Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The "Rules" of Orthodoxy

Recently I was asked, “Does Orthodoxy have as many rules as the Catholic Church?” I thought this to be an interesting question, not to mention a quite common one—coming from an outside perspective. At least from a Protestant point of view it looks like we have a faith based on a long list of “don’ts”. Don’t eat meat, dairy, wine, or oil on Wednesdays and Fridays. Don’t marry during the fasting periods. Don’t wear shorts in church. Don’t, don’t, don’t.

But is the Orthodox faith full of ‘rules’? As always, the answer is both yes and no. We do have canons (church ‘laws’) which define certain boundaries. Yet in truth, so many of those were established because Christians had lost their zeal and their faith, falling back into sinful or lazy behavior. So, for example, in the OCA, one cannot be a member of a Church without confession and communion ‘no less than once a year’. In this case, folks had either neglected to confess their sins (“I am not that bad, really.”) or neglected to receive the True Food and Drink which keeps us alive (often “I am not worthy enough.”) These are both distortions of the truth and needed some correction.

In short, though, we are governed by only one ‘rule’, the command which our Lord Himself gave us, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12, among others). I believe it was Augustine who said something like, “Love God and do whatever you want.” If we truly love God, then everything we do will be holy. But we must define what “truly” means as well as what “love” means.

But do we have “obligations”? Consider the question by comparison to the [Roman] Catholic Catechism (to return to the original question): “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass. The precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance [attendance] at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day” (Image/Doubleday 1995, p. 583). Many Catholics believe, as the Catechism implies, that ‘going to church’ is a matter of a check in a box according to certain categories. “Did I go?” “Was it Catholic?” “Was the priest validly ordained?” “Have I satisfied my obligation?” (Sadly, any number of Orthodox view this the same way!)

At the heart of the matter, the Orthodox question is not “did I attend Church Sunday?” Nor is it “Did I receive communion this week?” We do not approach any part of life in this manner, really. Rather, we ask, “Do I love God?” or “Am I in communion with God?” If I love God, I don’t ask “do I have to go to Church this Sunday?” Neither “Can I arrive after the Gospel and still take communion?” Nor “Do I have to stay until the end?”

How ludicrous would it sound if we use as a comparative example a dinner date between a man and a woman. What if the man said, “you go ahead of me and order supper for me. Call me when the waiter puts it on the table, and I’ll come eat with you.”? This happens, then promptly after dessert, the man wipes his lips and walks out the door. End of ‘date’.

From the man’s perspective in this example, dinner is about “me” and its about filling my belly and getting on with the rest of “my” plans. (And for so many, church is viewed the same way!) Scandal! This is surely not a relationship that will last. What about a nice walk in the park before supper? The pleasure of holding hands and chatting over a glass of wine while the meal is cooked? Supping together and then giggling over memories at dessert? Then a movie after? This sort of a date is one involving love, a relationship, a sincere and deep interest in the other. And this, to return to the question about ‘rules’ and the example of communion is how we view all of Christian life.

Sometimes we have to eat and run. Or we can only stay for a short time. But this is the exception, not the ‘rule’. And so, for love of God, we make every effort to begin Sunday quietly, peacefully, prayerfully on Saturday evening at Great Vespers. We arrive Sunday morning, early, expecting to meet God (if I may be so crass) “for a date”. We praise Him, listen to His mighty acts in the readings from the Scriptures. We pray to Him, we offer Him gifts of bread and wine, which He returns to us as His very Body and Blood, by which we receive our strength. We thank Him, and then we show our joy in community together after.

These are the signs of love, not ‘rules’ which ask what minimum amount I can do to ‘satisfy an obligation’, but rather the signs of a fullness of faith which put my own ‘earthly cares’ aside in order to meet the Living God.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Temple of God

“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

“You are God’s temple.” “God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.” Can you fathom the depths of these statements? Think back to the temple of the Old Testament. First to the ‘moveable temple’, the tabernacle, in Exodus 25ff.; then read 1 Kings 6ff. The temple was constructed of the finest materials. It was adorned with the most beautiful wood carvings. As a matter of fact, the inner sanctuary was entirely overlaid with gold. The furnishings were the finest. There was a place—the Holy Place—where only the priest went, and only once a year. The whole of the space was sanctified, holy. Yet even in this holy space, there was a most holy space. All of it was guarded as the house of God, set apart for holy use, and some was set apart all the more.

This is the case with us now. By the Holy Spirit at baptism, we ourselves are the very temple of God—set apart, made holy. We are crafted of the finest materials. So finely crafted that no one on earth has nor ever will be able to duplicate it ex nihilo (out of nothing), as God did. We are created in God’s image and likeness, to be in communion with Him, and to show His love to those who do not know him.

In this particular passage, St. Paul is exhorting the Corinthians about being the temple most specifically because of their sexual immorality. (See especially 1 Cor. 5 where a man is sleeping with his step-mother.) The whole of Corinth, even among the Christians was riddled with sexual sin. But Paul’s exhortations are not out of some puritanical prudery (‘Gross, sex is bad!’) or simple moralism (‘Sex is wrong.’) Rather, St. Paul urges us to see that our very bodies are the holiest place! Not made with brick, mortar, cedar, carved wood and then gilded like the OT temple, but rather fashioned of skin and bones, life-filled by the very breath of God and created for His holy purpose. Sexual immorality of any sort (that is, sexual activity outside the bounds of 1 man, 1 woman in holy matrimony) is precisely an abandonment of God and His purposes! More specifically, any immorality is, in fact, taking a harlot in place of God.

This is the case not simply with sexual sin, but with all sin. If we are the Temple of God, then we must ask not just the question “Who is entering my body?” but “What is entering my body?” Gluttony or eating unhealthily is making food my God. TV, music, movies and other entertainment which draw us away from God defile this temple as well. Our call is to holiness and communion with God, and all that leads us away from such holiness and communion not only ‘destroys’ this temple, our body, but also jeopardizes our salvation precisely by our choosing another god than the Holy Trinity.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Christian Worldview

A world-view is simply that: the way we look at the world, the way we organize our lives. Very often, a worldview takes the form of a wheel: a hub at the center with different spokes shooting off, but rooted in that hub. The secular worldview, which is predominant in our American culture, puts ‘me’ at the center. Out of the hub called ‘me’ shoot out ‘my family’, ‘my work’, ‘my friends’, ‘my hobbies’, and often ‘my church’, among others. Each one of these spokes is actually a compartment, segregated from all the rest. I may work during the day but never spend any time with my colleagues outside of work. My family occupies the time between 5pm and 9am, my hobbies are shaved out of that time, and ‘church’ is a Sunday only event, an hour or two given to God more often than not ‘because it is the right thing to do’.

The Christian worldview has as its center God, the Most-Holy undivided Trinity. The Christian life, then, is focused primarily on the worship of God, giving thanks to Him for all our blessings, asking Him to meet our needs, and serving Him in the world. If this is true, the Christian worldview is less like a wheel with a hub and more like a spiral moving towards the center. Whereas our society has metamorphed us from ‘human beings’ into ‘human doings’, the Christian view is to re-become—as Father Schmemann taught—Homo Adorans: worshippers of God. Our family, our life, our work, our hobbies are all wrapped in together, forming a relatively inseparable mass which moves either towards God (when we offer ‘ourselves, each other, and all our life unto Christ our God’) or away from Him (when we choose our own way).

This life, while most difficult (especially today) is actually the only true life that there is, since it is how God created us. Any other way pits family, friends, hobbies, church, and every other ‘compartment’ against the other, vying for our time, money, and devotion. In the Orthodox Christian worldview all is offered together to God in Thanksgiving for His blessing, so that our whole life and existence can be taken up into His life for His purpose.

Do not be fooled: the pursuit of self, whether it be seeking money, possessions, career or even family at all costs, is a dead end. Only when we place God as the absolute center of our lives can we expect to find the True Life, who is Jesus Christ Himself. When we adopt this worldview, then our money, our possessions, our spouses and children—indeed our whole life—takes focus in its proper way.