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A Sunday in 1987, I [Metropolitan Hierotheos] celebrated the liturgy at a church in Athens. It was a very large church, filled with people. During the divine Liturgy I developed a passage from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians, which was the reading of that Sunday. The passage which I analysed briefly was: “I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: and profited in the Jew’s religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1,13-14). I persisted more in the phrase “being a zealot of the traditions of my parents”. Among other things I also said the following.

The Sermon

“The Apostle Paul was not an ordinary personality. He studied the Law with the most important teachers of his time. He had Godly zeal. Yet, despite the knowledge of the Law and his Godly zeal to keep the paternal traditions, he reached the point of fighting God Himself, Who gave the Law. For, according to the teaching of the Holy Fathers, all the revelations and Theophanies of God in the Old Testament were Theophanies of God the Word — of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Therefore, Christ handed down the Law, which Saul knew, and it was in the name of this Law he fought Christ. Here we see a tragic situation.

However this also happens in our day. Many times we have Godly zeal, but it is “zeal without discretion.” Today we have a tendency to follow the teaching of the Fathers, to speak about the Tradition of our Fathers and attempt to revive these patristic traditions. Yet, it is possible that we struggle for the Tradition and in reality we fight the essence of it or, at least in the best case, we might be ignorant of it. I will mention three cases:

There are certain overzealous Orthodox who struggle to keep the Church’s dogmas. And indeed this is necessary, because the dogmas are the expression of the life of the Church. It is for this reason, in fact, that the dogmas are called boundaries, which draw the lines between truth and error. Simultaneously, though, the dogmas are the way and the medicines which we receive to be cured and reach theosis — they are the personal revelation of God to us. There are some people today who view the dogmas as philosophical thoughts, as the philosophy of the Fathers. Just as there are also others who belittle them for the sake of an experience. Yet, this is an error. The dogmas are the expression of the life of the Church. Guided by them we shall reach the “unspeakable words”.

There are many people in our days who are interested in the art of the Church. They speak a lot about the so-called Byzantine iconography, Byzantine architecture, Byzantine music, etc., because these ecclesiastical liturgical arts show the qualitative difference from any other religious art. Certainly, this is not an exaggeration, since the experience of the Church is manifested in ecclesiastical art. The element of joyful sorrow is expressed in Byzantine music and this alone can present it. Panselinos’ frescoes convey the entire faith of the Church and the theology of St. Gregory Palamas, who is indeed the voice of the Church. The theology concerning the uncreated Light and the development of hesychasm — which reveals man’s capability to reach the vision of God — were very well embodied in Panselinos’ art.

Furthermore many modern Greeks, tired of the western alienating tradition and mode of life — which in many aspects is inhuman — seek the true tradition which imbued the life of our ancestors. Thus in our day there can be seen a revival of the traditional way marriage was performed as well as of traditional architecture. In general, people make efforts to cultivate traditional habits and customs.

And of course, we cannot criticize all these efforts. But there is also the danger of our being zealots about our paternal traditions, like the Apostle Paul prior to Damascus, while in reality fighting the life which these traditions express. It is dangerous for us to see the dogmas as philosophical definitions or, even, as theological definitions which do not relate to life. It is possible to study ecclesiastical art and see its aesthetic side, while simultaneously rejecting its ascetic side, which is its most important aspect. Moreover the danger lurks that we may be reviving the mode of life of our forefathers, but also be completely ignorant of all those vital elements which constitute our manners and customs; all those presuppositions which created them. Thus we simply make a culture out of Tradition. This is one of the most crucial temptations of our days.

However, how can we escape this difficulty and this contemporary temptation? The only way is for us to follow the correct Orthodox way and Orthodox methodology so as to be cured and encounter life itself, which is expressed by everything we mentioned earlier. The Holy Fathers have presented in their works this Orthodox method, which is summarized in the three fundamental stages of spiritual life: purification of heart, illumination of the nous and theosis. If we study the works of the Holy Fathers, we shall find these three stages of spiritual life everywhere. Evagrios Ponticos defines Christianity as “the dogma of our Saviour Jesus Christ consisted of the practical and natural and theological”. St. Dionysios the Aeropagite speaks of three stages, which are purification, illumination and perfection. St.Gregory of Nyssa uses the same distinction. St.Maximos the Confessor speaks of practical philosophy (purification), natural vision (illumination) and mystical theology (theosis). St.Symeon the New Theologian divides certain of his chapters into practical, gnostic and theological. In all the Orthodox tradition these three stages of perfection are spoken of. This is how man is healed and this is how he lives the Tradition. He “becomes” Tradition and creates Tradition. He is a bearer of Tradition.

Therefore, what makes a person an Orthodox is not only his persistence on external sides of the Tradition, but the experiencing of its inner aspect, which is the ascetic method — purification, illumination and theosis. This method, these stages of spiritual life are the foundation of dogmas, the basis of ecclesiastical art, but also the creative cause of habits and customs of our people, because it is this theology which imbued our forefathers before we were westernized.

For this reason, I concluded, we must struggle to keep this inner side of the Tradition, the method of Orthodox piety, through which we are healed, and then we shall be true zealots of our paternal traditions. Because outside this ascetical therapeutic method, even if we have a good disposition, there is the danger that we may become enemies and opponents of the Orthodox tradition”.

—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos