In this world of religious pluralism, you encounter such a multitude of preachers, each offering up his own ideals, standards for living, and religious views, that members of past generations, even my own, would probably not envy you. It was easier for us: the principal question for us was religion versus atheism. Something much greater, much worse, looms before you. Resolving whether God exists or not is only the first step. If one should conclude that God exists, what next? Which of the many faiths should he espouse? Christianity? Islam? Why not Buddhism, or Krishna Consciousness? Suppose he negotiates the maze of religions, and realizes that Christianity is the best, the true religion. Which of its many faces should he espouse? Orthodox, Catholic, Pentecostal, Lutheran? Again, a multitude of choices faces youth today. At the same time, heterodox confessions, old and new, usually advertise themselves much more than do the Orthodox, and they possess significantly greater resources for waging propaganda in the mass media than do we Orthodox Christians.
Because the first thing contemporary man stops to consider is this multitude of faiths, religions, and world views, I would like to conduct a brief tour of the succession of rooms which open up before those seeking the truth. I will present a very general and concise survey of the reasons that one should – not only can, but should – become not merely a Christian, but an Orthodox Christian.
The opening question is “Religion or atheism?” At important conferences, one may encounter truly erudite scholars, deep intellects who repeatedly pose the questions: Who is God? Does He exist? Why is He necessary? Or even: If He exists, why doesn’t he appear on the floor of the United Nations and announce Himself? How does one respond to such questions? It seems to me that the answer lies at the core of contemporary philosophical thought, and is most easily expressed in existential terms. What is the purpose of man’s life, what is the essence of his existence? First of all, how could it be anything other than living? What “purpose” do I experience while asleep? Meaning can be experienced only through consciousness, “tasting” the fruits of one’s life, one’s activity. Throughout the ages, no one has ever been able to posit, and no one will ever posit, that the ultimate purpose of man’s life is death. Here is the unbridgeable divide between religion and atheism. Christianity affirms that earthly life is only a beginning, a condition and a means to prepare you for eternity. It tells you to prepare yourself, for eternal life awaits; it tells you what to do, what kind of person you must be, to enter into eternal life. What does atheism tell you? That there is no God, there is no soul, there is no eternity; thus, believe, O Man, that only eternal death awaits! Words of such horror, pessimism, and despair as to make your skin crawl: Man, eternal death awaits you. Without even considering the, to put it gently, strange underpinnings for such a proposition, the proposition is itself enough to cause a shudder in the human soul. No, deliver me from such a faith!
If a person loses his way in the forest, and, looking for the way home, suddenly encounters someone, he will ask, “Is there a way out of here?” If that person answers, “No, none, don’t even look, just settle down here as best you can,” will he take that advice? Will he not continue his search? Finding someone else who tells him, “Yes, there is a way out, and I will show you the signs marking the way,” will he not rely on him? This is what happens when we are choosing a world view, choosing between religion and atheism. As long as man has even a spark, a glimmer of desire to find the truth, to seek for the purpose of life, he will not accept the proposal that only eternal death awaits him and all of mankind. He will not accept the corollary that to “realize” the idea, he should work toward better economic, social, political, and cultural conditions of life, in expectation that farther along, everything will be “OK.” Tomorrow you will die and will be taken to the cemetery. How marvelous.
I have pointed out only one psychologically very significant aspect, one I would think sufficient to make any person with a living soul understand that only a religious outlook which accepts as its foundation the One Whom we call God, enables us to talk about the purpose of life. Now, having passed through that first room, and having come to believe in God, we enter the second. My God, what do we see and hear? It is filled with people, everyone shouting, “Only I possess the truth!” What a challenge… Muslims, Confucians, Buddhists, Jews, all manner of others, including many who now call themselves Christians. Here, a Christian preacher is standing with the others, while I am supposed to sort out just who is right, just whom should I believe?
There are two approaches to this problem; there may be others, but I will identify two. One way to convince a person as to which is the true faith (i.e. one objectively consonant with human nature, human strivings, human understanding of the meaning of life), is the methodology of comparative Theology. It is quite a long path, requiring detailed study of each religion. Few are capable of taking this path, for they must possess the capacity to absorb all of the material, and must expend a great deal of time and effort in a spiritually taxing process… There is another way. Ultimately, each religion addresses people, saying to them, “This, and not something else, is the truth.” In this regard, virtually all world views and religions state one simple thing: that the conditions under which a person now lives, the political, social, economic conditions on the one hand, and the spiritual, moral, cultural, etc. on the other, are abnormal, and cannot be totally satisfying. While a specific individual describes himself as satisfied, the vast majority of people suffer from them to some extent. Humanity remains unsatisfied with the current state of affairs, and, seeking after something greater, some “golden age” strives to advance somewhere into the unknown future.
One can see why the focus of virtually all religions and world views is the study of salvation. It is here that we encounter what it seems to me already affords us the opportunity to make an informed choice from among the multitude of religions. Christianity affirms something the other religions and the non-religious world views simply do not comprehend, something they indignantly reject. This lies in our understanding of so-called original sin. All religions, and I propose, all philosophies of life, all ideologies, talk about sin, albeit in different terms. But not one of them other than Christianity believes that human nature in its current state is ill. Christianity affirms that the condition in which we people are born, exist, grow, are educated, take courage, mature, the state in which we find enjoyment, amusement, learning, make discoveries, etc., is a state of serious illness, bringing us profound harm. We are ill, but not with flu, bronchitis, or psychiatric illness. We are physically and psychologically well, we are capable of solving problems, and can fly into space. Nonetheless, we are gravely ill; in the beginning unified human nature sustained a strange and tragic fracture, dividing into apparently autonomously existing and frequently warring mind, heart, and body. Such a comment evokes universal indignation. “Isn’t Christianity being absurd?” “Me, abnormal? Sorry, others may be, but I am not!” If Christianity is correct, this is the root problem, the reason human life, life of the individual and of all mankind, goes from one tragedy to another. If man is seriously ill but does not try to heal the sickness because he is unaware of it, it will do him harm.
Other religious do not comprehend that man has such an illness. They believe that man is a healthy seed that can develop either normally or abnormally, with development dependent upon his social milieu, economic conditions, psychological factors, and many other things.
Man can be either good or bad, but by nature he is good. In this lies the principle antithesis, the consciousness of the non-Christian. I am not even addressing the non-religious, for whom the term “man” seems like an “exercise in pride.” Only Christianity affirms that our current state is a deeply damaged one, so damaged that no one can by himself repair it.
This is the fundamental truth on which the great Christian dogma of Christ as Savior is built. This idea is the principle watershed between Christianity and the other religions.
Now I will attempt to demonstrate that, in contrast to other religions, Christianity has within it objective confirmation of its assertions. Let us consider mankind’s history and the aspirations by which man has lived throughout known history. Of course, man has striven to create the Kingdom of God on earth. Some have sought to do so with God’s help, while at the same time considering Him not as the ultimate goal of life, but merely a means to achieve good on earth. Others did not consider God at all. However, it is something else that is important. Everyone understands that this Kingdom cannot exist on earth without some basics such as peace, justice, love (what kind of Paradise would be ruled by war, injustice, hatred, etc.?), or, on an even more basic level, respect for one another. Everyone understands perfectly that without establishing and following such fundamental moral values, it is impossible to prosper on earth. Yet, what has mankind been doing throughout its history? Erich Fromme expressed it perfectly when he said “The history of mankind is written in blood. It is a history of never-ending violence.”
I think that historians, especially military historians, can readily illustrate for us what constitutes human history: wars, shedding of blood, violence, cruelty. The 20th Century is thought of as an era of exalted humanism. Yet it has demonstrated its level of “perfection” by exceeding in the amount of bloodshed, all that was shed in the prior centuries of human history combined. If our forefathers could have seen what was to come in the 20th Century, they would have shuddered in horror at the scope of the cruelty, injustice, and deceit. This is a paradox beyond human comprehension: as the history of mankind has unfolded, man has acted in direct opposition to those very guiding principles, goals, and ideals toward which he had initially directed all of his efforts.
I would like to pose a rhetorical question: “Can an intelligent being act in such a manner?” History simply mocks us with its ironic pronouncements: “Man truly is wise and healthy. No, he is not spiritually ill. He simply does a little more, and acts a little less wisely than do those locked up in asylums for the insane.”
Alas, this is an inescapable fact which shows that it is not individuals who have gone astray (in fact it is only individuals who have not gone astray), but, paradoxically, that straying is a characteristic of mankind as a whole.
If we consider the isolated individual, or to be more exact, if an individual has enough moral force to look into himself, he will see a picture no less striking. The Apostle Paul accurately described it: “For the good that I would I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do…” Truly, anyone who actually considers what is taking place in his soul cannot help but notice how spiritually ill he is, how much he is subject to and enslaved by various passions. It is pointless to ask “Why, poor man, do you engage in gluttony, drunkenness, lying, envy, adultery, etc.? You are killing yourself, destroying your family, crippling your children, poisoning the atmosphere about you. Why are you beating, cutting, and stabbing yourself, why are you doing harm to your nerves, your psyche, your body? Do you understand that this is doing you harm?” Yes, I understand, but I am incapable of not doing so.
As a rule, suffering man is unable to get a grip on himself. It is at this point, in the depths of his soul, each rational person encounters that of which Christianity speaks: “…the good that I would I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do….” Is this health or illness?
For the sake of comparison, let’s consider how an individual can change by living a proper Christian life. Those who cleanse themselves of the passions, acquire humility, and in the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov, have “acquired the Holy Spirit,” arrive at a state which is extremely fascinating from a psychological point of view: they consider themselves to be the worst of all people. Pimen the Great said: “Believe me, brethren, I shall be cast into the very place into which Satan is cast.” As Sisoe the Great was dying, and his face had become bright as the sun, making it impossible for anyone to look upon him, he implored God to give him a little more time in which to repent. What is this? Some kind of hypocrisy, some false humility? No. Afraid to sin even in thought, they said what they were actually experiencing. We on the other hand do not feel this at all. I am filled to overflowing with all manner of filth, and yet I see myself as a very good person. I am a good person! If I do something bad, well, no one is without sin, others are no better than I, and I am not as guilty as he, she, or they. Because we do not perceive the state of our souls, we see ourselves as so good. How the spiritual vision of the saints differ from ours!
Well, I again state: Christianity affirms that by nature, in his so-called normal state, man is deeply damaged. Unfortunately, we are only very dimly aware of the damage. The most terrible, principal blindness that afflicts us is the inability to see our own sickness. This is what is truly most dangerous, for when a person recognizes that he is sick, he seeks help, he goes to a physician, and he gets treatment for his disease. However, if he sees himself as healthy, he sends away those who tell him he is sick. This is the greatest symptom of the very damage within us. The full weight of history – both the overall history of mankind and the history of each individual, including first and foremost one’s own personal history – bears unambiguous witness to its existence. This is what Christianity shows us.
I will say that objective evidence of the single fact of human nature’s damaged state, that single truth expressed in the Christian Faith, is enough to show me the choice as to what religion to embrace – the one which reveals my sicknesses and shows me the means to heal them, or one which masks my diseases, nourishes human egotism, and says that everything is fine and wonderful, that I do not need to heal myself, but instead that I should heal the world around me, develop, and become more perfect. History teaches us the results of not getting treatment.
Well, we have come to Christianity. Thanks be to Thee, O Lord, I have finally discovered the true faith. I enter the next room: like the others, it is filled with a multitude of people, once again crying: “My Christian faith is the best of all.” Catholics cry out: “Look at how many followers we have – 1 billion 45 million.” Protestants from an extremely wide variety of denominations say that they are 350 million. The Orthodox are fewest in number, a mere 170 million. As has already been correctly suggested, truth is not determined by quantity but quality. Yet the most important question remains: “Where is true Christianity?”
There are a number of possible approaches to the question. In seminary, we were always taught to compare Catholic and Protestant dogmatic systems to that of the Orthodox. This is a method worthy of attention and respect, but it is one which seems to me not comprehensive or good enough, for one who does not have a good education, who is not sufficiently knowledgeable, will hardly find it easy to make sense of the jungle of dogmatic arguments and decide who is right and who is wrong. Moreover, at times such powerful psychological methods are employed, that one can easily be diverted from the substance of the matter. For example, when we take up the question of Papal primacy with the Catholics, they say: “Oh, the Pope! What are you talking about? This primacy and infallibility is such nonsense; it is the same as what is enjoyed by your Patriarch. Papal infallibility and authority is practically indistinguishable from the authoritativeness of pronouncements made by the head of any Local Orthodox Church.” In fact, there is a distinction here between dogma and canons. Thus, the comparative-dogmatics approach is far from simple, especially when you are dealing with those who not only are knowledgeable, but are striving to win you over at any cost.
However, there is another path which clearly shows what Catholicism is and where it leads man. That path is one of comparative investigation and study, but one already in the realm of the spiritual life, visibly manifested in the lives of the saints. It is there that, to use the language of the ascetics, the “vanity” of Catholic spirituality is clearly and powerfully illuminated. It is that vanity, which is fraught with the most grave consequences for the ascetic who sets foot on its way of life. You know, I sometimes give public lectures which are attended by a wide variety of people. Frequently, I hear the following question: “Well, what distinguishes Catholicism from Orthodoxy. How are they in error? Don’t they simply constitute a different path to Christ?” On many occasions, I’ve seen that all I need to do is to bring out examples of a few Catholic mystics, and the inquirer will say, “Thank you, now everything is clear. Nothing else is needed.”
Truly, any Church, Orthodox or heterodox, is known by its saints. Tell me who your saints are, and I will tell you what kind of Church you have. Any Church proclaims as saints only those who embody the Christian ideal as understood by the given Church. For this reason, a saint’s glorification is not the Church’s affirmation that they judge a certain Christian worthy of honor and a fit example for emulation, but also, first and foremost is the Church’s witness as to itself. We can best determine through the saints as to the reality or appearance of holiness of the Church itself.
I will give you a few illustrations of how the Catholic Church views holiness.
One of those considered by Catholicism to be a great saint is Francis of Assisi (13th C.). The following gives a picture of his spiritual consciousness/self-image. It once happened that Francis was engaged in a lengthy prayer “for two gifts.” The subject of the prayer is telling. “The first is that I… might… experience all of the suffering which You, Sweetest Jesus, experienced during Your tortured passion. The second … is that … I might feel …that limitless love with which You burned, O son of God.” As we can see, Francis was concerned not with his own sinfulness, but with a pretension toward equality to Christ!
During this prayer, Francis “felt himself entirely transformed into Jesus,” Whom he immediately recognized as a six-winged seraph, who struck him with flaming arrows into the hands, feet, and right side, places where Jesus Christ had been wounded, and where, following this vision, bleeding wounds (stigmata – signs of the “sufferings of Jesus”) opened. (M.V. Lodyzhensky, p. 109, The Unseen Light, Petrograd, 1915.)
The phenomenon of such stigmata is a subject quite familiar to the field of psychiatry: Uninterrupted meditation on Christ’s passion on the Cross markedly arouses one’s mental state, and with prolonged exercise of such concentration can bring on such phenomena. There is nothing grace-filled in it, for in such co-suffering (compassio) with Christ there is not that true love whose substance the Lord clearly stated: He that hath My Commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth (John 14: 21). Therefore, substituting meditation on the experience of “co-suffering” for the battle to overcome one’s “old man,” one’s former nature, is one of the gravest errors in spiritual life, one which has led and still leads many spiritual strugglers into egotism, pride, frank spiritual self-delusion, often directly tied to mental illness. (See, for example, Francis’ “homilies” addressed to birds, to the wolf, to doves, to snakes and to the flowers, and his reverence before fire, stones, and worms.)
What Francis set forth for himself as the goal of life is also quite telling: “I have labored and want to labor because this brings honor.” (St. Francis of Assisi; Works; Moscow; Franciscan Publishers; 1995. – p. 145). Francis wishes to suffer for others and to atone for others’ sins (p. 20). Was this not the reason for his flatly stating at the end of his life “I am not aware of any transgressions I have not redeemed through confession and repentance.” (Lodyzhensky. – p. 129). This all bears witness to his failure to see his sins, his fall, his utter spiritual blindness.
For the sake of comparison [between Orthodox and Catholic sanctity – Ed.] consider a vignette from the last moments of Venerable St. Sisoe the Great’s life (5th C.) “In the minutes before his death, as Sisoe appeared to be talking with persons invisible to the brethren surrounding him, he responded to the request: “Father, tell us with whom you are conversing…” by saying “They are the angels who have come to take me, and I am imploring them to leave me [here] for a short time, so that I might repent.” When the brethren, who knew that Sisoe was accomplished in virtues, contradicted him, noting, “But you have no need of repentance, Father,” he answered, “In truth, I do not know whether I have even begun to repent.” (Lodyzhensky, p. 133.) That profound understanding, that recognition of one’s own imperfection, is the principal distinguishing characteristic of all true saints.
Here is an excerpt from the “Blessed Angela”” (†1309), in The Revelations to Blessed Angela, published in Moscow, 1918.
She writes that the Holy Spirit spoke to her, saying “My daughter, my sweet delightful one…I love you very much.” (p. 95). “I was with the apostles, and they saw Me with human eyes, but they did not feel me as you do.” (p. 96). Angela revealed the following about herself: “In the darkness, I see the Holy Trinity, and it seems to me that I am there, at the very center of the Trinity, which I see in the darkness.” (p 117). She provides examples of how she sees her relationship to Jesus Christ: “I was able to put myself entirely inside Jesus Christ.” (p. 176). And: “Because of His sweetness and out of sorrow over his departure I screamed and wanted to die” (p. 101). In her frenzied state, she would begin to beat herself so severely that the nuns were forced to carry her out of the church (p. 83).
A.F. Lossev, one of the most prominent Russian religious writers of the 20th Century, gave the following harsh but accurate criticism of Angela’s “revelations.” He wrote in part: “[Angela’s] is in such a state of temptation and seduction that she even has the Holy Spirit appear to [her] and whisper adoring expressions: “My daughter, my sweet delightful one, My temple, My delight, love me, for I love you very much, much more than you love Me.” The saint sweetly languishes, and is disoriented by love’s sweet exhaustion. And her lover appears more and more often, to inflame still further her body, her heart, her blood. The Cross of Christ appears to her as a nuptial bed. How can anything be more opposite to serious and sober Byzantine-Muscovite asceticism than the following blasphemous pronouncement: “My soul was taken into the uncreated light and ascended.” Such passionate reflections on the Cross of Christ, on the wounds of Christ and on the individual parts of His Body, such forced evocation of bloody marks on one’s own body, etc… In culmination, Christ wraps the arm which had been nailed to the Cross around Angela, and she, totally spent from her languor, torment, and happiness, says “Sometimes, in the closeness of that embrace, it seems to my soul that entered the side of Christ, and the joy and illumination it received there, was inexpressible. For they were so great, that sometimes I was unable to stand on my feet, and lay down, unable to speak… and I lay there, [the use of] my tongue and limbs taken from me.” (A.F. Lossev, Essays on Ancient Symbolism and Mythology, Moscow 1930, Vol. 1, pp. 867-868.).