Lent has started, and my belly is rumbling. Even though the freshness of the Fast has yet to fade and the initial enthusiasm is still riding high, I know that before long the drab meals, the prostrations, and the abstention from electronic entertainment will begin to take its toll on my good nature. My family, unfortunately, will be the first to pay the price. Sooner or later, the Great Fast will bring me face to face with an undeniable fact about myself that I try energetically to deny the rest of the year; that I am a sinner, someone who puts his own comfort and convenience ahead of even the most legitimate of claims others have on me.
By the time the fourth week in Lent rolls around, my bruised and battered self-righteousness may be ready to pray this lovely prayer, and mean it:
“I have outdone the Publican in my transgressions,
yet I do not emulate him in his repentance;
I have not gained the virtue of the Pharisee,
yet I surpass his self-conceit.
O Christ my God, in Thy supreme humility
Thou hast upon the Cross destroyed the devil’s arrogance;
make me a stranger to the past sins of the Publican
and to the great foolishness of the Pharisee;
establish in my soul the good that each of them possessed,
and save me.”
The Orthodox Church is a good place for sinners. There are a lot of us here. As a former Evangelical, it has been quite costly to jettison the concept of the “regenerate Church”. The field of Protestantism is full of formerly “pure churches” where the hands currently on the rudder are steering their barques in a direction that I don’t believe the original pilots would have wanted them to take. It is hard anyway to keep a church in pristine form longer than one or two generations, and it would take a heart of diamantine hardness and abstraction to look down at your newborn child and see only an unregenerate heathen, cordwood for the fires of Hell. I think this may indeed be the genesis of that peculiar informal Protestant doctrine of the “age of accountability” , which if it were true, would make abortion something of a mercy rather than a misfortune.
Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church in the United States is a wonderful place to indulge a spiritual elitism that would be the envy of the most fastidious supralapsarian Neo-Calvinist or the most prophetically endowed Third Wave Pentecostal. Our parishes are for the most part small, the regular attendees at Liturgy are mostly pious and those who attend Vespers and Orthros even more so. Ehrmergerd! All of this and we’re in The One True Church as well? Talk about dropping the bacterium of Phariseeism into a Petri dish full of yummy sugar water…
Thank God as Holy Week approaches, more and more of the marginal members of the parish start showing up; that rough looking guy with the flashy wife and the tattoos on his knuckles, the couple who own the nightclub, the Coptic girl who’s married to a Muslim and wears a hijab, the husbands and wives of parishoners who you see so seldom that it is hard to remember who goes with whom. Its hard to talk with them at coffee hour, but they remind you that the Church is indeed for everyone. James Joyce made the remark about the Catholic Church – “Here comes everyone!” With a change in geography, the same could be said of the Orthodox Church. I wonder if I lived in a traditional Orthodox society whether I’d see these ‘marginal’ types more often. Would I see them as brothers and sisters in Christ, or would I see them as part of the mission field?
JRR Tolkien, in one of his letters to his son, recommended that he embrace the catholicity of the Church as a spiritual discipline :
“Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand – after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.”
PS – Sorry about the super-heroes.