Sunday, March 3, 2013

Days of Unbelief

I'm starting to recognize a pattern with my spiritual self. I go through cycles much like the physical menstrual cycle (in fact, I'm not entirely sure they aren't connected). I'm not sure which happens first, but three things are generally present at once: I'm abnormally anxious and depressed, I'm lacking sleep because of the kids not sleeping well (we're still sleeping in one room but with much better accommodations overall), and I'm coming down with another bout of seasonal illness. Any one of which could certainly bring about the other two. And when this happens, I lose my desire to maintain religious connections.  In fact, my mind is overwhelmed with all of the reasons why religion (not faith) is a poisonous and harmful thing.

It's funny, though; if I attend a Protestant church or gathering during these times, rather than patiently tolerating their judgmental dissertations on how evil society is, I become revolted and deeply angered at their arrogance. I can barely remain seated and keep a straight face. But if I go to the Orthodox Church, I feel rejuvenated, washed with peace and love and restoration of faith. Which is an entirely different thing from religion, as I have observed before. The beautiful colors, the sweet harmony of the liturgy, the service consisting almost entirely of prayer. Not the self-flagellating prayers of many western congregations, but prayers for all mankind, and specifically those closest to us. The running theme of the Orthodox liturgy is, "Lord, have mercy." On everyone. And that is a prayer I can enter into wholeheartedly, with every fiber of my being.

I'm starting to understand the appeal of asceticism. Religion has to be kept simple if it is to remain faith. Too many doctrines, and it morphs into a different animal entirely. It's just like the government making laws. Of course some are necessary. But you have to keep in mind that every new law makes a criminal. How much do we really want to criminalize? And the same with doctrines. At some point, you're just making more sinners, not purifying yourselves.

Today marks the beginning of the Orthodox Lent. I'm not observing it strictly, and I don't feel guilty about that. For one thing, today would be a poor day to start fasting since I'm coming down with another nasty sinus infection. Eating cloves of garlic without dairy isn't a good idea. But I'm finding that I enjoy fasting, on a spiritual level. I'm realistic; I cannot go forty days on a vegan diet. Which is essentially what the Lent fast is. I have to eat eggs and dairy at least, and I will. I'll still try to abstain on Wednesdays and Fridays unless I'm sick. Those days are commonly fast days for the Orthodox, and I think there are physical health benefits to that. But the real purpose of fasting, to me, seems to be discipline. SELF-discipline. And that is something I need and want to cultivate. It's important to me that I be able to go without comforts.

I got my tax return from last year. My big splurges were a transmission tune-up, more accommodating beds that my Dad kindly spent ALL of yesterday putting together, and two books. An Orthodox Study Bible, which I've been wanting for a couple of years now, and a book by the current Patriarch of the Orthodox Church. I've only made it through the foreword so far, but I think this is someone I can relate to. He has been called the "Green Patriarch" because of his passion for the environment, reminding people that we are supposed to be preserving the Earth for our Creator, not using it up for our own advancement. He talks about the icons reminding us that Christianity is a "religion of faces," meaning that it is supposed to be a religion for the common people, a religion of unity. He strives - unsuccessfully, which is sad - to create and maintain dialogue between the Muslims, Jews, and Christians of the Middle East.

I think there will always be doctrines held by the Church that I take exception to. And I was comforted to find, in talking with the priest, that I am not alone in that. The Church requires only that you believe in the Nicene Creed, and that you personally do not live a life in open contradiction to their doctrines. For example, they do not require that I personally believe homosexuals to be sinning. Only that I do not live as a homosexual or promote it as an acceptable lifestyle. Right now, I'm not ready to do either one (condemn it or promote it). Our priest does not believe in the death penalty, although the Church holds it to be an acceptable form of punishment. And while the Church does not hold pacifism as a doctrine, I think from what I've read so far it's a safe bet the Patriarch is himself a pacifist at heart.

A "religion of faces." I like that. It sounds like a religion I can live with, and not compromise my own faith to do so.

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