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A Lecture on Journeys to Orthodoxy

by Fr. Gregory Hallam

a lecture given by Fr Gregory Hallam at Manchester Metropolitan University on Thursday 29 October 1998

1. INTRODUCTION

Becoming Orthodox
Journey’s End

2. THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE JOURNEY

from Jerusalem to Rome
from Rome to Jerusalem

3. FROM HERE TO THERE

the nature of the Journey
Thanksgiving and Guidance

4. PATTERNS OF THANKFUL ACCEPTANCE

Foundations
Promptings

5. PATTERNS OF CRITICAL DISCERNMENT

Wheat and Chaff
Conflict and Growth

6. HELP FOR THE JOURNEY

Spiritual Parenting

The Church

Conclusion … Journey’s End Revisited

INTRODUCTION

Becoming Orthodox

"Journeys into Orthodoxy" – the title of this lecture presupposes that there are some people who will be interested in "becoming Orthodox." This phrase, "becoming Orthodox" already raises a number of issues for Orthodox Christians and others in the West. Some Orthodox seem even to be embarrassed by the term, feeling that any overt missionary activity constitutes proselytism. What then precisely is meant by the term, "becoming Orthodox?" Well, there are many possible meanings and they all have merit: -

First, there is the most obvious and direct sense … someone is received into the Holy Orthodox Church either by baptism or, by economy, by chrismation, if previously baptised according to acceptable forms in another Christian community. A journey to Orthodoxy in this case is a straightforward matter of becoming a living and active member of the Orthodox Church after due preparation and guidance from some designated person and / or spiritual parent. More will be said about this later.

But "becoming Orthodox" is also a continuous journey, a movement deeper into Orthodoxy for all who are already Orthodox in the formal sense. According to this understanding the journey never ends. In the teaching of the Fathers and, in particular, St. Gregory of Nyssa, this journey of "becoming" or deification is a continuous infinite ascent. Becoming Orthodox is never, therefore, simply a matter of "once-not, now-is." We are pilgrims indefinitely.

Finally, there is the matter of becoming orthodox (small "o") "outside" the boundaries of the Orthodox Church. This is a much more problematic issue and there are, frankly, many different views within Orthodoxy itself concerning the possibility of such journeys, ranging from those who deny the possibility altogether to those who feel impelled to widen the scope of salvation in a most radical fashion. I shall attempt in considering the process of becoming Orthodox to follow a moderate path, veering neither to the right nor the left of routes well worn by those spiritually more competent than I to discern the Way.

Before we move on, there is the question of how to tackle this subject of "Journeys into Orthodoxy," that is, how to enliven and inform with integrity.

I have decided to refrain from the anecdotal or confessional method wherever possible, leaving to others the recounting of personal stories. Although they are of undoubted interest to many they are always someone else’s story. At this personal level I can only speak for myself. You are not I and I am not you and spiritual voyeurism is quite alien to the spirit of Orthodoxy, (which by the way is why you will rarely find something like the "Confessions of St. Augustine" in Orthodox literature).

I am not against the telling of such stories as such of course; the Antiochian Deanery Web Site <http://www.antiochian-orthodox.co.uk> for which I am responsible has a section devoted to them. It’s perhaps that this is not the right forum. If you are interested in my story we may talk privately some time.

Journey’s End

If we embark on a journey we had better know where we are going! Simply put, the answer is God. There are no doubt people who go through the motions and become Orthodox because they like the worship, appreciate the aesthetics or value the spiritual wisdom of the Orthodox Church; but none of these things will suffice for the journey unless that person means business with God. If someone does mean business with God, then the worship, the beauty and the wisdom of Orthodoxy will be indispensable for the journey; but first things first, and meaning business with God involves repentance. St. Anthony, that great father of monasticism has taught us to expect temptation to our last breath. Endurance to the end (Mark 13:13) without which no one shall be saved is a matter of repentance. Repentance is the only key to the only door in that house which is the Church and that only door is Christ. (John 10: 1-9) And so I begin my lecture proper with the End, who is God, so we shall know where we are going with this. But now, to trace this journey back to the beginning, and the beginning is Jerusalem.

THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE, JOURNEY

From Jerusalem to Rome

If you had to make a difficult journey, would you not choose the most reliable form of transport, the most dependable map, and the most experienced guide? The Orthodox Church does not subscribe to the popular modern view that all Christian communities have equal standing in the journey toward God. In this she is not guilty of arrogance, she is guilty of love. She cares too much for the human family to leave these things to chance or to survey the contemporary religious scene with uncritical indifference. If she does not speak of these things publicly it is because her actions of love must speak louder than her words of judgement. Tonight, however, we must live the veil a little without either polemic or narrow-mindedness in order to make clear what Holy Orthodoxy believes to be the straight and narrow Way.

When the fulfilled Church of the New Israel, the New Covenant began her journey, she did so from Jerusalem, spiritually and physically. Since then, Jerusalem as a place has retained its importance to the Church through the "call back home" of pilgrimage. However, Jerusalem is also vitally important not only as a place but also as a frame of mind.

Now, I do not want to be misunderstood. By emphasising this "frame of mind" I do not mean that somehow Christianity has corrupted itself by being filtered through Greek or Latin culture or exposed perhaps to the barbarism of the North (tongue-in-cheek)! Nor do I mean that Christianity must somehow become more Jewish in order to regain an alleged lost authenticity. So what do I mean by this "frame of mind?"

Christianity must continue to grow in new soils but without losing touch with its roots. These roots are in Jerusalem. The journey must proceed to the End but we must always keep in our sights the beginning: that is, Pentecost in the Upper Room. It was the momentum of this beginning that impelled the Church outward from Jerusalem to Rome. There were many stops on the way, some dead ends and not a few new beginnings.

If, on our journey tonight, we hasten past the centuries to reach today we must not do so without pausing to recognise the significance of the fall of the East to Islam. Orthodoxy believes that this had as much consequence for the West as for the East. Islam severed the artery that kept West and East connected. An increasingly independent spirit in the West was thereby strengthened by its political, social, economic and spiritual estrangement from the East. The East in turn felt more secure under the Sultan’s turban than the Cardinal’s hat.

The net effect in the West was to give it a certain detachment from the rest of the Church and Jerusalem in particular. Even the Crusaders, mostly, thought that Jerusalem was primarily a place to be snatched back from the hand of the infidel. They did not understand that Jerusalem remained spiritually the Church’s frame of reference irrespective of the issue of possession of the land and of the Holy Places, important as these are. (We may observe this dynamic even today in the disputes between Zionists and some ultra-Orthodox Jews).

And so, in the West a spirit of isolation and self-sufficiency developed. As the East gradually fell apart politically under the advance of Islam the West came to assert its pre-eminent position over the whole Church, most notably in the Hildebrandine reforms of the Papacy. Oblivious or even sometimes contemptuous of the spirituality of the Orthodox East, still in tact even after the fall of Constantinople, the West embraced instead the classical pre-Christian Classicism and Humanism of the Renaissance.

The subsequent reactions against both these developments in the Reformation left many western Christians yearning for Zion but lacking the spiritual and intellectual environment in which to rediscover her place in the Christian life. From here the path to Orthodoxy has been blocked for many western Christians by both the secularism these developments have spawned and the individualism that has typified the Reformed reaction to the centralisation of Rome. However, it is a genuine mercy of God that even after these unfortunate developments in the Western Church in the Second Millennium substantial vestiges of Orthodox Christianity have remained and sometimes thrived, albeit briefly, in the Catholic and Protestant Churches of the West. The Songs of Zion can still be heard. So how shall we in Rome, Canterbury and Geneva hear the Lord’s song again in this spiritually strange land? Firstly we must look again to that Rock from which we are all hewn as we move from Rome back to Jerusalem.

From Rome to Jerusalem

"But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light." [1 Peter 2:9]

So wrote St. Peter the Jew to Church in Rome. Rome knew civic and imperial order, but it was part and parcel of a pagan system with which Christians could not trade in religious terms. The kingdom of the first Christians was the New Israel of the Jew and the Gentile, of men and women, of slave and free, of the Church. Orthodoxy is, if you like, Semitic in this sense: - it is the People of God, not confined or defined by nationalism, ethnic identity, political boundaries or alien ideology. It is the "ekklesia" - the "people called out" … called out that is by the paschal deliverance of God, from darkness to Light, through the death and resurrection of Christ.

Journeys to Orthodoxy that do not begin and end with this are not going anywhere. We need then to be clear concerning those distortions of Christianity that this Jerusalem frame of mind rules out.

There is no place in the New Jerusalem for: -

  • an individualistic Christianity which knows little or nothing of the people of God as a whole but which preaches: "Jesus and me"

  • a collective Christianity of individual parts whose adherence to the whole is enforced from on high or which is reduced merely to social convention

  • a compromised Christianity which trades the kingdom of God for acceptance by the world

If any Christian belongs to a community that maintains any of these distortions then he or she is moving away from Orthodoxy, not moving closer, and this is a serious matter, for salvation is at stake. Authentic Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, knows only the Church as a limitless community of persons in the Triune God. If non-Orthodox Christians and Communities are to rediscover Orthodoxy it will be by moving closer toward and indeed into that authentic ecclesial life which Holy Orthodoxy upholds.

Mutual communion for Orthodox Christians presupposes the living out of Orthodox faith and life in organic unity one with another and in obedience and love for one shepherd in Christ, the bishop and in other ministers ordained by him. In this sense Orthodoxy is a "holy nation," the New Jerusalem. Her life is governed neither by autocratic decree nor by democratic opinion but by the fullness of life in the Holy Spirit, ever-unfolding but never changing, Holy Tradition. The elements of this dynamic life in Holy Tradition may be distinguished but never divided. Scripture, the sayings of the Holy Fathers and Mothers, the Ecumenical Councils, Iconography, Martyrology: all these form a seamless whole. They cannot be traded or picked at, dismembered or treated carelessly. To be Orthodox is to embrace all of this, and perhaps, more importantly to be embraced by it.

FROM HERE TO THERE

The Nature of the Journey

Those making a start towards Orthodoxy are conscious to some extent of the length of the road, but not as much as those who are already Orthodox formally. It is then that the journey begins in earnest! We are reminded again of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s "infinite ascent," and yet we have a kindly God who accommodates our Christian formation to our capacities and powers, our strengths and our humble desires. He stretches us but does not yet break the bow with too much tension. He consoles and feeds us but ever leaves us hungry for more. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled." [Matthew 5:6]. The further we go on this journey the greater our vision. It really is like climbing a mountain. The higher we climb, the further we can see but we must always rely on His strength. The more elevated the view, the easier it is for us to see the whole vista of our life as this journey and not just that part we first identified, namely, our conscious movement towards Orthodoxy. With everything to be gained, nothing other than our ego shall be lost. Truly as the sage said, "God writes straight with our crooked lines!"

Thanksgiving and Guidance

"In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."

[1 Thessalonians 5:18]

Thanksgiving ought to permeate our lives so that even our past errors may be redeemed and used as stepping-stones for the journey. Certainly we should never be weighed down by a sense of regret saying: "… all those years I wasted looking for the wrong thing …" or some such. All our meanderings can be accommodated to God’s will for us. The important thing is what we do now and how confidently we move forward in His love. We may only regard our past as garbage if it impedes our straining forward for Christ, to paraphrase St. Paul (Philippians 3:8). It cannot impede our journey if it is incorporated with thanksgiving.

Such a frame of mind is vital for anyone considering becoming Orthodox. Zealotry and fundamentalism is an ever-present danger for converts. Of course, the convert will look back on some things and say: - "this was a cul-de-sac" or "this was wrong." But more often than not he or she will say instead "this is how the Lord led me to discover the truth; thanks be to God." And so we come to consider those two complementary movements of the soul on its journey, two patterns of our evolving Christian life … the pattern of thankful acceptance and the pattern of critical discernment.

PATTERNS OF THANKFUL ACCEPTANCE

Foundations

"But You are He who took me out of the womb; You made me trust while on my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon you from birth. From my mother’s womb You have been my God."

[Psalm 22:9-10]

The Journey towards Orthodoxy, becoming Orthodox starts from our birth. How radical do we want to be with this? In terms of the Covenant to Moses and David, this conviction of belonging to God from the womb was from within Israel, a well - defined Ecclesia, a people called out. But in the Covenant sealed in the Blood of Christ and energised by the Holy Spirit from the Father this belonging is a matter of faith and is not additionally defined by racial election. The New Israel of the Church, therefore, has to reinterpret Jerusalem spiritually as "coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband." (Revelation 21:2). This realisation of the ever-widening scope of salvation in Christ came as total revelation to St. Peter, unaccustomed perhaps to Gentile ways. His acceptance of Cornelius was established by the dream of the clean and unclean animals let down in a sheet which the Lord God told him to eat, a symbol of the necessity of Gentile inclusion in the New Covenant. The baptism of Cornelius and the consequent liberal attitude of the Jerusalem Church, (note that, the Jerusalem Church), towards this Gentile inclusion was based in no small part on St. Peter’s change of heart. In Acts 10 we read: -

" … Peter … said: ‘In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.’" (verses 34 - 35).

The greatest misunderstanding one can apply to Orthodox Christianity consists of the adjectives that precede it: - Eastern, Russian, Greek, Antiochian. These are commonly taken to mean that Orthodoxy is an ethnic faith. Nothing could be further from the truth. Orthodoxy is, to use C.S. Lewis’ famous book title, "Mere Christianity." Furthermore it a reality deeply embedded in all men and women from their birth. It is a faith that precedes confession, understanding, conversion, the lot. It is simply "being fully human … alive." St. Irenaeus said: - "The End of Man is the glory of God; the glory of God is a Man fully alive." This is more than mere humanism, this is Man in his theandric or "God-formed" nature and likeness. Do you see now why Orthodoxy must include all that is good, all that is beautiful, all that is true? (Philippians 4:8). Once this is known, then our personal journey towards Orthodoxy is bound to include all those experiences, insights and movements of the soul that from our mother’s breast has prompted us on our human journey toward being deified. Deification, salvation means being made fully alive and recovering that likeness of God in whose divine image we have all been made. Knowing this we have to see our whole life in the context of becoming Orthodox; yes, even the atheist needs to see this. There are always promptings in our personal histories and these must be accepted and followed if we are to grow as persons.

Promptings

Consider then how the Lord has led you in your life thus far. Acknowledge if you will the gracious stirrings of His Spirit in your soul. Give thanks, wherever you are, whatever you may believe, for His guidance, His illumination, His Love. The crucial test is this: -

" … brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things."

[Philippians 4:8]

Ah, but now we come to a turning point in this presentation; how to know the "truth that shall set us free," how to discern the Spirit, how to embrace the True Faith, Orthodoxy.

Becoming Orthodox is not simply an uncritical assimilation of self-evident truths. Ancient Greece and Modern America all make claim to have been built on these so-called "self-evident" truths and like all other cities of this world they will not endure. The True, the Good, the Beautiful have in Orthodoxy a certain revealed shape or form. In short, Orthodoxy is not just about belief; it is about right belief. It is not just about worship in the Spirit; it is about due form in worship. It is not merely a code for living, it is a way of life.

The promptings of our soul in its journey must then be weighed against the Tradition of the Church if we hope in due time to become Orthodox. When we weigh these things under the counsel and guidance of a spiritual father or mother we shall have to learn, through them, to discern the wheat from the chaff. We shall have to unlearn deeply ingrained attitudes and beliefs that Orthodoxy reveals as plain wrong, (No post-modernism here!). We shall have to nurture that humility which accepts that minds, hearts and lives greater than our own have trod this path of deification before us and we would do well to listen to them before venturing our own opinions on sacred things.

Sometimes this process of discernment can lead to internal conflict, spiritual combat in our souls and bodies. If we have grace to be victorious over any darkness of intellect or life then that victory is not secure until we have buttoned our lip. The temptation to correct others with our own insights will be strong. But we are not to judge. We are to "seek out our own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12), or we risk losing all.

 

PATTERNS OF CRITICAL DISCERNMENT

Wheat and Chaff

"For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ." [1 Corinthians 2:16]

Becoming Orthodox is, according to St. Seraphim of Sarov, "acquiring the Holy Spirit." This accords well with St. Paul’s understanding of having the "mind of Christ." It is the Holy Spirit who purifies, illumines and unites humanity to God; it is He who deifies. This process refines and purifies our hearts, minds, souls and bodies. Becoming Orthodox is both to discern the Spirit and to embrace the Spirit.

Discerning the Spirit, sorting the wheat from the chaff is no mean task and it is not accomplished without much labour and good counsel. This is not a catechetical lecture but I must emphasise that a commitment to the Faith, Worship and Life of the Orthodox Catholic Church is the essential prerequisite for discerning the Spirit, to becoming Orthodox, after, as well as before Baptism or Chrismation.

Finding your way through unfamiliar terrain requires a good map and indeed an experienced guide. The map is the Faith of the Church. Do not, for example, try unaided to work out how God can be both True God and True Man … listen to the Church. Do not try and decide alone and for yourself what is the best fasting rule for your spiritual growth; consult your spiritual father or mother. Do not claim special insight into any problem or any personal victory over sin. Give God the glory.

The utter humility that is required of each one of us, the profound repentance which marks the compassionate soul; these are the only doors to true wisdom. They constitute the narrow way and those who find it are few. Do not, however, let this dishearten you. You do not have to be clever to be Orthodox. You must certainly not entertain notions of your own virtue. You must, however, be crucified with Christ that Christ may live in you. (Galatians 2:20) Faith, then, is no mere intellectual assent. It is a revolution in your life from which you will develop an insatiable thirst and hunger for God who is Love. This Love is practised in the Church then spent in the World.

Conflict and Growth

As I said, none of this … becoming Orthodox … is achieved without much labour and good counsel. The conflict is internal and comes from the disordered state of our lives under the reign of sin. The good counsel, I will come to a little later.

None of us likes to be told that we are wrong. The conditioned reflex of the Fall is to reject the admonition or blame someone else. A wise soul accepts reproof with joy, knowing that therein lies wisdom and growth in God-likeness. Even when we are falsely accused there is only one charge we should refute and that is that we are heretics. The rest we should accept because even if I am not a murderer now, the old Adam in me has a murderer’s heart.

Vigilance, prayer and total honesty are the only weapons in this spiritual combat with the old enemy within. We must not under any circumstances make others pay the price of the struggles of our own interior life. If, through a godly awareness of our darkness we detect even the slightest urge to move from the ground upon which we must all stand and fight, then we must repent immediately, return, and call upon the power of God to aid us in our strife.

St. Anthony spent many a year in the desert fighting the demons with the grace and power of God before returning to the affairs of humanity. Thousands sought him then because he was so transparently full of the love and power of the Spirit, a man at peace with himself, his fellows and with his God. If it took this great man so long and cost him so much, why do we who remain in the world assume that it will cost us anything less? If then, you are prepared to die, by all means seek to become Orthodox. You will live and not die eternally. But if you are not, at least seek the mercy of God. The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is on your side. You may indeed find that you as last will be the first.

HELP FOR THE JOURNEY

Spiritual Parenting

It is impossible to become Orthodox without some sort of spiritual guidance. As an ancient saying has it: - "He who guides himself is counsel to a fool." The struggles involved in this life-long path are many and the dangers of wrong turnings are real and present. The wise seek help to avoid the pitfalls and endure to the end. It is no excuse complaining that you have not found the right person or that there are so few godly people around nowadays. Your priest at least has enough for you to be getting on with. If you don’t like him; all the better. This can be your first struggle … getting on with him!

If your spiritual father or mother tells you to do something and it does no one any harm, do it; even if you don’t understand why. You will later. If he or she tells you to stop fasting; do it. You’re probably getting too conceited. If he or she tells you to cut down on your Church responsibilities; confer with your priest, then do it. It could be that you are using your unending works to conceal your repressed distaste for worship and prayer. Concentrate on the one thing necessary. Do not trust your own judgement in any of these things. In the words of the sports shoe commercial: - "Just do it!"

The Church

"If this is being Orthodox" you may ask, "can I not live this life on my own without becoming Orthodox formally?" The straightforward answer is "no" but this does require some further elucidation. First may I say that the use of the word "you" in this lecture is in no way addressed to any individual here. I mean "you" in a generic sense and prefer it to "one" which I believe is both archaic and easily made redundant from over use.

If someone asks this question without any existing Church membership then the issue is quite simple. You cannot be a Christian on your own. The Bible knows nothing of an isolated believer. The Church is not optional. A fish out of water will die. If you want to become Orthodox and you do not currently attend any Church you must first make contact with a local Orthodox community and take it from there.

If you do belong actively to another Christian Church then the matter is a little more involved. Orthodox do not proselytise that is, we do not sheep-steal! If a Christian comes to us and asks to become Orthodox then that is a different matter. You will be welcomed and given all possible assistance but we shall expect you to be honest with your existing Church in the context of your journey at the point where you are resolved to go ahead.

If you do not yet feel ready to approach the Orthodox Church yourself then you may start exploring Orthodoxy and indeed start using its prayers, icons and ways of life, under proper guidance. But let’s face it; such guidance will only be available to you when you actually contact an Orthodox Community. It is a dangerous illusion to think that you will grow into Orthodoxy if you are always peering in at the sweet shop from the outside! If you are a serious seeker, open that door, come in and ask.

When you do ask there may be a few things that surprise you about the Orthodox Church. I will mention a few of these now without much explanation in order to whet your appetite perhaps for some questions at the conclusion of this lecture.

  • I have already mentioned that we do not consider ourselves "Eastern" Orthodox. Orthodoxy is as much at home in the West as it is in the East, North or South. "In Christ, there is no East or West" as the hymn has it.

  • The Orthodox Church is not a place where your own personal doubts over this or that define the shape of your Christian journey. You are to grow into the fullness of faith not attempt to change the Ecumenical mind of the Church, which as we have said is the "mind of Christ."

  • Orthodoxy is not a "pick-and-mix" faith. We do not select what is most congenial to us and discard the rest. We do not rank elements of faith, worship or life in order of importance. All is a seamless whole.

  • Orthodoxy is maximalist not minimalist. We do not seek to reduce faith, worship or life to bare essentials. We build up and what we may not currently use we store.

  • Orthodoxy is not defined either by an individual or by a collective consciousness. It is an organic communal life stretching back to Creation itself.

  • Orthodoxy delights in sinners who repent. The self satisfied or those seeking perfection will be disappointed.

Maybe there is enough material here and preceding it for your questions. I shall now proceed to my conclusion.

Journey’s End Revisited

I began this lecture by referring to the Journey’s End who is God. Becoming Orthodox is a journey in which we must mean business with God. There is no room here for taster, the dilettante or the half-hearted but there is plenty of room in God’s heart for the sinner, the lover, the dreamer of dreams, the Christian who would offer his or her life unreservedly to the Kingdom. For some, then, Orthodoxy is simply too demanding. The End of the Journey and all its glories rarely becomes apparent to these folk. If they saw what awaited them they might labour for the wrong reasons and do even more harm to their souls. Orthodoxy does not fret about those who walk away. We are sad but we are not anxious. We leave all in God’s hands. I suppose this means also that we are not particularly concerned about what people think of us so long as our Love is strong and God-pleasing. We are not concerned to be up to date; whatever that means, but we are concerned to be faithful. If this in any way appeals to you may I ask you to let your small "o" orthodoxy become big "O" Orthodoxy?