Orthodox Basics


Every year at this time (when we start using the Liturgy of Saint Basil during Great Lent), I am reminded that the Anaphora of Saint Basil is one of the best statement of the Christian faith that I can think of. I saved this as a draft post two years ago and never got to posting it. But I was reminded of it again this morning and thought it worth posting, for I can think of few better expressions of what we believe.

Truly You are holy and most holy, and there are no bounds to the majesty of Your holiness. You are holy in all Your works, for with righteousness and true judgment You have ordered all things for us. For having made man by taking dust from the earth, and having honored him with Your own image, O God, You placed him in a garden of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God who had created him, and was led astray by the deception of the serpent becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, You, O God, in Your righteous judgment, expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ. For You did not forever reject Your creature whom You made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but because of Your tender compassion, You visited him in various ways: You sent forth prophets; You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation have pleased You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants the prophets, announcing to us the salvation which was to come; You gave us the law to help us; You appointed angels as guardians. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through Your Son Himself, through whom You created the ages. He, being the splendor of Your glory and the image of Your being, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal with You, God and Father. But, being God before all ages, He appeared on earth and lived with humankind. Becoming incarnate from a holy Virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory. For, since through man sin came into the world and through sin death, it pleased Your only begotten Son, who is in Your bosom, God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary; born under the law, to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who died in Adam may be brought to life in Him, Your Christ. He lived in this world, and gave us precepts of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He guided us to the sure knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He acquired us for Himself, as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat at the right hand of Your majesty on high and He will come to render to each according to His works.

Source.

This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

I began by quoting Saint Seraphim of Sarov, and I come back to him now, for he taught that:

However important prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices may be, they do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although it is true that they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, are the only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. Mark my words, only good deeds done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

The question is how we are to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Fathers are all-too-aware both of our capacity for self-deception and of the power of the demons to imitate a virtuous life. However, there was one virtue that they were absolutely clear that the demons could not imitate and that was humility. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers we read:

When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The latter struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and he said to him, “What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.” Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, “Your humility. Because of that I can do nothing against you.”

We can probably all think of examples of false humility, but true humility has something self-authenticating about it. It is one of the most difficult things that there is to learn and I suspect that for most of us it takes at least a lifetime. Yet it lies at the very heart of the life of repentance, of a genuine turning to God, and in the lives of the saints we see how liberating and joyful it can be.

I also started by quoting Saint Seraphim “Acquire the Holy Spirit and a thousand around you will be saved.” Christian life is not just for ourselves, but is something that has implications for those around us and indeed for the whole cosmos. In the Orthodox Church, the Liturgy is offered “on behalf of all and for all,” for Saint Paul tells us that God desires all people to be saved. (1 Tim 2:4) For this reason all manner of people are mentioned in the litanies. Likewise, the point of conversion, of the breaking open of our hearts, is that they will expand and be filled with compassion for all. This, and nothing less than this, is what the Gospel calls us to. In the words of Saint Isaac the Syrian:

Once an elder was asked, ‘What is repentance?’ And he replied, ‘Repentance is a contrite and humble heart.’ ‘And what is humility?’ ‘It is a twofold voluntary death to all things.’ ‘And what is a merciful heart?’ ‘It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of the merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.

This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

The journey towards the heart, and to the transformation of our hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit who renews the Image of God in us, is not something that we engage upon as isolated individuals. There is a saying that we fall alone, but that we are saved together. For Orthodox Christians, our understanding of Christian life is fundamentally ecclesial. We do not distinguish between what some call “the institutional Church” and some sort of disembodied religious experience. Rather, it is in and through the visible, historically mediated Body of Christ – with all her historical limitations and particularities – that we encounter Christ and work out our salvation. And this Church is most fully encountered in the Eucharistic celebration of the Divine Liturgy, presided over by our bishop – or someone delegated by him – who is the bond of unity connecting us to the rest of the Church, both throughout the world and throughout the centuries.

It is in the Divine Liturgy that we most fully encounter both the Mystery of the Church and the nature of our salvation in Christ. For here we find the recapitulation of the entire history of salvation, enabling us to enter into it and become truly present to the saving works of Christ. But the Liturgy is about more than just history, however, for it also leads us into the future, enabling us to glimpse a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. By offering our lives together with the Holy Gifts that are offered on the altar, and by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, we become true participants in His Mysteries. In the words of Saint Maximus the Confessor:

Just as wine mingles in all the members of the one who drinks it and is transformed in him and he in wine, so does the one who drinks the Blood of Christ quench his thirst with the divine Spirit who commingles with his soul and the soul with Him. For through the Eucharist, those who commune with dignity reach the ability to partake of the Holy Spirit, and in this manner souls can live continually.

For Orthodox Christians, there is a correlation between the public Liturgy of the Church and the inner Liturgy of the heart. We cannot separate the “outer” and the “inward’ and the prayer, transformation and intercession that occurs on the inner altar of the heart both mirrors and is a mirror of, the Liturgy of the Church which is offered for the whole world. To quote Father Boris Bobrinskoy once more:

personal sanctification restores the human being to the liturgical function and vocation to encompass the entire world, the totality of humankind, in a pacified and loving heart. Sanctification restores the liturgical and royal mediation of the human person in a world shot through with waves of hatred and death, obscured by the powers of darkness, a world that groans and waits for the liberation of the children of God (Rom 8:21). Inner transformation of the human heart necessarily restores the sacramental function of the Church, which is to unite all human life to the mystery of the dead and risen Christ and to become transparent to the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit. *

The Compassion of the Father109.

This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

We have seen that prayer and the life of faith involves our bodies and all of our senses. Yet it also involves words and the Orthodox Church is insistent on the use of the right words. Sometimes people who are interested in Orthodoxy because they see it as “mystical” can get rather disillusioned when they realise how many (often rather long) verbal prayers we have. Yet this is what teaches us to pray. Father Georges Florosky writes:

It has often been suggested, by many authorities and expert masters of spiritual life, that ‘prayer books’, the fixed formularies of worship, are only intended for the beginners. This is undoubtedly true if the statement is properly understood. Fixed formulae are, of course, no more than a means towards something much greater. Yet they are an appropriate means. It is spiritually dangerous to neglect the ‘books’, to dispense with them hastily, and to indulge arbitrarily in extempore improvisations of one’s own composition. It is more than merely a question of discipline. The settled formulae not only help to fix the attention, but also feed the heart and mind of the worshippers, offering topics for meditation and reminding them of the mighty deeds of God. There is no room for psychologism or subjectivism in Christian worship.” *

There is a fundamental relationship between words and silence in our prayer. It has sometimes struck me as interesting that it is precisely those religious traditions that are most insistent on the use of the right words (and the right ritual and gesture), and who resist the idea that we should make things up as we go along, that are most aware of the limitation of words. For it is the task of words to lead us to silence, to the place where words break down and we are face to face with the One who is beyond all words. The Orthodox life of prayer uses words extensively, both in its public liturgy and in private prayer. Their use is not arbitrary, there is a lot of repetition, and we certainly don’t make them up as we go along. And yet their purpose is to lead us beyond themselves, for, as Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Speech is the organ of this present age. Silence is the mystery of the world to come.”

This same relationship between words and silence is seen in the use of the Jesus prayer. This short prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” – is seen as one of the treasures of Orthodox life although its use also varies. It is often thought of as a mantra but, while it may have external similarities with mantras in other religious traditions, being a short phrase that is repeated, we would see it not as a mantra but as a prayer that sums up the fundamental Christian approach to God. It is addressed to Christ, acknowledges Him as the Son of God, and is a plea for mercy on the part of those who are aware of their own sinfulness. Yet these are no mere words, but, constantly repeated, become the expression of our whole relationship to God.

For, at the centre of any life of prayer is not what we do, but rather what happens to us and what we become. It is how we encounter the reality of the world, including the reality of suffering in the world. For the early Fathers, prayer was about entering into the depths of our hearts, allowing our hearts to be broken open so that the presence of God may purify and heal us and so that we may in turn become a source of healing for others. Father Boris Bobrinskoy writes:

Living the life of Christ, letting oneself be penetrated by His Spirit, by His breath of mercy, constitutes Christianity. According to the Bible, that means acquiring the bowels of compassion and tenderness of the Father. According to the second chapter of Philippians, it presupposes having the same feelings as Jesus Christ, not in the sense of mimicry or external imitation, but a true “transfer” on a plane more important and fundamental than the psychological level. A transfer of presence, of life center, of grace and love must operate in us so that we might live in Christ, and Christ might live in us. Certainly, this transfer operates in a global, constant, and progressive manner, through the sacramental life, love, prayer, and faith. For us Christians, the Church is the place of apprenticeship of this transfer: its entire pedagogy, its sacramental and liturgical transmission, its spiritual methodology, and its ascetic experience of the inner life, what the Fathers call the unseen warfare against the passions. **

To be continued…

* “The Worshipping Church” in The Festal Menaion, 32.

** The Compassion of the Father, 87.

This seven(?)-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

This lifelong process of repentance involves an active struggle or ascesis, in which we cooperate with God’s grace as we try to live according to His commandments. This is not simply a matter of outer observances, but rather of using the means that the Church gives to us to grow in purity of heart. For the commandments ultimately lead to a life according to the Beatitudes. (Matt 5:1-12) Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos writes:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” is the Lord’s commandment that we should look for our spiritual poverty, that is, that we should experience our wretchedness. “Blessed are those who mourn” is the Lord’s commandment to weep over the passions which we have in us, over our desolation. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” is the Lord’s commandment to hunger and thirst after communion with God. “Blessed are the pure in heart” is Christ’s commandment to purify our hearts. When He says “blessed” it is as if He said: “Become poor, mournful, thirsting for righteousness”, and so forth.*

Rooted in the Scriptures and in the teaching of Christ, the Church has developed ascetic practices that help us to live according to the commandments of Christ and to bring our wills into conformity with His. These include vigils, study, prayer, self-control and hesychia. However, how we apply these will vary from person to person. We are all different and have different needs. Moreover, we are saved not as isolated individuals, but as members of the Church. Orthodox tradition therefore emphasises the importance of accountability and of seeking the guidance of a trusted spiritual father who can serve as a physician of souls, for on our own we are capable of great self-deception. It also emphasises – and the liturgical texts for the first week of Great Lent make this abundantly clear – that heroic acts of asceticism are of no use if they do not make us more loving towards our neighbours.

Asceticism is a difficult topic to address in some contemporary Christian circles and misconceptions abound. It may help to say what asceticism is not: it is not suffering for sufferings sake, as if that will somehow help us, or please God. It is not an attempt to win favours with God. It is not rooted in some dualistic hatred of the body. On the contrary, asceticism, which comes from the word for struggle, is rooted in the recognition of the importance of our bodies for our salvation. By curbing our appetites it enables us to break through the mental images we may have of ourselves and to face up to who we really are and to the things that matter to us. And it enables us to learn true freedom, for we may think that we are free but we do not realise the extent to which we are really controlled by our desires.

This recognition of the importance of the body is also found in the Orthodox approach to prayer. Prayer is not simply a mental activity, but one that involves all our senses. The traditional Christian posture for prayer is that of standing – the posture of the Resurrection –, although kneeling and prostrating have their appropriate times and places as well. This use of our bodies is expressed in other ways – gesture, icons, incense, music, colour, light and so on. These are not simply arbitrary or a form of decoration, but are conveyers of meaning although often at a very subtle level.

What we do in our bodies affects the whole of our lives. Many western converts to Orthodoxy find that we need to get over a certain threshold before we are able to do things like kissing icons and making prostrations. Yet in doing so a whole world opens up for us as we come to realise, not simply in theory but in reality, that Christianity is not simply about what we believe with our cerebral minds, but what we do. And through the “doing” we are gradually led to the place of the heart, the place where true transformation can occur.

To be continued…

* Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos), Orthodox Psychotherapy, 48.

This six- seven-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

We have seen something of the “big picture” of what we believe Christian life is all about. Created in the Image of God, our whole life is a journey towards the restoration of that Image in us, in which, through cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit we may become Spirit bearers who radiate the Light of Christ. The question remains, however, how we are to do this, for we need to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit, actively struggling to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12)

This process of transformation is what we understand as a life of repentance. Sin and repentance can be difficult topics to address in our contemporary society, for too often people associate them with a crippling guilt which would seem to deny our God-given dignity, making us feel like worthless sinners who cannot do anything good. Yes, sin is a reality in our world, and we need to acknowledge that. But, more fundamentally, sin is something that Christ comes to save us from and repentance is not about feeling guilty but about changing our lives so that they might become transparent to God.

In an Orthodox understanding, sin is not seen so much in legal terms as having broken laws and thus incurring God’s wrath, but rather as having missed the mark, of being aware that our lives are not what they were meant to be. There is a fundamental brokenness that runs through our lives which we are not able to put right on our own. Repentance means learning our need for God and our dependence on Him. It is recognising that we are sick and in need of healing. It is to pray, as Saint Macarius teaches us, “Lord, as you will and as you know, have mercy!” or simply, “Lord help!” And we are able to do this because, no matter what our sins, God does not abandon us.

A soldier asked Abba Mius if God accepted repentance. After the old man had taught him many things he said, ‘Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?’ He replied, ‘No, I mend it and use it again.’ The old man said to him, ‘If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about His creature?’

Repentance involves coming to acknowledge the truth about ourselves – a gradual process as we grow in self knowledge and are able to begin to recognise the ways in which we have become adept at deceiving ourselves. This is no purely intellectual exercise, but is rather about getting in touch with what Scripture and the Fathers call the heart, that centre of our being that is the core of our consciousness and desires. As Saint Macarius the Great wrote:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.

Repentance involves mourning for our sins, but the Fathers speak of it, if it is genuine, as a joyful mourning, for it is a mourning that liberates and frees us, enabling us to move forward to greater knowledge of God and of ourselves. At the beginning of Lent we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and in the Lenten texts we identify ourselves with them, recognising that our human life is in many ways an experience of exile, for we have lost our true home and our true identity. And yet this very recognition is the beginning of a desire to return home, and our whole journey to Easter is a journey to that home, to the victory of Christ, the New Adam, who in his own flesh conquers death.

This six-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

Central to the transformation involved in Christian life is learning to see, for our vision has become distorted by the fall, and salvation involves learning to see aright. Saint Maximus the Confessor speaks of “The dazzling brilliance of God’s beauty inside everything” and St John of Damascus writes that “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.” “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” writes St Irenaeus and he is often quoted as saying that. But he continues immediately: “and the life of a human being is the vision of God.” This is a vision that we need to learn.

It is common to speak about the importance of beauty for Orthodoxy. Sometimes the example is given of the conversion of Russia when the emissaries of Prince Vladimir were sent out looking for a religion. After visiting the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, they wrote: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

We see here that the Liturgy is profoundly revelatory, enabling us to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God here on earth. Within the Church we are able to see a new way of being – even if in a fleeting and fragmentary way – that we recognise as fundamentally true, and as that around which we wish to shape our lives. But this is not given to us in any final way, for our vision remains blurred, our hearts remain divided and Liturgy requires hard work and commitment.

It is also common to speak about the importance of icons for Orthodox Christians, and they are indeed important. However, there is also a danger in this, and I have found that many people do not actually find them attractive at the first encounter. They jar with our expectations of what art should be, they are not necessarily comforting and can feel somewhat strange. Like the beauty of the Liturgy, theirs is a demanding beauty, one that asks us to be open to another way of seeing. They are not ours to “use” but they ask us to be receptive and open to change our own perceptions.

Thus, learning to see and the purification of our vision is of fundamental importance. The Fathers of the Church used two mountain top encounters to speak of this experience. The first was that of Moses on Mount Sinai in which he had to let go of his own ideas and encounter God in darkness, realising that God is far beyond all the ideas that we have of Him. The second was that of Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, in which the Apostles Peter, James and John were enabled to see His true glory. In the liturgical texts for the feast of the Transfiguration we are told that that they were able to see it “insofar as they could bear it.” The vision is open to all, but our task is to learn to see with the eyes of faith and to seek the purity of heart which the Gospel tell us will allow us to see God so that His glory may shine through in our lives.

To be continued…

 

Next Page »