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What Is Orthodoxy?


Right is Not Enough

We can define Orthodoxy in no better way than in the words of the great 18th-century Russian Father, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk -- a Saint whose fervent spirit is needed very much today by Orthodox Christians. We should read him more and practice what he teaches. St. Tikhon calls Orthodoxy "the true Christianity," and he wrote a whole book under this title. But "true Christianity" does not mean just having the right opinions about Christianity -- this is not enough to save one's soul.

St. Tikhon in his book, in the chapter on "The Gospel and Faith," says: "If someone should say that true faith is the correct holding and confession of correct dogmas, he would be telling the truth, for a believer absolutely needs the Orthodox holding and confession of dogmas. But this knowledge and confession by itself does not make a man a faithful and true Christian. The keeping and confession of Orthodox dogmas is always to be found in true faith in Christ, but the true faith of Christ is not always to be found in the confession of Orthodoxy... The knowledge of correct dogmas is in the mind, and it is often fruitless, arrogant, and proud... The true faith in Christ is in the heart, and it is fruitful, humble, patient, loving, merciful, compassionate, hungering and thirsting for righteousness; it withdraws from worldly lusts and clings to God alone, strives and seeks always for what is heavenly and eternal, struggles against every sin, and constantly seeks and begs help from God for this." And he then quotes Blessed Augustine, who teaches: "The faith of a Christian is with love; faith without love is that of the devil" ("True Christianity," ch. 287, p. 469). St. James in his Epistle tells us that "the demons also believe and tremble" (James 3:19).

St. Tikhon, therefore, gives us a start in understanding what Orthodoxy is: it is something first of all of the heart, not just the mind, something living and warm, not abstract and cold, some thing that is learned and practiced in life, not just in school.

To Be Different

A person who takes Orthodoxy seriously and begins to really work on understanding it with his heart and changing himself -- has at least a little of a quality we might call the fragrance of true Christianity; he is different from people who live by nothing higher than the world. St. Macarius the Great, the 4th-century Egyptian desert father, teaches in his Homilies that "Christians have their own world, their own way of life, their own understanding and word and activity; far different from theirs are the way of life and understanding and word and activity of the people of this world. Christians are one thing, and lovers of the world quite another. Inasmuch as the mind and understanding of Christians is constantly occupied with reflection on the heavenly, they behold eternal good things by communion and participation in the Holy Spirit... Christians have a different world ... a different way of thinking from all other men" (Homily V, 1:20). Later I'll try to say a word on how Orthodox Christians should be absorbing this different world and way of thinking. Orthodoxy, the true Christianity, is not just another set of beliefs; it is a whole way of life that makes us different people, and it is directly bound up with how much heavenly and eternal things are present in our life.

An Orthodox person who is not different can be worse off than the non-Orthodox. There is
nothing sadder than the spectacle of Orthodox Christians, who possess a treasure that cannot be valued by any earthly measure, something which many are seeking and do not find in today's world -- nothing is sadder than Orthodox Christians who do not value and do not use this treasure.

An Example for the Orthodox

I'd like to tell you a little about a group of Protestants who live not too far from our monastery in northern California. In some ways I think they are actually an example for us, in other ways a warning, and perhaps most of all an indication of the responsibility and opportunity we Orthodox Christians have because we have been given the true Christianity.

These Protestants have a simple and warm Christian faith without much of the sectarian
narrowness that characterizes many Protestant groups. They don't believe, like some Protestants, that they are "saved" and don't need to do any more; they believe in the idea of spiritual struggle and training the soul. They force themselves to forgive each other and not to hold grudges. They take in bums and hippies off the streets and have a special farm for rehabilitating them and teaching them a sense of responsibility. In other words, they take Christianity seriously as the most important thing in life; it's not the fullness of Christianity that we Orthodox have, but it's good as far as it goes, and these people are warm, loving people who obviously love Christ. In this way they are an example of what we should be, only more so.

Whether they attain salvation by their practice of Christianity is for God to judge, for some of their views and actions are far from the true Christianity of Orthodoxy handed down to us from Christ and His Apostles; but at least an awareness of their existence should help us to be aware of what we already have. Some of our Orthodox young people -- for whatever reason, they don't realize what treasure their Orthodox faith contains -- are joining such Protestant groups; and some of our uninformed young people go much farther from Orthodoxy -- one of the 900 victims of Jonestown a year ago was a Greek Orthodox girl, the daughter of an Orthodox priest.

A Matter of Life and Death

I'm telling you about these Protestants both as a warning of how Orthodox young people can lose the treasure they already have if they haven't been made aware enough of it, and more importantly, as a means of defining a little better the true Christianity we have and these Protestants don't have. Some of our Orthodox young people are converted to groups like this, but it works the other way around also -- some of these Protestants are being converted to Orthodoxy. And why not? If we have the true Christianity, there should be something in our midst that someone who sincerely loves the truth will see and want.

We've baptized several people from this Protestant group in our monastery; they are drawn to Orthodoxy by the grace and the sacraments whose presence they feel in Orthodoxy, but which are absent in their group. And once they become Orthodox, they find their Protestant experience, which seemed so real to them at the time, to be quite shallow and superficial. Their leaders give very practical teachings based on the Gospel, but after a while the teachings are exhausted and they repeat themselves. Coming to Orthodoxy, these converts find a wealth of teaching that is inexhaustible and leads them into a depth of Christian experience that is totally beyond even the best of non-Orthodox Christians. We who are already Orthodox have this treasure and this depth right in front of us, and we must use it more fully than we usually do; it is a matter of spiritual life and death both for ourselves and for those around us who can be awakened to the truth of Orthodoxy.

Just this last week I crossed the whole of America by train -- a vast land, with many different kinds of landscapes and settlements. And I thought of St. Seraphim's vision of the vast Russian land, with the smoke of the prayers of believers going up like incense to God. Perhaps someone will say to me: "Oh, you talk like a convert! America is America. It's full of Protestants and unbelievers, and the Orthodox will always be a little minority of people who stick to themselves and have no influence on the rest of America." Well, I'm not saying that we Orthodox will "convert America" -- that's a little too ambitious for us. However, St. Herman himself did have such a dream. He wrote a letter after participating in the first "missionary conference" on American soil, when that small band of missionaries divided up the vast land of Alaska and argued over who would get the most land to cover. St. Herman, hearing this, says that he was so exalted in soul that he thought he was present when the Apostles themselves were dividing up the world for the preaching of the Gospel.

We don't have to have such exalted ideas in order to see that the prayers of believers could be going up to God in America. What if we who are Orthodox Christians began to realize who we are? -- to take our Christianity seriously, to live as though we actually were in contact with the true Christianity? We would begin to be different, others around us would begin to be interested in why we are different, and we would begin to realize that we have the answers to their spiritual questions.

We Have to Sow More

On this same train trip across the country I had what could he called missionary encounters. Of course, I wasn't passing out tracts in the aisles; but just sitting there in my ~ryassa~ with a cross and my beard, I attracted attention. Some of it wasn't fruitful, but was typical of how we Orthodox are often regarded in America: one small boy thought I was "Santa Claus," and a woman pointed me out as "Ayatollah!" I also had several encounters with people who should have been Orthodox: one woman who was married to a Greek man; a man who was married to a Greek woman, but neither of them Orthodox because the woman's grandmother had become a Lutheran for social reasons -- here it was obvious how worldliness had taken its toll of yet another Orthodox family in America.

But there were some fruitful encounters, too. To several people I was able to speak about
Orthodoxy (which they had never heard of) and hand out some copies of "The Orthodox Word". One of these people had a story that should move our Orthodox hearts.

For most of the day that I was crossing vast Wyoming -- full of nothing but frozen, barren land and a few antelope herds -- I was talking to an intense young man who was searching for the truth after finding out that the "charismatic" movement is not from God. After becoming disillusioned with American religion -- the Methodists, Roman Catholics, Baptists, and various Protestant evangelists -- as a last resort he is learning Russian in order to go to Russia and find out what he'll be told by people who are suffering for their faith. "Maybe that will be real," he said, as opposed to the religious hypocrisy he sees everywhere. He asked me eagerly about many things, from doctrines to customs to moral teachings, and then read the chapter on the charismatic movement in our book, "Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future" -- which he said put into words what he felt (based on his own experience) but didn't have the teaching to express. Here is where Orthodoxy, the true Christianity, can literally save someone who otherwise might fall into despair from the inadequacy of the Christianity of the West. Here again a seed was sown; perhaps Wyoming won't become Orthodox, but a few souls there might.

All this is by way of explaining that Orthodoxy, in St. Tikhon's definition, is the true Christianity, and it was never more needed than today. We must realize what a treasure we
have, and make it active in us. This need not mean going door to door like Jehovah's Witnesses, or preaching in the streets. The outward expression of our faith will come naturally once we have begun to go inward, finding out what this treasure is and letting ourselves be truly changed by it.

Recently an Orthodox person of some sensitivity and depth told me: "Orthodoxy is the truth, but it's too difficult for men today, so I seldom speak of it." There is a kernel of truth in this statement. Orthodoxy IS difficult compared to the Western denominations; but still -- anyone who is capable of wanting a demanding faith is capable of accepting Orthodoxy. We have to sow more, so there will be more to reap. But first of all we have to go inward and make the true Christianity of Orthodoxy a living part of ourselves.

Going Deeper Into Orthodoxy

How do we do this? To some extent, anyone who is close to Church and tries to keep the
Orthodox discipline, knows the answer to this question: you attend church services, keep the faith, receive Holy Communion, read Orthodox books. But it is possible to do all this almost mechanically, without going deeper into Orthodoxy.

Make an Effort

Therefore, first of all we must not merely attend services and keep the outward form of
Orthodoxy -- we must be aware of what we are doing. If you've ever talked to an earnest
Protestant or unbeliever who really wants to know what you believe and why you behave the way you do, you will understand how important this awareness is. You can literally save the soul of someone like that if you can begin, even in a little way, to open up to him the depths of Orthodox Christianity. Why do you make the sign of the Cross? Why do you pray to saints? Why do you stand up in church, or make prostrations during Lent? Why are you always singing "Lord, have mercy"? What is Holy Communion? Why do you confess your sins to a priest? Especially today, when we are surrounded by people who don't know the truth but some of whom are really thirsting for it -- we can't just do these things out of habit; we must be able, as the Apostle Peter says, to give an account of what we believe and do to those outside the Church. There are many ways to become educated in Orthodox Christianity -- ask your parish priest, read books, obtain a copy of some of the Church's services and begin to enter more deeply into their meaning.

Further, we must be not just aware of what our Church teaches and does -- we must be trying to saturate ourselves in it. St. Seraphim, in his spiritual instructions, says that the Christian must be "swimming in the law of the Lord" -- and this doesn't mean just making the Church a little part of one's life; it means going deeper and doing more. Of course, we start a little at a time. If you have been going to church just on Sundays, you can begin to go to the Vigil on Saturday night, and to feast-day services. If you've been trying to keep the fast of Great Lent, you can begin to go to more of the very moving services of Lent -- the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the Praises of the Mother of God.

Written for You

And another very important thing: You should be reading spiritual books. St. John Chrysostom goes so far as to say that a Christian who doesn't read spiritual books can't be saved. Why? Because the world, whose spirit we absorb unconsciously many hours a day, is so strong that we will almost automatically follow its ways unless we are consciously filling our minds and hearts with Christian impressions.

Innumerable books exist for this purpose, both in Russian and English: first of all the Holy
Scriptures and Orthodox commentaries on them. Then the Lives of Saints and recent ascetics; "My Life in Christ" by St. John of Kronstadt; "Unseen Warfare" by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and Bishop Theophan the Recluse; the Spiritual Instructions of St. Abba Dorotheos; the Homilies of St. Macarius the Great; the Orthodox service books, several of which are now in English; the "Lausaic History" and the Lives and Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which are just as fresh now as when uttered 1.500 years ago; Lives of Russia's New Martyrs; Archbishop Andrew's "The One Thing Needful." The Monastery bookstore here can sell you these and many other books. If you have a spark of Christian fervor in you, you will be surprised how much your soul will be refreshed by reading books like these; they will give you a taste of that otherworldliness without which the Christian soul withers and dies, especially in our worldly times.

Help in Struggle

And of course, a central part of this going deeper into Orthodoxy are the Church's medicines of confession and Holy Communion, which you should participate in as fully as possible, according to the counsel of your spiritual father. Then there are the daily opportunities for expressing Christian love -- giving alms, visiting the sick, helping those in need. All of these means, if one's heart is in them, are what help to make the Christian different from the world, because they lift his eyes above this passing world to the heavenly Kingdom which is our goal as Christians. These are the positive means of going deeper into Orthodoxy. There are, of course, negative things you will have to fight against as well. Once you become aware that there is an unseen warfare going on, that our Christianity is constantly being attacked by our unseen enemies, especially through the spirit of worldliness, you will begin to see also the negative things in your life that have to be changed. But with a firm understanding of the positive, inspiring side of Christian life, this struggle against negative faults and habits becomes much easier. Part of our awareness of what Orthodoxy is involves knowing that this world is largely the domain of the devil, the prince of this world, who acts on our souls and hearts chiefly by the love of this passing world. But if we are struggling in an Orthodox way, we are receiving the grace of God which is the only thing that can raise us above this world that lies in evil.

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