Sunday, October 2, 2016

A childlike religion

It's not often that I get to tell people about Orthodoxy, because we don't promote it: we usually wait to be asked. If someone wants to know about it so bad that they have to ask, then it's worth telling them, I think. For me, this happens mainly during the Greek Festival on the first weekend of October at Aghía Triás, my family parish. I have been standing watch in the church for the last quarter century—I think I've missed only a single year—not bragging, I just like to do it. I am a doorkeeper of the Lord's temple, that's my job, 24/7. At festival time, it takes on a literal meaning.

This is the Orthodoxy that I adhere to. Everything about it is paradox and irony. People ask, ‘How can you stand for so long in those services? They're hours long!’ and ‘How do you put up with all that repetition?’ and ‘Why do people seem to be crossing themselves all over the place, and not just once, but three times?’ The list of questions goes on, interminably. While I'm on duty, the Lord gives me infinite patience in dealing with them all—and their questions, what's more ironic, are just as long and repetitive and spontaneously ceremonial to me as our Orthodoxy seems to them. It's a perfect match!

The mystery of Orthodoxy is not what most people think. It's not arcane and secret doctrines or impossibly complex ‘byzantine’ theological dogmas. It's not the apparent rigidity of ceremonial which, for unsympathetic (or too grown-up) outsiders, seems empty and meaningless. It's not even (what appears to some as) the pomp and fussiness of worship, which combined with the Oriental chanting and the fragrant frankincense smoke filling the sanctuary, creates an almost psychedelic experience (a living, moving three-dimensional hieroglyphic, it's been called).

No, the mystery of Orthodoxy is that, underneath what the eye can see, lies a childlike religion, startling in its simplicity, a following of Jesus in the world, almost incognito. What the five senses perceive in the encounter with Orthodox Christianity in its traditions, is the luxuriant, redundant joy of the childlike heart exulting ceaselessly and seamlessly in the Presence of God. What some experience as ‘too much’ from an adult point of view, others receive gladly and can't seem to get enough of.

That's one reason, I think, why Orthodoxy isn't for everyone. It takes a child's heart, simple enough to trust that the Father is so totally caring and careful, that it doesn't just believe, it knows that nothing happens without Him knowing, and therefore, all will be well. That's also one reason why we immerse our young in every aspect of the faith, even giving communion to unknowing infants. It is this foundation that every Orthodox can fall back on, rebuilding, if need be, after suffering the damage that the world is sure to inflict.

A childlike religion, lighting candles and standing them up in sandboxes in the church, bringing flowers, even the most humble, and leaving them in front of the icons as a love gift, taking part in dozens of small ceremonies—not very different in some ways from Judaism, another childlike religion—and always asking questions, and full of wonder at the Presence of God. None of us ever really leaves our childhood behind, but not all of us will admit it. But it is to such as these that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs.

‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me…’ is a much wider invitation than most people realize, and that too is the invitation of true Orthodoxy, wherever it exists.

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