The Orthodox Church here in America faces a number of fairly pressing, and for better or worse, public problems. Reciting them at the moment serves no helpful purpose since the problems we are distressed with are in fact not the problem we face; what has got our attention are only the symptoms of a deeper problem.
Let me explain.
Often in our spiritual life God allows the enemy of souls to tempt us. Not infrequently, God will allow us to fall in the face of those temptations. But God never does this from malice. Rather our failure in spiritual warfare is meant for our salvation–typically to humble us.
How might God being humbling us? What might we be missing or overlooking in our shared life in Christ?
Thinking about the overall health of the Church here in America I realize by how little regard we have for simplicity. Looking back over the history of monasticism–both in the East and the West–I am struck by how often monastic leaders and reformers–Anthony, Benedict, Basil, Bernard, Francis, Dominic, Theodore, Sergius of Radonezh, Herman of Alaska, to name only a few in no particular order–have all stressed the centrality of poverty and humility in monastic life.
In a word, these great leaders in the spiritual life valued simplicity.
If monastic witness is essential to the health of the Church we might do well to listen to the witness that is offered to us down through the history of the Church. Here in America Church life–East and West, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical–is rarely characterized by economic, social or personal simplicity of life.
Instead Christians in America, of whatever tradition, are all too often rightly perceived as arrogant, triumphalistic and (and this is the real charge), WEALTHY. Our different Christian communities are divided theologically, but it seems we are united in our desire for more and more wealth and the many things (material and social) that wealth can purchase for us.
Lost in all of this is the mission of the Church: The salvation not simply of souls, but of the world. It is our great privilege and responsibility as Christians to return to God the world He has created and which, by our sin, we have defaced. Above all else, to be a Christian is to have accepted Christ call to be missionaries, to preach each in our own unique way “the Gospel to all creation” (compare, Mark 16.15). Our unparalleled material wealth, our politic freedoms, all of these are given to us by the Father through the Holy Spirit so that we can fulfill Christ’s command to us.
But we have failed to use wholeheartedly, generously, really sacrificially, what we have been give. This is why I think we in the Orthodox Church have to suffer scandals born of the rather petty desires of men. God is humbling us and calling us to repentance.
To say we are called to repentance is to say something that at least those who are professionally committed to Christ all already know. It is also to say anything we all can easily dismiss due to its lack of specific content. So let me play the fool and say that in the current situation our repentance must take the form of a simplification of Church’s life in both its personal and communal forms.
When I served in the Pacific Northwest I was often taken aback by the success of so-called non-canonical Orthodox groups. Reflecting on their success I have come to realize that–whatever else might have been the case–there was an integrity to their witness because of their relative poverty. Yes, there were a great number of other problems with all of these groups–but they embraced the very simplicity of life that I think is essential to the health of the Orthodox Church here in America.
This view, by the way, is not mine alone. It was first voiced by the late Fr Alexander Schmemann in series of essays published in the mid-1960’s (for an overview see Fr. Robert Arida’s”Problems of Orthodoxy in America: A Retrospective of Father Alexander Schmemann’s Analysis of Orthodox Spirituality In America“). In the third and final of these articles sub-titled “The Spiritual Problem,” Schmemann offers his solution to the problem I outlined above. He writes:
Finally the third essential dimension of the religious restoration in the parish is the recovery of its missionary character. And by this I mean primarily a shift from the selfish self-centeredness of the modern parish to the concept of the parish as servant. We use today an extremely ambiguous phraseology: we praise men because they “serve their parish”, for example. “Parish” is an end in itself justifying all sacrifices, all efforts, all activities. “For the benefit of the parish” . . . But it is ambiguous because the parish is not an end in itself and once it has become one—it is, in fact, an idol condemned as all other idols in the Gospel. The parish is the means for men of serving God and it itself must serve God and His work and only then is it justified and becomes “Church”. And again it is the sacred duty and the real function of the priest not to “serve the parish”, but to make the parish serve God—and there is a tremendous difference between these two functions. And for the parish to serve God means, first of all, to help God’s work wherever it is to be helped. I am convinced, and it is enough to read the Gospel just once to be convinced, that as long as our seminaries are obliged, year after year, literally to beg for money, as long as we cannot afford a few chaplains to take care of our students on college campuses, as long as so many obvious, urgent, self-evident spiritual needs of the Church remain unfulfilled because each parish must first “take care of itself”—the beautiful mosaics, golden vestments and jeweled crosses do not please God and that which does not please God is not Christian whatever the appearances. If a man says “I won’t help the poor because I must first take care of myself” we call it selfishness and term it a sin. If a parish says it and acts accordingly we consider it Christian—but as long as this “double standard” is accepted as a self-evident norm, as long as all this is praised and glorified as good and Christian at innumerable parish banquets and “affairs”, the parish betrays rather than serves God.
This is hardly new information is it? But it is Good News!
We need to commit our lives to Christ and in the current circumstances that means we must simplify our lives. God is humbling His Church and we would do well not only to understand that, but bring our lives into obedience with the simplicity of life that God has called us to live.