Towards a Clearer Idea of the Church
from Fr. Seraphim Rose
Fr. Seraphim Rose makes some points in an informal letter to a convert that add up to a clearer idea of the Church. Good royal path guidance for us for avoiding the super-correct tendencies. World-orthodox could also benefit from this; if they don't just reinterpret it to justify their being in world-orthodoxy.
Quotes are taken from a letter written in the early 1970s and published in Letters from Fr. Seraphim edited by Fr. Alexey Young.
A + B + C + D + E + F = clearer idea of the Church
Vladyka John never to our knowledge expressed any doubt whatever as to the "status" or "legitimacy" of the Church Abroad. What he did express was his concern over the continued existence of the Church as a unified entity.
It is good and wise to think of both "Greeks" and "Russians" only the best things, those which enter into the higher harmony of Orthodoxy, which is beyond nationalities. This is how Vladyka John always thought of Greeks" and why he adopted many Greek customs which are not commonly practiced by Russians today – Greek customs , that is, which are closer to the authentic tradition of Orthodoxy, and certainly not just because they are "Greek"!
Concerning canons: This is a great stumbling block specifically for converts, for one thing because of the temptation to Phariseeism which we all have, and for another because canons, representing the "law" of the Church, can only be understood and applied within the tradition of the Church and in the Spirit Who guides the Church. A large part of the Church's tradition is "uncodified," being contained in Lives of Saints and patristic writings (to which there is no general index, thanks be to God – or else no convert would survive!), and part of the Church's tradition is still unwritten. The canons are the most obvious part of the Church's tradition, and therefore some converts experience shipwreck by jumping on them and trying to apply them without even being aware of the whole tradition of which they are but one part.
The canons are made for man, not man for the canons. Some canons simply cannot or should not, at certain times or in certain circumstances, be applied with strictness; hence the Church's "economy." Also, as a rule, the application of the canons (and their "economy") is the business of bishops, and they do as much as possible with mutual consultation. How much more, then, should the rest of us refrain from trusting our own judgment with regard to them? Some of them, to be sure, that concern us directly, we must know about and, if possible, being taught by or consulting with others wiser in the faith, must be prepared to defend – for example, the canons regarding common prayer with heretics, the transgressing of which involves a betrayal of the very idea of the Church of Christ. Other canons, such as the permissible age for ordination to diaconate or priesthood, do not involve any such betrayal and are none of our business, and if we were to start making bishops accountable (to ourselves!) for them it would be exactly the same as if the bishops were to start interfering in the home and job life of ordinary parishioners. In general, however, the canons are doubtless too much stressed in polemics, and if we are to remain in the Church in the difficult times it will be primarily because we are faithful to the Spirit of the Church, and not to the canons.
About using the term "heresy" in writings: The term "heresy" should be reserved for major heterodox views (the heresy of Nestorius, Arius, etc.) rather than applied to various smaller parts of such views, in order to preserve its full force. Yes, the "fundamental goodness of man" is of course a heretical idea, but it would probably be better to use a less forceful phrase to describe it (such as: "which contradicts Orthodox doctrine"), especially as you are discussing it just in passing, as it were.
About bishops: …purely idealistic preconceptions about bishops can lead to shipwreck. In our days of general decline in the Church, one should not expect too much of them. While giving them due honor, respect, and obedience, one must realistically acknowledge that (save in rare cases) they are not in a position to serve a personal guides, least of all to converts. The one outstanding exception to this general "rule," Vladyka John, to whom we believe one could have entrusted oneself entirely – made it a point precisely not to accept disciples, but rather to inspire and encourage independent labors within the Church, under the conditions of growth and mutual counsel within the Orthodox tradition. On numerous occasions we ourselves went to him to ask his blessing for various things – for example, to buy a new piece of printing equipment – and his reply was always the same: "I don't know anything about printing. Judge for yourselves what you need, buy it if you can, and God will bless your labors. If what you do is pleasing to God, it will prosper; if not, God will place such obstacles in your way that you can't go on."
If we have somehow conveyed to you that the general state of our Synod hierarchy is not good – then we have misled you. Our bishops on the whole are better than any others we know about, and probably no different from the bishops for the last 2000 years, through whom the Holy Spirit has led His Church.
On the whole, our bishops are not known as poor administrators, quite the contrary (usually, the holier the bishop, the worse an administrator he is!). If anything, their great temptation lies in taking the "organizational" side of the Church too seriously, thereby sometimes "quenching the spirit" of some members of the Church's organism. Those of us who can, must simply try to keep this spirit alive – as you have written precisely: "to turn from trusting in the 'organization' and cleave to the 'organism.'" Thereby we not only can be of service to the Church, but we become the bishops' best helpers, for we are working together with them in the true service of the Church's "organism," the Body of Christ. If we thereby suffer misunderstandings and offenses from each other (and we are all guilty of this, not just bishops!), the Church gives us the spiritual means to forgive and overcome these.
Frankly, Vladyka John during his lifetime was not understood even by many of his fellow bishops, precisely because he was always first and foremost living in the organism of the Church and never let the organization take precedence. That is his testament to us all, and don't worry if you don't understand it right now. It can't really be understood, but only experienced and suffered through as you grow in the Church and her tradition. God will send you occasions for understanding it in your heart.
About being open to the heavenly Church: Do not trust your mind too much; thinking must be refined by suffering, or it will not stand the test of these cruel times. I do not believe that the "logical" ones will be with Christ and His Church in the days coming upon us; there will be too many "reasons" against it, and those who trust their own minds will talk themselves out of it. … you have a glimpse of the deeper dimension, the "third dimension of thinking in the Church. You can get much from books, … but the full third dimension will come to you only through experience and through contact and a counsel with those who have deep roots in the living tradition of the Church. If Fr. Panteleimon or Fr. Neketas, or anyone else is not "according to your soul" (as the Russians say), then no will force you to take counsel of them. But also do not fall into the temptation of trusting only yourself and similar-minded converts. We Americans for the foreseeable future must be in practical dependence, to a degree, on Russians and/or Greeks, preferable on the best in both sources. This is the way it has always been in the Church, and thus can tradition be planted in a new land.
Concerning the crucial point of the Church as "organization" versus "organism," which the preceding points lead up to – we can only point you to the Catacomb essays in the May-June Orthodox Word (issue #44), which were written with blood; and to the whole question of "Sergianism," when it becomes possible for GPU torturers to "prove" to an Orthodox bishop that Metropolitan Sergius (MP) "violated neither dogmas nor canons." Perhaps he didn't – but do we therefore follow him and his "canons" into hell, or do we follow Christ on the narrow path to paradise, together with His quite possibly "uncanonical" followers of the last times?
Orthodox Word issue #44, May-June 1972
temporarily available here: http://tinyurl.com/kf4kqcp