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Some Remarks to a Priest Concerning Holy Tradition and Modernism

A Letter from Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna

Dear Father _________:


The Holy Ecumenical Synods and the other Councils express a Faith which Christ established, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers preserved. They did not define, codify, or create anything, but protected the Faith given to us in its wholeness by Christ against innovation and heresy.

It is true that the Faith grows and that Holy Tradition "changes," but only in the sense that, through the action of the Holy Spirit, we have come to a more complete knowledge of the Truth, which is in and of itself whole and full. Thus, our liturgical practices have "changed" to the extent that the Church has matured and grown, revealing its power and fullness through the Christian life. But the Church has not "changed" in the sense of reversing Herself or contradicting what has gone before. The Church changes only in the fuller revelation of her immutable identity.

In spiritual practices, too, history shows us that there has been a standardization and a growth formed by the practice and confirmation of the Faith. But this does not mean that we suddenly reverse course, overturn a practice, and claim that the Church changes to fit the vicissitudes of history. The Church changes history, not vice versa. When a new ethos and new mentality, then, suggest that we should suddenly, after a century of abuse in certain circles, and adjust our standard to fit that abuse, this is not a sign of continuity or a sign of a proper understanding of the Church. It is a perverse distortion of Orthodoxy.

I might also point out that, aside from the public lie, most people in the modernist Churches do not keep a strict fast (if any) on Wednesday and Friday. Nor do all so-called traditionalists. This abuse can one day also lead to an innovation based on "established custom." And we might justify it in a number of ways. Like those who misrepresent the standard of Baptism by misrepresenting the textual and archaeological witness, we might come to say that the Wednesday and Friday fast was not a universal practice in the early Church. Yet, despite exceptions that we may find in history, we can read in the Fathers, the canonical collections, and the lives of Saints that this custom was established by the Apostles themselves. Here is a perfect case of how supposed "historical" justifications can take us from the Faith. For, if our Faith is the same one which was given by Christ, preached by the Apostles, and preserved by the Fathers, we are outside this transmission of truth (the true meaning of "paradosis" or tradition) when we model the Church on what is the exception and justify the exception by the whims of modern man. In this vein, Canon XVII of the so-called First-Second Synod is quite instructive. Speaking of the past practice of the rapid Consecration to the Episcopacy of laymen and monks—though out of necessity and resulting in good fruit—, this Canon states: "[T]hat which is rare [exceptional] should not be taken as a rule of the Church…." In his interpretation of this Canon, St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite repeats this warning about generalizing from the specific to the universal: "...However, what is specific and rare [exceptional], and comes about in a time of necessity, does not become a universal rule in the Church (something which is also stated by St. Gregory the Theologian and in the second Act of the Council held at the Church of St. Sophia, which says: 'Those things which are good in rare [exceptional] instances must not be a rule for the many')," Pedalion (The Rudder), pp. 360-61. And the reference here, we should keep in mind, is to "good things," not to the innovations of modernists, which can ultimately lead one down a comfortable path to perdition!

On the general subject of eating—another subject which you raise—the Church, not our personal desire, dictates how we fast and when we avoid certain foods. It is not that fasting from one kind of food is necessarily more efficacious than fasting from another, but simply that abstaining from certain foods has a particular effect on a particular passion. We should follow the oldest fasting traditions, not those concocted by modernists, who have not proved that their innovations are without harm. What has consistently survived over the centuries has been proved effective; it produced Saints who, in turn, advocated such traditional fasting rules.

As for what is absolutely necessary to salvation, we are not fundamentalists. When we make such statements (about indispensable items of the Faith), we do so intelligently. The Faith is like a mosaic, one "stone" of which is fasting. If we take away that stone, we distort the wholeness of the Faith. And since it is the wholeness of the Faith that saves us (the very "criterion" of Truth, to quote one Father), we cannot remove any element passed down to us by Holy Tradition without jeopardizing our salvation. (Incidentally, it is actually the modernists who are fundamentalists, since they want to find certain basic—fundamental—things in Orthodoxy, and usually the easier, cerebral ones, that alone constitute fidelity to Holy Tradition. It is the Gestalt of Orthodoxy, that is, our grasp of the Faith in its fullness, that is the only real fundamental.)

Need I add that, following what I have said, we likewise violate the mind of Christ, when we engage in the kind of innovation to which I have alluded. And thus we violate the mind of the Fathers and of the Church. Moreover, the mind of Christ, like the Lord Himself, does not "change." I need do nothing more than say, "the same yesterday, today, and forever." What, then, of theories that the Church can "change" her mind?

Patriarchates and jurisdictions, not withstanding the same move towards Papism, in modern times, that separated Rome from Orthodoxy in ancient times, are not necessary to Orthodoxy. We need only the Priesthood: Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons in spiritual succession. Administrative bodies can protect the Church, but they do not define it.* Local tradition, by the way, is meant to transform the human by the standard of the Church. If a local Church falls short of what is the custom of the universal Church, then that Church suffers from a spiritual deficit that must be treated with great care and with the final aim of bringing it into oneness of mind and practice with the universal Church. No Patriarchate, then, has the right to deviate from the consensus of the Church. If it does so abusively, it will eventually fall away from the Church. Indeed, much of what is called "official" Orthodoxy today is risking such a fall, since words like "official" are a sign of worldliness and spiritual self-doubt.

So is the idea that innovation can be covered by a Patriarch, or that "dispensations" are in the hands of our Shepherds. Our Shepherds are called to preserve the catholic Faith. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann has written, in a profoundly insightful article:

For the purpose and function of the Hierarchy is precisely to keep pure and undistorted the Tradition in its fulness, and if and when it sanctions or even tolerates anything contrary to the truth of the church, it puts itself under the condemnation of canons. ("Problems of Orthodoxy in America: The Canonical Problem," St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1964, pp. 68-69, emphasis mine.)

Recapitulating his point, Father Alexander, in a footnote to this passage, appropriately quotes Fr. George florovsky: "The duty of obedience ceases when the Bishop deviates from the Catholic norm, and the people have the right to accuse and even depose him." ("Sobornost—The Catholicity of the Church" in The Church of God, London, 1934, p. 72.) This Pauline vision has always been the source of spiritual authority. Preservers and Confessors have true authority. Innovators must operate on contrived, false, administratively-derived notions of authority. The former save us. The latter people, who seek worldly recognition, cause us to err.

Your friend asks: "How do you know ‘by experience’ what saves souls?" Holy Tradition is the experience of the Church. It is enlivened by Christ. It is sealed by the Saints. This experience is contained in that "golden thread" of consensus which holds together the experience of those transformed and renewed in Christ, who know themselves and who know one another, who are known of Christ, and whom Christ knows. This is the subjective criterion of Christianity, which is found not in the mind and Western legalism, but in the heart and obedience. It is not found in Patriarchates and jurisdictions. The path towards it is rigid, but its self-validating quality is mysterious. The risk of Christianity is that that there are no external "certainties"; the triumph of Orthodoxy is that Christ establishes these "certainties" internally, in the "repository of the Holy Spirit," as St Gregory Palamas calls it—that is, the human heart.

Your friend then writes: "My Western, legalistic, accounting mindset showing through, again; but how do you know the mind of the church? Especially if the church has never set down what its mind is? Do you admit a distinction between custom and Tradition? If so, how do you know which is which, if a practice has never been definitively categorized as one or the other? The whole thing seems to me both rigid and indistinct at the same time." The answer is simple. One follows Holy Tradition in its fullness, accepting every custom with piety and humility and following those who respect and uphold this fullness. One can play games all day about who such people are, but there would be no distinction between modernists and traditionalists if we did not know the answer to this. Look for people living their Faith in difficulty, not for Patriarchates and authorities preaching a Faith of ease. And if some of these former people have gone astray, look for those who have not. If obedience on your part is abused once, keep trying until it is no longer abused. As for how one knows what is true, this takes Faith in God. Supposedly "logical" Western legalism (sophistry is what this often becomes) should be avoided in this spiritual quest.

Your friend writes: "And if someone were to omit the sign of the cross at a customary place, would it be a sin? Would it be un-Orthodox? (Or did you mean signings by a priest within the liturgy? Which I would be more inclined to agree would not be subject to the whim of an individual—but, still, I’d wonder how unchangeable they are. The Church must have managed without the liturgy of St. John Chrysostomos for some centuries; so when it was adopted, it must have represented a change or an improvement; so, in principle, it must be possible to improve on customary practices.)" The power of the Cross is not subject to human whim or speculation. The Liturgy, which is "Divine," is like a spiritual formula. We follow in obedience all that has been passed on to us. That obedience helps God to manifest the Divine Liturgy in its fullness. Innovation impedes His work. As for the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostomos, there is no such thing. The Liturgy which the Church uses was given to us at the Mystical Supper. It developed from that embryo into what we have today, undergoing standardization through practice. The Divine Chrysostomos, enlightened by God, took part in that process. The Liturgy of St. Basil, for example, was not "written" by him. It was dictated to him spiritually. And thus it is almost identical to that of St. John: part of the wholeness of the Liturgy as it was made manifest through the Holy Spirit. There were no revolutions in piety in the early Church. The Holy Spirit simply guided the development of a Divine Embryo—organically, naturally, and fully. What we have today, tested by centuries, is an amazingly consistent form of worship, once one removes the innovators and those of a Western mentality. That is the proof of the one mind of the Church.

Finally, I would avoid answering "what if" questions. Holy Baptism and the practice of the Faith in its fullness give us a knowledge of things spiritual that is foolish to those who use logic and the brain, instead of the heart, to approach Orthodoxy. We should speak from that knowledge, which is most effective in silence, and not from human rationality. You could go on answering this man’s questions forever. Until he submits to Holy Tradition, speaks in silence, and subjects the meanderings of his brain to the spiritual dictates of his heart, he will come up with endless questions. I call this the "pi" of spiritual discussion. What is the value of "pi"? If I recall, 3.141592653589..., and on to eternity. If your value lies in a final statement, then you will eventually lose any notion of the usefulness of "3.14" in the practical applications of this imperfect mathematical construct. Likewise with the spiritual "pi" that your friend is pursuing. Looking for a perfect value in what is spiritual and subjective will lead to nothing but an image which must ultimately be a lie, if it seeks to be defined.

Westerners think that they create the Truth by finding it through logic. They think that a perfect logical statement of the Truth—or systematic theology—is their goal. What theology is, aside from being something that we live, is an imperfect attempt to describe in human thought what transcends human thought. The mental self-abuse of Western rationalism creates false religions of a consistent kind, at the same time that it does harm to the apophatic traditions of Orthodoxy. It defines what God is and thus creates a false god. We True Orthodox see what God is and is not, humbly admit our inability to understand Being which encompasses and transcends Non-Being, and thus experience God within the theological boundaries which protect us from rational thought and which bestow on us Divine Wisdom—knowledge that is not knowledge, seeing that is not seeing, and vision which is beyond vision. We use the cure of theology to find spiritual health; we do not seek in our cure the contents of the healing that it effects.

How far from Orthodoxy most of what is called Orthodox, today, really is!

I bow out, then, preferring to find truth through practice and error, and in God’s mercy, rather than endless theoretical speculation that ultimately leads to ungodly contention.

Asking for your blessing, I am

The Least Among Monks,

Archbishop Chrysostomos

* On all of this the section on ecclesiology in Against False Union, by Dr. Alexander Kalomiros, is very helpful.