Begin Within in Order to Move Out to Heal
To be an Orthodox Christian is to enter a history, to become part of a rich and full corporate life that stretches over two thousand years. I was reminded of this again, as often happens, in an alternative setting. We went to Vespers – the evening service of prayer and praise and psalms – at the Church we attend when on vacation in California. I stood there listening to the choir sing the familiar psalms of the Vesper service. While I listened, my fingers traced the words of our simplest yet profoundest prayer – kyrie eleison – in English “Lord have mercy.” As I traced my prayers on the intricate knots that make up the wrist bracelet we call a chotki, breathing in and breathing out rhythmically, I commemorated everyone in our congregation and in my circle of acquaintances in the Mesilla Valley, and all of the departed whom I uphold in my prayers.
Tears welled in my eyes at the serenity and the completeness of it all. Here I am, definitely a 21st century man, but immersed in this age-long history that embraces people of all cultures and conditions. On the walls of the church are icons of American saints – Herman of Alaska, Innocent of Alaska who became the Metropolitan of Moscow in later life, and John of San Francisco. Over there is Elizabeth the New Martyr, and here is Nina the Illuminator of Georgia, a woman who in her youth (in the fourth century) worked to convert an entire country. But I am also commemorating the saints here in the Mesilla Valley, the ones who are so intimately tied into my heart and our community in Christ.
Really, all people have every good reason to live ethically, to strive for justice and mercy on all levels of society, to care for the homeless and to soften the heartless. But if there is no core to our caring, no heart beneath our cordiality, no peace at our center, then we often simply run around trying to do good in order to make ourselves feel better, or superior to those “less fortunate.” My favorite saint, Seraphim of Sarov, said it best: “Acquire peace in the Holy Spirit and thousands around you will be saved.”
Frenetic activity will not save the world. During the height of the Vietnam conflict, Thomas Merton, a Roman Catholic monk, reminded folks that the task of the monk is to uphold the world through prayer. In Holy Orthodoxy, we consider this the task of every Christian, for whom our monks and nuns lead the way by their commitment and their intensity.
I can be as distracted and distorted by our culture as anyone else, but I know my limits and boundaries. I bind up what wounds I can, both mine and those of other people. I try not to inflict any further wounds on a hurt and vulnerable world. But I know that the true way to find healing and wholeness is to go inward, by descending through prayer and contemplation, and to bring the conditions and circumstances of the world before the fragile Presence. To fight for wholeness is a metaphor that speaks volumes about our wrongheadedness.
All of this is why Orthodox Christianity has focused on prayer and worship for its history. It is easy to get lost and to stray from that healing Presence, so we return again and again to that Presence – in silence, in speech, in song, in symbol and in sacrament. It’s the only way we know how to do it and in the end, frankly, we believe it’s the only way anyone can do it.
published 16 July 2010