The Christian Way in the Secular West:
A Message from the Ancient Church
by Priest Symeon Kees
At the very beginning of this presentation several terms with very specific meanings should be clearly defined to avoid misunderstandings later. The first term to define is “the ancient Church.” What specifically is “the ancient Church?” “The ancient Church” refers to the only true Church, that is, the one Church planted on earth by Jesus Christ Himself. This is the Church that Christ placed under the care of His Twelve Apostles. One of the most ancient names for this Church is "the Way," as Holy Scripture indicates. In the 300’s, after emerging from persecution, the Church adopted the name, “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Although the Church was once simply called the Church, due to the fact that various groups have claimed to be the Church over the centuries, the original Church of the Apostles clearly identifies herself today as the Orthodox Church. The word "Orthodox" means both to hold the correct Faith in the one true God and to rightly worship the one true God.
The second term that should be defined is “Western Christianity.” This refers specifically to Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, both of which started in Western Europe and developed separately from the original Orthodox Church still present in the East.
PART I: THIS IS OUR WORLD
There was a time when the formidable walls of Western Christianity cast its long shadow of influence broadly over the Western world. Things are different now. Today, we live in a society shaped by the decay and collapse of Western Christianity. The wreckage of a weakened religion breaks and crumbles around us. Western Christianity has not only been replaced, but the origin and significance of that once-high tower drifts into the forgotten past. As a society, we are much more interest in the new, shiny, cutting edge “what’s-next” than the old obsolete model it replaced. The formerly mighty fortress has been superseded by a new religion, a popular Secularism, an innovative ideology and worldview seeping deeply into our society. As Secularism permeates the society, it alters people’s even most basic understanding of humanness, shapes their views of reality, and changes their behavior as they accept its teachings and give obedience to its precepts.
Though Secularism is a broad ideology embracing many contradictory ideas, it is recognizable by its central dogmas that are held by Secularists as universal truths. The dogmas rest upon the myth of human progress, the idea that humanity, or at least the sector of humanity that has adopted Secularism, is more scientifically, technologically, even intellectually and morally, more advanced right now than any generation before us. Knowledge passed down through the millennia is casually brushed aside as “premodern” and “outdated.” Such is the “Well, people used to think that way, but now we know better” attitude. Suddenly, that which has always been known to be right and true is dismissed while the unthinkable gains public acceptance. This belief in the moral superiority of the present time may be the reason many Secularists possess such shallow appreciation of history, especially the stream of Biblical and Church history so central to Eastern and Western civilizations.
Orthodox Christians view the present age through a long lens from the origin of the universe at one end to the culmination of human history at the other. When our place in the 21st century is viewed through such a lens, human beings today do not appear more knowledgeable in theology, more advanced in their comprehension of the nature of the human person and human relationships, or more competent to understand ethics or to live ethically than our honorable Fathers and Mothers of old. Rather, the opposite seems true: We appear far more ignorant and deficient in some respects than our ancestors who lived in former centuries. Realizing the deficiency in our knowledge and experience compared to our ancestors should be humbling, but humility is a Christian virtue, not a popular one.
Secularism is built on pride, egotism. Pride is the path of self-love. Self-love leads to self-worship, which is narcissistic idolatry. (Narcissus, according to Greek mythology, fell in love with the most beautiful creature his eyes had ever seen – his own reflection in a perfectly still pool of water.) Even Secularists who suffer from atheism have a god. The image of that god gazes back at its most faithful devotees through a mirror. The Secularist aspires to a state of self-love and self-will, often described in terms like “good self-esteem” and “personal empowerment.” To the Secularist, the best way to live is reduced to an existence moved by whatever urges and inclinations seem natural as long as other autonomous individuals consent to participate. The beauty of that loving, devoted intimacy between a man and woman who have been joined together in the union of true Marriage, each a martyr striving to give up personal wants and needs for the benefit of the other, has been traded for the misuse of the body in the selfish pursuit of vanishing pleasure. The wonder of bringing children into the world to nurture in a loving home has become something of a hobby for those who have time left over from attending to more important priorities, like working at a job, socializing, or traveling. Career advancement, high status, and generous income are mistaken for signs of success. Thanks to the efforts of feminists, at least in part, women are now certainly equally as selfish and delusional as men with regard to marriage, family, and employment. For millennia, the Orthodox have understood these symptoms of egotism as ultimately produced by the core disease that enslaves the man and woman, making them more like irrational, instinctual animals - more like zombies, really - than true human persons. (By the way, in a spiritual sense, the dreaded Zombie Apocalypse has already hit the Western world. You have been bitten and there is a cure.) The Orthodox Way, the Way of Christ, promotes inner healing because it brings the person’s life in harmony with his true, healthy human nature. This Path leads us to the experience of a personal transformation far beyond what we can accomplish, or even imagine, alone without the active help of the One who knows us best.
Among the foundational doctrines of Secularism is religious pluralism, the belief that all religions contain universal truths that are part of the human experience, and since there is no one religion with a “monopoly on truth,” no one religion can rightly claim to be substantially more correct than other religions. Although Secularists also claim religious tolerance as a complimentary doctrine, they are often forcefully intolerant of any person or community that claims to possess a more accurate understanding of reality than Secularists themselves hold. Within a Secular worldview, any dogmas (besides the dogmas compatible with Secularism) are considered tools to discriminate against and control people. According to the dogma of religious pluralism, being a Christian is permissible as long as the Christian person is willing to compromise his Christian Faith at the point where the Christian Way conflicts with Secular doctrine. In other words, Christians are expected to practice syncretism, the diluting of the Christian Faith with incompatible religious beliefs. Attempts to mix Orthodoxy, that is, the true belief, with non-Orthodox opinions produces something far less than authentic Christianity. The Orthodox Christian should always be mindful that our earliest Christian ancestors were tortured and killed by pagans because they rejected religious pluralism, but proclaimed the true God, and refused to compromise the Truth even to the point of death.
Since Secularism may be regarded, at least in part, as a reaction against Western Christianity, Christianity seems to top the “hit list” as a prime target against which Secularists aim their propaganda. (Strangely, Secularists seem to extend more tolerance to atheists, on the one hand, and to Islamic practitioners on the other, than to traditional Christians.) What passes for Biblical, theological, and Church history scholarship in our society often largely ignores the history and Tradition of the original, ancient Orthodox Christian Church that uniquely possesses an unbroken continuity from the time of Christ and the Apostles until now. Some teach that no one true Christianity existed in the early Church, but rather a number of equally legitimate “Christianities” in competition over doctrine. Eventually, as Secularists tell the story, through the influence of power-driven politics, a so-called “orthodox” Christianity emerged that suppressed all others. The Western teachers who perpetuate these relatively new ideas, many of which seem to be rooted in 19th century German academic pursuits, lack personal knowledge of the Orthodox Church within which the Old Testament was preserved, within which the Gospel was preached and practiced before the writing of the New Testament, within which the New Testament was written down and compiled into a fixed collection of Scripture, and within which the interpretation of Scripture has been passed down alongside the Biblical writings themselves. Sadly, besides those who openly embrace Secularism, many religious Western Christians remain largely ignorant of the story of the Christian Church from the death of the Holy Apostle John about the end of the first century until the rise of Medieval Roman Catholicism from which the Protestant movement arose in the 16th century. Over a thousand years of history has been lost in the West. Under the influence of Secularism, the flourishing of such ignorance is spreading.
In addition to the dogmas of religious pluralism and tolerance, many of the dogmas of Secularism are defined in terms of rights, particularly “Human Rights.” Same-sex marriage is justified as “marriage equality” or “freedom to marry.” Abortion, the abhorrent and violent execution of an innocent child in the womb of his mother, which is blandly labeled, “the termination of pregnancy,” is justified as a reproductive right and considered a key aspect women’s rights. Secular morality is reduced to preserving rights, preventing discrimination, and empowering human beings who are subjugated by those possessing power.
Honestly, as human beings, we really don’t have any rights. All that we have that is good has been undeservedly delivered into our mortal hands as gifts from the Good God who loves mankind. As the Scriptures remind us, the true God brings sunshine and rain on good people and bad people because He loves us all. He actively invites us all to use our free will to turn from evil and toward Him that He might embrace us and grant us our spiritual inheritance so that we can fulfill our whole potential. As Orthodox Christians, we do not help others because we think they possess certain rights nor because we egotistically fancy ourselves the enlightened heroic saviors of the disadvantaged. Christ, our Master, has commanded us, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “If you love me,” Christ instructed, “you will keep my commandants.” So, we strive to follow the Way of our Master to His glory, for the benefit of others, Whom God loves, and as the path of healing for our own souls. Only when we purify our hearts through prayer and repentance can Divine Love operate within us so that we really love others as we should. Orthodox Christians do not believe in “social justice.” Instead, we endeavor to bring philanthropia, “love of mankind,” into the lives of the people around us. God loves us. In response to the Divine Love we receive, we help the poor because God loves them and we, though we may possess money, suffer from more destructive kinds of inner poverty. We care for the sick, because God calls us to comfort the hurting and, until we are perfect, we, too, suffer in this world from sickness in the body and in the soul.
Western culture is steeped deeply into this new Secular religion. We encounter its doctrines and worldview in the media, in academic and professional settings, and in personal conversation. Although tolerance is claimed as a central doctrine, adherents to Secularism, believing they are morally superior to all others, consider themselves justified to force non-believers to conform to their dogmas. Secularists figure-point at Christians who evangelize with forceful accusations of intolerance and pushing their beliefs upon others, while their own evangelists, whether self-described “experts,” “activists,” or “advocates, spare no opportunity to aggressively push others toward conformity to their opinions. In the eyes of Secularists, discrimination and inequality constitute heresy and the vocal condemnation of their tenets should be regarded as blasphemy, hate-speech. The unbeliever is considered either intellectually ignorant or morally evil for having rejected Secularism. The attempt to civilize nonbelievers by a supposedly “enlightened” Secularism is the new “White Man’s Burden” of Western society. Employees and students may be required to participate in indoctrination sessions under the guise of “sensitivity training” or “diversity training.” The promotion of Secular propaganda is often presented as an effort to "raise awareness." School systems often shape children and young adults so thoroughly in the Secular worldview and ethos that many consider its tenants unquestionable. Due to the wedding of Secularism with national and international politics, Secularism is emerging as the state religion of Western nations.
Our Orthodox Christian Fathers and Mothers outright rejected the presumption that many “spiritual traditions” lead to salvation alongside the Way of Christ. Instead, they believed the words of Christ, Who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” The Orthodox Christian follows a Way directly opposed to the religious pluralism of Secularism. In order to justify discrimination against Christians who hold to the unalterable and timeless Orthodox Faith, Secularists will surely dismiss us as irrelevant and accuse us of being evil by labeling us with pejorative identifiers: bigot, intolerant, ignorant, narrow-minded, judgmental, oppressive, hate-monger, patriarchal, hate-speech user, offensive, non-inclusive, extremist, misogynist, sexist, homophobe, and so on. Orthodox Christians who challenge Secularism should expect Secularists to respond by attempting to nurture outrage among their own. Secularists may publically demand that the Christian challenger be silenced and perhaps otherwise punished through legal action, business boycott, loss of professional position, or public shame for daring to question the truthfulness of Secular doctrine. Since Secularists carefully craft language in such a way as to justify their ideological worldview and goals, even the use of “politically incorrect” language may bring heavy condemnation. When Secularists agree with Christians, we shall be considered (perhaps surprisingly) enlightened. When, however, we correctly identify the activities they embrace as sin, such as the misuse of sexual expression outside of a faithful marriage between a man and a woman, Secularists will accuse us of being judgmental bigots for simply discerning between that which is right, good, and healthful and that which is wrong, evil, and dangerous to the health of the soul. Those who rail against Christians often possess very little knowledge of the authentic mind, ethos, and life of the Orthodox Way. They also likewise show very little patience to listen or interest in learning the Way that challenges their own preconceived opinions.
PART II: HOW WE ARRIVED WHERE WE ARE
To grasp how Christians are called to respond to this Secularism, let’s look at a brief summary of human history to see how we arrived where we are. The Western calendar divides human history into two categories: BC and AD. What event in human history is so significant that all human history hinges on it? The birth of Jesus Christ is that pivotal happening that shapes our vision of history. Certain circles find it fashionable to replace BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini – “In the year of Our Lord”) with the less descriptive BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era), but the birth of Christ still services as the marker in historical time from which all history before and after is viewed differently because of what happened at that particular time in the story of the cosmos.
“God said, ‘Let there be light’.” God created all things through His Word, or, to put it another way, The Father brought all things into existence through His Son. The Son, Who has always existed eternally with the Father and through Whom the universe came into being, knitted for himself a human body in the womb of a Virgin. The Son took on our human nature, joining it with His unchangeable divinity. Then, He Who Is the Source of Life, liberated us from slavery to death and opened the gate to resurrection and immortality. “Christ is Risen!”
Since Christ came to heal us from physical and spiritual death, He established His Church as a spiritual Hospital on earth. The Church is an unfathomable Mystery that is indeed, according to the Scripture, “the pillar and ground of Truth.” Within the Church, the inalterable Truth “once for all delivered to the Saints” is preserved and passed on from generation to generation. When early heretical communities started popping up soon after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the answer to the question, “Where is the true Church of God on earth?,” was essential for our ancestors who lived during the time of the Apostles. The answer to that question during the time of the Apostles was simple: Wherever you find the Apostles, who held the authority they had received from Christ, there is the Church. In other words, any community that claimed to be “Christian,” but was not under the pastoral authority of Christ’s Apostles, was not the true Church, but instead a heretical community adhering to their own human opinions and invented traditions. Distinguishing the difference between the Orthodox Church and a heretical community was the difference between finding a real hospital with competent physicians who administer effective medicine and a fake clinic run by frauds who incompetently, albeit with sincere intentions, administer poisonous concoctions that promote infection and disease.
The Apostles consecrated bishops as their co-ministers and successors to oversee and shepherd the local churches. Those first bishops consecrated more bishops, as needed. During this time, the answer to the question, “Where is the Church?” remained essentially the same as before. One of the early bishops who lived during the time of the Apostles was St. Ignatius, the second bishop of the Biblical Church of Antioch. In one of his pastoral letters, he explained that wherever the Orthodox bishop is found, there is the Church. Conversely, those communities that claimed to be Christian, but operated apart from the authority of an Orthodox bishop, offered, as St. Ignatius explained, poison mixed with sweet wine.
The Orthodox Church endured several centuries of persecution from the first century until the Church was lifted out of persecution in the fourth century during the reign of St. Constantine the Great, whose mother, St. Helena, was a devoted Christian. The Church gained legal status and eventually, during the reign of the Holy and Right-Believing Emperor Theodosius the Great, the Orthodox Christian Way became the Faith of the Roman Empire. As it has been said, “The Empire that killed the martyrs was conquered by their Faith.” From Jerusalem and Antioch in Asia to Rome and Britain in Europe, the Eastern and Western world held one Faith within one Church and walked according to the one Way of the One true and living God – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Among the most significant dates in world history is AD 1054, the year of the Great Schism, when the Orthodox local church of Rome separated herself from the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Church is comprised of independently governed local churches in communion together. The five ancient local churches, called Patriarchates, included Old Rome, Constantinople (called “New Rome”), Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The chief bishop of the Roman church, the Orthodox Pope and Patriarch of Rome, attempted to assert universal authority over his brother bishops who shepherded the other ancient local churches. This attempt, and other noteworthy actions by Rome, caused the other Orthodox local churches to officially recognize that the Roman jurisdiction had separated herself from the Orthodox Church. Since Rome and the Western European territory within its jurisdiction had been torn from the Orthodox Church, Rome offered a new answer to the question, “Where is the true Church?” Rome, headed by the Pope, redefined the Church in terms of submission to Papal authority. This is the beginning of Papism or, as it is commonly called, Roman Catholicism, though the Roman Catholic Church was neither Roman, nor Catholic, nor the Church. Over time Roman Catholicism continued to drift farther away from the Life and Faith of the Orthodox Church. An event in AD 1204, 150 years after the act causing the Great Schism, confirmed the reality that the church in Rome had separated itself from the Holy Orthodox Church. In that year, the Roman Catholic Crusaders on the Fourth Crusade viciously attacked and terrorized the Orthodox Christian citizens of the Imperial City of Constantinople. The Crusaders looted Constantinople and weakened its defenses, contributing to the fall of the Imperial City to the Mohammedan Ottoman Turks in AD 1453, the tragic event that brought an end to the long-enduring Roman Empire, which had persevered as an Orthodox Christian Empire for nearly 1,000 years.
In the 16th century, about 500 years after the Great Schism that separated Rome from the Orthodox Church, the Protestant movement began in Western Europe as a reaction against what Roman Catholicism had become. Rather than returning to the One Church founded by Christ, Protestants created a new kind of Christianity. Protestantism showed the influence of Roman Catholicism, while also providing fertile soil for the development of new doctrines, such as the teaching that the Scripture alone is the sole source of spiritual authority. Although rightly rejecting Roman Catholic traditions that contradicted Apostolic teaching, Protestants made their own traditions based on the opinions of strong leaders such as Henry VIII, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and others. Just as the local church of Rome realized the need to invent a new answer to the question, “Where is the true Church?” to claim legitimacy when it had separated itself from the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, so the many, many various Protestant communions and independent congregations that have been founded over the past 500 years have also recognized the need to yet again redefine what the Church is and where the Church is. New, innovative answers to the question, “Where is the Church?” that fit neatly within the framework of Protestant doctrine have been developed. The answers to that critical question offered by Protestant groups vary considerably. However a particular Protestant denomination, association, congregation, or individual answers the question, “Where is the Church?,” the answer proposed proves far different from the answer provided by the ancient Orthodox Church down through the centuries from Apostolic times to today.
After the rise of Protestantism, religious wars erupted in Western Europe between Roman Catholic and Protestant sides as well as among Protestant sects themselves. Whereas the Western Christian world gave faith and reason complimentary roles, the bloodshed caused many to question whether faith served as a necessary component at all. The idea that one could discover truth with the rational mind through the process of reason alone became popular in the West along with the idea that truth can be found by experiencing reality with the five senses, especially by using the scientific method. The process of reasoning is dependent on some assumed truths, such as whether God exists, that cannot be proven or disproven by reason alone. When the application of reason alone failed to lead the world toward lasting peace and freedom, but instead brought war and death with the rise of atheistic political revolutions, some rightly determined that cold, hard reason utterly fails to lead human beings to truth by itself. Like reason, the scientific method proves useful for understanding how the created universe operates, but the realm of science is limited. Certain questions, such as “Does the Uncreated God exist outside of the material creation?,” “Why does the universe exist?,” or “What does it mean to be human?,” lie outside the proper boundary of science. No inherent conflict exists between science and theology, properly understood. Those who place faith in a Secular philosophy of science that affirms the scientific method, but rejects the reality of the existence and operation of God in the universe, presume to claim that God does not exist with certainty, while they with certainty are far from exhausting the quest for knowledge of those things in our vast universe present within the scope of science.
Secularists have attempted to build a foundation upon research studies, commonly cited as evidence to support their claims concerning what it means to be human, male and female, and how human beings should live (with regard to morality), questions that largely lie outside the scope of science. These studies are invoked as though they undeniably establish Truth with absolute, infallible certainty. Research studies can only present what appears to be true assuming both the data and interpretation of data are accurate. They are subject to being overturned in light on new, better evidence. So, while studies are useful tools within the scope of academic and scientific inquiry, as well as the practice of medicine, the tentative, challengeable, and limited nature of studies, produced by human beings capable of error, make these studies very poor Secular substitutes for Holy Scripture and the enduring Tradition of the Church.
The social sciences are based on the observation of fallen man. Our race has fallen into the experience of sickness and chaos. The problems among people in the world reflect our inner troubles. Even one who is deemed “normal” by a mental health professional when compared to other people is still spiritually and mentally ill from a theological perspective. Social scientists, who sometimes do accurately observe fallen man, have produced effective therapies that help people improve their thinking patterns and behaviors, but the social sciences know nothing of unfallen man free from the effects of spiritual sickness or the full potential of man in the healthy, perfected state of the soul. Mental health professionals, then, can certainly help people to some degree, but the deeper healing of the soul is beyond the boundary of the social sciences. The Church, however, has preserved the Truth about who we were created to be, the root causes of our problems, and what we would be like if we were, not only normal, but to some degree perfected, having achieved the heights of mental and spiritual health.
Today, many have realized the limitations of rational philosophy and science to determine absolute truth, especially with regard to God, the spiritual world, the meaning of human life, and the right way for a human being to live. Having believed the Secular doctrine of religious pluralism, they have grown likewise skeptical that any particular “religious tradition” can possess substantially greater knowledge of absolute truth than any other. Having grown skeptical of the ability to even know Truth with certainty, many young men and women seem to have given up seeking the Truth about God, the meaning of their lives, and their own spiritual health all together. When a person does not know the living God Who reveals Truth and Who instructs us how to live, he doesn’t possess any way of knowing who he truly is, the full significance of his life, or how he should live in relationship with other people. Such a person possesses nothing but a collection of personal opinions that form out of his own speculations, passions, imaginings, and feelings alongside the influence of other people’s assertions. He is like a house built upon shifting sand, without a secure foundation to anchor it. Such is the society in which we find ourselves.
PART III: THE CALL OF THE ANCIENT CHRISTIAN CHURCH TO ALL CHRISTIANS
What message, then, does the original, 2,000 year-old Orthodox Church have for the non-Orthodox who still desire to live as Christians in the world? In this increasingly darkened society, let all Christians be united by bearing one unchanging Faith by sharing one all-encompassing Life under the guidance of the One Spirit within the one Church established by our only Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ. The One Church, established by Christ, that has kept the fullness of the Christian Faith unchanged since the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost remains in the world, even into the 21st century, to bring salvation to all people. This Church is, as St. Paul wrote and I previously noted, “the pillar and ground of Truth,” against which, Christ promised, the gates of hell shall not prevail.
Still today, wherever you find an Orthodox parish under the pastoral care of an Orthodox Bishop, who bears Apostolic succession in both the sense of historical lineage from the Apostles and preservation of the Orthodox Faith within life of the Orthodox Church, there you find the true Church of Jesus Christ. The Church calls everyone to leave behind false religions, philosophies, doctrines, heresies, incorrect opinions, and unfruitful practices to unite with the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Real unity among Christians only becomes a reality when Christians walk the singular Way of Christ in its fullness.
To clarify, let me emphasize what the message of the original Christian Church to Western Christians is not. The message is not this: You can connect to the ancient Church by "borrowing" elements of ancient Christian spirituality "relevant" for today and by integrating those elements into your "prayer life" and "worship experience." That is not the message. If you were to unplug your coffee brewer and take it with you on a hike up a mountain into the wilderness, you should not be surprised that your machine doesn’t work when you get to the top of the mountain - without electricity. That is what trying to “borrow” beliefs and practices from Orthodox Christianity for use outside of the wholeness of the Orthodox Church is like.
Christians must not be double-minded, holding some views in harmony with the mind of the Church alongside other views contrary to the mind of the Church. Oil and water do not mix. If I say that I am an Orthodox Christian, you should be able to safely assume much about what I believe. You should also be able to assume how I strive to live, although, personally, I often fail in my attempts and, after repentance, find it necessary to change my thinking and realign my course. We must choose either the narrow Way of Christ that leads to Life or one of the many broad ways heading toward destruction. As the Didache, an early Christian writing, states: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways.” We need to decide if we want to be Christians or be honest with ourselves that we are something else. If you want to be a Christian, be a Christian- completely. Plunge your whole life down into the depths of the Mystery of the Church so that your life will be whole.
In a fallen, corruptible world, the Church remains the holy and pure Hospital for all people. (Her treatment is indeed perfect, though her patients bear varying degrees of wellness.) As patients of the Great Physician, we seek healing as we also work to bring others to the One Who heals. Many of those in our society do not realize they are spiritually sick and, furthermore, would be offended by the suggestion. Since they remain unaware that they are afflicted by the effects of death within, they do not seek the Physician.
If we are to bring healing to the world through the grace of the All Holy Trinity we must live as strangers in this world while ministering to the people of the world. The Book of Hebrews reminds us of the Holy Prophets of Old Testament times, who, like the Saints of the New Testament, endured persecution because of their unwavering faithfulness to God and boldness to proclaim the Way of repentance and healing. They
were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.
We have received the Holy Tradition of the Apostles into our most unworthy hands. Our calling as Christians, who presume to bear the Name of Christ, is the same as the Prophets and Saints who have gone before us, preserving and passing on, even to the shedding of blood, the fullness of the Faith from generation to generation. When we live and work within our Secular culture as Orthodox Christians, we can expect conflict because our Way is not the way of the world. Our ancestors were brutally tortured and martyred in old pagan cultures because they stood bearing the Light of Truth in the dark shadows of spiritual ignorance and delusion. May we stand as they stood with such unwavering boldness. Let’s proclaim with our whole lives the words we periodically pray at the service of Vespers:
Though You were arrested, O Christ, by the law-breakers, You still remain my God, and, therefore, I am not ashamed. Though You were lashed on Your back I shall not deny You - or nailed upon the Cross, I shall not hide it, for in Your Resurrection do I glory, for Your death is my life, O Almighty One and Lover of mankind. O Lord, glory to You! (Octoechos, Tone 7).
Briefly, to those of you who are immersed in Secularism, permit me to offer you the same invitation the Orthodox have offered on behalf of the Living Resurrected Christ for two millennia: Open the door of your heart. Through humility, let in the God Who gives you Life, Who knows you completely, and Who loves you unconditionally. Learn what He has accomplished for you and desires to give you. He knocks on the door of the heart, but, respecting the free will He has given us, God waits for us to open it.
Do not misunderstand the Orthodox Way: Our Holy Tradition is rich with liturgical services, sacred art, lyrical chanting, sweet-smelling incense, dogmatic prose, and theological poetry. An outsider who does not understand the Way may misunderstand this fullness as a series of unnecessarily complex ritualistic exercises. One who knows the Orthodox Way deeply, however, experiences all these external expressions as guides that lead toward the healing of the soul within and as outward expressions of the inner life. The outward expression is inseparable from the personal interior life, that is, the inner life of humility before God and our fellow human beings, love of God and others, repentance from sin that causes sickness, prayer of the mind and heart, peace inside and outside, patience in the midst of chaos, and simple obedience that produces harmony both within the soul and in our relationships. These things rest at the heart of the Orthodox Christian Way of Life.
One of the most significant turning-points in my own life was when I, having two degrees in religion, found myself standing before the very Church of the Holy Bible. I had considered myself a member of the Church (from my Protestant perspective), but there I stood outside the doors of the actual Church described in the Acts of the Apostles. I stood there as an outsider looking in. Once a man finds the one and only Church in the world established by Jesus Christ Himself, that man, if he desires to be a Christian, has nowhere else to go. How could I say that I am a Christian and reject Christ’s own Church? I had been looking for the “right church for me,” and I discovered the right Church for everybody. Instead of joining a congregation that believed what I already believed, I found the necessity to change many of my own preconceived notions so that I believed what was in harmony with Truth and the Way of salvation. I hope that you will have the ears to hear and eyes to see these words. Seek a deeper experience of God, learn the Orthodox Way, and enter into Christ’s Holy Church for the glory of God, for your own salvation, and for the benefit of all.
From the ashes, let us rise and soar to the heights. Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory Forever!
Fr. Symeon serves as the associate pastor of St. George Orthodox Church in Houston, TX.