Word Magazine January 1961 Page 10/28


By Archimandrite Elias Mastrogiannopoulos,

Nostalgia for Orthodoxy

Friedierich Heiler, Professor of the University of Mar­bur, is one of the most prominent contemporary theolo­gians of the West. He has devoted his life to an objective and impartial study of the Orthodox Church. He has par­ticularly dealt with an enquiry into our worship whose treasures he has presented to the Western world to the great admiration of both the intellectuals and the general public. This great friend of Orthodoxy has presented the conclusions of his systematic studies in two voluminous works. Throughout the 600 pages of the one, entitled EARLY CHURCH AND EASTERN CHURCH the conviction of the writer is witnessed that “the more deeply the impartial Christian of the West penetrates into the thought and life of the Orthodox Church, the stronger he is moved by her richness and inwardness.” What accounts for the admiration and trend toward the Eastern Church? asks Heiler. His answer is “It is a new, profound experience of the ecumenical confession of faith in ONE, HOLY CATHOLIC AND APOSTOLIC CHURCH which powerfully attracts the unprejudiced Christians of the West towards the Eastern Church.” He further analyzes these four characteristics of our Church. Let us follow him in his consideration of the Eastern Church, as Holy.

“No less important than the deep unity of the Eastern Church, he writes, is her Holiness. In it we may clearly discern the original meaning of holiness; the divine and light-like power which is full of mystery, vision and ex­altation, the power which is made felt through the sac­ramental signs, and which illumines, shines upon and lifts both the body and the soul of man up to the divine level. “Holy Things to the Holy,” the priest’s call to Com­munion in the Eastern Liturgy, which announces the awful mystery, and the answer of the faithful: “One is Holy, One is the Lord,” express very clearly the convic­tion of the Eastern Church in regard to holiness. “Truly there is One holy by nature; as for us even if we are saints we are not such by nature, but by sharing and training and prayer” (Cyril of Jerusalem). Holiness is primarily the gift of divine grace which is conferred visibly to the faithful through the Sacraments of Baptism, Chrisma­tion, the Eucharist, and finally Holy Orders, required for the administration of the other sacraments. In the liturgy the supernatural splendor of the inaccessible divine majesty and holiness is approached through the percept­ible and brilliant symbols of worship.”

This is how the famous German Professor looks at the holiness of our Church, as it is transmitted to us mainly through the sacraments. And he looks at it, also as the life of the faithful: “Holiness is not only a superpersonal sacramental grace conferred through the performance of divine services. It is also a personal gift. In order to receive and keep it, the soul has to be prepared incess­antly through the exercise of self-renunciation and self­-sacrifice, and through concentration and the “prayer of the heart”. The personal ideal of holiness which the Christendom of the East faces, is the early Christian one, one which combines deep humility and patience with divine joy and love which contains everything. This hu­mility is expressed not only before God but also before men . . . Out of this humility, there proceeds the eager­ness to suffer anything for the sake of Christ. The Eastern Church throbs with the original spirit of the martyrs. This is why she has been able to give to Christendom in recent times so many admirable examples of martyrdom. How­ever, for all this rigorous humility and love of pain, and despite the ascetic contempt for the body, the ideal of holiness in the Eastern Church has nothing in it that is sullen, tormenting, and sick. That which gives her a shin­ing splendor is the divine joy that comes out of the assur­ance of resurrection and the view of the divine light which finds its strongest expression in the night of Easter.”

One cannot help being moved by this confession, espe­cially since it comes from a Protestant Theologian. In­deed how vast the treasure of sanctification which our worship offers us and how supreme the ideal of holiness is, as kept in the Orthodox tradition!

The famous German theologian proceeds to further important affirmations. He is in no small way impressed by the Catholicity of our Church. In his view our Church is truly Catholic:

I. “In the metaphysical sense; for she lives and moves within the great communion of saints and is always united through prayer with the triumphant members of the Body of Christ….

2. “In the sense of place; for she embraces various races and peoples of Asia, Europe, Africa and North America and brings to each people in their language the good tidings of the mystery of divine revelation, and lets them pray in their language.”

3. “In the sense of time; for she includes the spiritual experience of all ages, from the apostolic times until today, and during this two thousand year period she has clearly presented an unbroken succession of bishops. Above all she is Catholic.”

4. “In regard to content. For as a living Organism she unites the opposites in a synthesis and harmony. The East­ern Orthodox Church joins the apparently difficult and ancient institutions of dogma, of the canon law, and of worship to the living, mystical piety of the present, which in a totally personal way lifts the faithful up to the vision and union with God. She combines the strict observance of the ecclesiastical forms of law and of the canons with a liberal practice on the basis of the principle of “Econ­omy”. She combines the hierarchical leadership of the

bishop with the living action of the people which is ex­pressed not only in the administration of the Church’s property but also in the election of ecclesiastical digni­taries, in the official approval of their ordination and in the participation in the dogmatic decrees of the Coun­cils, which, when accepted by the faithful, assume an ecumenical character. She connects the formal priesthood established by Holy Orders with the inspired monasticism and with the universal priesthood of all believers. This does not happen only in ecclesiastical administration and in the election of dignitaries, but also in preaching which is often done by special laymen. It is true also in regard to the liturgy especially in reference to the “Amen” through which the people confirm the words of institu­tion and invocation, as well as in the “Axios!” (by which they confirm the ordination of a deacon or priest during the deliverance of the holy vestments). Moreover the Eastern Church combines the richness and majesty of the Rubrics, Iconography, and Church music with a strong aversion to everything carnal in art and to a great extent in music. She mingles the austere spirit of repent­ance with the radiant joy of the admirable beauty and love of our Creator and Savior. She unites the extra-mundane piety and the fiery hope for eternity with a joy­ful acceptance of a world which has been regenerated by the Resurrection and is continually illuminated in the Holy Eucharist. At the side of the anchorites and the monks who want to give the world the example at imi­tating Christ and of the “Angelic” life, the Orthodox Church places the married intramundane priests who live with the people and serve them in their daily life, as well as before the altar.”

It’s with such clarity and objectivity and with such depth and admiration that this prominent Protestant theologian looks at the character of the Orthodox Church.

But there is another characteristic of our Church which particularly impresses the German Professor. It is her Apostolic character. “The Eastern Church,” he says, “is not only Catholic. She is also Apostolic in the most com­prehensive meaning of the word. She is Apostolic since she has kept unadulterated the apostolic tradition, the apostolic succession of bishops, the ancient worship and the heroic ideal of the life of the apostles.” “In this way,” he concludes, “the Christendom of the East is an admir­able witness to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”

One last point which Heiler stresses and which is of special importance is the Evangelical character of the Orthodox Church. Much has been said by the Prot­estants to support the idea that they alone know the Gospel. . . This famous Professor, a Protestant himself, provides the answer: “In the Eastern Church there lives the Gospel of early Christian times in purity and power which astonishes western Protestantism with its narrow and pale theoretical Christianity.” And he concludes:

“The Eastern Church has served until this day as the shelter of the Gospel and the fountain spring of evangelical life.”