Assembly of Bishops (SCOBA) 2001

Bishop Seraphim : Talk
Assembly of Bishops (SCOBA)
Washington, D.C., USA
l-3 May, 2001

(A talk given in consideration of A Pastoral Letter on the Occasion of the Third Christian Millennium)

Your Eminence, Archbishop Dimitrios, Your Beatitude,
Metropolitan Theodosius, Your Eminences, Your Graces, dear
brothers and concelebrants in our Lord, God, and Saviour, Jesus Christ,


I was asked to present this paper “on the themes of the Pastoral Letter concerning a critique of the contemporary society, and the social and moral issues currently confronting us”. I will ask your forgiveness in advance, since, try as I may, I have had difficulty coming to a conclusion about how I might best approach this task. Indeed, I will certainly not present anything that you all do not already know. It is only my prayer that these comments, limited as they be, may be of some use in our consideration of our mutual life in Christ and our responsibility as shepherds. I ask your forgiveness also if I have fallen into addressing only what I like to talk about.

There is a certain irony in my having been asked to make a presentation on this subject, partly because I am a Canadian (I presume that I am the only Canadian bishop here), and partly because the Pastoral Letter really addresses American society as such, that is, the USA. It is true that Canada is not so very different, in many ways. However, there are significant differences which colour not only our sense of grammar and spelling, but which also provide a different formation and perspective which does not always mesh well with that of Americans. You cannot grow up singing “God Save the Queen” and not be untouched by the attendant imperial sentiments (and by our parliamentary system that goes along with it). Be that as it may, communication between our societies is still possible, albeit from the perspective of someone outside this American society. I will only do my best not to treat this esteemed gathering in the manner of the satirical CBC programme from Newfoundland, “This hour has twenty minutes” ! An example of this is the joke about Canadians in a swimming pool : How do you get 25 Canadians out of a pool ? Announce that it is closing time ; and they all come out saying “sorry”. Nevertheless, it is perhaps useful to note that when Canada is thought of (that is, if it is remembered that it even exists) the commonly held opinion that most things in Canada are thirty years behind the USA is probably true. It is likely most true about life in general, and especially in the ecclesiastical life of the Orthodox Church. This may have something to do with the winters, the aurora borealis and ozone holes, but that is another consideration.

Before more comments, I find it important to say about the Pastoral Letter itself that it has struck me as being balanced. For this, I am grateful. While it addresses the various subjects theologically, it also treats them from the perspective of application. I believe that it is, indeed, an important contribution to our North American ecclesiastical development. Its seriousness determines its character, but this seriousness also limits accessibility, at least to those of a lesser education or with limited English. Canadians are generally sensitive about such accessibility. I think that it would be useful to produce an additional related text with such persons in mind. I am grateful to note, however, that the recent Study Guide which accompanies this text will likely help to an extent, although it is still not enough. Neglect to use such aids is rampant. A simple, popular presentation would certainly help.

At a recent Orthodox colloquium in Montréal, the question was posed, “With regard to the present FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) summit in Québec City, where do the Orthodox stand — with the free-traders inside the fence, or with the protesters outside the fence ?” The FTAA was meeting in Québec (20-22 April, 2001) at the same time as the colloquium was meeting in Montréal. The answer to the question was, correctly, “With those on the fence”. This was not to suggest that we would necessarily be amongst those breaking down the fence (although that might not be excluded), but that we properly find ourselves in between the extreme opinions. This sense of balance reflects for us our Hebraic inheritance of the unity of body and soul in a human being, the unity of the material and the spiritual, and the mutual importance of both. This unity influences everything about us. In a sort of way, the incarnational character of the Church is a part of this visible unity, and of the apostolic perception of the Church as the one Body of Christ. In this light, we are aware of the limitation of our witness that our present administrative disunity produces. On the other hand, knowing what must at some time in the future be, our present gathering (and all such future gatherings) may serve not only to begin the healing of the present discontinuity with the necessary unity ; but it may also serve in some ways to help break down fences in due time. In the meantime, while we await the complete healing that is necessary, that we are meeting as we are demonstrates for us and for all, the real unity that is, in fact, ours as the Orthodox Church on this continent. It is important that we express our deep gratitude to the Lord Himself for enabling it, and to all the esteemed and beloved hierarchs who have enabled it. “Seeing is believing” is not a saying limited to the denizens of Missouri. I rather believe that we have had that attitude for a couple of millenia.

My sister, some time ago, sent me one of those popular sentimental, “teachy” articles which neither of us usually reads, although there are some that have a reasonable point. This one did. It had to do with a scheme proposed by the devil, by which to catch us. The plan was that everything possible would be done to help keep us busy. This keeping busy would simply increase and increase. There would be pressures from here and pressures from there, demands from here demands from there. Technology would increase, and increase the pace. The purpose of all this was simply to distract us so much that we would no longer have any idea what we were doing, or where we were going, or who we are.

The article might have had its sentimental, “teachy” aspect, but it is true enough. Fifty years ago or so, society as a whole dreamed of a technologically advanced age which would place every sort of convenience at our disposal so that we could have plenty of creative leisure time. This society finds itself now, at the turn of this century, enslaved to those very conveniences. The time-savers and energy-savers require plenty of time and energy to service, sustain, repair, up-grade and replace. One of the greatest ironies of all is the phenomenon of computers which were supposed to take us to a paperless system. What a joke ! I go through more paper now (as does every store I go to) than ever before. One of the reasons, of course, that I use paper in quantity, is that I have no lasting confidence in the permanence of electronic records. With the crash-rate of my computer, I don’t see my attitude changing quickly. Our poor forests. And our poor environment. We are so taken up with our convenience and with living a hedonistic, selfish life, that we consume at a phantastic rate all the resources that we have been given. We often romanticise about the “good old days” when things were slower, but we do nothing to put on the brakes. We hasten recklessly and blindly onwards, rather like lemmings.

It is my conviction that putting on the brakes, extracting ourselves from complexity and from slavery to materialism, and somehow keeping ourselves in the driver’s seat, is of primary importance. Although balance is perhaps the main traditional characteristic of the Orthodox Church, simplicity is almost its equal, and it certainly is its complement. Simplicity does not deny technology, nor does the sense of balance. Its characteristic is that everything is kept in its proper order and place.

As for the previous “teachy” story, there is, of course, one element not mentioned in that little story, and that is greed. Our society is not only frenetically busy, but it is also blind with greed and its attendant demon of fear, irrational fear, even. Anyone with any understanding can see its fruit in the recent madness in the stock-markets of the USA, and therefore the world. With this unholy trinity of hyperactivity, greed and fear, we are completely preoccupied with simply surviving each day. And worse, we fall into the trap of individualism and isolation. In saying so, I am recognising that it is not just those beyond our Church who live this way, since we are, ourselves, affected by this in most serious ways. In the lives of most of us (even us bishops), there are so many demands that there are not enough hours in a day to accomplish what demands attention. Even if the day were doubled, we could more than fill it. And so, what is it that suffers primarily ? What do I hear in confession time after time ? Of course, it is prayer that suffers. I am the first of sinners, here, also. Surely, we try, but the twisted illusion that fear presents to us is that if we don’t produce, if we don’t do everything right now, then there will be trouble. And, in forgetting the Lord, in neglecting to spend the necessary daily time with Him, in taking too much on our own shoulders (no matter how important), we finally accomplish much less, because we do not allow our Saviour to accomplish what He wills in us. And the plain fact is (as I have discovered too often but still cannot properly learn) that when He is in the forefront of everything, far more is accomplished than by any of my abilities exercised without due consultation and communion with Him. How many times have I taken a decision without stopping to listen to the heart, and how many times had to pick up a mess as a result ? Well, I am ashamed to say, of course, too many.

There is yet another terrible and disastrous by-product of the situation in which we find ourselves. That is, that we do not any longer stop to discern thoughts. I am no longer surprised to hear, sad to say, how many people admit (usually in coming to confession) that they believe that all thoughts originate in their own minds. They do not yet understand even this fundamental of discernment, and as a result of this, they have difficulty knowing who they are, in the context of also having difficulty in discerning right from wrong. And so, most of us suffer from a lack of peace, from a lack of connexion with the heart, from a lack of communion with the Lord. And in lacking peace, in being spun around, round about, stirred up and tossed about, to use Psalter images, we have difficulty listening. It is often only by a thread that we hold on to our communion with the Lord, our communion with the Church, our communion with human beings, our communion with creation.

Years ago, I thought that Christos Yannaras and Professor Sergei Verhovskoy were being too negative or even cynical in saying that it was impossible to live the Orthodox life in modern, western society, largely because we have become so addicted to instant gratification. Now I begin to see how right they are. Nevertheless, being “pronoic” (the opposite of paranoic), I still hope it is not impossible, but only difficult. I take hope that our Saviour will still help us to overcome even these obstacles. Yet, I see in my own life and in the lives of so many of the flock that I have been given to lead, that living in such a society has become a very difficult maze. It is amazing to me that anyone manages to find the way to the Way. Yet, some do, or appear to, so I will not yet give up hope.

I suppose that the main reason that I cannot give up hope comes from my very early childhood influence by a pious old man (at least I thought he was old), whose love for the Lord I always respected. It was his custom frequently to repeat his favourite scriptural verse, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). That this Norwegian man loved this phrase (as I have also come to do) is ironic, because he was a Lutheran (as was I in childhood), and Luther disliked this Epistle. Because of this constancy of Christ, and therefore this constancy of love, I have hoped that, regardless of the obstacles and difficulties, it is still possible to live the Christian life, even here, because we are also told that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Many times over, I have now seen that this is so, and I am certain that I am not alone in this. In a way, I believe that what I have said so far is a personalisation of much of what has been said in a more formal way in the Pastoral Letter.

The main characteristic of our secular, worldly life today is, again, clearly, imbalance. There is one extreme or another, and it seems that people swing back and forth from one extreme to another in their opinions, moral and political stances, fads and fashions. This swinging not only breeds instability, but it also breeds insanity. Equally difficult is the personal isolation in individualism that promotes our inclination to be, in delusion, so-called captains of our own ships and would-be saviours of our own souls. Returning to the matter of the Québec fence, it is, as it always has been, the middle and moderate way where the truth mostly rests.

Much of our task as Orthodox in North America is trying to help to bring words back to meaning, and to action as well. In our time of hyper-communication, communication has become largely meaningless. Now, more than ever, it is necessary for us, who know the Incarnation of God’s Word, to help to turn the tide by living in accordance with our word, by doing what we say, by letting “your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’, ‘No’” (Matthew 5:37). There is plenty of Orthodox writing today, and perhaps in some cases far too much. There is a great deal of talk, too, about what Orthodoxy is, and why it is correct, and the Truth. However, living it out lags far behind. We rightly write and speak often about the crucial necessity of the visible unity of the Church ; but we persist in subsisting in a division of administrations. We write and speak often of missions, and we finance missionary projects ; yet we have difficulty with conveying this Truth to the persons set squarely before us, to our friends and our neighbours. We manage to relieve the needs of the poor and of those enduring disasters locally and abroad, disasters which arise from our irresponsibility towards God’s creation ; but we have not managed to do here, before our eyes, what is necessary to do in order to meet the needs of the poor and the homeless. This is not to say that there is nothing being done here, but what is done is so very small compared to what is needed. We are only at the very beginning of becoming the concrete and consistent witness for the Truth, who is Christ, here in North America. We tend to prefer, still, the grandiose, and have difficulty with the insignificant.

It is, perhaps, this particular difficulty which reveals our Achilles’ heel in North America most clearly. We North American Orthodox are known for being well-educated, for publishing well and much, for having erudite scholars and erudite clergy. In some respects, one might begin to describe us nowadays (as the Anglican church used to be called) “the Tory party at prayer”. We have worked hard to be identified with the “upper crust” of society, and we have largely succeeded, although it certainly might be questioned whether this is what the Gospel directs us to do. However, with the so-called ordinary people, we have work to do to recover much of what once was. In this, I mean particularly work with the poor and underprivileged and homeless. Our difficulty here is revealed first and strikingly in how we publish. We are doing very well in publishing scholarly works, which are necessary enough. However, the balance of providing edifying and encouraging literature for helping ordinary people lead ordinary lives in a difficult environment are relatively few. And when there are some works undertaken in order to try to meet these very needs (such as the OCA’s very substantial Resource Handbook), these resources are largely left on shelves somewhere, perhaps in a priest’s library, perhaps in a study, perhaps still in the mailing envelope.

We are not at all entirely lacking in practical works of love, but we don’t talk about these things enough. Why is it, for instance, that we Orthodox have allowed our administrative disunity to limit our co-operation so that we cannot manage to pool our resources in order to establish schools, hospitals, hospices, shelters, chaplaincies and the like ? The great majority of our common work is pooled for work abroad. This is necessary, but what about doing the same here also ? There are, thanks to God, many food-bank contributors, and even soup-kitchens, but there are real gaps still. I notice that the work done formerly by brotherhoods and sisterhoods of parishes, which used to include visiting the shut-ins and those in hospitals, and encouraging the youth, is now almost always left on the shoulders of the clergy. I have noticed how many clergy, in fact, do not like to go to the hospitals, and who do not go at all to prisons, and whose parishioners certainly do not. This is in stark contrast to the sort of works undertaken so often (particularly in these days) in our ancestral countries : hospitals, schools, chaplaincies, orphanages, relief of the needy, organised by monasteries and faithful parishioners and clergy. Although the law will prohibit such a thing here, on the near edge of Siberia, a priest and his wife adopted 45 homeless children, and besides this took in 20 homeless elderly persons. They do all this, and care for a parish, too. This parish takes an active part in the work. Such works of mercy and love were more common in the past here in North America, but now they are rare. Either the government makes it very difficult, or we ourselves are unwilling to make the deep commitment to care for those in great need over the long course of recovery. The North American tendency is to leave those activities to paid professionals. Indeed, often enough now, when works of mercy are done here on general or local levels, those who do them often must be salaried too. What is shocking to me is the not few occasions on which I see, even in the Church, even in our parishes, that work, which is clearly and properly a personal work of love, is often done only if remunerated. Such a contrast to the Widow’s Mite and the Good Samaritan. We still have a way to go here in North America. We have prayerfully to overcome the deadly quicksand of self-help, of self-sufficiency, of the glorification of the so-called human spirit and of the rejection of God out of fear, resentment and anger.

As arch-pastors, we have the responsibility of being and living the clear example for our flocks. As the Apostle Timothy was exhorted, so are we (see 1 Timothy 4:12-16). As I am often saying to pastors, it is important that we understand and practice the correct methodology of shepherding. We westerners are polluted by the “backward” western method of shepherding. The shepherd with his stick (often with his dog), walks behind the sheep and drive them ahead. It takes skill and a certain violence to move a flock of sheep in this way. I’ve seen enough times how the flock will weave back and forth across a field as it is moved forward towards a pasture or a corral. In stark contrast is the Palestinian shepherd I once saw, in accordance with the Gospel. He walked with a goat ahead of his sheep, and the sheep followed him in a more or less orderly line. In this case, it is very clear that a trusting and even loving relationship is required between shepherd and sheep. The shepherd knows that he cannot make his sheep go where he has not first gone.

Therefore, if we arch-pastors wish our people to live holy and Orthodox lives, we must ourselves be an example of how that is done. We must pray ; we must live in the Scriptures ; we must be faithful ; we must serve ; we must care for the neighbour ; we must be good stewards ; we must live in harmony with the environment ; we must live in harmony with our past and our inheritance of the Tradition of Christ ; we must be examples of forgiveness and reconciliation, and be merciful dispensers of canonical medicines. This is our greatest challenge, perhaps, in an environment which tries to limit us to administration and therefore disconnexion from the faithful. In our Pastoral Letter, we address the matter of planetary poisoning, and our ugly cycle of increasing personal comfort and so-called convenience. Especially we, in our affluence, are thoughtlessly and carelessly abusing not only God’s creation by our selfish over-consumption, but we also abuse humans elsewhere. I know one hermit who, in his consciousness of this is conscientiously being careful never to waste food, since, as he says, should he do so he actively takes food out of the mouths of the poor here and elsewhere. Further, being an iconographer, he has chosen not to use gold at all, since he discovered that the producers of gold let every sort of poison from the refining process run into the rivers, thus poisoning all who drink this water downstream. We, too, can help our faithful people by our thoughtful and prayerful living as well as we are able, in conscious awareness of the overall unity of humans and creation. In fact, although it is not a popular idea, it is most useful in terms of obedience to the Gospel and our Saviour, if we were to move towards a nonviolent way of life, as far as possible, finding our way to minimising our negative influence on persons and creatures around us. I am satisfied to see these matters addressed seriously in this Pastoral Letter. But of course, all of this is borne by prayer, and it is the result of our living in loving communion with our Saviour.

In the Pastoral Letter, I am grateful to see how unity between God and creation is addressed, and how we see this, by extension, in the all-pervasive imperative of mission. So perverted is this relationship in the understanding of contemporary society (if it be perceived at all) that at best it is considered that all the universe has its own life apart from its Creator, who is at best disinterested. On the contrary, we perceive the relationship to be so intimate that everything that has any existence expresses it in praise of and in love with the Creator. So much is the Creator involved in everything, that, by those with the eyes to see, He may be perceived in all that is. It has been so in the past that various philosophers have used this Presence to try to prove God’s existence through the witness of various aspects of creation itself. As we are exhorted to fan the flame of loving desire for the Creator that is in everyone by our personal witness and service, we are also reminded, correctly, that intercessory prayer in love accomplishes wonders in this regard. This is expressed likewise in the realm of witness to other Christians who are not yet part of the Church. With humility, this witness is to be exercised in love and respect, but with firm adherence to the truth of Him who is the Truth.

In these days, there is a popular secular movement which tries to return to the so-called basics of education. In a measure, this is perhaps laudable, although I notice we still do not see the return of Latin and Greek to high-schools. With these languages is integrally included a recovery of a sense of history, and its meaning. Without this we will remain crippled. Regardless, a return to spiritual basics is very much in order for us all at this time in our progress in North America. Without these real basics, we will never be able to become for this continent what I believe God has prepared for us. What are these basics, which are addressed in part in the Pastoral Letter ? They are the basics of daily and regular prayer (both personal and corporate) ; of systematic and regular, daily reading of the Scriptures ; of reading commentaries on the Scriptures by the various Fathers, according to our ability ; of regular and serious preparation for and receiving of Holy Communion ; of regular making of confession ; of putting into practice what we preach ; of living in love and forgiveness, in harmony with our neighbour (albeit a hostile one), living without condemning anyone. This return to basics consists of an attempt to recover an Orthodox and harmonious relational perspective on the whole of life, and on our relationship with our triune God. This return to basics includes an attempt to live this reality. This is radical, and this is life. What is it that the Lord has prepared for us ? He has prepared us to be, for all, access to the Living Water, to the Bread of Life, to the Hope of the Hopeless, to the Haven of the storm-tossed, and to be an open door to the Door, a way to the Way, who is the Life of all.

In the light of these basics, I will share the words of Saint Dorotheus of Gaza, whom I believe we ought much more to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. He says to us the following on the subject of humility, the core of everything :

See, brethren, how great is the power of humility. Do you see how effective it is to say, ‘Forgive me’ ? Why then, is the devil called not only ‘enemy’, but also ‘adversary’ [that is, ‘opposer’] ? He is called ‘enemy’ because he is a misanthope [he hates human beings] and hater of goodness, and he is treacherous. He is called ‘adversary’ because he tries to impede every good work. Someone wants to pray ? He opposes him ; he impedes him by bad thoughts, by capturing his mind with insistent distractions, and by accidie. Someone wants to give alms ? He impedes him by avarice [money-grubbing], by miserliness. Someone wants to keep vigil ? He impedes him by lethargy [that is, forgetfulness and pathological unresponsiveness] and indolence.

Thus, he opposes every good work we undertake. This is why he is not only called enemy, but also adversary. However, by humility, all the things of the adversary are utterly destroyed.

Humility is truly great. Each of the saints walked in humility itself, and cut short his journey by hard work, as is said, ‘See my humility and my hard work, and forgive all my sins’ (Psalm 24:18). Humility alone can gain us entrance, as the Elder, Abba John [of Gaza] said, but it will be slower. Let us therefore humble ourselves a little and we shall be saved. I believe in the mercy of God, and that through the little that is done with humility, we shall also find ourselves in the place of those saints, who worked hard and served God. Yes, we are weak and we cannot work hard ; but can we not humble ourselves ? [...]

Humility is great. Quite rightly, this saint [Abba Poemen] designated the person who has true humility by saying, ‘Humility does not get angry nor provoke anger’. This seems to be a strange thing, since humility is opposed only to vain-glory, and it seems that it only protects Man from that. However, one can be angry over money or food. How, then, is it said that, ‘Humility does not get angry nor provoke anger’ ? Humility is great, as we have said, and it is able to draw the Grace of God to the soul. Thus, when this Grace of God comes, it protects the soul from those other two burdensome passions ; for what is more burdensome than being angry or provoking anger towards your neighbour ? As Evagrius said, ‘It is altogether alien to a monk to be angry’. Truly, if he is not quickly sheltered by humility, little by little he will come to a demonic state, agitating others and being agitated himself. Therefore, this is why he says, ‘Humility does not get angry nor provoke anger’. [...]

Humility protects the soul from every passion, from every temptation. When Saint Anthony beheld all the snares of the devil laid out, groaning, he asked God, ‘Who then can elude all these ?’ What did God reply ? ‘Humility can elude all of them’. [...] Indeed, nothing is stronger than humility. Nothing can prevail over it. Should some misfortune befall a humble person, he forthwith holds himself responsible. He immediately blames himself by saying that he deserves it. He cannot tolerate blaming anyone else. He cannot bear blaming another for causing a misfortune. Thus, he eludes it undisturbed, without affliction and in complete peace [...] .

There are two sorts of humility [...]. The first sort of humility is to consider one’s brother to be wiser and to be superior to oneself in all things. Simply, as that saint [Abba Sisoës] said, ‘to be below all’. The second sort of humility is to attribute all our good works to God. Such is the perfect humility of the saints. [...] I remember once, when we were talking about humility, and a notable person of Gaza heard us saying, ‘The more one approaches God, the more one sees oneself to be a sinner’. He was surprised and said, ‘How is this possible ?’ Not understanding, he wanted to learn the reason. I said to him, ‘Sir, you that have the first place here, how do you see yourself to be in your city ?’ He said to me, ‘I am, myself, great, and the head of the city.’ I said to him, ‘How do you see yourself if you were to go off to Cæsarea ?’ He said, ‘There, I am insignificant amongst the great ones there.’ I said to him, ‘If your were to go off to Antioch, how would you see yourself ?’ He said, ‘I would be, myself, as a rustic.’ I then said to him, ‘If you were to go off to the city of Constantinople, near the emperor, there, how would you see yourself ?’ This one said to me, ‘I would be, myself, a day-labourer’, he answered. Then I said to him, ‘See, thus are the saints. The more they approach God, the more they see themselves to be sinners.”’

Like any other pastor, I can myself attest to the veracity of everything said by Saint Dorotheus, and by all others like him. I have, in my short experience, encountered many persons who were living in this manner, of love-borne humility. They have been persons of every rank and order, from pious grandmother, grandfather, parent, child, mother, father, through to monks, nuns, clergy and even bishops. Humility is the foundation of everything, and makes everything possible in Christ. Humility makes it possible for us to respond in an inspired way to the too-rapid changes in technology and the resulting moral turmoil that clamour for our clear discernment. Humility makes it possible for us to learn better how to work together with the Lord, and not to be manipulators and engineers. Humility makes it possible for us to be patient while the Lord brings us slowly to that unity which is necessary in the Church here in North America. Without humility, and the peace which is its companion, none of us will be able to find our way in the mine-field of choice and self-interest.

Humility is, indeed, the natural expression of and the result of a deep loving relationship with God. It is this that we all need to acquire above all. It is this humility that we as hierarchs need to acquire more deeply in order to lead and serve properly. It is this that we need above all in order that we may be able to feed our sheep in Christ, and that we may, in becoming our real selves, help our sheep become the same, all to the glory of God : the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.