Excerpts from a Lecture on Eastern Orthodoxy
by Fr. Seraphim Rose
In May, 1981 Fr. Seraphim Rose gave a lecture at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After this lecture there were some questions from the audience. This is the dialogue that took place on that day. This dialogue is an excerpt from the book "God's Revelation to the Human Heart" by Father Seraphim Rose.
Question: If the demons appear as angels and say the things angels would say, then how can one distinguish what is the truth?
Answer: That's a very good question. You have to be humbling yourself; you have to be in a state of wanting the truth of God and not seeking after "experiences". Of course, I would say to become an Orthodox Christian and find out the whole discipline of leading a Christian life. This helps, though it is no guarantee because you can be deceived as an Orthodox Christian, too.
The Church Fathers give basic words of advice. For example, they say that, if someone appears to you as an angel of light, distrust it. God will not condemn you if He actually wants to appear to you and you reject Him, because if He really wants to get a message across He'll come again and find a way of getting through to you. In fact, He praises you for being distrustful because you don't want to fall into deception.
Those who are in a more advanced spiritual state, with more experience in these things, have acted in other ways. We have an example from the life of St. Anthony the Great, who was all the time seeing demons. When he was asked how he could distinguish the spirits, he said, "When an angel appears, I feel very calm, and when a demon appears, even if he looks like an angel, I feel a disturbance." This, however, is a very dangerous approach for beginners, because you can also feel very calm about demons if you aren't experienced.
The basic answer to your question is, again, to enter into the discipline of the Orthodox Church. As you read accounts such as that of St. Nicetas and see how demons manifest themselves, you can often, just by knowing a typical way by which they will try to trick you, instantly refuse a deception.
Question: Could you talk about the Orthodox view of the Holy Spirit and, in relation to that, the view on non-Orthodox Christian sacraments- whether the Holy Spirit is present in them?
Answer: The Holy Spirit was sent by our Lord Jesus Christ on the day of Pentecost, the 50th day after His resurrection, the 10th day after He Himself ascended to Heaven, in order to remain with the Church to the end of time. Historically, there was one Church which He founded.
There are cases in modern times where people have looked historically to find this Church. For example, there is the whole history of the Church in Uganda. In the 1920's, two seminarians from Uganda were studying in an Anglican seminary and began to see that the teaching they were being given was not the same as the teaching they were reading in the ancient Fathers. They then began to think that Roman Catholicism must be the asnwer- that that must be the ancient Church. In their "search for the true, ancient Church" (as they called it), they went to study in a Roman Catholic seminary and saw that, again, the teaching they received there was different from that of the ancient Fathers of the Church. They began to say, "If the truth can be changed like that, then were is the truth of Christ?" And then they heard about the Orthodox Faith and went through all kinds of trials to find where it was. They first found someone who called himself Orthodox but was just a charlatan, giving out what he called sacraments. When a Greek layman told them that there was something "funny" about that man, they saw this, repented, changed their minds and began to search again. The first Orthodox bishop they encountered was not a very good bishop, and he said, "Oh, don't bother. All religions are the same; go back to the Anglicans." And they didn't let that discourage them. Finally they found an Orthodox bishop who was teaching what he should be teaching, and they became Orthodox. Today the Church is spreading in Africa: throughout Uganda, Kenya, Zaire, Tanzania, and so forth. We even have records of their services, which are very impressive. They have taken Byzantine, Greek chant and, without their trying to do anything to it (they simply chant in their own way, in their own language), it comes out sounding very dignified, with a kind of local African flavor. They did to the Byzantine chant the same things that the Greeks did when they took the Hebrew chant.
So these Africans looked historically and found that there is one Church that comes down directly from Christ and teaches what was taught in ancient times: the Orthodox Church. From a historical perspective, you can also see that the other churches have deviated from this: Roman Catholicism first of all in the 11th century, when the issue finally came to a head about the position of the Pope in the Church, and the Pope rejected the Orthodox answer, taking the whole West with him.
To this day, the Holy Spirit acts in the Orthodox Church. In most western, Protestant groups, whatever they have are seldom even called sacraments, and so you wouldn't really look for the grace of the Holy Spirit in something which they themselves don't regard as sacraments. Of course, Roman Catholics and a few other groups do consider themselves to have sacraments. I myself would say that the true sacraments, in the sense that Christ founded them, are to be found only in the Orthodox Church; and those who, taking the name of sacrament, try to make the best they can out of it- that's a matter between the soul and God, and whatever God may want to do with that soul- that's His affair. It might not be only a psychological thing; I don't know- that's for God to choose. But the means He instituted in the Church have come down to this very day in the Orthodox Church. In fact, you can see historically that we do the same things that were done in the ancient Church. Phillip, for example, took the eunuch into the river and baptized him undoubtedly the very same way that we do: the three immersions in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That is why Orthodoxy is known for being so "old-fashioned": we deliberately keep the old-fashioned ways that came down from Christ, the Apostles and the Early Fathers of the Church.
Question: Will you speak about the Orthodox attitude towards non-Christian religions?
Answer: Christ came to enlighten mankind. There are various religions outside His revelation where the followers are sincere- not just practicing demon worship- and where the soul is really trying to get through to God. I would say that, before the people have heard of Christ, these religions are fine as far as they go, but they will not get you to the goal. The goal is eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven, and God came in the Flesh to open this up to us. Therefore, Christianity is true: you can point to the various comparative elements of truth in other religions and often they are very profound, but they do not open up Heaven. Only when Christ came to earth and told the thief, "You will be with Me in Paradise," was Heaven actually opened up to men.
Question: So, people who haven't had any exposure to Christ don't have access to the truth?
Answer: Those who have never heard of Christ?- that's for God to judge. In the Old Testament, people never heard of Christ either, and then Christ came and preached to them in hell. And St. John the Baptist also, we believe, came to hell before Christ and preached that Christ was about to come there in order to liberate all those who wanted to be liberated, who wanted to believe in Him. So God can open the truth to those who never had a chance to hear: this is, who did not reject the Gospel but just didn't hear about it. But once you accept the revelation, then of course you are much more responsible than anyone else. A person who accepts the revelation of God come in the Flesh and then does not live according to it- he is much worse off than any pagan priest or the like.
Question: Something I don't know much about, and probably a lot of other people don't is: what are some of the concrete differences and similarities between, say, the Russian Orthodox Church and, say, the Roman Catholic Church with regard to different doctrines and ideas, like about the Trinity or whether the priests marry or not- all those million and one little differences.
Answer: There are a lot of little differences. There is one main difference, I think; and I would explain it precisely in connection with the Holy Spirit. The Church of Christ is that which gives grace to people; and in the West, when Rome broke off from this Church, this grace was actually lost (maybe people incidentally found it here and there, but from their whole Church the grace was cut off). I look at modern Roman Catholicism as an attempt to substitute, by human ingenuity, the grace which it lost. Therefore, it makes the Pope "infallible", having to give an answer to the question of "where is truth"?
There are some who look at our Orthodox Church and say, "It's impossible for people to find truth there. You say you don't believe in any one pope or bishop, and thus there is no guarantee; you don't believe in the Scriptures like a Protestant might and say that they are the absolutely 'infallible' word. If you have a controversy, where is the final word?" And we say that the Holy Spirit will reveal Himself. This happens especially when bishops come together in council, but even then there can be a false council. One might then say, "There's no hope!" But we say that the Holy Spirit guides the Church, and therefore He will not be false to the Church. If you haven't got the feeling that this is so, then you devise things like making the Bible infallible, making the Pope infallible. Also, you may make Orthodox things- as the Roman Catholics did- into some kind of "law", so that everything is nicely defined: if you break this law you go to your confessor, get such-and-such a penance, and you're all "set" again. Orthodoxy does not believe this way; from this came the whole idea of indulgences, which is a totally legalistic perversion of the idea of repentance. If you repent, like the thief on the cross, you can be saved at that moment. Orthodoxy always emphasizes this spiritual aspect of the relationship of one's own soul to God; and all the sacraments and discipline of the Church are only a means of getting one's soul right with God: this is the whole of our Faith. In the Roman Church, until very recently when things began to dissolve, the emphasis was rather on obeying a whole set of laws and thereby getting "right" with God in a legalistic sense, which is a substitute for the Holy Spirit.
Question: Could you say something specifically about Anglicanism, because there is a certain similarity between it and what you said about the Roman Catholics saying the Pope is infallible and the Protestants saying the Bible is infallible. I see Anglicanism in the sense of trying to balance out those two views, although I realize you can say that, historically, it is a break-off from the ancient Church.
Answer: In many cases, Anglicans are trying hard, but they're starting from so far away. When you come to God, you can't just "think it out" or "devise a system": you have to come into living contact with His grace. Therefore, the answer for Anglicanism is to come into contact with the Church.
Question: Does the Orthodox Church still have fasting and all the early traditions with regard to Lent?
Answer: Yes, there is a definite discipline of fasting, just like in ancient times. This has come down from very early in the history of the Church. We know from The Didache (The Teaching Of The Twelve Apostles) that in the first century there was fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Question: You gave a talk last night on the Apocalypse. Can you briefly summarize that for us?
Answer: I was looking at events that are happening today as signs of the end, and what our Christian attitude towards the end should be. We should not be counting the years or calculating who is the "King of the South", the "King of the North" and so on, but going more deeply. All the early Apostles, in their epistles, write about the necessity of thinking Christ is near, for preparing oneself, being first of all spiritually prepared. If we're in this state of expectation of Christ coming in a spiritual sense to us, whether to our own souls through grace or at the time of our own death, then the question of when He is going to come physically to this earth at the end of the world will not upset us to such an extent that we will join some new sect that goes to the top of a mountain and waits for the day to come. The day and the hour we do not know; the main priority is spiritual preparation.
Our times, however, are so filled with what could be called "apocalyptic" events that we should be very aware of them. Our Lord says that, although we do not know the day and the hour, we should take example from the fig tree, which when its leaves become green we know that summer is close. Likewise, when all these things begin to happen- when it becomes possible for there to be one world government, when the Gospel is being preached to all peoples, when so many spiritual currents are coming into being which are obviously deceptive- they are clearly signs that something momentous is about to happen, and are very likely bound up with the end of the world.
In order to be spiritually prepared for this, it is very instructive for us to be reading about what happens to people in prison camps. Such accounts show us that, no matter what might happen- even if we are under Antichrist himself and placed in a prison, we can survive because we have Christ. The lives of martyrs have always been a source of instruction and edification, and even today people are being martyred whom we can learn about.