Tuesday, January 25, 2005

"Being in Christ," or, "Squinting, Newborn Converts"

I just read an article (full text is here, from a forum I'm involved with) about the situation of Orthodox converts here in America. The article runs the gamut of typical converts, with everything from those who are tired of their former confession's liberalism to those who seek out the history of the Church and want to be more in line with what the first Christians practiced (this was my initial reason for converting) to those monastics who, in their obsessed search for total purity, have walled themselves off even from those in the very Church to which they've converted...trying to out-Herod Herod, they're trying to be more Orthodox than their bishop, I suppose....

It is tempting, this desire to be right all the time; even more dangerous is the tendency to think, via your still-all-too-simplistic and newly-acquired worldview, that you've arrived and are seeing clearly. In reality, I think we converts are really just better off if we stand around and squint in the light of our new-found life in Christ for at least a couple of years before making judgements on Bishop N.

Though I'd be lying if I said this desire to know it all (especially in relation to my former confession) played NO part in my conversion. Sinful as I am, it feels good sometimes to look back in mock bewilderment at my former life as a Southern Baptist, even engage in theological debates (always with myself, of course) wherein I crush my nonexistent opponent into the dust with the undeniable logic of MY position.

What does it mean, though--and this is what it all boils down to for me--to be "in Christ"? Ultimately--thankfully--this seems to be my main reason for joining the Orthodox Church. Does it refer to a mere spiritual renewal brought about by "saving knowledge" that wars in opposition to our fleshly, corrupted bodies? Or is it a union--spirit, soul and body--with the One who emptied Himself, took the form of a servant and renewed me entirely...and continues to renew me entirely, by His mercy? You can see, obviously, my answer...union w/Christ through the Eucharist (aka Communion or The Lord's Supper), which Orthodox believe is somehow truly the Body and Blood of Christ, mingles our own blood with the very Blood of Christ, fuses our flesh with the very Flesh he took onto Himself! Sinful though I may be, He contunually bends down to administer what is known as the medicine of immortality--His very Self! Truly He is the Bread of Life. (selah)

And this, I guess, is why I get so annoyed with converts who just harp and harp about how horrible their former life was...kind of like how I'm harping and harping about them now, huh? Truly, though--how much more effective would it be to focus instead on the beauty, the radiance, the theotic renewal that is the life in Christ in the Orthodox Church?

Some words from the article cited above...Father Christodoulos, a Greek monk sent from Greece to Denver to set up a monastic community, was interviewed by the author and had these grace-filled words to say:

Father Christodoulos greeted us with a warm smile, but he too was quiet while the two young men talked about the upcoming chrismation, Mike’s work and their parishes in different parts of the city. Finally, Mike turned to the monk. “Father, did you get a chance to listen to those CDs I lent you?” Father Christodoulos remained quiet for several seconds. At last he said, “My mind is still on the liturgy. I haven’t fully come back yet.” Then he paused again and in his voice was gentle instruction. “The liturgy is heaven on earth. Paradise on earth. Maybe we shouldn’t move beyond it so quickly to mundane things. Maybe we should take time to savor it.”

An American by birth, Father Christodoulos spent many years in a monastery on the island of Rhodes in Greece. Three years ago, he was asked by his bishop to start a monastery in Denver. The monk’s manner exuded gentleness and humility. During our conversation, his face often lit up with delight. When I told him that I was a member of St. George Episcopal Church in Leadville, his eyes sparkled. “St. George! Oh, I am sure that is a wonderful place, filled with grace. St. George has so much grace. He was tortured for seven days, you know, and did not renounce Christ. Truly he is filled with the mercy of God.” He refused to answer my question about his own conversion to Orthodoxy. “We are all converts,” he said. “Each of us.”

Father Christodoulos’s manner was profoundly welcoming, and the hospitality that he offered me was central to the work of his life. “A monk’s life is two things: prayer and hospitality. In the first we try to fulfill the commandment to love God, and in the second we try to fulfill the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.” Clearly I was not alone in feeling the draw of the monastery. As we talked, several people came in and joined our circle. Father Christodoulos radiated a welcome to all of them.

“What is the purpose of an Orthodox monastery in Denver?” I asked. “What does Orthodox monastic life bring to American culture?”

The monk’s answer contained none of the critique of American culture, religion or life that had been so prevalent in conversations with other converts to Orthodoxy. “I don’t like to think of myself as bringing anything to American culture. I simply have been asked by my bishop to come here and live as a witness to Christ. I would live this life if I were in Greece. I live it here. People come. The Holy Spirit moves them, and that is enough. We have tried to build an oasis of prayer here.”
I think this is the way to look at life as mission. Instead of seeing missions as "being called by God to be His instrument to go where there is no voice to tell them how to have right beliefs (or orthodoxy, if you will)," mission work is simply being called to live as you normally would, just in another place, radiating the light of Christ.

I also like the fact that he didn't go on the offensive; like I said, I think the best offense is a good defense, which is harder to fall back on (since it always involves the pain of pointing your finger at yourself). Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner.


Anonymous said...

I was also drawn to Fr. Christodoulos from the portait painted of him in this article. A friend of mine who spent a few weeks in Denver actually stayed with him for a few days, and I never really discussed that event in depth with him before. Hopefully I will this weekend after that friend and his wife return from Cancun, as I am now interested in visiting Fr. Christodoulos' setup in Denver.

Cheers on the blog by the way. I have a mostly unread one myself at http://taoofdave.blogspot.com/ but I admit that it is not very cohesive. Prayers for you, your wife, and your unborn child.

David from OC.net(though I don't post very much these days)

David Bryan said...

Thanks for visiting, David! We've got some friends that live up in the Springs; sounds like that would be a marvelous place to visit.