What is Orthodoxy?
by Archbishop Averky of Syracuse and Holy Trinity Monastery
ON THE FIRST SUNDAY of the Great Fast our Church celebrates
the triumph of Orthodoxy, the victory of true Christian teaching
over all perversions and distortions thereofheresies and
false teachings. On the second Sunday of the Great Fast it is as
though this triumph of Orthodoxy is repeated and deepened in
connection with the celebration of the memory of one of the
greatest pillars of Orthodoxy, the hierarch Gregory Palamas,
Archbishop of Thessalonica, who by his grace-bearing eloquence
and the example of his highly ascetic private life put to shame
the teachers of falsehood who dared reject the very essence
of.Orthodoxy, the podvig of prayer and fasting, which enlightens
the human mind with the light of grace and makes it a communicant
of the divine glory.
Alas! How few people there are in our times, even among the
educated, and at times even among contemporary
"theologians" and those in the ranks of the clergy, who
understand correctly what Orthodoxy is and wherein its essence
lies. They approach this question in an utterly external, formal
manner and resolve it too primitively, even naively, overlooking
its depths completely and not at all seeing the fullness of its
The superficial opinion of the majority notwithstanding,
Orthodoxy is not merely another of the many "Christian
confessions" now in existence, or as it is expressed here in
America "denominations." Orthodoxy is the true,
undistorted, unperverted by any human sophistry or invention,
genuine teaching of Christ in all its purity and
fullnessthe teaching of faith and piety which is life
according to the Faith.
Orthodoxy is not only the sum total of dogmas accepted as true
in a purely formal manner. It is not only theory, but practice;
it is not only right Faith, but a life which agrees in everything
with this Faith. The true Orthodox Christian is not only he who
thinks in an Orthodox manner, but who feels according to
Orthodoxy and lives Orthodoxy, who strives to embody the true
Orthodox teaching of Christ in his life.
"The words that I speak unto you are spirit and life"thus
the Lord Jesus Christ spoke to His disciples of His divine
teaching (Jn. 6: 63). Consequently, the teaching of Christ is not
only abstract theory merely, cut off from life, but spirit and
life. Therefore, only he who thinks Orthodoxy, feels
Orthodoxy and lives Orthodoxy can be considered
Orthodox in actuality.
At the same time one must realize and remember that Orthodoxy
is not only and always that which is officially called
"Orthodox," for in our false and evil times the
appearance everywhere of pseudo-Orthodoxy which raises its head
and is established in the world is an extremely grievous but,
regrettably, an already unquestionable fact. This false Orthodoxy
strives fiercely to substitute itself for true Orthodoxy, as in
his time Antichrist will strive to supplant and replace Christ
Orthodoxy is not merely some type of purely earthly
organization which is headed by patriarchs, bishops and priests
who hold the ministry in the Church which officially is called
"Orthodox." Orthodoxy is the mystical "Body of
Christ," the Head of which is Christ Himself (see Eph.
1:22-23 and Col. 1:18, 24 et seq.), and its composition includes
not only priests but all who truly believe in Christ, who have
entered in a lawful way through Holy Baptism into the Church He
founded, those living upon the earth and those who have died in
the Faith and in piety.
The Orthodox Church is not any kind of "monopoly" or
"business" of the clergy as think the ignorant and
those alien to the spirit of the Church. It is not the patrimony
of this or that hierarch or priest. It is the close-knit
spiritual union of all who truly believe in Christ, who
strive in a holy manner to keep the commandments of Christ with
the sole aim of inheriting that eternal blessedness which Christ
the Savior has prepared for us, and if they sin out of weakness,
they sincerely repent and strive "to bring forth fruits
worthy of repentance" (St. Luke 3:8).
The Church, it is true, may not be removed completely from the
world, for people enter her who are still living on the earth,
and therefore the "earthly" element in her composition
and external organization is unavoidable; yet the less of this
"earthly" element there is, the better it will be for
her eternal goals. In any case this "earthly" element
should not obscure or suppress the purely spiritual
elementthe matter of salvation of the soul unto eternal
lifefor the sake of which the Church was both founded and
The first and fundamental criterion, which we may use as a
guide to distinguish the True Church of Christ from the false
Churches (of which there are now so many!), is the fact that it
has preserved the Truth intact, undistorted by human sophistries,
for according to the Word of God, "the Church is the pillar
and ground of truth" (I Tim. 3: 15), and therefore in her
there can be no falsehood. Any which in its name officially
proclaims or confirms any falsehood is already not the Church.
Not only the higher servants of the Church, but the ranks of
believing laymen must shun every falsehood, remembering the
admonition of the Apostle: ''Wherefore, putting away lying, speak
every man truth with his neighbor" (Eph. 4:25), or "Lie
not to one another" (Col. 3:9). Christians must always
remember that according to the words of Christ the Savior, lying
is from the devil, who "is a liar, and the father of
lies" (St. John 8:44). And so, where there is falsehood
there is not the True Orthodox Church of Christ! There is instead
a false church which the holy visionary vividly and clearly
depicted in his Apocalypse as "a great whore that sitteth
upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed
fornication" (Rev. 17:1-2).
Even in the Old Testament from the prophets of God we see that
unfaithfulness to the True God frequently was represented by the
image of adultery (see, for example, Ezek. 16:8-58, or 23:2-49).
And it is terrifying for us not only to speak, but even to think
that in our insane days we would have to observe not a few
attempts to turn the very Church of Christ into a
"brothel,"and this not only in the above
figurative sense, but also in the literal sense of this word,
when it is so easy to justify oneself, fornication and every
impurity are not even considered sins! We saw an example of this
in the so-called "Living Churchmen" and
"renovationists" in our unfortunate homeland after the
Revolution, and now in the person of all the contemporary
"modernists" who strive to lighten the easy yoke of
Christ (St. Matt. 11:30) for themselves and betray the entire
ascetic structure of our Holy Church, legalizing every
transgression and moral impurity. To speak here about Orthodoxy,
of course, is in no way proper despite the fact that the dogmas
of the Faith remain untouched and unharmed!
True Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is alien to every dead
formalism. In it there is no blind adherence to the "letter
of the law," for it is "spirit and life." Where,
from an external and purely formal point of view, everything
seems quite correct and strictly legal, this does not mean that
it is so in reality. In Orthodoxy there can be no place for
Jesuitical casuistry; the favorite dictum of worldly jurists
cannot be applied: "One may not trample upon the
lawone must go around it."
Orthodoxy is the one and only Truth, the pure Truth, without
any admixture or the least shadow of falsehood, lie, evil or
The most essential thing in Orthodoxy is the podvig of prayer
and fasting which the Church particularly extols during the
second week of the Great Fast as the double-edged "wondrous
sword" by which we strike the enemies of our
salvationthe dark demonic power. It is through this podvig
that our soul is illumined with grace-bearing divine light, as
teaches St. Gregory Palamas, who is triumphantly honored by the
Holy Church on the second Sunday of the Great Fast. Glorifying
his sacred memory, the Church calls this wondrous hierarch
"the preacher of grace," "the beacon of the
Light," "the preacher of the divine light,"
"an immovable pillar for the Church."
Christ the Savior Himself stressed the great significance of
the podvig of prayer and fasting when His disciples found
themselves unable to cast out demons from an unfortunate boy who
was possessed. He told them clearly,"This kind (of demon)
goeth not out save by prayer and fasting" (St. Matt. 17:21).
Interpreting this passage in the gospel narrative, our great
patristic theologian-ascetic, the hierarch Theophan the Recluse
asks, "May we think that where there is no prayer and
fasting, there is a demon already?" And he replies, "We
may. Demons, when entering into a person do not always betray
their entry, but hide themselves, secretly teaching their hosts
every evil and to turn aside every good. That person may be
convinced that he is doing everything himself, while he is only
carrying out the will of his enemy. Only take up prayer and
fasting and the enemy will immediately leave and will wait
elsewhere for an opportunity to return; and he really will return
if prayer and fasting are soon abandoned" (Thoughts for
Each Day of the Year, pp. 245-246).
From this a direct conclusion may be reached: where fasting
and prayer are disregarded, neglected or completely set aside,
there is no trace of Orthodoxythere is the domain of demons
who treat man as their own pathetic toy.
Behold, therefore, where all contemporary
"modernism" leads, which demands "reform" in
our Orthodox Church! All these liberal free thinkers and their
lackies, who strive to belittle the significance of prayer and
fasting, however much they shout and proclaim their alleged
faithfulness to the dogmatic teaching of our Orthodox Church,
cannot be considered really Orthodox, and have shown themselves
to be apostates from Orthodoxy.
We will always remember that by itself totally formal
Orthodoxy has no goal if it does not have "spirit and
life"and the "spirit and life" of Orthodoxy
are first and foremost in the podvig of prayer and fasting;
moreover, the genuine fasting of which the Church teaches
is understood in this instance to be abstinence in every aspect,
and not merely declining to taste non-Lenten foods.
Without podvig there is altogether no true Christianity, that
is to say, Orthodoxy. See what Christ, the First Ascetic, Himself
clearly says; "Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny
himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Mark 8:34).
The true Christian, the Orthodox Christian, is only he who
strives to emulate Christ in the bearing of the cross and is
prepared to crucify himself in the Name of Christ. The holy
Apostles clearly taught this. Thus the Apostle Peter writes:
"If when you do well and suffer for it, ye take it
patiently, this is accepted with God. For even here unto were ye
called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an
example, that we should follow his steps" (I Pet. 2:2-21).
In precisely the same way the holy Apostle Paul says repeatedly
in his epistles that all true Christians must be ascetics, and
the ascetic labor of the Christian consists of crucifying himself
for the sake of Christ: "They that are Christians have
crucified the flesh together with the passions and lusts"
(Gal. 5:24). A favorite expression of St. Paul is that we must be
crucified with Christ that we might rise with Him. He puts forth
this thought in a variety of his sayings in many of his epistles.
You see, therefore, that one who loves only to spend time
enjoying himself and does not think of self-denial and
self-sacrifice, but continually wallows in every possible fleshly
pleasure and delight is completely un-Orthodox, un-Christian.
Concerning this the great ascetic of Christian antiquity, the
Venerable Isaac the Syrian, taught well: "The way of God is
a daily cross. No one ascends to heaven living cooly (i.e.
comfortably, carefree, pleased with himself, without struggle).
And of the cool path, we know where it ends" (Works,
p. 158). This is that "wide and broad way" which, in
the words of the Lord Himself, "leadeth to destruction"
This then is what is Orthodoxy, or True Christianity!
From Orthodox Life, vol. 26, no. 3 (May-June, 1976), pp.