Here you can find a selection of Fr. Bohdan's writings. "From Pastoral Life" includes articles written for the Visnyk/Herald, the newspaper of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, as well as other Church and secular newspapers and magazines. "Against the Current" contains articles written especially for teens and young adults. On this page you can find "Walking the Talk," short reflections on the various aspects of Life in Christ which are necessary if we wish to have a complete, well-rounded and healthy relationship with God, Christ, Church, and Neighbour. Feel free to reprint any of the articles for inclusion in Church bulletins or other edifying uses with attribution.
“Walking the Talk”
by: Fr. Bohdan Hladio
“Why do I have to go to Church?”
“I really like the Liturgy, but I don’t see why I need to fast!”
“I’m a good person – I don’t cheat, or steal, or lie – isn’t this the point of Christianity, to be a good person?”
“I pray every day, and it really helps me, but I don’t see the point of all that other stuff like reading the bible and going to church.”
“But Father, I was baptised in Church, and I was married in the Church, and I want to be buried from the Church – doesn’t this make me Orthodox?”
“I pay my parish dues every year. Why are you bothering me with all that ‘church’ stuff?”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked these and similar questions by people who consider themselves to be good Orthodox Christians. The one thing all these questions have in common is that they assume a minimal standard for Church membership. They’re “reductionist” questions - they assume that being a Christian can be reduced to one or another practice or standard of conduct or ritual.
After more than 25 years of pastoral ministry I’m absolutely certain that our faith doesn’t work this way. Clergy and lay leaders will often focus their attention on one thing – “if people would just come to Church”, or “if people would work for the parish”, or “if parishioners would take part in adult education classes”, or “if our people would just read the bible!”, etc. This narrowed focus may, in particular circumstances, be useful. But in the grand scheme of things Orthodox Christianity, if it functions at all, functions as a system.
If you have a car, and the fuel injectors are clogged, the engine won’t run well. If the spark plugs are missing the engine won’t run at all. It won’t matter that the cylinders, and the manifold, the alternator, the condenser, the tires, and the timing belt are all in tip-top shape. The engine functions as a system, and unless every part of the system is functioning well nothing will function well.
Orthodox Christianity functions as a system. It’s not a question of whether worship, reading scripture, fasting, praying, helping the poor, participating in the Holy Mysteries, or anything else is more or less important for our spiritual life. A healthy, authentic, Orthodox Christian spirituality demands the presence of all these realities in our life, in a way which is balanced and unique to the needs, personality, strengths, weaknesses, and gifts of each one of us.
Orthodox Christian spirituality cannot be reduced to one or another aspect of our faith or practice. In this series of short articles I wish to draw attention to the things which, if we really want to understand what our faith is about, if we really want to know Jesus Christ, we will all be doing: what we might call the “fundamentals” of the “Orthodox system”.
Generally speaking, the world as a whole believes concern with fundamentals is something very important. What do we teach young children when they begin their dance or music lessons, their sports practices or their academic studies? Fundamentals. These fundamentals – the rules of how arithmetic, or grammar, or football, or hockey, or ballet, or musical scales work – are absolutely necessary for a student to learn and fulfil if they wish to have any chance at excelling in their particular art or sport. And when they excel at their chosen field of endeavour, what do they continue to concern themselves with? Fundamentals. Professional athletes, professional musicians, professionals of all sorts continue to cultivate and maintain the same fundamental physical, artistic and intellectual practices and activities which they have engaged in since childhood.
If we wish to excel at Christianity, to “make God proud of us” in the same way a child wishes to excel on the stage, in the classroom or the athletic field, we must devote at least as much time and energy to living out our faith as a child, adolescent, or adult devotes to their chosen field of endeavour. How much time, study, discipline and energy does it take to become and remain a professional athlete, singer, dancer, businessman, teacher, doctor, lawyer, etc.? A successful spiritual life requires at least as serious a commitment of time and energy.
I suggest that there are nine activities fundamental to the formation and maintenance of an Orthodox Christian conscience and way of life: prayer, fasting, deeds of mercy, worship, spiritual reading, participation in the holy mysteries, participation in community life, moral conduct, and Christian witness. Further, I am absolutely sure that all of these activities must be part of the life of anyone who is seriously trying to live a truly Christian life. Again, it’s a system, and all the parts of the system have to be there in order for any part system to work effectively.
The aim of these articles is to assist all those struggling to live a Christian life to do so. It is likewise hoped that those who have questions as to what the essentials of the Christian life, the Orthodox Faith, and the Church really are will come to a better understanding of them.
Most importantly we must remember that the fundamentals of our faith are neither intellectual propositions nor philosophical theories, but a practical path of life-long activity. We are called to do things, things which will bring us closer to God, and open our hearts and minds in order that God will be able to draw close to us. These activities are given to us by our Lord, in the Holy Scriptures, and by God’s witnesses, the saints of all ages. If we truly are followers of Christ, all of these activities will find a regular and frequent place in our daily life.
“If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them”. (Jn. 13:17)
If we believe in God, follow the teaching of Jesus Christ, and desire to live a life of love, we will pray.
Prayer is essentially communication or communion with God. As St. Seraphim of Sarov says “Truly, in prayer we are vouchsafed to converse with Him, our All-Gracious and Life-Giving God and Saviour. . .”.
Prayer has many forms. St. Paul writes “I exhort therefore first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings be made”(1 Tim. 2:1). St. John Cassian explains these various aspects of prayer as follows: “Supplication is an imploring or petition concerning sins, in which one who is sorry for his present or past deeds asks for pardon. Prayers are a vow to God . . . We pray when we renounce this world, we pray when we promise that . . . we will cleave to the Lord in all sorrow of heart and humility of spirit. We pray when we promise that we will ever maintain the most perfect purity of body and steadfast patience, root out of our heart anger or sorrow that works death. Intercessions are prayers for others also, making requests either for those dear to us or for peace. Thanksgiving is for past benefits, present ones or future, which God has prepared for those who love Him.”
Prayer is the most important activity of every true Christian. St. Seraphim goes on to say: “ . . every good work done for the sake of Christ gives us the grace of the Holy Spirit, but prayer provides it most of all, for prayer is, as it were, always at hand as an instrument for the acquisition of the grace of the Spirit. For instance, you would like to go to Church, but either there is no church or the service is over. Or, you would like to give alms to a beggar, but there is no beggar or you have nothing to give. . . Or, you would like to do some good deed or other for Christ’s sake, but you have not the strength or the occasion does not arise. But nothing stands in the way of prayer. It is always possible for everyone, rich and poor, noble and lowly, strong and weak, healthy and sick, righteous and sinful. . . Great is the power of prayer. More than anything else it brings with it the Spirit of God, and its practice is available to everyone . . .”
Nothing worthwhile in this life is achieved without discipline and hard work. Prayer is no exception. Every serious Christian will have a rule of prayer which usually includes both formal and informal ways of praying.
Formal prayer consists of saying “set” prayers in a particular order, such as those found in a prayer book. These usually include morning prayers, evening prayers, and mealtime prayers. The important point regarding formal prayer is faithfulness. We must commit a certain amount of time every morning and every evening to saying our prayers. It is better to say a few prayers slowly and attentively than to say many prayers quickly and inattentively. Approached in this manner even 10 minutes every morning and evening can contribute to great spiritual growth and a deeper relationship with God.
Informal prayer generally consists of a short phrase which is repeated while engaged in daily tasks. The most well-known prayer in this regard is the “Jesus Prayer” – “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” Other such prayers might include verses from the psalms (e.g. ”I will love You, O Lord, my strength. . .” [Ps. 17]) or appeals to the saints (e.g. “Holy Saint. . . pray to God for me!”). Simply talking to God in one’s own words as to a dear friend – the example of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof comes immediately to mind – is always to be encouraged.
In addition to the above, just spending quiet time alone with God every day is beneficial. Each of us should set aside fifteen minutes or a half-hour every day to sit alone in silence before the icons, putting ourselves in God’s presence, opening our hearts and minds to Him. As noted by one of the fathers of the Church, “silence is the sacrament of the world to come, while speech is the tool of this world.”
Genuine prayer is characterized by attention, sincerity, and love.
The devil hates nothing as much as he hates prayer. When we try to pray, he tries to divert our attention. When, while praying, our mind wanders, we must strive to bring our attention back to God.
Likewise, we must pray sincerely. Saying “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” when we don’t forgive others is simply dishonest. God sees the heart. Such a prayer will not be unto salvation, but unto judgment and condemnation.
Most importantly our prayer must be motivated and energized by love – love for God and neighbour. Love is both the inspiration and the consummation of prayer.
Ultimately God isn’t interested in people who follow rules, but in people who love Him and each other. We live in accordance with God’s law because this is the way we show our love for God: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). The Gospel shows that Jesus both prayed and expected his disciples to pray. If we truly are His disciples prayer will be a vital and integral part of our daily life.
Of all the spiritual disciplines associated with Christianity perhaps none is more misunderstood and less practiced than fasting.
The term “fasting” actually describes two distinct practices. Fasting technically means refraining from all food and drink as we do before Holy Communion or a medical procedure. Fasting also includes what is commonly known as “the rule of abstinence”, controlling the type and amount of food we consume on a given day. As a rule Orthodox Christians refrain from consuming meat, eggs, fish, dairy products and alcohol every Wednesday and Friday (except during fast-free periods) as well as during the four (Great, Nativity, Dormition, Apostle’s) annual fasts, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the Beheading of St. John the Baptist.
It’s not surprising that even our own Orthodox people misunderstand and ignore the discipline of fasting. We live in a culture consumed with the idea of immediate self-gratification. We are constantly bombarded by messages (“If it feels good, do it!”, “You deserve a break today!”, etc.) and images which tell us that happiness consists of satisfying our bodily, material, and sensual cravings and desires – and the sooner the better!
What does Jesus say? “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mk. 8:34, cf. Lk. 9:23 & Mt. 16:24). Christ taught His disciples about fasting both in word (Mt. 6:16-18) and by example (Luke 4: 1-2).
Christians fasted from the earliest times. The Wednesday and Friday fast is already recorded in the Didache (“The Teaching of the 12 Apostles”), a first century Syrian Christian document.
The saints teach us that the spiritual life begins with the stomach. “One should not ponder divine matters on a full stomach, say the ascetics. For the well fed, even the most superficial secrets of the Trinity lie hidden” (The Way of the Ascetics, Tito Colliander).
Many people believe that the goal of Christianity is simply to make people “nice”. “I don’t bother anyone, I’m good, I say my prayers and go to Church, why do I need to fast?”
In response to such ideas, Fr. Alexander Elchaninov writes: “If the body hindered St. Seraphim, the Buddha, and even Christ, why then does it not hinder you? It is because you do not know yourself nor your sins, you are not conscious of any spiritual goal, towards which you direct your efforts. In order to love God and your neighbour, you must have a feeling for them and be refined by asceticism. Asceticism is necessary first of all for creative action (of any kind), for prayer, for love: in other words, it is needed by every man throughout his entire life.”
What is the goal of Christian asceticism? “Prayer, fasting, vigils, and all other Christian practices, however good they are in themselves, do not constitute the goal of our Christian life, although they serve as a necessary means to its attainment. The true goal of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. Fasting, vigils, prayers, almsgiving and all good deeds done for the sake of Christ are but means for the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.” (St. Seraphim of Sarov)
Besides food we are also encouraged to fast from luxuries and amusements. During fasting periods Orthodox Christians traditionally forego dancing, loud parties, and eliminate or significantly limit time spent watching television, at the movies or listening to music so as to spend that time reading scripture or spiritual literature, praying, attending Church services, helping the less fortunate, etc.
A person who can’t control what they put into their mouth will never be able to control what comes out of it. The most destructive, hateful, and unchristian behaviour we can engage in consists of gossip, slander, and rumourmongering.
St. John Chrysostom, who himself suffered greatly because of slander, teaches us: “The value of fasting consists not in abstinence only from food, but in a relinquishment of sinful practices, since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meat is he who especially disparages it. Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see a friend enjoying honour, do not envy him. For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast by being pure from avarice. Let the feet fast by ceasing from running to forbidden spectacles. Let the eyes fast by being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances. For looking is the food of the eyes, but if it be unlawful or forbidden it mars the fast and overturns the safety of the soul; but if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting. For it would be an instance of the highest absurdity to abstain from meats and from unlawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to feed on what is forbidden. Do you not eat flesh? Do not feed on licentiousness by means of the eyes. Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear is not to receive evil speaking and calumnies. ‘You shall not receive an idle report’ it says. Let also the mouth fast from foul words. For what does it profit if we abstain from birds and fish, and yet bite and devour our brethren?”
In the 6th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel Jesus teaches us about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These three fundamental Christian activities form an unbreakable and interrelated trinity. Sometimes, for example, we pray, but nothing seems to come of it. Why? Our prayer is not heard without fasting and alms. “Cornelius said, ‘Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of the Lord. . .’” (Acts 10:30).
The old English word “almsgiving” is a translation of the Greek eleomosini (slavonic dila mylostynia) and means “deeds of mercy” or “charitable deeds”. The root-word eleos can be translated “steadfast love”. It is the manifestation of God’s loving-kindness to us, as well as the loving kindness we are obliged to extend to our neighbour. “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful” (Lk. 6:36).
As the word itself indicates, almsgiving has to do with giving. What are we to give? To whom? How much should we give? How should we give?
Alms or deeds of mercy are usually directed to help the poor and/or support the Church. People usually associate almsgiving with material gifts. This includes gifts of money (financial support for the poor, the Church, charitable organizations, etc.), material goods (e.g., food, building materials, furniture) or talents (bookkeeping, construction, or any other talent we can use to benefit the poor or the Church).
If donations of money comprise one aspect of our deeds of mercy, then how much should we give? The biblical norm is 10%. This biblical tithe (Gen. 14: 18-20, 28: 22; Lev. 27:30-33; Mt. 23:23) was mandated by God to support the temple and the poor. Unless we are poverty-stricken ourselves, we should give one portion of our tithe to support the Church and another to support the poor. Ideally, our support for the poor will be given, wherever possible, through church agencies (it’s important to remember that until very recently it was almost exclusively the responsibility of the Church to look after the poor).
Many people might react by saying “Father, I’ve barely got enough to live on! I can’t afford to give up 10% of my income!” We would do well to remember that when Jesus said “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” he finished off the thought by saying “but with God all things are possible”. Rather more starkly, St. Basil the Great admonishes us: “He who does not feed the poor will feed the fires of hell” (c.f. Mt. 25:36 ff).
In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis writes: “Charity – giving to the poor – is an essential part of Christian morality . . . I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give . . . the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc. is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them . . . For many of us the great obstacle to charity lies not in our luxurious living or desire for more money, but in our fear – fear of insecurity. This must often be recognized as a temptation”.
The example of giving which Jesus presents us in the Gospel is the poor widow, whose two mites were worth more than all the gifts of the rich. She gave out of her poverty, while the well-to-do gave out of their abundance (Lk. 21: 1-4).
How are we to give? The Gospel answer is “humbly and unostentatiously”. “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them . . . when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will himself reward you openly” (Mt. 6: 1-4).
Christianity has value for us insofar as it costs us something. Supporting the Church and the poor is not an optional activity for Christians. But we must always do the right thing for the right reason – out of love for God and neighbour, not out of vainglory, egoism, pride, or a desire for recognition.
“The bread you do not use is the bread of the hungry. The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the person who is naked. The shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot. The money you keep locked away is the money of the poor. The acts of charity you do not perform are the injustices you commit” (St. Basil the Great.).
There is only one reason for the existence of our church buildings – the worship of God. Every other Christian activity – fasting, prayer, almsgiving, etc. – can be done anywhere. Holy temples – churches – exist exclusively for the worship of God.
Why do we worship? Because worship or adoration is the only authentic response to the reality of God. If I have any experience of God, or even a semi-coherent idea of Who God is, I will worship. If I wish to know God I will worship, for as we read in Psalm 21 “Those who seek the Lord shall praise Him”. The human animal has been described as “homo adorans” - “worshiping man”. We are created to worship. It’s one of the things which make us human.
Everyone worships, the only question is who or what? Besides the myriad of gods, goddesses, demons, and men who have been worshipped in the course of human history we see that almost anything can become the object of worship. Material wealth, children, the body, sex, sports teams, athletes, movie stars, musicians, nations, peoples, art, culture, language, nature, science – all these have been and can be the object of zealous devotion and adoration, functionally acting as a god for their devotees. Insofar as such devotion makes something or someone other than God the ground of our being and the source of meaning in our lives it is idolatry. Everyone worships – either the one true God or an idol of their own making.
The object of our worship is then of primary importance. But if we do wish to worship the one true God how do we do this? Christians follow several principles regarding their worship.
First of all, as Jesus tells the Samaritan woman, we must worship “in Spirit and in Truth” (Jn. 4:23). In other words, we must worship the true God in the correct manner for the right reason.
We worship together. Worship is not a solitary occupation, and Christianity is not a solitary religion. We “go to church” – a building set aside and dedicated not as a meeting place or a concert hall or a cultural monument, but for the common adoration of God, as the place on earth where the God Who is “everywhere present and fillest all things” dwells – in order to worship together.
We worship biblically. The accounts of worship in the bible, whether in heaven or on earth, all make reference to the use of incense and singing, and the use of images, vestments and other luxurious adornments in worship is prescribed by God Himself from Old Testament times (cf. Exodus chapters 25 – 31).
We worship on particular days and at particular times: “Remember to honour the Sabbath” is a commandment of the old covenant. Christians have worshipped on Sunday, the new Sabbath, from apostolic times (cf. Acts 20:7). We follow the daily, weekly and annual cycles of worship, feasting and fasting just as our Lord did when He lived on earth.
We worship in an orderly fashion, i.e., liturgically. The structure of our services can be traced back to the first century. Worship is not meant to be entertainment or “fun”, nor a cultural or aesthetic experience, but rather an encounter. If worship is authentic it is nothing less than an encounter with God the Father, with His Son, Jesus Christ, and with the Holy Spirit.
There can be many impediments to worship in Spirit and in Truth. “The concert”, for example, when the priest, acolytes, cantor or choir “do all the work” and the congregation doesn’t participate, not singing “Amen”, not receiving Holy Communion, sometimes not even understanding what’s being said and done – like an audience watching an unfamiliar Italian opera without subtitles.
Another obstacle can be ritualism – we perform “ancient and colourful rituals” which involve the body and perhaps even the mind, but not the heart. I know of priests and church singers who can be totally discombobulated during a service because someone sang the wrong tropar, or the wrong tone, or started too high, or turned the wrong way for a procession, etc. We should absolutely try to do things as beautifully and correctly as possible – but how is God glorified if our attention at Liturgy is focused primarily on the music, or the pageantry, but not Him?
Self-centredness is another big problem in our egocentric world. Many people attend services not to glorify God, but to satisfy their own self-identified needs or desires. Statements such as “I don’t get anything out of the service”, “I don’t like the way they sing”, “I don’t like the way the priest serves”, “I don’t like the language they use”, “I don’t like the sermon”, “There are too many icons on the walls”, “there are not enough icons on the walls”, “the icons aren’t painted in the proper canonical manner”, “Icons are written, not painted, stupid!”, etc. are indicative of a perspective which puts the individual, rather than God, at the centre of the “worship experience”.
Ultimately we worship because we love God and want to spend eternity with Him; “A sacrifice of praise shall glorify Me, and there is the way whereby I will show him the salvation of God” (Ps. 49:24). We worship because we want to learn about God. And we worship in order to learn about ourselves, because if we truly are made in God’s image and likeness by coming to know Him we learn who we really are. It’s the only real way to “find ourselves”.
Everyone wants to be happy. But seeking happiness as an end in itself never works. Happiness is the by-product of a life well lived. Worship, true Christian worship, worship in Spirit and Truth, is an irreplaceable and necessary part of a Christian life well lived. Insofar as our worship is the result of our relationship with God as well as a sure means of deepening our knowledge of Him it leads us to the only true and lasting happiness there is.
5. Spiritual Reading
We live in an age of almost universal literacy. Paradoxically Biblical literacy – knowledge of the Bible – is probably at one of its lowest points in history. Even among those who call themselves Christians.
A student cannot succeed if they don’t do their homework. It’s impossible for any professional – doctor, lawyer, teacher, even most “blue collar” workers – to maintain their employment or accreditation without regular upgrading. Life-long education isn’t only important for students or employees, it’s essential for Christians as well.
The primary “text book” of every Christian is the Bible – with the New Testament in general and the Gospels in particular forming the most vital part thereof. Anyone who claims to be a Christian should have a daily regimen of spiritual reading, encompassing both Holy Scripture and works of spiritual edification.
How should we read the Bible? Reading the Bible from cover to cover is not recommended. The Gospels are the heart of the Bible, followed in order of importance by the Epistles and Psalter, the books of Genesis, Proverbs, and Isaiah (which are read liturgically during Lent), and the rest of Scripture.
Daily Bible reading should include a passage from the Gospels and a passage from an Epistle. The readings given in the lectionary (found in the Church calendar) are ideal for this. It is generally more beneficial to read a short passage attentively every day rather than a long section once or twice a week. Daily reading of the Psalms – anything from a minimum of one psalm to an entire kathisma (section) – is also highly encouraged.
Father Alexander Elchaninov offers the following advice in regards to the reading of Scripture: “You are unsuccessful in your reading of the Gospels, because, in the first place, you lack sufficient imagination. The words of the Gospels do not give you a vivid image of Christ; in order to obtain it, you need to make a real effort of your own. Secondly, you do not love Christ enough, or else with the greatest eagerness you would read over and over again this, the one and only book that testifies to Him, and you would never stop discovering new details and shades of meaning in it.
There are two ways of reading the Gospels:
- To read very little at a time - a verse or two - then to read them over again, reflecting on them all day long, considering them as words of Christ addressed to you personally.
- When you know the Gospels well, to read large portions of them (one Evangelist at a time, or all four together), in order to grasp the sequence of events and the general spirit. If you have a weak memory, this is a great help: indeed, it is even essential.”
While it is important, as Fr. Alexander notes, to read the Gospel with imagination, understanding it to be a living document addressed in some mysterious way to each one of us personally, we must at the same time heed these words of St. Peter: “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”(II Pet. 1:20). We must avoid the temptation to apply purely personal interpretations to anything that we read in Scripture (it is the folly and hubris of giving in to this temptation that has resulted in the existence of over 20,000 different Protestant bodies in the world today!).
Like the eunuch of Queen Candace (Acts 8:31) we admit that we cannot interpret scripture without help from others, more knowledgeable and holy than ourselves. When reading the Bible it is essential and beneficial to refer to biblical commentaries by the fathers and the saints of the Church, especially when we encounter difficult or ambiguous passages. Two excellent resources for this are The Bible and Fathers for Orthodox by Joanna Manley, and The Orthodox Study Bible. Simply put, one of these two books should be the fundamental text used for daily reading by Orthodox faithful.
We must also be sure that when we read the Bible we are actually reading the Bible. Many different translations of the Bible are available, some good, some sacrilegious, some not translations at all. The New King James version (used in the two books cited earlier), the Revised Standard Version (not the New RSV), and the King James version are the safest English translations to use. When reading the Old Testament we should only use the Septuagint text, as this is the “Christian Old Testament”. The new edition of the Orthodox Study Bible which includes the Septuagint text of the Old Testament is an excellent resource, and should be found – and read! – in every Orthodox home.
Finally, when reading scripture, we must always ask ourselves, “How does this apply to me personally? What is God trying to teach me? How can I apply this lesson in my life?” We will not be able to even hear God’s word unless we are willing to fulfill it. (cf. Ps. 102: 17-18).
The daily reading of Holy Scripture is an essential element in the life of every Christian. How much time do I spend every day watching TV or films, reading newspapers, magazines, books, or listening to music? None of us has an excuse to not make daily personal study of Scripture a priority.
Besides the Holy Scriptures the Church offers us a vast amount of beneficial and uplifting literature. The writings of the holy fathers, devotional texts, the lives of the saints, and works of theology can complement and help us better understand the Biblical texts in particular and the Christian life in general.
The most challenging texts to read are undoubtedly works of deep theology. Priests and other spiritual leaders should be reading and referring to such texts regularly, but for most of the faithful reading such “technical literature” is usually unnecessary.
There is, however, theological literature – the sayings of the desert fathers, for instance – which is very profound, yet very down to earth and practical. There are also very good patristic works such as the sermons of St. John Chrysostom or the biblical commentaries of St. Theophylact of Ochrid which can be read with benefit by the average layman.
The average Orthodox Christian will undoubtedly derive the greatest benefit from popular educational or devotional works, as well as the lives of the saints.
Regarding devotional or didactic writings we should limit ourselves to reputable works by well-respected Orthodox authors such as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Fr. Thomas Hopko, Fr. Anthony Coniaris, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, etc. There is so much good Orthodox literature available today that there is no need to resort to non-Orthodox material (One exception I would make to this rule regards the Christian writings of C.S. Lewis, especially books such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain – as long as they are read in addition to and not instead of good Orthodox writings). Besides books, magazines such as Again and The Handmaiden are excellent and interesting sources of information and edification.
Studying the lives of the saints is also essential. Fr. Alexander Elchaninov writes: “Why is it so important to read the Lives of the Saints? - In the infinite spectrum of the paths leading to God, which are revealed in the lives of the various saints, we can discover our own; we can obtain guidance to help us emerge from the jungle in which we have become entangled through our human sinfulness, and so gain access to the path which leads towards the light.”
Many collections of the Lives of the Saints exist; the compilation of St. Dmitri of Rostov, the Greek Synaxarion, and others have been translated into many languages. Probably the best for daily reading is the Prologue from Ochrid, compiled by St. Nikolai Velmirovic, which contains short biographies of the main saints of the day, a meditation for consideration, and a short homily. This book has also been translated into many languages, and is available on the internet as well.
To quote Father Alexander again: “I am convinced that in our condition of life the daily reading of the Holy Fathers and of the Lives of the Saints is the essential and most effective means of sustaining our faith and love. This reading helps us to form a concrete picture of the realm to which we aspire, it provides our faith with images, ideas, feelings, shows us the way, gives us hope by describing the various steps and stages of the interior life, warms the heart and draws us towards the blessed life of the saints. How can we love that which we do not see, of which we receive no constant impression? The early Christians were filled with such great faith and love because they had heard, and seen with their eyes, and their hands had handled (I John 1). This possibility of receiving direct impressions from the Divine Light is granted to us either through communion with living saints or through that very same communion, obtained from reading and penetrating into their inner life. It might seem that we can attain this same aim by reading the Gospels. Indeed we can – provided we are capable of reading them with profit. But there are many people to whom the Gospels mean nothing – either because they were ‘bored’ by the Gospels in childhood or because the light of the Gospels is too bright for weak eyes, and not everyone is able to apprehend it. In this case, one needs the gentler atmosphere of the Lives of the Saints, which are penetrated with the same evangelical light, but in a more accessible form.
As was mentioned regarding Holy Scripture, we will only benefit from our spiritual reading if we are committed to fulfilling the precepts and commandments contained therein. As St. Athansius of Alexandria, in De Incarnatione Verbi, states: “But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life”.
A soul, like a body, won’t grow to its full potential unless it consumes good, nourishing food. Holy Scripture, the lives of the saints, the writings of holy men and women – these are food for the soul, the food which “causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” (Eph. 4:16).
6. The Sacramental Life
Participation in the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) is an essential element in the life of anyone who wishes to draw closer to God and be a healthy member of Christ’s body, the Church.
As Christians, we believe that God created everything good, and that everything in this fallen world can be sanctified. The physical manifestation of this conviction is found in the sacramental life of the Church, where water, oil, bread, wine, people, even sickness and death, are offered to God sacrificially in order that He might bless and sanctify them, and through them all of creation.
Jesus Christ did not preach a philosophy, but a way of life. He did not propose ideas for our consideration, but gave commandments that we might observe them. As members of His “one, holy catholic and apostolic Church” we continue to do and teach the things which Jesus and the Apostles did and taught – among them, performing and partaking in the Holy Mysteries of the Church.
Seven Holy Mysteries are generally regarded as fundamental by Orthodox Christians: Baptism, Chrismation, Confession, Communion, Marriage, Ordination, and the Anointing of the Sick. In all of these we see a biblical precedent.
Before beginning His ministry Jesus was baptized (Mk. 1:9). Following baptism the Holy Spirit was imparted to believers (Acts 8:17), which is the essence of the Holy Mystery of Chrismation.
Jesus says to his apostles “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn. 20:23), and St James writes “confess your trespasses to one another. . . (James 5:15). At the last supper Jesus says “Take, eat, this is my Body which is broken for you . . . this cup is the new covenant in my blood. This do. . .in remembrance of Me.” (I Cor. 11:24, cf. Mt. 26:26 – 28, Jn. 6: 51 - 56), personally establishing the Holy Mysteries of Confession and the Eucharist.
When questioned by the Pharisees Jesus states that marriage between man and woman is a divine institution (Mt. 19: 4 - 6). The ordination by laying on of hands is clearly attested to in the apostolic preaching (I Tim. 5:22, Heb. 6:2 etc.), as is the practice of anointing the sick with oil (James 5: 14-15).
Besides these seven mysteries, we also have such sacramental acts as the blessing of water, the monastic tonsure, the funeral service, etc. In all of these acts we see a process of offering and return – we offer something to God, He accepts it, blesses it, and offers it back to us in a sanctified form. In the Eucharist we offer bread and wine, which God returns to us as His Body and Blood. In confession we offer our repentance. In Anointing of the Sick we offer our suffering, in Marriage, our relationship. In Chrismation and Ordination we offer God our service. In Baptism, the Monastic Tonsure, and the Funeral we offer God our life.
Given the opportunity to partake of the sacramental life, to receive the grace and blessings God has to offer, why is it that some people – even some who consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians in good standing with the Church – simply refuse? Sometimes this might be due to ignorance or misunderstanding, sometimes it might be due to pride (“Why do I need to go to confession? I’m not so bad! I’m a lot better than most people, and that priest – who’s he to tell me how I should live!”), but in general it’s usually due to the secular mindset which characterizes our society and is imparted through formal education and the mass media.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann asserts that secularism is a negation of worship, and by extension, a negation of sacramentality (cf. For the Life of the World). If this world really is all that exists, and if all that exists really is the result of blind chance (the foundational myth and accepted dogma of the materialist scientific establishment) sanctity and sanctification can only be fantasies, on a level with belief in the Easter Bunny.
If, on the other hand, God does exist, and wishes to share His life and His grace with us, participation in the Holy Mysteries – the sacramental life – is a sure path to knowledge of and union with Him (Jn. 17:3). As Fr. Alexander beautifully states, the Church does not possess or perform the sacraments, the Church is sacrament – the sacrament of God’s presence in the world.
For almost 2,000 years believing Christians have partaken of the Holy Mysteries – simple people as well as geniuses; people of all social strata; saints as well as sinners; people of virtually every human culture under the sun. We all know the scientific method – a theorem is proposed, then tested by experiment. Here is a question for those who would dismiss the Holy Mysteries of the Church as unnecessary or optional – “if people were not being benefitted by participation in the Holy Mysteries why would these practices be maintained?” We have 2,000 years worth of testimony as to the efficacy and benefit of the Holy Mysteries, to the comfort, healing and spiritual growth of those who partake of the Holy Mysteries in faith.
God wishes to share His abundant grace and divine life with us, and does so in the Holy Mysteries. Let us accept this gift, sharing our joys, our sorrows, and our whole life with Him.
7. Community Life
“It is not mere happenstance that our Orthodox communities have many practical social activities that draw people into deep and lasting friendships. Bake sales, lamb roasts, Taverna nights, basketball leagues, and dances are sacred activities when they draw like-minded people together in the context of the local church. This is especially so if the participants in these activities, their children, and their children’s children reject the pyrrhic “upward mobility” of American life and stay in one place long enough to provide a truly stable environment. It is only possible to have a community if its members are more committed to it than to their careers. Only when people stay in one place can they exercise the unconditional love that is the prerequisite to love of neighbor.” (Frank Schaeffer, Letters to Father Aristotle)
It’s no accident that there is an etymological link between the words “community”, and “communion”. There is an ancient saying: “Unus christianus, nullus christianus”. There is no true Christian, unless there are at least two Christians. There is no Christianity without community.
Other than liturgical services, we generally encounter four types of communal activities in any healthy parish: educational, cultural, social, and recreational. A healthy parish, like the Liturgy, will satisfy all our human needs. Social or recreational events fulfill our need to interact with others; educational and cultural events offer us necessary intellectual and artistic stimulation; religious services and Christian discipline both satisfy and provide an outlet for our spiritual needs and yearnings.
Our communal life, like our personal lives, should be Christ-centred, Christ-directed, and Christ-oriented. It is fundamental that communal activities in a parish never conflict with Christian principles. I once attended a parish sponsored fund-raising event which featured a performance by a well-known Ukrainian-Canadian musician and comic. The performance was generally characterized by puerile, vulgar, off-colour and sexually explicit “humour”. It was embarrassing. I thanked God my children or parents weren’t there, and couldn’t help wondering how the performer’s parents or grandparents would have reacted had they been present. Events like this do nothing to edify or educate parishioners, and only serve to compromise the Christian witness of a community.
Communal activities should always be positive, community building, congruent with the Gospel, and inclusive. Educational activities such as bible or book studies, cultural activities such as concerts, social activities such as dinners and recreational activities such as picnics exist for the same purpose as our divine services – to bring us into closer communion with God and neighbour.
In addition to educational, cultural, social and recreational activities, common “deeds of mercy”, activities centred on serving the ill, infirm, and elderly are excellent ways to manifest our faith through social contact. Charitable works both within and outside of the parish community – visiting the sick, infirm, elderly and imprisoned; helping out at a food bank or soup kitchen; offering help and support to immigrants, etc. – are an excellent way to build bonds not only with fellow parishioners, but with the community at large as well.
The communal aspect of parish life is much more important now than it was in Europe, or in North America a half-century ago. Most of our parishioners no longer live in a concentrated geographic area, and other than Church services parish events and activities provide virtually the only opportunity they have to gather together as family.
Finally, spending time together with fellow parishioners gives us the perfect opportunity to practice what Christ preaches – unconditional love for the other. As C.S. Lewis notes in The Screwtape Letters, the parish is “a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy (i.e., God) desires”. It’s normal that we like some people and dislike others. It’s normal to have “difficult people” in our families and in our parishes (and if we’re really interested in trying to determine who the difficult people really are here’s an easy test: How easily and how often am I upset by other “difficult” people? Generally speaking, the more “difficult” the person, the more problems, shortcomings, and things to dislike they tend to find in others). By taking active part in parish life we are constantly challenged to relate to everyone – both those we like and those we don’t – with patience, tolerance, and Christ-like love.
In Letters to Father Aristotle Frank Schaeffer clearly underlines the reason we should be actively involved in communal parish activities: “The person you bake bread with year after year for the church’s food festival will pray for your soul when you die. Moreover, he or she will look after the spiritual and physical welfare of your children and your children’s children. The bread you bake together, the lamb you roast, the raffle tickets you sell, (as Ukrainians we might add ‘the perogies you pinch!’) or the church property you clean is more than it seems to be at first glance. Human communities are not built on grand theories about “the brotherhood of man”, but by women who bake bread together and men who ref basketball leagues together day-in and day-out, decade after decade, seeking no more reward than the good of the local church. Moreover, since all of life is sacred, these so-called “social activities” need no justification. They are as spiritual as any Bible study ever was. However, they do teach a lesson: We come to God together or not at all. And Christian community involves the whole person, not just some “spiritual” part.
8. Morality (Virtue)
As Orthodox Christians we often encounter the word theosis, or deification. Deification is the state whereby human beings become by grace that which God is by essence.
Theosis is the culmination of a three-part process, occurring after illumination, the indwelling of the grace of God. Illumination, in turn, follows upon purification. We purify ourselves through prayer, fasting, vigil, and the practice of the moral precepts of our faith.
C.S. Lewis writes: “People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence and eternal loneliness” (Mere Christianity).
The moral precepts of our faith must never be understood simply as the observance of rules. The real goal of Christian morality is the purification of the heart, for as Jesus teaches us only the pure in heart see God (Mt. 5:8).
Christian morality is rooted in two distinct realities – God’s law, and human conscience.
The Bible offers many examples of God giving commandments to His people. These commandments are given by revelation, as opposed to the laws of physics, for example, which are discovered by observation and deduction. God’s laws, however, are no less real or effective than the laws of science. “God’s law” is simply God telling us how life works, and how to conduct our lives if we wish to remain sane, healthy, and in communion with both Him and each other. A simple examination of the 10 commandments (Ex. 20: 2 – 17), for example, reveals that commandments 1 – 4 relate to our relationship with God, while commandments 5 – 10, when broken, result in the rupturing of human relationships.
St. Paul teaches that even those unfamiliar with God’s commandments are still guided by human conscience (c.f. Rom. 2:14 – 16), by the “law written in our hearts”. Fr. Alexander Elchaninov writes: “. . . The fact is, it is very difficult to live according to conscience, and it is very easy to live in the same way as everybody else, just taking things as they come. There is an excellent proverb: ‘What belongs to God is expensive; what belongs to the devil is cheap.’ And everyone rushes to buy these cheap goods. How easy it is to live without effort, in the constant cinema show of encounters and conversations, without taking any obligations on oneself, without forcing oneself to do anything, but just feeding one’s conceit, laziness, and frivolity. . .” (Fragments From a Diary).
Christ is both the origin and the fulfillment of our desire to live in accordance with the norms of Christian morality. In other words, I live a moral life because I want to know Christ, and by living such a life I give myself the possibility of realizing this desire.
We occasionally encounter or hear about people who try to legislate morality in a political sense. It is important for us to publicly support what is good, true and just, and to work for the eradication of such blatant evils as poverty, abortion or “euthanasia”. But if we wish to see a more moral, just, or “happier” society we will not try to change people’s morals by legislation, we will introduce them to Christ. Why should you not hop into bed with someone you’re not married to, make a mint selling drugs to addicts, or cheat your company out of money? Ultimately the only reason is because I know God, and trust His Word.
People who live immorally have very little chance of ever knowing Christ, and therefore of even understanding morality or moral behaviour. As C.S. Lewis notes (and in regards to this subject it would be very beneficial to read Book 3 of Mere Christianity in its entirety): “When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. . . Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.”
If we honestly wish to know Christ, besides praying, fasting, and keeping watch over our thoughts, inclinations and desires we will abide by His moral teachings and God’s commandments. The spiritual result will be our purification and illumination. The “practical” by product will be a more peaceful, just, righteous and humane community, society and world.
9. Christian Witness
“A tree is known by its fruit; or, as we say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. When we Christians behave badly, or fail to behave well, we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world. The war-time posters told us that Careless Talk costs Lives. It is equally true that Careless Lives cost Talk. Our careless lives set the outer world talking; and we give them grounds for talking in a way that throws doubt on the truth of Christianity itself.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
Religious faith which is verbally confessed, yet not practiced in deed, is nothing more than insufferable hypocrisy. As Christians our faith should inform and be evident in every facet of our life. As Christians, we are called to be examples of goodness, humility, and love. As Christians we are called to a higher standard of conduct – by the church, by our neighbours, and by God.
Family life offers excellent opportunities to manifest our faith. As a parent or child do I live a life of sacrifice and dedication? Is my home a “little church”, where the name of God is proclaimed and His commandments observed? Am I patient, kind, helpful and forgiving? Do I truly believe that marriage is a divine, life-long institution ordained by God, and that divorce is something permissible only as a last resort in extraordinary circumstances? After all, how can we as Christians expect our support for traditional marriage to be taken seriously if we de facto accept divorce as normal and practice or condone lives of nothing more than serial monogamy?
I am always edified when I hear my elderly parishioners tell me about their neighbours who are not Ukrainian or Orthodox but help them out by mowing their lawns, shoveling their snow, driving them to the doctor, etc. I am likewise pleased and proud when I discover that my own parishioners and their children do the same for their neighbours. As St. Paul says, we must “speak the truth in love” – and actions speak louder than words. Am I helpful and caring towards my neighbours? If not, what might they be thinking when they see me drive off to Church?
Hospitality is also important. It was a custom for the early Christians to have an extra mattress in the house for unexpected guests. Offering hospitality to the stranger is something we will be required to give an account of at the last judgment (cf. Mt. 25:35).
What about politics? Should Christians be involved in politics? As people who love their homeland it is perfectly normal that Christians be involved in politics. The important thing for us, whether as candidates for elected office, appointed officials, or simply voters, is to follow our conscience and the teachings of our faith in everything. It is impossible to be an “Orthodox Christian in good standing with the Church” and an elected representative who votes in favour of abortion at the same time. Given the complexities of life and governance in a post-Christian secular society we are often forced to choose the lesser evil rather than the greater good. Our presence in the political arena, coupled with a firm Christian conscience, can only help society achieve the ideals of justice, respect, tolerance and peace.
What kind of witness do I offer at my job? Am I a good employee or employer? Do I give good value and do quality work? Am I honest and fair with my co-workers, employer, or customers?
One of the most striking ways we can witness to our faith is through our suffering. We live in a world which has no conception of the redemptive power of suffering. Fr. Alexander Elchaninov writes: “There is no consolation for suffering except to consider it against the background of the ‘other world’. And this, indeed, is fundamentally the only correct point of view. If this world alone exists, then everything in it is absolute nonsense: separation, sickness, innocent suffering, death. But all these acquire a meaning in that ocean of life which invisibly washes the small island of our earthly being. Which of us has not experienced the breath of other worlds in dreams, in prayer? When a man finds in himself the power to acquiesce in the ordeal sent him by God, he achieves great progress in his spiritual life.”
As more people live longer the opportunity to suffer from age-related illnesses and conditions has become common. Familial and societal breakdown contribute to psychological suffering. Poverty and unemployment are great causes of physical, mental and spiritual anguish. Accepting trials without complaint; seeing in them a means of receiving grace; and not despairing in our sorrow or distress can be extremely powerful statements of our faith, hope, and trust in God when witnessed by non-believers.
Regarding Christian witness, we might simply ask “when other people look at me, what do they see? When I speak, what do they hear?” St. Isaac of Syria wrote that to see ourselves as we truly are is a greater miracle than raising the dead by our prayers. Many of us think we’re “good Christians”, but blessed is sh/e whose spouse, child, neighbour, friend or boss looks at them and thinks the same thing.
A pious man once asked me – “if you were brought before a judge and accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” How many witnesses could you depend on?
Epilogue - High Heels or Hiking Boots?
People attend Church for many reasons - some because they love God; others because they truly believe in the teachings of the Bible, Fathers, and Saints; still others because they understand the need for worship, community, the sacraments, etc.
Some “do the right thing for the wrong reason” – they affiliate themselves with a Church, but strictly for reasons of culture, ethnicity, identity, language, music, art, ideology, nostalgia, or even to “lord it over” others by serving on council, in the altar, or as clergymen.
We belong to a Church and confess a faith which can positively influence our world, our communities, and our earthly lives. Ultimately, however, the only truly meaningful reason to confess the Orthodox Christian faith is because through it we are given the opportunity to experience resurrection to eternal life and the unending delight of God’s presence.
This Faith has been passed down to us by devout forebears who for the most part weren’t theologians, or philosophers, or great saints, just simple, pious people who believed in God, trusted His word, said their prayers, went to Church, and tried to follow His commandments.
It’s no secret that nowadays many Churches are losing members. Some individuals and ecclesiastical bodies attempt to respond to this challenge in a “modern” or “progressive” way, by drafting “vision statements”, “mission statements” and “strategic plans”, all hammered out and approved by “the membership” with the expectation that the existence of such statements and documents will somehow solve the problems which led to the decline in the first place.
While certain aspects of corporate business administration can be successfully integrated into certain aspects of Church life, the most important thing necessary for the Church to prosper is simply that the Church be the Church.
Our “vision statement” is the Gospel. Anyone can easily obtain a copy of the New Testament at their local book store. What do we find written therein?
“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also. . . for this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (I Jn. 4:20 – 21, 5:3).
“If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (James 2: 15-16)
“Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Mt. 5:44).
If an atheist, or a communist, or a humanist were to read these words and then look objectively at my life, or the life of my parish or diocese, would s/he perceive congruence between the teaching of Christ and our conduct, or simply be struck by a feeling of cognitive dissonance?
The Church’s mission statement is found in the 28th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you. . .” (Mt. 28: 19-20). This three-fold mission – evangelizing, sanctifying, and educating – is impossible if we, the members of the Church, are not “walking the talk”. We’ll certainly have no possibility whatsoever of convincing others (first and foremost our children!) to observe Christ’s commandments if we’re not observing them ourselves.
Our strategic plan consists of nothing more than living a pious life – going to Church, saying our prayers, remembering God, and observing His commandments.
Orthodox Christians don’t believe in “religion” understood as a human construct consisting of rituals, doctrines, and practices intended to help us find meaning in our lives. We believe in Truth. We believe in God.
We believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Saviour of mankind, the “Lord’s Christ”, the Messiah who took upon Himself the sins of the world – our sins. We unite ourselves to Him in His suffering for us in order that we might, having died with Him, be raised with Him. We believe that the Church is Christ’s body here on earth, the ark of salvation which nurtures us and leads us into the Heavenly Kingdom. Everything we do in our corporate and communal life should be rooted in and guided by these convictions.
Now step back for a moment and consider everything which has been presented in this booklet – prayer, fasting, almsgiving, morality, worship, participation in the Holy Mysteries, etc. – and consider how closely it approximates the reality of your life, your parish, and your diocese.
Common sense dictates that we should always try to do the right thing for the right reason. When we don’t, we always cause confusion, conflict, and chaos. This booklet was motivated by experiences I and other clergy and faithful have had with people who, while claiming to believe in Christ, act and speak ways which make you scratch your head and wonder how someone who does or says such things can claim to believe in God at all. After witnessing such conduct it would be easy to conclude that “if this is the result of Christian teaching I don’t want any part of it!”
Thank God, most clergy and faithful are good, humble, pious people trying to do their best in often difficult circumstances. Posturing, slander, backbiting, ego-centredness, self-absorption, self-exaltation and denigration of others are not part of their psychological and spiritual constitution. Such people know that they’re sinners, accept correction when they’re wrong, and know that there is always room for improvement. For them this booklet might be helpful, but it’s ultimately unnecessary.
Christ calls us to be perfect (Mt. 5:48). Regarding this commandment, C.S. Lewis writes: “The command ‘be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him – for we can prevent Him, if we choose – He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.” (Mere Christianity).
Though we won’t achieve this perfection here on earth, if we don’t start here we won’t achieve it at all. Our entire podvig (spiritual struggle) – our prayers, worship, fasting, deeds of mercy, spiritual reading, etc. – doesn’t so much draw us close to God as open the door so that God might draw close to us. They help us overcome the obstacles between ourselves and God, to “not prevent God from making good on His words”, as C.S. Lewis puts it. Our spiritual discipline and fulfilling of the commandments cleans and polishes the image of God within us, so that He can see Himself clearly in us, and find in our hearts a worthy dwelling place.
All our Christian actions – the “talk” we are called to walk – are ultimately rooted in two fundamental realities; Love for God, and a firm desire to do His will.
These realities are poignantly brought out in a beautiful story from the life of St. Herman of Alaska: “Once the elder was invited on board a frigate that had come from St. Petersburg. The captain of the frigate was a man quite learned, highly educated; he had been sent to America by imperial command to inspect all the colonies. With the captain were some 25 officers, likewise educated men. In this company there sat a desert dwelling monk of small stature, in an old garment, who by his wise conversation brought all his listeners to such a state that they did not know how to answer him. The captain himself related: ‘We were speechless, fools before him!’ Father Herman gave them all one common question: ‘What do you, gentlemen, love above all, and what would each of you wish for his happiness?’ Diverse answers came out. One desired wealth, one glory, one a beautiful wife, one a fine ship which he should command, and so on in this fashion. ‘Is it not true,’ said Father Herman at this, ‘that all your various desires can be reduced to one – that each of you desires that which, in his understanding, he considers best and most worthy of love?’ ‘Yes, it is so,’ they all replied. ‘Well, then, tell me’ he continued, ‘can there be anything better, higher above everything, more surpassing everything and in general more worthy of love, than our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, Who created us, adorned with such perfections, gave life to all, supports all, nourishes and loves all, Who Himself is love and more excellent than all men? Should one not therefore high above all love God, and more than all desire and seek Him?’ All began to say: ‘Well, yes! That is understood!’ ‘That speaks for itself!’
‘And do you love God?’ the Elder then asked. All replied ‘Of course, we love God. How can one not love God?’ ‘And I, sinful one, for more than forty years have been striving to love God, and cannot say that I perfectly love Him,’ answered Father Herman; and he began to show how one should love God. ‘If we love someone,’ he said ‘we always think of him, strive to please him, day and night our heart is occupied with this subject. Is it thus that you, gentlemen, love God? Do you often turn to Him, do you always think of Him, do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?’ It had to be acknowledged that they did not! ‘For our good, for our happiness’ concluded the Elder, ‘at least let us make a promise to ourselves, that from this day, from this hour, from this minute we shall strive to love God above all, and fulfill His holy will!” (St. Herman, St. Herman of Alaska Press, 1989).