Saturday, June 23, 2012

Reading does not equal expert...especially in the spiritual life

In our democratic society, everyone can claim to be an expert simply because they read something once on the subject.  I have no objection people to reading and becoming informed but to claim expert status in debate because of something they once read is laughable.  A humorous instance of this same phenomenon occurred fairly recently when Barack Obama said he knew more about Judaism than any other President because he has read about it.  If you  missed this story, you can read about it here.

Now, I'm a fairly well read person.  What am I an expert on?  Well, I teach Greek and Latin so I can say those areas with confidence.  I'm also an expert in Late Antiquity as that was the area of my post-graduate work, concentrating on the Latin West, though recently my emphases have shifted to the Greek East and the Eastern Roman Empire up to its fall.  But, I am no expert on the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire.  I wouldn't claim to be.  I can hold a rational discussion on the subject.  I have also read a lot about economics, even took a few classes in my college years and I probably know more about it than most journalists who write about the "debt crisis" in Europe and here, but I will not claim expert status.

Where am I going with this?  When I was received and chrismated into the Orthodox Church, I went through the catechism classes with my priest.  During that time I read a lot.  I'm a natural reader anyway so it wasn't a big deal.  I'm pretty sure that I also read more than most other catechumens do, but that's just the kind of person I am.  My priest was always recommending books to the people in the class.  Even when I attended a few of the catechism classes years later just to get a "refresher" my priest was still always recommending books to read and directing me, as bookstore manager, to make sure that we had these books available for purchase.  Rarely, if ever, did I ever hear my priest encourage catechumens to come and pray at Vespers or Orthros.  They came for Liturgy, which is important, but as my priest has told me in private conversation, people would know their faith so much better and practice it so much better if they would also come to Vespers and Orthros. Why he rarely brought this up I do not know.  Maybe he was afraid that it would appear as if he was "forcing them to go."  Again, I don't know.

When I'm invited to gatherings of parishioners, most of whom are about my age and are converts, we inevitably talk about the Orthodox Faith.  I suppose that's the zealousness which still lurks in us when we were catechumens and remains even after we were chrismated. That discussion usually centers around what books have been recently read or what podcasts have been listened to.  My thoughts are, "OK, you have this knowledge. Now what are you going to do with it?"  I can only imagine what would be the response if I actually posed that question?  "What are you going to do with this knowledge that you have acquired from this book?"

Such a question leads me back to something I have asked before on this blog: Is it more important to understand the Liturgy or to live the Liturgy?  I think most people would agree with me that it is the latter--to live the liturgy.  But, of course, detractors would say "How can you live the liturgy when you understand" which is new rendition of the old medieval contention:  Do I believe to understand (credo ut intellegam) which represents the Augustinian view or do I understand to believe (intellego ut creadam) which represents the Abelard view? 

I know people who can dissect the entire Liturgy and get into the Scriptural basis for each of the prayers or the historicity of them, but then they confess that they can never truly pray or they have difficulty doing so.  Many of these same people have been coming to Liturgy for a great while and still need the pew books to help them through the sequence.  They've got the Liturgy in their head, but it seems to be making a slow journey to the heart.

Don't get me wrong: I have no objections to people reading about the Orthodox faith.  But you can only truly know the Orthodox faith by experiencing it and living it and that starts by praying it.  I think we do a great disservice, especially for our catechumens, by systematizing the theology of the Orthodox church into book form and hoping that the prayer aspect will naturally take care of itself.  They may be great readers of Orthodoxy, but you hardly see them at Liturgy let alone the offices of Vespers or Orthros. I honestly have no idea how other priests do catechesis so my observations may be an anomaly.  What is the goal of catechesis then?  Is it to produce Orthodox experts or Orthodox faithful?  Should we know the whys and whens of the pronouncement, "Let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God" or should we actually do that?  I know that Orthodoxy is supposed to be a both/and phenomenon, but I think in this case an either/or approach may be better.

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