Myopia: what the Ecumenical Struggle Seeks to Overcome

Posted on July 2, 2012

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

The word myopia comes from the Greek muein “to shut” and ops “eye.” It refers to a failure—deliberate or otherwise—of any person to see the true reality of any thing beyond its face value. This is precisely what the Ecumenical struggles seeks to overcome, since so much of our division is the result of misconceptions and misunderstandings.

On the one hand, part of the difficulty comes from the fact that much myopia can happen accidentally, on account of the great distances which separate people from each other and the different cultures which quite naturally color someone’s view. This is natural and there is nothing sinful in this.

However, there is a deeper myopia which can affect the very soul of someone and cause them to sin. This happens when one culture encounters another culture. Inevitably there will be dissonance. One cultural lens is unable to grasp the other culture’s viewpoint—and may even take umbrage at some perceived offense to differing moral customs. This is natural. But in the midst of this dissonance, as in any feeling or thought, there is a temptation and an opportunity. It is an opportunity to learn patience, compassion, and empathy—which is to ‘see past’ the apparent fault one might find in our neighbor. This is paramount for true spirituality. St. John Cassian puts it this way:

It is dangerous to judge others because, being unaware of the need or the motive out of which they do things offensive to us but either correct or excusable in God’s sight, we put ourselves in the position of having judged them rashly; in this we commit no small sin by thinking of our brothers other than we ought.”[1]

This “thinking of our brothers other than we ought” perfectly describes what myopia is. But this quotation describes how, on the other hand, the instance of cultural or interpersonal dissonance also creates a temptation. It is a temptation to refuse, deep in our soul, to have compassion for our neighbor, to attempt to understand him on his terms (not our own), and be patient and kind to him. This means to refuse to see past his mistakes but see him from only from our own perspective. This is shutting one’s eyes willfully. This is sinful myopia. It is nothing else that disobedience to our Lord Jesus Christ who commanded us to love your neighbor as yourself. You see yourself from your perspective. Why can you not see your neighbor from his perspective?

And so our Lord, wishing to show forth His salvation and healing from this myopic division in man, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary. In this, He taught us to renounce everything we are (…being the form of God, he counted equality with God not something to be grasped, but emptied himself…) and to take the form of the other in order to minister to him. This is the principle of ‘incarnational ministry.’ It means that we must incarnate ourselves into our neighbor through Christ in order to love him or her and truly see the reality of our neighbor, for who they are truly.

Thus during His earthly life, our Lord broke numerous social barriers which prevented neighbor from loving neighbor, and intentionally challenged different cultural groups to see past the others’ apparent faults. After He had fulfilled the dispensation of His glorious Cross and Resurrection, He, being the head of the Church, ascended to heaven, and through the Holy Spirit manifested the Church to be His Body on earth. Herein our Lord was reconciling all things to God—and breaking down the narrow vision of His people to see the whole of humanity—Jew and gentile, barbarian and Scythian. He being Head of the Body, was in heaven, while His Body was on earth to effect this salvation.

Thus through Christ’s Holy Spirit, His Body condemned Judaizing as the very first heresy.[2] This heresy insisted that my neighbor have the same cultural uniqueness as me in order to be in the Body. But this was simply a failure to see past the surface level externals which did not effect the essence of salvific love which our Savior preached. Judaizing forms the type of the great heresies that were to come, because it denies the spiritual incarnational principle—it is a refusal to incarnate ourselves among the other—and thus the Incarnation itself.

Healing from this heresy is precisely what St. Peter said, Of a truth I understand that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. St. Peter suffered from myopia not willingly, but it caused him to not understand the truth behind the externals. His moment of realization comes when he goes to the house of a gentile, taking the risk of incarnating himself among them personally—even those this very thing was unlawful. Through this act of incarnation, the scales of his myopic eyes fell away, and the whole Church was enlightened.

When Christ condemned Judaizing, the Holy Spirit then began to nourish His Body and make it grow over every culture and land. Thus God began to transfigure every unique culture into a distinct manifestation of Christian culture vivified by the Holy Spirit.

But the Church continued to fall into Judaizing every time Christians were willfully myopic, failing to love their neighbor, and thus failing to love God. Thus we have arguments over languages and terminology, beards and yeast, food, fasting and calendars. How often were these arguments a failure because of a willful, sinful myopia? How often, if these arguing parties would have incarnated themselves to truly look into the other’s practices, would these dissensions been resolved?

These “Modern” Times

In our days, we see the effect of mass communication and technology radically altering our myopic vision. These new capabilities of travel and communication bring about unprecedented opportunities to know other peoples and to love them.

It has immensely helped the many Christians divided amongst themselves, now that God’s wrath has caused us to become a bit more humble. This has blossomed into the Ecumenical struggle of the twentieth century, in which people groups who were bitterly divided against one another for centuries—some up to fifteen!—have suddenly begun to speak to one another and seek to understand one another—to incarnate themselves in the midst of the other. In a beautiful movement of God’s grace, innumerable Christians have begun to discover that their divisions are not in fact what they thought—numerous misconceptions aggravated by a willful myopia. Many say with St. Peter, Of a truth I understand…

One of the most incredible—to briefly name one—is the rapprochement between the so-called “Chalcedonian” and “Non-Chalcedonian” Orthodox, who have been divided since around the 6th century. In the beginning they committed the most profane acts of fratricidal hatred, then their political divisions separated them and they mutually considered each other to be heretics—even scorning each other’s fasting practices. But in the past thirty years, nothing short of miraculous has occurred when these two Christian communions have begun to speak to one another once again. By simply talking face to face, these Christians were able to see past their surface-level differences and realize that the substance of their faith is in fact identical. This is simply the struggle against myopia to realize the fulfillment of our Lord’s commandment through the principle of incarnational ministry.

However, there are other forces at work to hold tightly to this myopia—either deliberately or unintentionally. One of the first marks of this myopia is the use of ad hominem. Ad hominem may mean that an author is willfully myopic because by relying on taunts and name-calling he never truly probes past the surface level of any issue. The use of ad hominem might show that an author is unwilling to love his neighbor, because he attacks him and distances himself from them—intentionally using terms which he knows are offensive to his brother, which do not reflect his self-understanding but rather reinforce his pride in himself. And so some such authors continually accuse their opponents of “schizophrenia,” “blindness,” and they are “uniates,” “papists,” “Jesuits,” who practice “deception.”[3] The effect especially of the later fills the reader with fear so that he also cannot go past the surface level because he is afraid of deception for the sake of his own salvation. Thus, these techniques cause the reader to sin as well through the irony of a most pernicious spiritual deception.

But our Lord, when confronted with the sin of the other, became like unto them in order to relate to them and love them. He bore patiently with them, and forgave them when they crucified Him. When He condemned someone, He did so with perfect charity and truth, and He spoke this way because He knew intimately how these people thought and taught—because He had come and dwelt among them. Only when you have loved someone incarnationally can you criticize them—because then you truly know them as they even see themselves.

It could be that these authors do not read the documents of their opponents in order to understand them, but only to find fodder for their arguments. This might be observed when they are unable to see anything past the surface level of the words. They see what immediately looks to be apparent, and assume that the only way it can be read is their absolute, black-and-white manner, and consider any other, more nuanced expression to be a “deception.” The use of this word is an intellectual shortcut which obscures the reality that the author has failed to truly penetrate the meaning of the text.

Thus one author considers the Ecumenists to intentionally deceive. “The ecumenists—much like today’s politicians—speak out of both sides of their mouths,” and so the author attempts to “expose the deceptive ecclesiological schizophrenia that is evident in the more important statements emerging from the ecumenical movement.”[4] He then proceeds to analyze the documents.

But since he has not been directly involved with the Ecumenical movement, they seem to be incomprehensible to him. He does not say, ‘O brethren, what do your words mean?’ and seek an explanation through personal contact, giving them the benefit of the doubt and patiently bearing all things. No. He rather assaults them with accusations, and assumes that the interpretation of the documents is black and white.

He then endeavors to prove that by accepting the truth that there exists any ecclesial reality outside the Orthodox Church, the Orthodox ecumenists thereby accept the heretical Branch Theory (that all confessions are really the same). Another author, speaking again in absolutes, concludes that “if…you accept that the ‘one baptism’ we confess is the Symbol of Faith is the same as that ‘baptism’ performed by the heterodox, it follows that the ‘one Church’ is identified with a ‘church’ to which the heterodox also belong.”[5] Any allowance for the subtleties of divine mysteries are labeled as subterfuge and dismissed.

Thus when confronted with the clear statement of Orthodox ecumenists condemning the Branch Theory yet affirming these ecumenical statements, these authors are astonished, because they seem to be not able to see any deeper meaning.

We can only assume the full sincerity and honesty of these remarks [which condemn the Branch Theory], thus fueling our amazement even more. How can it be that one who is seminary trained (Mr. Bouteneff was educated at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY) and who agrees that the Branch Theory is a heresy, cannot see that the undoubted position of the Orthodox ecumenists is one which it purports to decry—as evidenced by the very documents that he sent in order to prove his assertion![6]

The reason for this astonishment may be that these authors simply refuse to go deeper and thus will not allow the inner paradoxes and mysteries exist, but seek to force them into a logical paradigm. It would not be amazing to anyone if they truly loved their neighbor, listened to his point of view, and really understood him. Compare the above words to Martin Luther, when he was absolutely convinced that the Bible taught his doctrines denying free will: “I am astonished that in the face of these universal words and sentences [of Scripture] contrary and even contradictory ideas have come to prevail.”[7] The astonishment is a result of failing to see how another might see the same words differently.

Compare these words to those of Blessed Seraphim Rose, who was able to do this: “one cannot call such people [Orthodox Ecumenists] ‘heretics,’ nor can one affirm that any but a few Orthodox representatives have actually taught ecumenism as a heresy.[8]” Instead, these authors use the word “heretic” and “apostate” to describe their opponents, and are astonished that any could not fit into their logical box.

Is this astonishment simply the fruit of pride? Is it prideful to think that everything that is obvious to you would immediately be obvious to your neighbor? (On the whole, however, I must admit my own limits in giving criticism, not only for my own sinfulness and lack of knowledge, but realizing that I may not have understood their criticism itself. It is important that I admit that my critique of surface level criticism may also suffer from the same error. I leave the reader to judge me and beg him to pardon these faults of mine.)

But this continued myopia is also a result of that which has begun to enable us to overcome it—the new technology of communication. Before this, only a traveler who has been to foreign regions—and dwelt among them—could come back and report about some other. Now however, the mass media enables anyone to become a traveler, and know the other. There has certainly been enormous benefit from this, but on the other hand it can also convince others that simply listening to media—or even worse, simply one media source—sufficient information can be gathered in order to make a judgment about the truth of the matter. It convinces us not to heed Cassian words quoted at the beginning of this essay. Hillaire Belloc wrote that as a result of post-Reformation Europe’s “isolation of the soul,”

Men—under the very influence of skepticism—have come to accept almost any printed matter, almost any repeated name, as an authority infallible and to be admitted without question…a vast majority, which accepts without question an always incomplete, a usually quite false, statement of the thing because it has been repeated in the daily press and vulgarized in a hundred books.[9]

Thus the condemnations of many monasteries—necessarily isolated from the rest of the world because of their spiritual vocation—rely on second-hand reports or else the media itself to condemn something they never saw with their own eyes nor touched. In condemning the Pope’s visit to the Phanar in 2006, a group of Athonite hermits writes:

He proclaimed the “Our Father;” the choir of sacred cantors chanted “Many Years” to him, as well as a specially composed troparion from an Athonite hymnographer—Lord, have mercy!—if, of course, the news reports are true;[10]

How much information is presented accurately to a monastery? Another group of Athonite monks condemning this information and writes that

We are especially grieved by the fact that all of the media kept repeating the same, incorrect information, that the psalms that were (unduly) sung at the time had been composed by Monks of the Holy Mountain. We take this opportunity to responsibly inform all pious Christians that their composer was not, and could never be, a monk of the Holy Mountain.[11]

Could it be that, having admitted that the media reports are inaccurate in this objective and superficial detail, they would be unable to discern and report about the deeper mysteries and paradoxes present in the Ecumenical documents and the manner of the struggle itself? We have already written about the media’s use of open slander and obscurantism when reporting on the Ecumenical struggle. God will judge those who deliberately hide the truth, but He will pardon those zealots who do not know what they do.

But the media aggravates myopia not simply by creating a false picture, it also panders to our sinful passions by invigorating an over-sensitivity and eagerness to take offense. In an official statement from Mt. Athos, the monks write:

Uniates comprise a portion of the Roman Catholic delegation, a fact which is a provocation for the Orthodox. The sensibilities and dignity of the Orthodox delegation demand the immediate substitution of others in place of the uniates in the membership. No Orthodox whose manner of thinking corresponds to this faith can agree to participate in a commission which includes uniates.[12]

These monks use the word “provocation.” Is this the behavior of a Christian? St. John Cassian writes,

We are commanded to get angry in a healthy way, at ourselves and at the evil suggestions that make an appearance…[but] patience does not achieve its goal in ‘righteous anger’ [at our brother]; it consists, rather, in not getting angry at all…the perfect medicine for this disease is that we realize…that in no way are we permitted to get angry, whether for an unjust or just cause.[13]

When we are offended at our brother, we fail to see past his mistakes, to have compassion, to bear all things, to be patient, kind. Nothing should provoke us to offense and anger except the sin inside our souls. Bombarded by media, it is tempting to simply be offended all the time, build up myopia, and isolate ourselves from our brother and sister. This is a doleful state but it is even more iniquitous when it causes dissensions among brothers. Let us, then, struggle against myopia. Let us incarnate ourselves among our brothers to learn who they really are, and what they really teach, not being satisfied with surface level knowledge. Let us take full advantage of this new technology to truly love our neighbor as our selves—seeing him from the perspective with which he sees himself.

May the entreaties of our loving Mother—not only to God, but to us as well—lead us to repentance.

Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas


[1] St. John Cassian, Institutes, 5.30

[2] Acts 15

[3] For example, Patrick Barnes, “Ecumenist ‘Double Speak,’ accessed at http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/doublespeak.aspx; Fr. Peter Alban Heers, “The Mystery of Baptism and the Unity of the Church.”

[4] Barnes, op. cit.

[5] Heers, 12

[6] Barnes, op. cit.

[7] Luther, On the Bondage of the Will in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, trans. Rupp, and Watson (Philidelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 315

[8] Hieromonk Damascene, Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, Ch. 99, accessed at http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/fsr_99.aspx

[9] Hillaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith, 257ff.

[10] An Open Letter to the Holy Abbots and the Holy Representatives of the Sacred Twenty Monasteries in the Holy Community of the Holy Mount Athos, accessed at http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/kelliotes.aspx

[11] The Official Statement from Mt. Athos on the Pope’s Visit to the Phanar (2006) accessed at http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/athos_popevisit2006.aspx

[12] The Announcement of the Extraordinary Joint Conference of the Sacred Community of the Holy Mount Athos, accessed at http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/athos.aspx

[13] Cassian, The Institutes, 8.18, 21-22

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