Disclaimer: This is an ongoing investigation into Orthodox Christianity.
Before I begin, here is my personal statement of faith:
I believe that my sin has separated me from God, but because of God's gracious love for humanity – demonstrated by God's own son being sacrificed on the cross – I have placed my hope in the power and resurrection of Jesus Christ to bring my soul into a lasting peace with God. I am not Orthodox, and I am not currently a member of any church.
Part One: Monastery of St. John
This investigation began almost a year ago when I visited the Monastery of St. John in Manton, CA.
Some Orthodox friends of mine invited me to go, and I thought it would be a good time to get away, reflect, and put my thoughts in order. Also, I was curious to observe those who live a monastic life, if only for a weekend.
This monastery hadn't yet finished construction on their chapel, so services were held in the foyer of the house where the community of about ten monks lived. In spite of this "unorthodox" first experience, I still got a taste of some Orthodox flavors. There were golden icons, flickering candles lit, fragrant incense burning, robed deacons, priests, young monk with peach fuzz beards and body odor.
We stood for nearly two hours and my legs burned as I shifted my body weight from one side to the other. Not wanting to be irreverent or disrespectful, I followed the lead of my Orthodox friends and remained standing.
Monotone drones of scripture were read aloud in both Greek and English. I couldn't understand why they didn't just read the texts normally, but couldn't field that question in the moment. Prayers were repeated in mumbled and hushed voices. I only recognized one of the prayers they recited, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." I excitedly joined in with the monks as we repeated this prayer. I tried to count the amount of times we prayed it, but I lost track (it was close to forty).
Questions continued to fill my mind as I observed this late night service. After a couple more hours I began to surrender to the serenity of the atmosphere. I had too many questions to remember anyway, and knew that there wouldn't be much time allowed to get into any sort of deep discussion afterward. It was nearing midnight. Do monks ever sleep?
I began to pray to God in my own voice and sensed the presence of His Spirit. I sought the Lord for discernment and understanding of what I was seeing. Then, my soul filled with peace.
The following morning, we ate breakfast with the monks, observing silence throughout the entire meal. I wanted to ask so many questions and yet again found myself having to be quiet. "Patience is a fruit of the Spirit," I told myself. See! I was growing spiritually already.
After breakfast, one of the monks led us into a separate kitchen area to serve us tea and offer us a comfortable place to sit and relax. He introduced himself to me and quickly learned (probably from the look of confusion on my face) that I was not Orthodox. He encouraged me to ask him any questions that I might have. Here was my chance to lay it all out on the table and get some ground to stand on. But I froze, and the only question that I managed to ask was, "why do you grow such long beards?" Theological profundity at its finest.
He responded with a laugh and an answer so unclear that I cannot even recall it for the sake of this blog. I still really want to know why they grow beards, but this mystery eludes me.
There was so much information available at the monastery about Orthodoxy, its history, its tradition, and its heritage, so much so that I was overwhelmed. I had a brain full of knowledge gained as a result of a BA in Biblical Theology, but this was all from a Protestant/Western perspective.
How was I going to see things from an Orthodox point of view?
Do they interpret scripture differently?
Do they believe that I am saved?
My insecurities weighed me down.
I was too proud to ask simple questions because I felt like I should have already known the answers. My understanding of Orthodoxy was like my understanding of figure skating; it looked nice and fancy, but how does one judge the quality of a triple salchow anyhow?
In spite of my continued confusion, I left the monastery that weekend feeling refreshed. It was a great experience and I left it at that.
Part Two: A Year Later...
The investigation into Orthodoxy was re-opened, two weeks ago, after visiting St. Anna's Parish in Roseville, CA.
The same Orthodox friends invited me to attend a Thursday morning service being held during the season of Lent. It was more of what I had experienced at the monastery; droning scripture readings, candles lit, incense wafted in my general direction etc. But, all of those unanswered questions resurfaced. You remember, the ones that I never asked because I was too overloaded with information to do so?
I think that these unaddressed questions had hunkered down in my subconscious for the last eight months and were reawakened by the lovely smell of that incense infiltrating and awakening my memory. Or maybe it was the icons adorning the walls, or perhaps it was the beards of the deacons. Whatever the case, I was going to ask my questions, but I needed someone to answer them.
After the service concluded, I was introduced to Father Christopher Flesoras. He would be the man for the job.
I met with Father Chris this last Wednesday morning, seeking answers. I went into our meeting with a list of questions prepared that I thought would help me gain footing in understanding Orthodox tradition.
Instead of a formal interview, we simply sat in his office and chatted about our faith, our backgrounds, and our convictions all while munching on Girl Scout cookies. It was refreshing to find Fr. Chris to be so down to earth. We talked for nearly two hours.
"So what's going on?" He asked once we'd settled into our chairs. With that, we were off and running.
I told him my background (raised Christian in various non-demoninational settings, Baptist for a couple years, and mission trips in multi-denominational settings). I told him that I wanted to make sure that I wasn't missing something in living out my Christian faith.
I have long been uneasy about the efficacy of many of the churches I have attended over the years. Specifically, concerning their ability to make true disciples of Christ (people who die to themselves daily, take up their cross and surrender themselves to his life and his suffering). I have been one of those who has not fully grasped the weight of the cross and the impact that it could have on my life. I have grown up knowing that 'Jesus loves me because the Bible tells me so,' but I've known there must be more to it than that. There was a culture that Jesus grew up in that is foreign to me. He spoke a language that I don't know. He came from a Jewish heritage that I only understand through Old Testament writings and some extra-Biblicial sources. My entire understanding of Jesus Christ, God, the Church, and where all this rubber meets the proverbial road called life has come through my own personal cultural perspective. And this Western perspective has led me into a lot of confusion, compromise and frustration. I want to know the truth and know the reasons why it's true. Redundant? Not until this horse is black and blue.
My curiosity with Orthodoxy began when I started reading some Orthodox literature (The Way of the Pilgrim, The Philokalia, The Desert Fathers, The Orthodox Way). These books are rich in poetry and journeying with Christ. They read as a sort of documentation of the sanctification process experienced by men and women who are now considered Saints within the Church. Why haven't I been seeing men like this in my church? The lives of surrender, discipline, and humility that these authors lived out before their Master God was shocking to me. I haven't dared to live so completely disposable to the will of God. And for this reason I've struggled at Bible studies and church services that come across as more of an encouraging self-help session rather than a swift quick to the spiritual behind to go and live radically different in the world for God's glory.
There are exceptions of course.
I know that there are unorthodox churches that have trained up beautiful men and women into disciples that live a life worthy of the calling they've received. I know a very select few who are "living up to what they have already attained in Christ." And when I see these ministries, I'm overjoyed. I'm not going to point a finger of blame or accusation against church for my own spiritual shortcomings as a Christian and a man. My own disobedience and sin has caused all of my present confusion. What I do want to accomplish in this investigation is to find men and women (Orthodox, unorthodox, Christian) who demonstrate through their actions that "to live is Christ."
Fr. Chris helped me understand that his parish follows traditions and rituals that were established during the time of the Early Church. In many cases, their services are conducted in the same way they were during the 700s AD.
The Orthodox Church reveres their spiritual heritage, and for good reason. Their heritage stems from the Apostles of Jesus Christ. Their hymns, liturgies, and prayers are the same as have been recited since the 400s AD. This Church values its origin, not for the mere sake of historical preservation, but because their beginnings are rooted in the earliest of churches that we're established just years after Christ's resurrection. Their focus is on living faithful lives like those that can be observed in the Epistles written during the time of Paul's missionary journeys.
If you are not Orthodox, then I'd assume that your impression of an Orthodox service would be much like mine. I was bored at times, confused, and shifting weight from leg to leg.
Fr. Chris explained that the Orthodox Church is not intended to be "seeker friendly" in nature. He clearly stated that Church services are held for Orthodox Christians. The service is meant to be a blessing to those who have been baptized, chrismated, and taken the Eucharist. For all others, it usually comes across as ritualistic and tedious. Fr. Chris was quick to say that it's our Western culture that has trained us to feel entitled to entertainment if we're going to give up our time to attend something.
We, Christians, have created a sub-culture within our churches that markets like the world, attempts to play music like the world, and caters to personal desires like the world, yet claims to be "not of this world."
In reply to my questioning Orthodox tradition's relevancy to present day culture, Fr. Chris firmly stated that, "the gospel will always be relevant." He told me that Orthodox Christians reach the world by living out their Christian lives before the world. Orthodox Christians reach out to their culture by living in it, but are not consumed by it. For them, there's no need to alter their services to appeal to the ever-changing demands of culture and society.
As we wrapped up our discussion, I attempted paraphrase our talk in a tidy sentence. All I could come up with was, "Orthodox Christians take the words of Christ literally and implement their practice with precision and conviction." I repeated this phrase to Father Chris, in similar words, and he looked at me with an expression that communicated a respectful "duh."
It really isn't that complicated to understand Orthodoxy after all.
Or is it?
I looked over my list of questions and realized that I still hadn't asked about beards. But, it would have to wait. I'd already taken hours of this man's time.
"Thank you for helping me understand. I feel like I've got a lot of my questions answered."
He must have seen right through my falsely projected satisfaction because all he said was, "there will be more questions."
He smiled, we shook hands, and parted ways.