceases to be symbolic and becomes “real presence.” And because of this, the theologians, leaving the symbolic framework to liturgiologists, concentrate all their attention upon this precise moment, trying to define and to express its precision. When does it happen, how does it happen, and what exactly is it that happens?

The long controversies about the Eucharist were always attempts to reach precise answers to these and similar questions. I am not quite certain that the type of precision achieved in these elaborations is adequate to its object. But it is clear that we have, as a result of it, two different ways of looking at the Eucharist, ways which are by no means connected with each other. The liturgical approach (in the old acceptance of the term “liturgical”) is concerned with symbolism in all its possible variations. The theological approach isolates the quid of the liturgy from its liturgical framework (thought of as precisely a framework, useful and beautiful but not essentially necessary), and deals exclusively with the question of the validity, i.e., the minimum of conditions required for the Eucharist. In my opinion, the time has come for liturgical theology, or, in other terms, for a theology that would respect the liturgy as we receive it from tradition, and a liturgiology whose aim would once more be the formulation and explication of the lex orandi as the lex credendi of the Church.

In this approach, the question, which for a long time has been not only central but almost the only question in all Eucharistic theology — namely, what happens to the elements (and the how and the when) — must not precede, but must follow another basic question. What happens to the Church in the Eucharist? For it is only when this question is asked that certain of the affirmations made by the Eastern Church can be understood: the affirmation — for example, that the very ideas of a moment of consecration and also of the essential and the non-essential acts in the liturgy, etc., are not adequate — should not be applied in Eucharistic theology; nor should the affirmation that it is the Epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, that constitutes the real “form” of the Eucharistic sacrament. At the time they were made, they expressed the opposition of the Orthodox Church to some western theories rather than a consistent sacramental doctrine. But, as we move toward a liturgical theology, they acquire their full meaning and become the starting points of a fuller theological understanding of the Eucharist.

From: Liturgy and Tradition by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY 2003


“Among human affairs,” St John Cassian writes, “nothing merits being held as good in the true sense of the word except virtue, which leads us to God and makes us adhere to this immutable Good. On the other hand, there is no evil other than sin, which, by separating us from God who is good, unites us to the devil who is evil.”

It is true that physical health corresponds to the normal state of human nature – that is, its prelapsarian state – and for that reason health can be considered as good in itself. Nevertheless, from another point of view health is worthless to the human person—it does not constitute a true good but is only good in appearance —if it is not used well, that is, if it is not used with an aim toward the Good: to fulfill the commandments of Christ and to glorify God. This is why St Basil declares: “Insofar as it does not render good those who possess it, health cannot be counted among those things that are good by nature.” In fact it is evil if it contributes to making a person indifferent to his salvation, keeps him away from God by giving him the false impression that he is self-sufficient, and bestows on him that strength of the flesh which actually weakens, rather than giving him that weakness in which God reveals himself, which constitutes true strength (2 Cor 12:9-10). Health is an even greater evil if it is used to give free rein to the passions, thereby becoming an instrument of iniquity (Rom 6:13). “Know, then,” St Gregory of Nazianzus counsels us, “how to despise an insidious health that leads to sin.”

As for illness, it is in itself something evil to the extent that it arises as a consequence of the sin of Adam and as an effect of demonic activity within the fallen world. As such, it is a negation of the order God intended when he created the world and mankind. Nonetheless, it is evil only on the level of physical nature and the body. If one does not give oneself over to it entirely, illness cannot injure one’s soul, nor can it affect one’s essential being, one’s spiritual nature. According to Christ’s own teaching, a person should fear whatever can make perish in Gehenna both body and soul, but he need have no fear of what can affect his body alone, without bringing death to his soul (Mt 10:28). By itself illness does not have the power to separate man from God; therefore from a spiritual point of view it cannot be considered to be a source of evil in his life.

St John Chrysostom notes: “If the soul is in good health, bodily illness can in no way harm a man.” Illness, then, is only evil in appearance. It can even constitute a blessing for man in the sense that, if one uses it appropriately, one can draw from it considerable spiritual benefit, thereby making of what was originally a sign of mortality into an instrument of salvation. St John Chrysostom adds: “There is evil which, properly speaking, is not evil, even though it bears that name: such as illness, and other things of that sort. If they were truly evil, they would not be able to become for us the source of a multitude of blessings.” In the same vein St John Cassian states: “How can we see [in illness] something that is essentially evil, since it serves as a blessing to so many by granting them the means to attain to abundant and eternal joy?” Finally, St Gregory of Nazianzus offers the following counsel: “Do not admire every form of health, and do not condemn every illness.”

Consequently, in certain cases and from the point of view of that which is spiritually good for man, illness can be paradoxically considered as a higher good than health and therefore as preferable to health. St Gregory of Nazianzus observes that the aim of medical treatment “consists in reconfirming health or the good condition of the flesh if such exists, or in recovering it if it has been lost. But it is not clear that these advantages are really useful. Often, in fact, the opposite conditions are more advantageous to those who are affected by them.” Accordingly, we encounter any number of holy people, faced with their own illnesses or the illnesses of those in their care, who ask God not in the first place for a return to health, but for what is spiritually the most useful. And rather than lament because of these illnesses, they rejoice in the benefits that can be drawn from them.


Such an attitude, however, presupposes that we attribute to illness a meaning and a finality that transcend physical nature. To consider illness strictly as a phenomenon unto itself is almost inevitably to see it in a negative, sterile light; and this only increases the physical suffering and moral pain which result from a sense of its absurdity. The consequence of such an attitude is generally to leave the way open to the activity of demons and to develop in the soul troubling passions, such as fear, anxiety, anger, weariness, revolt and despair. These states not only do not relieve the body, they most often increase the symptoms of the evil that affects it, thereby creating sickness even in the soul. The illness then serves no good at all, but it becomes for the ill person a source of spiritual deterioration which puts his soul in jeopardy perhaps more than it does his body.

It is because of this very danger that the Fathers stress the point that “it is not in vain, nor without reason, that we are subject to illnesses.” This is why they encourage us to be vigilant when illness strikes, and not to trouble ourselves first of all with their natural causes and means to cure them. Rather, our first concern should be to discern their meaning within the framework of our relationship to God, and to throw light on the positive function they can have in furthering our salvation. In this respect St Maximus counsels: “When you are exposed to unexpected testing search out its purpose and you will find the means to profit from it.” The ideal, then, is to avoid from the beginning allowing ourselves to be dominated by suffering when it exists, but to go beyond the limits in which the suffering tends to enclose the soul and even our entire being, our entire existence.

In this double perspective St Gregory of Nazianzus offers the following counsel to an ill acquaintance: “I don’t wish and I don’t consider it good that you, well instructed in divine things as you are, should suffer the same feelings as more worldly people, that you should allow your body to give in, that you should agonize over your suffering as if it were incurable and irredeemable. Rather, I should want you to be philosophical about your suffering and show yourself superior to the cause of your affliction, beholding in the illness a superior way towards what is ultimately good for you.”

To be philosophical about one’s illness and suffering means above all for a person to consider what they reveal to him about his condition. As a consequence of Adamic sin and an effect of sin perpetuated in the fallen world, together with demonic activity, illness manifests.


Among all the attitudes recommended by the Fathers in times of illness, patience and thanksgiving come first. “St John of Gaza goes so far as to affirm that “God demands of the sick person nothing other than thanksgiving and endurance.” By these two dispositions of the soul, the patient can realize one of the highest forms of ascetic practice and a truly spiritual pathway. “Such is the greatest form of asceticism,” Amma Syncletica teaches, “that we master ourselves in times of illness, addressing to God hymns of thanksgiving.” The Fathers celebrate both of these virtues, stressing the power they possess to lead the ill person to the highest summits of the spiritual life and to grant him salvation.

With regard to patience, St John Cassian writes: “The advantage that illness can sometimes present appears quite clearly with the beatitude illustrated by the poor, ulcerated Lazarus. Scripture makes no mention at all in his regard of any virtue. His great patience in supporting his poverty and illness alone merits the blessed fortune to be admitted into the bosom of Abraham.” Referring to this same parable, St John Chrysostom likewise underscores the fact that Lazarus did nothing extraordinary other than suffer his illness and his poverty with patience, and it is this that earned him eternal salvation. For his part, St Macarius affirms that “when souls have been delivered from various afflictions – whether these be caused by other people, or they result from bodily illnesses—they receive the same crowns and the same assurance as the martyrs, if they have preserved patience until the end.”

As for thanksgiving, St Diadocus of Photike writes: “If [the soul] receives with thanksgiving the pains provoked by illness, it demonstrates that it is not far from the boundaries of impassibility.” And Abba Poemen does not hesitate to declare: “If three men meet, and one preserves interior peace, the second gives thanks to God in illness, and the third serves with purity of thought, these three accomplish the same work.”

It is for this reason that St Gregory of Nazianzus urges us to have a great deal of respect and veneration for those who are ill, since some of them, by virtue of their trials and tribulations, will attain sanctity: “Let us respect the illness that accompanies sanctity and offer homage to those whose sufferings have led to victory; for it may be that among these ill persons there is hidden another Job.”

From: The Theology of Illness by the French Orthodox Layman Jean-Claude Larchet, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY 2002

Fasting and the Imitation of Christ: The Church imitates Christ. All that Christ has done the Church also does; He becomes its life. Christ’s call to Matthew (“Follow me”) was intended by Him to mean “Take my life for you.” The Church has adopted this call as a scheme of its own.

Fasting, in the life and works of Christ, ranks as the first response to the act of unction and of being filled with the Holy Spirit. It represents the first battle in which Christ did away with His adversary, the prince of this world. In His forty days’ experience of absolute fasting, Christ laid down for us the basis of our dealings with our enemy—along with all his allurements and vain illusions. “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting” (Mk. 9:29). For when a person enters into prayerful fasting, Satan departs from the flesh.

As the Son of God, Christ did not need fasting, nor did He need an open confrontation with Satan or baptism or filling with the Holy Spirit. Yet He fulfilled everything for our sake so His life and deeds would become ours. If we know that Christ was baptized to “be revealed to Israel” (Jn. 1:31), it follows that being filled with the Holy Spirit meant “being tempted by the devil.” This was so He could be revealed before the spirits of darkness, and openly enter into combat with the devil on behalf of our race. Fasting was to elevate the flesh to the level of war with the spirits of evil, those powers that hold sway over our weaker part, the flesh.

The reader may notice that baptism, being filled with the Holy Spirit, and fasting form a fundamental and inseparable series of acts in Christ’s life that culminated in perfect victory over Satan in preparation for his total annihilation by the cross.

It is then extremely important to accept and to feel the power of each of these three acts in our depths and draw from Christ their action in us as they worked in Him, so that His same life may identify with ours. The ultimate aim of baptism, of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and of fasting is that Christ Himself may dwell in us: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Ga. 2:20).

In baptism the connection with our old Adam is cut off for us to receive our sonship to God in Christ. In being filled with the Holy Spirit, our connection with the devil and with the life of sin is cut off for us to receive the Spirit of life in Christ. And in fasting, the connection between instinct and Satan is cut off to give the flesh victory in its life according to the Spirit, in Christ.

We can never sever these three acts from each other; baptism grants spiritual fullness, and spiritual fullness grants (by fasting) victory for the flesh to walk in the Spirit. By the three together we live in Christ, and Christ lives in us.

The dimension of time in these three acts does not weaken their merging together, nor does it separate one from the other. Baptism in childhood, the spirit’s fullness in mental and psychic maturity, and fasting, which concludes these three acts, could not be seen separately in the spiritual vision. Although they occur separately in time, out of human necessity, they are one act spiritually. They spring forth to us from Christ who is “One Act,” “One Word.” In all three acts, Christ dwells in us personally to give us His fullness, image, and life, so that we might live Him as One Act and One Word, and no longer live our own selves in our torn and disrupted image.

The point to understand is that fasting is a divine act of life, which we receive from Christ complementary to baptism and fullness. Since its beginning the Church has been occupied with infusing into its own body the acts of Christ’s life so they would become life-giving acts to all its members. If the Church imitates Christ in its life discipline, it is because it has been given grace and authority by God to possess Christ Himself as a life of its own.

The Church, which is one with Christ, is a lively and efficacious image of the life of Christ. The Gospel describes it as the “bride of Christ” united with her Bridegroom. Though the Gospel declares that the Church has become one with Christ, it still reiterates that Christ will remain a Bridegroom on His own, no matter how much He offers Himself. Neither does Christ become a Church, nor the Church become a Christ. This confirms to us that we, as members of the body of Christ, always need to strive to acquire Christ to become more like Him and to be a bride “without spot,” a betrothed “pure bride” in a perpetual state of betrothal like the Virgin who conceived and bore the Logos. Virginity here is “to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jm. 1:27). Being stained is the ungodly union between Satan and “the lust of the flesh,” “the lust of the eyes,” and the “pride of life” (1 Jn. 2:16). These three bonds were united and shattered by Christ during His fast on the Mount of Temptation. He gave us the shattered bonds as an inheritance to live out and carry into effect by fasting in the fullness of the Holy Spirit and in the sacrament of baptism.

Fasting in this sense is one of the fundamental phases that Christ underwent. We have never been able to claim that we live in the full maturity of Christ, or that Christ abides in us in His full measure, particularly if we overlook fasting. If baptism is one phase and crucifixion another, fasting is an extremely important stage between baptism and crucifixion. Fullness with the Holy Spirit, which Christ consummated by baptism, elevated the flesh to the level of extraordinary fasting, i.e. total deprivation of food and drink, utter seclusion and prayer. He thus raised the flesh to the stage of the cross.

It is impossible for us to carry our cross well and get through the temptation of the devil, the ordeal of the world, and the oppression of evil without fasting on the Mount of Temptation. If being filled with the Holy Spirit does not qualify us for fasting we inevitably will be unable to bear the tribulation of the cross.

Here the Church’s imitation of Christ’s work is a necessary course of life for us, in which we may discover our salvation, strength, security, and victory. It was not for Himself that Christ was baptized, nor was it for Himself that He was crucified, and, consequently, it was not for Himself that He fasted forty days. The works of Christ—themselves a mighty and omnipotent power—have become sources of our salvation and life. Their power, however, is not imparted to us unless we experience and practice it. Those who are baptized put on Christ, those who are filled with the Holy Spirit live by means of Christ’s life, and those who fast win Christ’s victory over the prince of this world.

These liberating deeds of Christ and the extent to which they and His life influence us were most clearly declared by Christ Himself: “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36). But how can the Son set us free from the world, the devil, and our ego except by dwelling in us and offering us His life, His works, and His victory? He reiterates often, “Abide in Me, and I in you.” This in fact is the mutual action. We perform His deeds and live according to His example, and thereupon He imparts to us the power of His deeds, His life, and His example. Time and again He calls our attention: “Learn from me.” Here He reveals that He has placed Himself as a model of life and works, as our “Forerunner,” as the “firstfruits,” that in everything we would be “like Him.” He became like us so we would become like Him.

After fulfilling the course of our salvation with all these works, Christ stands there, face pale and wounds in His hands, feet, and side, and asks, “Do you believe in Me? Do you believe in the works I have done? Do you really accept Me as a Bridegroom ?” He does not wait to hear us say “Yes” (only as a slothful bride); He invites us to a total communion with Him in suffering and glory alike. We thus have to prove our communion with Him in faith by having communion with Him in His works; only works testify to the genuineness of our faith. Yet He, as a true Bridegroom, did not leave us to invent works for ourselves but laid down the course of our works and life: “I am the way;” “He who follows me will not walk in darkness.” Following Him is not so much an intellectual theory as it is tracking Him, imitating His works, and sharing communion in love and suffering.

We should notice that all the commandments of Christ regarding works—whether they be voluntary poverty, asceticism, renunciation of kindred, divestment, or bearing the cross—revolve around the person of Christ and end up in Him: “for My sake;” “come, follow Me!” “for My name’s sake;” “be My disciple;” “come after Me;” “watch with Me.”

Every work of Christ’s, which He loved to do, He shares with us, or rather we share with Him on account of our love, our sacrifice, and our asceticism. It is from Him that all our works are derived: our asceticism from His asceticism, our fasting from His fasting, our love from His love. Ultimately, communion here is a realistic one which we develop daily by further imitating Him in mind and action and by deepening our awareness of Him in our life, making Him active within us while keeping us free, spontaneous, and quick in response—as a bride is to a bridegroom.

All the works we perform in the name of Christ, for His sake, and in imitation of Him—whether they be fasting, vigil, patience, endurance of suffering or persecution, service, sacrificial love, or crucifixion—are but a voluntary translation of the desire to imitate and unite with Christ (“Follow me”). They express communion in spirit, heart, and intention.

Here such works may be a way to express the overt offering of the entire soul to Christ in self-surrendering love and absolute discipleship, as it was for John, James his brother, and the rest of the disciples. They offered their lives and surrendered their souls to Christ the moment they saw and heard Him. They forsook their homes and jobs and became followers: “Lo, we have left our homes and followed You” (Lk. 18:28), becoming true partners of Christ’s works, career, and suffering: “You are those who have continued with Me in My trials” (Lk. 22:28).

It is possible that such works as fasting, vigil, prayer, service, or sacrifice may express a hidden love that is added to life’s daily tasks, such as earning one’s living or bringing up children. This is seen in the many who followed Christ without official publicity, like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, Martha, Mary, Lazarus, and others whose high level of love for Christ was by no means inferior to that of the Apostles themselves. Yet, those who actually forsook everything and followed Christ are those who, by spiritual works, most sublimely expressed a deep evaluation of Christ’s person: “We have left everything and followed you.” The word “followed” here denotes a shift from worldly work to spiritual work; Christ is great enough to fill our entire life and meet all our needs, becoming our sole work, our sole hope, and our sole interest.

This is itself the same orthodox doctrine that the Church received from the Apostles and addresses the zeal, fervor, and agony of works, the main measure of every person’s evaluation of Christ. The degree of concern and sincerity in spiritual action is that which reveals the light emanating from Christ. This consequently bears witness to the Father: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).

From: The Communion Of Love by Matthew the Poor, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY 1984

In the ancient monastery of Deir el Makarios in the desert 50 miles south of Cairo, a Coptic monk has drawn as many as 500 visitors a day. His name: Matta el Meskin, Matthew the Poor. Like the great anchorite St. Anthony, Matta el Meskin was once an affluent young man – a prosperous pharmacist. At age 29, heeding Jesus’ call to ‘sell what you have’, he disposed of his two houses, two cars two pharmacies, gave to the poor, and keeping only a cloak, devoted himself to prayer and asceticism. From his cell, where he lives mainly on water and bread, he has written more than 40 books and pamphlets, and began a reformation of the Coptic monastic life that was so profound that he was one of three nominees to be Coptic pope in the 1971 election.

The Bible in Relation to the Reader

The Bible is different from all other books. Other books are written by people; the Bible, however, not only contains the sayings and commandments of God but was also written entirely under His divine inspiration. So we might say that it is God’s book that was given to us to lead us into everlasting life.

Although the dialogue, events, history, and stories in the Old and New Testaments center on man, it is in fact God who is veiled in them, for the Bible describes God and reveals Him through events. Yet we were not given a complete picture in one generation, or one book, or even over the whole extended period; it is with great difficulty that the Bible struggles to give us a simplified mental image of God by relating His direct dealings with His people over a period of five thousand years. This is so that no one in any age need be deprived of perceiving something about God that will satisfy a need, so much so that each one experiences such a flood of joy that he believes he has come to know God and completely comprehended Him. But whoever has the intellectual audacity to try to supersede his human limitations by searching within himself to perceive a perfect image of God is doomed to failure and loses the ability to attain even the small things appropriate to his stature.

It is immeasurably difficult for us to comprehend God, whose days have neither beginning nor end, for He is perfect and, while it is true that we may perceive Him, His perfection is unfathomable, and so it is with all His works.

As well as revealing God and introducing Him to us, the Bible tries in many ways to prepare us inwardly to receive Him. Although it may appear outwardly that we make our way toward God, the joyful and wonderful truth is that it is God who comes to us, as a lover and deeply loving father. “If any man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come and make our home with him” (Jn. 14:23). This is why the Lord commands us to prepare our hearts for His blessed coming. “My heart is steadfast, O God. My heart is steadfast” (Ps. 57:7).

So we see that the Bible as a whole reveals God mysteriously and prepares us to receive Him in our hearts, that we may live with Him from this moment on as a preparation for what will be at the end of time, when God will be revealed openly and we shall meet Him face to face to live with Him forever.

The Reader in Relation to the Bible

There are two ways of reading:

The first is when a man reads and puts himself and his mind in control of the text, trying to subject its meaning to his own understanding and then comparing it with the understanding of others.

The second is when a man puts the text on a level above himself and tries to bring his mind into submission to its meaning, and even sets the text up as a judge over him, counting it as the highest criterion.

The first way is suitable for any book in the world, whether it be a work of science or of literature. The second is indispensable in reading the Bible. The first way gives man mastery over the world, which is his natural role. The second gives God mastery as the all-wise and all-powerful Creator.

But if man confuses the roles of these two methods, he stands to lose from them both, for if he reads science and literature as he should read the Gospel, he grows small in stature, his academic ability diminishes, and his dignity among the rest of creation dwindles.

And if he reads the Bible as he should read science, he understands and feels God to be small; the divine being appears limited and His awesomeness fades. We acquire a false sense of our own superiority over divine things—the very same forbidden thing that Adam committed in the beginning.

Spiritual understanding and intellectual memorization

Thus in reading the Bible we aim at understanding and not at research, investigation, or study, for the Bible is to be understood, not investigated. It is therefore appropriate here to point to the difference between spiritual understanding and intellectual memorization.

Spiritual understanding centers on the acceptance of a divine truth, which gradually reveals itself, rising on the horizon of the mind till it pervades all. If the mind and its reactions are brought into willing obedience to that truth, the divine truth continues to permeate the mind even more and the mind develops with it endlessly. “To know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19). It is clear from this verse that the knowledge and love of God and divine things in general are immeasurably above the level of knowledge, that is human knowledge. It is therefore futile and foolish for us to try to “investigate” the things of God in an attempt to grasp them and make them yield to our intellectual powers.

On the contrary, it is we who must yield to the love of God so that our minds may be open to the divine truth. It is then that we will be prepared to receive surpassing knowledge. That “being rooted and grounded in love, [you] may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth” (Eph. 3:17,18).

Intellectual memorization demands that we pass from a state of submission to the truth (through understanding) to a state of mastery over it and possession of it. It requires that the mind progress step by step through investigation until it is on a level with the truth, then little by little rise above it until it can control it, recalling it and repeating it at will as if the truth were a possession and the mind its owner.

Thus, memorization is a matter of determining the truth, summing it up, and defining it as closely as possible, so that the mind may absorb it and store it away. Thus, intellectual memorization is the reverse of spiritual understanding, for spiritual understanding expands with the knowledge of the truth, and the truth, in its turn, opens up into “all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19), to infinity. Intellectual memorization therefore weakens divine truth, and strips it of its power and breadth, so it is not a suitable way of approach to the Bible, and brings minimal results.

Spiritual Memorization

There is another way of memorizing the word of God, by which we may recall and review the text, though not whenever and however we wish, but rather whenever and however God wishes. This is spiritual, not intellectual, memorization, and God grants it by His Spirit to those who understand His words, “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26).

Just as God gives spiritual understanding to those who ask sincerely and honestly to know Him, at which their minds are opened to understand the text (cf. Lk. 24:45), so also is spiritual memorization a spiritual work that God gives to those who have been granted to be witnesses for Him. When the Holy Spirit recalls certain words to us, He does so in depth and breadth, not simply reminding us of the text of a verse, but giving with it irresistible wisdom and spiritual power to bring out the glory of the verse and the power of God in it. A spirit of censure is also sent with the words to prick the heart.

Thus there is a striking difference between intellectual memorization by rote and recollection through the Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless, we must be prepared for this spiritual recollection by keeping our hearts conscious of the word of God through pondering upon it frequently and storing it up in our hearts out of love and delight. “Thy words were found, and I ate them” (Jr. 15:16) and they were “sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Ps. 119:103). We can constantly recite to ourselves: “on His law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2), and every time we come across a profitable word we can impress it on our hearts: “I have laid up thy words in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee” (Ps. 119:11), just as God warns us to talk of them “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Dt. 6:7,8).

Now there is a great difference between a man who recites and meditates on the word of God because it is sweet and beneficial to his soul and rejoices his heart and comforts his spirit, and one who meditates on it in order to repeat it to other people so that he can stand out as a teacher and skillful servant of the Gospel. For the first, the word remains, for it builds an awareness of heart or a relationship with God; for the second it simply passes into the intellectual memory where he can use it to build relationships with people!

So if a man tries to read the Bible and memorize verses to use them to teach people and give a spoken witness, before submitting himself to the divine truth and acting according to it and opening his mind to receive spiritual understanding, he only gains knowledge and does not give a fruitful witness, no matter how many verses or orderly proofs he may present with great intellectual skill, for the Spirit will have left him. The worst use we can make of the Bible is to use it simply as a source of proof verses.

Spiritual understanding of the sayings, commandments, and teachings of God is our entrance into the mystery of the Gospel: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God” (Lk. 8:10). And the sign of spiritual understanding is our sense that there is within us an inexhaustible spring of spiritual insights into the word of God, and that each truth is related to all the rest. In our hearts we are able to relate every verse we read to another verse and every insight broadens into harmony with another, so that the Gospel easily becomes a unified whole.

This position is not attained only by those who have spent long years reading the Bible. It may be that someone who has only a few months’ experience with it may be given this sense, so that using the few verses he is familiar with he is able to speak zealously of God with a sincerity and power that attract the hearts of others to God. For such a man it is enough to read a verse once for it to be indelibly imprinted on his heart forever, for the word of God is spiritual; it is even in some sense a spirit, as the Lord says: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn. 6:63).

From: The Communion Of Love by Matthew the Poor, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY 1984

In the ancient monastery of Deir el Makarios in the desert 50 miles south of Cairo, a Coptic monk has drawn as many as 500 visitors a day. His name: Matta el Meskin, Matthew the Poor. Like the great anchorite St. Anthony, Matta el Meskin was once an affluent young man – a prosperous pharmacist. At age 29, heeding Jesus’ call to ‘sell what you have’, he disposed of his two houses, two cars two pharmacies, gave to the poor, and keeping only a cloak, devoted himself to prayer and asceticism. From his cell, where he lives mainly on water and bread, he has written more than 40 books and pamphlets, and began a reformation of the Coptic monastic life that was so profound that he was one of three nominees to be Coptic pope in the 1971 election.

We eat and drink every day, yet on the morrow our bodies need drink and food again. In like manner the recollection of God’s bounties never wearies the soul but disposes her still more to think on God. Or again: the more wood you pile on a fire the more heat you get, and thus it is with God – the more you think on Him the more are you fired with love and fervour towards Him.

He who loves the Lord is always mindful of Him, and remembrance of God begets prayer. If you are forgetful of the Lord you will not pray, and without prayer the soul will not dwell in the love of God, for the grace of the Holy Spirit comes through prayer. Prayer preserves a man from sin, for the prayer­ful mind is intent on God and in humbleness of spirit stands before the face of the Lord, Who knoweth the soul of him who prays.

But the novice naturally needs a guide, for until the advent of the grace of the Holy Spirit the soul is involved in fierce struggle with her foes and is unable to disentangle herself if the enemy offer her his delights. Only the man with experience of the grace of the Holy Spirit can understand this. He who has tasted of the Holy Spirit recognizes the taste of grace.

The man who sets out without guidance to engage in prayer (imagining in his arrogance that he can learn to pray from books), and will not go to a spiritual director is already half beguiled. But the Lord succours the man who is humble, and if there be no experienced guide, and he turns to the confessor he finds, the Lord will watch over him for his humility.

Whoever would pray without ceasing must have fortitude and be wise, and he should consult his confessor in all things. And if your father-confessor has not himself trodden the path of prayer nevertheless seek counsel of him, and because of your humility the Lord will have mercy on you and keep you from all untruth.

But if you think to yourself, ‘My confessor lacks experience and is occupied with vain things: I will be my own guide with the help of books,’ then your foot is set on a perilous path and you are not far from being beguiled and going astray. I know many such who reasoned thus and so deceived themselves, and who did not thrive because they despised their confessors. They forget that the saving grace of the Holy Spirit is at work in the Sacrament of confession. In such wise does the enemy delude those who fight the good fight – the enemy would have no men of prayer – but the Holy Spirit gives good counsel to the soul when we hearken to the advice of our pastors.

Think in this wise: the Holy Spirit dwells in your confessor and he will tell you what is right. But if you say to yourself that your confessor lives a negligent life, and how can the Holy Spirit dwell in him, you will suffer mightily from such thoughts, and the Lord will bring you low and you are sure to fall into temptation.

Prayer comes with praying, as it is said in the Scriptures; but prayer which is only a habit, prayer without contrition for our sins, is not pleasing to the Lord. My soul yearns after the Lord, and I seek Him ardently, and my soul suffers thought of no other matter.

My soul yearns after the living Lord, and my spirit strains towards Him, my heavenly Father, my kin. The Lord made us His kin by the Holy Spirit. The Lord is dear to the heart-He is our joy and gladness, and our firm hope. O Gracious Lord, mercifully seek out Thy creation and show Thyself to all men in the Holy Spirit, as Thou showest Thyself to Thy servants. Rejoice, 0 Lord, every afflicted soul by the coming of Thy Holy Spirit, and let all who pray to Thee know the Holy Spirit.

0 all ye people, let us humble ourselves for the sake of the Lord and the Kingdom of Heaven. Let us humble ourselves and the Lord will give us to know the power of the Jesus Prayer. Let us humble ourselves and the Spirit of God Himself will instruct the soul.

0 man, learn the humility of Christ and the Lord will give you to taste of the sweetness of prayer. And if you would pray cleanly, be humble and temperate confess yourself thoroughly, and prayer will feel at home in you. Be obedient, submit with a good conscience to those in authority; be content with all things, and your mind will be cleansed of vain thoughts.

Remember that the Lord sees you, and be fearful lest you anywise offend your brother, whom neither dispraise nor grieve, even by a look, and the Holy Spirit will love you and will Himself be your help in all things.

If you would retain prayer you must love those who offend against you and pray for them until your soul is reconciled with them, and then the Lord will give you prayer without ceasing, for He giveth prayer to those who pray for their enemies.

For prayer our teacher is the Lord Himself, but we must seek to humble our souls. He who prays aright has the peace of God in his soul. The man of prayer should feel tenderly towards every living thing. The man of prayer loves all men and has compassion for all, for the grace of the Holy Spirit has taught him love.

The Holy Spirit is like a dear mother. A mother loves her child and has pity on it; and the Holy Spirit has pity on us, forgives and heals us, enlightens and rejoices us. And the Holy Spirit becomes known in humble prayer.

From: Wisdom From Mount Athos – The Writings of Staretz Silouan 1866-1938, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY 2001

In the body I lie on the earth, but my spirit aspires to behold the Lord in glory. Though 1 am very sinful the Lord suffered me to know Him by the Holy Spirit, and my soul knows Him, knows how immeasurably merciful He is, and how joyous.

Until the coming of God’s grace the soul fears death. She fears God Himself, because she does not know how humble and meek and merciful He is. And there is no man can apprehend the love of Christ if he has not tasted of the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Beloved brethren in the Lord, the merciful Lord is my soul’s witness that 1 write of the truth. And know, brethren-let no one deceive himself he who does not love his brother does not love God either. The Scriptures speak justly concerning this: fulfil them word for word and you will behold in your own souls the mercy of the Lord, which will take captive the soul, for sweet is the Lord’s grace.

The young man seeks a bride for himself and the maiden looks for a bridegroom. This is the earthly order of life, blessed by God. But the soul chosen of the Lord for Himself, the soul He suffers to taste of the sweetness of the love of God, does not set earthly life on a par with the love of God but is absorbed in God alone, and attaches herself to no earthly thing. And if earthly thoughts come to her she takes no delight in them, for she cannot love the things of this earth: all her longing is for the things of heaven.

In death the soul that has come to know the love of God by the Holy Spirit experiences a measure of dread when the Angels bring her before the Lord, since while living in the world she was guilty of sin. But when the soul beholds the Lord she rejoices in His meek and merciful Countenance, and the Lord in the abundance of His gentleness and love remembereth not her sins. One glance at the Lord, and the love of Him will take up its abode in the soul, and from love of God and the sweetness of the Holy Spirit she will be all transformed.

Our fathers have passed from earth to heaven. What do they do there? They dwell in the love of God and contemplate the beauty of His countenance. The beauty of the Lord enthrals every soul in joy and love. This beauty is made known on earth too, but in part only, for our frail bodies are not able to bear perfect love. On earth the Lord gives the soul as much as she may contain, and as much as His loving-kindness wills.

My soul is nigh unto death and longs with a great longing to behold the Lord and be with Him for ever. The Lord has forgiven me my manifold sins, and by the Holy Spirit has suffered me to know how greatly He loves mankind.

All heaven is in wonder at the Lord’s Incarnation – how the Mighty Lord came down to save us sinners, and by His sufferings won for us eternal rest; and the soul has no wish to think on any earthly thing, but is drawn thither where the Lord is.

Dear to the heart are the words of the Lord when the Holy Spirit gives understanding to the soul. A multitude of people followed after Him when He lived on earth, and for many days they were unable to tear themselves from Him but, hungry, listened to His sweet words. The soul loves the Lord, and everything that hinders her from thinking of God makes her sad. And if the soul so deeply delights here on earth in the Holy Spirit, how much more it will delight there in the other world!
0 Lord, how Thou hast loved Thy creature! Thy soft, gentle gaze the soul can never forget. My soul, O Lord, is busy day and night with Thee, and I seek Thee. Thy Spirit draws me to seek Thee, and the remembrance of Thee makes glad my mind. My soul came to love Thee, and rejoices that Thou art my God and my Lord, and I yearn after Thee until my heart is filled with tears. And though all in the world be beautiful no earthly thing can occupy my thoughts: my soul desires only the Lord. There is naught on earth can satisfy the soul that has come to know God: she longs continually for the Lord, and cries: ‘My soul yearns after Thee, and I seek Thee with tears.’

The soul from love of the Lord has lost her wits: she sits in silence, with no wish to speak, and looks upon the world with amazed eyes, having no desire for it and seeing it not. And people do not know that she is contemplating her beloved Lord, that the world has been left behind and is forgotten, for there is no sweetness therein.

Thus is it with the soul that has come to know the sweetness of the Holy Spirit.
O Lord give to us this love throughout Thine whole universe. 0 Holy Spirit live in our souls, that with one accord we may all glorify the Creator, Father, Son and Holy

From: Wisdom From Mount Athos – The Writings of Staretz Silouan 1866-1938, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY 2001

It is a pity that the Orthodox Church has not taken a more vocal stand on the issue of legal abortion which has been so much discussed lately in connection with “liberalizing” laws adopted in several state legislatures, and particularly in New York. This relative silence may, perhaps, be explained by the fact that the issue, in Orthodox Tradition, is so obvious that our Church leadership thought it unnecessary to speak out once more.

It is fortunate, however, that the silence was broken during a symposium on abortion held at St Vladimir’s Seminary last spring and presided over by Fr Thomas Hopko, and also in a widely publicized statement by Fr Stanley Harakas, the Dean of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary. “We welcome these statements because the “obvious” position of the Orthodox Church on abortion is still insufficiently known even by the Orthodox themselves.

Abortion is an act interrupting human life. The fact that this interruption takes place at an initial stage of the human life-process makes, of course, a psychological difference, but does not change the very nature of the act. Abortion is killing, and, as such, a very grave sin, because killing is always evil. The hundreds of thousands of legal abortions performed in New York hospitals are a case of mass killings.

These killings have been legalized because they are supposed to fulfill a social need, particularly the well-being of pregnant mothers who did not desire to conceive a child. Thus, in the minds of those who promote legalized abortion, killing seems to be justified because it secures the comfort of those remaining alive! One wonders, then, why our society, which is so much concerned with the well-being of those who are young and strong, should not also promote the legal murder of the old and the sick, who – just as unwanted babies – constitute a heavy burden to society. No one would doubt the fact that uncontrolled childbirth is indeed a very great tragedy in the ghettos of our cities among the most underprivileged people of our society.

Abortion is proposed by some as a positive solution to these social evils. But can one heal social evil through mass murder? Why not then promote a massive “mercy killing” in the hospitals of all those who are not guaranteed security in life?

Of course, let us not oversimplify the problem. The horrible choice between interrupting the life of the child and accepting the death of the mother sometimes has to be made. The Orthodox Church has never said that the life of the child should always be preferred. Similarly, she may also consider that killing in self-defense, or the defense of others whose life is clearly threatened, can be considered as a lesser evil than passivity and non-resistance. This is why the Church has never endorsed total pacifism. But she always considers killing – any killing – an evil and a sin, for which man – even a soldier who kills in war – is called to repent, even if this killing was accomplished as a lesser evil, for example, to save the lives of others.

What is most tragic in the current legalization of abor­tion is a total indifference towards the sanctity of human life and a conscious encouragement given to irresponsible egoism. Orthodox Christians should oppose this legislation at all costs.

From: Witness to the World by John Meyendorff, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY 1987

The development of a missionary spirit and activity is certainly one of the most hopeful signs of our new maturity as an Orthodox Church whose goal is to bring Christ’s Kingdom to contemporary Americans. Our Church is beginning to realize that mission is a task for the whole Church, not only for some individually zealous preachers, or specialized agencies.

This is the reason why we should meditate upon the implications and ask ourselves the following questions:

• Is our own individual parish really willing to participate not only by making a collection for the establishment of some new mission far away, but also by becoming concerned with its own neighborhood? Why haven’t the Orthodox begun any missions in the inner city as yet?

• Is our liturgical life meaningful enough to be shared with newcomers? Or is it functioning only in terms of providing comfort and satisfaction to our present membership (a fully legitimate, but insufficient concern)?

• Have we ever noticed that our Divine Liturgy contains petitions for the “catechumens,” i.e., the new converts who attend the services without yet enjoying full membership in the Church? And if there are no catechumens in our parish, this may mean that we do not really care for the mission of the Church.

• Is our own behavior, as Orthodox Christians, really different from the behavior of those who make no such claim, and are we frankly accepting the patterns of an increasingly secular civilization (which we verbally condemn as Godless)? But some questions are to be asked from those who speak of mission and are actively involved in implementing it:

• Do you always remember Christ’s warning to the Pharisees who “traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, make him twice as much a child of hell as themselves?” (Matthew 23:15), or St Seraphim’s appeal: “Save yourselves and thousands will be saved around you”?

• Are you aware of the basic difference which exists between various Protestant evangelists and preachers of instant “born-again” Christianity and Orthodox missionaries concerned with building up the Church catholic, integrating people into the rich flow of Orthodox tradition, while also recognizing – as the Church always should – the positive, the beautiful and the authentic in all those who invoke the
Name of Christ, even if they are not yet formal members of the Orthodox Church?
It appears to us that the above questions point out some essential implications of the Church’s missionary task and should never be forgotten.

From: Witness to the World by John Meyendorff, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY 1987

Recent polls indicate a sharp reduction in the influence of “organized religion” in American life. It becomes more and more evident that we are returning gradually to a situation which existed in the nineteenth century, when only 10 to 15 percent of Americans were formally “church-goers,” and which sharply contrasts with the “religious boom” in the forties and fifties.

The reason which is often given to this evolution is that the Church is “socially irrelevant,” that it does not help to solve the problems of human life and that young people in particular consider it useless. To answer the challenge many Christians and entire churches rush into attempts to make the Church “relevant” again: they make easily drafted pronouncements on international affairs, on Vietnam, on ethical problems such as divorce, homosexuality, urban problems, race segregation or birth control. Generally speaking, the liberal wing of Protestantism is more committed to “social action” than the conservative, and this liberal wing finds great moral support among Roman Catholics since Vatican II.

Far be it from us to suggest that this “social consciousness” of so many Christians today comes only from a negative experience: the fear of losing people. The concern is often very positive – a concern for real problems, for fellowmen, for one’s country, for human society as a whole. A new theology, based essentially on this concern, has taken shape: the Church is considered exclusively as a ferment for the betterment of society: God Himself “is where the action is,” and thus He loses the attributes of an immovable and transcendent Being to become imminent to the problems of this world – seen only “in history.” Prayer itself must therefore be replaced by “action.”
Needless to say, our Orthodox Church is directly challenged by these developments. Not only does it often appear in the eyes of Protestants and Roman Catholics as the most withdrawn of all from social concerns, but the Orthodox themselves, sensitive to the challenge of their times, often ask: “What does the Church say? … What does the Church do?…”

It seems to us that in order to answer the challenge, we must first of all avoid the two temptations of superficially condemning those who “care” and “struggle,” and of ignoring the dreadful reality of some basic social issues of our times. Who can deny, for example, that Vietnam and race problems are moral issues which will determine the fate of our generation and probably that of the following? Can we, as Christians, fail to look for a Christian solution to these problems? Is it possible to ignore the fact that communist Marxism, although morally and intellectually bankrupt, still claims to provide mankind with a “social” alternative to Christianity? Therefore, it is not by ignoring these – and many other issues of our day – that one can remain truly Christian.

However, the truly Christian – and, perhaps, the peculiarly Orthodox – responsibility today is to show that the solutions to these problems are found in the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom which exists “within” and “among” us since God became man. For the Kingdom of God is not only a reality “beyond,” but it is also a living reality in this world. The function of the Church consists not simply in making this world “a little better,” but to make the Kingdom of God present among men. The Church does not carry with it a social Utopia, but the ferment of a new humanity, a new eternal life for the world. Only in the Kingdom of God and in the person of Jesus Christ himself does one find the norm, the pattern of social action. Only there is the absolute with which one can evaluate any present situation. This is the reason why throughout the centuries the Orthodox Church has been much more reluctant than the Western Christians to give ready-made and easy formulas of action. It did not rule specifically on birth control, on war, on pacifism: it always referred first of all to “the Kingdom of God, and its justice,” for without knowing that Kingdom, it is simply futile to seek “justice” elsewhere. Christians are adopted sons of God, and free citizens of this Kingdom; as such, they are “taught by God” (John 6:45), and therefore should be able to devise their own pattern of behavior, their own formulas.

The error, the tragic error of a theology based only on “social concern” is that it looks for solutions to the world’s problems in the world itself. It is not by replacing prayer with “action” that one will achieve this goal, but by putting more prayer in one’s actions. Only that man knows “what to do” who first knows “who he is” and accepts from God “the power to be a child of God.”

From: Witness to the World by John Meyendorff, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY 1987