01 June 2007

Principle Issues: Books Along the Way

More often than I can count, I've been asked to recommend books that I found useful as I contemplated becoming Orthodox. More often than not, the inquirer is looking for only a few noteworthy books. Moreover, the inquiry presumes that one can read his way into the Church. One can't. For the Church is not an academy or library; rather, she is a living organism, a body. Therefore, what is key is not knowledge but relationship; and not the letter, but the Spirit.

Nevertheless, knowledge and letters (i.e., books) are not unimportant. For they help clarify the relationship and articulate the organism. Or, to say it another way, while faith does not require understanding, understanding forms and informs faith.

As I've pondered the question in order to give a reasonable and cogent answer, I have reviewed the past five years and determined that there certainly are many books that have been most helpful. But I keep coming back to three in particular--the three that I am certain formed my understanding of and stoked my desire for the Church. These three are: the English Missal, the Anglican Breviary and daily selections of homilies from the Church Fathers.

During the five years leading up to my chrismation, I daily read these three books as a celebrated daily Mass at the Lutheran congregation that I served. During that five I period, I gradually drifted away from trying to "Lutheranize" these texts by careful editing (as had been my arduous practice), but rather to let the propers, Psalms, hymns, prayers, and fathers speak for themselves, earnestly endeavoring to understand their context while determining that I was not smart enough to correct self-perceived mistranslations or accretions but humbly attempting to hear and learn from these texts. In Lutheran parlance, I no longer exercised a magisterial but a ministerial use of reason concerning the liturgy and the fathers.

I am convinced that this use of these texts, more than anything else, led me in time to the understanding that, while I miraculously and wondrously exercised the grace of the Holy Spirit through preaching and the Sacraments, I did so outside of the Church--much like the man in Mark 9.

As I stated above, along the way many other books, articles and discussions were helpful. But these three texts--the Scriptures in the liturgy, the Scriptures in the breviary, and the Scriptures interpreted by the fathers--were, for me, the most formative in my "journey."

3 comments:

Dixie said...

...I gradually drifted away from trying to "Lutheranize" these texts by careful editing (as had been my arduous practice), but rather to let the propers, Psalms, hymns, prayers, and fathers speak for themselves, earnestly endeavoring to understand their context while determining that I was not smart enough to correct self-perceivd mistranslations or accretions but humbly attempting to hear and learn from these texts.

While I certainly do not share a like theological background, I did experience something along similar lines. I co-chaired several prayer breakfasts for the prayer team at our Lutheran church and was responsible for preparing the devotions. At one point I was just beginning to read the Fathers and I had this bright idea to put together a selection of their prayers for the devotion. I literally read dozens of prayers trying to find some that worked "as is". Then I tried trimming them here and there cutting out things that would have raised a few eyebrows or were otherwise in conflict with what I understood to be Lutheran. In the end I had a chopped up mess and just abandoned the project.

One question this exercise forced me to ask and resolve was why prayers from the 3rd century seemed so non-Lutheran.

I would say it was praying the prayers of the Jordanville prayerbook that seemed to create in me an intense desire to be Orthodox...to be a part of the Body that belonged to these prayers.

Christopher said...

Are there things in the Anglican and Roman Catholic versions of these books that you still must 'edit' out as an Orthodox Christian, or are they perfectly reflective of Orthodox dogma, practice, etc.? I have never used these books before, so I am not sure what their 'sources' are. I assume they are not purely pre-Schism rites, but were 'developed' up until the 19th or 20th Centuries with some of those confessions' particularities.

Fr John W Fenton said...

Christopher,

I follow the texts provided or approved by the Western Rite Vicariate of the Archdiocese. These approved texts do have the usual "edits"--the omission of the filiquoe, the inclusion of the epiclesis, etc. Fr William Weedon has pointed out that even these "edits" are problematic--and I think he makes an important point. Nevertheless, I no longer take it upon myself--or even feel the urge--to edit what I have received from the Archdiocese.

The point of my original post, however, was not about editing. The point was that the books that drew me into the Orthodox Church were the books that shape life, not books that give knowledge. My secondary point was that my lack of "editing" indicated a shift in my thinking--away from liturgy as a man-made product, to liturgy as the Spirit-given response.