Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going?

June 20, 2017 Length: 25:31

Today in our cycle of veneration of Orthodox Christian Saints we remember and celebrate those of the Orthodox Church of the British Isles and Ireland in the first millennium.

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In Chapter 15 of St Augustine’s work on the Holy Trinity, the saint identifies three basic aspects of the human mind, namely: memory, understanding and will. He then proceeds to develop psychological parallels with the Trinity, which, it must be admitted, we Orthodox do not find very compelling. However, St Augustine’s perception that memory, understanding and will are fundamental to human life is very powerful and illuminating. Today we commemorate All the Saints of the British Isles and Ireland. We bring them into our memories, read their lives for a greater understanding of their example and we also exercise our will to act for Christ as they did, most heroically.

As Orthodox Christians, we access our shared memories countless times in worship. Most notably, we remember Christ’s death and glorious resurrection at every Divine Liturgy. We understand through hearing the word of God preached what God has done for us to save us and what this means for our lives.  Energised by the Holy Spirit, we resolve to act, to give witness to God’s great love by the sacrificial outpouring of our love. Memory, understanding and will; all three of these active in one great movement of love for God and for all. There are many other examples. Perhaps we should just choose two: the commemoration of the dead and the veneration of the saints; both of these being connected of course.

We know from archaeological remains that the Neanderthal humans who died out in Europe 40,000 years ago buried their dead with honour and love, maybe also prayers. We know this because we have found pollen grains in Neanderthal cemeteries indicating that their burial practices included the laying of flowers on the bodies of loved ones. Animals other than humans are also known to grieve the death of loved ones, (I am thinking here especially of elephants).  However, historically, over many, many thousands of years humans have done something much more than merely grieve at the grave; we have conducted rituals strongly affirming both life after death and a continuing relationship with our ancestors.

Highly evolved religions have introduced a new revealed element, a sense that one’s destiny after death is determined, in part at least, by the quality of one’s life here on earth. Hinduism and all other religions deriving from it, believe that bad actions or bad soul states (karma) lead to a continuing and degraded form of reincarnation. Salvation, Hinduism teaches, is to be released from this cycle of rebirth, to achieve enlightenment and union with the divine. Semitic religions, and by that, I mean the monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all believe that either heaven or hell await a once born and a once dying person based on both faith and action during one life. All these faiths differ markedly as to how a believer attains salvation, but memory, understanding and will (right action) are common to them all.

In our Orthodox Christian faith, there is an especially strong social or corporate sense of memory, understanding and will. Humans are social animals and, therefore, God always reveals himself in the context of a community even when it is to individual persons that he speaks. True prophets are known as such when they call the community of faith back to its first love, God himself. The very idea that an individual can authentically create a new substitute religion, calling followers to embrace it as the truth, is firmly rejected by the Church. That is why the Church in her mission has always been ready and willing to help those who are growing toward Christ from outside the community of faith while at the same time lovingly rebuking those who have been seduced by the error of false teachers and prophets into leaving the community, thereby committing apostasy. The points of origin and the points of departure are crucial in the discernment of truth from error.

Of course, all faiths evolve and change but continuity and the conservation of the past in an evolving future is how memory works not just for individual human persons but also for communities which remain united in a shared history. Such has been the case from the time God first established a covenant with his people from Noah, through Abraham, Moses and David to the Christ where God himself in human form sealed that relationship with his own blood on the cross and his own glory in the resurrection.

Continuity, conservation and evolution constitute the social memory of the Church and this social memory is maintained and sustained across the centuries by the worship of the Church. This is why a Christian’s active involvement in the worshipping community is the vital and only means of sustaining his or her memory of God who has saved, is saving and will save. This is also why a Christian venerates the saints, those ancestors in the faith whom the Church has deemed worthy of veneration. On the other hand, even the holy dead who have not as yet been glorified as saints are lovingly commemorated week by week in our prayers both in the Divine Liturgy and in memorials. Even when individual memories fail, as they will for most of us as we get older, the Church’s memory remains intact and on that we can rely. So, together in the corporate mind of the Church, which is indeed the mind of Christ himself, through shared and conserved memory, understanding and will, salvation extends from the past through the present and into the future, an end-time when Christ shall come again to judge the living and the dead.  This, essentially, is Holy Tradition, the Holy Spirit in the timeline of the Orthodox Christian Church.

Another significant observation can be made about memory, specifically in the context of our culture in the post-Christian West. We have more or less lost it. We are suffering from a great collective amnesia in which our Orthodox Christian history has sometimes been deliberately airbrushed out, not only by the usual suspects, (militant atheists and secularists), but also further back in time by heterodox Christians themselves. At other times this memory has been lost by casual indifference, encouraged or otherwise.

Today in our cycle of veneration of Orthodox Christian Saints we remember and celebrate those of the Orthodox Church of the British Isles and Ireland in the first millennium. In that first millennium, before the Norman invasion, untold thousands of saints were glorified and commemorated in the Church here. In the centuries after the Norman invasion, Rome glorified only 13 local saints here before the Reformation in the 16th century.  This was because it had become so expensive to have the cause of one’s own particular local saint presented in Rome which by then had centralised and bureaucratised the whole process. Notwithstanding the consequent erosion of this Orthodox Christian memory in the marginalisation of the saints - compounded of course at the Protestant Reformation in the destruction of our Orthodox Christian iconography, landmarks and narratives - thousands of Orthodox Western saints still remain memorialised, not only in our calendars, worship and pilgrimages but also in the works of scholars and historians and here and there in the folk memories of the general populace.

A vital part of our task as Orthodox Christians in the West is to help people here rediscover their own Orthodox heritage in the saints by venerating them back into our cultural and social memories; by reconnecting Christians to a shared Orthodox Christian past.  This is to be done not in order to leave them there in some sort of inert and nostalgic, idealised rut but in order to give both them and us the wisdom and insight for the path that lies ahead into God’s future. On this path, we shall need to be surefooted and clear-sighted, both backwards in time and forwards in time. In short, we shall need to know where we have been in order to know where we are going. Our Christian memory needs to be restored; our understanding clarified and our wills strengthened. This culture and society also needs to shake off its demonic amnesia.  We must play our part in this recovery of memory, aided by the saints themselves.  So, all the Saints of the British Isles and Ireland pray to God for us that our souls may be saved and through us, many others!