We approach things so differently in our modern world (as opposed to the ancient world). All of us have access to a great deal of information, although the information that comes to us when we are in the passive mode is less than useless (here I mean television and popular media). Thus I would paraphrase Our Lord and say, “How hard it is for a couch potato to enter the Kingdom of God!”
Having said that by way of introduction – how was the approach to things different in the ancient world? (I confess to thinking of several things said by Mel Brooks at this point but I will resist that temptation). For one – the Christian faith was not presented as an argument most of the time – and was not even presented in its fullness until after someone had been Baptized.
Thus we have the ancient phenomenon of “Mystagogical Catechesis.” This was the training and teaching that was given to the newly Baptized and Illumined members of the Church. By and large this was done in the season after Pascha (which was also the season when the Gospel of John was read in the Church). We have examples of such catecheses in the preserved Mystagogical Catechesis of St. Cyril of Jerusalem and other writings.
Generally what makes these catecheses “mystagogical” was that the teaching led the newly initiated members of the Body of Christ into an understanding of the “mysteries,” that is, of the sacramental life of the Church. This is more than simply lectures on the sacraments or the correct approach to receiving communion, etc. (although there are references to such), but rather a deeper understanding of God in Christ as known in the life of the Church (which is primarily expressed in the Church’s worship and thus is sacraments or “mysteries” as they are more commonly called in the Eastern Church).
What separates this approach from our modern world is that it presumes that you can only know God by living your life in a certain manner and through worship and the inner life of the Church’s mysteries. Our modern world, particularly the American modern world, presumes that knowledge, like all of our modern culture, is a consumable product. If I want to know something, I deal with the “sales pitch” and then decide to purchase it. Much of modern Christian evangelism is given in this consumerist approach. Many understand this to be taking the culture seriously on its own terms, but fail to consider that a consumerist approach may be a false presentation of the Christian gospel.
Many have commented when approaching the Orthodox Church that it seems almost “uninterested” in new members. This is not true – but the Church is properly reluctant to engage in sales.
I recall my own approach to the Orthodox faith. The priest with whom I had most of my conversations over a seven-year period, never once tried to “close the deal.” I asked him about this after I was received into the Church. “Oh,” he laughed, “I assume that everyone who comes through the doors of the Church is called to be an Orthodox Christian – but that’s God’s problem. My task is to practice hospitality.” And so he did. I was always made to feel welcome and my questions were always treated seriously. But there was never the pressure to “make a decision.” In time everything came together and my family and I were received into the Church. There was serious preparation (confessions, renunciation of false doctrine, etc.), but not until we were making ourselves ready to be received.
I wrote earlier of a “last minute word to catechumens.” In truth, the preparation for Baptism or Chrismation is only a preparation for catechesis. The “longer catechism” (to borrow a term from Protestant history) is the catechesis of the mysteries – which in one way or another lasts the rest of your life. Now we enter into the day to day participation of the life of the Church in its fullness, which is a path deeper into the knowledge of the Living God.
There are no arguments that can make the knowledge of God known for God is not a syllogism. We must finally know Him as a Person alone can be known: in freedom and in love. This is the mystagogical life of a Christian. In freedom and in love we yield ourselves constantly to God – who has Himself already yielded the same to us. In our mutual union with Him, we come to know Him, “even as we ourselves are known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Knowledge in the Orthodox Church is not mere mental machinations but ontological experience and transformation. It cannot be “taught” it can only be entered into. Baptism and Christmation initiate us into that knowledge (The Truth). The sacramental life allows the interpenetration of the Incarnate God to continue to grow within us. That is why my 20 year old son, raised all of his life in the Church and having spent 2/3 of his life serving in the altar seems to easily understand certain aspects of the faith for which I am still reaching cognitively.
The rationalist way of learning is largely dictomous, e.g, God vs man, faith vs science, etc. The Church’s way is expressed antinomically beginning with the incomprehensible reality of the God/man, fully God and fully man without confusion neither overwhelming the other. Union in distinct personhood. Each knowing the other as the other is known.
Oh I needed that word today. Feeling like I’ve botched nearly everything in the last few days, including how our family celebrated our first pascha, and like I am a bit overwhelmed with how little I understand both of Orthodoxy and the world we live in, it was a comfort to be reminded that I’m just starting this journey.
Dear Father Stephen:
What a wonderful exposition (whether intentional or not) on the Gospel reading from St. Luke’s Gospel, Ch. 24, about how the disciples eyes were opened after hearing the Word reveal the meaning of the words of the scriptures (OT) and making Himself known to them “in the breaking of bread.” Truly it seems it is in this life of liturgy of the word and mysteries that he is seen and made known to us.
Thank you again for your continued fine meditations and exhortations here. Pray for me.
in Christ’s service,
I think you said it far better than I did.
We’re all just starting. Welcome back! Christ is risen!
Well said! I will indeed pray for you.
“Knowledge…is a consumable product.” Father, your blog is *such* a breath of fresh air. I wish I could copy and paste this post into a list I belong to, where one woman is convinced she knows Everything About Being Orthodox — having spent a good deal of time *reading up* on it!!! And nothing anyone says about living it, or experiencing it, can convince her otherwise — she thinks we’re all New Agers.
Once you get into it, though, you realize that you will never know everything about being Orthodox, and if you’re really, really blessed, you might manage to scratch the surface — which is where most of us belong, anyway. I’m reminded of that Psalm that says, “Thy knowledge is too wonderful for me, I cannot attain unto it.” I’m not really willing to say that I can handle the knowledge of God better than the likes of King David!
As someone intrigued by the EO Church, I’ve benefited greatly from your blog and really enjoyed listening to your conversion story on AFR.
The “mysteries” are a big part of what draws me, and I suspect many other evangelicals who’ve grown weary of our decided lack of mystery and overemphasis on reason.
Yet, I must admit that I’m bothered by what appears to me to be an overly inward, and sometimes self-indulgent focus many EO members seem to exhibit (I do attend a mission church in my hometown).
Could it be that the constant pursuit of “mystery” results in a self absorbed faith which subconsciously negates reaching out to others? What did Jesus mean when he said “take up your cross and follow me?” Or “Come with me and I will make you fishers of men.”
I do appreciate the EO concept of attraction versus promotion and agree that it is the better way, but I must confess that I have never heard, or rarely see any orthodox disucssion on the internet about loving your neighbor, as in reaching out to orphans and widows.
Let me give you an example. Our son is adopted from Russia and we are in the process of adopting two girls from Ukraine. From what I’ve seen and heard, the only contact these kids have from Christians are not from Orthodox Christians. It’s evangelical Americans who are in the trenches when it comes to loving the most neglected children in these predominantly Orthodox countries.
Where is the Orthodox Church? Reportedly, a priest shows up once a year to baptize the unbaptized orphans, never to be seen again. Likewise, I have yet to meet an Orthodox westerner in one of these countries who is adopting. The vast majority of Americans who are rescuing these kids (especially older ones) are evangelicals who believe that the gospel compels them to take risks.
As D.L. Moody reportedly once quipped: “I like the way I’m doing it better than the way you aren’t!”
I don’t mean to offend, and I know many will respond to refute some of the examples I’ve given. I am simply sharing some serious concerns as I pray about one of the most important decisions I will ever make.
Jfred in Virginia
Jfred, your criticism is not without validity. A truly mature Orthodox approach has out reach as a main component. One only has to read the history of the Russian Orthodox mission to Alaska to understand that. But there are many who are taking up the cross which you identify. A couple from my home parish spent over 10 years in Romania as Orthodox missonaries working closely with the Orthodox Church there to establish care for the orphans and the children of criminals in prison. There were many obstacles they faced that the non-Orthodox did not face. (The EU has outlawed most foreign adoption at this point) The Orthodox Church world wide was severely damaged by the Communist persecution and oppression, the Slavic jurisdictions most of all. Everything was new to the Orthodox Church so recently freed from the persecution and oppression of the Communists. The Romanian Church had to work on many fronts at once: restructure her hierarchy, raise money, rebuild her churches, find expertise, get government approval, begin teaching her children and re-educating her priests.
In the United States it has only been since the 1980’s that we have begun to look outside the various immigrant communities to the rest of the country, let alone to other countries. The missonary impluse has been slow to take root in some ways but it is not a theological problem. Our Incarnational approach demands that we care for the physical needs of others and is, in fact, a central part of Orthodox mission. The problem you are seeing is an historical hiccup in the life of the Church which will be and is being rectified in a pretty short space of time. The Protestants have been well organized and well funded for many years. It is not surprising that they could mount a much more rapid, coherent and effective response to the needs of the children.
Your entries are so helpful to those of us who are relatively new to Orthodoxy. Just one quick comment. One of the things I always found disconcerting about the Evangelical Protestant tradition was that once you were saved you had all the information you needed. Orthodoxy lets us approach the mysteries and learn through living the life. It seems a more proper and enlightened approach.
Your column always blesses me, too!
Though designed with the R.C.I.A. (i.e., Roman Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) in mind, this book:
The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation by Edward Yarnold
contains footnoted modern translations of the baptismal homilies of Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia. The first time I read Cyril’s work in this book, my reaction (as a Charismatic/Evangelical Protestant hesitatingly exploring Orthodoxy) was to think: “The early church comes from a totally different planet than the one I’ve been living on!”
People complain about the Orthodox practice of “closed communion (Eucharist).” They don’t realize that for most of its first few centuries, Christianity and its mysteries, and not just the Eucharist, was “closed” to non-initiates.
Please allow me to speak briefly about my own silly way of thinking about mysteries…
For me the most helpful way to think about mystery is to realize that, at bottom, all church mysteries are mysteries of mutuality. That is to say, they are mysteries because they relate us to another person and most frequently to God himself.
I’m now married almost 30 years and my wife is still a mystery that’s worth everything I am and have to know. This is a journey filled with many “sacraments.”
Even prayer is a mystery about the person of God we meet within.
I think the Christian mysteries are just as concrete as persons are, and just as unknown or “mysterious” as persons are unkown.
The passions are bad because don’t see faces or hate the faces they see.
Thus, christian mysteries are anything but world-denying. The needy persons around us are mysteries and God’s love should leap out of us and bind us to them.
The Orthodox were decimated by the years of Communist oppression, and are only just beginning to flower again in the former communist world. They are responsible for more than a majority of the population but until the 90’s were allowed only 2 seminaries and about a half dozen monasteries (functioning) in the country. Since then they have opened innumerable seminaries, trained, ordained, etc. many men for the priesthood. But still, the nation is seriously understaffed for the need.
Protestant churches in the U.S., rich as can be, poured money into missions in former Communist lands. But they did not pour money into rebuilding the Church of Russia. The poured money into Americanizing religion in Russia.
Orthodox Christians are deeply involved in mission in many places, most especially in nations where they were once the majority Church. They have to reconvert their own people and are working hard at it.
But when you look at Russia and the Ukraine you are looking at a Church that is rising from the ashes. They are doing much, just not as much as is needed.
On the other hand, financial aid to the work of Orthodox in Russia would help. But the Orthodox, even in America, are not rich or large churches. Instead we live with money flowing into Orthodox lands from Protestants and Catholics – neither of whom are funding Orthodox work.
But we are doing mission. I live by doing mission. Like many Orthodox priests in the US, I supported myself for my first 2 years as an Orthodox priest, and then lived on a fraction of what I made as a Protestant minister. I have helped in starting several churches, I write, I preach, I teach, I do all that I can and encourage others to do the same (and I am still an unprofitable servant as Christ said). But I wouldn’t be Orthodox if the faith hadn’t been shared with me.
Much of that faith would not have existed except for the blood of the martyrs in the 20th century. Martyrdom is serious mission.
Many of the Orthodox Churches in America were built by miners and steel workers – who built churches – helped fund seminaries and gave the Church a small foothold in America – where giants like Schmemann, Meyendorff, Florovsky – who were either fleeing the persecutions of their homeland or were the children of those who fled.
When I get to know various Russians in my congregation (to take an example) it seems that if you listen you discover that everyone had someone in the family who perished in the camps. Everyone probably also had someone in the family who was in the party. It was a long 70 years.
But the faith and actions of Orthodoxy are the same as they have been for centuries. There are good times and bad, good priests and bad, good laymen and bad. But the faith remains, and the fruit of the Spirit, witnessed in the holy lives of true saints, continues to be produced by this vine which the Lord has planted.
The only reason to become Orthodox is if you believe it to be the truth. Only knowing that will help you bear the burden of the failures of the Church and of your own sins. Only that will help any of us come to repentance and beseech God’s mercy that we may become the light of the world in our generation.
I believe it is the truth and am staking my life and that of my family on it. Beyond that, I hardly know what to say.
Forgive me for writing so long – it is something that I care deeply about.
My oldest daughter spent a year in Krasnoyarsk (Siberia) when she was in college. She lived with an Orthodox woman, attended Church and attended college among the Russians (she is now married to an American, an Orthodox priest, and they will be assigned to a Church this summer when he graduates from St. Vladimir’s).
She told me the story when she was there of one of her Russian girlfirends who was going to go to a Vineyard mission church one Sunday. My daughter asked her, “Why are you going there? You’re Orthodox?”
The girl replied, “There’s no difference. They have icons, too (the Vineyard mission had rented an auditorium and had set up icons to give the place the feel of church, though I’m sure they do not venerate icons – it was just decoration) and, she said, they have rock and roll!”
This is the witness of American Protestantism?
Of course, this is an isolated story, as are all stories. But it does make a point. Virtual icons and rock and roll – in the name of Jesus – but also selling the destruction of Christian culture and working against the building up of a Christian nation.
Virtual icons destroy real icons. They eat at them by attacking their meaning. Just as the culture of rock and roll has been a part of the slow disintegration of our own culture (I don’t condemn rock as a music form – I like some rock – but the culture of rock and roll has been destructive in my observation).
Again, I’ve probably said too much. But maybe the Orthodox have not said enough.
But if the faith is the true faith, then there is no real question about difficult decisions. In the end, by the grace of God, you pray to do the right thing. That’s all any of us can do.
It seems to me that the Orthodox practice a policy of “attraction rather than promotion.” There is the pull of Orthodoxy, of its saints, of the Mysteries, and even individual Orthodox believers. I was first drawn by a friendly Orthodox convert, not so much because of his dogma but by his life and his humility.
There are so many times when words just aren’t enough. The loudest words cannot make anyone believe. Actions speak so much louder and are more meaningful, and cannot be argued with.
“The only reason to become Orthodox is if you believe it to be the truth. Only knowing that will help you bear the burden of the failures of the Church and of your own sins. Only that will help any of us come to repentance and beseech God’s mercy that we may become the light of the world in our generation.”
Amen to that, Father.
There is much about Orthodoxy, as it is actually practiced, that repels me – mainly the utter, inexcusable disorganisation of it all – but it’s the best we’ve got. In fact, it’s all we’ve got. We each need to make things better in whatever way we can. Despair is not an option!
Can we talk sometime about this mystogogical catechesis? I’m newly illumined and very much feel like one of the infants I see in my parish communing in the arms of her parents…doing what I should be in faith, but with minimal understanding. Granted, I’m much better with this now than I ever would have been in my past protestant life, and I trust I will grow in understanding of the mysteries over time, but what did this catechesis look like? How were the newly initiated trained after Pascha? Is it something more than just participating in the liturgical life of the church?
Christ is risen!
Yes, glad to talk. There are some things probably worth reading, slowly, deliberately.
In the first four or five centuries, this catechesis was usually the province of the Bishop. Today, godparents may do some (but most of that is irregular or uneven).