There are many dangerous elements influencing the life and perception of modern Orthodox Christians. They are presenting themselves to us either in the form of pleasant half-truths, or as lies in disguise. One of these half-truths is romanticizing the past. Especially in North America, with its short history and shorter memory, there is a tendency to believe in some sort of golden age either in the Eastern Roman Empire (popularly called Byzantine) or in Russia. In both cases there have been great bright lights, teachers of the Orthodox faith; but what is usually forgotten is that most of these great, exemplary Christian persons lived in a rather hostile environment: that St. John Chrysostom died in exile, that St. Paisii was a refugee, that St. Seraphim and the Optina elders were not so well received in their day. I believe that the bright lights came to be so because they were, in part, refined by opposition. They had to deny themselves, take up the Cross, and carry it daily (St. Luke 8:23).
People like to think that the old Roman Empire was totally Christian, or that the Russian Empire was totally Christian. It does not take much reading of history and literature to reveal a different reality. In fact, there has been no time and no place where and when all has been pleasant and peaceful for Orthodox Christians. We are but pilgrims here. But the temptation to escape from painful reality leads many to create an imaginary golden past into which they try to retreat.
I suppose that another major destructive factor, which is reflected in today’s secularism, is the primarily western preoccupation with the mind and with categorization. The result of this is the complete fragmentation of life, of the underlying differences. We have become deeply materialistic in a negative way, although we are correctly to be properly and positively materialistic. And North America is making psychiatrists need psychiatrists because of the resulting heavy demand. The worst face of this is found in the way so-called scholars of this last century have reduced the Scriptures and the writing of the Fathers to mere literature or philosophy, and then removed all that is essential to the Christian way, because it does not otherwise fit our mold. Indeed, we insist on calling Christianity a religion, when it is, by definition, not so, but a movement, a Way, based on the relationship of love.
Reading Christos Yannaras, one sees that it is his opinion that our western environment makes it difficult, if not impossible to live as an Orthodox Christian in that environment, in the modern technological surrounding. And yet we cannot, seeing this difficulty, simply resign from the struggle, because our Lord said that with God all things are possible (St. Matthew 19:26). He told us that we must be in the world but not of it (St. John 15). And so we must face our responsibility, accept it, and live it. We must take up the Cross.
Renewal, renewal of any kind, can be found only, as has always been the case, in repentance. It is important for us to remember this word, and to understand its meaning. A North American living in a vocal Protestant environment, and nowadays even in a Roman Catholic one, will quickly understand repentance as an emotional expression. But that is limited to a short period of time. It is true that in repentance we may feel pain and sorrow and shed tears. But this is only a symptom of what is the essence. Repentance is a condition of the whole life, a state of being. Repentance is willingly turning away from evil, away from darkness, away from death, and turning instead to good, to light, to life. It is the daily determination to take up the Cross and follow Christ. It is making the Sign of the Cross on ourselves as we rise, and attempting with each passing day to become increasingly aware of the enabling of Christ’s participation in every activity of our life. Our ancestors knew about this, even without a theological education. They knew how to bless every activity and undertaking, and they tried to support each other in remembering to do this, even sometimes a bit roughly. For us, a necessary element of this renewal has to be found in these daily practical expressions of cultivating memory in our hearts of Christ’s eternal presence.
Cultivating the essence of our life is perhaps the most important. What is this? It is love. We are not Christians because of having agreed to some philosophical principle. We are Christians because God loves us, and we love Him. And we commit ourselves to this relationship. We will to love our Lord and Saviour, and our neighbours as ourselves, just as He loves us. And so, commending ourselves and each other and all our life to Christ our God, we all together support one another, encourage one another, nurture one another, pray for one another, and say, for each and all, that essential prayer: “Lord, have mercy.” Love, then, is not so much emotion as it is work. And in our day, we Christians make this work more difficult because we tend to live far from each other.
Remembering that the Incarnation is central to our lives is really important. That the Word of God took flesh out of love for us is a clear indication of our path. The Lord does not ask us repeatedly to say only with words that we love Him. We must demonstrate it by how we treat our fellow human beings, and other creatures as well. We were already learning this with Moses. It is not enough only to venerate icons. We must be ready to venerate Christ’s presence in human beings, and especially the difficult people. It is not enough to prepare and to receive Holy Communion regularly. We must at the same time show Christ’s loving hospitality to others — to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the aged and lonely. In these are found the demonstrations of our love for Christ; and in these concrete acts, together with receiving Holy Communion often, we enable our Saviour to renew and multiply His love in us.
If we are hoping for and asking for spiritual renewal, we cannot begin by thinking of the spirit alone. God did not make us angels, as bodiless minds. He created us human beings with both body and spirit, and we must treat ourselves and understand ourselves as one whole. Our salvation involves our whole selves. We must not divide ourselves.
Monastic life has always been and must be for us the living, visible example of the way of repentance and Christian spiritual renewal. Those who are monks are ones who seriously and completely embrace the Gospel and try to live their lives totally for Christ. In doing so, they help those who live in the world also to find their way. But if, as some do, we treat monastic life as a “profession” or “alternative life-style,” we will make a mockery of this way. It is neither of these. It is better to live in an organic food commune, or some other beneficial community … if that be one’s attitude. But if one is to live as a monk, one must be ready to live by the Gospel, and not by the understanding of the world. It is a radical response of love.
Spiritual renewal can be found, I believe, only in daily taking up the Cross and following Christ in the communion of love. He said, “I am the Way …” (St. John 14:6) and we must live in that Way.
From Canadian Orthodox Messenger
Publication of the Archdiocese of Canada
Orthodox Church in America