Generally, our language reserves the word “unholy” to mean something evil or positively wicked (now there’s an oxymoron). Of course we also live in a culture where not much, or nothing at all, is considered holy. We think we live in a neutral zone – a place that is merely secular. Of course, the modern use of the word “secular” is just that – modern. It is part of our post-Enlightenment culture that believes that things are just things – and if something is “holy” it is only so because someone considers it so. Nothing is holy in and of itself – or because it has a particular relationship. Things are holy only in someone’s mind. Thus for one person a cross is holy – for another it is merely a piece of jewelry. There are plenty of Christians who agree with this cultural definition and generally hold all of their holy things lightly. Nothing more than their own good opinion renders something holy.
It is for this same reason that the dominant form of religious thought in our culture is any form that removes the spiritual life from our daily arena. Thus whether it is doctrine which is primarily intellectual in nature, or the general backdrop of a forensic (legal or moral) metaphor – God and His activity will always remain theoretical or imaginary in the context of a secular culture. A secular culture is a culture of the unholy. We live in the Un-holy Land.
None of this is to say that we are not a religious people. Every survey of American thought agrees that we are among the most religious of modern secular states. But our religion is held like all things holy: abstracted, and relative to our own private thoughts. When religious issues spill over into the public arena (as in the issue of abortion) many people want to scream, “Foul!” and argue that the issue is illegitimate precisely because it is religious in nature. Many in the Pro-Life camp will readily agree with this cultural critique and move quickly to point out that the right to life is a medical and political issue. A baby in the womb is a human person and is therefore entitled to the same rights as all others. But, of course, this is not the same thing as saying that all life is sacred, holy, and may not be wantonly and willfully destroyed. Many Pro-Life advocates do indeed believe that all life is sacred (and I see it as a genuine “wedge issue” by which Christians can be helped to see the bankruptcy of all secular thought.)
But for Orthodox, living in an unholy land is an absolute contradiction in itself. No place can be unholy. God is “everywhere present and filling all things.” An Orthodox Christian cannot secularize his world without betraying his faith. But in our culture, it is, doubtless, not an uncommon betrayal. It is a frequent unwitting betrayal on the part of converts to Orthodoxy for the simple reason that seeing the world in a manner that is utterly foreign to one’s own culture is a very slow process with a steep learning curve. For many (including American cradle Orthodox) it is easier to simply hold to Orthodox doctrine and practice the same way a Presbyterian or Baptist holds to Presbyterian and Baptist practice – which is simply an American holding on to the secularized versions of religion that populate our Republic.
It is very difficult to do something if you’ve never seen it or been taught it. The liturgies and sacraments of the Orthodox Church are in no way secularized. They completely pre-date the concept. Thus hearing them for what they are saying is important. Also listening carefully to those who have a life-experience from within some form of Orthodox culture is equally important.
One of my daughters is married to an Orthodox priest who serves in an all-Russian (or mostly) community in the U.S. Their observations are frequently interesting to me, even though I have to stop and think and pray to understand what at first might simply seem wrong. Living in a culture whose root metaphor for the spiritual life is “legal/moral,” it is easy to see some normative Orthodox practices as simple superstition.
I recall in the early years of our mission, we were moving from our original warehouse location to rented, commercial space. We set a day after liturgy, when we would pack-up Church and move. A good portion of our congregation were converts. Watching them, I would have said they were treating everything with respect. One of our members from Eastern Europe, however, was scandalized by how icons were being handled. At the time I simply thought he was being superstitious. But I have come to understand that like most things in the Church, there is a right way and a wrong way to do things – and the right way is there to teach us a true and proper respect and to understand what it means that something is holy. Holy is not at all the same thing as simply “this is very special to us.” Holy carries with it boundaries and borders that often ignore the American sense of practicality.
For instance, simply failing to properly clean the holy vessels after communion is a canonical violation which a priest or deacon is required to report to the Bishop. The result can either be a suspension (not serving for a period of time) or even being deposed from one’s ordained position. These are not obscure or antiquated canons. They are still very much in force and are an inherent part of the faith. In our cultural context, this simply sounds like legalism. But they are canons that come out of a very different culture and are not in the least legalistic. They are for our salvation. Coming to understand how this is true is part of the inner journey of the Orthodox faith – the “renewing of our minds.” And it is a long, slow journey.
I wrote several weeks back that the Scriptural description of human beings as “fearfully and wonderfully made” is a confession that other people should be approached with fear and wonder (Biblical fear). The same should be said of creation itself.
I am writing about something that I am only beginning to know – as a pilgrim who has made the journey for only a short distance. I find that conversations with older Orthodox, reading lives of the saints and listening carefully to what is being said or shown, is an important part of the journey. As we pray in Vespers: “O Lord, teach me Thy statutes!”