WHO AM I?
A lecture delivered at the Russian Orthodox Youth Conference near Sydney, Australia, on 23 December 2003
INTRODUCTION: OUR IDENTITY AND THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
'Save yourself and thousands will be saved round about you', said St Seraphim of Sarov. But how can we first save ourselves if we don't know who we are?
Sooner or later, at some point or other in our lives, I think we all ask ourselves this very question, 'Who am I?' And frankly, if we haven't yet asked ourselves this question and found an answer to it, then we haven't yet lived. At a particular point in my life, when I was six years old in fact, I first asked myself that question and was able to answer it. It was related to a special experience. But I don't want to talk about myself, but about someone else who asked himself that question.
He was born in a village in the east of England where I too was born. He was born there in 1919 into a poor family of eight children. Four children died before the age of three. In the early thirties the family lived for months off bread and water, that was all they could afford, since the father of the family was very ill, after being gassed in the First World War. He never left the east of England until he was twenty-one, when he was called up to the British Army during the Second World War. Then he who had never been more than thirty miles from his home village began to travel, to places he had only dreamed of. He went to South Africa, he went to India, taking Italian prisoners of war to the British camps there. And he went to Egypt.
Just over sixty years ago in October 1942 in the Egyptian desert a great battle took place. On the one side there were some of Germany's finest soldiers, the Afrika Corps. On the other side there were English, Scottish, Australian and Greek soldiers. They had been driven back by German forces to a place in Egypt called El Alamein, which is Arabic for the monastery of St Mennas. St Mennas is a desert father venerated in the Orthodox Church on 11 November.
The ambitious German plan was to break through the Allied lines, take Cairo and the Suez Canal and speed on across the Middle East to oil-rich Iraq. There they would meet up with other German soldiers who would have gone down through Russia and the Caucasus; and they in turn would meet up with Japanese troops who would have gone through Burma and the north of India and Iran and met there at Babylon. A rendez-vous in Babylon; that was their plan. But man proposes and God disposes.
One dark night at the end of October 1942 the Allied Forces launched an offensive against the Germans with a huge artillery barrage. The Scots troops advanced in the cold desert night, accompanied by the sound of bagpipes. The Australians advanced with tanks. The Greeks advanced under a great light in the sky, which they said was St Mennas leading them to victory. The English too advanced, among them the man from my village I have spoken to you of. As he advanced with on either side of him his two best friends, an Irishman called Paddy and an Englishman called Brian, a German shell burst.
The bodies of the two friends were blown to pieces; pieces of them were picked up later and buried. As for the man in the middle, miraculously he survived. He regained consciousness three days later in a hospital in Cairo, where he was to spend three months and make a full recovery. During those three months he had time to ask himself and find answers to many questions, including that question I asked at the beginning of this talk: 'Who am I?' He found his answer to that question.
Just as well for me, because if he had not survived, I would not be here now, because the man I have been talking about is my father.
I could tell you many other stories about people who came to answer and also ask this question: 'Who am I?' But we have no time now, I just want to say again that sooner or later we will all ask ourselves this question at a certain moment in our lives, at the moment of truth, when reality breaks through the illusion in which we spend most of our time. It is the moment when the spirit breaks through into our minds and souls, when daybreak floods our inner darkness with the light. Let's try and understand this with a little theology.
OUR THEOLOGICAL IDENTITY
a) OUR ORIGIN
In order to try and answer this question: 'Who am I?' we have to try and answer two other questions. The first is:
'Where do I come from?'
As regards this first question 'Where do I come from?' about our origin, the Holy Scriptures tell us that our origin is both material and spiritual. The first chapter of the Book of Genesis tells us that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Although God made us from the same clay, chemical elements or material nature, as animals, we have instincts and a mind and feelings similar to them, there is one vital difference between us and them. God has breathed into us His spirit - we are made in His image and likeness. This is the spirit which makes us eternal and immortal; it is the spirit which can make man noble. And a society where there is no spirit and no cultivation of spiritual things is an ignoble society.
As one of the greatest Church Fathers, St Basil the Great said in the fourth century: 'Men are animals, called to be gods'. This explains why there are so many resemblances between our bodies and the bodies of the higher animals. We have four limbs, a head, five senses, two eyes, two ears, two lungs, two kidneys, a liver, a stomach, a heart, the ability to reproduce, instincts. This we all share with animals: this is the proof not of some strange and outdated theory of Evolution, but proof that we have the same Maker, the same Designer. Our resemblances are due to the Hand of the same Maker, the Hand of the same God in Creation.
But as I have just said, there is one difference between us and animals, symbolised by our ability to speak intelligently. We are possessed of the spirit and word and wisdom of God, which burn within us; we have fire in our souls, we are capable of worshipping God, we have a religious or spiritual sense. This is where many archaeologists go wrong. They find the bones of some primitive humanoid ape in France or Kenya and then call it Homo Something or Other. But despite the resemblances of bones, these are not men, because they have no religious sense. They were rather intelligent apes, which have now died out. This is why the biological name for man is 'Homo Sapiens', meaning 'Wise Man', man who is capable of Wisdom and of worshipping Wisdom, that is the Wisdom of God, the Eternal Word of God. In Wisdom he is able to participate and in some way capable of reflecting that Divine Wisdom. This is why the greatest cathedral of the Orthodox world in New Rome, Constantinople, was dedicated to the Divine Wisdom - that which makes us physical animals potentially divine.
If you don't believe that we have an eternal and immortal spirit, the spirit of God, then of course you can kill us human beings in slaughterhouses, like they do animals, like both Nazi and Soviet atheists did in their slaughterhouses or concentration camps. If you don't believe this, then you can massacre us like the atheistic Western world massacres its babies by the million in its abortion clinics. If you don't believe this, you can burn up our bodies in your crematoria, you can call us walking corpses who have lost all their beauty, you can say that we are mere ignoble animals and that our life is senseless and absurd.
But if you believe that we have the spirit of God inside us, then everything changes and you can begin to answer that question: 'Who am I?' And you can also know that this world will go on for as long as there are people who are asking and answering that question, because their lives have a point and purpose and so the world has a point and a purpose. It is only when people have become as degenerate as at the time of the Flood and are incapable of seeing God, only when they have sinned themselves unconscious, that they will stop asking that question and the world will then come to an end.
I said that there are two questions we must ask ourselves in order to answer this question about who we are. The second question is:
'Where am I going?'
As regards this second question, which is about our destiny, we have already been told by St Basil the Great that our destiny is 'Called to be gods'. In other words we are called to get out of the gutter where we are, stop being animals, and head for something higher, something nobler. This is a frightening responsibility, if you take it seriously. Just think: we're in charge of our lives: freedom is ours. We can mess it all up or we can become saints - become godlike! That's frightening. But the answer to this question is in our own hands.
Where are we going? In fact, I'm not going to attempt to ask or answer that question now in this talk, because I believe that it will be for you, at the end of this Conference, to ask it and even to try and answer it. If you can't answer it at the end of this Conference, then I will not be disappointed. But on the other hand, if you have not at least asked yourself this question by the end of this Conference, then I will be very disappointed. Because all my provocation will have been in vain! Ultimately, only you, you personally, each one of you individually, can answer where you are going. The only thing I can say to reassure you before this frightening responsibility is, you can find help and guidance on the way. So at least you're not alone.
'Who am I'? The noble Orthodox Christian answer to this question is: I am a person living in the world, made by God in His image and His likeness, with a divine origin and also a divine destiny.
OUR IDENTITY IN THIS WORLD
But these theological facts may not always help us in our everyday life. We may be thinking about the question 'Who am I?' in another way, we may be thinking about our human identity in this world, here and now. So here is another answer to this question.
I think most of you here have Australian passports and were born here. In other words, most of you have made this country into your permanent home. But most of you, like most, though not all, Australians have ancestors who not so long ago lived in Europe or Asia.
Of course there was a culture here in Australia before Europeans or Asians arrived. It was a culture which in its myths preserved some very interesting nature wisdom and very significant racial memories of the world before the Fall, of what the Aborigenes call 'the Dreamtime'. But undoubtedly most of what goes on in Australia today was brought here from Europe in recent times. It is this that has made Australian culture over the last 200 years or so. Modern technology, modern houses, offices, railways, roads, sports, and the rabbits, the sheep and the beer - they all came from Europe.
But the most useful and important and precious thing that Europeans brought here is the thing that nearly everyone in Australia has forgotten: Christ. Yes, Faith in Christ came from Europe, together with something like 90% of the population. And yet it's a sad fact though, that if you asked a thousand people in the streets of Sydney what the most important thing to come from Europe is, I am not sure if a single one would answer Christ. And yet it's on the Australian national flag.
In the top left hand corner, there are three crosses: the English cross of St George; the Scottish cross of St Andrew; the Irish cross of St Patrick. Together they make up the British flag. And that covers the three countries from where over 75% of Australians have their origins. And the crosses show the Christian origins of those countries.
Today those countries have for the most part forgotten their origins, they have forgotten Christ because they have mixed up the memory of Him with all kinds on impure, unChristly things. But there are a few in those countries who have seen the crosses on their flags and have begun to wonder what they mean. Some have even gone back a thousand years and found Christ in Orthodoxy, not the Christ of modern Europe, but the original Christ Who came from Jerusalem, Who united Asia and Europe in the Orthodox Faith, as symbolised by the double-headed eagle, looking East and West.
In Australia you Orthodox have a unique opportunity to witness to all Australians, whatever their racial origins, who have forgotten Christ. This is because Orthodoxy is the only faith which has not forgotten Christ in His wholeness and purity, the entire Christ of Europe and Asia. But to witness you have to know who you are and what your Faith is. That's why you must keep the faith that your parents and grandparents and others brought here. Keep it intact. Keep faith. The most precious and valuable thing that Europe has brought to Australia is the knowledge of the Orthodox Christ.
CONCLUSION: THE SPIRITUAL MEANING AND IDENTITY OF AUSTRALIA
So who are you then?
You are Australian. You have a passport in your pocket that says so. But whatever your origins, whatever language you prefer to speak, you have another passport in your pocket, a second passport. In it are written your distinguishing marks, your particular features, your tendencies for good and bad. This is your spiritual passport, and that's Orthodox.
You can be proud, in the good sense of being appreciative, of being Australian, of living in this huge and beautiful country that God has given to each one of you. But also be proud, in the good sense of being humble, of being Orthodox. Being Orthodox means being in the here and now but also being different, it means keeping your identity, it means not swimming with the tide.
Australia for some is all about beach and beer and barbie: well, show them that there's another Australia. Be different and be yourself; be true to Orthodoxy. God has given Australians a beautiful country full of wonders, but most people here have forgotten or never even known Christ, so they don't yet know how to thank God for this land.
The Orthodox Christ of our Orthodox Church is the only thing that stands between greatness and nonentity, everything that's good and everything that's bad in Australian life, between a new Dreamtime and an old nightmare. If you want Australia and Australian life to be a nonentity, then forget Christ. If you want Australia to be a great country, then keep faith with Christ and you will forge an Orthodox identity and meaning for Australia.
Earlier on, I spoke to you about the crosses in the top left hand corner of the Australian flag. They show where most Australians have come from. They represent their past. But you've also got another cross on the Australian flag: the Southern cross, the cross of stars. That's the cross where as Orthodox you can go, if you so choose, that's the cross you're destined for, if you want it. It is the cross of your future.
a hundred years ago, an Irish writer said: 'We're all lying in the gutter,
but some of us are looking at the stars'. Well, keep the Orthodox Faith
and you'll not only look at those stars but also be guided by them, like
the Wise Men who followed the Star and found Divine Wisdom. Then you will
truly be 'Homo Sapiens', Wise Men.