Four Major Aspects of the Church's Faith and Experience
From: Understanding the Greek Orthodox Church, Hellenic College Press, Brookline, Massachusetts 1998.
The Patristic and Monastic Aspects of the Church
The Greek Orthodox Church is also a patristic Church that is a church, which honours many Fathers and saints. One cannot fail to observe that Orthodox Christians show devotion to and speak with reverence about the numerous saints and Fathers of the Church. The memory of one saint or -a rare example- as many as two thousand saints is observed on one single day, and several Sundays of the ecclesiastical year are put aside for a certain group of Church Fathers, such as the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Synod, those of the Second, or of the Seventh. Patriarchs and personalities of the Old Testament, as well as saints and disciples of New Testament times and of the long history of Christianity are invoked in every service of the Orthodox Church, as expressed in the following prayer from the service of Orthros:
Ο God, save your people, bless your inheritance; visit your world with mercies and bounties. Exalt the estate of Orthodox Christians, and bestow upon us your rich blessings. We ask all these through the intercession of our all-holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary; by the might of the precious and life-giving cross; by the protection of the honourable, glorious prophet, forerunner and Baptist John; of the holy, glorious and all-laudable apostles; of all the Fathers among the saints, the great hierarchs and ecumenical teachers...of the holy, glorious and victorious martyrs; of our venerable and God bearing Fathers; of the holy and righteous ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna; of Saint [or saints ... whose memory we celebrate, and of all your saints, we beseech you...have mercy upon us.
During the offertory service or prothesis, the priest commemorates many Old Testament personages, such as Moses, Aaron, Elijah, David, and Daniel.
The "chosen people of the world before Christ and after Him are commemorated and united in the bosom of the Church along with the angels.
But why is so much emphasis laid on the saints and Church Fathers? The answer is closely related to the Orthodox conception of the nature of the Church. The saints and the Fathers constitute her conscience, because as witnesses to the living flame of the Holy Spirit they experienced the presence of Christ in their lives and bore witness to it before the world. The blood they shed for the faith, and the oral and the written word they proclaimed, the hymns and the services they wrote, make up the life of the Church.
The Orthodox believe that the saints and holy men are always present in the faith and life of their Church. They are the perpetual teachers of the gospel and the supreme embodiments of the life of Christ. As heralds of the Holy Spirit, the Fathers purified the faith from heretical influences and defined all the major doctrines of Christianity, such as the Holy Trinity, the natures of Christ, the person of the Holy Spirit, the nature of the Church, and the function of her sacraments. They became "the golden mouths of the Logos...the sweet-smelling flowers of Paradise, illuminating stars of the world and the glory of mankind," as one of the many Orthodox hymns declaims.
Among the many saints, martyrs, and Fathers honoured in the Greek Orthodox Church from Saint Stephen the first martyr to Saint Chrysostom, bishop of Smyrna in the 1920s, among the most popular there have been Saints Polycarp, Ignatios, Anthony, Constantine and Helen, Katherine, Nicholas, Athanasios, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzos), John Chrysostom, Spyridon, George, Demetrios, Theodore, Eustathios, Maximos the Confessor, John of Damascus, Cyril and Methodios, Photios, Philaretos Eleemon, Gregory Palamas, George the New Martyr, Nikodemos the Hagiorite, Kosmas Aitolos and Nektarios of Pentapolis. Some of these saints were simple folk, others were theologians and clergymen, and still others were wise men and scholars. There were even kings and socially prominent people, who considered the comforts of this world not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed (cf. Rom. 8.18).
There are faithful in the Orthodox Church, both lay and clergy, who renounce the everyday concerns of life -marriage, family, and profession- in order to devote their lives to prayer and contemplation. Such a person is called monachos (monk). What is a monk? Theodore Studites writes, "a monk is a man who looks only toward God, who is drawn to God and is close to God, desiring to serve only God, being in peace with God and becoming an instrument of peace with other human beings."
Monasticism was born not only out of the individual's desire to live a perfect religious life but also as a reaction to the secularism that infiltrated the Church as early as the third century of the Christian era. Monasticism flourished in the Christian East and assumed various forms and characteristics. There were monks who adopted a life of solitude, while others joined monastic communities, devoting themselves to a number of activities -painting, manufacturing religious articles, or serving their fellowmen as medical aides, teachers, or physicians.
But monasticism declined after the nineteenth century, and today there are not many monastic communities either in Greece or in other countries where Orthodoxy prevails: Mount Athos, with its many monastic communities, is most important and the most famous. Altogether there may be no more than 5,000 monks in the Greek-speaking Orthodox Church. Commenting on the life and character of the monks on Mount Athos, Professor Frederic Will, in an article in the Yale Review a few years ago, writes:
Their lives are whole; prayer and painting are parts of a single devotional existence. The joy is clear enough on their faces. The monks are imaginative, delicate people with a great devotion to their work. Some of them seemed to me among the most broadly human... Ι was astonished, partly, simply at the existence of such a place... The wholeness of the artistic lives led there is exemplary. Their art and joy seemed to have found one another.