On Believing Simply

Hieromonk Seraphim Rose 1934-1982

Not too many years ago the Abbess of a con­vent of the Rus­sian Ort­ho­dox Church, 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 than 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 Church hands it 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 thought about this very sub­ject, having seen icons in the tra­di­tio­nal ico­no­grap­hic 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 mira­culous event, or is it only 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 than 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 mind or fee­lings only, but above all with the heart, which in this way began to receive its dee­per trai­ning in Orthodoxy.

Later this young con­vert enco­un­te­red, in per­son or through rea­ding, many people who were lear­ned in Ort­ho­dox the­o­logy. They were the “the­o­lo­gi­ans” of our day, those who had been to Ort­ho­dox schools and become the­o­lo­gi­cal “experts.” They were usu­ally quite eager to speak on what was Ort­ho­dox and what non-Orthodox, what was important and what 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 such “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 a simple, theologically-uneducated Abbess. (Introduction to the Orthodox Veneration of Mary the Birth-Giver of God by St. John Maximovitch)

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