Particularly during this season of Great Lent with all its fasting and services and so forth, Orthodox Christians who live in a multi-religious society may be tempted to think or say something like what you see in this image here: “Orthodoxy: Christianity. Only Tougher.”
On its face, there is of course a lot of truth to that characterization. Being a faithful Orthodox Christian is in many quite palpable ways rather tougher than being faithful in other Christian communions. Fasting usually first comes to mind, then probably prostrations. We’ve also got things like hierarchy (yes, it’s all male), obedience to a father-confessor, way more church services, unchanging moral teaching and various other things that rub most people in the modern world the wrong way.
Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that most Orthodox Christians actually don’t find Orthodoxy all that tough, maybe because they’re not doing very much of it. (Few are the priests who do not lament that their parish is largely populated by a Sunday-only (if that often) crowd who mostly function rather like the world around them.) Is it really the case that Orthodoxy is “tougher” than other types of Christianity?
Is it really all that “tough”?
I suppose it depends on what one means. I have known plenty of Protestants and Catholics who find their faith rather tough, whether it’s because they put out an enormous amount of effort to remain faithful and involved, or because it wears down the soul to be faithful and involved, or because the tenets of their faith also rub them the wrong way even while they try to be faithful. All those things can likewise be said of the faithful Orthodox.
But what about particular practices? Is fasting like an Orthodox Christian tougher than the fasting present in other Christian confessions, or the non-fasting that is actually typical of most Christian confessions? In a sense, yes, it is tougher. There’s certainly more of it, and it takes more work to remain on top of it in this culture. But on the other hand, most cultures outside the wealth of the First World basically fast far more than most Orthodox ever do—even relatively faithful ones—because feasting is just not an option for them. Yet the world that generated the “Christianity, Only Tougher” slogan basically exists in non-stop feasting. We only find it tougher to fast because we’re so used to the endless party. Fasting is the exception to the constant feast of the First World.
But what about Orthodox fasting compared directly to the more limited or nonexistent fasting of other Christians? Though I am no great faster, I find it easier to follow the fasts than not to, not because not eating meat is easier than eating meat, but because having rhythm and seasons to life that are bound up in a liturgical life is actually far more interesting than just not bringing food into faith at all.
Or how about obedience to a father-confessor (“spiritual father” is the preferred term for some)? Is that “tougher”? Again, that depends. I’ve seen some people treat the role of the father-confessor as an excuse for them not to take responsibility for themselves. I don’t think it’s tougher to get your spiritual life dictated to you than it is to have to figure it out for yourself. That’s not how that relationship is supposed to work, of course, but it’s certainly not better because it’s “tougher.” Yes, if you really practice obedience and don’t just look to get dictated to, that can be tougher. But I personally think it’s tougher not to have someone there to guide you along the way.
One could pick lots of other things to talk about here, of course, but I think these examples suffice.
Is tougher better?
There seems to be this sense that Orthodoxy is better because it’s “hardcore.” We may be proud of being Orthodox much like a Marine is proud of being one of “the few, the proud.” Man, it would seem, really was made for the Sabbath, not the Sabbath for man.
Okay, but is that really the message of the Gospel?
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28-29)
In the teaching of Jesus, while you do find Him calling on us to take up the cross with Him, you don’t find Him going around saying that His way is “tougher” than being a Jew who doesn’t believe in Him or being a pagan. He and His Apostles actually talk about being released from the old ways, not about one-upping them. His message is about joy and rest, not about being hardcore. Salvation is a release from the curse of the law, not outdoing the law by making everything that much harder. Yes, the Gospel is a higher standard than the Mosaic Law and the tenets of the various kinds of paganism, but meeting that standard is about being in Christ and receiving His righteousness, not about trying harder.
That said, my pastoral experience is that those who make Orthodoxy about being more hardcore, about trying harder, will eventually collapse either into apostasy or into a rather demonic takfirism, wherein even one’s fellow Orthodox are never good enough, never pious enough, never correct enough.
There’s a reason why the Marines are “the few,” and it’s because most people, even those otherwise inclined to a a military life, are not interested in being Marines. Of course, mass appeal is not the point of the Marines, nor is it the aim of being a Christian, but there is something to this appeal to being more hardcore that is not only contrary to the Gospel but actually elitist.
Should it be hard to become Orthodox?
I’ve sometimes encountered the idea that it ought to be hard to become Orthodox. This feeds off the idea that tougher is better. Some would even say that obstacles should actually be erected so as to sift out the tares from the wheat (never mind that that sifting belongs to God). It should be so hard to become Orthodox that only the really committed will ever get in.
Okay, hyper-zealous convert, fine. But don’t you dare baptize that baby. That’s too easy.
This attitude is again contrary to the Gospel, and it is not the way the Lord approached people. He met everyone where they were and tried everything He could to bring them into the Way. His Apostles and the Fathers did the same.
This is not about making exceptions to rules. Some rules cannot have exceptions. We get that. You cannot, for instance, give permission to sin or say that baptism or believing in the Trinity are not really necessary. This is rather about the posture that is evident in turning Orthodoxy into an elite club for the visibly pious.
If we baptize babies, whole nations, etc., then we have to think ecclesially, not in terms of making individual people live up to our standards of toughness. The universal call of the Gospel is indeed universal. And that means that we have to figure out how to get everyone in.
I’ve actually encountered people saying that Orthodoxy is not for everyone. But if Orthodoxy is really the Church, and the Church is the Body of Christ, then that means that the Body of Christ is not for everyone. God forbid! That also turns Christian faith into a matter of personal preferences and individual suitability rather than the call to the nations to be gathered into “one flock” under the “one Shepherd.”
Orthodoxy, being the Church, is for everyone.
What is Orthodoxy, anyway?
Orthodoxy is sometimes treated as though it’s just a super form of Christianity. It’s basically like the other kinds, but bigger and better. Go get your Christianity, and now add icons, fasting, saints, theosis, etc., and BAM! But this isn’t Orthodoxy’s historical self-understanding.
Historically, Orthodoxy simply understands itself as actually being Christianity. It’s not “tougher.” It’s not a “version” of Christianity. It simply is the Christian faith as originally preached and as preserved by the Holy Spirit through the centuries. You don’t have to add anything to Christianity to become Orthodox, because Orthodoxy is Christianity.
That raises the question of whether other things can also be called Christianity, but that’s not the point of this post. (As an aside, I would say that they can, but the term means something else in that case, something more general and basically just a shorthand for those who believe in the Trinity and the Incarnation. And I very much believe that those two doctrines are powerful, even outside the boundaries of the Orthodox Church.) Christianity is really a problematic term, anyway. The Bible doesn’t know anything about “Christianity.” It only knows the Church.
And the Church has its Gospel, and that’s the Gospel that we preach. Orthodoxy is not Gospel+. It’s just the Gospel. Orthodoxy is what it’s meant to be Christian for 2,000 years. It doesn’t need to be “tougher.”
Is it tough to be an Orthodox Christian? Yes. Why? Because I am a sinner.
I believe it is much harder to be Orthodox….the rules leave no wiggle room. When I married in the church 40 years ago, one of my male Orthodox friends was marrying a few months earlier. He was told by the priest that his best friend could not be his best man because he was not Orthodox, nor could his wife-to-be (who was not Orthodox) be sponsored by her non-Orthodox sister. Anger and argument followed and they married in another church, never to return. Talk about blaming the messenger…the priest was not kindly spoken about for years afterwards. My marriage did occur in the church, in spite of it being a “mixed marriage”. The priest spoke with my Methodist husband and asked if he would baptize our future children in the church. He agreed. We followed the other rules pertaining to sponsors and 40 years later, my husband is a enthusiastic convert (only converted 10 years ago). He serves in the altar, the candle stand, does minor repairs and maintenance work. If the priest had not welcomed him with open arms, I have no idea where we would be today. Our sons have recently baptized their children in the church. The embracing of my husband by the priest had lasting effects that proved to be of great benefit to our family! As a Serbian Orthodox, I love the converts that have joined our church. They are so much more knowledgeable about the faith than I am and I am learning from them! I know that there are many converts that do not feel comfortable with the ethnicity of the Orthodox Churches and I would like to humbly address that, at least from my perspective. I told our priest that is should be a suggestion for our converts to learn about the Serbian church if only because of the horrific holocaust and persecution our ancestors endured simply because they were Serbian Orthodox. As recently as WWII…our history is well documented in the Holocaust Museum. I think that maybe then they would understand why we hold on so dearly to our ethnicity –Serbian Orthodox. Not because we want to exclude anyone…never. But because of the atrocities that we endured simply because we were Orthodox. We must never forget.
…the rules leave no wiggle room.
Which rules did you have in mind? There are actually many “rules” with lots of “wiggle room.”
If you’re referring to who can be a best man or maid of honor at a wedding, that actually varies from one tradition to another. It is not a matter of dogma.
I did not know that. Thank for the information.
Exactly so. My wife’s father is a Presbyterian minister, and she viewed being married in the Orthodox Church as a very large concession to me, and a sacrifice on her part. Our Priest was very accommodating to both of us as to the participants in the ceremony. My wife’s matron of honor was her best friend, a Baptist. My best man was my AA sponsor, a Lutheran. I feel that if it had not been for Fr. Tom’s openness and willingness to use that “wiggle room”, my wife of eleven years would not have ultimately converted to The Church.
Thank you, Father! While I am only learning about Orthodoxy, I long to be a part of it. I don’t see fasting, learning to pray, confession, etc… as “tougher” but rather as a way to bring us together in God’s grace as the Body of the Church. That’s simplistic but the point is that I don’t see them as “hard” as much as a joyous fulfilling of our encounter with God. The relationship, as hard as it is and can be, is such a joyful encounter that it makes one forgetful of the “hardship” (something like I’ve heard women speak of giving birth, perhaps?).
“Is it tough to be an Orthodox Christian? Yes. Why? Because I am a sinner.” — so, so true. The fasting and praying isn’t the issue; I am.
Thank you again, Father. God bless!
Am excellent article. Forty years after embracing Christianity and nearly thirty years after embracing Orthodoxy… I simply hope to be found among the sheep… and pray that everyone I’ve ever met will also find Paradise. I claim no wisdom.
This can be such a difficult thing. Both my wife and myself started a journey towards Orthodoxy back in 2008 and yet we’re still not Orthodox. We had a five year period which was very difficult for us. I had health issues and was in and out of the hospital five times in a year. Even when I wasn’t in the hospital I so weak that I rarely left the house (or the couch/bed for that matter). I contacted a priest twice during this time and the first time he ignored my message completely. A year later I tried again and we met in person. He acknowledged having received the first message but said he wasn’t about to reply back, much less come to me because in his words, “You could be a murderer.”
In trying to make sense of this with other Orthodox, I was basically told that I needed to suck it up and go to the liturgy because 90 year old women make it work and so could I. There was certainly something of that hardcore mentality. All this to say that I have first hand experience of how damaging these ideas can be to the mind of a convert. It’s been a year now since that meeting with the priest and while I don’t blame the church and am under no illusion that my experience was reflective of Orthodoxy as a whole, I do feel reluctant. I still hope to become Orthodox someday, but my courage (or something like it) has faltered and I find myself just privately reading and trying to build up the desire to try again.
I’m very sorry to hear of this experience. I have no idea why you would be responded to in that manner, but I will at least say that it is not what I would have done.
Good thoughts, Fr. Andrew.
What a graceful vision of evangelism. It may go against the grain of some Orthodox (takfiris – well done!), but it is both biblical and patristic. Despite Serpahim’s recent reminder not to proof-text the fathers, I have to share this gem from St. John Chrysostom’s commentary on the calling of Matthew (setting the context: Matthew had Christ over for dinner with publicans, sinners, disciples, and complaining pharisees):
“[Christ] is again establishing His argument by illustrations from common life. And what He saith is like this, “The disciples have not yet become strong, but still need much condescension. They have not yet been renewed by the Spirit, and on persons in that state one ought not to lay any burden of injunctions.”
And these things He said, setting laws and rules for His own disciples, that when they should have to receive as disciples those of all sorts that should come from the whole world, they might deal with them very gently.”
Gentle evangelism; gentle discipleship.
I thought of your reply about Orthodoxy not being “tougher” when I read this today:
QUOTE OF THE DAY…”Christians are destined to bear a heavy cross in their life. It’s a difficult thing to say you believe in the Lord and also that you have ease of life in this life. Because, when you are having ease of life on earth, there is something wrong with yourself; you care about the gold of the land and not for the treasures of heaven. But when you think like this, you are far away from the will of God. Christian life and having ease in life do not go together; they are different things” (Elder Pasios of Mt. Athos,).
I will concede that to be a true Christian, not only an Orthodox Christian, is tougher than some forms of modern day Christianity being taught today.
I’d agree, but I’d also note that my point here is not whether Orthodoxy is “tougher” or not. It’s that Orthodoxy isn’t merely just a “hardcore” variety of Christianity and also that being hardcore isn’t itself some kind of selling point.
I converted 3 years ago- and this “slogan” that I saw on bumper stickers or t-shirts prevalently in Orthodox circles was a huge put-off. It seems/ed prideful and weird- very holier than thou if you will- to an extent . It seems like a sneaky way to brag and make others who aren’t Orthodox automatically be on the defensive of their particular expression of faith. It doesn’t seem to be a very inviting slogan to inquire about Orthodoxy, but more divisive in my personal perspective and experience. Thank you for the perspective and insight in this blog.
I think it can take on a prideful piety. That turns me off, too.
After seven years in the Orthodox church, I have decided to move on. I have decided to trade Rachmaninoff for the dumbed down hymns of the post Vatican II mass. I can tell you this, I have never felt more in exile by the streams of Babylon than I do this year. I have, however, gained the insight into why worshipping in the reality of today is better for my walk in faith. The Catholic church has relaxed the fasting standard which is frequently pointed out by the Orthodox as a failing. The Catholic church has the wisdom to see that it had become a hindrance rather than a help. When one can evade true fasting by adapting a recipe or ordering a veggie burrito from Chipotle, the focus is still on self. Does it make sense for us to hold on to the traditions of ancient life by imitating people who were only living life in the context of what was the contemporary life for them? Doesn’t that just turn our worship into a historical reenactment? I am grateful for all that I learned in the church but I am compelled to infuse the Catholic church with that beauty while giving my heart to God which is all He asks of me. If I have burned yet another bridge, I accept that but I pray that reunification will happen in my lifetime so that “all may be one” as Christ desired.
I saw this quote by Mother Angelica today and thought it very fitting to the subject of fasting:
“Ever hear of those idiots who give up coffee for Lent? How can anyone think of Jesus in the morning when all they’re thinking about is Maxwell House? Only drink one cup instead of two, and leave out the cream and sugar. That’ll leave room in the cup for both the coffee and the Lord.”
Can you explain in what way exactly the fasting traditions of 19 centuries that were held to (with regional and temporal variations, to be sure) in both East and West had suddenly become a hindrance in the 20th century? In what way did they stop working and why?
When fasting turns into compliance it is missing the point. Judging someone else’s degree of fasting as acceptable or unacceptable is missing the point. It doesn’t have to be extreme to be effective. Now there is an idea for a reality show, Extreme Orthodox Fasting. I like what this guy has to say about it:
Our diocese is holding the Rite of Election on Sunday when 800 catechumens will be elevated to the status of the elect. This approach seems to be having some positive results.
Jesus warned against the abuse of piety without abolishing it.
What happened in the 20th c. that made the abuses of piety that have always occurred now need near-abolition?
Why does the classic axiom “abusus non tollit usum” no longer apply?
Should liturgy also be abolished? It certainly gets abused often enough in Roman Catholic quarters, something lamented by my Catholic friends.
I also think of those for whom the now-abolished practices were genuinely meaningful. Why did the abusers win?
Orthodox fasting practices have always been mitigated and adjusted in concert with one’s confessor. Why should that dynamic be ended because some folks do it badly?
What else that is being abused ought to be abolished?
I’m trying to understand, because this line of argument doesn’t make sense to me.
You are putting words in my mouth that I never said. I am not arguing for fasting to be abolished but I don’t believe it is right for you to look down at another’s fast as inferior. The Catholic Church has set the minimum standard for fasting for it’s members, however, if someone wants to challenge themselves more then it is the decision of the individual. Fasting should be personal and in its mercy the church saw fit to make adjustments so not to be more focused on the fast than Christ.
I never suggested that the Liturgy be abolished. But if you are hinting that Catholic’s do advocate for that, it isn’t true. It doesn’t have to be an aria to be meaningful. Even though I miss the Orthodox Liturgy, there is something beautiful about simplicity as well. People actually participate and that warms my heart. Not everyone is an intellectual and God does not expect that from us. He encourages us to be as children and approach him as such.
I’m just asking questions based on the logic that you’ve set forth. The standard you mentioned is that people were abusing fasting traditions (and it’s definitely abuse you mention, because you didn’t establish that those things are actually what Orthodoxy teaches about fasting), so that means that fasting tradition should be changed. So it only makes sense to ask why the possibility for abuse now qualifies as a reason to change something, especially when it wasn’t a good reason to change things in the past.
And it also makes sense to ask where else this standard applies. Liturgy is a good example when it comes to Rome, because it’s a much-abused element of RC church life. But if liturgy shouldn’t be abolished or radically changed because of abuses, why should fasting be changed because of abuses?
I’m genuinely interested to know.
You are a real fan of the straw man argument, I see. Not once did I ever suggest that fasting be abolished, only that if compliance is the only goal the point of the exercise is missed. Abuse is not how I described the attitude towards fasting, merely that compliance to fasting by some creative culinary technique is not a genuine sacrifice.
I never brought up the Liturgy but since you did I will weigh in. The Liturgy is for God, not us. Not everyone needs an intellectualized academic lecture every week. At times I do miss the depth of the Orthodox Liturgy but I also see beauty in the simplicity of the mass and the enthusiastic participation of the parishioners. I always leave uplifted. Believe me, the Liturgy in the Orthodox church is the best thing they do.
My decision to leave was based more on wanting more opportunities to serve God and I felt there was not enough emphasis on that where I was. I came to the Orthodox church because I wanted more and I am leaving because I want more. I pray for the unity of the church so we can function as the body of Christ for Gods will.
Where does the Orthodox Church teach that “compliance” is the only goal of fasting? I’d be interested to see a citation from Scripture, the Fathers, etc.
Orthodoxy is ‘tough’ only when one attempts to do it on their own. We have not only the Theotokos and all the Bodiless Powers to help us but also all the saints that have gone before us. Sure, I-can-do-it-myself can be a tough hurdle to overcome, especially when one has been otherwise ‘successful’ in the world. Yet consistent humility is the basis of true Toughness, fastness to God, which cannot imagine being tougher than another.
Where does the Orthodox Church teach that “compliance” is the only goal of fasting?
I agree, Father. This is a very strange disagreement. Every Priest I know emphasizes that Fasting is a spiritual endeavor to bring us closer to God, not that not eating certain foods fulfills anything in and of itself. It only helps us to humble ourselves to the Holy Spirit, and this only by the Grace of God.
I have not encountered anyone who looks down on another’s fast as “less”, although I am sure there are some who do so. We are sinners, after all, and prone to pride. But my understanding of Fasting, as so much in the Church, is that it is a communal work for the salvation of us all, not an individual work that accomplishes something for only me. This is the (main) reason we do not “choose” what we Fast from; instead we all Fast together prayerfully and God provides what is needed.
“And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” (1 Cor. 12:21). We are all of the Body of Christ so we Fast in communion with one another. Please correct me if I am off base here.
I am a recent catechumen at the church of Annunciation here in Portland Oregon, and I would say that in my brief year of witnessing the Orthodox church if I was asked what it means to be an Orthodox Christian: it is Christianity, only more humble. Thank you for writing such an illuminating book, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, it truly has illumined my mind. Thank you also for making the podcast, I have really appreciated it. I thirst to learn all I can about Orthodoxy as it gradually envelopes me and changes my mind, body, and soul.
Father this is a great, thoughtful article. I think it is tough in one way, not tough in another. I think it is not tough in the sense that if someone goes deeper into Orthodoxy, their soul increasingly receives healing as their passions are being weakened over time, they feel an increase in inner peace, joy floods their soul and their hearts are united with the Lord – Who alone can fill our hearts, make us lead lives more deeply meaningful and useful, dispel the evil in our hearts, and instead fill it with grace and love for all. And such a person increasingly does not fear death – knowing their efforts in life are rewarded well in the next life.
However, I think it is tough in the sense, that at the very foundation and very heart of an Orthodox way of life, is ascetical struggle. And we see this extremely clearly in the lives of the saints. Every single saint will tell you their lives are lives filled with struggle and labours. St Paisios of Mt Athos say, “The soft life makes people useless. Without toil and struggle, sanctificaiton won’t come.”
Here he refers undoubtedly to the enormous labours that are required for one to increase one’s prayers (uttered with the essential criteria of being attentive) during their day via the psalms or the Jesus Prayer. If we study the lives of the saints very carefully, we will see what enormous enormous labours they made. And the best way to understand how tough their lives were, is to experiment a few times to mimic a few of their ascetic deeds and fail miserably at doing so, and this will humble us and make us realize how nothing we are spiritually. This is given that we all believe that we should all take the saints as very dear, very precious guides, friends and models whom we very often think about and desire much to imitate them and grow into their likeness over our lifetimes.
St Justin Popovich says, “The ascetics are Orthodoxy’s only missionaries. Asceticism is her only missionary school. Orthodoxy is ascetic effort and it is life, and it is thus by effort and by life that her mission is broadcast and brought about. The development of asceticism…this ought to be the inward mission of our Church amongst our people. The parish must become an ascetic focal point. But this can only be achieved by an ascetic priest. Prayer and fasting, the Church-oriented life of the parish, a life of liturgy: Orthodoxy holds these as the primary ways of effecting rebirth in its people.”
Off course this may seem extremely discouraging. But I think it makes sense. The kingdom of heaven is the greatest and most profound treasure and endeavour in the world. Hence by virtue of its extreme importance, it requires the greatest of efforts. Similarly to raising kids properly, similarly to paying off a mortagage, becoming a doctor – all these things require great persistence and labours because they are of great importance.
It has been said that no one did more for the spread of holy orthodoxy in america as did Fr Seraphim Rose. Why is that? Fr Seraphim Rose heavily promoted the use of ascetical orthodox sources i.e. the lives of hte saints and their practical teachings as key sources and guides of what it means to lead an Orthodox life and acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit. He was successful because his promotion of ascetical sources (although indeed extremely tough and may seem to come across as fanaticism by some), truly taught people how to acquire grace and destroy their inner evil passions. And it is not possible to increase the fire of the Holy Spirit without asceticism
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