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September 8, 2013

Traditions, Protestants, things essential and otherwise

As someone who is newly illumined into the Orthodox faith, it’s really quite odd (for a westerner) that for forty days you wear your Chrismation clothes (or baptism gowns), carry your baptismal candle, and go first for communion.

Coming from the Catholic faith, and further back the Protestant faith, all this fuss makes us very uncomfortable. Our biggest excitement as Catholics was the first Mass that we took communion quietly on our own, one of our RCIA teachers was there and gave us a HUGE smile, but she didn’t intervene. It was at that moment, and not during the Chrismation that we felt truly Catholic, it was a seminal moment for us. It meant that we had truly been accepted as members of the faithful, and that we could now get on with the business of being Catholic.

But as new Orthodox we are chafing a bit at having so much fuss worked up over us, we just want to be Orthodox. We don’t want to make a big procession with Candles and other things every time we commune, it’s an awkward position.┬áThe tradition is that by going first the church is praying for us, that is all fine and well. But throw in Candles, the same white clothes each week, and this big fuss of us going RIGHT after the subdeacons (which is not widely known apparently, since each time we have to cut to the front of the communion line). And it begins to wear thin, in fact three weeks ago we forgot our candles, and the subdeacon commented on it, AS I WAS WALKING UP TO TAKE COMMUNION… I eyeballed him, and then rolled my eyes, because what was I going to do? seriously, stop the whole parish and run into the narthex and starting rooting around for candles and matches?

We asked to please not be singled out any longer, it was becoming a deterrent to the Liturgy for us, Fr. called and was very kind in explaining it to us, but it’s a tradition (that is not always practiced), and he wants to keep doing it until we hit forty days. It’s a frustrating position to be in, and it puts us in a very uncomfortable place. So we each made a choice, he decided to continue to require the tradition, and we decided to step back for a bit and let things settle. Once things calm down, then we call sit and talk and work through the issue.

Michael Patton always talks about the essentials and non-essentials, and he’s exactly right. There are things that really matter, that we need to observant of, but there are other things that just don’t mean much outside our little sphere of influence.

Here’s the thing…

Protestants, in their own way, have a valid point about the traditions of men. The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist are what I would call essentials things, we find writings for them all way back to the time of the Apostles in the Didache. The liturgy of the Eucharist is especially important, given that Christ commands us to do so in memory of him. I would put a number of things that I can reference with clear ecclesiological material and a solid scriptural foundation as essential traditions.

But there are things that are simply not essential, and we as humans have a tendency to focus on them and lose sight of the bigger picture. Fr. Len at the Catholic church tells about when he was first a young priest, he wore his collar all the time, made sure he followed all the rules. It took him only a couple of years to realize that in the big picture it wasn’t that important, and he loosened up and stopped being a rule follower. He was much happier once he figured out that while wearing the proper attire while doing reconciliation, or serving at Mass are important. It’s not so much if he’s going to work out, or dig in the garden, or just go have a beer and talk theology. When we met with him to discuss theology, he was wearing a simple black T-Shirt and we had a great conversation, it was nice to not have to deal with the presence of the priestly garments, and just talk theology. He will always be a Priest, but it was good to see the man behind the collar.

I think he got it right, and I think our protestant friends have a good point, some traditions, are just that. And they are not always going to help us grow, they may make us and others feel better, but in the big picture they just don’t matter. Some people like to follow every rule, observe every fast, and can be technically pious. We have friends like that, who make huge and great efforts to follow all the rules. For us, there is so much going on, all the time, that sometimes we just forget, or at other times we just don’t. Asceticism is a tool to help us grow, and like all tools the more you use it, the better you become at it. We decided at the beginning of this journey to not get caught up in the rules and trappings, and not to burn ourselves out.

But there is a danger in replacing the important things, with the things that don’t really matter. I’ve said it before, there is no perfect church, and we never expected to find one. And we knew that becoming Orthodox would not make things magically better, but it’s interesting to see some of the differences in focus between Catholic and Orthodox traditions. I think a great of the difference stems from the fact that most Catholic churches are large, and it’s easy to find a way to fit in. In Orthodox churches you have a more community based dynamic, and while it’s not supposed to be about the rules, it’s unavoidable when your small and all very connected.

I’m not saying that Tradition is not important, it certainly is. But it’s also not the end all and be all, and sometimes it can cause others to stumble. It’s those times that we need to show wisdom and separate the essential from the non-essential.


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