Since converting to Orthodox Christianity just over 5 years ago there have been so many subtle (and not-so-subtle) gradual changes in my spiritual practice and worldview that it is sometimes difficult to put into words some of the differences between Protestantism and Orthodox Christianity.
I recently stumbled upon a blog that described so perfectly one of the big cultural/spiritual differences between the two. The blog is entitled “Contracting Our Vision” by Father Michael Gillis. This blog reminded me that when I first became Orthodox, I struggled with feeling like I wasn’t “doing anything”…I felt that I wasn’t being a good steward of my talents (because I had a wrong understanding of “talents” in the first place). I felt really antsy a lot of the time because, well, I wasn’t in Africa like some of my friends from college, setting up microfinancing or other kinds of social entrepreneurship and social justice work. Before I go on, I should share the paragraph from the blog I reference…I hope he doesn’t mind that I am posting such a large quote:
“In the Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition, ministries and great works accomplished for God are really quite down-played. You don’t generally hear people talking about their ministries when you get a large group of Orthodox Christians together. It’s not that Orthodox Christians don’t do stuff. They do lots of stuff, stuff that others might call ministry. It’s just that ministry, what one does for or with God in the world, is not a significant measure of spiritual stature in the Orthodox world, it’s not evidence of anything necessarily eternal, it’s not the real work of Christ in the world. In the Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition, it’s not the moving of physical, political or social mountains that is most important. What is most important is that one ascend the inner, spiritual mountain with Christ. All that can be seen, all that one does externally is only the context, or perhaps the overflow of this hidden, inner work. External actions are not unimportant or irrelevant—to the contrary. But they are only important in as much as they are a participation in the work of Christ in the world and in as much as they are the external fruit or overflow of inner transformation.”
When you combine this more internal focus, with the slightly wrong definition of “works” and “talents” that I had, there was quite a bit to undo in my mind for me to start focusing on the most needful things in my life. Years ago, when expressing my uneasiness to who is now my son’s godfather he said something like “Do what you are doing…first focus on being a wife and loving your husband and your family.” It was what I needed to hear…in my generation, at least, we are bombarded with phrases such as figuring out our “passion” or finding our perfect “ministry” (in the Protestant church) and we can lose focus on the importance of a simple, loving, prayerful life at home and the impact this can have as well. “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” as St. Seraphim of Sarov said. And not to mention with the rate of divorce as high as it is, and the homes with two working parents (though many do this out of necessity and I like to think of them as “stay at home parents in their hearts” ), having a healthy home life is a big work in these days! Anyway…I digress…I really suggest reading Father Michael Gillis because he described this issue so perfectly.
The frenetic energy I felt as a mid-20s Protestant was partially rooted in my misunderstanding of works and talents. Not to say there aren’t Protestants out there with a proper understanding of certain things (the Truth is in the Bible after all, which we all read), it just wasn’t something that I had derived from the teaching I received in my churches. For example, Protestants get upset about the idea of faith and works as part of salvation (even though the ENTIRE book of James in the New Testament is dedicated to this topic), partly because I’m not sure works is defined properly in the Protestant context. To use myself as an example, I used to sing and still do. I thought that to be a good steward of my talents, I should have a musical career….I failed at it…so what would I do for God now? What else was I good at? In the Orthodox Church, the focus is not on natural talents, but spiritual talents and gifts…like patience, kindness, longsuffering.. (Galations 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”) My heart began to change when I realized what God wanted most from me is things like gentleness, self control, etc…this is the hard work that is most needful. This makes me think of the verse 6:”33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” First seek God and his righteousness, and then the “external” work will follow when its time, in its own way for each person. With the proper spiritual framework, figuring out what the spiritual work is or what is “enough” should not be a source of anxiety.
To summarize, in just this topic alone, there were three things that needed to change in my brain. First was to realize that “gifts/talents” referred primarily to spiritual gifts (i.e. patience, love, kindness, humility, prayer, etc), then to realize that “work” focuses primarily on the same things and on activities that help us to better follow Christ and grow in His virtues (i.e. prayer, almsgiving, fasting, Church services), but third and most importantly, it is all about following Christ and living out the Beatitudes, and less about my church “committee” or “ministry.” As a Protestant, hypothetically, I might have thought, “Wow, I think God blessed me with intelligence..I should be a good steward of this and become a neurosurgeon and bring glory to God,” but now practicing Orthodox spirituality I should think “Wow, God blessed me with intelligence…so why can’t I figure out how to have more patience?!” Its kind of a paradigm shift…subtle, or perhaps not to subtle…