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Orthodox Survival Course
St. Irene Orthodox Church
Rochester Hills, Michigan
Class 59: Return to the Catacombs
The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.
My kingdom is not of this world.
Be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.
– the words of Christ
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A Prefatory Note
Lately there has been a lot of controversy in our Church, due to current circumstances, regarding issues like the Church’s relationship to the civil authority and our reading of the signs of the times in relation to eschatological prophecy. It’s good to recall at this juncture that my lectures are the result of my own studies and give my opinion, within a spectrum of allowable opinion that does not violate the dogmas, canons, or moral teaching of the the Church, and whose publication does not hinder Her salvific mission. There are many listeners who have found my talks helpful, and for this, glory to God. Those who do not find them helpful are, of course, under no obligation to listen to them or to agree with them.
Introduction – The Situation
As we speak, during the Nativity Fast of A.D. 2020, it is clear that we must be ready to make extremely difficult choices caused by an impending persecution of the Church and prepare ourselves for a way of life that very few of us – or perhaps none of us who are listening to this – have lived first hand: a hidden Church life, a “catacomb” life. Since, then, we should be ready for a catacomb Christian life, it is now a good time to recall similar periods in the Church’s history, both at Her beginning and most recently during the 20th century, in order to re-acquaint ourselves with the Church’s true character, to acquire discernment in order to read the signs of the times, and to prepare our souls through repentance and attentiveness for the day when we will be asked to suffer for the Faith.
A. Going Back to Basics – The Character of the Early Church
An old priest friend of mine often used to say, “The Church was born in the catacombs, and She knows how to go back to the catacombs.” There is a lot of wisdom here. Though Her outward life, organization, and institutional relationship to society have changed over the centuries to better serve the needs of Her children in different places and times, the Church’s essential virginal character as the Woman who flees into the wilderness to escape the wiles of the devil, as depicted in St. John’s Apocalypse, has always remained. We spoke of this way back at the beginning of our course, three years ago, in Class One. Let’s refresh our memories by re-reading some of our notes from that class, which began with a sticheron from Vespers of the Sunday vigil.
Evening worship do we offer Thee, the Unwaning Light, Who in the end of the ages, through the flesh as in a mirror, hast shined upon the world; and hast descended even unto Hades, and dispelled the darkness there, and hast shown the light of the Resurrection unto the nations. O Giver of light, Lord, glory be to Thee.
The Octoechos, Plagal of the First Tone,
Great Vespers of Saturday (the vigil of the Resurrection)
Why does St. John of Damascus, writing in the 8th century, say that Christ, Who ascended to heaven in 33 A.D., came “at the end of the ages”? Here’s what we said about that in Class 1 –
“Why, in the hymn we read at the beginning of the class, does St. John of Damascus write that the Lord shone upon the world ‘…at the end of the ages’? This world is obviously still here; in what sense did Christ come ‘at the end of the ages?’ What this means is that mere time, time that marks the degeneration and corruption of creation, time ‘winding down’ to the end, the old time of corruption and death, is over. The time we live in now, the time inaugurated by the Lord’s Resurrection, is not ‘mere time’ but time redeemed by the Lord. In a sense, the New Testament Church has always lived after the end of the world – the old dying world of sin and corruption, the world without Christ. We are simply waiting for the Lord to return. In a sense, then, our Orthodox understanding of the entire history of the Christian era is an understanding that the Lord has already taken care of history, and we are living betwixt and between time and eternity. We live in time, but already, in virtue of our Baptism, we are living outside of time; we are not determined by time. This gives us great spiritual security and freedom.
“The early Church had an intense awareness of this, and therefore we can characterize her life as intensely eschatological, bound up with the acute sense of being at the very edge of eternity. Being eschatological, the Early Church set the tone for the entire life of the Orthodox Church until now, which is characterized by four related traits: The life of the Church is eschatological, other-worldly, martyric, and ascetical.
“The early Christians expected the Lord to return any minute. The fact that He did not return in their lifetimes, or the lives between them and us, does not dim the reality that He could return at any minute.
“Thus the entire life of the Church is characterized by an other-worldly attitude. Our life is not ‘here’ but ‘there.’ St. Paul says that our life is ‘hid with Christ in God.’ Since it’s not here but there, the Christian is therefore not afraid to be a martyr, to die for his faith. And while he is waiting to die, either by martyrdom or otherwise, or to ‘meet the Lord in the air’ at the Second Coming, he lives an ascetic life, denying the flesh in order to keep vigil for the Second Coming, to live according to the laws of the Heavenly Kingdom which is not of this world, and to be prepared for martyrdom.
“Though we lament the destruction of Christian, especially, Orthodox, nations and cultures, we must realize that this is allowed by God, and He places us in this position for our salvation and that the Church was born in the catacombs and that She knows how to survive in the catacombs. Ultimately, Orthodoxy is not about anything in this world, which is passing away, but about the Kingdom which has come, comes now among us, and will come.
“All of our study of history must have this as its background and foundation. What we see as historical processes, no matter how vast or grand, are really just the tiny tips of the unseen mountains of spiritual processes, of the spiritual warfare that will end only with the Second Coming.”
End of the notes from Class 1.
So we have to avoid a secular reading of history, in which there are just these random processes that have purely material or humanistic explanations. We know that that is simply not reality. Real history is the history of the spiritual warfare of Christ and the Church against Satan and against the various antichrists who have appeared and keep appearing, until the end of time. This history works itself out both in the invisible and visible realms, because a human being is both an invisible and visible creature, that unique macrocosm that lives in both the spiritual and the material universes. When we go off the rails and try to explain everything from a secular point of view, we lose our perspective and fall into complacency on the one hand or despair on the other hand. When we stand firm in the Church’s reading of history, we do not go into denial and try to justify the latest delusions of worldly society on the one hand or become gloomy and obsessed with evil on the other hand. We look evil straight in the face while remaining cheerful, meek, and courageous, because God is with us. Like the early Catacomb Church, we embrace a way of looking at everything that is eschatological, martyric, other-worldly, and ascetical. All of these aspects of true Christian life work together to support each other; they are inseparable.
Eschatological – We must remain always vigilant, constantly recalling the hour of our death and the hour of Christ’s Second Coming and Dread Judgment. As the Fathers teach us, we should live each day as though it were our last; we should daily say to ourselves, “Tonight I could be standing before the judgment seat of Christ.” In recent generations, two great delusions militate against this vigilance. In regards to the hour of one’s own death, advances in medicine and an idolatrous trust in “science” have tricked people into thinking that death is not real, that somehow it can be fixed by human efforts and avoided. In regards to the end of the world, the inconceivably huge time frame for earth history invented by the Darwinists has taken on a kind of mystical power, giving everyone the idea that the physical universe has been around kind of forever and is going to go on kind of forever, or at least forever for practical purposes. We need to see these myths for what they are and reject them.
Martyric – “Martyr” means a witness. When confronted with the demand that we reject our confession of Faith, either by rejecting the Church’s dogmatic theology or by disobeying Her moral commands, we have to be ready to suffer for what is True and what is Good. If we are not faithful to the True and to the Good, we will never have the un-deluded vision of the truly Beautiful, either in this world or in the life to come. One of the complex of errors in the the 20th century that go under the umbrella of “Ecumenism” and “Sergianism” teaches that only the explicit spoken denial of a specific dogmatic truth found in the Creed or the Ecumenical Councils constitutes a betrayal of Orthodoxy. But this is not true. We have to be ready, like the prophets of old and the anti-Sergianist True Orthodox of the 20th century, who are our Fathers in the Faith, to suffer also for Biblical morality, for the freedom of the Church, and for the Orthodox way of life, because faith without works is dead. “The demons believe, and they tremble (James 2:19).”
Other-worldly – Our true life is the life of the soul and the life of the age to come. But if we surround ourselves with physical comfort and constant distraction, our bodies and souls drown in the great delusion that this-worldly life is all there is. We have to re-order our priorities now to simplify our lives and focus on the One Thing Necessary. Soon our enemies may take everything we value in this world away from us. Are we ready? By detaching ourselves voluntarily now, we prepare ourselves to be detached involuntarily then.
Ascetical – Therefore we must engage in ascesis, which is, simply put, spiritual training. We have to apply ourselves to the ABC’s of Orthodox life. There is abundant literature on this, we know what the building blocks are, and we just have to do it. And we all know we have to do it! Daily prayer, fasting, confession and correcting our thoughts, preparation for Holy Communion, etc. We often lose perspective, lose our focus, and just don’t do it. But if we remember that we are preparing for the hour of death, for the Dread Judgment, and possibly for martyrdom, we will have a lot more motivation!
B. Some Advice
All of this is kind of overwhelming – a tall order, so to speak. But remember, it is all the Lord working in us. Orthodoxy is not a self-improvement program! He will give us strength in our weakness, light in our darkness, wisdom amid our confusions, and joy amidst our sorrows. We simply have to humble ourselves and dispose ourselves to do His holy will. In this regard, I have always found chapters two through six of Unseen Warfare tremendously helpful, because they lay out very beautifully what it means not to trust in oneself but rather to rely totally on God. In addition to advising reading or re-reading these chapters, I’d like to offer a few more points of advice to give you perspective and focus from an Orthodox point of view:
1. View everything sub specie aeternitatis, from the point of view of eternity. Think for a minute. How old are you? 15? 25? 75? 105? No matter your age, just a few brief years separate you from the moment when God, in His absolute sovereignty over your existence, brought you into being from the abyss of non-being. And only a few brief years – or a few brief moments – separate you from the moment when you will leave this world and enter the next. When we realize that all the history of the entire physical universe is a tiny speck compared to the aeons of angelic time, much less compared to eternity, we stop ascribing almighty importance to current events and overcome our idolatry of “What’s happening now.” The world, the flesh, and the devil are not in control. God is. Our real life lies in our eternal destiny. Let’s focus on that.
In my own life, the second psalm read at the First Hour, Psalm 89, helps me on a daily basis to see this life from an eternal perspective. When you are overwhelmed by current events, read Psalm 89 with attention and let it soak in! It will give you peace.
2. Realize that the spiritual universe is far larger than the physical universe, and that it exists inside of us. The human heart is potentially greater than the entire physical universe, because it can hold the infinite, uncreated energies of the Holy Trinity. We think that the antichrist world-system is so scary because it’s so big. But He that is inside of you, a baptized Orthodox Christian with grace in your heart, is infinitely bigger than all of that.
3. Never violate your conscience – you may never get it back. As you know from my earlier talks on the movies, there are very few movies I recommend or am willing even to watch. Among the few I like is a movie version of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, which dramatizes the choice of Sir Thomas More to accept prison and death rather than violate his beliefs in the inviolability of marriage and the freedom of the Church. There is a scene toward the end in which More’s daughter Margaret attempts to persuade him to give up and go along, to violate his conscience by taking a false oath, stating one thing with his mouth and his pen while holding to his true beliefs silently in his heart. He says, “What is an oath but words which a man speaks to God?” and he goes on to say that at the moment of crisis, when one is faced with choosing to speak truth vs. falsehood, you are holding your soul in your hands, like a man holding water in his hands. If you spread your fingers for the briefest moment, the water is gone for good. You can lose your soul, just like that. Be vigilant over your conscience in little things every day, so that when the big crisis, the life and death moment, arrives, you are ready. It can come any moment.
4. Do what you have control over. We are very little people after all: little, finite people with little, finite duties given to us by God. The world has a Savior; it doesn’t need us to save it. Let us discern our own finite duties and do them. The duty is ours, the consequences are God’s. Let us obey conscience, do what we have control over, and leave the rest to Him.
5. Make short lists and act on them. Part of doing what we have control over is simply sitting down and making a short list every day of what we should do, and doing it. But we must make our list and do it with prayer to God to show us what we must do and how to do it, and to give us the ability to do it. There is a beautiful Prayer Before Work in the Jordanville prayer book that I try to say every morning before I plan my day, and I find it very helpful:
O Lord Jesus Christ, Only-begotten Son of Thy Eternal Father, Thou hast said with Thy most holy lips: “Without Me you can do nothing.” My Lord and my God, in faith I embrace Thy words with my heart and soul, and bow before Thy goodness; help me, a sinner, to do in union with Thee this work which I am about to begin, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
6. Be tough – Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Self-pity is a huge part of why we become anxious, confused, and upset. It paralyzes us and sends us into a downward spiral, into the pits of hell. We don’t want to lose our comfort; we want everything arranged around our desires, and so we pity ourselves when these things are taken away. But if you feel sorry for yourself, no one can help you, not even God, not because He doesn’t want to, but because you won’t let Him. In his Second Epistle to St. Timothy, St. Paul exhorts his spiritual son to embrace the virtue of hardihood:
Thou, therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. Thou therefore endure hardship, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier. – II Timothy 2: 1-4
You can be a good soldier only if you think of yourself as already dead, if you count your life as nothing. That gives you inexhaustible courage. If we would just forget about ourselves and sacrifice ourselves for God and our neighbor, we would become both strong and cheerful – nothing could defeat us, because then God would be our strength.
7. Speaking of courage: We all need courage with meekness, combined with the forgiveness of our enemies. But only grace can enable us to do this, for to the fallen human mind, courage and meekness seem to be opposites. It’s the paradox of the Gospel at work here, and we have to pray for this paradoxical gift, which can be given only by God. When you are not enslaved to resentment, you gain even greater power over your enemy, because your mind becomes clear and you make wise choices, and the energy you used to devote to hating is given now to acting, to actually doing something. Again – if I’m already dead to this world, what does it matter what they do to me? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
The result of all this is clarity of mind, firmness of purpose, and peace of heart. “Yes, I might be going to the scaffold, but I know why, and I have a firm hope of my salvation. I rejoice to follow the Lord in His sufferings. I am at peace.”
C. What do we have control over?
First, we have to start with our own souls and minds, and we have to have metanoia, we have to repent.
Remember that metanoia means a radical change of mind. We have to do metanoia not only for the things we did consciously but also for the ignorance and false beliefs and assumptions we have. It does not matter if it is not our fault that we have these false ideas – we still need to scrub out the falsehoods in our minds and replace them with the truth. It is not only obviously evil people who believe wrong things – they have power over others because the other people also believe wrong things, or do not believe the right things with enough conviction and are embarrassed to oppose the wrong things, and therefore they have no spiritual power to oppose falsehood and evil.
Second – We have to care for the people we are actually responsible for. “Small is beautiful.” Sit down and list the people who are actually your responsibility. Forget yourself, while you serve God and the people on that list.
Let’s start with One – our own repentance. Besides our usual sins, there is something we don’t pay much attention to (which is our big problem after all – lack of attention): We don’t realize or pay attention to the false and delusory beliefs which have been hardwired into our minds by the Great Stereopticon.
D. Back to the Great Stereopticon
1. Remember the Great Stereopticon! (Go back and review Classes 34-40). It is essential to realize that you are living inside of a mental cage of illusion crafted by the media, “education,” the opinions of other people, perhaps substance addictions, and so forth. You are inside of Plato’s cave, tied up and looking at a shadow play on the wall, and thinking it’s reality. If you just uncritically adopt the mainstream interpretation of reality popular at any given moment, you cannot think like an Orthodox Christian, because people who hate God and hate you are always shaping and re-shaping this mainstream view to lead you further and further away from the truth.
2. The Great Stereopticon is both the instrument and the goal. As an instrument its purpose was and is to brainwash the masses of people to believe the wrong things and thereby be rendered easy to control, because of their false assumptions. As the goal, it is a completely delusional reality, a fake world manifesting in the visible realm the demonic world of the invisible realm. It is an entire, all-encompassing virtual world of plani/prelest – demonic delusion – that traps people by making them think that it’s reality, and that this reality is all there is, and you can’t escape. Our situation is that nearly all of us Orthodox Christians, to a greater or lesser extent, believe some or many of the lies of the Great Stereopticon, or at least are not clear about them, and therefore we cannot oppose them. We have to repent, and as we become free of falsehoods, we will receive spiritual power from the Lord to persevere in the True Faith and in right conduct.
E. The Pain of Repentance
Several of the fundamental errors we will be discussing in the next few talks are ideas that are deeply implanted in the minds of many if not most Orthodox Christians, and therefore it will be painful to hear that they are errors. Some of those to whom one would try to reveal the error of these ideas will react in self-righteous anger, because they have been taught to believe that these errors are actually good and that to oppose them is evil. Others know that they are errors but will say, “Nothing can be done, and so don’t talk about it.” In other words, even if one is right, rather than speak the truth, it is more virtuous to avoid being a troublemaker, to commit the cardinal sin in this age of the worship of comfort and the pseudo-virtue of tolerance, which, as Aristotle points out, is the last virtue of a dying culture. Nevertheless “the duty is ours, the consequences are God’s,” and so we have to plow ahead and do our duty.
Repentance is always painful: If what you think you are doing is repenting, and it’s not painful, it’s not repentance. But before we go on to a partial catalogue of errors, let’s keep a few things in mind:
1. We are all subject to these errors and delusions, to a greater or lesser extent. Neither I nor nearly anyone else living today can claim the moral high ground from which to condemn others. But that we are all guilty does not mean that we should be silent. Qui tacet videtur consentire (He who is silent is seen to consent). The fact that we don’t think straight is all the more reason to try to think straight for a change, come clean, and see where we really stand. That’s the starting point for repentance.
2. These subjects are emotional, and therefore there is even greater reason to deal with them on the basis of logos, rationality, enlightened by God’s revealed truth and by grace. That hearing something arouses negative emotions proves nothing about it, except that one finds it unpleasant. Emotions do not prove or disprove truth. The problem is that certain verbal triggers have been implanted in people’s minds that cause them to have negative Pavlovian responses to words and ideas that are actually true and good, but that the Stereopticon says are not only bad, but so evil and so horrible that no discussion is possible. His pre-programmed negative emotion, over which the brainwashed person has no control, disables rational discourse.
3. Some of these errors are so deeply ingrained, and we have all been forming our way of life based on them, or at least some of them, for so long, that it is probable that in this life we will not be able to reform our way of life to the extent that we theoretically should. But we must at least acknowledge the truth of the situation, live in humility, and make some attempt to correct ourselves. “Yes, my ideas have been wrong, and my way of life was not pleasing to God, but I repent and beg forgiveness. Let me today take at least a small step on the way to correct myself and those for whom I am responsible.” We should not give in to the temptation from the right, of perfectionism. “The better is the enemy of the good.” Let’s humble ourselves down, admit where we are at, and take baby steps in the right direction. The Lord sees our good intentions, and He will multiply our efforts 100 fold. After all, this is ultimately His work, and for His glory.
F. An Upcoming Catalogue of Errors – Stay Tuned
We can organize the errors that the Stereopticon has wired into our conscious and unconscious minds under three categories: Church, Society, and the Family. We dealt with the great errors of our age which affect the Church – Ecumenism and Sergianism – in previous classes, in the section of our course we called “Faith Comes First.” Now let’s talk about Society and the Family. We must refer to the Church, constantly, of course, as we go through these topics, but shall do so insofar as She relates to the Society and Family.
All of the errors we will discuss have something in common, which is that they all entail disobedience – the rejection of the express will of God, the rejection of the plan of God for man known for centuries to our fathers either by Divine Revelation or simply the common sense of the human race. And they are all radical errors, in the sense that they go to the root (radix) of Christian and even simply human life. They are radically anti-God and anti-human.
What are these errors? As the announcers of the Great Stereopticon used to say on television when I was a child, “Tune in to our next episode” and you will find out!
Conclusion: Be not afraid!
When the disciples found themselves adrift in a tiny boat, in a great storm on the Sea of Galilee, the Lord of all, master of winds and waves, came walking on the water, and He repeated the words He had once spoken to Moses at the Burning Bush: Ego Eimi. “I AM.” “It is I; be not afraid!” If we but trust in Him, the demonic winds that now blow against us, and the waves of life that threaten now to overwhelm us, will have no power over us, for He is with us. “Be of good cheer,” saith the Lord, “I have overcome the world.”