Smashing the Mirror, or Why It is Important to Come to the Church Knowing Nothing.

June 20, 2008

As someone who fancies himself an intellectual (which shows my own pride more than anything else), I recognize a jarring trend in what we might call the “convert expereince” in Eastern Orthodoxy. It seems that, Fr. Seraphim of Platina’s wishes aside, those coming to Holy Orthodoxy, by and large, are still the well-educated, thinking individuals that in a bygone era of American life would have been considered white-collar folk. Nevertheless, these persons, whatever their work-status, tend to be by current standards well educated. That is, they have been exposed to certain vistas of history, philosophy, psychology, etc, even if they do not possess a great understanding of them. So many of these people were raised in nominally ‘Christian’ households, have at some point had their beliefs challenged, and then, instead of giving up on faith, to their credit, they plunge into the history of Christendom and discover the Holy Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church and seek entry into her communion.

At this time in North America, there is serious debate going on (if not openly, then at least quietly in parish hall coffee hours and on internet discussion boards) about the nature and character of the Church as it exists on this continent. What is her role to be in the larger Orthodox world? In what language should her liturgy be served? Should there be a union of the jurisdictions belonging to SCOBA? These are serious questions, and demand a great deal of thought, energy, and, most importantly, prayer. But it is in this climate of self-examination which many of our intellectual converts are coming to the Church, carrying with them the (post-?) modern expectation that individual feelings, intuitions, and ideas are of value and worth. In this time of questions, these people come to the Church, having read numerous reports of financial misdeeds, clergy misconduct, etc, and they imagine that they “know how to deal with all this.” Of course, this is nothing but fallacious pride that would set the judgment of the individual mind over and above the 2000 year wisdom of the Mind of the Church, and, as such, is totally unacceptable.

This time of questioning in North America has bred something of a “perfect storm” scenario in this regard. Potential converts are arriving that have been raised in an ideological climate of entitlement, where their parents and society at large have put mirrors into their hands and taught them to worship the image seen therein. They cannot be wholly blamed for believing that they alone can refound and reshape the world; after all, they’ve been brought up on pithy quotes from major figures in history, and raised to believe that each and every one of us can be changers of history–one thinks of the self-esteem movements in public school education in the last 25 years that taught us, “You can be anything you want to be.” Of course this is a ridiculous lie; you cannot be anything you want to be–you can only be what God wants you to be. This is why each of us is given talents and abilities unique to our personhood; to deny that is to deny personhood, to deny the operative work of God in our lives, and, ultimately, to pursue the satanic course toward the rule of the self-will, rather than the rule of the divine will. All the same, these folks are showing up at the doors of the Church, just when the Church in this continent is having a mild identity crisis. No strangers to identity crises, these potential converts come to the Church “knowing” what she needs to do to solve her problems. They have many and inventive solutions; but the fact that few of them seem to agree ought to be proof enough that the Holy Spirit, which is always one of unity and love, is not at work in these imaginative cogitations.

At the same time, there seems to be a lack of understanding about what the catechetical process is supposed to do. While it does serve to provide people with basic theological knowledge about the Faith, that is not its primary purpose. The purpose of catechism is to kill off the “old” man, so that the new one may be reborn in the Church. A person who comes to the Church with a lifetime of ego-centric selfishness, especially one that continues to imagine that there is value in in their own self-worth, cannot be catechized and receive into the Church in anything less than a year. Acquiring the phronema, the Mind of the Church, takes a while. It is foreign to our selfishness and pride; being people so inured to selfishness and pride, we are quite resistant to the process of acquiring the Mind of the Church, and as such, it is my belief that many people are being received into the Church who are merely fascinated with some aspect of the idea of Orthodox Christianity, but are not truly doing the work to become Orthodox in the heart. What, then, can be done?

First, we have to stress to people who are coming to the doors of the Church seeking entry that catechism is not just a confirmation process. It isn’t a stamp of approval on you that says “you believe the right things about Christ our God, so you can now commune with His Church.” A merely psychological assent to certain doctrinal positions is not enough. To enter the Church, you have to come to her in humility–you have to admit that everything you were before you came to her was wrong. Even the things in your past that you previously thought of as right or good; it has to be understood that there was nothing good in your past, because it was outside the perfecting ability of the Holy Spirit working on you as a member of Christ’s own Body. Anything less is holding on to the passion of pride, and will just cause more grievous harm to the person once they are received into the Church.

Second, people coming to the Church have to want it, more than anything. They have to desperately want it–to the point that they are willing to throw everything in their lives, as they are, away for the Truth. I believe this to have much scriptural support in the Gospels, from the lips of Our Lord himself. You have to have the humility to learn from the Church what is correct; coming to her seeking entry, you should never presume to judge her. It is the Church of the Lord which will be a judgment on the world (and the angels as well, according to St. Paul). No matter what is happening at any time within her life, the Holy Spirit guides and directs her. She has survived more and deeper crises than this. Remember that once, long ago, the world awoke and groaned to find itself Arian. The Nicene Faith eventually won out, and Orthodoxy was preserved. So will it always be, if we are to believe the words of the Lord, “for the Gates of Hell shall never prevail against [my Church].” Talk of ecumenism, the calendar, styles of music, and the language of worship does nothing but advance the position that the gates of Hell are prevailing against the Truth of the Church. Inquirers and Catechumens must not, in any situation, give in to the temptation of discussing these matters–and many of us who are already in the Church should refrain from discussing them so freely.

In conclusion, the only way to come to the Church, and, indeed, the only way to find Orthodoxy in the heart, is to come to her admitting that we know nothing. That is how we must smash the mirrors of our narcissism and pride, and come to her in all Truth. All that there is in the world lust of the flesh and the pride of life, according to St. John. It is all vanity and vexation of the spirit. If you would come into communion with the True Church, the visible, living, One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith, you must come to her in perfect submission and in all humility. For it takes nothing less than that to be willing to be taught by imperfect persons about a perfect thing. Those of us in the Church may not be shining examples of the Faith; we, too, are sinners working out our salvation in fear and trembling. No doubt, some of us will hear “Depart, I knew ye not” at the dread judgment of the Lord. But it is only here, inside Holy Orthodoxy, that you will find uncorrupt (and incorruptible) the faith unfeigned and a love unashamed.

Pax vobiscum+

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9 Responses to “Smashing the Mirror, or Why It is Important to Come to the Church Knowing Nothing.”

  1. Cory Says:

    I’m going to be talking to the priest at my local Orthodox parish about becoming a catechumen, and I’m trying very hard to take to heart what you’re talking about in this post. One of the most terrifying things about the possibility of becoming a catechumen in the Orthodox Church is that I will have to admit I don’t know anything! In the various Protestant churches I’ve attended over the past several years, I’ve been one of the more knowledgeable and well-read members of those churches. Going into the Orthodox Church with humility is extremely difficult for me. But, as I believe you’re saying above, it’s one of the most important things for a catechumen to keep in mind: humility. Realizing that I don’t know as much as I always thought I did is difficult, but when I look back at when I first recovered my Christian faith after several years of not professing any faith, I remember how little I knew then, and how invigorating it was to learn. I ask God for the humility to enter into His Church with my head bowed…

  2. Kyriaki Says:

    I wish I had come across this a year ago before learning the hard way that I honestly knew nothing. Raised by academics, at least one of whom is seriously into the whole intellectual thing and theology and brought up being taught to read and debate, I thought I knew so much. And what I knew, or thought I knew, was my downfall. For this girl who was used to debating those twice her age or more (and winning!) to suddenly find that I knew nothing a few months into my catechumenate was one of the more painful experiences of my life. Bittersweet, to be sure, once I managed to see out of the fog I’d found myself in and put one foot in front of the other, but it meant leaving everything I held close to myself. I’ve found that this is somewhat of a pattern – in the last year I think I’ve given up almost everything that I defined myself by, but this was the first thing that started to let me see, and let me begin to learn.

    I’m talking to someone at the moment online who is in somewhat of the same place I was, though he has his own reasons for investigating Orthodoxy. And I wish I could somehow convey this – that what you know, what you can debate, your intellectual criticism of the Church will get you nowhere, and it’s only in knowing nothing that we can begin to learn, but despite all these desires I know that he will have to learn, as I did, the hard way. Lord have mercy.

    I’m still learning the hard way – in some ways I think it would have been better had I never studied theology, I have so much to unlearn!

    I’m commenting late, I know, but I wanted to add this now.

    Thankyou Justinian.

  3. Justinian Says:

    Corey: We all know so little–and in the end, it really isn’t what we know that matters. To badly paraphrase St. Paul, ‘Though I write with the pen of Aristotle, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.’ It’s a shame, really; we’re brought up in this culture that, at least on some level, respects the intellect and the rational mind so much, and those of us who have cultivated those parts of ourselves so often find the Church through their use, only to discover how little value there is in them once we’re to her. In that, I see the tragedy of the Fall, and its reversal–in short, salvation itself. Be of good cheer, my friend–Christ our God has overcome the world (and all its rational pride).

    Kyriaki: “Pride goeth ever before a fall, and a haughty spirit before destruction.” How well the words of Solomon are burned into my memory. Most of us learn the hard way–I just take comfort now in the fact that I realize I have so much to unlearn and am just now (albeit barely, with lots of fitful restarts) learning what truly matters. The ‘circumcision of the heart’ of which St. Paul speaks is frightfully painful.

    Pax vobiscum

  4. Don Says:

    I actually found comfort in The Church because of this very thing. For years I thought I had to know all the answers. I thought I was supposed to know everything.

    What a relief, and a blessing, to find a place that only expects me to know what I know. And all I really know for sure is what I’ve learned in the Orthodox Church.

    Excellent post, brother.

  5. Karen C Says:

    Some of us converts coming into the Church have already learned (to some extent–“learned” is always a relative term when it comes the things of God!) that the only really important “knowledge” is to love unselfishly and to allow the love and life of Christ to energize us (in which we all fall very short). Another factor hindering Christians raised in religious homes with a western mindset is the deep injury done in the Name of Christ to many by the deeply pious “overachievers” among us, who would, ironically, wholeheartedly affirm your denunciation of “self” esteem. Unfortunately, it is always easier to denounce the unworthy “self-esteem” of some other “self” than one’s own!

    Paradloxically perhaps, on the flip side to letting go of unworthy self-esteem, we all must know, in the sense of deeply experiencing it, that we are deeply valued and loved, no matter the level of our spiritual attainment or lack thereof, just because Christ loves us and has created us in His own image and has declared His love for us. In other words, we must experience grace if we are to be healed. Indeed it is only in the degree that we experience this love that we are able to see our sins for what they are. It is, too often, the absence of a sense of this awareness for those “outside the group,” even coming from “Orthodox” Christians, that hinders the everyday guy or gal in our culture (the non-intellectual, underachieving, average “sinner,” who nevertheless feels his need of God) from even considering Orthodoxy with all its explicitly hyper-religious language and pious expression in terms of style of worship (all appropriate in their context, of course, but a context that is very difficult to grasp without a solid undergirding in this love and grace, which can only be experienced in real relationships!). I love Orthodoxy. I do not believe we should compromise our Liturgy or spirituality in any way. But it is sobering to realize that “to whom much has been given, much is required.” I am burdened that my non-intellectual husband, who eould not not boast of any particularly stellar spiritual attainment or theological expertise, but who nevertheless has responded in his evangelical context to the love and grace of Christ, feel truly welcomed into Orthodoxy. That has yet to happen (which, perhaps, in a way, only serves to underscore a major portion of your point here). Unfortunately, it is remarkably difficult to find a parish populated by the likes of St. Silouan and St. Seraphim of Sarov, and that sometimes seems to me to be what it would take to overcome my husband’s deep insecurities around very overtly religious people, the result of deeply painful past experiences! 😦 Pray for us, sinners, that God have mercy on us!

  6. Karen C Says:

    I should add that insofar that only we, and not the Spirit of Christ, are bound by the norms of the Church [in her formal and dogmatic visible expression], I think it is incorrect to say that:

    “To enter the Church, you have to come to her in humility–you have to admit that everything you were before you came to her was wrong. Even the things in your past that you previously thought of as right or good; it has to be understood that there was nothing good in your past, because it was outside the perfecting ability of the Holy Spirit working on you as a member of Christ’s own Body. Anything less is holding on to the passion of pride, and will just cause more grievous harm to the person once they are received into the Church.”

    I think you would find this triumphalist perspective refuted by many of the Saints and indeed at points by Christ Himself. There is a parodox and tension that is in the Gospels yet seems to me to be missing from your statements here. I think of Mark 9:38ff as contrasted with Matthew 12:30. We cannot say for sure even that someone who does not even formally profess Christ is not somehow, by the mercy of God, being saved.

    Therefore, in actuality, I expect your statements here to be true of professing Christians coming into full Orthodoxy [in terms of formal commitment to an Orthodox parish] only in a qualified sense and in widely varying degrees. In many important respects, this was my experience, but not in as absolute a sense as you suppose here. There was much of Orthodoxy that, by the mercy and grace of Christ and the conviction of His Spirit, I had already embraced prior to formally joining an Orthodoxy parish. I say this not at all to my own credit–it was a sheer gift of God’s grace in resposne to my own sense of desperate need to understand His ways more fully and literally to prevent me from losing my sanity. I was able to embrace Orthodoxy to some extent as much because of some of aspects of the gospel that I was explicitly taught in my evangelical context as it was in spite of others. What led me to want to re-examine some of the assumptions of my former evangelicalism also were not merely intellectual or rational convictions, but involved deep matters of the heart, of soul-searching self-examination, and of the meaning of the gospel. I suspect on some level this is true for many coming into Orthodoxy from another Christian communion. Unless the Spirit were already active in our lives and consciences on some level, melting our pride, many of us would not have been drawn to Orthodoxy in the first place. I believe what you are warning against here is indeed a real danger–to be drawn into Orthodoxy for all the wrong reasons and find oneself yet unhealed. Yet I think it is also dangerous to presume that because your own attitudes and Christian convictions before (and even after) becoming (formally) Orthodox may have involved unmitigated pride, that this is absolutely true for everyone. It is one thing to look starkly at some doctrines that are not fully Orthodox and pronounce them as leading necessarily to pride as their logical conclusion (quite correctly). It is quite another to refuse to recognize that few people have examined every logical extension of the beliefs they have been taught and embraced them on that level. Very often they may be responding to the aspect of those beliefs they find to be true as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in their heart and in their own experience of Christ’s mercy. Not one of us can claim to be free from pride, but it is always dangerous to go from general truths of the gospel, and attempt to apply them in black and white terms to anyone other than ourselves. We will always find three-fingers pointing back at ourselves, no matter which side of the defining line of full communion in the Orthodox Church we find ourselves.

  7. Justinian Says:

    Karen–I will reply by way of saying that I am in no way attempting to describe a broad, general theory of catechumens; I am only attempting to describe a trend I see in many who are coming to the doors of the Church at this present moment. Excessive piety and overt religiosity are as much symptoms of this as anything else. Far from being “triumphalism,” my statement there–which should in no wise be taken to mean that I am denying the operative grace of the Holy Spirit on those outside of the Church–was meant to convey a sense of the lack of true humility and penitence that we ought to approach the doors of the Church with.

    Yes, I used strong language to describe the sense of rejection one must feel for the world–and that includes our former Christian confessions that were, at their finest moments, merely inadequate, and at the worst were actively conforming to the way of the world. I stand by it. If you read closely what I stated (and I assure you, I parsed over the sentence several times before I committed to it, precisely because I didn’t want this confusion), which was “outside the perfecting ability of the Holy Spirit working on you as a member of Christ’s own Body,” it is the being a member of Christ’s body (that is, partaking of the divine body and blood in communion–as opposed to merely believing that Jesus is God) that creates the ability for the Holy Spirit to work in transforming us. I’m not in any way saying that the Holy Spirit does not work outside the bounds of the Church–but where that happens, it is the Holy Spirit calling those outside Her home to Her. Nothing more, nothing less.

    I am sorry that your husband has had bad experiences with Orthodox folks. The overt religiosity that you describe is, I think, a post-convert symptom of the very thing I am talking about. Blessed Fr. Seraphim prayed for the day that the non-intellectual, the average, blue-collar American could find the grace and truth of the Church. I lament that this has not been the case just yet, and I hope that we can eventually make that a reality. But in th mean time, we’ve got people who are landing out our doorsteps who are interested in Orthodoxy, but have no idea about what it takes to become Orthodox in the heart–and, frankly, from what I’m seeing, the catechetical process is failing them. I was, in this essay, merely attempting to show that there are holes in the process, and there are big problems with some people that are falling through those holes. Lord have mercy on us if we neglect those who are coming looking for bread, and we hand them stones!

    Whatever our personal failings–and please understand, I have many that I am aware of, and probably 3x that many that I am too blinded by my own pride to see–we do a disservice to those who come to us by not being honest about what the narrow way of Christ demands of us. Circumcision of the heart is a painful process–and it’s not something that we should spring on people AFTER Chrismation.

    pax tecum
    justinian

  8. blackincense Says:

    God bless you justinian,

    You are a light to many…even to this old lady…
    Much love in Christ to you,
    ByzantineSuzanne at DC

  9. Chocolatesa Says:

    Wow, thank you for that! I have to start praying about that.


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