You Are Not The Standard – Almoutran
Apr
6

You Are Not The Standard

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Word Magazine March 1969 Page 4 – 5

You Are Not The Standard

This is the faith of the Apostles

This is the faith of the Fathers

This is the faith of the Orthodox

This is the faith which has

established the Universe

When I was a ‘teen-ager a charm­ing new girl joined our group one summer. She described her back­ground and status very simply; she said, “Dad’s in the oil industry.” Re­calling such names as Sinclair and Rockefeller we were suitably awed. Our attitude toward her may have changed somewhat when we later found that Dad was a part-time at­tendant at a gas station.

Our image is very important both to ourselves and to others, it con­ditions our conduct and potentiali­ties and controls the reactions of others toward us. Where in the world or in history can you find a more triumphant self-image than the Orthodoxy Sunday troparion we have just read? On these annual Sundays when we meet to commem­orate the victories of the Orthodox Church we proclaim ourselves the co-workers of the Apostles and Fa­thers and co-heirs of the Creator of the Universe. Our Church is one, holy, universal, as old as time; glor­ious “without spot or wrinkle” and infallible. Her history is a pageant of success and sanctity through the cen­turies, overcoming sin and error and always on the winning side. Tempor­ary defeats in one century are cor­rected in the next by the divine pow­er and inspired leaders. So obvious was our invincibility and self-assur­ance before World War I that Sir William Ramsey could write in 1908 that the Orthodox Church was, “not a lovable power, not a beneficent power, but stern, unchanging… sufficient for itself, self-contained and self-centered.” (From Luke the Physician, quoted in Baynes and Moss, Byzantium. 1949, p. XXV)

Basking in the inherited vestments of Byzantine glory this evening we can savor this self-sufficiency, assur­ance, pride in a rich heritage and confidence in the golden promise of our future victories as members of the one, true church of the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. To challenge this conviction would be to teach heresy and rob the Church of her reason for being.

But should we awaken in the ear­ly hours before tomorrow’s dawn, and should our mind turn to the Church we know, shall we be able to summon again the potent self-image of this triumphant Vespers for our comfort and security? Since 1908 so many reverses dot our path that some might suppose that our victorious march through history had turned into a retreat. The Iron Curtain has fallen around Eastern Europe, the heart-land of Ortho­doxy, and while we know the Church has survived somehow until now, it is obviously on the defensive and we are uneasy and uncertain about the price its leaders pay for its existence. We love our coreligion­ists and excuse their human limita­tions but non-Orthodox observers do not appear to be impressed by Or­thodoxy’s witness elsewhere in Eur­ope and the Near East. Some of our American prophets and theologians evidently are unimpressed also for they proclaim that the Orthodox fu­ture lies in America.

That is a flattering possibility, of course, but what of American Or­thodoxy? What of this tiny minority of recent immigrants from the cul­turally disadvantaged parts of the world? We claim to be ecumenically minded but national and even tribal divisions keep us shattered into com­peting jurisdictions tolerated, or is it maintained? by hierarchical indiffer­ence, or is it prelatical pride? Our pan-Orthodox endeavors are cau­tious, tentative, hamstrung by ethnic interest and parochialism. Leaders who comfortably preside over pros­perous dioceses are unable to find funds for the proper support of an essential program for our students caught in the chaos of the modern campus. You have heard Father Ruffin ask for the final payment on the Orthodox Center at Wayne State University. The Center is not the re­sult of national leadership, it came from the grassroots, from the Detroit Orthodox community. Our despera­tely needed national student pro­gram survives on very little money or moral support. Every national group has at least one rival diocese based on motives so morally low and so practically ridiculous that our more sensitive laity sometimes turn in disgust to other Christian bodies, or conclude that the Church cannot be taken seriously by decent and thinking men. Nor does it appear that relief is to come from the self-proclaimed prophets and would-be reformers, nourished on sour grapes and neuroses, who are currently busy straining out gnats, swallowing camels and adding to the confusion. All of us will admit that this harsh description of American Orthodoxy is not only true but errs on the side of restraint.

While we extol our ancient Saints and Fathers we know that we are shabby saints indeed, that our scho­larship is often insufficiently rigor­ous, and that our Orthodoxy, of 1969 in the United States, demands faithful who are stronger in dedica­tion and devotion and in the spirit of humble self-sacrifice than are we. Our Image of the Orthodoxy of Or­thodoxy Sunday: of by-gone victor­ies of the Saints and Fathers and heroes and missionaries of the past, shames us when we frankly confront it with an honest self—image.

We Orthodox live in a spiritual world dominated by a Church that claims to be the unique survival and only authentic witness to the earthly ministry of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but we know ourselves to be inade­quate to these pretensions. How can we sinners represent the Saints of the Past? Are the Fathers to be ex­plained by our ignorance? What of our claim to be the one, true, hea­venly Church of Christ when any­one can see that we are divided, weak and in internal conflict?

There are many possible reactions to our dilemma. Surely no one of us would pretend to deny the difficult realities of the Church in which we live today. We could not convince ourselves and others would only laugh. There is another solution that may offer hope. We may face our inadequacies squarely and draw the inevitable conclusions: we are nei­ther Saints nor Fathers of the Faith, and hence the Orthodox Church is not the unique Church we formerly claimed. Let us put aside our trium­phal pretensions, forget the exclu­siveness of the past, the stern, unchanging self-sufficiency of half-a-century ago, and accept the facts. We have watched the Roman Cath­olic Church resign her once arrogant claims to uniqueness, and our Pro­testant brethren have long acknow­ledged that none of them is the only successor of Christ. Have we, recog­nizing our moral, intellectual and in­stitutional limitations, the presump­tion to assert that Orthodoxy is un­ique, when even the Papacy is ab­dicating its infallibility and univer­sal jurisdiction? Of course we have not. .And does it not follow that we then phase out our little ethnic organizations, quietly resign our exclu­sive claims, offer communion to all who come, and merge with the equally disillusioned Christians of all the other denominations, wiping out the ugly ancient scars of schism and division?

Such a course would be honest and mandatory if it were not for one essential distinction we frequently fail to make. We are indeed ignor­ant sinners, poorly organized and led, and torn by petty quarrels and childish differences. But we are not the standard. ‘The standard is this triumphant faith we proclaim. The standard is this unique Church of which we are unworthy members. This is no discovery. When the priest or bishop absolves the sinner he claims to be the inheritor of Christ’s power, given to the Apostles, to bind and loose on earth and in heaven, and then one prayer describes him as “an all-unworthy sinner,” just before he pronounces the absolution. For the priest does not forgive in his name, nor does he preach himself. He speaks for Christ, he preaches Christ, we accept him with his in­evitable human faults, because he is not the standard. A sinful priest may not excuse others whose sins may in fact be less grave than his for the very reason that he is not the standard. Nor may we, conscious of our shortcomings, betray the standard of the Church because we are her un­worthy representatives, weak, con­fused and ashamed of ourselves.

We Orthodox are prone to iden­tify the Church with our shortcom­ings. Our well-grounded humility is then transferred to the Church and we fail to uphold her divine mis­sion, At times we have spoken or acted as though we must apologize for’ Orthodoxy. Our Christian char­ity. because we are painfully con­scious of the chasm between our in­dividual gifts and the perfection of the Church, overflows and we blur the clear distinctions between the faith and bodies whose separation from it are more than accidents of history. We lack the courage to wit­ness to the truth in its purity be­cause our personal witness falls so far short of our image of what we should be.

Our Orthodox pride, our assur­ance, our exclusiveness has nothing to do with us. Nor does our Orthodoxy guarantee our sanctity or salvation. There is a revealing legend about one of the Fathers of the Des­ert. ‘One day as Saint Makarios wandered among those ancient Eg­yptian tombs wherein he had made himself a dwelling place, he found the skull of a mummy, and. turning it over with his crutch, he inquired to whom it belonged and it replied. ‘To a pagan.’ And Ma­karios, looking into the empty eves. said : ‘Where is thy soul?’ .And the head replied. ‘In hell.’ Makarios asked, ‘How deep?’ And the head replied. ‘The depth is greater than the distance from heaven to earth.’ Then Makarios asked, ‘Are there any deeper than thou art?’ ‘The skull replied. ‘Yes, the Jews arc deeper still.’ And Makarios asked. ‘Are there any deeper than the Jews?’ To which the head replied, ‘Yes, in sooth, for the Orthodox Christians whom Jesus Christ hath redeemed, and who despise His doc­trine and die in their sins. are deeper still.’

We love less than we should, but we may not communicate promiscu­ously with those whom ancient er­rors still separate from us. We are not the Saints we should be, but we may not betray the Saints who taught and died for Orthodoxy. We are handicapped by stupid loyalties to nonessential internal divisions, but we may not join indifferently with those who are divided from us by es­sential conflicts of faith and doc­trine. Our ancestors clung to Ortho­doxy in the face of butchery and bri­bery after the fall of Byzantium, our coreligionists behind the Iron Cur­tain confess Orthodoxy at the cost of comfort, career and sometimes sur­vival. We may not betray Orthodoxy because a false humility leads us to suppose that we are the standard and that the standard is therefore as weak, as unprepared and as un­worthy as we are. We must be faith­ful but we are not the standard of the Faith. That. . . .

is the faith of the .Apostles

is the faith of the Orthodox

is the faith which has es­tablished the Universe.

On Orthodoxy Sunday, March 2nd, the Very Reverend Paul Schneirla of Brooklyn preached at the city-wide pan-Orthodox Vespers sponsored by the Eastern Orthodox Council of Grater Detroit in Detroit, Michigan. The sermon was delivered at Saint George’s Syrian Orthodox Church.