Priest David Moser
Each culture has its own "language," its own mindset, its own "idiom," if you will. Orthodoxy also has its own "language," one that can be and is expressed in many different tongues. Some people seem to have a greater facility than others for learning this language. It has nothing to do with linguistic ability. Rather, it requires humility and obedience; it is a matter of the heart.
Inevitably, those of us who are converts bring with us to the Faith our "baggage", our old way of thinking and understanding. We grew up with a "language" of a different religious culture, be it Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, humanist, or some other. It is not possible to understand the fullness of the Orthodox faith while continuing to use a different "language." Therefore, we must change the way we think; we must acquire the mind of the Church (something which has also been called the mind of Christ, or the mind of the Fathers). This is not accomplished overnight; it is a long process, like learning a foreign language; progress is gradual and requires a great deal of effort. Those of us who were not brought up in the Church and who did not acquire an Orthodox outlook as children, must set aside our old way of thinking, our old way of expressing Christian ideas and replace that old "language" with the "language" of Orthodoxy.
Some of you readers will say, "I've done that. I use words like 'Theotokos,' and 'liturgy' instead of 'mass,' and 'mystery' instead of 'sacrament'." That's not the point. It's not a matter of semantics. What we are talking about here is a profound change of heart and mind. I was raised in the Evangelical Protestant tradition. If I attempt to understand the Orthodox Faith in the context of the Christianity in which I was raised, such an understanding will be incomplete and faulty, because the concepts, the expressions, the meanings are either not there or are different. For example, a Protestant will say, so-and-so is "saved," or someone "got saved," as something that happens when a person accepts Jesus Christ as God and Saviour, whereas in an Orthodox context that person is said to be in the process of being saved (cf. Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, p. 259), of working out his salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-a passage never quoted by Protestants). Or again, Protestants commonly refer to believers as "saints," and while this is true in the sense in which it is used by St. Paul, within the Orthodox tradition a "saint" is someone worthy of awe and veneration, a model of Christian perfection. To take another example, the word "ascetic" and "asceticism" are virtually missing from the Protestant vocabulary, while they are among Orthodoxy's ABCs. These distinctions have significant ramifications. Until a convert to Orthodoxy turns his back on his former understanding and retrains himself to think and understand in the ways of the Church, he will not be able to comprehend even the simplest spiritual truths.
Over the past five years there has been a growing influx of former Protestants into the Orthodox Church. This is cause for rejoicing. But there are dangers here. Catechism is often inadequate, and assumptions are made about the level of understanding that these new converts have of the Faith, which may not be accurate. The conversions often result in a change of external habits with little change of heart, and, in may cases, no realization that such a change is needed. Outwardly, these converts may be Orthodox (sometimes more Orthodox than those raised in the Faith): they have icons, they fast, they cross themselves; but their mentality is still protestant; they have not acquired the mind of the Church. In order to meet the pastoral needs of these new converts, some of them are taken straight from the Protestant tradition and ordained to Holy Orders (the priesthood or diaconate); before they themselves have learned the "language" of Orthodoxy, they are given the responsibility of teaching others. This is unfortunate. Heterodox training is at best inadequate for passing on the Orthodox Faith. One can be steeped in Orthodoxy intellectually, but this is still not enough.
The Apostle Paul writes: Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus...(Phil. 2:5-11). This passage is assigned by the Church to be read at certain feasts of the Mother of God, the paragon of Christian obedience and humility, indicating to us that it is precisely these virtues that are the key to to acquiring the mind of the Church, the mind of Christ. first we must obediently acquire the external appearance, put on the robe of the Church, as it were, resisting the tendency-in our pride of mind-to alter those parts which feel uncomfortable, as if they were simply something"ethnic" which we should "Americanize"; but humbly conforming ourselves to its contours, recognizing that this is the robe of Christ and His saints. Then we must begin to effect that internal change, obediently submitting our mind and heart to the instruction of the Church. This is available to us in many forms: in the guidance of an experienced spiritual father, in the church services, in the writings of the Holy Fathers, in the Lives of Saints (here the "savor" of Orthodox is readily apparent)... If there is some aspect of the Church's teaching or her tradition that doesn't make sense to us we must be patient and humble, realizing that it is our understanding which is still deficient, not the Church.
The most important means of acquiring the mind of the Church is prayer. This again is a learning process; we must learn to pray in the "language" of the Church. The Apostle Paul writes, we know not what we should pray as we ought... (Rom. 8:26), and therefore the Church gives us the prayers of saints-those who have mastered the art-to guide us, to help us develop an Orthodox consciousness, a proper disposition of mind and heart. Here again, we must not rely on our heterodox experience. By carefully attending to the prayers in our prayerbooks and the public prayers of the Church, we will be steered away from the presumption of the pharisee and towards the soul-saving humility and compunction of the publican.
Christian, it is imperative that you acquire the mind of the Church, but to do so you must relinquish your pride, your previous learning and experience outside the Church and become like a little child. Start at the beginning; set aside whatever you think you have, and, humbly and obediently following the direction of the Church, allow yourself to be molded into the image of Christ.
Priest David Moser
St Seraphim Mission, Boise, Idaho