Still Learning

imageI haven’t posted in a little while and I guess the reason is that I’m going through the Orthodox learning curve. For a few years I kept a Catholic blog and had the routine pretty well in hand; keeping up the thing had gotten pretty easy. Right after I decided to try an Orthodox blog and set up An Easterly Direction

Even so, I know I’m not yet Orthodox, I have a lot to learn and to experience before I can make that claim. I expect, at times, to write things that either sound dumb or are just plain mistaken according to Orthodox teachings. But, I’m learning and it helps me to learn to try to think things through on “paper”, so to speak and I hope you’ll bear with me. The freeing thing, for me, though is that I can continue to write here not only about my journey to Orthodoxy but also about other things I’m interested in and enjoy writing about; there’s really no reason I can’t do that here. Being Orthodox doesn’t mean being cut off from the rest of the world.

In fact, one of the first contrasts I noticed about Orthodoxy, as compared with Catholicism, is that, unlike Catholicism, it seems much more open to ideas. When I first went to the Orthodox book store/coffee shop here, I immediately noticed books by both C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. I was a bit shocked because, if you were to go into a Catholic bookstore you would not see books by more modern Orthodox writers like, perhaps Schmemann or Frank Schaefer, or even Frederica Matthewes-Green; in a certain sense, Catholicism is a bit of a closed system. I think that’s a shame; I loved C. S. Lewis as a Protestant and had read nothing of his in the 20 or so years since I became Catholic. I think that’s kind of sad thought truth can’t be sought where ever it can be found. It’s one of the things I really, really like about Orthodoxy.

Anyway, the point is, I’ll try to be a little more regular in posting here and I ask your patience while I figure out the way ahead for the blog.

Posted in A Journey, Blogs and Blogging, Lessons Learned, Personal Experience, Tradition | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Do You See What I See?

imageOK, I know it’s not Christmas anymore, but I had to use the title; read on and maybe you’ll understand.

On Friday night, we stopped by the coffee shop run by our Orthodox parish and the priest from the parish was there, as usual, working as the barista. We hadn’t spoken to him in a week or two and the coffee shop was actually kind of busy, so we didn’t get much chance to really talk. He asked us if we were still interested in Orthodoxy, we were, and he also asked a question that took me by surprise and left me slightly at a loss for words. He asked, “what are you seeing?”

Had he said, what do you think? I might have been able to give him an answer instead of mumbling something more or less nonsensical and not really answering his question. I’m still not sure I can provide a sensible answer to the question and I can think of a number of reasons for that.

First, thinking back on the question, I wasn’t sure if he meant it literally or figuratively. I took it literally in that I thought he was asking what we saw at Church. I guess that’s what threw me for a loop, the Orthodox liturgy and vespers are so different from anything I’m used to, my senses are still overwhelmed by the experience. It’s hard to describe, much less make real sense of. Services in an Orthodox parish involve every one of your senses, sights, sounds, smells of incense, touch, hearing, the whole nine yards. Just standing for anywhere from 45 minutes to nearly 2 hours eventually dulls my capacity to notice much of anything except the pain in my feet. Not that I’ve been able to stand during an entire 2 hour Divine Liturgy, but even making the attempt is a painful experience.

I can say, I see a liturgy that is obviously ancient, there’s no compromise with modern sensibilities and preoccupation with comfort and convenience; there’s little attempt to make it enjoyable or entertaining, that’s not the idea. I hadn’t realized how much the Catholic Mass after Vatican II had made such compromises, but I see it attending Divine services. In an Orthodox Church, you stand out of reverence for God, there’s little direct, or maybe obvious is a better word, participation by the congregation but still, it’s apparent those in attendance are part of a worshiping congregation, not an audience. There may or may not be a homily or sermon because that really isn’t the point of attending Orthodox services; the point is to worship God in the Eucharist.

One other, incidental, thing I see in the parish I’m attending, is that there are a lot of young and young(er) people there, more than I think you’d see in the typical Catholic parish. I don’t know if that’s my imagination or not, but if true, I’d conclude that this indicates that by not catering to modern cultural whims and attitudes, orthodoxy is able to strike a chord that young people are still able to respond to. I think that’s something few people in our society are willing to admit, or are even capable of understanding.

So, that’s brief summary of what I’m seeing. The truth is, though, I’ve only described the surface of things and haven’t touched the depths of what’s really going on. To do that I have to answer the question I might have expected from Father A when we saw him on Friday. What I’m thinking is we are much closer to what we have been looking for for a long time. When we began the search that ended in our joining the Catholic Church, our primary objectives were to find a Church faithful to everything that represents the truest and best of Christianity and to find a Church that didn’t change with the wind, trying to conform itself to whatever happened to be popular or politically correct at the moment. For all the blank spots in our understanding so far, I think we’ve found that in the Orthodox Church. I think I’d like to keep going in our quest.

So, maybe it’s fair to say that what I see and what I think, so far, is that the Orthodox Church is one that is obviously very ancient and, as far as we’re concerned, fits the bill.

So, I know it’s not Christmas but sometimes it sure feels like it.

Posted in Conversion, Culture | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

What Year was That?

1957 Beetle 2

My VW was just like this one

Who can remember their sixteenth birthday? I barely do, probably wouldn’t except for the fact that on that March day or within a couple of days of it, I took my drivers test to get my license. I’m pretty sure it was as close to the day as I could have made it. I took it, on a cold, snowy March day, probably in my 1957 Volkswagen beetle, with all of 36 hp and sheet metal similar to what they made tanks out of. In Michigan, you had to go to the nearest police station, for me the one on Conner and Gratiot, and bring paperwork, I think proof of having taken the training, a car, and in my case, my mother, who never drove a day in her life. I’m not sure how we got down there to the station since I don’t remember my father being there; he was probably working because it was around 3 or so in the afternoon.

We went through the formalities inside the station and some big, gruff cop was the poor schmuck assigned to administer the test. I wasn’t at all sure I’d make the grade, especially because I wasn’t at all sure how I’d get him in the car. Thinking about it though, I realize my mother was probably left behind to wait in the station while we went out for our drive and the old VW was actually pretty roomy and easy to get into, as far as the front seats were concerned. Anyway, despite what I remember to be nearly blizzard conditions, we went out for our ride and 20 minutes or so later, I was a newly licensed driver in the great state of Michigan. I remember being a little nervous for the test but not overly so, I was sure I was a pretty good driver. Now, looking back on it, I’m quite sure the fact that I took it in my trusty ’57 V dub, already a vehicle with much experience, painted a funny beige color, was a major contributing factor. Had I taken it in, say a new Ford Falcon Sprint, the one with the 260 cu. in V8 and straight line acceleration out the wazoo, I’d have been very tempted to show off and, therefore, failed the test. No question about it, those 36 hp saved my bacon.

What else do I remember about that day? Truth be told, very little. It was early in 1963, several months before President Kennedy was shot and before Pope John XXIII died. The Cuban Missile crisis was five months in the past and although that event made me realize that very soon I’d probably either be drafted or have to join the service, and that that might mean actually seeing combat, that fear was passed by March of ’63. Life was pretty good.

I don’t remember what songs were popular early in 1963, probably Surfin’ USA by the Beach Boys and He’s So Fine by the Chiffons, the big news is that the Beatles were still nearly a year away from their first hit record in the US. I had just started high school and was probably attending the East Side Design and Engineering School after high school classes in order to really get into the mysteries of mechanical drawing and design. I was just beginning to give some thought to what kind of career I might get into, the odds were high I’d end up a tool and die maker, just like my father. Learning as much about mechanical design and drawing would help me land an apprenticeship if things worked out that way.

It was a very different time, comparing then to now. I didn’t become a tool and die maker, thank God, and I haven’t owned a VW beetle in 30 years or more, but I owe that car a debt of gratitude. The thing was about as uncool as any car could possibly be, and most of my friends in high school spent a good deal of time laughing at me whenever I drove it, but of all the things that happened to me in March of 1963, it’s that car that sticks out in my mind. Who woulda thunk it?

(Note — I try to write about 800 to 1,000 words per day and sometimes I like to use the WordPress Daily Prompt to help me get going.  This is something I wrote today in response to a prompt a couple of days ago.  I may post these exercises of mine from time to time, just to vary the content of the blog.)

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/daily-prompt-sixteen/

Posted in Personal Experience, Uncategorized, Writing Practice | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Polite Company

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe other night I was looking for a writing prompt to get the old creative juices flowing and came across one about discussing religion and politics in polite company, especially with strangers, and whether or not raising such topics was a good idea. I wrote down some stray ideas but didn’t come to any satisfactory conclusions, except that discussing politics with anyone these days is never a good idea. I thought I was done with the topic but it keeps coming back to me, so this is a further working out of some these thoughts on the matter. I still don’t think I’ve come to any satisfactory answers, but perhaps someone might come across this and be able to fill in the blanks.

The reason I don’t like discussing politics with anyone, not even strangers is because minds are made up, or rather, opinions are set in stone. There isn’t any longer any common background among people in the country that grounds the discussion in some core set of principles. Unlike the situation that prevailed in the U.S. until the end of the 1940s, the common Christian culture wasn’t openly called into question. It was assumed that prayers to the Christian God would be prayed in schools and before the opening of Congress. After that, not so much. And there’s nothing to replace it in the way of supporting moral, virtuous behavior among the people. Nor is there any educational background in classic philosophy and theology to provide a basis for discussion. In other words, one persons idea, however ill informed or poorly thought out is considered to have the same authority as Plato or Aquinas, or anyone else for that matter. Intellectual anarchy prevails and in that kind of situation, there’s no point in having a political discussion. There’s no changing of anyone’s mind.

Religion on the other hand, presents a slightly different picture. I think one result of what’s happened as a result of the every worsening political and cultural situation is there is some underlying hunger for Truth and some level of sub-conscious recognition that that Truth must be found in the spiritual realm. The ever growing interest in eastern religions, meditation, yoga, etc is certainly an indication of it. But I’ve seen some personal signs of it too when I bring up my journey eastward.

Every once in a while, in the past, I’ve tried to bring up the subject of faith when talking to friends. I’ve done this both as a Presbyterian and even more as a Catholic. In most cases, the atmosphere grows chilly and my discussion partner quickly finds some way or other to change the subject. It’s obvious they just don’t want to talk about it. But, in the four or five times I’ve mentioned growing interest in Orthodoxy, the reaction’s been different — people have actually been a little bit willing to let the discussion go on. My wife has had the same experience; in one case even getting a chance for a second discussion and having the person even ask some questions. Now, I’m no John the Baptist, I don’t go crying out in the wilderness, so this is an unusual and unexpected experience, to be sure.

Why the difference?

There’s a few reasons I can think of. First, curiosity. Orthodoxy is strange, quite unfamiliar to most people. I think it’s perceived as being exotic, not something you read or hear about every day. It’s natural that, if you bring up a novel topic for discussion, people get interested. When that topic is something within the spiritual realm, their interested in piqued even more, and their open to going a little deeper.

Second, both Protestant and Catholic Christianity carry a lot of baggage. Both imply a certain level of judgement against the sinner. The common conception is that, if one becomes a Protestant or Catholic, from that point on life as we know it stops. The future holds nothing but a diet of bread and water and contemplates never being able to laugh or do anything fun again. A Christian is a dull, sad, person. Orthodoxy carries none of that baggage; nobody knows anything about it.

I’m inclined to think that this represents a real opportunity for Orthodoxy, but when I consider that, I see it’s putting too much of a marketing spin to the thing. What it does represent is an opportunity for some to find an easy way into Christian faith. If there is the real spiritual hunger out there, and if both Protestant and Catholic Christianity, might not Orthodoxy provide a new way into the Church?

Conclusions?

Well, concerning politics, I never discuss it with strangers and try to limit discussions even with friends. I hate talking about it. About religion, I’ve been really surprised how relatively easy it’s been to discuss religion when the topic is Orthodoxy but I’m not at all sure where it leads.

Questions?

The question that has me stumped is, what exactly might this openness to Eastern Christianity really mean, both for me and for Orthodoxy? I know Orthodoxy isn’t in the business of just growing numbers, it’s much more about individual repentance, and so what does this mean? Should I even think about it as some sort of opportunity for me or for the Church? I don’t know, do you?

Posted in Conversion, Orthodox Saints, Orthodoxy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Who’s a Wimp?

Abba PoemanThere’s a Catholic blog titled Diary of a Wimpy Catholic and I’ve often wished I’d thought of that title because I was a really wimpy Catholic. Oh, I managed pretty much to stick with eating fish on Fridays during Lent and tried to do that on most of the rest of the Fridays of the year, with less success. But, truth be told, I usually took full advantage of the excusal from the fasting rules in Catholic tradition provided for those who are over a certain age, which I certainly am. I still suffer from having grown up being a Presbyterian, part of a church that actively frowns on such things as fasting and abstinence, or anything else that smacks of trying to earn your salvation through a works mentality. Yet, here I am thinking about becoming Orthodox, of joining a Church that encourages fasting for nearly 6 months out of the year. What am I thinking?

When I first read what the Orthodox idea of fasting is, my first reaction was, “C’mon man!! You gotta be kidding!” Nobody does that kind of thing anymore, do they? I mean, Carthusians might, but everybody knows they’re a little off. How could any Church expect people to go with what amounts to being even more vegan than the vegans? Do people really do that? This could be a deal breaker.

But, apparently, they do. One way I know this is that, after doing a web search on fasting, I found a number of cookbooks full of recipes suitable for use during the fasts. That would indicate somebody’s doing it. Also, there are several sites offering guidance for when, why and how to fast, another indication that there’s an audience for such things. I was getting worried, could I really do this?

Then, I began to think about it and about where I am in my spiritual journey. One thing these strict fasting rules show is that to be Orthodox is to take your faith seriously. In order for people to deny themselves like this, they either have to be nuts, or see something in their Church that I haven’t seen before. They see that this faith of theirs is worth some self-discipline and self-sacrifice. That’s something I’ve been searching for, and for a long time, but haven’t found; finding that kind of thing, something worth dying for, was what inspired us to look into the Catholic Church in the first place. But the Roman Church makes it quite easy to avoid such things, especially to those, like me, who tend to a certain lack of self discipline. It struck me how truly unique this kind of faith is today. There must be something to any faith that can inspire their followers like that.

It’s easy to read the typical rationale behind fasting and why it’s a good thing to do. You know the usual explanations; it leads one to true spiritual growth and union with God. It’s necessary to live the Christian life, is done in commemoration of Jesus’ betrayal on Wednesdays and his Crucifixion on Fridays, and helps us to learn to control things in our lives that we don’t often try to control. Those are all true and helpful to remember. But for me, the thing that makes me want to at least try to follow these rules is the example of living out their faith, the willingness to sacrifice their own pleasures and comfort, that is most impressive. For them, it’s real and I want a part of that. That’s all I need to know.

So, I may be a wimp and may fail in my attempts to fast like a real Orthodox, but I’m going to give it my best shot. Oh, one more thing, this blog will not be named, Diary of a Wimpy Orthodox, not if I can help it.

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Be Crucified

St Isaac of Syria“Be crucified, but do not crucify others.” St Isaac of Syria

[When I run across a quote from a saint that inspires me, I like to share it, usually without comment. I think letting the saints speak for themselves is usually best, so I'll be doing more of these in the future.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.]

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Secret Destinations

Beginning the Journey“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” So says Martin Buber. I don’t normally agree with the man, but this time I feel like he’s describing the journey my wife and I’ve set out on. It feels like before we started this path, we knew where it would take us. The more steps we take down it, however, the less I feel like that. Not that anything exotic or strange has happened, we’ve followed the steps recommended by Fr Anthony, beginning to spend more time with our Orthodox parish community by attending vespers and the Divine Liturgies, and, on Wednesday we were to attend our first Orthodoxy 101 class, but it was cancelled since Fr Anthony was ill. We are experiencing the trials and physical demands entailed in Orthodox worship and struggling to meet them. In that respect, I think we both really wish we had come East much earlier in life; being in you’re mid-60s doesn’t make this any easier. We do our best.

We have also met with Fr Anthony, our priest, one on one, and were able to ask him some of the more important questions we had, which he answered satisfactorily, to say the least. This, in itself, is a bit strange for us; I think over the last month or so, I’ve spent more time talking to him than to all the Catholic priests I’ve met over the last 18 years or so. Still, all this represents the first steps on the journey.

That said, it seems like there’s a long road ahead. My impressions of Orthodoxy are that it’s a very different matter, becoming Orthodox, than what we went through on our way into the Catholic Church. In that process, we attended classes for about 8 or 9 months, learned some key things, did our first reconciliations and communion, received Confirmation, and that was that, we were on our own. That’s a simplification, but essentially the truth. I already sense that, when and if we are admitted to the Orthodox communion, we won’t be on our own again. It’s quite a culture shock.

I can also say I think for a person to become Orthodox requires more than anything else conversion; a true, deep, heartfelt, conversion, taken as a profound change of heart. In other words, it isn’t something external, a matter of satisfying certain requirements; it’s a matter of being a different person at the end than you were in the beginning. In that sense, it’s an intimidating prospect; a journey to a secret destination of which I am only vaguely aware.

That’s the present. Looking ahead for this blog, I can offer a warning. I’m fairly sure that over the next year or so, I’ll probably offer much nonsense concerning Orthodoxy and my growing understanding and conversion. I’m not a theologian, or even a deeply spiritual writer to begin with, and trying to write about something so different to anything I’ve experienced will likely compound whatever issues arise from those failings. I ask you to bear with me. I also ask, if I write something particularly stupid or, even more, just plain wrong, feel free to correct me and set me on the right path. I’d appreciate any help you can give.

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Merry Christmas

imageI wish you all a very blessed Nativity celebration.

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The Start of the Journey

imageI’m a Catholic convert; it’s been 20 years since I came into the Church after roughly 5 years in a Presbyterian church in Texas. The thing that drove that conversion was that both the local and national Presbyterian churches were being infected, I might say taken over, by all the decadence in the surrounding culture. I realized that I could no longer be Presbyterian and my wife and I began searching for a church with the moral and theological strength to withstand what was happening. Through a series of events that transpired quite rapidly, we discovered that the most likely candidate was Rome and so we made the leap.

Fast forward 20 years and we find ourselves with something of the same problem. It seems evident to us that, with the election of Pope Francis things may change. From what he’s said and written he intends to open the Church to more acceptance of things, such as communion for divorced Catholics and allowing bishops much more authority over matters of faith and doctrine in their dioceses, heretofore unacceptable. I can’t help but wonder if I made a mistake and my whole concept of what the Church was was wrong. I remarked to my wife, when reading about Francis’ wish to allow bishops greater leeway over doctrinal matters, that it sounded to be a lot like Orthodoxy. As soon as I said it, a light went off — what was Orthodoxy?

As I do whenever I’m in need of completely accurate, absolutely solid intellectual knowledge, I headed to the Internet and began reading. I’d always been interested in Orthodox writings on prayer and spirituality, and interested in both the Church and Desert Fathers; I thought both very attractive even before I became Catholic. But in my quick reading, I also began to get a little different understanding of the Church and, especially, what happened in 1054 AD and how that split was viewed in the East. As the old German soldier on Laugh-In used to say, I found all this “veddy interesting!” I decided to investigate further. Within a few days, I’d called Fr Anthony, priest at the local Orthodox parish and proprietor (I believe) of the very popular coffee shop and bookstore run by the parish, and arranged a meeting. We’ve already attended our first Great Vesper service and, yesterday I attended my first Divine Liturgy. I think we have taken our first steps in the journey Eastward.

This blog is meant to be a journal, the story, of that journey. I can’t say we’ll see it through to the end; there’s much to learn and to experience before that will be clear. I will say that however far we go, I hope this blog will document what happens on the road, the ups and downs, good weather and not so good weather, smooth road and rough mountain passes, and, perhaps, serve as a guidebook for others thinking of taking this same road.

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