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The Church as Theanthropic Institution

Elder Vasileios gave this address in September 1999, but in the light of the increased intrusions and surveillance by supra-national bodies since then, it is even more relevant than it was at that time.

Archimandrite Vasileios, former Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Iviron, Mount Athos

[…] The institution of the Church isn’t human but is rather a divine/human foundation.

And the way it functions is a confirmation and manifestation of the enduring presence of the Lord among us.

Human and secular institutions (or spiritual institutions which are organized on secular lines) have as their purpose the promotion of the plans of those in charge of them. They aim to increase their power and influence. To impose their will and to subjugate as many people as possible. Perhaps with the aim of saving them. Because people whose thinking is pedestrian are quite capable of imagining the salvation of humankind through the abolition of freedom, that is, through the abolition of the human person.

In these institutions, which function in a secular manner, like machines, people either submit and end up as beings without a will of their own, like mercenaries or a machine part; or they react by being disruptive. They withdraw from the institution. And they become tied to their own individual way of thinking, using it to fashion their own lives and those of any other people prepared to follow them. But if someone loses their unity with the Church, they lose their freedom. Because they lose their real self, which is all other people.

No human institution, even if it’s called ‘ecclesiastical’, can contain, constrain or satisfy people who have the breath of God within them, who long for even more, for amplification, for Christ. They can’t be satisfied with some promise, some secular prospect or other, which is why they seek the ungraspable, the humanly unattainable. Their whole being says ‘No’, to secularly-organized institutions which supposedly want to lead them into the mystery of life and salvation. For them, a good spiritual institution which functions mechanically is on the brink of collapse, disintegration and disappearance.

This is why the Lord, who knows all this, came to break the bonds. He destroyed deceit. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the merchants who had transformed the temple into a house of business. He freed us from the curse of the Law.

And with his descent into Hell, ‘the bolts were shattered, the gates were breached, the tombs were opened and the dead rose’. And all the dead emerged into the light. ‘And there were no dead in the tombs’. And he established the Church, which isn’t a prison (even with gold bars), but is freedom and ‘love as powerful as death’ [Song of Songs, 8, 6].

And it’s the womb of another mother, broader than the heavens, that gives birth to us. We’re the children of a free woman, of freedom which we gain through obedience to God’s truth, which is love. Whereas human institutions fear human freedom and therefore shackle or abolish it, the institution of the Church gives birth to people who are free in the Spirit. And the whole of the institution of the Church is built by the Spirit, who ‘blows where he will and you do not know where he is coming from nor where he is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’ [Jn. 3, 8].

Untrammeled freedom is the rock of the faith. According to Saint Symeon the New Theologian, the saints aren’t guardians of the law but makers of law. The institution of the Church is based on gifts from God, and the talents given to the saints act as guiding principles for the full complement of its members. We might say that there aren’t any people gifted with talents, but that they’re being born, engendered, all the time. It’s not that they received a gift at some specific time by which they acquired some static capacity, but rather that they received a blessing which continues to be granted to them over time.

These are people who have truly recognized our ultimate weakness and the goodness of God. They see every other person as good and pure, while they see themselves as lower than all the rest of creation. They have the grace of the trembling contrition of the humble, the utterly wretched. And, like a sponge, they absorb Grace. They receive the gifts of inner contentment and illumination. They don’t consider this their own achievement nor the result of the potential they’ve realized in order to increase their own standing and to belittle others. They’re astonished at the ineffable love of God and spontaneously return it. They give it back immediately to the Giver of gifts.

This makes them worthy to continue to receive new talents, greater, pure and spiritual which bless all things. Yet they continue to have not the faintest esteem as regards themselves, though they hold God in the highest esteem.

Edited by Stelios Koukos.