Exploring Orthodoxy

*The Holy Mysteries: An Explanation for Young Readers* 


A Special Forward for Parents Church School Teachers

{The text of this book is not intended for small children, but for intermediate level readers in pre-teen church school classes. The “Special Foreword” is intended for church school teachers and parents, and for anyone else who will be using the book for instructional purposes. It is also intended to explain why this book will differ from the cold, dry catechisms many readers are familiar with.

The main goal of this book is to re-orient Orthodox Christian youth away from the dry, scholastic Latin corruptions of our theology toward the vital, living spirit of authentic Orthodox Christian revelation and life.}

One of the most unfortunate corruptions which has crept into catechisms and instruction books of the Orthodox Church, is the false teaching about “seven sacraments.” This teaching, which was invented by Western Latin philosophers called “scholastics,” is contrary to the divinely inspired Tradition of the Orthodox Church, and the mind of the holy and God-bearing fathers of Christ’s Church. These “scholastics,” replacing the Sacred Tradition with their own “traditions of men,” wanted to reduce Christianity and the Christian life to a set of formulas and a series of legal agreements be­tween God and man. They wanted to make the Christian faith follow a system of human, worldly logic and rationalization. The term “sacrament” is borrowed from pagan Roman idolatry and military formula, and indicates a legal oath. While it does have the connotation of making things sacred, even some Latin writers argued that the Western concept of “sacraments” was not the same as the Orthodox concept of the Holy Mysteries. While there is little hope of getting Orthodox Christians in the West to use the Orthodox, rather than the Latin, term, we at least hope to make our people aware of the differences in the concepts.

According to the Latin teaching of “seven sacraments” there are exactly seven divinely authoriz­ed ways to receive God’s invisible Grace through visible rituals. This teaching has led to a corruption of the concept of Grace, sanctification, the Christian life and the meaning of the Divine services, which are rank­ed as “holy” and “not quite so holy” by this teaching. Moreover, the teaching about “seven sacraments” also corrupts the very meaning of the Church and the meaning of the “people of God” ^__ the faithful. The false teaching of “Seven Sacraments” reduces mankind’s relationship with our Saviour Jesus Christ to a set of legal formulas, a series of almost magical incantations said by the priest.

The Orthodox fathers never attempted to set boundaries on the working of God’s Grace in the Holy Church. We must understand that, for the Orthodox faith, there are no “sacraments;” only the limitless Holy Mysteries. Any attempt to number or define the Holy Mysteries is not only arbitrary, but non-Orthodox. Orth­odox patristic thought would never conceive such an idea, and it has come to us exclusively from the juridical, legalistic formalism of Roman Catholic scolasticism.

This church school text is designed to help free our young people from the corruptions which crept into our books during the three hundred year “Latin captivity of Russian theol­ogy,” and the five hundred year Turkish occupation of the Orthodox countries in the south. We wish to free our texts from the false teach­ing of “seven sacraments,” which equates Chrismation with “confirma­tion/first communion” and forces upon us the false teaching of “penance.” Our hope is to restore among our young people an Orthodox concept of the Holy Mysteries and the working of Divine Grace.

“Defini­tions” are not proper when we speak of Orthodox teaching, but the church school teacher does need some form of outline in order to teach. These two “outlines” are drawn most directly from St John Chrysostom, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Isidor of Seville.



The meaning of the Holy Mysteries is outlined in two ways, as the word appears in the works of the holy and God-bearing fathers.

First, the term refers to all those truths of the faith which unite us to God and lead us to salvation. These truths were given by Christ to His apostles and established in the Church as the faith of Christ. They were taught to new Christians as they grew and progressed in that faith of Christ. When these truths are fully believed and assimilated, they are sources of Grace; they bring one into communion with the ever-present Grace of God. [1]

Secondly, the term “Holy Myster­ies” also refers to all those prac­tices in the life of the individual, which reveal and confirm the truths of Christ’s faith. With references to specific divine services, the term refers to any invocation, in a special service, asking God, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, to touch, fill and consecrate any person, act or thing. We must include in this, each time an Orthodox person makes the Sign of the Cross. [2]

These two ways of viewing the Holy Mysteries are not separate. They are one and the same. The divine services are all revelations of, and teachings about, the truths of Christ’s faith. How do they unite us to God’s Grace? We do not know, and the “mechanics” of it are of no importance. We only know, by God’s promise, that they do. Here is a fact to consider in trying to understand the Holy Mysteries: the divine services, whether baptism, the Liturgy, marriage, ord­ination, tonsure, blessing of water or burial, [1]  [3] are all Holy Mysteries. All of them not only teach us the truths of Christ’s faith, but bring us into a living, vital communion with those truths and impart to us the Grace to assimilate and live those truths.

All of them are spiritually transforming, though Baptism and Communion are usually held in a certain pre-eminence. [4]  Baptism/Chris­mation is a kind of door which admits us to the rest. It is like the entrance to the wedding chamber, as in the parable, in which we can partake of all the good things of God. Holy Communion is the wedding feast. Baptism/Chrismation recon­ciles us to God, uniting us to the Bride of Christ, the Holy Church. Holy Communion makes us one with Christ, bestows life and sustains us. These two Holy Mysteries are the only ones which are ever “set apart” by the holy fathers.


For the sake of the needs of the church-school teacher and for the purposes of this church-school text, we will offer this outline. Grace is an uncreated energy of God. Grace, as a special gift of God, is a coming together of God and man. We receive Grace by being permitted to participate in the energies of God to some degree. An act of Grace is when man is brought by the Church into a special moment of communion with the Holy Spirit. Grace is not a “thing” or an “attribute” of God, and even though it is a “gift which God sends down” (Js.1:17), it cannot be defined, limited or ranked by degrees. It is God’s special act of lifting man up to Him and coming down to man, so that man shares in something of God Him­self, and from this, receives a spe­cial consecration. If, for example, some saint receives the “gift of working miracles,” this gift is not something he possesses on his own. It is a result of his special nearness to God. God extends His blessing by working miracles through that per­son, and it is a special communion of that holy person with God.

Perhaps what we have said is already too much. The question of the Holy Mysteries and Grace must not be over simplified or over defin­ed. An understanding of these things can never be intellectual and can never be fully obtained from books, ex­planations or definitions. An under­standing of the things of God can only be assimilated through an ac­tual living experience of them in a life of prayer, contemplation, fasting, moral strug­gle and Holy Communion.

If we keep these things in mind, the following church-school text will help convey some basic ideas of the life of Grace and the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church.


{An Explanation for Young People}


“The Orthodox Church is a spiritual hospital”

The ways God works through His Holy Orthodox Church to save us and consecrate us are wondrous and beautiful. He gives us His Grace in special ways which we cannot always see with our eyes. For this reason, we call these special works of God “Holy Mysteries.”

Since the Grace of God cannot be seen with our eyes, God has given us some visible ways of knowing that we have received it. He has also given us some special prayers to help us understand these wonderful gifts better when we do receive them.

God has given us not only visible divine services which are served in church, but prayers which we say any place and any time. In these Services and prayers, we communicate with God and turn our hearts to Him. When our hearts are turned toward Him, God communicates with us by giving us the gifts of His Grace, to sustain us make us stronger in faith. The prayers and actions in the divine ser­vices teach us about God’s Grace, how He gives it to us, and what happens to us when we receive it.

We are taught that the Orthodox Church is a spiritual hospi­tal in which God treats our souls and bodies and makes us well enough to enter the Heavenly Kingdom. How does God treat our spiritual illnesses and give us His divine medicine? This is what the Holy Mysteries are for. Through them, God gives the medicine of Divine Grace for the healing of our souls and bodies. [5]   In the Holy Mysteries we also receive strength to live a truly Orthodox life. In the divine services, we all pray together, led by our priest, and the prayers of all the people together bring these Holy Mysteries to pass and call down the Grace of God on us. We are one body praying together in love and faith. Because of this unity of love and faith, God answers our prayers and heals us.

How many “Holy Mysteries” are there? There are many. The Orthodox Church does not have a teaching of “seven sacraments” as some people think. The word “sacrament” is not even an Orthodox word. There is no limit to the number of Holy Mysteries, just as there is no limit to the Grace and work of God.  Every act by which God gives us His Grace through the Orthodox Church is a Holy Mystery. Often, someone will choose seven of the Holy Mysteries to use in teaching about them, but when we do this, people begin to think that there are only seven [seven “sacraments”], so we have chosen to look at ten of the Holy Mysteries in order to help us understand them better. The ones we will learn about are:

1. Holy Baptism / Chrismation

2. Holy Communion

3. Holy Confession

4. Holy Water

5. Holy Marriage

6. Holy Monastic Tonsure

7. Holy Ordination

8. Holy Annointing

9. Holy Consecration

10. Holy Burial

**[1]** The holy, God-bearing fathers, the successors of the Apostles, refer to these truths or mysteries as _dogmata_. This term includes a mysteriological/mystical concept in Orthodox Christian thought, as opposed to the rigid legal definitions and categories of Latin and Protestant literalism and rationalism. St Basil the Great says that “the dogmas are kept in silence,” by which he indicates that they are assimilated by a spiritual growth and development, rather than taught and learned pedagogically, as in catechisms, etc. To be precise, the dogmata are learned in two ways: First, by actually living them in a practical, spiritual way, and by prayer and contemplation.

**[2]** In this context, the Russian theologian Alexis Khomiakov rightly said, “The Church’s heritage from the Apostles is not just words, but an interior life, a heritage of inexpressible thought, which nevertheless tends constantly toward expressing itself.”

_L’Eglise Et le Protestantisme – Au Point De Vue L’Eglise D’orient._

**[3]** It is tragic and shocking that “catechism” writers, so polluted by Western Scholasticism, forgot that Christian burial and the memorial services for the reposed. are Holy Mysteries of the Church, just as is the crowning of a marriage and ordination. The services for those who have fallen asleep in Christ sustain our communion with them in the Holy Spirit and express and preserve the integrity of the Church, which is not separated into compartments by death. Indeed, the services for the departed reveal another, profound meaning of the promise that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against the Church.”

**[4]** These two Mysteries are given such pre-eminence because without them, there is no salvation. They are called “theosystata mysteria,” a term which indicates the fact that they were introduced to the Church directly by Christ God, rather than through the Apostles and Sacred Tradition.

**[5]** St Ignatios the Godbearer calls Holy Communion “The medicine of immortality.”