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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Orthodoxy is Scary!

“What a strange idea Father!” some might say. Well it’s not as strange as you might think. Such a huge gap has now opened up between Christianity as practised in the Orthodox Church and other Christian traditions that I regularly encounter a certain “culture shock” from those who encounter Orthodoxy for the first time. This is much more pronounced amongst those who already have some Christian background. “Why such long services?” “You don’t have any of the songs that I love in your church.” “I am just confused; there’s simply too much to absorb,” and so on and so forth.

On the one hand this distinctiveness is useful for it marks out Orthodox Christianity as something quite different from what one usually encounters and not just another rather unusual “flavour.” On the other hand if we don’t help people gently into the fullness of the truth we stand accused as those who “bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. “ (Matthew 23:4)

It is instructive to observe what that great Orthodox Christian pastor and Enlightener of Japan, St. Nicholas (Kasatkin) required of his converts ... principally four things only before baptism: a familiarity with the Nicene Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and regular attendance at Church services and meetings. This was sufficient for the neophyte. Good as though it is, they didn’t have to read Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s “The Orthodox Church”, stand in the nave for three years or learn Russian.

If we have to be restrained in what we “serve up” to converts, in like manner we must insist in our dealings with enquirers that NOBODY finds out all that there is to know and understand about Orthodox Christianity, even in a lifetime. The idea that it must be all “understood” first is erroneous and heavily conditioned by western heterodox ideas about Christian truth.

It is far more important that Christian living keep pace with Christian learning and for the two to interact in a mature and spiritually guided way. For this to happen the neophyte has to “unlearn” not only what he thinks Christianity is all about but also how a living faith is acquired and deepened. Some are simply just not ready for that change in perception. Some are. The wisdom of a pastor and a catechist is to recognise this and to know the practical difference with its implications for an individual soul.


Steve Hayes said...

In a couple of recent blog posts I've been trying to explain some of the differences, and reduce the gap a little to make it easier to communicate, but even if we think we understand the words, we often have no conception of what the words signify.

And yes, I more or less follow what St Nicholas said. Regular attendance is linked with orthopraxy -- knowing how to make the sign of the cross, venerate ikons etc.

Anonymous said...

It was tough for me, coming to Orthodoxy, to try and understand that I couldn't learn everything from books: it is how I wanted it to be!

The Orthodox life does need to be lived, and St Nicholas has some very wise advice to follow. Thank you for sharing it Father.

Doorman-Priest said...

Remember, though, that the seventeen of us from the Northern Ordination Course took to it like ducks to water.

Father Gregory said...

.... which is even scarier to some Orthodox (not me!) :-)

James M. the Canadian said...

Thanks for that, Father. To me it's almost like one needs to develop a new set of lungs which can assimilate a different kind of air. As for me this is a continual process, as you said.

Bill Gates said...

Assalam alaikum.

Are you an Arab? Can you speak Arabic? I am an Alexandrian Orthodox Christian. I want to have private discussion with you in Arabic via email. This discussion is theological, especially about Monophysitism and Miaphysitism.

I cannot find your email, so I invite you to email me at

Thank you pastor! May God bless you and hope to hear from you via email.

Father Gregory said...

No, I am not an Arab, nor can I speak Arabic. Why would you invite me to send an email to Microsoft?

Robert said...

I am coming to the realization that the mission field in which we find ourselves, is a very difficult one. It is fairly easy to follow a track in untouched, virgin snow. However, with a thousand footprints going every which way, the task is far more difficult.

What a mess!

But perhaps it also provides us an opportunity, in that nothing short of the Holy Spirit will draw people in. May we all be up to the task, and be found faithful.

Father Gregory said...

Not more difficult I suspect Robert than the religious pluralism of the pre-Christian Roman Empire. The problem today is that people are word-weary ... they want an experience, but too often generated by their own predilections and opinions. Post-modernism will degrade in time though.

Anonymous said...

Father Bless!

My point is that in the pre-Christian virgin snow of paganism the true Faith stood out. Today, however, not only do we battle pluralism but a host of established Christian heresies, schisms, and look alikes. It is hard to be heard in this cacaphony of imitations.

"The problem today is that people are word-weary ... they want an experience, but too often generated by their own predilections and opinions."

Yes, indeed. I identify with this on a personal level.

I am coming to the conclusion, then, that we must anticipate the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church today, to draw mankind in. For the longest time as a Protestant concerned with evangelism I felt that we were doing something wrong, as the converts weren't materializing. As an Orthodox now, it seems even worse! Tiny congregations, scattered here and there. Where are the crowds? Are we doing something wrong? Are we "missing it"?

Father Gregory said...

Perhaps having droves of folks beating a path to our door ain't what it's about .... and never has been.

Robert said...

True Father. Perhaps I am just an overly eager farmer, looking for an abundant crop. The increase, of course, is up to the Lord. But are we sowing the seed, and sowing them in the right soil? Is it tilled, with fertilizer and water added? Have we gotten rid of the weeds and rocks? Is this not our job?

These are difficult questions, I realize. Perhaps no one can answer them. But these are questions I ask myself. Perhaps they are a reflection of what is going on in my life, although I am not sure what that is either. Probably a common case of newly illumined-itis. Although, for whatever reason, after being a Christian for a quarter century, I am still asking what seem to be the same questions.

Father Gregory said...

These are all important issues and questions Robert. I think that they are being addressed by Orthodox Chistians who take mission seriously. Any who don't take mission seriously won't be around for long anyway.

If we look to the early Church in Britain as an instructive example, we find that it was HUNDREDS of years (6 at least) before Christianity became deeply embedded in the culture ... even then a sort of folk paganism endured for a long, long time ... and, indeed, sadly, is enjoying a bit of a renaissance right now.

In a POST-Christian culture, however, the challenges are different. For folk who are already (in some sense) Christian; if these become Orthodox, they first have to unlearn many elements of their former allegiance and piety and that can be terribly difficult for some. For others who are more self critical in temperament, it can be somewhat easier. For those who next to no idea about Christianity at all in any shape, manner or form, Orthodoxy, at first, is simple "normal" Christianity. However, even these at some point will wonder how Orthodoxy is different from the rest and we, therefore, have to be clear about that.

I think in many ways a lot of people in the west have become weary with Christianity if they have not rejected it downright. This is why it is so important that Orthodoxy appears "fresh" to them. Simply convential Orthodox Christtian behaviour, almost robotical in its lack of reflection or understanding, just won't do at all. This is why Christian education for ALL Orthodox, cradle to grave, is so important.

Robert said...

Thank you for the insightful response.

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