The theme of the conference as presented, ‘In what way have we Orthodox failed our vocation?’, has already provoked a certain number of negative reactions. A number of people have said to me: ‘It is an irrelevant theme; in no way has Orthodoxy failed.’ This is something that I intend to take as a challenge, because Orthodoxy has remained what it was in Christ and in the early days, but we Orthodox are very far from the image which we see in the Gospel and which is our vocation.
After the Resurrection of Christ and Pentecost, when the disciples, twelve men and a few women, plus a certain number of their own converts, went into the world, they conquered this world, transfiguring and transforming it in an amazing manner. A small handful of people were able to do this because there was something about them which people saw and recognised, and which carried them away. We are now millions of Christians and we are, to a very great extent, irrelevant. We are one of the many, various groups of people of religious, political, philosophical tendencies. But one cannot say that the world which we call the Christian world has given a shape and a true intensity of life to the rest of the world. And I want to take this fact not as a condemnation but as a challenge; a challenge to each of us, to our community and, beyond us, to whoever will hear it.
I discovered God when I was in my middle teens. Before that God did not exist for me. I discovered Him when I did not look for Him. He discovered me, perhaps. I was a youngster, and was approached on the volleyball field by our youth leader, who told me that Lent had come and that a remarkable priest had been invited to speak to us boys. My answer was very unambiguous: ‘I don’t believe in God, I have nothing to do with the Church, the weather is wonderful, volleyball is my God, and I don’t want to go to listen to anyone!’ My leader was wise. He did not tell me that it would be good for my soul, because I would have said I had no soul, but instead he said: ‘Look, can you imagine what Father Sergei Bulgakov will spread throughout Paris about our organisation if none of you boys goes to his talk? I am not asking you to listen, but at least make a bulk, be present.’ So, I decided that in terms of loyalty to our youth organisation I would go. I sat in a corner determined not to listen. But the trouble was that what Father Sergei said was so offensive to me that I began to listen more and more intently.
We were being brought up as the future salvation of our homeland. We were meant to return to Russia if necessary with sword in hand to save it from communism; or, if communism had changed or died, to go back with all the knowledge and experience which we might have gathered from the years in the West in order to help our country. It was a message of courage, of manliness, of sacrifice. But here was a message of meekness, humility, forgiveness – something that seemed to me alien to everything that was our ideal, alien to our longing for the salvation of the Motherland for which we lived and were training ourselves, physically, intellectually and morally.
I listened with an increasing sense of anger and when the talk was over did not return to the volleyball field. I rushed home and asked my mother whether she had a book of the Gospels which I could check, determined that if the Gospel had the same message I had heard, I would tear off my baptismal cross and be finished even with the appearances of being a Christian. I was not a complete fool. I began to count the chapters of the Gospels, discovered that St Mark’s Gospel was the shortest of all, and decided, of course, to read it. I did not realise that I was caught; for St Mark’s Gospel was written for little pagans like me. It was a message given to the Roman youth and was couched in a style that reached me. But it was not the argument that reached me. Between the beginning of the first and the third chapters something happened. While I was reading I suddenly became aware that on the other side of the desk Christ was present. It was not a vision. I saw nothing. I smelt nothing. I heard nothing. But I had the absolute certainty of his real presence on the other side of the desk. I looked for a while and this sense of presence did not vanish. And then I turned, I sat back and thought: ‘If Christ is alive, here, then what the Gospel says about Him must be true.’ And I began to read the Gospel, no longer systematically, and I came across a passage in St Matthew’s Gospel which meant a great deal to me, not only then but throughout the years. It was a passage which says that God shines his sun upon the good and the evil. And I sat and thought: ‘God loves equally the good and the evil. He does not make any distinction between them. If I want to be with God I must learn not to make distinctions…’ And you know, it meant a great deal in my experience, because up to that point life had been extremely difficult for a boy of my generation. There had been hunger and homelessness, but there had been also something worse: rejection. I had learnt by the age of ten to consider that any human being around me was a danger, that life was a jungle populated by wild beasts and the only way of surviving was to become insensitive and as hard as steel. And yet, here was this commandment. I remember saying to myself: ‘I want to be with God, and even if everyone around me is an enemy, whatever they will do to me I will love them, even at the cost of my life.’ I have not lived up to this, but it was the spontaneous, definitive reaction of a boy of fourteen.
The next day, when I came into the street and looked at the crowd that was rushing towards the train I remember thinking: ‘They may hate me, they may do anything they want to me, but I want to be with God and whatever they do I will continue to love them.’ Earlier in my life, I had met an embodiment of this which I had not at the time understood. In one of the early boys’ camps which I had attended when I was ten there was a priest who seemed to be terribly old – he must have been thirty years of age or so – but for a boy of ten he was the Ancient of Days and he had one quality which I could not understand and many of us did not understand. He loved all of us boys equally and his love never wavered. When we were good his love was exulting joy, when we turned bad his love became searing suffering, but it always was the same love – a deep, tender, and yet vigorous without weakness. I did not understand that I had seen then an icon, a living icon of God.
But then I read on in the Gospel, and I found a passage about the Prodigal Son, this boy who had turned away from his father, who had gone away into a strange land, where he did according to his own longings, until one day he was hungry. In the parable he was physically hungry, but it could mean any kind of hunger: emptiness of soul, of heart or of mind. He decided to go back because he remembered that there was no hunger where the father was, and on his way he prepared the confession: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Receive me as one of your hirelings.’ But when he came nearer the father’s house, the father, who had come out so often probably to see whether his boy was coming back, saw him, rushed towards him, and embraced him. And when the boy said the beginning of his confession, the father stopped him before he could say: ‘Accept me as one of your hired men’, because the father knew, and the son discovered, that one can be an unworthy son but never a worthy hirling to one’s father. And I realised that whatever my life had been, there was a father who saw in me a son, and that we could all look at God as that kind of father.
And then, I read the passage in the Gospel which speaks of the Crucifixion and the cry of Christ: ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ and I thought: ‘Here is love! Someone who chooses of his free will to die, but who must, in order to fulfil this intent to die, lose his contact, his unity, with the source of life.’ He must lose God, because in God one cannot die. One can die only in separation. And he accepted what Fr Sophrony has called once, in a conversation with me, a metaphysical swoon: while remaining the Son of God and being the Son of Man, he lost his sense of being at one with God, of being his son. And he died of it, sharing with us the only reason why we die: our loss of God. And I thought: ‘If there is love, that is love. One can give one’s life for a God like this.’ This was my primeval experience, and in spite of the fact that I have been revoltingly unfaithful to my God and to this experience, it has remained the guiding light of my life. I am telling you this because this was a moment when God came into my life. And the result was what? That life had no other meaning than telling others of this experience, not of what I had experienced but of the God I had experienced.
Coming now to the subject of this talk, ‘How we fail our calling’, I want to ask where we are in this respect. I have had a couple of letters saying: ‘Your talk will be unnecessary. We are perfectly happy in the Church. We have services. We worship. We feel at home with God. What else?’ What else! What Christ said to his disciples: ‘I send you as sheep among the wolves. I am sending you into all the world to bring the Good News’, not to enjoy it but to share it. And sharing is not an easy experience. For years I felt that this experience of mine when I was fourteen was so precious that I should not allow anyone to touch it, to come near it. I created a walled garden into which I could walk and be with God and with the experience; a garden from which everyone was excluded, until years later when I became a priest in this country.
I was invited to speak in Kensington Town Hall at an open meeting. It was a discussion between two believers and two atheists; two or three of us had spoken. I had kept quiet because my English was very halting and I created more mirth than enlightenment when I opened my mouth. When the three had spoken a workman in blue overalls who was sitting at the back of the hall got up and said: ‘I can’t understand a word of what has been said. I want to ask the man over there, who is dressed like no one, in a black robe: “Why does he believe in God?”’. At that moment I felt I had an absolute and decisive choice to make. I could say: ‘Because I have read the Gospel and I have found so many convincing passages that I could quote to you’, which he had probably heard in Sunday worship in his church whatever his denomination; or I could say ‘This is what happened.’ But I felt that if I said that I would open the walled garden and it would be laid waste and nothing would be left of my intimacy with God. And I said: ‘God, lay me waste, but give it to this man.’ So, I told all the people, but this man in particular, what had happened. I do not know what happened to him, but it was the only time that I had broken through the walls. I feel that this is what we are all called to. There is a passage in the Gospel which says: ‘It is not the people who have called me “Lord, Lord” who will enter the kingdom of God. I will say: “Where have you been? What have you been? What have you done?” And my answer will be: “No, you have not been my disciples because you have not done what I came for.”’ Christ came to bring new life into the world, to bring not a philosophical message, not a theology, not a new world outlook, but to present the world with new creatures. And their message was far beyond the words spoken.
There is a passage in one of the books by C.S. Lewis in which he says: ‘When an unbeliever meets believers he should look at them and say: “What is happening? These statues have become living human beings.”‘ You know what a statue may be – a statue may be of supreme beauty but it is still nothing but stone or wood. A human being may be unattractive in more than one way and yet, if he is a believer, if there is in him communion with God, if he is the temple of the Holy Spirit, people can look and listen and say: ‘We have seen something we had not seen before.’ You remember the passage in St John’s Gospel in which we are told that Christ had spoken words that troubled the minds of so many people. And when they left, and he turned to the disciples and said: ‘Will you also go?’ Peter, speaking for all of them, said: ‘Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ But if you look at the Gospel there is not one passage in which Christ describes eternal life. The words that Christ spoke were words that reached the very depths of their souls and awoke them, brought to life the eternal life which God had put at the very root of their being. When he spoke it was the eternal life dormant in them, or if you prefer, Christ in the tomb, that rose again; and they became new creatures, different creatures, and therefore what shone out of them had convincing power and could be believed. Their message was not couched in philosophical terms, in theological terms, in terms of worldly wisdom. It was extraordinarily simple, primitive in form, but it was spoken by people who were a proof that life eternal had come and was within them. They were sharing it and sharing it at a cost. We do not share, so we do not bear the burden of the cost. We speak to like-minded people, to correct minor theological errors. But do we go to people at the cost of our lives?
The early martyrs convinced their tormentors, by the way in which they gave themselves unto death as a testimony, that they believed in Christ and in life eternal. I am not saying that we are in a position to give our lives in that sense, but do we give our lives at all to anyone? I quoted a few days ago the case of a woman who during one of the Roman persecutions was seen running towards the circus by a friend who was a pagan. He stopped her and said: ‘Where are you going? Don’t you know that in the circus they are killing the Christians? Where are you going with your little boy of six whom you drag by the hand? If you want to die, at least save the boy!’ And the mother said, ‘What? Shall I deprive him of the glory of dying for God?’ And the child was taken with her to the circus and died, a martyr.
We are not asked to do any such thing, but I remember one person who was speaking of a number of people around her who were unbelievers, in distress, unable to find their way. And I said: ‘Why don’t you speak of your faith? Share it with these people who are in agony.’ And the answer was, ‘Oh no! I couldn’t possibly do that. I don’t want anyone to know of the secret of my life with God.’ And so this person allowed other people around to remain dead, entombed, rather than break the walls of the secret garden. What I am saying is addressed to myself, because I hesitate at times to open my heart at the risk of having my whole life laid waste. But I address it to you also because I have no doubt that it applies also to you. As a priest in this parish for fifty years, I have travelled throughout the country speaking to people and I know their reactions: ‘Don’t stir up what is within us, don’t expose us. We want our peace with God.’
And what have we done with our worship? We come to church, we enjoy the services, we love the music, we admire what is being done. Is that the end? Is the church a theatre to which we come to enjoy ourselves, to be inspired, elated, go home on a high? It is not. The Church is understood in theological terms as the meeting-place between God and man. The Church is a mystery of their encounter in communion, but it is also the place where the God who became a man in order to die for the salvation of the world says to us: ‘And now, go into the world and bring the Good News. If you have received something which is inspiration, joy, hope, newness of life, bring it to those who have not got it, who need it, who are desperate without knowing why they are; who are hungry and are not being given food.’ At the end of the Roman Catholic mass the priest says: ‘Ite, missa est’ – a ‘Go, this is the dismissal.’ It doesn’t mean: ‘You can go home now, you are free.’ The congregation answers to that: ‘Thanks be to God’, but not in the sense of, ‘Ah! It’s over!’ but, ‘We thank God for sending us out.’ A French writer in a remarkable book called, Les saints vont en inferne, (The Saints Go to Hell), translates this passage (though wrongly from the Latin point of view), ‘Go! Here begins your mission.’ If the Liturgy has had any sense to us it is because we have communed with the God who came into the world for its salvation, and if we go home simply to enjoy the experience or to enjoy our meal with the family, we are betraying, we have wasted God’s time while we were there.
On another level we must realise that the Church is not what we make of it: a place of refuge. We run into the church when we are in need, when we are in misery. We come to God for Him to protect us, help us, support us: when a joyful event – Baptism, a marriage – occurs we rush there for Him to add His divine contribution to our human offering. We expect God always to be the One who adds and adds, and gives and gives and gives. But what do we bring into the world of what we have received? I am speaking of myself and of you: it applies to all of us individually but also collectively, as a group of people. The Liturgy is an act of the whole Church. But what we often see in an Orthodox church is people who do not understand what is going on, who have never made the effort to look into the text and try to understand what it conveys to them. It is not people who, coming to church, have blocked out all alien thoughts allowing the mind of Christ and the voice of the Holy Spirit to
resound in them.
And again, we may come to church and be moved by what is not in it at all. To take a flippant example, I remember an old woman who said: ‘It is so wonderful in the Orthodox Church, even the animals are being remembered.’ And then the question was asked: ‘What do you mean by animals?’ She replied: ‘Oh yes, at vespers we sing “Gospodi vozvach tebe…iako kadilo pred toboiou” (Lord I have cried unto Thee, hear me; let my prayer ascend to you like incense)’ and the Russian ‘iako kadilo pred toboiou’ she understood as ‘ia krokodilo pred toboiou’ (I am a crocodile before your eyes!) And she found it an inspiration! It was the summit of what vespers had to convey. She was a crocodile, and the crocodile was the image of this elan to God! Well, this is perhaps a very extreme example, but couldn’t any one of us find examples of things that inspire us wrongly in the action, or in the music, or in one way or another?
And then again, we come to church late because it is convenient to us. Think of us coming to the Lord’s Supper and saying in advance to Christ: ‘Lord, I know that it will last quite a time. You will make a long discourse and you will have silly questions from the other disciples. So, I shall come for the meal.’ That is what we do when we come late and we want to receive communion. The others have done their listening and their talking, and Christ has done his talking, but now I have come to the meal. It is very realistic; it applies to all of us to one degree or another. Again, do we concentrate? I remember two Russian ladies from my mother’s generation who got up at an Annual General Meeting and said: ‘Father Anthony, since you have become our parish priest it is impossible for grown up people to worship in complete recollection. Children are crawling about, making noises, distracting and disturbing us.’ I said: ‘Yes, I never throught of that. I give you my word of honour that not one child will produce the slightest sound or move from his place, from the first day when you both will come to me after a service and say, “Father Anthony, I have not had one idle thought during the service”, because your idle thoughts are an insult to God, while the crawling of the children and the cries of the babies are not an insult.’ Well, let us ask ourselves, each of us: ‘How much do we listen when we are at the service’? ‘How much are we at one with the service’? ‘Do we concentrate on moments of the service that apply to us’? When we pray for the salvation of the world we think: ‘God will look after that’, but at the point when the service says: ‘Protect us, save us, have mercy upon us’ how much more fervently we say: ‘Oh yes, do, do, don’t forget!’ There are many such instances.
We often come to church as individuals. An individual is a fragment of humanity, a point beyond which humanity cannot be further divided because if you divide the elements of the individual you get a corpse and a soul. So, the individual is what is left of dividedness, and we are individuals in the church to the extent to which we are alienated from one another, separated from God and broken up within ourselves. We come, we buy a candle, we go to an icon, we talk to one saint or another whom we like particularly for a reason or without any reason. We stand and listen to what is relevant to us. We are unaware of the fact that the Liturgy is the common action of the whole Church, of all the people present. It is not only in the sanctuary, but in the total church, that it happens. The deacon is a layman sent into the sanctuary to represent us and to guide our prayer. It is for this reason that he says: ‘Let us pray to the Lord’, not ‘You pray to the Lord.’ But the deacon also may be beguiled by outer qualities. I remember a deacon in Russia who came out and sang a litany as though it was a concert. When he came back I said: ‘Stop that howling – pray!’ He said: Tm sorry, Vladyka, I’m sorry. I am a singer of the Opera. I bring the best I can to the Church.’ That is not what he was supposed to bring. He was meant to bring prayer, not a performance. But even when our deacons do not do this, are we aware that each and every word that they pronounce is our prayer which is brought out of us and expressed by one voice to God?
Let me now turn to the priests. Since I am a priest myself I can be critical. The priest so often imagines that having received education, having received ordination, he possesses all the gifts of the Spirit and can be a teacher and a spiritual guide. I spoke once with the priesthood of the Academy in Zagorsk, and a young man got up and said: ‘I can’t accept what you say about the priest. I have been ordained a priest. I am a living icon of Christ.’ I asked him whether he knew what an icon is. And he said: ‘Well, yes. It is a holy image.’ And I said: ‘An icon begins by being a piece of wood that becomes a board. After that it is prepared and only then is the holy image painted on it. It becomes an icon when it is consecrated and when people looking at it they no longer see it but they see the one it represents. St John Chrysostom tells us: “If you want to pray, take your stand before an icon and shut your eyes.” Because an icon is an open window Godwards and to the saints. As long as you have not become this you are just a painted board, and not an icon of Christ.’ I do not know whether the particular priest appreciated my opinion; but I know that what I said applies to each of us priests.
Let me give you another example. When I wanted to learn something about preaching I discovered a book of sermons published at his own expense by a Russian priest in China. Among the sermons – as it was that time of the year – I read the sermon of the Last Judgement. And the sermon read: ‘My dear brothers and sisters, my children in God, when I was reading to you this passage of the Gospel I saw you preening yourselves when Christ spoke of the sheep, feeling that you are the sheep of the flock of Christ, and paying no attention to what was said about the goats. It proves, my dear ones, that you have never lived in a village. You would then know that the sheep is the dirtiest, the greediest, the most stupid of animals, and this is why I am appointed here to be your shepherd!’ Now, there are few priests who will dare to say this to their congregation, but there are not so few priests, among the young particularly, who feel there is truth in it and who would say: ‘I have a theological education; they have not had it. I have the sacrament of ordination; they have not got it. I am clothed in liturgical vestments; I am a living icon.’ Well, we must reflect on it, us priests! But not only the priests. Because if the congregation looked at their priests realistically, saw in them frail creatures that were standing at a place where God alone can stand, they would have compassion and support.
I remember a young priest who was to celebrate the Liturgy. He took his stand in front of the Holy Table, and then terror fell upon him. He felt: ‘I cannot do it, only God can do this. I will be consumed!’ And he said: ‘Lord, I will go away; I cannot celebrate.’ And at that moment he felt that someone had walked between the Holy Table and him. He had to step back. Throughout the Liturgy he said the words and made the gestures, but he knew there was One standing there who was the celebrant, the only one who can celebrate the Holy Mysteries: Christ, who died and rose, and the Holy Spirit whom He has given to the Church. That is what we should feel as priests, but this is also what you, lay people, should feel about priests. They stand where only God can stand.
We have in the Old Testament an example that does not apply to the priests but to the kings. When Samuel was growing old the Israelites turned to him and said: ‘We do not see anyone who could succeed you. Your sons are not up to it. Give us a king so that we should be like every other nation, not running the risk of being without a guide and depending on divine guidance but having the security of worldly guidance.’ And Samuel turned to God and said: ‘Lord, they have rejected me. What shall I do?’ And God answered him: ‘They have not rejected you. They have rejected me. Give them the king they want but warn them of what it will mean.’ And the first king that was selected was Saul. He stood where only a prophet could stand (not God, but a prophet) and he could not face it and went mad. Any priest who imagines that he has the right to stand at Christ’s place is in the same danger and the congregation must be aware of this danger and support him and teach him the glory and the humility that his position entails. Otherwise, he is lost.
I am not going to get into the categories of the evildoers, like the bishops, but I will only say that so often a bishop feels that he is the superior, the commander of the army, and he forgets that Christ said: ‘If anyone among you wishes to be first, let him be last’. No one can stand on a pinnacle in the Church; only Christ can stand there. The bishop should be the servant of every priest, of every deacon, of every layperson, and it is only then that he fulfils his vocation. Otherwise he is condemned and lost. But you also have a role to play in it, in the sense that if you treat a bishop or a priest in such a way that you make him feel that he is a being of another world, of another rank and type, you may make him imagine that it is true. I have said more than once to priests and to bishops: ‘Know who you are. You are a servant, nothing more. And when people surround you with veneration, which applies to your clothes and not to you, stop them! Stop them because you may be perverted by hearing compliments and expressions of admiration and worship.’ It is important; you have a responsibility, all of you, for your bishop, for your priest, for your deacon, for anyone who is in a position of service in the Church and may confuse it with a position of authority.
Then, there are other aspects of the life of the Church which I would like to mention briefly. I spoke some time ago to Father Ian Hammett who was a parishioner of ours and is now a priest in America. He sent me a letter in which he said that the danger he sees for the Church is first of all ethnicity, the sense that it is our nation, our nationality, our kind, that is really the Church. I remember an instance of this when I was accosted on Victoria Station by a porter. He had seen my cross and said: ‘Are you an Orthodox priest?’ I replied positively and he immediately asked me whether I was Greek. I replied that I was Russian. He said: ‘No. That is not possible. If you are Orthodox you must be Greek.’
Another example was that of an archimandrite serving in Glasgow, who spoke to a Russian, or a member of the Russian Church. When this person mentioned the Russian Orthodox believers in Russia, the archimandrite exclaimed: ‘No. There are no Russian Orthodox believers in our country. We only have a small groups of Greeks who are Orthodox and the rest are atheists!’ That was an archimandrite! And that is ethnicity! And indeed, it applies to all nations, to all types of all colours.
Racism is also a problem. In our church, thanks be to God, we do not make distinctions between people of one colour or another, but I know another congregation which, in effect, expelled a black family by the way in which they treated them. They were Orthodox, but they were black. No space was left for them.
There is also historicity: the fact that we look to the past to resolve all the problems of the present, forgetting that in the past these problems were problems contemporary to them. And this is a very important point about our understanding of Tradition. Tradition is the living memory of the Church. It is not an antiquarian’s library. We must go back to what the Church has experienced and known, but we cannot apply today what the Church has done then. Theological thought has developed but we must be careful not to try to apply today what was true yesterday. There is a canon, for instance, that forbids the Orthodox to pray with heretics. This is applied nowadays very widely by certain groups of Orthodox – the Old Believers – and yet, this canon was established when heresy was crucial for the survival of the Church. If you were Orthodox you could not commune with people of the groups that denied either the divinity or the humanity of Christ. But the situation is not the same today.
To sum up, are we people who gather in church in the joy of meeting one another because we are all disciples of Christ, or do we come privately? Does this congregation in church form a living body that celebrates the Liturgy, or a broken-up humanity of individuals who wait for something to happen to them from the sanctuary? Do we love one another? Sentimentally, we love those whom we like. But are we prepared to accept a difficult person, an unbearable person? I remember one member of the old generation coming up to me and saying: ‘Father Anthony, how long are we going to endure so-and-so in church? Can you not throw this woman out? She prevents us from praying in peace.’ And I said: ‘Well, be patient for a little while. She will gradually calm down and change.’ ‘And how long shall I wait?’ I said: ‘It will be difficult the first twenty-five years.’ And I was proved right. After twenty-five years life became a great deal easier. But we must be prepared for that; we must be ready for it. Yes, Christ did come to save this unbearable person. If everyone was as saintly and wonderful a creature as I am or you are, there would be no point in Christ’s Incarnation and death upon the Cross. Christ came for that person and not for me, if I feel I am so wonderful!
These are the points I wanted to make when I gave the title, ‘Where have we Orthodox failed our calling?’ Other denominations face similar problems but I am addressing the question to myself, to each one of you and to all our people: where do we stand? Can we say that this is not a challenge? Can we say that we are happy? Can we forget that in a world from which Christ has been excluded, a world that has been betrayed into the hands of the enemy, the churches which we build are not places of refuge only for us; they have become places of refuge for God expelled out of the world. He is our guest; we are his hosts and this guest gives us what no one else can give. We must respond by worshiping Him worthily and by going out into the world to bring Him to everyone, not in terms of polemics, not in terms of proselytism, not in terms of confrontation, but in sharing the wonder, the happiness, the marvel of having met God face to face and having become new. And if we are aware that we have not become new then we must start all over again!