Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dating non-Orthodox Christians

Single Orthodox Christians have no easy road before them, especially if they suspect that they will be married some day. For most of history and in a large but shrinking portion of the Orthodox world today, single people did not have to worry about who they would marry: someone else chose for them. In the best cases, the people involved had veto power; that is, neither one had to accept the match. But in some cases one or both had no choice. Now we live in a world in which Choice is God. We cannot imagine not choosing our own hair style, clothing and career path; much less not choosing our own spouse.
We vainly imagine this power of choice is the same as freedom, but if we have no basis on which to choose other than our subjective urges, transient likes and dislikes, and fantasies based on movies, novels and occasional glimpses at internet pornography, then choice is not freedom but bondage: bondage to the ideals of a sick culture and the passions of a fallen mind. But this is the reality many Orthodox Christians in North America and Europe today. Some lucky few have relationships with parents or spiritual mentors that are close enough and mature enough to provide some guidance and advice in the search for a mate. Most, however, are out on their own. Even if they do ask for advice or guidance from a priest or parent or other responsible person, many young people are merely seeking confirmation for what they already feel or think or lust for.
So this is where we start: one priest's dating guide for Orthodox Christians.
First, and this applies not only to dating, but to all friendships: Hang out with people you want to become like. This does not mean that you do not hang out with people who are not perfect; that’s ridiculous, no one is perfect. What it means is that you look for Christ-like virtues: kindness, gentleness, self control, faith, joy, etc. People with these qualities or who are seeking these qualities will help you develop these qualities. Now I am going to say something shocking: Orthodox Christians are not always the most Christ-like people you know. (I probably didn’t surprise anyone.) Good people are good people no matter where you find them. Hang out with good people and you will become a better person.
Second, don’t differentiate between “dating” and hanging out, at least not in the early and middle stages of a relationship that may be leading to marriage. That word, “dating,” has killed more potentially wonderful relationships than any other word in contemporary English. “Dating” is a cultural construct defined by popular culture, chiefly movies and TV. Generally the only difference between dating and hanging out is that if you're dating you are admitting that you are sexually attracted to one another—not the best way to begin a relationship that you hope will lead to the martyrdom of Orthodox Christian marriage. Unfortunately, our culture has taught us that sexual attraction is key to finding a suitable life partner; in fact for much of our culture, good sex is the highest form of transcendence conceivable. But let me state the obvious: this is not a Christian culture.
Christians are called to a life of repentance, a life in which Christ is God and my life is His. Sex, even “great” sex, is a normal part of life for married Christians; but, and here is the irony for our culture, great sex is the byproduct of Christ-like loving and giving in the context of a life-long relationship. Feeling sexually attracted to someone you hardly know is certainly no way to determine if someone will make a good wife or husband. A good marriage can never be based on how the other makes me feel. Good marriage is based on my caring for and loving the other, even when it doesn’t always feel good to me.
Third, religion matters. Above I said that good people are good people no matter where you find them, but if you begin to think you might want to spend the rest of your life raising children with someone, then religion is very important. For most people, when things are going well religion is not a very important part of their life (no matter how strenuously they protest that it is). When we feel like things are going well, and nothing feels better than being in love, God drifts to the background, and we basically ignore God. I’m not making this up. Read Deuteronomy 32 sometime. It records the common experience of God’s people: when things are going good (when we “grow fat”) we ignore God. However, marriage, as many have observed, is the remedy for falling in love. Once a man and woman begin the hard work of sharing their lives together, God becomes much more important in their lives. I am not saying that marriage is all work and drudgery. No, not at all. The most wonderful, wonderful gift God has given me is my wife and children; however, marriage has also driven me to my knees again and again. When a couple do not share the same faith and same religious commitment, then when the going gets tough, where do they go for help?
The Orthodox Church allows marriages between Orthodox Christians and other Christians (not non-Christians). The main stipulation is that the couple agree to raise the children Orthodox. This allowance for mixed marriage, however, can be easily misunderstood in our modern world of choosing what’s right for me. This allowance did not have in mind an Orthodox boy choosing a Baptist girl because she’s hot. This allowance came to be in a world in which children were often promised in marriage before they were three years old. They had no choice; and so the church made allowance for the reality of a culture in which a man or woman could not choose his or her spouse. But we have a choice.
Young people, my daughters included, often say that there are no good candidates among the Orthodox Christians they know. I understand this problem. Often Orthodox Christian churches are small and choices are limited. Therefore, if you’re serious about finding and Orthodox Christian spouse, you need to get out and get involved in Orthodox projects, conferences and activities outside your little parish. Organize retreats, participate in diocesan, mission or service organizations, visit monasteries (you never know who else might be visiting), rent a van and crash a archdiocesan convention with seven of your buddies splitting the cost of the room. Be creative.
Let me sum up. It is not a good idea to date non-Orthodox Christians because it is not a good idea to date anyone. It is a good idea to have lots of friends, to learn how to be kind, generous, loving, patient and joyful by hanging out with people who encourage you to be more like Christ. If you suspect that a particular friend may indeed be someone with whom you could spend your life, then enquire if he/she suspects the same thing. If you are too shy to ask directly, then ask a trusted third person to make enquiries for you. Since you are already friends, you can skip the dating thing. You can now continue to be friends discerning together and with your priest(s), parents, and other trusted friends whether or not you are indeed right for each other.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Staretz Never Came

When I was inquiring into Orthodox Christianity, I (and the group I was a part of) became convinced early on that we needed a staretz, an elder of profound holiness and insight to guide us. At the time, it made perfect sense. In the milieu from which we came, sincere earnestness was the primary—if not the only—indicator we had to spiritual vitality. And since we were an intensely earnest bunch of enquirers, we seemed to ourselves (although we never would have actually said this) to be spiritually alive to such a degree that normal guidance from just any priest would certainly not be adequate for us. We thought we were a special case, but the staretz never came.
After our community had been Orthodox for a year or two, we began to experience a lot of strife among the leaders of the community. The “system” of relationship, leadership and decision making that had created our community and led it to Holy Orthodoxy began to crack. From my perspective, the crisis was perhaps most acutely precipitated by the events leading to the death of our great friend and head chanter, Dn. Timothy. Suffice it to say that our new milieu, the Orthodox Church, provided ways of thinking about conflict and loving those who succumb to weaknesses of various sorts, ways that our community’s leaders did not equally recognize or appreciate. And then, of course, there was the bishop.
We were the first large group of converts that Bishop Joseph had received into Holy Orthodoxy. He had only been in the United States for one year, his English skills were still developing and he was completely unfamiliar with American Evangelical sensibilities. This was a recipe for misunderstanding and confusion if ever there was one. And still no staretz came. Misunderstanding and accusation bloomed like a red tide. Quickly factions emerged. It’s a funny thing about factions in a community: you don’t really have to be on anyone’s “side” to be on someone’s side. The very fact that you don’t vociferously defend (or accuse) the villain (or hero) of the moment makes you a de facto member of one party or another.
The most painful few years of my life were these years of trouble: wishing, hoping and praying for a holy man who could speak definitively and clearly, who could draw a line in the sand so that we could know which was the right side to be standing on. But the staretz never came. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that God did not confirm our delusionary self importance; rather, he let it self destruct. There was no right side or wrong side. There was no line to cross or not cross, as is the case with almost all conflict in the Church (and it’s that “almost” that makes conflict in the church so difficult to negotiate). There were only confused and frustrated people who wanted earnestly to do the right thing; and that earnestness itself was part of the delusion that needed to be purged, along with the assumption that the right thing was anything more than to love one another.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Dark Belief

If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about what someone has called the dark belief. When God turns out not to be who we thought he was, particularly because the circumstances of our life are more painful than the God whom we had imagined would have allowed, cynicism and atheism (or agnosticism, her sister)seem appropriate coping mechanisms. Initially, there is a perverse joy in attributing to others the worst possible motives because, maybe, you feel like you are seeing clearly for the first time —not that others don’t sometimes have mixed or even completely selfish motives. Eventually, however, cynicism leads to intense loneliness and bitterness. If you are lucky, you meet along the way someone who breaks the mold: unpretentious, he just cares about other people. He too has suffered a great deal. He too has passed through the crisis of denying God because God refused to remain in his life the tame, Sunday School, watered-down and simplified God of his fundamentalist childhood. When you meet someone like him, it is possible to have a frightening experience: hope. It is frightening because you don’t want to go back to the anemic cosmology you had before—you know that will just lead you again to cynicism. But instead of going back, what if you went forward, not assuming you know where it will lead. Follow the light, the good. Long for the good. The ancient monks called this Divine Eros. Even in your physical and emotional pain and confusion, you can find pockets of good, small moments and encounters that bring light, in which someone does or says something that seems to be grace-filled. The world is an ugly place (“do not love the world or the things in the world” St. John said), but it is not devoid of good. Following the good is the narrow way. The narrow way leads to life; but the easy way, the obvious way, to death. In Brothers Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor chastises Jesus for making the way too difficult. The Inquisitor claims that he (Scholastic Christianity) really loves the people by simplifying Christianity for the people. Whereas Jesus refused to turn stone into bread, the Inquisitor gives bread (easily understood formulas) so the people do not have to struggle with the meaning of the stones in their life. Whereas Jesus refused honor and clear resolution (“If you are the Son of God throw yourself off…”), the Inquisitor provides honorable positions in society and easy answers. How, the Inquisitor argues, could a loving God force people to live with ambiguity? Most western Christians have grown up with the religion of the Grand Inquisitor, not the religion of Jesus.
The question for each of us is will we follow the narrow way? We do not have to run down the path. Limping is fine. Truth be told, if you could see in the hearts of the people you admire, everyone hobbles, crawls and stumbles toward the light. We are all terribly wounded.