Orthodoxy in conversation

“God requires these three things, which were bestowed in Holy Baptism, from every man: correct belief in soul. Truth on his tongue, and moderation in his body.”  This saying of an ancient father of the desert suggests that we are not saved on our own terms, but instead judged by God based on his requirements. This is why the faithful have been encouraged to:

Stand fast, brethren, in the faith of Jesus Christ, and in His love, in His passion, and in His Resurrection.  Come together in common, and individually, through grace, in one faith of God the Father, and of Jesus Christ His only-begotten Son, being under the guidance of the Comforter; in obedience to the bishop and the presbyters with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote which prevents us from dying, but a cleansing remedy driving away evil, that we should live in God through Jesus Christ.

Although there are those who have heeded St. Clement’s charge, which he addressed to the Corinthians, there are those who have strayed from this ideal and/or were never introduced to the fullness of the Church.  This is because, to quote another desert father:

Today many people wishing for an excuse not to do what God asks of them find fault with the teaching of the Holy Church and reject correct Christian belief.  Instead, they choose to believe what they wish.  This is akin to a man not wishing to believe that he will die, simply because the notion does not comfort him.  Not only will he fail to prepare for death, as one ought to do, but he will inevitably find himself in the snare of death.  Correct belief is not based on what we wish were true, but on truth itself!

How much error in belief or foolishness exists today that must be confronted by the Orthodox?  Father Epiphanios of the Holy Hermitage of the Graceful Mother of God in Trizina of blessed memory writes, “For all the foolishness to be refuted, which is written against Christianity, the mountains would have to be minds, the trees, pen holders, the sea, ink, and the fields, paper!”

Why is there so much disbelief?  The same elder suggests: “Sin is that which prevents us from believing.  Not logic.  Fr this reason, if you tell an unbeliever to live for six months according to the ethics of the Gospel, and he does it, he will become a believer without even realizing it.”

Reflecting upon these words, the question that we must then ask ourselves is “How do we engage these individuals in Christ?”  Put another way, “What is Orthodoxy like in conversation?”

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.  Love bears all things, endures all things.  Love never ends” (I Cor 13:4-8).  With these words as a starting point, we engage one another in love, regardless if one is Orthodox in belief or in practice. Such a love for all people was found in the twentieth century Holy Russian Elder, Isidore of the Gethsemane Hermitage, of blessed memory.  A writing on his life documents that:

Showing love for people – the rich and the poor, the learned and the simple, officials and non officials, the righteous (if such people indeed exist) and the sinners, the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, as well as non-Christians and even heathens – was for Fr. Isidore just as necessary as breathing…”

Although living some 16 centuries before Elder Isidore, St. John Chrysostom directs the faithful to go to great, loving lengths to bring those who have strayed back to the Church.

We undertake a long run fight full of indulgence and sweetness in order to remove the heretics from death to the life, helping them to stand up.  We are fighting not against the heretics but chiefly against heresy.  Not against a man, but against errors.  Myself, I am engaged in fighting heretics, but my intention is not against these men I fight, but striving to remove from them the error and heal the rottenness.

There are numerous examples of loving the man and hating the heresy found throughout the centuries.  One most significant example, which predates St. John’s teaching, is Dionysios of Alexandria. 

In 251, Novation, a distinguished presbyter in Rome, came in to conflict with Cornelius, the Bishop of Rome.  Their difference was the problem of those would had offered sacrifices during the persecution of Decius (249-251); how should they be treated since sacrifice to pagan idols was considered a mortal sin?  Cornelius was indulgent to human weakness and accepted their reconciliation upon proofs of their true repentance.  Novation not only refused such an approach, but also even rose up against the leniency of the bishop, thus creating a radical group, competing in some way with the official ecclesiastical body.  The situation worsened and nearly to the point if an openly schismatic church hostile to any re-admission to ecclesiastical communion, thus challenging the charitable policy practiced by Cornelius. 

At this critical time, Dionysios of Alexandria (247-265), motivated by brotherly feelings, intervenes.  This was the practice of mutual solidarity between sister Churches, when a bishop was expected to offer his good offices; he then writes to Novatian a very short letter pleading for reconciliation and a return to peace.  Dionysios, a disciple or Origen, an outstanding ecclesiastical writer and peacemaker, in a most reconciliatory style asks the rebel presbyter to restore the broken communion with his bishop, as is also attested by Eusebios the historian.  What impresses us in this context is that Dionysios calls Novatian “brother” – adelphos, considering him in spite of all a valid brother in Christ.  The whole text in its shortness reveals Christian feeling and wisdom (p. 85).

In a prayerful spirit, we then engage the heterodox, that is, non-Orthodox, in dialogue as…children of God.  We do not hate the sinners or the heterodox, but the sin and heresy.  In the spirit of the Fathers, we embrace them as brothers and sisters, realize that they are weak and erring, and in turn act indulgent and charitable, seeking sincere opportunity for sincere dialogue and reconciliation. Reflecting upon such a blessed approach to all of God’s children, Fr. Seraphim Rose proclaimed: “How much hope there is for those who do not trust in themselves too much and are not overly-critical of others! And how little hope for those whose orientation is the opposite!”