That good thing which was committed unto thee, keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us.
2 Timothy 1, 14
Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, Greek Orthodoxy, Russian Orthodoxy, Romanian Orthodoxy: whatever name it is given, it is surrounded by ignorance, myths, inventions and fantasies. Perhaps the greatest of these is the myth that Orthodoxy is different from Christianity. Let us be clear from the very beginning: Orthodoxy is Christianity. The two words mean exactly the same thing. Anything that calls itself Christianity and is not Orthodoxy is something less than Christianity. And anything that calls itself Orthodoxy and is not Christianity is something less than Orthodoxy.
You can call it Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Evangelism, Baptism, Methodism, Pentecostalism, anything you like. However, if it is not Orthodoxy, it is not Christianity, and if it is not Christianity, it is not Orthodoxy, but a reductionist, manmade adaptation of it. True, the words Orthodox and Christianity, and Orthodox and Christian, are often put together to make ‘Orthodox Christianity’ and ‘Orthodox Christian’, but only in contexts where people might not otherwise understand and be confused. The words Orthodoxy and Christianity, the words Orthodox and Christian, mean exactly the same, they are synonyms.
It is therefore curious to see how sometimes newcomers to Orthodoxy confuse Orthodoxy with something other than Real Christianity, Real Orthodoxy, so creating a false Orthodoxy and a false Christianity. The source of such confusion is in a non-spiritual approach to Christianity/Orthodoxy. This non-spiritual approach takes two different illusory forms, created by two sorts of temptations. The first temptation is that of the body, resulting from an external, physical approach. The second temptation is that of the mind, resulting from an intellectual, rationalistic approach. Since both sorts of temptation are superficial, they are not spiritual, and therefore do not lead to a Christian/Orthodox way of life.
The First Temptation
There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.
I Cor 15, 44
The first temptation of some new to the Orthodox Church (because that is the only place where Christianity/Orthodoxy can be confessed) is to muddle the outward with the inward, confusing externals with internals. For example, we have sometimes seen how those new to the Church imitate what they think Orthodox ‘look like’, a fantasy which seems to be obtained from books. This can mean men growing long beards and long hair (so disobeying the words of the Apostle in 1 Cor 11, 14) and women wearing nineteenth-century clothes and putting impossibly huge headscarves over their heads. In such cases, both sexes may dress in black, displaying large crosses and, on their wrists, prayer-knots, in a manner exaggerating that of Orthodox monks and nuns (who do not wear crosses). Sometimes, both sexes may spend long hours talking about strange fasting foods and spend large sums on them. Sometimes, both sexes also wish to change ordinary Christian names to exotic Christian names.
In over thirty years of Orthodox life, I have never met any ‘ordinary’ Orthodox behaving or dressing in the above way. Since Orthodoxy is simply Christianity, it most certainly does not involve bizarre ways of dressing or hairstyle. Neither does it mean non-monastics pretending to be monastics. And certainly the aim of Orthodoxy is not to eat strange foods. The aim of fasting is not to talk about food, still less eat it, be it fasting food or non-fasting food, but to spend less time eating and talking, and more time praying. And one of the benefits of fasting is spending less money on food and giving the money saved to good causes. In everyday life, ‘normal’ Orthodox, who may have been baptised ‘Dmitri’, Theophilus, ‘Haralambos’ or ‘Vladimir’, often modify their names to ‘Jim’, Theo’, ‘Harry’ or ‘Walter’. Newcomers, on the other hand, sometimes do the opposite, trying to change names like ‘Antony’, ‘Michael’, ‘Peter’ and ‘John’ to ‘Vladimir’, ‘Auxentius’, ‘Rostislav’ and ‘Theologos’. Why? Who knows.
I plead with such newcomers to the Orthodox Church to get through this phase as swiftly as possible, if possible before they are received into the Church, and to start living like other Orthodox. They should look around. If they care to visit ordinary Orthodox churches, they will not find anyone dressed bizarrely. They will not find a single woman wearing a gigantic headscarf, they will rarely find a single man with a long beard (except for the priest, and his beard may be short and, perhaps like his hair, trimmed). They will not see a single person wearing prayer-knots around their wrists – for the simple reason that the other people in church are not monks or nuns, but married or single laypeople, who have not taken on the obediences of monastic life inside a monastery or convent. Regarding crosses, Orthodox do not wear them on the outside of their clothes, they do not even display them; small metal neck-crosses are worn inside our clothes, next to our hearts. And people rarely discuss the boring topic of food (unless, of course they own or work in restaurants, and even then they tend to change the topic swiftly – who wants to talk about work on a day off?).
A superficial, physical view of Orthodoxy is not only strange, but it can also be spiritually dangerous. A strange external appearance, not an imitation at all, fails to understand that Orthodoxy is simply Christianity, it fails to understand that Orthodoxy is simply the Christian way of life. It reduces the Faith to an external and immodest show. And in failing to understand this, it can, in certain circumstances, degenerate, becoming pretentious, both in the sense of pretending to be what it is not, but also developing into pride. This pretentiousness can lead to people referring to themselves as ‘slaves of God’ (we are not called to be ‘slaves’ of God but servants and children of God). It can lead to people signing letters with the word ‘the unworthy’, ‘the sinful’ before their names. Let monks and nuns do this. But let the rest of us refrain from this: we already know that we are all unworthy and sinful – we have no illusions about ourselves. It can lead to the backbiting and gossiping of little hothouse groups, who gather together in order to criticise others.
Such criticism and aggressiveness towards others come from insecurity. Not surprisingly, those who come into the Orthodox Church and think that Orthodoxy is about a fantasy imitation of supposed externals, which in reality do not exist in any Orthodox parish, will not last long in the Church, precisely because they are insecure. They will usually find that the Church is ‘not good enough’ for them, that they are well on their way to lapsing completely. The convert complex, the disease of the neophyte, is actually rooted in pride, the wish to be ‘better’ than everyone else. The curious thing is that when such people do fall away from the Church, they rarely blame themselves, but always ‘the Church’, which is ‘not good enough’ for them.
The best away to avoid this temptation is to start looking at other Orthodox, at people have been Orthodox for decades and generations and to accept obedience. I knew a young man who turned up in an Orthodox church with long hair and a long beard, dressed in black clothes, and asked the priest if he could become Orthodox. When the priest told him that the first thing he needed to do was to have a haircut and shave and dress normally, the young man revolted and left. His refusal to accept a small dose of humility and obedience meant that he did not become Orthodox, and in more than one sense. The spiritual disease of the neophyte imitating externals, is to be overcome as quickly as possible. After a few months of frequenting an Orthodox church, it is time to become Orthodox. It is time to leave the first course of the meal and to come to the main course, to enter the arena, for only this will lead to our ‘dessert’ – salvation. However, there is yet another sort of temptation to overcome before we can begin this main course.
The Second Temptation
Knowledge puffeth up, but love edifieth. And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know
I Cor 8, 1-2
For newcomers to the Church who are of a more intellectual frame of mind, there is another and perhaps still greater temptation. This is to turn Orthodoxy/Christianity into a mere set of ideas, booklore, a bookish cult. In reality, Orthodoxy/Christianity is not an idea, it is a way of life, the faith lived. Look at other Orthodox; they do not necessarily read piles of books and yet they have a faith stronger than piles of University professors. I know elderly Orthodox who have never read the Bible in their lives, and yet when they speak, they speak the Bible. How is it possible? It is simply because all their lives they have been to church, they have been bathed in a way of life impregnated with the living Scriptures. They do not read the Bible, because, much more importantly, they live it.
The intellectual mentality often degenerates into mere rationalism. What we need, they say, is a new form of Orthodoxy, a better one, a reformed version. In other words, as worldly people, they want to invent their own religion, reducing Orthodoxy/Christianity to the size of their reason. They want to reduce eternal and infinite spiritual reality to the tiny neatness of their limited created minds, rather than humbly accept a drop of the limitless greatness of the grace of God, far beyond human reason and social conditioning. This spirit of rationalism does not come from the Church; they bring it with them from the outside, like so many holiday suitcases, full of unneeded clothes.
Then, demands start. First of all, there are those who demand that the secret prayers and the Eucharistic Canon be shouted out during the Divine Liturgy. Apparently, salvation is only possible for them, if this is done, for, as they say, ‘everyone must understand’. But we have not come to church to understand what cannot be understood anyway, we have come to pray, to purify our hearts. Only when our hearts are purified will our minds begin to be enlightened and so understand. Spiritual enlightenment, true education, begins in the heart and then spreads to the mind, and not the other way round. For the mind is merely a tool, whereas without the heart we suffer both physical and spiritual death.
However, this is not acceptable to those who think that the proud and sinful human mind can understand everything. Their next demand may be that the iconostasis be removed from their local church. Naturally, they have no concept of the sacred, or of the sacrifices that previous generations made to set up the iconostasis in their church. Then, of course, the calendar must be changed, so that ‘we can be like everyone else’. Unknown are the Scriptures, which say that we are not like everyone else, that we Christians are a race apart: But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people (I Peter 2, 9).
What next? Well, of course, we must get rid of all these strange and irrational, ‘anti-feminist’ customs, that women cover their heads modestly in church (in obedience to the words of the Apostle in 1 Cor 11, 5), that women do not take communion during menstruation, that mothers do not go to church for forty days after childbirth (since both menstruation and childbirth are involuntary consequences of the Fall). Once they have eliminated all of the above ‘customs’, then, of course, why not have deaconesses and priestesses – ‘like everyone else?’ And on the subject of everyone else, we must have ‘ecumenism’ and intercommunion. In fact, why not destroy the Church completely and start all over again? What a pity the Holy Spirit has been wrong for all these 2,000 years, when only they were right. Clearly, they are God’s gift to mankind.
Such is the logic of the rationalist. Such is the obstacle to reaching the main course of the meal, to reaching what is above reason, the supra-rational. Such rationalism is the result of pride and self-flattery. Pride can be seen in the desire of the rationalist to avoid confession (one of the hallmarks of the rationalistic approach) and to take communion at every single Liturgy. However, to refuse confession, in the words of the Evangelist John the Theologian, is self-deceit, for there is no man without sin and we all need confession (I John 1, 8-10). And communion without confession will only lead to the sickness described by the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor 11, 29. The rationalistic, anti-mystical approach to Church life is in fact the quickest exit from the Church, because it denies the essence of the Church, which is mystery. Sadly, there are those who have taken this exit.
Now the end of the commandment is love out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned: From which some, having swerved, have turned aside unto vain jangling.
I Timothy 1, 5-6
Several years ago I remember hearing an anecdote about an elderly Russian woman commenting on the behaviour of a zealous young convert: ‘He’s certainly Orthodox’, she said, ‘but is he Christian?’ What she meant was that he observed all the externals, in fact he observed them to the exclusion of everything else, and, as a result, he observed none of the internals. In the words of the proverb, ‘he could not see the wood for the trees’. In the words of the Apostle, he suffered from ‘zeal not according to knowledge’. Outwardly he was Orthodox, but inwardly he tended to resemble a ravening wolf. In any case, he did not live a Christian/Orthodox way of life. Zeal was without experience.
The conclusion must be that those who are new to the Church need first to follow the examples of others around them, who have never known anything other than Orthodoxy/Christianity. Hence the danger of parishes where, unfortunately, there are only newcomers to the Church. They can become unhealthy hothouses. Sadly, I have known people who have never got over their period as neophytes and all their lives remained ‘converts’, even describing themselves as such (for that is what they feel). This is because they have never passed through the first course of the meal and reached the main course, they have never been into the arena. How then will they get to the ‘dessert’?
Our summary of ‘Towards Real Orthodoxy’ is seven words: Be humble, be simple and be modest. For is this not the message of the Gospels? Why complicate Christian/Orthodox life? Be humble, be simple and be modest. That is all there is to it.