The disadvantage most American converts to Orthodoxy have is that we were not born into an Orthodox culture that pertains in the old countries. This poses a twofold issue: on one hand, we don’t want to replicate the cultures of an old country in a given parish; and therefore, on the other hand, we must work to develop an American Orthodox culture.
These issues are soluble only by experiment. As we continue to strive toward an American Orthodox Church, the Holy Spirit will reveal to us the direction we must take to achieve a fullness that is not now ours.
Meanwhile, how can we achieve an Orthodox culture? Here are ten basic practices observed almost universally in the Orthodox world. I am assuming regular church attendance and a practice of daily prayer; these are basic to personal spiritual life and to building community.
First, when entering the church building, you cross the threshold that separates “the world” from the Christian community. Different rules apply in the church from without. Inside is not a dog-eat-dog world; it is a world of “peace and repentance,” as we say in our prayers. So take your time entering church. Say a short prayer, like “I will enter into your house, singing aloud a song of your praise.” Venerate the icon of our patron, get your candles for prayers, and come forward to venerate the icon of the week, the Christ icon and the Theotokos icon. Venerate each one with prayer. Don’t just slip in and take a seat as quickly as you can. Develop the habit of entrance prayer.
Second, use the prosphora provided at the back of the church. I can bake more as we develop the habit of commemorating relatives living and departed, anniversaries, and the like with them. Remember that all donations collected go to the orphanages we support in the Ukraine.
Third, consider having a panakhida or litiya served for departed relatives. All I ask is that they be Christian, not necessarily Orthodox (although there are churches which do not offer prayers for the departed unless they are Orthodox). Prayers for the Departed are a big part of traditional Orthodox culture. They show your hope for the resurrection and your belief in intercessory prayer.
Fourth, attend as many services as you can. Begin with Vespers. You have heard me stress that Sunday runs from Saturday night through Sunday afternoon. Vespers is part of our Sunday Liturgy. Think about that.
Fifth, don’t miss out on special practices like House Blessings, Candlemas, prayers for travelers, and so forth. These are part of the fabric of Orthodox culture. They help to keep us focused on faith.
Sixth, observe as best you are able the fasting periods of the church. Struggle with the regulations, but do try to work your way into observance on the level of the heart, not merely the mouth. It’s the heart that’s important. There are medical dispensations available, if you need them, but please try.
Seventh, our practice of Confession, or lack thereof, requires extensive comment. I may have sinned here by stressing, in the past, that confession and communion are not tied together, on the good word of Fr Schmemann.
Fr Alexander Schmemann, great teacher of the American church, said that if you prepare yourself through participation in liturgical services you are ready for communion. What we may have forgotten is that these liturgical services include the Prayers before Communion that are in our prayer book on pp. 41ff.
Our confessional practice is not what it might be. Frankly, confessional practice in the US is all over the map, almost non-existent in some jurisdictions but essentially mandatory every week prior to receiving communion in others.
Our Ukrainian Church calls for four confessions a year, one during each fasting season (prayer book, p. 390). Our Hierarchs know this is a compromise.
We need a way to think about confession that removes it from either the non-entity it was for Protestants or the task it was for Roman Catholics, if those are our background. Protestants gave up the practice, but in many churches (Lutheran, Episcopal) general confession and absolution replaced individual confession and remains in effect today.
In Roman Catholicism it became a task, and often degenerated into an obligation with no real depth. That’s because the RC church turned to a juridical rather than a healing model – forgiveness as legislation rather than as healing.
Let’s repent of this. Begin to think of confession not as erasing moral peccadilloes, but rather as an opening for spiritual growth. God knows we talk big in our church about theosis, our term for sanctification. But theosis is not automatic! It is not osmosis. You don’t absorb it; you have to work at it.
When I confess to a brother priest or to my bishop, I work on deep issues in my life that initially seem intractable. The passions throw us off the path and we must work to overcome them. Everyone is afflicted with issues of the passions. The church is a hospital for the (spiritually) poor and the sick, not a spa for the wealthy or well. It is no blot on your reputation to use confession. Confession is a tool for everyone.
Remember that your priest is under the confessional seal. I tell no one what you tell me in confession – including pani-matka. These matters are between you and God, “and I am only the witness.”
Confession in the presence of a priest brings stuff to the surface that remains unresolved if you just “confess directly to God.” To hear the word of forgiveness is a relief and a release – a relief because you are not simply telling yourself what you hope God is saying; and a release because an external word frees you for a new way to walk.
Although Metropolitan Constantine – of blessed memory – discouraged the practice, we use the Service of Repentance on occasion to confront us with “sin that lies crouching at the door” generally, and to receive forgiveness.
Eighth, ask a blessing. When you ask a blessing or kiss the priest’s hand you do not honor the priest, but the Christ who comes through his ministration. No priest views the kissing of the hand as a comment on his personal worth!
When I go to seminary, all the seminarians line up immediately, cross their upraised hands, right palm on top of left, and ask a blessing. Most of them are from the Ukraine and Romania, and they grew up with this. It is unaffected, unfeigned, and a genuine seeking of blessing from God. Believe me, I know that this initially feels forced and artificial but it grows on you with time as you grasp the inner meaning of the gestures.
You may also ask to have objects that you use with and for prayer blessed, as well, like icons and crosses. Usually we place these on the altar over a weekend and bless them with prayer and holy water.
Ninth, strengthen your communion practice in terms of both frequency and surrounding prayer.
Tenth, consider a visit to a monastery each year. This greatly enhances your prayer life, your morals, and your spirituality in general. You may also be able to find a spiritual father or mother through monastic visitation.
Increasing your practice in these ten areas strengthens your faith. These are not just “externals.” Faith is whole cloth; the behavioral side to faith relates to the internal side. Traditional Orthodox cultures know this at heart, but it is a truth we have to learn and trust as American Orthodox.
your unworthy servant, Fr Gabriel