|Fully Alive, by Danny Setiawan|
Whether we think of Orthodox Christianity as a religion, a philosophy, a way of life, or all three, we have no choice but to analyze it from the outside. We are told, you can only know what our faith is by accepting it as it is, in toto, and let it be what it claims to be, the true faith, something that will necessarily take a lifetime to sink in. We are told, ‘We are all becoming Orthodox,’ and other such things. The strange thing is, once you are inside, though you may find people who still jabber about Orthodoxy as if it were the cat’s pajamas, if you are sincere in your faith and following of Christ—without whom there can be no such thing as the Church, let alone ‘Orthodoxy’—you find that you are still primarily a disciple of Jesus, but that you have acquired a very large family, and now know ‘for sure’ where the road leads.
You see, Orthodoxy is not ‘the Church’ that any of us who came to it from outside ever thought it was. At first, we take it for granted that the Church is an institution, that it has rules, that it requires intellectual agreement with certain ideas, and that we are expected to participate regularly in at least some of its activities. We think that joining it necessarily separates us, even isolates us, from the non-Orthodox. We have heard as much from ‘authorities’ who seem to know what they’re talking about. There are books to read, even handbooks of correct ceremonial protocol—women wear skirts in church, no one crosses their legs, gum chewing is not allowed, and other such things which we see disregarded with impunity—and then there all all those dietary rules, what to eat or not eat during the fasts, and who knows what else.
Our intellect may be pushed out of shape, scandalized or even offended by things we think or we know are ‘wrong,’ at least by our upbringing. We want the Church to be perfect in every way, doctrinally especially, but even socially. We want to escape to it from whatever we have found disagreeable in the world we inhabit, and our approach to it often remains, unknown to ourselves, that of a consumer intent on getting the best deal. The truth about Orthodoxy, though, as a Church, is that it is the menagerie of the Most-High God, who collects every kind of human being as Noah collected animals for the ark. This menagerie was there before we arrived, and will still be there, if we leave it. We cannot buy it, it is not for sale. It is the pan-human reality, the visible part of the great Tree that God has planted in paradise.
All of the incidentals, even such things as beliefs and practices, which we want to take much too seriously, are really only that—incidentals. The Orthodox Church is what salvation looks like, wearing these incidentals, while the human race undergoes the most radical step in evolution we can possibly imagine. Far more people are included in this radical step than even the Church itself is aware of. Hence, the ubiquitous saying, ‘We know where the Church is; we do not know where it is not.’ When we offer to join this spiritual monstrosity, we think we are doing someone a favor, and like a swimmer contemplating a dive into a strange body of water, we want some assurance that we won’t be injured, that there are no dangerous creatures in the lake, and that we can get out of the water if and when we want to.
Back to our mind set, most of us are—at least at the beginning—unable to think ‘outside the box.’ We think we are doing precisely that already, just by considering Orthodoxy at all, but we are still trapped by a whole series of dualities upon which we feel we must opine, judge, and agree or disagree with. At the very least, we think that we must confess an exact belief and that we must, in detail, agree with everything the Orthodox Church teaches. We feel that to do anything less would be both dishonest and dangerous. All this is why the safest and easiest way to become an Orthodox Christian is to be born into it, forty-day blessed, triple-dunk baptized and slickly holy oiled, regularly spoon-fed with bread and wine pablum, and prayed over often, at length, and repeatedly, until we are so used to being loved, that we like it.
Back to assurance, most of us want to be certain that once we plight our troth to a strange religion, that we shall not later become liable to believe things that were hidden from us before our mystical marriage. We do not like surprises, as if we could say to Jesus, ‘Enough now! Let’s not go there!’ but fortunately for us if we really want to follow Him, we are willing to go with Him, anywhere. Still, we feel it is unfair that we must transfer this kind of loyalty to the Lord to a mere institution. At least, that is how our minds make us look at it. But our hearts shall thrill to hear such things as this: ‘Everything begins to speak with strange dogmas, strange words and the strange teachings of the Holy Trinity’ (Verses at Orthros and Sunday Vespers of Pentecost). With the mind in the heart, we welcome this strangeness.
There is a lot of evidence—why do we not accept it?—personal evidence, testimony that we are familiar with through our reading or by encountering real persons who have before us taken the flying leap into the ‘cloud of unknowing’ and embraced Holy Orthodoxy. Yes, now I am calling Orthodoxy ‘Holy’ even though every Lord’s Day I sing with the choir at the Divine Liturgy, ‘One is Holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ…’ We sometimes have known people whose Christian life and witness have impressed us as being genuine and at least as real as our own, who like us were not born to the faith, and yet despite mental or even moral dilemmas, seem to have effortlessly entered. If they could do it, what about us? Is it really more like boarding a ship bound for safety, than reading a legal contract and making sure you agree with everything?
So there is this faith that seems to be walking on marbles. They call Jesus, ‘Christ God’ and ‘Saviour’ and then turn around and say ‘Most Holy Theotokos, save us!’ (Theotokos, the ‘God-bearer,’ is Mary the mother of Jesus.) They claim that they have seen the true Light, received the heavenly Spirit, and found the true Faith. Why then are they not consigning everyone else to damnation? If their ikons are supposed to be historical, why is there a dragon in some of them? And they believe some of the most wild things about people they call ‘the Saints’ with a capital ‘S’ (though some of them seem to be more evangelical than the most fervent bible thumpers, and call everyone ‘saints’). How can anyone feel safe on solid ground when all this is going on all around them, all the time? Bottom line is, just who do they trust?
Safe, yes, as one who has dived into that unknown lake, not even knowing how to swim, I was not injured. I did not break my neck on a hidden rock at the bottom, but I did find the Rock hidden from the world in that lucid pool. I can stand on that Rock, my head above the waters, because He who loves me is always with me. He does not ask me what I believe or doubt, does not require anything from me, except that I do what I see Him doing, say what I hear Him saying, and go where He goes. He gives me permission to go in and out through a Door that, when I open it none can close, and when I close it none can open. Agree and disagree belong to the world of those who measure, count, weigh, buy and sell. There is no loss with Jesus, even though everything we think we own is taken away. That is what Orthodoxy is.
It is not a religion, unless you want it to be. The ikon wall does not separate us from the Divine Nature tabernacled behind it, but hides what must not be seen for the sake of Him who is, was, and shall be seen. The ceremony celebrates the Divine Presence with us, who has pitched His tent among us, so that we can learn how we shall be dwellers with Him in the presence of His Father and the angels. The ancient tales, neither true nor false as men judge, are not to divide us, but to join us to the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ whose acts have filled the earth unnoticed by the arrogant and worldly wise, but we have noticed. We do not ask ‘Who said that?’ but we pay attention to everything that is said. Now, we see this treasure hidden by others who came before us. Orthodoxy we name it, the faith of saints we claim it, but till we own it, it is nothing.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. A man found it, hid it again, then in great joy went and sold everything he owned, and bought that field.