Saturday, April 16, 2011

Having Completed the Forty Days - Apothegmata or Apostasy?

The traditional Christian practice of observing a forty day fast leading up to the commemoration of Christ's Passion, Death and Resurrection — Pascha (Greek for Passover) among the Eastern Orthodox, Easter in the West — dates back to as early as the second century, perhaps even earlier. The great Church Father, Bishop and Martyr Ignatius of Antioch, wrote in the early second century, "Do not neglect the Forty Days; it constitutes an imitation of Christ's way of life."

Here we have, from a saint known as "the Godbearer," a most concise summation of the purpose of Great Lent.  Just as Christ rebutted every temptation of satan during His forty days in the desert, so we are called to reject temptations (relying on the Word of God, as did Christ), to persistently work on ourselves during our annual forty day pilgrimage (and of course at all times, "in season and out of season"). The demons are cast out "by prayer and fasting," and the holy fathers, those whose sayings and deeds are recounted in the Apothegmata, teach that he who would cast out the demons which afflict him, must first tame the passions through which they wage their attacks.

The third leg of the stool or tripod which grounds and supports our Lenten effort, our spiritual struggle, is almsgiving, that is, practical expressions of love towards our neighbor. Our Lord Jesus Christ taught us clearly that these practices are essential for our lives, for He said "When you pray... When you fast... When you give alms..." There is a sense here of a certain tension, an ongoing expectation, an ever present urgency, which points to the struggle of the spiritual/ascetical practice central to the living of the Christian life, or what we call ortho-praxis, which is far removed from the laissez faire optionalism which so dilutes much of modern Christianity. So we may join to St Ignatius' admonition to imitate Christ's way of life, an imperative of walking in obedience to the teachings Christ gives us. If we begin to imitate and obey, we may have hope that we will abide in Christ, and He in us. This is real hope, the hope of beginning to live the Resurrection in this life, the hope of Theosis, or Deification in Christ.

How sad it is then, to learn of a Christian servant who decides to completely jettison any even remotely traditional Christian observation of Lent, in favor of adopting the practices of an anti-Christian religion and ideology in order to "gain a deeper understanding of it." This is what Rev. Steve Lawler of St Stephen's Episcopal Church in St Louis did this year, beginning on Ash Wednesday. Facing Mecca and praying to Allah five times a day, studying the Koran, and observing Islamic dietary restrictions, Lawler approached his task very consciously, and very publicly, issuing a press release, and relating to a reporter that:

He had no problem reconciling his Episcopalian views with those of Islam and explained that he hoped to test a concept that has been attributed to Mahatma Gandhi and is discussed in John Dunne's book, "The Way of All the Earth." According to the book, it involves passing over "into another religion, which is followed by an equal and opposite process of coming back with new insight to one's own culture or religion."

Lawler indicated he was not intending to pronounce the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith in Allah, and in Muhammad as his messenger; that would have been a more clear cut case of apostasy. When rebuked by his bishop, Lawler seemed to comply, and ceased his Islamic practices after three days. However, his "Plan B" is hardly an improvement, as he next planned to hold

a series of informal public discussions at St. Stephen's that will include a Muslim, an atheist, a spiritual-but-not-religious person and someone who "lives a full, moral life but has no spiritual or religious foundation at all."  The free series begins March 22 and is called "Giving Up Church for Lent." (Full article here.)

What we see here is an all too common occurrence in post-modern Christianity: a non-traditionalist with creative ideas for how to energize his or her faith and give it 'relevance', adopts practices which originated not only outside the Church, but far outside any form of Christianity, and seeks to 'illumine' others with what he considers to be 'wisdom'. In Lawler's case, we see yet another tare in the midst of the wheat, another wolf in the sheep pen, another false shepherd and teacher. Adopting non-Christian syncretic practices (from the Hindu Ghandi), justifying this (so he thinks) using the anti-traditional, modernist ideas of John Dunne, in order to immerse himself in the religion of Muhammad, Steve Lawler has become Steve Lawless, and has not only given up church for Lent, but perhaps even Christ Himself.

Returning to our opening thoughts on the Lenten ascetical effort (and Christian ascesis in general), we can identify easily what is really at the root of efforts such as Lawler's. It is a manifestation of the passions, in this case of vainglory. That is, thinking that one knows better, that one has the correct answer, or that even if one does not have the fullness of the answer, that one is more correct than others, especially than traditionalists who hold to a supposedly outmoded worldview of Christianity and its truth claims, and that one is somehow "called" to shake things up and become a sign, even a prophet, of the future of Christianity. This is the soul-destroying passion of all lapsed Christians who teach by word and deed that Christianity must reach out to Islam, that Muslims and Christians "worship the same God," that we have more in common than we have divisions, and that it is only through interfaith dialogue and stunts such as Lawler's that we can find our way out of the present impasse. This was the same passion of all the heretics, of Arius and Nestorius, or Origen and his ideas of the pre-existence of the soul, of Berdyaev, the 'prophet' of the new age.

I have a suggestion for Steve Lawler: Next Lent, try adopting the practices and authentic faith of the Orthodox Church. You will find the actual fasting guidelines at least as rigorous as those of Islam, and you may wear out the knees of your trousers performing the full prostrations prescribed for the weekdays of Great Lent, including during the Prayer of St Ephraim. You will find Orthodox Lent a deeply profound pilgrimage through a spiritual desert, centered on Jesus Christ Himself, on repentance, on preparing for the Holy Week of the Lord's Passion, the Empty Tomb, and for Christ's Glorious Resurrection on the Third Day. I would also recommend you place yourself truly under the spiritual authority of an experienced Christian elder, so you are not the measure of your own progress. Then, having persevered through Great Lent and Holy Week, try to encapsulate that same spiritual/ascetic dynamic into the course of a single day, and strive to do that every single day for the remainder of your life. If you dare to do these things and repent of the passion of vainglory and of being a freethinker, you are a man of courage, and may become a man of true faith.  And wonder of wonders, some of the Muslims, atheists and others you meet, may be brought to Christ by your kenotic exercise, by your repentance, your prayers, and by your acquisition of the Holy Spirit.

Wishing all of you a blessed and sanctified Passion Week, and a Most Radiant Pascha, I ask your prayers and forgiveness for my own passion of vainglory, and for writing so boldly.

~the sinner Zosimas