“The question of what it is that saves us is crucial to this debate: is it the church itself, or is it Christ, who cannot be contained by the Church (although he may be found in the Church)? … Father Alexander Schmemann has said that Christianity is not an institution with sacraments; it is a sacrament with institutions, and the sacrament is Christ. The distinction is crucial: the church is not a divine institution which is about Christ, among other things. It is either rooted entirely in Christ or it is false to itself and its mission.” (John Garvey, Orthodoxy for the Non-Orthodox: A Brief Introduction to Orthodox Christianity, pp 111-112)
Many Orthodox saints are known for their rigorist asceticism. We also see them taking a maximalist point of view when it comes to fulfilling Christ’s Gospel commandments. They did not shy away from taking Christ’s teachings quite literally. For example, the 11th Century saint, Symeon the New Theologian says:
“If someone, whether justly or unjustly, should insult you, or revile you, or slander you, and you do not bear the slight meekly, or, grieved and wounded at heart, you fail to endure it and rein in the movements of your soul, but instead insult in turn the one who insulted you, or revile him, or do something else against him, or, again do none of these things to him, but instead go away carrying a grudge against him in your heart and do not forgive him with all your soul and pray for him with all your heart, behold! you have at once taken up arms against Christ by doing what is opposed to His ordinances and have become His enemy. You have as well destroyed your own soul by falling in with and putting the seal on your former sins and making them ineradicable.” (St. Symeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses Vol. 2, p 149)
Presidential election years seem to bring out a certain darkness in the hearts and minds of those who pay attention to politics. People are disquieted by the uncertainty of the swirling, sometimes rushing, muddy waters of the election.
My church and my country could use a little mercy now As they sink into a poisoned pit it’s going to take forever to climb out They carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down I love my church and country, they could use some mercy now
(Mary Gauthier, “Mercy Now”)
In the 21st Century, or so it seems to me, every four years Americans experience a great amount of angst and anxiety about the present and the future. Political parties do a great amount of fear-mongering as the presidential election approaches, feeding the fear, dragging people down, rather than giving them hope. This year seems especially rife and ripe for this descent into despair.
It may be of little cheer, but certainly our country has survived darker and more turbulent times. 1860 comes to mind or 1940.
The Orthodox Church certainly has been confronted with darker times. The rise of communism seemed to spell an endless and unmitigated period of church suffering and shrinking, and hiding in the darkness which overshadowed everything Orthodox.
The world is marked by its ever-changing quality – empires rise and fall. The uncertainty of the world is an ever present feature in the life of millions of people. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh spoke uneasily about the church entering a new age in the 21st Century:
“I have a very clear or rather gloomy feeling that as we enter the third millennium we are entering some obscure and complex and, in a certain sense, unwelcome period. As for devotion to the Church, our faith must certainly retain its integrity, but we must not be afraid of thinking and expressing ourselves openly. Everything will eventually settle into order, but if we keep just endlessly reiterating what has been said long ago, more and more people will drift away from their faith (I mean not so much Russia as the world as a whole), not because everything that was stated before is erroneous, but because the approach and language being used are all wrong. Today’s people and the time they live in are different; today we think differently.
I believe one must become rooted in God and not be afraid of thinking and feeling freely. ‘Freely’ does not imply ‘free thinking’ or contempt for the past and for the tradition. However, God does not need slaves. ‘I no longer call you servants, I call you my friends…’ I think it is extremely important that we think and share our reflections with him. There is so much we could share with him in this new world we live in. It is so good and so important to think openly without trying to conform. Intellectuals with great receptivity must come to the fore by their thinking and writing. The Church, or rather clergymen and some of the conscious churchgoers, are afraid to do something wrong. After all these years when people could not think or speak openly with each other and thereby outgrow, as it were, the nineteenth century, there is much fear, which leads people to be content with mere repetition of what has been adopted by the Church long before and what is known as Church language and Church doctrine. This has to change sooner or later.” (The Wheel 4 | Winter 2016)
The Church unfortunately contracts and becomes entrenched exactly at a moment when opportunity presents itself for moving into a new century, for being renewed by the Spirit. Fear causes the church to hide behind closed doors as the apostles did after the crucifixion of Christ. Jesus, however, came into their midst and commanded them to go out into that world which they so feared and from which they wanted to hide.
So while we Americans face another presidential election and the negativity it will bring, we might consider the words of the newly elected president Franklin Roosevelt at his first inauguration. Spoken in 1933, the problems besetting the nation at that time see very familiar to us today:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
…rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. (Franklin D. Roosevelt, March 4, 1933)
There is hope. We are still here, America survived the mid-20th Century and moved into more prosperous times. The temptations of greed, selfishness and hatred are always there, as they always have been. On a personal level, we can always choose better, no matter how leadership behaves.
Or, maybe we come to realize that in the world, human problems remain rather consistently – things though incredibly troubling and worrisome are not all that different from past times. Democracy is a system which every few years calls for an election – because we are electing fellow citizens to lead us, it will always produce anxiety. It will sometimes produce bad results, and sometimes miraculously, good emerges, nurturing and sustaining us for a life time.
I will admit that I often don’t find the Orthodox lives of the saints very helpful to my life struggle to be a Christian. There are many reasons for this, including my own sinfulness and laziness. The hagiographies I find most helpful are ones that present a real human being, a sinner who struggles in life, wrestling with sins, with self, with God. My life is much closer to the sinner than to a great hesychast ascetic. With the Publican, I pray, “God be merciful to me, the sinner.”
The extant Orthodox hagiographies frequently represent the ideals of those who wrote them – they reflect the times and communities of the authors – they were medieval monks writing for other monks. As is to be expected their value systems are not necessarily my own. Over time, Orthodox hagiographies tended to turn every saint into a monk. The aspects of life that appealed to those who wrote the lives of the saints were those things that made heroes of the extreme ascetics or which reflected monastic values. I find them often being so inimitable to be of little inspiration or value to my life.
Hagiographies in Orthodox history also became stylized and formulaic, and the more that happened the less valuable the lives become in giving us the life of a real person who struggles with their faith. [Not only the hagiographies themselves, but the hymns about the saints – the troparion – also became formulaic so that there are general hymns that are used for all the saints of the rank. You can look up the generic hymns and put any name into them]. The lives often are not very reliable for the “history” of the saints. They became filled with miracles and feats of ascetic extremism because these things appealed to the monastic authors of the hagiographies. They needed lives of people who accomplished great ascetical feats rather than lives of parents, spouses, laborers, merchants, neighbors and laity who strive to be Christians in the world It almost became mandatory that certain miracles appear in the lives of the saints, or they weren’t considered to be a real saint. As this formulaic approach continued, it seems as if anything even remotely “negative” about the saint had to be expunged, and only the miraculous could be reported, again taking away from them the ability to be models that we could imitate. And in a modern world of skepticism, it often calls into question everything about the saints. The worry for the hagiographers was that if there weren’t an abundance of miracles, people would be scandalized and think these holy ones weren’t true saints. But in the modern world, the excess of miracles seems like magic and calls into question whether any aspects of these hagiographies are true.
Yesterday, on our Church calendar we find the Holy Passion-Bearers and Martyrs Boris and Gleb. If you click on the link, you can read a very abbreviated story of their lives. The two were brothers, sons of St Vladimir, Enlightener of Russia. Their grandmother, St. Olga, is also recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church. The lives of Sts Boris and Gleb are for Orthodox Christians both inspiring and daunting. For Orthodox parents they remind us of the reality of life – our children grow up and they may or may not choose to follow the Orthodox faith. “Success” from an Orthodox point of view may be very different than what most parents wish for their children.
Boris and Gleb both embrace the Orthodox Christianity that their grandmother and father adopted and promulgated. They made it part of their own lives, and they paid the price for deciding to live the faith, for both are martyred soon after their father’s death.
Their lives and their deaths are reminiscent of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Though Abel’s sacrifice is favorable to God, and Abel seems to be the blessed one of the two brothers, he ends up murdered. His brother Cain, whose sacrifice was not acceptable to God, actually gets to speak with God, unlike Abel. Being God’s favored one, did not protect Abel from the evil his brother intended. His brother, Cain, the murderer, even convinces God to protect him from too much punishment!
So too, Boris and Gleb, upon their father’s death, realizing the way their people would choose a successor to their father was by might and war, both decide that now as Christians, they will not raise arms against their brother, Sviatopolk. Sviatopolk knows his brothers, and even knowing that they would not resist him, commits fratricide. Boris and Gleb realize full well that Sviatopolk has no moral qualms about murdering them. Yet they choose not to resist evil with evil: they hold on to their Christian faith and die rather than commit murder themselves.
“Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)
So for St. Vladimir, two of his three sons embrace Christianity to the full extent of their lives – and both end up murdered. They are true Christian martyrs. The one son who is not motivated by Christianity, inherits the princedom of his father.
For Christian parents, we see the grief that Vladimir would have experienced had he lived to see it – two sons murdered, but who kept the faith of Christ to the end of their short lives. One son, who rejects Christ but becomes the prince of the land. The son who lives, rejects the faith. The two who are murdered become saints in the Church. They are recognized as a special category of saint – passion-bearers. They freely and willingly choose to die rather than to kill. They accept martyrdom as the price to be paid for being Christian.
Had Boris and/or Gleb taken up arms and defeated Sviatopolk, we probably would consider them as justified for having defended themselves from a tyrant. But had they done that, even though they might be considered as just men, they would not have been recognized as saints in the Church – the holy ones of God. For holiness isn’t doing what normal people would do in self-defense and for self-preservation. Holiness is imitating Christ in being willing to lay down their lives rather than take arms against a brother. Here we see why some saints certainly thought the value of self-preservation often leads to sin – we cast aside moral values to preserve ourselves. That is Sviatopolk, the murderer and fratricide. Boris and Gleb the saintly martyrs reject self-preservation as being an ethical justification for behavior.
The lessons for us are many. As parents, we hope our children will embrace the Orthodox Christian faith we have chosen for ourselves – like St. Vladimir did. But we also recognize that embracing the Christian faith might mean martyrdom for our children. Jesus certainly told us about this: “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you… I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”(John 15:19-20; 16:33)
We obviously do not wish suffering on our own children. But if we will that they follow Christ, we should know that such a life comes with blessings as well as risks.
And we also see in the lives of these saints, another truth. Even if one’s family is made up of committed Christians (converts!), even made up of saints, that doesn’t guarantee that our children will follow that path. St. Vladimir had a son (with a truly saintly grandmother!) who rejected the Christian faith, and he is the one who “succeeds” in life – he certainly succeeded his father’s princedom.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. (Matthew 16:24-27)
Even a saint can’t force their child to grow up and be a Christian. And teaching our children Christian values may mean that they will have to choose martyrdom to stay faithful to Christ.
Finally, we see in the lives of such saints as Boris and Gleb that self-justifying ourselves by saying, “I had no choice,” can be a lie. There is a choice, but we don’t always want to consider it, let alone chose it. Boris and Gleb had no choice but to defend themselves, right? No. They had a choice, and that choice involved martyrdom. They didn’t get to live and see the fruit of their choice, but Russian Orthodoxy blossomed on the tombs of the martyrs. Choosing to live as Christians brought them no reward in this world. Before ever justifying self-preserving behavior by saying, “I had no choice…”, think Sts. Boris and Gleb. If we think some politicians “have no choice” but to vote with their party or to defend some position, think again. There are choices and values we can make, like the beloved saints Boris and Gleb made.
Sts Boris and Gleb were sons of St Vladimir, Enlightener of Russia. After their father’s death the eldest son Sviatopolk planned to kill his brothers Boris and Gleb in order to seize power. He sent a message to Boris, pretending that he wished to live in peace with him, and to increase Boris’s land holdings inherited from their father.
Some of Vladimir’s advisers told Boris that he should take the army and establish himelf as ruler of Kiev. St Boris, however, said that as a Christian he could never lift his hand against his own brother. Unfortunately, Sviatopolk was no Christian and had no such moral thinking.
Sviatopolk sent assassins to kill Boris, who already knew that his brother wanted him dead. When they arrived they heard him chanting psalms and praying before an icon of Christ. He asked the Lord to strengthen him for the suffering he was about to endure. He also prayed for Sviatopolk, asking God not to count this sin against him. The assassins stabbed him with their lances, and also killed some of Boris’s servants.
After Sviatopolk had killed Boris, he sent Gleb a message that he wished to see him. Gleb though also received word that their father had died and that Sviatopolk had murdered Boris. St Gleb wept for his father and brother, and was lamenting them when the assassins arrived. They seized his boat and drew their weapons, but it was Gleb’s own cook who stabbed him with a knife. Later, he was buried beside St Boris in the church of St Basil.
Sts Boris and Gleb received the crown of martyrdom in 1015. They became known as Passion-Bearers, since they did not resist evil with violence. They are commemorated on July 24 each year. (Excerpted from the OCA webpage, Lives of the Saints)
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)
For this city, for every city, country, and for the faithful who dwell in them, let us pray to the Lord.
Hieromonk Gregorios comments in his book on the Divine Liturgy:
“The love that is of God is universal and ecumenical: it embraces all people, all places, all times. ‘Perfect love…loves all men equally.’ It is this love that our holy Church imitates and she desires that we believers should live in the same way. The overflowing of this love is our prayer for the city in which we live, for every city and country. Christian believers ‘live in their own homelands, but as temporary visitors…They live on earth, but behave as if they are in heaven…They love all and are persecuted by all…In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are in all cities of the world….Christians sustain the world.’
Since Christians are the soul of the world, they should rejoice in people’s joy and suffer with their suffering. They should love people more than their parents according to the flesh love them. For ‘the saints occupy the place of the father, surpassing all fathers according to the flesh in their love and care for the people.’” (The Divine Liturgy: A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers, pp 123-124)
I will extol You, my God, O King; And I will bless Your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless You, And I will praise Your name forever and ever.
Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; And His greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall praise Your works to another, And shall declare Your mighty acts.
I will meditate on the glorious splendor of Your majesty, And on Your wondrous works.
All Your works shall praise You, O LORD, And Your saints shall bless You. They shall speak of the glory of Your kingdom, And talk of Your power, To make known to the sons of men His mighty acts, And the glorious majesty of His kingdom.
The eyes of all look expectantly to You, And You give them their food in due season. You open Your hand And satisfy the desire of every living thing.
We do speak, metaphorically, about feeling or being closer to God or further away from God. The imagery does describe an awareness we may have at times, but cannot really describe our relationship to God since God is not limited to any one place in the entirety of existence, for God is everywhere present and fills all things.
It is also true that we live and move and have our being in God. As the Fathers often note there is no front and back to God, no closer or further away. Such ways of referring to our relationship with God are purely human attempts to describe what we experience, but do not in any way describe our relationship to God who exists beyond space and time. Language is the way we communicate our ideas and feelings, but language is sometimes inadequate to the text of describing reality, especially when it comes to portraying our relationship to God. Fr. Meletios Webber notes:
“One of the paradoxes of human existence is that there is nowhere where God is not. Even though we naturally assume that He is more concerned with certain parts of our lives than with others, God is not nearly as restrictive as we are.” ( Steps of Transformation, p 147)
Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall* on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
“In the fear of God, with faith and with love, draw near.”
There is no doubt that obedience to God is a virtue. However, it is also true that the sense of obedience is highly nuanced in the Scriptural Tradition of the Church. For it is God’s will that we might choose to love God and one another. God gives us free will, and allows us to exercise that free will. He does not compel us to love Him, rather inviting us to accept His love. We have to cooperate with God for our salvation. We are not merely cogs in the machinery God has created. We are machine operators, cooperating with our Creator.
We are not mere tools which God uses and discards as His purposes are fulfilled. Rather we are the goal and fruit of God’s love. God created us to work with Him for our salvation and for the salvation of the world. The Church is a living temple, not made with inanimate stones shaped by the Creator. Christ didn’t leave in the world a bunch of literature for us to read, rather He called us to be disciples and to go into the world to do His will and work.
Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)