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.
My own experience tends toward the intellectual and the written (or online) worlds. This does not apply to everyone. It may apply more often to men. But I have a few observations to make.
The dangers of the intellect
The human intellect has a vast appetite for stimulus. It is estimated that we each have around 4000 distinct thoughts in a sixteen-hour day; roughly 250 per hour or 4 per minute. With that much activity, our intellect seeks input and stimulus. It draws on memory, the senses, and its own flotsam and jetsam to concoct a ever-changing phantasmagoria. The intellect wills to be fed and fed constantly.
The human intellect also tends toward autonomy. That is to say, it wants to be its own authority, to claim its perception of reality is the only true perception. The human intellect has within it the capacity for analysis and dissection. These are great and important tools, but when separated out as a ruling authority, the intellect loses its moorings and will become disoriented. However, it will not recognize its disorientation but will continue to assert and to assume that its perception of reality is the only true perception. Theoretical constructs become reified beyond all semblance of wisdom. A dissected frog lacks one important quality over a living frog, and the lack of that quality will radically falsify any conclusions the intellect can bring.
This is the danger of the intellectual aspect of becoming Orthodox. Our intellect has questions, it perceives contradictions from previously held convictions. It both seeks and needs answers and resolutions. All this is well and good. But when those intellectual activities remain separated and apart from the wholeness of living a way of life (prayer, fasting and acts of mercy), the conclusions become distorted. An inquirer into Orthodoxy can read about the golden age of the Cappadocians, the heights of the Ecumenical Councils, the best of the monastic literature and the glories of Mt Athos. His mind is alive with excitement and desire. Then he attends his local Orthodox parish where the choir sings off key, or forgets which hymn to sing next, where (to the inquirer’s own judgment) people stand around dead and dull. If he is not careful, his disappointment may lead him down ever narrower and disconnected paths and further and further away from the life of faith and prayer.
This intellectual temptation is extremely attractive to those whose previous Christian lives were oriented around doctrinal matters and apologetics; that is to say, whose Christian communities placed great emphasis on reason and rationality. It is also extremely attractive to those who are zealous for God. And when intellectual rigor and zealotry combine, it is a potent combination that I do not think can be handled alone but requires both a wise priest and a loving parish. Apart from these, the intellectual danger is the distortion of “true” Orthodoxy into an ultimately unrealized “perfect” Orthodox Church–probably located some time in the past–which may be sought down ever narrowing corridors of schism and soul-shipwreck.
The dangers of online “Orthodoxy”
A very closely related danger is the world of online “Orthodoxy.” The scare quotes are intentional. If there is one dogma that is central to the Orthodox Christian Faith it is that of the Incarnation. By definition, the online world is disincarnate. There is no resolution to this inherent contradiction.
Just as the intellect may confuse its concepts and conclusions for “real” Orthodoxy, the online world may also create the illusion that it is somehow an Orthodox “community.” Just as the intellect may elevate its own concerns and questions as the “real” essence of the Orthodox Church, the online world may also create the false impression that its gossip, innuendo, ecclesial intrigues, debates and haranguing are the most important things about being Orthodox. Just as the intellect’s strengths are its capacities for analysis and that dissection can actually destroy the life it examines, the online world’s capacities for connection (fed by the intellect’s desires for stimulus) fuels the capacities for debate and strife and the elevation of the sordid and squalid as the focus of the soul’s attention.
The online Orthodox world, I’m afraid, too often breeds a spirit of contention, division, and criticism. These are not Christian virtues. Many of us Orthodox, some of us only Orthodox for a few years, have already seen those who were received into the Orthodox Church with us shipwreck their lives and faith. Some have left the Orthodox Church. Not all have retained even a semblance of Christian Faith.
Let’s be clear. God gifted us with the intellect. The intellect is not evil. It has great power to help us apprehend the truth, and if we can direct and focus its energies, it can be used by God to bring illumination. While I would never go so far as to say that the online world is a gift from God, I do not think it has to be inherently evil. I read God-blessed blogs, participate in gracious message boards (though admittedly far, far less often than before). But these are extremely rare.
I did not come to the remedies I’m suggesting by my own wisdom. Rather, my priest and God’s providence, which allowed some difficult struggles into my life immediately upon becoming Orthodox, led me to them. I know they have been helpful to me. I think they may be helpful to others.
Take a break and stop all online activity. If you cannot simply stop all online activity, force yourself to limit the blogs or message boards you visit. If you can keep the blogs/message boards to three (a very Trinitarian number!) this would be good. If you write on a blog or message board, immediately stop writing about any controversial matters or matters for debate; do not invite strife and contention. Instead, buy a journal and write all your thoughts down the old-fashioned way–with pen and paper. Fill the unused time with five minutes of the Jesus Prayer.
Replace theology and doctrine with saints’ lives
By now you’ve joined the Orthodox Church. While you may still have some legitimate questions that you may want to explore with your priest, now is the time to just settle into living the Orthodox life: follow the fasts, pray, do acts of mercy. You’ve doubtless spent months perhaps years reading Lossky, Schmemann, Zizioulas, et. al. Now put that theology to practice. Learn how it was lived by the saints of the Church. Let the examples of their holy lives encourage you to keep struggling with the fasts, to keep struggling to pray. Emulate the warm and living love they have for God.
Prepare your intellect to be “bored.” It wants new stimulus, maybe some new debates. And now you’re telling it to spend five minutes focused on saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”? Tell your intellect it’s time to start growing up. Let it mentally yell, “Squirrel!” and then call it back to attention and to as much silence as you can handle.
Good habits take a long time to develop. Cut yourself some slack. Start small. Start insultingly (to your ego) small. Consult with your priest, of course, on a rule for prayer and Scripture reading, fasting. The only quick way to becoming a saint is to be tortured and martyred–and that’s not always a sure thing. It takes a lifetime to become a saint. God knows what he’s doing.
I should offer this disclaimer: all the stuff I’ve talked about here–well, my priest kept telling me this all during the years I was becoming Orthodox. It took me several years of “listening” before I listened. It was God’s providence that brought it home. I’m thankful that neither God nor my priest gave up on me.