It should not surprise us to learn that we are often creatures of the culture in which we live. We understand this, particularly when we travel and encounter people whose culture differs profoundly from our own. What seems obvious to us, might seem obscure to them. What we eat, how we shop, what counts as polite, what is rude, all of these are shaped by culture. In truth, this is just the tip of the iceberg. We do not enter the world as a blank slate, nor do we reach the so-called “age of discretion” without already having acquired a wide range of thoughts, beliefs, tendencies, etc. We are constantly being formed and shaped by our environment. At some point in our lives, our will gains strength and begins to play a contributing role in our life. However, we discover, if we pay attention, that the will is always confronting an “uneven playing field.”
This insight traditionally plays a role in the Church’s understanding of the catechumenate, that process by which we initiate persons into the life of the Orthodox faith. In early centuries, that process of preparation lasted as much as three years. Surprisingly, it consisted primarily in “moral instruction” (teachings on how to behave). Instruction in the doctrines of the faith did not take place until after Baptism! The assumption behind this was (and still should be) that catechumens needed spiritual formation before they were ready to receive doctrinal instruction. This assumption has been greatly weakened in our modern culture.
We labor under the myth of being an “information-based” society. We imagine that we are deeply informed, have ready access to massive amounts of information on the basis of which we are able to make free and well-considered decisions. This over-simplification of our human experience is deeply flawed. Among the things we’ve learned in the past year-and-a-half is that “distance education” doesn’t work very well. There’s a good reason for that: education is not merely about the acquisition of information. Interaction with a computer screen in insufficient. We are social beings and require the presence and direct interaction with others in order to learn well and fully. Our mistake about all of this could be compared to imagining that infants merely need milk and not touch, cuddling, cooing, and the human face. We know the result of such mistaken notions: babies die, suffering from “failure to thrive.”
Catechumens, if given only a diet of information, also fail to thrive. Above all else, it is the practice of the faith that makes faith possible.
Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Jn. 8:31-32)
“Abiding in the word” (keeping the commandments, engaging in the practices of the faith) is the necessary pre-condition for “knowing the truth.”
One manifestation of this with which many believers are familiar is the “coin drop.” Any amount of information may have passed our ears and eyes. The Scriptures, the Liturgy, various hymns and writings, all of them bathe us in their wisdom while we remain inert, untouched, and even bored. And yet, there can come a moment when the “coin drops.” A single phrase can catch our attention and understanding takes place – sometimes with wonderful joy and delight. These great moments of grace point towards something that has taken place in the heart. Hours, weeks, even years, standing in the services, fasting and failing, confessing and struggling, all work as a plow on the hardened soil of the heart. So much seed had fallen by the wayside or on the rocks and disappeared. But then, a single seed finds fertile ground and its grace fills the soul.
Such moments are not just worth the wait, they point towards the essence of the faith and the true nature of its work. We are not saved by information. We are saved by the Word working richly in our hearts transforming us. A single such word can save.
This suggests to me that we set our minds to become “perpetual catechumens” in which we give our attention to the softening of our hearts rather than inundation of our minds. It raises the significant question, “What is it that softens my heart?” That goes to the very root of repentance. I think it may vary from heart to heart. I have seen the admonition, for example, that, before prayer, we read something that softens the heart. It is difficult to go directly from the busyness of our lives straight into the Holy of Holies. There is a need to “wash and be clean,” and to “clothe ourselves with the garment of salvation.” For some, no doubt, singing or listening to holy music can be a preparation. If we pay attention, we will find such things around us. Use them.
The heart’s learning is the true point of salvation. Information does not save us – but there is such a thing as “saving knowledge.” We speak of this, formally, as “holy illumination.” It is the consistent teaching of the Church that holy illumination is our desired path to God. It is God’s gift (I can’t write a book and say, “Here, read this, and you’ll be illumined”). It is absolutely the case that God desires for us to be illumined. It calls for us to “purify” our hearts.
And the coins do drop. Bless God, O how they drop!
for me, the coin drop was the 12 Gospels service during Holy Week. Three priests taking turns reading, the solemnity, the somber tone; it all of a sudden hit me that this was really a Holy Unction service for the Lord. knocked me for a loop, really hitting home what He went through for us, despite how little we deserve it and how unworthy we are. I keep this in mind, and it really helps with perspective. Every day is a gift, a chance to do good, a chance to repent, to show good example, to keep struggling day after day for salvation!
Speaking of coin drops – I had never made the connection between that service as the Lord’s Holy Unction – but now it seems obvious! Many thanks. You’ve made my day.
Lol, this brings new meaning to the song Pennies From Heaven! Still, when we chant ‘Lord, have mercy’ during our prayer for the catechumens, I find my neck bows ever lower, reminding me that I, myself am a perpetual catechumen.
Father, this post puts in words a current experience in my own life that I’ve had a hard time describing. I became Orthodox nearly a decade ago, but my wife wasn’t yet ready. Last year, after reading your book actually, as well as On the Incarnation, and a few books by C. S. Lewis, she became more intrigued by how the Orthodox view the world (in a particularly non-secular way). Now she and my children are catechumens!
As we’ve integrated our household and started living out our Orthodox faith as a family, the only way I’ve been able to describe it to others is that it’s been like a “second conversion” for myself. I feel like I’m a catechumen all over again. It’s not simply that we can talk about these things informationally: our prayers, our assisting one another in practicing the faith, in fasting, in repenting and forgiving, in so many aspects of our life in Christ have deepened and widened. What was previously so much “information” floating around in my head but unpracticed is now being practiced, and I can attest to the difference it makes. The telos of knowledge must be found in living it. God grant that we might always be “perpetual catechumens.”
Thank you Fr. Stephen,
That notion of Praxis before Understanding…a season(s) of obedience before knowledge was not completely unknown to me as a Reformed Elder. As least in theory. But it has repeatedly occurred to me since becoming Orthodox how far More true it is that I’d ever imagined. The grace for us in the veneration of Icons is a case in point. I had convert friend confess he never “got it” until 6-8 mths after forcing himself to just do it. Much was the same for me…as was the veneration of the most Holy Theotokos. Perhaps this is one reason why our protestant friends have such trouble with venerating Icons…they never submit to praxis long enough for it to “take”? Or maybe some parts of The Faith are much like algebra…their value is hidden, to be revealed…later?
Before entering the Church, I was an inquirer for 9 years. I regret now what I thought then: that I could read/study my way into the Church. I made the journey significantly longer than it had to be thinking I could solve every question and settle every doubt intellectually and then I would become Orthodox. Having been Orthodox for 8 years now this quote from Fr. Pavel Florensky states the matter perfectly:
“ The life of the Church is assimilated and known only through life—not in the abstract, not in a rational way. If one must nevertheless apply concepts of the life of the Church, the most appropriate concepts would be not juridical and archeological ones but biological and aesthetic ones. . . . The Orthodox taste, the Orthodox temper is felt but is not subject to arithmetical calculation. Orthodoxy is shown, not proved. This is why there is only one way to understand Orthodoxy: through direct Orthodox experience. . . . To become Orthodox it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once in the very element of Orthodoxy, to begin living in an Orthodox way. There is no other way.”
What an encouraging comment! God bless your family!
I think that, to a great extent, “praxis” disappeared from Protestantism in the efforts to rid itself of ritual, etc. What was left was highly intellectualized. Some of that was softened by the various pietist movements, though they were not truly integrated. An interesting aspect of Orthodoxy is the very deep level of integration between praxis and belief. Everything that is involved in venerating an icon is actually a very sophisticated theology understanding – but it is an understanding that can be practiced long before it becomes understood.
Many things of the faith are like this. One example that comes to my mind is the Protestant challenge that demands the ordination of women. When they ask why we don’t do that, I can give them answers (of a sort), but I cannot give them understanding. For myself, having had a background as an Episcopal priest, I can compare the experience that I had there (with women priests) to what I have now (male priesthood). I can say that it is profoundly different, and, even, that I think Orthodoxy is right in this matter. That does not mean that I fully understand all that it means, but that it slowly yields insights that would otherwise have been impossible.
As an aside, I should note that we do not “ordain men.” We ordain very, very few men. It’s ultimately not a generic discussion.
Remarkable insight Jerry! I, too, thank you for that.
Beautiful reflections, Father. I have a Protestant Sola Scriptura friend on Facebook who has been asking me questions about how the Orthodox understand salvation. I have recommended a few books to him, as have other Orthodox friends of his, and his response was “how many books do I have to read to ‘get it.'” And now I realize that even though books (i.e. information) has been a hugh and necessary part of my own journey, the books did not by themselves help me to “get it.” It has taken years (going on 16 now) of participation in the services, along with reading, for me to truly begin to grasp the depth of the Orthodox Faith. I continue to be amazed at my own evolution. The veneration of icons was very weird to me for the first several years, but then it became something I cannot imagine not doing. The past few years I have developed a stronger pull towards the Theotokos. I really felt no connection to her for the first 10 years. But something shifted a few years ago when a close friend of mine got very sick and I felt compelled to pray the Akathist to the “Mother of God the Healer” Icon. My friend is still alive AND he became Orthodox as a result of this whole experience. That was a bonafide miracle because he was a total “head” person who was all about “information” and never could bring himself to simply accept Christ into his heart. And then this past year, I have been drawn to pray the ancient Paraklesis and Akathist to the Theotokos together on a regular basis. This is also fascinating to me because when I first read these services upon becoming Orthodox so many years ago, they felt ridiculous and silly to me. Now, they feel inviting and comforting. All of this has unfolded gradually over long years of me simply making a commitment to “show up” in Church every week. I was trying to explain to my Protestant Facebook friend how, for the Orthodox, salvation doesn’t just happen in a single instant, but as you have said many times, “I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved.” It is an ongoing day-by-day work in progress. That’s a hard concept to convey through words and is really only “graspable” through experience.
Well said Father, thank you. Seems such a discussion would have multiple import to how we educate our children…grandchildren! Would it not follow that Orthodox schools (elementary-thru-high-school) imbibe far more ritual, memorization & practice…of many things not found in a protestant or even Rm-catholic school?
[One simple example comes up per our family Sunday dinners…asked Why? I always begin my prayer of blessing the food by crossing myself “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit….” If not asked every 3-6mths, I ask for them “Papaw…why do you pray like that?” I explain that I don’t pray in a vacuum of my own imagination I make up — but rather within the Tradition and practice of the Church Fathers and Apostles — where prayers were self-consciously offed in the name of Trinity…Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We often have 20+ and I want my growns kids and grands, strays [we have I have 8/18 respectively …so far] to hear that over and over.] It’s a little thing…I can get away with! 😉
In an information-based society, it is so easy for us to overlook how important simple actions are. Years back, I built a small icon stand to go in the Narthex of our Church. In some ways, I think it might have been among the most important things I have contributed to the life of the parish. Watching toddlers venerate the icons in their wonderfully, clumsy, outlandish way, makes my heart soar!
Of course, we are formed and shaped in this culture – and our most common activities tend to be the unconscious ways of a consumerist creature. God give us grace to find the daily practices that match the inner life of our dear faith!
I’ve always liked this quotation from afr John Main (Catholic Benedictine). While it is ostensibly about Advent and its relation to the particular feast of the Nativity to me its observations feel like a nice worked and accessible example of how the more general principles of repetition by doing and living out the faith work. (Is having a perpetual catechumen mindset maybe like keeping a taste of Advent with us at all times I wonder?)
“Our period of preparation for celebrating the mystery is itself a joyful time, because there is a quietly deepening understanding of whose birth it is we celebrate and just how eternal an event is involved. Each year, it seems to me, the mystery of this birth becomes greater and yet the greater it grows, the closer it seems to come to us. In a society that seems to have lost so much of its capacity for peace and so much of the peacefulness needed to prepare quietly for anything, we run the risk of being left only with the worship of the instantly visible, the immediately possessed, of being left finally only with the dryness of the instantly forgotten. . If we are to know the truly spiritual quality of Christmas, the meaning of our celebration and ritual at home or in worshipping communities, we have to know what it means to enter the space where celebration becomes possible with prepared and peaceful hearts . As we prepare, and as our more materialistic expectations and possessiveness drop away, it dawns on us that the great event we are preparing for has preceded us. The great liturgy has begun in spirit and in truth.” Fr John Main
Father, you say “we do not ordain ‘men’. We ordain very, very few men”. There is a lot in those words about the nature of Orthodox praxis: a verbal icon I think.
Some points that come to mind:
*All are called, few are chosen
*The priests I have known are remarkably different men. Quite a diverse group actually
*Some men flounder, but very few (my heart hurts for rhe priest who received me and my family 35 years ago. He descended into a darkness like no one else I have ever known. Despite that there was no doubt he was a priest. He once told me he was sure he was going to hell–almost as if he was confessing to me.)
*The diversity is the more remarkable in the reality that they have, it seems the exact same chrism to carry Jesus Christ and bring Him to all who seek.
* Somehow even when a priest flounders, the grace of Christ is revealed to those who look.
I could go on but the longer I am Orthodox, the more thankful I am for the priesthood and the men who serve in it. Even those who founder. It also becomes more and more apparent to me that the priestly Chrism is not for women. Perhaps because it is of a specific Incarnational nature that requires a man to carry it?
Andrew, Indeed a wonderful quote. Somehow it brings to mind the use of Psalm 34 in our Lenten Liturgy,: ” Taste and see that the Lord is good…”
being a perpetual catechumen is a great reminder that we are disciples (always) and never the Master.
your reference to the priest in darkness reminds me of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light.
Andrew, the man’s battle was with himself and he never allowed God to fight for him. That is what repentance does, I think. It allows God to fight for us but that takes embracing the cross of my own life. “Of my own self, I can do nothing”. Mat 3:2 makes that clear to me. The way of the heart and mind together in Christ.
Bergman was certainly and evocative film maker. The only one of his films I have actually seen is The Seventh Seal. A long time ago. Some of the images seem to be indelible. Too bad he lived in his own winter light.
what you say brings to mind St. Paul, ‘O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God – through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rm. 7:24-25).
Around 10 uears ago, I became familar with Orthodoxy after my Masters in Education studies brought me to an awareness that human nature more clearly aligned with the Orthodox view rather than the total depravity idea I’d gleaned from Western Christianity. It was like the coin drop for me as I became familar. My faith went from two dimensional to three as I saw the holistic integrated nature of the faith as explained by the Orthodox. When my husband discovered I was convinced about Orthodoxy, it caused issues in our marriage. He is the son of a Baptist preacher, and reacted strongly against it. I think he became open to the idea that the Orthodox can also be true believers and have good things about them, but could not get past the ritual, prayers to saints, and other similarities with Catholics. At that point, I put aside my own religious preferences, and I feel like God limited me for a reason. After all this time, I sit in doubt about what I really believe about the Church though not my faith in Christ. We are a strong Christian family but I would not know how to help illuminate anyone else and help them “see” things the way I have begun to see them when a particular tradition and way of looking at the world and the Church is so ingrained. Like you say, it isn’t information one needs. It is “the eyes to see and the ears to hear.” I pray and ask your prayers that God will lead our family more closely to Him. Thank you for your blog. It is a spiritual support and encouragement.
Andrew, I am going back to Romans 7. There is a great deal there to be sure
Thank you for your sharing. I have long been struck by how deep anti-Catholicism is in much of Protestant culture (not all of it, to be sure). It is, I think, a largely unexamined prejudice, while the Evangelical experience of being an audience, etc., and the “lack of ritual” remains equally unexamined. Of course, the aspects which Orthodoxy shares with Catholicism bring us under some of the same criticisms. The sacramental nature of ritual action has, for me, been a meditation on the nature of the world and its sacramentality and helped me to see many things that would have never occurred to me otherwise.
God give you and your family grace in all things!
Michelle, the history of antipathy between Protestants and Rome is deep. The Protestant reaction to the abuses of Rome at the time was not unwarranted. As a student of history I empathized deeply with the Protestants.
It helped me to go further back when there was amity in the Church.
Particularly the works and life of St. Athanasius. Anthanasius contra mundum.
I was never a Protestant but I certainly did not want to be of Rome.
May our Lord bless your husband with grace and peace be in your marriage.
Also reading of the Psalms helped me immensely.
I was discussing the priesthood question with my wife and she said: “Women are born to carry babies, men are born to carry Christ.” One woman did both by Grace. Thus the icon of Mary with Christ in her lap above our altars. The first time I entered an Orthodox Temple–that blew me away. The intrinsic wholeness, the awe. The beauty.
The way of the Cross is inherent in both but differently expressed. It is odd that women pushing for “equality” end by declaring that men are more important.
Our modern discourse on male/female is governed by making economic and political concerns the center of the conversation. My response to this, in terms of the Church’s sacramental life, is that it is a mistake to take the issues of late consumer capitalism and thrust them into the Church’s doctrine of the priesthood. The truth is that both economics and politics are far too limited to provide a format for understanding what it means to be human. It is an exceedingly thin anthropology – one that actually exists primarily to make a small number of people quite rich and the rest of us complacent. The Church is right to reject the invitation to become part of that charade.
The Church’s treatment of these things (at least as we cling to the practices given to us in the Tradition) as us to take a deep dive into the question of what it actually means to be male or female. And the answers to that question are given to us in the story of Adam/Eve Mary/Christ. I just this afternoon read a passage in St. Symeon the New Theologian who said that just as Eve was taken from the side of Adam, so Christ was taken from the flesh of Mary (in His humanity). The mystery of male/female relationship is deeply ontological – not economic or political. That people have a difficult time thinking in terms that are not defined by economics and politics is a testament to how all-pervasive modernity has become. We have not only been pressed into the service of consumer-capitalism, we have been taught to think exclusively in those terms. That is the present opium of the people.
Father, I may be stretching the envelope a little, however, I use science to help me go deeply into the Bible and sometimes I use the Bible to go more deeply into science.
In Genesis you mention that “Adam” means humankind. Then it was only after the “rib” was removed from “Adam” that there became male and female. For what it’s worth, I believe our best understanding of the development of our DNA pattern of male and female would corroborate this story. I mention this not to say that such method should be applied, that is to attempt to corroborate what is in the Bible with science. But when I notice such correlations, my heart sings.
Forgive me for one more thought. The world doesn’t “need” male and female for replication to take place. And yet for us, that is what we have and who we are. I sincerely appreciate the reference to the ontological meanings involved. They are indeed so important, and for me, so hard to explain. It seems easier to experience the ‘energy’ (or ‘workings’, for want of better words) of female or male, than it is to explain it.
I have confessed, and admittedly will continue to confess, to my father confessor that I struggle to be attentive during the Divine Services, prayers at home, and while reading the scriptures and the writings of Saints and other holy people. It seems as though 99% of the time I am thinking about what I want to do today, or what things that are coming that I’m not looking forward to, etc. when the Kingdom is being offered to me. This post has helped me connect why my priest was so adamant that we involve ourselves in the life of the Church as much as we could while my wife, son, & I were catechumens. Maybe the most important thing is to participate in the services, rather than beating myself up over my inattentiveness. Not that I can think about German Chocolate Cake during every service and not be concerned about that tendency of mine, but that my attentiveness is secondary to my participation.
Now, I regret what I’ve written. The subject of my comments can be too provocative and distracting. As you say, Father, God willing, we are perpetual catechumens. What I say I see and think now, will likely change as I continue to abide in Christ, and He in me.
Fr. Stephen, though it wasn’t the point of your post, I appreciate your comments about teaching. They remind me of something I wrote years ago in applying for promotion at a Christian educational institution where I once taught. The application process required me to reflect on my teaching and its contribution to the institution’s mission. I hope you won’t mind if I share an excerpt that, I think, has some relevance to the topic at hand:
“I have come to view my own teaching as a minor act of communion with my students. I have had the privilege of studying mathematics deeply—of learning the traditions of my field—and I have delighted in the beauties and pleasures I have encountered in that study. I have also sought over many years to understand mathematics and its beauty as the handiwork of the Lord who made it. I have sought, and I continue to seek, explanations, examples, diagrams, word pictures, jokes, sound effects, and hand motions by which I can help my students see what I have seen—to see AS I have seen—so that they can appreciate the beauties, share in the pleasures, and participate in the traditions of the field with me, seeing it as God’s handiwork and honoring Him for it. As I continue to teach year after year, I strive to deepen my own understanding of the topics I teach, and I strive one phrase, one example, one illustration at a time to make my presentation of each topic clearer and fuller than the time before. It is almost like learning a foreign language, learning to “speak math” both simply enough that my students will understand it and eloquently enough that they will want to learn more. Year by year I try to improve my “accent,” my “vocabulary,” and my “fluency” in this language.
In the current academic climate, I feel it may also be important to declare what my teaching is not. Indeed I will go out on a limb and apply this comment to much of what is worthy of the name teaching. Teaching is not a quantity. Neither, under most circumstances, is learning. Since they are not quantities, we cannot measure them (I mean this categorically). Thus there can be no possibility of a science of teaching or learning and no possibility of an objective “assessment” of them (just as one cannot scientifically interpret an oil painting or assess its artistic merit by, say, performing a chemical analysis of the paint). The only possible way of evaluating teaching is for someone skilled in the field to observe the teacher’s work and with the judgment born of experience and maturity, make an interpretation of and a judgment about that work.
Therefore I abhor both the growing demand for the collection of “assessment data” on our teaching and the growing expectation that we will construe our courses as lists of measurable objectives laying out what students “will be able to do” by the end. The former is a fraud unworthy of a Christian institution and can never be anything else. The latter I recognize, as a mathematician, as an attempt to treat our teaching as a manufacturing process, applying the techniques of statistical quality control to reduce our rate of defectives. It is, as I explain in the previous paragraph, impossible actually to accomplish; and the attempt to do it treats our students, human beings made in the image of God, as mere raw material for our assembly line (and encourages them to see themselves the same way). It abandons the truly human activity of teaching, with its potential for communion in appreciating the glory of God’s creation together, for the soul-withering work of producing a commodity. It will also lead us down the gloomy road the schools have already trodden in which teachers have no more opportunity to teach their subjects because filling out paperwork occupies all their time.”
Dee, do not be ashamed by what you wrote. What you said is fine. In fact I have seen other references to similar ideas in the past. If science is true science there will be no contradiction.
The ontological reality of men and women is what my wife was seeing. Seeing humanity from any economic/political ideology always twists who we are. Unfortunately it is from that perspective most history tends to be written at least since the 19th century.
There’s nothing wrong with working out your thoughts here. I often see the fact that Eve was taken from Adam (and not created separately from him) as very important. Her returning to him (in marriage) is the return of humanity to a fullness it does not possess without both male and female. It is a union the world often attempts to mimic, but never reaches. The world only ever wants to deal in shallow, “self-realization”. It hates true union, true depth, true humanity.
For me, this not only focuses the importance, and depth, of the male/female dynamic but also of the Lord’s command for marriage and union/communion. It also speaks to Christ as being “fully (hu)Man” and of His mother’s role in heaven, I think. There is a lot to ponder within all of this. Forgive me for the digression but it has been on my mind for some time.
What you wrote in your application is excellent, especially about what teaching is not! Many thanks for sharing it.
Reid, I hope you got the promotion. Would that all teachers had the same approach. I have seen more than one early catechumen start out thinking that the aquisition of information was all catechesis was. It is, of course, the beginning of Orthodox communion and the renewal of one’s mind and heart that never ends. That is precisely why I like to go back to the classes every once in awhile. I got to go through the entire series when my wife did and it was wonderful as it brought us closer to each other too.
My mother taught that life and the cosmos was a multi-dimensional dynamic spiral. I assume there is some mathematic description of that but for her it came from her training and performing in dance.
I’m glad you found this article to be helpful – you clearly grasped its point!
Dear Michael and Byron,
Thank you for your generosity. As you both know there is so much more depth to this topic than my comments convey.
Thank you for your kind words.
Thank you for those who responded so graciously to my comment. And thank you for being sensitive to the Protestant reaction to Catholicism and ritual. Although there has been a softening of heart towards Catholics at least in my experience–now Protestants are more likely to see them as brothers and sisters in the Lord of a different stripe when previously they were usually seen as a false religion—as I think on it from a Protestant background, I can’t help but feel that there is some kind of collective trauma of a spiritual nature from medeival corruption that has sullied rituals, ect for us. I have heard many Orthodox say things about participating in ritual first and it making sense later but for me, God seems to be working from the inside out and making me more open to such ideas only as it has authentically arisen in my heart first. Otherwise, it makes me feel idolatrous. My heart naturally has a tendency towards religious and spiritual pride, and sometimes I feel like God purposely withholds the visible trappings or expressions of my religious beliefs from me in order to keep me humble and hidden. My Orthodox brothers and sisters like many of you who post on this blog have taught me the sacramental nature of matter, and I have come to see God’s grace extended to me through so many things in a way that now makes more sense on a spiritual level and does not feel idolatrous or superstitious in nature. And though I possess no icons, my husband has allowed a picture of Christ (a version seen in many Protestant churches) to sit in our entryway as it was a gift given to him by one of our children who got it at a church sale. When he asked if an image of Christ was idolatrous and if it was wrong to have it, I was able to share my belief that it expressed the truth of the Incarnation. That seemed to put his conscience at rest enough to leave it where it sits now. Although I still don’t think my belief of icons matches those of pure Orthodox theology, I do think I understand their intended purpose and nature better now than before.
Michelle, you sound pretty normal to me. God’s Spirit is given as we can hear Him. He will lead you and your husband too. For some people belief follows participation. That is not so for everyone. I have an old friend who just started his time as a catechuman after reading his way toward the Church for 10 years. He started in a place not unlike yours.
Our good God never forces us. Never. Shoot, I’ve been Orthodox officially for 35 years now. I still feel some days like I don’t know anything or really believe. Yet God is faithful.
I read an article the other day about all the little idols we have in our lives, on Fr. Basil’s Word of the Day blog. As I read it I became clearly aware that all idolatry has it roots in self idolatry; in myself in particular. You have spoken about the inclination of your heart to religious and spiritual pride; give thanks to God for that insight He has shown you. Without His light and grace such things are not seen. God meets us where we are and leads us to where we are not. I too am waiting on God for a change in my situation, that by His great mercy and love I can become Orthodox.
You are not alone.
Andrew and Michelle,
I too have been in your shoes for a time. I am now an Orthodox Christian from my baptism in 2016, and before that a catechumen for about one and a half years, and before that, an inquirer for about 2-3 years. It was indeed a slow process, and as you can see in my clumsy comments, still on the path of learning. I’ll add, thanks be to God for His mercies.
When I was still in the inquiry stages of my searches and introductory learning of Orthodox theology, I had no wish to step into an Orthodox Church. I had not come from a church tradition, per se, because for most of my life I was not Christian (not atheist either). I thought it was sufficient to read and learn theology and that did fill my heart with joy for a time. But there was a turning in my heart so imperceptible that I cannot really pinpoint when it happened. When I read my diary of that period (I wish I was more of a writer, I would have had more detail of that period) I notice that I hardly mentioned Christ, if at all. I was certain of His Paschal impact on our existence, but thought of Him still as a kind of human mechanism to ‘restart’ the universe, which I had interpreted as resurrection. It is odd to me, now, that He figured so lightly in my thinking. I was focused more on the theology of icons and immersing myself as much as I could in it.
After about 2-3 years of this, I had a yearning to attend services. Even then, I didn’t say to myself, “I want to belong to an Orthodox Church congregation”. It was more of an interest to ‘meet up with Christ’, and still, I had no idea or experience of what that might mean. I was as clueless as the woman coming to the well, where Christ waited. It was because of that cluelessness, that I wondered whether it might be just as helpful to go to a Byzantine Catholic Church as it is to go to an Orthodox Church. I have had Roman Catholic friends and (extended) family over the years and wondered why I was leaning toward the Orthodox Church. There actually was no argument that I was presenting to myself to persuade myself to go in one direction or the other. But the rich and mainly continuous history of the veneration of icons in the Orthodox Church lured my heart toward it. But I still didn’t have the courage to come to a service, even while there were several Orthodox Churches within an hour’s drive from my home (again thanking God for His mercies).
Then I picked up a book by Met. Kalistos Ware, the “Orthodox Way”. I offer here a quote at the very beginning of the text (first part from Fr Georges Florovsky) that touched my heart deeply from the prologue:
Approximately a few months after reading this book and his other, “the Orthodox Church”, I made up my mind that if I gathered enough courage to attend a service, it would be an Orthodox Church service. When I first told my husband (also not Christian) that I was planning to attend a service, he thought I was ‘brave’, because I was willing to go it alone, on my own. He would not try to stop me at the initial period of my explorations, but later when I “became serious”, it dawned on him that I was indeed moving into an “unexpected journey”. And whether he liked it or not (because he loved, and thanks be to God, still loves me), he was going with me, at least tangentially, in his heart, if not in person. (He is still struggling with this, as am I. And I pray for us both that we hold fast with God’s help.)
This comment is long enough now. But I’ll end with this, I did indeed meet Christ, at the Well.
thank you for your post; very encouraging. I too want to meet Christ. As I have said in previous posts, I have no experience of Orthodoxy, so what I learn is from reading; not ideal, but that’s how it is at present. I try to remain grounded and not let my imagination run away with itself and wait on God.
Andrew, Dee, et al
Our present world circumstances often make the practical part of becoming Orthodox difficult. Either there’s no parish nearby, or what is possible is not suitable, or, our own circumstances make it difficult to take actions towards conversion. My own reception into the Church, which was 7 years after a decided to become Orthodox (begged to God, “Make me Orthodox”). Four years before I was received into the Church I asked in a formal letter to Archbishop Dmitri to be received…and it was nearly 4 years before he made a decision as to how, where, and when that should take place. During those last 4 years, my family and I began, slowly to build an Orthodox prayer life, and to begin keeping the fasts, etc. It was slow. When the time came, we were just ready enough.
There is something called the “baptism of desire.” It applies to someone like the thief on the Cross who was only able to express his desire to God, “Remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” God is a good God and He loves us. Our desire, offered to Him in prayer, is a sweet sacrifice and He receives it. It doesn’t mean that we give up on the practical steps when they become possible – but it’s also good to have something settled in your heart. It can bring some measure of peace.
You are much in my prayers. I have been there.
Thank you dear Father Stephen,
And indeed you, Andrew, and Michelle are in mine. May God abide in us all.
I’ve been slowly working my way through a cold (likely an RSV infection picked up from my grandkids). It’s been a week now, and it’s slowly getting better. I slept for 3 solid hours this afternoon – which tells me that I’m sicker than I thought. But, it’s definitely on the upswing. Prayers appreciated. Recovery seems to be slower with age…
Yup, Father, I know what that is like. A slow recovery curve comes with age. You have my prayers for your timely recovery.
Thank you Dee and everyone for your compassionate words and most definitely your prayers. Fr. Stephen, your last post was especially encouraging, and of course, I will in turn pray for your health. May God heal you, strengthen you, and bless you. Again, thank you for this blog. . .not only your words but I thank the Lord for this community of thoughtful, respectful, and compassionate people who comment. I have found nothing like it on the internet. I think my heart is closer to being “settled”–as Fr. Stephen worded it–becauss I know I have kindred spirits here praying for me.
I hope you have a speedy recovery and are up and on your feet again. Thank you for your prayers and kind words of encouragement and hope.; they are much appreciated. You did indeed have a struggle on your journey to Orthodoxy.
I have been using Orthodox prayers for a while now. My attempts at fasting are a bit feeble. There is a huge difference from what the RC Church’s fasting rules are and those of the Orthodox Church.
May the good Lord continue to bless you and yours in all that you do,
thank you for your prayers, they are much needed and appreciated. May the good Lord bless you and yours.
My Mom’s protestant church decided to fast a short time back. She asked me for some guidance and, after realizing that they were intent on fasting from “something”, told her to simply fast however their church instructs and to pray as much as possible.
When I became Orthodox and came to my first major fast, my priest told me to just fast from meat and go ahead and eat dairy. Being hard-headed, I went whole hog instead. But I’ve since come to realize that increased prayer is much more important than fasting from food. Go slow. Do what you can and don’t worry overmuch about it. It’s more important to pray and give thanks over all you food than be too concerned with what is on your plate.
Both my late wife and my living wife was/is diabetic and have to greatly decrease their consumption of carbs which, unfortunately, is most of the fast diet. In a sense they fast continuously. I have never been able to establish a family fasting routine and my own fasting has fallen away in recent years. Some folks try to motivate themselves by considering the Fast “good for their health”. I do not find that helpful. Indeed the “mind tricks” I have encountered over the years are quite impressive. My priest has always told me: “Just do the Fast and ask for forgiveness” So, I ask your prayers to help me reenter the fasting discipline with a full and penitent heart.
My experience is that the importance of the fast is for it to be regulated according to the calendar – more important than being strict according to the foods. Obviously, for those who can keep the fast in a fuller manner, it’s good to do so. But, Orthodox fasting is not a form of “Christian kosher.” The foods from which we abstain are not unclean, nor is it a sin to eat them (even on a fast day).
The point is the discipline – which follows a liturgical rhythm. With catechumens, or those who are inquiring and would like to learn about fasting, I suggest a very moderated fast – abstaining from meat or dairy or something simple on fasting days. Also, deeply important, to couple any fasting with prayer.
In a consumer-driven culture, where everything is always “in season,” learning to moderate eating in some manner is useful. There are many things to consider in terms of fasting. I saw an article recently that looked at the problem of dopamine addiction – brought on by things like video games – repeated actions that produce a dopamine increase (pleasure). We have far too much pleasure in our lives – it’s something that guides much of our technological development. It’s physically unhealthy – can lead to depression, anxiety, etc. These things, of course, undermine a spiritual life as well.
thank you for your input. It is most helpful. I’m not a big eater at the best of times and cutting down on my intake I have found difficult. I have had malaria quite a few times since I have been living in Nigeria and it has taken it’s toll. I have days when I am quite weak and tired. Thank you again for your good sense advice.
mind tricks are really fascinating. How we can try and deceive ourselves with what seem very reasonable and well thought out excuses, for either doing or not doing this or that. I hope you can get the measure of the fasting discipline that is applicable to you.
thank you for your advice on fasting. You are very kind and helpful . This blog is real life line for me. I do try to avoid the pitfalls of being either over zealous, or overly lax; not always successfully.
Andrew, indeed such mind tricks are endemic to the spiritual life. I evade often. Always with “good reasons”. Odd, especially since the heart of who I am always rejoices in those things my mind/body seeks to evade. Lord, forgive me, a sinner.
Andrew – I have been Orthodox for 16 years now and have never been able to participate in the food part of our Church fasts because meat is the only thing I can eat due to autoimmune illness. I fast from all plant foods all the time. It’s a forced ascetic practice that Christ have given me for the salvation of my soul. But in order to participate in the spirit of “fasting” during our official Lenten periods, I do attempt to reduce outside distractions (like social media) and spend more time in prayer. There are lots of non-food ways that we can “fast” in our personal unique life circumstances. May God continue to guide you on your journey to Him.
thank you for you kind words and helpful advice. It must be a real burden not being able to eat what most people take for granted and have such a limited diet.
It is a blessing that you see it as means of your salvation. May the good Lord continue to bless and strengthen you,
As I age I guess my metabolism slows with the years. So I have to moderate my food intake just to keep my weight
I recall Father saying that as people are dying they fast. He saw much of this as a
hospice chaplain. A friend is dying of Parkinsons. He’s gone from 140 lbs to less than 100. He takes a little liquid, not much more. An enforced fast (hopefully purifying) to ready oneself to meet our God.
Dean, may our Lord bless and receive your friend
Thank you Michael.
Prayers also for your wife’s healing, for you and for Fred.
Dean, thank you
Thank you Father Stephen, your linguistic and spiritual labours are inspiring. You are watering many gardens.
I commented quite a while back; I doubt you or your readers recall. I spent most of my adult life in deep spiritual seeking and struggle. I traversed the worlds religions and spiritual disciplines, but all turned out to be mere fads in my development, though there were some threads pulling through it all. I was assembling a means by which to return to Christianity. I was raised a very loose baptist, and left the faith (or lost my faith) near 14 years old. I engaged in this deep struggle I mentioned up until I was 27 years old, about 4 months ago now; the coin dropped extremely hard for me. I was listening to a podcast with Dr. Jordan Peterson and your fellow Christian intellectual Jonathan Pageau. The whole podcast was deeply profound, and I obsessed over many parts of it for weeks; but the real line that got me was something Dr. Peterson uttered in response to Pageau: “…Yeah, well, your either aiming at Christ or something lesser”
That statement ringed in my head for so long I almost felt I was loosing my sanity. It drove me to finally pick up and read the New Testament. Reading that book changed everything, but I would not have been able to understand any of it without those previous years of exploration. But now I rejoice along with that statement, that Christ is the highest, that worship is inevitable, and unless I am worshipping Christ, I am worshipping something else. I have been studying Orthodoxy now for the past 4 months. I have also been engaging in prayer, crossing myself, doing prostrations and reading the lives of the Saints. I have infinity left to traverse, but I plan to attend my first Orthodox Service in the next week or two. It has been difficult to make time since I am the only Christian in my entire circle of friends and family. I feel deeply trapped in a closet of sort; only a few people know what crazy transformations occurred with me 4 months ago.
Anyways, forgive the rambling, I have a problem with that. I only meant to share my particular coin drop which brought me into having Faith again. I am hopeful that much more will occur, but I am okay if not. Heres to finally participating in the rituals and not just filling my arrogant brain with more facts! God Bless you.
Taran – Thank you for sharing your story. My own is very similar and I can say that God finds ways to bring us to him when we are sincere seekers. Christ is the last place I expected to find the Truth. It still amazes me! But the Lives of the Saints are His strong witness and reading them was a powerful part of my own conversion experience. The conversations between Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Pageau are indeed profound. Several Orthodox priests I know love listening to Peterson. I wanted to say that the service are not so much rituals per se, but rather a practice of worship handed down to us through Holy Tradition. An Intellectual understanding has absolutely deepened my own experience of them, but regular participation in the services over many years has also brought life to my intellectual understanding. I know how scary it can be when all the people in your life that you care about and who care about you are not Christian, and may even think your crazy (or foolish as Saint Paul says) to even believe in Christ, to actually take the definitive step of entering an Orthodox church. It took me four years to gain the courage! You are not alone. May God give you strength and guidance as you continue to seek Him.
Thank you for your attention, your time, and your thoughtful response. It is very encouraging to hear of others who went through similar experiences. I am indeed stricken with a certain fear of entering the Church, and a fear of more of my friends finding out about me. I suppose the Fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom, so I will go ahead and assume this is part of what I can expect. I also expect that the deeper into the faith I get, the more the demons will seek me out to attack me. I don’t expect an easy life, but it does lighten my load (or maybe it strengthens my soul) to hear your tale.
As an aside, I first came across Peterson back when I was 23. I obsessed over his work as well and it lead me to entering University again at age 25. I am now a 3rd year student Majoring in Psychology, and Minoring in Esoteric and Occult Traditions. Without realizing it, I wound up in a class this year which predominantly focuses on Christian Mysticism from the first millennium (the class went by an elusive title and description). All things come together in the end. I originally went to school to become a Clinical Psychologist, but my experiences so far in the field leave me troubled and a little doubtful. I know I will finish my degree at least, but I may turn it all in to go be a humble construction worker. More action in the world than abstractions and theories you see.
Anyways, Peterson is an odd breed and I am personally shocked such a person was able to rise up the ranks of academia. I hope a similar niche may be occupied by myself someday, but we shall see what God has in store. Thank you again for your reply.
Taran – if you are not familiar with Abbot Tryphon of the All-Merciful Saviour Monastery on Vashon Island, WA, you may want to check him out. He was a clinical psychologist in his pre-Orthodox days. He has had a very interesting journey as well and may have some words of wisdom for you. He is on Facebook, YouTube, and has a blog published here on Ancient Faith as well.
I echo your endorsement of Abbot Tryphon’s blog. It’s interesting what specifically is so affecting in his articles for me. It might seem odd, but I particularly enjoy the pictures of his study/living room. There are icons on the wall, a desk, and books. Often a cat shows up in the pictures. I find myself immersed in the photographs he takes or others take of his surroundings. For me, it is a prayerful gaze into the icons of the faith.
I had wanted to write a comment to yours. Now I can take a moment to do so: May God bless your family with joy, sharing in the faith! I can imagine how it might be for you to feel like a catechumen all over again, and the joy of sharing such experiences with your loved ones, is beyond description.
Dopamine addiction is probably rampant in our society. (I haven’t attempted to read up on it as yet) And such addiction would undermine any attempt toward ascetism. Once a level of ‘saturation’ is reached, the level of inducement must be increased to obtain the same “high”. The result can be a very frenetic or depressed society, which seems to be what we have.
I sincerely appreciate your emphasis on the calendar and discipline of prayer as a kind of antidote to this synthetic inducement. There is a kind of ‘built-in’ regulation of such frenetic, even bi-polar type, extremes. This, in part, is what can be offered to the life of a (perpetual) catechumen, to steady their life, and to bring into it the peace of Christ. It is form of entrainment into the rhythm of the spiritual heart beat of the body of Christ.
The dopamine-addiction problem is simply one symptom of problems caused by the introduction of technologies that we neither understand nor question. Our consumerist culture only ask this: “Is it enjoyable? Will it make money?” It’s why we have the porn culture we do – it’s fun and makes money. Later, when the consequences begin to roll in, we throw money at the problems, we throw politics at the problem, we throw other people at the problem, but we never deal with the real problem – not if it’s fun and makes money. This is deeply corrupting. We are alienated from our bodies, from our brains, from our souls. And it is getting worse.
Orthodoxy, as the last traditional form of Christianity, is also a remembrance of what it means to be human – including “how” to be human. Asceticism is natural and important, among many other things within the faith.
I think technology, such as the written word, can definitely magnify certain passions. We’ve never really come to grips with it, the printing press, and more recent engineering marvels that can increase the quantity of a work, but do little to nothing to increase the quality of a work, particularly the theological quality. Yet I think this applies as well to abstract technology, like oral tradition and even liturgy. Any technology, any tool where we create something and give it a “life” of its own has interesting implications, particularly since we cannot make something except in our own image. If that image is distorted, the creation will be, too.
As someone who works on a national metadata standard, it raises all sorts of interesting questions. Some are fairly technical: when is a work created? It is not a straightforward question because there can be different dates for mental conception, the private start of writing, the completion of editing, the time of publishing, etc. It is a surprisingly nuanced question that current standards (eg, Dublin Core) entirely miss and/or punt, making them less than useful for the real world. But more to the theological questions, what is a work, what is our sub-creation? We have [hopefully] put a lot of thought into the Incarnation, the union of Divine and human, but what of the rest of creation? It is difficult. And the constant use of the F word, the word that is used to excuse any sin—the “it’s F and makes money”, as you said—does not make the issue of sub-creation any easier. There are so many hidden dangers when dealing with something that is not directly human, whether it is digital technology or just the technology of liturgy.
Speaking for myself: at age 73 with 35 years in the Church, I am just beginning to learn what it means to be human(I am a slow learner). Even from the very outer edges, it is amazing. I can not describe it any other way. The key for me is repentance which I pray will deepen into metanoia (transformation).
Human beings have always been technological creatures – from our earliest beginnings. The extreme sophistication of our present machines (computers, phones, etc.) transcend the machines that came before in astounding ways. The more sophisticated they become, the more dangerous they become, just as a gun is more dangerous than a sword (though wielded by the same idiot). With nuclear technology, for example, we could destroy all life on the planet in a very short time. So, the level of technology is an important consideration.
The simple fact of our computers (phones) as “pleasure devices” transcend simple games like chess or checkers. The reward is near instant and can be very satisfying in a manner that becomes addictive. Having pleasure is not sinful. But too much pleasure (which is usually triggered by dopamine production) is addictive. It’s why opium works as well as it does. It’s fun. Our pleasure machines are far more sophisticated than we are – thus we can say that we are not morally mature enough (virtuous enough) to handle these things without some guidance and ascesis.
If a child is allowed to play video games – they should be regulated and limited – unless you want the child to risk addiction and the anxiety and depression that comes with it.
Hmmm. Ascesis is necessary for our life without regard to our level of technology is it not? Plus, anything can be twisted in my mind so that pleasure is the prime motive for engaging in it. When there is actual substance to the activity that is one thing. It is pleasure in unreality that is truly dangerous. I got a large dopamine rush tonight by cooking my wife’s dinner which allows her to heal from her back surgery. However, the closer union between us that results outweighs the potential negative consequence.
What is it that feels so good about feeling good?
Michael, rather than making this a matter of the “level of technology” (which it is not), understand it as the “level of pleasure.” Asceticism is important in every life – but when it is absent in a life that is driven by extreme levels of pleasure, it is even more so. Pleasure can be addictive if it is abused (as can be the case of an adolescent or other with gaming, etc.).
Steve, thank you.
Steve, I want to thank you for your input on the molecular level. I’m grateful that you pitched in. Let us all remember to present to others the image and likeness of Christ within us. I have an icon of “Holy Silence” which prevents me from engaging very much from the side of science. Not because of the lack of truth, but for whenever there can be light shed from science, I often become frustrated with the obstinance against it, and frequently my frustration bleeds through my comments.
I believe your comment was not too terse. But mine would have been. I’ve been there and done that in this blog enough. Father has seen many emails from me asking for forgiveness.
May God grant us patience and love of one another. I can’t help but express love to all who participate here. And most especially to Father Stephen. Father, I pray daily for you, your family, and for the words you speak and write. It takes courage and love to do what you do. May God continue to strengthen you.
Dee, my frustration is not about science but those from whatever perspective misuse and abuse it. Like all human endeavors these days ideology takes hold and truth vanishes. May our good God forgive us all when we love the created thing more than our Creator and Savior.
Father, you wrote:
“In early centuries, that process of preparation lasted as much as three years. Surprisingly, it consisted primarily in “moral instruction” (teachings on how to behave). Instruction in the doctrines of the faith did not take place until after Baptism! The assumption behind this was (and still should be) that catechumens needed spiritual formation before they were ready to receive doctrinal instruction.”
Can you please refer me to sources in which I can read more about this?
It’s been almost one week since I posted my above question. I am really interested in following up on this matter. So, please, if you have any resources to recommend to me, I would be grateful.
I did not find an Orthodox book on the topic, thought there probably is one. However, here’s a link to a large number of papers on the subject. Much of what I said in this article is a sort of “common knowledge” among Orthodox clergy. Hope you find these interesting.
Here are some suggestions from a massive footnote. Most of the scholarship is Catholic – but, since the early Church is a shared period with the Orthodox, it’s pretty reliably Orthodox.
There is a large body of scholarly literature on the early Christian catechumenate. See, for example, Edward Yarnold, The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: The
Origins of the R.I.C.A., 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994); “Catechumenate,”
New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Washington: Gale Publishing Group, 2003);
Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991); John H. Westerhoff III and O.C. Edwards, Jr.,
eds., A Faithful Church: Issues in the History of Catechesis (Wilton, CT: MorehouseBarlow Co., Inc., 1981); Michel Dujarier, A History of the Catechumenate: The First
Six Centuries, trans. Edward J. Haasl (New York: Sadlier, 1979); Robert M. Grant,
“Development of the Christian Catechumenate,” in Made, Not Born: New Perspectives on Christian Initiation and the Catechumenate (Notre Dame: University of
Notre Dame Press, 1976); Everett Ferguson, “Catechesis and Initiation,” in The Origins of Christendom in the West, ed. Alan Kreider (New York: T & T Clark, 2001),
229–268; Robert Louis Wilken, “Christian Formation in the Early Church,” in Educating People of Faith: Exploring the History of Jewish and Christian Communities,
ed. John Van Engen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004); Alan Kreider, The Change of
Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1999); E.C.
Whitaker, Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy, rev. ed. Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003).
Thank you Father for this extra effort.
On another note, I took an excerpt of your podcast (the one before last) and sent it to our priest, who is a writer. He appreciated it a lot. It inspired him to write something on his FB page, quoting you.
Please check it out on the Orthodox Hipsters Coffee Hour group.
Again, many thanks…
Another great article Father. Thank you.
I’ve been wondering for some time why Catechism (at least as I’ve seen it done) seems to focus almost solely on Doctrine and belief, and has so little on how to behave / live / act. So I’m grateful to see you address that point.