A talk given at the 1981 St. Herman Summer Pilgrimage, at the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery, Platina, California. The text has been taken from Fr. Seraphim’s handwritten notes. The section titles have been added by the editors, based on Fr. Seraphim’s section divisions.
The number of people here today is a proof that there is a search for Orthodoxy today—those who don’t have it are looking for it, and those who do have it want to go deeper into it.
Our times, the second half of the twentieth century, are times of spiritual searching. Many are dissatisfied, whether with various forms of Christianity, with non-Christian religions, or with unbelief and atheism. Many hope against hope that there is more to life, more to spiritual reality, than they have found so far. More and more of these searchers are finding what they are looking for in the Orthodox Church:
1. African peoples of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zaire, and other mission fields are finding Orthodoxy to be the “true old religion” as against the various sects and cults of modern Africa.
2. Young Orthodox Christians of Soviet Russia and other Communist lands are finding in Orthodoxy both fresh air and recontact with their historical past after sixty years of atheist tyranny and suffocation.
3. Young Orthodox idealists of Greece are rediscovering the monastic ideal in the midst of the dead worldliness of contemporary Greece and are flocking to the monasteries of Mount Athos.
4. Americans, both young and old, weary of the rootless and arbitrary teachings of contemporary Protestantism, are discovering the true and profound Christianity of Orthodoxy.
5. Roman Catholics, in the midst of a disintegrating church structure, are finding that Orthodoxy is everything they once thought Roman Catholicism to be.
6. Young Jews, both in the Soviet Union and the free world, are increasingly finding the answer to the present-day spiritual vacuum among their own people in conversion to Orthodoxy.
And there are many others who are coming to the Orthodox Faith in these latter days. What does this mean for us who are already Orthodox?
We who have already found the end of our search in Orthodox Christianity must be aware of these searchers and of the literal movement towards Orthodoxy that is occurring throughout the world today. It is still small, in some places only a trickle—but it is already becoming one of the signs of our times and is something that should be for us both inspiring and sobering, and can help us to survive as Orthodox Christians in the terrible times through which we are living.
Let us look at this movement a little more closely and see what we can learn from it, and more importantly, how we can respond to it positively and help it.
II. MOTIVATIONS BEHIND THE SEARCH
What is motivating this search for Orthodoxy in so many different parts of the world?
One factor is the search for roots which has become so much a part of contemporary mankind.
In Russia this search is obvious, and is bound up with the recovery of national awareness among the Russian people after some sixty years of atheism and destruction of Russian religious institutions. If one tries to return to what was before the atheist regime, one comes to nothing but Orthodoxy. Something similar is happening on a smaller scale to the Orthodox young people of Greece who are rejecting the modern Westernism that has poisoned Greek society for the past century and more; these young people are finding their roots in the Orthodox past of Greece, and above all in the center of Orthodox life, its monasticism.
But what of Africa? What kind of Orthodox roots can Africans find? As surprising as it may seem to us, Orthodoxy—and Christianity in general—is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world, and in a matter of some years Africa will become the leading Christian continent, both in number of believers, and even more in the fervor of their faith. Tertullian, the second-century Christian writer, has said that the human soul by nature is Christian, and this is proving true in the eagerness of the once-pagan African peoples to accept Christianity, which has only been preached below the Sahara in the last one hundred years. Roman Catholicism and various Protestant sects have attracted many followers in Africa, but those who really seek for the roots of Christianity are finding Orthodoxy. Perhaps not all of you know the story of the two Anglican seminarians in Uganda in the 1920s who in their studies came to the conclusion that only Orthodoxy was the “true old religion” from which all the modern sects of the West have deviated. Today the African Orthodox Churches in Uganda, Kenya, and other countries of East Africa are examples of the fruitfulness of the search for Orthodoxy today. With hardly any help from the outside Orthodox world, they have come to the fullness of Orthodoxy, avoiding the pitfalls which many Western converts have fallen into—something I will talk about a little later.
In America, the need for roots is obvious: the fragmentation of Christian sects and the diverse understanding of Christian doctrine and practice based upon personal interpretation of Scripture and of Christian life—point to the need to return to the original, undivided Christianity, which is Orthodoxy. Just in the past few years more and more Protestants have been finding their way to the Church. There is even a group, organized as the “Evangelical Orthodox Church” which has come all the way from the Billy Graham-type “Campus Crusade” movement of the 1950s to a deep awareness of the need for sacraments, hierarchy, historical continuity with the ancient Church, and all the rest that Orthodoxy has to offer as the true Apostolic Christianity. This movement has still much to say in contemporary America, and there are ways we Orthodox can help it. This I will talk about later.
In many different places and many different ways, people today are searching and finding the roots of Christianity in Orthodoxy. Things which we take for granted are astonishing discoveries for them: the splendor of our Divine services, coming down from ancient times and so suited to the need of the human soul to worship God in spirit and in truth; the depth of the spiritual teaching contained in the writings of the Holy Fathers; simply the continuity with the past of Christianity, since we trace our beginnings not to some more or less recent teacher, but to Christ Himself and His Apostles, and our bishops and priests received their ordinations in a direct line going back to the Apostles. If we ourselves, having these roots, are leading a conscious Christian life, we can be of tremendous help to those who are weary of personal interpretations of Christianity and want with all their heart the “true old Christianity”—Orthodoxy.
Bound up with the search for roots is the stability of the Orthodox Faith. With the sects of our own day in such ferment, and even the once-monolithic Roman Catholic Church in search of its own identity, the unchangingness of the teaching and practice of Orthodoxy over the centuries is an impressive witness to its Apostolic origin and its uncompromising stand in the truth, not giving in to every new “wind of doctrine.”
It is true that we Orthodox have a problem with the modernists and ecumenists in our midst; but even with them, such a thing as the “new morality” or “situation ethics” so fashionable today would be unthinkable; and the “jazz masses” and other blasphemies perpetrated in the name of making the Church “up to date” and “relevant” would be rejected by any Orthodox congregation. When the “Living Church” movement began in Russia in the 1920s, and had the full support of the Communist government—with the aim of “adapting” the Church to the “realities” of the times in a way that would be considered very “conservative” by most standards today—it was the people themselves who refused to accept it. The instinct for preserving what is ancient, dignified, generally respected, what has been handed down in the Church from generation to generation—is so strong in Orthodoxy that to lose it is really the same as losing one’s Orthodoxy. This kind of stability and continuity with the past is unheard of elsewhere in the contemporary world, and makes Orthodoxy a rock of refuge in our troubled times. And if one realizes that some of Orthodoxy’s stability is the unchanging truth which it has received and passed on from generation to generation, from the time of Christ and His Apostles to our own day—then it is no wonder that it is attracting souis that are hungry most of all for truth—the truth that comes from God and gives meaning and a point of anchor for all those tossed about on the sea of this life.
But possibly the deepest and most attractive thing about Orthodoxy today is its message of love. The most discouraging thing about today’s world is that it has become so cold and heartless. In the Gospel our Lord tells us that a leading characteristic of the last times will be that the love of many will grow cold (Matt. 24:12), and the Apostle of love, St. John the Theologian, has said that the chief distinguishing mark of Christians is the love they have one for another. The most influential Orthodox teachers of recent times have been those most filled with love, who attract people to the riches of the Orthodox Faith by their own example of overflowing, self-sacrificing love: St. John of Kronstadt, St. Nektarios of Pentapolis, our own Archbishop John Maximovitch.
By being aware of those qualities that attract people to Orthodoxy today, we can better be able to help those who come, at the same time making ourselves better Orthodox Christians.
Now I would like to say a word of warning to us all: we have our precious Orthodox Faith, we see many searching for it and finding it; but there is nothing automatic about finding and keeping the Orthodox Faith—we can also fall away from it, or we can give such a poor example of it that it is barren and fruitless, inspiring neither ourselves nor others; or a seeker can find the Orthodox Faith and then not really enter into its life. Let us therefore look at some of the mistaken approaches to Orthodoxy which prevent us from being fruitful Orthodox Christians and witnesses to those who are searching. This word is addressed to those who are Orthodox Christians of long standing, to new converts, and to seekers who are coming close to Orthodoxy and perhaps have not yet made up their mind about it.
One big mistake we can make about our Orthodoxy is being too loose, to “liberal” about it. This comes from ignorance. Some Orthodox people think that the Orthodox Church is nothing more than the Russian or Greek equivalent of the Episcopalian Church; with such an idea, of course, one is not going to try very hard to bring anyone to the Orthodox Faith. This is the error of the ecumenical movement, which arranges meetings and conferences with non-Orthodox Churches, not with the aim of bringing them to the true Faith of Orthodoxy, but on a basis of worldly friendship, in order to speak of the secondary things which we have in common with them, and to gloss over the differences which separate us and an awareness of which might make them eager to accept the Orthodox Faith. This is not to say that all meetings between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians, even on an official level, are wrong—but only that as ordinarily practiced these meetings are not an Orthodox witness to the non-Orthodox, as they should be.
With all respect to the views of the non-Orthodox, we are not living our Orthodox Faith rightly if we do not make others somehow aware of the differentness of Orthodoxy. This does not need to mean arguments and polemics about aspects of the Faith, although these might arise after others have become interested in Orthodoxy. The very way one leads one’s Orthodox life, if one is serious about fulfilling the commitment of being an Orthodox Christian, is already a witness to others.
2. “Crazy Convertism”
A related mistake, which also involves a loose view of Orthodoxy, is a common one of Orthodox converts today: this is what one might call weaving fantasies about Orthodoxy and living in them instead of in the real world. Perhaps some of you have heard of the expression: “crazy converts.” This is actually an affectionate term, devised by converts to speak about their fellow strugglers, and incidentally it refers not only to Americans and Western Europeans: most of those who are serious Orthodox Christians today are to some degree converts, having discovered or rediscovered Orthodoxy after a period of searching. And the converts in Russia today fall into just the same kinds of mistakes as do Americans or other Western converts.
This phrase expresses a definite pitfall we all can easily fall into, trying to lead an Orthodox life with our feet not firmly enough planted on the ground. In the earlier generations of converts in America, twenty or thirty years ago, this sometimes took the form of rather un-Orthodox ideas, or eclectic mixtures of Orthodoxy with other religious ideas. Nowadays we are generally more careful to be Orthodox in our ideas, and our fantasies take the form of exalted ideas about spiritual life, missionary activity; and the like, with very little realization of the humble spiritual state in which are actually located: there are would-be desert-dwellers who can’t pass through a week of obedience in an ordinary monastic community; there are those who dream of the most exalted states of prayer, and who can’t help saying a sharp word at the slightest provocation; there are those who dream of converting whole cities or states when they are barely able to get along with those around them; and so forth. There is nothing wrong with these dreams; such things have indeed inspired Orthodox strugglers throughout the centuries. But they must be combined with the concrete resolve to lead the Orthodox life from day to day in the simplest way—then they can become fruitful.
One of our Russian bishops, speaking on the basis of his own sometimes bitter experience, has translated the word “converts” into pidgin-Russian as “konverti”—which means “envelopes” in Russian. He says there is nothing wrong with konverti—it’s just that they come unglued too easily. And there is a grain of truth in this. We converts have to learn more, through experience, of the daily struggle of keeping and developing our Orthodox Faith. Then even our biggest dreams can come into reality and become fruitful for ourselves and others.
3. Cold Formalism
Another mistake that is made by some who have found Orthodoxy, but which very much puts off and discourages those who are still searching, is what one might call “cold formalism,” a clinging to the formal, official side of Orthodoxy, as though our religion was chiefly one of ceremonies, pomp, official meetings and statements. This was the mistake of the chief priests and pharisees at the time of Christ: as long as the church is well organized, as long as nothing is done without official permission from higher authorities, as long as the church services are properly performed and sufficiently impressive—one can forget the teaching of the Gospel and crucify Christ Himself without a qualm.
Often this kind of cold formalism is bound up with an idle and indifferent view towards the Orthodox struggle: Why try so hard? Why bother to help others? Why should we put our heart into Orthodox action?
This is the kind of Orthodoxy that is often presented at ecumenical gatherings, and it is precisely the kind that does not attract converts to the Faith. I recently met a Protestant, rather fervent in his own faith, whose contacts with the Orthodox for years had been limited to this “official” type of Orthodoxy, and he was astonished and very pleased when he found out that the heart of Orthodoxy is not there, but in its evangelical fervor which may be seen in all our great Saints.
4. “Fortress Mentality”
Yet another mistake made by contemporary Orthodox is what one might call the “fortress mentality’: we have the truth of Orthodoxy; and the times are so bad that our chief activity now is to defend it against the enemies on every side. Often this mentality goes overboard in finding “betrayers” and “heretics” in the midst of Orthodox Christians themselves, and very often it is so concerned with its own “correctness” and the “incorrectness” of others that it has very little strength left to preach the Gospel of salvation even to the Orthodox, let alone to those outside the Church.
Now, Orthodoxy is indeed the correct teaching and the correct worship of God, and that is why this temptation is so easy to fall into. But we must remember that Christ Himself was constantly accused of being “incorrect” by the chief priests and pharisees of His time, and we have to remember that correctness in itself is nothing, and can even cause us to lose our soul, if we do not have first of all something much more fundamental and deep—the “one thing needful” for our salvation. This “one thing” might be called “living faith,” and it is inseparable from something which is all too lacking in the Church today—evangelical fervor. If we have found the true Faith after our own often arduous search, we cannot help but want others to share it.
In America we are in a way fortunate that our Church is so small in numbers, compared to the great majority of non-Orthodox and now non-Christian Americans. This is fortunate because it means that we cannot help but notice how many people are outside the Church, how many are searching for the truth, how many need us to be fervent witnesses of Orthodoxy. This forces us, if we wish to be doing God’s work, to reach out to them and make the message of Orthodoxy understandable to them. In Greece, on the other hand, where the population is almost entirely Orthodox, there are no non-Orthodox seekers to reach out to, and the result is that many of the Orthodox fight among themselves over the definition of Orthodoxy and waste the precious energy that could be devoted to missionary labors.
IV. WHAT MUST WE DO?
People today are searching for the truth, searching for Christ, searching for Orthodoxy; we who are already Orthodox are in a position to help give it to them.
The time is very late. One doesn’t have to be a prophet to recognize our times as being apocalyptic. The economic and political life of even the most stable civilized countries is in a very precarious state, and we might see overnight changes even in our America that would be comparable to the changes that came over Russia after 1917, when a prosperous, God-fearing country was turned into a great prison and an experiment in building a new humanity without the idea of God—a preparation for the coming of Antichrist. Weapons exist which could destroy mankind. The cancer of unbelief has eaten so deeply into contemporary mankind—not only in the Communist countries, but just as much in the free world—that even everyday life becomes dangerous; in any major city one can be attacked on the street; one’s next-door neighbor can be a murderer. No country really tries any more to live by Christian principles; all of politics is heading in the direction of a one-world government which cannot be anything but universal slavery. It the midst of prosperous America thousands of ordinary citizens are storing food and preparing to defend it with guns against the disasters they expect any day now.
We Orthodox Christians are not a people without hope; we have a God Who protects us in the midst of the most terrible misfortunes and disasters. We do not need to devote our energy to storing up food for the hard times ahead. But a Christian must be constantly preparing himself, especially in such uncertain times as ours, when overnight we might be deprived—as believers were in Russia—of religious literature and even Bibles.
Therefore: what should we be doing, if we really believe that Orthodox Christianity is the Faith revealed by God for our salvation? How can we keep alive in ourselves the Faith which we have found, and how can we make it accessible to the searchers of today—who soon, I can tell you, will be in the thousands even in our Protestant America. Here are a few of the things we can be doing:
1. We must become informed about our Faith. The process of Orthodox education does not end with Baptism—at Baptism it really begins in earnest. St. John Chrysostom has said: “The Christian who is not reading spiritual books cannot save his soul.” Attaining the Kingdom of Heaven, by the Grace of God, is a lifelong task. We must be constantly filling ourselves with the word of God, the Holy Scriptures, and other Orthodox literature, so that, as St. Seraphim says, we will be literally “swimming in the law of the Lord”—the science of how to please God and save our souls will become a deep part of ourselves that can’t be taken away from us.
The process of Orthodox education begins with infancy, with the simplest Bible stories and Lives of Saints related by one’s parents, and it should not cease this side of the grave. If anyone learning an earthly profession devotes all his energy to studying and gaining practice in it, how much more should Christians be studying and preparing for eternal life, the Kingdom of Heaven which is ours for a short struggle in this life.
People in places where the Bible is forbidden and Orthodox literature is almost unheard of—such as the countries behind the Iron Curtain—are shocked when they see how much time and effort we in the free world waste on idle pursuits, when we have such a richness of opportunity to learn about our Orthodox Faith. It is as though we are hypnotized by the good things of this life into a state of not seeing the eternal life which is in front of us. It is long past time for us to wake up and learn.
2. Secondly, once we are learning of the Orthodox Faith, we must be ready, as the Apostle Peter teaches, to give an account of it to those who may ask. Nowadays there is no one who is not asked at some time about his Faith. We must make our Faith something deep, conscious, and serious, so that we ourselves know why we are Orthodox—and this will already be an answer to those outside the Faith.
And further, in our times of searching, we should be on the watch for those who are searching. We should be prepared to find them in the most unexpected places. We should be evangelical—and this does not mean just sticking Bible verses into one’s conversation or asking everyone “Are you saved?” It means living by the Gospel, even with all our weaknesses and falls—living the Orthodox Faith. Many outsiders, just seeing that we try to lead a life different from the pagan and semi-pagan society around us, can become interested in the Faith just by this. (Billy Graham is good as far as he goes—we must help lead people deeper.)
3. And third, being filled with the Gospel teaching and trying to live by it, we should have love and compassion for the miserable humanity of our days. Probably never have people been more unhappy than the people of our days, even with all the outward conveniences and gadgets our society provides us with. People are suffering and dying for the lack of God—and we can help give God to them. The love of many has truly grown cold in our days—but let us not be cold. As long as Christ sends us His Grace and warms our hearts, we do not need to be cold. If we are cold and indifferent; if our response to the need for a Christian answer to those who are miserable is only: “Who cares? Let someone else do it; I don’t feel like it” (and I have heard Orthodox people say those very things!)—then we are the salt that has lost its savor and is good for nothing but to be thrown out.
Our times are difficult, especially for the preservation of the spark of true Orthodoxy. Ours is (as in fact it has always been) a “suffering Orthodoxy,” to use the phrase of St. Gregory the Theologian. In the midst of the sufferings and struggles of preserving and living by our precious Orthodox Faith, and seeing how much more people have to suffer and struggle for their Orthodox Faith in other parts of the world, let us put a resolve in our hearts—that we will be among the strugglers, no matter what the cost.
Everything in this life passes away—only God remains, only He is worth struggling towards. We have a choice: to follow the way of this world, of the society that surrounds us, and thereby find ourselves outside of God; or to choose the way of life, to choose God Who calls us and for Whom our heart is searching. Let us take the way of St. Herman and put into our hearts the deep resolve: “From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all.”
From The Orthodox Word, Vol. 38, No. 5 (226—Sept.-Oct. 2002), pp. 242-254. Copyright 2001 by the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, California. Used with permission.