‘Sarah Jones’, the subject of ‘Becoming Orthodox in America’, sent us a reply to that post. We have edited her reply rather more than usual so as to preserve her privacy, also integrating material from her subsequent emails. Here is what Sarah says:
Thank you so much for your response on the blog. It was beautiful. I find it so interesting that you mentioned pleasing my husband because I have just recently asked him to lead me in deeper ways so that I don’t have to swim in the big ocean myself.
In the context of makeup, he would prefer me not to wear makeup, but my issues with vanity sometimes make me desire it anyway. He would rather me be modest than represent the world. It’s tough for me because I often want to be beautiful in the world’s eyes, instead of being more concerned with my soul. Sounds horrible just saying it, but it’s something I struggle with.
I love what you say about America. I just asked our priest last week how the American Orthodox churches differ from those overseas. Because quite honestly, I feel like they are often exactly what you said. A Protestant version of Orthodox churches. Trying to fit in. Trying to make people feel comfortable. I find that strange because St. John Chrysostom did anything but make people feel comfortable in the world. He urged them toward God and away from the world. I love him for his boldness in those areas.
I also find it funny that you said this:
Is that all Sarah can look forward to? No. There’s more.
I actually do love being a wife and mother so much. It doesn’t feel like a burden to me. Even with the three kids under three I want another!
Sadly, we do not have good relationships with any of our family. My husband’s family is very much against Orthodoxy. He was raised as a fundamentalist.
My parents are Roman Catholic and would rather that I stay Protestant because, according to them, if I become Orthodox I am going to be excommunicated from their church and to them I won’t be “saved.”
To explain, I was raised Roman Catholic in a very general sense. When I was a young adolescent I learned about God in a Protestant church and from there stayed a “Protestant.” My parents later started to practice Catholicism and wanted me to come back to the Roman Catholic Church instead of staying at the Protestant church. Then I met my husband and his search through Church history brought him to the Orthodox Church. We will officially become members of the Orthodox Church in a few weeks. My parents have said, “We would rather you stay Protestant as you have been because at least then you aren’t excommunicated.” Whereas, according to them, if I become Orthodox I will be excommunicated.
I have a couple more questions based on your response.
You said my husband isn’t to be my elder or confessor. Every night we spend some time praying together and confessing our sins to God in the presence of each other. Is this okay?
I do have quiet time. Check. When the kids are all sleeping and my husband is working. The nice thing is that we both work from home so I have him to help me during the day. We share the load.
And my other question is this:
I love the Jesus Prayer. But sometimes I don’t feel worthy of praying it. This really concerns me because I’ve been saying the Jesus Prayer all day every day. And then I read someone’s words about humility and the Prayer:
“If we pray the Jesus Prayer mechanically without humility, we run the risk of falling into delusion.” [We have paraphrased the quotation – Orthodox Monk.]
And I feel like I don’t have humility so I’m not worthy of praying the Prayer. But I want to so much that it hurts and I just don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t tell if I’m doing it mechanically because I know I have so much pride. And then even when thinking of writing you about this I had a prideful thought like, “See, I can admit my pride, I’m so good.” And then I realize I’m even more prideful than I thought five seconds ago!!!!!
I want the Grace of the Holy Spirit, but how can I have that when I’m so prideful? And how can I continue to prayer without ceasing if I’m still so prideful? I can’t imagine ever not having these prideful thoughts and if they are always there how will my prayers ever be genuine and not mechanical? How do I have a true prayer with pride in my heart? I just don’t understand.
Must run for now.
Thank you for your guidance.
Let’s start with one of the basic issues, converting from what seems to be a fairly charismatic form of Protestantism to Orthodoxy.
Sarah writes: ‘My parents have said, “We would rather you stay Protestant as you have been because at least then you aren’t excommunicated.” Whereas, according to them, if I become Orthodox I will be excommunicated.’
We find it hard to understand the reasoning of Sarah’s parents, assuming that Sarah has got it right in what she writes. What does excommunication mean? In the Roman Catholic Church it means that although you remain a baptized Roman Catholic, your membership in the Church is impaired. The canons of the Roman Catholic Church which explain what offenses incur excommunication are to be found here.
It seems obvious that from the point of view of the Roman Catholic Church joining the Orthodox Church means falling into schism, which is punished by automatic excommunication (with the normal reservations in Roman Catholic theology about clear intention and conscious understanding of one’s act). However, from the point of view of the Roman Catholic Church joining a Protestant church means falling into heresy, which is also punished by automatic excommunication. Moreover, heresy is a more serious sin than schism, so from the point of view of the Roman Catholic Church, surely becoming a fundamentalist Protestant is worse than becoming Orthodox. The only way we can make sense of what we read is if Sarah’s parents understand Sarah’s participation in Protestantism to be a sort of acceptable ‘child’s play’ which doesn’t have anything real to do with Sarah’s membership in the Roman Catholic Church. Sort of like the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. But that surely is not the official position of the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law.
From the point of view of the Orthodox Church what does becoming a member of the Orthodox Church mean? It seems obvious that it means that you leave the old church or religion or belief system behind—whatever it might be—in order to enter the one true church founded by Jesus Christ on the original Day of Pentecost. Hence, it means that you are baptized into a new life in the Orthodox Church. In fact, this is precisely the reasoning of those jurisdictions which always receive converts to Orthodoxy by Baptism. In cases where a person is received by means other than Baptism (usually but not always Chrismation) the formal theological position of most Orthodox jurisdictions is that ‘economy’ is being exercised: the means exercised in the ‘economy’ give validity to the original mystery of baptism administered outside the Orthodox Church. There is another more recent ecumenical stream which treats Roman Catholic sacraments as valid but this stream is not fully received within the Orthodox Church.
Hence, among those jurisdictions that receive by Baptism—including those like the Orthodox Church in America that permit reception by Baptism if the mystery is requested by the convert—one dies to the old way of life. One then begins to share in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not accidental that immediately after Baptism the newly-baptized person (even an infant) is immediately communicated with the Body and Blood of Christ.
Perhaps what underlies the comment of Sarah’s parents is the realization that by joining the Orthodox Church Sarah is making a definitive break with Catholicism—something that didn’t seem to them to be the case when Sarah was Protestant.
Be that as it may, it should be clear to Sarah and to her husband that joining the Orthodox Church is best understood not as joining one more denomination—Protestantism with icons—but as dying to the past. The reason to make this act of dying to the past is to put on Christ.
Now we would like to address Sarah’s more particular issues in the context of the above.
We would first like to look at the practice of Sarah and her husband of praying together every evening and confessing their sins orally to God in front of each other. We cannot say flatly that this practice is wrong. We can say that we have never heard of it being practiced in the Orthodox Church.
The norm that we have been taught is that in the best of all possible worlds, in the Orthodox Church a husband and wife have the same confessor. They confess individually and separately to the confessor, but the confessor guides the couple ‘as a unit’. That is, the confessor guides each member of the marriage in such a way that the two persons live in Orthodox Christian harmony. Of course, if the confessor is a clairvoyant Orthodox Elder, so much the better. But as we pointed out in the last post, where are Sarah and her husband going to find such a confessor, or such a clairvoyant Elder? We don’t know. Moreover, one cannot insist to their spouse that they go to their confessor for confession. This is something that has to happen by free choice. The spouse might go to another confessor, might not even go to confession at all. This is a reality that the other spouse has to live with.
We would think that Sarah’s and her husband’s practice in fact arises from a somewhat charismatic form of Protestantism. While we are not in a position to reject it out of hand, we would think that Sarah and her husband should discuss this practice with the priest that is receiving them.
Why? At the present time, Sarah and her husband seem to thrive, especially on the psychological intimacy and mutual respect implied by the practice. It is not clear to us, however, whether as the couple grows older—as we all do—that they will be able to maintain this level of zeal. They might; they might not; we don’t know.
There is another aspect of this practice that troubles us. Let us take a small charismatic prayer group—up to 10 people. It seems clear to us personally that in such a small group of people that is praying together regularly, there develops a psychological dynamic among the participants: someone becomes de facto leader of the group even if the formal belief system of the group is that there is no leader. Moreover, while the group prays orally there may be hidden or covert psychological cues as to what is acceptable to do or say or pray during or even after the group prayer meeting, cues that might be enforced by psychological or even physical coercion. This is what is known as ‘group think’. This is the sort of thing that a social psychologist studies—human group dynamics. There is a substantial academic and scientific literature on how people interact in small groups. By referring to social psychologists, we are not saying flatly that such small prayer groups are bad. We are saying that they can be dangerous. They can get out of hand. This is especially true if there is a charismatic element in them.
Similarly, a social psychologist observing the confession practices of Sarah and her husband over a period of days or weeks might note the psychological dynamics of the practice and its effect on the broader relationship of Sarah and her husband. The psychological dynamics might be great; they might be unhealthy. Orthodox Monk is not clairvoyant. He has no idea.
So we have a situation in which a practice which doesn’t seem to be attested in the Orthodox Church might carry with it some risks for the long-term stability of Sarah and her husband’s marriage.
But again this is something that should be discussed with the priest. As we pointed out, the whole point of becoming Orthodox is to die to the past so as to live in Christ in the Orthodox Church.
Sarah also remarks that she has recently asked her husband him to lead her ‘in deeper ways so that [she] don’t have to swim in the big ocean [her]self’. In the Orthodox Church, what is the relationship between man and wife at this deep level? This is an issue that Orthodox Monk, a celibate monk, doesn’t really feel competent to judge. We think that this is something that should be discussed frankly—with both members of the marriage present—with the priest that is going to receive the couple.
There is a cultural dimension here. Obviously Sarah and her husband are not going to reproduce an Arab Orthodox family structure in America given that neither is Arab. It is not obvious that the roles of husband and wife in an American Orthodox marriage would necessarily be the roles defined for Orthodox man and wife ‘in the Old Country’. In some aspects they would be; in others not.
There is also a theological dimension. St Paul speaks of the relation between husband and wife. However, St Paul teaches us not only that the wife should please her husband, but also that the husband should please his wife. It’s a two-way street in St Paul’s view. However, St Paul is clear that the man is head of the wife.
There is also a psychological dimension. As a professional psychologist can easily tell Sarah and her husband, in any marriage, husband and wife are united in ways that depend on the underlying character of the husband and wife. From the psychological point of view, there are marriages in which the husband is dominant; there are marriages in which the wife is dominant; and this depends on the character of the man and woman and how the two characters interact in the marriage.
This is something that Sarah and her husband are going to have to discuss among themselves and with the priest with a view to understanding what the Orthodox Church teaches.
Sarah’s next question is about her practice of the Jesus Prayer, especially given what she perceives to be her pride.
Sarah quotes someone to say that the mechanical practice of the Jesus Prayer often leads to delusion. Sarah is worried that she is praying the Jesus Prayer mechanically. Now our sense is that what the original author of the remark Sarah quoted meant is that someone who prays the Jesus Prayer ‘like a New-Age mantra’ without being a committed Christian runs the danger of being deceived by the Devil. We agree. We don’t think that the person meant that we always have to be in a state of ecstasy when we pray the Jesus Prayer. If that were so, we wouldn’t need to pray the Jesus Prayer—we would already be in a continuous state of ecstasy!
We would recommend that Sarah and her husband study the text and commentary of the Gnostic Chapters of St Diadochos of Photiki. It’s one of the labels in the right margin of this blog. St Diadochos spends much time discussing the connection between Baptism and the Jesus Prayer.
However, given the zeal that Sarah manifests in her second email, we would repeat that it is dangerous to practice the Jesus Prayer without a guide.
Let us take a particular example so as to see where the problem lies. Sarah has proud thoughts. She takes those thoughts as proof she is proud. She might be proud; she might not be—not being clairvoyant we have no idea—but Sarah’s thoughts are not the criterion to establish whether she is proud or not. They are logismoi: tempting thoughts. People who intensively pray the Jesus Prayer have all kinds of tempting thoughts. They are to be ignored or, if you have the spiritual strength, rejected. Part of the advanced practice of the Jesus Prayer is the battle against tempting thoughts. Now we are getting into serious Orthodox spirituality. But now we can see why Sarah needs a guide. Orthodox Monk is just an idiot on a blog. Sarah and her husband, in order to practice the Jesus Prayer seriously, need a flesh and blood guide who can see them regularly and discuss their spiritual life, so that, for example, Sarah can learn what it means to pray the Jesus Prayer mechanically and what a tempting thought is.
Let us return to the practice of Sarah and her husband of confessing their sins in front of each other every evening.
As we have heard from our old friend George who spends much time on Mt Athos, this is the sort of thing that a disciple living in a cell on Mt Athos with an Elder would do when he was engaged in the serious practice of the Jesus Prayer—when the disciple was praying the Jesus Prayer all day long like Sarah does. Every evening the disciple would confess his acts of sin to his Elder and also the tempting thoughts that were afflicting him during the day. The Elder would be experienced in the Jesus Prayer—chances are that he would have the internal automatic repetition of the Prayer—so as to understand from the inside the spiritual road that his disciple was on. He would also possibly be clairvoyant, so as to understand the thought-world of his disciple from the inside—in these cases the Elder knows what the disciple is going to say before the disciple says it. Even if the Elder is not clairvoyant and even if the Elder is not a formal priest and confessor, the disciple’s very act of confession has the effect of liberating the disciple from the tempting thought. In cases of serious sin, if the Elder were not a priest empowered to hear confessions, he would send the disciple to a confessor. By law on Mt Athos, the disciple can choose his own confessor, although if the Elder in the cell is himself a priest and confessor he probably would not accept a disciple that didn’t want to confess to him.
So we can see a number of similarities between the practices of Sarah and her husband and practice in a cell on Mt Athos. But Sarah and her husband are not monks on Mt Athos. And this is probably where the counsels for moderation from people around them arise. Sarah and her husband need a guide. Orthodox Monk is just the play of dancing electrons.
Moreover, Sarah and her husband would do well to reflect on the nature of their conversion to Orthodoxy, whether they are prepared to die to the past.
May God bless them.