I recently heard a talk on CD distributed by St Paul’s Outreach Service (you know, the service that sends them out to a mailing list) by an American convert to Orthodoxy called Francis Schaeffer. He seems to be a very eloquent and deeply thoughtful man. On this occasion, he was speaking about his experiences since abandoning Protestantism and joining the Orthodox Church. The whole talk was an eye-opener, for he gives his impressions from the point of view of an objective ‘outsider’ who has come into intimate contact with the Orthodox Christian community. But the thing I want to address today is a comment he made about how many Orthodox Churches there are. Roughly paraphrased, it went something like this:
“Some people complain that the Orthodox are divided along national and cultural lines – the Greeks, the Russians and so on, but I in fact see only two Orthodox Churches. These two churches often exist within the same parish. Most Orthodox people tend to belong to one or the other of the two, but they drift in and out of each of the two.
“The two Orthodox Churches are the “Social Club” Orthodox Church and the “One, only holy catholic and apostolic Church”.
“The first is where people come to Church just because they ‘belong’. In this Church, people to tend to ignore the reality and the importance of the sacraments and the teaching, focussing more on their interactions with others, maintaining their ethnic identity, internal politics, beaurocracy, gossip and so on. This Church is not going to last very long. There are others out there who do ‘social club’ much better than we ever can. They have more money, more resources, and more experience, and they will rob this Church of its members over time.
“But the other Church, the ‘real Church’, is where people appreciate and value the unique mysteries present in the Church, and avail themselves of its power to transform lives. On any given Sunday, in any given parish, you will find members of both these Churches standing shoulder to shoulder in thel liturgy.”
Schaeffer is speaking from the point of view of one who has not grown up inside the Orthodox Church. He has not had the opportunity to develop ‘tolerance’ (in the sense of tolerance to a drug) through over-familiarity. He expresses his amazement at the amazement of life-long Orthodox who cannot understand why he converted. They seem to him to be saying, “You don’t have to be here. Why on earth would you want to join this leper colony?!” Yet those who react like this are the ones who never really use the power of the Church in their lives. They belong to the Social Club Church, and they see him as leaving much better social clubs for an inferior, ethnically based one.
We have such treasures at our disposal, yet often we need an ‘outsider’ to point them out to us. Hearing Schaeffer speak about the sacrament of confession, how much he has felt the difference that being accountable to someone for his spiritual state has made, and how the Holy Spirit is working to slowly change him through this sacrament made me think of how poorly the ‘life-long’ confessor often benefits from his/her confession. What a pity!
Perhaps our expectations come to be lower? Perhaps we can be too close to see the big picture? Perhaps it is yet another example of the old adage, “Familiarity breeds contempt”, or that one never appreciates a valuable thing until one loses it? I recall working in the Illawarra during my intern year and suddenly feeling acutely the lack of a local Church to go to; suddenly appreciating the immense blessing of weekly Communion when I could no longer get it. I hear many such experiences from our tertiary students who travel to distant places to complete their studies.
Why wait till I lose a precious thing before I appreciate it and benefit fully from it? Why not find that appreciation now? Can you imagine approaching Confession with the expectation of real transformation through the grace of the Holy Spirit combined with your own genuine efforts? Can you imagine approaching Holy Communion in the full understanding of this incredible miracle that occurs weekly before your very eyes? Can you imagine the feeling of walking out of Church carrying Christ in your body, dwelling in Him as He now dwells in you?
Let us not wait to be kicked out of our Father’s house before we realise what we have. Let us not be a Prodigal Son or Daughter. We are rich beyond measure! Let us enter into the joy of our Lord…