Disciples and Discipline

From the Chancellor’s Desk
June, 2006

“Father, what do you mean I can’t get married on June the 24th?!?

June is traditionally wedding season. Yet this is precisely the time when we observe the “apostle’s fast” (from the Monday after All Saint’s Sunday till the feast of Ss. Peter & Paul).

It can be very frustrating to try to explain to engaged couples – especially when one of the parties is not Orthodox – why weddings are not permitted during fasting seasons. The same frustration crops up when a well-meaning family wishes to “customize” mama’s funeral to the point of heresy or bad taste; when parents insist that while they appreciate the fact that Godparents at a baptism must be Orthodox they’ve already chosen non-Orthodox God-parents “because they’re good people”; when it is requested that weddings or baptisms be served somewhere other than in Church; or when people request incineration, rather than burial, for their mortal remains.

It’s no secret that the Orthodox Christian Faith is countercultural. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that people whose ideas and opinions are formed by what they see on television, read in magazines, and hear on the radio are going to find the belief and practice of the Orthodox Church unusual, perhaps even bizarre.

Jesus tells us “do not be called teacher; one is your teacher “ (Mt. 23:8). We believe that Christ is our teacher and we are His students – his disciples.

The English word “disciple” is etymologically related to the word discipline. In other words, no one can be a disciple – a follower of Christ – without discipline. Part of our Christian discipline (and an important part, if the Gospel is to be believed) involves fasting.

Fasting does not mean simply abstaining from food. In a larger sense, fasting means refraining from some good things (e.g. food, recreation, celebrations, etc.) in order to give ourselves for a time to other good things (prayer, repentance, deeds of mercy, etc.).

Every parent knows that everything which children want is not necessarily good for them. As good parents, like God, know when to say “no” as well as when to give “good gifts to their children” (Mt. 7:11), every priest will have occasion to tell parishioners that what they might want is neither possible nor desirable from the standpoint and experience of the Church.

The reason conflicts arise over issues of baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc. is that most of our parishioners and adherents are influenced by popular culture and the mass media more than they are by the Church, the Liturgy, or the Scriptures. They are the victims of a consumer mentality, which sees everything – including God, spirituality, and the Holy Mysteries – as a product to be shopped for rather than a means of discerning Truth and achieving eternal life. Just as I must have an original dress, a unique car, a sophisticated meal or a spectacular vacation the attitude is that “I’ll have the kind of wedding I want, when I want it, where I want it, and if the Church or the priest can’t or won’t accommodate my wishes, well then I’ll just go elsewhere!”

The problem with such an attitude is that it’s totally materialistic in approach. It discounts the most fundamental and important aspect of a wedding, or baptism, or funeral – the spiritual aspect. But trying to explain this to someone who in their heart-of-hearts does not believe in God, or that Jesus Christ is the pre-eternal Son of God who died and rose from the dead for us, or that each one of us needs to be healed of our sins, or that there truly is an eternal life awaiting us after we die is like trying to explain the physiology of alcohol poisoning to an intoxicated person. It’s like trying to teach a pig to fly – it just frustrates you and annoys the pig.

Orthodox priests truly have a difficult job today. They cannot do their job at all unless they are seriously following the discipline of the Church – praying, reading the scriptures, fasting, helping the poor, visiting the sick, etc.

The only way we as faithful can make their job easier is to actually follow this Christian discipline ourselves, and teach our children to do so from childhood. Christianity is not a philosophy of life, nor simply a means of helping us deal with existence in this fallen world. Neither is it a “religion”. Christianity is, if our Lord is to be believed, the knowledge of God the Father and the Son who reveals Him to us, in the Holy Spirit (cf. John 15:1 – 17:23). It is “the Way” – the path which leads to eternal life.

As our Lord tells us, this path is narrow and difficult. If we’re not struggling, and encountering difficulties, or conversely if our attention is consumed with satisfying our every personal pleasure and desire no matter what the cost, then we’re probably in the hands of the devil, not God.

Only by actually following the discipline of the Church, as opposed to the indulgence of the world, will we be able to see that the various prescriptions, rules and practices of our Church are not arbitrary regulations imposed on us with the intention of making our life difficult, but a wise, practical, and well-trodden spiritual path which opens up our heart, mind and soul to God’s grace and enlightenment.