Sunday, April 30, 2006

praying for the sobor

Less than a week from now the Fourth All-Diaspora Sobor of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad will commence. The hot item on the agenda is to discuss normalization of relations between the Russian Church Abroad and the Moscow Patriarchate. As you may know, the Russian Church has suffered deep division ever since the Communist Revolution nearly a century ago, with the exile church maintaining its autonomy over against the Patriarchate, which was viewed as compromised and even enslaved to the Communist government that sought to destroy it. Favorable changes in the MP since the collapse of the Soviet Union have led to serious talks between the two, and now the leadership on both sides seems favorably disposed to restoration of communion. The Sobor will be an opportunity for the exile community at large to weigh in on the issue, to be followed immediately by a council of the hierarchs to decide how they will go.

At this point, I'm not part of any particular Orthodox jurisdiction. I have frequented different parishes, including a small assembly belonging to the Russian Church Abroad. I also look to the Russian Church as having the greatest potential for influence throughout the world right now and as one of the most actively growing jurisdictions. In addition, it seems to me that a resolution between these two groups could only be a positive step for Orthodoxy in America, since the Russian Church Abroad has had problematic relations with so many other groups, and such a move would help to heal the divisions. I realize that some may see it as a step backward--a strengthening of ethnic, old-world jurisdictions over against more America-centered movements, like the OCA. But the other side to this concern is that the existence of the OCA has not done that much to further unity among American Orthodox. Anyway, my point is not to hash through all the arguments for the various approaches being taken in America right now--only to point out that this looks to be a positive trend in the Russian Church as a whole, and one that will likely have positive effects on the American scene as well.

It is in this spirit that I join with ROCOR in praying for what lies ahead:

O all-good Master, watch over Thy flock and all the children of the Russian Church Abroad, that we may bring about the structuring of our Church in a manner well-pleasing to Thee. Grant us the spirit of wisdom and understanding; instill in our hearts the spirit of the fear of God, the spirit of piety and zeal for the glory of Thy holy name. Guard us against all temptations, stumbling-blocks and divisions, that being bound together, one to another, by the bond of love for Thee, our Master, we may without hindrance perform the work of our ministry for the edification of the Holy Church as the one Body of Christ. We pray Thee, O greatly Merciful One: Hearken and have mercy!

O good Shepherd, Who hast promised to gather Thy scattered sheep into a single flock, put down scandal and division within the Church; all who have strayed from Thy path do Thou lead to repentance and a knowledge of the Truth, and return them to Thy fold; and confirm us all in the Orthodox Faith and the doing of Thy commandments. We pray Thee: Hearken and have mercy!

Friday, April 28, 2006

ups and downs

Interaction with my wife on the issue of Orthodoxy has had its ups and downs. I guess you get used to certain modes of existence, because if I take a step back and look with a broader perspective, even the ups are never very high. Still, it doesn't take much to get me excited.

Her initial reaction was generally quite negative. I think a lot of the reason was that almost from the start I was talking in terms of actually leaving Evangelicalism, which of course would mean leaving our church of nine years, leaving the many friends we'd made there, leaving anything that resembled familiar religion in her life. If it had just been one more wacky idea I had--something that could just bounce around in my head for a while before moving on to something else, or perhaps at worst changed some of my personal practices--I don't think it would have bothered her. But uprooting our family would be something quite different, and that she wasn't going for. I suppose I balked at the negativity, because after some initial forays, I settled down to my usual mode of reading and thinking a lot on my own without further discussion.

Later, when she was away visiting her brother, I decided to visit another Orthodox service and mentioned it to her (after the fact) when we talked on the phone. It was insensitive and bad timing, and things didn't go well. She had assumed I'd lost interest, and these were not ideal circumstances in which to find out otherwise. Things were said on both sides that we've both come to regret. Anyway, we decided at that point that the issue was not going away on its own, and we would need to work on it more seriously--even get some help from others.

I met with our pastor to tell him about it, and we arranged to meet with him together. We started talking to Evangelical friends and talking to each other more regularly. Although her brother and his family had found out while she was there, they agreed not to tell anyone else. (We happen to have some dirt on them as well.) And so far, no one else in either of our families knows about it. I've thought many times that we should tell them, but she feels strongly, and I agree to some extent, that we have enough to deal with between the two of us, without involving our parents. Fortunately, at this point none of our family lives in this area, so there's not too much danger of someone accidentally mentioning it to them.

Anyway, our conversations about the substance of Orthodoxy never really went anywhere. We'd try to talk about what Orthodoxy had in common with Evangelicalism, but she would constantly look for where the similarities ended. I'd want to explain something in great detail, so I could clarify everything; she'd get lost or fall asleep before I really got going. At one point, it was clearly hurting our general interaction with each other, because she was afraid any time we talked it would turn into a discussion about Orthodoxy. As a result, we set aside one night a week to discuss it. At other times, I could bring something up casually--like if I visited a service and wanted to mention something about it afterward--but nothing too deep. Eventually, we concluded that even our weekly conversations weren't really getting anywhere. She was getting some idea of what Orthodoxy entailed, but none of it appealed to her.

We agreed that she should visit a service. We were unsuccessful in arranging anything until we went on vacation last summer with another couple. We weren't planning on going to church on Sunday, so I decided that I would visit an OCA mission parish nearby for Vespers on Saturday. My wife suggested that I ask in advance if the others wanted to go along, in case they found out about it after we got there and felt bad for not having brought anything appropriate to wear. She said that if they were interested, she would also go. I should have known better than to let her first service be one in a church I'd never attended. I figured other people would think like I did--we're on vacation; we'll want to hit the beach in the morning, so we'll catch a service in the evening. Apparently not--the five of us (including our two-year-old son) outnumbered the regulars. They were happy to have us, but it was by no means the most impressive service I've ever been to. On top of that, my wife generally dislikes very small churches. I later found out that the husband in the other couple that was with us felt the presence of God in that place, but I knew I'd have to get her to another service at some point.

We ended up visiting a couple more services--half of a Divine Liturgy at the nearby OCA parish, and another Great Vespers at an Antiochian parish. Some other friends went with us to the latter. In both cases, our son was a huge distraction for her, and she didn't have much positive to say about the services. She thought they seemed more reverent, but she also suspected that a lot of that was just the form, which might cover up less reverent hearts. Otherwise, the music was foreign, the prayers too repetitious, and everything just a bit too wordy and formal. Are you catching the ups yet?

We decided we ought to get some outside counseling--on how to communicate about the issue, if nothing else. We contacted a Christian counseling center that recommended (among other things) that we talk to a local Anglican pastor. He had started out as a Baptist pastor, considered Orthodoxy and Catholicism, settled on Anglicanism, and was open to talking about what he'd gone through. Also, as it turned out, his wife had disagreed with him to start out. We had some encouraging conversations with him. He recommended that we accept each other's pursuit of God, and if necessary go to separate churches, so we could both grow in the way we needed to. Everything seemed pretty positive while we were meeting, but whe we discussed it later, it was obvious that my wife was nowhere near ready to accept what I was doing. On top of that, the timing was horrible for attending separate churches. Two of her closest friends at church would soon be leaving, and several other changes were all coming at the same time. So, what had seemed like a positive turn fell back into the old groove.

I considered at that point that perhaps God wanted me where I am for a reason. I began to think about staying at our Evangelical church more long-term, albeit with some changes in the way I conduct myself. Not that I would be openly contentious or anything. I just wouldn't keep walking on eggshells forever. If it's my church, it's going to have to be my church; and that means, I'm going to have to say and do what I think is right. I thought for a while that perhaps there would be a way to convert to Orthodoxy on my own but keep going to church with my wife. I reasoned that, if there are plenty of people who were born and baptized Orthodox but who have little or nothing to do with the Church, I would at least be significantly better than them--perhaps not an ideal convert, but not the worst person around either.

Well, needless to say, my plan was not received well when I brought it up with a couple of priests. The discussions were good, though. I was encouraged to pray more for my wife and to work harder on living before her in such a way that she could see the difference Orthodoxy made. I was talking with her later on and asked what she thought was going on in my life--how she could think that I was more spiritually stable than her, had a better understanding of the Bible and theology, but had no clue what I was doing when it came to identifying what the Church ought to be. She explained that she really couldn't see what practical difference it was making in my life, which led to a good conversation about how I really have changed since finding Orthodoxy.

As I was still riding the wave of my first Pascha service (a few hours later on our way to the early service at our Evangelical church), she brought up out of the blue that she had decided not to serve in a regular ministry next year. The reason she offered was that she didn't want her obligation to be an excuse not to work seriously on the Orthodox issue. I was surprised, but I'll take what I can get. I had no idea she was so serious about it. In fact, I'd already encouraged her, when we were first talking about her current ministry ended, to get involved with the youth team, which I knew would need people.

Then, last night, I suggested to her that she visit another Orthodox service sometime without our son. I guess it occurred to me after taking him to a few services in the past couple of weeks that there really is a difference in the way I experience the service when he's there vs. when he's not. For her, it has to be a much bigger difference, since he's a lot more clingy with her, and she's already got enough to stress her out about going. She's also a lot less familiar with the services, so having so much distraction can't be helpful. Besides, even though it is true that she would have to deal with him being there if we ever started attending regularly, he would not always be so attached to her, and over time they would both get used to the situation. And given his sleep schedule, there would undoubtedly be times when we would have to alternate attending individually. In any case, I already know she's not crazy about the idea of having him in the service. I want her to have the chance to evaluate the service itself apart from that. Anyway, I'm happy to report that she agreed to go. We're going to wait until after our vacation later next month, but at least it's on the agenda.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

non-intellectual reasons to be Orthodox

As my wife and I have struggled with our differences in this area, we've sought out help from various sources. We started with the pastor of our Evangelical church, who met with us a few times, then got seriously ill and had to take an extended break from all ministry duties. Even since he's been back, he hasn't been up to full capacity, so we haven't met in quite some time. The last assignment he gave us was to both work on the question of what my non-intellectual reasons are for being attracted to Orthodoxy. This is most of the response I prepared and eventually gave to my wife. (I have omitted one extended illustration.) Again, I apologize for the length.

I guess the first thing that comes to mind in the way of a non-intellectual reason for my attraction to Orthodoxy is actually an anti-intellectual reason. Much of what I like about Orthodoxy has to do with the way it transcends my own intellect. Accepting Orthodoxy doesn't exactly mean checking my brain at the door--in fact, there's a great deal to think about within Orthodoxy. But it does mean that I submit my conclusions about faith to the judgment of the Church. I cease to be my own intellectual authority. Of course, the act of accepting Orthodoxy itself requires me to make an independent, intellectual judgment, but that's something I would do as an Evangelical. I think of it in these terms--that the last Evangelical act I ever performed would be to accept Orthodoxy. From that point on, I would follow the lead of the Church; but it's unavoidable that I must reach that decision on my own.

Not only is it an anti-intellectual move in that I surrender my intellectual judgment of faith issues to that of the Church, but generally speaking, Orthodoxy is much less intellectually oriented than Evangelicalism. This is not to say that Orthodoxy is intellectually shallow--if anything, the overall trend runs the other way around. Orthodoxy has amazing depth of theology, but it is combined with a long-established accommodation of different intellectual levels within the Church. More to the point, it operates with a less exclusively intellectual approach to religion. It has intellectual elements, to be sure, but they don't stand out quite as starkly as they do in Evangelicalism; they're more balanced by other elements.


Orthodox theology, as precise as it is, must always be intertwined with practice. If it does not express itself in practical behavior, if it does not tangibly affect the way the Church worships, it isn't really doing its job. So something like the use of icons grows out of a proper theology of the incarnation. The two are understood in Orthodox thinking to be fully integrated, so that a person who rejects the use of icons in worship has deficient theology. For those who aren't intellectually oriented, Orthodoxy can be almost exclusively about practice, and if it's managed correctly, right thinking will follow. Also, because of Orthodoxy's focus on the incarnation, the material always plays a role in worship. Things like the way one dresses, the posture one uses, motions, visual trappings, smells, and sounds, take on a significance unparalleled in Evangelicalism. They are the means through which truth is conveyed in a non-intellectual, experiential way. As someone whose tendency is to be very intellectual about most things, I long for an expression of faith that incorporates more than just intellect--that challenges me to live as a whole person before God.

Another angle from which I've tried to approach this question is in terms of the basic human needs for security and significance. The weird thing is that most of what I can come up with falls on the security side, which is supposed to be atypical for men. It also seems atypical for my unique personality, since I tend to be a lot less concerned with security and stability than with feeling like I'm significant. In this case, though, I am choosing a course that tends to diminish my own significance (in a sense) but gains mostly security. Where I tend to find significance in my intellectual abilities and achievements, Orthodoxy attracts me because of how it diminishes the role played by my own intellect, at least on the big questions. Instead, Orthodoxy offers security--security that getting the right theological conclusion doesn't depend on my ability, security that I am part of an authoritative community, security that the Church has always been more or less what it was meant to be. Of course, the inverse of all this applies as well. Being outside of Orthodoxy makes me feel insecure about the same issues.

I suspect that this preference for security is somehow bound up with at least two elements of my own personal background. As I've said before, I see a correlation with my nomadic childhood and the way I've reacted in adult life to my parents' rambling lifestyle. One of the things that initially prompted my interest in Orthodoxy was not an intellectual issue but an article I read on flux and sumud. It had to do with the conflict in Palestine, and the author was arguing that Israel is an agent of flux, which dominates the Western lifestyle--change, rootlessness, universality, etc.--while Palestine is more characterized by sumud--an Arabic term that refers to a rootedness that keeps one attached to three stabilizing entities: family, religion, and culture. Without going into the details, it happened that this person was writing from an Orthodox perspective, and I saw a clear difference between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism in this respect--that Evangelicalism sets up individual judgment as primary and therefore tends toward isolation and flux, whereas Orthodoxy emphasizes the collective, authoritative judgment of the community and gives the individual a religious home base of sorts. I saw that in my life, I lack all three elements that contribute to sumud--I live in an area where there is no real local culture, I have only loose ties to family, and I am part of a religion that minimizes the authority of the community.

The other element from my background is in fact the intellectual journey I have taken. I'm not going to say much about it here, since I'm supposed to be looking at non-intellectual issues; but I bring it up here in the context of looking at my whole person, where intellect is just one piece of the puzzle. I went so far down the path of intellectual individualism that I found myself stranded and completely alone. I lost confidence in my ability as an individual to find the truth through reasoning, and I longed for some standard that could guide my thinking. An authoritative community like what I found in Orthodoxy looked like the only viable option.

Finally, I really think there is something to what I discovered from reading this latest Stephen Lawhead book. I won't say God spoke directly to me, but it was one of those epiphany kind of experiences. To reiterate, I realized that much of what I've always liked about his books is the way he reconstructs Celtic Christianity. I suspect that what it mostly comes down to is an Evangelical longing for something more than Evangelicalism but refusing to find it in Catholicism or Orthodoxy because of a prejudice that they are wrong. So in his books he rejects the faith of the institutional Church but reconstructs a form of Christianity that incorporates all the major elements that he's really looking for--a core of right doctrine, with appropriate rituals, liturgies, and traditions that speak out of a living community. By drawing these things from Celtic paganism, he avoids the off-limits territory of institutional medieval Christianity, which amounts to recreating the same thing in a more palatable form. I loved the outcome for the same reasons he did--because I shared his bias against Catholicism, but I was longing for a more "catholic" version of Christianity. Of course, at the time I didn't know enough about Orthodoxy to have any idea where it would fit in all this, but looking back I can see that I was really longing for--and finding in an imaginary world--something that existed all along in Orthodoxy.

Indeed, something similar can be said about much of what I looked at before Orthodoxy. I distinctly remember that when I taught the elective on Jewish prayer I explained to the group the advantage of using a Jewish prayer book over something from the Christian tradition. My argument was that in a lot of ways Jewish prayer only lacks elements that as Christians we would want to add, as opposed to Catholicism, for instance, which adds elements we would need to remove as Evangelicals. But the point I want to stress here is that all my experimentation with Judaism was intended to be a "safe" alternative to exploring the traditions that already existed within Christianity. It was a misguided strategy, as I see now, but at the time it was all I was ready for. So the longing for something more than what Evangelicalism typically offers has been there for much longer than I could really recognize what it was. It's just taken me a rather winding road to find what I was looking for.

C. S. Lewis has a theme in his writing--it comes up in the Chronicles of Narnia to a certain extent and somewhat more overtly in the Pilgrim's Regress. You can see a land from far off, and it's clearly somewhere you want to get to, but you totally misunderstand the path to go by. Sometimes it means you waste a lot of time and energy on a lot more roundabout path, and when you finally get there you're able to see the shortcut you could have taken. That's what I feel like where Orthodoxy is concerned. I could have traced back through Church history, to follow where Protestantism split off from Catholicism, and where Catholicism broke with Orthodoxy. But I was not ready to take that path--my biases in that direction were too strong. Instead, I had to look outside Christianity first, which ironically seemed like the safer direction to go, but served only to teach me that the answer was closer than I thought.

I suppose this all seems very intellectual, but I think that's more my way of expressing it than what it actually is. It involves an intellectual journey, but it's grounded in deeper longings that go far beyond intellect. At least, that's the way I understand it.

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.

dealing with sin

An old friend who's been going through some pretty serious sin for the past few years came back to church this week. I guess talking to him drew my attention to a couple of quotes I encountered later. The first is from an Athonite monk:
To stumble and fall is human; not to get up is demonic. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven, no wound that cannot be healed. All that is needed is desire, to truly want it to happen.
Right now, he recognizes his sin and worthlessness. I'm just concerned that he won't take the next step from self-pity to true repentance. He doesn't seem to have any hope for change. The second quote is from St. John of Kronstadt:
It may happen that there is much wickedness in your soul. But let it be known to God alone, Who knows everything that is secret and concealed, and do not show all your uncleanness to others; do not corrupt them by the breath of the wickedness concealed within you. Tell God your grief, that your soul is full of wickedness, and that your life is near to hell, but to other people show a bright and pleasant countenance. What have they to do with your madness? Or declare your soul's sickness to your confessor or to a true friend, so that they may teach you, guide you, and restrain you.
My friend seems much more willing to talk to other people than to God. He tells everyone about his own wickedness, but he is still very far from the One who can truly heal him.

Lord have mercy!

God Is with Us

Another song I heard for the first time in the past month or so was during the Annunciation service of Great Compline. It was probably the first time I'd been to a Great Compline service for anything, or maybe just the first time I'd noticed the song. Perhaps the way it was sung in this small Russian parish. Anyway, you can find the complete text and an audio clip on GOArch. It doesn't sound quite as triumphant in this Greek recording, but it's still pretty good.
God is with us!
Understand this, O nations, and submit yourselves!
For God is with us. . . .
It's all taken more or less directly from Isaiah, but it made me think of the Byzantine imperial court or the Russian crosses that sit on top of a crescent, indicating the victory over the Tatars.

I should clarify, though, that in general the Orthodox relationship with Islam is somewhat better than we tend to find in the West. Of course, there are plenty of Orthodox here in America who track more or less with the foreign policy landscape around them. But many Orthodox recognize that treatment of Eastern Christians under the Ottomans was generally better than under Western invaders. There are Orthodox Palestinians who belong to Fatah and Hamas and who blame what persecution they do face from their Muslim neighbors on spillover animosity from Western interference. (The situation is not unlike that of Arab Jews, whose situation has noticeably worsened with the rise of the Israeli state.) Russia has a long history of coexistence between Christians and Muslims. The Tatar invasion preceded the Moscow Patriarchate; and even though the Russian state opposes militant Islamic nationalism within its borders, it works hard, together with the Orthodox Church, to foster tolerance and cooperation between the traditional religions. Russia also stands out from Western nations in its cooperative stance toward Hamas in Palestine and Iran.

I don't want to oversimplify the relations between Orthodox and Muslims throughout the world; but my point here is simply to say here that, even though Orthodox traditions may celebrate political dominance, most Orthodox lands have at one point or another been under Muslim rule. As a result, many Orthodox have learned over centuries to coexist with their Muslim neighbors and to sympathize with them in their common struggle against Western imperialism.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

riding the liturgical wave

I once heard someone use that terminology about Orthodox Holy Week. That was before I ever thought about Orthodoxy, but I think I now understand to some extent what he meant. I've visited a lot more services than normal in the past few weeks. It helped that my wife and son were out of town for a week during Lent, so I was able to attend something almost every day. I think I visited four different parishes--one Antiochian, two Russian, and one Greek--and had some great opportunities to stay late and talk to people. Normally, I find myself rushing off as soon as the service ends, so I can see my family.

I also explained to my wife in advance that I would be trying to attend several services that I hadn't experienced before. If there was something that repeated during Lent, like Presanctified Liturgy or Canon of St. Andrew, I tried to catch at least one. I also attended an Annunciation service and Lazarus Saturday. During Holy Week, I attended one Bridegroom Matins, Royal Hours and Holy Friday Vespers (took the day off of work), and the Pascha midnight service. I didn't want to skip church with my family Sunday morning, so I got only a couple of hours of sleep that night. Surprisingly, though, I felt more awake than normal.

I think my favorite song from Pascha was the Megalynarion:
The angel cried to the Lady full of grace: Rejoice, rejoice, O pure Virgin!
Again I say, rejoice! Your Son is risen from His three days in the tomb.
With Himself He has raised all the dead. Rejoice, rejoice, O ye people!
Shine! Shine! Shine, O new Jerusalem! The glory of the Lord has shone on you!
Exult now, exult and be glad, O Zion!
Be radiant, O pure Theotokos, in the resurrection, the resurrection of your Son.
Not that it's easy to pick one over all the others. Anyway, it's been a great season for me. I wish my wife could have participated, but at least it was encouraging to bring my son along to a few services. He now associates icons with church, recognizes Jesus when he sees him (and expects to see him when we pray before bed), and knows the difference between the quiet church and the one with the train. I only wish I could get him to some of the bigger services. It seems like it was mostly for lower-key stuff like Hours and Matins that he came with me. Unfortunately, we had to leave just when he was getting really interested.

a bit more detail

Let me get a bit more straightforward about my situation. I have been considering Eastern Orthodoxy for something like two years now. (Maybe someday I'll post something about what got me looking at Orthodoxy in the first place.) I've thought from time to time about blogging my experience and thoughts, but I figured I didn't need one more thing to consume my time. Still, as much time as I already spend thinking about this stuff, it seems like I may as well write some of it down. Maybe it will be useful to someone; if not, it might at least help me solidify some of my thoughts.

I started out by reading a lot--anything and everything I could find online, books that were recommended. Fortunately, I knew someone who had converted to Orthodoxy and could point me in the right direction. He also encouraged me to visit services, which I did--tentatively at first, but more zealously as time went on. Oh, I also got a prayer book pretty early on and started using it as regularly as possible. For my first visit to a service, I picked the parish that happened to be closest. I ordered a copy of the Divine Liturgy and a CD recording, so I could practice a bit before attending. The service was interesting, but it was by no means the experience of St. Vladimir's envoy. I didn't go back for quite a while. Several months later, I found another opportunity to visit. It was the Sunday of the Cross, in the middle of Lent. I had tried Orthodox fasting before, and at that time I'd missed the beginning of Western Lent and decided that I would follow Orthodox Lent instead. I venerated the cross at the end with everyone else--probably the first time I venerated anything. A few weeks later, my Orthodox acquaintance invited me to join him on a visit to another parish. We went to the Lamentations service on Holy Friday. It was an awesome experience, and perhaps more importantly, he introduced me to Fr. Gregory, who was responsive to my e-mailed questions and open to meeting with me from time to time.

That was a year ago. Since then, I've meet with Fr. Gregory several times--always before a service, so I could stay afterward. He's given me more suggested reading, which I've always followed. I've visited several other parishes in the area and had some good talks with another priest, Fr. George. I fast and pray with icons regularly. I attend services when I'm able. My beliefs are Orthodox in every way. I long for greater unity between the various Orthodox jurisdictions in America. I like Byzantine music better than Slavic, but I favor Russian Orthodoxy in most other respects, including the use of the Eastern calendar. I could call myself Orthodox in every way, except that I do not participate regularly in an Orthodox parish, and I have not experienced the sacraments.

You see, my wife of ten years, who in my opinion would be one of the world's great Orthodox Christians if she'd been born into it, is a committed Evangelical. We both grew up in the Baptist tradition, were actively involved in the youth program, went to Bible college before getting married, and have served as lay leaders in various churches, including the one we have attended for the past nine years. I even went on to an Evangelical seminary and earned a Th.M., although by the time I finished, I'd decided against going into full-time ministry. My dissatisfaction with Evangelicalism came as a surprise to her, and my attraction to Orthodoxy even more so. We've been at something of an impasse for some time now. I don't want to force her to change, but neither of us wants to go to separate churches. The priests I've talked to are reluctant to convert me without her, but I've moved so far from an Evangelical mindset that I feel completely out of place in our church. At this point, there's not much to do but pray and live what I can.

better is one day in Thy courts

"For better is one day in Thy courts than thousands elsewhere. I have chosen rather to be an outcast in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of sinners." (Ps 83, LXX)

It dawned on me one day, as I was praying the ninth hour, that this verse describes very well my current situation. Although I would not call Evangelicalism "the tents of sinners," I do have to be content for now with "one day in Thy courts" here and there, with standing on the doorstep of God's house. Indeed, there can be a quite literal application of this phrase to my situation. Although most Orthodox parishes do not restrict the non-Orthodox from entering their services, it is still the practice in some monasteries that they must remain in the vestibule. The Hebrew word that appears only here seems to come from the word for doorstep, while the Greek renders it as "outcast." The idea is that it's better to stand just outside the temple, looking in, than to be anywhere else. And every time I find a place to stand aside and watch the faithful receive communion, I now take comfort that I have the opportunity at least to stand in the presence of such an awesome mystery.

Another encouraging quote, this one from
Wherefore he who desires Baptism is baptized in will; while he who has received Baptism possesses it in joy. An identical faith in Baptism saves both of them. But a man may say, "if faith in Baptism saves, what is the use of being actually baptized?" If he does not receive Baptism what did he wish for? It is evident that the faith which desires Baptism must be perfected by the reception of Baptism itself, which is its joy. Therefore also the house of Cornelius received the Holy Ghost before he received Baptism, while the eunuch was filled with the same Spirit immediately after Baptism (Acts 10, 44-47, 8. 38, cf. 2. 38). For God can glorify the Sacrament of Baptism just as well before, as after, its administration.
Since I find myself in a situation where I want to be baptized (or just chrismated, depending on the parish), but I can't find anyone who will do it, I take comfort in the notion that I am already baptized in will. As he says, that doesn't mean it is enough to stop there, but given my present circumstances, it's the best I can hope for right now.