Back in December, I wrapped up a series of posts reflecting on why it was that Orthodoxy drew me. I listed several reasons: from the Orthodox Church’s honoring of the past and her respecting the present to the historical validity of her claims, from the unity of Church and home in her belief and practice to the fullness of her faith, and her consistency of theology and objective and existential worship and askesis. In continuing to reflect on why it is that the Orthodox Church is now what I consider to be the end of my spiritual pilgrimage, as well as its beginning, I have decided to add another post on the theme “Why Orthodoxy?”
All of the factors I reflected on through last autumn still remain true. These are things about Orthodoxy that got me turned toward her beauty, and which still keep me focused on her. One of those was the objectivity of Orthodox worship. By that, I meant (and mean) that the focus of worship in the Orthodox Church is the Holy Trinity, not me. No one is going to ask me if I’m comfortable with the service. The Liturgy is not going to be tailored to me predilections. Rather than the obsequiousness of “relevancy” Orthodoxy offers instead the pearl of great price. The Orthodox Church offers Christianity straight. The Orthodox Church says, in effect, “You’re dying. You have a choice. Here is life if you want it.”
But the effect of this seeming indifference to my “needs” serves a greater end. It serves first to wean me of self-interest. And it is on this end that I want to focus today.
In the last several months, especially through this Great Lent just ended, the difference of the Orthodox Church compared to the Restoration Movement churches of my heritage and the Episcopal Church in which I was confirmed, has become ever more clear to me, on just this very point. The Orthodox Church tells me where is eternal life–just as did the Restoration Movement churches and the Episcopal parishes of which I’ve been a part. The Orthodox Church tells me what it is I must know about eternal life–so, too, did the Restoration Movement churches and those Anglican parishes I experienced. But the Orthodox Church also tells me how to get there and of what use are the things I know.
Let me try to put it this way. In the Restoration Movement churches, I was told the Gospel. Holiness of life was demanded of me. I was given the Truth to know and a model and paradigm, in Jesus, for living a life of faithful holiness. But that was it. I was not told how to become holy. It was emphasized again and again that my being made holy was an act of grace with which I must cooperate (as per Philippians 2:12-13). But how to resist the urges of lust, hate, anger, jealousy and envy, and all the fruit of sin in my life was not a part of my learning.
In the Episcopal Church, I heard similar messages of truth and grace. And the Episcopal Church offered me further clues. There were the sacraments, especially that of Confession and the Eucharist. I was told that these mysteries were essential for growth in Christian virtue. But not only was I not told how to resist the flesh, nor how to connect the Mysteries with this ascetical struggle, but save for the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, there was no consistent practice, no necessity, among the whole of the parish regarding these matters, nor was any demand made on the parish as a whole relative to the use of the “lesser mysteries.” In short, my struggle against the flesh, though it was grounded in the mysteries of the Church as a whole, was a single, solitary one, unsupported by the wider parish life.
In short, my exeperience among the Christian churches of my past is that Faith is mostly about the intellect and the assent we give to right doctrine, and the struggle against the flesh was essentially moralistic, a set of guidelines and principles to follow in general.
Orthodoxy, I have discovered, offers the fulfillment of what I have been missing from my previous experiences. There is Truth, right doctrine, principes and moral guidelines, to be sure. There is the exhortation to struggle and to rely wholly on God’s grace. But what Orthodoxy has that the others lack, is a “science,” as it were, of warfare against the flesh.
Through the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse (The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It, which I’ve been reading with several of the men of our parish, and The Path to Salvation, which has been my Lenten reading), who himself passed on the Church’s two-thousand-year-old wisdom, I have come to a greater understanding of how the sinful nature works, and the temptations wrought in and through it, as well as how to fight against the temptations it brings and which come through it. I better understand how it is that I am attacked first in the realm of thoughts–and thus the necessity for ortho (right) doxy (thinking)–but also that due to habitual sins, the path from thought to desire to intention is so well worn that many times the temptation must be attacked right at the cusp of the action of the will.
I better know how it is that the life of Orthodox Faith must be lived in the heart, and how to pray from the heart. All my praying, or most of it at any rate, has been either located in my skull, or wholly seated in the emotions. I have never, or at least only extremely rarely, known what it is to pray from the center of my being, where are joined head, body, emotions and will. But since pursuing Orthodoxy, this prayer of the heart, though still rare due to my stubborn refusal to let go of myself, is more often experienced.
And none of this is done in a corner. All of this warfare is one communal event. It is evident in the Liturgy and the hymnody of the Church. It is evident in the fasting of the Church–and today we start the Apostles’ Fast lasting till the 29th of this month when we celebrate the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. It is evident in the semi-public nature of Confession, as at each Vespers service, a handful of parishioners, both before and after the service, stand with the priest before the icon of Christ, in full view of the worshippers (though not within their hearing).
I have longed all my Christian life for a time-tested way to grow in the Christian virtues, the fruit of the Spirit. God, in his grace, has blessed my bumbling efforst. But how frustrating it has been to always be so hit and miss. I now have two weapons with which to fight the world, the flesh and the devil: a “manual” as it were of the writings of the Fathers and the wisdom of a spiritual father, and a community who knows that the struggle is lifelong and that we all are warriors in this fight.
I am now at a point of great responsibility. With greater knowledge comes greater obligation. But I welcome the higher standard, because with it comes greater hope of victory, and the promise of fulfillment in that Day.