The forthright quality of the Saints

by Archbishop Stylianos of Australia

As is well known, September is the beginning of autumn in the homeland. At the same time, however, as "the fruits fall into decline", the new Ecclesiastical Year commences in accordance with our Graeco-Christian culture. As it is also well known, the ecclesiastical "New Year's Day" (1st September) is celebrated to this day with the grandeur of the Byzantine Rubric at the all-venerable Patriarchal Church of St George in the Phanar.

The Graeco-Byzantine culture is not simply a lurid Rubric in our worship, with alleged intricate symbolism and practices in other areas of our social life. Nor is it an opulent Eastern theocracy with an arrogant Emperor at the peak of the State in imitation of the Roman Emperors before him who were worshipped as gods.

The notion of Culture generally includes the most characteristic expressions of corporate and individual life, in a gathered community of people. This means that all the 'principles' of spiritual, cultural and socio-political life are connected in a united whole, expressing the very soul and self-consciousness of a people. It is that which we usually call 'physiognomy'.

The religious phenomenon occupies an entirely central place in such a physiognomy, even when this, for reasons of ideology or political expediency, is not confessed always and by everybody.

Graeco-Byzantine culture, the position of Orthodoxy, as a spiritual power -which inspires, shapes and maintains, in diachronic forms (monuments), our collective expression, beyond and above nationalistic differences- is not only unquestioned but also the most determinative of all factors.

Yet what is the meaning of 'Byzantine' spirituality and Orthodoxy? Primarily, it means the transcendence of the created world in general, in the name of the only lord of life and death. This transcendence does not leave the world vain or destitute. Instead, it lays claim to the world until the last speck of dust! Since it recognises that, having been created 'out of nothing', it is the estate of God.

Therefore Orthodoxy and 'Byzantine' spirituality mean faith in a continual 'transfiguration' from the simply 'human' to the 'divine-human' and 'theandric'. Precisely this ineffable 'dramaturgy' in the midst of history that God reveals through the Incarnation constitutes the quintessence of Christianity and divine Revelation in general. After the Incarnation, each person recognises -or at least can recognise- that there exists a treasured mystical deposit within. It is a divine 'centrifugal' power that is literally 'ecstatic'. It is the 'identifying mark' of the saint, which is expressed as a thirst for the eternal!

The 'icon of God' engraved in clay about which the Old Testament informs us (Gen 1:26), now, after the divine Incarnation, becomes the certainty of a continual foretaste of 'deification' of the final things. Nevertheless, such a journey from the 'image' towards the 'likeness' of God could not possibly have been a human achievement. It is primarily the will, the condenscension and the blessing of God. The human person must simply receive this divine gift and 'co-work' accordingly. As the Apostle Paul points out "As we work together with Him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain" (2 Cor 6:1).

At precisely this crucial point we radically distinguish the world of paganism from the godly world of divine Revelation. This means that, if the Incarnation of God really gave the definitive measure and the unique 'key', for the correct understanding and evaluation of the world, this should in no way be perceived as cause for someone to believe that Christ and Christianity 'divide' the world. Neither could humanity before Christ be condemned entirely, as 'ungodly' or as 'impious' paganism. The spirituality, for example of Heraclitus and so many other ancient sages, who almost 'touched upon' crucial truths of divine Revelation, have no relationship whatsoever with the human sensibilities of the twelve gods of the Greeks, nor of course with the analogous forms of Roman barbarity.

Perhaps here we would have to remind ourselves that it is precisely this hidden 'relationship' between the two worlds, that is before Christ and after Christ, that the Christian Church proclaimed from the very beginning. Not only the unity and undivided character of Scripture (as divine Revelation contained in the Old and New Testament), but also the famous theory of the first Christian Apologists regarding the 'spermatic logos'. This same relationship led the Church to scornfully characterise some pre-Christian writers and wise people as 'pagans', while at the same time preserving the teachings of others in manuscript form in the libraries of monasteries (often as palimpsests in which holy writings coexisted with various writings of the pre-Christian world). A most moving sign of this 'coexistence' is the wall paintings of several Naves, even in the Monasteries of Mount Athos (for example the Monastery of Dionysiou), where the chorus of the Prophets are depicted together with distinguished sages of the ancient world.

All the above should not be considered by the reader as irrelevant to the primary topic expressed by the title of this article. On the contrary, all these constitute an essential introduction to the Christian understanding of holiness, and more particularly the 'forthright quality of the Saints'.

The fundamental underpinning in all this introduction is of course the teaching of the Church that the Christian God, remaining in His essence undivided (Trinity unconfused and undivided), is the 'changeless' God, and for this precise reason does not 'regret' His primeval divine will towards the world. This is what the Scriptures verify explicitly: "for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Rom 11:29).

After all this, we are justified in maintaining that it constitutes a sign of unprecedented degradation, or at least tragic misinterpretation, if not gross ingratitude, that some contemporary enlightened Greeks, evidently more 'spellbound' by the humanism of the Enlightenment than by Christian spirituality, propagandise maniacally today, but certainly with great delay(!), about pre-Christian Greece and the Twelve gods of Olympus, in the midst of a Christian Europe, and essentially amidst a universal contemporary Culture.

Following the first part of this article, we must now look into the relationship between the holiness and the forthright nature of the Saints. In order to do so, we must first briefly examine the meaning of the word 'saint' in the vocabulary of the Church, before turning to the meaning of 'forthrightness' as a special characteristic of the Saints!

We will commence with the classic passage from St Paul, which presents the basic distinction between members of the Church and all other fellow human beings. We must however note that the Apostle Paul - although undoubtedly the Founder of Biblical Theology in Christianity - does not 'invent' the distinction of Christians as 'saints'. Being so deeply respectful of Tradition, he adopted the teaching concerning saintliness from the Old Testament.

This is of special significance, as it does not simply highlight the piety and humility of Paul. Above all, it reminds us of two important truths. Firstly, that the 'word of God', like God Himself, is one and undivided, even though it is revealed to us gradually in two phases - the Old and New Testament. Secondly, and not unrelated to the first truth, the 'people of God ' are also one and undivided. They are called by the word of God to form in history the leaven that leavens the whole lump.

A careful reading of St Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians (6: 14-18) allows us to discover these truths. It is not necessary to reproduce that entire passage. It is sufficient to quote the most striking phrases of the passage, which derive from various books of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Isaiah etc.).

The first admonition, with which he commences, is in fact a command, "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Beliar? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?"

While this command may appear to be divisive, it is not given to juxtapose the 'believers' as enemies of the ‘non-believers'. It is given simply in order for the faithful to realize what responsibility and mission they have taken upon themselves - as humble chosen instruments - to edify the non-believers and 'gather' them into the family of God. If they remain undifferentiated, i.e. under the same 'yoke' and the same passions as the unbelievers, who are lawless and sitting in darkness (this is what being "yoked together" means!), they will not in fact help them, but instead make them more audacious. Yet there is another danger, one that is even worse. It is vanity. Today we call it arrogance.

St Paul however does not want them to think that their own virtue makes them 'worthy' for such a superhuman task. In order for them to endure such a distinction and mission, he therefore reminds them that it is the will and promise of God that shall make them His 'living temple', "For you are the temple of the living God".

The temple of God is a separate space, not to underestimate or demote the other spaces outside the Church building, but rather in order to serve and sanctify them. In a similar way, the people of God are 'distinct', but not isolated or cut off from other people.

The command of the Lord to "come out from among them and be separate" means this: even though you are flesh of their flesh, go ahead, become something more. In other words, become for them a point of reference! Another aspect of this duty to remain set apart is the other command that states "touch nothing unclean". Because the unclean item, by very definition, cannot inspire, ennoble or elevate the other. This is why the notion of 'purification' was always closely connected to the meaning of religion. Purification, that is, of the body, but also of the soul and spirit.

Purification essentially achieves in a visible way that which repentance achieves on an invisible and purely spiritual level. It cleanses and rids us of the burden of sins, thereby enabling us to see freely our own weaknesses as well as the grandeur of God. This is why one who is 'purged' and repentant is in practice humbled before God. This is precisely why such a person is accepted as a chosen 'instrument' and 'vessel', for the sake of serving all people.

Instead of leading to arrogance or disparity in relation to the world, we can see that the commandment to be 'set apart' and 'purified' ensures that the recipients are the most appropriate 'material' to help form the world into one family of God. Thus the use of the terms 'chosen people' or 'people of God' in Scripture (which are a stumbling block for certain internationalists and so-called democrats of the modernist enlightenment) have no racist or 'elitist' underpinnings. On the contrary, these terms remind the members of the chosen people not of their privileges, but rather of their obligations! It is similar to the leader of the commandos in any army who does not bring to their attention the possible successes, which may make them proud. He instead points out the duties and dangers that must continually keep them vigilant and alert. And there is nothing more demanding in terms of constant vigilance than to know that you are the 'property' of God, a simple instrument 'in the hands of the living God'.

The 'Saint' of God (either as a people or as an individual), while bearing such a universal mission, and yet being brought out from among similar people, feels like a 'debtor' towards all. St Paul readily expresses the boundaries of this debt when he states, "I have become all things to all men, that 1 might by all means save some" (1 Cor 9:22). The Celebrant expresses exactly the same lack of boundaries during the Divine Eucharist when he exclaims "Your own of Your own we offer You, in all and for all"!

Following all the above, we can more easily appreciate the meaning of this boldness and forthrightness as the characteristic of the Saints par excellence.

The word for forthrightness in Greek (parresia) is a compound term, derived from the terms for 'utterance' (resis) and 'all' (pan). So it means in effect that every utterance, every word, every phrase which could possibly console and edify another, should be 'enlisted' and 'dared'. Both towards God and towards fellow human beings! The Saint must in a certain sense know all languages! And dare to use all languages! To speak with rational beings, just as with the irrational. With the living creatures, just as with the inanimate ones. With the wise, as with the fools. With God and His angels, as well as to the devil and his angels.

The Saints possesses this forthrightness because of their utter humility, which has in a sense become the 'melting pot' of the noble features of the natural person. In addition, Saints are at the same time recipients of the enlightenment of divine Revelation. Only in this way are they able see all things, hear all things, notice all things, imagine all things, hold all things within their souls, so as to sanctify all things.

Within the 'forthrightness' of the Saint, then, are contained all the words (and deeds) which can make wise the human person and save him.

In order to attain the breadth of 'means' which make it possible for the Saint of God to express all things, the long process of "equipping the Saints" as St Paul says (Ephes 4:12) is needed. Yet it is not only the "equipped" person who has the means and the strength to express everything in all directions. It is also the person who is brave at the same time. This is the reason why the word 'forthrightness' also entails the courage and boldness to speak to all people, or to God Himself. The Hymnography of the Orthodox Church therefore makes frequent pleas to the Saints that they "intercede for us" to God, as ones "who have parresia".

from Voice of Orthodoxy, v. 24(7-8), September-October 2002
the official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archbiocese of Australia

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