When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:4-21)
Please forgive such a lengthy quote of Scripture, though such a lengthy quote is precisely what we need to read. First, it underlines that St. Paul’s goal for his converts was indeed lofty: “to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpassess knowledge….” It is also a way to underline that the goal we have for ourselves should be no less lofty. When someone says that it will take a lifetime – it’s an understatement.
One of the desert fathers as he lay on his deathbed began to weep. The brothers asked him why – he had lived the ascetic life with such completeness. His reply, “I have not made a beginning of repentance.”
Neither should any of this cause us to lose heart. It should have the opposite effect! I cannot turn aside because the goal is too wonderful!
It also underlines the nature of conversion to Orthodoxy and why it can never be merely an intellectual assent. Where God is taking us “surpasses knowledge.” Why would we want to limit ourselves to the intellect? You’ll need all the intellect you have, but it won’t be enough. You are more wonderfully made than that!
If someone asks me (and I do get asked) what do I have to believe in order to become Orthodox? My eventual answer (my children say my answers are very long indeed) is something like, “Everything.” It is this very character of Orthodoxy – that it is indeed the existential reality of the life in Christ – that makes conversion more of an invitation to a way of life than the acceptance of a set of propositions. And this is very difficult in our American culture.
One of my members who was received several years ago along with wife and children said to me, “Becoming Orthodox feels more like joining a tribe than joining a Church.” (Stanley Hauerwas would have loved the statement!) He meant not that the Orthodox Church is tribal – but that it was like accepting and becoming part of a family, a way of life. And this is true.
It also underlines a danger that exists for us all. The American model of the parish is simply less than what a parish should be. Our suburban lifestyle has much to do with it. I have members who drive more than an hour to reach our Church. I’m flattered and heartbroken (that there should be so few Orthodox Churches). But it also forces a sort of suburbanization of the parish. When we were in the process of finding a location for our parish, several of the land candidates were in “great locations.” What they lacked, however, was actually being located somewhere. Now that, of course, sounds silly, but it is quite possible to live somewhere in America that isn’t really anywhere.
Our current location is our own building, but we share parking with an insurance agency (which is another building) a dental office, and CPA. I like having that much traffic in and out of our parking lot daily. It feels like we are somewhere. I contrast where we are with broken heart when I think of the village churches I saw in England last summer. Driving across the countryside you will see a copse of trees every few miles and standing above the trees the steeple or tower (mostly towers) of a Church. Stopping in a village I could see where Churches (and people for that matter) belong.
I ask forgiveness again, but the American suburban neighborhood is probably the worst invention in human history for the dwelling of human beings. A vast number of people do not know their neighbors. Last week I met a woman and her young son when my wife and I and my son’s fiancee went for a walk. The mother and son joined us. They have lived in their house (40 feet from mine) for over four years and I did not know them. That is my sin (I do know my other neighbors much better).
Now admittedly, we go to different Churches and that does not help. She may go to a different grocery story, and that does not help. If she lives in Oak Ridge, she undoubtedly goes to Walmart, but everyone goes there and I don’t really have opportunity to meet her or her family there.
In such settings, the local parish becomes a commodity perveyor. Our homes are consumer units (they all have televisions – usually more than one or two). Each home, indeed, contains all that is necessary for the family to get by: Washers, dryers, etc. When I lived in an apartment building while in school at Duke, we met people while doing the laundry, walking about, swimming at the pool, etc. As awful as I thought that housing was, it was probably functionally superior to the average neighborhood.
Ideally, the Orthodox Church is the village temple. Indeed our prayers often call the Church building a “temple.” It is God’s house, a place of prayer. In many countries it will remain unlocked and there will be someone present who will offer candles for sale (so they may be lit for prayers). This also provides someone to direct you to the priest and the like. But its function is normatively a very integrated function. Church itself is part of the way of life.
When Europe was still civilized (America has long lost any Christian civilization), there were over 50 days a year set aside as feast days on which no work was done other than the festival of the Church. One of the reasons the Reformation resulted in such an increase of wealth, was it lengthened the work-year by 50 days (including, under the Puritans, Christmas and Easter).
There are places that have intentionally created communities in which the Church is in “walking distance,” and it is a very good idea and certainly a place to begin. But we are not likely to change the infrastructure of America any time soon. Thus the home has an increasing role to play in Orthodox prayer – indeed it always has – even when the Church was in the village.
Having a family “beautiful corner” (an icon corner) is important – and is equally an important place where prayer for feasts can be read in addition to other prayers. All of these “small things” are really about the one really “large thing,” the knowledge of Christ in His fullness. I am in the process of gathering materials for home usage – I’ve had some good suggestions from some responders already. And the calendar – something largely used in the West and East – originally for Church purposes alone – becomes indispensable. The flow of the days and the feasts carry us deeper into the faith and deeper into the knowledge of Christ Who is our Salvation.
We not only need to believe the Christian faith – our goal is to become the Christian faith.