The Simplicity of Orthodoxy

Sometimes learning something new means unlearning something old. This makes the whole process complicated and often bewildering. A successful college quarterback who gets to the NFL and discovers that not only does he have to learn a new offense but has to learn how to throw the football all over again will struggle mentally and physically until he has made the transition. He will probably also be unhappy. This is why a lot of people from other Christian groups struggle to make the transition into Orthodoxy. Not only do they have to learn about a Church with a full two thousand years of history, theology, and culture, but they simultaneously have to unlearn a lot of what they thought they knew and held dear. The dissonance caused by this dual process of simultaneous learning and unlearning makes Orthodoxy seem complicated. In reality Orthodoxy is simple. To be Orthodox is to be in the Orthodox Church and live a life of repentance. It doesn’t require mastery of vast amounts of theology or great spiritual experience. All that is necessary is the humility to accept the teaching of the Church and the willingness to do your best to live by it; to fast when the Church fasts, to feast when She feasts, to confess your sins honestly and receive in return the gift of God’s Son into your very body. If you can do this without rebellion you can be Orthodox. This is not to say that being Orthodox is easy. Orthodoxy is quite difficult because the roots of sin in each of us are deeply embedded and hard to get out. Jesus warned us about this; “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matt. 7:14) Yes, Orthodoxy is difficult but it is not complicated. We are complicated because we are not whole and we bring that interior mess, the baggage of sin and the past, with us when we encounter the Church. We have to unlearn as we learn. We shouldn’t be surprised when this slows us down. Neither should we despair. God loves the just and has mercy on the sinner. He invites each of us to be part of His Bride, the Church for whom He died, and to whom He promised the everlasting Kingdom. It may be difficult but it isn’t complicated.

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Home Sweet Road

There is a sticker on the guitar case behind my office chair that expresses a hope I had at a certain point in my life. It says, “Home Sweet Road.” As a mantra for coping with the adversity of endless weeks living in hotels it is unremarkable. As a reflection of our culture’s tendency to turn ideas and values inside out it is at least emblematic. We live in a world that encourages us to “live the questions” and says that “It’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.” Two or three generations ago most people felt confident that they knew what was true and right. Now we even doubt the legitimacy of categories of right and wrong, true and false. Anyone with a cultural memory of more than 10 years can see that this attitude, like the preening certitude it replaced, is destined to wane in popularity. It’s no more or less sane to be confident in your ambiguities than it is to be confident in your certitudes. Life as we experience is contains both mystery and revelation, truth and ambiguity. You can’t have it one way or the other. But this common sense observation has not discouraged many people from insisting that questions alone are useful and, apart from science, the ambiguousness of life is the only possible truth.

Not surprisingly this way of seeing the world raises a question in me. I wonder how living a purely interrogative life changes a person?  The eternal wanderer who makes the road his home is changed by that choice. Transience becomes a feature of his spiritual as well as his emotional and physical landscape. So too with the intellectual wanderer who enjoys the horizons revealed in the answer to each question and then moves on.  Transience becomes a dominant feature of his inner world. Is this good or bad? I suppose it depends on what you hope from life. Do you want the life of a wanderer; new places, new experiences, new people, all the time? Shiny. Or do you want a home? St. Anthony the Great was asked once what one must do to please God. He replied, “whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, emphasis mine.) For Orthodox Christians the spiritual life requires a home. This means we are willing to embrace both truth and mystery, questions and answers. For Orthodox Christians life contains enormous mysteries. Why does God love us? Why does God convey the grace of His Holy Spirit to us through matter: wheat, wine, oil, and water? Why does God sow the seeds of freedom that beget evil in His creation? The list goes on, and yet, in the midst of these mysteries and ambiguities the Church has deep roots of truth. This truth is not really sets of propositions but an experience; the experience of the living God. The authoritative teaching, the dogmatic certitude, of the Church tells us about God but, more importantly, gives us a safe, homely place in which to experience His presence; a place where the mystery of God’s communion with men unfolds us and makes us not confident knowers of more truths but humble beings who experience God and because of that, truly exist.