Maintaining an Undefiled Conscience in the World of Distraction–Part 1

St. Basil’s Hexameron – Homily 1 — 6th point–

  1. Such being the different senses of the word beginning, see if we have not all the meanings here.  You may know the epoch when the formation of this world began, it, ascending into the past, you endeavor to discover the first day.  You will thus find what was the first movement of time; then that the creation of the heavens and of the earth were like the foundation and the groundwork, and afterwards that an intelligent reason, as the word beginning indicates, presided in the order of visible things. You will finally discover that the world was not conceived by chance and without reason, but for an useful end and for the great advantage of all beings, since it is really the school where reasonable souls exercise themselves, the training ground where they learn to know God; since by the sight of visible and sensible things the mind is led, as by a hand, to the contemplation of invisible things.  “For,” as the Apostle says, “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” Rom. 1: 20.  Perhaps these words “In the beginning God created” signify the rapid and imperceptible moment of creation.  The beginning, in effect, is indivisible and instantaneous.  The beginning of the road is not yet the road, and that of the house is not yet the house; so the beginning of time is not yet time and not even the least particle of it.  If some objector tell us that the beginning is a time, he ought then, as he knows well, to submit it to the division of time—a beginning, a middle and an end.  Now it is ridiculous to imagine a beginning of a beginning. Further, if we divide the beginning into two, we make two instead of one, or rather make several, we really make an infinity, for all that which is divided is divisible to the infinite. On the inconceivability either of an absolute minimum of space or of its infinite divisibility.  Thus then, if it is said, “In the beginning God created,” it is to teach us that at the will of God the world arose in less than an instant, and it is to convey this meaning more clearly that other interpreters have said:  “God made summarily” that is to say all at once and in a moment. But enough concerning the beginning, if only to put a few points out of many.

Introduction:

Orthodoxy is the way of life in Christ through True Worship, where each member of the Church is set out on a journey towards deification by partaking in the Holy Sacraments, built firmly on the Holy Scripture and, preserved and handed over by the Holy Tradition. It is not a theory. In other words it is the life in the faith of the church – especially the teaching about the Incarnation of God [i.e. Jesus Christ as one and only Incarnation of God]; and the teaching about the Holy Trinity [ God- The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit worshipped as one Undivided Trinity in Unity]. Orthodox Christianity offers a fullness of truth and beauty in its quest for holiness.

Orthodoxy is established upon a sound and inviolable foundation: fidelity to the teaching of the fathers of the ecumenical councils, the age-old experience of the spiritual and grace-filled life in Christ. The Martyrs, Confessors, Wonderworkers, Holy monastics and other Saints by their God pleasing lives and righteous deaths are witness to the truth and the salvific nature of the Orthodox faith…

This is what we understand about the Orthodox faith today.

Mankind was created by God and was originally in direct communion with Him. Having forgotten God, man still longs for Him in his soul. That having been forgotten, it is still God’s will to be known by man. Therefore it is sensible, even predictable, that in every human community, society and culture throughout history, evidence can be found of man’s longing to know God, and God’s will to be known by man.

From times immemorial all through the human history man’s ignorance to know God have resulted in many religions in the world. One of the tasks of the early Church (till 5th century) was defining, and defending, orthodox theology against the battering waves of heresies. These heresies often appeared in disputes over the nature of the Trinity, or how Jesus could be both God and Man. Would the early Church identify with present day Roman Catholicism and Protestantism? This is the challenge that we face today in our quest for “The Truth”. Church Councils were called to put into words the common faith that could stand for all ages. From this time, the Church has been called “Orthodox,” which means “right belief” or “right praise.” The Nicene Creed originated at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, and is the central Orthodox statement of faith. Built on the foundation of Christ and His Apostles, nothing has been added or can be added to our faith. We now live in an age where lives and acts (secularism and the other ‘isms’) are contrary to this Christian heritage of Orthodox faith. As a result, many have separated themselves from this tradition, hence our perception and understanding of Christ and His Church has become clouded.

We read in Genesis 11: 1-9 the incident at the tower of Babel.

tower of babel

“Come let Us(The Holy Trinity as shown in the icon)  go down there and confuse their language”……. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the languages of all the earth; and from there the Lord God scattered them abroad over the face of all earth.”

“Now the whole earth was one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and dwelt there. Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them in fire”. They had brick for stone and asphalt for mortar. They also said “Come, let us build ourselves  city and a tower, whose top will reach to heaven; and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered broad over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the sons of men built. Then the Lord said, “Indeed, the people are one race and one language, and they have begun to do what they said. Now they will not fail to accomplish what they have undertaken. Come let Us go down there and confuse their language, so they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city and the tower. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the languages of all the earth; and from there the Lord God scattered them abroad over the face of all earth.”

Here we learn how human race was scattered over the face of the earth because in our pride we wished to build a tall tower reaching unto heaven. The people of Babel wanted to be like God but without God or apart from Him.

Similarly according to Isaiah 14: 12-15 we read `How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, who rose up in the morning! He who sends forth all the nations is crushed to the earth. For you said in your mind “I will ascend into heaven; I will place my throne above the stars of heaven; I will sit on the lofty mountain, on the lofty mountain towards the north. I will ascend above the clouds; I will be like the Most High”. But now you shall descent to hades to the foundations of the earth.’

The `I will’ in the above verses show how Satan pursued his own will which made him go away from the “Most High God”, his pride was the reason for his fall. The pride of Adam and Eve was defeated by God when they were thrown out of the Garden of Eden.

The question to ponder here from the above paragraphs is, Are we really that different than the ancient people of Babel trying to make a name for ourselves? Let us look into history. The discussion that follows points out to certain facts that paved a way to move away from The Truth.

We take an extract from the homily 1 point 6 of St. Basil‘s hexameron which justifies the discussion below.

“You will finally discover that the world was not conceived by chance and without reason, but for an useful end and for the great advantage of all beings, since it is really the school where reasonable souls exercise themselves, the training ground where they learn to know God; since by the sight of visible and sensible things the mind is led, as by a hand, to the contemplation of invisible things.”

Taking this small extract from the homily, let us examine ourselves, in the midst of the world of distraction (the different subjects of discussion below), to make a choice whether we as reasonable souls are using this world as the training ground in doing God’s will or our own fallen will or the will of the devil. As it say’s in Luke Chapter 21: 34-36 “ But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly… Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man”

Historic paganism and neo-paganism

Early apologist, scholar and Christian synergist, St. Justin Martyr of Alexandria and Rome, made the point to the Roman government, that Christians were inherently good citizens.  Why? Because Christians believed in the Logos (Gospel of John) that is also understood as “reason.” Therefore, St. Justin explained, Christians believe in reason and therefore are reasonable people.  “Whatever things were rightly said among all men,” wrote St. Justin in his second apology “is the property of us Christians.”

St. Justin went further to say that since the demons also knew that salvation would come to humanity through Jesus Christ, they made up legends and myths of the Olympian gods that were similar to historic events, using the same (or very similar) images and symbols.  In essence, St. Justin confirmed the legends and myths were truth to a point. However, they were distorted, he said, to create confusion among mankind. 

Now looking into Historic paganism and neo-paganism, the term “historic paganism” will be used to denote the ancient, polytheistic, nature worship and fertility cults of pre- and early-Christian eras; while “neo-paganism” will be used to describe contemporary efforts to revive historic paganism in the facts described below.

Orthodox Christianity fears no slander, criticism or challenge of any sort; every variety has already been dealt with at some point. Orthodoxy zealously embraces the mystical revelation of God in Trinity, through His Son, the incarnate Sojourner among men, who appeared on earth at a specific time and place in history. At the Annunciation to the Theotokos by Gabriel, the chronological history of fallen humanity intersects with divine Kairos [interruption] i.e. God became Man to save us from our fallen state; Orthodoxy is submission to, and preservation of, this salvific opportunity as it occurred in history. The historical context of the Incarnation was not coincidence but providence. This being the case, Orthodoxy is not stumbled by such facts as that of paganism predating Christianity.  Fallen man, having forgotten God, contrived nature worship prior to God’s revelation to Moses or the salvific incarnation of Jesus Christ. Paganism’s pre-Christian existence does not prove that it is the source of Christianity but only that man’s longing for the divine predates Judeo-Christian revelations. The seemingly logical progression that pagans predate Christians, and pagan gods are myths, therefore the Christian God is a myth as well, does not hold. And yet, today, it is a popular idea to which many subscribed.

Another popular belief is that because Christian theology, worship, and mysteries share common terminology and symbolism with paganism (elementals, chant, altars, liturgy, etc.) that they must share a common origin. But again, this only demonstrates that there are metaphors and symbols that are universal to human psychology; which suggests a common origin for all men (i.e. Adam and Eve) but not for all religions. We could perhaps designate this as the law of psychological identity. Some of the sensible images or symbols, created by man to reflect spiritual truths, are indeed common to many peoples and races because their basis is the same human nature or experience. This basis of psychological identity explains many rites, words, and ideas common to Christianity and paganism.

Depending on studies done by various scholars the problems of historical, conceptual, and genetic relationships between the mysteries of the Christians and those of the pagans are breathtaking in their complexity. But Orthodox Christianity is at ease with the seemingly universal signs, symbols, rituals and even prophecies that predate the life of Jesus Christ. Mankind was created by God and was originally in direct communion with Him. Having forgotten God, man still longs for Him in his soul. That having been forgotten, it is still God’s will to be known by man. Therefore it is sensible, even predictable, that in every human community, society and culture throughout history, evidence can be found of man’s longing to know God, and God’s will to be known by man. Orthodoxy has no need to claim originality in its rites and rituals. Quite the opposite, it glories in the infinite fulfillment that Christ offers mystically to that which is already familiar; in other words, sanctification, deification, and theosis. God becoming man, that man might become god.

Lastly, regardless of the projected confidence of neo-pagans, it is a simple fact that all conjecture regarding historic paganism is made in a near void of critical data. We have extant but a few literary works dealing with the [pagan] mysteries, many scattered references, verses of poetry, fragments of hymns and prayers, mutilated inscriptions, damaged papyri, cult emblems, bas-reliefs, frescoes, painted vases, ruined chapels and temples. These are the varied and imperfect material out of which we have to attempt reconstruction. Our difficulties are much heightened by the insecurity of chronological sequence, and the uncertainty as to the particular usages or beliefs of a cult at a particular period of the long history of the [pagan] mystery religions from the sixth century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. “And the only mystery ritual which has survived in its entirety is the one belonging to the Mithraic cult.” Not coincidentally, the cult of Mithras is the only source cited consistently by those subordinating Christianity to paganism.

In contrast, consider the sheer volume of Judeo-Christian documents and literature produced from approximately 1500 B.C. to 800 A.D.: Old Testament, New Testament, Apostolic literature, the catacomb experience, Christian Byzantium, and the Holy Ecumenical councils! In light of this tremendous outpouring of Judeo-Christian literature that encapsulates the dark age of paganism (600 B.C. to 500 A.D.), one might be compelled to argue that every enduring aspect of paganism, other than its rightful claim to the Mother-Goddess of agrarian fertility worship, and the Greek philosophical terminology of the time, is in fact a borrowing from Judeo-Christianity practices.[1]

As part of the Church’s tradition, it is believed that during Christ’s flight into Egypt, statues to the native gods crumbled and fell at His presence; this led to the conversion of some of the inhabitants.

Flight of ChristGiven below are some selective acts of saints who destroyed religious images[2]

The Apostle Paul (+67 A.D.)

As recounted in the Book of Acts 19: 11-20, the miracles of the Apostle Paul led many pagan sorcerers in Ephesus to convert to Christ, whereupon they publicly burned their spell-books. Scripture concludes this episode with the words: So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.

The Apostle John (c. +97 A.D.)

Some accounts of the Life of John the Evangelist state that his exile to Patmos was a result of the Apostle causing pagan idols to fall through his prayers. In the Anglo-Saxon homilies from the 10th/11th centuries, there is an explicit mention of the Apostle John turning the idols to dust by the power of God.

Empress Helena (+ 329 A.D.)

brosen_icon_constantine_helenaThe pious Christian mother of Constantine the Great, Empress Helena is best remembered in the Orthodox Church for finding the Holy Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On the site of the finding she erected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Less well-known perhaps, but no less significant, is that a temple to the goddess Aphrodite (Venus) needed to be flattened for the church to be built. St. Helena probably also ordered the destruction of a temple to Zeus (Jupiter) in order to build a church dedicated to St. Cyrus and St. John.. The finding of the true Cross is commemorated on September 14, and is one of the Great Feasts of the Church.

Nicholas the Wonder-Worker of Myra (+ 345 A.D.)

st-nicholas-destroying-the-idolsOne of the most celebrated Saints of the Orthodox Church worldwide, the wonderful feats of this miracle-working bishop abound. Among these acts is the destruction of all the temple of Diana and other pagan shrines in his city of Myra, after he was reinstated as bishop there during Constantine’s reign. Much of the demolition was carried out by his own hand, though he also had to struggle in prayer to overcome the demons that inhabited the temples. That this act of Nicholas is celebrated is evidenced in later church frescoes showing the event.

 

Martyr Mark, Bishop of Arethusa, in Syria (suffered 360 A.D.)

Under Constantine the Great St. Mark, with the help of his deacon Cyril, had torn down a pagan temple and built a church in its place. When Julian the Apostate became emperor, idol-worship again grew, and the pagans wished to take revenge upon the now elderly bishop. Beaten, slashed with knives, his ears sliced off with linen, and with his hair pulled out, St. Mark steadfastly refused to offer up any money in order to rebuild the pagan temple he had demolished. Even after the pagans kept lowering the price, St. Mark refused to pay a single coin. Exhausted, and seeing that people were converted to Christ through his endurance, the torturers let St. Mark go! St. Gregory the Theologian writes highly of St. Mark, and uses his example in his writings against Julian the Apostate.

Spyridon the Wonderworker of Tremithus, in Cyprus (+ 348 A.D.)

st spiridonA shepherd who gave all his wealth to the poor, St. Spyridon was made bishop of Tremithus after the death of his wife, under the reign of Constantine the Great. The life of the saint speaks of the amazing simplicity and the gift of wonder-working granted to him by God. Through a word of the saint the dead were awakened, the elements of nature tamed, the idols smashed. At one point, a Council had been convened at Alexandria by the Patriarch to discuss what to do about the idols and pagan temples there. Through the prayers of the Fathers of the Council all the idols fell down except one, which was very much revered. It was revealed to the Patriarch in a vision that this idol had to be shattered by St. Spyridon of Tremithus. Invited by the Council, the saint set sail on a ship, and at the moment the ship touched shore and the saint stepped out on land, the idol in Alexandria with all its offerings turned to dust, which then was reported to the Patriarch and all the bishops.

Saint Porphyry of Gaza, Bishop and Confessor (+ 420 A.D.)

porphyry-of-gazaAfter many years as a monk, St. Porphyry was elected Bishop of Gaza, a city where the Christian population numbered less than three-hundred, and idolatry was wide-spread. Discriminated against by the pagans, St. Porphyry went to Constantinople and gained the support of Emperor Arcadius and the Archbishop, St. John Chrysostom, to close down the idolatrous temples. Officials sent to close down the pagan shrines of Gaza were often bribed, and so after much laboring, St. Porphyry undertook the destruction of the temples personally with his flock of Christians. Many temples were destroyed, including those dedicated to Aphrodite, Hecate, the Sun, Apollo, Kore (Persephone), Tychaion, the shrine of a hero, and the Marneion, dedicated to Zeus. In their place, Christian churches were erected. The pagan idols were burnt, and the marble from their temples were used to pave the way to the new Christian churches, so that all Christians on their way to worship would trample upon the remains of idolatry. These acts, along with much preaching, prayer, and humiliations suffered by St. Porphyry, won the entire city of Gaza over to the Christian faith. The Life of St. Porphyry, recounting his struggles against the pagans, was written by the deacon Mark.

What to take from all these above facts from history? As with other miraculous deeds of the Saints, the destruction of the idols can be understood symbolically as the victory of right-believing Christians over all other idols, whether they be demons pretending to be gods or man-made constructs that lead our minds from the contemplation of God. This can be done without denying the historical fact of the Church’s Saints physically destroying non-Christian religious images. Of course, when considering other deeds of the Saints, we try to use their acts as an example for our own conduct. In the case of idol-smashing, most Christians today would shy away from literally following the Saints’ example, even though non-Christian idols abound. Perhaps this is wisest thing to do, though the courage of these idol-smashing Saints is certainly something worthy of imitation. In striving for this, we can pray to Christ that we may emulate the martyr’s strength.

The above information on Saints who destroyed religious images (or idols), gives a considerable list of Saints who in their lives courageously and physically confronted the practice of worshiping idols. Most of the examples come from the First Millennium A.D., which shouldn’t be surprising as this is when idol-worship was widespread in the world and at its most aggressive towards Christianity.

Looking back over so many centuries it can be difficult to imagine just what these heroic Saints did in publicly taking a stand against something so anti-Christian, yet so popular. Even in today’s times so close to ours we get to learn about a story from the life of Elder Gabriel (Urgebadze), a Georgian priest-monk considered locally to be a Saint, publicly denounced the idolatry of a people.

The article continues as…. Maintaining an Undefiled Conscience in the World of Distraction —–Part 2

[1] Alexander Schemann. Orthodox Christianity and Paganism.

[2] Source: iconreader.com

2 thoughts on “Maintaining an Undefiled Conscience in the World of Distraction–Part 1

  1. Pingback: Maintaining an Undefiled Conscience in the World of Distraction —–Part 2 | Orthodox Christian Life (of being and remaining in orthodox way of life)

  2. Pingback: Maintaining an Undefiled Conscience in the World of Distraction —–Part 4 | Orthodox Christian Life (of being and remaining in orthodox way of life)

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