by the Very Rev. Vladimir Berzonsky
"Go to this people and say, you will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so they might not...understand with their heart and turn - and I would heal them" (Acts 28:26)
St. Paul is closing out this unique record of the work of the Holy Spirit in Acts, beginning at St. Peter's sermon in Jerusalem on Pentecost to Paul's ministry in Rome. He reflects on his own people and their reluctance to receive Jesus as the Messiah. Salvation will go forward through the Gentiles. It must have broken his heart to come to that realization. They know so much of the scriptures and tradition yet are so far from the promptings of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.
It reminds me of so many students of Christianity who explore the faith and traditions of the Orthodox Church. Something about us intrigues them. We are different, even exotic, and we are outside the western Christian development. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation experiences escaped our evolution through history. We are interesting, mysterious and even fascinating. So they explore the unknown quantity, the Eastern formation of Christianity. Many of them - scholars and just curious students of religion - delve into our history, worship, traditions, rituals, music and iconography. Some learn more about us than many of our own faithful. And they are not hesitant to explain everything they have found out about the true faith. They even lecture to the Orthodox believers about their own church. They know so much, yet they comprehend so little, because their knowledge remains in their heads and rarely reaches their hearts. They visit our church and make a point of displaying what they have studied of iconography. They can explain the difference between a "tenderness" and a "hodigitria" icon of the Theotokos, and I smile. They know about the colors, periods and styles of our icons, but they don't understand why we venerate the icons or call them holy, nor do they care. They examine, investigate, analyze and evaluate - they do everything but kiss the icons. It's fashionable nowadays to paint icons, even to call it "writing icons," and to study with an accomplished iconographer. They may imitate the better known iconographers, but will they stand through an akathist to an icon and imbibe the presence of the saint commemorated?
It doesn't much matter if outsiders to our faith make a hobby of our sacred tradition and the ways we struggle towards unity with the Holy Trinity. It may bring them to communion with us through receiving our sacraments, or they may go on to become experts of Orthodoxy, teaching courses in university or even seminary institutions. I am more concerned that we deliver our precious heritage to our own children while we have them with us. Not just to explain, but to set examples of our faith's joy and the blessings that come from growing into Christ ever more day by day.
The hazard of having the non-Orthodox explain the faith is that they are by definition outside of the Church. They will always have a skewed awareness of the essence of a life in Christ. They hear, they read and analyze the essentials of faith, but unless they taste and see, they will never really know how good the Lord is. That applies not only to the non-Orthodox; it refers as well to the former Orthodox Christians, who consider themselves as having graduated from their childhood understanding of the true faith. We have such who presume to know all about Orthodoxy from having been baptized and taken to church as children, yet they do not mature and develop in Christ.
Article originally appearing in Fr. Vladimir Berzonsky's "Thoughts in Christ" series.(O.C.A. website).