[To understand what this blog is, read this first.]
This actually happened quite a while ago. Due to the press of personal events I’ve been unwilling to drop much time into this project until now, so I’m mostly going from memory.
My mom had a free weekend and popped over to visit on Friday. She was going to be leaving Saturday evening or Sunday morning, I forget which, but she mentioned that perhaps we could pop over to the Orthodox church sometime and just go take a look. Not a service, mind you, just a tour. I told her that actually there would be a service the next morning, on Saturday, if she just wanted to go for a service. Bravely she decided to go ahead and do that.
When we got to church the next day we got a place and I showed her the service books, and how to follow along. She did a wonderful job of reading and keeping up; probably better than anyone else I’ve seen, myself included. I gave color commentary throughout, as I felt needed, and she had a few questions here and there. Afterwards we went downstairs to coffee hour and talked with some parishioners and our priest.
When we got home we talked about the experience over lunch. I’m sure there were many questions we discussed, but only two really stand out to me now after some time that I wanted to relay.
The first question was about the speed and style of the prayers prayed by our priest. Coming from a charismatic, evangelical background we are used to prayers that are both extemporaneous and delivered in a manner which is either conversational or “devotional”, if that makes any sense. The Orthodox practice of prayers which are written down, rather than thought up, is very off-putting for most low-church evangelicals who will feel them to be rote, mechanical, and lacking any personal feeling or importance. In addition our priest would move through many of the prayers at a fairly quick pace. To an evangelical this will feel like they are memorized rather than heart felt. This combination leaves most unprepared or casual seekers feeling that they’ve stumbled into a group of people who are worshiping with their lips, but not their hearts and minds, I’m sure. Certainly it has been that way for my mom and my oldest sister (who went to another service more recently).
Partly my response to that derives from discussions I’ve had with my priest, and partly my own experience. At this time I’ve been praying fairly standard morning and evening prayers for a long time. These prayers are written down and come from a long tradition of Orthodox prayers. They are not my own words, my own thoughts, or even really my own concerns that I would normally pray about. However, that seems to be somewhat the point. My prior prayer life was in a sense burdened down with trying to be unburdened. In an effort to make my prayers authentic I put special attention into making them unrehearsed and as close to normal conversation as I could, thinking this was properly developing my communication with God in a true relational fashion. The Orthodox Church asked me to put aside that affectation and consider that I had put the wrong emphasis on what prayer was supposed to be. Providing me with the prayers of past giants of the Church to pray, I began to learn to pray again. I learned what to pray about, and how to say things. No longer worrying about being unrehearsed and novel with each prayer, I could merely focus my being on the praise or supplication, without missing anything or minutely scrutinizing the exact wording. My prayer became more fluid and internalized. Strangely enough, reading the same prayer daily helped me to extend my prayer in new directions. I’ve also learned that the Orthodox Church prizes extemporaneous prayer, but doesn’t consider it a starting point. Master the daily rhythm of the morning and evening prayers, then maybe you’ll be ready to work on your own, but don’t try to run before you can crawl.
So what about the quick praying my priest does? Well, from his accounting the quick prayer both serves a purpose and is a result of the prayer discipline of the Church. By praying quickly the prayer becomes non-performance oriented, and helps those who are praying focus less on the word-by-word flow and more on the thought-by-thought flow. Repeating the prayer so frequently causes the prayer to become memorized and internalized, which makes it trip out over the tongue in a quick fashion that no longer requires deep introspective thoughts, which of course makes it faster. The one leads to the other, and back again, causing the prayer to both move faster and simultaneously become more embedded in your mind and heart.
The question is, where does that leave the person who is new to the Church? They don’t have the familiarity with the prayer to facilitate the speed and often do not have the proper mind set to appreciate that this quick delivery of written down or memorized prayer may even be a good thing. I’m not sure there are good answers for this, other than to trust the work of the Holy Spirit, be open and honest about what is going on, and try to be as welcoming to outsiders as possible to encourage them to spend the time to understand the services.
For a much better informed and smarter discussion of Orthodox prayer practices, listen to Father Tom Hopko at http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/personal_prayer.
The second question my mom had was regarding Mary. How did I know Mary would be the problem? 🙂 I expected my mom (and my oldest sister) to really have problem with the intercessory work of Mary and the language about that in the services, but what my mom stumbled over was the description of Mary as ever-virgin. This is a common struggle point for Protestants when they encounter Catholicism or Orthodoxy, so when my mom brought it up I began to walk her through the background story to Mary that she had never heard. Primarily I hit the high points of the Protoevangelion of James, noting that while it was not inspired Scripture it nonetheless represents the basic truth that was universally held by all Christians prior to the Reformation. She was quite taken with this alternate account of the life of Mary I think.
Evangelicals tend to think of Mary and Joseph as Romeo and Juliet. Star crossed lovers who run into a bit of a detour on the road to matrimony when Mary gets chosen to be the mother of God. This causes them some trouble, but after Jesus is born the marriage commences to work out in the normal fashion, with intercourse and additional children and so on. The story in the gospels is somewhat ambiguous, and without the historic understanding of the Church and input from the writings of the early fathers this is certainly one way to understand Scripture. There were a couple of hiccup points when she worked through certain scriptures that indicated that Mary and Joseph had no sexual relation “until” Jesus was born, but that is fairly standard apologetic material so I walked through the response to that and gave her some things to think about.
The important thing with the ever-virginity of Mary is to recognize that the Bible could be supportive of either version of the life of Mary, depending on how you choose to understand it. But when you introduce the historic and universal understanding of Mary in the early church you see that only one option remains viable, and that is that Mary and Joseph never had sexual relations, and Mary never had any other children other than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Without strong reason to doubt the early Christian understanding of the life of Mary, why would you insist on an alternate version?
As with any new information she is thinking it through. She was receptive to the alternate understanding, which is all I could ask. It’s a very small thing to change, seemingly, though it’s so dear to the Orthodox in their relationship with Mary and the source for certain theology they draw from it. Perhaps some day my mom will come to accept it as well. If nothing else it’s yet another divergence point that Protestants have with the historic church that leaves me more confirmed in the understanding given by the Orthodox Church.
For further excellent reading see: