St. Nectarios of Aegina offers us, in just a few lines, an image of the true zealot of Christ:
“The zealot according to knowledge, motivated by the love of God and his neighbor, does all things with charity and self-effacement; he does nothing that might bring sorrow to his neighbor; such a zealot is enlightened by knowledge and nothing prompts him to deviate from what is morally right” (see Self-Knowledge, pp. 135-136).
The zealot blessed by Christ is a model for the true Christian, the principle characteristics of whom are fervent love for God and neighbor, gentleness, religious tolerance, forgiveness, graciousness of manner, and, in general, all of those fruits of one dwelling in the Holy Spirit.
By contrast, that unfortunate Christian who is inspired by zeal not according to knowledge is a “ruinous man” who literally turns the Gospel of Grace and love upside down.
Let us see how the saints of the Orthodox Church view the zealot whose zeal is not according to wisdom:
his zeal is a “seductive fire, a consuming fire”
“destruction comes forth from him and desolation follows in his wake”
“he beseeches God to send down fire from Heaven and to devour all of those who do not embrace his principles and convictions”
he is “characterized by hatred for those of other religions and confessions, envy and persistent anger, violent resistance to the true spirit of Divine law, an unreasonable obstinacy in defending his own views, a passionate zeal for prevailing in all things, the love of glory, quarrels, contention, and a love of turmoil” (St. Nectarios, ibid.).
Orthodox spirituality has always considered it essential that zeal go hand-in-hand with love, so as not to become deviant:
“Zeal for piety [or preserving the Church and Holy TraditionBMB] is a good thing, but when combined with love” (St. John Damascene, Patrologia Graeca, Vol. SCIV, col. 1436).
The magnificent epistle of St. Dionysios the Areopagite to the Monk Demophilos, in which he expounds in a God-inspired way on the subject of the extremes of importune zeal, shows that this “temptation” among the pious is ancient.
But now let us juxtapose with the demon of imprudent zeal the zealots of Patristic deity, calling to mind their Patristic precepts:
“We will not approve of your fits of rage, which are alien to genuine zeal (‘unenviable impulses’), even if you should invoke Phineas and Elias a thousand times” (St. Dionysios the Areopagite, Patrologia Graeca, Vol. III, col. 1096C, “Epistle to Demophilos the Monk [or Therapeutes, a term used by St. Dionysios for a monastic],” 5).
Likewise, our Savior, through the Apostle Paul, “teaches us that we should educate with gentleness those who reject the teaching of God”; “for the ignorant need to be instructed, not punished, just as we do not chastise the blind, but lead them by the hand” (ibid.).
Let the pious Faithful never forget that the criterion of the genuineness of our love is not imprudent zeal, but withdrawal from all of our passions:
“Strive to love every man equally, and in short you will drive out all of your passions” (St. Thalassios, Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 213, and Patrologia Graeca, Vol. XCI, col. 1441B).
Our zeal for piety, like every other spiritual endeavor, is of doubtful purity and genuineness if it does not incline the heart towards love and humility:
“For every pursuit and every endeavor involving great toil that does not end up in love and a contrite spirit is futile, and yields no profitable result” (St. Symeon the New Theologian, Catechesis I, Sources Chretiennes, Vol. 96, pp. 143-145).
Hence: “Zeal for piety is a good thing, but when combined with love!”
~Metropolitan Cyprian of Oropos and Fili