In every generation, and perhaps more frequently, there is a belief set forth within various corners of Christianity that we are living in “the last days.” Many examples are given to support such a claim, despite the fact that we are never given any indication of “timing” or “events” that will precede the end of this age, and the beginning of the new.
But is it our duty within the Church to try and anticipate these events, and to therefore seclude ourselves from this “evil world” and seek to take care of ourselves alone? Should we seek to withdraw even from the “mainstream” Orthodox Church and militantly find solace in more isolated and “traditional” gatherings? Is this the way of the Spirit of peace, joy, and love, that both reigns and dwells within each one of us in the body of Christ?
If we consider the purpose of the Church as a whole (and indeed it’s very existence), it is the life of Christ for the life of the world. A distinction has to be made, therefore, between being “of” and “in” the world: “The Church separates herself from the world, because, being the body of Christ, she is already ‘not of this world.’ But this separation is accomplished for the sake of the world, for the offering of Christ’s sacrifice ‘on behalf of all and for all'” (Schmemann, The Eucharist, p. 93). If I make the separation of the Church from “the world” as being one of myself from the lives of others around me, I have completely missed the point of not only the Church but of our very purpose as individual Christians (as Christ “repeated,” or as an extension of Christ in this world).
First, we must acknowledge that there are “problems” in the world around us, but that these are not justifications for extremism and an abandonment of the love of Christ for the world. I have read many critiques as of late related to the widespread “modernity” and compromise of the “mainstream churches.” These alarmist critiques are often, ironically, based upon traditional-ism that is rooted more in reconstruction than it is a continuation in the living and Spirit-filled Tradition of the apostolic Church. If only one “type” of Orthodoxy is acceptable, and the great wealth of diversity that has always been present within our Church is abandoned, are we truly being a “catholic” (whole, complete, lacking in nothing) Church?
Secondly, and in response to the first dilemma of the modern Orthodox Christian, we must not let our acknowledgement of “problems” in this world (or in the Church) lead to a disgust for the world (or the Church). “Negative” spirituality is no spirituality at all. Schmemann is most informative on this point, writing:
… scared by seemingly triumphant evil, disenchanted with all theories and explanations, depersonalized and enslaved by technology, man instinctively looks for an escape, for a “way out” of this hopelessly wicked world, for a spiritual haven, for a “spirituality” that will confirm and justify him in his disgust for the world and his fear of it, yet at the same time give him the security and the spiritual comfort he seeks. Hence the multiplication and the amazing success today of all kinds of escapist spiritualities — Christian and non-Christian alike — whose common and basic tonality is precisely negation, apocalypticism, fear, and a truly Manichean “disgust” for the world.
This outlook seems to be one that is often common among the online “gatherings” of Orthodox Christians today, where the irony of lamenting modernism is lost in the fact that such laments are typed from MacBook Airs on Wi-Fi. One could argue, of course, that the benefits of modernism are fine, so long as they are not abused to our peril. Fair enough. Yet, the broad strokes with which the “super-correct” paint are that of a wholesale negation of the world around them (including its people), in favor of an isolated Christianity of the “worthy,” who have yet to “sell-out.”
Such “spirituality,” even when it takes on Christian appearances and is dressed in Christian terminology, is not Christian spirituality; it is indeed a betrayal. Salvation can never be an “escape,” a mere negation, a self-righteous delectation in one’s own “withdrawal” from the wicked world. Christ saves us by restoring our nature, which inescapably makes us part of creation and calls us to be its kings. He is the Savior of the world, not from the world.
Given that we are a part of this world — and that Christ will “make all things new,” and not all new things — escapism has no place in Orthodoxy. Even monasticism is not escapism in this sense, as our monastics unceasingly intercede and serve Christ for the life of the world; they lay down their lives for their friends, of which there is no greater love.
If salvation is “acquisition of the Holy Spirit,” as Saint Seraphim of Sarov asserts, then such an acquisition should in turn manifest the fruits of that same Spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22). Neither alarmism nor escapism are compatible with these “fruits,” not even to mention notions of “disgust.” It is inescapable that parts of our Church will appear (on the surface, at least) more or less faithful than others (given her theanthropic nature), but a Christian spirituality and reaction to these circumstances is not to “write off” everyone else, but rather to seek a path of love, peace and long-suffering; and yes, this can be done without compromising the essence of the faith itself.
When the mysteries (the “sacraments”) became “means of grace,” by which an individual appropriates the benefits of Christ for themselves, privately and irrespective of the rest of the body, the very heart of our faith was under assault. Catechisms of hierarchs in Russia instructed believers that receiving communion once a year was all that was necessary, and the purpose of assembling around the eucharist as the constitution and very life of the Church for the world was all but lost. But the mysteries are not for our personal, private benefit, nor are they primarily “means of grace” (in the sense that many factions of western theology have meant it for the last several hundred years) for the individual. Rather, the eucharist is the mystery by which the Church is constituted, by which we become the body of Christ, and by which we can share this life of Christ with the rest of the world. Church is not an escape from the world, but is the body “in this world, but not of it” that will be the means of its transformation.
I believe that we must keep in mind, first and foremost, that we do not “go to church” for the sake of ourselves and our own benefit alone (or even that of our own family), but for the sake of the whole world. Escapism and a disgust for those around us is a betrayal of Christ, rather than a purification of his Church, as one might intend. Without an acceptance of the assembly that gathers around us, and without a love for those outside of the Church as well, it is not the eucharist we eat, but a meal of judgment.
With St Seraphim, I must see every individual as “my joy” (“problems” or not), being filled with the same Spirit that has gathered us together into one, true body of Christ — and all of this for the life of the world.