What is Orthodoxy?
- What is Orthodoxy? by Archbishop Averky of Syracuse and Holy Trinity
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 thereof—heresies 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 spiritual contents.
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 fullness—the 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
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 with himself.
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 element—the matter of
salvation of the soul unto eternal life—for the sake of which the Church
was both founded and exists.
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
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 law—one 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 fraud.
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 salvation—the 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
Orthodoxy—there is the domain of demons who treat man as their own pathetic
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" (Matt.
This then is what is Orthodoxy, or True Christianity!
From Orthodox Life, vol. 26, no. 3 (May-June, 1976), pp. 1-5.