The difference between “right glory” and “right doctrine,” noted in my previous article, goes much deeper than services of worship. It is true that the Church has, throughout her history, taken great care with liturgical practice so that what is done gives expression to what is believed. The two should be seamless. This, however, becomes ever more difficult when it extends to our lives. Frequently, we settle for “right doctrine,” and “right glory,” but ignore the right inward life and disposition (technically called “orthopraxis”).
Fr. Georges Florovsky described doctrine as a “verbal icon” of Christ. Anyone can master a system of thought, its rules of speech and patterns of understanding. But to rightly speak and live within the Orthodox faith requires something of a very different sort. The verbal icon is indeed a true icon, and it must be presented rightly in every way. The recitation of the Nicene Creed in the Liturgy is introduced in this manner:
“Let us love one another, so that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.”
No matter how carefully we pronounce the words, or what intention we may bring to them, if they are not spoken in the context of the mutual love within the Body of Christ, they cannot be rightly spoken: the verbal icon will be distorted. We cannot speak rightly of Christ, for example, while we hate our enemies, even if those enemies are the enemies of Christ Himself. For we cannot be of use to Christ by disobeying His commandments.
Of course, this is a great handicap for Christians. It has always been the case that in fighting evil, we cannot use evil, regardless of how handy it might seem, or how temptingly effective it might appear. You cannot defend Christ by crucifying Him. The nature of the Cross and its reality in our lives is such that it cannot be rationalized: it cannot be turned into an ideology among ideologies. It is a mode of existence or it is nothing at all. No matter how noble and grand the sentiments associated with the gospel, only the gospel embodied in a Christ-formed life is of any value.
In recent comments, I was asked what could be done about things that endangered the Church. My response, perhaps not clear at the time, was to say that what can be done is to be the Church. Not even the gates of hell can withstand the Church, according to Christ’s promise. St. Seraphim’s admonition, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved,” is deeply frustrating to some. It is taken for a path of “Quietism” in which “doing nothing” is the answer to everything. I have heard this path assaulted particularly by those who want to be more active in evangelism. But if we have not acquired the Spirit of Peace then we actually have nothing to give someone even were they to visit the Church.
The anxiety of our age is the anxiety of competing “projects.” Political agendas, moral agendas, culture wars – all of them gather on the field of battle and all of them vie for the leadership of modernity. For some, the better world they wish to build is some sort of vision out of Aldous Huxley, or so it would seem: test-tube babies, gender fluidity, and a humanity reinvented to maximize its pleasure. Others imagine a classical society, even some version of a Christian society. As Orthodox, we worry about our tiny place within the culture and whether we can find a saving “option.”
The management of culture is not something that has been given us by God. The notion that such might be the case is simply our own version of the modern project. The Kingdom of God is something quite different. It is decidedly not a human project – it cannot be built, furthered, or helped along. It may come forth, be manifested or revealed, but only as the work of God. It might be possible to say that God has a “project” (if that’s not irreverent). It is the Church. As such, it seems weak, and extremely susceptible to decay and corruption. It has a long history of incompetence. And yet, as cultures have come and gone, the Church remains (and not as a result of long-range planning).
I often think that we are misled by the institutional aspects of the Church’s existence. I know that those who have the most “responsibility” (or think that they do) take great care for the Church’s life. But the “life” that matters is something that cannot be cared for – it cares for us. The Church is preserved by holiness (sanctity) within the midst of the faithful. As such, the Church is indestructible, even when its institutions are attacked (from within or without).
In our own lives, we fail to see things clearly. It is easy to discern a line of thought or institutional suggestion that is faulty and in error. However, we fail to see that our own sins are the greater danger. Holiness is the only effective argument – even its silence is overwhelming in its eloquence. Holiness is “right glory” in the life of an individual.
It is of interest to see with what great interest the statements of various holy elders are sifted in search of political and ecclesiastical prophecies and critiques. These extracted sayings are then brought forth into the swamp of social media as trump cards in our daily arguments. How few seem to be combing the sayings of the elders in order to examine their own lives! It is true that holy elders are a preserving force in the life of the Church – but not by their arguments. It is their very life and prayer that uphold us.
A single prayer, a single candle is worth far more than any argument set forth, while our anxiety and anger burn false candles before the idols of our imagination. In this season of the year, many memes will appear celebrating St. Nicholas’ famous slap of the heretic Arius. That slap did nothing to rebuke heresy. It was St. Nicholas’ mercy and love of the poor that found pardon and support from the Theotokos. Any fool can slap a heretic; only a saint can refute them.
Be the saint. It is our only weapon.