There are many things that we see in our lives to which the word “traditional” may be attached. It can refer to a style of dress or an understanding of relationships. In Church it may refer to the use of certain kinds of music or a sytle of worship. Many years ago, pastoring my first parish as an Episcopal priest, I had a young couple who were Roman Catholics, who had come to the Church as inquirers. One of their first statements and complaints to me was that the service in my parish was not “traditional” enough. I was slightly puzzled. My eleven o’clock service was a choral Eucharist, about as traditionally “high church” as Anglicans get. I was also aware that the surrounding Catholic Churches were all pretty contemporary in their worship. I should add that the couple was in their early twenties.
They explained away my confusion. By “traditional” they meant: “where are the guitars?” “In the eye of the beholder,” is all I could think.
The same can be said of the contemporary use of the word “traditional” or other phrases such as “ancient,” etc. I know there are experiments out there to bring a more “traditional” style of worship into Evangelicalism (and here “traditional” means, I believe, “liturgical”). In many places an increased emphasis on the Eucharist as the primary service of worship on Sundays is also part of the package.
On the one hand, these efforts can hardly be faulted from an Orthodox point of view. The more people explore the “tradition,” the more likely they are to confront the faith – which was, after all, “once and for all ‘traditioned’ to the saints,” for that is the meaning of Jude 1:3. But on the other hand, there is a danger in confusing the outward trappings of “tradition” with “Tradition” itself. For what was once and for all delivered to the saints, was not so much questions of liturgy and incense (although all of these ritual and liturgical elements of Orthodoxy do carry with them the content of Tradition – they are not electives), rather the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints was and is indeed the content of the faith – the living union between the true and living God and man. That faith truly reveals to us and makes accessible to us the true and living God, and it also reveals to us and makes accessible what it is to be a truly living human being. The content of the Christian faith, the living Tradition, is the truth of both God and man, and the truth of our salvation through union with God in Christ.
The content of the Tradition is not a set of ideas – but a reality – God with us.
And this is the problem that always accompanies attempts to reach that reality through reform. It is not our reformation that is the problem in the first place. We cannot reform ourselves into union with Christ. We can submit ourselves to union with Christ and not much else. We can cooperate with union with Christ.
Invariably, the great stumbling block faced by various attempts to “recreate” or “rediscover” the “early Church,” is that the “early Church,” is not an historical reality. It is a present reality – not simply as the “early Church” (this is not a Biblical phrase anyway). The present reality is the same as the “early Church”: it is the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the true and living Way. It never ceased nor was overcome by the gates of Hell. It has lived and thrived in enough places to have picked up many languages, many customs, but always the same faith.
This always comes as a stumbling block, I believe, because the existence of the Orthodox Church stands as a stark witness to the True and Living God – not the idea of a God – but God. In my own conversion, I was utterly shocked by this fact. I had read about Orthodoxy for years. I agreed with it for years. I would have even readily agreed for years to everything the Orthodox Church said of itself, and yet I remained outside. When, at last, my family and I were actually received into the Church, I was staggered by the reality of God. I know that sounds strange (since I had been an ordained Anglican priest for 18 years prior to that) but such was the case. There was no longer any question about discussing God, or refining the tradition, or even debating how all of it was to be applied. I was now in the thick of things and God was reigning down in canon, text, Bishop, sacrament, penance, sight, sound, rubrics (which I could not begin to fathom at first) – everything!
Thus, I surprised friends constantly in my first year or so of Orthodoxy when they asked me what was the most important thing about my conversion. My constant reply (to this day) was: the existence of God.
This, somehow, is the content that sets the Tradition apart from all discussions of appropriating tradition, etc. You do not appropriate something whose content is God. You are Baptized into it. You are Chrismated into it. You are absolved for ever having lived apart from it. You are fed it on a spoon. You are splashed with it. But you cannot appropriate it. To paraphrase: Your life’s to small to appropriate God.
Thus many in our time stand at the edge of Tradition. I have written that it is all really about Being – and it is. Thus it is worth going over the edge, to cross from thinking about God, to being plunged into the heart of it all. Frighteningly, it will come complete with Bishops whom you like and whom you despise – with stories of contemporary saints – and encounters with contemporary sinners. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. What else can a man do?
So, what do you think about the whole traditionalist movement? Also, have you read Living Tradition, I think that’s the name, by John Meyendorff?
I read parts of Meyendorff’s book but it’s been a while. I think the “whole traditionalist movement” is a genuine hunger.
A genuine hunger for what? Do you consider yourself a traditionalist or not? I have tried to Meyendorff’s book. Its very hard.
“My constant reply (to this day) was: the existence of God.”
When I listen to myself and hear other struggling Christians get honest, it is clear that unbelief plagues so many, if not most professing believers today.
I am just beginning to understand how immersing oneself in the ancient faith can guard against this.
One of the desert fathers is quoted as saying, “Prayer is struggle to a man’s dying breath.” It is true. The true faith guards us, if we let it, by pointing us constantly back to God, and urging us away from self-deception. It’s not belief (intellectual) so much as it is the existential emptying of ourselves into God, living for nothing else – or as nothing else matters other than as it matters in Him. It’s why we finally have to step over the edge. By the way, I’ve been reading some on your site. It’s very good. I am praying for you – may God keep your heart.
I consider myself an Orthodox Christian. The Tradition is nothing other than the living and abiding presence of the Spirit in the Church – God’s Life in the Church. As such I would that I were utterly filled with Tradition. But a traditionalist? Like I was trying to preserve some past century or something? Tradition is eschatological – it is the end of all things now present with us. To be immersed in that Tradition is almost the opposite of what the world might mean by a traditionalist. I am an Orthodox Christian. Apart from that I don’t really care for or desire any label. What use is it?
Sometimes it really scares me. The thought that I’m getting taken up into an ‘enthusiasm’, a new craze, and that not being taken up into Christ. A new, or even, an older, more authentic Christianity. But like all enthusiasms, it can just fade away – and then all the posturing, debating and “witnessing to the truth” can look rather silly. I’ve become self-sceptical, and sometimes find it difficult to express myself – because I doubt myself. Sometimes it is almost amusing. And sometimes it is almost Churchill’s black dog…..
The first service I attended at what is now our family’s Orthodox Church was the one of Pentecost complete with kneeling vespers. From the time I heard “lay aside all earthly cares” until we had completed all the prayers said that day, I knew that God had led my heart home to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth. I also knew he had answered the prayers of my husband and I as we sought where to worship and bring up our children in the Christian faith.
I realize the church services are “not all there is” to being an Orthodox Christian, but what a blessing! I’d say it is more than a blessing of tradition. The whole opportunity to worship in community points each individual heart to God. The whole teaching of the Church of Christ is how to exist here in this flesh. A great deal of encouragement and teaching is to be found in our community worship.
I am probably not expressing myself well, but I am profoundly grateful. Thank you for posting these thoughts, Fr. Stephen!
Our only possible defense is to yield ourselves daily to Christ and then every moment. To not make the “cause” somehow more important than Christ. This I think, by God’s grace, is possible, and without his mercy impossible.
When people ask me why I became Orthodox, my pat answer is because I found the Truth. Of course this doesn’t suffice, and it isn’t meant to, it was perhaps a shield to keep others from too personal a truth.
But you have said exactly what I mean. Yes, I have found the Truth about God, perhaps I should change my answer to: I have found out that God exists and now I know Love from the Source of all things. God is good.
“This, somehow, is the content that sets the Tradition apart from all discussions of appropriating tradition, etc. You do not appropriate something whose content is God. You are Baptized into it. You are Chrismated into it. You are absolved for ever having lived apart from it. You are fed it on a spoon. You are splashed with it. But you cannot appropriate it. To paraphrase: Your life’s to small to appropriate God.”
I wonder that this isn’t a great distinction between where we are, and where we came from. Where we came from so often endeavors to appropriate the “best of the best” which I think was also the intent of the Reformers in many ways. And yet for all the good intention, this selectivity not only ends up begging the question of authority, but also ends up seeing things as only one sided, flattening belief and robbing it of the fullness of its dimensions…. And as the “newness” of appropriation wears thin, the effort continues, becoming quickly dependent on further “revivals” and “renewals”… which can and do happen every century or so…. and yet the faithful are exhausted by constant change, revolution, and the “tweaks” that seem to designed almost as a test of faith. And given this experience, their relapsing into unbelief may be understood… as perhaps not without reason or justification. Faith just doesn’t seem it should be that hard… if indeed revelation was once and for all delivered to the saints! I mean if the lives of the saints are a more or less consistent witness to a consistent Truth, then what’s all the fuss about? Their consecrated lives are indeed guideposts to our understanding of the celebrated translation of the Word of God into the lives of men…. and the record suggests that few of them seem to have done this unaware of Christ and His Church.
So I think back to one of your earlier pieces on “The Nature of Things” which left me wondering whether you would tie in the old Heraclitus “De Rarum Natura”… and the wonderful fragment of his about the stream that thrilled me as a young man. I guess one of the ways it still does is that I see Tradition as a stream that we step into, that changes us as all are changed… even down to the molecular level. We cannot step into the stream without becoming part of it… it moves around our very feet… flows differently on its banks… and we are joined in it, and in a sense together rather than separate.. but without confusion. Tradition for us is not something stiff, dry and rigid, but like the waters of life itself running in the stream. Were this stream envisioned as the energies between the atomic structure of our very selves, and were we to endeavor to see these through the same micro-photography we use in studying quark patterns, we would surely see the in the stream, how it moves through us entirely rather than simply brushing the outside of our person. Instead we would be still and become aware of God everywhere present and filling all things… even quite physically at the core of our being. And it breaks one’s heart to think of those who would suggest otherwise, or who blind themselves or are blinded otherwise to this possibility are unaware in many ways that they have simply swallowed a false bill of goods. For the preference to remain invulnerable, to remain unchanged, is to remain ultimately rigid in conformity to the world, to remain in denial of our real existence, and become brittle before the inevitable winds of change, the disappointments and heartaches of everyday existence… and ultimately to express the gift of our freedom in a way which sadly dissolves our very selves needlessly.
I’m still working on the sub-molecular realignment. 🙂 Smash a few atoms here and there and maybe I’ll start to get a few things right. Which is to say that though now I am “in the Church”, until the interior furniture really gets re-arranged, it will take some time before the Church is really in me. And it is perhaps in this manner that I suppose you mean “I consider myself Orthodox” ?
Thanks for a though provoking piece to break the day!
Sorry for the long post… it looked shorter at the time.
It seems I’m having trouble posting a comment here… I wrote it and sent it, but it’s not published and WordPress is saying that I already wrote it it…?
Anyway, here it is again and hopefully it won’t show up twice!
When I “took a break from church,” as JFred has noted elsewhere that many Evangelical men are doing, I actually put Jesus on the back burner in my mind. I was tired of hearing sermons, because they all sounded like something I’d heard before with a new analogy applied (many from the sport of American football) or like an academically researched graduation speech. I was frustrated reading the Bible because it was confusing or started fights or even boring (Lord have mercy on me for saying so). I decided to put Jesus —or rather, my thinking about him — on the back burner because I just didn’t get what I thought I was supposed to get about him: that he was my friend, that he walked with me and talked with me, etc, etc. Oddly, I didn’t have a problem with God, or at least my limited understanding of Him. I’ve always been somewhat comfortable with mystery and so the idea of God as Other did not bother me. The problems of pain and suffering in the world did not hamper my acceptance of God as the Great Lover of my soul… Of course, I knew that Jesus ad something to do with that, but I didn’t get it, so I put that part on hold.
Now I am moving slowly into the Tradition of the Church. Even just yesterday I read something that helped turn a light on in my brain that has never been on before. It wasn’t any profound writing from the Desert Fathers or the Saints. I can’t even remember the exact part of the passage that did it for me, but as I was reading Alexander Schmemman’s “The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy,” the way he so plainly wrote of Jesus calling the Apostles and that they then began retelling what they knew… Well, something small but very exciting happened. It sounds so simple and naive, and why didn’t I “get” this before, but now, I have this window of…understanding? I don’t know what to call it, but I was rejoicing in my heart, because suddenly what seemed so long ago and so far away to my formerly Protestant mind (2,000 years ago!) seems now in my ever-slightly-more Orthodox heart that just 2,000 years ago, only 2,000 years ago, not long ago at all (because bathed in Tradition, it all becomes real), God walked among us as a man, taught some people the Way of His Kingdom, and they have passed it on to us, to me!
Tradition keeps what happened yesterday current for today, yet it changes nothing. It is culturally relevant becuase it creates the relevance, in a way. Or rather it KEEPS the relevance. When is Truth not relevant? And Tradition keeps Truth, like a lighthouse keeper keeps the light on. The “culturally relevant” methods of the churches I grew up in ended up being irrelevant for passing on an understanding of the Truth about Christ, always current, always relevant (He walked here not so long ago!).
I am grateful for Tradition. Glory to God.
My reason for becoming Orthodox was much the same as yours, Father, although I didn’t even recognize it until I’d been Orthodox for a while: I’d discovered that God was real, I mean really truly real, and that He was good and that He loved mankind. I was a Christian before, but I don’t know if I ever truly believed God existed. It was, and continues to be, a mind-blowing revelation.
I agree that there is a huge difference between appropriating traditions that are interesting and appealing and being actually brought into the Tradition. Did you read the article in Christianity Today about “ancient-future” Christians? The cover of the magazine says, “Lost Secrets of the Ancient Church.” Lost? Hardly. I also read an article linked from Getreligion.com about “new monastics” (who aren’t really monks – I don’t think that word means what they think it means. 🙂 ) I agree with your statement about the “traditionalist movement” being a hunger for a real God.
Personally, I see it as a hunger for heaven. Maybe I see it that way because being in church is like getting a glimpse of heaven for just a couple of hours (even with my fidgety kids and clingy toddler!). And when I became Orthodox, I discovered that I’d been wanting this all my life. I just hadn’t known it. But it wouldn’t be the same without all of it, all the smells and bells. I see the move among Protestants (and particularly evangelicals) towards discovering ancient practices to be a good thing, if it leads people to God and His Church. Otherwise, incense and icons are just fads. Personally, I never saw the point in picking out just the things I liked. If it was true, it was all true (even if I didn’t understand it – there’s still a lot of things like that!). If it wasn’t true, it was all a waste of time. Once I decided that God was in this church, why be anywhere else? That’s not to say that God isn’t in other churches of course, but I *knew* He was here. I’d never known that before, after a lifetime in church. I was very clearly called to the Church. Others aren’t and I don’t understand that. I don’t understand how people can pick and choose and not just dive in. But, I know that God loves mankind and that He is not willing that any should perish, so I trust Him to take care of those other people. I have enough to deal with just living out my own faith! 🙂
Thank you for another wonderful post.
I guess I read the above and part of me is filled with longing, but then another part of me wonders, “Yes, but how do you really know?” I have been in groups that claimed they *were* the true church (or the true form of what the church was supposed to take, etc). Heck, the Mormons and the Jehovah Witnesses say that, not just the Catholics, the Evangelicals, etc.
The fact that history is on the side of the Orthodox means…that they’ve been doing things the same way for a LOOOONG time (admirable), and yet even that still doesn’t *prove* anything. The Pharisees were doing things the same way for a long time, but that in and of itself didn’t prove that they were RIGHT, you know? You can do things the same way for a long time and be just as dead wrong as the folks who change things every decade.
I guess I am, one the one hand, drawn—deeply drawn, and on the other hand, too jaded to believe that this one, truly, is “It,” just because some people say it is.
This place I find myself in is very frustrating. (So, er, until I figure out a way to navigate through this sticking point, I think I will remain safely in inward-regressed-fetal-position in the hand of Yahweh). 🙂 🙂
Btw, I love the distinction between appropriating tradition and entering *into* Tradition. That’s one of the things that I find incredibly appealing about the OC.
And another btw, I didn’t mean the above comment in any sort of angry tone or anything like that. I’m frustrated, I guess, between a longing and a heavy level of doubt (well-earned, through a certain amount of “betrayals” in various churches/theological camps, etc). But I’m not angry. It’s more like sorrow.
Also, I think I would feel a lot more free to “try it and see” if I didn’t have children. But I don’t want to drag my children through a “let’s go for a year and then quit” experience, as I don’t think it would be good for them, as well as the fact that my husband is less than interested. So that makes me a lot more tentative (and wanting to be a LOT more *positive* before I take a step forward) than I would probably be as a single adult.
“We cannot reform ourselves into union with Christ. We can submit ourselves to union with Christ and not much else.”
This concept of submission has been very real for me. I am stunned by the inability, even refusal, of my close friends and family members toward the idea of submitting to church authority.
They are all highly intelligent, most of them theologically trained. Classic Americans, for sure, who just don’t want to give up their own autonomy. It’s a shame, of course, as submitting to the Tradition brings fullness, love and relationship rather than one man drifting all alone in his quest to determine all truth with his own intellect.
Not that they get all this. They simply look at what I’m doing in submitting to Orthodoxy, shake their heads like they’ve just seen a Frenchmen eat some raw snails, and move on.
My heart goes out to you because I know what you mean – the questions – and what do I do with my children, etc.? How do I know?
I don’t think I could ultimately answer that question for someone else, because I think only God can really answer the question. I looked at Orthodoxy for a long, long time. Interestingly, no one ever tried to convince of it.
But as the question of conversion began to loom, the question of God became pre-eminent, and that was finally life-changing. Although, in my experience it has to be life-changing every day. You can live with God, but you can’t live based on something you did once upon a time. God is always now.
But if you seek God, and continue to truly seek God. You’ll be fine. God rewards those who diligently seek Him, I think it says somewhere.
Sorry, I can’t see why, but your notes were stuck in the “spam filter”. I freed them. Sorry for the difficulty. Usually that only happens when people put multiple links in the text, though, apparently some words are flags for the akismet program. Sometimes it’s just a memory – thanks for your patience and your note! I deleted the first one since the second seemed to repeat it.
What a great post, Father (and a great comment, James).
I can relate. I constantly tell folks that the main reason I joined the Orthodox Church was her drastically different view of what the reality of being “in Christ” actually means.
Rather than post the entirety of my thoughts (which this post sparked and led to a post of my own), I’ll link HERE.
Ye gods and little fishes.
This is what grieves me about the current generation of Western Christians — they have no idea of true traditional beauty in worship. I wish I could scoop ’em all up and deposit them into the middle of any Orthodox parish church on any given Sunday — the first Sunday we attended, it took my breath away. And everything was in *Greek,* so we didn’t understand a word — didn’t matter. Like Prince Vladimir’s emissaries so long ago, “we could not forget that beauty.”
Thanks for pulling me out the spam, Father. I appreciate being able to share in this community.
“Western Christians — they have no idea of true traditional beauty in worship”
I wish, I could fully agree. I just attendet a Divine Liturgie in my Greek Parish on the day of the Tree Holy Patriarchs. In Greece this is a holiday also for the schools and teacher and whole school classes attend the Liturgy. Our Church was rather crowded. And I was sort of disillusioned and disappointed. It seemed to me that for most of the (greek and orthodox) schoolboys and schoolgirls the Liturgie didn’t mean much; there was “no idea of true traditional beauty in worship” to be seen – equal to same aged kids of western christian tradition.
As christian raised in a former socialist country that was hostile towards christians (East Germany), today in church I thought: the mordern western affluent society is as least just as much dangerous for the christian faith as a society where christians are not appreciated ore even burdened.
So I think that it is not only a western christian problem, that the ” idea of true traditional beauty in worship” gets lost, it is a threat of the Orthodox Church, too in our modern society. The decline in western christianity is only advanced.
That sort of gave me a fright today.
So, let’s contrast this with a letter in the current issue of Again which asserts that except for our theology and doctrine, everything should be up for review in the current world or we will risk becoming even smaller and more irrelevant. I get the uncomfortable feeling that what was meant was, “We need to figure out how to look more like the megachurches if we want to get anywhere.”
Or is there another way to see this?
I think the letter was incorrect. Utility – “what is the most useful” is the bane of much of modern existence. It is always contrasted to “what is right.” We should do what is right and trust in God. You cannot attempt to make Church “play to the audience” – it’s a lose-lose game finally – including losing what we want most of all – God.
Hartmut- I really hate to admit this but modern western affluent society is apparently the most dangerous threat the Church has ever faced. Strangely, Christ had much more to say in warnings about the God Mammon, than he ever had to say about any state persecution.
The Church is not safe anywhere…and thus we pray, and pray and trust in God. But we should also not be afraid. Whatever lies before us – we were born for this time.
By the way, on a personal note, I have a peculiar joy that I am corresponding with an Orthodox Christian who grew up in Eastern Germany. There are things that are happening today (good things) that my old American head would never have dreamed of years ago. So, I also put that in the mix of things.
Whatever we’re dealing with in the world – “greater is He that is in you than He that is in the world” – this really is all about God, so we must never lose heart.
“Whatever we’re dealing with in the world – “greater is He that is in you than He that is in the world” – this really is all about God, so we must never lose heart.”
Yes, father – this should have be the end of my posting. I was a little bit frightend today to see in my new parish, in the Orthodox Church, the same as I know from my evang. luth. past. But on the other hand: every sunday I also see many young people and also many young parents with her children going to communion. And I see coming converts, like myself, coming as new members. And so there is always cause for hope.
Today in the morning as I saw the kids and the young people, who had no interest or understand for the Divine Liturgiy, though young orthodox christians, I thought: shall we give up celebrating liturgy as we do? Shall we reform the liturgy? Shall we modernise our church? And I knew the answer: we shall not at all. The protestant luth. church here in Germany trys to “play to the audience”, but with no result. That can under no circumstances be the way. On the contrary: the more we would give up our faith and our tradition the more we would become implausible.
credibly live what is delivered to us with trust in God – that is the only way.
When you said “tradition is eschatological” that struck a chord. The sacred tradition (as I understand it) teaches that A) God is transforming the creation into something new and unexpected, except in the most poetic of prophetic images (John the Revelator on Patmos), so we must be open to the changes taking place, and B) we too, as microcosms of the cosmos, are being changed, so even as we look for the changes to take place, the instruments with which we look (mind, soul, consciousness, whatever) are in the process of being changed, and therefore, our perceptions are in flux, so that even describing what we see is problematic at best, so C) we are often reduced to “sighs too deep for words.”
Conclusion: there is nothing more eschatological than the sacred tradition handed down from the Apostles, and nothing less “traditional” (as the world understands the word! Would it be fair to say that there is nothing more unorthodox than orthodoxy?
You are braver than I am with words – but understood correctly – I would agree. It is important to remember that the Truth which is coming to us (for it is eschatological) is identical to the Truth which has come among us (Christ Jesus). It is to His image that we are being conformed, and it is to Him that all things are being gathered together in one.
Thus “progressives” who simply speak of change are not saying what the Orthodox say. What is occurring is indeed change – but change that is toward the true end of all things – Christ God. Right worship (Orthodoxy) includes rightly seeing the end of all things and yielding ourselves to Him.
I don’t know what to do. Does that sound familiar? I too have been reading about Orthodoxy and agreeing with Orthodoxy. I strangely feel like I’m Orthodox. I just don’t know what to do. I’m one of those Church of Christers. And I’m afraid.
I’m afraid that if I ask my family to consider the Orthodox faith with me that some of them will feel released to flirt with other “alternatives” . . . like the Episcopal churches or even Rome. Or that they may be led to doubt because of me. My children are 23, 20, and 15.
To all who read this . . .
Please pray for me to know what to do.
Please pray for God to keep our family together.
Please pray for the faith of my wife and children.
Thank you Father Stephen for your wonderful blog. You bless me daily.
Lord, help your servant David and his family.
David, you might consider getting in touch with Steve Robinson, http://www.pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com. He was CoC and is a very sympathetic person.