While coming to Orthodoxy I began to ponder my spiritual past. General questions surfaced: Where was I now, and were had I been? More disturbingly, new specific questions arose: Had I been worshiping the same God? Had I been worshiping anyone at all? Like many others I sensed a distinct spiritual depth and life in the Church as I grew nearer to it. That spirituality testified to an intense communion I had never witnessed before. I remember telling one of my friends that for the first time I had seen the Church as mystical and real “something”. It was more spiritual than a human organization and it was more physical and immanent than a mental construct. I couldn’t tell him much about what it was I saw, the shape, color, or meaning – but I could tell him that it was solid, colorful, anything but shapeless, and some sort of home to meaning. With the Orthodox Church there is an invisible presence, a real and definite body – whether you call it the Kingdom of God, or the presence of Christ, or the experience of eternal worship. It is this experience that is giving me the patience to deal with questions about what the Church is, where its limits are, and who and what are heterodox. In beginning to see the Church I slowly became aware of what the Church isn’t.
After the euphoria of encountering the Church there sets in a moment of panic: If this is real what is one to make of those other lovers of Jesus – the C.S. Lewis’ and G.K. Chestertons and Mother Teresas of the world? As best as anyone can tell they were true Christians, and Orthodoxy itself witnesses against the idea that doctrine and proper cognitive assent will save you, relying instead on a relationship with Jesus Christ. Were they part of this body, had they sensed this Substance, and if so does it mean that what I sense in the Apostolic Church is not exclusive after all?
This is a live question, and it may always be, but we aren’t left without any guidance in the matter. There is a word for this sort of panic; a word that has had too many things shoved in it to retain its shape: Ecumenicism. There is scarcely a more loaded word in contemporary Orthodoxy, and it is one that we cannot avoid. To our credit we are not avoiding it, indeed we often take strong, hard-line stances. We show up to the table at least to say “No,” and if nothing else this shows respect for the differences of others’ beliefs. I like to think that these stances are merely an effort to bend the word back into shape, bringing about once more the possibility of sanity. It’s not unreasonable or an insult to disagree with someone, but it would both if it were to deny the others’ belief or count it minor enough to ignore.
But it takes more than strictness to maintain sanity. It would not be very sane to ignore Blessed Teresa or wonderful old G.K., or even the delightful and earnest Billy Graham. We must account for these great God-lovers, and we must remain humbled by their depth of charity, the richness of their vision, and the stubbornness of their Christian conviction. We are after all on the same team… aren’t we? When we have come to Orthodoxy we have in some sense left them behind, having declared a difference between us – but what is the nature of the difference, and what are the consequences of the declaration?
This is an especially hard question for me to answer when it comes to Chesterton. Of all the people I have ever read, I have more kinship for G.K. more than for anyone. One of my best friends pointed out when I first frantically fell for Orthodoxy that it was not very surprising if you knew me and had read the last chapter of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, entitled “Authority and the Adventurer.” Chesterton speaks to my romantic nature, my common sense, and speaks clearly to my many faults. And he does so mostly in his theology of home, which is a theology and a romance that I has come alive to me in the Orthodox Church. But G.K., my friend and guardian through the weariness of the modern skepticism – I have left you behind.
Here is the question: There are many roads to lead to an encounter with Christ, but is there true conversion without the Church? But even here we are not guideless. There is a reason there is so much written in the New Testament about the relation of the Jews and the Gentile Christians in the first century. It is not merely a historical phase or cultural consideration, but also a model of what it looks like to leave an institution for the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let us consider the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus. Taking a contemporary question and applying it to the model one might ask was Saul a Christian before his experience on the road to Damascus? Though intelligent, active, well-meaning, and zealous, Saul was causing great harm to the Church. Jesus Himself did not take this harm lightly for He equated Himself with the Church and asked “Why are you persecuting me?” Is Saul then the lover of the Judaic God, but the enemy of Christ? But didn’t he desire to see God? Didn’t he long to serve Him? How tragic that such a zealot, such a man of great desire, could find damnation by being mislead as to who Jesus is.
I am currently of the mind that there is nothing more horrible that can happen to you than to get who Jesus Christ is wrong. This is one of those statements that is controversial only in real life – not in abstract opinion. If we think about our life and that of our friends and family, we realize that there are some very real differences in what people say about the Jesus – just within those professing to be Christian. It could be that a man could meet Jesus on Imperial Highway, become a new man much like Saul. He could give up his atheism and narcissicm, ceasing to kick against the goads. Then he shows up at his friendly neighborhood First Agape Bible Community Church Fellowship full of love for God and his neighbor. After the coffee but before the doughnuts the kind and compelling Biblical expositor takes the stage and begins parsing out this weeks verse. Several doughnuts and many good intentions later the expositor misleads the man as to who Jesus is. It’s impossible for the expositor to agree with everyone, and someone has to be wrong – so the likelihood of this one expositor getting it right is incredibly slim. And not too many doughnuts later we find that the man who met Jesus on Imperial Highway cannot articulate who Jesus is without falling into heresy. But the man knows Jesus.
Over time, the man becomes blind to the One he met on Imperial Highway. He laughs at the naivety of his religious experience, and jockeys for the right “Biblical” opinion. He was lost, saw Jesus, and now his eyes have become darker and darker – and he no longer sees clearly the Way.
In as much as I can conclude about this man I say that if he is damned it is not because of his inability to articulate about Jesus. When asked about who Jesus was the man born blind man could only respond – “once I was blind, but now I see”, and such an answer is not only accurate but deeply compelling. However, the fruit of not being able to articulate about our Lord can easily be the deterioration of our spiritual life – or as the Orthodox call it – our salvation. One who has seen Jesus must keep his vision set on him, and I am not merely speaking metaphorically. This is the sin of our American Christendom, for when we have led people to the One Way we have then pushed them down the road of division. We call it diversity, but really it dulls and destroys their souls. The heart of the ecumenical response of Orthodox Christians has to be the redemption of this tarnished inheritance.
The unfortunate fate of this hypothetical man might well have been the fate of Saul, but thankfully the story doesn’t end with his encounter with Christ. Following the encounter Saul is blind. Yes, literally blind. It behooves us to pause and ask why, but for the sake of time I will make a couple points and a small conclusion. First, not everyone who sees the risen Lord is struck blind, nor does it seem that Jesus is being too judgmental or glorious for human sight. Peter, James, and John saw Him transfigured, and they were not blinded as Saul was. Thomas touched the risen Lord, and by all accounts retained bladder control. It seems that Saul was not ready for the light of Christ, and his literal blindness was the result of his personal darkness and lack of capacity.
The blindness of Saul may have saved his soul. For because of his blindness he was led by the hand and spent time quietly attending to that which had happened, and that which was about to happen. For three days Saul sat without sight, neither eating or drinking, but praying. Thus was the catechesis of Saul – for though as he had met Jesus, he had not met Ananias.
When Saul had met Jesus the first thing he asked him was “Who are you.” Jesus did not reply in the esoteric terminology found in the book of John, nor the language of the Nicene creed. He just said “Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.” I suppose one could ask again if Saul was a Christian at this point, but I should hope they would realize that it’s really not the right question.
When Ananias arrived at the house where Saul was and layed his hands on him he said something interesting. He said that Jesus had sent him that Saul might “receive his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” I am not sure that these are not essentially two separate commands, though they may be made manifest in two different ways. All that we see of Anaias’ instruction is that he is to put his hand on him “so that he might receive his sight”; the Holy Spirit is not mentioned. Ananias knew what to do, he knew how to bring people to the Church – so that when the scales fell of the Saul’s eyes the first thing he did was be baptized. It is safe to say that the first part of Saul’s conversion experience happened unlike any of ours, but it is also true that in the end it was very much like ours indeed – and that coming through Jesus he meets us in the Church.
The Church is our home. We have met home here and there, sometimes in our house, sometimes on a mountain, sometimes with a friend. I met home when I fell in love with my wife. But the mountain has a life of its own, our house is suddenly empty, and in the next conversation we find our friend strange and alien. We feel homeless. There are limits to where and to whom we belong – but my wife is always mine, just as my children will be. The Church likewise is my body. I belong to it and it to me, though we may not always get along. I have told the story of two roads, and the story of the third is Chesterton’s. It’s the story of the earth.
To get to where you are is a long journey, for you have to go all the way around the world. After the long and tedious journey, full of adventures you end up where you started and you “discover” what had always been there. It was not not there while you climbed the Alps and crossed the desert plains of Africa. It was always gloriously there, solid and unchanging, while you went through the seasons and the continents. This is the easiest way to understand finding home. Chesterton has called this man by many names, but I call him Nicodemus, born again into a home.
Being a Christian is more than just knowing a person even the Person Jesus, it is finding our home. And when we have found it we find it again, for it is a heavenly thing of such depths that we travel in and around it. The seasons change, and we love our home in the fall. They change again, and we thank God for the glorious spring. We happily huddle together next to the fire in the winter, and endure the summer day for the summer evening. Today is Pentecost, and today we have been given the Comforter. Today is Theophony and we have be baptized into Christ, putting Him on. Today we are at home, and tomorrow we will still be happily home.
Here is the end of the story, here is the conclusion. The Way is Christ, whether the road be on the way to Damascus, Imperial Highway, or the earth itself – and we are grafted into Him by the Church. This is the fullness of humanity, to be in Christ. Chesterton’s story is an Orthodox story, though he was Roman Catholic. The misleadings of the Roman church did not dull his eyes, and in its truth it was able to form and enliven the man. Did Chesterton see the Church as I have? In some ways I think he did, though I don’t know if it was as sudden or as substantial as my experience. Convinced of the need Chesterton put godly, truth-loving people in authority over him and through God’s economy he is part of the Body.
And here is the injunction: Saul ceased to exist, becoming rather Paul, the child of God.Truth is not an institution; it is a person, or rather The Person. Saul in his zealousness for Judaism was a man of darkness who “breathed threats and murder” against the Church. He was made new in Christ, and even as an Apostle grew up in the Church. The Jews who had been the people of God had been unable to disentangle themselves from that which hides the heavenly home. Right in their obedience to their revelation they were unable to change in the presence of the Lord. This sin is not corrected by those who add the New Testament to their Bibles and never stop changing. The danger of holding onto the timbers of a house in order to hold on to home is as much a challenge to the Orthodox as to anyone. It is as much a possibility to become Judas, a misleading and damed disciple as ever. We have the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, but we are still in the land of adventure, where there is real and life-taking danger. The Church that I have seen is a heavenly institution, a Body. It is real, substantial and alive. Let us therefore set aside that which encumbers us to come to the Body of He who Is Truth and Life – and the delightful paradox that fulfills humanity in contemplation and action.