The preparation for Baptism in the early Church often lasted as long as three years. Of deep significance is the fact that during that three-year period, many basic doctrines were not explored. The “mystagogical catechesis” (instruction in the sacramental mysteries of the Church) did not begin until after Baptism. What, we may wonder, were they doing for those first three years, and on what basis were individuals making lifetime conversion decisions? If you read a classic set of catechetical instructions such as those of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, you will discover that the point of almost all the instructions prior to Baptism were moral – the point being to repent from sin and to keep the commandments of Christ.
CS Lewis’ conversion represents a contemporary example of the ancient path. His questions were relatively simple: Is there a God and, if so, is Jesus Christ truly God-become-man? The story of his conversion, in the autobiographical, Surprised By Joy, relates in great detail the inner and outer workings of those questions. But once those questions were answered for Lewis, he turned to the matter at hand: “Now that I am a Christian, what do Christians believe?” He never treated the Christian faith as something to be formed and shaped according to his own private opinion, nor to be weighed and measured for its relative merit. He described what he called “Mere Christianity,” meaning, those things universally believed by Christians across time. His instinct for this was spot on. It is also worth noting that Lewis did not set himself the task of writing and explaining mere Christianity until some years after his conversion.
What is jarring about this is how counter-intuitive it seems to our consumer-information culture. We assume that the right way to go about doing anything is to collect information, study it, weigh it and then make a reasoned decision. There are however, a good number of false assumptions in that model.
The first false assumption is that human beings are more or less neutral collectors and judges of information. There is no room for the role of character in this process. For example, if I were to tell someone, say an inquirer, that they were not morally competent to have a valid Christian opinion on a certain topic, they would doubtlessly be offended and leave. But this is generally the case for most people: we lack the character required to know the goal. We understand this with regard to children. There are situations that are morally and intellectually beyond their means of understanding or deciding. The early Church took this for granted. It began a process of moral teaching and formation precisely because the candidates for Baptism were not capable of saying yes to God in a proper manner.
A second false assumption is that making decisions is largely an intellectual activity. Imagine that I set two servings of food in front of you. You are not allowed to taste or smell either one. But you are told that you must choose one or the other, and that the choice you make will be your food for the next month. The fact is, you cannot make a competent decision. You can make a guess, but, really, you’re just being asked to roll the dice and take a chance. Information and decisions are properly the work of the whole person.
I have been approached (or rather reproached) more than once over the question of the Orthodox Church’s ordination of only males in the priesthood. For outsiders, the question seems clear, and the Church seems bigoted, patriarchal and stubborn. Most often, I explain that I cannot even discuss the question with them if they are not Orthodox, because they lack the experience required to understand what we are doing. We certainly are not doing what they think we are doing, but they have no basis for me to explain that to them. For example, I believe that unless and until you have a long working experience of the Church’s veneration of the Theotokos and the other saints, you cannot begin to understand the nature of the priesthood and the role that male and female play within the Church.
Most people in our culture have had their minds and their character formed and shaped by the practices of the modern consumer state. The role of human beings is understood to be production and consumption. There is an accompanying extreme value placed on the illusion of free-choice and a good life defined by self-fulfillment (meaning being pleased with myself for the choices I have made). In our world we are taught to ask, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” and mean by it, “What do I want to do when I grow up?” But the more proper question for a Christian is, “What kind of person do I want to be when I grow up?” and, “How is that possible?”
One of the primary benefits of the early catechumenate was humility. If you are told it will take three years of formation before you are Baptized, the message is clear: you are not ready. What is not ready cannot be hurried. In Orthodoxy, the most important mode of learning is doing. Learning to pray is not an intellectual exercise, and thinking that it is reveals that we do not yet understand prayer. Prayer is formed in the heart and the heart is formed in the crucible of action.
The great wilderness experiences in the Tradition point to this formation. Moses must leave Egypt and find God in the wilderness. The children of Israel are made to wander forty years in the Sinai. Christ Himself symbolically spends forty days fasting in the wilderness (and we can only wonder if that were the first or only time). It is believed that St. Paul, after His conversion, spent years in the desert (Galatians 1:17). The Church bids us to a forty day fast twice a year (Advent and Lent). The realization that I not only do not know something, but am not yet capable of knowing it, is a humility rarely found in the contemporary world. If I don’t know it, then I simply haven’t found the right book yet.
It is strange that our culture acknowledges that our inner experience shapes our perception of the outer world, but then goes on to assume that we are capable of knowing and deciding everything in our lives. This notion, interestingly, is believed by a large number of contemporary Christians. The idea of “soul competency” holds that every soul is capable of reading the Scriptures and understanding them through the Holy Spirit. It is a bedrock notion behind many schemes of Sola Scriptura. The resulting chaos of Christian thought is ample evidence that this is patently untrue.
I am not here advocating a return to the three-year catechumenate of antiquity – our culture cannot bear such humility. But learning how to learn should be a fundamental aspect of the spiritual life. I noticed recently a complaint that the Holy and Great Council, set to meet at Pentecost this year, needed the “voice of women” in order to do its work. It is the cry of modernity. It assumes a sort of “native competency,” much like the modern ideas within our democracies. What Councils actually need are the “voices of the holy,” regardless of anything else. The tower of Babel is the worldly version of Pentecost. However, at Pentecost, those who spoke did so by the Holy Spirit, not by virtue of their biology.
Being formed into the image of Christ is not primarily the product of choice or decision. It is the work of the Holy Spirit as we keep the commandments. Being formed in the image of Christ is not the same thing as forming an opinion. Orthodoxy is not just something you think, it is mostly something you do. You pray. You pray in this way. If you do not pray these prayers, then it is because you have learned to pray prayers like them. We learn to use our bodies. We subject them to disciplines of fasting, vigils and self-control. We give alms. We learn not to be consumers but givers of thanks. “In patient endurance you acquire your souls” (Luke 21:19)
And it takes a while.