Orthodox America

  Are We Losing the Savor?

There is still plenty of time for this year's presidential race to degenerate into "politics as usual," but currently each candidate is trying to stake his tent on high moral ground. The defining issue of the race appears to be neither domestic nor foreign policy but character, values. Polls indicate that even among liberals, many Americans today feel that the promotion of respect for traditional values should be a national priority. In a hopeful essay, Charles Colson points to the shooting tragedy at Columbine High School as having triggered a significant shift in our nation's values. It suddenly became evident that the obsession with autonomy, which grew out of the "do your own thins" mentality of the '60s, had produced a host of social pathologies and the brutal violence of two teenagers convinced that God was dead. Calling the Columbine tragedy "the Pearl Harbor of the culture wars," Colson writes, "People are recognizing that the prevailing system of the past forty years simply doesn't work. This is what provides believing Jews and Christians of all confessions ... such an extraordinary opportunity to reshape the culture." ("Modernist Impasse, Christian Opportunity" in First Things, June/July 2000) 

      Historically, Christianity has proven to do just that. One thinks of pagan Rome -- its excesses, debauchery, gluttony, superstitions, corruption-and how starkly this contrasted against the behavior of those who believed and followed the Gospel, with its precepts of humility, temperance, modesty, longsuffering, patience, and love. This is wonderfully illustrated in that superb literary classic, Quo Vadis, whose protagonist, the eligible Roman tribune Vinicius, falling desperately in love with a young woman, is puzzled why she, unlike the rest, spurns his advances--until he discovers she is a Christian. This was a woman whose religion set her apart from others.... He grasped at last what neither he nor Petronius could comprehend before, that this new faith grafted some totally new idea onto the human soul, something that had never existed in mankind before." Of course, more powerful than any fiction is the witness of countless martyrs, whose martyrlc exploits often converted hundreds, sometimes thousands, of onlookers----on the spot. And down through the centuries, there were others: ascetic desert dwellers, monastics, missionaries, righteous lay men and women. "Acquire the spirit of peace," enjoined Saint Seraphim of Sarov, "and a thousand around you will be saved.' The spirit of peace, that is also to say the light of Christ, the sweet smelling savor of the Gospel. Saint John Chrysostom, commenting on the parable that compares the Kingdom of Heaven to leaven, paraphrases the Evangelist to say that just as leaven imbues a large quantity of dough with its own virtue, so shall you transform the world." In acquiring the spirit of peace, in bearing within themselves the Kingdom of Heaven, the saints indeed provided that leaven that transformed not only the people but the very culture around them.

      As Orthodox Christians, we are called to do the same. But are we, in fact, to be distinguished from the majority of people around us? Do we not suffer from the same spiritual inertia, the same lack of fervor evident in the society at large?

      From our own experience, many of us can empathize only too well with Natalia Petrovna, one of Father Arseny's spiritual daughters, when she reflects that members of their once dose-knit community had lost their focus. Once they were young, brimming with spiritual energy, burning with the desire to help each other..." Then came years of arrests, exile, wartime mobilization, and when it became possible once again to come together, "we suddenly realized that we had aged ... We each had a family, our own problems, illnesses, work and children--and our faith and our good intentions had been diluted by all these concerns... The light had become dull, our spiritual life almost gone... I felt that in our prayers we now asked for help more and glorified God less. It didn't used to be that way. I asked Father Arseny once, why is this so? He answered me somewhat sadly,

       "'In a way this is natural.., just look at the life which has been created: radio, magazines, television, newspapers, cinemas, and theater create a standardized way of thinking, the same for everyone. This leads to a person being unable to be alone with his own thoughts, to feel the presence of God. The pace of today's life, so quick, and so constantly pressured, makes people think only according to how somebody wants them to...'"

       Much the same can be said about us Orthodox living in the West today, although our case is less excusable. We have not lived through wars and arrests, exiles, evacuations, hunger--conditions that wear a person out, that compel him to think only of how to survive. On the contrary, we have imbibed the spirit of the times; we have become infected imperceptibly by the leaven of worldliness; we have been weakened not by hardship but by material comforts. In this way we are losing the savor of Christianity, as Fr. Seraphim (Rose) frequently warned. As we lose the savor of Orthodoxy we cease to appreciate Orthodoxy's uniqueness and we fall prey to a compromising ecumenism.

       How can we preserve the savor of Orthodoxy? By clinging to those who possess it so unmistakably: the saints and the righteous. Let us heed their examples, their instructions. We have no dearth of Orthodox books on the subject. Here, for example, is Father Arseny's advice to his spiritual children:

      "In this world you must walk the path of God's commandments, be merciful to one another; in your behavior and actions try to be like monks-even though you live in this stormy sea of life. Then God's mercy will not leave you." He also said, "Every day, look at all your actions and answer to them before yourself and before God ... Pray more, read the Scriptures, and God will preserve you."

     People are becoming eager to listen to something more reasonable and more rational as a way of life than what led to Columbine," writes Colson. Many are seeking today not only for something "more reasonable" but for what is transcendent and possesses absolute values, absolute truth. If we strive to be true Orthodox Christians, eschewing the leaven of worldliness and modernism on the one hand and the leaven of phariseeism on the other, we can become a sweet savor to Christ, bearing within ourselves the Kingdom of Heaven, that leaven which, more effectively than any civic action or political debate, can act upon others and reshape our culture for good.