27 April 2008

"The Present Conditions of the Churches"

"To what can I compare our present condition? It is like a naval battle, kindled by old quarrels, fought by men who love war, who cultivate hatred for one another, and have long experience in naval warfare. Look at the fearful picture I am painting for you; see the rival fleets rushing against each other on both sides, and finally they converge in a burst of desperate fury. Imagine, if you will, the ships driven into confusion by a raging tempest, while thick darkness falls from the clouds and blackens the entire scene, so that signals cannot be recognized, and one can no longer distinguish between friend and foe.

"To add more details to this picture, imagine the sea swollen and whirling up from the deeps, while torrents of rain pour from the clouds and the terrible waves rise higher and higher. All four winds meet together and dash one fleet against the other. Meanwhile some of the combatants are betraying each other; some are deserting in the middle of the battle; while others at the same time are compelled, while the wind drives them on, to urge their boats forward against the enemy. The men become jealous of those in higher authority, and lusting for power among themselves, they split into factions and begin to slaughter each other.

"Think of the confused and unintelligible din raging over the entire sea, from the howling winds, the splintering of ships, the boiling surf, the cries of the warriors as they give vent to their passions with every kind of noise, so that not a single word from the admiral or pilot can be heard. The disorder and confusion is beyond description, but the worst evil of all soon raises its head: once men despair for their lives, they claim license for every sort of wickedness. Suppose they are stricken with the incurable sickness of megalomania; then they will not cease their efforts to defeat one another even as their ships sink into the abyss.

"Now I ask you to turn from this fanciful description to the evil reality. When the Arian schism was first denounced as a sect opposed to the Church of God [at the Council of Nicaea, a.d. 325], did it not appear then to stand alone? But when the enemy's policy against us was changed from one of long and bitter contention to open warfare, then, as everyone knows, the war was split into a myriad of factions, so that all men succumbed to irreconcilable hatred, either through individual suspicion or party spirit. What storm at sea was ever so savage as this tempest of the Churches? It has moved every boundary established by the Fathers; every foundation, every established bulwark of doctrine has been shaken.

"Everything still remaining afloat is shaken by unsound teaching and thrown back into the absyss. We attack one another; we are overthrown by one another. If the enemy does not strike us first we are wounded by our comrade; if he is wounded and falls, he is trampled by his fellow soldier. Although we are united in our hatred of common foes, no sooner do they retreat, and we find enemies in each other. Who could even list all the casulaties?

"Some have fallen in battle with the enemy; some have been treacherously betrayed by their allies; others are the victim of their leaders' incompetence. Entire churches are dashed and shattered on the sunken reefs of subtle heresy, while other enemies of the Spirit of salvation have seized the helm and made shipwreck of the faith.

"The tumults devised by the princes of this world have brought about the downfall of the people with violence surpassing hurricane or tornado. A darkness full of gloom and misery has descended on the Churches: the lights of the world, established by God to enlighten the souls of the people, have been exiled. The terror of universal destruction already hangs over us, yet they continue enjoying their revalries, ignoring any sense of danger. Private enmities are more important to these men than the struggle of an entire people; they prefer the glory of subduing their opponents to securing the common welfare, and they love the immediate delights of worldly honor more than the rewards awaiting us in the age to come.

"So all men alike, depending on how much power each one has, rush upon each other with murderous hands. They fight against each other with harsh words; they nearly fill the Church with the meaningless cries and unintelligible shouts of their incessant clamor. They continually pervert the teachings of true religion, sometimes by adding to them, and other times by reducing them. On the one hand are those who confuse the Persons [of the Holy Trinity] and revert to Judaism; on the other hand are those who oppose the natures, and are swept away into Greek polytheism. Inspired Scripture is powerless to mediate between these two parties, nor can apostolic tradition offer them terms of reconciliation. One honest word and your friendship with them is finished; one disagreement with their opinions is sufficent pretext for a quarrel. No oath is so effective for holding a conspiracy together as common fellowship in error. Every man is a theologian; it does not matter that his soul is covered with more blemishes than can be counted. The result is that these innovators find an abundance of men to join their factions.

"So ambitious, self-elected men divide the government of the Churches among themselves, and reject the authority of the Holy Spirit. The ordinances of the Gospel have been thrown into confusion everywhere for lack of discipline; the jostling for high positions is incredible, as every ambitious man tries to thrust himself into high office. The result of this lust for power is that wild anarchy prevails among the people; the exhortations of those in authority are rendered utterly void and unprofitable, since every man in his arrogant delusion thinks that it is more his business to give orders to others than to obey anyone himself.

"Since no human voice is powerful enough to be heard in such an uproar, I reckon that silence is more profitable than words. If the words of the Preacher are true: 'The words of the wise are heard in quiet,' then with the present state of affairs, any discussion of them at all is scarcely appropriate. Moreover, I am restrained by the Prophet's words: 'Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time,' a time when some trip their neighbors, others kick a man already fallen, others applaud, but no one is sympathetic enough to lend a helping hand to the weary, even though the old law says, 'if you see the beast of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it, but you shall help him to lift it up.' This is certainly not the case now. Why not?

"The love of many has grown cold; concord among brothers is no more; the very name of unity is ignored; Christian compassion or sympathetic tears cannot be found anywhere. There is no one to welcome someone weak in faith, but mutual hatred blazes so fiercely among brothers that a neighbor's fall brings them more joy than their own household's success. And just as a contagious disease spreads from the sick to the healthy during an epidemic, in these days we have become like everyone else: imitators of evil, carried away by this wicked rivalry possessing our souls. Those who judge the erring are merciless and bitter, while those judging the upright are unfair and hostile. This evil is so firmly rooted in us that we have become more brutish than the beasts: At least they herd together with their own kindred, but we reserve our most savage warfare for the members of our own household.

"These are the reasons I should have kept quiet, but love pulled me into the opposite direction, the love that is not self-seeking, but desires to conquer every obstacle put in her way by time and cirucmstance. I learned from the example of the children in Babylon that when there is no one to support the cause of true religion, we must accomplish our duties alone. They sang a hymn to God from the midst of the flames, not thinking of the multitudes who rejected the truth, but content to have each other, though there were only three of them.

"Therefore the cloud of our enemies does not dismay us, but we place our trust in the Spirit's help, and boldly proclaim the truth. . . . Either through me or through others the Lord will provide a full answer for any remaining questions, since He gives knowledge to those He has chosen, by the Holy Spirit." (St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, chapter 30; written in the latter half of the fourth century; translated by David Anderson, 1980)


Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

More succinctly put, here is a similar commentary from St. Basil's friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, ten years later, when he had been invited to a council to be held in Constantinople:

"If I must speak the truth, I feel disposed to shun every syond of bishops, because I have never seen a synod that came to a happy end. They do not solve problems, they increase them! There is always rivalry there and ambitions which soon gain mastery over all reason. I am not exaggerating. If a man tries to act as a mediator, he is more likely to draw fire on himself than he is to reconcile the parties. Accordingly, I have retired to a private life and consider tranquility the only secure way of living" (Epistle 130).

With much due respect to St. Gregory, who spoke from his own experience as the one-time chair of the earlier Council of Constantinople in a.d. 381, the Church does live under the Cross, comprised of sinners, and there will always be fighting and fears within and without. Yet, the faithful Christian response is not to run away from one's proper vocations, but to speak faithfully from within those vocations; and to pray without ceasing; and to love one's enemies, because that is what Jesus does (even for the likes of us).

Church politics are often misused and abused, so as to become sour and distasteful. It is easy to become bitter and downright cynical about it. And to be sure, much of what passes for "politics" is really partisan pandering and manipulation and byzantine intrigue and all manner of other sinful shame and vice. But for all of that, the political structures -- which also belong to God's good gifts of daily bread -- are among the ways and means by which He serves His Church on earth. If we trust that He, in love, governs His Kingdom of Power for the sake of His Church, then we have nothing to fear or flee or be ashamed of when we fulfill our temporal offices and vocations.

Indeed, the Council of Constantinople in 381, the one that Gregory did attend and even chaired briefly, was not a waste of time, nor was it a pointless endeavor. It confessed the Holy Trinity, including the worship and praise that are rightly offered by the Church to the Holy Spirit, and it secured what we have received and know as the "Nicene Creed" for the edification of the entire Church on earth. I'm sorry that St. Gregory was so disillusioned by his experience, but I thank God for the way in which He served His Church through the efforts of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus (as well as their compatriot, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil's younger brother).

sarahlaughed said...

So...Pastor. How does one defend the truth without brutally maiming one's erring brothers?

(Easy question, right?) :-)