Wednesday, April 26, 2006

is Orthodoxy practical?

Here's something I wrote for my wife. Her fundamental concern when it comes to religion is that it should be practical. What follows is my own take on the issue. I'm sure there are better expositions of the practical side of Orthodoxy, but this at least shows what I've managed to grasp in my journey so far. I apologize for the length. I do get wordy at times.

Is Orthodoxy practical?

Most emphatically, yes. In fact, I would say that Orthodoxy is a good deal more practical than most versions of Evangelicalism. Orthodoxy may ground itself in some of the most intellectually developed theology, but even the designation of theologian requires a person who lives an exemplary life, who knows God intimately. Orthodox theology has always had to be transmitted in such a way that the simplest can grasp its significance and relevance for their lives. And the heroes of Orthodoxy have been primarily those whose lives made a difference to the people around them.

Fundamental to the idea of a saint (in the specific sense, not the sense in which it applies generally to all believers) is the image of a martyr. The martyrs were the first to be designated as saints worthy of veneration and believed to intercede for other Christians, even after death. Occasionally martyrdom came suddenly, without warning, and required a spur-of-the-moment response that displayed the inner character of the saint. More often, martyrdom came in a context of persecution, which prepared the saint's testimony as a godly person, wholly sold out to Christ, even before it came to the point of a final proclamation, ending in death. Saints were emulated for their proven character and their bold witness before godless authorities and the whole world. They were seen as the pinnacle of Christ-like life, to be honored, imitated, and sought after for their blessings and prayers.

When the Church entered a new stage of its life, no longer persecuted but now dominant over other religions in the empire, the image of the martyr began to fade from view. The threat of complacency provoked a new movement of asceticism, which was understood to be a type of self-induced martyrdom. Where the world no longer exerted the kind of pressure that forced Christians to great heights of character, it was necessary to establish regular practices that would provoke spiritual growth. These new saints were men and women who left behind the luxury of the world and spent their time in the wilderness, struggling alone and in communities with mostly internal temptations and demonic attacks. They became experts in asserting control over their passions and living as though their fallen flesh was no longer a significant factor.

The measures taken by these ascetics were admittedly extreme at times, but the Church softened their rough edges by making clergy of them. The rule that a bishop (unlike a priest) must be a monastic not only kept him free from the worldly cares of a spouse and family, it also brought monastics into the mainstream of Church life. This kept them in touch with the realities of lay existence and reminded them of other needs beyond personal internal growth. It also reinforced the importance of community, which led to a monastic system where even hesychasts (basically, hermits) are linked to a communal (cenobitic) monastery and expected to interact with others to some degree.

For the Church, this link between monasticism and the clergy has infused daily parish life with a moderate asceticism. For those of us who don't live under constant persecution, the ascetic practices of Orthodoxy provide a path of personal growth that runs through hardship imposed by the Church, rather than the world. We can still emulate the saints in practical ways, as we strengthen our self-control through regular fasting and prayer. The standards are not unreasonable--in addition to several built-in exceptions and allowances (shellfish, somewhat relaxed standards on weekends and holy days, etc.), there is room for adjustment to health concerns and life circumstances, in consultation with one's spiritual father (typically, but not exclusively, the parish priest).

Another practical aspect of Orthodoxy is the liturgical cycle. Again, much of the practice starts in the monastery, where freedom from family and secular obligations allows for almost constant prayer throughout the day and night. The material is still there to spend virtually every waking moment (and even sleeping) in prayer, but it is used more selectively in the life of the parish. There are individual morning and evening prayers with which to start and end the day. There are corporate services of Vespers and Compline (evening) and Orthros (morning), with the four designated services of the Hours in between. There are all-night vigils, and Divine Liturgy, which can be observed morning or evening.

In the regular life of the parish, Sunday observance begins Saturday evening with Great Vespers. In the Slavic tradition, this is combined with Orthros and First Hour. Other churches observe Orthros (or Matins) right before Divine Liturgy in the morning. There are also private prayers to prepare for communion, and confession with a priest as necessary. It all fits together, with communion as the climax, and it stakes out the center of the weekend as an offering to God. Fasting before communion establishes an appropriate level of anticipation and as a useful side-effect prompts a communal meal after Divine Liturgy each week. Other services vary from parish to parish--perhaps a Wednesday evening intercessory service, or Tuesday/Thursday Vespers. Major holy days and fasts are observed with extra services, to draw appropriate focus to God. All of these services and cycles work together to frame our time in terms of spiritual reality. Prayer really can be without ceasing, and we really can learn to live in the world, but not of it.

Along with fasting, other practices of Orthodox worship involve the whole person--physical, spiritual, and mental. Appropriate dress and posture, bowing and kissing to show honor and greeting, crossing to draw attention and recall significance, incense and icons to engage the senses--all of these things give faith a practical dimension that permeates the life of the believer with reverence before God.

Orthodoxy also stresses the outward dimensions of faith. Corporate prayer constantly calls to mind others around us through intercession--secular authorities, non-believers, suffering Christians in other lands, even those who have already died. Many of the saints are those who brought the gospel to new lands or established churches where there were none. Veneration of saints also reminds Orthodox that the body of Christ is made up of people--that the face of Jesus the world sees is the Church. Just as we affirm that every icon is an icon of Christ, we remember that the primary objective of our lives is to show Christ to others as clearly as possible. For this reason, a lot of Orthodox preaching has to do with showing Christ through our lives, rather than specifically telling others about him. There is also a lot of stress on reaching out to those who are poor and needy, because there is so much in the Bible about that issue.

Of course, Orthodoxy is also practical in many ways that it shares in common with other types of Christianity. It stresses many of the same biblical imperatives about love for God and one's neighbor. It calls us to a holy life and Christ-like character. Where Orthodoxy differs is in the implementation of these goals--in the tools it provides and the spiritual basis it affirms. The Orthodox life is a constant journey of growth toward conformity with the image of Christ. In no sense can it stop with a momentary conversion. In Orthodoxy, repentance and conversion are everyday attitudes that apply as long as we live. Even after death, it is expected that we will continue to grow, to become more like Christ, and more like he always intended us to be.

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