The Difficulties of Paradise

Help_Im_Bored_in_ChurchCover__03356.1378331768.1280.1280The voices of the choir rise in wonderful harmonies, the light reflects on the icons, incense wafts into the ceiling – it is a wonderful liturgy on a feast day. We stand in the Church and begin to notice, with some guilt, that our mind has wandered. Worse, still, we are bored.

This is perhaps the most common experience in the Orthodox liturgy. Not often discussed outside of confession, it is a reflection of the modern soul. It is not the fault of the liturgy itself – but a symptom of the disease that infects our lives. It reveals the terrible truth that were we to be this moment in paradise, we would be distinctly uncomfortable, even miserable.

Above all, paradise begins in the heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Christ did not say to His disciples, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for God will reveal Himself to them.” God may be seen at any time. It is not His hiddenness that obscures Him from our vision, but the opaque quality of an impure heart.

All of this can make for a quiet despair, particularly in the life of a convert. We read the words of St. Vladimir’s envoys to Constantinople:

When we journeyed among the Bulgars, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque, while they stand ungirt. The Bulgarian bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good. Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here.

“We cannot forget that beauty…” but we  quickly become immune to its charm.

We are not at all the same people who embraced Orthodoxy along with Prince Vladimir. They willingly (and famously) stood for hour upon hour. The Tsar himself was known to spend as many as seven hours a day in services. An English visitor to Russia in the 16th century described the people as having “legs like stone.”

Our consumer culture caters to a different set of inner needs. We are the same human beings as those of 9th century Rus, but we have been nurtured in a different manner. Everyone born into the world shares desires and hungers, the capacity for the same passions and addictions. But rarely in human history have a people been pointedly and purposively groomed for consumption. We crave what we call entertainment – experiences that we find pleasant. But such experiences are not purely objective. What is pleasant today is boring tomorrow. We are like children with Christmas toys that are no longer new.

Virtues are formed by the practices in which engage. If we want to be patient, we will have to practice patience. By the same token, vices and addictions are the result of practice as well. Practices are any activity in which we regularly engage – thus they may be intentional or unintentional. What you do will determine what you are. If the primary activity in our life is consumption, then we will develop the instincts, the “virtues” of a consumer. In popular culture, this is largely an unintentional practice. We learn to respond to perceived needs. That these perceived needs may themselves be produced in us by those who want us to consume their products is itself often obscured. At the heart of a consumer culture is pleasure. We do those things, buy those things, consume those things, engage in those activities that bring us pleasure.

The fathers wrote at great length about the role of pleasure in the Christian life. We seek to avoid pain (odyne) and acquire pleasure (hedone). The cycle set in motion by these two polarities is the root of all the passions. It is the means of our enslavement. Paradise is not for slaves but for the free.

Which brings us back to the Divine Liturgy. The liturgy is paradise. It reveals God and manifests His presence. We join our voices with the angels and mystically represent the cherubim. But we are not entertained. For a couple of centuries, many Christians have used a mission imperative as the tool for shaping worship. Worship and evangelism are made coterminous. “Whatever works,” becomes the operating mantra for the Christian assembly. Market research directs musical content as well as much of the program of ministry. Worship is now consumed.

It makes complete sense for a consumer culture to have a consumer Church. But you cannot have a consumer’s paradise. For the passions that form the basis of consumerism cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. The same passions have a very difficult time even bearing with the Divine Liturgy.

Was it a good service? Did you enjoy the Liturgy? How was Church today? These are not uncommon questions – but they are profoundly inappropriate.

Worship is communion, not consumption. The virtues required by Paradise do not include the ability to be entertained. But the consumer Christian has been shaped for entertainment. It is not entirely his fault – consumerism is the hallmark of our culture. The economy needs for us to consume. Christianity that serves the culture, in our present context, does not serve the gospel. To market the faith to be consumed is like giving drugs to an addict. Of course the addict likes the drugs. Of course the drugs appeal to him – he’s an addict!

It is a great irony that consumer Christianity offers death that is perceived to be life. While classical Christianity offers life that is clearly labeled as death. If you want to be saved, you’ll have to die. You will have to die to your desires and the passions through which you consume.

I recently ran across a small book – a very easy, even entertaining read. It’s title: Help! I’m Bored in Church! Heed it’s lessons. It will help make you fit for paradise.

Comments

  1. Dominic Albanese says