by Fr. Seraphim Rose
04 August 2006
The Royal Path
by Fr. Seraphim Rose
as it appears in the The Orthodox Word, Vol. 12 No. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1976, [#70]
The Royal Path
True Orthodoxy in an Age of Apostasy
As the Fathers say, the extremes from both sides are equally harmful . . .
(We must) go on the royal path, avoiding the extremes on both sides.
St. John Cassian, Conference II
ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS live today in one of the great critical times in the history of Christ’s Church. The enemy of man’s salvation, the devil, attacks on all fronts and strives by all means not merely to divert believers from the path of salvation shown by the Church, but even to conquer the Church of Christ itself, despite the Saviour’s promise (Mt. 16:18), and to convert the very Body of Christ into an “ecumenical” organization preparing for the coming of his own chosen one, Antichrist, the great world-ruler of the last days.
Of course, we know that this attempt of Satan will fail; the Church will be the Bride of Christ even to the end of the world and will meet Christ the Bridegroom at His Second Coming pure and undefiled by adulterous union with the apostasy of this age. But the great question of our times for all Orthodox Christians to face is a momentous one: the Church will remain, but how many of us will still be in it, having withstood the devil’s mighty attempts to draw us away from it?
Our times are much like those of St. Mark of Ephesus in the 15th century, when it seemed that the Church was about to be dissolved into the impious Union with the Latins. Nay, our times are even worse and more dangerous than those times; for then the Union was an act imposed by force from without, while now the Orthodox people have been long prepared for the approaching “ecumenical” merger of all churches and religions by decades of laxness, indifference, worldliness, and indulgence in the ruinous falsehood that “nothing really separates us” from all others who call themselves Christians. The Orthodox Church survived the false Union of Florence, and even knew a time of outward prosperity and inward spiritual flourishing after that; but after the new false Union, now being pursued with ever-increasing momentum, will Orthodoxy exist at all save in the catacombs and the desert?
During the past ten years and more, under the disastrous “ecumenical” course pursued by Patriarch Athenagoras and his successor, the Orthodox Churches have already come perilously close to total shipwreck. The newest “ecumenical” statement of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, “The Thyateira Confession” (see The Orthodox Word, Jan.-Feb., 1976), is already sufficient evidence of how far the Orthodox conscience has been lost by the Local Church that once was first among the Orthodox Churches in the confession of Christ’s truth; this dismal document only shows how close the hierarchs of Constantinople have now come to being absorbed into the heterodox “Christianity” of the West, even before the formal Union which is still being prepared.
THE ROOTS of today’s ecumenism in the Orthodox Churches go back to the renovationism and modernism of certain hierarchs in the 1920’s. In the Russian Church, these currents produced, first, the “Living Church” movement which, with the help of the Communist regime, tried to overthrow Patriarch Tikhon and “reform” the Church in a radically Protestant manner, and then as a more “conservative” successor to the “Living Church” the Sergianist church organization (the Moscow Patriarchate), which emphasized at first the political side of reconciliation with Communist ideology and aims (in accordance with the infamous “Declaration” of Metropolitan Sergius in 1927), and only in recent decades has ventured once again into the realm of ecclesiastical renovationism with its active participation in the ecumenical movement. In the Greek Church the situation has been similar: the renovationist “Pan-Orthodox Council” of 1923, with its Protestant reforms inspired by Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis of sorry memory, proved to be too radical for the Orthodox world to accept, and the renovationists had to be satisfied with imposing a calendar reform on several of the non-Slavic Churches.
Large movements of protest opposed the reformers in both the Russian and Greek Churches, producing the deep divisions which exist until now in the Orthodox world. In the Russian Church, Sergianism was decisively rejected by very many of the bishops and faithful, led by Metropolitan Joseph of Petrograd; this “Josephite” movement later became organized to some extent and became known as the “True Orthodox Church.” The history of this illegal “Catacomb” Church of Russia is, to this day, veiled in secrecy, but in the past few years a number of startling evidences of its present-day activities have come to light, leading to stern repressive measures on the part of the Soviet government. The name of its present chief hierarch (Metropolitan Theodosius) has become known, as has that of one of its ten or more bishops (Bishop Seraphim). In the diaspora, the Russian Church Outside Russia committed itself from the very beginning of Sergianism in 1927 to a firm anti-Sergianist position, and on numerous occasions it has expressed its solidarity with the True Orthodox Church in Russia, while refusing all communion with the Moscow Patriarchate. Its uncompromisingness and staunch traditionalism in this and other matters were not to the taste of several of the Russian hierarchs of Western Europe and America, who were more receptive to the “reform” currents in 20th-century Orthodoxy, and they separated themselves at various times from the Russian Church Outside Russia, thus creating the present “jurisdictional” differences of the Russian Diaspora.
In Greece the movement of protest, by a similar Orthodox instinct, likewise took the name of “True Orthodox Christians.” From the beginning in 1924 (when the calendar reform was introduced), this movement has been especially strong among the simple monks, priests and laymen of Greece; the first bishop to leave the State Church of Greece and join the movement was Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Florina, and today it continues its fully independent life and organization, comprising about one-fourth of all the Orthodox Christians of Greece, and perhaps one-half or more of all the monks and nuns. Although popularly known as the “old calendarists,” the True Orthodox Christians of Greece stand for a staunch traditionalism in Orthodox life and thought in general, viewing the calendar question merely as a first stage and a touchstone of modernism and reformism.
As the “ecumenical” cancer eats more and more away at the remaining sound organs of the Orthodox Churches today, an increasing sympathy is being shown by the most sensitive members of the “official” Orthodox jurisdictions for the cause and the representatives of the anti-ecumenist, anti-reformist Churches of Russia, Greece, and the Diaspora. Some, seeing the “official” jurisdictions as now irrevocably set on a course of anti-orthodoxy, are abandoning them as sinking ships and joining the ranks of the True Orthodox Christians; others, still hoping for the restoration of an Orthodox course in world Orthodoxy, think it enough for now to express sympathy for the True Orthodox Christians or to protest boldly against the “reformist” mentality in the official jurisdictions. The ten years of anti-ecumenist epistles of Metropolitan Philaret, Chief Hierarch of the Russian Church Outside Russia, have struck a responsive chord within a number of the Orthodox Churches, even if the “official” response to them has been largely silence or hostility.
Today, more than at any other time in the 50-year struggle to preserve the Orthodox tradition in an age of apostasy, the voice of true and uncompromising Orthodoxy could be heard throughout the world and have a profound effect on the future course of the Orthodox Churches. Probably, indeed, it is already too late to prevent the renovationist “Eighth Œcumenical Council” and the “ecumenical” Union which lies beyond it; but perhaps one or more of the Local Churches may yet be persuaded to step back from this ruinous path which will lead to the final liquidation (as Orthodox) of those jurisdictions that follow it to the end; and in any case, individuals and whole communities can certainly be saved from this path, not to mention those of the heterodox who may still find their way into the saving enclosure of the true Church of Christ.
IT IS OF CRITICAL importance, therefore, that this voice be actually one of true, that is, patristic Orthodoxy. Unfortunately, it sometimes happens, especially in the heat of controversy, that basically sound Orthodox positions are exaggerated on one side, and misunderstood on the other, and thus an entirely misleading impression is created in some minds that the cause of true Orthodoxy today is a kind of “extremism,” a sort of “right-wing reaction” to the prevailing “left-wing” course now being followed by the leaders of the “official” Orthodox Churches. Such a political view of the struggle for true Orthodoxy today is entirely false. This struggle, on the contrary, has taken the form, among its best representatives today, whether in Russia, Greece, or the Diaspora, of a return to the patristic path of moderation, a mean between extremes; this is what the Holy Fathers call the ROYAL PATH.
The teaching of this “royal path” is set forth, for example, in the tenth of St. Abba Dorotheus’ Spiritual Instructions, where he quotes especially the Book of Deuteronomy: “Ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left, but go by the royal path” (Deut. 5:32, 17:11), and St. Basil the Great: “Upright of heart is he whose thought does not turn away either to excess or to lack, but is directed only to the mean of virtue.” But perhaps this teaching is most clearly expressed by the great Orthodox Father of the 5th century, St. John Cassian, who was faced with a task not unlike our own Orthodox task today: to present the pure teaching of the Eastern Fathers to Western peoples who were spiritually immature and did not yet understand the depth and subtlety of the Eastern spiritual doctrine and were therefore inclined to go to extremes, either of laxness or over-strictness, in applying it to life. St. Cassian sets forth the Orthodox doctrine of the royal path in his Conference on “sober-mindedness” (or “discretion”), the Conference praised by St. John of the Ladder (Step 4:105) for its “beautiful and sublime philosophy”:
“With all our strength and with all our effort we must strive by humility to acquire for ourselves the good gift of sober-mindedness, which can preserve us unharmed by excess from both sides. For, as the Fathers say, the extremes from both sides are equally harmful, both excess of fasting and filling the belly, excess of vigil and excessive sleep, and other excesses.” Sober-mindedness “teaches a man to go on the royal path, avoiding the extremes on both sides: on the right side it does not allow him to be deceived by excessive abstinence, on the left side to be drawn into carelessness and relaxation.” And the temptation on the “right side” is even more dangerous than that on the “left”: “Excessive abstinence is more harmful than satiating oneself; because, with the cooperation of repentance, one may go over from the latter to a correct understanding, but from the former one cannot” (i.e., because pride over one’s “virtue”stands in the way of the repentant humility that could save one).
(Conferences, II, chs. 16, 2, 17)
Applying this teaching to our own situation, we may say that the “royal path” of true Orthodoxy today is a mean that lies between the extremes of ecumenism and reformism on the one side, and a “zeal not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2) on the other. True Orthodoxy does not go “in step with the times” on the one hand, nor does it make “strictness” or “correctness” or “canonicity” (good in themselves) an excuse for pharisaic self-satisfaction, exclusivism, and distrust, on the other. This true Orthodox moderation is not to be confused with mere luke-warmness or indifference, or with any kind of compromise between political extremes. The spirit of “reform” is so much in the air today that anyone whose views are molded by the “spirit of the times” will regard true Orthodox moderation as close to “fanaticism,” but anyone who looks at the question more deeply and applies the patristic standard will find the royal path to be far from any kind of extremism. Perhaps no Orthodox teacher in our own days provides such an example of sound and fervent Orthodox moderation as the late Archbishop Averky of Jordanville; his numerous articles and sermons breathe the refreshing spirit of true Orthodox zealotry, without any deviation either to the “right” or to the “left,” and with emphasis constantly on the spiritual side of true Orthodoxy. (See especially his article, “Holy Zeal,” in The Orthodox Word, May-June, 1975.)
THE RUSSIAN CHURCH Outside Russia has been placed, by God’s Providence, in a very favorable position for preserving the “royal path” amidst the confusion of so much of 20th-century Orthodoxy. Living in exile and poverty in a world that has not understood the suffering of her people, she has focused her attention on preserving unchanged the faith which unites her people, and so quitenaturally she finds herself a stranger to the whole ecumenical mentality, which is based on religious indifference and self-satisfaction, material affluence, and soulless internationalism. On the other hand, she has been preserved from falling into extremism on the “right side” (such as might be a declaration that the Mysteries of the Moscow Patriarchate are without Grace) by her vivid awareness that the Sergianist church in Russia is not free; one can of course have no communion with such a body, dominated by atheists, but precise definitions of its status are best left to a free Russian Church council in the future. If there seems to be a “logical contradiction” here (“if you don’t deny her Mysteries, why don’t you have communion with her?”), it is a problem only for rationalists; those who approach church questions with the heart as well as the head have no trouble accepting this position, which is the testament bequeathed to the Russian Church of the Diaspora by her wise Chief Hierarch, Metropolitan Anastassy (+1965).
Living in freedom, the Russian Church Outside Russia has considered as one of her important obligations to express her solidarity and full communion with the underground True Orthodox Church of Russia, whose existence is totally ignored and even denied by “official” Orthodoxy. In God’s time, when the terrible trial of the Russian Church and people will have passed, the other Orthodox Churches may understand the Russian Church situation better; until then, it is perhaps all one can hope for that the free Orthodox Churches have never questioned the right of the Russian Church Outside Russia to exist or denied the grace of her Mysteries, almost all of them have long remained in communion with her (until her non-participation in the ecumenical movement isolated her and made her a reproach to the other Churches, especially in the last decade), and up to this day they have (at least passively) resisted the politically-inspired attempts of the Moscow Patriarchate to have her declared “schismatic” and “uncanonical.”
In recent years, the Russian Church Outside Russia has also given support and recognition to the True Orthodox Christians of Greece, whose situation also has long been exceedingly difficult and misunderstood. In Greece the first blow against the Church (the calendar reform) was not as deadly as the “Declaration” of Metropolitan Sergius in Russia, and for this reason it has taken longer for the theological consciousness of the Orthodox Greek people to see its full anti-orthodox significance. Further, few bishops in Greece have been bold enough to join the movement (whereas, by contrast, the number of non-Sergianist bishops in the beginning was larger than the whole episcopate of the Greek Church). And only in recent years has the cause of the old calendarists become even a little “intellectually respectable,” as more and more university graduates have joined it. Over the years it has suffered persecutions, sometimes quite fierce, from the State and the official Church, and to this day it remains disdained by the “sophisticated” and totally without recognition from the “official” Orthodox world. Unfortunately, internal disagreements and divisions have continued to weaken the cause of the old calendarists, and the lack a single unanimous voice to express their stand for patristic Orthodoxy. Still, the basic Orthodoxy of their position cannot be denied, and one can only welcome such sound presentations of it as may be seen in the article that follows.
The increasing realization in recent years of the basic oneness of the cause of True Orthodoxy throughout the world, whether in the Catacomb Church of Russia, the old calendarists of Greece, or the Russian Church Outside Russia, has led some to think in terms of a “united front” of confessing Churches to oppose the ecumenical movement which has taken possession of “official” Orthodoxy. However, under present conditions this will hardly come to pass; and in any case, this is a “political” view of the situation which sees the significance of the mission of true Orthodoxy in too external a manner. The full dimensions of the True-Orthodox protest against “ecumenical Orthodoxy,” against the neutralized, lukewarm Orthodoxy of the apostasy, have yet to be revealed, above all in Russia. But it cannot be that the witness of so many martyrs and confessors and champions of True Orthodoxy in the 20th century will have been in vain. May God preserve His zealots in the royal path of true Orthodoxy, faithful to Him and to His Holy Church until the end of the age!