Sunday, February 28, 2021

Letters to My Children - Letter 3: The Orthodox Mind


Next, I want to share with you what I learned about the nature of the Orthodox mind and how it differs from our normal western way of thinking. It is this Orthodox mind that will allow you to know God and become united with Him. Being brought up Orthodox you already have elements of this. But being immersed in a western society you have mostly another way of thinking.

For me it took a long time to begin to develop an Orthodox mind. I am still working on it. I was not brought up in this way of thinking.  My parents were not Orthodox, but they took me to the United Methodist Church as a child with regularity, about like you attended the Orthodox Church in your childhood. The church building was totally different from an Orthodox Church. It was devoid of decoration. The focal point was the pulpit and the sermon was the main event. It was like a large lecture hall. Communion was only offered periodically and was merely symbolic, where a tray of small glasses of grape juice was passed around just like a collection plate. As I look back, it was assumed that our highest power was our rational mind, and it was through our intellect that we came to know God. There was no emphasis on the active role of the Holy Spirit. That’s why the emphasis was on the pulpit and the Sunday sermon. There was also an emphasis on social projects for the poor and disadvantaged. This communicated that if you did good works like this God would favor you. It wasn’t until I became Orthodox through marriage that I had even an inkling of what might be an Orthodox way of thought. My first experiences were mind blowing. I didn’t know what to think the first time I sat through a Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox Church. It was so different. I remember when Kathy would go with me to “my” church when we were dating, and she would say, “I don’t feel like I have been to church.” At that time I didn’t understand what she was saying.

Our Western outlook emphasizes rational thought and questions things that can’t be explained. By the use of this self-endowed power of intellect we believe we can become independent, self-sufficient, successful in a career, a good parent, and Christian, all by our own efforts. Independence and self-sufficiency were emphasized when I was growing up. God was rarely mentioned. I learned that my opinions were as valid as any others, and I was the determiner of what was true. Truth in matters of faith was relative. Because of this, I had difficulty accepting the idea of a higher truth, an absolute Truth. By thinking truth was relative, then my idea of faith was as valid as another’s idea of faith. I was taught by my Methodist pastor that all religions lead to a common goal. It didn’t make any difference, only that some paths may be shorter. I was also taught that we can’t know God except through Scripture. It was mostly up to me individually to make my own interpretation of Scripture. This reliance on self-direction through my intellectual powers I now know is a falsehood. I have learned by experience that what we can know through our intellect is only part of reality. My rational mind is important, but it is not the highest power that I have. I have a soul and a higher mind.  When I was conceived I was given a soul. In a sacramental Orthodox baptism we become a holy temple, and God lives within us. For Orthodox, baptism is the work of the Holy Spirit, it’s mystical and transformative. For many Christians, like Baptists, it’s only an ordinance. They seem to ignore the transforming role of the Holy Spirit. Needless to say, to become truly Orthodox I had to learn a new way of thinking.

The Greek word for this idea of a way of thinking is “phronema.” Some call it a world view. We will uncover what is the Orthodox “phronema” and eventually learn how one develops it. Remember, that for me, this took a long time, and I am still working on it.

When discussing Christianity, the Western churches use much the same terminology as the Orthodox Church, but their meaning is often quite different. (Like the difference in Holy Communion or baptism mentioned earlier.) We will get one meaning with the normal rational outlook and another with a more mystical or spiritual one. It is not rational to think that the Holy Spirit can change bread and wine into the actual Body and Blood of Christ. But this is an absolute truth for a true Orthodox Christian.

Roman Catholics have the most in common with Orthodox Christians, but they think they understand Orthodox thinking and practice when they really don’t. Why? Because they have a different way of thinking, a different “phronema.” For Orthodox, logical definitions and arguments are not important to understanding things about God, while they are essential to a Western Christian mind. For Catholics almost everything is given an explanation. Like it was for me, it is difficult for them to “think Orthodox.” I will try to help you understand how to “think Orthodox.”

The Orthodox faith involves an integration of faith, thought, and the way of life that the Apostles learned from Jesus. They were simple fishermen who learned from their direct relationship with Christ. They were not philosophers. They did not have a book to study about the nature of Christ. Of course they knew the Psalms and stories from the Old Testament with its many miracles and divine interventions. Remember, Jesus did not use logical arguments or written guides to teach them. He told them stories, parables, and performed miracles and showed them by how He lived in unity with His divine will. Even they had difficulty understanding what He was teaching them until after His Resurrection. They witnessed Him crucified and resurrected, then appearing to them after His death when He could teach them the deep mysteries. Some of them recorded what they observed which has become what we call the New Testament Gospels. What they were taught, and how they worshiped and lived has been passed on in the Orthodox Church unchanged over generations, in different languages and cultures. You will not find all of this written in the New Testament. This way of life involves being always aware of the heavenly kingdom where Christ is king, with the multitudes of angels, and saints who have been taken up to heaven to serve Him and glorify Him. With this vision of divine reality we are moved by love to follow the way of life Christ taught. It embraces miracles based on the reality of higher powers, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments of the Church. We accept that God is everywhere, in all things and all places, supporting the created world. It accepts the reality of a Creator that established the natural order we have gradually begun to understand in part through scientific study. It views God’s  powers as unlimited. It sees God as three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but yet one God.

My view of God changed as I developed this Orthodox phronema. Our way of thinking does determine how we view God. For Orthodox there is room for ambiguity, uncertainty, paradox, and mystery. We are asked to seek a knowledge greater than that available to us through our intellectual powers. Orthodox resist and avoid definitions, reject legalistic thinking, or any way of thinking that seems to box in God with earthly terms. There is aways something more than what we experience through our senses that we can only access though our soul and its higher powers. 

We cannot limit our understanding to what is written in Scripture as I was taught in the Methodist Church to analyze intellectually. In addition to the mysteries hidden in the words, there is much more that the Apostles were taught than what they could write down. This is what is known as Holy Tradition. This is another dimension of the Orthodox mind.

Everything is interconnected. We cannot discuss Scripture without referring to Tradition, the writings of the fathers, and the practices that have passed down through the Church unchanged. We are taught to suspend our intellectual study and let the words speak to our heart. What we don't understand we don't critique, but hope for a future reading when the meaning will be revealed to us. Our liturgical life is filled with ancient hymns that point us to truth. There are many ways available to point us to this greater reality. To understand Scripture we need to make sure our view is consistent with Tradition and what the early Church fathers taught, not just our own clever thoughts. When there appears to be more than one truth it’s not which one is correct, but that they all are true. The conflict is held as a mystery. To fully understand, we need to be lifted to a higher state. The Church fathers were holy men who had a direct experience of God. Because of this they have a deep understanding of the meaning of Scripture. It is therefore important to listen to what they teach. In understanding Scripture we also need to include the whole, everything that is written, not just a selected piece. 

In this Orthodox mind we need to embrace Heaven as real. We need to see the Holy Spirit as God in action. We need to value the sacramental life in the church, because the  sacraments all involve the work of God through the Holy Spirit. Part of this Orthodox mind accepts ambiguity, uncertainty, and above all mystery. In thinking about God we must learn to be humble and accept that we are limited in nature. We must hold a vision of another spiritual world and hold this entire structure in our consciousness. 

When I was in the process of becoming truly Orthodox, I was led by the writings of Saint Theophan the Recluse in  the book, The Path to Salvation. There was a section that I came back to over and over again because it was hard for me to understand this expanded view. He summarized it this way:

“God is One worshiped in Trinity. The Creator and Upholder of all things, or as the Apostle says, the Head of all things (cf. Eph. 1:10) in our Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, active in the Holy Church, which, having perfected the faithful, transports them to another world. This world will continue until the fullness of time, or the end of time, when, at the resurrection and judgment all will receive according to their deeds—some will descend into hell, while others will dwell in paradise, and God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor. 15:28).”

With humility we can be lifted to a state where we understand these mysteries. I remind you again, this does not happen for most of us overnight or even in a year. Once we accept that there is a higher way of thinking, then we will want to strive to develop it in ourselves.

I leave you with a question. Can you see any differences in the Orthodox way of thinking from your normal way of thinking? What is the kind of thinking you are taught in our schools and how does it differ from this “Orthodox mind”? How do you deal with paradox and ambiguity in matters of faith? How do you understand miracles?

We will continue our discussion of the Orthodox phronema, and how to gain it, in the next letter.

More reading: Eugenia Constantinos, PhD, is the author of a book titled Orthodox Thinking: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Letters to my children - Letter 2: Belief

The first step in a healing spiritual life in the Church is having a clear understanding of the truths revealed to us in the Gospels. We address this by examining the Creed. I learned the Creed early on, even memorized it. I later discovered that the way I was reciting it was mostly an act of obligation, and was done without any deep feeling or much understanding. It was something everyone did in Church. 

Why does it deserve deeper attention? In it we find the essence of the nature of God and our purpose in life as recorded in Holy Scripture. It is a document created by the whole Church and affirmed in the first two ecumenical councils in the 4th century where it was agreed to never allow it to be changed. For Orthodox Christians it has never changed, but some ambiguities have been clarified in later Councils. The Creed sets the boundaries about what we must believe about God to be a Christian without taking away any of the mystery of the spiritual realm. Now it’s time for you to examine it.

In essence it tells us that God is the creator of all. Out of love and His desire for us to be reconciled with Him, He sent His Son who took on flesh from the Virgin Mary. Christ did not come to write a book or give us a set of rules, but to show us a way of life so we could become united with Him in eternal life. In it we see His love and His humility, both key attributes for eternal life. He was fully Human while remaining fully God so He could transform our human nature to become divine, to become like Him. Not only do we have His miraculous birth from a virgin, God becoming man, but His unjust and voluntary suffering and Crucifixion, followed by His Resurrection and then His ascension into heaven. This shows us our path to Paradise. By following Him we too can be resurrected and have the hope for eternal life in Paradise, His Kingdom. All this is not just philosophical or made up story, but a historical reality. He revealed Himself to us and the Gospel writers recorded what they experienced.

As you study the Creed, it’s important to identify areas where you have doubts about the nature of God. Having doubts is normal as the events of His incarnate life, Crucifixion, His Resurrection and Ascension, all defy rational explanation. I had many doubts for many years. To develop a true faith it was important to expose them, bring them to my awareness, and choose to seek an understanding. Exposing them and discussing them you will in time be able to overcome them. It’s all a process of building a true faith. We all have doubts. We must realize that we have inherited many assumptions from our parents and the society that we have been brought up in that are often counter to our faith. As these assumptions are uncovered, you will be able to chose to change them, rather than having them hidden and secretly blocking you from knowing God.

Here is the Creed. Examine it carefully, and identify issues that arise for you, and share them with me.

The Creed

I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages; Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not created, of one essence with the Father through Whom all things were made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; And He rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father; And He will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Creator of life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke through the prophets.

In one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Letters to my children - Letter 1: Introduction and a Confession.


Letter for my children - Letter 1

Introduction and a Confession.

This is the first of a series of letters I am planning to send you about our faith. I send these with love. I hope you will engage with me in a dialog.

I begin with a confession.

When I was much younger God was not central in my life. I was Orthodox in name only. I did not go to church regularly, I did not fast nor have periodic confession with a priest. I did always have a sense that there was some higher power, but it was one that remained a distant mystery. At times I wondered if there was a God and if there was a way to know Him. I was brought up in the United Methodist church where the emphasis was on social activities. I don’t remember having any serious spiritual guidance. My pastor only told me there were many paths without explaining any of them. I did search for spiritual knowledge. I investigated Buddhism and various forms of Hinduism. I learned passage meditation from an Indian guru. All the while I kept my minimal contact with the Orthodox Church. 

I did not realize the answer to my seeking was right under my nose in the Orthodox Church. I inherited Orthodoxy by marriage. Mom’s family had a faith that was a solid foundation for how they lived. For them Church and life activities were all integrated. At the time of marriage I had the idea that there were many paths, and it really didn’t matter. So becoming Orthodox was not a major choice. At that time, the idea of needing God to guide me was suppressed.  I felt self-sufficient and assumed I would live forever. As a result my faith was weak. Because of this low spiritual condition, I now do not feel I  was capable of fulfilling my duty as a father to give my children the right instruction and encouragement for their faith development. 

It wasn’t until I was about 50 years old that the reality of being mortal raised questions about the purpose of life. Going to church periodically I was subconsciously being influenced by the Orthodox way of thinking. About 50, most people begin pondering the purpose of life. They begin to realize this life will not last forever. Those who are fortunate learn that this life is only a preparation for the eternal life to come. It was at this time that I learned by experience that God was truly Jesus Christ, and it was by surrender to the way of life taught by the Church that one could come to know Him. I learned that the idea that you can know God and be united with Him is a central truth held by the Orthodox faith. It is fundamental in the Orthodox way of thinking. One is awakened to this reality, and then with faith, coupled with a detachment from self-centered passions that guide our worldly life, one discovers the true path to be united with God. I discovered I had a sick soul that required healing. To my joy I discovered that this was the purpose of the Church Christ established, the Orthodox Church. How lucky I was brought into it through marriage.

The moment I realized that the Church was God’s way to know and be united with Him, I sought out spiritual guidance through a priest and began to follow the way of life given to us by Christ through the Church. This was not an intellectual process of knowing the right doctrine but a gradual development of a way of thinking, where the mystical nature of our being comes to the forefront. It did not require giving up my worldly duties, but allowed something greater than my worldly mind to work on my soul in a loving way. I began to know my soul as distinct from my brain. 

Studying its history, I found that the Orthodox Church has preserved this wholistic, mystical, and integral way of thinking that passed on through the Apostles unchanged. You can feel it even when you enter an Orthodox Church. All the icons communicate a heavenly message. The smell of incense, the singing of the hymns, and that intoning of the prayers, lift you up from the normal daily experience. You sense that there is something sacred that lives here. 

The Orthodox mind is one that is quite different from the dominant way of thinking of our modern western society. It was totally different from the religion taught in the Methodist Church. It’s very difficult to explain, but I realized that as you begin to follow the way of the Church you begin to discover it and are gradually transformed. The difference becomes unmistakably clear. We do begin with a similar belief in the truth found in the Gospels and summarized in the Creed we recite in our services.

In these letters I want to start a dialog. I know you are good children and grandchildren and have good values. You have the seeds of an Orthodox mind even though it may not yet be fully developed. I am very proud of all of you. I want you to know what I have learned.

Developing this higher way of thinking, knowing we can know God, and accepting that the Church is the place where we will be developed and healed spiritually, is the aim of this series of letters. They describe a way that is more than becoming a good person, but is about a life centered on Christ coupled with a desire to be united with Him with love, now and after our earthly life ends. We call this Theosis.

I only wish I was able to share this with you earlier, but as the Lord tells us, it’s never too late.

Please reply to this email to ask questions or offer comments. I will respond to all your comments. In another week I will send another letter, and the dialog will continue. Please remember my own deviant path, and don’t let me make you feel feel defensive. I only wish I had discovered what I know now earlier as I would have been a better person to deal with all the trials and tribulations of this life and be closer to God and more hopeful of eternal life with Him. 

Accept this dialog with the love of a proud father and grandfather.

I look forward to seeing your questions. I know you will have some.