A few weeks ago, I attended the 40th Assembly of the Diocese of the South of the OCA. My priest asked me to write a reflection on it which he shared in the church’s newsletter and I will share here. I attempted, perhaps not too successfully, to tie the themes together from the various guest speakers, all of whom were quite engaging.
The guest speakers included:
Dr. Nathan Jacobs who has written and directed a documentary called Becoming Truly Human in which he reaches out to the religiously unaffiliated “nones.” We watched the film and then discussed it for a while.
The second guest speaker was author and professor Dr. Clark Carlton who has written a series of books on the Orthodox faith. His talk was entitled The Future of Orthodoxy in the Postmodern World: Welcome to the Catacombs (link).
The third talk, given by iconographer, artist, and speaker Jonathan Pageau, was entitled Pentecost for the Zombie Apocalypse (link). It was honestly quite brilliant. You can watch it below:
There is ever increasing awareness of the cultural fracturing and disintegration that is happening in America and Western culture as a whole. From the insanity of our last political election and the riots that followed, to the splintering of sexuality and gender into an inconceivable number of categories, we are seeing an exponential increase in what some are calling chaos.
The rise of the religious “nones,” that is those who when asked about their religious affiliation respond “none,” continues. The religiously non-affiliated numbered between 5-7% of the population in the 1990’s and have jumped to 25% of the population by 2015. This category includes everything from the devout atheist to those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”
THE PENTECOST ICON
Many Christians are becoming fearful of the chaos surrounding us; many of us are tempted to withdraw entirely from society in order to protect ourselves and our children. Amidst this anxiety, we must be guided by the wisdom of the Church and not by our fears.
In ancient Greek legends, it was believed that if one reached the edge of the world, the limits of humanity, one might find monsters. These monsters were depicted as humanoid, but with dog heads or other confused parts. They were embodied chaos.
Our present day Pentecost icon reveals an old king Cosmos who is holding twelve scrolls symbolizing the teachings of the twelve apostles being spread to the entire universe. This black archway in which Cosmos stands is a door that symbolizes the way into the world.
In some of the oldest Pentecost icons we see in the arched doorway a crowd. Within the crowd was sometimes depicted a dog-headed man, which symbolized the gospel reaching even to the monstrous things at the fringes of the world and our humanity.
Since the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, we Christians have been taking the Gospel into the world, which is why the doorway behind Cosmos is depicted as being open. For those of us in America today, that may mean bringing it to people who dwell beyond the fringes of human normality. In the Pentecost icon, there is no fear of the monsters or the dog-headed man. Rather, we see one of our saints, Christopher, being depicted with a dog head.
STARTING ON THE MONSTER WITHIN
How does it look to leave the door of the Church open to the darkness and monsters outside?
I remember reading GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy many years ago. In it, he said that the sane person recognizes there’s a bit of the crazy in himself. He can see it, and he tries to grapple with it. But the true lunatic thinks he is perfectly sane and cannot see his own insanity. In other words, facing the monsters without first requires facing the ones within.
I have found that the Orthodox Church, like no other group, gives us the introspective grace we need to begin removing the plank of the passions from our own eye before we attempt to work on our neighbors. We will only hurt others if we cannot see the extent of sin and the world’s influence in our own hearts first.
Through worship, prayer, the sacraments, and asceticism of the Orthodox Church, we begin to find our own healing. As we do so, we find our center in Christ and our community in one another.
The chaos and darkness around us has begun to wear down even the unbelievers in our society. Many people are recognizing that the culture cannot continue like this, and they are seeking something solid. Jonathan Pageau mentioned that ever since his joint YouTube broadcast with Jordan Peterson, he has been receiving frequent emails from atheists who are looking for something solid in the midst of the chaos.
Others of the religiously non-affiliated are finding their way to Orthodoxy. They are intrigued with a faith that is ancient, beautiful, and non-juridical in its theology as seen in the documentary by Nathan Jacobs called Becoming Truly Human. Such people are looking for the depth and love that Orthodoxy has to offer.
I think it is significant that the two saints we celebrated during the week of the Assembly were St. Jacob and St. Panteleimon. In St. Jacob, we see a tireless ambassador for the Christian faith who spread Orthodoxy here in America. The second saint, Panteleimon, was a healer of souls and bodies; he was one of the unmercenary saints. One saint was a missionary, the other a healer.
In these two saints we see our calling to America: we do not retreat and hide from the chaos, but rather bring the truth to those around us as St. Jacob in whatever ways are appropriate to our particular calling in life. Probably the most effective means for doing so is to be a healing presence like St. Panteleimon. Despite how chaotic things appear on the outside, within each person is a desperate desire for love and spiritual healing.
The Canaanite Woman approached Jesus stating, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” In the same way, the dog-headed, the monsters, that is, those who do not fit into our normal, neat categories of humanity, are looking for crumbs from the Master’s table.
We must be prepared to open the church doors to the dog-headed people of our time: whether they be rich, poor, gay, straight, sexually confused, or any kind of person who resides at the fringes of chaos. These may very well be the St. Christophers of our time.
A NOTE ON THE FAMILY
One final point emphasized repeatedly throughout the Assembly was that we must not neglect teaching our children the faith and the moral values of Christianity. There have been many parents who assume that their children will absorb the teachings of the church simply by being present for the services. While the services are important, our children are being indoctrinated by the world and its propaganda every day. Leading by example is the best teacher, but it is not the only one. Words are still necessary. We do not need to lecture our children every day, but they should know without a doubt that the church has drawn firm boundary lines regarding what is healthy and acceptable and what is detrimental to the human soul and its relation to God.