[This essay explains why, as an Orthodox Christian, I reconciled myself with the Holy Father.]
“When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die.” — Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp, 1945
From my youth my father taught me that “if you could choose just one book of the Bible, you should choose Proverbs.” Later I realized that he was absolutely right. The book of Proverbs, I think, can be summed up in these few precepts:
(1) The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.
(2) Wisdom is attained by listening to (and being corrected by) the wise (i.e. humility)
(3) Wisdom is the source of life.1
The seventeenth verse of chapter ten seems to sum this up nicely: he who heeds discipline shows the way to life, but he who ignores correction leads others astray. This is what my father taught me. But it would take many years for me start to comprehend this. This brief essay is an attempt to summarize what I’ve learned so far.
Coming to grips with folly
As I grew older, as is often the case, I began to ask questions about the faith I grew up with (which happened to be ELCA Lutheranism). Why could our faith only be traced back five hundred years? What was happening during those hundreds of years in between? Was God asleep? Also, why is the Old Testament so shunned? Why does there seem to be a huge disconnect between the Old and New Testaments in terms of worship, hierarchy, priesthood, sacrifice, etc.? Why, moreover, are there so many divisions? What are these “denominations?” I questioned many about such matters and others but found few who provided satisfactory answers.
But as I read the Holy Scripture and pondered on these difficult questions, I began to feel enormous sorrow above all for the pervasive division among Christians. I became ever more deeply broken in spirit by the countless divisions of Christian brothers and sisters against Christian brothers and sisters. It was unbearable, excruciating. How could all of us say we loved our Lord Jesus, and hate our brother? ((1 Jn. 4:20)) Praise God with our lips yet with those same lips curse our brother, who has been made in God’s likeness? ((Ja. 3:9)) The only course of action that seemed justifiable to me was to seek out every Christian division in existence and learn from them and understand them. Could I affect any sort of unity? Could I help someone reconcile? I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew that I must follow the shuddering of my soul and probe the darkness of this mess—somehow I was called to do it by God. I knew that much. All along the redolence of my father’s words echoed before me as I waded into the murky depths of abrasive rancor and bitter enmity.
And as I trekked out on my quest for Christian understanding, I began to see how right my father really was. I was starting to realize that the problem, as it seemed to me, was that no one had read Proverbs. Christians were not being humble, with the fear of God, they were refusing wisdom (they weren’t even talking to one another, much less learning from past wisdom!), and were thus hopelessly divided and dividing. Groups of Christians seemed to huddle around each other and create their own little world in order to indulgence in apathy for their Christian neighbor and the division between them. I was appalled.
Moreover, as time passed, I became disillusioned with Evangelical Protestantism. So few Protestants seemed to even care about unity. But even more importantly, I came to a grave realization about the Bible. I had always thought, like any good Protestant, that the Bible alone was sufficient to settle all the divisions and doctrinal controversies. But with so many divisions all claiming the Bible’s authority, I began to see the folly in this. The Bible wasn’t crystal clear in all things. It needed to be interpreted for a given situation, especially in these controversial matters. And when I claimed the “Bible Alone” I was actually claiming “my wisdom alone” to interpret. ((This realization was largely the result of reading Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis and having an encounter with Mormon missionaries. You can read my whole story here: http://quiesincaelis.wordpress.com/my-testimony-to-grace/)) I was refusing to be guided from the wisdom of the past who could help me interpret. This, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is folly.
The reason is this: without the foundational truths of Proverbs, the rest of the Bible becomes no longer a two-edged sword cutting you to the heart, ((Heb. 4:12)) but you yourself begin to wield that sword to cut others. But like Nahab and Abihu, you offer strange fire before God, ((Lev. 10:1)) and in your desperate lunging with a holy blade not made of human hands you fall into the pit that you made for another. ((Ps. 7:15)) The divisions among Protestants has gotten to the point where it has made ecumenical reconciliation nearly impossible, since church structures no longer exist to unite them. ((This is seen in such fundamental texts such as the Lutheran-Catholic Join Declaration on Justification (1999). Through this the Lutherans (if interpreting their Lutheranism through the Declaration) are no longer excommunicated by the Council of Trent. However, since no supra-ecclesial authority exists in Lutheranism, even an agreed statement like this cannot reconcile Lutherans as a whole to Catholicism, even if the Catholic Church can reconcile to them.)) Thousands of divisions of Christians using “The Bible Alone” were all convinced that their doctrine was true. How could we be so blind to this? Oh wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death? ((Rom. 7:24))
Encounter with the Body of Christ
Now back when I was an Evangelical Protestant, I was far more protestant than most Protestants. When I had come of age as a young man and thought I knew something, I became convinced of one thing. I hated the “whore of Babylon”—the Catholic Church—and the “tyrannical” pope who “usurped the place of Christ,” becoming “the antichrist” who was sending people to hell for their “Mariolatry” and Eucharist worship. But at the same moment as this disillusionment with Protestantism was setting in, God brought into my life pious Catholics (I had never met a pious Catholic before!) who were able to explain better the jarring doctrines of the Communion of Saints, the Liturgy, and the Holy Eucharist. I remember one Catholic friend saying, “When the Catholic Church has a problem, they work it out and stay united.” That sounded good to me! I began to appropriate Catholic devotional practices into my prayers, and since I was still immersed in my Evangelical Church groups, I told others how I had warmed up to Catholicism and tried to alleviate their fears (which were really just misunderstandings). For some reason, however, I never really contemplated the universal fatherhood of Papa. ((I have taken to use the original Latin title, as its English equivalent seems to me to alleviate the inherent prejudice that the name engenders. The word “pope” itself (because of our sin) is, in the minds of many, a curse word which refutes itself.))
Later, as I branched out in my search for understanding among Christians, I began to attend a local Arab church in my city. This Arab church was Antiochian Orthodox, and I began to learn more about church history through their publications, many of which were written by converts to Orthodoxy. I read Ware’s classic The Orthodox Church, but also Gilquest’s Becoming Orthodox, Bernstein’s Surprised by Christ, and listened to Damick’s “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” and countless other podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio, and I poured over the many Conciliar Press booklets that you can find in most Orthodox parishes in the U.S. Their central thesis was very intriguing because I had never heard of such a claim: that the first Protestants were the Catholics, who, emboldened by the first individualist (the pope) broke away from the early Church by asserting the pope’s right to change (and invent!) his own doctrine apart from the consensus of the Church’s wisdom. So the answer to Christian unity was this: adhere to the “unanimous teaching of the Church fathers” through consensus, and then you’ll have unity. The Orthodox Christians told me that their church was completely unified in faith, and thus could call others “in all humility” to their church—the one true Church. ((Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, 307)) This made sense to me because I believed in wisdom. It seemed that hearkening back to the wisdom of our holy fathers and mothers of the faith was the answer to unity. Perhaps this was the answer to the division of the Church!
But I was still deeply broken in spirit. Somehow this intellectual idea did not satisfy. There was a deeper pain that the intellect couldn’t touch. Then God brought me into the Divine Liturgy. When I was an evangelical Protestant, we liked to sing songs that affirmed us—“Your grace is enough for me!…Oh how He loves us!” Of course these are great, but for some reason I felt worn out by them. I had stumbled into the Divine Liturgy of that Arab church when I was particularly exhausted in spirit over the division of the Church and the apathy of Christians. It was then that I heard chanted “Let us pray to the Lord—Lord have mercy…Lord have mercy…Lord have mercy…Lord have mercy.” It was indelibly imbued with the life-giving grace of repentance. And God drew me into this reverent, majestic worship, and I was brought to my knees weeping as I understood for the first time the reality of the Eucharist—not just in my intellect, but deep down in my heart. God’s answer to the chaotic imbroglio of this tormenting thought of Christian division was this—take and eat, this is my body which is broken for you. I was gasping at the great love of God in Christ.
Then came Lent. Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great. ((1 Tim. 3:16)) The liturgical services of Lent in eastern Christianity are indeed mysterious and indeed great—for they penetrate the soul and speak powerfully to the spirit. My priest gave me specific guidance about how to pray during this time, and I began to learn how to pray the Prayer of St. Ephraim—the traditional Lenten prayer of Eastern Christians. ((Found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_of_Saint_Ephrem)) As I struggled to put these things into practice, our God, who is rich in mercy, out of the whirlwind, came to me and spoke clearly to my spirit. ((Job 38:1)) In the midst of all my intellectual discovery and torment over the division of the Church, I suddenly knew, deep in my soul, that by my own obstinacy I was responsible for the division in the Church. Like Father Zosima I suddenly knew I was responsible for all men. ((Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamozov, Bk VI, ch. 3)) I was spending all my time criticizing others for their lack of humility, calling down fire from heaven upon the wicked man who pilfered the pauper’s ewe lamb. ((Lk. 9:54; 2 Sam. 12)) But our Lord said to me clearly—you are the man! ((2 Sam. 12:7)) It was I who was responsible for the division of the Church. Get away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man! ((Lk. 5:8))
It was then that I began to finally understand that principle of wisdom, instilled from my youth but not yet ingrained. It was in accepting rebuke that I found wisdom, because in accepting rebuke I found humility—and humility is the fear of God. As it is written: Let a righteous man strike me, it is kindness. Let him rebuke me, it is oil on my head; and my head will not refuse it. ((Ps. 141:5 according to the Hebrew.)) Then I knew with sudden horror and relief, who is in me: the Righteous Man and the wicked man.
In me—the wicked man sits in the seat of the scornful ((Ps. 1:1))
In me—the Righteous Man meditates on the Law of wisdom ((Ps. 1:2))
In me—the wicked man is furious if someone rebukes him ((Prov. 9:8, Rebuke a fool and he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you))
In me—the Righteous Man accepts unrighteous scourging patiently ((Ja. 1:2))
In me—the wicked man wishes to be free from his brother
In me—the Righteous Man empties himself for his brother’s sake ((Ph. 2:7))
In me—the wicked man refuses to forgive ((Mt. 6:14, If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses))
In me—the Righteous Man forgives his brother as he crucifies him ((Lk 23:34))
In me—the wicked man curses his brother to hell by his wrath ((Matt. 5:22, Whoever says, “You fool,” shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell))
In me—the Righteous Man is willing to go to hell for the sake of his brother ((Ro. 9:2))
In me—the wicked man is independent from every authority
In me—the Righteous Man is responsible to all men
In me—the wicked man will kill his brother to preserve his life
In me—the Righteous Man will die to save his brother
That is how I realized that my father was right—Proverbs is the foundational wisdom which must guide every Christian—wisdom through humility, fear of the Lord, and receiving correction from the wise. Suddenly I experienced a moment of clarity. And contrition. And it was as if I had never known God before that moment.
This knowledge of God and self had come within and through the majesty of the most holy sacrifice of the altar in an eastern Church, and so I resolved soon thereafter to become Orthodox. I now knew who the wise were—our holy Christian forefathers and mothers, inspired by the Spirit, who have gone before us. But this was by no means an intellectual relationship. I had real communion with the saints who are living members of the Body of Christ. It was a relationship of filial piety and humble devotion—they were loving parents, guiding me on the way to union with “Christ our God.” The final exhortation of the litany in the eastern service always stirred up this devotion: Calling to remembrance our all-Holy, Immaculate, most-Blessed and Glorious Lady the Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other, and all our life, unto Christ our God. ((Theotokos, a transliteration of the Greek, which means “The one who gives birth to God,” or “Mother of God.” This term has a rich history in eastern theology.))
And thus it was through this communion with the Saints that I felt myself drawn into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. I could no longer keep myself from communion with the Immaculate Body and the Precious Blood of “our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ.” For He is the Righteous Man. He has to come and bind the strong man (Mk 3:27)—the wicked man within me! For I had for the first time, it seems, seen his wicked face—and alas! What power he had over me! I wanted to hate him with a perfect hatred (Ps. 139:22). I longed to curse him to hell—let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow, let his name be blotted out of the book of life (Ps. 109:9; 69:28)—and let his infants be dashed against a rock (Ps. 137:9). But oh how weak was I! How corrupted by sinful passions and desires! Oh wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death?