Sunday, May 20, 2007

no further desire for the things of the earth

It's difficult to explain to those outside the appeal of Orthodoxy. If anything, it gets more difficult the further I go. Maybe I'm losing touch with the outside perspective, but I think at least some of it is just the real gulf that lies between Orthodox life and that of others, even other Christians. Maybe a clue lies in how much of what I'm learning is experiential. Yes, I do a lot of reading, but I honestly don't know how much I'd get out of what I read if I weren't also living an Orthodox life (as limited as it is). Now, I need to be careful here. When I talk about an Orthodox life, I have in mind what you might call an ideal, or a high standard. Clearly, Orthodox people can live their lives in many different ways. I've commented before on the disconnect when popular movies portray people from an Orthodox culture as completely incapable of understanding what a vegetarian is, much less why someone would choose to live as one. My first exposure to Orthodoxy was in terms of its fasting practice, which makes everyone a vegan for about half the year, aside from the monks who give up meat altogether. But clearly there are those who have some cultural association with Orthodoxy but practice it in less rigorous forms.

I need to be careful, because the point is not to say that such people are not Orthodox. At the same time, there is some cause for defining Orthodoxy in terms of what it ought to be, not the lowest possible standard of what Orthodox people might actually practice. Somewhere between the lifestyle of a person who thinks lamb is vegetarian and that of an anchorite monk is a reasonable standard of what Orthodox life should be. That is, in a sense, what I'm shooting for as my point of comparison. So, there are Orthodox people who attend church once or twice a year and show up right before and leave right after taking communion. There are also Orthodox people who attend church several times a day and spend a majority of their day in prayer. But somewhere in between, many Orthodox clergy will say that you should be in church every Sunday possible, and you're best prepared for Sunday if you're there Saturday night, and you should be there for feast days if you can get the time off of work. And many parishes have regular weekday services as well--vespers once or twice, or maybe a weekly moleben--which presumably they wouldn't have if they didn't expect at least some of their congregation to attend.

So in general, it's safe to say that Orthodox attend church more often and for longer services than you might expect in a lot of Protestant denominations. (Not speaking statistically, but in terms of norms and expectations.) And there are lots of good theological reasons for this, but as I've pointed out before, Bp. THOMAS may boil it down most succinctly when he says in his New Jersey accent, "If you don't like church, you gonna hate heaven." Orthodox spend a lot of time in church, because they prioritize worship. In a sense, this life is dress rehearsal for heaven, and when we look at the portrayals of heaven in Scripture, worship is what we see. If we don't actually love worship right now, we need to do everything we can to change that before we get there.

This brings me to another point--discipline. In a conversation today after church, it came up that Evangelicals often preach the right priorities, but they don't necessarily know how to get there. Sure, you'll hear from the pulpit that worship is important, that life should be centered on Christ, that prayer should be consistent, that it should be a joy, etc. But how do you get there? In an extreme form, I remember discussing with an Evangelical friend this approach to spiritual growth that he'd newly discovered. Our relationship with Christ should be one of love, and we shouldn't do things that we don't genuinely want to do. We shouldn't force ourselves into certain modes of "devotion," because then we're just going through the motions. Now, I may have misunderstood his point, but it sounds to me like the right goal but the wrong way to get there. Sure, we ultimately want it all to be about love for Christ. We want it to be what we do naturally, because we want to, because we love him. But how do we get from here to there? The historic and traditional answer of the Church is, discipline. I don't think this idea is completely lost from Evangelicalism, but it seems to be getting there.

I think it goes along with a fear of externals. Protestantism began in part out of a concern that the RCC was all show and no substance. Sure, people come to church and go through the motions, but where are their hearts? So Protestant religion became largely internalized--a lot of the external elements went away, which probably contributed to the individualization of Western religion, as each person focuses exclusively on his own heart, and which eventually degenerated in Western culture to the point of celebrating our flaws. Any focus on external conformity is dishonest; if people can't accept us (if we can't accept ourselves) with all our problems, who needs them?

So, external reverence in church? Be suspicious, because it could just be put-on conformity to someone's expectation. Forcing yourself to pray when you don't feel like it? Pointless, or worse, because prayer should come from the heart. And certainly we should be cautious about doing things externally, without the heart engaged. On the other hand, if we do away with externals altogether, we lose the opportunity to grow. Read Orthodox spiritual writing, and there is no question--prayer should be from the heart. No question--worship is not just a series of motions and rote responses. But by doing them even when we're not sincere, or not ready to talk directly to God, we force ourselves into the right mindset. We condition ourselves to want the real thing, even if all we can muster at the moment is a half-hearted compliance. And when you're standing there for morning prayer and realize you're just running through the same words you say every other morning, without taking them to heart, then in that moment you have a choice to make. Sure, you can keep plugging along without thinking, but you can also stop yourself, concentrate your attention, and start again. If you weren't standing there for your morning routine, and you didn't feel like praying, you'd probably just ignore it altogether.

I guess the question is, is it better to have five minutes of sincere worship in a week, with the rest of your time consumed on yourself, or to spend five hours in church, sometimes praying from the heart, sometimes from the head, sometimes struggling to pay attention at all, but through all of it stretching toward the goal that we were told wouldn't be easy? And the same goes for all the rest of this external stuff we do. The 50 times a day that I adjust the cross around my neck (which after several months I'm still not used to) are 50 times a day when I might be thinking about taking up my cross to follow Christ. Every morning and evening when I stand for prayer, I have another chance to seek the face of Christ. I don't cross myself every time an emergency vehicle passes with its siren going, but the times when I choose not to (so as not to draw attention to myself) I'm that much more conscious of the need to pray.

It may be that in heaven I won't need these externals, these disciplines, these habits and reminders to keep my heart where it belongs. Not that the externals will go away--from everything we see about heaven in Scripture, it doesn't seem like they will. They'll just always be 100% consistent with the internal feelings. Orthodoxy may seem weird, extreme, overly formalized, with too many rules, etc. I suppose in contrast with our usual Western society it couldn't seem any other way. But is that necessarily a bad thing? To put it as concretely as possible, if I'd rather be in church than watching TV, where's the weird in that? St. Silouan the Athonite writes:
My soul ever years after God and prays day and night, for the name of the Lord is sweet and dear to the prayerful soul, and warms the soul to love of God.
I have lived a long life on earth, and seen and heard many things. I have heard music which delighted my soul, and I would think, If this music is so sweet, how greatly must the heavenly singing in the Holy Spirit, glorifying the Lord for His sufferings, delight the soul!
We live a long time on this earth, and we love the beauty of the earth--the sky and the sun, lovely gardens, seas and rivers, forest and meadow, music, too, and all the beauties of the world. But when the soul comes to know our Lord Jesus Christ, she has no further desire for the things of the earth.

I'm not there yet, but if there's any argument to be made for why Orthodoxy is right, it's that I know the way to get there!

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