Developing and Maturing the Understanding of the Orthodox Tradition

Bishop Seraphim : Talk
Developing and Maturing the Understanding
of the Orthodox Tradition
Nationell Bildningskonferens för Profilområdet Ortodox bildning och kultur
Södertälje, Sweden
27-28 October, 2006

I have been given the opportunity to talk about the subject of developing and maturing the understanding of the Orthodox Tradition. I find this to be a challenge — first, because there is a variety of ways of understanding the meaning of Orthodox Tradition ; and second, because to do this properly would really require a theologian, and I cannot dare to consider myself such a person. I have taken, as a reference for some of my comments, the titles of some of the items in the programme of the Conference.

From my perspective, it is necessary to pay attention to the meanings of the words “to develop” and “to mature”, especially when it has to do with understanding the Orthodox Tradition. If we are not careful, we can find ourselves living in and with a foreign mentality. When I say “foreign”, I mean in this case “western”, in the sense of philosophical. I am going to take a moment to “thump one of my favourite tubs”, and I beg your indulgence.

One of the big problems for us who grow up and are formed in the West, is the mentality that dominates this West. I mean that, from the Orthodox perspective, since scholasticism has taken control of all our life, many things are essentially backwards. In earlier centuries, and in other cultures, theology (which is in reality all-encompassing) was correctly considered to be the source of everything. All other disciplines followed after. However, in the West, philosophy, which functions primarily in the linear realm of logic, usurped this leadership. As we are thus formed, everything is subjected to human reason, which is in fact replacing God. When theology was in first place, we, being Christians, used reason to try to explain what is our experience of God (but this was also the case for others). For us Christians, everything is rooted in our personal and corporate experience of God the Father, as He reveals Himself to us in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. We Christians used to be called “the Way”, because we follow, and live, in Him who is The Way. Nowadays, Christianity is often classified as a “religion”. This is a dangerous condition for us, for a religion is a system. However, we are neither a system nor an institution. We are, as the Apostle has written, members of the Body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12:27), and we are, as such, the Church, a living organism.
I am taking this moment to cite a definition of “tradition” from a recent Orthodox dictionary : "‘Tradition’, in both Greek and Latin, derives from the verb meaning ‘to hand over, pass on’ (paradidomi, trado). In the Orthodox Church, the phrase ‘Holy Tradition’ signifies the Christian faith and that which enables and expresses it : worship (sacraments and liturgical offices), the Scriptures, the writings of the Church Fathers, the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, and the witness of the lives of the saints. More deeply, tradition has been defined by Fr Georges Florovsky as the life of the Holy Spirit, the current or continuum of the Church as the body of Christ and presence of the age to come. Not bound by documents or ritual actions, nor enclosed by them, nor expressed particularly and infallibly by any one office or officer of the Church, Holy Tradition is enshrined and protected by writings, rites, and offices within the Church.[1]

Further, we distinguish between Holy Tradition, and simple customs of various sorts and qualities. The definition just cited underlines that this Tradition is, as might be said, the whole truth about Him who is the Truth. Christ is truly the beginning and the end of this Tradition. He, alone, is its focus. In this context, the living out of Christian life in this way in daily life, expresses itself in some ways as being similar to British Common Law. British Common Law is not a systematised set of laws promulgated by some parliament. Rather, it is a complex of decisions made by judges on the basis of precedents and case-by-case particular situations. The whole of the system tries to keep a constant understanding of right and wrong as each case is addressed on its own merits, but without rigidly forcing each case to conform to an oversimplification based on generalised legislation. The adjudicators of each case must use head and heart together in addressing what is the truth of the particular situation. Christian tradition is conformed to the Tradition of Christ in a similar way. The Truth, Christ, is the foundation of all our life as Christians. He, the Truth, informs and guides everything in life. At the same time, however (unlike Common Law), the foundation of this Christian way of life is rooted in loving, personal relationships between human beings and Christ, in which, because “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), Jesus Christ is always the one constant to whom every detail in life and human relationships is referred.

“Develop”, which comes from French, is a relative of “mature”, in that it carries the sense of fulness and completeness ; but the primary sense seems to be concerned with making this happen. For example, the first dictionary-meaning given is “make, or become bigger, or fuller, or more elaborate, or systematic”. As we are currently using these words “develop” and “mature” nowadays, it seems to me that they are almost synonyms.

Next, if we see the dictionary’s presentation of the word “mature”, we can see that it principally means “ripe”. This is from its Latin root. However, I see a difference between the way the word is used in Latin, and the way we seem to be using it now (at least in English). This ripeness is a process which may be helped along, and encouraged, according to my reading of the meanings for maturesco, maturo, maturus, maturitas ; and I suppose that the active aspects in agriculture would presume the activities of pruning, and fertilising. However, this is chiefly a process which describes a fulfilment, ripeness, completion, softness, full and proper time. In modern English usage, we seem to be limiting ourselves to its meaning the simple completion of a process, to full development. The sense of ripeness and softness are marginal meanings now, so that maturity suggests simply the fulfilling of necessary time. A Latin-influenced understanding of human maturity would expect (as given in a secondary meaning in English) : sensibleness and wisdom, besides having fulfilled certain years and having achieved an adult physical stature. These concepts of sensibleness and wisdom are related to the concept of ripeness and softness, certainly because one, in wisdom, understands the unique needs or situation of each person, and is less inclined to impose rigid, inflexible rules.

In other words, the mentality behind much that we are and do in the West, at present, seems to be technique. We think that if we could only find the right technique for one or another troublesome situation, then we can repair everything. Another background, unmentioned, word is “control”. Technique and control are symptoms both of fear and of trying to be independent of the Lord. Revealing the activity of technique and control in a person’s life is interestingly a factor involved in the process of recovery used for addiction, in the 12-step programmes. They are symptoms of what is spiritually wrong, symptoms of what has enabled (or is enabling) the addiction.

The reason why I am spending this time on rehearsing these terms, and how I understand our present environment, is that if we really wish to discuss maturing and developing the understanding of the Orthodox Christian Tradition, we must try to do so in the native Orthodox Christian way. Therefore, let us also spend a moment with the word “understand”, which in many ways is reduced in modern consciousness to “figure out”, or “dissect”. “Understand” is reduced to a simple mental process. The word “understand” is directly connected with the Latin-based word “comprehend”, which expects the inclusion of implications, and other significant (not necessarily elaborated) factors. It seems to me that this understanding, or comprehending, is an activity that affects the whole being of a person. Understanding is, therefore, not simply a mental process.

There is yet another factor involved in this consideration, and that is the meaning of the word “obedience”. Most of the time, we are given to understand that this is something which is imposed by one person upon another. A person must obey (even sometimes blindly, we are told). On the other hand, in the context of what the Gospels present to us, it seems to me that obedience is something rather different. It is not imposed, nor forced, but it is something freely given by one person to another. I believe that, if we look at the lives of our monastic saints, this would be the usual pattern of behaviour. One person sees the light and love of Christ in another. This love is contagious. The second person, desiring to imitate the virtue, offers obedience, offers imitation. It is through this freely-offered obedience, that life-giving love may grow. It is true that the one being followed will occasionally be required to correct the follower ; but this, in the manner of a family, is something to be undertaken in the context of Christ’s love.

All this leads me to address the matter of balance, of wholeness, of unity. Unity and wholeness are natural extensions and expressions of Who is Christ. The Apostle Paul’s analogies of the Body, the Building, the Field, are all helpful expressions for us. For Orthodox Christians, everything in life (not only our own human life) is inter-connected ; all is part of a greater whole. We properly understand our unity to require also a visible expression. Since the Incarnation, and because of it, the Body of Christ, the Church, must be both visible, and one. Christ is one. The Holy Trinity is one. Therefore, the Church must appear as a unified whole, and so must our families, and so must we, ourselves. The only way in which I am aware that such a wholeness, such a unity, may be achieved, is within a relationship of pure and selfless love with Christ. This means that we must become humble like Christ, that is to say, in the love of Christ putting ourselves last, and putting Christ, and others, first. We must be ready to live daily in forgiveness with each other, taking seriously the words of the Our Father. Perhaps we may not ourselves bring about the visible unity required, but if we personally live in association with other Orthodox, and with other human beings, in accordance with the Way, we will help this process along, regardless.

Nowadays, there seems to be an obsession with physical health. There are programmes of every sort, which promote the health of the body — diets, exercise, and the like. There are also all sorts of programmes for promoting psychological health. There are various systems for sorting out all kinds of psychological difficulties, and there are self-help programmes of every sort. We, captains of our own ships, are determined to do things ourselves, apart from the Lord. In doing things in our own independent way, we are guaranteed to find every reef and shoal. We are not looking for true spiritual health, because this requires that we let go of our obsession with control, and allow the Lord to be in charge of our lives. We want to heal ourselves, not let the Lord do so. We want to determine, ourselves, where we are going, and not to accept that the Lord might know better. We hesitate to allow Him to lead us. However, real health of body, soul, spirit, can only be found in the context of letting the Lord be in charge, and accepting the direction that He indicates :

‘Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets’ (Matthew 7: 7-12).

The Lord will, and does provide, but we must know Him, and His will. We must have a healthy relationship of love with Him, in order to be able to hear with our hearts, and to understand His will, and therefore to be able to ask in accordance with His will.

Then, there is the matter of the Palestinian shepherd. The Lord’s parable, for instance, is indicative :

‘Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.’ Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them. Then Jesus said to them again, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep’ (John 10:1-15).

There is a great deal to be perceived in this previous reading. The relationship between shepherd and sheep, based on love, interpersonal knowledge and trust, is crucial. The sheep know the voice of the shepherd, and the shepherd knows the sheep. They love each other ; they know the names of each other. As is seen even today in the Middle-east, a shepherd leads the sheep, walking in front of them, walking where he wishes them to go. He trusts that they will follow, and sometimes he brings along a goat for extra encouragement. The sheep trust the shepherd, because they know he loves them and cares for them, and they also love him. They follow him. They know he will keep them safe. When they are in the fold, it is only to him that they answer, even if they are amongst a great number of other sheep, which belong to other shepherds. The sheep and the shepherd know each other personally. Anyone who pretends to teach, and who cannot manage this sort of relationship is, in the end, classified as a “hireling”, a technician. One can teach facts ; but teaching the Christian Way has to be not only about imparting simple factual information. It must be concerned with personally showing the way. One cannot make sheep go where the shepherd is not first going. True, in the West, dogs are used to drive sheep in this manner, but the effect is different. The sheep wander all around, not knowing where they are intended to go, and they move with fear, not with loving confidence. The recent movie Chicken Run was not far away from comprehending this perspective.

Normal Orthodox pastoral life and teaching-responsibility rest very much upon the foundation of this teaching of our Saviour about the shepherd and the sheep. Teaching is not just saying something. It is being something. We see this in the words of the Apostle Paul as he exhorts his disciple, in his first pastoral letter to him :

Be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you (1 Timothy 4:12-16).

Saint Seraphim of Sarov is quoted as having said that, if you find peace, that is if you find your way in Christ, then thousands will be saved with you ; but if you lose your way, thousands will be lost with you. We cannot avoid it. For good or for bad, for life or for death, we affect all around us — animate, inanimate, humans, animals, the environment. How we live our lives has a great effect. I remember another film (a much older one than Chicken Run), It’s a Wonderful Life, about a man who is tempted to give up in the face of difficulty. He is shown how different all would be, were he not a factor in the lives of others. Sometimes the media are on the right track !

This is the reason that the responsibility of the Christian leader, of the Christian educator, is so great. It is true that it is important to know what we need to believe as Orthodox Christians. Nevertheless, this knowledge must be in the context of a whole life that embodies these facts, in the context of life-giving love. This is so, because these facts, these details, these teachings, these doctrines, these dogmas, are all products of the relationship of life-giving love in Christ. In my life, I, myself, have been influenced by many such persons (both Orthodox, and pre-Orthodox). I remember with love to this day the Roman Catholic nuns who taught me when I was 5 years old (and my parents were Lutheran !). I remember my early Lutheran Church-School teacher, Mrs. Holmberg, who taught us Scripture and songs, but who also imparted the love of Christ. I remember faithful Ole Olson from all my first twenty years, who always liked to repeat : “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). I remember Professor Canon Thomas Bailey who, in teaching us the theories of “higher textual criticism”, reminded us that if serious doubts arise from the consideration, we ought to rest on the text itself. They lived this faith. Their living this faith, and Mr. Olson’s frequent repetition of these words from Hebrews (in a strong Norwegian accent), were of considerable help to me in the course of my life. Between the usual temptations one faces in life, and the scholastic questioning of the Scriptures which I encountered in various places, there were many occasions on which I might have been distracted from trying to keep to the Tradition. However, by the Lord’s mercy, the recollection of their example seemed to keep me mindful of the Tradition, the Tradition of Christ, the One Christ. These were good persons (amongst a great many others) who, throughout the course of my life, have shown me the way : people such as Archbishop Paul of Finland, Archimandrite Simforian of New Valamo, Archimandrite Sophrony of Essex, Protopresbyters Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff, Bishop Ioasaph of Vancouver, Professors Mugford, Moir, Verhovskoy, and many others still. All were God-fearing people, Christ-loving persons who, by the example of their lives, kept showing me the way in the Way, and giving me hope, as well as correcting me.

Now, perhaps, if we really want to consider the maturing and the development of our understanding of Orthodox Tradition, we would be well-advised to recall the words of the Apostle Paul, who himself said regarding the Eucharist : “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). He handed on more than just this. He handed on by word and by example his personal encounter with Christ. He says the following to us, just as he said to the Philippians, with whom he discusses his own pilgrimage :

But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind (Philippians 3:7-16).

If we are considering what this attainment must be, it cannot be simply an intellectual accomplishment. The Apostle himself indicates that all that his formidable intellect is addressing stems, as does our inheritance, from his personal life in a loving relationship with Christ. After having previously listed some of his multitude of sufferings, he says :

It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me. And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My Grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).

Here, truly, is the simple pattern we must learn to follow if, indeed, we wish to come to maturity in understanding the Tradition.

I must say that, as Orthodox Christians in the world in the 21st century, we are very far from the apostolic example. We have strayed far from this, because the example we see almost everywhere now in the Orthodox Churches is the use of politics and power, in the way secular people are behaving. We have a tendency to use manipulation and manoeuvring, posturing and positioning, depending on civil governments and on money. Canons are a medicinal prescription for healing spiritual illnesses in the members of the Body of Christ. Instead, we seem now to treat them rather often in the manner of civil law, and to use them as clubs with which to beat each other, as we try to force each other into submission. In behaving in this way, Orthodox Christians are, in my opinion, not demonstrating to the world the power of Christ, but rather the opposite — the weakness which comes from not imitating the example of the Apostle, and forgetting those words he received : “‘My Grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:9). I believe that if we do forget this, and behave in a worldly manner, then we are like the brothers of the Rich Man (Dives) in the Lord’s parable, about whom Abraham said that it is sufficient for them that they have Moses and the Prophets in order to live a godly life (see Luke 16:27-29). We, too, have Moses and the Prophets, and much more than this by far, and yet we are not living up to what we have been given. We are being faint-hearted. I believe that in so doing, we are actually betraying Christ, not proclaiming Him. Instead of impatiently attempting to force matters, it is important for us to have patience, and to try to listen to the Lord, and to do His will. We must remember that the Lord sends us as yeast and salt into the world. In order to be so, we have to learn to live in daily repentance, and to allow the Lord to remake us, to transform, to transfigure us, to bring us to His likeness.

If we are going to be maturing and developing our understanding of the Orthodox Tradition (and this so that the Lord may use us as He will), then we must be behaving accordingly in our own lives, without pointing accusing fingers at others. We must be ready to take responsibility for our own falls. We must allow the Lord to remove the log from our eye before we pay attention to the speck in the eye of the other (see Matthew 7:3-5). This means that we all, personally and corporately, must do our best to allow the Holy Spirit to increase in our hearts, and to direct our lives in the love of Christ. We must open ourselves to His will, so that He may bring us to maturity, to ripeness. We must help Him develop our understanding, by co-operating with Him. We must lovingly offer Him our obedience, our imitation of Him, our co-operation with the Grace of the Holy Spirit. It is crucial that our own spiritual houses be in order. Our lives must be one interconnected whole in Christ. Everything in our lives must refer to Christ. We must be both acutely aware of, and praying for, and nurturing in Christ, all around us. This is, of course, the essence of the teaching of Saint Silouan of Mount Athos. If we are able to co-operate in the Lord enough, so that we are making even some partial progress towards this ideal, we will already be able to help others as pastors and teachers.

May the Lord, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, enable all of us to do more in conforming ourselves to His likeness, so that, loving Him above all, we may lovingly and freely do His holy will.


[1]Michael Prokurat, Alexander Golitzin, Michael D Peterson, Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church, (Lanham, Maryland, & London : Scarecrow Press, 1996), p. 223.