Sunday, March 2, 2014

Hidden in a field

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.
Matthew 13:44


lazarus said...

You said, "Still, we feel it is unfair that we must transfer this kind of loyalty to the Lord to a mere institution."

Could you expand on the distinction, if any between the mystical faith community that comprises Holy Orthodoxy and the "institution" called The Eastern Orthodox Church. The reason I ask is because I know some Orthodox folks who have been healed by the Lord in and through the mystical fellowship in its beautiful operation; and deeply hurt by the dysfunction of the "institution."

Perhaps there is, after all, no distinction that can be made and we have to just persevere taking the good with the bad.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

I have been a member of the Greek Orthodox Church since I was 37 years old, and I am now 63. I raised my family in this church, and though there certainly were good times, I cannot honestly say that any of us (myself, wife, and four sons) were ‘healed by the Lord in and through the mystical fellowship.’ On the contrary, all of us have been hurt to some degree (myself probably the least, some of my sons, the most) by the dysfunction of the church as ‘institution.’ As it is, only my wife (now, my ex-wife) still attends the family Greek church, while I have opted for the Antiochian parish (still evangelical in spirit as my Greek church once was), and our sons remain Greek Orthodox in theory but rarely in practice.

Your closing statement is probably right at least on some level, that ‘no distinction [between the mystical community and the institution]… can be made and we have to just persevere taking the good with the bad,’ but we should never be satisfied with this. What I have found to be true is that authentic Orthodoxy exists in the visible, canonical Church structures and people, but not to the same degree everywhere and at all times, because people can be weak in both faith and self-knowledge, and can be ignorant of the Bible and the Fathers or at least very shallow, and misuse the treasures that Holy Church puts at their disposal. This dysfunction, thank God, cannot be hidden, and is eventually corrected.

Being faced with dysfunction in the institutional Church has never alienated me from the Holy Orthodoxy which I once accepted and still uphold as the true faith. I follow Jesus and trust Him, and He has kept me from despairing at the worst moments and abundantly surrounded me with true witnesses at all times, and in all places, even outside the visible and canonical Church. The fact is, however, that the Lord always leads me to Christians (usually Orthodox) from whom I can learn, with whom I can feel confirmed (strengthened) and in perfect fellowship. Many of these are in the sidebar of this blog under the heading ‘Remember who your teachers were.’

Whenever I have felt challenged in my adherence to the Orthodox Church as an institution, I am brought around to remembering who it is I believe in (Jesus Christ), and with whom I am sharing the privilege of being a synkinonós, as beloved John the revelator describes himself, ‘συγκοινωνος εν τη θλιψει και εν τη βασιλεια και υπομονη ιησου χριστου,’ companion in the tribulation and in the kingdom and perseverance of Jesus Christ. When we become Christians, all of us hope, though not all of us openly express, that our lives will get better, become easier, and somehow be blessed.

‘Better’ is for God to decide, ‘easier’ we cannot assess without comparisons, all of which are flawed, and ‘blessed,’ well, what can I say when Christ Himself says point blank, ‘Blessed are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account.’ He even has the nerve to tell us to ‘rejoice’ in all of this. So what is it I was complaining about? Being damaged by the rock tumbler that is called ‘the Church’? I started out being a rough, opaque and unlovely pebble. After the experience in the tumbler, well, how was I supposed to know I’d someday be this glistening, translucent gem?

Back to the serious side (if it weren’t all serious), we can’t divide what we can divide. The Church is the Church is the Church, and when we are faced with sins and even crimes within her, they are not of her but against her, and that means us. But with Metropolitan Anthony, we can say and then pray these words, ‘Where there is no love, there is no Church. There remains only its external form, a deceit, which repulses people. That is why our churches remain empty, that is why our young people lapse. Lord, help us to become Your Church, not just its appearance.’

Brother, I hope this helps. Kali Sarakostí! Beautiful Forty Days!

lazarus said...

Thank you for your comprehensive reply. It is exactly what what i expected. That is a compliment to you.

What I did not expect was this statement: "I cannot honestly say that any of us (myself, wife, and four sons) were ‘healed by the Lord in and through the mystical fellowship.’" Perhaps you are thinking I mean "healing" to refer only to some kind of physical restoration. Not so.

So, are you saying that neither you nor any member of your family have experienced spiritual refreshment, restoration, freedom, and the like? These are, for me, the form and content that healing most often takes.

Once again, thank you for your insightful posts. I follow your writing and experience the "healing" of the Lord through them.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Yes, healing need not be a specific healing of a sickness or other dysfunctional condition, though it can be. When my boys were little, and they began to get sick, I would pray over them and anoint them with blessed oils we had been given by an Eritrean Orthodox bishop, and as I remember, they always felt better and did not get sick. I also used to 'cure' them of fevers by having them lie against me, bare chest to bare chest (until they were about 4 or 5) in a rocking chair, and pray over them until their fevers left, and they did. This second example I don't know if it were prayer or love in action that worked the healing. My saying is 'it is not medicine, but love, that heals,' and I really believe this.

When I said none of us were ‘healed by the Lord in and through the mystical fellowship,’ I didn't mean that we were not refreshed, inspired, and blessed, but it was not, as I look back, a supernatural thing that we experienced in liturgy and fellowship, but mostly a human and emotional one. I cannot be sure of this for my ex-wife because she became a Charismatic and was always (and still is) uplifted in a kind of religious exaltation in worship, but not necessarily only by the liturgy. For me, what I think should be happening is that sick people (spiritually, sinfully sick and in bondage) should be released and made whole. That's what the Church, as an institution, exists for. Instead, we find that only rarely, and so we have what we have because that's all we expect or think possible.

I am kept alive more by reading the psalms and prayer, and by talking things over with God, and then writing as I do, than by my participation in liturgy. I don't see that as a bad thing, because the liturgy and the services are designed for an illiterate or unwilling to be literate (in modern times) people, and so it is in large part an ongoing school. We continue in it no matter what age we are, even though we've learned our lessons in church as well as putting what we learned to action on the street, because we also need to be reminded that we are 'all children in the eyes of the Father,' and He is always teaching us wherever we are.

As for the mystical and sacramental aspect to Orthodox worship, yes, we need that too, but the presence of Christ among us, with us, and in us, once we are sure of that reality, changes the experience of the Holy Mysteries from something quasi-magical to a corporate (with others) confirmation of our new birth, our feeding on the sacred Body and Blood, and our general integration with the Divine Nature—a necessary sign and proof of the reign of Christ over us, and our royal priesthood, being made kings and queens as He is King of kings of kings.

Orthodoxy is truly great because it is radically inclusive, but on an institutional level it often forgets that, and we, smarting sometimes from a wrong or unjustifiable application of authority, are left disaffected and confused. When this happens, the Holy Bible and prayer are there to restore us to balance, to see that no matter what happens, no matter what it looks or feels like, we are still always (even when sinful) members incorporate in the Body of Christ, the company of all faithful people, which is the Holy Church, of which even the name 'Orthodox' is insufficient.