Orthodox America

Sacred Tradition


Part V - Conclusion

The History of the Church, the Lives of Saints and Righteous

If is highly beneficial to read the history of the Christian Church. In reading about how the holy apostles, men who were for the most part little educated, having scant financial means and belonging to the lower classes, within a short period of time spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire and even beyond its borders. Further we read how the church, subjected to horrendous persecution, kept growing and finally proved victorious over the Roman Emperors, just as later, in times of persecution by the Arians and other heretics, it emerged victorious from the most hopeless situations. Reading all this we cannot but acknowledge that the work of disseminating the Gospel was accomplished not by human power but by God. In God’s caring providence over the Church, we see God, just as we see Him in His creation.

From the earliest centuries of the Church’s existence there have been historians, or rather chroniclers, who, for the edification of future generations, recorded the most salient events in church life. This task was properly begun by the Evangelist St. Luke when he wrote the Acts of the Apostles. These various manuscript chronicles were later used to compile the history of the Church.

The Lives of saints and of righteous men and women provide us with examples of Christian perfection, which we must strive to imitate in our own lives. Christians would do well to read more often such Lives. Then these images of the virtues would unnoticeably imprint themselves on the soul and expel images of evil, which penetrate from the modern world. Many Lives of saints are written in a most interesting and engaging manner, more engaging than the works of secular writers. This is that literature with which the Church nourishes its children. Unfortunately, nowadays it is overshadowed by secular literature, which give images of passionate, even sinful people, where evil is often presented as a virtue, and sin is presented in the most attractive form. Reading such books, we ourselves are imperceptibly drawn to imitation. According to Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, the reading of novels leads to a life modelled on such novels.

Additionally, by reading the works of modern novelists, we are drawn out of the realm of a true reality and fall into a realm of falsehood and fantasy, for the heroes of these novels are nothing but the inventions of a writer’s idle fantasy. And these non-existent, fictitious heroes have become for us reality, a reality which obscures real, living people. These heroes are the subject of lengthy debates, various critics write whole volumes about them, students write comparative studies about these non-existent characters.

There has come to pass what St. Paul foretold long ago: the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears fro the truth, and shall be turned unto fables (II Tim. 4:3-4). For what are most contemporary stories and novels if not modern fables? And these fables are rad, studies and published by the thousands, while the lives of such giants of the spirit as St. Athanasius the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Maximus the Confessor and others, as well as their writings remain altogether unknown to the vast majority of people.

Like the history of the Church, the Lives of saints also represent branches of Sacred Tradition, just as beneficial and indispensable as its other branches.

Tradition Concerning our Attitude Towards Various Phenomena in Contemporary Life

The life of the world is constantly changing: forms of government change, living conditions change, various sociological and economic doctrines are proposed, new philosophical systems are born, new scientific theories and discoveries appear, new schools of art. The Church, whose principal task it is to save men’s souls, comments on all this by counselling believers to accept some things as profitable for the soul and to avoid others as being detrimental. These pronouncements on various subjects are first born in the more spiritually developed members of the Church, but soon filter into the entire mass of believers.

The voice of the Church is usually expressed by its periodicals, the words of its pastors and preachers, yes and of all people who live according to its precepts. But we have spoken enough about this earlier. Such pronouncements are yet another component of the Church’s Tradition, and believers try to abide by them.

Here the subject is hardly exhausted, and not all the branches of Church Tradition have been enumerated, only the most important. There exist quite a few other parts of Tradition, less significant, which we have omitted. For example: how churches should be built, how icons should be painted, how feasts are to be celebrated, etc. The whole of church life is full of such traditions. They trace their origin to antiquity and are called Sacred Traditions.

These are not inventions of human wisdom. They are born of Diving wisdom. As long as the Church preserves the true teaching of Christ, it is united with Christ, Who is its Head. He guides it, just as a head guides a body. Such a Church is illumined by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth. For this reason, all its precepts, all its customs, in general, all its traditions are born under the influence of the Holy Spirit and are true, beneficial and soul-saving. Like the Holy Scripture, they guide us towards spiritual perfection and, if we faithfully keep them, they will gain for us the salvation of our souls.

This holds true so long as the Church preserves the true teaching. When it deviates from this truth, there begin to appear the traditions of men, often harmful and ruinous.

To manage without tradition completely is impossible. One cannot, in fact, reject all that our ancestors created and handed down to us. In that case, each person would have to create his own religion. It is not only church life that has its traditions; civic, social and family life are full of traditions and are guided by them. If one were to deny them, one would have to create anew all forms of life.

(Translated from Vechnoe, Paris, August 1963)