Monday, April 24, 2006

Spiritual renewal, the “Love Boat” way

On this Bright Monday (The first day after Holy Pascha), I was driving to the grocery store with my truck radio tuned to the local Christian radio station. I was only half listening to the announcer as he was excitedly going on about an upcoming Alaskan cruise with Pastor So-and-so. The announcer described the luxurious, first-class accommodations and wonderful meals that would be available, the shopping and touring opportunities at the various stops, the spectacular scenery, together with daily bible studies with the Pastor. What really caught my attention though was when the announcer concluded, “So come join us for what will be a wonderful time of relaxation and spiritual renewal”.

I must admit that that was the first time I have ever heard the words “relaxation” and “spiritual renewal” joined together in the same sentence.

Having just completed the roughly 56 days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving encouraged by the Church as part of our Lenten discipline, including some 50 special (penitential and long!) services, and concluding with the all-night experience of Pascha, and Agape Vespers the following afternoon, I am left feeling both spiritually renewed, and exhausted! I would not call the Orthodox Lenten experience relaxing by any stretch of imagination. It is a rigorous, sustained effort involving both body and soul.

Orthodox Christians believe that there is a strong connection between the body of man, and his soul. What happens to one directly affects the other. It is not possible, let’s just say, for a man’s soul to become pure and holy by the Spirit of God if his body is continually given over to fornication and every uncleanness and debauchery. The scriptures make this quite clear.

But we must also understand that for the soul to become pure and gain the strength needed to defeat the sinful passions of the flesh, the body must also be engaged in the spiritual struggle and be disciplined and strengthened through such means as prayer and fasting, spiritual readings, prostrations, actions of charity and almsgiving, Orthodox worship and participation in the sacraments, continual self-renunciation, ongoing repentance from dead works to a living unity with God, and the many other therapeutic means available within the Ecclesia.

From its long experience with bringing full healing to humanity, the Orthodox Church understands that such asceticism or “athletic spiritual conditioning” of the body is necessary for it to join with the soul in common pursuit of the transformational life of God in man. St. Paul considered such bodily discipline essential as he wrote, “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27, NKJV). Orthodox Christians pursue such bodily/spiritual disciplines year-round, but intensify them during certain seasons of the year, such as during Great Lent. It is difficult work, and we often grow weary, but we continue in it because we understand that the soul cannot have a share in the holiness of Christ unless the body is also brought under subjection and is made to become a fellow participant and sharer in this same holiness. This is the path to true spiritual renewal.

Now I’m not knocking cruises or those who go on them, but the amenities normally enjoyed on these vacations are not exactly designed for spiritual renewal. People eating too much, drinking too much, shopping and spending too much, engaging in idle chit-chat and so forth are the normal activities associated with cruises. Again, I’m not dumping on cruises; we all need a break now and again and a person on a cruise is not exactly compelled to engage in gluttony, drunkenness and all the rest in order to have a good time. But still, advertising a luxury cruise that will feature a few bible studies as a time of “spiritual renewal” seems to me to be a gross misunderstanding of what man really needs for such renewal to take place.

I suppose modern Protestantism has evolved such a compartmentalized view of life that it no longer sees any connection between what the body does and what the soul either gains or loses as a result. Is there such a thing as “Protestant asceticism” anymore? Many modern “Praise Centers” are designed to rival the finest movie theaters, where casually-dressed “worshippers” sit in cushy seats and are entertained by praise bands belting out lively tunes on the stage. Alternatively, in some churches you can actually sit at a coffee bar in the lobby (The First Church of St. Arbucks?) and sip a latte and munch on a muffin while watching the proceedings inside on closed-circuit big screen TVs. Everything is designed for comfort and pleasure and yes, entertainment. Under such conditions a “Love Boat Spiritual Retreat” makes perfect sense. Eat, drink and be merry, meet a sister at the Christian singles bar, go to a few bible studies, and come home a few pounds heavier and spiritually renewed. What a deal!

By contrast, Orthodox worship is a bit less…”comfortable”. There are no cushy seats and none are needed, since Orthodox worshippers stand together as “a royal priesthood” through most of the services, offering their common prayer with one voice to God. There are no praise bands and no musical instruments at all, as the choir utilizes the instrument that God designed and made, the human voice, to intone ancient hymns written by illumined and holy hymnographers centuries ago. Coffee and muffins must wait until after the Divine Liturgy, since Orthodox faithful fast for an average of 12 hours before the service so that the very first thing to touch their tongues on Sunday morning will be the precious and life-giving Body and Blood of Christ. The emphasis in Orthodox worship is on, well, worship; the worship of the Almighty and Adorable God. Comfort and lively entertainment play no role in our scheme of things.

When Orthodox Christians feel the need for a personal spiritual retreat beyond what is normally offered within the life of the parish, they typically make a pilgrimage to a monastery or convent for a few days to pray and fast and associate with the holy men or holy women who have made such things their life’s work. Do Orthodox Christians ever take a plain old vacation or even go on cruises once in awhile? Of course they do; we aren’t Stoics. But at the same time we understand—through the ancient wisdom of the Ecclesia—that trying to turn all of life, including worship and needed times of spiritual renewal, into one long, entertaining party is a grievous error based on a terrible misunderstanding of man’s innate needs. I suppose such an error is the natural result of Christianity meeting the narcissistic, pleasure-loving culture of the Baby-Boomer generation. Maybe the next generation will swing the pendulum in the other direction, who knows? I know that we are seeing many young people converting to Eastern Orthodoxy these days in their search for a more authentic Christian experience.

If you love cruises, God bless you! If I had the extra money, I might try one. If you love sipping coffee and listening to the praise band during church, God help you! There is nothing evil in what you are doing, but it just isn’t worship no matter what you choose to call it. It may be emotionally uplifting and enjoyable to you. I would probably like it too. But after the service was over, I would be left wondering, “OK, now when do we worship God?” Something is missing and real needs are going unmet. Could it be time for modern Christians to listen to their forefathers in the faith and learn from them?

I wonder what the ascetic and Christian martyr St. Paul would say about the state of things today in modern Christendom? I doubt he would be impressed.


At 4/25/2006 6:16 AM , Anonymous Bruce said...

Father, Throughout Great Lent I did not listen to my car radio. But yesterday I opened this door (the radio). The radio programming itself is a bit much after being away from it for a season. I heard the same type of ad! Ouch!! It really hits one after approaching God in such a different manner as we do for a sustained period of time!


At 4/25/2006 8:13 AM , Anonymous Trenna said...

Father, Just as I was sitting down to read your blog, I was thinking, "wow, I am exausted, but in a really good way." I can see why after reading your concise description about what I have been trying to do for the last several weeks! Sadly, your observations about the contemporary Christian ideals are so true, it humbles me and brings tears to my eyes when I think of my dear Evangelical Protestant friends who hunger for God more than I do....I think "why us Lord?, why have You shown us such great mercy in leading us to Your Church, why did you give us eyes to see this?"
Mitch and I were discussing a good time this week to get together with one of our dear new godchildren, and he said "what about Wed. night since we don't have service?" We looked at each other sadly, realizing how much we will miss it.....The Ecclesia, in its wisdom, knows what we need to be fully human. Christ is Risen!

At 4/25/2006 5:05 PM , Anonymous Justin said...

Where has this Church been my whole life? Lord, have mercy!


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