Truly enlisted with the King of Heaven, thou didst become an outstanding general for Him, passion-bearer Theodore; thou didst arm thyself wisely with the weapons of faith and conquered hordes of demons, revealing thyself as a victorious athlete. Therefore, in faith we always call thee blessed.
Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ,
As the people of the United States celebrate the bicentennial of their existence as a nation, we members of the Orthodox Church in America are called to reflect upon our place in American society and our mission as Orthodox Christians. We are called at the same time to rededicate ourselves to the service of God and our fellow men in this place where God has put us, striving to be faithful to our divine calling. For this reason we ask God to inspire our words in this present encyclical and to bless our efforts for the glory of His Name.
It has become commonplace to decry the spiritual and moral decadence in which we live. It must be said, however, that times in the past have been as bad, if not actually worse, than the time in which we live. What is new is not spiritual and moral decadence, but the greater complexity and deeper confusion of our time as compared with times past. Never in the history of mankind have Orthodox Christians been confronted with a spiritual world as broken and fragmented as the present. Never has there been a period in man’s experience in which there have existed as many possible teachings and ways of life available to as many different people as there are today.
In times past the believer’s world was fundamentally a Christian world, with heresy, apostasy and sin as the enemies of genuine Christian spiritual life. In times past men and women naturally considered themselves as heirs of a tradition, participants in a culture, members of a church and nation with relatively clear principles and ideals, against which they could dissent if they wished, but to which, in the first instance, they recognized their basic belonging. Today this is no longer the case. Today there are no such fundamental identifications for many people, particularly the young, and particularly in America. Today there are a multitude of people who identify themselves simply as citizens of the world, free agents in a global society, unfettered consumers in a boundless marketplace of opinions and ideas and styles of life emanating from all corners of the universe. Today, in the West generally and in America in particular, the majority of people are given the possibility of picking and choosing the way of life which most pleases them and is most suited to their individual needs, desires and fancies at any given moment.
Thus, in times past when a time of spiritual decadence came upon Christian society; when there was a falling away from the truth of Christ and a deadening of the forms of spiritual life and a drying up of the fountains of grace; when there was a loss of perspective and direction due to new human developments and old human sins, there yet remained within the faltering society the seeds of renewal, recovery and restoration. Today this is not the case. Today the forms of Christian culture and tradition remain while the substance of Christian truth and life is being lost. A mighty rushing wind of a multitude of alien doctrines comes pouring in to fill the vacuum. While we bless the opportunities presented to us in our time, certain that the inscrutable providence of God Who loves us has brought us to this moment, we must be aware of the immensity of the difficulties with which we are faced and arise to meet them with courage and strength. In order to do this with the help of God’s grace, we must recall the fundamental principles of the Christian way of life and strive to understand the unique temptations with which we are presently confronted. In view of this task, we the bishops of the Orthodox Church in America offer to you, our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, the following considerations:
I. FIDELITY TO THE TRADITION OF THE CHURCH
We believe, first of all, dear brothers and sisters, that now more than ever is the time for us all to immerse ourselves in the Tradition of the Church. It is the time not to escape from the trials and temptations that surround us, but to rise up to meet them fortified by the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and the fear of God given to us by our Lord in His Church. Now is not the time for spiritual adventure, speculation and experiment. Now is rather the time for a humble and sober examination of ourselves and our society in the light of Christ’s teaching, the time for calm and careful analysis in the spirit of contemplation and prayer and spiritual self-control.
Our first and fundamental task is to remain faithful to what God has given us through Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Church. We must study the scriptures, participate in the sacraments, follow the fathers, imitate the saints. We must strive for humility and wisdom, obedience and courage in our steadfast adherence to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. We must avoid every exaggeration and every extreme. We must resist every novelty which is presented to us as superior just because it is different. We must flee every alien spirit and close our ears to the many strange voices that call to us saying of our Lord: Lo, He is here! Lo, He is there! We must be firm in our faith and stable in our judgments, steadfast in our devotion and constant in our prayer. We must stand fast in that which is given by God, without prejudice or pride, discerning the spirits and reading the signs of the times in order to determine that which is indeed proceeding from God.
A. The Practice of Prayer
To accomplish our task of fidelity to God in the Church, our primary and essential duty is the practice of prayer. If we are not successful in our prayer we will not be successful in anything, for prayer is the root and ground of everything in the spiritual life. This is the teaching of our faith.
There is much talk about prayer today. Many books are written on the subject. There are discussions about places and methods and forms of prayer; much controversy about old ways and new ways of praying. In our spiritual lives we must resist the temptation first of all of merely thinking and talking about prayer, and not praying ourselves. We must resist the temptation of endless discussions about methods and techniques of prayer. These forms are not the substance of the matter. If we discuss these and fail in the practice of prayer, as taught us by the Lord and His saints and inspired in us by the Spirit of God in the life of the Church, nothing is achieved.
When we look to the Orthodox Tradition of personal prayer we find the following essential counsels. First we are taught that we must pray simply and humbly, in secret, without ostentation or pretention, without using many words and without looking for the praises of men. We are taught to pray briefly and frequently, regularly and constantly, using the words inspired by God and revealed in the Bible and the prayers of the Church. We are taught to have specific times of prayer, and to pray without ceasing by having the remembrance of God continually in our minds and the Name of Jesus constantly on our lips and in our hearts, doing all things to the glory of God for the good of others. We are taught as well to use the Lord’s Prayer and the psalms and the prayers of the saints in order to learn how to pray, for what to ask and thank and glorify God. We are taught to do this in order to be liberated from the narrow and petty interests and concerns of our own limited experiences and be freed from the vain imaginations of our own minds and hearts which so often consume us, even in our prayer.
Following the rule of prayer established by the Lord in the Church, and using the traditional prayers of the scriptures and saints, we are taught as well to pray to God in our own words, and even in silence with no words at all, opening ourselves in all things to the will of our Father in heaven, and being guided by His Spirit within us from Christ. We are strictly warned to be always aware not to make our individual prayer the result of our individual blindness and our individual desires, but to be always conscious of the fact that the sole purpose of prayer is to raise our minds and hearts to the greatness of God in order to accomplish His will in the details of our life in the ways that He desires for us.
The purpose of prayer is not to attain any particular emotional feelings or psychological states. It is not to have visions or hear voices. It is simply to accomplish the will of God in our lives. It is to be able not to sin. To love God with our entire being. To love our neighbor, and even our enemy, as ourselves. To have the Spirit of God in us. To be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ the Son of God by loving obedience to the Father even unto death.
In prayer, we are to strive for sobriety, for simplicity and silence, for quiet and calm, for the perfect integration and harmony of body and soul in joyful union with God through Christ by becoming one spirit with the Spirit of God. This is the purpose and goal of prayer: to be one with God in order to do His will. This is the meaning of prayer: union with the Blessed Trinity in adoration, thanksgiving, petition, lamentation and perpetual service.
In the spiritual life our personal prayer should be the foundation of our corporate prayer in the liturgy of the Church. People who pray only when they go to church will be very weak in their prayer and will receive very little from the common prayer of the Church in its liturgical gatherings.
The liturgical prayer of the Church is performed according to the traditional rule of worship which we have received from God through the saints. The psalmody and hymnology of liturgical prayer is the breathing of the Holy Spirit in the Church. It is the Word of God given to us for God’s own glory. Every parish and every family and every person should be immersed in the liturgical prayer of the Church. The liturgical worship of the Church should be the context of our lives, the content of our spirits, the atmosphere in which we think and speak and act. As such it should be conducted simply, decently and in order without any needless adornments and embellishments which detract from its divine purpose and power.
B. The Sacramental Life of the Church
Nourished by the Word and Spirit of God through the sound practice of personal and liturgical prayer, we Orthodox Christians in America must strive to revitalize the mystical, sacramental life of our churches and monasteries. To renew sacramental participation in the life of the Church we need only begin. Everything is there. Nothing needs to be added. All things are prepared. We need only receive what the Church gives us, practice what the Church teaches us. It is a very sad fact, the saddest of facts, that when non-Orthodox Christians are looking to Orthodoxy for guidance in the mystical life of sacramental action in the Church, we Orthodox ourselves are so lacking in proper practice of those sacramental treasures which we possess by the grace of God and the gift of Holy Tradition.
Baptisms and chrismations, marriages and funerals, the services of healing through the anointing of the sick must once again be understood and experienced as corporate acts of worship and praise. They must be taken out of the dark corners of our private devotions and social celebrations and be placed in the center of our corporate spiritual lives. They must become once again the communal actions of the Church as the mystical body and bride of Christ; the common liturgical actions of the whole people of God; witnessed, celebrated and accomplished by all, together in one place, at one time.
Confession, the sacrament of reconciliation with the Church, must be made regular and frequent. It must become once again an abiding element in the lives of the faithful, deformalized and revitalized as the most common and normal of actions of a people continually united and reunited with each other and with God. The “general confession,” approved and regulated by the Holy Synod of bishops in 1973, and practiced as a common act of confession and repentance by those in communion with Christ in the Church, must take its place alongside individual and private confession as a sacramental sign of reconciliation, healing and forgiveness of sins.
Participation in the holy eucharist, the sacrament of sacraments, must become normal and regular for all of the members of the Church. It must be the rule, and not the exception, that the faithful come forward at the divine liturgy, with fear and with love, to receive the body and blood of Christ for the sake of their salvation and inspiration in the faith. It is the Lord Himself who invites, for He Himself has said: Take, eat, this is my body! Drink of it, all of you, this is my blood! He who does not eat of the Lord’s body and drink of His blood with faith and devotion does not have eternal life abiding in him.
The holy eucharist is the center and focal point of the spiritual lives of Christians. It is the inexhaustible source and unalterable goal of all that we are and all that we do as servants of God and members of Christ’s Church. It is our unique and certain means of communion with God the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit, with the Holy Theotokos Virgin Mary and all the angels and saints. It is our deepest and most perfect means of communion with one another and with the whole Church of God, with all mankind and the whole of creation. May the divine liturgy be for us always our entrance into the Kingdom of God, our participation in the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, the Lord Jesus Christ, as envisaged by the beloved apostle John in the Book of Revelation.
C. Bearing Christ’s Cross in the World
Rooted in prayer and grounded in the sacramental mysteries of the Church, we are called as Orthodox Christians to go forth into the world to do the work of God and to accomplish our mission, each one of us in his or her own way as guided by the Spirit of God.
Each human being is created in the image and likeness of God. Each human person is unique and irreplaceable as a servant of Christ and a living temple of the Holy Spirit. Each man, woman and child has his or her own place and duty in the building up of the Church and the Kingdom of God in the life of the world. Each one of us must sanctify the actual life given to us by God within the conditions of life which are ours. Each one of us must use his or her own unique talents and gifts, according to the measure of grace and faith which God provides, for the fulfillment of God’s will in the service of others.
The first and fundamental task of every Christian is to flee from the temptation of enslavement to the things of this world: the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. (1 John 2:15) This means, first of all, that each one of us must strive to be free from the love of money which is the root of all evil, free from all covetousness for earthly possessions which is idolatry. The Lord Jesus Christ, with all of His prophets, apostles and saints, is severe in His warnings to those who are foolish enough to lay up treasures on this earth which only corrupt and enslave their possessor. The Lord is strict without compromise in His teaching that those who desire to be rich will lose their own souls in the process and be deprived of the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you poor!, He said. Blessed are you who give, asking nothing in return! Blessed are you who trust in God to care for you as He cares for the flowers of the fields and the birds of the air, if only you trust God and obey His commands! Let us trust God to care for us and provide for us as we strive to do His will in our sharing with others. Let us always recall His holy words: You cannot serve God and mammon.
As we strive to be liberated from the things of this world which choke the Word of God in us and quench His Holy Spirit within us, let us flee as well from vainglory and pride, from the desire for praise and fame among men, from every lust for power and prestige within the life of this world. How often we are captivated by our own egos. How often we are ruled by the passion to have others honor and praise us. How frequently we seek appreciation and thanks for the little good that we do. How often we look to exercise power and authority over others. But all this is contrary to Christ, the true Servant of God and the whole of mankind, who has said: I am among you as one who serves. He who will be the greatest among you will be as the least; he who will be first will be the servant of all. There is no Christian life, no Godlike life among men, where there is not the will and the desire to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and to give ourselves fully in sacrificial service and love for each other and the least of the brethren. And to do so meekly and humbly, secretly and silently, with gratitude and joy in our hearts that God has blessed us to be His children in Christ, the servants of humanity.
We all must strive as well for purity of heart, for purity of mind and body and soul. The pure will be blessed to see God, Christ has said, while the fornicators and adulterers and the slaves to carnal lusts will lose their lives and be deprived of God’s kingdom. There is no dignity and freedom in the carnal person. There is no true life, peace and joy for the one constantly seeking to satisfy the lusts of the flesh. There is only the bestial condition of constant dissatisfaction and continual frustration and lack of fulfillment in the vain longing to please the carnal senses. Let us flee from such foolishness which destroys the image of God in us. Let us reject the ways that lead to death.
While fighting every evil passion within us, let us strive for the fruits of the Holy Spirit which make us truly divine: love, truth, peace, joy, patience, kindness, purity, gentleness, humility, meekness, faithfulness and self-control. By denying the lusts of the flesh, let us seek for the virtues of God. Let us struggle each day, taking up our cross, that we might follow our Lord Jesus Christ and be filled with the fullness of God by the indwelling of God’s Spirit within us.
What a blessing it would be for all of us, and for our neighbors as well, if the fruits of the Holy Spirit living within our entire church could blossom forth in several monastic communities of men and women wholly dedicated to the service of God. We know, however, that for such communities to develop, the Word of God must be firmly planted in our parishes, families and schools and the attainment of the Holy Spirit must become the rule of life for all of the faithful members of the Church. When each one of us, in his or her own way, strives to do the will of God and hear His voice in every detail of life, then we can be certain that a great variety of ways of Christian living will develop among us. Then we can be certain that some will be chosen by the Lord for total commitment to His glory in the monastic way. But it must be stressed: the monastic life can flourish only on the churchly vine whose roots are strong and deep, firmly grounded and cultivated in the good soul capable and ready to receive the words and the actions of God. May Christ bless our Church in America to be the good soil in which such a spiritual blossoming can happen!
As we consider the spiritual life in our time we are certainly aware of the fact that our contemporary society stands against the aspirations and desires inspired in us by God. Not only are the values and goals of secular life radically different from the values and goals of the Church, but the power of ungodly conditions tempts us to weakness and fear. Many of us today are tempted to say: Yes, I would be Christian, but it is impossible today. Perhaps it could be done in other times and other places, but it cannot be done today in America.
Such an attitude is plainly wrong. It is born of the devil. It blasphemes God. Now is the time of salvation as much as any other. God is with us here and now as much as He ever was in any time and place. What we must do today is what lovers of God are always called to do. We must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Christ. Nothing in the world of flesh and spirit, of angels or men, can stop us from doing this, if only we want it. But what is true is that we will have to suffer if we follow Christ.
The sufferings of Christians are real and strong. Christ suffered. The prophets and apostles suffered. The martyrs and saints suffered. And if we will be children of God, we will suffer as well. We know this. For we wear on our breasts and place on our bodies the image of Christ crucified. But the sufferings of Christians are not morbid and sad. They are not bitter and joyless. The true Christians exclaim: We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5) Christ Himself, it is written, was made perfect through suffering. (Hebrews 2:10) It cannot be different for us. But if we suffer with Him, and in Him, and for Him for the sake of God’s love of mankind, then we will certainly find true life, in peace and joy and righteousness in this world; and will reign forever with Him in the Kingdom of God.
II. TEMPTATIONS CONFRONTING US IN OUR TIME
As we consider our spiritual life as Orthodox Christians in America today, let us consider as well some of the more powerful temptations of a spiritual nature which confront us in our time. These are the temptations which are offered not simply by the children of darkness of this evil and adulterous generation, by the wicked and the carnal. These are the temptations which come to us from those who, in the words of Saint Paul, may have a zeal for God which is not enlightened and thereby reject the righteousness that comes from God and replace it with a righteousness of their own. (Romans 10:1-3) These are they who, according to our Lord Jesus Christ, may hear the Word of God, but do not understand it. (Matthew 13:23)
A. The Temptation of External Ritualism
Among the many temptations confronting us today, one to which many of our church members have yielded, is the temptation of external ritualism. This is the temptation to reduce Orthodox Christianity to the observance of the external practices and forms of churchly life, or worse yet, to the external customs and traditions of one or another of the many nationalities traditionally connected with the Orthodox Church. Very often those who are the victims of this pernicious temptation are not consciously or willingly so. Sometimes people even fall prey to this temptation thinking that they are being very faithful to the life of the Church. We must remember, however, that all of our customs and traditions are not ends in themselves. They are not the substance of the Faith, but merely the practices which can help us, if properly used, in our devotion and piety. When customs and traditions become ends in themselves, they cease to be helpful and actually become harmful. They become idols which we serve in place of the Living God.
We Orthodox Christians must be very careful that we do not idolize any of our practices and forms. We must be heedful that we do not keep the traditions of our forefathers in such a way that we overlook, or even deny, the substance and power of the Gospel of Christ. We must be diligent that we do not merely hold the forms of our religion while rejecting its reality, its power and its divine truth and grace.
All of the rituals of the Church, in her liturgy and piety, are truly from God. They exist to express and convey the Orthodox faith and the Orthodox way of life. These rituals, we believe, are inspired by the Holy Spirit of God. Over the centuries they have been developed and cultivated, growing and changing as the Church lives through human history. They are not merely the result of the creativity or imagination of men. They are not formed by decree or initiated by committee. They are organically formed by the action of divine grace working through God’s holy people. For this very reason we must be deeply respectful of our churchly traditions and sincerely grateful for the richness of our churchly forms. But we must be careful as well. We must be careful to distinguish between what is essential and what is not, between what builds up and edifies the life of the Church and what is practiced and preserved just because it was once the expression of believers before us to which we have grown accustomed, but which no longer serves to open our lives to the understanding and grace of the Kingdom of God.
The temptation to external ritualism and formalism in our day is very great. One of the main reasons for this is the American way of life and its approach to religion.
B. The Temptation of Religious Indifferentism
In America we Orthodox Christians face a special temptation. According to a widespread understanding of this nation’s principle of religious freedom, each person is free to practice the religion of his choice as long as this religion can be accommodated to the values and principles provided by our society, and indeed be subjected to them. According to this approach, each person is spiritually free to practice his faith as long as this does not conflict with the norms of behavior generally acceptable to others.
We Orthodox Christians, therefore, are tempted to believe that, while we may foster our beliefs in our own church communities as much as we desire, we must agree that these beliefs are exclusively our own and are not intended by God to be for all people, in all times and in all places. We are tempted to believe that, if we are religious, we should understand our religion as but one of the many possible religions of man which may differ externally - in customs and forms - but which in essence are really the same. We are tempted to believe that, since in America people may follow their consciences and exercise their liberties in the way they choose, no one should claim that his way is the way given by God. We are tempted to believe that, should people not believe in God, their right to this is not only to be respected but ought to be considered as supreme.
While acknowledging our deepest and most sincere gratitude for the freedoms which we enjoy as Americans, freedoms which so many of our Orthodox brothers and sisters in other places do not enjoy, particularly in countries with officially atheistic regimes, we still must say clearly that we do not accept the values of the American way of life as supreme; and with the deepest respect for the freedom of others, we do not believe that Orthodox Christianity is but one of many religious forms which are all essentially the same and which are to be submitted to the aspirations and goals of the American nation.
The United States of America, like every other nation on the earth, is subject to the judgment of God. The principles of life in American society, however worthy and noble they may be, are subject to the commandments of God. The ideals of democracy and individual liberty and individual rights, however precious and valuable they be for the ordering of secular society, are not ends in themselves to be worshiped and adored. True religion is not a matter of individual choice, but a revelation of God. Human freedom is to be used for doing what is good and right and beneficial to mankind, and must not be the cover for immorality and corruption, practiced under the pretext of freedom.
As Orthodox Christians we must never have any other gods than the one true and living God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We must never agree that Orthodox Christianity is merely for ourselves, for our own people and parishes, and not for the whole of mankind. We must never allow ourselves to reduce the true faith of Christ to our peculiar customs and traditions, while we ourselves in our daily lives follow the dictates of society and the norms of our neighbors.
And for the sake of our fellow Americans, our brothers and sisters in this land and others, we must never allow the great social principle of individual liberty to be used as the cover for a multitude of sins and the corruption of human dignity and life.
Let us be grateful citizens of our country, respectful of others and the servants of all. Let us never lord it over others or degrade any person in any way. Let us always show forth the grace of Christ by our loving example in word and in deed. Let us never deny our Orthodox Faith as the wisdom and power of God given by Him not merely to us, but to every person who walks on the face of the earth.
C. The Temptation of False Ecumenism
The true and holy members of the Orthodox Church have always favored meetings and discussions with others not of the Orthodox Faith. They have always practiced the deepest respect for all others and have met them with careful attention and understanding, without pride or prejudice in their judgments. They have always been willing to see and to love in others that which is good and true, while denying, with meekness and gentleness, that which is seen to be evil and false. The greatest wrath of the prophets, apostles and saints has been reserved for the wicked members of the household of God, while to those outside the greatest tenderness and care has always been exercised. This is the way of Christ Himself, as recorded in the gospels. Having the deepest respect and love for those not of the Faith, the true members of the Church have never compromised the Orthodox Faith and have never denied that in the Orthodox Church is given the fullness of life, the fullness of grace and truth in communion with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is this attitude which we must strive to preserve and propagate in our time.
The temptation today, born from a wrong understanding of ecumenical activity, is to believe that true ecumenism requires us to deny that the fullness of grace and truth abides in the Orthodox Church; to confess that the Orthodox Faith is partial, incomplete and not without errors; to admit that Christ Himself is but one of the many spiritual teachers in human history, whose way is not unique, whose truth is not perfect, whose grace is not full and whose life is not eternal and divine.
This understanding of what it means to be ecumenically minded, which is strongly reinforced by the way of life sanctioned and propagated within American society, is especially treacherous because it appeals to our desire as Christians to be humble and not to judge others. It appeals to our desire to be respectful of anyone and open to all that is just and good in man’s life. We must be fully aware, however, that to be respectful, humble and loving in our thoughts and actions, confessing our own sins and those of the members of the Orthodox Church, does not allow us to deny the Orthodox Faith, the Lordship of Christ and the fullness of the life of the Church. On the contrary, our humility and love should compel us to give God all glory as we witness to the love of God and the truth of His teachings as unworthy members of the Church in the service of mankind.
In the delicate area of ecumenical encounter with others, let us never draw back fearful of meeting our brethren, self-righteous and proud in the Faith, let us rather go forth to all people, Christians and non-Christians, with the words of Saint Paul to guide us: Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
D. The Temptation of False Spiritualities
There is yet another temptation which confronts us today with great power. This is the temptation to yield to the many spiritualities and wisdoms, presented today from many diverse sources, which claim superiority to the narrow way of the Gospel. The new spiritualities, both of Christian and non-Christian variety, are especially alluring for those people who have not found spiritual satisfaction and security in the American way of life and in relativistic ecumenism. The main characteristic of the many sectarian spiritualities and pieties which have grown up in our day is their claim to a simple and secure way of instant salvation, devoid of ascetical effort and the bearing of the cross of suffering for the sake of others.
powerful among Christians today is the temptation to a fundamentalistic, emotional type of Christian piety which equates deep spiritual fervor and commitment with the practice of certain enthusiastic devotional expressions and experiences. While there can be little doubt about the sincerity of the majority of those who practice and preach this type of Christian piety, especially within the so-called charismatic and neo-pentecostal movements, we must still warn of the dangers inherent in this type of spirituality, as did the apostles in the early Church.
In the time of the apostles the fervor and excitement of the manifestation of Christ’s Spirit to those newly-converted to the Faith led to an immature and childish attitude on the part of some which caused no little disturbance and division in the Christian community, particularly in the church of Corinth. Instead of leading to a way of life full of spiritual wisdom and love, the zeal for spiritual gifts in the Church led many to foolishness and vanity and the judgment of others. While never denying the true indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all of the faithful, and the true value and power of God’s spiritual gifts, the apostles of Christ strictly warned the faithful against spiritual pride and denounced those who used the very gifts of God in ways which led to spiritual corruption and not to the edification of the Church.
According to the scriptures and the saints, there can be a lust for God’s gifts without true love for the Giver. There can be a pride in God’s action without humility in its reception. There can be a lust for spiritual power and experience and the abuse of God’s gifts for one’s own individual benefit and satisfaction and not for the good of others. There can be spiritual conceit and delusion which take the holy things of God and pervert and degrade them through improper and self-serving use. The temptation here is real. It cannot be taken lightly. It is underscored so frequently and consistently in the Bible and the writings of the saints that it cannot be dismissed.
The spiritual gifts of preaching and teaching, prophesying and healing, praying in tongues and expelling demons which are true gifts of God can be misused and abused. They may be given by God and exercised by men not for their salvation, but for their condemnation and judgment. As gifts of God they are not ends in themselves. They must be properly used for spiritual growth and maturity to the fullness of the measure of the stature of Christ. They must be used for the glory of God and the salvation of man, and not for the glory of men, their personal pleasure and pride. When discussing this subtle and critical point, virtually all of the spiritual masters of the Christian Tradition made concrete reference to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, `Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name and do mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
Let us flee from every temptation to spiritual immaturity and pride. Let us not be ensnared by the temptations to spiritual vanity and power. Let us not allow ourselves to be caught by the temptations of spiritual avarice and luxury. Let us not be the victims of the lust for spiritual pleasures. Let us not be what our fathers in the faith have labeled “spiritual hedonists,” which is not a less condemnable condition than being hedonists of the flesh. Let us not give our approval to any forms of Christian piety and devotion, however enthusiastic and fervent, and accompanied by whatever signs and wonders, that will take us away from the narrow path of Christ in the sane and sober denial of ourselves in the bearing of our crosses in all humility and meekness. Let us seek only to love the Lord our God with all our minds, hearts and souls; and our neighbors - and even our enemies - as our own very selves in faithful obedience to our one Master and Lord.
It is our fervent desire that all our brothers and sisters who have come to know the grace of God within the various spiritual movements of our time will cultivate and deepen their spiritual power and wisdom within the life of the Church, putting away childish things and growing up to the fullness of Christ in the Spirit.
III. OUR TASK AS ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS TODAY
As we review the essential elements of the spiritual life in the Orthodox Church and consider the particular temptations which confront us today, let us realize clearly the responsibility that is ours as members of the Church. It is our task to demonstrate in life what we confess with our lips. The burden of proof is upon us, as Orthodox Christians, to show forth in deeds what we proclaim in our words.
The living of the spiritual life in the Orthodox Church must begin with its leaders, its bishops and priests, its pastors and teachers. Those of us in positions of leadership must be constantly careful that we do not fall under the condemnation of God for failing to practice what we ourselves preach. We must look to ourselves, as did the apostle Paul, that we who preach to others will not ourselves be unworthy.
Beginning with the clergy of the Church, every member of the body must be in the continual struggle for growth in the Spirit of Christ. Every man, woman and child who lives in the Church must be making the constant effort to overcome that which is evil and to do that which is good according to the commandments of God. Every member of the Church must be perpetually striving to cooperate with God’s grace that the works of God’s righteousness might be present and powerful among us.
The Lord Jesus Christ will come at the end of the ages to render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be fury and wrath. (Romans 2:8)
Our task today in America as Orthodox Christians is the only task which is given to all human beings by God: the task to become by God’s grace all that God Himself is by nature, following Christ, the Perfect Man, in the accomplishment of goodness and truth, in self-emptying love for the sake of all people.
May Christ be with us always, giving us the power by the Spirit of God to be the servants of His Heavenly Father forever. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit abide with us always. Amen.