Does Orthodoxy Matter? A Case Study

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And here’s the challenging question …

In the absence of an Orthodox church nearby would you be prepared to pray at home rather than pray with the heterodox?

 

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Orthodoxy means “true glory” or “true faith.”  We Orthodox think very highly of the word.  Or do we?  When it comes down to it, does Orthodoxy actually matter all that much to us (as it should)?  Orthodox Christians in the west find themselves living among many different Christianities and it can sometimes be tempting to think that notwithstanding some of the more obvious differences, (icons, the Theotokos, fasting, worship, for example), all these Christian traditions share much the same faith as us.  If you are of this opinion, then I am sorry to have to disappoint you, but it just isn’t true at all.  How so?

I am going to consider this issue by looking at a case study which reveals the damage that heresy can do in our personal lives, our relationships and even to the society and world that we live in.  It is a fictional story, but quite typical.

John and Mary go to an Evangelical Anglican Church.  John is Orthodox (Greek tradition).  Mary is Anglican.  This is her second marriage, being a young widow with one teenage son (Ian, 15) still living at home. She now has two children with John, daughters, aged 5 and 7.  John would prefer to go to his local Greek Church but his wife is a committed Anglican, and their children, although baptised in the Orthodox Church (with the exception of Ian), prefer the “lively worship songs”, as they put it, which are included in the church’s family service.  Ian is very involved in the local youth group and is thinking eventually of becoming an Anglican minister.  Does Orthodoxy then matter to John?  Well, yes, but only in a remote nostalgic sort of way.  It is some years now since he has attended Divine Liturgy, the last time was at Pascha in 2008.  His stepson, Ian, will have nothing to do with what he considers to be the “stuffy incomprehensible worship” at his stepdad’s church which he has visited once, just after his stepfather’s marriage.

Ten years later ….

Neither John nor Mary now regularly attend the Anglican Church.  John still hasn’t been back to the Orthodox Church since Pascha 2008 and Mary doesn’t like the new Vicar who is a woman.  Mary is quite a conservative evangelical believer who maintains that a woman should not be in a place of authority within the Church over men.  (This is the evangelical doctrine of the”headship of the male.”)  Her two daughters, now 15 and 17 still attend on their own and are very active in the youth group.  Ian, who shares his mother’s conservative outlook, has also left the church, disagreeing with what he believes to be the Anglican Church’s tolerance of homosexual partnerships.  He has started attending a very conservative Baptist church that teaches pure Calvinism, in particular, the doctrines known as TULIP (from the first letter of each doctrine), namely:-

Total Depravity – As a result of Adam’s fall, all humanity, is dead in sins and therefore damned.  Humanity’s nature is corrupt and utterly incapable of godliness.

Unconditional Election – Because man is dead in sin, he is unable to initiate a response to God; therefore, from eternity God elected certain people to salvation and others to damnation. Election and predestination are unconditional; they are not based on man’s response because man is unable to respond to God, nor does he want to.

Limited Atonement – Because God determined that certain people should be saved as a result of His unconditional election, He determined that Christ should die for the elect alone. All whom God has elected, and for whom Christ died, will be saved but the rest will be damned to hell for all eternity; again as determined by God’s sovereign will.

Irresistible Grace – Those whom God elected He draws to Himself through irresistible grace. God makes man willing to come to Him. When God calls, man responds.  Man cannot choose to love God by his own choice and freedom.

Perseverance of the Saints – The precise people God has elected and drawn to Himself through the Holy Spirit will persevere in faith to the end. None whom God has elected will ever be lost; they are eternally secure even though they may sin grievously after election.

Although Ian is a pious and committed believer these doctrines trouble him.  He begins to doubt that he is one of the elect, chosen by God for salvation.  His sinful life (he occasionally resorts to prostitutes) troubles him greatly but his church tells him that he is unable to make any right choice and save himself.  Ian enters a very dark period of depression, made much worse by the impact of these heresies on his mental health.  His fragile relationship with his atheist girlfriend disintegrates.  He seeks medical help for a latent depression which has now become the full blown clinical variety.

Five years further on, the two daughters are now at the same university, one just about to graduate but they have been unable to find an evangelical church they like nearby, so they have stopped attending church on the grounds that they believe in Christ and are saved, so what’s the point?  Back home John and Mary now lead thoroughly secular lives.  John sometimes thinks wistfully of his childhood back in Cyprus when he used to attend church with his Nana but this seems to him a very distant idealised time now.  He hopes, nonetheless, that his wife or children will respect his wish for an Orthodox funeral if he dies first.

So, did Orthodoxy matter to John?  Well yes, particularly earlier on, but for most of his adult life only in a nominal sort of way.  He had certainly not been catechised in his youth and his grasp of the faith, therefore, had always been somewhat tenuous.  Did Anglican evangelicalism then strike him as being similar to Orthodoxy?  Well yes, mostly.  He only saw differences in the worship style which often set his teeth on edge.  Let’s face it.  He attended the evangelical Anglican Church for the sake of his wife and family.  When they stopped going, so did he.  There is only one God after all and this was just a different way of being a Christian, it seemed to him.  He did lament his stepson’s involvement in the Calvinist church because he could see how its refusal of human freedom and choice, its dark doctrines of divine election to salvation or damnation, did not feel right to him, but he couldn’t really say why. 

Did Mary his wife ever consider Orthodoxy when the lady Vicar arrived?  Well, no, why should she?  Her husband rarely spoke of his childhood faith and she concluded that it could not have meant much to him in that case, so why should she consider it?  John and Mary now spend a conventional Sunday together as most couples do in their street, getting up late, going to the gym occasionally, shopping at B&Q, taking a drive into the countryside; just the usual and normal things everyone does nowadays.  Both still consider themselves as Christians, but obviously not of the fanatical sort whom they blame, quite rightly, for destroying Ian’s piece of mind.  As for the two girls, well they eventually graduated and now have families of their own.  Churchgoing, however, has become completely alien to all their families with the rest.

So, does Orthodox Christianity matter to you?
Does it matter enough for you to find out about it in more depth?
Does it matter enough for you to practice it as faithfully as you can, notwithstanding the distractions of modern life?
Does it matter enough for you to stay loyal to this faith no matter what challenges are presented to it by both family life and society as a whole?

And here’s the challenging question …

In the absence of an Orthodox church nearby would you be prepared to pray at home rather than pray with the heterodox?

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Thin Places

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  • Thin Places: “Thin Places,” comes from a Celtic Christian concept. The Celts believed that physical locations existed in which God’s presence was more accessible than elsewhere, places where heaven and earth seemed to touch, where the line between holy and human met for a moment, “the places in the world where the walls are weak”, “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses”, as Eric Weiner puts it in his spirituality travelogue, Man Seeks GodFor such a ‘thin place’ for me visit my blog post on the Holy and Life-Givng Cross Orthodox parish at Lancaster.

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“This is a difficult post for me to write … I have always believed that Art and Nature are two vital ways to make our  prayer come to life, two ways to lead us ‘into’ knowing God.  And yet, I feel God has offered me such a rare gift at the end of a very tough year that I need to give myself time to allow it to sink in before I fully understand what I was given. … I was on a day-tour of the Grand Canyon.

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The sense of unmanageable Beauty one has before the wilderness of the Grand Canyon is just that: a true revelation of God, a true revelation of the correct relationship we are to have with Him. When I was there, facing this extraordinary demonstration of what authentic creativity is, all I felt was silence: a thick blanket of silence that covered my heart, my brain, my body… Before God’s presence, one goes numb, afraid to even breathe, afraid to approach it or draw near in any way. My eye-sight is not worthy to touch such beauty, my voice is not real, authentic enough to even whisper a prayer; all of one’s senses go silent, paralysed before such overwhelming power.

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And yet, my heart continued to pray in a different way. Deep down, my being seems to hide a different kind of worship, a different kind of relating to Christ. I don’t know when and how I learnt it; it just exists, the way instincts simply exist. Before such beauty, one discovers how different we are from what we’ve learnt to think we are – we are so much deeper, so much more beautiful, so much more able to worship and truly pray. It’s as if we were created with a set of spiritual senses and abilities, which we later – for some painful reason – fail to recognise in ourselves and fail to develop. We waste so much of our own being, we are so removed, so distant from our real selves… We learn to adapt to this world, and we end up replacing our spiritual senses with material ones.

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Then, in moments like these, we find ourselves face to face with His presence, and a sort of engine just starts working again in our hearts – all by itself, with no input, no doing of our own.

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I was simply present; I was in awe at the presence of my true self as much as I rejoiced in God’s presence. There was nothing but silence in me; yet, this silence was as alive, as ‘eloquent’ in its worship as the most grace-filled moments I’ve been blessed with the Holy Altar.”

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Sculpting in Time

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This is Iconographer Andrei Rublev’s ( Андре́й Рублёв) famous work on the Trinity – Angels at Mamre ( Holy Trinity). For those of you familiar with his art, the colour explication that follows is superfluous. What I would really like to share with you is my (re)discovery of these colours yesterday through Tarkovsky‘s lens. These colours become so alive at the ending of his movie Andrei Rublev (1966) after three hours of black and white! Pay particular attention to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsEbrhv2jGY, esp. 4:50′ to  8:00′.

For those of you who are not familiar with this icon, Rublev gives each person of the Trinity different clothing. On the right, the Holy Spirit has a garment of the clear blue of the sky, wrapped over with a robe of a fragile green. So the Spirit of creation moves in sky and water, breathes in heaven and earth. All living things owe their freshness to his touch. The green mantle of the Spirit, scintillating with light, is clearly a Rublev achievement. Green belongs to the Spirit because the Spirit is the source of life.

The Son has the deepest colors; a thick heavy garment of the reddish-brown of earth and a cloak of the blue of heaven. In his person he unites heaven and earth, the two natures are present in him, i.e., human and divine, (and this is why on the table are placed two of his fingers) and over his right shoulder (the Government shall be upon his shoulder) there is a band of gold shot through the earthly garment, as his divinity suffuses and transfigures his earthly being. The red signifies his earthly passion, and the gold band, his royal status as Christ the King.

The Father seems to wear all the colors in a kind of fabric that changes with the light, that seems transparent, that cannot be described or confined in words. The Father’s ghostly outer garment hints at his inconceivable divine nature. And this is how it should be. No one has seen the Father, but the vision of him fills the universe. His robe is iridescent, shifting from glowing golden-red to azure blue, a triumph of the painter’s art. “You robe yourself in light as in a garment” (Ps 104:2).

The wings of the angels or persons are gold. Their seats are gold. The chalice in the center is gold, and the roof of the house. Whether they sit, whether they fly, all is perfect, precious, and worthy. In stasis, when there is no activity apparent on the part of God, his way is golden. When he flies, blazes with power and unstoppable strength, his way is golden. And in the Sacrifice at the center of all things, his way is golden.

The light that shines around their heads is white, pure light. Gold is not enough to express the glory of God. Only light will do, and that same white becomes the holy table, the place of offering. God is revealed and disclosed here, at the heart, in the whiteness of untouchable light, the Uncreated Light.

For more information, go to:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6g-DkKDQ_5g

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOYFHbmmWZ0