Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Inchoate Musings on Orthopraxy

As I have mentioned elsewhere (here and here also), orthopraxy is of some importance to me. As a convert to Orthodoxy, I have all the theology, but little knowledge (and less experience) of the practice. And what merit a man if he gain all knowledge but losing his soul for failing to practice it? This is the path of the Devil and his minions. Faith without works is dead, and I will show thee my faith by my works.

And yet there is a core ... there is praxis that is of less import and there is praxis that is the heart of our religion. Modest dress, headscarves, Lent: these things and their like are not the be-all and end-all of Orthodoxy. Granted, as Christ said to the right practice of the Pharisees, that they should have done the weightier matters of the Law (justice, mercy, and faith) while not to have left the other undone.

What evidence can I give as to this core? The Law and the Prophets are summed thus: love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself. The three activities Christ mentions in the Sermon on the Mount are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Elsewhere He identifies action done to the sick, the stranger, the widowed, the orphan, and the imprisoned as being done to Him. And St. James says that pure religion to visit the orphan and the widow in their distress, and keep oneself unspotted from the world.

Over and over, the message is this: it is essential to care for the needy, the hurting, the least among you. And so in Christ's Church the heart of our orthopraxy is still the same - caring for our fellow man, and in our care demonstrating our love for God Himself and by our works showing our faith.

It is interesting to note that there is little in Scripture about mastering a catechism, little about church attendance, little about following a prayer rule. The Church has identified these as valuable, and so they are. But the foundation of our praxis lies in our treatment of our neighbours.

The To-Do List
  • almsgiving
  • hospitality
  • visiting the institutionalized (the old, sick, and the gaoled)
  • loaning without repayment (a.k.a. giving)
  • caring for the homeless
  • remembering the single mother, the man who relies on Salvation Army clothing, and the girl who works at Walmart
  • caring also for the foreigner and the immigrant
All these things have been said before ... but it is too easy to rely on governmental social aids (like Canada's health care system, like the Children's Aid Society, like food stamps and welfare) to do the work for us. It is too easy to leave the work to large impersonal charities [the conscientious will only give to charities with low overhead and minimal administrative fees], instead of personally, where there is never any overhead and a direct, immediate, and personal relationship is forged. It is too easy to loan money to the poor (whether with interest or no).

And in a world where even the Church sends away the poor, even the Church spends her riches on the temporal, it is left to the individual to care for the hurting, to invest in eternity, to be Christ to them, that they might be Christ to us. Face-to-face, icon of Christ to icon of Christ, a glimpse of eternity, a reflection of the Divine, an acting out of the mystery of the Incarnation, a sharing in the Passion, grace overflowing upon grace in the economy of Heaven.

- V.


Anonymous said...

Do you welcome comments/criticisms?

Anonymous said...

I share your interest in orthopraxy, and I appreciate the reminder practically love our neighbors.

Still, I think there is a fundamental difference between us. I wonder if it is Orthodoxy versus Reformed theology... perhaps you can help me out with that. You said: "And so in Christ's Church the heart of our orthopraxy is still the same - caring for our fellow man, and in our care demonstrating our love for God Himself and by our works showing our faith." And later you added, "But the foundation of our praxis lies in our treatment of our neighbours."

I would argue, on the contrary, that the foundation of our praxis lies in our relationship with God and, specifically, our love for Him. Indeed, this is why orthodoxy must always come before orthopraxy, and I believe it is this that drives all of orthopraxy including love for neighbours. Our service and love toward others flows out of our service and love to God. The church, then, must be at the center of our activity. I would argue that the preaching of the Word, Bible study, catechesis, Christian fellowship and prayer are fundamental to orthopraxy (Acts 2:42-46). Those things must always come first if we are to properly serve and care for our neighbours (Acts 2:47).

Before Jesus spoke of almsgiving, prayer and fasting (Matthew 6) He spoke on Christian character (also known as the Beatitudes), He described the nature of our relationship to the world (salt and light), He dealt the with the law and prophets and our relationship to them (5:17-48) - summing it all up with the words: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." Even chapter 6which address almsgiving, prayer, and fasting teaches us that these are to be done unto God realizing that He is our primary audience in all that we do - this chapter is summed up with the words: "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness..."

For me, then, orthopraxy is primarily and most fundamentally about giving glory to God - all else flows from this.

Anonymous said...

Occasionally the contrast can be very immediate. Going to Church on a wintry morning I was mentally set to spend some time, as is my custom, in prayer before the Mass, to prepare my mind and heart.

Out of cab in the parking lot was getting an old woman, of somewhat crusty personality sometimes, whose unsteady walk, ensured that she would not make the trip successfully across the icy distance to the door. Grumbling in my heart a little at the delay I gave her my arm and carried her cane, and told my wife to go on without me. Once inside, after the woman snatched her cane back, my attention was immediately drawn to the shovel and bucket of ice-melter right there. Frustrated at the further delay I knew what I had to do. As quickly as I could I cleared the walkway and when I had just finished, an older man approached to enter and told me, "we hire a guy to do that, you know."
What could I do but smile and say nothing?
There I was, steamed up in body with the work, steamed up in heart with the loss of prayer time, and I could only laugh at myself.
If I had been thinking, that time of service could have been my prayer time, by offering it, little as it was, to Jesus as a prayer.
As it was, I had time enough to say "Thank you my Lord, I love you," before the liturgy began.

And thank you Lord for the lesson.