The following is from Fr. Thomas Hopko’s commencement address to St. Vladimir’s Seminary this past spring (I’m steeling this from Rod Dreher’s Blog). It’s kind of long, but worth it.
We cannot be human beings — still less, Christians and saints — by ourselves. We need God and his wise and faithful servants. We need God’s commandments and living examples of their fulfillment. We need the Church’s scriptures, sacraments, services and saints. And we need one another. As Tertullian said centuries ago, “One Christian is no Christian.” And as the Russian proverb puts it, “The only thing that a person can do alone is perish.” Like it or not, we are “members of one another” in God. If we like it, it is life and paradise. If we reject it, it is death and hell.
So, in the end, because everything is about the true God and Christ and the Holy Spirit, and the Church’s scriptures, sacraments, services and saints, and God’s love, wisdom, truth and power, so too, therefore, is everything about the most important and Godlike reality of all, what St. John Climakos called “thrice-holy humility”: the humility of God himself that cannot be defined but can only be seen and adored in the crucified Christ, and in those who, by faith and grace, are co-crucified with Him.
Thus, if we have become convinced of anything at all as Orthodox Christians, we are convinced that human beings are not autonomous.
The proclamation and defense of human autonomy is the most insidious lie of our day, especially here in North America, and in the Western and Westernized worlds generally.
Humans beings are by nature heteronomous. Another law (heteros nomos) is always working in our minds and members. This “other law” is either the law of God, the law of Christ, the law of the Holy Spirit, the law of liberty and life that can only be recognized, received and realized by holy humility, or it is the law of sin and death. (cf. Romans 7-8) When the law within us is God’s law, then we are who we really are, and we are sane and free. But when that law is the law of sin and death, then we are not ourselves, and we are insane, enslaved and sold to sin.
More than fifteen hundred years ago St. Anthony the Great declared that “a time is coming when people will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’” (Saying 25)
It may well be that the time that St. Anthony foresaw is now upon us, or at least is rapidly approaching, at least in the West. And because of what we have learned, we know what we have to do about it. The same St Anthony, with all holy people, has told us. I urge you, and, if I could, I would command you, to read St. Anthony’s thirty-eight sayings in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Everything we need to know in order to live is there for us in its simplest and clearest form.
Abba Anthony first tells us that when we are plagued by whirling thoughts (logismoi) and worn down by an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness and futility (akedia), which we will be in this sinful world, we must simply and diligently work and pray, by pure devotion and sheer obedience. We must pay attention to ourselves and mind our own business. We must do our work, and let God — and other people — do theirs.
He also tells us that whoever we are, we should always have God before our eyes; and whatever we do, we should always do according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; and wherever we are, we should not easily leave that place. He further tells us (with his friend Abba Pambo) not to trust in our own righteousness, not to worry about the past, and to guard our mouths and our stomachs. He tells us to take responsibility for our own behavior, and to expect to be ferociously tempted to our very last breath. He tells us that there is no salvation for us without trial and temptation, and that without being tested, no person can be healed, illumined and perfected. He tells us that each one of us has our own unique life, that no two people are the same, and that each of us has to be the person that God made us to be (as Fr Paul Lazor, my dearest friend, so often says) where we are, when we are, with whom we are, from whom we are, and such as we are, according to God’s inscrutable providence.
Anthony also tells us, as do all the saints, that our life and our death begin and end with our fellow human beings. He insists that if we have gained our neighbor, we have gained our God, but if we have scandalized our neighbor, we have sinned against Christ. He says that all of our ascetical disciplines, including our scholarly studies, are means to an end; they are not ends in themselves. The end is discernment (diakrisis) and dispassion (apatheia) and the knowledge (epignosis) of God through keeping His commandments, the first and greatest of which is love (agape). And he teaches that our only hope to escape the countless snares of this world that seek to enslave us is found in one thing alone: Christ-like humility, with “a broken, contrite and humble heart,” as the psalmist says, being our sole “sacrifice acceptable to God” (Psalm 51.17).
This reminds me that salvation, the purpose of our life, is not something that happens in spite of our actions. We do not hope that the good things we have done will out weigh the bad things so that one day we may be worthy to “go to heaven.” The problem here isn’t about faith vs. works. The problem is that the faith vs. works debate is sometimes based on a misunderstanding of salvation (& heaven). Fr. Hopko (making reference to St. Paul) says: “When the law within us is God’s law, then we are who we really are, and we are sane and free.” It seems to me that this is the beginning of a right understanding of salvation. Our purpose is to become who we really are (or are called to be), to become sane and free, living according to God’s law. This is salvation (& sanity), to become a person who is filled with this “Christ-like humility” and to fully share in the life of God; to become partakers of the Divine Nature (II Peter 1:3-4). Heaven is the fullness of this purpose.
To be a Christian is to believe that God’s law is life, and we are called to live according to it (the law of liberty and life) not because we will get into heaven if we do, but because living according to God’s law is heaven; it is what enables us to be “sane and free.”