The following letter was written in response to an article in our last newsletter entitled, "Catechizing Teresa", regarding the process of heterodox acquiring the mind of the Orthodox Church at their conversion. The letter writer (an Orthodox Christian) raised an historical question, regarding the use by St. Seraphim of Sarov of a modified version of the Catholic Rosary in his personal prayer rule. The following response was provided. While the particular issue it addresses may be of interest to some readers, the underlying issue - the acquiring of the mind of the Church - is relevant for all of us.
Dear Beloved in the Lord:
The Russian writers on the Rosary came from a period of strong Roman Catholic influence in Russia, a time in which the Russian Church was very much trying to "keep up" with the West (e.g. the institution of Confession before each and every Communion, the official registration of annual Communion for crown employees, and even certain western vestment uses were adopted during this period, by a Russian Church which sometimes felt like the unsophisticated eastern cousin).
Although St. Seraphim's use of the prayer can certainly be accepted, it is not normative to Orthodox tradition in any time or place; it reflects a particular local practice (the saint's own). In wider Orthodox circles - both eastern, and western prior to the Great Schism - the practice of the Rosary would have (and still is) viewed as innovative, perhaps not problematic, although one can bet that 98% of Orthodox in the world would find it scandalous to use a prayer whose detailed form came out of centuries of practice removed from the Orthodox Church.
The western Christian tradition prior to the Great Schism is uniformly Orthodox. The challenge for practices which arose following the Schism is the increasing need, over time, to stitch together a connection with Living Orthodoxy; this is sometimes very difficult to do. The same is true of Anglican practice, which while maintaining many ties in basic form to its Orthodox ancestry, have developed a very different spirit over 500-1000 years. Orthodoxy - giving "right glory" to God - can never be limited to right doctrine: the worship and practice are an essential reflection and shaping of the spirit of the faithful. This is the reason we look to the whole of Holy Tradition as our check and balance.
Even the saints can speak outside the context of Holy Tradition, as St. Seraphim does here, which although it is not necessarily an unaccepted practice, does represent something which is new to the spirit and practice of the Orthodox Fathers, east and west. The western Orthodox rites - Mozarabic, Sarum, Celtic, etc. - are something quite different, since they grew within a living Orthodox environment, and not one centuries removed from the Church.
So what am I saying? The Rosary is permitted for Orthodox believers, but only by economy, as a condescention to where people are. It is not an Orthodox practice, and must be adapted to be admissible. Even then, it is an adaptation - not a reflection of living Holy Tradition.
Pastorally, for converts, this underscores the critical question of leaving behind not simply foreign doctrines, but foreign forms, since as St. Vincent of Lerins says, we must follow that which has been done everywhere, always, and by all (and by extension, the rule of worship is the rule of belief). Just as the charismatic convert to Orthodoxy must lay aside hand raising (and I know some Orthodox converts who have not left this behind), even though there is a context in which this is done in the Orthodox Church (priests raise their hands at every Liturgy), so too must those of liturgical traditions (Anglicans, RCs) make a shift, too. The fullness of the mind of the Church calls us to this; where we cannot make the full trip, we do what we can do, while acknowledging that we have completed only a partial journey.
Yours affectionately in Christ, Father Geoffrey+