Below is an interview by Prof. Nikos Kokosalakis with Fr. Nikolaos Hatzinikolaou, who is now Metropolitan Nicholas of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki, but who was then living as a monk and teaching science. The interview was published in Religione e Societa on March 15, 1996. More about Metropolitan Nicholas and his extensive scientific background can be read here.
N.K. I am grateful to you, Father Nikolaos, that you kindly accepted to talk with me on the theme "Orthodoxy and Modern Life". Your vocation as a monk, living and serving a spiritual ministry at this outpost of Mount Athos, here in the middle of Athens, and your training in the natural sciences makes an excellent combination for a view of Orthodoxy from a deep personal experience and a scientific perspective. Your views, therefore, will be of great interest to the readers of the journal Religioni e Societa.
Let's start with the topic of the spiritual dimension of Orthodoxy. More specifically, could you elaborate on Orthodox spirituality as a way of life, as an experience and its compatibility with contemporary everyday life and social reality?
Fr. N.H. As you were posing your question, I thought what other dimension could Orthodoxy have but a spiritual one? I realized, however, that the question is essential, especially when it is based on purely scholastic or scientifc grounds. Orthodoxy can also have a social as well as a psychological dimension. That is, how Orthodoxy affects social relations and human feelings. The spiritual dimension is the dimension of its essence; the others of its consequences.
I should start from two concepts: the way of life and experience. Orthodoxy as a way of life is basically neither an intellectual achievement, nor a sentimental experience aiming at making us feel well; but it is the inner sense of the mystical presence of God and His grace in one's life. Everything that makes God remote, improbable, questionable, vague or false is a sin.
On the contrary, the Orthodox faith and way of thinking makes God proximate, real, clear and true, easy to reach, not a fantasy but tangible, not an abstract idea but a real person.
Therefore, in the heart of Orthodox spirituality lies the growth of an authentic faith and genuine Orthodox way of thinking, resulting in a true spiritual life. Orthodox spirituality constitutes the life's journey towards our reconciliation with God, in such a way that Cod consciously becomes the very center of every breath and action of ours. This journey starts with a pure yearning to approach God and is gradually being transformed into faith, which through humility, leads to the experience of the grace of God; and finally come the fruits of the Holy Spirit, that is, a holy life; a holy life which is not a human achievement aiming at making us “good people” and feeling well, but a holy life granted to us as a gift from God, thus expressing more his love to us than ours to Him. His love is godly; ours is human. A holy life is more an expression and manifestation of God's power than an evidence of man's ability.
N.K. It seems that spiritual experience in Orthodox tradition has a purely theocentric dimension. In other words, the idea that permeates Orthodox spirituality is the experience of reality and transcendence of God.
Fr. N.H. Certainly. These are expressed in the name of God: YAHWEH, that is, THE ONE WHO IS BEING is God's. We are partakers of God's BEING. Therefore, everything, even our spiritual desire, is more a fulfilment of His longing to commune with us than an expression of our need to commune with Him. This is only understood if one humbles himself. And this is why Orthodoxy means humility. Anything that hurts our sense of humbleness inside us and before God is not Orthodox, even if it is included in the ways or forms through which the Orthodox Church expresses itself and functions.
Thus, humility and man's sense of the presence of God is in absolute harmony with the simultaneous longing for the revelation of His love to us. In this sense, someone who lives humbly and truly longs for God and anticipates His love in his life, may live in the 20th century as well as in the 30th or the 15th century. In other words, it is the spiritual dimension, and not the social or psychological one, that makes Orthodoxy everlasting.
However, since there is also a social dimension, we can certainly comment on the functioning of Orthodoxy within contemporary reality, as the forms, expressions and problems change according to the times.
N.K. At this point, Father Nikolaos, I would like you to link the second part of my question. How compatible is the spiritual dimension of Orthodoxy with contemporary social reality? We live in a secular society where the emphasis is on the material and economic factors. How can one be a good Christian, in a spiritually impoverished age in the circumstances of today's Athens or today's Rome?
Fr. N.H. From an ethical point of view, today's Rome is the same as the old one. Undoubtedly, today's Rome is characterized by materialism and secularization, elements which were almost non-existent in the past; however, there is something hidden behind these two elements which remains intact through time; and this is sin. Its expressions and manifestations constantly change, but its essense stays the same.
Despite all these, we could say that the spirit of our times is not compatible with what we just said. There is an explicit discord between the spirit of God and the social climate of our era. And I don't only mean the mentality of the conflicts, the disagreements, the selfishness, the drugs or the sins of the flesh, so widely spread in our days; but mainly the deterioration of the social morals, the degeneration of institutions, the disorientation of principles, the bad quality of the criteria, elements that in some instances have imbued even the structure of the Church's body and religious organizations. Of course, God and the Holy Spirit have nothing to do with all this. This is the world of apostasy which existed in the past under various forms, but today is widely spread and unpredictably powerful. Can the word of the Cross and the logic of the Resurrection be possibly related to the mentality of the ephemeral and selfishness?
Although the spirit of the world cannot be in accordance with the spirit of God and the spirit of Orthodoxy, it is possible for someone to experience the grace of God in this world; certainly, not by extracting all these elements of spiritual perversion. One can participate in the social dimension of the world, meet the demands of his profession and may conform to the prevailing social forms and shapes, and at the same time have a different way of thinking and attitude altogether towards life. To materiality, he does not respond with materialism, neither to logic with rationalism. To the mentality of human ego, he proposes in return the reality of the true God. The Orthodox Christian is “in the world” but not “of the world.” He rejects anything that has to do with sin and alienates him from God.
Orthodoxy is saying the same thing for the past 2,000 years: Humble yourself, see God as real and then you will experience Him as true. In our days, our ego functions in a different way. The higher education of people leads to greater arrogance.
In the old days, when people fell ill, they used to take oil from the oil lamp of the holy icons and apply it to their body and along with their prayer, they were waiting to be cured. Today, we first think of the doctor, the medicines, the antibiotics.
In the past, people's homes were full of icons, holy water and other holy items. Now, even in the cells of monks you can find medicines, prescriptions and doctors' telephone numbers.
In the older days, in periods of drought, people prayed to God or had a litany to ask for rain; and God always answered back. Their lives were God-dependent. Today, when it is not raining, we seek information through the weather report and the satellites. But satellites do not respond with solutions, instead they disappoint us with explanations. Our lives are man-dependent.
Our hope is directed towards human achievement, which can be terribly impressive regarding its influence on the quality of our material life, but is a total failure when it comes to man's happiness. Material prosperity and biological health are accompanied by poverty of principles and spiritual stagnation. Blindly neglecting the causes, we try to improve the outcome. As a result, less and less people are happy. Life ends up being like a chain, every link of which could be called “success,” but its final name is “failure.” The inheritance of anxiety and the unprecedented illness of social relationships consist of an indisputable characteristic of contemporary societies.
The Church is saying: Let's put God in our life, let's trust in the presence of His love, let's lean our expectations and hopes on Him, and He will respond to everything: our deeper existential quests, our family or health problems, our daily needs.
N.K. I would like to say that it seems the mission of Orthodoxy is very difficult today due to the circumstances you just described. Is it then “a voice in the wilderness?”
Fr. N.H. I believe it always has been and still is. During the times of the Apostles, the word of God was also “a voice in the wilderness” of atheism, and so was the voice of the martyrs in the wilderness of paganism, and the voice of the ascetics in the wilderness of rationalism. However, the grace of God abides in these wildernesses. “Where sin abounds, grace is in excess” (1 Tim 1:14). The grace of God overflows the desert of sin, of history, of this perishable world. And since in the center of the world and its events lies God, the criterion of good and evil is not the human perception of things, but the grace of God itself. So, divine grace can also function in the desert of our era. Through our logic, we understand its difficulty, but through our faith, we ascertain its functioning. This is what Orthodoxy is basically doing; it preserves the grace of God in this world. It makes all of us long for that; more than the birth of our child, the accomplishment of our academic or financial goals, we long for and enjoy the experience of God's grace in our life.
N.K. From your experience as a spiritual father, do you have any indications of the functioning of God's grace in our days?
Fr. N.H. Here in Athens, I experience a very moving reality. Most of the people who approach me are not practicing Christians. However, when their lives at some point reach an impasse, they turn to God. So, they come here, either for advice, or discussion of their problems, or, fewer, being in a complete state of repentance.
I believe, that here in Greece, the seed of faith is very widely spread. Even an atheist Greek has faith deeply rooted in him. What I am trying to do every time someone comes to me is to stimulate the growth of that seed, so he can gradually find God on his own. I say a few words in the beginning to give the initial push. I am impressed that in our times it is quite easy for someone to turn to God, but it is very hard to follow Him. That is to say, christian life has become very difficult, because society itself has imposed on people a certain mentality and lifestyle which create an atmosphere very different from the one of the Church; an atmosphere that constantly disappoints man and betrays itself. So, people become disillusioned and, having nowhere else to turn to, they easily turn to God. They make the first step, but find it difficult to proceed.
N.K. So, there is an existential quest and turn towards God, but its fulfilment is not so easy due to the practical difficulties?
Fr. N.H. Difficulties do not really exist, but it is the wrong attitude that makes the easy difficult, the self-evident hard to understand, as the criteria of good and evil have changed today. People understand the truth; this means that the seed exists in them. But, when they have lived for years in a different way, when their environment is set against christian life, it becomes a mere torture to end up wanting something they believe they can't achieve. The solution is to humble ourselves and let God do what we are unable to.
At this point, there is a difference between East and West. Orthodoxy does not make good people. Her goal is not ethical perfection, but God's revelation in our lives. Ethical perfection is the fruit, the natural result of the functioning of God's grace in our lives. The aim of spiritual struggle is not victory, but humility and death. The grace of God is neither an achievement nor an accomplishment. If it were, then man would be entitled to brag about it. It is a gift; a gift that humbles the soul and is granted to us as an experience. In the fraction of everyone's life, it seems that God is the numerator and man the denominator. As the denominator’s value decreases and the numerator’s increases, the fraction as a whole acquires a greater value.
N.K. Still within the theme of Orthodoxy as practical life, could you tell us something about Orthodox worship and contemporary social reality. Can Orthodox liturgical life recapture the sense and the reality of community which we seem to have lost? Can the Orthodox Eucharist performed in the Church have a practical impact on the outside world?
Fr. N.H. Holy Eucharist is also called Holy Communion. And communion means exodus from the enslavement of our ego and partaking in the energies of God, in the works of God, and in the images of God. We cannot encounter God in the mystery of Holy Communion, unless we find Him in His images, our fellowmen, our brothers. It is very impressive that, in Greek as well as in the languages of all Orthodox countries, the term communion, used to refer to our mystical and sacramental relationship with God, is the same as the one used for our relationship with people. So, in English the terms communion and society are expressed with two different words, whereas in Greek both are expressed with one word, "koinonia.” This happens because, in the Orthodox Eastern world, communion is a social experience, whereas in the West societies have become communionless. This is becoming apparent in our country as well, as it has started being permeated by the strong anthropocentrism and anthropomonism of Western mentality.
Let me now connect the previous question to this one, since we are talking about society and worship. There is a difference between East and West in both worship and ethos; a difference which is theological, spiritual and practical. The West, in its effort to bridge the gap between God and man, presents God excessively humanized. God appears like a human being. The point of reference is man. On the contrary, the Orthodox East believes in the theosis of man by grace. Man is transformed to a god by God and not by himself. The point of reference is God.
More specifically, we notice in the West that the Renaissance art technique tries to portay divinity in the best possible human way. We will never see such a technique in the Orthodox tradition. Instead, we see St. John the Baptist depicted taller than the mountains, something which has nothing to do with the real world, and the Virgin Mary having a disproportionately small nose. Christ is pictured on the Cross with the same expression on his face as he is pictured in the icons of Resurrection or Transfiguration. He does not have a sad look on one icon and a happy face on the others. There is no apparent effort to bring God closer to us through human descriptions. God comes in our lives as He is, not as we want Him to be; in a divine way, not in a human form. That is why the tradition of the Orthodox Church aims at detaching man from his earthly concerns and transferring him to heavenly realities. Through ways that are not so human it reminds us of God and draws us to Him. This is what I meant by saying that in the relationship of man with God, the center of gravity is God.
The same also applies to music. Our music and, in general, our worship are basically compunctionate; they inspire us to turn inwards. In the West, music is more outwardly and uplifting; it stimulates us to open up. God is met through a “straight movement.” On the contrary, in the Orthodox Church, the main movement through which our soul meets God is the “cyclic movement,” as it is described in the texts of St. Dionysios Areopagite. St. Basil the Great depicts this character of Orthodox tradition by saying: “When the mind is not dispersed outwardly, it returns to itself and through itself to God.”
So, worship does two things. First, it makes man turn inwards, it unites him with himself, his heart. And secondly, through the mystery of Holy Eucharist, it brings God to us and unites us with Him; thus He enters inside us, dwells in us and lives within us. This is the meaning of eucharistic theology which nowadays has been put in words. However, the Church was always eucharistic, both in its tradition and practical life. Eucharistic, not just in the sense of our gratitude towards God, but more in the sense of the fulfilment of God's intense desire to commune with Him through the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you...” (Luk 22:15). We commune the flesh and blood of Christ ,because He wishes to unite with us; this brings us close to Him. Not because we dare unite with Him; this alienates us from Him. Thus, man becomes more heavenly, more divine, and acquires a godly face, a godly countenance.
We do not achieve these by our own efforts or struggle. The struggle and effort for ethical perfection brings failure and disappointment. We acquire them through our trust in the grace of God which makes man holy. We conscientioulsy and gratefully do whatever we can, in order to offer our own share. However, the outcome is brought by the grace of God; it solely belongs to God.
I would like to add one more thing. The Orthodox Church does not try to transform people into “earthly angels,” because her target is not man, and her hopes are not set on this earth. Orthodoxy projects the vision of “heavenly man,” who is out of flesh by nature, but heavenly by grace and faith; her place is heaven and her center is God.
What the eucharistic and liturgical life has to offer us today is to bring us closer to God and elevate us to heaven and eternity; to remind us that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Is 64:6). Whatever we ourselves do is worthless. However, there is a danger in this. Since our era tends to emphasize the external forms at the expense of the deep essence of everything, the spirit and truth of the Holy Eucharist run the risk to become a mere formality, a habit, a happening.
N.K. Still there is an aspect of my question which remains unanswered. Namely, how is the gap between this theoretical dimension and contemporary reality bridged? You spoke earlier of the difference between Eastern and Western Churches, but today modernity does not make such distinctions. Societal and mechanical communication is everywhere, including the historically Orthodox countries. In what sense is then Athens different today from London?
Fr. N.H. All these occur on the societal level where the technological, economic, scientific and social terms are common. However, on the level of persons and religious traditions, the difference is apparent. The man of the West is more rational. Even his feelings tend to be intellectualized. Instead, the man of the East even thinks with his heart. The concept of God in the East is definitely mystical. God is experienced as a mystery, whereas in the West, He is approached through rational understanding; this is related to the cultural background and historical tradition and constitutes a basic difference between Orthodoxy and the Christian West.
Let me go back to the subject of communion, to say how Eucharistic theology relates communion with God and interpersonal communion. When we go to Church and mystically partake of the Holy Eucharist, we all unite with Christ, we become parts, members of the same body. We feel like brothers and sisters, each one as much as he or she can. This is not only a sentimental feeling, but also a drop of mystical experience coming to us through the mystery of Holy Eucharist. It is a miracle to experience the feeling of brotherhood. The word “brother,” in Greek “adelfos,” is a sacred word and comes from the word “delfida” which means womb. A brother is the one who comes out of the same womb and this womb is the Holy Chalice, the Holy Altar, the Font, God Himself. So, if I feel like a brother, I start behaving as such. I do not love my brothers and sisters because they are good. I love them, along with their faults, because they are my brothers and sisters. Love precedes quality. Respectively, I begin feeling like a brother towards the people to whom I am related through faith, who partake of the same Chalice, who come out of the same Font, the same Womb.
So, when I come out of my blood family and join my spiritual one, I make a step further; my love acquires a universality, a wholeness. Then I can embrace and love all people, if not sacramentally, spiritually; even those people who are not related to the Church, who have a different religion, different traditions and habits, but who are also God's creatures. This universality broadens and expands the soul. When man has a broad and open heart -and this is related to humility- and does not revolve around the axis of his ego, he can automatically become, social, polite, overflowing with love, and not full of rage, anger, criticism and intolerance. Thus, the mystical and spiritual experience gradually produces an ethical and social outcome.
N.K. I would like a little more clarification in regards to the specificity of Orthodoxy on this. All major religions accept that all human beings are children of God. At the same time the concept of brotherhood in faith or “partaking of the same chalice and the same font” creates boundaries between “us” and “others.”
How does Orthodoxy transcend these boundaries especially now that Orthodox and non-Orthodox people are mixed in the same societies? What is the meaning of the Orthodox liturgy as a worldwide offering?
Fr. N.H. Through the mystery of Holy Eucharist, one crosses the boundaries of his self, and enters in the world of God; since God is boundless, he lives in a world without boundaries, in the state of the sonship by grace, the state of “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21).
N.K. I would like you to elaborate a little bit more on the eschatological dimension of the Holy Eucharist as a universal offering.
Fr. N.H. I would like to note two things: first, we should be careful not to give an ecumenistic interpretation to what we are now discussing, but instead an ecumenical character. We do not feel that God's gift to us, that is Orthodoxy, is a gift that differentiates us from other people, but rather it is a gift that brings us closer both to God and to people. For this reason, Orthodox tradition, never being proselytistic or ecumenistic, was always ecumenical and missionary. One who personally experiences the gift of God, wants to spread it and share it.
The second one is that the best thing we have to do is to trasform what we presently are: instead of arrogantly being correct, become humble and saintly; from a christian club be transformed into the mystical body of the grace of God. God gave us the blessing of being Orthodox and He only knows why. If I were born in Japan, I would have another religion. I wouldn't even know that Orthodoxy exists. When I was in the U.S., at Harvard University, one of my professors asked me if Greeks still believe in Zeus. She didn't know that in Greece we are Christians.
Therefore, when someone experiences the mysteries of his faith as God's gifts and divine grace, he cannot but feel that all people are God's children and the best gift he has to offer them is the witness of his faith. The yearning for their salvation becomes the fruit of his love which gradually acquires a missionary dimension directed towards the others. The rest is left to God.
On the other hand, this does not dispute the absolute character of our relationship with the truth. We cannot doubt the value of the gift of Orthodoxy granted to us by God, and compromise in order to get along with other people. This is ecumenism; it downgrades and weakens the importance of truth and alters its meaning. Truth is not relative; it is absolute. We love the truth being a gift from God and humbly accept all those who have another religious background, a different way of thinking and do not belong to the Church. Certainly, it is not their fault, but rather a consequence of our fallen world. The prayer and hope of the Church is that, when the time comes, everyone will enter Her font, which does not belong to us as Orthodox people, but to God; we found ourselves in there by grace. The Church initiates her own children to the mysteries of God, but prays for the whole world, for the whole creation. This is the Church's universality.
Orthodoxy and Nationalism
N.K. From this spiritual and ecumenical dimension of Orthodoxy, I would like us to come to a different one, also real and important. And I mean the connection of Orthodoxy over the last 200 years to the development and morphology of nationalism. I think this has been especially obvious in the Balkans and some consider Orthodoxy as an important factor in the recent conflicts in former Yugoslavia. I would be grateful for your comments.
Fr. N.H. So far, we have talked about the theological and spiritual dimension of Orthodoxy, but the Church has a human side as well. Just as Christ is perfect God and perfect man, respectively man is both divine and human and the Church has a spiritual and human dimension. By human dimension, we mean her social, political and cultural character; we mean the influence of tradition and history. Who can deny that in the schism of the Churches there were no historical coincidences or political factors involved? In this sense, there are no problems of Orthodoxy; Orthodoxy is the optimum of spirituality. If there are any problems, these can be found in the administrations and officials of the Orthodox churches.
For example, in the Balkans, the recent resetting of the borders -due to the fact that people have a different ethnic identity- caused major problems in what we call social and political freedom. The churches' officials got involved in these changes and an unpleasant situation was created. This is connected to the fallen character of the world we live in. It has the seal of sin, distinctions, boundaries, limitations and definitely not the seal of God.
We said earlier that eucharistic life and mystical partaking in the mystery and grace of God abolishes all boundaries, and brings us closer even to people who do not share the same faith. So, Orthodox faith could very well unite people of various traditions, different ethnic identity, diverse mentality and habits.
On the other hand, in the Western world, more in the USA and less in Europe and Australia, there is a growing interest in Orthodoxy. More and more people of a non-Orthodox background convert to Orthodoxy. The nationalistic character, the divisions and discords we have on the human level, do not restrain the yearning of these people to approach the Church. Instead, they listen to God's calling and in a sense they bear with us. Thus, through the ethnic churches of their countries, they enter the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. This demonstrates how the grace of God can always function, even in situations where serious human errors are made or shortcomings and wrongdoings are prevailing.
N.K. From this point, I would like to continue on to the embodiment of Orthodoxy in nationalistic frames due to social and historical conditions.
Fr. N.H. Orthodoxy has a certain flexibility in the “dialect” it uses to spread her message around. I do not only mean the linguistic dialect, but also the way her language adapts to the distinctive peculiarities of each society. A different language is used for the Africans, a different one for the Christians of the Far East, for the Russians, or the Americans. Not only the language is different, but also the method and the way it is expressed. We maintain the essence and adjust the forms. This requires a freedom of ethos and spirit, as well as the ability to discern what is essential and what is formality. The absence of such a distinction may lead to an outburst of passions and provoke tensions in the relations of the local churches.
N.K. But can the Orthodox Church as a religious, cultural factor disengage herself from the nationalistic and ethnic dimension? In my view, in Greece, there is a deep connection of Orthodoxy, not only with the sense of Greek identity, but even with the interests of Greek society, if you like. We distinguish ourselves from the West, for instance, by saying “we are Greek Orthodox.”
Fr. N.H. I thought you meant something different by the word “nationalistic.” I do not consider that the Greek Church has a nationalistic character. She has generously supported all the suffering churches and selflessly offered her assistance to the sister churches of Russia, Albania, Georgia, Czech Republic, Romania and especially Serbia. This is a demonstration of the positive side of the Greek Church.
Of course, there is a negative side as well which has two dimensions. The first one has to do with our feeling of superiority when we hear others praising something Greek; we foolishly want a primacy of honor due to our tradition and historical past. But this is human, considering also that there is a strong Greek influence in the Church's tradition. On the other hand, the Russians could also feel superior, because they have a larger population. This is the human aspect, human misery; to demand authority through the Church who constantly provokes us to deny all our own rights.
The second one is the identification of the Church with specific policies, either for the benefit of nationalistic interests or interests of certain parties. Thus, in our days, politicians present Orthodoxy as a connecting link among Eastern European countries due to their common sense of tradition. However, Orthodoxy cannot be identified with any human forms no matter how good these are.
The only exception to this is when Orthodoxy is attacked. Then, it is our duty to unite and defend ourselves, expecting at the same time the help and protection of God. He knows how to help us. When Christ was sending out his disciples, He told them not to think how they would defend themselves. He would take care of everything. “Settle it therefore in your minds, not to meditate beforehand how to answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom...” (Lk 21:14-15). The excessive human interference in the defense methods and protection of religious interests and goals drives God away, and this is set against the Orthodox ethos and way of thinking.
Presently in Greece, we have a problem with the Turks. Of course, our politicians will follow a certain policy, and we ourselves will react to a possible invasion of Islam in Europe, more specifically in our country. But it is unacceptable to regard the Turks as our personal enemies and start hating them. They, too, are children of God. If we were born in Ankara, we would also be Muslims today. In this sense, the Church must very discreetly express her own views, only within the context of her principles, values and acquisition of the grace of God, and stay away from any politics which serve specific worldly objectives.
Church and State
N.K. On this topic, Father Nikolaos, there is a specific historical connection between the Church as an institution and the state, which goes back to Emperor Constantine. Despite periodic tensions, this connection is considered so strong, as far as Greece is concerned, that it is almost impossible to differentiate the Church from the state. However, some people believe that it harms the ecumenicity of Orthodoxy. What do you think?
Fr. N.H. No, I do not believe it can harm the ecumenicity of the Orthodox Church. Let me explain it. I feel very happy and proud, in a good sense, that I was born in Greece. This allows me to feel equally happy for the Russian identity of someone who was born in Russia, and enjoy the warmth of his tradition, which is beautiful but different from mine. Thus, we can feel deeply grateful to God that among His other gifts, He also gave us the gift of our specific nationality The same thing applies for the gratitude we feel towards God for the parents He gave us; this does not prevent us from regarding the parental relationships in other families equally sacred and strong.
In this respect, we wish that a healthy relationship and cooperation between the state and the Church exists in our country. The Church can feed the state with her principles and values and in return, the state may fulfil the human and material needs of the Church, so the latter can unobstructively accomplish her spiritual mission. This is an ideal situation and does not necessarily function in a nationalistic way. Problems arise when the Church gets involved in matters of the state and vice versa.
The state could take care of the religious education of the children. Moreover, the fact that in Greece all holidays, except labor day, are religious ones, facilitates the functioning of the practical aspect of the Church's life.
At the same time, as we previously said, the Church feeds the state with principles. However, when the state offers a secularized religious education, when it uses the Church to accomplish its own interests, or wants to apply the same system to elect bishops as it uses to appoint directors of public firms, then the Church loses her autonomy and freedom and their relationship becomes problematic. In case of a harmonious relationship, the Church could very well interfere in legislative, social, even financial matters, when basic principles and values are affected, without losing her spirituality and ecumenicity.
Unfortunately, this is not happening in our days because the Church lacks power. It seems that modern man and contemporary society have punished God; He is banished from our lives. Instead, money, self-interests, large firms and U.S. aircraft carriers have taken His place. However, the idea and principle of a good cooperation between the state and the Church will always be a wishful thinking for all societies. Perhaps, that is how it also started in Byzantium.
I believe that the Church will always make human mistakes that will remind us of our transience through a fallen world. In a world, which is dominated by natural weaknesses, death, sin, passions, perversion and the devil, the Church will be continually prophesying the Kingdom of God. And this is the eschatological meaning of Holy Eucharist: the expectation of and longing for perfectness. A state which is reached through a perfecting mentality and unceasing struggle for perfection.
In our world, the religious leaders will keep on making serious mistakes, the so-called representatives of God will go on betraying the truth and disappointing us. However, holiness will always exist, perhaps in some hermitages, within families or among the Church's officials, to clearly show that the grace of God functions in the best possible ways under the worst circumstances. Man can be deified in the fallen world, just as God was incarnated in the world of sin.
Orthodoxy and New Religious Phenomena
N.K. Let's close this subject and have a short comment on a topic, which I think, is also important. World-wide and within traditionally Orthodox countries there seems to be a proliferation of new religious phenomena. We observe also a growing cultural and ideological syncretism. How does an Orthodox eye see these phenomena and to what extent do you think Orthodoxy becomes a part of this pluralistic and syncretistic world?
Fr. N.H. There is a threat in what you just mentioned; the threat of corrupting the gift of God inside us and add to its absolute meaning a syncretistic interpretation. This is very sad but also inevitable in our country. Personally, I cannot but spiritually regret for all these phenomena. The emergence of cults and syncretistic religion is a spiritual disease that undermines the sense of health springing out of our tradition and heritage, which have given birth to so many saints. Syncretism may harm our nation, but not the Church. Although truth gets more difficult to approach, it remains unaffected.
I believe that this is the result of a universal confusion, a poor quality freedom, human fakeness existing in these cults and people's unhappiness that drives them there for comfort. It will be a great consolation if the Church awakens, and we, the clergy, prophetically offer the truth and clearly spread the witness of God to the people. The Church is not trying to prevent the evil - this will always exist. She struggles to allow the presence of God in our lives - He will always be indispensable. The good that God can do for us is more than the evil the devil can cause. “For he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1Jo 4:4).
There is also another source of consolation. It concerns people who have been involved in these cults, and after a while reject all these unhealthy beliefs and return to God. We could say they find God through the devil. Their repentance adds a new spirit to the spiritual body of our society.
N.K. The subject of cults is a vast one, because it brings forth pluralism. Can Orthodoxy coexist with the increasing pluralism and to what extent?
Fr. N.H. Orthodoxy does not only exist in Orthodox countries, but is growing in other countries as well. For example, there is an Orthodox Church in America functioning despite the existing pluralism. The fact that the Church can exist both in pluralistic and nationalistic societies indicates that the emergence of cults cannot affect faith. Therefore, we sense the problem on the level of our ethnic identity as Greeks and not on the level of our faith as Orthodox.
N.K. Now, I would like to come to a theme closer to your own monastic experience and discuss the role and significance of Orthodox monasticism which has always occupied the central place in the history of Orthodoxy. How do you see the development of monasticism today?
Fr. N.H. Monasticism exists in order to show us the criterion of good and evil and maintain it unaltered. St. John of the Ladder writes in his book: “The guiding light of monastics is the angelic state; and the guiding light of laymen is monastic life.” What constantly inspires the life of monks is the heavenly and immaterial conduct of angels who unceasingly glorify God. Respectively, monastic life, in its absolute character, rejects the ideals of the contemporary world: comfort, money, pleasure, glory, and replaces them with ascesis, poverty, temperance and humility. Monasticism projects its message intact to the world .
Once, I told a group of young men and women who visited me: “Forgive me for being a litlle strict and absolute; maybe it would be better if I kept silent.” They answered: “No, father, it does not matter that we do not do what you tell us; live that way and keep on telling us about it. We need so much someone to remind us of the things we ought to do, but deny to. Do not despair.” I believe this is the cry of contemporary man. There is a desperate need for some, who sound more like fools in the midst of this modern world, to preserve these sacred truths and continuously declare them through their lives and voices. We need this blessed “yeast” of people with its uncompromising spirit and high standards that we may never reach. However, they will constantly inspire us towards a transfigured life.
The Church does not call everybody to monasticism and isolation. These constitute the exception. The Church's message is for all people living in this turbulent and corrupted world. On the other hand, monasticism occupies a central position in the life of the Church. Some cannot bear to live in the world as it is and say to themselves: “Either God is true and deserves everything, or He does not exist and that is the end of the story.” And since He is true and alive, they live with a godly monism, that is, with an absolute and uncompromising spirit. Hence, the primary task of monasticism is to preserve the criterion of good and evil, godly and human, natural and spiritual, unchanged; to stress that eternity is more true than historical reality, the soul more alive than the body, God more proximate than our own self.
The second task of monasticism concerns the need to have people around us who can transform their prayer into action and life; people whose only purpose is to communicate with God and keep the channels between earth and heaven open. What a blessing! Then, we, in the world, can collect the drops of God's grace left in there as truth and consolation. I am speaking more as a priest than as a monk, since I live in the center of Athens, however as monastically as possible. For instance, this interview I am giving now, is not something monastic, but rather something social; it is good, but worldly. The monastic thing would be for me to pray in a hermitage, and constantly keep those channels clean. My task, here, is different. I try to “clean” the mind and heart of people.
The ministry of the monks is double; to show us our destination in its absolute form and to pray; in other words, to maintain the communication channels between heaven and earth open. A holy task! Many people come to me and say: “Father, I cannot pray. It is your task to pray, please pray for me.” They leave comforted and this is important.
It is the humble and mystic monk who speaks in our hearts more than the educated, talented or active one. In the first case, we have God's voice in human form; in the second, human talent is presented in a godlike way. In Greece, monasteries exercise a lot of attraction to the outside world. The reason being that people search for the absolute spirit. Even if they do not apply it to their own lives, they want to hear it. Although they are unable to reach the divine truth, they yearn for it. They want to know it's there, even if they avoid it or occasionally oppose to it.
N.K. Are the channels of communication with God which constitute the monastic mission, increasing or decreasing today?
Fr. N.H. I think they are decreasing. There is a revival of monasticism and an increase in the number of monastic vocations because of the existing social fatigue. However, this fatigue finds later on an outlet. Unlike the older times, our era does not easily generate saints. Instead, it produces computers, machines and high technology. We, who become monks, are products of this era and carry on us the dirt of humanity in its perverted form. It is hard to wipe it off. For instance, if you dust yourself, you can clean up with some water. If you drop oil on you, you need soap. If you have a stain of tar, you must rub it hard for days. The contemporary dirt of sin is ineffaceable.
However, divine truth is always present and people of God still exist. It seems that monasticism is going through a spiritual crisis, and so is our Church, her ethos and spiritual values. One thing is not declining and this is the grace of God. It always remains intact. Despite the apparent difficulty in partaking of the divine grace, saints will always be present, men of God will always exist and God's miracles, that is, the revelations of His grace, will always occur in our fallen world.
N.K. Is this holiness, so hard to find in our times, declining then? Is it possible for someone to become a saint in today's Athens, or Patras?
Fr. N.H. Holiness is never declining, because it is not an ethical perfection or quality. Holiness is the grace of God, constantly expressed in the world in various forms. It is not apparent, but it exists. In the early centuries, it was manifested as martyrdom. Later on, it appeared in the form of outstanding ascetic achievements. The poor living conditions of the past prevented the growth of the materialistic spirit, so widespread in our era, thus making spiritual life easier. Today, holiness can be found in the practical aspect of life. To be able to live the longing for God, if not His experience, in a world full of sinful temptations and evil enticements, is holiness.
What is declining today is not holiness but the saints, the partakers of holiness. Perhaps we can make a few steps only towards this level, but these have great value. One step in today's world is of equal significance as ten in the past. Holiness is not the absolute measure, it is the value. It is not the magnitude of human achievement, but the way God reveals Himself to us. Saints are not people whom we admire for their achievements. Instead, they are the ones who glorify God with their love. Today, thank God, holiness has not disappeared; sources of God's consolation as well as reasons to glorify Him are present; saints exist; God is alive.
N.K. What are your views on monastic centers like Mount Athos, of which, of course, you have personal experience? What about the vast number of visitors, what do they get themselves and how do they affect the life of the monks?
Fr. N.H. Certainly, the best motive for someone to visit Mount Athos is not its treasures or historical interest, the beauty of nature or a chance to get away from the world. Although these make good reasons, they may have a negative influence on the life of the monks. Instead of hosting 4-5 people thirsty for the truth, they are obliged to offer hospitality to approximately 100 people daily, who may at times behave strangely. A good number of those visitors, however, is deeply affected by what they experience and return with a completely different mind-set. Many go to confession and change lifestyle. I, too, experience this here in this outpost of Mount Athos.
From a narrow point of view, visitors can harm the life of monks as they disturb the stillness, tranquillity and balance of their monastic routine. However, in a wider sense, such visits may contribute to the salvation of souls. By offering hospitality, a monk expresses his love and goes against his own will; he receives the grace of God, not through his achievements and efforts, but through his self-sacrifice. It is better for paradise to be full than for monasteries to remain undisturbed. On the other hand, the monks must be careful not to lose their spirit, but remain monks; it is the visitors who ought to change, not the monks. They should not become like us. They come from us, but they are not like us. In parallel to hospitality, they should be devoted to their spiritual work, their prayer. A monk must have time to himself.
N.K. From your experience of Mount Athos, would you say that the ethos has changed at all over the last twenty years?
Fr. N.H. I think the answer is both yes and no. First, a period of twenty years is too short for someone to notice any deep changes. These will show up later. Mount Athos is still under the vibrations of a sudden revival caused by the arrival of young monks new to the monastic experience. A weary, declined, yet spiritually alive Mount Athos has been massively inhabited by men tired from the world, inexperienced and not spiritually mature. This is on the human level. Their vocations, however, are from God, who will reveal His will later on. I see all this as a blessing from God to the life of the Church and of the whole world. Human mistakes and shortcomings cannot prevent the grace of God, who constantly reveals Himself humbly.
Orthodoxy and Biomedical Ethics
N.K. Let me now touch a topic which concerns your knowledge and experience as a natural scientist. I would like your views on Orthodoxy and contemporary scientific and technological developments in the biomedical world. I think these developments are staggering and generate a host of very important ethical and social problems as well as high expectations. Has Orthodoxy anything to say about these things?
Fr. N.H. Each subject of bioethics constitutes in itself a separate topic for discussion. It would be a mistake for me to touch on this subject, since the Orthodox Church has not yet expressed an official point of view. And I will not do so. However, I will say a few general things, first on the subject of reproductive technologies and secondly on euthanasia, which has already been legalized in countries such as Australia and the Netherlands.
According to Orthodoxy, biological life is a great gift from God, but not the greatest. The greatest gift is spiritual life. Whether a man lives 50 years or 70 years, it does not make any difference; he is a big nothing in history and a zero through the centuries. Since the center of life is God, biological life being a gift from God is indeed valuable, but true life is the spiritual one. Some Christians, by emphasizing man and present time, make life on this earth disproportionately significant. According to the Orthodox point of view, the center is God and the future, the eternal future. We are more what we will become, gods by grace, than what we now are, human beings; what we have been called to become, saints, than what we are now involved in, sins; what constitutes our life in the Kingdom of God, the eternal future, than what determines our passing through this world, the transient present. Thus, biological life acquires a priceless value due to the existence of spiritual life; and the present becomes equally important due to the future.
In our days, strange things are happening in regards to the subject of life. While we extensively talk about the value of life, we systematically prevent births in our “civilized” world. While we agonizingly spend a lot of money on health and prolongation of our life span, we legalize euthanasia. Thus, a conflict is created in the field of reproductive technologies. One group of technologies says “no,” where nature says “yes,” such as abortion, contraceptive technologies, sterilization. And another group says “yes,” where nature says “no,” i.e. I.V.F, artificial insemination, etc. It seems the struggle of science is not a struggle for life, but a struggle against nature. How can we keep silent and not demand the establishment of certain criteria which will determine the degree of human interference in the beginning of life, in the birth of the soul?
A similar contradiction exists in the subject of the end of life, such as euthanasia, where pain fights against time; pain, which is ours, a consequence of our original sin, against time, which is a gift from God to us. Time is a divine blessing, a lot more than pain is our enemy.
Death as an event, marking the beginning of eternity, is much more important than the way it occurs in this life. The state of the soul in eternity is what finally counts in death, and not the state of our body during the last moments in this transient life. This can generate patience, tolerance and love for the people around us, care and trust in God's will, respect and humility in the acceptance of our trials as His gifts. That is why, euthanasia is the worst spiritual death according to the Orthodox Church.
Of course, there is an opposite side to this. Do these supportive respiratory technologies prolong life or prevent death? And do we have the right to prevent death when it is on its way, and let someone live an ambiguous life? These are matters that need to be discussed.
As you are aware, the Church has a different logic on these subjects; the logic of the salvation of the soul, the logic of God. Hence, the salvation of a sterile couple can emerge from the trial of their sterility. Natural sterility can lead to spiritual fertility. Couples who do not conceive children can conceive God. The Church accepts medical intervention within the spirit of the expectation of God's will, rather than of having a child to whom we will offer the inheritance of our selfish love. Usually, we want a child, and not “children,” for ourselves in this world and not for God in eternity. The heart of the matter is not that a couple wants to have children, but it is why they want to have them. The Church sees children as spiritual extensions of God and not as our own physical products. The beginning of life brings the beginning of the soul. Every single soul is a breath of God. The beginning of life is as sacred as the form of life itself.
And this brings me to the topic of genetic engineering. Today, genetic engineering extensively discusses, but also plays games, with the beginning as well as the form of life. The creation of new forms of life occupies a central position among its interests. The subject of the human genome project as well as of gene therapy have been widely publicized. Scientists hoped that, by 1995, a complete mapping of the human genome would have been accomplished, that is the specific determination of the genes' position inside DNA, as well as the therapy and prevention of diseases through the replacement of the problematic genes. However, things are not so easy.
Suppose, science manages to achieve its goals in the field of genetic engineering. Why should man change the form of life? What is the point of predetermining the color of our child's hair, when we haven't experienced God at all? As I have already said, our life is more what we will become than what we now are. So, we will have spent all our life in this world without the perspective of eternity. The Church does not agree with this, as she believes in the respect of life as a gift from God, not as the source of good. The utmost good is the manifestation of God in our life.
N.K. If technology and science allow a couple to diagnose a life-long handicap at the embryonic stage, what do you think would be best for the couple to do? To prevent that child from being born or proceed to treatment if possible?
Fr. N.H. The possibility of treatment is a good solution, as it would assist the quality of life along with its production. But as you very well know, in all cases of prenatal examination, the question is whether to prevent birth or not, whether to allow a handicapped child to be born or not. Why can't our “civilized” society bear to bring up a handicapped child? To take care of it, to support the parents and spiritually edify the family and friends?
I know a family with a tetraplegic young boy. He is now ten years old and has become very heavy to carry and move around. When you see him, you cannot but feel sorry for him. However, this child has awaken in the hearts of his parents feelings, not only of pain, but of humility, love, unselfishness, self-sacrifice; feelings related to their spiritual growth. The parents do not even want to think that their little boy might soon die. Even if they suffer, they adore him. This is a common experience. I don’t know if there are any parents who wish their handicapped child would rather die. However, if these parents knew of their child's defect through a prenatal examination, most probably they would have prevented this birth, and thus make our world even poorer in love and richer in selfishness. We would have one angel less to remind us that we live in a fallen world anticipating the everlasting and divine world to come.
Death, whether we want it or not, will exist. The only definite inheritance we all carry and pass on to our children is the stigma of death. Which illness or impairment can be worse than death? The Church suggests another kind of prenatal examination. The one that makes couples realize that they do not give birth to a life in this world, but to a soul in the world of eternity. In this sense, a child is a soul, a little angel, a breath of God, which although carries the stigma of sin, yet it generates humility, not despair. We will not prevent a pregnancy, because the abortion of an embryo from its mother's womb, is the abortion of its soul from God's embrace and of our own soul from His will.
N.K. I discern in what you say that Orthodoxy does not hold an anti-scientific position and is not set against research in these fields, but research must know its limits?
Fr. N.H. Who would say the opposite? These limits must be well defined and not negotiable. For instance, the Church cannot accept the fact that in order for a child to be born, we must kill a dozen other fertilized eggs, which are embryos. And it is not only the Orthodox Church that is set against this, but also anyone who believes in any god cannot accept it either.
N.K. But even a completely secular view on these issues, which is not based on any metaphysical considerations, faces severe ethical dilemmas in this area?
Fr. N.H. Certainly. And for this reason most of the existing centers for bioethics are not religious, but academic, secular. People are afraid of these delicate issues. Unfortunately, we realize the consequences of our actions, only when we reach the result. We can neither prevent, nor predict. And we play games. What do we need these games for?
N.K. Is this a progress according to the Orthodox tradition?
Fr. N.H. What, playing games with life?
N.K. Research is always dangerous since the result is unknown as you yourself know.
Fr. N.H. The problem is not research. The problem is the application of research on man and life. I read in a newspaper clipping that a sperm donor has more than 200 living children and God knows how many dead ones. He gave his sperm through which thousands of eggs were fertilized. This man now has 200 children with various women and thousands of dead embryos. What is the use of all this? To get paid for giving out his sperm? To play with nature and life? The sperm is sacred. It has another purpose, which we should respect. There's a lot to be said on this subject.
N.K. First, I would like to ask you if the Orthodox Church has any solutions to suggest? And secondly, you, as an Orthodox monk, as a priest who has knowledge on the subject, can you detect the ethical consequences of the recent biomedical achievements?
Fr. N.H. The Orthodox Church and tradition do not aim at giving preset solutions to problems, but rather at creating a certain mindset, a way of thinking out of which the solutions will clearly emerge. On the contrary, the Western world codifies its ethics. The Orthodox tradition is not preoccupied with what we will do, but with how and what we will become, with our inner change. Our specific ethical actions do not necessarily lead to our inner spiritual transformation, but rather they result from it.
Moreover, there is a growing interest on the side of the Church on these matters. The national committees always invite representatives of the Church who are involved in the subject of bioethics. Here in this outpost of Mount Athos, we have established the first center for Biomedical Ethics in Greece. Its intention is to collect related bibliography and create the grounds for academic discussions and understanding of these subjects; hence, an Orthodox point of view may gradually emerge leading the Church to specific positions, if necessary, and assisting society to proceed to relevant legislative regulations. This indicates a particular respect for the seriousness of the existing problems, but also the tremendous possibility for the dogmatic theological truths to be expressed through the channel of this contemporary questioning and language.
Certainly, these are the channels through which we can say a few things; speak about the respect for life, about the soul and life as a breath of God; present ethics as a result of spiritual freedom and not as a recipe. By analyzing the beginning of life, we have a better understanding of its end! There has never been such a conscientious and detailed preoccupation with the phenomenon of life and death so far. Our era gives us the opportunity to spread the everlasting message of God by using a new dialect. After a few years, we can repeat the same message through a different dialect. So, God can pass through the variety of channels we spoke earlier.
Orthodoxy and Modern Cosmology
N.K. There is another topic within this dialect of scientific developments and it concerns a possible connection between the Orthodox view of Cosmology and contemporary Physics. Would you like to say something?
Fr. N.H. This topic is less complicated, despite the fact that there is some tension between scientists and Christians regarding the beginning of the world. To start with, the Holy Bible, the book of Genesis, contains in only one chapter simple truths; its purpose is to proclaim that the world was created by God, and not to describe how it was created. It is not a book of Physics, as many Western Christians present it to be by absolutizing certain things. However, there are indications on the way the world was created, which today science confirms. For example, the fact that light was created first and then matter. Physics accepts this which is also in accordance with the modern cosmological theories; they all agree that space began as an electromagnetic radiation, light, that passed on to the stage of matter through the well-known phenomenon of pair production. There is no objection regarding the “how” of the creation; perhaps there is some regarding the “who” of the beginning of the world. However, the “who” is not for science to tell.
While faith talks about the Creator of the world, and gives a few indications only about the way and the procedure of creation, the most science can do is insinuate the Creator, while it basically struggles for the study of the world. Faith is primarily concerned with God as a Person, and thus encounters Him everywhere as energies; while science, which studies natural energy, has great difficulty in leading us to the Divine Personhood of the creation, that is God. However, if we combine the two, science and faith, we will inevitably see through the natural beauty of science, the spiritual magnificence of God's presence everywhere and in everything.
N.K. So, in other words, there is no basic conflict between the Orthodox theological view on the creation of the world and the scientific explanation of contemporary cosmology.
Fr. N.H. Within the spirit of Orthodox cosmology, there is no conflict regarding the creation of the world. Things are quite simple. Steven Hawkings expressed certain views on the eternity of time in his book A Brief History of Time, which he himself revoked in his next book Black Holes and Baby Universes.
Science is constantly refuting itself. This is not a negative characteristic, since it makes knowledge progress. However, when one regards theories as laws and man's limitations as perfectness, he will never be able to conceive eternity through time, or comprehend time through eternity. Science will always choke faith; human achievement will constantly push God aside.
Orthodoxy and the Environment
N.K. Another contemporary issue of great concern is the ecological problem. I believe that the Orthodox Church holds a certain position on the subject. Would you like to comment on it?
Fr. N.H. Certainly it does. Orthodox theology and the Church have energetically been involved in the study of the ecological problem and expressed their concern in many ways: through the repeated messages of the Ecumenical Patriarch, articles and academic studies carried out by distinguished professors and hierarchs, as for instance, Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas, participation in various conferences etc. From an ideological and philosophical point of view, the ecological issue is less complicated compared to the previous ones, as the serious threat of an ecological destruction is obvious to everybody. While we all agree with the theory of its confrontation, unfortunately we contribute to its expansion.
N.K. We know that the deep respect for nature as God's creation and the emphasis on spiritual and ascetic life by the Orthodox tradition could be good solutions to the problem of the environmental pollution. Can these Orthodox viewpoints change our lifestyle and how realistic are they in a wider social context, in view of the magnitude of the problem?
Fr. N.H. I am not sure I understand the relationship between ascesis and the environmental problem. Ascetic life is entirely natural and instead of spoiling the environment, it purifies it; it shows respect and does not do any harm to it. An ascetic never cooks, his food is vegetarian and limited to the extreme, his body is pure, and he depends entirely on God. Although he uses a small amount of water to cultivate his garden, he completely entrusts the growth of his vegetables to God, and thus provokes God's manifestation which transforms nature. This is ascesis: to limit the material dimension of ourselves and long more for the rebirth of our spiritual one.
The presence of God makes man so gentle with nature that he cannot bend a flower, kill an ant, chase a fly away, harm the environment; instead, he respects a broken branch, the trees, the animals, even the insects. Gradually, he begins to love nature and nature begins to love him in return. If you come across a beast or a snake and you love it, it will not hurt you, for it loves you too. This is verified in a series of incidents in the lives of saints. Isn't this a remarkable ascetic ecology? This is not any more a protection of the environment, but rather a transformation of nature into a temple. Finally, through the environment, we can experience the omnipresence of the Creator.
N.K. Here again is the great problem we come across all along this interview. That is, in order to materialize the theoretic dimension of Orthodoxy, one has to radically transform his life. Some people say that the radical transformation of the environment results in a radical transformation of our way of living.
Fr. N.H. It is not only a change of lifestyle, but rather a reorientation of mind-set on life. This brings us to the term “Orthodoxy.” In our days, we hear very often the term “Orthopraxia” instead of “Orthodoxy,” as if this latter one were insufficient. Orthodoxy, however, is the correct term. Orthopraxia has a lot to do with what man does, whereas Orthodoxy deals with what he believes, thinks or stands for. Orthodoxy means exact, correct mind-set, attitude, approach, ethos. Therefore, the transformation of all these will bring forth the transformation of our daily life. It is not just a change of habits, ways or styles, but rather a deeper inner change, our repentance.
N.K. To conclude our discussion, I would like to ask you to become a little of a futurist. Despite secularization and atheism, there is evidence of revival of religion and a return to religious and metaphysical concerns. How do you see the role of Orthodoxy in the 21st century, in context with the revival of other major religions and Islam in particular. Can we foresee any significant religious conflicts?
Fr. N.H. I would like to maintain the spirituality of our discussion and avoid giving any specific solutions, or making sociological predictions in regards to the co-existence and relationship of the various religions today.
As far as the future is concerned, the Church has its own perspective; it is the perspective of the past, the revival of the old beauty inside us. Its eschatology, which sounds a little paradoxical, lies in the return to the past; she has the perspective of the past and the nostalgia of the future. That is, we gradually develop inside us the belief that we have lost what we are, what we have been, what we were created for. What we must do then is revive the old beauty, the beauty before the original sin. The return to what we were and truly are is the repentance we just mentioned earlier.
Religions are just human forms and inventions. After the fall of the Byzantine empire, there was fear among Byzantines for serious trouble of an eschatological dimension due to the dominance of Islam. We can clearly detect this intense worry in the texts of Gennadios Scholarios, especially in the year 1492, which was believed to be the year 7000 since the world's creation and marked the beginning of the 8th millenium. In our days, 500 years later, there is a similar worry. Where are we heading, what will happen? Once again, Islam appears to be a serious threat. Islam, as well as all other religions are products of man, trying to give answers to his metaphysical quests. Orthodoxy is not only a religion as it appears to be. It is the bridge that connects us with God.
Orthodoxy should become missionary and pass on its message as a message of life, not only as a preaching. Message of life, yes. Message of intolerance and argumentative debates, no. She proclaims love to the Muslims and all people. If our politicians have decided the dominance of Islam, we cannot revoke their mistakes or perverted decisions, just as Christ, when He was being led to the cross, did not revoke what the political and religious leaders had decided to do. Through His crucifixion leaped the message of resurrection and through His death sprang forth life. Even if God allows us to be enslaved under the dominance of Islam for thousands of years, then let it be done; truth cannot be enslaved. The message of the Church is to maintain the truth and pass it on to our children, our friends, our enivironment, as an authentic experience of God.
From then on, I cannot predict the future. But I do worry on a human level. I worry because the Orthodox countries are in discord, the Christian ones are disoriented, the West has lost God, the East has Him but cannot see Him, Islam fights against Him and the religious cults are once again used by the devil to destroy the world. That is what I see. I look at the world and despair. I turn to God and eternity and am fascinated. I hope. God always wins...
N.K. To your fullstop, I shall add mine and what remains then for me to say is thank you very much.