Excerpted from his book, The Way of Christ.
Life is a journey with many stages from birth to death. As the journey progresses new challenges arise. Significant decision must be made. When we are young, we usually ask: What kind of friends do I really want to have? What goals should I pursue? Later, other questions come up. What kind of job or profession should I seek? Whom will I marry? By what principles and values shall I live? Finally, the deeper issues confront us. Who am I? What is life all about? Am I living or merely existing?
For Orthodox Christians, the highest goal of human existence is life with God. Jesus said: “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and to lose one’s soul? What can a person give in exchange for one’s soul”( Mark 8.36-37)? Nothing is more precious than a person’s soul. No goal, no pursuit, no value, no achievement is higher than the fulfillment of one’s life in Christ and the attainment of one’s eternal salvation.
Christ has been called a “fire-starter.” He came “to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3.11; Luke 3.16). He once said: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled” (Luke 12.29). On the day of Pentecost, the fullest moment of divine revelation, the Holy Spirit was poured out on Jesus’ followers. Divine grace came to rest on them like “tongues of fire” (Acts 2.3). Christianity began as a spiritual movement through baptism by divine fire.
What is the Orthodox way of life? How can we live it with full awareness? The essence of the Orthodox Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Authentic Orthodoxy, not as an abstraction but as reality, is not merely a religion of rituals, rules and regulations, but the personal self-disclosure of the living God, His self-giving to us in love. To live an Orthodox way of life is to be part of a burning bush glowing with all the blessings that flow from God: His love, mercy, truth, righteousness, freedom, light, life and joy. Orthodoxy in its essence is the gift of “holy fire.” When we speak of renewal in the Church, this is the primary renewal we have in view: the renewal of our minds and hearts in Christ, the full recovery of holy fire in our daily lives, the spiritual renewal of the community shining with the radiance of God.
We need humbly to acknowledge that the highest claims of Orthodoxy are often subverted by lack of tangible evidence and actualization, by our own lack of sufficient self-awareness, by our failure as Orthodox Christians to nurture the holy fire of the presence and power of the Spirit. Look around you and ask yourself: How many of the faithful go to Church with a sense of eagerness and joy? How many of us are present and ready at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy to sing the Doxology and to confirm with a resounding “Amen” the priest’s invocation, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit?” How many of us come out of the Liturgy spiritually renewed and strengthened, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, “like lions breathing fire?” How many of us have placed the love of Christ and the cause of His kingdom as the primary priorities in life?
Orthodoxy has developed an enormously rich tradition — elaborate worship, high doctrines, impressive offices, appealing customs and innumerable canons. Orthodoxy is often viewed like a beautiful antique, or a grand fireplace in which the fire, however, is not burning with intensity in all places at all times. Not that the fire of the Holy Spirit has ever diminished in power or availability — far from it. Rather, it is that the firewood needs stoking.
What to do? We must imitate the example of the Prodigal Son who “came to himself” and returned to his father’s home. If we wish to attain to the high calling of holy fire, we must heighten our sensitivities at several levels. The first level is honest and courageous appraisal of our actual situation. We need diagnosis in order to apply measures of therapy. The problems are not new. They have been called by various names ending in “ism” — institutionalism, factionalism, minimalism, nominalism and so on. Nominalism is being a Christian in name only and having little or no significant interest in God, the Church, or Christianity. The Bible calls this condition spiritual deadness. Minimalism is picking and choosing from the Church’s table whatever suits our interest and convenience without strong commitment and enduring motivation to learn more about and to grow in the Faith. The Bible calls this condition lukewarmness. Factionalism is a divisive spirit based on ego and arbitrary choice. The Bible calls this heresy, whether theological or ethical. Institutionalism is a way of thought and practice that relies strictly on, or is satisfied with, merely outward forms, while neglecting or even denying the inner spirit of the Tradition. This the Bible calls hypocrisy and self-righteousness. In modern times, add to all of these “isms” secularism, a total indifference to and even hostility toward God, while worshiping other gods of the present age. This the Bible calls idolatry, the worship of false gods.
But let us not despair. The above phenomena in various mixtures have existed in every era. The fourth century, the golden age of the Church Fathers — Saint Athanasios, Saint Basil, Saint Gregory the Theologian, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and Saint John Chrysostom — was engulfed by as much evil, sin callousness, pretension, injustice, conflict, and division as our own times. Saint John Chrysostom did not hesitate to critique the Church of his day. For example in an astonishing homily on 1 Corinthains, chapter 14, Saint John exalts the spiritual gifts of the early Church and laments the situation of the contemporary Church. He portrays the Church of his day as an aged woman who had lost her inspired leaders, as well as her spiritual jewels, and is satisfied merely by exhibiting her empty jewelry boxes to the world.
Saint John Chrysostom, whose prophetic voice thunders across the centuries to reach our own ears, fought like a lion of God against unacceptable ecclesiastical conditions. As a result, he was persecuted by emperors, bishops, priests, as well as monastics in name only — but not by the people themselves who loved him. Saint John was exiled and died in great suffering. However, he lost hope neither in the power of the Gospel of Christ, nor in the mission of the Church. He had the spiritual maturity to go to his Lord in peace, his last words being: “Glory be to God for all things!”
Next to recognizing our true situation realistically, a second and even more important level of Orthodox awakening is learning, knowing, and ap-plying our own essential Orthodox principles and values as a faith community. The Orthodox Church existing in a free, pluralistic society must assume for itself the responsibility to recover and strength Orthodox identity both as an intrinsic goal and as empowerment for the fulfillment of its mission in the world. In a society where ethnicity is inevitably fading and interfaith marriages have exponentially increased, drifting away from the Faith will continue unless common ecclesial and spiritual bonds are built. Formal adherence to tradition without insightful knowledge will not win the day. Some practical matters and certain other more difficult issues need attention. We can use better and standard translation of our liturgical texts. We need to encourage congregational singing and perhaps some modifications in liturgical services to make worship a truly meaningful and participatory experience for all the faithful. We certainly need to update the canons or at least to develop clear criteria for their interpretation and use in the spirit of Christ. Also, no theological impediments exist to the recovery of the ordination of women deacons nor even to the ordination of married clergy to the episcopate, both of which were honored traditions in the early centuries of the Church. And we have only begun to activate the talents of the laity, both men and women, that massive reservoir of spiritual power which was decisive in the growth and expansion of early Christianity.
The gifts are in front of our eyes. We are advocating that Orthodox Christians, as they grow to adulthood, ought to be moving beyond a childish understanding of Orthodoxy to a renewal of minds, a renewal of vision, a renewal of confidence on the basis of the fullness of truth about God, life, creation, heaven and hell. When it is true to itself, Orthodoxy has explosive potential. We welcome all into the Orthodox Faith, and our welcome is not an expression of narrow, selfish satisfaction, nor a triumphalistic celebration of victory over others, but rather a joyous sharing of the gifts we ourselves have received from Christ, the Apostles and the Church Fathers.
The third and deepest level of Orthodox awareness is the renewal of our hearts. The “heart” in Holy Scripture and the Orthodox Tradition is the deep self, the center of consciousness, the deep mystery of the inner person, which qualifies everything that we are, feel, think, do, see and appear to others. Saint Paul spoke of the new creation in Christ in terms of “God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5.5).
The greatest problem of Orthodoxy today is a spiritual problem. More accurately, it is not the problem of Orthodoxy but the Problem of Orthodox Christians. It is the former because it is the latter. It involves all Orthodox Christians, lay people, priest, and bishops who, by god’s grace, are called to be energizing bearers of the fire of Orthodoxy. We mouth love and forgiveness, but really do neither very deeply. We glory in the icons and legacy of the saints, but do not fully imitate their example. We point to the magnificent Pantokrator, the All-ruling Christ, in the domes of our Churches, but we are reluctant to place ourselves fully under His rule. We extol our spirituality and parade the teaching about theosis (union with God, divinization), but we have not yet properly repented and many are afraid of the words “spiritual renewal.” We point to the grand fireplace, but where is the fire? The question is once again about authenticity, genuineness, integrity, connecting ideals and life, letting heaven touch the earth, bridging the yawning gap between what we preach and what we do, a gap which sometimes appears as wide as the Grand Canyon.
But again, let us not despair. Let Saint Symeon the New Theologian give us an illustration of Orthodox life and renewal. An Orthodox Christian, he says, is like an oil lamp which consists of the oil, the wick, and the flame. The oil is the whole life of the Christian, one’s prayers, fasting, sacramental participation and all other goods works of piety. The wick is the
soul, trimmed, straight and reaching upward to receive the light. The flame is the gift of grace which God alone kindles. All three elements are integral to and work together in the oil lamp. Without the oil of a righteous life, the wick would soon smolders and die out. Without the wick of the soul yearning for Christ, no amount of good works could receive and sustain the holy flame. The flame of the Holy Spirit which God alone can give, burns brightly only when the wick is trimmed and soaked with oil. Where the Spirit finds eagerness of soul and abundance of goodness, according to Saint Symeon, the whole lamp of the Christian becomes full of light burning with holy fire.
Saint Symeon and other saints provide practical instruction on renewal. They tell us that growth in spiritual life is not a hit or miss proposition. It is up to us to open our inner world to God’s sunshine, to allow His sunbeams to burn away the dark clouds of sin surrounding the soul, and thus let the inner cosmos of the heart radiate with the brightness of God’s grace. The abiding center and focus of renewal is Christ Himself in Whom we know the Father and through Whom we receive the Spirit. Christ said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14.6). Christ and His Gospel is the foundation of the Church, the sacraments, our personal and family lives, all our Christian striving, and our hope of glory. Spiritual life and renewal result from the active response to Christ and the Gospel: that Christ died for our sins and that He rose from the dead granting new life to all.