For today, I thought I would pick up where I left off in my last post. In my last post, I mentioned that I would return to Owen’s insight that many who take up Orthodox practices become worse people, not better, and that seeing this can drive a person away. I do think some Orthodox who take up Orthodox spiritual practices are the worse for it. I also think seeing this in others and experiencing their judgment and fanaticism can drive a person away.
I would like to suggest that when it comes to Orthodox converts, the practices are often part and parcel of the package. In my book Turning to Tradition I highlight how it is that American Orthodox coverts ironically portray that most American phenomenon known as restorationism in their conversions. No, I’m not claiming that is true for 100% of all converts, but it has been true for the leaders of convert movements and those who were influenced and led by them. That’s no negligible number. Chapters four and five, which deal with the Evangelical Orthodox Church demonstrate this. Once Orthodoxy becomes identified with that primitive Christianity that is to be restored or, as the converts soon come to conclude, found, the adoption of Orthodox practices go hand-in-hand with it. In such cases, “Eastern” sources actually become an aspect to this restorationism–restoring what was “lost” by “the West.” Think also of the various Orthodox converts who engage in syncretism of sorts before becoming Orthodox. We start praying before icons before even becoming catechumens. Or, maybe some of us start fasting and buy prayer ropes and such. I can’t claim to have done all that but I will publicly admit that I did purchase an icon before we were catechumens and it hung on our bedroom wall. So, I would caution against thinking people become Orthodox and then start adopting practices. It’s often an organic, fluid process, and one that starts right from the time Orthodox Christianity is of interest (which is why we have Lutherans and Episcopalians, for example, who use icons in their prayer lives even though they have no intention of “converting”).
If we keep this in mind, I think it is fair to say it is not necessarily the practices themselves, but the way in which they are being utilized in conversion journeys that become problematic. When various assorted practices become identified with the essence of the conversion itself, then there is a natural set up for the practices to lead to all kinds of arrogance and judgmental attitudes. Further, in such cases, the more a person does them, the worse it would get as it would tend to reinforce those vices. Something similar happens with regard to the whole notion of “feeling spiritual” or trying to see the “divine light.” It becomes a downward spiral.
So, although I do not think the problem runs as deep as Owen (for I don’t think the practices themselves are inherently bad—my words, not his—my extrapolation–so maybe I misunderstood him), I do think he has placed his finger on something important. Now, please bear with me in this. Part of what I’m doing in these posts is trying to express and respond to how certain spiritual peculiarities are often connected to a journey that is (or at least becomes) inherently sectarian. This is not easy, but I have seen the two go hand-in-hand too often, so that is the part of Owen’s post that resonated with me. It’s there in our American Orthodox history and it continues today. Some day, I need to sit down and do a more serious outlining of this phenomenon. With that said, I think there are several lessons to be learned from all this:
1) One shouldn’t dismiss Orthodoxy because some (or even many) converts (and “cradles”!) are getting all harsh and anal retentive about spirituality and utilize Orthodox praxis as a means to differentiate themselves from the rejected other. That’s dismissing the whole for the part.
2) At the same time, we Orthodox (especially us clergy) absolutely need to change how we are bringing in converts. When we encourage the quick adoption of Orthodox practices, we are often encouraging a path that will lead to spiritual destruction, not health. It actually IS worse for a convert-to-be to take on fasting and the Jesus Prayer as means of creating a new identity right from the get-go, especially when that identity uses Orthodox praxis as the basis for differentiating him/herself from the rejected other. Potential converts and catechumens need to be talked through this and guided through this. Perhaps the principle of 1 Corinthians 3:2 should be in play here: give potential converts and catechumens and new converts “milk” (that is, what they need to nurture their faith in Christ) before giving them “meat” (that is, the various liturgical and spiritual tools they can use to further their spiritual life in Christ). They will have already begun picking up and using those tools, so we need to slow them down and show them proper use and discuss misuse. They need to see that these are tools, not essential markers of identity change.
3) How to guide such people? Well, for starters, we clergy need to deemphasize the “trappings,” if you will. We need to quit acting like those practices are the essence of Orthodoxy. For example, the more we ourselves look like social odd balls, the more we reinforce that creating an Orthodox identity means becoming a social and spiritual odd ball. We also need to encourage converts to keep the spiritual practices they had that do not contradict Orthodox dogma, not just tolerate that those practices might continue, and certainly we should not castigate those practices.
4) It follows, then, that we should emphasize some things. What should we emphasize? Well, I think we can emphasize honest historical continuity first and foremost. This would do two things: a) give us something positive to proclaim, for we can trace a spiritual path back to the Apostles in a direct way, but b) that path is a meandering one, one that has changed during the course of the centuries, so let us not try to restore some past glory, whether that be the eighth century or the nineteenth or twentieth.
5) We should also emphasize beauty as a means to deeper communion with God and greater love for humanity. The Byzantine liturgy is a beautiful work of art and is something we should emphasize as people seek to enter our church. Furthermore, we should highlight how it connects us to God and proclaims the Gospel of Christ. In so doing, it inspires us to virtue and therefore builds a parish community and makes us mindful of our neighbors around us.
6) We should emphasize theological and relevant homilies. Priests should cease having filing cabinets with the homily for that Sunday in them. I’ve seen this—more than once. Be engaged! Work at developing a new homily every time! Make them real teaching moments. This also means homilies should not drone on about “the uncreated light” (heard this) or politics (heard this too), but be morally and culturally engaged (without being moralistic or too given to or against pop culture–I’ve heard all that too).
7) Develop and maintain social ministries and get new converts to engage in them. Ours is a hurting world, a world in pain. Ours is a world in which we are seeing the middle class shrink, in which the disparity between wealthy and poor is increasing at an increasing rate. St. Maria of Parish is an example to keep in mind here. If our faith does not do this and does not emphasize this, then we run the risk of the devil actually rejoicing in all our prostrations, prayer ropes, vigils, distinctive appearance, etc.
If we do these things, it will help converts and potential converts put things into perspective. They will come to see fasting and Orthodox prayers as things that are to lead us to Christ. They will realize they can enter into Orthodoxy without feeling compelled (or even implicitly encouraged) to adopt the “look” of a monk they are not. They may be less judgmental because they will have found the Jesus Prayer and fasting and prayer rules to be things that are tools, not things that must be legally kept, much less things that are markers of “the truth faith” against the heretical, evil heterodox. After all, vestments, fasts, hairstyles, prayer rules, prayer ropes, liturgics and the liturgical calendar were made for humanity, not humanity for vestments, fasts, hairstyles, prayer rules, prayer ropes, liturgics and a liturgical calendar.