Orthodoxy Is Hard. Thank God
Around our house this morning, we are still trying to recombobulate ourselves after Orthodox Holy Week. Not every Orthodox parish offers the full range of Holy Week services — ours doesn’t, because we are so small — but if you went to all the services our parish did offer (11 services in seven days, if you count Palm Sunday), you would have been in church for over 20 hours. And if you were in the choir, as my wife and the priest’s wife are, you would have had to have been there at each and every service, standing, singing virtually the entire service. And, of course, if you were the priest, you would have been there too, censing, chanting, consecrating, and so forth.
The Orthodox tradition requires an all-night vigil at the symbolic Tomb of Christ from the last service of Good Friday until the first service of Pascha, stopping only during the Holy Saturday liturgy. During the vigil, at least one person is present reciting the Psalter at all times. Because we are so tiny, our parish, and because the Drehers live closer to the church than anybody else, I take the greater part of the overnight shift. I sat in the darkness of the church reading the Psalms aloud from 1 am till 6 am. I can tell you that it takes five hours precisely to recite all 150 Psalms.
And then there’s the Paschal liturgy, which begins in our parish at 11:30, and doesn’t end until around two in the morning, after which we all retire to the parish hall (= a room attached to the narthex) to break the Lenten fast together. And then it’s back in church at 3pm the next day for a short service called Agape vespers, followed by a parish barbecue at the home of a parish family.
Last night at the barbecue, my friend Chris and I were talking about how exhausting it all is, but how we wouldn’t trade it for anything. “It’s like Navy SEAL training,” said Chris. I smiled, because I had made that same comparison in an e-mail to a friend the day before. This is Church as training for spiritual athletes. Mind you, monks, both Orthodox and traditional Catholic, have a far more rigorous schedule, but for lay Christians, there is simply nothing as demanding as ordinary Orthodox liturgical life during Lent and Holy Week.
Believe me, I don’t say that as a boast. It is hard to keep yourself engaged when these services go on and on. When I was first Orthodox, I didn’t go but to a handful of them, and I didn’t really understand what was going on. I confess that I didn’t really catch on until we established our mission parish here in St. Francisville, and suddenly had to be at everything, absent a good excuse, because when you are as small as we are (four or five families), it’s All Hands On Deck. The word “liturgy” derives from the Greek compound word leitourgos, which means one who does a public duty. In the past three years of participating in a full Orthodox liturgical life in a parish, I have come to appreciate the work of the liturgy, in terms of what it tears down inside of me, and what it builds up.
It’s not that you are earning grace by participating in the liturgy. That is theologically impossible; grace isn’t earned, it’s given by God. What fasting, prayer, and liturgical worship does for those who engage in it with full hearts is to remove barriers to the experience of God’s transforming grace. For the Orthodox Christian, Lent, and especially Holy Week (the days after Lent, preceding Pascha), are a spiritually and physically intense time of repentance and preparation. It involves all your soul and body. Again, nobody’s holding a gun to your head and making you come, but if you do come, and give yourself over to the services, they will wear you out, but also build you up in ways you might never have thought possible.
Standing in the long Paschal liturgy the other night, I was listening to the choir narrate in chant the events that took place after the Resurrection. This is not something they do freelance; this is the same story they tell in the same way every year. It occurred to me that this is exactly what the social anthropologist Paul Connerton says that societies who hold on to their stories successfully do: re-present them ritually, as sacred events, involving the body. Connerton:
What, then, is being remembered in commemorative ceremonies? Part of the answer is that a community is reminded of its identity as represented by and told in a master narrative. This is a collective variant of what I earlier called personal memory; that is to say a making sense of the past as a kind of collective autobiography, with some explicitly cognitive components. But rituals are not just further instances of humanity’s now much touted propensity to explain the world to itself by telling stories. A ritual is not a journal or a memoir. Its master narrative is more than a story told and reflected on; it is a cult enacted. An image of the past, even in the form of a master narrative, is conveyed and sustained by ritual performances. And this means that what is remembered in commemorative ceremonies is something in addition to a collectively organised variant of personal and cognitive memory. For if the ceremonies are to work for their participants, if they are to be persuasive to them, then those participants must be not simply cognitively competent to execute the performance: they must be habituated to those performances. This habituation is to be found … in the bodily substrate of the performance.
The prostration, the endless crossing of one’s breast, the kissing of icons, the lengthy reading of Scripture and chanting of Psalms, and so forth — it’s all part of it. It sediments itself into your bones.
Last night at the picnic, my friend and I, bought of us exhausted but happy, reflected on how we simply could not imagine being anything but Orthodox now. Once you’ve tasted wine this heady, it’s hard to be satisfied with anything else. And you know, it’s strange how that works. I don’t know of any form of Christianity in America that is more demanding on its adherents than Orthodoxy … and that is why it succeeds! If by “success” one means forming Christians. That probably also has a lot to do why it is not terribly successful (yet) at attracting large numbers of American converts: because this is not a faith for casual Christians. It is a Christianity that demands your whole self. But from my experience, and the experience of my parishioners (because they have said this in my presence), those who are willing to lose their own ordinary American lives to the demands of Orthodox Christianity will gain far more than they can imagine from the outside.
(And the moment you feel tempted to be proud of yourself for all that fasting and churchgoing is the moment your Orthodox conscience will say: “Stop it; this is about to become a matter of sin.”)
If I had known how difficult it was going to be, I don’t know that I would have become Orthodox. Well, yes, I probably would have, but it would have been with a lot more fear and trembling. Then again, no priest or congregation ever made me do more than I could handle. If you’re in an American convert parish, chances are the priest knows how different this is from the Christianity in which you were raised, and he will advise you to take it easy until you habituate yourself. The fasts and the churchgoing that you will be doing years from now, after you’ve been in training (so to speak), will be more intense than what you, as a beginner, will likely be able to manage. That’s okay. We are all on a journey. The practices of the Church don’t exist for themselves, but for the sake of our ongoing conversion. The thing is, the Orthodox life, if it is working like it’s supposed to work, will not let you be satisfied with doing “enough.” It is not a swimming pool; it is an ocean, and it calls you farther into the deep with each passing year.
Orthodoxy is many things, but this year, it occurs to me that it is a form of Christianity for Christians who want to lay the groundwork within themselves and within their families and communities for endurance.