Thursday, April 25, 2024


As we approach Pascha, we will soon have the blessing of the meats and cheeses from which we have fasted during Great Lent.  The Church fasts in order that the Church might feast.  In talking with my priest last week, he brought up something that has stuck with me since.  Having had time to reflect on it a bit, I wanted to write about abundance.

This was not in the context of worldly abundance, such as we will enjoy in a little over a week from now.  Rather, it was in the context of the things of God -- grace, repentance, forgiveness, and love.  The discussion was about how we tend to categorize things in terms of what is just good enough when it comes to spiritual things, but we're eager to get more than enough of worldly things.  And in talking about those spiritual gifts, Father said "why can't we think more in terms of abundance?"  What he meant was not that we should hoard God's gifts, nor that we should be prideful in how many we can "collect," because that is the wrong framework.  Orthodoxy has never been about balancing out good deeds versus evil deeds, or measuring how well we are keeping up with the various gifts the Church has to offer us versus our neighbor.  Rather, he was saying that we should stop thinking in terms of checking boxes, or doing the minimum required, or how much we receive versus how much our neighbor receives.  Do you attend every service, say all your prayers, keep the fasts strictly, do prostrations and say akathists and all that to your heart's content?  May you ever be blessed.

But if you do not, as most of us do not, then instead of mourning that you do not have time, or that you are inattentive, or that the world drags your attention away, why not instead be thankful for what you are able to do, and where you think you might fall short, resolve to do more?  Not someday, but today.  For those services you can attend, the prayers you do say, the fasting you can do, the love you can give, the service you can provide, be thankful.  God meets you there, and any encounter with God's grace is a good encounter.

The entire Christian life is this way.  We are not collecting chips to cash in on judgment day.  We are actually entering into His life, encountering Him, and walking with Him.  If we're doing that a little, then we still have it all, for God is with us.  If we do it much, then all the more blessed are we, not because we will one day gain Heaven, but because Heaven starts right now.  In the Church.  At our baptism.  In this life.  And the more we enter into it, the more we understand how blessed we are to encounter Him at all, and the more we want to continue in this blessed life He has given to us.  To ask the question "how much grace is enough grace" misses the entire point.  God gives you all the grace you require however and wherever you meet Him.  

So instead of wishing we could do more, or mourning that we do not do enough, or thinking we have done more than others, let us stop thinking in terms of measuring salvation at all and begin thinking in terms of entering into the life of God. He will soon enter Jerusalem on the foal of an ass, and as Father said last year at this time, it is not so that some pagan king can be executed, but so that death itself can be executed.  And a week later, He will be crucified, die, and be buried, so that He may rise again on the third day giving life to the world.  It is that life we seek.  Measuring how fully we receive it runs the risk of either denigrating the gift (if we think we have done less than we ought) or discouraging us from entering into it more fully (when we think we have done enough).  Instead, we should be thankful for His abundance, in whatever measure it finds us.  It is in that simple act of thanksgiving, and not in boasting or mourning in the measure of His abundance, that we will find ourselves wanting to enter into His life more deeply.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Kat Von D


Kat Von D is a famous tattoo artist, entrepreneur, and musician, a lady whose fame began on the show "Miami Ink," and later spawned her own show, "LA Ink."  I've always found her a fascinating person for a lot of reasons.  She dresses like a goth princess, but one of her subspecialties is tattooing religious art (usually Catholic, but others as well).  She is a well known alcoholic and drug abuser, though thankfully recovering.  She has dabbled in New Age religious practices, and has been vocal about that.  

She was also baptized as a Christian not very long ago, and posted it on social media.  I found this largely unsurprising.  Despite her appearance and previous lifestyle, she has always struck me as having a kind and loving heart and a real passion for helping people.  She loves her parents and she loves her clients and co-workers and friends.  She was "living the life" before her conversion, despite her many sins, in many ways more so than some who bore the name of Christ long before she did. She, at least, wore her sins on her sleeve. We tend to hide ours with pretense and self-righteousness, and then lecture to others based on superficial nonsense.

I generally dislike pop-culture Christianity, and I don't like the practice of taking popular figures and blowing their conversion stories out of proportion.  In general, I wouldn't write about a Baptist Christian's conversion on an Orthodox Christian blog, not because I have anything against Baptists (most of my family is still Baptist), but because it doesn't really fit here.  In this case, however, there are several things about her story that I find compelling.

Kat, whose actual name is Katherine von Drachenberg, was raised by Christian missionaries, but left the faith, more or less, as a teenager, around the time she began tattooing and also drinking.  She ran away from home and then was sent to a couple of homes that were sort of "scared straight" type places.  She did not have kind words for them in this interview.  In fact, she suggested they should be illegal, and that she witnessed abuse there.  She talked a lot about her upbringing and the fact that she abandoned the faith not because she was driven away, but rather because she had questions and her parents and other authority figures did not have answers for her.  But it was obvious being sent to a couple of group homes to "straighten her out" really did more harm than good.

She talked about the impact of fame on her life, of seeking out tattooing because it was a way to meld her artistic talent with her love of helping people.  She talked about the negative impact of addiction and her lifestyle on her personal life, overcoming addiction, and then eventually making her way back to God.

Some of the most fascinating parts of the interview dealt with her conversion story itself, and how it was received not only by her non-Christian fans, but also by Christians who responded to her.  Her strongest criticism was of the Christians, and hearing her tell her story, I can see why.  She talked about self-righteousness, smugness, and the holier-than-thou attitudes of some of the respondents.  Many of them criticized her for being insincere and engaging in a publicity stunt.  Some criticized those who celebrated her baptism -- in the church building -- as looking like witches.  She spoke specifically about people who commented that they will not believe in the sincerity of her conversion until it "bore fruit," which apparently should include a change in her appearance.  And on the opposite side, she spoke of how her journey back to Christ included the influence of two men -- Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper -- who a lot of Christians might think demonic, simply because of the way they look.  This even though Alice Cooper has been a Christian for a long, long time at this point.

Another interesting line of discussion was the fact that she appreciates the concept of sacred space, and does not want to go to church to see a concert or performance.  She thinks the music in church ought to be set aside for that purpose.  She doesn't judge those who think differently, but it's interesting to see someone so new to the faith embrace the idea that worship ought to be worshipful.  She also spoke about this from the opposite perspective.  She said she doesn't think being a Christian means she has to stop listening to The Cure or Depeche Mode, although she did say her faith now influences the type of music she makes and listens to, and has also influenced her husband, a musician, in a similar way.

She talked a lot about the difference between New Age "seekers" and truly demonic practices, emphasizing that while she wanted to get rid of her books on Tarot and spells and meditation and the like, it was more because she saw them as crutches, or as she later put it, "band aids on a sinking ship."  They gave her some temporary relief, but were never life-changing in the way her conversion to Christ was.

There were a few main points of emphasis that I took away from this interview, which I think are pertinent to the Christian faith in general, and to Orthodox Christianity in particular.  

She spoke a lot about not being a stumbling block to people who are different, or struggling.  One can easily see someone who looks like her walking into a church and being received coldly.  Thankfully, she was not.  But she spoke a lot about the fact that we cannot know where someone is in their journey, and that superficial judgment can drive people away from the faith. She emphasized that outward appearance, or even just being different, tends to invite judgment, and she specifically spoke about instances where Christians had spoke about her poorly or treated her poorly.

She talked about how despite her departure from the faith for a long time, the seeds were sown in her childhood, and it was those seeds that brought her back.  Her parents' lack of judgment, and obvious love for her, ultimately allowed her to return to the faith of her childhood.  As parents, we never know how our children will fare once we let them loose into the world.  But we can teach them well, and pray for them, and love them.  And sometimes, it is that faith and love that ends up paving the way for their return to Christ. 

She discussed how she deals with people who attack her, and this was perhaps the most interesting part.  She sees a cultural sickness, especially on social media, where people have a zeal to try to "pick apart" (her words) others, to criticize them and drag them down.  And she said at one point, instead of doing that "I wish people would just pray for them." She also mentioned having friends who are still addicts and prostitutes and have troubled marriages and so forth, and how she will not abandon them now that she is a Christian. She simply loves and prays for them.  

She talked about the historical proofs for Christianity, and the fact that there were, in fact, answers to the questions she had.  I found this particularly fascinating since it is Christian history that ultimately led me to the Orthodox Church. 

She seemed perturbed that some people called her a "baby Christian." I think this is because it was given to her as a pejorative.  And that is tragic.  Everyone was at some point a "baby Christian."  And many Christians who have been Christians for decades have a superficial understanding of the faith.  Kat Von D is a baby Christian, for sure, but there is no shame in that.  She said in this interview she did not see her zeal ever waning (the byline in the video is "I'm on fire for Jesus" after all).  But it might.  As baby Christians, everything is new and exciting and there is so much to learn and explore.  Christianity on the ground is messier than that, and it can be discouraging, overwhelming, and depressing at times.  So while I hope her zeal never wanes, if it does, it will be the encouragement and love of her fellow Christians that will bring her through it. More to the point, if it does, having a bunch of online Christian nannies saying "I told you so" will only drive her away, maybe for good this time.  This is one reason I tend to dislike overinflating the conversion stories of the famous.  They might disappoint us, and in our disappointment, we might be tempted to forget that it was love that drew her in, and only love that will see her through tough times.

And that is probably the main takeaway from this interview that I think is instructive to us Orthodox Christians today.  Kat Von D is the opposite of a poster child for what most people think a Christian should look like, or even be like.  But despite that, she has love, and she seeks only love.  There is a lot of talk of late about the newly coined concept of "othering."  Meaning, we treat people like they are not one of us, often superficially.  But this has no place in the Christian Church.  I recently ran across a quote from Fr. Thomas Hopko that is on point here:

"Now some kinda fancy thinkers like to think things, and say: 'Oh, well, people are sinners, but you love Christ in that person, you love the Image of God in that person.'  Well baloney!  Jesus didn't say 'love the Image of God in that person.'  He didn't say 'love Me in that person.' He said: 'love that person, and you will be loving Me. Because I have identified with every human being on the face of the earth.  Everyone, whoever they are.'"

Father Tom was the Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir Orthodox seminary, a learned man, well credentialed, who looked exactly like you would expect a Christian to look, and who is beloved of Orthodox Christians the world over.  It is worth noting that a "baby Christian" covered in tattoos who dresses in black and wears white makeup on her face and wears bright red lipstick and has lived a hard and at times overtly sinful life came to the same conclusion he did.  Glory to God.

Monday, October 30, 2023

It's Simple, Part 2

I wrote a while back on the simplicity of the Orthodox Christian life, and I return to it because of a conversation some friends and I had about mutual friends who were raised in a non-Chalcedonean church but made their way to our little parish and are the most delightful people.  The conversation centered around things like reception and worthiness.

Now, people who know me know I am not some wild-eyed ecumenist, looking to paper over real differences and just get along despite very serious doctrinal errors.  I take the truth of the Orthodox Church seriously.  It's one reason why I am an Orthodox Christian.

But there are a lot more people in the world who are not, as the comedian Brother Dave Gardner once said, "educated beyond their capacity," than those who are.  And a seminary degree, or a St. Stephen Certificate (as I hold), is not a sufficient condition for salvation.  These things are nice to have, and it's interesting to study the faith and Church history, but knowledge does not save.  Belief does not save.  And certainly, ideology does not save.

The people we were talking about have no seminary education.  They likely do not know precisely why the church they grew up in believes differently than the one they found themselves in, halfway around the world.  To the extent they do, it obviously does not matter enough to them to maintain the division (with apologies to our non-Chalcedonean friends).  But they pray, and they love, and they enter into the Christian life far more deeply than I do, to my shame.  And they have done this, simply, their entire lives.  They are model Christians.

So I'm not writing this to suggest our differences do not matter.  They do.  I am writing this to suggest that perhaps those differences, once they are sorted out and identified sufficiently to warn the faithful of error, ought take a backseat to the simple, faithful, loving act of living within the Church and praying for the salvation of all.  I don't know how precise the theological constructs of our Oriental Orthodox turned Eastern Orthodox friends are.  I could not tell you what the depth of their knowledge about God is.  But knowing about God is not our aim.  Knowing God is our aim.  And I can tell you with certainty, these folks know God.  Because knowing God is simple, and we tend to complicate it.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Truth, Error, Ecclesiology, and Unity

"We who wish to remain in the true tradition of Orthodoxy will have to be zealous and firm in our Orthodoxy without being fanatics, and without presuming to teach our bishops what they should do. Above all, we must strive to preserve the true fragrance of Orthodoxy, being at least a little 'not of this world,' detached from all the cares and politics even of the Church, nourishing ourselves in the otherworldly food the Church gives us in such abundance."

-- Fr. Seraphim Rose

"An Orthodoxy, even an eschatologically motivated Orthodoxy, that prioritizes self-will, prelest-ridden certainty, and fanaticism about every jot and tittle, over charity, unity, and obedience to rightful episcopal authority is not Orthodoxy at all. History is littered with the detritus of sectarians who thought their own issue de jour worth disobedience and schism. They lie in unconsecrated ground, forgotten by all but historians, while the Body of Christ remains."

-- Fr. Cassian Sibley

The second quote above is a comment Fr. Cassian Sibley, a ROCOR priest, made to someone who implied, through a series of disjointed quotes from various Fathers and saints, that Fr. Seraphim's quote did not teach what it says.  The first is the quote from Fr. Seraphim Rose, who was a ROCOR priestmonk before his untimely passing, that was the subject of Fr. Cassian's post.  I am in agreement with what Fr. Cassian writes, and obviously also with what Fr. Seraphim wrote.  But I think Fr. Cassian's response deserves some unpacking to demonstrate why he is correct, particularly in these times.

Fr. Cassian's main point was that Fr. Seraphim is often misquoted, and is done a disservice by his fans and critics alike.  I also agree with this point, having dove into Fr. Seraphim's writings of late and discovered they do not really resemble either the rigorist Phariseeism of some of his more vocal fans, nor the disjointed novelty of some of his more vocal critics.  But leaving that aside for the moment, it seems to me what he says above is properly basic Orthodox doctrine, as is what Fr. Cassian writes.  

I wrote recently about the anti-ecumenist movement, a movement with which I share some sympathies, but cannot fully embrace because in my estimation it, or at least certain corners of it, has metastasized into an ideological purity cult rather than a healthy desire to keep the Church and her teaching pure.  The Orthodox Church cannot dilute her dogma in order to appease those who might join us and increase our numbers.  Nor can we afford to pretend differences in dogma don't exist, or perhaps worse, don't matter.  But what I tend to see from this camp, which to be fair is mostly on the internet, is a movement that repeats the false teachings of schismatics, but still operates from within the Church, eating apart the Church from the inside out.  This is seen in some of the replies to Fr. Cassian, which draw from the words and thinking of actual schismatics (and in some cases in this particular post were actually written by actual schismatics), and also from the reply of the person to whom Fr. Cassian replied.

The Church, if it is anything, is the communion of Orthodox bishops, preserving the faith from the Apostles through the present day.  To hear some tell it, the bishops today are all (or mostly) in error, having given into the ecumenical movement in 1965 and ever since having watered down the true faith.  And yet, if this is true, why do those same people remain in communion with those bishops?  Rather than staying behind and attempting to strong-arm the bishops to repentance, and in some cases encouraging disobedience to them if they say something "uncanonical" (which tends to be in the eye of the beholder in these discussions), why not join one of the schismatic groups that are no longer in communion with the supposedly erring bishops?  Or why not utilize the process one can go through to escalate concerns above one's bishop?  I have only contacted my bishop one time to complain about anything, and not having received a response I found satisfactory, I could have elevated that to the Metropolitan and, if need be, higher.  Everyone in the Orthodox Church is in obedience to someone else, after all.  I elected not to do that for reasons that are mine, mostly because I did not think it worth any greater breach of peace and my family and I, with the express blessing of both our former priest and our new priest, had already moved on to another parish under another bishop.  So in the end, I elected to move on in peace rather than continue to quarrel and cause more discord.  And yet, for some reason, some folks stay within the Church, remain under canonically Orthodox bishops and priests (or not, in at least one case), and refuse to work within that organizational structure, opting instead to encourage disobedience and open rebellion.  

I think the reason why is pretty simple -- incrementalism, which is a fundamentally dishonest pursuit, at least as applied here.  Rather than do the honorable thing and leave, or stay and openly confess against the supposedly erring hierarchs, they wish to change the teaching of the Church to suit their narrow view of it, and are willing to wait things out in order to do it, taking ground where they can.  They know they cannot change the teaching of the Church by consensus.  If they could, they would not resort to dishonesty and encourage disobedience, but rather would enter into dialogue with the bishops and others in order to reach fraternal agreement in love.  Instead, they apply outside influence on the Episcopacy, sort of a pressure campaign, which on the internet tends to overstate the reach and influence they actually wield, and lacking a similarly coordinated and organized effort in support of the bishops on whatever issue is being pushed, it is hoped the bishops will cave. And in some cases, they have, and I assume over time, more will. It is, then, up to the bishops to maintain proper Orthodox teaching and practice and refuse to give in to pressure groups, whether they come from within or without the Church.  And it is my prayer and belief that while some have caved and more will cave, most have not, and most will not.

Ironically, this incrementalist approach is not at all unlike the approach taken by others who wish to change the teachings of the Church in the other direction.  Birds of a feather might not see eye to eye on what the problems are, but they sure seem to flock together when it comes to how to achieve their ends.  It is an uncomfortable irony, then, that the Church's "right wing" and "left wing" (I acknowledge these political terms don't fit neatly in this context) seem to share the same playbook.

In my limited experience, the line for "canonical" or "Patristic" Orthodoxy is narrowly drawn by these pseudo-schismatics.  In the case of the insistence of baptizing converts, as just one example among many, it is drawn directly from St. Cyprian through a handful of his contemporaries, and then through the Kollyvades Fathers and current Athonite factions.  The history of the Church is long and varied and not nearly as neat and clean as they pretend it to be.  In addition, Mount Athos is hardly one conglomerate of Orthodox thinking, but rather is a group of 20 monasteries with at least some variance in their stances on issues of importance in the Orthodox Church.  More, the Athonite monasteries and their associated Sketes are not independent communities, but are themselves under the authority of a bishop.  When they disagree with their bishop, they tend to do so directly, not behind the scenes, and certainly not by merely ignoring the bishop, or worse, by lying to him. Saint Maximus the Confessor did not have his tongue cut out and his hand cut off because he snuck around behind the backs of the hierarchs.  He was mutilated and tortured precisely because he stood firm and resolute, defying those bishops (including debating the Patriarch of Constantinople and winning him over to the Orthodox position!) and ultimately dying in exile.  Confessors confess, and they do so directly, not in secret.

So what Fr. Cassian writes is both on the nose and directly relatable to what we see in the world of internet "Orthodoxy" today.  Fr. Cassian is no shrinking violet.  He tends to speak his mind and speak it well, and I have always valued his insights.  More, as a ROCOR priest, it is at least possible, perhaps likely (though I have not asked him), that he receives converts from heterodox traditions by baptism.  So one would not necessarily assume he is "against" the position I use as an example in the preceding paragraph.  Nor am I, as my current priest receives converts typically by baptism.  But Fr. Cassian knows, and says forthrightly here, that whatever his preference, it does not allow him to disobey his bishop.  Persuasion is how consensus has historically been reached in the Church.  People encouraging priests and laity to be disobedient to their bishops refuse to let their "yes" be yes and their "no" be no. And it is not limited to them -- their incitement and encouragement lead others to do likewise. 

As I posted on my Facebook page recently, you have as one example this person who literally lied to his priest about whether he was baptized in order to get the reception into the Church that he wants, rather than that which the Church has prescribed him:

And this person, who suggests that lying is somehow both a Scriptural and Patristic behavior, and a virtue among the Fathers (rather than a gross exception, and probably one worthy of a confession at that):

False witness is not a virtue.  Lying to your priests and hierarchs to manipulate them is not a Christian behavior.  And leaving aside the issue of baptizing converts, we could as easily discuss the Church's response to COVID, and the varying ways in which hierarchs tried to balance public safety and political concerns (such as the threat that their parishes would be shut down entirely rather than being allowed by the government to remain open partially), over and against the sacred Mysteries of the Church, and how best to ensure the faithful are able to receive them in proper abundance.  I am not so bold to suggest that any hierarch or jurisdiction got that exactly correct.  They, on the other hand, have a tendency to suggest they mostly got it incorrect, and that their failure to navigate an unprecedented circumstance with precision and purity amounts to the bishops being "wolves," "heretics," and the like.  So I ask again, if you think your priest and bishop are "ecumenists," and that "ecumenism" is a grave sin (both of which seem apparent from the comment to which Fr. Cassian replied), or if you think they are "wolves" ravaging the flock openly, why are you joining them to begin with?  Why not go to a communion that will receive you as you wish to be received?  They exist, both within and without the Church. Why not fraternally and lovingly exhort them to greater faithfulness, instead of amplifying their supposed faithlessness?

The answer is some of these folks want what they want, and they are willing to sacrifice fraternal consensus and unity to get it.  In the end, this is all self will and pride, neither of which leads to salvation. It is dangerous to the unity of the Church.  And it is wrong.  The bishops are not always right.  But they at least have the Episcopal grace to make those calls.  Where we disagree, we are to do so openly in love and in the spirit of truth, not by backbiting, slander and rebellion.  God help us if we forget that.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Orthodox Cosplay

I feel like I'm writing a lot about authenticity, and to a great extent that's because I'm still gathering my thoughts on several trends I've observed in the Church.  I saw an older (several years ago) discussion online yesterday that I thought hit the nail on the head regarding some of the issues that have concerned me of late.  The issue was what I have termed "monastic fetishism," and what others have observed as laity seeking a monastic type of life while not being monastics.

There is a sense in which this is perfectly healthy and not at all a concern.  Without more, wanting a fuller service schedule, wanting to live near a monastery to have access to such a service schedule, wanting a deeper spiritual life, greater asceticism, etc., are all good and worthy goals.  Burnout is real, and I do fear too many young Orthodox converts try to do too much too fast.  But absent other motivations, it is well and good to enter as deeply into the life of the Church as one is able, and certainly the fullest expression of the liturgical life of the Church is found in monasteries. Being close to a monastery, or visiting one as a retreat, or adopting some of the prayer life and liturgical life of monastics, is generally a good thing, and ought to be encouraged.

But there seems to me to be a secondary motivation that sometimes enters the picture.  In America, we do not have a well-formed spirituality that is common to the people.  We see this reflected in faddish pop-Christianity in such things as the Prayer of Jabez book and 40 Days of Purpose and so forth.  American Christians without access to the full treasury of the Church tend to grasp for meaning.  We do not take Holy Week off of work.  Stores don't close on feast days.  We are not, obviously, an Orthodox society, culturally speaking. And so we seek out deeper spiritual meaning because our culture is so utterly banal and spiritually impoverished.

This temptation to attempt a deeper spiritual life within a culture that doesn't really make room for it is worsened, it seems to me, when laypeople want to live as monastics, without taking the monastic tonsure and without entering into that life fully and completely.  That is, the danger is not wishing for a fuller spiritual life, but putting on the dressings of a fuller spiritual life without actually doing the work.  It is, as the person in the discussion I referenced above called it, "Orthodox LARPing."  Instead of actually living out the Orthodox life in humility and reverence where God has placed us (in the world), the temptation is to play dress-up and attempt to monasticize our little portion of the world because we think it makes us more holy.  And as I note above and have noted a lot of late, the problem with this is it is inauthentic.  Which is not to say it is utterly inauthentic.  Certainly people who attempt to live this way have good intentions and deeply desire holiness.  It is only to say that without taking the tonsure and entering into the life of a monk or nun, it is not fully authentic. There is some degree of self-deception involved.  And the problem with that is it tempts us to think we are holier simply by putting on the appearance of monasticism, when in fact, holiness for laypeople is more often found in service to those around us, loving, forgiving, and carrying the very same holiness that monks aspire to into the world and using it to serve Christ through our neighbor in the most mundane of ways.  

A former priest once told me "everyone wants to go to the chanter stand or the choir or serve on a committee before the chrism is even dry, but nobody ever wants the 'ministry' of taking out the trash or cleaning the toilets."  That same priest's son-in-law did those chores, faithfully, and literally for decades.  Most people never noticed, but things just got done and everyone sort of assumed it was someone's responsibility and it always got taken care of.  There is no glory in such a role in the eyes of men.  But there is much glory in God's eyes in simply serving the Church in such fashion, neither seeking recognition nor puffing one's self up over it.  

It is obviously a great thing if those things are done while saying the Jesus Prayer or after having done 30 prostrations during morning prayers or while attending every service every time the Church doors are open and while wearing a cassock and serving in the Church.  But it is no less a good work and no less spiritual to do them wearing khakis and still having dirt on one's hands from working in the yard or coming home from a hard day's work. 

Thursday, June 15, 2023

It's simple

Orthodoxy is complicated, for sure.  There is a lot to learn, and with a 2000 plus year history, you will never learn all of it.  The theological formulations are such that converts have to "un-learn" as much as they have to learn, because we carry so many presuppositions into the Church with us, it often takes time to let go of them and let the Church speak to us and through us.

But in a very real sense, Orthodoxy is simple.  Simple to the point that the very word "Orthodoxy" is not really accurate.  "Orthodoxy" might be bound up in a set of beliefs, an ideology, things we think about Christ and His Church.  The truth is, the Orthodox faith is not simply believed, it is lived.  And the simple fact is, being Orthodox means living life as an Orthodox Christian, simply.

When I was about to be chrismated, an internet "friend" gave me some great advice.  He said "don't be a weirdo."  He didn't mean "don't act like an Orthodox Christian," because most people think we are weird enough as it is and he was aware of that.  What he meant was don't wear a cassock to cut the grass and swing a censer as you walk around the house.  That is, be as normal as an Orthodox Christian can be and still authentically live the faith.

As Orthodox Christians, many of the habits we have, the things we do, the things we wear, how we pray -- the "externals" to use a word my priest tends to disfavor because it carries some baggage with it -- ARE weird.  Objectively.  The world sees us doing them and wearing them and saying them and thinks "well, that's odd."  Or, too often, "they're odd."  But there is a balance between being a "normal" Orthodox Christian (which is to say, to be a baseline level of weirdo), and being what one famous Orthodox meme-maker refers to as "hyperdox."  I teach my children that the world already thinks we're weirdos.  And yet, I also teach them, by word and example, to take the faith seriously.  They often cover their heads in Church.  They own and use prayer ropes.  They attend the services.  They say their prayers.  And they live out the faith and identify in the world as Orthodox Christians.  And that is more than enough.  

Something the Orthodox Church offers that too many other traditions lack is authenticity.  So it seems to me that we ought to own the things that are of the Church and not shy away from them.  Wear your cross.  Own, use, and, if you wish, wear your prayer rope.  Go to the services.  Keep the fasts.  Keep the feasts.  Say your prayers.  Have your priest come and bless your house and your automobiles and your office and whatever else you would like to have blessed.  But own it.  Live it authentically.  We should neither shy away from the things of the Church, nor try to amplify them beyond the norm.  Having an Orthodox identity is a good thing.  But the faith is not merely something to which we assent, much less put on as a costume.  It is something we live.  We should live it authentically, humbly, and simply.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

In the World, but not Of the World

 As Orthodox Christians, we are called to be in the world, but not of the world.  In discussions with some close friends recently, we had occasion to ponder some of the hyper-ascetical movements in modern Orthodoxy, primarily on the internet.  I will decline to discuss the particulars of those movements or the persons who are part of them, as I am not trying to slander anyone or hurt any feelings, and I also have no desire to draw further attention to that sort of thing nor draw their attention to me.  I would like to focus instead on some of the issues we discussed.  

One thing we all noticed was a very narrow focus on canonical rigidity and what they perceive as a "return" to a very strict and vigorous liturgical life.  One bemoaned the loss of daily Orthros and Vespers, claiming these used to be commanded, but then citing to a 6th century decree by the Emperor Justinian.  The concern here is not with the offering of daily offices, obviously.  It is with the denigration of those who either do not or cannot offer them, or attend them.  But even that is not the issue.  To all of us in the discussion, this rigorist insistence on what strikes us as something closer to a monastic-type Christian life came across not as a desire for greater and deeper spirituality, but as a self-righteous means to judge others as insufficiently ascetic. 

We did not conclude this lightly.  One particular comment claimed that the very use of words like "rigorist" or "legalism" is itself indicative of a desire to eschew ANY spiritual work. When the truth is, I own and use a prayer rope, I try to keep up with my daily prayers, I try to read the Scriptures daily, and I try to read something from the life of the saints or other works from prominent Orthodox authors.  Somewhat ironically, given the stereotypes surrounding certain internet personalities, I am currently reading "The Soul After Death" by Father Seraphim Rose.  There are certainly those who are able to draw nearer to the Church, doing far more than I do, and they are to be commended for their labors.  But to make those efforts normative over others, to insist that we "approximate monastics" as one fellow did, and to denigrate those who are unable or unwilling to adopt such strict asceticism, is not a deeper Christian spirituality.  It is Pharisaical. If you wish others to follow your example, you should start by humbly doing your own labors and not judging others.

In addition, it seemed to all of us in the discussion that there was an implicit desire to withdraw from the world, not as monastics per se, but as those who are emphatically not monastics and yet endeavoring to live as if they were.  This struck us as a sort of monastic fetishism, a covetous desiring of that to which one has not been called.  Part of that is what I note above -- the judgment of others who do not follow suit.  But part of it is that there also seems to be a spirit at work here that suggests that the world taints us, as if the world is itself unclean.  And while I agree that Orthodox Christians ought not embrace the world and all its worldly temptations, we are explicitly called by our Lord to go out into the world, taking the light of Christ with us.  In the High Priestly Prayer, Christ said:

I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth.

So it is not that we are to withdraw from the world and all its temptations.  Certainly those temptations existed during our Lord's time on this earth, as St. Paul's letters to the Corinthians, the story of St. Photini, and other Scriptures attest.  No, we are called to go into the world with all its temptations (as our Lord Himself did), and we pray that the Father would "keep us from the evil one" as we go.  In this way, Christ sanctifies the world not because of us, but through Himself working in us.  As my priest said in a homily a while back, "even pumping gas becomes a holy act." So the desire to withdraw from the world and its temptations comes across at least like a fantasy, something that goes against that which our Lord Himself called us to do. And that is not to mention, if anything monastics face far greater temptation than those of us in the world.  They have chosen a life of constant spiritual warfare, and they withdraw out of the world precisely to focus on that battle.  Their prayer for the life of the world allows us to enter into the world, girded in battle, to face worldly temptations.  But their life is not ours, and ours is not theirs.  And one ought not pine after the other.

As we were discussing all of this, it occurred to me that what is missing from those who would seek the deepest possible ascetical life and withdraw from all earthly temptation, as best they are able, while simultaneously judging others who live a more normal parish life, is virtue.  And while there is good to be found in limiting temptation within reason, especially those temptations we know ourselves to be most susceptible to, trying to withdraw from the world in order to avoid temptation strikes me as folly.  First, it is impossible.  Even if you try to live in a Christian commune, venturing into the world only to do as little as possible while shielding your eyes, temptation will find you.  Second, it is not truly virtuous.  There is no virtue in never being tempted.  We are called to change our habituation to sin by habituating ourselves to the virtues instead.  And that is done not by avoiding all temptation, but by actively rejecting temptation when it finds us and striving to make the good habitual.

As normal, everyday Orthodox Christians, then, we are to follow the sacramental life of the Church as best we are able, keep the fasts to the best of our ability, pray, read spiritually edifying works, and do good works.  But we are to take those actions into the world, normalizing them, and thereby showing forth Christ, and seeing Christ in our neighbor.  We are not to hide away from the world, nor make a show of our piety as the Pharisees did.  Which is not to say we do not carry our Christian lives into the world.  By all means, wear your cross.  Wear your prayer rope.  Say your prayers.  Carry your well worn copy of Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.  Read it on the bus or at lunch.  But wear them and say them and carry them and read them because you make use of them, authentically.  And above all, try to see your own sin and not judge your brother.  

It is the authentic Christian life that sanctifies the world.  And for most of us, it is enough of a struggle to simply try and live that life authentically.  That is where you will find virtue.  In the world, but not of the world.