Where the West is headed now, and how the Eastern Church might play a role
An Alternative Theology: Tradition and The Mysteries
Outside of the obvious external differences, Orthodoxy also has a deeper unseen dimension, which can only be discerned by way of careful examination and can only begin to be understood – I think – by active participation. It is, more than any other thing, that which can fully clarify what makes Orthodoxy so foreign and sometimes so difficult for us westerners to grasp.
Initially, I thought for this segment I would simply rattle off the facts about how the early church held to the authority of something called “Holy Tradition” (having no defined NT canon) and that their theology was heavily sacramental – fully affirming the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements as well as the regenerative powers of the baptismal waters – just to name the “two biggies.” But something I have been thinking about has changed my mind on the course of my writing here…and something I have read – or I should say have begun reading – is more sharply focusing my understanding of what makes my faith so different from that of “Joe Baptist” across town. And more importantly it is helping me to realize how far I have to go in this journey into the Orthodox Faith.
The Eye of Contemplation
“The Way” for the Orthodox is commonly understood as a path of three stages: purification, enlightenment, and Theosis. This alone, I think, shows how Orthodoxy approaches Christianity from a radically different perspective. For us, when we “do church” we are doing more than simply expressing ourselves…we are participating in a Way of Life.
In the book The Mountain of Silence (which I cannot recommend highly enough) Kyriacos Markides affirms that “we can know reality in three ways: through the ‘eye of the senses’ (empirical science), through the ‘eye of reason’ (philosophy, logic, mathematics), and through the ‘eye of contemplation’ (systematic and disciplined spiritual practice to open up the intuitive and spiritual faculties of the self.)” The author further suggests that the west has all but forgotten the “eye of contemplation” and has instead built a Christianity founded on the eyes of reason and of the senses. To me, in a very personal way, this rung quite true for it seemed that Fr. Maximos (one of the main factual characters in the book) described me perfectly as “simply an ideological believer.” I had – and to a large extent still do not have – a cultivated ‘eye of contemplation’ and I was never encouraged to do even while being trained to be a protestant pastor.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” To the Orthodox, the heart is the organ of contemplation. Hence the need for the first and ongoing step of purification…for only the pure in heart are able to truly see God. But how do we go about purifying the heart? Where on earth would we begin to seek advice or guidance in such matters? Could you simply figure such a thing out on your own, and yet still be able to trust such a self invented solution?
Let me say this with all frankness and clarity: THIS IS WHY THE ORTHODOX CHURCH IS SO SET IN ITS WAYS AND SO RESISTANT TO CHANGE. Because they believe they have in their possession, two thousand years of collective knowledge and experience on the process of purifying the heart – and they have come to find, as is witnessed by the saints who have gone on before us, that participating in the life of the Church (the Holy Mysteries, the Liturgy, the Fasts, the Feasts, the Prayers, the guidance of a Spiritual Father or Mother, a rule of prayer, etc) is the exercise which brings about purity of the heart. This “spiritual exercise” (and make no mistake about the use of the term spiritual, for it is also quite physical in nature) is known as askesis from which we get the word ascetic.
Is this Orthodox Way, the ONLY way? Who knows…but I’m not betting that I can figure it out myself. Consider this very carefully: A religion which relies so much on the “eye of contemplation” lends itself naturally and necessarily to the idea of discipleship, which we seem to forget means to be under a sort of discipline. It is to sit submissively at the feet of an authority and soak up the wisdom that comes from experience…in the case of the Orthodox Church, that authority is Holy Tradition. And all of this, the Fathers tell us, must be closely mentored by a Father-Confessor who will offer guidance and direction which will overcome our often visited state of self-deceit. BUT, if you have a religion which relies primarily on the eyes of reason and/or of the senses, then really such discipleship seems less necessary…rather perhaps something more akin to a modern teaching relationship would suffice?
Kyriacos closes the first chapter of his book with the following: “Mount Athos might have the answer to the question of ‘why Christianity as we have known it in the West is anemic and wasting away.’ Therefore the Holy Mountain may have the potential to inject Christianity with the new vitality it so desperately needs.”
I think he may be right. Orthodoxy is certainly injecting me with a new vitality that I desperately need. I am learning…very slowly and pitifully…what it means to use the ‘eye of contemplation’ and to use the tools offered to me by the Church to purify the heart. It is a great wonder to behold – this Orthodox faith – as it seems to be a vast cyclical way of being that intertwines with itself on so many levels…the Calender, the Litrugy, the Prayers, EVERYTHING is so interconnected and necessary to the path we are required to travel. And it takes on a life of its own in our lives and even in the short time that I have been Orthodox I can see how it is literally shaping the way I live from day to day. I think I am beginning to understand why Christianity was at first called “The Way.”
I have a long and arduous journey. Your prayers are coveted.
THIS - the awakening of the “eye of contemplation” - may be the most important role Orthodoxy can play in “Where the West is headed now.”
...offered by Dn. fdj, a sinner at 6:40 PM [+]