In Gospel Readings we often encounter the Apostles invoking the authenticity of their personal witness in order to be persuasive. “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we observed and touched with our own hands… we declare to you,” and “we know that his testimony is true”. But the Samaritans and John the Baptist also have recourse to the immediacy of their personal experience. The authenticity of experience constitutes the most persuasive argument for the truth of our words.
So let us look at the meaning of authentic experience in the life of a Christian. Peter is authentic, even when he falls, because he is spontaneous. He seeks proofs and the Lord calls him to walk on the water. His faith wavers and he sinks. He confesses spontaneously that the Lord’s holy mouth utters “words of eternal life”. He urges the Lord to avoid the Passion and the Lord rebukes him, saying that Satan is speaking in him. With a feeling of superiority, he refuses to have his feet washed by the Lord and then concedes in a particularly expressive manner. He violently dares to cut off Malchus’s ear and accepts the Lord’s reprimand and the miraculous recovery of the ear. He denies the Lord three times shortly before the Passion and immediately repents. He hears the message of the Resurrection and doubts; this is why he runs to the tomb to confirm it for himself. He falls and rises. He sins and repents. He does not pretend; he is genuine. He is free, even when he is human. He errs and is corrected; he is not infallible. He is true.
An authentic person is not someone who does not make mistakes, but someone who is aware of them, confesses and repents.
However, the authentic person is not only spontaneous in his manner; he is also genuine in his faith. Faith is not an ideology which we must defend, or a thought which we must understand, or an opinion which we must accept. Faith is not an emotion, or a moral rule to which we must conform; or an experience which we have imposed on ourselves psychologically; or an aim which is attained through human efforts. Faith is grace and life and truth, which is offered, emerges and is revealed. It is given by God, and manifests God.
Man is not great because of his ability to achieve many things, but because great things can happen and be revealed to him. However, all these presuppose genuineness, trueness and authenticity. Without these, the soul’s horizon remains closed to God’s grace.
Of course, when we are speaking of authentic experience, it often appears that we mean something which, in reality, does not exist. Let us, therefore, see exactly who the true and genuine Christian is. In his attempt to answer the question “What kind of people should Christians be, according to common sense?”, Saint Basil the Great says the following:
“As disciples of Christ, having as their model only what they see in Him or hear from Him, as holy temples of God, clean and filled only with those things which are for the worship of God, as children of God formed according to His image to the measure granted to men, as salt in the earth, renewing those who partake of it in the spirit unto incorruption, as the word of life for the mortification of present things, confirming the hope in true life”.
He continues: “What is particular to the Christian? That just as Christ died to sin once, so too should the Christian be dead to and unmoved by any sin… That he abound in righteousness in all things… That he love others just as Christ loved us… That he see the Lord before him always… That he be watchful every day and hour and be ready in the perfection which is for God’s pleasure, knowing that the Lord comes at an hour that he does not expect.”
According to Saint John Chrysostom: “if you are a Christian, you have no city on earth. The maker and creator of our city is God. Even if we receive the whole world, we are strangers and pilgrims to it all. We are inscribed in heaven and we are its citizens”.
One encounters the same absoluteness in the ascetic Fathers, and naturally in the Ladder of Saint John of Sinai: “A Christian is an imitator of Christ, as far as is humanly possible, in words and deeds and thought, believing in the Holy Trinity correctly and blamelessly”.
The Christian experience is authentic when we love the Cross more than comfort, the struggle more than the victory; when we live the kingdom of heaven as something more real than historical events; when our faith is stronger than our rationality; when we discern truth more in mysteries than in those things which we understand; when we pray more and think less in times of difficulty; when we realise that grace is more effective than our strivings or efforts; when our brother is closer to us than our self; when we are able to discern what is vain and what is genuine, what is false and what is true, what is of our own will and what is of God’s will; when we desire death more than life.
The authentic Christian lives according to both tradition and dogma, but he also has something new and original, something of his own. His distinctiveness unites and beautifies. He confirms the road of perfection because he is “the community of Gentiles, which is called a ploughed hill… a hill is the soul elevated by Christ’s teaching”.
Finally, the image of the authentic person is not something which exists and each one of us must imitate. It does not exist and, therefore, each one of us is called to bring it to life. Authenticity expresses what a person is called to and, at the same time, demonstrates the sacred and unique character of personhood.
by Metropolitan Nikolaos of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki
translated in English by Ioanna Dalianis and Caroline Markopoulos
“Investing in the Kingdom of God”, Alexander Press, Montreal, 2009
Metropolitan Nikolaos (Hatzinikolaou) holds a B.S. in Physics from the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, Greece; an M.A. in Astrophysics from Harvard University; an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from MIT. His Ph.D studies and part of his research in Biomedical Engineering and Applied Mathematics took place at HST (Harvard-MIT). He has worked as a researcher and scientific partner in various hospitals in the Boston area in the USA and as scientific advisor at reputable companies in Space Medical Technology. He studied theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and received a Master in Theological Studies (M.T.S.) and a Master of Theology (Th.M.). In 2003, he received a Ph.D in Theology from the University of Thessaloniki, Greece, on Orthodox Christian Ethics and Bioethics and was awarded by the University of Athens the honorary title of Doctor of Social Theology. Upon his return from the USA, in 1989, he was tonsured a monk in Mount Athos and then he was ordained a deacon and a priest. He served for a number of years at an Athonite dependency in Athens, where he consulted and comforted on a daily basis people in pain and distress. In 2004, he was elected a Metropolitan of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki in Greece and, among his other activities, he founded the first hospice in Greece under the auspices of the Church. He is the author of a number of theological and scientific articles and books and, during the last 15 years, he has participated in Greek and international conferences regarding a broad spectrum of social and bioethical issues and the relationship between Orthodox Theology and modern science.