One of the most powerful witnesses to Orthodox Faith is the witness of the saints. When a person discovers that golden chain of spiritual experience and wisdom reaching across the centuries from the Apostles to our own time it can be an epiphany. For Americans it can also be treacherous. Why? Because we grow up in a society designed by and for consumption. Everything about our daily experience of the world, from economic policy to the chicken sandwich, is marinated in the principles of consumer psychology and behavior. Most of the time we aren’t even aware of being influenced by these assumptions. Like department store music they hum along unobtrusively in the background of our daily life. But they do represent a serious challenge for converts to Orthodox Christianity. How so?
When Americans convert to Orthodoxy we are conditioned to think of the change as a sort of purchase. Thinking this way, we remain at the center of our own spiritual narrative. Our new-found faith becomes a means – a set of tools or techniques – by which to advance that narrative and the saints become catalogue models stoking the fires of our self-centered spiritual ambitions. Left unchecked this way of thinking leads inevitably to disappointment and desertion. When a person discovers that their shiny new Orthodoxy doesn’t deliver the promised spiritual awesomeness in 10 easy lessons he or she simply moves on to something else and the real, transformative power of the faith of the Saints is left undiscovered.
What can we do about this? We certainly cannot change our society and, for the most part, we cannot change our own consumer way of being, at least not right away. But we can recognize it and intentionally adjust our behavior to account for this deficiency. What we need is humility and one way of acquiring it is to become Tortoise Christians. What is this beast? A Tortoise Christian is a distance runner. He may not win any awards for style or speed but he is in it for the long haul. A Tortoise Christian has a habit of daily faithfulness that undermines the negative influence of his own spiritual ambition. He says his prayers, watches his thoughts and words, does his work honorably, and goes to church. This should be us! It can be us! And if we do this, we will still be in the race long after the rabbits have forgotten where they were going.