The Joy Of Orthodoxy
This weekend was my thirteenth Pascha in an Orthodox parish. The depth and beauty of the Holy Week liturgies never fail to move me. I did not have a good Lent, owing to various spiritual struggles, but services on Holy Thursday brought me back to where I need to be.
Holy Week prayers and liturgies are long, and filled with chanting of Scripture passages, from both the Old and the New Testament. I quote the social anthropologist Paul Connerton often, when he says that those cultures that hold on in the face of modernity are those that have a sacred story, and “sediment it into their bones” through collective rituals that involve the body. There is nothing in American Christianity that does this like Orthodoxy in Holy Week, at least not in my experience.
This week, we welcomed four new young converts into our Orthodox parish. They are all in their early 20s; two of them are still in college. They have been at most of the services this week (more than I’ve been to, that’s for sure). I overheard a couple of longtime Orthodox parishioners saying this afternoon how impressive the twentysomethings in our parish are, in terms of their dedication. It’s really true. In talking to them, it’s easy to get excited about Orthodoxy. I guess it’s like that with all converts, no matter what the church, Still, it’s interesting to hear what they have to say. A bunch of us were talking at one point after a service, about all the prostrations we did in it. One of the guys said that he understands why people get bored with and alienated from pop Christianity, and seek out something more rigorous (that happened with one of these new converts, who had decided he wasn’t Christian at all, until he found Orthodoxy). The first guy was talking about what attracts people of his generation to Islam, including the praying-with-the-body part indicating submission. There is something so deep and overwhelming about praying so intensely that you bow down with your forehead to the floor. Well, we do that in Orthodoxy, a lot, during Lent, and especially during Holy Week.
It’s a little thing, maybe, but it is an outward manifestation of an inner state. I’ll tell you, it’s what pulled me out of my deep, months-long spiritual funk. Standing there in the services, listening to all that Scripture chanted, between hymns, and doing all the bowing and prostrating as we commemorated the beginning of the Passion — I was swept into the strong, deep current of what was happening around me.
Looking around for some information on an English-language Russian Orthodox site this weekend, I found this interview with a Russian who had converted to Catholicism as a young man in Russia — not an easy thing to do — because as a restless teenager, he became entranced by the history of medieval Europe, which, of course, is suffused with Catholicism. And, he loved the worship in the Catholic cathedral in Moscow, which moved him to convert away from his Orthodox baptism. He eventually went on a pilgrimage to the West, and was shocked to discover that the Catholicism he had fallen in love with had been largely discarded by the Second Vatican Council. This Russian — now an Orthodox priest — said:
We should clearly understand the difference between the Catholic tradition before the Second Vatican Council and the neo-tradition that was formed after this council, for this important historic milestone drastically changed Catholicism.
The Russian goes on to talk about how experiencing the irreverent attitude of Western worship and piety while on pilgrimage broke his heart, and his devotion to Rome. He says:
The Catholic Church today is a church of triumphant renovationism, where many traditions have been abandoned and forgotten. Many things that were considered valuable for twenty centuries were declared simply unnecessary in in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In particular, one of the monstrous spiritual disasters of Catholicism was the Second Vatican Council that radically reformed all Catholicism in a Protestant way.
Unfortunately, this, first of all, affected the piety of the believers. For example, it was quite normal for the Catholic pilgrims to leave their backpacks on the altar. I can’t imagine that happening in Orthodoxy. Our attitude toward the altar is so reverential, that even the priest wouldn’t dare to put his glasses or a prayer book on it. It is only for the things that should be there.
Naturally, I was very upset by this disregard for their own traditions and their antipathy toward the ancient things that I truly loved in Catholicism.
I always find it encouraging when Catholics — especially young Catholics — go on a recovery mission for the things that their fathers and grandfathers threw away. As Marco Sermarini, my dear Catholic friend in Italy, explains in The Benedict Option,
In my travels in search of the Benedict Option, I found no more complete embodiment of it than the Tipi Loschi, the vigorously orthodox, joyfully countercultural Catholic community in Italy recommended to me by Father Cassian of Norcia. Motoring with Tipi Loschi leader Marco Sermarini through the hills above his city, I asked him how the rest of us could have what his community has discovered.
Start by getting serious about living as Christians, he said. Accept that there can be no middle ground. The Tipi Loschi began as a group of young Catholic men who wanted more out of their faith life than Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
“That used to be my life,” said Marco. “I didn’t know the teaching of Jesus Christ was for all my life, not just the ‘religious’ part of it. If you recognize that He is the Lord of all, you will order your life in a radically different way.”
What Marco and his friends found, to their great surprise, was that everything they needed to live as faithfully together had been right in front of them all along. “We invented nothing,” he said. “We discovered nothing. We are only rediscovering a tradition that was locked away inside an old box. We had forgotten.”
Read more Marco here. Their Catholic life is not only a life of moral rigor, but a life more closely aligned with Catholic traditions than what you typically see in the modern world. It can be done. This is the joy of Catholic orthodoxy — not the same as the joy of big-O Orthodoxy, but you see what they have in common.
In Orthodox Christianity, this is not a recovery effort in the same sense. It is a recovery in a different sense. I met an older Greek Orthodox woman recently, one who has fallen away from the Church. She told me that when she moved to her small city, there was a Greek Orthodox parish, but it was small, and very exclusive. She said she was the only American-born Greek there, and they made her feel like an interloper, even though she spoke Greek. She quit going to church, and finally drifted away from Christianity. I wish I could say this was an unusual story, but you tend to find that with some older parishes that have become the Tribe At Prayer. But there are also good parishes that have a historic ethnic congregation, but that have been welcoming to converts. In any case, those ancient forms of worship and traditions are priceless gifts handed down to us, but if we regard them as ends in themselves, rather than what they are meant to be: means of pointing us and leading us to God, then they will become as dry bones. Tradition is not the destination; it is a reliable map to the destination.
Finally, a friend e-mailed this really interesting piece in Baptist News about what Baptists and other Protestants can learn from Orthodoxy. The author is Andrey Shirin, a Russian Evangelical living and working in the US. Excerpts:
1. Tailoring worship style to popular culture is overrated.
For many American Protestant churches, it has become almost an article of faith that worship style needs to match popular culture. This is an effort to ensure that unchurched people can “relate” to Christian worship. That may be convincing for many church and denominational leaders, but does experience corroborate this widespread notion? While many Protestant congregations bend over backwards to fit their worship to popular tastes and trends, many of these churches are no longer growing. Orthodox churches do not even use any musical instruments in worship, yet they still have the highest percentage of adults under 30 among their adherents compared to other Christian groups.
4. So does beauty.
Unlike Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, Protestants do not have a major female figure to venerate. Although many Protestant churches in the U.S. recognize the importance of art, aesthetics largely remains an acquired language. Often the importance of art is limited to its potential to evangelize, and that seems to lessen the value of Christian art in the eyes of the wider public. Not so in the Orthodox tradition. Beauty is viewed as essential to all dimensions of Christian spirituality, and this value is reflected in Orthodox places of worship. Orthodox Christianity understands that human nature yearns for the beautiful. An appreciation for beauty permeates Eastern cultures as well as Eastern Christianity. Many Protestant churches in the U.S. need to be more purposeful about making our spaces beautiful.
5. It’s not Jesus and me; it’s Jesus and all of us, living and dead.
“Me and Jesus got our own thing going; me and Jesus got it all worked out,” says a popular evangelical song. This individualistic mindset, which seems to reflect much of American Protestantism, relegates the church to secondary importance after individual salvation. If me and Jesus, in this order, have it all worked out, it is not clear why we need our brothers and sisters (or even our pastors and other ministers). The link between this mentality and empty pews on Sunday mornings seems apparent.
In contrast, this individualistic ethos is quite alien to Eastern Orthodox spirituality. According to Orthodox teaching, attending worship is essential for salvation, which has a robust communal dimension. In addition, liturgy is a place where not only the living are present, but the souls of the dead are also there, strengthening worshippers in their journey of faith.
One does not need to share Orthodox dogma to realize that giving due recognition to the communal dimension and other strengths of Christian faith and worship in Orthodox Christianity can have a positive influence on Protestant churches in America. Perhaps more dialogue between leaders of these two traditions could prove fruitful for both.
In the meantime, it seems we Baptists and other Protestants can affirm again the joyous refrain of “Christ is risen!” with our Orthodox sisters and brothers as they celebrate the resurrection this Sunday.
American Orthodoxy has seen a great influx of Evangelicals over the past two or three decades. They have strengthened Orthodoxy because they bring with them evangelical zeal, and a passion for the faith. My path to Orthodoxy was not from Evangelicalism, but from Catholicism. It was not an intellectual path (though I could have followed that), and in fact, as most of you know, it was a path covered with rocks and briars and a lot of pain. But it was a path illuminated by awe-filled worship and pious traditions of great antiquity that drew me out of myself and towards unity with Jesus Christ.
Don’t get me wrong, though: Orthodoxy’s doctrinal and moral conservatism, in the sense of remaining faithful to established teaching, was an essential part of the attraction of the Orthodox faith. But it was the beauty of the worship, and the spiritual disciplines, that revived the exhausted and broken Christian that I was.
Five years ago or so, I was stuck in a grave spiritual crisis. My then-priest assigned me to undertake contemplative prayer (the Jesus Prayer) for one hour each day. I thought that bordered on spiritual abuse. How could I pray that intensely for so long?! But I did it … and through that spiritual discipline, my anxious, chaotic inner self became calm, and the real work of healing could begin. Later, when I was well, I asked my priest how he knew that that was what I needed — intense prayer discipline, instead of a book to read (my preferred method of dealing with crises)?
“I had to get you outside of your head,” he told me.
Simple as that — and as profound. That same thing worked on me again late in Holy Week. I had mentioned to a fellow parishioner early in Holy Week that I had been feeling really out of sorts, and had not felt able to come to church for services. “Just come,” he said, “and let the hymns do the work for you.” So I did. I quit trying to think my way through things, and just surrendered to the hymns, the chanted Psalms, the long passage of the Old and the New Testament chanted during services, the clouds of incense around the altar, the candles everywhere, the crossing, the bowing, and yes, the prostrations. It got me out of my head, and re-oriented me towards God. It always does. What a gift Orthodoxy is. No wonder those young people love it so. It is also a gift to see the faith through their fresh eyes.
(Note to readers: I’m not interested in debating you theologically. If you’d like to have a theological discussion, I’ll post the comments, as long as they’re made in good faith, but don’t expect me to get involved.)