• The Relevance and Importance of Tradition

  • Acquiring the Mind of the Fathers

  • Orthodoxy is a “Living Transmission” Not Scholarship

  • An Example of “Living Transmission” in Archbishop Averky


The Relevance and Importance of Tradition

Some time after Archbishop John's repose, Eugene wrote a passage that indicated what the Archbishop represented in his life. Not wishing to exalt himself in print, Eugene wrote of himself in the third person, calling himself a “young Western convert.” He began this passage by telling of a sermon he heard at the Convent of the Vladimir Mother of God in San Francisco. The Superior of the convent, Abbess Ariadna, was a venerator of Archbishop John, having known him when he was still in Shanghai.

“Not too many years ago,” Eugene wrote, “the Abbess of a convent of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, a woman of righteous life, was delivering a sermon in the convent church on the Feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God. With tears she entreated her nuns and the pilgrims who had come for the feast to accept entirely and wholeheartedly what the Church hands down to us, taking such pains to preserve this tradition sacredly all these centuries – and not to choose for oneself what is 'important' and what is 'dispensable'; for by thinking oneself wiser that the tradition, one may end by losing the tradition. Thus, when the Church tells us in her hymns and icons that the Apostles were miraculously gathered from the ends of the earth in order to be present at the repose and burial of the Mother of God, we as Orthodox Christians are not free to deny this or reinterpret it, but must believe as the Chrch hands down to us, with simplicity of heart.

“A young Western convert who had learned Russian was present when this sermon was delivered. He himself had though about this very subject, having seen icons in the traditional icongraphic style depicting the Apostles being transported on clouds to behold the Dormition of the Theotokos; and he had asked himself the question: are we actually to understand this 'literally,' as a miraculou event, or is it a 'poetic' way of expressing the coming together of the Apostles for this event... or perhaps even an imaginative or 'ideal' depiction of an event that never occurred in fact? (Such, indeed, are some of the questions with which 'Orthodox theologians' occupy themselves in our days.) The words of the righteous Abbess therefore struck him to the heart, and he understood that there was something deeper to the reception and understanding of Orthodoxy that what our own mind and feelings tell us. In that instant the tradition was being handed down to him, not from books but from a living vessel which contained it; and it had to be received, not with the mind or feelings only, but above all with the heart, which in this way began to receive its deeper training in Orthodoxy.

“Latter this young convert encountered, in person or through reading, many people who were learned in Orthodoxy theology. They were the 'theologians' of our day, those who had been to Orthodox schools and had become theological 'experts.' They were usually quite eager to speak on what was Orthodox and what was non-Orthodox, what was important and what was secondary in Orthodoxy itself; and a number of them prided themselves on being 'conservatives' or 'traditionalists' in faith. But in none of them did he sense the authority of the simple Abbess who had spoken to his heart, unlearned as she was in 'theology.'

“And the heart of this convert, still taking his baby steps in Orthodoxy, longed to know how to believe, which means also whom to believe. He was too much a person of his times and his own upbringing to be able simply to deny his own reasoning power and believe blindly everything he was told; and it is very evident that Orthodoxy does not at all demand this of one – the very writings of the Holy Fathers are a living memorial of the working of human reason enlightened by the grace of God. But it was also obvious that there was something very much lacking in the 'theologians' of our day, who for all their logic and their knowledge of Patristic texts, did not convey the feeling or savor of Orthodoxy as well as simple, theologically uneducated Abbess.

“Our convert found the end of his search – the search for contact with the true and living tradition of Orthodoxy – in Archbishop John Maximovitch. For here he found someone who was a learned theologian in the 'old' school and at the same time was very much aware of all the criticisms of that theology which have been made by the theological critics of our century, and was able to use his keen intelligence to find the truth where it might be disputed. But he also possessed something which none of the wise 'theologians' of our time seems to possess: the same simplicity and authority which the pious Abbess had conveyed to the heart of the young God-seeker. His heart and mind were won: not because Archbishop John became for him an 'infallible expert' – for the Church of Christ does not know any such thing – but because he saw in this holy archpastor a model of Orthodoxy, a true theologian whose theology proceeded from a holy life and from total rootedness in Orthodox tradition. When he spoke, his words could be trusted – although he carefully distinguished between the Church's teaching, which is certain, and his own personal opinions, which might be mistaken, and he bound no one to the latter. And our young convert discovered that, for all of Archbishop John's intellectual keenness and critical ability, his words much more often agreed with those of the simple Abbess than with those of the learned theologians of our time.” (p. 201-202)


Acquiring the Mind of the Fathers

This comes over years by attentive reading of the Holy Fathers with a notebook, writing down those passages which seem most significant to us, studying them, finding how they apply to us, and, if need be, revising earlier views of them as we get a little deeper into them, finding what one Father says about something, what a second Father says about the same thing, and so on. There is no encyclopedia that will give you that. You cannot decide you want to find all about some one subject and begin reading the Holy Fathers. There are a few indexes in the writings of the Fathers, but you cannot simply go to a spiritual life in that way. You have to go at it a bit at a time, taking the teaching in as you are able to absorb it, going back over the same texts in later years, reabsorbing them, getting more, and gradually coming to find out how these spiritual texts apply to you. As a person does that, he discovers that every time he reads the same Holy Father he finds new things. He always goes deeper into it[...] (p. 457)


“The right approach [into the mind of the Fathers],” wrote Fr. Seraphim, “is found in the heart which tries to humble itself and simply knows that it is suffering, and that there somehow exists a higher truth which can not only help this suffering, but can bring it into a totally different dimension.” In the words of St. Mark the Ascetic: “Remembrance of God is pain of heart endured in the spirit of devotion. But he who forgets God becomes self-indulgent and insensitive.” This became the favorite Patristic quotation of Fr. Herman, who was later to say that he had learned the true meaning of pain of heart by being with and observing Fr. Seraphim. (p. 461)


“A man who does not express desire to link himself to the latest of the saints (in time) in all love and humility owing to a certain distrust of himself, will never be linked with the preceding saints and will not be admitted to their succession, even though he thinks he possesses all possible faith and love for God and for all His saints. He will be cast out of their midst, as one who refused to take humbly the place alloted to him by God before all time, and to link himself to that latest saint (in time) as God had disposed.” St. Symeon the New Theologian (Writings From the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart p. 135) quoted on p. 464


Orthodoxy is a “Living Transmission” Not Scholarship

As Fr. Seraphim stated, Fr. Schmemann was paving the way for a rootless Orthodoxy for new generations of Americans who “will not even know what they have lost.” He was seeking to build American Orthodoxy on the autonomous “theology” of modern scholars rather than on a living transmission of spiritual wisdom from holy bearers of the tradition. Fr. Seraphim knew from experience how vital that transmission was: without it he would never have entered the “heart of hearts,” the deeper dimension of Orthodox life for which it was worth giving up “all that is in the world.” Once this transmission was lost, it could not be restored.

As a case in point, not twenty miles from [Fr. Schmemann's] home in New York live Fr. Adrian, that link with the Optina Elders and a clairvoyant spiritual guide himself, who was very open-minded with regard to thinkers like Fr. Schmemann. Although Fr. Schmemann knew about him, he chose to receive his wisdom from modern institutes instead. (p. 471)


An Example of “Living Transmission” in Archbishop Averky

After Archbishop John's death, Fr. Seraphim's own guide to the Holy Fathers had been Archbishop Averky, to whom Archbishop John had once told the brothers to turn whenever they had questions. “Archbishop Averky,” Fr. Seraphim wrote, “is in the genuine Patristic tradition as few other living Orthodox fathers. A disciple of the great 20th -century theologian and holy hierarch, Archbishop Theophan of Poltava, Archbishop Averky is a bearer and transmitter, in a direct and unbroken line of Orthodox theologians, of the genuine patristic doctrine which is in danger of being eclipsed by today's generation of Western-educated proud 'young-theologians.' In recent years his voice has resounded and thundered as never before... as he strives to give the true Orthodox teaching to Orthodox Christians who are rapidly losing the salt of Orthodoxy.” (p. 472)



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