July 24, 2010

On Orthodox Tradition, Liturgical Arts, and Customs

From a conversation with His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos of Nafpaktos:

Orthodox Tradition is connected with cure

"You have spoken a lot about Orthodox tradition. I believe that the Orthodox tradition, is, primarily life and not an ideology. It is tradition and not conservatism, as you said. Now that we are almost at the end of these conversations, can you enlarge on this subject?" said Fr. Philip.

I think I became clear with what was mentioned previously. The word "tradition" means that which is handed down. And who hands down? The spiritual father. What does he hand down? Whatever he received and whatever was revealed to him. Thus, tradition is connected with Revelation. God reveals, man receives the Revelation from God and passes it on to his spiritual children. The Saint receives and passes on not an abstract teaching about God - of course, he may do this as well in the beginning - but, first and foremost, he passes on the way/method by which we attain to communion with God. I believe that the basic point which distinguishes Orthodox tradition from any other is the method through which man is cured. The background of the dogmas, of Orthodox arts, of social work, etc. is purification, illumination and theosis. When we reject this background, then we see the dogmas, the liturgical arts and all the external life of the Church, even the life of worship in a conservative way.

The Councils which took place at the time of St. Gregory Palamas (1341-1351) demonstrate that hesychasm - which is basically a method of cure - is the foundation of all the dogmas of our faith. For the first time in Church history these Councils studied in depth under what presuppositions the Westerners and in general all the heretics theologize; and the presupposition based on which the Holy Fathers theologize. For this reason, I repeat, they are basic and significant Councils. And it is in these Councils that we see the great value of St. Gregory Palamas, who championed in all of them. He proved that when we do not follow the therapeutic method of the Church, we shall be definitely led to heresy. Whereas when we lead our life according to the Orthodox tradition, we shall remain in the Church and we may attain to the vision of God and to theosis. Hesychasm is the backbone of Orthodox theology. The controversies which then took place were a blessing, because the Orthodox people thrived on them under later grave circumstances. Hesychasm brought forth the Neomartyrs, who revealed the existence of the Church. And it is the revival of the hesychastic spirit experienced by many people nowadays which will protect us from future temptations. It is the hesychastic method which inscribes on our heart the seal of the Lamb of the Revelation.

Liturgical arts and man's cure

"Yet, in what way are the therapeutic method and the stages of perfection the background of liturgical arts?"

This is a right question, because there is a trend nowadays to chant in a Byzantine way, to make icons in a Byzantine manner, to build churches according to Byzantine architecture, etc. This is good. Yet, it must be done in parallel with the effort to find and use the therapeutic treatment of the Church. For, liturgical arts as well as the entire teaching of the Church are the expression of this inner life. In other words, liturgical art was developed by sanctified people who had personal experience of the stages of spiritual perfection. In their attempt to create art they infused into their art all the experiences they had. The iconographer passed down in the Byzantine icon the therapeutic method and the way in which man reaches to theosis; he even imparted the state of theosis itself. When he paints the Saint in glory, he also renders the transfiguration of the human body. The same thing applies to the sacred hymns, the church building, the chanting. The healed person, he who has acquired the experience of noetic worship, knows how the intellectual worship must be expressed, so that it is attuned, as much as possible, with the inner state of the soul. I think that the revival of the liturgical arts which do not express and do not lead to purification, illumination and theosis is not Orthodox despite its external conformity. It is just a culture of the tradition and of art. The Apostle Paul, for example, lived the whole rabbinical tradition of his age, however he fought Christ. He had zeal for God but his zeal was not according to knowledge. The same thing may happen with us. Also, it is possible that a contemporary deified person may express tradition differently, concerning the liturgical arts, without naturally being estranged from the basic structure of the Byzantine tradition. This occurs because the Saint obtains the tradition, he is a bearer of tradition and, therefore, he creates tradition.

Customs and how they are related with man's cure

"There are many people today who pursue the revival of old, traditional customs. How do you see this?"

I cannot reject it. Man has realized that the invasion of the western spirit has mortified feelings and has broken off the interpersonal relationships. Thus, he attempts to revive old ways of life, which are more human. Yet, both the ethos and the customs of our people as much as the various objects which they used were not independent of the method of the Church, through which man is led to theosis. Of course, this is said with reservation, because many of these customs are products and remnants of idolatry as well as superstitions of the people. For, unfortunately, in old times just as nowadays, many superstitions prevailed. We feel the Church and God as Him who will help our businesses go well. Thus we do the holy water service so that we shall have a good harvest. And, indeed, we do not reject this too. But when this is detached from the whole method of the Church, from the stages of spiritual perfection - purification, illumination and theosis - they are dead forms incapable of helping man. They give a self-sufficiency and many illusions about therapy. They think that they will find beauty in life in this way and they are frustrated when they do not. On the contrary, I believe that the man who lives the hesychastic tradition of the Church - which, I repeat for another time, is concentrated on purification, illumination and theosis - can live the Orthodox tradition even in a flat, even in contemporary urban cities with the most unfavourable external conditions. Many new martyrs were servants of Turkish commanders. They externally served the Turkish empire, which fought Christianity. Even so they preserved this tradition and reached to the vision of God, martyrdom and theosis. For, many neomartyrs, as we see in their biographies, had theoria of God prior to the martyrdom and this is why their martyrdom was the fruit of theoria.


Thus I can conclude with what I said in the sermon at your Church a few days ago:

"What makes man an Orthodox is not only the persistence on the external aspects of tradition, but the experience of its inner life, which is the ascetic method - purification, illumination and theosis. This method, these stages of spiritual life are the foundation of the dogmas, the basis of ecclesiastical art, but also the creative cause of the ethos and customs of our people, because this theology saturated our forefathers prior to our westernization. For this reason we must struggle to keep this inner aspect of tradition, the method of Orthodox piety, through which we are healed. Then we are really zealots of patristic traditions. For, even if we have good intentions, outside this ascetic therapeutic method we run the risk of becoming enemies and adversaries of Orthodoxy."

From the book The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition.