A thought occurred to me, while lamenting my persistent unorthodoxness, that eventually the point of any religious practice (with emphasis on practice) is to color outside of the lines a bit. From art, to athletic endeavors, being spontaneous, unpredictable, and original, there is advantage in harnessing some of that creative chaos. So ritual and rigorousness has taken a back seat to emotional expression. Many call themselves ‘spiritual’ for their abandonment of church tradition.
However, an art teacher will tell you and a good writer knows, that there is no natural talent so good that it can’t benefit from studying the masters. Before one can reinvent the wheel, it might be good to at least know what the wheel is and understand the basic function of the thing before improving upon it. No basketball player does well to ignore all of the established fundamentals of their sport nor is it recommended that a weightlifter abandon good technique. Doing things your own way can lead to injury, can limit potential and be a tremendous disadvantage.
Yes, some do “shoot from the hip” and still manage to score some points. My own writing has improved from simply writing and not from having read every style manual written in the past few centuries. And yet I would be remiss, as well as incredibly arrogant, to not give complete credit to the teachers, the many writers, the coiners of terms and all those who have contributed to the descriptive wealth of the English language. And if my desire is to improve, then reading the greats, absorbing their knowledge of the craft, is only going to enhance my own creative efforts.
Only a fool would enter the ring relying only upon their natural and unimproved fighting abilities. Absolutely, Mike Tyson would knock me out without having spent a day training, God gifted him with a heavy weight’s frame and musculature. But, no boxer, no high level competitor, would last a minute against a person who studied form, who learned all they could from the best, practiced hours and came prepared. It is religious devotion that pushes even the elite to the next level.
Jesus is the foundation of the church, that is true, yet this doesn’t mean we should strip it bare to the bedrock each generation. Do we forget that Jesus himself, God in the flesh, was a practicing Jew for three decades before, while reading Isaiah 61, the prescribed text at the synagogue, announced “today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” We know that Jesus would go on to push the boundaries, to correct and build upon the established religion, yet never claiming it was worthless.
What Is Orthodoxy?
This word “orthodox” refers to correctness.
It is the same root used for terms like “orthopedic” or “orthodontist” and basically implies straightening out, correctness.
Orthodox, as the Orthodox Christian uses it, is an adjective and not a noun. Orthodoxy is not a denomination. No, it is an unbending pursuit, a desire to live out the fullness of the faith, it means uncompromised worship and devotion to Christ and the Church.
Unlike Protestantism, that has whittled away at tradition, the Orthodox continue to practice as Christians have for over a millennia. We celebrate the liturgy of St John Chrysostom or St Basil and not because it is required to be a Christian, I’ve never heard those Orthodox proclaim those who profess Christ outside the tradition to be lost, yet we do see established tradition as a useful aid to the Christian.
Orthodoxy is built upon the foundation of Christ. And yet it is not in denial of the history of the Church nor dismissive of the written and unwritten tradition that the Apostle Paul admonished the church of Thessaloniki to keep:
But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings (or traditions) we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.(2 Thessalonians 2:13-15 NIV)
The first thing noteworthy is that the church had a tradition and the second is that this tradition was passed down by the Apostles both in letter and spoken word. But, more significantly, in the same context of keeping tradition, St Paul also speaks of things of the Spirit. The idea that spiritual is odds with traditional is the great delusion of our time and trying to sustain one without the other is proving to be an overall failed experiment. Tradition, passed down by the Church both in written and by “word of mouth” is for our spiritual benefit.
Orthodox tradition is about carrying forward the practices sustained, and that sustained, generations of the Church. It pertains most particularly to the traditions of corporate worship. And, like the tradition of Scripture itself, gives a voice (or vote) to the many faithful who have gone on before us:
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”(G. K. Chesterton “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy)
To be Orthodox one must appreciate that the Church is bigger than their own individual perspective. The Church is bigger than this generation. Yes, we, the Church militant, are still in the the fight and yet undoing the contribution of the Church triumphant is foolishness. It is a special kind of ignorance in an age where ‘progress’ too often means replacing an old church building with a Dollar General.
Christ is the foundation of the Church, but much has been built, from the Apostle’s time forward, that is beneficial to our spiritual growth and also very beautiful.
The Beauty of Orthodox Worship
There is something incredible about participating in a tradition of worship that has passed the test of time. The basic form of Divine Liturgy has endured, despite the severe persecution of the Orthodox, and in to join in this is to join in the choir of all who have worshipped in this manner.
To those who have never been to an Orthodox service, the first experience may feel foreign, especially if there is some ethnic flavor mixed in, and yet why would we expect the Church (which is universal throughout time) to be a reflection of our modern American culture? Are we truly that arrogant to believe that our own practices, built from the clay of Modernism, is superior to the gold refined over the centuries? We’re better than the entire Church spanning the millennia?
Before going further, consider for a moment that every Church has a liturgy, an order to the service, their own unique traditions, and there’s a reason for this. Protestants, from revival meetings to special mother’s day services, have formed their own traditions to replace those more timeless. I’ve heard about conservative Mennonite churches where at least one elder would insist that the ordained men enter in order of their respective ranks.
And, lest my ‘contemporary’ friends see themselves as superior. Not everyone is up front leading the service.
Order is good. St. Paul spoke to this need for order in worship as an alternative to the chaos and confusion of everyone talking over each other. We are creatures of habit, when brushing our teeth or taking a shower, rather than go through the wasted mental effort of finding a new way each time, we repeat a liturgy of a sort. We can get more done when we finally cease these useless arguments over worship style and move on to things of more substance.
Before I had ever entered an Orthodox liturgical service, I (like most or many Protestant borns) would’ve believed it to be stuffy and boring. I mean, how can something prewritten, predetermined, be as authentic or real as my own concept of worship?
However, upon reflection, considering the many times of Mennonite deacons begging for testimonies and prayer requests to a deafening silence or the same requests over and over again from the same people, the liturgical form that covers everything in prayer makes much more sense. Every service the priest leads us in prayer, through a list that covers pretty much everything, and I’ll often think (and pray) for a specific reason while crossing myself to physically confirm my inner thoughts.
Which is the one beauty of Orthodox worship: It is immersive, involves all senses, we love the beauty of the house we share, our temple, that is divided in a similar way to the Biblical places of worship. There is rich symbolism, incense rising as prayer (as is described in Scripture) and an altar, behind the Iconostasis, where the Communion is prepared. Better yet, the entire service is participatory, a sort of call and response style, with the entire Divine Liturgy service centered around our partaking of the body and blood of Christ.
The second thing I have found, as beautiful, is that this repetition of Scripture in song is spiritually like the muscle memory formed from any other practice. I can’t count the times when the music and words of a liturgical service will pop up during the week, either as a comfort or a challenge, and how these phrases have started to shape my perspective. For example, “put not your trust in princess or sons of man in who there is no salvation.” What a great reminder in this time when the institution of government seems to be failing, right?
Well worn pathways are not confining, they are freeing. Why hack our way through the jungle of life, being ‘authentic’ in the way of every other person in this age who has lost both religion and depth, undisciplined, when there is a rich banquet of tradition to draw upon? Does reciting the Lord’s Prayer over and over again ever take away from the meaning of the words or cause you to want to rewrite it for our own time? I should pray not!
No, we need good ritual in our life because it helps us to focus. Everything in Orthodox worship is founded upon Scripture and a beautiful expression of obedience. It has richness and depth, from the Lenten journey of fasting and reflection, to the icons, incense, vestments, altars, oil, candles, hymns, recitations and processions. It connects is to centuries of the faithful, in our participation in the Church that they built together on the foundation of Christ and is wonderful.
In the end, as Father Seraphim reminds us often in his homilies, we are not saved by our church attendance, we can read Scripture, sing, give tithes and it all be for naught. If there is no spiritual fruit this is all empty and utterly meaningless as far as salvation. However, as St Paul speaks of the law being a guardian, the established prescription and pattern for worship, once catalyzed with sincere Christian faith, is an invaluable asset. It may not be necessary for salvation, the repentant thief on the cross beside Jesus was never Baptized, and yet it does greatly enhance the life of the believer.
Lastly, Orthodox worship doesn’t take away from our ability to worship spontaneously, in the spur of the moment, like King David dancing as the Ark of the Covenant was being processed through the city of Jerusalem. This is not an either/or thing nor have I found the tradition to be onerous or confining in the way one may fear coming out of a legalistic tradition. There is a sort of casualness to our formality, an allowance for imperfection. So simple even children participate.
Structure We Need To Thrive
Us creative types loath structure. We like to color outside of the lines, right? And yet, despite this umbrage, we often live as beneficiaries of the structure that others provide. Many artists would starve, or be overrun, unable to do their work, outside the structure that others have diligently maintained for them. And many would do better, even in their passionate pursuits, if they would acknowledge their need.
The framework that Orthodoxy provides, likewise, for me has been that missing element that I didn’t even know that I needed. This idea that tradition is somehow bad is corrosive, it is creating a generation desperate to find their place, suicidal, distorted and unfulfilled. We are better when plugged in, when a part of something bigger than ourselves. Tradition brings us together and Orthodoxy enhances rather than take away from worship.
As we Orthodox like to say…
“Come and see!”