Saturday, June 27, 2015
The pursuit of Orthodoxy
Οι τα Χερουβειμ μυστικως εικονίζοντες,
και τη ζωοποιω Τριάδι τον Τρισάγιον υμνον προσάδοντες,
πασαν την βιοτικην αποθώμεθα μέριμναν.
Ως τον Βασιλέα των ολων υποδεξόμενοι,
ταις αγγελικαις αοράτως δορυφορούμενον τάξεσιν.
We who mystically represent the Cherubim,
and who sing to the life-creating Trinity the thrice-holy hymn,
let us now lay aside all earthly cares
that we may receive the King of all,
escorted invisibly by the angelic host.
— χερουβικὸς ὕμνος, Cherubic Hymn of the Divine Liturgy
The pursuit of Orthodoxy. Yes, you heard me right, the pursuit of Orthodoxy. This seems to be what motivates most people who are airing the ancient faith and its church on the local and global internet. This is why, if one is an Orthodox Christian and uses networking platforms like FaceBook and Google+ to stay in touch with other Orthodox believers, one’s smart phone, tablet, or computer monitor screen rapidly fills up with religions icons and images of haggard old men in hoods and capes (reverently known as ‘elders’), as well as links to news items detailing how the faith is being promoted, or attacked.
Perhaps I am not typical, but to me it seems that before one can be Orthodox one must be a Christian. Of course, probably no one will disagree with me, but in practice this seems to mean concentrating on what the saints and elders tell us, and rehearsing these tidbits of spiritual advice in relays, daily. Very little time, effort or print is given to anything scriptural, except a barebones bible verse here and there and, as for Jesus, it’s certainly held to be sufficient if an icon of Him is posted along with the selected texts from one’s favorite ‘father.’ I know I am generalizing, but this is how it looks to me.
That is why, at the risk of being labeled a protestant, I either quote the holy scriptures directly and nakedly when their meaning is commonsensically obvious, or reveal my personal and interior meditations on them in my writings. Believe it or not, I am writing nearly always for no one to read but myself. The kind of mind I have needs to see its thoughts expressed in writing in order to verify or challenge them. I don’t like to slip into picture-thinking, which is what happens when we let our emotions or other irrational impulses form and direct our thoughts. First and foremost, I am a word man.
Fortunately, I am able to read and at least partly understand the Bible in the original languages, not as a seminary-trained scholar, but simply as a man who is in love with meaning, and cannot let it arrive in my mind through unrecognized filters. Outside the words of the holy and divine scriptures themselves, which I assert teach the devout reader ‘on their own,’ the other key to understanding when I read them in Hebrew and Greek is the presence in my active memory of the liturgical texts of Orthodox worship, both those of ordinary Sunday liturgies, and the special services of the Triodion and Holy Week.
Though I am technically a convert, having arrived at Holy Orthodoxy by accident at the age of thirty-seven (I am now sixty-four), from the beginning I was not drawn to it by any of its external manifestations—not by the ikons (though they intrigued me as non-verbal signposts), not by the mellifluous Byzantine chanting or the highly-charged ceremonies, not by the more reliable historicity or traceable and logical doctrine, not even by the more authentic ministration of the Holy Mysteries. What drew me to Holy Orthodoxy was the simple, unaffected faith of its cradle believers, and their pursuit of Jesus.
That is what drew me, that is what was impressed on me. Old men and old women, living in a new land alien to the lands of their birth—Greece, Anatolia, Macedonia, Africa, the Near East, the great Slavic northlands—I sought them out, stood or sat among them, and listened to their stories. Always Jesus, often in the company of the Theotokos, or one or more saints, but still, always Jesus. Their life stories spoke to me of a walk with Him closer and more genuine than what one usually hears from people who brag about their ‘walk with the Lord.’ The other thing I was impressed with was their knowledge of scripture.
They didn’t go to school, they hardly read any books though they could read, but they did read the Bible and ‘say their prayers,’ in a way that was so integral to the rest of their lives, that I could see how Jesus flowed into them, and they into Jesus. It was just like their prayer. Breathe in, ‘Lord Jesus Christ son of God,’ breathe out, ‘have mercy, upon me the sinner.’ Their lives in Christ reminded me of a song I used to sing, and sometimes still do, not a church hymn or even a religious song, yet true, ‘How can I say where I end, or where you begin, how can I say, what shall I play, shall it be you, or the wild wind?’
Their quiet, immutable faith expressed in their active, unpretentious lives sealed my conversion to Christ as one of their number, however unworthy, and I had no other ambition than to follow the same Lord that they did. Knowing the Lord intimately, and watching His every move, they mirrored those movements as easily and effortlessly as they danced to the Greek melodies at a wedding or panegyri. Clumsily I tried to follow, and the Word of God always came to my aid, teaching me from my first day as an Orthodox Christian to this. The intimacy and immediacy of this experience outshines all others.
So on this very hot night, windless, watching the ninth hour sky redden against retreating clouds that brought no rain, I think on Jesus, the Author and Finisher, not only of my faith, but of everyone’s. He, no other, is the bishop of our souls, and His Father our only, though we reverence those He has placed over us as His servants, calling one ‘your eminence,’ another ‘master’ or ‘father.’ He knows that we know, because He tells us, who is our Father, our Teacher, our God. That not the renown of saint or spiritual father makes their words of any effect, but only our faith and trust in Him, the only lover of mankind.
This is the Church and the Faith of the fathers: Not their words and acts, but the words and acts of Jesus revealed in them, as they pursued nothing and no one but Christ, running after Him without deliberation or delay, wanting us to join them, not busying ourselves with things of earth however spiritual they appear, but in peace and repentance. ‘They have kept themselves as pure as virgins, following the Lamb wherever He goes. They have been purchased from among the people on the earth as a special offering to God and to the Lamb’ (Revelation 14:4). Thus, the pursuit of Orthodoxy is the pursuit of Jesus.
at 10:47 PM