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What it means for someone to be ‘Ecclesiastical’, and the Threat to Orthodox Theology

3. Question: I shall ask you two questions.

TOCITWFirst question. Perhaps you could explain to us the difference between someone who is ecclesiastical’ and someone who is not? This may seem a simple question, but in reality I believe it is rather complex. I believe that in Greece this is a widespread problem. Many people are Orthodox, but most of them are not ‘ecclesiastical’. How can you explain to us what it means for someone to be ecclesiastical’?

Second question. What do you regard as the greatest threat to Orthodox theology? Not to the Church, but to Orthodox theological thinking.

Answer: Thank you very much for both questions.

When we talk about people being ‘ecclesiastical’, we mean that they live within the Church. They take part in the Church’s Mysteries: Baptism, Chrismation and the Divine Liturgy. But participation in the Mysteries of the Church is not without pre-conditions. There are pre-conditions for taking part in the Church’s Mysteries.

Christ said to His Disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Therefore we have “baptising” and “teaching… to observe”. The Mysteries (Baptism, Chrismation, the Divine Eucharist) are connected with the three degrees of the spiritual life: purification of the heart, illumination of the nous, and deification. Someone who is ecclesiastical lives within the Church in accordance with what the Church says. He does not live according to convention, but in a personal and hypostatic manner. This is my general response to your first question.

As for your second question, about which is the greatest threat to Orthodox theology, this Sunday I shall speak at the Academy of the Lavra of St Sergius on the subject ‘Theology as science and as charisma’.

Theology must, of course, make historical analyses. There is the science of studying manuscripts, of studying the tradition from the historical and archaeological point of view, and the restoration of church buildings. These things are also essential.

But theology ought to function above all as charisma and experience. Theology is knowledge of God. A theologian is someone who knows God and talks about God. St Gregory the Theologian gives a characteristic definition of theology in his first theological oration. He says that theologians are those who have ascended to theoria, who have previously purified their hearts of the passions, or are at least being purified. Such a one can speak to people about God. And he can help people to be led to God. According to the Orthodox Church, theology also means that someone can distinguish between created and uncreated energies – between what is from God, what is from the devil; what comes from the passions, and what is human and psychological. We therefore say that theology means discerning the spirits, whether they are from God.

I once asked Elder Sophrony how we can acquire knowledge of God and how we can know that something is from God whereas something else is not. He told me that we know this from its taste. We sample it. He actually told me: “We have wine, but we also have vinegar. Outwardly both look the same. We try them, and we know that this is wine and that is vinegar.”

You understand that theology is real when it distinguishes what comes from God from what comes from the devil, for the purpose of helping people. There is a link between theologians and spiritual fathers. A real theologian is a good spiritual father. What is the task of the spiritual father? To lead his spiritual children out of Egypt into the promised land, so that they leave the darkness of their passions and journey towards God, the Light. Thus the terms ‘theologian’ and ‘spiritual father’ mean the same.

In the language of the Old and New Testaments, the Prophets, Apostles and Fathers are theologians. In the Old Testament Prophets are called ‘Seers’. The people called Samuel the ‘Seer’, ‘the one who beholds God’. And he who beholds God knows afterwards how to guide his spiritual children.

We could say that the threat to theology is that it could become rather scholastic and moralistic, and lose the hesychastic and neptic tradition. St Maximos the Confessor says something dreadful: “Knowledge without praxis is the theology of demons.” This is a terrible statement. Why? Because anyone who is unable to distinguish what comes from God and what is from the devil is unable to guide his spiritual children.

For example: people come to him who have various spiritual, psychological and other problems. How can he make the distinction? What is the matter? Is it because someone has distanced himself from God that he has these problems? Or because he has psychological problems? Or because he is possessed by an evil spirit? What is it? Is it psychological, spiritual or neurological? What is wrong?

Someone who is illuminated by God knows how to tell the difference. This problem is spiritual; that is psychological; this is neurological; that is demonic. For example: there was a nun in a monastery who did not obey the Abbess. She was rebellious all the time, and the Abbess continually imposed punishments. “She’s disobedient,” she said. The nun continued to behave as before. Then the Abbess said, “She’s possessed by evil spirits,” and they read prayers so that the demons would depart. Again, nothing happened. After a while, however, her head began to hurt. She went to the doctor and she had something wrong with her brain, an aneurysm. As soon as they made the incision and did the operation, all the difficulties ceased and she had no problems. She was a very obedient nun. It was neither psychological nor demonic nor spiritual. It was purely organic. There are circumstances where these things mutually interact.

I could tell you of many cases from Father Paisios on the Holy Mountain. When a young man went to see him and told him that he had problems, he told him: “Be obedient to your spiritual father. Do whatever he tells you and you will be cured.” To someone else he said, “You should go to the doctor,” and he sent him to a neurologist. He told another young man: “Go to [the shrine of] a saint. They will read a prayer for you so that the evil spirit will depart.”

There was a mother with many problems. She used to go to her spiritual father and say: “Father, my child loses his temper, and I lose my temper and hit him.” The spiritual father told het, “You are possessed by an evil spirit,” and began reading prayers and exorcisms for her. But there was no improvement in her condition. She actually needed a doctor. She should have gone to a neurologist, who would have given her tablets to calm her nerves. Her spiritual father could not understand the problem. He kept reading exorcisms. And one day the woman took her child, threw him from the balcony and killed him.

What I am trying to say is that the threat to Orthodox theology is that we might regard it only as scholastic or ethical, and not as therapeutic and prophetic. It is distorted when it is presented merely as speculation and not as tenderness, love and guidance. You have seen what is written in the Prophet Isaiah: “O priests, comfort, yes, comfort My people.”

I shall tell you something personal. When I was a student I was among the best. Some of my professors suggested that I should work with them. They offered to give me a bursary to go and study abroad, so I could have an academic career. There is nothing wrong with this, but it was not what I wanted. And I said to myself: “Is it possible for people to be in need, for people to be hungry for God, and for me to spend my time on other things?” I abandoned everything and became a priest, and I went round the villages celebrating the Divine Liturgy, preaching and hearing confessions.

I do not reject academic learning. I have read many dissertations and the works of the Fathers of the Church. But I felt that I should pass on to the people, to the laity, what I had learnt. I could not shut myself up in an office and write. Whatever books I have written since then are the outcome of this pastoral ministry. I was very involved with people, and this experience passed into the books.

St John Chrysostom says that the spiritual father is like a doctor, who will need to do operations. You have seen surgeons wearing overalls and boots, because when they do operations and open up the patient’s body, blood gushes out and falls on them. In the same way, the spiritual father will do operations, and sometimes he himself will be soiled by the blood that flows from people’s passions. Then he will learn what theology and the pastoral ministry mean in practice.

The day before yesterday at the Lavra of St Sergius I met a Russian cosmonaut who asked me, “How do you feel as a spiritual father?” I told him, “I feel more or less the same as you cosmonauts.” He asked, “In what way?” I replied: “When you are going to leave the earth’s atmosphere, to overcome the earth’s gravitational force, you have to make certain sacrifices. It is a critical moment when the spacecraft leaves the earth. According to the Fathers, I have to do the same, but more intensely and in the opposite direction. I have to enter into the depths of people’s souls and by God’s grace to understand their problems, and afterwards to take them and lift them above the gravity of the passions and lead them towards God.”

This is a wonderful task. But, you know, it often wounds me, although it pleases me. I like helping people to liberate their nous by the grace of God. Our nous is very dark and has to be enlightened. We have a heart that is constructed to be very powerful, but now it has no energy at all because it is far from God. It is not functioning, and we have to help the nous to be enlightened and the heart to start working. This is achieved through God’s grace and each one’s personal struggle. Do you realise what a great blessing from God it is for a priest to see his spiritual children praying and repenting?

When I was a Diocesan Preacher in Athens, I gave a talk every week and lots of people used to come. I continually spoke about spiritual subjects. There was a woman who had been involved in Buddhism and Protestantism. She heard my talks and began to be interested in my subjects. She came to make her confession for the first time in her life. She was a teacher in higher education. She used to come to the talks and say nothing, just listen. Many years later I realised that she put into practice what she heard and prayed a lot. She was a married woman, fifty years old. When she fell ill with cancer she began treatment, and I tried to help her to overcome the fear of death. I never needed to say much because she prayed continuously and had spiritual experiences. Meanwhile she had prepared everything. She had organised how her funeral would be. She had written down the addresses of friends who should be informed, and how she wanted to be dressed. When I went and told her, “You know, when we die we go to meet Christ”, she told me: “Your Eminence, I am very pleased to depart. I went to the Divine Liturgy the day before yesterday and I saw a light, and I said: ‘If now in the Divine Liturgy there is this light, what will there be in Paradise! And I feel great joy!'”

When she was going into hospital for the last time in great pain, she rang me the evening before and told me: “Your Eminence, tomorrow I am going into hospital and I shall not come out again. I shall come out dead. So I am ringing you to thank you for everything you have done for me, and to say au revoin” When she went into hospital she was suffering terrible pains and asked me to visit her. I went and she told me: “Please read a prayer for me so that my soul will depart.” I replied: “Why do you say that? Is it because you are discouraged, you are in a lot of pain, and you want to depart?” “No, not at all. Although I am in pain, I feel such love, such an impetus towards God that I want to meet Him as quickly as possible.”

When a spiritual father sees that he is helping people to overcome death, he feels joy, very great joy.

The threat to Orthodox theology, therefore, is that it might be made scholastic, academic and moralistic, so that it does not speak about how man can transcend death. The purpose of Orthodox theology is to help people to pass through purification to illumination and deification. Purification is elementary school, illumination is secondary education, and deification is theology, higher education.

—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos. The Orthodox Church in the WorldPart 2. Russia. Discussion after the Talk

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