“… Meditate On These Things” Philippians 4:8
A reflection on my recent trip to Lebanon…
There is no greater reality check than real experience. This thought has been on my mind ever since I began planning my trip to Lebanon for the consecration of our Bishop ANTHONY and the other two new auxiliary bishops of our Archdiocese. Initially and admittedly this thought was a source of fear; the fear of experiencing something different, challenging what my preconceived and self-convinced notions have been telling me for many years. As God’s Providence has allowed, it was truly my blessing to see the Mother Church of Antioch first hand. I’m sure we all agree that it is good for us to be stretched physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. I guess this was my time and I am so grateful to everyone who supported my travel in one way or another.
I will not be so bold as to over-generalize and say that all Americans, and anyone affected by the spirit of western culture, are presumptuous and autonomous. I do believe, however, that self-governance, whether collectively as a nation or as a matter of personal self-determination, leaves men dangerously subject to the temptations of individuality, isolation and self-praise. The truth of the matter is that the very air of western culture is permeated with the “dogmas” of individuality and self-determination, and anyone raised in it or living under its influence cannot help but breathe it.
The majority of my thoughts have turned (not surprisingly) to matters of faith and the life of Orthodox Christians in the Church. I am still sorting through my first experience, as brief as it was, of indigenous Orthodox Christianity. The cornerstone of St. Ignatius Church, Madison, WI, reads “2004.” The church where the consecrations took place was built in the 12th century. Our St. Ignatius Church has yet to raise one generation of Orthodox Christians while Holy Dormition Church at the Balamand Monastery has raised dozens of generations within her walls. This one thought alone speaks volumes to my soul and my conscience. Hopefully it does to yours as well.
As I stood before the Patriarch of Antioch, preparing to present my friend for consecration to the Office of Bishop, I couldn’t help but think of how unprepared I was to be standing in this place, a place of deep holiness and history. I wondered to myself how many pious and reverent priests had stood in this spot, and for the first time in my life I saw directly the order of my Church, from the headship of the Patriarch, to the Synod of Metropolitans, to the priests and deacons, to the chanters, and to the body of the laity standing in prayer, all part of a great tapestry, each important in their own way, ordered and yet equal, individual yet incomplete without the other, a father and his children yet brothers one and all. I do not wish to romanticize this experience by imposing upon these people any expectations of perfection. That would be unfair to those involved, and I in no way would want to allege that the Orthodox Christians of Lebanon of think they are somehow standard-bearers for the Church. In fact I felt quite the opposite. I felt the people of Lebanon only wanted to share with us their life in Christ, to let us know of their love for us, to feel a part of who we are, and to let us know that they are part of us. I am certain that in my life I have never felt such a grand expression of hospitality, and I have never felt more certain of my feelings of insignificance stemming from my own life as a self-determined individualist.
I’m afraid this experience has raised more questions than answers as I ask myself, “Where do I/we go from here?” When early on I expressed apprehension about traveling for the consecrations one of our parishioners told me, “Father, we want you to go. Your growth from this experience will only help our parish.” Certainly I hope this will be the case. And it might be this one point – the American church’s lack of an ordered culture – that will command my attention for the rest of my priesthood. Forgive me, but I did envy my brother priests in Lebanon who do not have to deal with the diversities of culture and expectation that exist here in America. I believe there is a common understanding of structure, authority, expectation, and place that stems from the order of this beautiful culture. While our air is permeated with “dogmas” of individuality and self-determination, the air in Lebanon is permeated with the dogmas of a shared society and culture. This did not diminish at all any one’s individual personality or character (in fact, I met many “characters” in Lebanon!); yet it does eliminate at least one layer of uncertainty which allows a priest greater ease in simply doing his job.
These thoughts are just a beginning. There may be one consolation to being a self-determined individualist, however. The isolation of an ill-defined or lost social life may very well lead one to seek a connection with the faith community of the Holy Church.