Literature outside the Church: A Discerning Factor
In the first epistle of St. John the Theologian writes: “You have been anointed by the Holy One, and you know all things. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and know that no lie is of the truth.” (IJohn 2:20-21) He often says in his epistle “we know”. Those to whom he wrote had the grace of the Holy Spirit, and they had discernment, “they knew”. But what about us, how can we acquire some measure of discernment? How can we know what is acceptable and what is to be rejected? I will speak of something, a facet of Orthodox life that can be helpful. Let me begin by posing a question: What is the character of Orthodox spirituality? The staunch, reverent piety which can be seen among Orthodox, not the external expression but the inner essence which can be defined as a holy humble blessed fearless fear of God. To the degree one acquires this, one can sense what is acceptable and what is questionable and so also say, “we know”.
So it is a life of piety which I advocate as a discerning factor or perhaps we could make a superlative and better express it by saying reverent piety. In Russian the word used for this is blagochestiye—for the Russian, this is a word of Church vocabulary. It is a compound word of good and honor. It could be defined as saying to hold that which is God’s in honor. As mentioned above it is “a holy, humble, blessed fearless fear of God”, in which there is peace. The late Archbishop Andrew founder of the New-Diveyevo Convent in Spring Valley, New York speaks of this as follows:
“Orthodoxy is not merely a ritual, or belief, or pattern of behavior, or anything else that a man may possess, thinking that he is thereby a Christian, and still spiritually dead; it is rather an elemental reality or power which transforms a man and gives him the strength to live in the most difficult and tormenting conditions, and prepares him to depart with peace into eternal life….The essence of the true Orthodox life is godliness or piety, which is, in the definition of Elder Nectarius, based on the etymology of the word, ‘holding what is God’s in honor.’ This is deeper than mere right doctrine; it is the entrance of God into every aspect of life, life lived in trembling and fear of God.
“Such an attitude produces the Orthodox Way of Life which is not merely the outward customs or behavior that characterize Orthodox Christians, but the whole of the conscious struggle of the man for whom the Church and its law are the center of everything he does and thinks. The shared conscious experience of this way of life, centered on the daily Divine services, produces the genuine Orthodox community, with its feeling of lightness, joy, and inward quietness. …
“Without a constant and conscious spiritual struggle even the best Orthodox life or community can become a “hothouse,” an artificial Orthodox atmosphere in which the outward manifestations of Orthodox life are merely “enjoyed” or taken for granted, while the soul remains unchanged, being relaxed and comfortable instead of tense in the struggle for salvation.” (The Restoration of the Orthodox Way of Life, pp. 3-4)
So what must we do to acquire Orthodox life. As one Russian priest told me some years ago: “You either live with those who have it or read about those who have it.” So then, what can we read? In the early Church Fathers, the classical works of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” and “Abba Dorotheus”. More modern works of St. Innocent’s “Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of God”, St. John of Kronstadt’s “My Life in Christ”; lives of the Optina Elders and the series of lives of saints by Constantine Cavarnos.
Let us immerse ourselves in such and see what the result is. What will it do to our way of thought and how will it affect our manner of life? Amen.