I have been reflecting on some conversations I’ve had over the past little while in the light of my meditation on what Flannery O’Connor said about the face of good being grotesque because in human beings good is always something under construction. (Please read my blog, “Good’s Disfigured Face,” before proceeding.) My meditation could be read to be suggesting that the only form of brokenness that we have to see past to discover the good that is under construction is that sort of brokenness that we associate with the breaking of the Ten Commandments.
Certainly, it is difficult to look past—or perhaps better, through—the grotesque face of a habitual liar or thief, or of a murderer, or a drunkard, or a drug or sex addict . To look through faces such as these to see the good under construction is certainly difficult. However, in most of the conversations I have with people struggling to see the good under construction in others, these forms of sinful ugliness are not the problem.
Probably because I am a priest and most of the people I talk to in any depth are somewhat devout Orthodox Christians, most of the time the real stumbling block is not an obvious sin, but a form of religious piety. That is, for many Orthodox Christians it is very difficult to see through the ugly face of the religious piety of other Orthodox Christians in order to see the good under construction. I am not referring to a specific form of religious piety as opposed to another. I am referring to whatever form of religious piety that is different from the religious piety practiced by the person who is struggling.
For example, for an Orthodox Christian whose piety is manifest in social action, the face of those who seem “only to pray but do nothing” seems grotesque and distorted. So for those whose piety is expressed in social acton such piety can be very hard for them to see through to appreciate the good under construction in the other person’s life. Or there are some whose piety is expressed in ways that are largely influenced by monasticism and who find it difficult to see through the disfigured face of those whose piety is not so influenced by monasticism. And then there are those whose piety is expressed through their strong support of or opposition to a certain political position or party or candidate. We just can’t believe that a real Orthodox Christian could support the candidate or party or position that we oppose.
And, unfortunately, it is all to easy to reduce such variations in piety to the language of culture. That is, I find myself tempted to easily dismiss whole swaths of people whose piety is different from mine because they are liberals or fundamentalists or ecumenists or “Ehpramites.” Sometimes it even takes a racist bent: they are too Greek, Arabic, Russian, American or whatever. I have heard myself use terms like “ethnic club” to refer to some churches. I have too often given myself permission not to listen compassionately to others because I classed them into a group, often based on the most superficial expressions of external piety: Thou vs. You; Kristos Anesti vs. Christ is risen; He is risen indeed vs. Truly He is risen; long hair and beard vs. short hair and little or no beard; cassock vs. suit coat; head covered vs. not covered; Trump bumper sticker vs. Biden bumper sticker; and with our recent COVID experience, wearing a mask in Church vs. not wearing a mask. And these are just a few examples.
The offence we create for ourselves when we give ourselves permission to think in this way is huge. When an Orthodox Christian brother or sister (or priest or bishop or whole community) is enthusiastic for a form of piety different from mine and I classify them neatly so that I don’t have to look for the good under construction in them, then I often see only what appears ugly, offensive or even grotesque to me. Consequently, I am offended. I say to myself (or worse, to someone else) how could someone who calls themselves an Orthodox Christian do (or not do) __________?
And this offence can easily take an apparently self justifying form. That is, I am not personally offended, per se, I tell myself, but I know others who are or will be or could be offended and for that reason I am offended. And because I am vicariously offended, I cannot see beyond the ugly face, real or supposed, to see the good under construction in my Orthodox sister or brother or priest or bishop.
In my own experience I have struggled to understand this dynamic as it is at work within me. I have come to see that the real problem is not the other person or people or group and their piety (or apparent lack thereof); rather, the problem is something fed by my own fear and insecurity. When I look and look and look, refusing to turn away, at my own shameful dismissal of other Orthodox Christians because of what initially appears grotesque or disfigured to me, I see that really I am the one with the problem. I am afraid. I am afraid that I might not be right. I am afraid that what seems so essential to me in my Orthodox Christian practice may not be as essential as I think. After all, if what I think is important and the piety by which I express it is not mirrored in those around me, I might not be as right or as pious or as correct in my Orthodox Christian practice as I like to think I am. And if I try to fake it, if I try to put on the piety or opinions of others, I only get frustrated and feel false, false to myself and false to God.
What has helped me a lot in my struggle to see through the disfigured face of the piety of other Orthodox Christians and to attend to the good under construction in them is to recognize and name my own insecurity. Once I look my own fearfulness in the face, I can work on that. I can work on anchoring my piety in my actual relationship with God, usually guided by a trusted spiritual father or mother. As I grow in peace in my relationship with God, the different pieties or politics of other Orthodox Christians become much less a matter of concern. After all, Jesus is the Judge, not me, not them.
I am reminded of the question St. Paul asks in Romans 14, “Who are you to judge another person’s servant? To their own master they stand or fall.” Probably, if I work on taking care of my own heart and expressing my Orthodox Christian faith in ways consistent with that, God will do the job of looking after the hearts and the piety of others. After all, He’s the Master, not me.