Looking East From the West
Reader Elizabeth writes:
I gave Christianity a try when I was in my twenties and entered the Episcopal Church, which was liberal-ish but seemed mainstream (what did I know? – I was raised UU). It was a response to an inner yearning for something ancient and true.
Within a couple of years I left that too, because there was no remembering. No daily practice, no effort to pull converts in to a community of believers. It was a nice upper-class congregation in the center of the city, many of whose members drove in from the exclusive exurbs to which they’d long ago fled. After I joined, no one asked anything of me except for the annual pledge. Newcomers were on their own.
Eventually I found Theravada Buddhism. A fellow-former Episcopal convert, who’d gone through classes at the church with me, pointed out that ” these people actually tell you what to do.” Instead of a nice feeling from a great service surrounded by good looking, healthy people in stunning yet conservative fashions, in a gorgeous cathedral church with paid soloists, you get silent retreats (4 hour to three month), classes on renunciation, meditation, contemplation, preparation for death, and specific exercises that show one how to stop running from greed, anger and delusion, and to face suffering head on and see directly its ultimate cause.
If Christianity had shown me a genuine path of daily practice that fed the hunger in my heart, it would have been worth staying for.
I think this is an excellent comment, one that resonates with me. So many of us Western Christians, at least we of an intellectual inclination, spend a lot of time and energy thinking about and arguing over doctrine and ideas, and not enough on practice, aside from the “good works” kind. Elizabeth’s comment reminds me of this passage from Kyriacos Markides’s book on Orthodox Christian spirituality, The Mountain of Silence:
Once I freed my mind from the shackles of agnosticism and scientific materialism, I assumed that in order to seriously engage in a spiritual, contemplative practice for personal transformation and inner experience, one had to take up methods of meditation such as those practiced by the lay mystics that I had studied or the yogis of India, preferably under the guidance of a master. More romantically, one perhaps had to journey to the exotic East and sit at the feet of self-realized gurus who dispensed their wisdom from Himalayan mountaintops.
Then, in 1991, a friend invited him to make pilgrimage to Mount Athos, the monastic center of world Orthodoxy. More:
I realized then that the spirituality I encountered on Mount Athos with its millennial history had all the hallmarks, and perhaps more, of what we were searching for in the Vedas and Upanishads, of India. “Mount Athos,” I mused to Antonis as we sailed away from that first visit, “Is like a Christian equivalent of Tibet.”
What are the basic characteristics of Athonite spirituality as it was preserved and shaped over the centuries in those ancient monasteries and hermitages? Why have Western scholars virtually ignored this experiential form of mystical Christianity at a time when numerous Westerners have turned their gaze toward Hinduism and Buddhism? What does Mount Athos have to offer to the Western world today that is not available within the mainstream churches?
His book, which is very, very good, answers those questions.
It would be misleading to say that ordinary Orthodox Christianity for laymen is quite as rigorous as Elizabeth indicates Theravada Buddhism is. But in my experience, it’s a lot like what she says. It is possible to go to an Orthodox liturgy and keep yourself on the outside of the spiritual experience. But if you are interested in taking the tradition seriously, Orthodoxy offers you, from a profoundly Christian perspective, “renunciation, meditation, contemplation, preparation for death, and specific exercises that show one how to stop running from greed, anger and delusion, and to face suffering head on and see directly its ultimate cause.”
Again, I don’t want to give you the impression that if you go to an Orthodox church, you will find a gaggle of lay mystics engaged in deep contemplation. Most churches are not monasteries, and while I am extremely fortunate to have a solid priest who is a good spiritual guide, the Orthodox Church is as imperfect and sinful as any other. My point is simply that I identify with Elizabeth’s restless spiritual quest, and how difficult it is to satisfy it in Western Christian practice. For Christians who are dissatisfied with the spiritual approach they encounter in the West, and who are drawn to Eastern religion (or away from Christianity entirely), I suggest they seriously examine Orthodoxy. Markides’s book is a good place to start. Had Elizabeth read it and found her way into Orthodoxy, she might still be Christian today.
UPDATE: Reader Ryan Hunter recalls this terrific short letter an Orthodox abbess in England wrote to a prospective convert to Orthodoxy, asking him if he’s really sure he wants to do this thing.