Sanctity: the Whole Basis for and Telos of Christian Unity (and all of Christian life, especially dogma)

Posted on May 28, 2012


In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen. Suscipe, Sancte Pater.

Mandorla - the iconographic representation of God's holiness shared by His Saints

Wondrous is God in his Saints, the God of Israel. 

The purpose of the Church is to worship God. In order to worship Him truly, we must become Saints—to subject our whole being to Him in worship. When Christians do this, there is unity among men and women as sisters and brothers. This is because the fruit of worshipping lives is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Christian division happens when someone chooses rather to worship himself rather than God, and thus shows forth the bad fruit of quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. The Orthodox confession of faith is precisely that which is born from the former Spiritual fruit. The heretical and schismatic confession is that which is born from the latter demonic fruit.

The Saints all down the ages who showed forth the good fruit of Spirit defended the true faith. Where there are Saints, there is the true faith, and the true Church. It is a mark of the Church, parallel to the episcopacy.

There are in a sense two forms of apostolic succession within the life of the Church. First there is the visible succession of the hierarchy, the unbroken series of bishops in different cities…alongside this, largely hidden, existing on a “charismatic” rather than an official level, there is secondly the apostolic succession of the spiritual fathers and mothers in each generation of the church – the succession of saints.[1]

The Saints form the indelible mark of the Church and its catholicity, joined with the objective episcopacy. The Saints, along with the bishops, keep the unity of the Church throughout all its generations.[2]

Sanctity is related to the hierarchy in that sanctity is only achieved through humility and obedience. The holy elder Sophrony taught that obedience is the vital link to humility and love, and that “the absence of obedience in the predisposition of a person is the genuine sign of illness of soul, which restrains that person within the confines of individualistic egoism.”[3] This is the heretical faith—a faith which insists on its own way and has no patience, kindness gentleness, but refuses resolutely to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. The faith of the Saints, on the other hand, is integrated into the community of faith through obedience to the bishops and the tradition they guard. The Saints then become the fruit of obedience to the union of tradition and Episcopal authority (often represented in the person of a priest or abbot).

This is because “the knowledge of God is not gained through books on theology and dogma. Knowledge of God can only be attained through long and arduous spiritual practices.”[4] These practices, performed in obedience to spiritual authority with the guidance of tradition, lead to holiness. If we rely too much on our own knowledge, we are simply obeying our own will, and not the will of God. Doing this will lead to spiritual disaster.

Dangerous [is] that drunkenness that springs from all too great self-trust and the eagerness that ensues. With an abandoned zeal that expresses itself in exaggerations and extravagances…it bears such fruit as overstrain, intolerance, and self-righteousness.[5]

The Saints are those who struggle to know God through obedience to real people and heritage and thereby learn humility and love. Heretics are those who are drunk with their own knowledge, being taken captive in their pride by the multitude of self-righteous words—refusing always to submit to the bishops and the tradition. This is because the heretic refuses to truly love his neighbor, and will not be patient with him. Instead, he makes everyone into his own enemy, judging all men but himself as in error and unrighteous.

St. Silouan taught that

love for one’s enemies is the sole authentic criterion of truth, and this, not only in a soteriological sense…but also on the dogmatic plane, the plane of abstract ideal conceptions about Divine Being.[6]

The reason for this is that this person struggles to realize truly the love of God in his life. He seeks to believe in the Creed to the fullest extent. To truly love his neighbor. Since he is obedient to the heritage of tradition and the spiritual authority of priests and bishops (even if they are wicked), he is incapable of having enemies, but only neighbors.

Let us draw some conclusions and apply this to our Ecumenical struggle. First, since the true faith is a combination of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, the two can never really be separated. Second: since the mark of the Saints is obedience to true doctrine and love to one’s neighbor, in union with bishops, then the Saints are those who refuse to separate orthodoxy and praxy, but struggle to make them one. It is true that the saints often rebelled against heretical bishops, but a close inspection of history will reveal that these saints were in fact loving their enemies and seeking to convert them—never trying to divide the Church.

The third conclusion, though, is perhaps the most important. Since the saint combines obedience to truth and Christian love, he becomes truly a theologian, since his knowledge of God flows forth from his struggle to realize the fruit of the Holy Spirit—truth in love. This is not simply an academic, surface level knowledge, but one of experience.

I draw this final conclusion because I wish to suggest a point that perhaps may give light to the terrible debacle of division we have. On the one hand, since sanctity is a vital mark of the Church, it seems quite clear that both the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church retain this mark—the examples of sanctity abound, even to the present day in miraculous cures, resurrections, and incorrupt relics. But even as we marvel at the saints’ holiness, we also note that many of them down through the ages have condemned each other.[7] How can these saints both be saints, even as they are condemning each other as heretics?

I wonder if we follow the principle that true spiritual knowledge comes from obedience and experience, we might see how each of these saints, in their own context, followed obedience and reached humility and love. So, for example, the saints in Russia venerated holy Russian icons and received help from the departed Russian saints. Within this context, they achieved sanctity. And so their knowledge of God is intimately tied to their own cultural context.

But when a Russian saint might look at, say, western icons, this knowledge is only discursive and academic, not integrated in the experiential, obediential spiritual knowledge. And so, the holy priest Arseny, so deeply venerated by many, says of a western Madonna:

Look at a western Madonna and at an ancient Russian icon; you will see the difference. In our icons you can feel the spirit of faith, the imprint of Orthodoxy; on western paintings you see a Lady, a woman: spiritual yes, but full of earthly beauty. You do not feel the power of God’s grace; it is only a woman. Just look at the Mother of God of Vladimir. Look at her eyes and you will read such strength of spirit, such faith in God’s mercy, and such hope for salvation.[8]

Father Arseny achieved sanctity by his obedience to the truth in his own Russian spirituality. But when he looked at the western spirituality, his knowledge was not experiential. He had perhaps never venerated western statuary or sacred art, nor prayed western prayers. Thus, it is very difficult for him to see the spiritual side of these things—his knowledge of this was discursive and academic, not spiritual. “The knowledge of God is not gained through books on theology and dogma. Knowledge of God can only be attained through long and arduous spiritual practices.”

However, it seems evident that western saints find great benefit from experiential spiritual obedience to their own cultural experience. I have seen western criticisms of eastern art as being too other-worldly, while praising western art as being incarnational. But again, is this not simply a result of this discursive knowledge, rather than the spiritual experience?

Perhaps the greater communication that this modern world affords, and the ecumenical openness which we now benefit from will go a long way towards changing these attitudes. We now live in a world that is seconds away from communicating aurally and visually with anyone else in the world. This is absolutely revolutionary, and it is opening us to be able to enter more deeply into truly spiritual knowledge of another culture. However, it may be true that humanity was not designed to endure “long and arduous spiritual practices” except in one’s own cultural context. Nevertheless, because of the need for saints to show us the true faith, perhaps we need a new sanctity, one that seeks the knowledge of God ecumenically and struggles to know Him within these different cultural expressions—without thereby diminishing the integrity of any. Perhaps only through this Sanctity will the true unity of the Church be revealed—the unity of the Saints which transcends national, cultural, and canonical boundaries. The manifestation of the Holy Spirit, who blows where He wills.

Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas

[1] Met. Kallistos Ware, qtd. in Hieromonk Alexander Golitzin, The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain (South Canaan: St Tikhon’s Press, 1996), 48

[2] Perhaps we may point to the objective, visible element of the episcopacy as representing Christ’s human nature, while the hidden sanctity might be his invisible divinity.

[3] Qtd. in Sakharov, I love therefore I am (SVS 2002), 215

[4] Markides, Mountain of Silence, 55

[5] Tito Colliander, The Way of the Ascetics, 79

[6] Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 232

[7] We might point out here, very quickly, how the Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox venerate saints who excommunicated each other as heretics. These two communions have now all but healed this awful fifteen-centuries-old schism. One of the reasons, however, that some rigorists in each communion oppose final reconciliation is specifically because of these mutual condemnations of saints.

[8] Vera Bouteneff, Father Arseny: 1893-1973. Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, 18