I have to confess as I begin this post that I find myself reaching for words. I reach for words to say something I know, but which is hard to express. To believe the truth is not the same thing as having a correct opinion – indeed the two have almost nothing to do with one another. And this is a great difficulty – for most of the things that we think of ourselves as believing – we in fact only hold as opinions. What a man believes, in the way the word is used in the New Testament, is not seen or heard in the syllogisms he is willing to confess, but rather in how he lives his life.
Thus, when the Scriptures seek to express what it is to have faith in God, the images cease to have any particular intellectual content (or virtually no such content). Instead, Christ will use images such as a vine and its branches. To believe in Christ, to hold to Christ as Lord and God is to be like a branch to a vine. This is not an intellectual image but is a very understandable image of a way of life.
In the Orthodox service of Holy Baptism, the candidate (or sponsor) is asked: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” It is a peculiar phrase. It is more than asking, “Do you give consent to the following propositions?” It is asking someone if they are willing to live as a branch to which Christ is the vine.
St. Paul uses the image of a body and its head. Are we willing to live as a body lives in relation to its head? St. Paul also uses the image of the union of a husband and a wife.
These are living images – images to which we can relate. But they cannot rightly be reduced to syllogisms or abstractions. To believe that Jesus is the Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father, the true God, in Whom alone is found salvation, is to unite one’s life to His life. It is to die and find that the only life now lived is Christ’s life.
It is in this way that argument is so often beside the point. I know what it is to be corrected or even to lose an argument and be convinced that something I once believed is not, in fact, true. But many times this represents only a shift in opinion, a matter of little consequence. To accept that Christ is the Truth is more like accepting that the air in a room I am entering is breathable (and then breathing).
By observation I see that people believe many things in this way that are not the truth. Some people believe that they are economic units, defined by production and consumption. Life is good depending on the level of production and consumption. The world is good as measured by its production and consumption. I doubt that those who believe this would ever actually confess this to be the case. But the evidence of this faith will be found in their manner of life – what they choose and how they choose it. What center organizes the activity of their day?
Some people believe in pills or alcohol or sex.
Some people barely believe in God (and that they do so is a good thing). However, it is also possible that having a minimal faith and an unmanageable life to go with it, does not restrain the same person from holding careful opinions about God and the Christian faith and diverting themselves with opinions about almost every aspect of the faith.
The Christian faith uses words – but the force of the words is found in the reality from which they are spoken. A single word from a saint can bring a sinner to repentance. The most correctly stated argument from an unbelieving life may have little effect, none at all, or even be deleterious to those who hear it.
To believe the truth is to venture onto the holy ground of reality and not the fantasy of well-formed ideas. On holy ground we remove our shoes and remain silent – giving voice to words of praise letting words possess integrity. It is a very difficult thing indeed.
It is a rare thing to meet a man who believes in God – but it is a life-changing encounter. May God give us all the grace to believe.
Photo: My parents at their reception into the Orthodox faith, September 14, 2003.
Yes, difficult to find the right words, but I guess they found you. Similar to what St. Paul describes, I find myself intellectually believing in Christ, but when I look at my behavior, its often hard to tell. Especially the longer its been since my last confession.
To believe the truth from a Christian perspective is to believe that Christ did become man and was crucified to save all mankind.
We reinforce this belief by going to church every Sunday and receiving Holy Communion — the body and blood of Christ — often. We prepare for Holy Communion by fasting for several days, and eating and drinking nothing from midnight until we receive Holy Communion on that Sunday.
Holy Communion can be described as “spiritual dynamite” because it allows us to have a part of the body and blood of Christ.
Father thank you for this, when i was reading it, i remembered that somewhere i read about Pilate when he asked Jesus WHAT is the truth? Jesus never answer back to him because he asked the wrong question but if he only asked WHO is the truth then he would of heard probably I AM.
[…It is to die and find that the only life now lived is Christ’s life…]
But what does this mean? I have briefly attended a couple of Orthodox churches (and many others) looking for true Christianity. I’ve tried to figure out what I’m “suppose” to do. Recite some prayers, cross myself, follow the liturgy, sing songs, look happy, etc. All of this was simply following rituals and simply proved to frustrate me as my faith didn’t grow.
Maybe, however, to live Christ’s life is simply to live in prayer. Maybe it is not about me following the “rules” or rituals but rather about me spending time in prayer. Time in prayer that is not about me living a simpler, better life or having “improved” circumstances, but rather about me accepting my life as it is and approaching it with humility. Maybe living as Christ means to receive each moment of each day as a blessing and as a lesson. Learning to accept each “problem” with compassion, with patience, with love, with humility. Seeing each “problem” as an opportunity for growth towards a Christ-like life and using each “problem” as a tool for growth. In this sense, then, there really is never a “problem” in my life – just an opportunity.
My faith is flickering, my heart is weak, I need to see what this Christ is. Maybe seeing is not through my eyes but rather through my heart. Pray for me, a weary, weak, frustrated, yearning soul.
May God strengthen you. I’m not sure what books you may already have read. I would like to suggest the book Bread & Water, Wine & Oil by Archimandrite Meletios Webber as a book that offers some very practical insights and helpful things in answer to the question: what should I do. It is indeed much more a matter of the heart than ritual – though learning what the ritual is and how it is to be used is quite helpful. But this is a very different learning for those who did not grow up in it (and many times even for those who did).
I may have been flummoxed by Florovsky, but I certainly understand this post and I must say it stings a bit — Ouch.
Mike, I’ve been Orthodox for over 20 years and the question of form vs. substance is one that is constantly with me. In my own case, it is the encounter with the living Christ that gives meaning to the form which then in turn strengthens my communion with Him.
Your words ring true about the neccessity for prayer, because any encounter with God is prayer.
Do I really believe the truth? Only mildly I’m afraid. The one unshakeable faith I have is that God forgives. His mercy is all that sustains me sometimes (all the time).
It comes down to knowing Jesus Christ (The Truth) and Him crucified. I’m Orthodox for one reason–He called me and led me through quite a journey to get me here. Unless He is revealed to you in the Church: her dogmas, her sacraments, her praxsis and her people you haven’t seen the Church yet.
I tend to mostly see my own sins, but occasionally when I manage to quiet my mind enough Jesus is unquestionably present, still with me no matter how often I ignore Him. Those are the moments when I approach genuine prayer.
May God continue to be with you and bless you.
Mike, I will be praying for you. I am new to Orthodoxy, am a catechumen, so do not think I have advice to give — there are others here much wiser than I — but I *will* be praying for you.
like seeing problems as opportunities, I once asked whether suffering was something I should expect. Like I’m supposed to suffer to know Jesus, “share his cross,” and so many other things.
What occurred to me at some point is that suffering isn’t suffering at all, it’s just life here. Life, Here. Not real life, really There. This isn’t supposed to be a comfortable place to be, and if problems aren’t problems, along the same lines I can see suffering as not suffering.
Which makes all of this so interesting, so perfect, on those days when we get it. I try to write about those days — when I’m getting it — so that on days when I’m not getting it, I can remember. And memory has a funny way of forgetting the most important things.
I’m not a church-goer, and I keep listening to see if I’m supposed to be a church-goer. I’m living in prayer, to use your words. I understand the place where you see rituals and approaching life with humility as not mutually exclusive, but perhaps means to the same ends. On an Orthodox blog, we read about astonishing sacraments and liturgy. I’m keeping my mind waaay open to all of this. I think you are, too.
First, though, instead of thinking you’re weak, I doubt anyone will fault you for putting prayer first. Chill. We all need more patience, and with what can you be more patient? Be kind to yourself, slow down, and listen. When people are “called,” they’re called. I have faith in that. We can’t force it. And it’s so hard to chill, here. Like this.
I keep returning to the pig sty, but then keep turning back. I’ve been doing this all my life and i’m no young’un any more! But I’ve learned to see ‘repentance’ as a positive continued turning to Christ, rather than a mere turning away from my petty sins. And I have to keep turning to Christ when He confronts me over my latest selfishness or prideful act. He is always there, the Hound of Heaven, thank God!
Perhaps, Father, you could say something about repentance as a positive effort. Too much is said in other venues about it being only a turning away from stuff.
F. Stephen wrote:
“A single word from a saint can bring a sinner to repentance. The most correctly stated argument from an unbelieving life may have little effect, none at all, or even be deleterious to those who hear it.”
There is a Zen saying relative to your fine point; “Even false words are true if they bring enlightment, even true words are false if they breed attachment”
Thanks to everyone for your insights. I especially appreciate Hilary’s comments. I have spent many years reading and seeking through many books from New Age to Buddhist to reincarnation to Orthodox. I find that each offers different insights and different ideas about life. What I haven’t done, however, is spent much time in quiet contemplation or prayer. But it’s hard when you don’t know the God you are praying to.
But from Hilary’s insight, maybe I just need to be a little more patient and not always be looking around every corner, reading every book, seeking every possibility – maybe I need to seek by being still.
I will say, however, that my biggest concern is my children. I have 2 young children, both of whom will be in elementary school soon. It burdens me to think that my current faith (or lack thereof) is how they are being raised. I want the answer NOW so that I can teach them and help them along on their journey. It is very frustrating to not have peace and confidence in my beliefs. But, again, maybe I just need to be still and let that peace and confidence come to me instead of me seeking it. It’s sort of like what you tell a child to do if they get lost in the woods: just stay in one-place and I will find you. If we’re both moving we might just miss each other. Stillness.
I can totally identify with what you describe. Here are a few thoughts which have worked for me. None of these are original. Try to answer these questions honestly and completely.
1. Do you believe you are God or do you believe there is a Supreme Being greater than you? Many of us have to accept that we live our lives as if our desires and actions should only be guided by us and thus we have very little room for God…we are esssentially are own gods running our lives on the basis of self will.
2. What are the wounds in your life which need healing? Are these wounds ones that you accept you are not able to heal without the help of a Power greater than yourself? An honest answer here will open you up to a experience with God as a Person not an idea. Painful,real, complete answers which express your powerlessness and need are critical. From your note, perhaps, the inability to guide your children as the spirtual head of the household….perhaps, the idea that your life lacks purpose and doesn’t fit into anything beyond the temporary….perhaps, the sense that you are constantly seeking but never finding…whatever is from your heart is the key.
3. Is it possible that God is capable and willing to heal the wounds which you cannot heal on your own? Are you willing to surrender these wounds to Him letting go of what you want in terms of specific outcomes? Are you willing to act with a faith that God can heal these wounds if you let Him? Is it possible that what has been holding back an experience of God as a healer is an unwillingness to give Him the secret hurts which seperate you from Him and true intimacy with others? Can you begin to see the possibility of a childlike faith in a God which heals your wounds as curtain which begins to reveal who God really is?
4. Now pray for this healing and this experience of God as Great Comforter and Giver of Life. See how much of a true sense of repentence (change of mind) you can create which gives up the life you’ve been leading without God as your Director as you humbly welcome Him in.
5. Try going to small Orthodox services (like early morning Matins or Vespers) and focus almost exclusively on praising this God you have accepted you need but have not begun to more deeply experience. Pray earnestly the words you hear in these services. Words like “Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treaury of Good Gifts, and Giver of Life , come and abide in us, cleanse us of all impurities, and save our souls ,O Good One. See if the emptiness of your wounds can’t welcome the Love He Is and wishes to give to you….In Christ
“Iis also possible that having a minimal faith and an unmanageable life to go with it, does not restrain the same person from holding careful opinions about God and the Christian faith and diverting themselves with opinions about almost every aspect of the faith.”
That hurt. I feel like I’ve just been taken to the woodshed. But as the pain in my backside subsides I think’ll I’ll anguish over translations of the Septuagint Psalter. Because God doesn’t hear the prayers of people who use inaccurate or unaesthetic translations. Does he? Ouch.
I was pounding myself in the woodshed as well – I assure you.
The wounds are certainly there – transparent to the world, hidden in my own depths. Yet not transparent enough that somehow you see to them even in my words on this blog and you have a sense that I am pained. The wounds are deep. The sins are many. Maybe I am too ashamed to even pray to God and repent. To repent = to admit. To admit = acknowledge the reality of my sins. Acknowledge reality = more pain. It often seems easier to simply hide and pretend. Maybe I am too angry at God to pray. How do I humble myself amidst the pain and pray to a God that I don’t even know who he is? Is it my responsibility to simply have faith and then God will reveal himself to me or will God please reveal himself to me so that I can have faith?
The Great Physician is a good physician. He is merciful, compassionate, and patient with our absolutely ill soul. May God grant you His peace and healing. And I also think it is worth adding that within the Orthodox understanding of confession, it does come to the image of going to the Great Physician.
God reveals Himself to me in my pain. He also gives me the freedom to hide, pretend, and escape my pain…at least temporarily, but at some point, I begin to realize that I have become dead and a lie. This lack of honesty and the life supports I’ve built to protect myself (from my own truth and from His Truth ) are also the very things which block God from me….not as an idea or concept, by as a Divine Person who sees me for who I really am (despite my delusions), yet still Loves me, and is unceasingly willing to reveal Himself as He helps me heal into a wholeness with Him.
My little way of reminding myself is this phrase….’when I’m broken, the Light can shine in’. Brokenness is not this place to be avoided at all costs, but rather the starting point to real change and an opening for God to truly reveal Himself. Psalms 50 is a great prayer with the verse “A sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit and contrite heart”.
My lies and deceptions harden my heart….my honesty of acknowledging how far I’ve missed the mark (sin) and how much of my life has been spent in a ‘dead’ state of doing it my way by being my own god are the price of admission to getting real with myself and with God.
Anna is right….
The Great Physician is a good physician. He is merciful, compassionate, and patient with our absolutely ill soul. May God grant you His peace and healing
“What I haven’t done, however, is spent much time in quiet contemplation or prayer. But it’s hard when you don’t know the God you are praying to.”
There is a greek folk saying that goes like this:
“eating brings appetite”
This is also clearly stated in the “Way of the Pilgrim” (the Russian classic which centres around a simple man’s quest for learning to pray the Jesus Prayer) in regards to the act of praying.
Like with most things, habit and quantity have to come first; quality and answers come later once the duality of the praying man and the prayer has vanished and “prayer is no longer something we do, but what we are”.
Take your prayer rope and go through the beads as you repeat the Prayer of the Heart or sit in your zafu and count your breadth while you say to yourself “mu” or…, and so build a door for the “correct” God to knock on, because if there isn’t one, “no” God will do so.