Friday, August 5, 2016

The mystery of apostasy

The mystery of apostasy. This one just won’t let me sleep. I wake up in the dead of night, no, in the pre-dawn darkness, visual shreds of an interrupted dream settling on my waking mind. Remnants of a memory of having seen and spoken to him, a brother who had turned unexpectedly from sheep to wolf, following me as a shadow as I step into a line of brethren queued up to venerate the holy cross, I, stripped to the waist and feeling my half-nakedness with an undisguised satisfaction. The place of veneration, a cold stone sanctuary in a darkness illuminated by unseen, flickering torches, I follow meekly behind anonymous others, contemplating the wounds I am about to venerate. His hands, His feet, and yes, also, His thorn-pierced brow. Do I dare approach Him that closely and lay my lips on His head, who is the Head of my life? I feel afraid for a moment, as I realize, this is no mere ikon of the Sacrifice, but the Divine Presence Himself hanging on the beam and stake. I suddenly awake.

I call it the mystery of apostasy, not mystery in the sense of the holy mysteries, but in the sense of something I find it difficult to understand, or maybe there is no difference. The holy mystery in which the Unseen God becomes visible in our co-activity with Him, conveying Himself to us, and us to Himself, bringing heaven to earth and earth to heaven, who can understand this? And who can understand how a sheep turns into a wolf, or a wolf into a sheep, yet the procession in two directions goes on in us and all around us without our knowledge and outside our power. It is really the mystery of free will, which puts the foolishness of God on perfect display before the universe He created, to the joy and rapture of angels and saints, and to the contempt and mockery of the devils and satan.

There is a man I know, a Christian brother, who has somehow shadowed me without either of us knowing, as I have followed the Lord who saved me, though imperfectly. I remember him years ago passing through the same places, the same stages on the journey to the abode of Truth, that is, Holy Church. I remember him in the way station of St Mark, a ‘high church’ Anglican parish where I erected an altar of devotion and thanks for the gift of sons, and where I baptised them of my own body, and one or two godsons of my generation. To the Greeks I went and became a Greek, while he, as I later found out, entered the Kingdom through the Antiochian door. I met him again when I visited the parish that is now my home. There he was, physically older, robust, standing tall with a fierce quietude in the Divine Liturgy, leaning on his highland staff, clad in a kilt and sturdy, rustic footwear, among docile, beautiful Syrians with their gentle eyes, bright as gazelles.

I spoke to him a few times in fellowship after services. I was curious, and bold enough, to ask him about his costume. He astonished me by his single-minded devotion to the Celtic ethos. He assured me that he never wore anything but kilts, at home, at work, in church, and that he owned seven of them, of various quality. I wondered at the patience of his lovely, meek wife, who usually stood and sang with the choir, while he manned his post on the left of the center aisle at the pew’s end, strong and silent, looking like a combatant from Braveheart at rest before the next battle. Yes, that’s what he looked like, a warrior waiting for the moment to spring an ambush, and I was strangely afraid of him. Seeing him always made me think of St Patrick, not of the saint, but of the guards sent by the heathen king to prevent him from approaching to convert him and his people. But this was a Christian brother, and I silenced my fear and refrained from judgment. Orthodoxy is the Church, and the Church is a pan-human reality. It accepts all.

Lately I noticed that he was absent from services, and that I hadn’t seen him or his wife for almost as long as I had been worshipping at the church of St George, which is about two years. I did not ask anyone about them. I just assumed they had moved, and were going to another church. This happens. There have been some spiritual upheavals and distress in some of the Orthodox churches in our town the last few years, resulting in some migration. I too found myself as a religious refugee from a parish that has been, until quite recently, under ‘alien occupation.’ I know others who also have left the parish I now belong to, because they somehow felt excluded. This too is a mystery, because welcome has met me there. Without being able to express it in words, I know that God will use this feeling of being ‘squeezed out’ of one place, to get us moving along the path He wants us to travel. He doesn’t like us to ‘spin our wheels’ and if He must shake the earth to get us moving again, He will. But He never pushes us, or pulls us, out of the path of His Son. He keeps us always on the road to Calvary. That is, if we let Him.

Yesterday I found this brother again in an unexpected way. I found him writing wild words where others could read them, for whatever reason I don’t know. Perhaps as an apologia. I was shocked and very sorry to read what I never thought anyone in Christ would express.

‘When the Priest says “Christ is in our midst...” in the Liturgy he's lying. Christ isn't in a “cultural/ traditional church,” He's in a Church of Faith and gathering of Saints. The Liturgy could be True! But only if the People totally believe it! The Orthodox Church has failed, the Orthodox Faith has not! Get rid of those Vandalizing Icons, speak only English, and accept all, then and only then will you be Orthodox! Am I speaking for God? the answer, Yes, I am! And I will not apologize for right! God Bless!’

I have read and heard such things before, but not from Orthodox brethren, only from sectarians. Looking at more of his writings, I could see that he is just hurt, hurt by a church that he feels excludes him because of his idiosyncrasies. His apostasy is no different from any other. All are caused by the unwillingness to follow Christ to the cross, and whether we express this unwillingness as he does or not, whether our apostasy is visible to others or not, whether or not we try to justify it, we cannot hide from Christ in the foliage of our excuses.

The mystery of apostasy. It’s not about who stays attached to Holy Church and goes to heaven, or about who falls away and goes to hell. It’s not even about ‘whoever confesses Me before men’ or ‘whoever denies Me,’ because Christ Himself does not speak as a judge in these sayings, but as a prophet. Unseen He ransoms souls from Hades by the bright lightning flash of His divinity, putting to shame all our vainglory and self-justification, putting to death our passions, revealing to the trapped their prison walls so He may ask them for permission to demolish them. We cannot judge our brethren, no, not even ourselves, we can only witness, and wait. Yes, prayer, the dance of our flesh on the threshing-floor of time, before the Holy Ark and the mercy-seat over which hovers the Spirit who is King of kings of kings, Holy God, Mighty, and Deathless, yes, prayer, turning around to face Him forever whom we denied moment by moment because of our weakness, prayer, the asking which He must answer, dissolves all mysteries that flow not towards His holy throne, the life-giving Cross, and breaks all bonds, setting the captives free.

O Lord, save Your people, and bless Your inheritance!

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