Monday, July 03, 2006

another visit, another reason to be frustrated

Well, my wife finally made it with me to another Orthodox service. As I mentioned earlier, I had asked her if she would visit at least once without our son, so she could focus on the service itself. He's a pretty good kid, and he's generally quite well behaved when I take him by myself, but when she's there, he gets really clingy and fidgety. I know she would have to deal with him if we were to go to an Orthodox church regularly, but I still wanted her to have at least one chance to make an independent assessment of the service itself. Besides, considering his sleep schedule, there would probably be times when we'd have to trade off going alone while the other one stayed with him. Anyway, we had a little trouble coordinating someone to watch him for the morning with the parish schedule to make sure Fr. Gregory would be there, but we finally pulled it off yesterday.

Once again, her assessment was generally negative. She still does not find herself attracted to much of anything about Orthodoxy, while she does find herself repulsed by certain things. She appreciated the lunch afterward--believers eating together has been a theme in our Evangelical church lately, and I think she liked the idea of incorporating a communal meal into the regular weekly routine. I told her--and I'm pretty sure this is correct--that it's a fairly standard practice in Orthodox parishes, at least in part because you're supposed to fast before taking communion, so if most people take communion, that means most people have not eaten for something like 18 hours.

As far as specific objections, she doesn't like the ritual, she thinks far too much attention is given to Mary in the liturgy, and she thinks that in general it's far too intellectual. She also doesn't see how an unchurched person could feel comfortable in an Orthodox service, which for her has evangelistic implications. I wasn't going to reply to these objections, but after we sat there for a while not saying anything, she asked if I wanted to say anything. I explained first that I don't think I'm the person to be responding to this stuff. So far, nothing has worked, and I think at least a significant part of the reason is because we think about things in such different ways--not just about Orthodox, but about everything. Nevertheless, I tried to respond in some fashion.

Admittedly, yesterday's service (the parish we were at is on the new calendar) was a somewhat exaggerated case, as far as the Theotokos is concerned. The main commemoration of the day was the deposit of her robe in Constantinople, so even where you would normally get something about other saints, it was all the Theotokos. I'm still growing in my own acceptance of her place in Orthodoxy. I think for anyone who's grown up in Evangelicalism it's probably a long process to get comfortable with her. The general problem is with the place of saints in general, of whom the Theotokos is simply captain and chief and gets more attention than any other. This is complicated by an almost mirror reaction of Protestantism--the saints in general are downplayed, but particular revulsion is reserved for the cult of Mary that they know from Catholicism. Now, putting aside the differences between Catholic veneration of Mary and Orthodox, there's still a lot to get over. I tried to explain Mary's role among the saints and how it is also the case that, as all saints are honored for their connnection to Christ, she is honored above the others for her unique connection to Christ. Everything that makes her worthy of honor is directly connected with her son.

I also tried to explain that her role in relation to Christ has made her not only a great saint but an emblem of the Church. She was the first human indwelt by Christ, she was the first to receive in faith the gospel of his coming, she was the first to respond in such a way that she became instrumental in the manifestation of Christ in the world and thereby contributed to the salvation of all who would believe in him. Her life parallels that of the Church, and just as she is tied by flesh and blood to his personal body, she is tied by faith and spirit to his body the Church. Also, since the saints collectively represent the Church, the Theotokos as their champion represents the Church in herself. And as the Church is Christ's body, and she is his mother, she is also our mother.

I explained that veneration of the Theotokos only appears to detract from worship of Christ, because Evangelicals don't generally make room for human cooperation in salvation. Not that human agency is unimportant in Evangelicalism. Clearly, someone must preach the gospel for a person to hear it and believe. Someone must help a new believer grow in understanding. Someone must preach to the congregation each week. In the church we attend, these relationships are even formalized. Typically, instead of the pastor baptizing a new believer, the pastor oversees the process, but the baptism is physically performed by a person who was instrumental in that new believer's spiritual growth. We establish formal discipleship relationships by pairing newcomers with someone else who is more experienced. But when it comes to understanding salvation theologically, or articulating it liturgically, we shy away from any suggestion of a human element. In Orthodoxy, on the other hand, veneration of saints is completely proper, because we recognize that God most often works through other humans. The saints are honored for the way that God used them, for the way that they became vessels of his will and action in the world. To honor them is therefore to honor him and to worship him in the diversity of his action in the Church.

As far as unchurched people feeling uncomfortable, I reminded her that worship isn't necessarily about feeling comfortable. I'm not sure she got the point. She seemed to think I was talking about the ascetic aspects of Orthodoxy in particular, but my point was simply that worship is what it is, and there's really not much about it that's meant to be comfortable for us. In fact, one could argue that worship, and religion in general, is meaningless if it doesn't make us uncomfortable. I think the idea of visitors to Orthodox services is that a person who is looking for something different, something a bit foreign, something truly uncomfortable, will come and will want what they find. A person who wants to be comfortable probably isn't ready to meet Christ anyway. One thing that helped is that at the meal after the service we happened to sit with a couple who had recently converted. I saw that the wife was wearing a white robe with a cross on the back and suspected that it had something to do with baptism, but since I had never seen anyone wearing one before, I asked what it meant. She explained that they had recently converted--she had been baptized, and her husband had been chrismated. So when we were talking about this issue of unchurched people visiting an Orthodox service, I could point out that in a church like that one, no one would ever be baptized if only people who were already Christians of one sort or another came to visit and decided to stay. I can't comment much personally on what it's like for an unchurched person to visit an Orthodox service, but clearly they do, and we had living proof of that.

What probably intrigued me most was her comment about it being too intellectual. Now, I know where she's coming from. Personally, I think Orthodoxy has the perfect blend. As I see it, Evangelicalism is mostly about the intellect--reading the Bible, praying with eyes closed and head bowed, hearing a sermon preached, even singing--all these things are done mostly with the mind and only minimally with the body. Charismatic churches probably do a better job of incorporating the body, but I don't think she would want to go to one of those, either, so I'm leaving that aside. Orthodoxy incorporates posture, motion, sight, taste, touch, and smell. It does a better job of expressing its faith through things like feasts, which everyone can relate to on some level. On the other hand, Orthodoxy does have a great deal of intellectual depth behind it. But here's an interesting juxtaposition--she called it too intellectual, but she also commented on how short the sermon was. To my mind, these are almost contradictory ideas. I would say that Evangelicalism favors the intellect too much when half the service is the sermon.

I hadn't had time to process it when we talked yesterday, but what I think is going on is that the liturgy itself--the songs and prayers--contains greater theological depth than what she is used to in Evangelical worship. Now, part of it is that there are a lot of unfamiliar concepts, but even aside from that, there is just a lot more theology. Not that Orthodox liturgy has theology, while Evangelical liturgy doesn't. They both have it. Clearly, without it, you could hardly call what's going on any form of Christian worship. But Evangelicalism simply can't stomach the kind of theological depth that is found in Orthodoxy. Evangelicalism has its theologians and its books of systematic and biblical theology. But the integration of theology with worship is sadly deficient. This goes both ways. Not only does theology not come through to the extent that it should in worship, but worship has insufficient impact on theology. For most practical purposes, Evangelicalism has accepted the Western isolation of theology from the spiritual life. This is not to say that Evangelical theologians are unspiritual or even that Evangelical theology does not articulate an importance of spirituality for the theological enterprise. But there is still a serious disconnect in the realization of the principle. When you really get at how the theological process works, it is so mechanical that the Spirit has little to do with things.

Well, this is already longer than I intended. My point here is not to solve my wife's objections, but to express my feelings on the situation. On one hand, I'm not particularly surprised that she had the same reaction she has always had. On the other hand, I'm still disappointed that there wasn't some kind of change in her feelings. I suppose the only conclusion to be drawn is that she's not going to be attracted to Orthodoxy by the worship--not initially, anyway. This leads me to think that, if it's going to happen at all, it's probably going to come through the practical testimony of changed lives, particularly of mine. This feels like a huge burden, particularly since I'm not even sure how far I can go without really being part of the Church. Still, it does provide renewed incentive to grow in my own walk before God. Maybe it will turn her heart, and maybe it won't. But the effort cannot possibly be wasted.


Fr. Michael Reagan said...


Your experience is not an uncommon one today. I have known many men who developed an interest in Orthodoxy ahead of their wives and often had great difficulty persuading them to come along.

One such fellow is Bruce. He became convinced of the truth of Orthodoxy and after spending considerable time waiting for his wife to “catch up” eventually realized that he was simply going to have to make the move on his own. He was chrismated and attended our parish faithfully for several years alone. To make a long story short, Bruce made the wise decision to not pressure her at all. He prayed for her conversion continually and would answer her periodic questions concerning the faith, but otherwise let her come along at her own speed. Eventually she decided to attend our catechism classes and was chrismated at the end. Today she is absolutely in love with the faith and has told me she wishes they had both become Orthodox years earlier so their now grown children could have been exposed to it more.

Another fellow is Kevin. His wife was raised Roman Catholic, but converted to Evangelicalism. When Kevin began to be interested in Orthodoxy, she was opposed to it, feeling like he was leading her “backwards” into a faith that she had left behind. When he attended our classes, she stayed home for the first few, but eventually decided to come just to see what he was getting into. I distinctly remember her sitting there in the first class with her arms folded across her chest and a stern look on her face. By the second or third class, the arms were lowered and the scowl was replaced by a look of sincere interest. By the end of the classes, she was smiling brightly and was very enthusiastic. She commented to me that Orthodoxy fulfilled all the claims and promises that the Roman Catholic Church made but didn’t come through on. She was joyfully chrismated and is very happy to have found her true spiritual home in the Orthodox Church.

Clearly, folks attempting to convert to Orthodoxy from an Evangelical background have much baggage to deal with. The Evangelicals have done a first-rate job of indoctrinating their people against the historic Church and its beliefs. Much prayer and great patience is required. You may reach the point that you simply cannot wait outside any longer and make the decision to be chrismated ahead of your wife. That is a personal decision that you alone can make. If you like, I can put you in touch with Bruce or Kevin so that you can discuss the issue with them. Please feel free to email me at michaelreagan (at) socal (dot) rr (dot) com if I can be of any help to you.

God bless your journey and your family!

Trevor said...

I never did reply in public to this comment. I know you know that I responded privately, but for my millions of other readers, I don't want to seem like a rude host.

Thanks for your encouraging words! I happened to discover the other day my wife's name-saint (not that she was actually named for a saint, but it seems like a fairly logical choice to fit her name as it stands). Some of the connections are striking, so I've decided to start asking her intercession (in addition to the Theotokos, of course). Shhh! Don't tell my wife--she thinks the whole praying to saints thing is heresy ;-)