The Ethos of Orthodox Catechesis: The Mind of the Orthodox Church


THE ETHOS OF ORTHODOX CATECHESIS: THE MIND OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH

by V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli, Ph.D.

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . . ." (Mt 28:19)

All followers of Christ, by their baptism, that is to say by being numbered among those of the royal priesthood, are called to make those of all nations become committed, baptized followers of Christ. We know this from the pen of St. Peter himself: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." (1 Pt 2:9).  That this is a calling to fulfill a commitment, a commission, is made evident in the Eastern Church Service of Baptism. After Chrismation and the reception of the Eucharist, the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, the newly baptized, led by the priest and sponsors, proceeds around the baptismal font singing the hymn: "As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal 3: 27), Alleluia." The Epistle and Gospel reading follow. The Gospel reading is critical in understanding what the commission means. The commission lays out the ministry of service of all who are followers of Christ;  it is a ministry of service (diaconia) of the newly baptized who has "put on Christ." The real meaning of Baptism is: "Go . . . make disciples of all nations . . . ." (Mt 28:19). That is to say, all baptized are to proclaim Christ; teach Christ; instruct Christ; all are commanded to be catechists.

Catechesis: The teaching of what is sacred

Catechesis is the teaching of the truths of Christ and His Church.  What would come to most people’s minds when hearing the word catechesis would be the word catechism and its related associations. A catechism is a primary book containing the elemental principles of Christ's teaching and the way His teachings are understood and practiced by His Church. It could come to mind that it is children who are the ones to be studying.  Also coming to mind could be that the catechism is presented in a question and answer format.

Few would understand that catechesis is a life-long process which must be experiential, total and in the depths of the heart. Surely this would include an 'intellectual' understanding involving learning and memory. But it also has to include so much more. It is Christ's revelation to us as is lived and prayed. It has to include all of life. It is not limited to children. It starts with the infant to be baptized, surrounded by the incense and the prayerful chants of the priest and assembly which rise to God and with the seal of the Holy Spirit ordaining the catechumen into the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ. Then catechesis continues through the total life span: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age, until ready to pass to eternal life. It consists in being immersed in the mind of the Christ and His Church: receiving the Holy Mysteries; knowing the teachings of the Holy Scriptures as the Holy Spirit inspired Church contemplates them; living the spiritual teachings of our Church Fathers; integrating the liturgy, the cycles of the church year, the hours of the day into our life; using icons as a window to experience God, understanding of the temple building as a ship leading us to paradise; catechesis means a life of prayer.

A theologian is one who prays

The Spiritual Fathers of the Church knew this well. To know religion, that is to say to be a theologian, was not by getting a passing grade in a catechism class or by earning a theological diploma or degree. Evagrius the Solitary tells us: "If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly you are a theologian." (Philokalia I). "Prayer" is a shortcut term for interiorizing Christ, contemplating Him, and being mystically united to His Church. It is the implanting of the love of God in the center of one's heart (the nous).   St. Hesychios the Priest expressed it this way: "Those who are seized by love [implanting God in the heart] . . . become just, responsive, pure, holy and wise through Jesus Christ, . . .they are able to contemplate mystically and to theologize; and when they become contemplatives, they bathe in a sea of pure and infinite light, touching it ineffably and living and dwelling in it." (Philokalia I).  St. Peter of Damaskos summarizes St. Maximus the Confessor: "It is only when it [our hearts] abides in God alone that it is granted direct vision of what pertains to God and, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, becomes in the true sense a theologian.”  (Philokalia III).

Spiritual Church Father Nikitas Stithatos shows us the depth of the effect of being truly catechized, i.e., of becoming a genuine  theologian. It is certainly much greater than memorizing texts, even holy texts:

[It] is our initiation into the hidden mysteries of God and our being filled with ineffable wisdom through union with the Holy Spirit, so that each becomes a wise theologian in the great Church of God, illuminating others with the inner meaning of theology. He who has reached this point through  the deepest humility and compunction has, like another Paul, . . . has heard indescribable things which he who is still dominated by the sense-world is not permitted to hear (cf. 2Cor 12:14)...He becomes a steward of God's mysteries (cf.1Cor 4:1), for he is God's mouthpiece, and through words he communicates these mysteries to other people . . . (Philokalia IV ).

As we learn  from Palmer, Sherrard and Ware, (1979 ) the editors of The Philokalia, that theology denotes "far more than learning about God and religious doctrine acquired through academic study. it signifies active and conscious participation in or perception of the realities of the divine world. . . ."  In other words, acquiring and interiorizing the Mind of Christ and His Church.

Christ came to save sinners

The early Christians were called "saints." St. Paul addresses the Romans (1:7): "To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” And to the Corinthians (1Cor 1:2-3) he writes: "To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." St. John the Evangelist, in the book of Revelation (14:12), also calls the Christians he is writing to saints: "Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus." Let us see what this means. Does it mean that those who are Christians are already saints, that is to say have achieved salvation, are already deified? Not at all! It means they (we) are 'called' to sainthood; it is a goal to be attained. We are called to "become partakers of the Divine Nature." (2Pt 1:4).

We can see this from the words of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ Himself. It is a call to perfection or sainthood. "Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48).  Later in the Gospel St. Matthew (9: 12) tells us the words of Jesus explaining this: "But when he heard it, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick."  We may be baptized, be working toward becoming saints, working toward deification, that is to say, having Christ indwell in us so that we who are followers of Christ may reap the reward promised by Christ when He said:  "I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." But now as St. Paul tells us:   "... all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." Rm 3:23.

"Let us commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God." (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom)

The early Christians

Right from the time of the earliest days of the Church we can see what being a true follower of Christ, a life of total commitment to Christ, can be. Consider St. Luke's description of some of the first Christians:

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day-by-day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2: 41-47)

This description must be put into the context that the "saints" are striving to become perfect, and, as discussed above, all are sinners and fall short of the glory of God. The point is, however, that they were fully committed, as was St. Paul (1Tm 6:12), to "fight the good fight". We must recall the understanding given to us by St. Peter of Damascus: "St. John Chrysostom says that the perfect man will certainly become the equal of the angels, as the Lord affirms; but he will do so in the resurrection of the dead, and not in this present world." (Philokalia III)

Of course there were some, and will always be, egregious exceptions and defections from commitment to Christ. The ultimate betrayer of Jesus was one of His original Apostles: the traitorous Judas.  St. Matthew (27: 5) records the outcome: "And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. . . ." Two early followers of Christ, Ananias and his wife Sapphira, went astray. They not only kept part of the proceeds donated to the Church, but they lied about it.  St. Luke records Ananias' encounter with St. Peter: ". . . why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God." When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died.” (Acts 5: 3-5).  Sudden death came upon Sapphira as well (Acts 5:10). The history of the Church is filled with sinners. St. John records the words of Jesus given to him in Revelation (2: 6):  "Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." The Nicolaitans were a heretical sect founded by Nicholas, one of the first deacons of the Church. The sect promoted a life of unrestrained indulgence.

The contemporary Nicolaitans: The secularist threat to the Church today

Secularism can be defined as the marginalization of God and the Church, andd in place of God and His Church, a focus on "earthly things" (Phil. 3,19). That is to say, the values of contemporary western world including: radical individualism; moral relativism; and religious and political correctness, which guide individual and social behavior and inform political/public policy.

Secularism rejects God and His Church as the touchstone of truth and meaning. Moreover, when God is rejected, the locus of truth — the place from which truth emanates and where it is found — must necessarily rest in the created order. The locus shifts to man himself, and as pride and an inflated sense of Godless self-sufficiency grows, ideas which find no court of accountability apart from the like-minded, are implemented in this quest for a new Jerusalem. (Morelli 2009b)

Clarity in theological, and in some cases moral, matters was hard fought. Church councils were often called in the heat of conflict and, in some cases, of persecution (Iconoclasm for example). Indeed, conflict within and without the Church is to be expected, although it may ebb and flow from one generation to the next. St. Matthew (7: 15-16) quotes our Lord saying, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.”

Among the more egregious contemporary societal sins are: Abortion, adultery, alcoholism, anger, blasphemy, child abuse (physical, psychological, sexual or neglect), contempt, deceit, drug addiction, evil speaking (talking about someone even if true), fornication, gossip, harshness, hate, hypocrisy, idolatry, insider trading, kidnapping, kickbacks, lust, lying, negligence, not caring for the environment, pre-emptive unjust warfare, same sex marriage, smoking, spousal abuse, torturing and/or belittling prisoners, using others for money, power or sex, vengeance (national and personal). (Morelli, 2006)

Anti-Abortion IconAnti-Abortion IconAs I have pointed out previously (Morelli, 2010a), unfortunately some who call themselves Christians are Christians in name or culture only.  Many Protestant communities of the West cannot be relied on to battle this brokenness. In fact, they are part of the problem. As communities they have abandoned the ancient Sacred Traditions of the Church founded by Christ on His Apostles. They have modified and redefined the fundamental teaching of Christ to conform to the secular culture. Some have even claimed their personal interpretation of Holy Scripture is the work of the Holy Spirit and use their personal views to justify personal and societal sin. Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev (2009) resounds the Mind of the Orthodox Church on this pernicious practice.

The New Testament is an unconditional and indisputable doctrinal authority for all Christians. In Orthodox tradition, however, sacred Scripture is not seen as something primary in relation to church tradition. Scripture grew out of tradition and composes an inseparable part of it. Scripture is interpreted not spontaneously but from the perspective of tradition. Personal interpretations are allowed as private opinions.

Some who label themselves Christian communities are even teaching that several of the societal sins listed above, such as abortion and same sex marriage, are Godly acts. Some have acquiesced to political correctness and teach that females can be ordained to the holy priesthood and episcopacy.  The effect of this sell-out is not only to not preach the Gospel as Christ has taught us, but also to produce a greater alienation from the Orthodox Church, which the non-Christian world can perceive as outright scandal and hypocrisy. “It has also undermined the common Christian witness to the secularized world.”i

Wolves masquerading as Christians

Equally reprehensible is the message of those who preach hatred, retribution, vengeance and death in the name of Christ. This is a mockery of all Christ stood for by His emptying of Himself (kenosis) of the Godhead and taking on our human nature.

St. Luke warned of wolves coming among those who call themselves followers of Christ: "I know that after my departure fierce wolves [emphasis mine] will come in among you, not sparing the flock." (Acts 20: 29).  St. John tells us "This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son." (2 Jn 2:22).  St. John also told us: "He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." (1 John 4:8,16). Our holy Church Father St. Isaac the Syrian tells us what abiding in love means.  He tells us it entails acquiring a merciful heart whereby we become like God.  St. Isaac’s words are exact, concrete and practical:

And what is a merciful heart? it is the heart burning for the sake of all creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons and for every created thing . . . the eyes of a merciful man pour forth tears . . . . he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation...he offers up tearful prayer continually. . .for the enemies of truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. (Alfeyev, 2000).

St. Isaac the SyrianSt. Isaac the Syrian

The Christ of St. Isaac the Syrian, and of all who call themselves true Christians, is the kenotic, self-emptying Christ, the Christ, who became "Extreme Humility":

 

From whom "much will be required"

For those who call themselves 'Orthodox Christians,' but are really not totally committed to Christ, that is to say not truly Orthodox Christians,  the condemnation is even worse for they have been given the fullness of Christ's gifts. Recall Our Lord's words: "Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required." (Lk 12:48)  After receiving the Eucharist at the Divine Liturgy we sing, "We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity: for He hath saved us." The Orthodox Church of Christ has been given the totality of Divine Gifts. Woe to any who waste the divine gifts received at Holy Baptism and available throughout one's lifetime by full and deep participation of the life in the Church.

This increasing homogenization of Christ's teaching with Godless world values and practice has accelerated in part due to technological,  economic and  entertainment globalization. (Morelli, 2006b)  Thus the need for true and complete Orthodox catechesis is so critically necessary. Thus the need for Christians to be re-committed to Christ in emulation of the first Christians in the Acts of the Apostles quoted above, and by following the spiritual counsels of great Spiritual Fathers of the Church. While there are many compilations of spiritual counsels, I will simply note the currently available four volumes of The Philokalia, which are listed in the References of this article. Readers can find numerous other sources of Eastern Church spirituality by examining many of my other articles.ii