Reflections on the recent gathering in Crete.
By Fr. James
There has been much anger and conjecture over the various irregularities surrounding the recent symposium on Crete that involved small delegations from ten of the almost forty jurisdictions of canonical Eastern Orthodoxy.
Of these, only the fourteen principal Churches were invited, and of them only 24 bishops from each were allowed to attend. Input into pre-prepared documents was tightly controlled, and the participatory power of even the attending bishops severely limited. They were, in fact, not permitted to exercise their individual episcopal office and vote, but were constrained to vote as a bloc All of this was a complete departure from Conciliar procedure throughout the history of the Church, where every bishop of the Church was invited to attend, discussions were conducted freely and without time limits or pre-decided documents, and all bishops were permitted to vote. In short, the atmosphere was engineered to make it as free as possible for the Holy Spirit to operate and for those in attendance to be able to respond to Him; not to constraints of time, space and a worldly concern for schedules and “efficiency.”
Because of all this, four of the invited Churches declined to attend. No attempt was made to address their objections or to postpone the meeting until their concerns could be dealt with. The organizational structure of the gathering thus forfeited its “pan-Orthodox” character.
It needs to be understood that the gathering at Crete was intended to be a Pan-Orthodox Council: a gathering of all of Orthodoxy, that would shape the Orthodox world for the foreseeable future. It was intended to reflect the unanimous consensus of God’s great and holy Church gathered in a Council that would in fact reflect the Mind of God, issuing in a joyful outpouring of gratitude to our Lord, Who, of His own Power, unconstrained, had revealed to them His Plan.
This was obviously not permitted to happen. The conference management simply declared that the decisions of the meeting would be “binding on everyone.” The impolite question, “by whose authority?” has not yet been dealt with, but it is obvious that neither the content nor the attitude of the directive will be accepted by Pan-Orthodoxy.
This being the case, many are, understandably, asking, “How worried should we be?” “What will happen to the Church? “Will there be a schism?” “If so, what will happen to us?
I would like to humbly venture some answers.
First, we don’t need to be worried at all. These are the actions of men, not of God. So
what if they manage to create, within the confines of the Church, an ersatz little political
world-structure, wherein they happily jockey with each other for the trappings of power and prestige? What does it matter? The Church is the Body of Christ, the living Presence of God the Son on earth. That little political patch is a different place altogether, of real consequence only to itself.
We are all free, even as were Adam and Eve to eat the fruit, to make our version of the Church a place wherein to satisfy our ambitions, to receive the adulation of men and the highest seats in the synagogues. Many are successful at it, and God tells us they have received their reward. The rest of us, those who don’t particularly care about all that, simply don’t have to be concerned with it.
Second, what will happen to the Church is that it will still be here. Orthodoxy is not
Orthodox because we say it is, or because we are able to promulgate documents. It
is much bigger than that, bigger than we are, bigger even than we can comprehend.
Orthodoxy is directly bound up in God.
We can take a telescope and look at the sweep and splendor of a universe we can only see a piece of; marvel at the stability of planets held in balance by the closest of cosmic tolerances, from which even a tiny variation would cause it all to tumble in on itself. What vast and precise power!
Then we can regard the Power that created that power, and by Whose Will it is sustained. That is what we’re in touch with, what we’re dealing with, what defends Orthodoxy. What do we think the efforts of men will—or can—do to it?
Third, maybe there will be a schism. It will create a lot of emotional turmoil, maybe even
anxiety. That’s never pleasant. It will be overcome by continuing to love one another, and
clergy and laity on all sides, who take the priestly charism of their baptism seriously, will
exhort all concerned to dwell in love of each other. So, even in the midst of what might be
high agitation, there will be healing and the protection (even if only slightly perceived at
times) of God’s Peace.
Objectively, it won’t matter at all. The heterodox will be heterodox. The Orthodox will be
Orthodox. Because in Orthodoxy there can be no “schism,” only those who adhere
and those who don’t. If I did or didn’t, the Church would go on with or without me. It
wouldn’t be a “schism,” it would just be how it was.
Fourth, what will happen to us? Well, I suppose most of us will be in church on Sunday,
just as ever. I’ll still be getting in my bishop’s hair with inquiries about things, people, will
still be calling for prayer support and, whatever we do, lay, clerical or consecrated, we’ll be
getting up in the morning to go to work. And, as He always does and always has,God will
protect us from our madness and folly and will encourage us—with that great, big Smile only
He can have--to get back up on our feet and keep walking forward in Him.
There is a wonderful bridge between the interior and exterior lives: the Sacraments.
The Theological definition of a Sacrament is that it is something instituted by God which
conveys Grace. Normally, we think of seven of them: Baptism, Chrismation, Confession, the Eucharist, Matrimony, Ordination and Anointing. These "walk through life" with us, from cradle to grave, and serve as points of contact with God.
Orthodoxy, however, thinks not just in terms of the Seven Sacraments, but of the sacramental life. That is, of life itself lived as a sacrament. And, isn't it? Life was instituted by God, and it conveys Grace.
God is Omnipresent: everywhere, everywhen. There is nothing He does not inhabit, because it is the Holy Spirit Who animates all things, Who gives them coherence. In
this sense, even the rocks are "alive," because if they were not they would crumble to dust; and even dust is "alive," or else it would crumble to powder; and powder would
crumble to its constituent particles, which would then carry on that life, in a way, through
their interaction with other particles. Thus not even entropy, the bitter fruit of sin, can overcome Life; for all life persists in God.
We need to be very careful, here, for our increasingly paganized world would have us believe that "all things are God." That is, that the sum total of all activity in the universe adds up to what we call God. And that is backwards. To say "God is in all things and animates all things" is not to say "all things, working together, are God."
All things are, however, creatures of God. That means that there is no created thing which
cannot convey to us some message about God's Character. So, each in its own way,
every created thing is an icon of God.
So, we speak of the Sacrament of the Present moment. I am alive, right now. I was alive
a nanosecond ago, and I may be alive a nanosecond from now. But now is when I am
alive, and it is now when I am able to perceive and meditate upon that which is around me.
It is here that I engage in the Sacramental Life, in this present moment, right here, right now, as a point of contact with God, wherein there is Grace.
"But," you may say, "sure, God is Omnipresent, but does that necessarily mean Grace
is?" Yes, it does. Grace is an uncreated energy of God, part of His very Character. Where
He is, it is. And He is everywhere, everywhen. He, and therefore Grace, is in the present
moment: this nanosecond of time which we have been granted. it is here that we meet God, because God lives in the Eternal Now. By immersing ourselves in the present moment--our Now--we touch God's Now.
Within this shared Now, we find that virtually everything is a sacrament--instituted by God--conveying Grace. In living the sacramental life, we touch Life at its most immediate and realize that life, itself, is a sacrament. We are impacted with the fact that Life--and, given the right occasion and attitude, anything we encounter, can be and is a point of contact with God and a conveyor of His Grace.
So, why do we need the Church? If God is everywhere, and engagement with Him is possible at every moment in every place, why do we need to go to some special place
in order to interact with Him? If everything is a sacrament, why do we need the Seven Sacraments at all?
Orthodox call the Sacraments "mysteries," because that is what they are: ultimately
hidden in God, and inexplicable. But we might open a path to understanding by reflecting that the entire universe is a gigantic icon of God. It is functional, it is something we can see and touch and interact with, but It has more than just a mechanical function--even as icons painted by hand have more than an artistic function.
The vastness of the universe is a window upon the vastness of its Creator; its orderliness, of His own order; its dynamism, of His power; its immediacy, of His availability. The universe is the matrix within which we have life, wherein we discover God. It is therefore a means whereby He conveys Himself to us. So, the universe itself is a sacrament.
It's the same with the Church, only at the same time both more vast and more immediate. More vast, because it is as part of the Church that we encounter God Himself. More immediate, because it is a Divine inbreaking into the world we inhabit, dealing with us on our terms, that we might become more than we are.
The Church is a bridge: a thin place, where the walls between the dimensions become porous. It is at once an icon and a product of the God-Man Who established her as both His Body and His Bride. It is God's Theanthropic (Divine-human) institution: a place between the worlds, partaking of both, dwelling in what the ancients called the borderlands.
To enter a church building is to step into this place between the worlds, a place where time and space are suspended and there is only God's Eternal Now. It is where we are, and at the same time, where He is.
And thus, the Sacraments. The Seven Sacraments reach us where we are, as we are,
and effect an interior transformation in us when we partake of them.
We call the Sacraments, "Mysteries," because they are, in the last analysis, beyond explanation. We can say that through the Sacrament of Confession God forgives sins, or that in the Sacrament of the Altar He transforms bread and wine into His actual, physical Presence, or that in the Sacrament of Matrimony two individuals become one flesh. These statements are sufficient in themselves: that's what they are, that's what happens, end of story. Then we start trying to explain them, and that's where we get into trouble. We get insights, we form opinions, we write papers to develop our opinions, we write books to promulgate our developed opinions, and all of it is just so much ink and paper, because the operative words in the process are "we" and "our."
The Sacraments are not matters of "we" and "our." They are things God does, not things that we do. We engage with God (or, He engages with us) in the Sacraments. We interact with Him in the Sacraments. But there is no possible way we can satisfactorily explain how, or even why, God's Hand reaches out to touch us thus.
When we finally come up with an explanation that satisfies us, that is what we have come up with: an explanation that satisfies us. And it will be every bit as all - encompassing as my cat attempting to explain the mystery of her food coming out of the refrigerator and onto her dish. Her perceptions are pure, and sufficient: there's the food, there's where it came from, there's how it got here. She has no need to master the mechanics of refrigeration, of canning or even of shopping. She need not trouble herself over my motives. She knows that I feed her and that I bring her food from one place to put it in another. She can thus enjoy the meal without confusion or inaccuracy, and come away nourished.
God's acts are hugely more out of my league than are my acts out of my cat's league. How could I ever hope to deliver a competent explanation of God's Act?
The good news is, I don't need to. And, not needing to frees me to live in the Present Moment with Him, and enter into His Now. It is sufficient for me to reflect that, just as Divinity became Flesh in Christ, entering the world and touching it on its own terms, so does Spirit deal with matter in the Sacraments, that Divinity might touch me on my own terms.
This Eternal Now into which the Sacraments draw me, this "sacrament of the present moment," is actually all that I have. The beginning of this sentence has been written, and I may never reach the end of it (whew! made it!). The past is gone, and the future, even the most immediate future, is not guaranteed. The Present Moment is when I am alive, and when I meet God. It establishes in me the meeting-place between the interior and the exterior, and is the key to living my life as the sacrament that it is. The Sacraments
of the Church, which I receive in the Present Moment, prepare me to live, and sustain me through, the Sacramental Life.