Archive for May 2nd, 2007

Of One Substance

May 2, 2007

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We are used to confessing that the Son of God is of “one substance” with the Father – meaning that the persons of the Holy Trinity are of one “essence” or “being.” It is also true, however, the all human beings are of “one substance” with all other human beings. That is to say there is only one human nature, essence or being, and that each of us as persons share in that one being.

It is part of the theological understanding that makes it possible to understand how it is that when “one of us suffers, we all suffer.” We are created in the image of God – but in Genesis it makes it quite clear that we (Adam and Eve, male and female) are in the image of God. To exist in God’s image is to exist as a personal being – that is to exist in relation to others.

We are not alone, nor were we created to be alone. Much of what constitutes the “fall” of man is manifested in our existence as individuals. We do not perceive ourselves as existing in communion with others – rather we tend to understand our existence as something that stands or falls on its own.

This is a very deep cultural perception – and thus not something that is easily addressed or corrected. I frequently think that it is less learning not to do something, and more learning to do something (thus being positive rather than negative). Learning to live with love as the center of our being – not money, not time, not hobby, not something else – but love for the other (whichever “others” we live with or work with or share the planet with at any given time).

I think it quite significant that the prayer Christ taught us to pray begins with the plural “Our Father”. It presumes that when I am praying I am not praying as a mere individual. It also means that you are not my problem in the sense that the problem has nothing to do with me. To bear one anothers’ burdens, as the Apostle enjoins upon us, includes bearing one anothers’ sins to some degree. I am taught “not to judge my brother” which includes praying for one another and being solutions for one another when we can or a balm or an encouragement.

Dostoevsky spoke of this as each man being responsible for the sins of all men. To live this means, at the very least, not viewing one another and our sins as legal or forensic problems, but as existential and communal. From the earliest times we have run from this reality, saying to God such things as, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Apparently God thinks we are.

Indeed, being of one substance with the human race, we are far more than keepers.

Conversion Amidst Family Strife

May 2, 2007

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My posting yesterday spoke of things we could do as a family to strengthen ourselves in the common mind of Christ, allowing for the possibility of greater unity, particularly when considering something as major as conversion to the Orthodox faith.

Sometimes, all efforts to the contrary, no peace or common mind arise. If someone believes the Orthodox faith to be the true faith, then finally, it would be a tragic sin not to become Orthodox. By the same token, if someone does not believe Orthodoxy to be the true faith, they would do well not to convert.

But conversion to Orthodoxy is frequently met with strife – from family, friends, or others. The fact that the Orthodox Church does not practice open communion (a novel invention within Protestant Churches over the past 50 years) is a great scandal to others. They wonder if your conversion is a judgment on them and whether you believe they are real Christians (we do think that there are Christians other than the Orthodox). If family members are Protestant they may be upset because all of this seems rather “Roman Catholic” (since they know little about Orthodoxy) and will likely have been taught during their lifetimes things about Roman Catholics that are inaccurate and misleading.

The demands of an active life in the Church can take time away from other parts of the family (particularly the extended family). How do you explain that during Holy Week and Pascha you hope to be at Church every evening and for pretty much all of the Weekend? For American Protestants, this can feel foreign and even “cult-like.”

Most people in American culture are more tolerant of activities like soccer or swimming (which can be great time consumers) than they are of Church-going. Thus even when you become Orthodox the temptation will be to be Orthodox in a Protestant manner (keeping a life-style that is still largely secularized and centered on family).  Orthodoxy treats family very seriously, but ultimately centers the family in the life of the Church. St. John Chrysostom referred to the family as “a little Church” and meant by that to describe a family who was devout in Church and struggled to live the Christian life together.

But there are obviously times when we make hard decisions because we can do no other. We may have to disappoint the extended family or suffer the alienation of friends. All of this Christ spoke about and taught that discipleship ultimately is measured by the Cross itself. Under those circumstances we can pray for others, share with them when they actually want to listen and return kindness for insult and injury.

Entering the Church with humility is a much better route than judgment and arrogance. It is very easy to take the zeal that comes with the newfound wonder of Orthodoxy and become a one-man evangelism program, speaking of little else and telling everyone who will listen that this faith is the Truth. I can’t argue with anyone who says that, but it may not be the wisest of things to say. To speak vulnerably and to say that this is something you believe you must do is different than saying you believe this is something everyone must do.

I would that everyone was an Orthodox Christian, myself. But that, finally, is God’s problem. I am called to do the things He has appointed me to do. I have no control, and should seek no control over what others will do.

It is also possible to translate Orthodoxy into American apocalyptic terms. America is a nation born of a semi-utopian vision (a hallmark of Reformation thought). If all of America became Orthodox tomorrow, it would not be the solution of our nation’s problems. God is the solution of all things and that is as much as we can know. Orthodoxy has been the dominant religion in many places that were still very troubled places. Orthodoxy may be the truth, but it is a truth believed by sinners.

Bearing such things in mind does not minimize the truth of our faith or water it down to make it more palatable to others, but it does water down our own pride and can succeed in making us more bearable by others.

But extended families that use emotional rewards and punishments to maintain the status quo are probably dysfunctional extended families. You cannot finally shape your life according to someone else’s dysfunction. If you know the truth, you do the truth, with kindness and humility. And all things should be done with prayer and patience. It took me a long time to reach the point of becoming Orthodox (and that is then only a beginning). I should not be surprised if others take as long.

I should add a concluding thought. Many of the stories of the lives of saints include those who brought their families, even nations to Christ in the Orthodox faith. St. Monnica, mother of St. Augustine, comes immediately to mind. Great saints such as St. Olga, St. Vladimir, St. Nina of Georgia also come to mind. I would not be shy, in my prayers, to add a Troparion to one or more of these saints and to ask their prayers as well for family members. Needless to say, or perhaps yet more necessary, is to ask for the prayers of the Mother of God, who is mother of us all and would gladly see all of her children gathered together in one.

I think converts are frequently slow to ask for such help in their prayers, depending on their background. I know that whenever I am troubled and brooding about something, my wife says rather quickly, “Have you asked the Mother of God for her help?” I always feel foolish if I have to answer, “No.” My wife, good mother that she is, has learned over the years to value the prayers of a mother for her children, particularly those of the Theotokos. To which I can only say, “Amen.”

In all of these things as close to our hearts as they are, as painful as they sometimes may be, we must always remember that all things are in the hands of God. We pray not as unbelievers, but as those whose hope is in God who is gracious and longsuffering, and far more ready to give than we are to receive. Trusting in His mercy it is possible to pray and be patient and be thankful in all things.