27 November 2007

Life Before Orthodoxy

This post will be an answer to CB's question, stemming from a comment I posted at Fr. Stephen Freeman's Blog, Glory to God for All Things.

I will say that I am only recently Chrismated, although my study of Orthodoxy goes back at least 3 years, and I suspect that my casual contact with Byzantium (which later developed into full-on love) began exerting its inexorable pull a little earlier than that; as such, I am not really trained in theology, and even going by the Orthodox maxim that "a theologian is one who prays," I am not especially qualified to speak on matters of theology. For me, as for all converts (and, I suspect, for many 'cradles' who were born in the West), the major problem I face is getting this head-and-book knowledge, this theory of what Orthodox doctrine and faith are, out of the head and into the heart (or nous), out of the abundance of which my mouth can then speak. In the meanwhile, while it would probably be best to be silent, I find that I get asked rather a lot some variation on "but what makes Orthodoxy different?" So...here goes:

Prayer. I grew up Protestant and apostatized from Christianity for a bit before coming back to, at least nominal, Protestantism, and from thence to Orthodoxy. As such, prayer tended to fall into either of two categories: "just telling God how I feel" or "Jesus, please help me with X" where X stands for problem of the day. I thought I could pray pretty well; people seemed to enjoy listening to me, and as someone who once thought that the vocation of poet would be awesome, I can wax eloquent on occasion. But this isn't what prayer is at all. Orthodoxy teaches that prayer is primarily how we worship God. It is how we call to remembrance all that he has already done for us ('the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, and the second and glorious coming'), and provides the framework around which we structure our lives as Christians. It's not about asking for pink Cadillacs, or even for God to heal us of an illness; while we may certainly pray to be healed of illness, or for the illnesses of other to be healed, this is a secondary part of what prayer is. Prayer is primarily, first and foremost, about creating communion--with God and with others. When we pray, just as when we are in the Divine Liturgy, we are not in chronos (that is, normal, everyday, linear wrist-watch time), but in kairos...that is, the Eternal Time, God's time, where everything is the eternal Present. When we pray the prayers of the Trisagion before morning and evening prayer (or, actually, any time that any Orthodox prayers are said or services are conducted), we invite the Holy Spirit to "come and abide in us," uniting us to God through the indwelling in us of His Spirit, and to all other Christians through Him. This leads me to point two:

Salvation = community. For years, I abhorred the Protestant focus on "my personal walk with Jesus." What I knew as a Protestant, that all I needed was me, my Bible, and Jesus (and, I hate to say it, it was often in that order of priority), left me lost, alone, confused, and unable to determine who this Jesus fellow even was. The problem of the infallibility of the scriptures is what initially killed my faith as a teen. If it is infallible, and the meaning is self-evident to any Bible reader--then why the deuce is there no consensus among Christians about what it means. You see, I look back now and understand that even as a kid, I abhorred relativism. The Protestant milieu, though, absolutely depends on a relativistic understanding of the world; few denominations are willing to make the claim that they alone are correct, so, of necessity, most Protestants will reduce what 'being a Christian' means to its lowest common denominator: belief that Jesus once existed and that his crucifixion somehow brings about your salvation. The specifics of this are debatable, under this mindset, but as long as you hold onto this thought in your memory, you are set. This is profoundly not what being a Christian means to the Orthodox. The scriptures are indeed infallible, to the Orthodox, but the only infallible interpreter of them is The Church. The Church, though, is not just the invisible connecting thread between all people who believe something about Jesus--it is the continually existing institution founded by Christ, flowered on the day of Pentecost, and over whom the gates of Hell have never prevailed to destroy. And what I have discovered is, the Church teaches something very interesting: "we go to heaven together, we go to hell on our own." St. Augustine, whom we in the East have an iffy relationship with, even teaches that "the solo Christian is no Christian." Orthodox life is an attempt to get outside the selfish, me-centered universe that the fallen world glories in--because it is through living for others that we become truly Christ-like. But, that isn't all of it, which leads me to my third (and final) point:

Holy Communion. I grew up where Holy Communion was crackers and grape juice served in disposable cups, and was offered once a month, on the first Sunday. For years, I didn't partake every month because doing so "makes it feel too automatic." You see, I wanted it to feel special to me, because my thoughts and feelings about the remembrance were what mattered. This is prfoundly different for me now. I come to the Chalice in fear and dread, as well as love, every week. But my feelings about it aren't stemming from my psyche, where I try to make it mean something to me; it comes from the reality of what this stuff is. We're talking about consuming the flesh and blood of God Himself! If that doesn't inspire pure terror in you, on at least some level, you aren't doing it right. :) The love comes from knowing that this is done willingly, for our salvation, and that this bread and wine which is also the body and blood of our Lord, is "the medicine of immortality, and the antidote of Death." It is, literally, the fruit of the Tree of Life. And, once again, we do not partake alone, in individual cups, but we all partake of one Cup, one Loaf, because we are that body that we are taking into ourselves. You see, for the Orthodox, you really are what you eat; you become the body of Christ by partaking, literally eating, his body. Christ himself testifies to this saying "Unless you eat my flesh, and drink my blood, you have no life in you." By partaking in his unconquerable Life, we partake in the victory over death which is his resurrection, and thus into our salvation from the ancient curse placed upon us at the Fall.

All of this is to say that, when I say I "know God" now, I am not saying that I merely think about him, or about theology, or about what he can do for me if I ask--I know him because I meet him (ideally every day, but, at least when I approach the Chalice and accept what he has offered me, which is nothing less than his flesh and blood!). I do not know him perfectly--no one can, because we cannot know his Essence, we can only know him through his Energies, through which he reveals himself to us. But I no longer look on that revelation as something, primarily, to be worked out in the psyche. It transcends my lowly, human psyche; the experience of Christ goes beyond my psychological process...my thoughts, my feelings, my emotions...it is an experience of reality as it is, not reality as I perceive it. It is the ultimate universal experience, that all Orthodox Christians have. Life on this side of Chrismation is unfathomably different, in all kinds of little ways as well; I can't go on and on here, but those little ways are often what find their way onto my blog (which, yes, I haven't posted on in a while--personal life gets fussy, and 'net time takes a backseat).


Now that I'm reading back over this, it sounds incredibly haughty. Forgive me, for I am a sinner. If this strikes you as arrogant, please account that to my folly and over-zealousness, and not what the Church is all about. I'm sure that if I were farther along the spiritual path that leads to salvation, I could say these things in a much more humble, much less defensive/combative way.

+Pax vobsicum.


Brigitte said...

Those are definitely the main points. It is hard to explain all of that, but I think you did a nice job. When talking about what Orthodoxy is not, esp when coming from Protestantism, it is easy to sound haughty, I know. I don't think you sound this way here, though; but that may be because I, too, am prideful :)

Justinian said...

Intellectual pride is a trademark we INTP's apparently all share. :)

Claire said...

Very wonderful and helpful!

Thank you,

Karenee said...

"the experience of Christ goes beyond my psychological process...my thoughts, my feelings, my emotions...it is an experience of reality as it is, not reality as I perceive it. It is the ultimate universal experience," Exactly.

And if we had to present it perfectly or actually managed to do so, then it would be too easy to be proud of ourselves for "getting it". God works more than could be accomplished in our weakness, even when we're trying to look strong. (not that you are, it's just the completion of the thought) Thanks for a thought-launch for today!

Chocolatesa said...

Thank you for this! I'm repeatedly tempted to show this to one of my friends, but my priest tells me I shouldn't try to explain Orthodoxy (I'm in no way accusing you of anything here, I loved this entry), I'm assuming whether it be by my own words or others. I'll content myself to praying for him!