One of the joys of becoming Orthodox has been to discover the “holistic” nature of the Orthodox faith. There is no area of life that is untouched by our religion. The Church blesses and prays for individuals from birth to death and beyond. Our eating habits, our approach to having children, our intellectual pursuits, our attitudes toward work and aging and illness – all are governed by the Scriptures and the teachings of the Fathers. We know that the weather, agricultural crops, scientific advances, and human relationships are all part of our good and loving God’s plan for his people, and we know that we must cooperate with him in the unfolding of his plan. Every moment of every life has a place in this plan.
Because we believe that “Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising” [Ps. 139:2], we cannot be “Sunday morning Christians”, compartmentalizing religion into a neat one-hour box that is set aside when we step back into the “real world” of every day living. Orthodox Christians also know that the “real world” includes not only crime in the streets, corporate greed, unpaid bills and sick children, but also that great company of saints who have lived this life before us and who pray for us in heaven. It includes the unseen angels, the messengers of God who are present both on earth and in heaven, doing the will of God and protecting us. As with so much in Orthodoxy, our view of “reality” is “both/and”, not “either/or”!
How can we more fully live the “holistic” Orthodox life? Here are some suggestions:
Live the Church year: The observance of the Church year is essential for the Orthodox Christian for, by following the Church’s yearly cycle of remembrances, we enter more completely into our Christian heritage. As we move from the anticipation of Christ’s birth and second coming in Advent to the establishment of the Church and its mission at Pentecost, as we rejoice in the example of the saints who have gone before us, and especially as we walk the way of our Lord’s Passion in Holy Week and experience the miracle of the Resurrection at the Paschal Vigil, our narrow perspective is corrected and we can more clearly see our lives in the broader context of God’s eternal plan.
Fasting times are necessary as a preparation for the great feasts; celebrating Name Days reminds us of our connection to our “patron” saints; participating in the customs of the seasons (dying eggs at Easter, having the house blessed at Epiphany…) reinforces the theological significance of these seasons.
At St. Gregory’s, we observe not only the Saturday (at 6PM Vespers) and Sunday (at 10AM Matins and 10:30 Sung Mass) celebrations, but we also have a Liturgy on the major festivals of the Church year that happen to fall on weekdays. If, because of work or family circumstances, you have to miss our corporate observance of one of these festivals, you can share in the celebrations by reading the appointed Scripture lessons (found in the Orthodox Missal on the proper page), singing the Office Hymn for that feast day (see the index in the back of the St. Ambrose Hymnal), or including petitions to the saint of the day in your prayers. (Each Sunday bulletin lists the saints’ days and holy days for the upcoming week, and calendars have been provided for each family.)
Pray regularly: St. Paul tells us to “pray without ceasing”[I Thess. 5:17]. This admonition is serious. Communication is essential to a good relationship. Husbands and wives must tell each other their feelings and thoughts if they are to maintain a healthy marriage; responsible parents teach their children about life by talking with them and listening to them; friends, colleagues – even heads of states – must communicate if we are to live in this world together. It is also essential for Christians to talk, through prayer, to God, and this needs to happen daily. Establishing a “Rule of Life” – a formal commitment to a daily routine of prayers at set times – is one way to make certain that prayer doesn’t become like the unkept New Year’s resolutions.
Daily prayers can be as elaborate as maintaining the complete monastic hours (seven a day, which include not only prayers, but also Psalms, antiphons, canticles, hymns, etc.) or as simple as praying the “Jesus Prayer” (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) while driving to work on the beltway. The monastic rule should not be undertaken without the guidance of a spiritual father, but there are many other possibilities. Some might want to borrow one of our Matins or Vespers pamphlets for use at home; others may choose to pray the Trisagion prayers found in the small red prayer book published by the Archdiocese. Another set form for daily prayer is the Angelus (or Regina Coeli during Eastertide) found in the Orthodox Missal.
To any of these set forms of prayer, we should always add our own personal petitions – intercessions for sick friends or family members; prayers for those on the parish prayer list in the bulletin; prayers for help with a particular problem; and always, prayers of thanksgiving for God’s blessings.
Whether our prayers are at the beginning of the day, just before bed at night, or somewhere in between, praying before an icon helps us to focus and direct our prayers more intentionally. The Orthodox Church fought to protect the Christian understanding of the Incarnation, and praying before an icon of Christ is a constant reminder of the truth that God became man like us in order to save us.
Study the faith continually: All of life is a learning process. As we progress through it, we get occasional glimpses of the truth and we sometimes have brilliant moments of understanding, but we can never sit back and feel that we know it all. And if we think this is true of our individual fields of study or occupation, it is even more obvious about the tools of our faith. The Bible – a “lamp unto our feet” [Ps. 119:105] – a guide book for wending our way through the mine fields of life – is so rich in content that every scholar who has ever spent a lifetime studying it knows that he has only scratched the surface. In it we can find comfort in affliction, encouragement in despair, correction against error, joy in the stories of God working in the world.
But how can we read the Scriptures if we have no one to interpret? the Ethiopian eunuch asked of St. Philip, who proceeded to interpret for the man and baptize him into the Christian faith [Acts 8:26ff]. We also need interpretation so that we do not rely solely on our own limited abilities to understand the meaning of Scripture. The reason that thousands of different groups of people, believing and practicing different things, can all call themselves “Christian” is because so many have depended on themselves alone for scriptural interpretation. It is essential that Orthodox Christians study the writings of the Fathers, especially those of the early Church who learned from the Apostles or their students. It is this reliance on tradition (and refusal to be innovative) that has allowed the Orthodox Church to maintain the faith of those early Christians, and Orthodox Christians must study and know the faith in order to protect this precious heritage and pass it on to others.
Strive to be an icon of Christ in the world: To be a Christian is to be at odds with the world. Over and over again in Holy Scripture, we read our Lord’s warnings: “In the world ye shall have tribulation” [John16:33] and “my kingdom is not of this world” [John 18:36]. But Orthodox Christians also believe that God created the world and everything in it and that he “saw that it was very good”. [Gen. 1:31] We know that we must love the world and recognize it as God’s creation.
We remember that God gave man dominion – not domination – over the earth. We are responsible for good stewardship of the earth so we work for the protection and preservation of the earth’s resources, but we guard against the sin of worshiping nature itself.
We believe that man is God’s highest creation, that we are made in the “image and likeness of God” [Gen. 1:26] Orthodox Christians, therefore, place a high value on reverence for human life, rejecting certain of the world’s practices (such as abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia) as contrary to the will of God. We venerate the relics of the saints, recognizing their continued holiness and special healing attributes. We know that, as St. Paul said, our bodies are temples and we must use them for God’s glory.
We believe that the home is a microcosm of the Church and that it is in the context of family life that we struggle for sanctification. Orthodox couples will remember that their marriage is likened to the marriage between Christ and his bride, the Church. Orthodox parents will teach their children, by words and example, how to live a Christian life, and believe that the father is the priest of the family who, like Christ himself, would lay down his life for them. Single Orthodox Christians will strive to lead a life of purity following the example of numerous saints. And all of us – whether living singly or in families – will support one another and join together for worship as a larger family, related by our common bond of baptism.
As Orthodox Christians, we strive to see God’s goodness in other people, treating all with kindness and generosity, but we do not hesitate (out of a distorted desire for “tolerance”) to speak the truth. Instead of valuing “diversity’ above all else, we strive to discern the narrow path to Heaven through the Name which is “above all other names” [Philippians 2:9].
And finally, as Orthodox Christians, we know that we must share our faith with others. Orthodox evangelism has had to be adapted to the circumstances of time and place through the centuries (from the days of persecution and martyrdom in the early Church, through the triumph of the Church as it spread throughout the world, to years of repression under non-Christian rule and Communism). While the Orthodox Church supports mission work among all peoples, we abhor the approach of some who take advantage of poverty and link financial assistance to conversion. Whether we can share our faith in secret only or we have the freedom to advertise and hold services publicly, the most effective means of evangelism is to lead the Christian life fully, to show the love of God to others as a bright light in the darkness.
May God give us grace, by these means and others, to more fully experience the holistic life of Orthodox Christianity and to share the joy of that life with others.