An excerpt from At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy
Chapter 9 – 10:12 AM: Prayer for the Catechumens Not Seeker-Friendly
by Frederica Mathewes-Green
At the end of the homily we get to our feet again, and Father Gregory peers around the church. “Is Emelia here? Where’s Emelia?” he asks. Behind me a woman holds up a hand, then begins to walk toward the icon of Christ on the iconostasis. Emelia is a catechumen, one who is studying to join the Church. She wears her brown hair in a round Clara Bow cut, and is usually dressed in black—sweater, skirt, stockings—right down to bright orange leather thong sandals.
She stands next to my husband and together they face the icon. It is a rather severe one, showing a frowning Jesus holding a large book with a gold cover in his left arm, while his right hand is held up in blessing. We bought this icon, and the matching one of the Theotokos, when we first started the church; I remember the day the UPS man carted the huge, flat boxes up to our front door, and we took them into the dining room to unpack and lay on the table. From the first time I saw this Jesus’ stern expression I felt awkward, as if facing someone who understood something about me that I didn’t, someone who understood why I have a murky bag of disconnected guilt rambling about under the surface all the time. I know that I ping back and forth between this guilt, and oh-yeah? behaviors like overeating or showing off or gossiping or thinking luxuriously about how spiritual I am. I don’t know this landscape fully, I’ve only jolted over it in a sprung-seated carriage in the dark, and it’s a little scary to me. When I look into the eyes of this icon, I think he knows, and it makes him very serious.
I had looked at this icon, somewhat shrinkingly, for several years before I realized that his right hand is held up in blessing. That is his will for me; he wants to bless me. He loves me. It’s serious, my condition; it’s going to require major surgery. But it is his love for me that drives all of this forward, his uncompromising will to bless me.
A prayer of St. John of Damascus, the eighth-century champion of icons, acknowledges this vacillating self. “I know indeed, O Lord, that I am not worthy of thy love…But, O Lord, whether I wish it or not, do thou save me. For if thou savest the just, it is nothing great; and if thou hast mercy upon the pure, it is nothing marvelous; for they are worthy of thy mercy. But upon me, a sinner show the wonder of thy mercy; in this manifest thy love toward all.” That “whether I wish it or not” interests me. I know there are times that I cannot yet pray, “Yes, Lord, I am willing.” I have to start further back: “Please help me be willing to be willing.”
Father Gregory and Emelia stand facing this icon, and he chants, “Pray to the Lord, you catechumen.” He speaks several prayers of intercession over her, while we all respond, “Lord, have mercy.” At last he sings, “Bow your head unto the Lord, you catechumen,” and Emelia bows her head. He prays, “O Lord, our God, who dwellest on high and regardest the humble of heart, who hast sent forth as the salvation of the race of men Thine only-begotten Son and God, our Lord Jesus Christ: Look down upon Thy servant the catechumen who has bowed her neck before Thee; make her worthy in due time of the laver of regeneration, the remission of sins, and the robe of incorruption. Unite her to Thy Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, and number her with Thy chosen flock. That with us she may glorify Thine all-honorable and majestic name: of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”
The entry of new members into Orthodoxy is cautious, and always has been. Traditionally, inquirers were introduced to a small portion of the Church’s mysteries at a time. The fourth-century nun, Egeria, wrote back to her Spanish convent what she encountered during her travels in the Holy Land, including a bishop’s words to catechumens. At the end of their years of instruction, which culminated with a Lent of three hours’ instruction a day, the bishop said, “During the past seven weeks you have been given instruction in the whole of scripture. You have been taught about the Christian faith and the resurrection of the body, and you have also learned as much as catechumens are allowed to know of the meaning of the Creed. But the teaching on baptism itself is much deeper, and as long as you remain catechumens you have no right to hear it. However, do not think it will never be explained to you. You will be told everything after you have been baptized. But catechumens cannot be told about God’s secret mysteries.”
This seems strange in our era, for a couple of reasons. In the first place, American churches tend to display everything they have vigorously, rushing toward any vaguely-curious inquirer with the entire boatload of services the church can provide. There’s nothing that a seeker isn’t yet entitled to know. In the second place, it’s generally assumed that there are no mysteries, anyway. The faith is made as open and cheerful and accessible as possible. People who want mystery don’t go to church; they watch “The X-Files” or phone the Psychic Network. They know in their bones that there is mystery out there somewhere, and if the church won’t provide it they look elsewhere. A line often attributed to G. K. Chesterton goes, “When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing, he’ll believe in anything.” In the early church the burden was on seekers, to listen and learn. They knew that the gathered community, the Church, had knowledge they didn’t: it knew how to draw closer to God. They committed themselves to be instructed, and expected that with time they would be initiated further. Catechumens understood that they were receiving a great gift—one worth waiting for—and that only those who had made a commitment to the community could enter its mysteries.
It’s my unprovable hunch that this is the better course. People newly coming to church should have an unfamiliar experience. It should be apparent to them that they are encountering something very different from the mundane. It should be discontinuous with their everyday experience, because God is discontinuous. God is holy, other, incomprehensible, strange, and if we go expecting an affable market-tested nice guy, we won’t be getting the whole picture. We’ll be getting the short God in a straw hat, not the big one beyond all thought.
Coming into the community of believers at worship should be disconcerting. It should leave the visitor with several impressions: whatever this is, these people take it very seriously; I don’t understand it; if I join I might have to change.
The well-intentioned idea of presenting the appealing, useful side of faith fails, I think, because it doesn’t question deeply enough the basic consumer ethos. The transaction that takes place between a shopper-seeker and the goods acquired (groceries, furniture, the key to the meaning of life) is one that leaves the seeker in control, in a position of judging, evaluating, and rejecting the parts he doesn’t like. But entering faith is more like making a promise or beginning a marriage. It involves being grafted into a community, and requires a willingness to grow and change. If it didn’t, if it merely confirmed us in our comfortable places, how could it free us to be more than we are?
Emelia kisses the cross my husband holds out toward her, and returns to her place with a shy smile. On her chrismation day he will anoint her forehead, eyes, nose, lips, ears, chest, hands, feet, and between her shoulders with blessed oil, announcing each time, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.” All of us in the congregation will shout back each time, “Seal!” Over the course of many months Emelia is being initiated into ancient mysteries, and I appreciate her patience.
Not long ago I spoke at the Sunday morning service of a large church outside Pittsburgh. It was an evangelical mainline service, heartfelt, friendly, but not overly casual. We marched into the century-old stone church to the tune of a century-old hymn, preceded by a pretty young crucifer and a vested choir. I took my seat all by myself, up front, in a chair of dark carved wood next to the pulpit.
After an antiphonal reading of a psalm, the overhead projector was snapped on and lyrics were displayed for a couple of “praise choruses.” These are exceedingly simple hymns, with minimal words conveying the barest ideas. The point is not the words, it’s the music, which leans toward hand-clapping, high-spirited celebration. In fact the first song began with just that idea: “Celebrate Jesus! Celebrate!” we sang repeatedly. In the third row I could see the nice gray-haired lady I was talking with before the service, joining in enthusiastically. I couldn’t see much of her, but I could see the top of her hair and the tips of her fingers swaying back and forth through the air like a metronome.
Much of the congregation, like her, was smiling, clapping, and singing. It reminded me of a comment a friend made at a similar gathering: “For a minute there, we almost didn’t act like white people.” White people never do this sort of thing with the focus and discipline—a funny word, but I think it’s the right one—of a black congregation. We look sheepish but happy, like a dog in a floppy hat.
I didn’t clap. I stood on the rise behind the pulpit, on display, and clasped my hands and sang politely like Alice reciting “You are Old, Father William.” I was wondering what my church was doing that morning. At home that day it was the yearly observance of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. This was the council which settled the matter of Arius, the council at which St. Nicholas lost his temper. It took place in Nicea in 325 A.D., and resulted in a statement of belief now known as the Nicene Creed. On this Sunday my church family at home was celebrating the triumph of the council of Nicea, and gloating over the downfall of Arius as if the news had just hit the headlines.
Arius, as we’ve noted before, taught that Jesus was created by God, and is not eternally one with the Godhead. Thus, he said, Jesus was not really “the Son of God,” and his mother could not be called God-Bearer (Theotokos). These teachings enjoyed widespread popularity, and even after their rejection by the Council Arius did his best to be reinstated. On the eve of his triumphant return to the Church, he died in an outhouse in a manner, his opponent St. Athanasius says, similar to the death of Judas. Scripture describes Judas’ end this way: “This man bought a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” (Acts 1:18)
At home my son, Stephen, was chanting:
“Of the Father before the morning star thou wast begotten from the belly without mother before all ages, even though Arius did believe thee to be created, not God, classing thee in ignorance and impudence with creatures…When thou wast asked, O Saviour, Who rent thy garment? Thou didst reply that it was Arius, who divided the headship of the Trinity, united with honor, into parts…He it was who taught the transgressing Nestorius not to say that the Virgin is Theotokos…
”Pretending blindness that he might not see the light, Arius toppled into the pit of sin, and his bowels were torn by a divine hook that he might give up his whole substance. In a repulsive manner his soul came out, and he became another Judas by his own purpose and character, but the Nicene Council proclaimed openly that thou are Son of God, equal in the throne to the Father, and to the Spirit also.“
There is a lot of complicated theology packed into these lines, though phrased poetically. It’s not the sort of thing western Christians sing. While Stephen was chanting that, our group in Pittsburgh had moved on to ”Mighty is our God! Mighty is our King!“
Orthodoxy is strongly concerned with enunciating and preserving the elements of right belief, down to reviewing the foolishness of Arius once a year. It’s called ”Orthodoxy“ for a reason. But this is not done merely as a study drill of dry theology. For Orthodox, theological truths convey the beauty of God. While a theologian in the west is one who has acquired intellectual understanding of religious theory, in the east a theologian is one who has approached union with God and been flooded with light. A theologian is not one who grasps the truth, but who has been grasped by the truth and transformed. This doesn’t make the specifics of faith any less precise, but it makes doing theology an entirely different sort of enterprise: not cogitating, but entering into illuminating union with God. While in the west an artificial division between head and heart resulted in a separation of theology from personal transformation, in Orthodoxy they remain united. The purpose of doing theology is to come into union with God.
One of the several saints named Symeon is called ”the New Theologian“ because he is relatively recent; he died in 1022. He is a theologian because he saw the uncreated light of God, an event more significant, and ultimately more beneficial to his readers, than the mere ability to rearrange theological principles. St. Symeon wrote in his Hymns of Divine Love:
I partake of light; I participate also in glory,
And my face shines, as does also His for whom I long;
And all my members become bearers of light.
I then become the most beautiful of beautiful things.
This is what it means to be a theologian. As Evagrius of Pontus, another of Arius’s fourth-century adversaries, said, ”A theologian is one whose prayer is true.“ Theology is, at root, prayer—specifically, adoration. This is why our worship is the center of all we do. There is not an Orthodox tradition of removed, deductive theological reasoning; one searches in vain for a Summa Theologica, or even a complete systematic theology. Yet there are whole libraries of books on prayer.
Further, our prayer is not merely ”Celebrate Jesus! Celebrate!“ It’s about the glory of Christ, threatened by that weasel Arius, rescued by God-illuminated theologians after pitched battle, vindicated in the graphic judgment of God. Recounting this story is worship, because theology is prayer, adoration is being filled with the light of capital-T Truth. A popular informal hymn in evangelical circles is based on Psalm 42: ”As the deer panteth for the water so my soul longeth after thee; you alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship thee.“ The melody is lovely and haunting, somewhat like Greensleeves. It speaks of yearning, even if the lyrics can’t decide if they’re addressing ”you“ or ”thee.“
Once my husband commented on this song, ”Back when we were Protestants we were always singing songs like this, about how we longed to worship. The truth was that we didn’t know how to worship; we just glimpsed it from time to time. As best as we could tell, it was about emotion.“
I remembered that, that intense hunger for God and the frustrating sense that it would never be satisfied. Since we became Orthodox, I realized, that hunger has diminished. Not because our worship is particularly emotional; sometimes emotion appears, but when it doesn’t the dignity and authority of the ancient prayers are sufficient to bear you beyond yourself. In fact, when worship is emotion-powered it’s like a funpark ride, and you’re being carried around as a treat. It’s only when those emotions fade and you get down to the business of doing the work, following the way, saying the prayers even when you don’t feel like it, that your stony heart begins to budge. It’s only the offerings done from deliberate will that bend the will and shape it to fit the will of God. Giddy emotions feel good, and all of us might need a bowl of ice cream from time to time, but they don’t produce spiritual growth. Orthodox worship doesn’t engender that kind of emotion, I find. I’m less likely to face the twins I knew so well before: flushed sentimental weepiness, or vexed, restless yearning when that treat was absent, the yearning I believed this song was about. Instead, the spiritual emotions I find prompted by walking the path that Orthodoxy teaches are complex and hard to describe: the overwhelming, deliciously terrifying riptide of God’s love; the rapturous joy of weeping over my sins; the sweet stinging desire to bring others to see the beautiful face of Jesus.
I don’t have to ”long to worship thee“ anymore; I do worship him. The longing is satisfied, not by emotional thrills, but by something that just feels right, like a key in a lock, like ”food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food“ (I Cor. 6:13). I was made for this. Orthodoxy means ”right teaching.“ It also means ”right praise."