“I am earth and ashes.” Genesis 18:27
My journey to Orthodoxy was a rocky road. I was a devout Catholic, enjoying the security of certainty. There is something very spiritually cathartic about a Pope, infallibility, and answers to almost every life question. I was sold, and I spent my days trying to find out how I could be a better Catholic. This led to a type of surrender of conscience that at times was very difficult. (Very loving and good Catholic friends would tell me that my struggle in this area was because my conscience was defiled, or not informed.) Not that the Catholic Church ever led me into uncharitable waters, or immorality. But, what did happen to me was a loss of heart.
As I have tried to emphasize in earlier posts, the experiences that I write about are my experiences. I know many Catholics who did not and do not have my experience, and therefore my statement is not a judgement of Catholicism. It is just my story.
After feeling this emptiness for some time, I began to examine the way I was catechizing myself and my children. It was here that I think my true conversion to Orthodoxy began.
I usually hate to give definitions of words as a proof of my opinion, but in this case I could not resist. So here it is, a definition of catechism:
2: a manual for catechizing; specifically : a summary of religious doctrine often in the form of questions and answers
3 a : a set of formal questions put as a test
b : something resembling a catechism especially in being a rote response or formulaic statement
I always start with the question, “What is my purpose?” So in this case I asked the question, why do I desire to catechize myself and my children? For me the answer was this, to know and love God and experience Him in the heart. Now, the word know here is inadequate and somewhat misleading. It’s just the only word I can use that I understand. This knowing is not the kind that would make me or my children superior to others or equal to God. It is more about a warm sense of love that abides in the heart. A real presence of love, humility, and simplicity. Can a man or woman be a friend of God? Can he/she know Him in a way that is genuine and life giving? I think so, and I believe that if the goal of catechism is not primarily centered around repentance and humility it will puff up and make me and my children unbearable and fierce. And this is the opposite of my original desire.
And that leads me to the definition of catechism as defined by the online Merriam Webster Dictionary. Just listen to these statements, “a manual”, “a summary”, “questions and answers”, “a test”, “rote response”, and finally “formulaic statement”. Do these statements in anyway conjure a feeling of repentance, warmth, love, friendship, heart, simplicity, or most importantly humility. Not for me.
About a year before we converted to Orthodoxy, I abandoned the traditional catechism methods of the Catholic church, the Baltimore Catechism and my personal choice of the Faith and Life Series. I just couldn’t do it anymore, and I was very sad about it. The spiritual formation of my children is very important to me, and I was at a loss as to how I was going to teach my children about God and the Church without these resources. But, the fruit I began to see was not worth the security of certainty. My children and I advanced greatly in our knowledge, knowing rote answers and becoming increasingly smarter. But, as I mentioned before it was at a loss of heart. We were becoming defenders of orthodoxy and tradition, but I was not seeing the humility I desired in myself or the simplicity and wonder I wanted for my children.
The Orthodox are not insulated from this loss of heart. If we take literally the definition of Orthodoxy as “right belief”, we run the risk of seeking the right in everything…and the wrong. Orthodoxy is not about right and wrong, formulated answers, and rote responses with the criteria of being “orthodox”. There is no manual of Orthodox belief that constitutes the wholeness of our faith. The wholeness of our faith is contained in the Life of the Church, which is the Life of Christ. The best way to catechize an Orthodox child, or adult for that matter, is framed in three words, “Come and see.”
For me, very little formal instruction is needed. When we come and see it is essential that the participation be dynamic, and a natural extension of the domestic Church. When prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the active disciplines of discipleship in the home they serve as fuel to the fire, and Church becomes the consummation of a whole life lived in Christ. The Church’s liturgical and sacramental life is essential in the recovery of heart, the discovery of heart. The disciplines of the Church are only tools to obtain union with God. It is grace, it is all grace.
Why do I need a manual when I have the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church? Why do I fear that my children don’t “know” enough about their faith? Why do I look for the wrong kind of fruit? Because as I have mentioned before, I am prideful. For some reason my children’s knowledge or lack of knowledge is a reflection on me. It is also coming from the fear that if my children do not know how to defend their faith with facts and irrefutable statements they will somehow loose their faith when they go out into the real world. But this kind of knowledge is not a defense against unbelief. Believe me, I know. I am living proof that intellectual knowledge about my faith is no match for the unbelief that is in the world today.
In reality, catechism in the Orthodox homeschool curriculum has very little to do with rote answers and manuals. For me it has everything to do with the heart and a progression in virtue. All that being said, I do trust that there is a way to catechize my children.
The Life of the Church:
- Go to Church. The hymns, the homilies, the icons, they all inform and enlighten.
- Follow the Church Feasting and Fasting calendar.
- Participate in the sacraments.
- Pray, Fast, and give Alms.
- Read the Scriptures with my children.
- Memorize prayer, especially the Lord’s Prayer, the Trisagion, and the Psalms.
- Read the Lives of the Saints.
- Keep Icons ever before our eyes and pray with them.
- Have alot of conversations about all of the above.
And that’s all, that is all I need. If I am desperate for a Constantinople Catechism…there it is. This is my belief.
At the beginning of this post I mentioned that my conversion to Orthodoxy was a rocky road. It was my husband who came first. He lead me to books, to websites, and we had many theological arguments. I was a hard nut to crack, even with my doubts and struggles. However, one evening we attended a talk that was held at a local Orthodox parish. The minute I stepped into the Narthex I felt something happen. My heart leaped within me. I knew I would never return. I had studied the major theological differences between the two Churches, but I was tired of changing churches like I changed my sheets. It was my heart that I desired. It was God I longed for. In the Orthodox Church I found that place, I found my home, and ultimately my heart.
And this is everything I want for my children.