For an evangelical Christian (and many other Protestants), and even perhaps a Roman Catholic to some degree, coming to the Orthodox Church, it can be somewhat jarring to encounter the emphasis on the bodily dimension of an Orthodox way of life. The worship involves the bodily senses in major ways: the bright colors of the icons, the gold on the vestments and the instruments of worship (cup, paten, censer, candelabra); the strange tonic system of the Byzantine chant which fills the hearing; the rich smells of the incense and interwoven with honeyed nuances of the beeswax candles; the taste of Holy Communion and of the antidoron; the feel of the one’s body, bowing, prostrating, making the sign of the cross, embracing fellow worshippers and one’s family, even how one’s body feels while others are moving around during the service and while one stands. An evangelical is used to much more sitting and listening, perhaps standing and joining in during the praise music part of the service. There may well be bright colors and images in visual presentations and posting of hymn lyrics, perhaps some candles. Roman Catholics (and Anglicans) will be used to some kneeling, and occasional use of incense as well as the images of crucifixes and statues and paintings of saints, perhaps a few icons. But among all these, the Orthodox experience is, if I may dare to say it this way, very sensual.
Archive for the ‘Orthodoxy’ Category
About eight years ago, I determined that I would no longer spend energies and time reading what I will call “academic” theology. By that I mean books and articles on theological topics written for intellectual, rational examination and evaluation, as well as dialogue and debate. There is definitely a need and a place for such things–we are called to test and examine the spirits to discern whether they are of God–but I discerned a need, for my spiritual well-being, to cease such activities indefinitely. Instead I focused on learning the ancient prayers of the Church, and praying them, practicing the asketical disciplines of the faith, and reading the lives of the saints (which is another way of reading theology). This week, partly through providence, partly through prayer, I determined that I would begin again wisely and with discernment to allow myself to return to reading “academic” theology. What changed my mind? This is the providential part: I was given a copy of Joseph Farrell’s Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor.
Earlier this week, I came across a humorous graphic which expressed, in bumper-sticker-aphoristic irony: “Orthodoxy. Christianity. Only Tougher.” Many of us former Protestants who’ve been received in the Orthodox Church no doubt found the humor in the graphic (complete with three-barred Cross). But as it’s something of an “inside joke,” it may have miscommunicated an important truth to others. If Orthodoxy is, in fact, a “tougher” sort of Christianity, it is so precisely because the point is to come to grips with just how weak we are.
The grace of God is so overly abundant to us that Christians have always tended toward one of two extremes in their experience of it. On the one hand, they emphasize the unboundedness of God’s grace and disregard limitations and corrections on their experience. On the other, they emphasize the preciousness of God’s grace such that we must limit and correct our experiences so as rightly to receive it. For some we do not chain the whirlwind. For others we do not trample gold under muddy feet. Some Christians primarily seek experience. Some primarily seek rule-keeping. Both lack balance.
I have been listening to some excerpts from a recent book on the person of Jesus. Frequently, in the podcasts at any rate, the author inveighs against the “spirit of religion,” calling it a contagion which infects an otherwise healthy relationship with God. While I’ve not read the new book and so would not claim to have an adequate understanding of the author’s critique against, or definition of, religion, I do not think it is religion that is the problem, or at least there is no Christianity apart from some form of religion.
I have written elsewhere on this blog on an incarnational understanding of religion. But I want to take a little different pathway here.
Today is the feast day of St. Catherine, patron saint of philosophers.
For a little bit about her life and why some churches celebrate St. Catherine’s day on the 24th, read this piece from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Online Chapel:
Saint Catherine, who was from Alexandria, was the daughter of Constas (or Cestus). She was an exceedingly beautiful maiden, most chaste, and illustrious in wealth, lineage, and learning. By her steadfast understanding, she utterly vanquished the passionate and unbridled soul of Maximinus, the tyrant of Alexandria; and by her eloquence, she stopped the mouths of the so-called philosophers who had been gathered to dispute with her. She was crowned with the crown of martyrdom in the year 305. Her holy relics were taken by Angels to the holy mountain of Sinai, where they were discovered many years later; the famous monastery of Saint Catherine was originally dedicated to the Holy Transfiguration of the Lord and the Burning Bush, but later was dedicated to Saint Catherine. According to the ancient usage, Saints Catherine and Mercurius were celebrated on the 24th of this month, whereas the holy Hieromartyrs Clement of Rome and Peter of Alexandria were celebrated on the 25th. The dates of the feasts of these Saints were interchanged at the request of the Church and Monastery of Mount Sinai, so that the festival of Saint Catherine, their patron, might be celebrated more festively together with the Apodosis of the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos. The Slavic Churches, however, commemorate these Saints on their original dates.
A fuller account of her life can be found here.
Troparion of Great Martyr Katherine Tone 5
Let us praise Katherine, protectress of Sinai,
Bride of Christ and our helper.
With the sword of the Spirit she silenced the wisdom of the wicked.
She is crowned as a martyr and asks mercy for us all.
Kontakion of Great Martyr Katherine Tone 2
You lovers of martyrs raise a chorus now
in honour of wise Katherine.
She preached Christ in the stadium
and spat on the knowledge of philosophers.
Holy and Great Martyr, All-Wise Catherine, pray for us that we may take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ, and pray that we may be made worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.
We are surrounded by a culture that requires us to be happy. All the time. We are also surrounded by a self-help culture which assures us that by following these five easy steps, or discovering that secret, we can eliminate struggle and pain from our lives. Some of this can be helpful. Most of it is dangerous. To the degree that we can move out of sad self-obsession into the freedom of joyful giving, to the degree that we can benefit from overcoming certain bad habits or achieving more order in our daily living, we can be thankful. But the danger inherent in the implicit promises made by these surrounding cultures is that having reached the end of whatever process or achieving the “enlightenment” of whatever gnosis that is being sold, we will enter a state wherein the struggle is over.
This is a lie.
Protestants who are received into the Orthodox Church, particularly those from non-liturgical churches, not infrequently find the transition to Orthodox forms of worship challenging. The Orthodox do not use instruments, the music is different, the hymnography is alien. No praise bands, no soaring organs, no “How Great Thou Art.” But the differences between Orthodox worship and Protestant worship goes much deeper than these surface differences. For Protestants contemplating becoming Orthodox it can help to realize that the primary difference between Protestant worship and Orthodox worship is that for Orthodox, the personal experience of worship is primarily one of kenosis and askesis, of self-emptying and discipline.
Depending on how you date the start of my journey into the Orthodox Church, it took me five to seven years to finally be received into the Orthodox Church. Many, many times I chafed at the delay. But within what was the last year prior to being chrismated (anointed with holy oil), I began to recognize that the delay had been important and, to some extent, necessary. While my initial motivations for investigating the Orthodox Church had to do with prayer and with an incarnate (one might even say existential) connection to the New Testament Church, the methodology by which I began my search was intellectual and digital. I read theology and hit the online blogs and message boards. Looking back I now see the two dangers that these things entailed. I can now marvel that I did not personally join the wreckage that sometimes occurs.
Take your time. Please. Think of the journey in terms of years, not months. Be patient. When you think you’re ready, you’re probably not. Your priest will not be in a hurry. Follow his lead. Assume that God’s providence is operative and will work everything out with impeccable timing and grace. After you think you’re ready, if you can be convinced that you’re not ready, and you’re resolved to wait another couple of years, then you’re probably ready.
Oh, and as a general rule, stay away from Orthodox blogs. Like this one.