Word Magazine November 1964 Page 5-6
AMERICAN ORTHODOXY AND THE
SPIRIT OF THE FATHERS
Neketas S. Palassis
Presbyter St Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, Seattle, Washington
Orthodox Christians visiting the United States from European countries are frequently puzzled and disturbed by the various non-Orthodox elements which have slowly crept into Orthodox parishes and churches in the United States. Some of these changes have taken place so imperceptibly that we have taken them for granted as being part of the genuine Orthodox tradition and belief. In fact, we are resentful when others accuse us of tampering with “the faith once delivered unto the saints.”
It would seem that we have not acquired the phronema ton pateron, “the thinking and the mentality of the fathers” as Father Georges Florovsky describes it. If we had acquired this “phronema,” we would be able to detect, combat, and reject the many heterodox influences which permeate our churches. The finger of guilt cannot be pointed at any particular individual, clergy or lay. We have all fallen short and missed the Orthodox mark in this matter. Both clergy and laymen have made their share of blunders and “progressive (!) moves;” organs, congregational control of parishes, four-part harmony, etc.
A quick glance at the various Orthodox churches in our country presents to us an example of a disunited and disoriented Orthodoxy. It is an Orthodoxy which in many cases is attempting to preserve “old-country” customs and traditions without reference to the framework of the teachings, canon law, and real Orthodox tradition as seen in the writings of the Church Fathers.
As an example, nearly all Orthodox parishes in the United States have adopted the Italian style of art work (which they call Byzantine) in their churches. Orthodox churches have over their Royal Doors Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper as well as other renaissance style paintings and show these to non-Orthodox as icons. Is it no wonder that many people believe the Orthodox are another Christian denomination? After all, our art work is in no way different from the art work of other churches. We talk of Byzantine and old-style Russian icons and know nothing about them. Our parishioners are so accustomed to seeing the new style, “classical Byzantine art,’’ that when they see real icons they are often disturbed. Interestingly enough, there has never been a new-style, miraculous icon of our Lord or of His Mother. The faithful honor many of the old-style icons as being miraculous. Three such icons are in the United States, namely the Tychven, Kazan, and Kursk Mother of God. Could this not be because grace is lacking in the new-style pictures? (It is not even proper to call them icons)
Our music too has undergone many non-Orthodox influences. Some composers who have never lived the spiritual life of the Church through participation in the Mysteries (sacraments) feel that the Church is a stage for their musical compositions. And thus we have musical arrangements which are the source of wonderment comparable to the feeling one experiences as a symphony rather than the source of spiritual compunction or contrition. This is not good Orthodox religious music. True Orthodox music is not a polyphonic, operatic presentation meant to emotionally arouse as would an opera rather it attempts to create humility and assist the soul to enter into communion with Christ our God. (See Canon 75 of the Quinisext Ecumenical Council).
Orthodox seem content to perpetuate certain non-Orthodox aspects of our “new tradition.” In some instances we have lost faithful from our churches because of this. Why? The defectors reply, “The music and icons are the same in the other church I joined.”
We are advised by St. Paul to remain steadfast to our traditions whether they were taught to us word of mouth or whether they were written. Have we done this?
In our desire to assimilate ourselves to our Western culture, which admittedly is very secular and certainly not too effective a medium for the perpetuation of our Faith, we have chosen to take Western elements contrary to our Tradition. It would have been more advisable to return to our own sources and offer them to our secularized world.
Byzantine and Old Russian art and music are not the only areas where we are defective. In this country we face a religious syncretism unknown to the ancient world. It is highly conceivable that in the near future we will have an “Orthodox-Roman Catholic-Protestant” church which will claim to be a part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It will be the illegitimate child of this twentieth century of religious compromise. A strange desire is shown by some to forget the past as though the faith for which the Fathers and Confessors lived and died is not so important. Did St. Photius, St. Mark of Ephesus and other Confessors of the faith live, teach, and die in vain? Is the Church wrong in honoring them as universal teachers after all these centuries?
Acquiring the Phronema ton pateron means that we also take, read, study, understand and live their message meant for all ages. Also the Holy Canons of the Church, its rudder in the sea of the devil’s wiles, must not be forgotten and overlooked. The canons are nothing more than the practical application of the dogmatic teachings of the Church in its life. The canons cover many areas in which difficulties exist today. Had the canons been followed, some of our problems would not exist today.
Another field where the Church is weak and must be strengthened if it is to remain Orthodox is the monastic life. The monastic life remains and should remain the princely vocation within the church, or rather, it should be the eighth Mystery (sacrament) of the Church. It ought to be duly honored and respected by the faithful. It has been said that the prayers of the monks support the world. The monks in the Byzantine world were “the advisers of the laity, mediators in times of bad harvest or plague or personal problems St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. Tychon Zadonsky, Father Silouan, the Elder Joseph are among the better known monks who have lived in recent years. All lived in seclusion, yet their beneficial influence has spread. Orthodoxy in its essence is monastic and ascetic. Take away its other worldly outlook and you are left with an empty shell. If there were no St. Antony, St. Basil, St. Paphnutius, St. Symeon, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, Orthodoxy would be nothing more than a moralizing protestant-type sect. The monks, anachorites, ascetics have lived to the fullest the life in Christ; their life has been the life of participation in the uncreated light of Mt. Tabor. St. Seraphim in his conversation with Motovilov describes this experience. Orthodoxy expects all men to participate and share in this also. To do so we must have the proper weapons and outlook. The battle is difficult, the external influences are strong, and the ruler of this world goes about as a roaring lion seeking whom he will devour.
Orthodoxy is not simply a religion which one may adopt and say it is mine. One must live it and practice it and be transformed by it. One holy bishop of recent times used to say Orthodoxia (right belief) which is not Orthopraxia (right practice) is reduced to Theompaixia (mockery of God). We must see the light. “In Thy light we shall see light” says a psalm of the Church. We are unlit candles and must approach Christ so that the life-giving Light He provides will not be taken from us or extinguished.
We cannot remain content in passing on the externals. Rather, let us turn to the inner person. Let us be more concerned about bequeathing in holy living the scriptures, the Philokalia, the writings of the desert Fathers, the hymns and services of the Church — the life in Christ. Let us set aside Billy Graham, Albert Schweitzer, and others who have fallen away from the real Christ. A study of our Fathers, of our services and a participation in the Mysteries (sacraments) and prayer life of the Church is necessary so that we can pass on an Orthodoxy not diluted by non-Orthodox influences. Then indeed will we be able to say we have acquired the phronema ton pateron.