Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Secret Life of Men in Black

If you read my blog regularly you know I'm one of the few "Orthodox bloggers" who don't do much "Orthodox stuff" my blog. But I read a lot of other people's blogs and there's plenty of Orthodoxy on the web that is better than I can do or would have time to do, so I decided I'm not going to try to replicate other stuff done better. The other thing is, my blog is about the only place I get to NOT talk about "Orthodoxy" but just about life, hopefully informed in a few nooks and crannies by the orthodox faith...even when I'm dressing up a tortoise in my back yard.

So, Christopher Orr has an "Orthodox blog" that I envy. He has a lot of great quotes and excerpts, but more than that, for a relative newbie to Orthodoxy he always has some very astute personal posts about the inner life of the convert and the issues we all face with newbie zeal, vainglory and disillusionment etc. In a recent post about "name days" he mentioned as an aside the "curse of the Reader" which generated a great response thread about being a new convert, zeal, egos, and some of the dynamics of how people come to "get to wear the black dress" and what that means to we who wear one. It is a path strewn with landmines and he talks eloquently and compassionately about them. I've cut and pasted some of the relevant comments here.

Orr wrote:
...the real 'curse of the Reader': being too involved in the Church for one's spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity is different than spiritual maturity in another Christian denomination or religion, it is also different than one's everyday life maturity, personal or professional. Readers tend to be very involved; thus Orthodoxy can very easily become conversation and opinions and revelations of the 'inside baseball' side of Orthodoxy. This can be offensive, disconcerting, confusing as well as interesting, rewarding, and humbling (in a good way). It's sort of a crucible.

I have likened the various stages in Church life to ever growing targets placed on one's back. Inquirers get little targets, but catechumens trade them in for more permanent, bigger ones. Chrismation/Baptism give you a bigger, brighter one. I experience the same with tonsure as a reader. I would assume the same happens with the subdiaconate, diaconate, priesthood and episcopacy - not to mention monastic tonsure of the various degrees and responsibilities. I am not eager to find out. The 'curse of the Reader' experientially taught me to help the clergy and monastics, to give them the benefit of the doubt, to cut them some slack. They are being attacked more; they have bigger targets on their backs. In some ways, they are diversions letting us get by safely. Perhaps they should have done this or that differently, perhaps they could be nicer, but they take one for the team and grizzled vets that they are point us away from the fray. Becoming a vet necessarily involves grizzling, which means these guys aren't always cuddly - you wouldn't be either with your head up out of the foxhole, to mix metaphors.

I don't know what's happened to the two men tonsured reader with me. Well, I sort of know what's happened with one but try not to think about it - he succumbed to the curse. The other, I have no idea but like to assume he didn't succumb. The Readers before me all succumbed, except for the couple that were ordained. (So) I am firmly against short catechumenates and quick tonsures. 3 years for the first, another 5 for the latter. Though, of course, obedience is life, so... (Incidentally, seminary or serious consideration of monasticism should wait 10 years from one's baptism/chrismation into Orthodoxy and never in the manner of St. Alexey the Man of God. I might be willing to approve of a beard 3 years after reception into Orthodoxy, if one did not already have a beard when serious inquiry into Orthodoxy began; long hair tied into a knot like monastics has to wait until ordination or monasticism, unless you are in a band or previously limited your footwear to Birkenstocks). (s-p: Amen!)

...For the record, my official catechumenate was just over four months, though my unoffical catechumenate (when I was seriously studying and worshiping rather than on and off again peeking at Orthodoxy) was 15-16 months. I was tonsured two years and almost eight months later. So, this is do what I say, not as a do. My times were half my recommendations - but that's because I'm serious when I say obedience is life in such things; it wasn't up to me. This is more of a recommendation to any priests out there responsible for weirdo converts joining the Church....

The only known remedy for the curse of the reader is repentance, confession and trying to shut up as much as possible while remaining an engaged (though perhaps less 'active') Orthodox Christian in a local, not particularly spectacular parish (no monasteries, no Gerondas and Startsy, just a parish) that you chose and stay with without looking elsewhere.

I think it's Fr. Stephen Freeman who says that 95% of Orthodoxy is just showing up. Most of the rest is staying put when you want to run away screaming and crying and swearing. I found I couldn't stop fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays and during the Apostles Fast that terrible year - fasting kept me Orthodox. That, and my Sunday School kids. I couldn't do anything else, couldn't pray, couldn't even stand in church for very long. I could cry during the prayers before communion at a church where no one knew me.

I should note that I am 'doing just fine' and am still a Reader. The whole curse thing is tongue in cheek; it's just a warning of some potential dangers. 'Minor Orders' are not things to be trifled with, neither is conversion. I think priests often want to 'reward' zeal and to give positive encouragement - I don't think quickie conversions and tonsuring are appropriate for that. Similarly, new converts shouldn't be expected to step into the choir director role, join the parish council, lead sunday school, etc. Slow and steady wins the race.

My comments:
Good words, Orr. I completely agree that tonsures (or responsibilities) should not be handed out as a reward for newbie convert zeal. I read services for 7 years and then I was tonsured a reader in another jurisdiction, and that was against my wishes, but the priest insisted (it was a Russian thing). Two years later he talked the Bishop into tonsuring me a subdeacon, again against my desires, I tried pushing it on every other male in the Mission. By the time they both happened I saw it as an obedience, not a "promotion". There was a time I thought I wanted to be a priest. It took me about 8 years to figure out I didn't. A ten year wait before ordination of a convert would be a good rule of thumb in my opinion too. The curse of the reader is real, but it is because those usually tonsured have had hands laid on them too quickly...the Bishops and priests share in their falling for giving them a "badge" beyond their capacity to wear without vainglory and all its manifestations....In one sense a parish doesn't "need" a tonsured Reader. In my first Mission we read services for 7 years without a tonsured Reader, and I believe they still don't have one. The issue I have observed with men coming into Orthodoxy is many of them want to be ordained to something. While attending ALL the services is not done in order to GET tonsured or ordained, usually men do get tonsured because the priest needs someone who is at all the services to read them. So, his pool of potential tonsures is loaded with spiritually immature men who are adept at practicing false humility in public and are looking for a cassock-as-a-badge. No matter how you cut it, and even if you accept tonsure as an obedience with some time under your cincture and you genuinely see it as a ministry etc., there is still something wellll... "cool" about getting to wear the black dress (except in Phoenix in 115). And as Orr said, you are now a "member of the club" and the dirt flows your way now. There's something about showing off to people that you've been rolling in the dirt that is an ego trip that goes along with the "badge" mentality. I generally avoid anyone in black whose conversation is laden with the latest controversies, issues, dirt, insider info and has a plan or vision for the "future of Orthodoxy in America". Ordination to anything is a great temptation to a lot of things. As St. John said in "On the Priesthood", ordination magnifies a man's shortcomings, and his true "craziness" of character will be revealed by the cassock.

Orr's Reply:
Well said. There is a honeymoon to Orthodoxy that can last some time. This is a great blessing. Salvation is not easy. I'm reminded of the little story of CS Lewis where the tin soldier slowly, painfully, frightfully becomes flesh. It's dangerous to advance within the Church while in this honeymoon phase. One hasn't yet been tested; the training wheels have not yet come off.

It's been my experience and observation that simply living an Orthodox life as a layperson is very difficult. Once a person has received a little seasoning, a little experience of falling down and getting back up, of forgiving others, of being offended - all of which is more hurtful as the heart is softened by the Holy Spirit - then is one ready to humbly and fearfully accept responsibility in the Church.

It may be that the Church needs a person's talent sooner than that. That is OK. In some ways, being assigned to the kliros as soon as I was a catechumen was a good thing. It kept me safe from a different set of problems in the nave and narthex. But, if a newbie is put in that position, the priest has to be extra careful to rein them in, to keep them from taking on too much, from being too involved - you want to be in shallow water when you get a cramp, not out at sea. I think there is a tendency to want to see results in one's priesthood, mission, parish, etc. mixed in with the healthy desire to be with, mentor and advance those that love the Church as much as you do. This can lead to giving too much too soon; except for absolute necessities in the Church, it is better to without and with less for a little while to let them newbies cure, season and mature - the priest, the parish, the Church and the newbies themselves will give/get more in the long run if they get just a little less up front. Such has been my experience.

As to whether the person would have freaked out anyway, I don't think that's always the case. Sure, there are actual nuts that can't handle much of anything in life and ordination would just be one more thing, but there are differences - and they aren't differences most people (especially converts) really have experience with. Use St. Paul's metaphor regarding milk and adult food; I also like the idea of a circuit rated for only a certain voltage - run current through it at a higher voltage and it will blow.

The good news is that if you get past the difficult patches, you are stronger and better on the other side (most of the time). That's why it's true that 95% of Orthodoxy is just showing up - and refusing to leave no matter what. (That often takes hunkering down, battening down the hatches, praying more, speaking less, chumming around at church less, giving more, harboring less opinions - at least for a time).

Very true about wearing the dress and being in the know regarding the dirt. I am sorry to say you may have to "generally avoid" me if and when we meet. I'll work on it between now and then, though.

My Reply:
Amen, Orr. Most priests are ecstatic to find someone who WANTS to do stuff and indeed feed "the beast" by adding too much too soon. I was reading about raising a tortoise from birth and if you give it too much of the stuff it likes while it is growing up, it will end up deformed as an adult. hmmmm... and I wouldn't avoid you, I'd just change the subject. Especially if the beer was good. :)

Of course as with all things that make broad brushed observations about motives, people's inner spiritual lives and dynamics of relationships, your mileage may vary, if the shoe fits, and etcetera etcetera etcetera.


thegeekywife said...

Very interesting reading and much food-for-thought. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Good words all around.

I wonder how much of this is an American thing.

Dana Ames

Fr. James Early said...

"A ten year wait before ordination of a convert would be a good rule of thumb in my opinion too."

Wow, Steve - that's tough! Don't you think that a lot of priests who have been ordained only a few years after conversion have turned out all right?

s-p said...

Hi Father, Yeah, I kind of thought that would raise an eyebrow or two. But after being Orthodox for over ten years now I can honestly look back and say if I had been ordained when I wanted to be I may not have been a disaster but I certainly wouldn't have been grounded in a lot of ways I can only now realize I wasn't. I can also honestly look at a lot of converts (and priests) who have a lot of zeal, knowledge, talent and indeed even piety, but there's wellll... something not there that I can now see in others who are further along. (And there have been disasters and more benign misfires I've seen too, both with laymen and ordained to whatevers.)That is not to say that we aren't ALL working out our salvation in the process of doing our ministries. I guess I've become of the mind that if a man is called to the priesthood, the priesthood will still be there when he is more mature, and when he is, he will bring more to it. In the grand scheme of things ten years (more of less) isn't a long time. If the last of them are spent in seminary even seminary would be less traumatic. :) Those who won't or can't wait, that would be a red flag to me. Of course all this is the Bishop's call, and no Bishop has ever asked my opinion of ordaining anyone. And fear not, I will never be a Bishop. So in the end its just my idiosyncratic observations (and a manifestation of convert goofiness too, I'm sure). And I am taking into account that I'm old and bordering on curmudgeonism :) Anyway, rules of thumb are just that, there will always be the exceptional person (which we ALL are, of course... LOL!)

orrologion said...

I'm not old, but I am bordering on curmudgeonism. Chalk anything up here that isn't to anyone's liking as coming from such a man. Steve is right: it's the bishop's call and no bishop has asked my opinion. This has simply been the advice I've given those that have asked, or that I have a close relationship with. At least one hasn't taken it, and I pray him all the best.

The 10 years bit is really more a safeguard for those involved. One might do a lot of good, but at what price personally and spiritually. Is 70% chance of success enough? Is 30% chance of depression or bitterness low? I think not. If waiting 10 years can increase the odds of success and salvation, please, wait.

I also think 10 years is long enough to push it out of a person's head for the first few years. Then the person can be approached by bishop or priest about going sooner without them having been holding their breath.

(I remember distinctly telling myself at the start of my senior year of college that I wouldn't bother doing a deep clean of our dumpy Allston, MA apartment because "it's only 9 months". Bad choice, even though we did, 'successfully, hold out. Bachelors and converts may have something in common.)

Anonymous said...

Ten years' wait might or might not be enough to prepare a convert for ordination. Fr. Early is correct that many priests ordained soon after conversion have certainly turned out all right-- especially if they were already men of mature years and with experience in the ministry in their former church. The combination that seems to me particularly risky is the twenty something enthusiast who converts and then heads off to seminary as soon as possible. It is also odd to me that some students arrive at seminary having read and served in the altar, yet have never served on parish council, taught Sunday school or led a youth group; or perhaps joined in with any of the other ‘everyday’ ministries like cleanup after coffee or helping with a fundraising event. Perhaps candidates should be required to earn some sort of ‘Boy Scout’ badge in all these areas before being allowed into seminary!

As for ‘minor orders’, I know of one mission with a newly-ordained priest that consisted mostly of college-age converts, so there was certainly a need for people to take leadership in several areas, ready or not. But the priest decided all of the people who did anything at all around the church, liturgically or otherwise, would each have some sort of special title so they could, well, feel special….because that’s the way kids are treated in the education system these days. One was hurried into the diaconate, and is no longer anywhere to be seen in the church….the priest himself has left the active ministry. There is a reason for setting the canonical age for ordination at 30, but these days it seems if anything the age needs to be older if we want men who have amassed enough life experience to begin to mature in order to serve as fathers to their parishioners.