Informality. Formality and Spiritual Formation: More Thoughts from CAPS

Friday afternoon at CAPS I sat in a plenary session by Saul Cruz entitled “Hope and Healing through Care and Counsel to the Suffering in the World.” Together with his wife Pilar, Saul is co-director of Armonia Ministries. Together this husband and wife team ministry heir to the poor communities in both urban and rural areas in Mexico. Saul is by profession a psychologist and family therapist, and has also been a university lecturer.

Unfortunately because I had to take care of details for a funeral in my parish back in Canton, I was in and out of the presentation. One thing I did hear was the presenters argument that (I’m quoting from my notes):

Transformation require NOT that I solve your problem, but rather help you accept RESPONSIBILITY for your own life. In this process, I promise to walk along side you—but I cannot replace you in your own life. For example, if a mother brings me her children, I can’t raise her children for her—I can’t become their mother—but I can offer to help her accept and bear her responsibility for her own children.

The fruit if this approach (again, quoting my notes on the speaker’s presentation) is that “not only is the other person transformed, but I am transformed with them.”

Thinking about the informal approach popular among Evangelical Christians, I wonder, if something similar might be necessary with Orthodox missionary activity especially here in the US. My reason for asking this is that so few Americans have much background that lends itself to the Gospel in its fullness.

Unlike the New Testament and early patristic era, we seem to lack (or maybe more accurately, devalue) the great cultural touchstones of the ancient world, moral law and philosophy, that someone like St Justin Martyr saw as the two great preparations for Jewish and Greek acceptance of the Gospel. Large segments of those we would reach out to have little, if any, appreciation for philosophical reasoning (and indeed, this would include not a few Orthodox Christians among both the laity and the clergy). As for the moral law, if they think of it at all, many Americans see morality and natural law as oppressive and opposed to freedom, self-expression and self-determination (and again, this is so not simply generally, but also among many Orthodox Christian laity and clergy).

The value of a more informal approach in the current pastoral circumstances can be seen in two ways. First, there is the positive value of friendship in the spiritual life. To take only one example from the patristic era, there is the friendship of St Basil and St John Chrysostom. Each was able to support and encourage the other as he sought to do the will of God for his own life.

Spiritual friendship has deep roots not only in the tradition of the Orthodox East, but also the Catholic West. There is for example in the spiritual tradition of the ancient Celtic Church the notion of the “soul friend” or in Gaelic the anam cara. On his blog “ Soul Friend,” Chuck Huckaby writes that in “a culture steeped in the idolatry of individualism we call postmodernism, nascent attempts at creating community and godly order all too often tilt to the opposite extreme of cultic authoritarianism. In contrast, the “Soul Friend” seeks to build community and establish order based on the model of sacrificial servanthood, patient instruction and gentle admonition.”

Moving beyond the arena of Celtic Christianity, there is also the role of spiritual friendship in the monastic tradition—again both East and West. I mentioned above the example of Chrysostom and Basil, there is also the example of the 6 th century elders and saints Barsaniphus and John.

Moving to western monastic life, we have the example of the father of monastic life in the West St Benedict. Add to this, the example of Francis of Assisi and his companions as well as the life and ministry ofBernard of Clairvauxthe great monastic reformer and the work of one of his “spiritual sons,” the great English saint and author Ailred of Rievaulx who wrote, among other things, a treatise entitled “ Spiritual Friendship.”

Huckably’s point about “cultic authoritarianism” speaks to my rationale for a more informal approach to Orthodox outreach and evangelism. Looking back on my own personal and pastoral experience, I realize more and more the importance of robust tradition of both moral law and philosophical reasoning in the development of a health sense of self. Again both in my own early life and in my pastoral experience, the general cultural absence of these twin preparations for the Gospel leaves the developing self deeply wounded.

Switching if I may to a more clinical approach, the wounding of the self, or more accurately the sense of self, is part of who in the psychoanalytic tradition we understand the development of a personality disorder, or a character disorders. According to the American Psychiatric Association, personality disorders are characterized by “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the culture of the individual who exhibits it”.

Within the pastoral sphere, I often see people with avoidant personality disorder or (again to borrow from the APA): a “pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by four (or more) of the following:

  1. Avoids occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact, because of fears of criticism, disapproval, or rejection

  2. Is unwilling to get involved with people unless certain of being liked

  3. Shows restraint initiating intimate relationships because of the fear of being ashamed, ridiculed, or rejected due to severe low self-worth.

  4. Is preoccupied with being criticized or rejected in social situations

  5. Is inhibited in new interpersonal situations because of feelings of inadequacy

  6. Views self as socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others

  7. Is unusually reluctant to take personal risks or to engage in any new activities because they may prove embarrassing.”

Those who suffer from an avoidant style of relating to self and others often will look to the formality and structure of the Orthodox Church to serve in place of their own underdeveloped and wounded sense of self. In other words, rather than developing a healthy and robust sense of self, with all that implies about accepting one’s strengths and limitations as well as being responsible for one’s decisions, a significant minority of people look to religion.

In the case of the converts I’ve know this means that the look to the Church, and especially the liturgical /ascetical tradition of the Church, to offer externally the structure to their lives that should emerge from their own sense of self.

Because the Church, and especially her liturgical and ascetical praxis, serve as person’s ego (which again has been wounded), if the the formality of the Church’s tradition is not balanced with a more informal approach, we risk confirming and deepening the very deficient sense of self that has caused the person so much suffering in life. Or, to put it more directly, the weight of the Church’s tradition crushes already fragile sense of self.

This is why, I think, we often see such polemical defenses of their new tradition from many converts (and not just Orthodox Christians converts): The tradition has come to serve as the self and in those struggling with a personality disorder (unlike a more typical psychopathology such as depression) the fault for their own unhappiness is always external. And how could it be otherwise, since there is no healthy, internal sense of self that can bear the responsibility for their pain.

Again this I think is the great wisdom of the Evangelical Christian approach to ministry, outreach and evangelism in general and Saul Cruz’s own work in particular. Informality is I think a good beginning. It is not sufficiently certainly, we need to introduce and incorporate the person in to Great Tradition and this not only intellectually but also sacramentally. Why? Not only because of the wisdom of tradition and the objective importance of the sacraments for the life of faith, but for sound anthropological reasons. We need the Great Tradition, and especially its liturgical and ascetical witness, to develop the sound and wholesome view of self that many of us lack.

If people cannot bear a formal beginning—even if l the desire it like an addict does his drug—this does not mean we can forgo the formality of the Church. We cannot come to wholeness of being without the liturgical and ascetical tradition of the Church. If their cultural absence has made them seem foreign and deadly to us and so necessitates a more, indirect approach to the life of grace, this does not mean that the moral, philosophical, liturgical and ascetical elements of Tradition of the Church are optional. To think they are is to confuse sound, Christ-centered, spiritual formation with pedagogy.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


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