The Boat Sailing to the Kingdom of Heaven
A few questions and answers about the Church
In one of the churches in Holy Land there is this fresco. Sailing up to heavens is a huge boat in which the apostles, saints, martyrs, holy, righteous people and many Christians are gathered together. Some people outside the boat throw arrows and spears, trying to sink the ship. Yet, it is sailing on, because the Lord Himself is at the steering control. The boat is the Church. Those who are sailing in it together with Christ and the saints are we ourselves. Now, just like at all times, the Church is being attacked by arrows Ц people talk and write about it with condemnation. How should we receive it? Can those arrows harm us, sailing in the boat of the Church? This question has been answered a long time ago by holy Fathers and ascetic laborers.
What is the Church for us?
The holy Fathers urge us not to forget what the Church is for us. The Church is not simply an institution. The Church is our mother that gave birth to us for life eternal. "The Church is the mother's bosom, conceiving, forming, raising, and perfecting each Christian," Ц says St. Theophan the Recluse. Likewise, St. Philaret of Moscow writes that the Church for us is "the mother's womb and the treasury of life." Thus, is it possible for us to unlove our Mother, the Church, just because someone condemns her? Moreover, the Church is the living Body of Christ. Christ is the Head in this body, and we are His members. "The Church is full with Christ, and he fills all its members," Ц says St. John Chrysostom. As long as we are in the Church -- we are with the Lord, we are filled with the Lord, and God forbid us to break away from the Church! St. Nicolai the Serbian writes: "What happens, brethren, with a body's organ, if the nerves connecting it to the head, get torn off? It becomes listless, numb, motionless Ц dead. This happens also to every member of the Church that walks away from its structure, thus tearing off its connection to the Head of the Church Ц Christ. May the Lord preserve us, o brethren, from such death."
Why people talk and write about the Church with condemnation?
The answer to this question has been known for long. Of course, the cause is not the Church itself. The Church is holy. The Church is the ark of salvation. The devil in the meantime strives to drag people out of this salvific ark. With this purpose in mind he resorts to various temptations: he instigates people to pay attention to the deficiencies and weaknesses of individual members of the Church or of its clergy, he tempts to judge superficially about the decisions taken by the hierarchy. In doing this, the devil especially tries to influence those are not sufficiently familiar with the teaching of the Orthodox Church, those who are prone to judgment; at the beginning he disturbs and confuses those people, and then he incites them to talk to others about their perplexities -- and in this way the sin of condemning the Church gets spread amidst inexperienced souls.
Knowing about these machinations of the devil, the holy Fathers and spiritually experienced elders strictly warn people about how dangerous it is to judge the Church. Deeply revered by the whole Russian nation elder John (Krestyankin) used to write: "Fear divisions and schism in the Church! Fear to fall apart from the Mother-Church, for she alone restrains the lava of anti-Christian wild outburst in the world today! Fear to judge the church hierarchy, for this itself is death without the anti-Christian seal!" He says in his wise book "The Experience of Preparing a Confession": "Perhaps, some of you doubted the verity of the Church to which you belong by baptism? Were sympathetic to sects and those schismatics who broke away from the Church and who tear apart the robe of Christ. Perhaps you even confused others with your opinions and judgments that are certainly far away from the truth, because one has to know much, to feel much, to understand much to have the right not to judge but even to discourse on the Church. Lord, forgive us, sinners, who have lost all awe and who in our gall have come so far that we dared to debate the lot of the Church! Lord, we all, almost without exception, are illiterate or semi-literate in matters of dogmatics, canon law, Church statutes, we who are responsible to nothing but our own salvation before the Lord, having not the slightest moral right, got accustomed to constantly judge the clergy, and in our condemnation have climbed as high as the Church hierarchy and even the Patriarch. Repent!"
Judging the Church and its clergy is by far not a new phenomenon that came about just at our time. This happened at all times: in every century there would be individuals and entire movements arising that would step forth against the Church. Yet, all of them are gone, whereas the Church stands as it always had. St. Dimitry of Rostov wrote in the XVII century that in his times talks like those would circulate: "Nowadays the Church is not the Church, and the priests are no priests." Fervently does St. Dimitry retort: "Did the Church undergo changes? Did the priesthood cease? Will Church not stand until the Great Judgment, and the gates of hell, Ц according to the words of the Lord, Ч will not prevail over it? Did Christ the Lord really abandon His Church which He redeemed with His precious Blood? Did He lie in saying: I am with you until the end of the ages? Heaven and earth shall pass, but My words shall not pass, Ч and you, saying that the Church is no longer the Church, thereby consider the words of the Lord a lie! Whom should one trust: you or Christ the Lord?"
About how important it is not to judge superficially the members and the clergy of the Church, is beautifully said by a well-known elder of our times, archimandrite Emilian (Vafidis): "We do not look at the outer things but penetrate the deep. The Church, it seems, is full of stains. People constantly write and talk about the sins of the Church. Nevertheless, the Church is yet one, and it is holy. Behind the Church hierarchy there is the host of apostles and prophets, of Christ Himself, invisibly present with us."
Are we able to change things in the Church?
The Church is all of us. Each one of us is called to serve in building up the Church. In what way? "If you want to help the Church, try better to fix yourself and not others, Ц used to say st. Paisius of Holy Mountain. Ц If you change yourself, immediately a particle of the Church will be made better. And it is clear that if everyone were to act in this way, the Church would be brought into complete order."
We are all called not to fix the Church but to help and serve it. And we help the Church most by fervently loving it, by not judging anyone in the Church, by keeping the spirit of peace and unity. St. Porphirios Kavsokalivitis wrote about this: "In order to preserve our unity, we must obey the Church and its bishops. By obeying the Church, we obey Christ Himself. Let us ache for the Church and love it strongly. Let us not tolerate condemning Her representatives. What is the Orthodox spirit? The Orthodox spirit is deep, silent, holy, without discord, contentions, and judgment. We all are the Church. When the Church is being judged for the mistakes of Her representatives with the alleged purpose of helping it improve, these people are making a huge mistake. These people do not love the Church. They do not love Christ either, of course. We only love the Church when we embrace with prayer Her every member and when we do that what Christ does: sacrifice ourselves and are vigilant."
How can we safely reach the Kingdom of Heaven?
The answer is easy Ц to stay on board of the great boat of the Church, no matter what people say about it and what arrows are being cast into it. The Church is the unconquerable fortress, as St. John Chrysostom said: "The constant persecutions not only were unable to sink the Church, but were themselves destroyed against the Church. There is nothing stronger than the Church of Christ." He further urges us: "If you want to be saved, Ч stay in the Church, and it will not betray you. The Church is the wall. If you are inside the wall, the wolf will not get you, but if you go outside, you will be taken by the beast. Thus, do not wander away from the Church. There is nothing in the world stronger than her. She is your hope, your fortune is in the Church!" All the ascetic laborers, the elders so revered by us, such as, for example, the holy Optina elders, loved the Church strongly and spoke that it is possible to reach salvation only in the Church. And of course, their opinion is more important to us than the opinion of those who evaluate the Church superficially. St. Varsonophy of Optina used to say: "To be saved, it is necessary to be a member of the Orthodox Church. At the present time there appeared a multitude of sects, and they all are inimical to each other, and are united only in one Ц in irreconcilable hostility to the Orthodox Church. Sometimes members of the sects visit me:
Ц Here we believe in Christ and search for Him, where is He?
Ц He, first of all, manifests His most glorious presence in Heaven, and secondly, on earth Ц in the Church. Are you in the Church?
Ц No, we have come away from the Church, but we still hope to be saved.
Ц Then your hope is vain, outside the Church salvation is impossible.
People who are in the Orthodox Church, go for the Heavenly Jerusalem, i.e. to the Kingdom of Heaven in a sure way. They navigate the sea of life in a boat where the helmsman is Christ Himself. Those, however, who are outside the Church, attempt to navigate this sea on a single plank, which, of course, is impossible, and so they perish irrevocably."
What this simple and sure way of salvation consists of, is well-explained by an Athonite elder, archimandrite Ephrem Philotheitis: "Christ said to His disciples: he who listens to you, listens to Me, and he who rejects you, rejects Me; and he who rejects Me, rejects the One Who sent Me. Thus, the successors of apostles are the church hierarchs, the priests, abbots, and elders of small monastic communities. And they who obey the apostolic successors, obey Christ Himself, whereas those who disobey them, reject Christ. Thus, if we want to be in obedience to Christ, we must bear the obedience. The true obedience, however, means to obey not just in things we like but in that which we dislike."
Finally, as a legacy to us all, let us remember the exhortations of Fr. John (Krestyankin) who loved the Church with all his heart:
"The time in which the Lord has brought us to live, is the most troublesome time, Ч confusion, disarray, perplexity shake the unshakable. Yet, the Church, according to the promise of the Savior, will live and perform its great and salvific service until the last day of the world, and therefore the voice of the Church through her canonically established hierarchy for us is like the voice of God." "You must know that without Church there is no salvation, and its Helmsman is the Lord Himself. He knows better how and by means of whom to navigate it over the tumultuous sea of life. Thus, remain in the Russian Orthodox Church guided by the canonical Patriarch, and thus you will be saved, if you live laboring in fulfilling the commandments of God."
"Abide in the Holy Orthodox Church, and the Lord will not abandon you. May the Lord give you wisdom! You must thank God that He has shown you the way to the Church."