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Originally posted on Ancient Faith BlogsBehind the Scenes

By Constantina Palmer

Sweetness of Grace Stories of Christian Trial and VictorySTORY FOR BODY AND SOUL

Storytelling is a characteristic feature of our Orthodox Tradition. It is an ancient and effective means of sharing high ideals, universal truths, with the common man through images and examples relative to his experience in daily life. Not only is our history replete with books full of stories about holy desert dwellers, repentant sinners, sayings and anecdotes of anchorites and hermits, but the Gospel itself, Christ’s own teachings, are dispensed in the form of story, in parables.

The parables Christ describes in the Gospels contain profound depths of spiritual insight and wisdom, only discernible to those who wish to seek the truth. Parables are straightforward enough that the carnal man (i.e., the non-spiritual person) would believe he understands Christ’s teaching because, on the surface, he does. However, in reality the mystery of their depth remains hidden from him.

And the disciples came, and said unto him, “Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” He answered and said unto them, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” (Matt. 13:10-11)

Every aspect of the spiritual life requires effort. And so, it should not surprise us that even grasping the deeper meaning of parables obliges humble-mindedness and spiritual insight. To him who makes the effort to dig deeper, Christ reveals hidden, divine truths: “He that has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15).

In a similar fashion, stories of Orthodox life, mindset, and spiritual realities provide two layers of insight. The first is the basic level of understanding: “That’s a nice story,” is perhaps (at best) the impression a non-spiritual person has. The second layer, however, is capable of penetrating the heart. The content of the story first enters the intellectual mind and then, for those well-disposed, proceeds to have an effect (whether or not the person is cognizant of it) on the inner man.

Like all spiritual things, there is the exterior and the interior. Like Christ’s parables, stories of spiritual depth offer both.

When asked which was more important for salvation, bodily asceticism or interior vigilance, Saint Agathon said, “Man is like a tree. Bodily asceticism is the foliage, but interior vigilance is the fruit. Holy Scripture says that ‘every tree which does not bring forth good fruit shall be cut down and thrown into the fire’ (Mt.3:10). Therefore, we should focus our attention on the fruit. But a tree also needs the protection of its foliage, which is bodily asceticism.”

Obviously, Abba Agathon is speaking here of external good works and internal spiritual works, but the idea is the same. Man is of two natures: bodily and spiritual. Stories and parables that provide two layers speak to man as consisting of both body and soul.

STORY AS MOSAIC

Another element of spiritual stories is the communal nature inherent in them. A story is something to be shared. What good is a storyteller if she has no one to whom she can relay the story? Like love, the greatest Christian virtue, it is worthless unless we share it with others. Spiritual stories are a means by which a person supports and edifies his neighbour and is himself supported and edified in his own spiritual journey.

My own stories – stories of Christian trial and victory, of lessons learned and spiritual conversations with holy ones – do not merely involve a storyteller and her listener. They are themselves communal. They are not merely my own; they are also the story of others. They describe the spiritual warfare and spiritual riches of others. They are an exchange, a mosaic; they are both my story and their story. Like St. Nikolai Velimirovich, I too,

…am searching for those who have listened, my Lord, and I share my joy with them. I tell them about Your ways and Your wisdom, and they confirm what I relate. And we multiply our joy and share it. I listen to the tale of those who have listened, how You removed the stumbling blocks before their feet, and I add my own story, and our room is filled with heaven.

The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory is a mosaic of all the things I learned, saw, and heard as an Orthodox Christian striving to live the faith in South Korea, Greece, and here on the Atlantic-encircled island of Newfoundland. It contains examples of the sweet and difficult aspects of Christian life. These stories, my own and those of others, are a petition to take life in Christ seriously; they are a challenge to put into practice the Gospel precepts exactly in the life circumstances in which we find ourselves. They are a sharing of stories, intended for the whole person – body and soul – intended to inspire good works in the reader.

STORY AS MOTIVATION FOR ACTION

Spiritual stories, Christ’s parables, the sayings of the desert fathers (please God, even my own simple stories) differ from secular stories in that they are intended to motivate the listener to flee from vice and acquire virtue. When we hear a spiritual story the proper response is to learn and express this learning through our actions.

“I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw” (Proverbs 24:32).

Spiritual stories are like a feast, the storyteller a gracious host. A host decorates his banquet hall, offers the finest foods and wine, and invites all he knows to eat and drink so that they may be filled. Having a story fall on deaf ears is like a person who is invited to the beautiful feast, arrives, sees the sights, smells the aroma, but does not ingest the food. What good is there in a feast if it is not eaten? The same is true of spiritual stories. They must be digested. We must grind them in the mill of our hearts, extract a lesson and apply it with zeal. In this way we are ever vigilant, ever learning, ever applying the commandments of Christ. This is what it means in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers when it states the visitor “went away greatly edified” (Sayings, p. 52).

When we hear or read a spiritual story, when we receive “the words of life”, the fruit of these words ought to be born in our hearts. This fruit becomes wisdom, understanding, forgiveness, self-reflection, courage, patience, endurance, fortitude. The benefits of spiritual stories are unfathomable if only we are not passive when we hear them. We must greet them with an open and eager heart and display our gratitude through action.

This is true both of he who hears (or reads) spiritual stories, and he who relays them. As a storyteller, I myself must strive not to be a “teacher who teaches but doesn’t practice what she preaches” (as the ever-memorable Gerontissa Makrina of Portia was wont to say). I, like all listeners, must “produce fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8). Repentance is, in the truest sense, an action. It entails turning away from sin and toward God; this occurs first in one’s mindset and afterward is reflected in one’s deeds.

Often, when St. John Chrysostom would preach, his divinely-inspired words would evoke rapturous applause from the listening crowds, and his response would often be (in essence), “Don’t clap; rather, put my words into action.” The same can be said of every parable, every spiritual story, we hear or read. Let’s not merely clap our hands in enthusiasm, let’s show forth good works, let’s go away “greatly edified.”

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Some of my favorite spiritual stories are contained in the following books:
Practical Teachings on the Christian Life by Abba Dorotheos
Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters by St. Paisios the Athonite
An Athonite Gerontikion by Priestmonk Ionnikios Kotsonis
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated by Benedicta Ward
The Dialogues by St. Gregory Dialogos
Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon
The Prologue of Orhid by St. Nikolai Velimirovich

About Constantina Palmer

Constantina R. Palmer is from New Brunswick, a quaint province on Canada’s Atlantic coast. She lived in Thessaloniki, Greece for almost six years, during which time she received a Master’s degree in theology from Aristotle University, studied Cretan style iconography, as well as Byzantine chant. Not one to simply learn from books she also spent significant time at a number of women’s monasteries throughout northern Greece. Currently, she lives with her husband, an Orthodox priest, in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, serving the only Orthodox parish on the island of Newfoundland. She is also a social worker. Constantina is the author of two books: The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery and The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory.

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Image from the Daily Mail

While the below is a re-post of a book review I did in 2012, I wanted to include it in this year’s Truth of Our Faith series because I believe it is important for Orthodox Christians to know there is a handbook out there for how to take on the Christian task of preparing a body for burial.

Although as Christians we know that the aim of this life is preparation for the next, and although we go to great extents to plan weddings, showers, baptisms, and birthday parties, we are reluctant to plan – or even speak at length – about our burials, let alone death itself.  Deacon Mark and Matushka Elizabeth Barna’s A Christian Ending eases its reader into an important conversation concerning Christian death and burial.

The book is split into two parts, what I would call a theoretical part and a practical part. The first five chapters make up part one and consist of a discussion on different burial customs – both ancient and modern – as well as the Christian view of death and the body. The remaining eight chapters make up part two and involve a detailed description of the how and why of natural, or “ancient”, burial, as well as the necessary forms and prayers. Both parts are equally full of well-researched information on a variety of theoretical and practical aspects of burial. From information about the importance of avoiding embalming, “it is imperative that the funeral director be informed immediately, preferably in writing, that the body is not to be embalmed. Standard Operating Procedure is to embalm” (p. 60) to traditionally worn headbands on the deceased, “another tradition is a headband bearing an inscription based on the thrice holy hymn… ‘Holy God, Holy Might, Holy Immortal’” (p. 78), the book is full of interesting and helpful facts.

The text as a whole is uncomplicated; the instructions are clear and concise. The reader is given a good understanding of the method and work entailed in natural burial. It explains what exactly to expect when considering taking on such a task. It is a true handbook, an indispensable resource to have at one’s side during the burial process. While I found the book as a whole quite interesting, I found the description of how exactly to prepare the body very interesting. A Christian Ending makes a strong case for the need for such customs to be introduced to our North American Orthodox culture.

Yet, at the same time, natural burial does not come across as a light and easy task. In fact, the book reveals this type of burial to be more intense than perhaps one would initially think. The Barnas are right to stress the need for multiple volunteers; it is not something one can accomplish alone. It is a wonderful (and necessary) act of love to offer our community, and I would like to believe that this book will encourage many Orthodox parishes to rise to the occasion when those in our Orthodox family need help with the last of life’s important transitions.

The most impressive aspect of A Christian Ending, more impressive than the vast amount of reading and research that went into writing the handbook, is the great reverence with which death and the body are treated. The piety with which they write about such things never comes across as contrived, rather as something completely natural. The same can be said of the many poetic yet very real descriptions of death, “We know that the dissolution of the corpse is not the end of the body but the end of corruption. The seed in the ground has dissolved and is the beginning of the future harvest” (p. 93).

A Christian Ending is filled with practical advice for how to handle, clean, anoint, and dress the body, but it also offers a fair bit of insight into how we ought to approach death, the grieving family, and how we can help the deceased person’s eternal soul.

“A proper memorial for the dead, besides our own amended and virtuous life, would be alms to the poor or in an anonymous gift to the church. Perhaps one of the best memorials to all those who have gone before and all of us yet here, is to redeem the time, to practice virtue and recapture our own tradition; the act of mercy, the preparation and burial of the dead” (p. 95).

In short, A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition is a necessary book for all those who desire to help revive this respectful, Christian manner of burial.

Purchase your copy of this praise-worthy book here.

BUY NOW

Click on this link to buy your copy: http://store.ancientfaith.com/the-sweetness-of-grace/

You can also read a sample chapter at the above link!

 

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George, a young man of sixteen or seventeen, came to Mount Athos to go from one monastery to another. Though Greek by blood, he had been raised abroad from early childhood among Tibetan Buddhist monks in their monastery. He had made a great deal of progress in meditation, and he had become an accomplished sorcerer, able to summon any demon he wanted.[1] He was also an expert in the martial arts.  Using the power of Satan, he made impressive displays of his abilities: he broke hazelnuts in his palm, and tossed away the shells while the nuts remained attached to his hand. He could read closed books. He struck large rocks with his bare hand, and they shattered like walnuts.

Some monks brought George to the Elder so that he could help him. George asked the Elder what powers he had, what he could do, and the Elder answered that he himself didn’t have any power, and that all power is from God.

George, wanting to demonstrate his power, concentrated his gaze on a large rock in the distance, and it shattered. Then the Elder took a small rock and made the sign of the Cross over it, and told him to destroy it too. He concentrated and performed his magic, but he couldn’t shatter it. Then he started trembling, and the satanic powers―which he thought he controlled―since they weren’t able to break the rock, turned against him and hurled him to the opposite bank of the river. The Elder picked him up in a miserable condition.

“Another time,” recounted the Elder, “while we were talking, he suddenly stood up, grabbed me by the arms and spun me around backward. ‘Let’s see Hadjiefendis get you lose, if he can,’ he said. I felt it was like blasphemy to say that. I moved my hands a little, like this, and he was jerked away. He jumped up in the air and tried to kick me, but his foot stopped near my face, like it had hit an invisible wall! God protected me.

“At night, I kept him there, and he slept in my cell. The demons dragged him down into the pit and thrashed him for failing. In the morning he was in a bad state, injured and covered in thorns and dirt. He confessed, ‘Satan beat me up because I couldn’t defeat you.’”

The Elder convinced George to bring him his magical texts, and he burned them. “When he came here,” the Elder recalled, “he had some sort of charm or amulet with him. I went to take it, but he wouldn’t give it to me. I took a candle and said, “Lift the leg of your pants up a little.” Then I put the lit candle against his leg―he yelled and jumped up. “Well,” I said, “if the flame from a little candle is for you, how are you going to endure the fire of hell that you’re going to end up in because of what you’re doing?”

The Elder kept the young man close to him for a little while and helped him, so long as he was willing to be obedient. He felt such compassion for him that he said, “I would leave the desert and go out into the world to help this boy.” He made an effort to learn if he had been baptized and even found out the name of the church where his baptism had taken place. Shaken by the power and the grace of the Elder, George wanted to become a monk, but he wasn’t able to.

The Elder would refer to George’s case to show what a delusion it is to think that all religions are the same, that everyone believes in the same God, and that there’s no difference between Tibetan Buddhist and Orthodox monks.

 

[1] .The place of magic in Buddhism is unknown to many Westerners, who for the most part have been introduced only to a modernist Buddhism that excludes such content. A useful corrective is provided by the scholar Georges Dreyfus, the first Westerner to receive the Geshe degree of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.

“Unlike modern intellectuals, Tibetan scholars are never tempted to reject magical elements and often engage in these practices, though they may view them as limited in their effects and not relevant to the soteriological goals of the tradition. In this regard they are also unlike modern Buddhists, who are profoundly uncomfortable with the magical practices that exist in Asian Buddhist traditions” (pp 303–304). George Dreyfus, Sounds of two hands clapping. The education of a Tibetan Monk  Dreyfus discusses at length the Tibetan Buddhist practice of propitiating the “mundane” “dharma protectors”. “These violent spirits have taken an oath … to protect the Buddhist teaching. Despite this commitment, they are not completely tamed and are prone to quasi-human emotions such as anger, jealousy, and so forth. Hence, they are partial and can be enlisted in morally unseemly actions such as helping practitioners to secure worldly advantages or even kill an adversary” (p. 299). In fulfillment of their oath, meanwhile, the spirits “protect the person or the group, often by violent means,” from“‘ enemies α Buddhism’ (bstan dgra)“ (p. 300). Although “many Tibetans feel the tension between the reliance on these deities and the normative ideals of the tradition,” they “figure prominently in the ritual life of Tibetan monasteries…. But most of the rituals devoted to these deities are not performed in public but in the House of the Protectors (dgon khang), a separate temple devoted to them” (p. 300). Indeed, “Tibetans are often unwilling to introduce outsiders to [the practice’s] secrets. Temples are always open to anybody, but the House of Protectors is often less accessible and can even at times be closed to non-Tibetans” (p. 302).―eds.

An excerpt from Metropolitan Hierotheos Nafpaktos, Entering the Orthodox Church, (trans. Marina Mary Robb), Birth of the Theotokos Monastery (2004), pp. 98-101.

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A true member of the Church and a real Christian is the person who has the following attributes.

First, he remains within the Church, without leaving it through atheism or heresy. He is not cut off from this living organism and does not participate in heretical sects. This means that he accepts the faith confessed in the Symbol of Faith absolutely, that he participates in the sacraments of the Church, is sanctified by them and practices ascesis in his personal life so that he will keep God’s commandments. He feels that he remains within the Church in order to be saved rather than to save, because the Church does not need saviours.

Second, he feels that he is a son of God, that is, he has a father and is not an orphan. His great Father is God. Yet, the clergy are also fathers, because they are the type and place of Christ’s presence. Hence, a real member of the Church is obedient to the bishops, the clergy and has a spiritual father, who guides him in his spiritual life. Of course, he also accepts the teachings of the Holy Fathers of the Church and tries to imitate their life, that is to say, their ascetic practice and witness.

Third, he feels that he belongs to a family, and, therefore, has spiritual brothers and sisters, He is not alone within the Church. This clearly means that he loves his brothers and sisters. He does not judge them, regardless of the mistakes they may have made and he does not condemn them. He is tolerant and shows forbearance towards their chance weaknesses. In addition, he shows his love in a variety of ways. He participates in their pain and in their joy. The happiness of other people is his own happiness, their sorrow is his own sorrow, their love is a fellowship of love and their faith a unity of faith. He should that everything is in common. He should feel that the Church is a family, just as the first Christians felt her to be, according to the description in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts :41-47). If he tries to keep God’s law, but does not have love, he is not a real Christian; he is a sick member of the Church.

Fourth, in the instance of sin, he follows a therapeutic course of treatment. Man is changeable. This means that he alters and is wounded throughout his life. In consequence, he sins. The Holy Scriptures say, “Who can become clear from filth? But no one, even if his life on earth is only for a day” (Job 14:4-5 Septuagint). St. John the Evangelist writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8).

Sins are not guilty acts or simple rejections of the law; they are first and foremost wounds of sicknesses. The sinner is spiritually sick. Consequently, sin should be encountered within a therapeutic and healing framework. The priest is a healer or doctor, who practices this function in the name of the Great Physician, Christ. He cleans and dresses the wounds, intervenes surgically, if necessary, and in general, heals the wounds. Within this framework, we should look at repentance, confession and the orders of the spiritual father, ie. what is known as penance. We must repent. We must really feel our fault and our illness, we should want to be cured, and resort to the therapist [ie. our spiritual father or confessor] to disclose our illness and reveal all hidden and concealed points of the sickness. We will then follow the therapeutic advice of the spiritual doctor with zeal ad resolve. The Church has the sacrament of repentance and of confession…

From all of this we realize that Baptism alone is not enough; one must also live in accordance with God’s commandments in order to become a true member of the Church. If a Christian happens to fall ill, there is a special method through which he will gain his health again.

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It is said concerning Abba Agathon that some monks came to find him, having heard tell of his great discernment. Wanting to see if he would lose his temper, they said to him, “Aren’t you that Agathon who is said to be a fornicator and a proud man?” “Yes, it is very true,” he answered. They resumed, “Aren’t you that Agathon who is always talking nonsense?” “I am.” Again they said, “Aren’t you Agathon the heretic?” But at that he replied, “I am not a heretic.” So they asked him, “Tell us why you accepted everything we cast at you, but repudiated this last insult.” He replied, “The first accusations I take to myself, for that is good for my soul. But heresy is separation from God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God.” At this saying they were astonished at his discernment and returned, edified.

(From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, Cistercian Publications, 1984).

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Introduction.

            Moments ago, brothers and sisters, we heard the Holy Apostle Paul offer a hymn in praise of faith: “By faith Moses refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin.”[1]  By faith kingdoms have been subdued, righteousness has been worked, promises have been obtained, the mouths of lions have been stopped; by faith women received their dead raised to life again, and others fearlessly endured torture refusing release when it was offered, “…that they might obtain a better resurrection.”[2]  “Great are the accomplishments of faith,” sings the Church just prior to the Nativity: “Great are the accomplishments of faith.”[3]  Faith is truly a great virtue, but it is not a stand-alone virtue; it requires a focus.  True faith requires that we believe in something, and the focus of our faith as Orthodox Christians is the One True God who is the source of all those wonders we heard the Holy Apostle Paul describe moments ago.

So, we believe in God.  But most of us I suspect would admit that we are still children in the spiritual life, and as such our manner of living is a long way from those who are pure in heart and who therefore see God and know him well. On account of our sins and impurity, “…we see in a mirror dimly,” while they see and experience him, “…face to face.”[4]   And so we need to have them described God for us; we need to have his portrait painted and set before our minds so that we know something about him in whom we believe.  And this portrait–this precious portrait–is painted for us by the dogmas of the Church, brothers and sisters!

Today, then, as we celebrate the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the triumph of true teaching concerning God over falsehood and heresy, let us take the few moments we have together and try to come to an understanding of what dogma is, of what purpose the dogmas of the Church serve with respect to our spiritual life and salvation, and lastly of how heresy, or erroneous dogmas arise, and why they are dangerous.  And let us take as our guides in this pursuit the Holy Fathers, and particularly the three Great Hierarchs and Ecumenical Teachers, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, whose authority in these matters is universally acknowledged.

  1. What is Dogma?

So, first question, what is a dogma?  Dogmas are human words used to give expression to the experience of God.  The Prophets and Apostles were not philosophers. They were not like Pythagoras, or Plato, or Aristotle who simply thought about God, who used their brains to guess at what God was like without ever knowing if they were correct.  Rather, the Prophets and Apostles were holy people, and as a consequence they were allowed first-hand, infallible, experience of God.  When we speak about God, writes Saint John the Theologian, we speak of one, “…we have heard, [one who] we have seen with our eyes, who we have looked upon, and our hands have handled,”[5] not only bodily in the person of Jesus Christ, but also spiritually in the soul.  On the basis of this experience they wrote words to encourage others to advance toward the same experience they had attained, but their words were not always the same at this phase of history.

The Prophets, having met the three persons who were yet one God, described him using the terms ‘God’, ‘the Angel of Great Counsel’, and the ‘Spirit of God’, while the Apostles used the words Father, Son or Word, and Holy Spirit. With the passage of time, to the choir of saints were added the Holy Fathers–people with the same degree of spiritual experience as the Prophets and Apostles–and these saw that this difference in terms sometimes lead to misunderstandings and confusion, and so they gathered in Councils and together sought to refine and perfect the language used to describe God, they sought to make it precise so that people would not fall into error.  They determined, for example, that God should be described as Trinity; as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; as three co-eternal persons (hypostasis) of one essence (ousia). This is the dogma of the Trinity: God is three persons, who have all existed from eternity, and who are all equally God.  And the words the Holy Fathers used, because they were the product of consensus arrived at in Council where so many saints gathered together, these remain with the Church forever.

Something similar happened with the person of Christ.  The Holy Fathers came together and based on their first-hand experience of him they determined that he should be described as one person (prosopon) of two natures (phisies), divinity and humanity, which have come together without confusion, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably. Christ, in other words, is perfect God and perfect man at once, and these two natures exist united in him without having mixed together and they will never come apart.

So a thread of common experience–the exact same experience, in fact–ties together the Apostles and Holy Fathers: “The preaching of the Apostles and the dogmas of the Fathers sealed one faith for the Church,” as the Church sings.[6]  The only difference between the two is the way they express this experience.  The Apostles expressed themselves with great simplicity in the Scriptures, while the Holy Fathers at Councils expressed themselves very precisely in dogmas.

  1. Necessity of Dogma.

Now, the world around us tempts us to think that this refined teaching, this dogma, is useless.  Firstly, we are told that it is useless because it is supposedly the product of philosophical speculation about God which no one can prove right or wrong.  We have already disproved this claim, having shown that dogma is not philosophy, but it is how the saints have chosen to speak about the God whom they know.  Secondly, it is argued that dogma is useless because what really matters is how a person lives, not what they believe.  This, brothers and sisters is a very unorthodox thought!  And no one responds more clearly to this claim than Saint John Chrysostom who writes:  “It is necessary, you see, if we would wish to avoid Hell and to reach Heaven, to be distinguished for both correctness of dogma and attention to life for the Lord says blessed is he who does and teaches,”[7] and elsewhere he writes, “…even if we have sound teaching but fail in living, the teaching benefits us nothing; likewise, if we take pains with life but are careless about teaching (dogma), that will not be of any good to us either…it is necessary to shore up the spiritual edifice of our soul in both directions.”[8]  With respect to salvation, then, it is clear:  right belief, our embracing right dogma, is equally important as how we live.

  1. Purpose of Dogma.

Why would Saint Chrysostom make such a claim?  What does dogma do that makes it so important, so indispensible to our spiritual life?  First, it represents a series of road signs pointing us toward the goal of our spiritual life, which is union with God.  Our goal is to get to God.  But we haven’t been there yet.  So the saints, who have been there, leave us signs that point us in the right direction.  They get us thinking about him properly.  So true dogma, as an expression of the saints’ authentic experience of God, points us toward God who is the object of our desire; false dogma is an intellectually made-up picture of God and therefore leads us away from him. Reinforcing this point, Saint Gregory the Theologian writes that wrong dogma will, “…scatter you from the truth and send you to the mountains, to the deserts, and throw you into pitfalls, and places where the Lord does not visit; it would lead you away from the sound Faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the One Power and Godhead, Whose Voice my sheep always heard (and may they always hear it), but with deceitful and corrupt words would tear them from their true Shepherd.”[9]

Second, dogma has implications for our life.  What we believe deeply impacts the way we live. If we don’t believe rightly we will not practice our faith properly, which obviously affects our salvation.  Not only can incorrect dogma lead to an immoral way of life, our embracing incorrect dogma can actually strip whatever virtues we have acquired of their merit:  “It is pitiable, therefore,” writes Saint Basil the Great, “when the soul that abounds in bringing forth fruit of good deeds becomes prey to the adversaries [the demons], who are not satisfied without our desolation until they bring about our overthrow.  For the overthrow results from evil dogma, when the soul of those led astray is as it were dashed to the ground, and the desolation is the deprivation of what was acquired by the previous life.”[10]  The demons, then, want to harm those who live a God pleasing life, and the way they do this is by causing them to reject the dogmas of the Church, which in turn causes the good works they have done in their spiritual life up to that point to lose their value in terms of salvation.  Here we need to make an important distinction.  For someone born outside of the Orthodox Church and outside the sphere of Orthodox dogma, their good works will serve to bring them to the truth.  Saint Chrysostom says, “…it is not in any case possible for a person in error, but living uprightly, to remain in error.”[11]The Holy Apostle Nathaniel who we read about in today’s Gospel came to embrace Christ and confess him to be the Son of God on account of his being, “…an Israelite in whom there is no guile.”[12]  But if we who have seen the true light fall away into heresy and reject Orthodox dogma, whatever good works we have done in our spiritual life up to that point will actually become displeasing to God, like salt robbed of its saltiness.

And there is a third reason the dogmas are important to the spiritual life. That there is one true set of beliefs, that there is one true set of dogmas, that there are not multiple acceptable opinions, is a reflection of the fact that God is one and that his Church is one.  Our choosing to believe rightly, our choosing to assent to the dogmas of the Faith as the Holy Fathers have formulated them, is an outward display of our membership in the one Church and shows that we have truly put on the mind of Christ.  “Those who boast that they have kept the teaching of the Apostles and through the succession from them have received the preaching of the Gospel,” writes Saint Basil, ought to, “…show through their agreement in dogma that they are parts of the one Church of Christ!”[13]How do we demonstrate our membership in the Church?  By adhering to the one Faith.  Conversely, one who denies the teaching of the Church breaks from this unity and finds himself outside of the Church causing, as Saint Gregory the Theologian writes, “…the great and venerable body of Christ [to be] split and torn apart…and [leaving] the Evil One [to] rip to shreds the coat, indivisible and woven throughout and appropriated it for himself.”[14]

  1. Cause of Heresy.

For the Orthodox Christian, then, dogma is not something to be disputed; it is given to us as an aid to serve in the process of our salvation and therefore is something we ought to receive without question.  “Dogma and kyrigma (the way we speak to those outside the Church) are two distinct things,” writes Saint Basil, “the latter is proclaimed to all the world, but the former is observed in silence.[15]  So how, then, do false dogmas (heresies) arise?  Saint Chrysostom answers our question:  “…an unclean life is an obstacle to high doctrines.”[16]People will often say ‘I reject the Church’s teaching for this reason, or that reason,’ but most often the true reason is sin, hidden somewhere in their soul.  They prefer to paint pictures of God that reflect and make room and allowances for their sins and passions.  And a particular problem in this regard is the sin of pride.  Saint Basil writes that, “Some claim to believe in Christ Jesus but are found, ‘not to be established in the same mind and in the same conviction,’ and split into opposing factions; some of these through ignorance, but there are not few who do it through a love of rule and vainglory, wishing to show the public that they are wise and surpass others in knowledge.  This is why every place is full of people fighting each other and pronouncing opposing dogmas.”[17]  Why are there heresies?  Why do people rebel against the Church’s dogmas and fall away from the Church?  Because they value their own speculative intellectual ideas, their own thoughts, more than the teaching of the consensus of the saints, and want to show themselves better, set apart from others on account of their supposed intellectual prowess.  How, then, do we protect ourselves, how do we keep ourselves from giving up the benefit these monuments on the path to salvation afford us?  By being humble; both in general in our lives, but also particularly by standing before the dogmas themselves with humility and quiet reverence as Saint Basil describes, perhaps seeking to understand them but never questioning their validity and correctness.

  1. Conclusion.

Brothers and sisters, the New Testament is full of warnings against falling away from the dogma of Christ that we have received through the Apostles and Holy Fathers.  “Watch out that no one deceives you,” says the Lord, “For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.”[18]  Many, in other words, will come cloaked in the name of Christian, but they will teach things contrary to Christ, and inconsistent with the Apostles’ and Fathers’ experience of him.  And elsewhere he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.  But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.”[19]In other word, he who comes through the door, preaching true dogma, is a legitimate pastor, but he who enters by some other way, teaching something else, comes and does spiritual harm.  And lastly, Saint Paul says, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be anathema.”[20]

We live in a time when many other, foreign Gospels are preached.  The words Saint Basil wrote concerning his own day might easily be applied to our own times:  “…now men are contrivers of cunning systems [of thought]rather than theologians [who actually know God]; the wisdom of the world wins the highest prizes and has rejected the Glory of the Cross.”[21]Let us beware, then, brothers and sisters!  In things pertaining to our faith, let us only listen to the Master’s voice and the voices of those who actually know him, believing those dogmas they have given us as signposts leading to salvation, and unwaveringly confessing, “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 that has established the world!”[22]  In doing anything else, we only harm ourselves.  Amen.

Rev Dr John Palmer

Sunday of Orthodoxy

5 March 2017

 

[1]               Hebrews 11:24.

[2]               Hebrews 11:33-35.

[3]               Apolytikion for the Sunday of the Forefathers.

[4]               1 Corinthians 13:12.

[5]               1 John 1.

[6]               Kontakion for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers.

[7]               Homilies on Genesis.3. 178.

[8]               Homilies on Genesis.2. 37.

[9]               Oration One. [7].

[10]             Commentary on Isaiah. 1. 23-24.

[11]             Homilies on First Corinthians. 8. [4].

[12]             John 1:47.

[13]             Commentary on Isaiah. 5. 201.

[14]             Oration Six. [1].3.

[15]             On the Holy Spirit. 27. [66].

[16]             Homilies on First Corinthians. 8. [4].

[17]             Commentary on Isaiah. 5. 200.

[18]             Matthew 24:4-5.

[19]             John 10: 1-2.

[20]             Galatians 1:8-9.

[21]             Letter 90. [2].

[22]             From the Synodikon of Orthodox.