I have recently enjoyed reading Reflections of a Humble Heart, a small book of Orthodox spiritual writings. The title was new to me, and I chanced upon it at the Holy Archangels Monastery bookstore in Kendalia, Texas. The work is taken from an Byzantine manuscript discovered in the Vatican library, then translated into Russian, and only recently into English. The writer was a monk Basil, who recorded the teachings of an unnamed priest. Either the elder was so well-known that his name did not have to be mentioned, or it was recorded in the portions of the manuscript now lost. The great interest for me was that the writings date from early 15th-century Constantinople. By that time, the greatest city in the world had been reduced to a hollow shell of its former self, and the empire--if you could still call it that--extended little farther than the city walls. Written under these dire conditions, I was intrigued to see what it had to say.
I was also curious to discover just how the book would sound to me--and by this I mean that as a 21-century reader, how exactly would I hear and receive the wisdom of 600 years past? I know that for Protestants reading the actual writings of the Reformers, the teachings can seem odd and stilted in light of current beliefs (which ought to be a clue). It was refreshing to discover that the Reflections read as though one were reading a contemporary Orthodox theologian or author. Maybe this is due to the translators, but then maybe it is something a bit more basic; a confirmation of the successfull trasmission of doctrine from generation to generation. I am not saying this to try and score points, or indulge in Orthodox triumphalism, but merely noting my overall impression of the work.
Later on, I will post excerpts from the elder's writings. First, however, I found his thoughts on the impending doom of Constantinople, as well as the relationship of eastern and western Christianity to be of interest. I might note that this is not at all the thrust of the book, merely an aside to his readers in the first few pages.
The enemies of our Lord Jesus Christ will take captive our earth and the Great Church [the Hagia Sophia] will cease to be a temple of God. Great tragedies will overtake the land of the Romans [the "Byzantines"], and by God's great judgment it will cease to exist. People will die, cities will perish, even whole nations will perish, because there is nothing eternal under the sun except the human soul, which is created in the image and likeness of the eternal God. Do not look for help from Western Christians, expecting that they will take up arms in defense of the common Christian heritage. Do not expect this. Because the Western Christians are not Christians; they are pagans.
Before one dismisses the writer as just another knot-headed anti-Latin Greek, the elder goes on to explain:
Even we Orthodox have a lot of things that are pagan....Yes, brother, we have much that is pagan, because we Orthodox are sinners, both as individuals and as a people. However, we are pagans on the surface, while in the depths of our souls we are Christian, because in our humility we have Christ in our hearts....Western peoples are Christian on the surface, but in their hearts, in their souls, they are pagan. We Orthodox grieve that we have idols living in our souls, and in humility we fall prostrate before Christ, desiring with our whole heart to belong to Him. In the case of Westerners, however, Christianity is like a thin gilding over copper; the rest is wholly pagan, because within their souls they bow down before their idols and these idols reign over them. They are proud, and Christ does not dwell in their hearts. For this reason, we Orthodox are truly pagans--on the surface--but deep within we are Christians; while the Western Latins are Christians on the surface but pagans underneath. Therefore, do no expect that they will help us. We Orthodox are strangers to them. Of course, in every nation there are good and humble people who bear Christ in their hearts and in their way of life.
I find his 15th-century analysis of what separated East from West interesting, to say this least. Of course, the elder realized he was speaking in broad terms, and he qualified his judgment in the last statement. I would be curious to know if anyone finds merit to the distinctions he draws.