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“Our Fathers Have Told Us”
A Sermon on the Sunday of Orthodoxy
By God’s grace we have reached the completion of the First Week of Great Lent, and have come now to the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Great Lent is the Season of Repentance par excellence, and in general the Sundays of Great Lent all reflect this theme: next week we will celebrate the great hesychast, St. Gregory Palamas; then we commemorate the Precious Cross of our Lord; next we honor St. John Climacus, the incomparable instructor of the inner life; and the final Sunday of the Fast we dedicate to St. Mary of Egypt, who perhaps more than any other saint is a living icon of repentance itself.
But at first glance, this Sunday seems not to fit the pattern. And this is even more striking because it holds the place of honor as the First Sunday, the Sunday following Clean Week, which for many (if not most) Orthodox Christians is the most ascetical week of the entire year. But rather than some aspect of repentance and inner warfare, instead we are asked today by the Holy Church to turn our attention to the victory of the Orthodox in the ancient theological dispute concerning icons. While no doubt all of us recognize the profound importance of this victory (especially considering that many of us are converts from branches of Christianity which later returned to that same iconoclast error), at the same time we may find ourselves thinking that this Sunday’s commemoration does not seem to have all that much to do with Great Lent.
But of course, if we look a little deeper we will find that the Church has not made any error here, and that the dedication of this particular Sunday to this particular subject is not even a coincidence. The Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy has everything to do with Great Lent, it has everything to do with repentance, and it by all means must come first out of all the Sundays — because without it, all the other Sundays become impossible. This Sunday we celebrate the absolutely necessary foundation of all asceticism, of all repentance, and of all Christianity: humble and trusting obedience to our fathers in Christ.
This Sunday is the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the victory of truth over falsehood and error. And so the first thing the Church teaches us by placing this Sunday at the beginning of the Great Fast is that truth is fundamentally apprehended not by the rational mind, but by the purified heart. The heresy of iconoclasm (like all other heresies) was ultimately defeated not because men with their intellectual minds managed to produce an ironclad refutation of its logic. On the contrary: iconoclasm was defeated because holy men — to whom God had entrusted the direction of His Church — crucified the world to themselves and themselves to the world, cutting off all passionate thoughts and emptying themselves of all merely human understanding. By doing so they made room in their hearts for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Who was then able to speak to us, through their mouths, the eternal truth of God.
This fallen world instills in us the idea that truth is the field of scholars, whereas the Church teaches us that truth is the field of the saints. It was at the very hour of His crucifixion (toward which we are now journeying) that Christ declared to the uncomprehending Pilate: “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth” (John 18:37). And until we ourselves have come to the hour of our own crucifixion, standing condemned before the judgment seat of the uncomprehending world, we will never be able to bear witness to the truth by our own experiential knowledge of Him Who is the Truth, of Him Who was crucified. Until that hour, we know the truth only by hearsay.
But that does not mean that until that hour the truth is inaccessible. For we do indeed have the witness borne by Christ, and borne afterward by all the many saints who followed Him and became partakers in His suffering and His glory. It is precisely their witness which we celebrate today: their precious and holy witness by which even we sinners and unworthy ones have been vouchsafed to come to the knowledge of the truth.
And yet it must be admitted that oftentimes to accept the truth as revealed to us by another human being is far from easy. Indeed, it has perhaps never been more difficult in all the history of the world than it is today, for it requires the twin virtues of humility and obedience. Out of all the virtues, these two are the crown and the foundation of all Christian spirituality… and yet they are so profoundly antithetical to the spirit of modern man, which has perhaps been most succinctly characterized by Fr. Seraphim (Rose) as “knowing better.”
Alas, at nearly every turn modern man is taught such “knowing better” as the fundamental lens through which we are meant to view the world. As students, we are taught that we modern people now “know better” on virtually every subject than virtually any other human being who ever lived before us. As citizens, we are taught that our highest civic duty is to form and express opinions on a vast number of topics, thus implicitly “knowing better” than all who disagree — from our fellow citizens to our rulers themselves. As individuals, we are taught that we “know better” than anyone else what will make us happy — and therefore, apparently, how we ought to live our lives. Even children — the sole remaining group from which society perhaps expects some modicum of humility and obedience — are increasingly being portrayed by our popular media as “knowing better” than their old-fashioned and out-of-touch parents. And on top of all this we now have the internet, which seems quite adept at convincing us that all we need to do is scroll through a few pages to instantly “know better” than anyone at all concerning just about any topic imaginable. Truly, who is there left among us who can look within ourselves and not find that the spirit of “knowing better” has seeped into the very marrow of our bones?
And so it is unsurprising that we frequently bring such an attitude of “knowing better” into the Church of God as well. Unsurprising, but not for that any less tragic. Because what this Sunday teaches us is that any time a parishioner “knows better” than their priest, any time a monk “knows better” than his abbot, any time the faithful “know better” than their bishop, any time a theologian “knows better” than the saints… they have at that very moment come into grave danger of casting in their portion with the iconoclasts, and with all the other heretics whom we anathematize on this day. Because the iconoclasts and the heretics, too, “knew better.”
It doesn’t matter how reasonable and intelligent we are (or imagine ourselves to be); heretics too are frequently quite reasonable, and even extraordinarily intelligent. It doesn’t matter how good our intentions are; heretics too are often extremely pious and devout, even putting the rest of us to shame by their zeal. It doesn’t matter how noble and exalted the principles from which we begin to reason are; and we should scarcely need to be convinced of this, living as we do in a society which has begun with the most lofty and divinely-granted principle of freedom, and reasoned its way from there into blessing the slaughter of tens of millions of infants. Truly there is no depth of hell to which noble principles, intelligent arguments, and righteous zeal cannot lead us, once we have thought it unnecessary to humble ourselves in obedience to those set over us by God.
Bishop George used to say that it is one thing to cut off our will, and it is another thing to cut off our understanding. It is usually far easier to force ourselves to obey outwardly and externally, while inwardly retaining our own opinions (and perhaps mentally deriding the foolishness of those who ordered us otherwise), than it is to truly humble our mind and reject our own understanding as fallen and untrustworthy. It is easier, because it allows the root of our beloved pride to remain for the most part untouched. The idol of our self-worship may have been forced to give up a little territory, but it nevertheless remains secure on its throne in our hearts.
My brothers and sisters, if we cannot yet free ourselves from enslavement to our own opinions, let us at least make no excuses for it! Let us denounce such slavery for what it is: the spirit of the Antichrist striving for mastery over us: “Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God” (II Thessalonians 2:4). Do not be deceived: our thoughts will whisper to us of our fathers and shepherds that “so-and-so is just a human being like me, he is not infallible, he is not God, so there is no reason to follow him if he is wrong.” But who do we think we are, to “know better” than God Who Himself appointed these very men to guide us toward salvation? Do we imagine that we are so wise and holy that we need only the instruction, the correction, the rebuke with which we ourselves happen to agree? Have we truly set ourselves up as the unmatched arbiters of truth, of righteousness, of holiness? Do we dare to believe we have reached such spiritual heights that the Holy Spirit enlightens us directly, rather than through the mouths of the men and women whom He Himself has chosen to care for us in Christ? What kind of spirituality can we hope will result from such brazen hubris, such demonic pride?
Of course, it should go without saying that all authority in the Church is of Christ, and so none of us owes obedience to any command of heresy or immorality. But apart from this, even if our spiritual fathers and superiors happen to make some error or mistake, our steadfast and loving obedience to their direction will not be accounted by Christ as in any sense blameworthy, but rather as the highest wisdom and most prudent discernment. And besides, we know beyond any doubt that the grace of God is by no means powerless to bring immeasurable good from even the worst mistakes of men. But if we, on the contrary, begin to find fault with our shepherds, if we begin to second-guess them, if we begin to behave as though we are their judges rather than their disciples, if we begin to “know better,” then by such overweening pride we will have cast ourselves away from the grace of God — and there is no wisdom nor “correct” opinion on this earth which can outweigh such folly. Remember that the thirty pieces of silver he gained proved to be of no comfort at all to Judas, after he turned against the Master on account of His supposed excess and waste.
If any thinks that such an example goes too far — that judging God’s servants is an entirely different matter than judging God Himself — then listen to the terrible and sobering warning of Abba Dorotheos:
If [a man who judges others] does not recover swiftly and does not take care to try to disentangle himself from this state, he gradually reaches the second kind of pride, which is pride towards God… Indeed, brethren, I know someone who reached this pitiable situation. At first, when one of the brothers was speaking to him, he would spit on him and say ‘Who is this? Nobody is worthy, but for Zosimas and his disciples.’ Then he began to humiliate them too and say, ‘Nobody is worthy but for Makarios.’ After a little while, he started saying, ‘Who is Makarios? Nothing. Nobody is worthy, but for Basil and Gregory.’ A little later, he started to humble them as well by saying, ‘Who are Basil and Gregory? Nobody is worthy but for Peter and Paul.’ I said to him, ‘Really, brother, you would try to degrade them, too.’ Believe me, after some time, he began to say, ‘Who are Peter and Paul? Nothing. Only the Holy Trinity is worthy.’ Following this, he also became arrogant towards God and he fell from the Faith.
This story is especially relevant for us today, on the feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Because what Abba Dorotheos is really telling us is that our brothers and sisters — and especially our mothers and fathers in the Faith — are in fact nothing less than living icons of God in our lives (and this should not be surprising to us, since it is for this same reason that the priest or deacon censes the faithful in church immediately after censing the holy icons themselves). We reverence the holy icons, we bow down and kiss them with humility and love, and we exalt them for all the world to see on this day, because through them the light of Christ shines forth, illumining and purifying us darkened sinners. If we fail or refuse to do this, then we dishonor both the saints and Christ our God Who sanctified them, and moreover we deprive ourselves of the light and grace which can flow to us through their presence in our lives. And precisely the same principle holds true for the flesh-and-blood images of God all around us (even if the likeness has been somewhat dimmed). When we humble ourselves before one another, when we honor the image of God in each and every person we meet, and especially when we render loving and humble obedience to those whom God has set over us, then this honor and humility and obedience and love flow through them to God Himself. And when we fail or refuse to do this, we dishonor God as well His son or daughter standing before us, and we deprive ourselves of the light and grace which can flow to us through their presence in our lives.
I can think of no more appropriate hero for us of the type of asceticism I am talking about than the Blessed Seraphim of Platina. It is my personal belief that the great measure of love and holiness to which he attained (and which I know so many of us desire to emulate) was attained precisely through the humble and obedient filial love he cultivated for his bishop, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. And so I will conclude with these words of his own disciple, Abbot Damascene, about Fr. Seraphim’s teaching on today’s subject:
A loving and devoted son will not have the attitude of ‘knowing better’ than those who have begotten him. This ‘knowing better,’ Fr. Seraphim realized, is the main stumbling block preventing people from entering fully into the spirit of the Fathers, the spirit of Orthodoxy. It is a pitfall created by the rationalistic Western mind, which has to calculate the credibility of something before it can accept it. Turning aside from this cold intellectual approach, Fr. Seraphim sought to believe in the Orthodoxy of the Fathers like a child, with innocence and guilelessness. His piety was childlike; he purposefully acquired this quality for himself because he wanted what was genuine. He knew that simplicity of heart was the normal state of Christians, of the most profound and penetrating Holy Fathers. As he came to realize, the only hope for today’s Orthodox Christians (especially converts) was to engage the heart, to come to the Faith with love so as not to reject something in Orthodoxy merely because one’s mind — filled as it is with modern preconceptions — cannot immediately accept it. ‘There can be a whole realm of confusion in the Holy Fathers,’ he said, ’and thus we have to approach them not with our ordinary rationalistic minds. We must be trying to raise our minds up to a higher level; and the way to do this is to soften the heart and make it more supple.’
Through his prayers, through the prayers of our own spiritual fathers, and through the prayers of all the Holy Fathers who have shown forth throughout all the ages, let us strive with our whole heart this Great Lent to acquire for ourselves at least some small portion of this holy humility, this obedience born out of love. Amen.