Monday, November 19, 2012

A New Catechumen and the Saints - Journey to Orthodoxy (part 6)

St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom,
and St. Gregory the Theologian
Today marked a significant event in my journey to Orthodoxy as I was made into a catechumen during divine liturgy at St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside. The process of converting to Orthodoxy can be conceived of in 3 stages: courtship, engagement, and marriage. Today marked the end of the courtship stage (which previous installments in this series described certain elements of), and the beginning of the engagement phase. Here is an excerpt from something Father Josiah wrote called How to Become an Orthodox Christian, explaining what has just transpired for the newly enrolled catechumen.
At this point the inquirer has made a definitive decision to become an Orthodox Christian forever. He knows that this commitment is not a denominational switch, but an approach to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. It is a commitment to faithfully serve God as a member of the Orthodox Church no matter where one lives on this earth. The catechumen is engaged to the Church, and will complete this engagement with the spiritual marriage which is holy baptism. It is expected at this juncture that the new catechumen inform in writing any religious body in which he was previously a member his desire to be removed from the membership of said body. The catechumen is numbered amongst a class of catechumens that belongs to the particular parish, and will begin the formal process of catechesis. From this point the catechumen self-identifies to the outside world as an Orthodox Christian. Should the catechumen die before reception into the church, he will be buried as an Orthodox Christian.
So today begins my catechesis and I am now an Orthodox Christian (though not yet a full member). I'm elated and very grateful to Father Josiah and all the kind people at St. Andrew who have been so warm and welcoming to me, including my fellow catechumens. May the Lord Christ bless the catechumens of St. Andrew, through the intercessions of the Saints.

 Now, speaking of the intercessions of the Saints, let's pick up where the previous installment left off.

The primary Protestant objections to prayer to the Saints seem to be either that it's unnecessary -- there is one mediator between man and God, the God-man Christ Jesus, so why get anyone else involved? -- or about practical questions of whether the dead Saints can hear our prayers. Again, my reservations were of a similar character, though they weren't very strong. Nonetheless, I investigated the matter and the following are some things I took away from the Orthodox explanation of the practice.

Even if the Great Saints of the Church couldn't intercede on our behalf, it should still be obvious why Christians ought to want them to. James 5:16 says that "the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much." All Christians know that it's good to pray for each other and to ask for the intercessory prayers of our brothers and sisters in Christ (even when they aren't particularly Holy brothers and sisters, we often still ask). But why limit this practice to those who are alive in the flesh, rather than to all those who are alive in Christ? If we are made into new creatures in Christ (2. Cor 5:17), freed from enslavement to death in the water of Baptism (Romans 6:3-4), sharing in Christ's resurrection to new life here and now, and not at some undetermined time in the future, then a practical implication of this is that those who have fallen asleep in the Lord aren't actually dead in the fullest sense. The Church of Christ consists of all those who are in Christ, whether living or dead. And with the Church being a communal reality, this means we still commune with those who are not currently with us in tangible ways.

Further, the practice of invoking the Saints, asking for their intercessions, reading their words, praying their prayers, and venerating icons of them keeps concrete examples in our mind of the types of lives that are possible to live given the transformative power of the Holy Spirit at work in us. Christ remains our ultimate standard, of course, but without a constant awareness of our spiritual inheritance, and the lives of the best of our forebears in the Faith, our own spiritual lives will be much impoverished.

Also, as always with Orthodox doctrine and praxis, praying to the Saints is found early in Church history and has Apostolic provenance (though, of course, some non-Orthodox dispute this). As that is far from my area of expertise, I'll refrain from wading into those waters here.

This is a brief defense of the practice, but -- as should be apparent -- it opens up into the broader issue of how death is to be understood for Christians. Which is another topic I'm not especially qualified to comment on in any depth, but suffice it to say that there is a stark difference here between Orthodox and Protestant tradition as evidenced by the burial practices, praying for the reposed in a liturgical way, etc.

This post somewhat chronologically catches us up to where my journey is at present. I plan to continue the series throughout my catechesis and perhaps beyond. If you have questions, comments, or things you'd like me to address, please comment below.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Nate. This series helps me be able to follow your spiritual journey to date. I will pray that your journey will be a very fruitful one.