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Tradition and the Heart

He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.

St. Ignatius of Antioch (To the Ephesians, XV, 2)

The faculty of hearing the silence of Jesus, attributed by St. Ignatius to those who in truth possess His word, echoes the reiterated appeal of Christ to His hearers: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” The words of Revelation have then a margin of silence which cannot be picked up by the ears of those who are outside. St. Basil moves in the same direction when he says, in his passage on the traditions: “There is also a form of silence namely the obscurity used by the Scripture, in order to make it difficult to gain understanding of the teachings, for the profit of readers.” This silence of the Scriptures could not be detached from them: it is transmitted by the Church with the words of the revelation, as the very condition of their reception. If it could be opposed to the words (always on the horizontal plane, where they express the revealed Truth), this silence which accompanies the words implies no kind of insufficiency or lack of fullness of the revelation, nor the necessity to add to it anything whatever. It signifies that the revealed mystery, to be truly received as fullness, demand a conversion towards the vertical plane, in order that one may be able to “comprehend with all the saints” not only what is the “breadth and length” of the revelation, but also its “depth” and its “height” (Eph. 3:18).

Vladimir Lossky, Tradition and Traditions

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There is a modern anxiety about the meaning of Biblical texts. For historical-critical scholars, there is a never-ending debate over the meaning of texts. The past century has seen a succession of waves (not unlike the constancy of the ocean) when one “new” insight overwhelmed the last. To a certain degree, historical-critical studies have become largely superfluous for any study of the Scripture simply because they represent more the concerns of the present moment and almost never the concerns of the texts themselves.

Others still cling to various forms of Sola Scriptura, certain that the Scriptures can be read with no reference to Tradition – they are self-explanatory (or various such claims).

The Orthodox reading of Scripture is done in the context of Tradition – though this is largely misunderstood by those outside the Orthodox faith itself. The Tradition in which Scripture is read (or doctrine is received and accepted) is as much a state of heart as it is anything else. Some will speak of an “Orthodox phronema,” meaning an Orthodox mind, though I think this would be better translated as an Orthodox heart. That heart is related to the silence described by St. Ignatius in the late first century and expounded on in the quote from the modern Russian-exile theologian, Vladimir Lossky.

“The word of Jesus” also has its “silence,” according to St. Ignatius. That silence is the space into which it is spoken. Without this space, the “truth” of the word of Jesus will not and cannot be heard.

From Anthony McGulkin’s The Orthodox Church: An Introduction:

All elements of the Holy Tradition are coherently bonded together in Orthodoxy, and they function to provide the church’s sense of its inner identity as Christ’s people. The fragmentation of the different parts of tradition has always been regarded by the Orthodox as a sign of heterodox ‘loss’ of the sense of the true spirit of Christianity. None of the individual bulwarks of the tradition can be set up in isolation. For example, no single sentence or argument of an individual Father of the Church carries with it an infallible authority, just becuse it came from a Father of the Church. Even more so, no individual bishop is afforded such infallible authority at any time in the church. Just as Homer could nod, so could some of the saints. Even the best works of the greatest among them contain matters, and isolated propositions, which the Orthodox gloss over at times out of reverence for their ‘overall’ contribution to the majestic exposition of the faith.

It is the consensus of voice that matters: reading the Fathers within the Scripture; the Scripture within the horizon of the church; the liturgy within the context of prayer: all together forming a ‘seamless robe.’ The seamless harmony of the whole tradition shores up all the different parts, self-correcting and self-regulating in its wholeness.

The kind of heart that is able to receive such a Tradition, is not primarily governed by the ego or the skepticism of modernity. It is a heart that is birthed in faith in the knowledge of the true and living God. All of the material that make up Scripture and the artifacts of Tradition are completely useless in the hands of a heart that is not prepared to receive them. Many times such hearts take hold of these things and wield them as weapons or as the fodder for arguments.

All of these things, given to us in a “seamless” manner, are of no use to the heart that refuses to receive them. There are Orthodox who do not have this heart and their arguments and actions betray them. There are non-Orthodox, who, though not being instructed in such a heart, have it, nonetheless, and approach the “seamless” witness of Christ with a regard and respect that works to their salvation.

The silence speaks in great eloquence to the heart that can hear it. It is the silence into which the first words were spoke: “Let there be light.” The result is the same creative life that was birthed at that moment. “Behold, if any man is in Christ, there is a new creation.”

21 Responses to “Tradition and the Heart”

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  1. Brian says:

    I was struck recently by how current events illustrate the invaluable role of tradition in American life – a tradition that includes, but far exceeds, the text of our Constitution in much the same way that the Tradition of the Church includes, but far exceeds, the text of Holy Scripture.

    Regardless of political affiliation, there was virtually unanimous agreement that a general should be relieved of his duty for making disparaging comments about our Commander-in-Chief. The general’s statements, it was agreed, undermined the constitutional principal of civilian authority over the military. Yet from a purely ‘scriptural’ point of view, there is nothing in our Constitution that prohibits anyone from expressing his views about anything he chooses. In fact, from the standpoint of the bare text, the opposite is true; for the First Amendment of the Constitution protects the freedom of speech.

    Similarly, there is absolutely nothing in the text of our Constitution that describes our nation’s flag or the symbolic meaning of the stars and stripes thereon. There are no words about how it ought to be displayed, handled, folded, or disposed of. The same can be said of numerous other aspects of tradition in American cultural and political life. We (or at least the vast majority of Americans) learn these things, accept these things, and honor the value of these things based upon nothing except a tradition that is passed on from generation to generation of Americans – the ‘spirit’ of America, if you will.

    Yet interestingly, many of those who are often most inclined to honor, observe, and preserve the traditions of our country (for which there is no supporting text in our official founding documents) are among the first to discard the Tradition of the Church by stating that it is not found in the text of Holy Scripture. Isolated from tradition in our country – or Holy Tradition in the Church – and guided only by texts which we must somehow interpret according to our own limited, individualistic, contemporary understanding, our common life becomes sterile and subject to schism. In the same manner as the ‘spirit’ of our country, the Holy Spirit of God in the Church is quenched when we fail to accept and pass on the life and the wisdom of the Holy Tradition that He Himself is to us.

  2. 1. ” …in order that one may be able to ‘comprehend with all the saints’ not only what is the “breadth and length” of the revelation, but also its “depth” and its ‘height’.”

    2. “The kind of heart that is able to receive such a Tradition, is not primarily governed by the ego or the skepticism of modernity. It is a heart that is birthed in faith in the knowledge of the true and living God.”

    Perfect!

  3. Rick says:

    A remarkable post, Father. Thank you.

  4. Lina says:

    Several months ago when I was still contemplating my journey into Orthodoxy I sat down and wrote out a few of the ideas/concepts/beliefs of Orthodoxy which differed from the beliefs that I had long held in my former tradition. At the end I remember saying to God “And what do I do about these?” And I distinctly heard, “There is head knowledge and there is heart knowledge.” And I immediately responded, “And you want my heart!”

  5. John says:

    I would say the head informs the heart, rather than the other way around.

  6. John,
    St. Matthew’s Gospel would seem to say otherwise: For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35A good man out of the good treasure ◙ of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things (12:34-45).

  7. John says:

    The route would be message -> head -> heart -> life.

    Did you get my email?

  8. Lina says:

    My understanding of the experience described above was that God wanted my heart more than any knowledge that I had in my head. Head knowledge can be faulty and is limited.

  9. Considering Ravens says:

    Wonderful post, Father! This helps a lot regarding my struggles explaining the Orthodox understanding of scripture! I’ve heard some great podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio, too, but they are a lot to condense. :)

    Brian,
    Excellent comparisons to American culure!

  10. John,
    Got the email but have been short on time. I would say that the state of the heart determines what message you think you hear. He who has ears…

  11. María Gutiérrez says:

    Thank you very much indeed.

    This teaching was healing to me. I’ve been struggling with “the meaning of (some) Biblical texts” since childhood.

    Some time ago I began to realize it might be my own fault, my own assumptions. And the struggle lessened but did not leave. Now I think I received a validation of this notion.

    “The faculty of hearing the silence of Jesus, attributed by St. Ignatius to those who IN TRUTH possess His word…” Did I struggle because I dare to approach God’s Word with lies in my heart, even subconscious lies? If this was the case, my sin could have entangled my understanding and feelings. I need Him to heal the heart before trying to understand. On the contrary, I would never be able to have ears.

    I hope I understood well. May the Lord have mercy on me.
    Thank you.

  12. Kate says:

    In regards to the conversation on head/heart dichotomy, it is my understanding that Greek culture believed the seat of intellect to be the heart. So when we read the Gospels and they speak of the state of the heart they are inferring the state of the being. They, in a sense, are converging the emotional-rational organs of the human being.

    Which, brings me to my second point. Though orthodoxy brings us beautiful tradition that allows the church to worship with saints past and saint future, I do find that it is important to seek out understand of the scripture, the context, so and so forth. I do not think that this is “Modern Skepticism,” but eager curiosity about the beloved scriptures. For I find, like most things in life, balance is needed.

    But, perhaps you were addressing an extreme.

  13. Kate,
    Probably still a translation problem. The “intellect” was the Latin means of translating the Greek word “nous” which is not quite what we mean by “mind” (head or heart). The emotional/rational split would both be part of the “mind” in Greek/Scriptural thought. The heart is a much deeper thing – but is also treated as an organ of perception. For a short read on the topic from an Orthodox perspective, I recommend Webber’s Bread & Water, Wine & Oil (Conciliar Press). He probably states as clearly what the Orthodox mean by these terms.

  14. That’s something I’ve wondered about, re. the Liturgy and the formal prayers of the church–where is the silence?–sometimes it all seems super-wordy, super-talky–never a quiet space–then other times I suspect that possibly all of it is actually suspended in, super-saturated by, and exuding silence, and I’m just too noisy inside to hear it…

  15. Jeremiah says:

    “Many times such hearts take hold of these things and wield them as weapons or as the fodder for arguments.”
    When I first discovered Orthodoxy, and began to see its claims as valid, I had such a mentality. I felt like had found a whole new storehouse of weapons with which to beat my foes into submission. Thank God for the wisdom of true Orthodox teaching, prayers and worship. It is nice to not carry around the angst of feeling like you need to be ready at a second’s notice to bring a verbal beat down to someone speaking error.
    I also want to say that I like the idea of the silence speaking to us. I am learning how true that is. It goes right along with your earlier post about how we meet God in that place where we feel He is absent. It takes a truly painful experience and fills it with hope.

  16. Brian says:

    When one considers the words of Scripture (“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.”) it is easy to understand why some would have difficulty accepting the priority of the knowledge of the heart over knowledge of the ‘head’ in the Orthodox Church. To those outside the context of the Church this must sound as though we allow ourselves to be guided by vague emotional ‘feelings’ rather than truth. But those who are organically united with Christ within the Living Tradition of the Church know by experience that they are protected from the deceit and delusion that arises from being isolated from the Body of the Church and alone with ‘the Bible and the Holy Spirit.’ This sense of organic unity can scarcely be understood from the outside, for no words are adequate to describe it fully. Only an inquirer or catechumen who has experienced a year or more immersed in the life of the Church can begin to grasp the manner in which her worship and her disciplines shape the heart according to the truth of Christ.

  17. Considering Ravens says:

    Maria,
    I would tend to agree–I have had similar struggles. I think in my case, the lies in my heart that clouded my understanding were fed by the tradition I was raised in, and made even worse by counter-arguments from secular culture. I was to the point that I didn’t know if I understood anything I read in scripture. When I began to explore Orthodoxy, I was amazed at the difference! But that is just my history, please forgive my ramblings. :)

  18. Karen says:

    Dear Father, bless!

    It seems to me the understanding of the “silence” into which God’s Word can be fruitfully sown seems to have a parallel to the “good soil” in Christ’s Parable of the Sower. Christ in Luke 8:15 also would seem to indicate the heart (in the deep Orthodox sense) as the organ of perception by which man receives God’s word or, if improperly prepared, rejects or neglects that Word.

  19. María Gutiérrez says:

    Considering Ravens, thank you very much.

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