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.
If one is not raised in the Orthodox way of life, the view from the outside can be daunting. The rigors of fasting (twice per week, for forty days before Christmas and again before Easter, and the two fasts of summer–the Apostles’ fast and the Dormition fast); lengthy services (especially during Holy Week) in which the custom is to stand for the duration of the service; liturgies which may utilize non-English languages; regular confession–all these present a less than “seeker-friendly” atmosphere. In a Christian milieu in which a local congregation is expected to conform themselves to the expectations of their visitors, the Orthodox Church appears to assume that if visitors want to pursue membership in the Orthodox Church, they will have to put forth some effort.
Oddly, this approach resonates with a fair number of seekers, including men (but not only men). It has something of a more rugged feel to it. It can invite metaphors that ring with a fair bit of machismo. It can induce some rather silly chest-thumping about “real Christian living.” This is unfortunate and a delusion.
Because the reality is this: Orthodoxy may indeed be “tougher” in the disciplines of faith and living it expects of its members as compared to what one may find in the broader Christian communities in the U.S. But if so, it is not tougher because of these aspects, but, rather, because these aspects serve a much tougher end: the mortification of pride in us.
Let me explain what I mean. In the Orthodox Church, the season of Great and Holy Lent, in which the Church joins her catechumens in their preparation for baptism at Pascha (Easter), is perhaps the most rigorous in discplines, frequency and length of services, and the duration of the Fast. So much so that Orthodox sort of “ease into” Lent a couple of weeks before by gradually increasing the categories of foods from which they fast: first dairy products, then meat and eggs, then the full fast. But, just prior to this, the Orthodox hear the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee during their Sunday worship–how the Pharisee was full of himself, justifying himself to God on the basis of his fasting and tithing; and how the Publican would not dare even to look to heaven but simply and repeatedly beat his breast and groaned, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” And then the Orthodox Church does something otherwise unusual: she forbids her members to fast that week, reminding all of us that the point is not the effort, but the sought-for effect, a heart humble and repentant.
So if, in fact, Orthodoxy is “Christianity–Only Tougher” it is because it seeks that which is the most difficult discipline of all: true and uncompromising self-knowledge that each of us is desperately sick with sin, that we cannot heal ourselves, and that the healing we each need awaits those who know they have no basis on which to justify themselves. We can only come begging God’s mercy.
The fasting, the hours in worship and prayer, the confession of sins–all of these are necessary, but not in the way one might think. In things like these failure may in fact be the path to victory. Not because we get to indulge our appetites, but because it chips away at our pride, and struggling with these things, difficult as they can be, reduces us to dependence on God instead of ourselves.
If all one takes away from the sort of bumper sticker slogans that tout Orthodoxy’s “toughness” is a certain macho fist pump and grunt, then one is well on the path to self-delusion. But if one can look past the surface, one can in fact see that Orthodoxy is difficult because it provides the tools to root pride out of the heart.