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Preachers in the Areopagus
(The true position of the Orthodox Church regarding the profane culture)

Man is mortal. And this makes him selective. The clash between the huge amounts of existing means of information and the brevity of available time compels him to choose some instead of others. But, even if one could suppose an infinity of times after which the man should finally die, selection, that would no more appear so strict in the case of quantity, should be kept as far as quality is concerned.

This is so if we consider human life from the perspective of the Orthodox faith that regards it as a permanent ascent towards the eschatological perfection, under the conditions of a restored universe. This “selective spirit” that we are talking about (which the Saint Fathers use to call “right judgment”) is at its turn a fairly advanced step in the process of improvement. This is so because it has already supposed anterior experience of a correct and harmonious relation with God, by accomplishing His commandments, by means of which man receives the gift of discerning the good and the evil (Genesis 3,5). This gift cannot be received against God’s will (Genesis 3,5). However, as God’s image and semblance, man experiences the knowledge of good and evil at an underlying level, which is obvious, at least in the form of random sparks, in any of his activities. Therefore, one can expose glints of such knowledge even in the customs of pagan cultures. They stand for a further testimony of the Creator’s perfection that is to be seen even in the least perfect types of His creatures and despite their free abandon of the Source of their perfection. The revelation of these samples of truth from pagan cultures in order to transcend and transform them in awkward leads in to the Christian message represents in fact an act of love. Saint Apostle Paul’s lecture from the Areopagus offers us an illustration.

In its teachings, the Christian religion did not reject but it made use of everything it might have employed from the pagan cultures, especially the Greek and the Roman ones. The mythology of these peoples became source of Christian symbols, which is to be seen very clearly in the art of the catacombs. In the main, all the orthodox theology was built upon the pagan Greek terminology. Authors such as Plato or Aristotle were seen as having prepared the propagation of the Christian message, smoothing out the minds to be ready to receive the good word on the life to come, on virtues and imperfections, on the reward that is to be given: happiness for the virtuous ones (these are the philosophers, in Plato’s view) and torment for the lazy ones. That is why they were represented on the mural paintings of several churches, such as Basil the Blessed Church from Kremlin and others.
The theology must have a universal expression. It is not just by accident that God placed the Fathers of the Church in a Greek context. The need for transparency in philosophy and for depth in gnosis constrained them to purify the language of the philosophers and render it sacred. The Christian message – that includes but also transcends the Jewish tradition – had to be given its all-embracing universal character.
The Areopagus, which Saint Paul preached in, hasn’t fallen. It has just taken new forms that are maybe more subtle. Prompted by Nietzsche’s words that the world has “buried its idols”, the modern society replaced these idols with itself. Our modern world turned from worshipping the rain or the sun – the natural forces, and has focuses on the cultural ones. It feeds on the literary works and the literary chimerical characters, which have assailed its lexis and its value systems. Entire peoples lean on these characters and works, as the earth rested upon the body of the legendary wheals.

Terms such as “Apollinic and Dionysian” , the “Oedipus complex” or expressions such as “Mephistophelean laughter” or “rimbaldian attitude” and so on, encode artificially the whole language of the modern and particularly the postmodern – in the cultural meaning of the word – society. In order to understand and make him understood, one must no more confine him to the comprehension of everyday language but stands in great need of the understanding of such symbols and “paroles” that constitute in fact a meta-language accessible only to initiates. This situation is more obvious in the case of the postmodern poetic works, in which the bookish puts reality in the shade and stifles it, while quotations and puns that are crowding the text - what we use to call intertextuality – turn into a value criterion.

The same situation characterized the Athens in the days of Saint Paul. Everyone quoted dramatic fragments or the poems then in fashion. Saint Paul uses them in his sermon. We can speak in this respect too, of intertextualism in Saint Paul’s case, in the sense given to the term by the postmodern aesthetics. We can exemplify: Bad friendships corrupt good habits (1 Cor 15,33) is a phrase taken from Meander’s comedy. Admonishing the Cretans, the Apostle uses the poets Epimenide’s words: Cretans are always lying; they are beasts, lazy bellies (Tit 1,12). In the famous sermon from the Areopagus, Paul quotes from the Greek poet Aratos from Soloi. The last work was in fact a versified astronomy handbook. It began with a hymn addressed to Zeus, and the Apostle used one of its lines as a departure point to give a true perspective of God: because we are His people (Book of Apostles, 17,28).

We bend to the sanctuaries of some subtle idols to whom we sacrifice our whole conscience and our entire freedom: this is, the culture and all its forms. Our dear departed Stanescu used to write: Every hollow hides a god. Just like in Saint Paul’s days, our Lord Jesus Christ is still an unknown God of Whom we must inform the world. Just as then, everybody… spends his time only by saying or listening to something new (Book of Apostles, 17,21). Sitting in the heart of the Areopagus that is the world culture, we have to know what to say, in the same way in which Saint Paul spoke to the Greeks, a people of homosexuals: People… I see you are very pious in every possible way since wandering through your city – the history of the world culture – I have also found an altar on which it is written: “To the unknown God”. This God Whom you worship without knowing Him is the God I’m telling you about. (Book of Apostles, 17,22-23)

The spirit of the inquisitions is unfamiliar to the Orthodoxy. This may constitute the outset from the difference between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. The Orthodoxy is not afraid of discovering compromising commentaries standing against it, and it doesn’t forbid the believers to study even those sources that are hostile to it.

This is so (and we have here an example of involuntary truth, belonging to Leonardo da Vinci) the more you know the more you love. For one who looks for blessing the Only God, even the pagan writings may be a source of such a blessing. We remind of the sorcerer Balaam who, getting paid for cursing the people of Israel, instead of cursing he blessed them (Numbers 22,23; Joshua 13,22, 24,10). In the same way, every work of pagan origin containing obvious anti-Christian message may be converted into a source of blessing. In jest or jesting apart the Christian has to know how to compel the devils so to make them praise God. The Orthodox tradition relates fascinating anecdotes extracted from the lives of the Saints, such as the case of Saint John of Novgorod who flied on the back of the devil so far as Jerusalem in order to pray at the Tomb of our Lord. There are many other such stories.

Many people believe that they are able to read the writings of the Fathers of the Church and they have never opened any novel. Giving up to the reading of novels should not be done by command, since there is no such commandment. Shortly we must read as many novels as to be fed up with reading them. This is why it is told that even the praised Moses, on account of whose wisdom his name was great among men, trained his mind at first with the Egyptian knowledge and only afterwards did he set out contemplating Who is. Moreover we are told of Daniel who learnt the knowledge of the Chaldeans in Babylon and only afterwards did he draw himself up to the Divine lessons.

This advice was left to the youth not just by anybody but by the great ascetic man and Father of the Church Saint Basil the Great. As for St Gregory the Theologian it is told that “noticing that Apolinary [the heretic] wrote many volumes in lines of different feet, by means of which he succeeded in bringing many people in his heresy, he considered using his leisure time… to write fragments in lines”.
We shall see presently the way in which this blessed man eluded the excessive law of the tyrant (Julian) that forbade Christians to draw on the profane science. He began to compose at his turn epic, iambic or elegiac lines, of three or different feet and of various forms, the type of which was used in tragedies or in comedies. At the end, there was no literary from that had not been used in his books. Obviously he used all these literary forms in pious purposes, either by praising the virtues or the corporal and spiritual purity or by composing theological treatises and lyric prayers. Moreover, as it is proper, he kept clear of all the licentiousness and the wantonness that are to be found in myths and the legends about the miracles of pagan gods. Yet he succeed in giving Christians some learning full of wisdom, therefore the insane law of the faithless emperor, who eyed hostilely the education of the Christians, didn’t reach its aim.
It is sound that common human feelings should be educated also by means of reading proper laic books. They are most suitable for the condition of any human being at the beginning of the spiritual life. They contain the necessary dose of sentimentality helpful for the soul that is still under the control of passions. Not everyone can read on one occasion the writings of the Fathers of the Church and not be harmed by the devil. By taking on an ascetic life that surpasses his powers, one falls either in harmful vanity or in despair, realizing that he can’t accomplish all that he is reading about. In this way not only do many people disturb heir personal life but also they perturb the life of their dear ones.

It is a well-known fact that the Saints from Optino recommended that laics should listen initially to symphony music to get their souls sharpened. It is only the one who received the gift of praying who can be aware of the true meaning of not reading poems and novels anymore. The others do it either because of laziness or by conceit, judging themselves more advanced in the spiritual life than they actually are. It is rather an excuse for their own lack of education and idleness since this sort of people don’t read laic books but they also ignore the sacred ones, professing that “they pray”. Laics living in the human society should educate themselves and their children so they shouldn’t be a reason of obstruction and of trouble for the weak ones. But if they wish to consecrate their life to praying they should go into a monastery since the true monks no more need to read laic books. If they do it however, it is only in special cases, to help others. They do it with missionary and not spiritual purposes.

For these times I would recommend – Saint Basil the Great is writing, addressing the young – that you should get guidance and leave no stone unmoved – as the proverb tells – if this is of any help. The stones, which the Saint refers to, are obviously the laic arts and sciences. For the soul nourishing of them, they create a sight that is by no means indecent since they may be compared to the leaves of the fruit-bearing tree, while the fruit means the truth, or Christ, Whom we must bear in our hearts before anything else.
Certainly, the Christian message needs no enhancement since it expresses the plenitude. Yet it needs to be explained and spread abroad. In this respect, the works of many laic and pagan authors convey exemplarily the tragedy of man’s seclusion from God. They represent that quest of the human soul to rest in Him, according to Blessed Augustine’s words at the beginning of his Confessions. Most people find themselves at this primitive stage of the quest. Finding out the guide marks they use in their pursuit our mutual understanding easier. Christ is the door (St. John, 10,9) and whoever enters Him will be saved. Those people still fascinated by artistic works resemble the babies stretching their little hands towards the handle of the door without being able to reach it. This is so since the people fascinated by art have the psychology of the child who claims and cries over a broken cup and turns down any offer of a new one. When we want to replace the broken cup by a new one, we must set out by explaining the child the reason of the semblance between the two cups and show him the advantages of the new one. Only after should we try to convince him that the old cup was actually a very old and ugly one, and he is told “Good job!” since he understood. We have to understand culture in a similar way, which, despite many good points, is saturated with pagan and primitive elements. We have to replace it with which is the crowing of all the knowledge, that is Christ’s learning. We have to provide evidence for a truth that is in fact plain: that crediting Dante or Eminescu rather than Jesus Christ doesn’t presume a particular intellectual discretion.

Under the particular circumstances of the nowadays-cultural society in which cultural patterns have overshadowed the horizon of the authentic spirituality, the use of the biblical terminology proves mostly ineffective. It is either unknown purely and simply or – which is worse – catastrophically distorted by the atheist and the heretic propaganda. Two thousand years later, one can hear of Christianity everywhere and we have even Christian-democratic political parties. But if he wants to make himself understood, the Orthodox preacher must resort to the methods of the apologists from the first centuries who had to teach amidst heathens. It works well for a Christian to repeat more often Saint Paul’s retort from the Aeropagus: as one of your poets said (The Book of Apostles, 17,28).

There is no doubt that in the days of Saint Paul or even Saint Basil the Great – the latter being the one who advised the young not to hold back from reading those writings of pagan poets they could properly use – the laic literature didn’t count yet thousands and thousands of worthless productions, as it does nowadays. It is not idle talk when Saint Theophan the closed one, who lived one hundred years ago, being asked by a woman if she was allowed to read laic writings, he answered: I can hardly whisper that the answer is yes, you are. But you should not read much and without discernment: do not litter your fair mind. It is certain that the great scholar and the ascetic hierarch Theophan was well acquainted to saint Basil’s works and their views concerning the reading of laic books are similar. The two hierarchs simply refer to two different types of laic literature: the Greek one – in the days of saint Basil’s – next to the cheap French novels, which began to be in fashion at the end of the last century.
Finally, if the atheists read the books of the Fathers of the Church in order to be able to fight against the Church, why shouldn’t we read some of their books to be able to convince the atheists and the heretics? They aimed at doing harm whereas we wish to do well. God help us!

This should be so much the more since the fight against the atheism seems to have ended. The fight against polytheism is by far more dangerous and difficult, since it implies struggling against all the demons that were allowed to invade our world and our lives.

Oh do not cut your hand or your foot
by mistake or on purpose.
At once a god will be raised in the wound,
as it is everywhere, always,
they will set a god there
to be worshipped since he
protects everything that parts with the self.
Look after, you fighter, not to be deprived of your eye,
because they will bring and raise
a god in tour eye socket
and he will remain there, like a stone, while we
will be raising our souls and praise him.
And even you, you will turn your soul towards him
and you will worship him as you do with the strangers.

Translated from Romanian by Hopartean Andreea

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