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Some Comments on Officialdom, the Sacred Canons, St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain and the Continuity of Byzantine Thought

A Letter from Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna

Dear Father ________:


Thank you for the excerpts from your exchange on the Internet. In response to your several questions, let me make some general observations that might help you to put a number of issues in perspective.

First, I would not reduce your arguments down to the level of adolescent debates about whose Church is "official" or "canonical." We once had a priest from an "official" Orthodox Church visit the monastery. He presented what was essentially a not very intelligent summary of his ecclesiology, drawn from various secondary sources and formed by distinctly Western ideas about the Church. He had no knowledge of Greek, no knowledge of the Fathers (despite constant references to them), and, while a rather nice man, such a simplistic understanding of our resistance movement as to be insulting. I said little to him, until he appeared to challenge me with regard to the canonicity of the "Old Calendarists" (about whom, despite his pretensions, he knew virtually nothing, aside from gossip and rumors). I told him that, since the time of St. Paul, the Orthodox in my family had followed the Church Calendar. I noted that I simply stand in accord with them and that such accord gives me comfort. "So does my traditional way of life," I told him, "as does my immersion into the Hesychastic life of our monastery." In response, he said: "But I need the official sanction of a canonical Patriarchate." As I told him, "I draw on Christ and Holy Tradition; you draw on administrative pillars that help you in your unbelief." He left here shaken. I was enlightened by him.

True spiritual life is not artificial, but is natural. And true authority is not a matter of what is official, but concerns that which arises organically and naturally from the heart. Converts who fail to draw on the heart of Orthodoxy, turning to their own standards of authenticity, never really touch what is genuine. Rather, they reject what is genuine in defense of their concocted beliefs, giving apparent life to their creation by the breath of an "official" Orthodoxy which is moribund. You cannot reach such people, since, were you to do so, they would have to begin their spiritual search anew. Few are willing to do that.

Second, there is nothing to be gained in arguing with those who want Christ to be a monolithic idea and not a way of life within His Body, the Church. Such individuals find the Holy Canons legalistic, Holy Tradition stifling, and orthopraxy too rigid. They have gone seeking God, and in this search they use what is convenient and discard what they think is unnecessary. For those of us who experience God in a Faith guided, but not defined, by laws and spiritual customs, every spiritual act of obedience or every sacred Mystery brings us closer to God. For we know that it is not we who search out God, but God Who seeks us. And He reaches us in those things which reify him in our daily lives: transforming us inwardly by transforming the way that we eat, talk, dress, and relate to one another, all disciplines therein guided by the rudder of the Sacred Canons and by Holy Tradition. We do not disdain the world because it is evil, but we turn from the empty and evil effects of living a worldly life which is not harmonious with God. We take on the life of those who come into a natural oneness with the simple and pure things of God’s world. And this life is the life dictated to us, again, in our fasting regulations, in the way that we divide our days (the Festal Calendar), and in the way that we relate to the disharmony of the fallen world around us (that is, as a peculiar people). There is chasm between our Orthodoxy and the presumed Orthodoxy of the world that is as great as the chasm between genuine spiritual life and fabricated ideas of "canonicity" and "officialdom."

Third, the Pedalion (the Rudder) should be approached with great piety. To imagine that it or its compiler, St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite, belongs to a single era (the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries), or is outmoded, is not unlike believing that Scripture is irrelevant because it does not directly address us in our own time, but belongs to the first centuries of Christian history. These Western ideas are not only blasphemous but, despite the many defenses of such thinking (some intelligent, some thoughtless and simply trendy), they are foreign to the spiritual ethos of Orthodoxy. They belong to the realm of systematic theology, religious relativism, progressive revelation, and those other desires of the mind that betray an essential ignorance of the inner path of knowledge that leads to Orthodox enlightenment. Applied to the Rudder, of course, they become absurd, since its contents span many centuries of Christian history and are hardly the product of a single period of time. Some may claim that St. Nicodemos’ commentaries are restricted to a certain time frame; but in so doing, they must thus cease to be Orthodox in their outlook, in so doing, since such a leap backwards in faith challenges the universality and timelessness of Patristic wisdom (not withstanding the fact that such backward action is all around us today).

Fourth, no one with basic and adequate knowledge of the history of the post-Byzantine era could possibly refer to the Greek world of St. Nicodemos—that of the latter part of eighteenth century and after, as an era of intellectual decline! To do so, in view of an historiographical reassessment of the post-Byzantine Greeks that is founded in the best possible scholarship, is comparable to holding forth the view, in contemporary epidemiology, that those who developed the principles of germ theory were superstitious witch doctors. As Constantine Cavarnos has noted, following the darkness of the collapse of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, there was, in the second half of the eighteenth century, "a remarkable outburst of religious, moral and intellectual energy among the Greeks, an outburst without parallel since the disintegration of the Byzantine Empire" (Modern Greek Thought, 1969). The great Argentinian classicist and philologist, Saul Tovar, has traced the continuity of Hellenic scholarship and letters from ancient times to the present, providing ample and indisputable evidence for the intellectual excellence that held forth in the post-Byantine Greek world. (See his comprehensive Biografia de la Lengua Griega, 1990 [pass], and his Hellenike Bibliographia peri tou Platonos apo tes Ptoseos tes Konstantinoupoleos mechri Semeron, 1990). Constantine Cavarnos has also delivered a series of brilliant lectures on this very subject at Harvard and at Boston University, a number of which has appeared in book form (The Hellenic-Christian Philosophical Tradition, 1989) and which Professor Stephen Salamone of Boston University, in his introduction to the book, hails for their defense of the continuity of Greek culture from an "integrated standpoint" that one seldom finds among less-erudite and less-objective "professional Hellenists."

Certain outdated accusations by Western scholars against post-Byzantine Greek thinkers have survived in the backwaters of academic life, but there are few objective scholars in the East or West who would fail to acknowledge the pivotal contributions of the following brilliant representatives of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Greek letters to modern Western civilization: St. Cosmas Aitolos, Neophytos Kafsokalyvitis, Lambros Photiades, Neophytos Doukas, Benjamin of Lesvos, Evgenios Voulgaris, Panagiotis Palamas, Sergios Makraios, Adamantios Koraes, Theodore Trapezountios, as well as countless other scholarly luminaries. These men were educated in the classical sciences and in languages. And many of them were well-known, in better Western scholarly circles, as equals to the Greek ancients. Moreover, they studied in, and at times helped establish, superb centers of knowledge in the post-Byzantine Greek world, schools which could rival anything that the West had to offer in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries: the Patriarchal Great School of the Nation, the Evangeliki School, the Academies in Bucharest and Jassy (which were Greek schools), the Athonias Academy, and some two hundred higher schools established by St. Cosmas Aitolos. Such Western scholars as Philip Sherrard, in contrast to the prejudices of the past and the backwater academic voice to which I referred above, have rightly characterized the post-Byzantine intellectual life of the Greeks as one of the highest order.

Finally, need I point out that St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite, about whom only a few rather poor books have been written in the West—several jaundiced, as even the writings of Greek scholars in the West often are, by outmoded Western historiographical traditions—, was a product of the aforementioned era? He was not a cretin or a man of limited outlook, as some have said. The accusations made against him by poor theologians and amateur historians—some to the effect that he fell to Western influence, others to the effect that he suffered from cultural myopia—are the accusations of scholars who have not done their work or who have too limited a knowledge of Greek history. St. Nicodemos was a brilliant student and teacher, had a fluent grasp of Latin and a number of European languages (French and Italian, among them), was interested in science, objectively studied and delved into the teachings of the heterodox confessions, was described by many of his contemporaries—men of letters themselves—as a genius of immense accomplishment (the great teacher, Archimandrite Chrysanthos, brother of St. Cosmas Aitolos, was among those who recognized the tremendous genius of St. Nicodemos), and studied at the finest schools of his day (including the Evangeliki School) and under a number of famous Churchmen and scholars (St. Macarios of Corinth, Sylvestros the Hagiorite, et al.).

St. Nikodemos was a brilliant theoretician of the Hesychastic life, writing complex philosophical and theological discourses on the subject of human transformation, the cleansing of the spiritual mind and passions, the enlightenment of man, and man’s union with God through theosis. His essays on ethics rank among the major philosophical works of modern times. His scholarship was astonishing. He edited almost a dozen major Patristic collections, including the Philokalia, the Evergetinos, the works of St. Symeon the New Theologian, and the works of St. Gregory Palamas; he translated (from foreign languages and from Patristic to Modern Greek) and edited more than six major works (the Lives of the Saints and Unseen Warfare, to mention two); he wrote nine major books; he composed scores of liturgical texts; and he authored numerous discourses on various spiritual subjects. He was a scholar unparalleled in his wisdom and insight. No one—absolutely no one—who has read his works thoroughly (something which demands a good grasp of Greek) would ever suggest that he was a man of limited outlook or intelligence. And his witness alone would dispel any notion of the post-Byzantine Greek world as a place of intellectual decline. Such views are simply wrong and should be dismissed as having no basis in fact. They belong to the polemics of the West.

Intellectual brilliance, Father, is not the path to inner satisfaction or to spiritual authenticity. If it were, the post-Byzantine Greeks would have reached the zenith of spiritual eminence with their minds alone. But this is not the case. They reached that zenith through piety, self-sacrifice, the simplicity of heart that comes from inner wisdom, and that spiritual trust in humility which is not available to those who, embracing a faith that they cannot truly live, decide to distort it, denigrate it, and condemn those who live it as charlatans. In this upside down world, where the insane are considered sane and the sane are considered insane, you must, as I always tell you, go to bed at night in peace, feeling sorrow in your heart for those disturbed and tormented souls who find no solace in their self-declared canonicity and officialdom. Arguing with them accomplishes nothing. Put the truth before them, for the sake of those who might be misled by their sophistry, and rest your case.

In short, keep your eyes fixed on what has been passed down to us, revere and protect it, and shake the dust from your feet in the face of those who will not hear, who will not listen, and who seek to destroy and innovate.

My warmest brotherly and paternal affection to you.

Least Among Monks,

+ Archbishop Chrysostomos