The Foundation of the Orthodox Christian Way (2010-05-21)

Archbishop Seraphim : Talk
The Foundation of our Orthodox Christian Way is Love
21 May, 2010
[given outside of the Archdiocese]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

When people are coming to live in North America, they almost always have a difficult time (especially Orthodox people) because the culture of North America is so different from Orthodox cultures. Perhaps you could say it is like going to the moon or Mars because it is so different (at least in some ways). The world-view of North America is certainly very different, especially because it is western. I am going to talk a little bit about these difficulties, and about survival.

It is true that in all the Orthodox countries (except Greece) there was a period when everyone was suffering under communism. During the time of Communism, there was definitely a western, and very materialistic mentality injected into our Orthodox societies. However, the society was only infected a little, especially Romania. Of all the Orthodox countries, Romania remains the most faithful. I still remember when I was younger, around 1975 or so, hearing that Romania in those days retained about 85 per cent of its population as faithful, practising Orthodox Christians. This was always amazing to me. When we compare that with what happened in Russia or Ukraine, it is a very big contrast, because the population of believers in those countries was cut very severely. If we are going to estimate seriously the number of practising believers in those days in those countries, it might have been about ten per cent at most of the whole population (even at that I may be too generous). I do not have to rehearse this history for you because you know it very well. However, I do want to point out that especially among those who have remained as believers, being an Orthodox Christian makes us have a particular attitude towards the world that is different from that of the west.

In the west, the world (the creation around us) is generally considered to be a collection of objects which are for our employment. We can use everything. This attitude is based on how they understand God’s command to Adam and Eve at creation – that they should go and subdue all of creation. However, Orthodox Christians do not understand the beginning of creation quite as violently as that. The whole Orthodox mentality towards creation is respect for what God has created and made. We understand that He has put us here amongst creation to work together with Him in this creation to make it yet more beautiful, yet more ordered in the way that He wants it to be. However, if we look at it from the western, materialistic perspective, then all these things are just for us to use (and even worse, to use without any reference to God at all). The result is the poisoning of our environment, the killing of the environment in which we are presently living, and from which we (and the whole world) are suffering.

The mentality of the west is “linear” which means in a straight line. This is the way men think. Women always understand that about men. The Orthodox way of perceiving the world is holistic. It is “spherical”. That is actually the way women think. It is not one thing after another ; it is everything all together. Because there are men who are Orthodox, all men therefore are not limited to linear thinking. However, the characteristic of men and women is basically like this anyway. If we are perceiving creation as a whole (as we ought to be if we are Orthodox Christians), then we understand that everything that we do, and everything that we say affects everything else in creation. What I do for good, and what I do for bad affects everyone and everything else. That is why Saint Seraphim of Sarov said that if you save your soul, thousands will be saved with you. However, if you lose yourself, the same thing applies. If you lose yourself, you create some sort of black hole into which you drag other people with you. Either way, for good or for bad, we are affecting everyone and everything around us. This is the way we Orthodox Christians properly understand our life, I believe.

We Orthodox Christians have a big responsibility because we have inherited from those who have gone before us the whole truth about Him, who is the Truth, Jesus Christ. And here is another contrast between Orthodox mentality and western mentality. The western, philosophical mentality understands that there are many truths (which I have always found to be a logical impossibility). How can it logically be that there is more than one truth ? There has to be an end to this truth. Even according to the Augustinian, Aristotelian logic that Saint Thomas of Aquinas of the west used, he properly understood that there has to be an ultimate good, there has to be an ultimate truth, and this has to end in Jesus Christ. The west forgot all about this particular part of the logic because the west is forgetting all about God. We have made ourselves into God. This is our curse, I suppose.

There is one Truth. This Truth, Jesus Christ, is the One for whom we live, and for whom we witness. We Orthodox, wherever we are in the world, have the responsibility to be yeast and salt (see Matthew 5:13 ; 13:33) as the Saviour, Himself, says. In other words, we are supposed to be giving flavour to the society in which we live (and the society in which we live is mostly tasteless, so we can do something for it). We can give life to the society in which we live because that is what yeast does. We can give life because we have Christ, who is the Giver of life. We are sharing Christ and the life He gives to us with everyone else. This is good because in our society people are becoming mechanical creatures, living from day-to-day, getting up in the morning, going to work, making money, coming home, taking children to everything under the sun (if they have time), falling asleep very tired, getting up the next morning and doing the same thing over and over and over again. On Saturday people are doing all the things they have no time to do Monday to Friday. On Sunday most of them do not even bother to go to church because they are too tired and need to sleep in. Then they start to have heart attacks because their body rhythm is a wreck.

By remembering who we are, and what our life is in Christ, we Orthodox Christians can help people to find a better way to live in Christ that is not driven just by making money and becoming comfortable in this world. We can help them understand that if we are faithful, if we are following Christ and living in His love, He provides for us everything that we need. Maybe we will not be millionaires, but we do not necessarily need to be millionaires. We need to be living our lives as strong, joyful, powerful human beings who can share Christ’s love, and who can share Christ’s life.

The foundation of our Orthodox Christian way is, and always has been love. I learned this from the beginning of my life. This is one of the advantages of having begun my life as a Lutheran, because from the beginning I was taught many things from the Scriptures. In those days you had to memorise (not like now) and I had to memorise all sorts of portions of Scripture. Those things from my childhood remain with me to this day, and they come to me from time to time when I need them. I still remember the very nice old people (I thought they were old then because I was five) who were saying these verses, themselves. They were God-loving persons. From this I remember the words of the Apostle John : “We love God because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God loves us, and we therefore love Him. If we look in Deuteronomy (the fifth book of Moses), at the introduction to the Ten Commandments, what do we see ? We see these words from Moses : You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength (see Deuteronomy 6:5). Loving God is the foundation of everything. It always has been. God created us because He loves. We are the product of His love. Our existence is maintained by His love. When we come to the end of our lives, we will be protected, and embraced in His love in the Kingdom. This is what our life is about. It is about a relationship of love with God, with each other, and with creation.

In this particular parish where you have the patrons Constantine and Helen, you have very good examples of how to live in a difficult environment. In the first place, Constantine was the object of an attempted murder. In other words, people tried to kill him. Yet, being a warrior and a general, and having an open heart, when the Lord showed him, he understood the sign in which he would conquer. He came to understand that this was Jesus Christ, in whom he would conquer. He began to change everything in his life. He did conquer. Not only did he conquer armies, but in Christ he also conquered evil. He brought new life to the whole Roman Empire.

Just a few weeks ago, I had the blessing to be in the Holy Land. In the Holy Land you cannot go anywhere without seeing and hearing about the work of the Empress Helen, the mother of Constantine. What a strong woman is Helen. If people think that women in the Roman Empire could not do or have anything, they are completely asleep and not reading history. Women in the Roman Empire could hold property, have businesses, inherit and bequeath. They could do all sorts of things. So Helen was not alone, but she was still unique in her strength and in her contribution to us. She, herself, went to Palestine, and she understood there the importance of the oral tradition. People in North America will say : “Oral tradition ? What is that ?” People cannot remember anything for five minutes. That’s because in North America we are falling apart. However, in societies such as hers, or in the Aboriginal societies in Alaska or other places, people have an oral tradition which is very particular, very well-kept, and very, very accurate. Their inherited stories about where things were and what happened are memorised and carefully watched by those who are teaching. They make the receivers repeat over and over until it is correct and even when it is correct, they keep checking. There are other people around who are hearing the same inherited stories, and they are checking also.

So it is that when Helen went to the Middle East to Palestine, to Jerusalem, to Bethlehem, and to other places in the Galilee and in the Jordan Valley, she encountered Christians whose families had remained in this area from the time of Christ. They had been hiding from the Romans and had not gone away. They kept going to the Holy Places even in the city of Jerusalem, and they knew (even though Jerusalem was levelled by the Roman army twice) exactly where the Cross was buried and hidden in the ground. They remembered where was the place of Golgotha, and where was the place of the Tomb of Christ. They led Helen to these places. They also led her to Bethlehem, to the place of the cave where Christ was born. People remembered all these things.

By the way, you will remember that in the Gospel it is said that the Mother of God kept all these details in her heart (see Luke 2:19). She did not keep them just for herself. She was sharing these Events and these details with the apostles, and that is how we know about them. We know that she kept them in her heart but she did not keep them locked there. She shared from that well of life in her heart. The fruit of that was the opening of all these Holy Places by Helen when she went to Palestine. However, Helen did not stop there because, together with her son, she applied all sorts of money to the building of temples to the Lord on these places. We still have remnants of these constructions of Helen from the fourth century. For the time being we still can go to these Holy Places and walk where the Lord walked, and be in the places where these important Events occurred. It is not that everyone must go, but when it is possible, it is a blessing.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). His love does not change. His love is with us in the same way as His love is with the apostles, and with all the saints who have been even before the Incarnation, and after. Jesus Christ remains the same, and His love is the same. He said that He is with us “always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He alone is faithful, and to Him be glory, together with His Father, who is from everlasting, and His all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.