Cultural Paradosis and Orthodox America

by Bishop [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos

We are accustomed to seeing the Greek word paradosis, or tradition, as a touchstone of Orthodox theology. What the Lord gave us, what the Holy Apostles preached, and what the Fathers of the Church preserved, as St. Athanasios expressed it, are the very foundations of what we call Orthodoxy—they are its "tradition. " Tradition expresses truth. All opinion, speculation, and creativity in theological thought must be measured against the criterion of Holy Tradition. Given the singular ascendancy of the concept of tradition for the Orthodox Christian, then, we might be startled at the words "cultural paradosis." After all, Holy Tradition is something meant for all times, for all places, and for all peoples. Holy Tradition, Orthodoxy itself, is somehow above culture. Its frame of reference is not only existential, but precisely away from the mere human culture. It draws us toward that nonearthly "homeland" to which St. John Chrysostom calls us. How, indeed, can the Orthodox Christian give serious attention to the concerns of cultural tradition, given the preeminent imperatives presented by Holy Tradition?

If we are startled at the notion of a cultural paradosis, our shock might well reflect a certain spiritual malaise which we Americans, being so young in our Orthodoxy, tend all too often to ignore or to fail to discover in ourselves. An anecdote from the ancient desert Fathers might help us to understand this spiritual foible. A young spiritual aspirant was once allowed by his elder to go into the city. On his journey he passed a magnificent monastery where he heard the brothers speaking of great and marvelous theological precepts. He thought to himself how humble and unimportant his own spiritual life was, centered, as it was, around the simple practice of the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner"). Returning to his elder, he expressed his marvel at the monastery he had seen on his journey to the city. His elder, a man of great spiritual power, summoned the young monk after some time power, make another journey into the city. The aspirant obediently followed his elder’s directions and set out for the city. It happened that, just as he came to the monastery that he had seen on his previous visit, the earth began to tremble. Fearing the earthquake, the monks of the monastery poured out of their cells in full sight of the traveling aspirant. As they fled, the young traveler heard each monk say, "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." Foreseeing the earthquake, the monk's elder had sent him on this journey to learn a profound lesson.

And what did the young monk learn? He learned that long before one may speak of great theological precepts, one must know basic spiritual practice. Without the foundation of personal spiritual experience, the great structure of theological theory cannot stand. And if the structure of theological theory begins to fall, the final refuge of the mature Christian is that personal spiritual practice. In the moment of crisis, it was not to highsounding theology that the city monks had turned, but to the simplicity of the practice that the desert monk embraced. So it is that here in America we tend to look at Orthodoxy's exalted Holy Tradition, taking pride in our knowledge of Orthodox history, dogma, and doctrine, all the while forgetting that this tradition has reached us through historical reality, through our forefathers, through our cultural paradosis. To know Orthodoxy as the "cultureless" culture, as timeless Holy Tradition, we must first know it as it is practically given to us: through the customs, habits, and worldviews of our Orthodox forefathers, be they Greek, Russian, Serbian, Rumanian, Bulgarian, Syrian, or whatever.

The "Old Country" Phenomenon. Any Orthodox Christian in America is for a moment discomforted by the notion that the things of the "old Country" are somehow essential to his reception of Orthodoxy itself. But this discomfort comes to us because social realities have for some time prevented most of us from reflecting maturely and objectively on our cultural heritage. From early Greek settlements in Nebraska to Slavic communities in the eastern urban centers, almost all Orthodox have felt the sting of prejudice and, to some extent, social alienation. Our natural inclination has been to blend into the American social fabric and to accommodate those traits which make us suspect to the more prevailing culture. This blending and this accommodation have brought a certain acceptance to Orthodox in America, and one recoils at the thought of losing that safe social status. But we must realize that, more importantly, we have paid a great price in losing many of the things that our cultural oddities brought, not the least of which is a certain subtle Orthodox spirit which permeated the "old country" mentality and traditions. Realizing this, we must now use the relative safety our assimilation into American life has afforded us as a sense of security in which we can regain freely much of what we have lost.

Orthodoxy is a way of life, a spiritual path, by which the whole of the human creature is caught up in divinity, transformed, united to Christ, and created anew. In the hesychastic tradition of the Church, we are constantly struck with the notion that the mind and its thoughts, the body and its actions, the individual and society are somehow basically integrated. Their correct and harmonious interactions are the very expressions of spiritual attainment. Orthodoxy, then, is more than a religion or the organization of a religious community; it is at once a human culture and a divine manifestation. As the Byzantines beautifully envisaged human society (a vision so terribly distorted by prejudice and misunderstanding in western historiography), it expressed in human dimensions the magnificence and beauty of paradise. In the pleroma of the Orthodox experience, society (be it the microcosmic society of a church community or the macrocosmic Orthodox imperial societies of Byzantium or Russia), in its ideal expression, lifts up the mundane and unites it to the heavenly in synergy and image. No single culture serves itself, but serves to express the Eternal Orthodox Culture. And, as Khomiakov so beautifully phrased it, man ceases to be an isolated, alienated individual; he is lifted up in the whole, saved only together with others, damned only in his individuality.

The "old country" mentality and tradition preserved much of this higher view of Orthodoxy in daily life. How seldom we think that the very foods passed down by our "old country" cultures are not simply foods created by individual taste and topography. Not at all. They are foods which developed according to the canons of the church fasts. They are foods (e.g., kulich among the Russians, vasilopita among the Greeks, and wheat and honey in all Orthodox nationalities) that surround a great celebration of the Church, often expressing even a theological understanding of some particular feast day or church service (as in the case of boiled wheat to represent the resurrection of the dead at memorial services for the departed). Individual taste is largely set aside to serve the eternal truths of the faith. Food is raised up from the mundane and made holy. Likewise in customs of dress we transcend personal taste and exalt the spiritual. Not so much out of morbidity do Orthodox traditionally mourn the dead by wearing black clothing, but out of an understanding that death must be always remembered and present to us in order to balance our reception of life. We are drawn by the mourning families, who are visible to us, into an understanding of our common fate. And we are further motivated to seek our comfort and hope, not in the passing tastes of society, but in events (such as death) which must guide our social lives. And then, too, in the traditional dress of the clergy (which is lamentably almost unknown here in America) we see before us the image of the Patriarchs and Prophets who call us away from the temporal to the enduring things of eternity. In the "old country" culture we find ourselves immersed in that blending of the spiritual and the mundane which should be the everyday Orthodox experience, not the experience of an Orthodoxy which we are ever faster relegating to the Sunday service.

We must say here, too, something about traditional Orthodox culture and language. Perhaps nowhere else do we have a more unbalanced view of what it means to be Orthodox and to be American. With fierce emotions we often proclaim the fight of English-speaking Orthodox to have the services in their own language, decrying the use of the traditional languages as the source of every ill in the Church: the young people do not understand the services; the essence of Orthodoxy is lost because of an incomprehensible Liturgy. What we must first understand is that Americans do, indeed, have a right to the Liturgy in English. But this right must be asserted and claimed correctly. If our young do not want to hear the Orthodox message, the use of English will solve nothing. (The experience of English-speaking parishes suggests in many cases that this contention is correct.) Those who truly want to know the Church at a deeper level would never abandon the Church because of language. All of us can in a few months learn enough of the liturgical languages in our Churches to understand the basic nature of the services. Moreover, good Greek-English, Slavonic-English, Arabic-English, and other parallel texts are readily available. We must not confuse those who would use language as an excuse to flee their responsibilities to learn their faith with those who want a deeper understanding of the faith they already feel in their hearts through their own tongue.

Nor should we forget that the traditional liturgical languages cannot be abandoned altogether. To seek repentance in the Orthodox Church does not carry along with it the same implications and meaning that such a quest has for the Protestant or Roman Catholic. We can use, then, for example, an understanding of the Greek word metanoia (a changing of mind or outlook) to express the particularly Orthodox view of repentance. Our traditional language has come to serve us theologically; it has become something more than a mere language. In the same way, the Slavonic language (and other Orthodox liturgical languages) have preserved words that perfectly express Orthodox theological notions unknown in the West or misleading in translation. If, as civilized individuals, we at least recognize the importance of knowing other languages in learning of other people, we should not abandon a clear recognition of the fact that Orthodoxy, too, speaks its own languages We should know these. And finally, we must never think that the services themselves are merely literal. If our traditional languages can serve us, they also have their limits. The most authentic experience of the Liturgy and the church services, after all, takes place noetically, mystically, outside time and space. The truest form of Orthodox worship comes to us through our culture and then transcends form, image, and all dimensions of the literal. We are transported to a new realm, where language, expression, and human action have an altogether different content and intent.

If we wish to attain to the highest understanding of Orthodoxy, there is no doubt that we have to draw on the "old country" cultures which expressed this understanding. If America has a culture (and many sociologists and anthropologists would argue that it does not), that culture is not Orthodox. It was not created to serve the Orthodox Weltansicht. It is in many ways incompatible with the Orthodox view. In time, perhaps, an Orthodox culture might grow up in America. But at this juncture, we have no choice but to retreat, whether temporarily or permanently, to those cultures which were shaped by their interaction holy We must regain the priceless crucible saints and Holy Fathers were formed. As difficult as it may be for us Orthodox in America to understand, the true expression of our faith does demand the rejection of much of the witless, plastic, and soul-destroying mediocrity of American society. This may mean, ultimately, a change in our styles of dress, in our manner of eating, and in our general self-presentation. But this, after all, is what Orthodoxy is: what we eat, how we speak, how we stand, how we sit, indeed how we understand ourselves and others. If we succeed in regaining this view and this cultural tradition, the benefits may accrue, not only to us, but to America itself.

Converts and Orthodox Culture. Regaining our Orthodox cultural traditions is crucial for those Americans who received their Orthodoxy from their emigrant forefathers. But if it is crucial for those with at least some exposure to that tradition, it is for the convert to Orthodoxy in America a sine qua non of successful growth in Orthodoxy that he adopt many of these same cultural traditions. In many instances we have failed at teaching the growing number of converts to Orthodoxy in this country the fulness of the Orthodox experience. We have touched them with a surface-level Orthodoxy, forming our witness into something akin to a doctrinal or theological alternative to the prevailing Western Christian traditions to which most Americans adhere. In effect, not wholly grasping ourselves the fulness of the Orthodox experience, we have presented the convert population with a religious alternative modeled on a non-Orthodox scheme. The result is that many converts live with an incomplete Orthodoxy, lacking even the partial exposure to Orthodoxy as a culture that the offspring of Orthodox emigrants experience. They cannot even intuit in most cases this fuller Orthodoxy. Such an Orthodoxy cannot fully serve them and stands to suffer from the same foibles as the prevalent Christian witnesses, lacking as they do a full integration of their theological precepts and religious consciousness into daily life, into cultural tradition—an integration which Orthodoxy holds up at its practical means of transmitting the faith to generation after generation.

The convert might object, indeed, to the thought of having to adopt an Orthodox culture as a prerequisite for the reception of the Orthodox faith. "Must I become a Greek, or a Russian, or a Serbian, or so on?" might be the rhetorical response to this prerequisite. The answer is, to some extent, "yes." That we separate Orthodoxy from its cultural medium is already evidence that we have lost a great dimension of Orthodoxy, as we have said. But just as importantly, it is essential to remember that conversion to a true Christianity is the denial of secular culture, the acceptance of a new culture formed by detachment from the world and Christian involvement in it—St. Paul's paradoxical state of being "in" but not "of" the world. This new culture is the very culture which Orthodox societies, however successfully or unsuccessfully, have attempted to build. We are bound by the Christian experience to accept and follow those attempts. They are our one step out of the world while being in it. American society, not built on these same attempts, is not compatible with Orthodoxy. The realization of this heavy and stark reality is no more threatening to us than it was to the Greeks (and subsequently all other Orthodox peoples) when they gave up their pagan cultures and accepted the Christian culture of the Hellenic world.

It is not too much, thus, to ask of the convert that he remain loyal to his country (rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's) while, at the same time, adopting a new culture and new traditions better suited to the expression and preservation of his Orthodox faith. This is not a restrictive requirement, but one which brings the Orthodox convert spiritually into a new dimension as well as intellectually into contact with some of the most profound pillars of the edifice of human civilization. The adoption of traditional styles of eating and dress lends itself to the expression of Orthodox spirituality. It provides a context in which association with the secularized world is predefined from an Orthodox stance. And it provides, at the same time, knowledge of the Christian ancients, of Greek and Slavic civilization, and of the deep, theologically developed languages in which the Truth of truths was articulated. To be sure, an adoption of a traditional Orthodox culture expands the American convert to Orthodoxy in every way, the end result being, perhaps sometime in the future, the actual creation of a particularly American expression of these cultures.

We might note here that in one other way the Orthodox convert is called to a mature view of Orthodox cultural traditions. If it is essential that some cultural medium for the expression and preservation of Orthodoxy be realized, it is equally essential that the constant emphasis in this realization is on medium and purpose, not on the cultural traditions as ends in themselves. All too often in our age of the "coy primitive," a few "converts" are attracted to Orthodoxy by the very cultural traditions to which most converts lack essential exposure. These individuals find the "different" ways of the Orthodox strangely appealing or "quaint." They too lack exposure to true Orthodox cultural traditions, for these traditions separated from the spiritual purposes that they serve are false traditions. And anyone converted on such a basis is not converted to the life-giving essence of Orthodoxy, but to cultural dilettantism. Orthodox cultural traditions are lifted up and participate in the holy only because they serve the Orthodox Christian in his divine ascent and in his simple attempts to live a pious, peaceful, and Christian life on earth. As such they are invaluable. As simple human traditions, they have no meaning to -the Christian. In their spirit, these traditions help the aspirant in his God-pleasing life; by their letter, they lead to the perdition of merely human thought and taste.

The Parameters of Genuine Orthodox Culture. It is perhaps auspicious that we began this essay with reference, not to simple tradition, but to Holy Tradition and its expression through Orthodox cultural traditions. In so doing, we have made spiritual considerations paramount in our references to those traditions. Just as the Orthodox convert must receive the cultural medium of the Orthodox faith in the sense of that culture's facilitation of spiritual growth and maturity, we must emphasize boldly the responsibility of those born to Orthodox cultures (whether in the native cultural environment or in diaspora) to receive those aspects of their cultural traditions which are indeed designed to serve spiritual needs. Cultural traditions can lose the spiritual, dimension which originally engendered them. But at the same time, there exist cultural traditions, despite the goals and ideals of its spiritual leaders, which never reflected (nor were intended to reflect) the precepts of traditional Orthodox society. The responsibility of those born into an Orthodox milieu is to begin to distinguish these mundane traditions from the spiritual ones and to protect both their own scions and the convert population by this distinction.

In this respect, the greatest caution should be exercised, in recovering our lost traditions, in turning to modern Orthodox societies. Many true traditions have survived from the "old country," but, as we have noted, not all that is "old country" is authentic. And often what is authentic must be properly understood, since most modern Orthodox societies have lost the spiritual perspective. modern Greek society, for example, has undergone great secularization and has been very negatively influenced, in many instances, by western (and thus non-Orthodox) concepts. Until a very recent renewal of interest in patristics, even much of the academic theology in Greece had little if any relationship to the subtle mystical theology which distinguishes the Eastern Church. Priests and lay theologians were taught systematic theologies of western origin and were often encouraged to pursue "scientific" empirical views of the religious experience which almost wholly ignored the astounding richness of traditional Orthodox theology. Moreover, years of brutal enslavement of the Greek people under the Turkish yoke took a yet uncalculated toll on the magnificent Orthodox society of the late Byzantine period. Much of the richness of Orthodox tradition was lost. In such circumstances, it is not difficult to see why a frightful degeneration of Orthodox cultural traditions took place. The presence of foreign mentalities, both in the sense of a western intellectual captivity in theology and in the sense of a literal captivity politically and socially, led to the loss of many important traditions. Simultaneously, those traditions that did survive survived in circumstances that changed, at times, the essential nature of these traditions—a nature which would have been organically present in the hegemony of the holy and the mundane characteristics of pure Orthodox social structure.

In the Slavic traditions, too (especially in Russia), the traditional Orthodox societies, in which cultural traditions were made apparent in their spiritual content by the very functioning of society, have disappeared to a great extent. The majority of the Orthodox Church today labors under the yoke of communist domination. Even where the Church does speak, it is either speaking with the real threat of martyrdom (and thus in an atmosphere of immediacy lost to us in the West who are free) or through the channels of an atheistic regime. The resulting witness must be cautiously approached. And even before the horrible political conditions that now exist fell over the Orthodox of Eastern Europe, much western influence had diluted the extant holy societies. As in Greece, mystical iconography had come to be replaced with insipid western painting. Systematic western theologies, though less blatant than those in contemporary Greece, were popular in Russia. And a very romanticized view of Russian aristocratic society (perhaps prompted by the real piety of the Russian nobles at different times in history) has tended to obfuscate what many see as some very un-Orthodox threads in the fabric of Russian imperial society. Again, in such circumstances one must not be naive and cling to what one wishes were true. There are among the Slavic Orthodox, also, many traditions that should not be accepted as expressive of the Orthodox mentality and therefore are not conducive to proper spiritual growth.*

The weaknesses of traditional Orthodox societies were brought by emigrants to America, too. They brought with them a weakened Orthodox mentality and, in many cases, a knowledge of their own cultures in general that was not adequate. If this did not, in itself, augur well for a sound Orthodox spirituality in America, there was manifested the unfortunate process of accommodating this already diluted mentality with American culture. And the resulting melange, however disconcerting the fact, has, influenced the growth of Orthodoxy in America to no small extent. The resulting "cultural tradition" is thus spurious from its very inception. This spurious "tradition" is yet another danger to which we must attend, in our attempts to regain a truly Orthodox tradition. Suffice it to say that young Greeks often cannot distinguish a prayer rope from "worry beads." And when they finally discover the difference, they hear the prayer rope described as a "rosary." They make associations with a distinct western practice with no relationship to the "Jesus Prayer," or the central practice of the hesychastic tradition, and thus create, from information resulting from ignorance of an ancient Orthodox tradition, a new and wholly improper understanding of an important part of Orthodox spirituality. The list could continue from the "Mass" through "last Rites." The point is that we do not have an authentic Orthodox cultural tradition in America and that the so-called "traditions" that we do know come to us in distorted form.

We can conclude, from our discussion, that Orthodox spirituality is transferred through a cultural medium and that the cultural traditions passed on to us from Orthodox societies can facilitate our personal spiritual growth. A mentality handed down to us from societies that modeled daily life after spiritual principles is a prerequisite for survival in a non-Orthodox society. At the same time, we must be realistic and understand that all that has been passed down from the "old country" is not Orthodox, not only because historical realities have eroded away ideal Orthodox societies, but because not every Orthodox Christian fully receives and transmits genuine tradition. Finally, we have said that in America a false Orthodox culture has emerged, based not on genuine Orthodox cultural traditions, but on distorted traditions accommodated to western models and thus not expressive of the Orthodox spirit. What, therefore, does it mean to recapture an "old country" mentality, an Orthodox cultural paradosis, if such does not exist in pure form? Where is the elusive cultural medium of Orthodox spirituality?

The Person and the Transpersonal Consensus. Amidst our qualifications and cautions, we have, in fact, given a clue as to the path to true Orthodox cultural traditions. All traditions of a genuine spiritual nature, it has been suggested, must relate to the spiritual life. Let us consider this first on the personal level. At the outset we noted that the adoption of "old country" habits of eating and drinking can facilitate fasting and one's religious outlook. Dressing modestly and removing oneself from the prevailing secular culture are personal requisites for fulfilling some of the most fundamental commandments of Christian life. We know by religious instruction, if not by a certain intuitive sense, what basic behaviors are necessary to separate us from society at large and to nurture our spiritual faculties. Certain church regulations regarding our moral and daily behaviors are known to us. We know how they relate to the increase of our spiritual desires and the attenuation of our less-seemly motivations. If we monitor this inward knowledge, then we have a sure way, if we are honest and seek inward guidance, of knowing what cultural traditions handed down to us lead to the expression of genuine Orthodox spirituality. This is as obvious in every case as it is in the case of incorporating into our lives dietary traditions from the "old country" that by nature fashion our eating habits to meet fasting regulations. It is as obvious as the spiritual benefit offered to those Orthodox who celebrate the Nativity of Christ on January 7 (new style), following the traditional calendar of the Church, outside of the din and the merry ring of the cash register that mark the western Christmas.

There is, above the merely personal level, a far greater criterion by which to know the genuinely Orthodox from the secular traditions of degenerating societies: that of the spiritual father, the gerontas, or the staretz. These God-bearing elders, having been raised up and joined to the mystical spirit of Orthodoxy, are perfect guides. Knowing the hearts of those Christians who appeal to them, they can give them daily guidance and rules that surely set them on the road toward spiritual enlightenment and a peaceful. pious life. These fathers, speaking with one single voice through the mouths of the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church up to our time are, after all, the final source of our cultural traditions. Their instructions helped shape Orthodox societies. But, sadly, we live in a very barren age spiritually. Though there are still great spiritual fathers in our times, there are probably few, if any, in America. And if any exist, as most spiritual aspirants agree, they are probably silent and hidden.

Where, then, do we turn to find these transpersonal criteria for understanding what is and what is not Orthodox tradition? We turn to the only fathers we have—dead, yet living. We turn to the growing body of English-language translations of the spiritual Fathers of the Church, or, if we are fortunate enough to know or to have learned traditional Orthodox language, to the great spiritual writings that the Church has passed on to us. And yet even this is wrought with deadly dangers. Many Fathers speak from elevated experience, and we must not aspire to their heights without first building a foundation. Then, too, we might come to a merely intellectual understanding of the great Fathers, turning arrogantly away from certain salutary traditions as being too primitive or crude for us. We can avoid these dangers only by seeing the Fathers in a spiritual light, looking for a certain inner spirit and sense of humility that true cultural traditions will also reveal to us. Thus, we must follow Orthodox traditions (it is perhaps safe to begin with fasting), seeking to avoid any thing innovative, yet humbly remaining open to correction, not in this greater sense exercising our personal opinion. As our reading of the Fathers, prayer, and growth in God's grace in crease, the harmony between our practices (in terms of cultural traditions) and what they yield and the spirit we find in prayer and reading will be apparent. In an automatic way, truth be comes self-validating and true Orthodox tradition becomes self evident. But the very foundations of this spiritual ascent are the acceptance (with the caution suggested above) of the cultural traditions in which Orthodoxy has prevailed and, above all, humble submission to the consensus of the Fathers.


* Parenthetically, it seems necessary here to interject several qualifying remarks regarding the foregoing paragraphs. Especially in America, where the study of the history of Orthodox countries is less developed, one is hesitant to decry any aspect of that history or of Orthodox culture, as the prejudices that might ensue would be unfair. We are attempting here to extract from these Orthodox societies their spiritual essence, and in so doing we have been cautious and critical. In this process, however, the western reader should not forget that these societies are among the greatest that man has ever developed. Whatever their shortcomings—even their secular triumphs are a witness to Orthodox history—it is from the Greeks that the West received Christianity; the Russian people civilized a vast part of Europe; Greek literary figures today continue to gain world recognition; and the Slavic countries are virtual centers of world culture even under the domination of the communists. One need only mention Dostoevsky to epitomize the blending of philosophy, literature, and culture with Orthodox spirituality, and the trenchant observations of Solzhenitsyn regarding western society suggest the continued ascendancy of the Orthodox culture and spirit.

This originally appeared in Bishop [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos, Archimandrite [now Bishop] Auxentios, and Archimandrite Akakios, Contemporary Traditionalist Orthodox Thought (Etna, CA:  Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1986), pp. 67-80.