by Father John Moses
Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t!
“He is mad…” John 10.20 “We are fools…” I Corinthians 4:10
People tell me that they have a hard time crossing themselves in public or even praying over a meal. Strangers will stare and sometimes shake their heads or even laugh while making comments to their friends. It is difficult because it seems that our society is bent on removing all references to God from the public realm. Being Orthodox today can make you feel like a “fish out of water.”
You should be with me on a Friday night when I walk into Wal-mart. Being a Russian priest, I am dressed in my black prodrasnik, ryassa and skufia (long robes with big sleeves and a black hat).With my long white hair and white beard, I am quite a sight. People have never seen anything like me. The reaction can go something like this: “Hey, Bubba, take a look at that! Is that a woman?” Of course, if I have a chance to talk to them, I try to make them feel more at ease with humor. Lifting up my cross, I tell them that I am a “cross dresser.” That usually breaks the ice.
We might as well face that fact that if we try to live the Orthodox life, people will think we are foolish or crazy. Yet, what is better – to be a fool or to be crazy?
In his book, Hesychia and Theology , His Grace, Hierotheos, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, writes: “According to the patristic meaning of the word, everyone is a psychopath, that is to say, his soul is sick….For the psychiatrist, the psychopath means…he is suffering from a psychosis: a schizophrenic. From the Orthodox standpoint, however, it is someone who has not undergone purification of the passions or attained illumination…” (pg.26) You see, we are all “crazy.”
Given the dreams and ambitions of this life, what would you think of a person who would describe his life in this way and says that he is committed to it: “I am hungry and thirsty and I have bad clothes. I have no home to live in and people assault me. I do manual labor all the time, but people call me names. I try to be nice to people, but they curse at me. People think I am trash, and they treat me like crap.” Anyone in his right mind would never intentionally embrace such a life. He must be mad, indeed. Maybe with some career training or crisis intervention, he could take on a different career path. The world is full of possibilities for a man with ambition and intelligence. Why should anyone intentionally live such a life unless they are mad or foolish?
The man who said this is St. Paul. I’m glad that he didn’t take on a new career path. His job description was “fool for Christ”, and he took it on gladly because he knew it was better to be a fool than to be a psychopath, for only a fool can reach those who are sick in soul.
One of my favorite movies is “Quo Vadis.” Towards the end, they take St. Peter to Vatican Hill to crucify him. He demands that they crucify him upside down because he is not worthy to be crucified as the Lord was crucified. After he has been nailed to the cross, they put the crucifix in the ground upside down. St. Peter remarks that now he can see the world as it really is. It might do most of us a lot of good to go out on the porch and stand on our heads. Then maybe we could see the world as it truly is and understand the depth of its madness.
If we practice piety in public, we feel foolish. Wanting to be respectable and fit in, we are loathe to practice piety where others will see us and criticize us. I once heard Fr. Daniel Byantoro, an Orthodox priest from Indonesia, say that the conversation between Muslims might go something like this:“Muhammad, do Christians pray?” “I don’t know, Kareem, I’ve never seen them pray. Have you?” “Mohammad, do Christians fast?” “I don’t know, Kareem, I’ve never seen them fast. Have you?” “I wonder, Mohammad, if they believe in God at all.” “Kareem, there is no way to tell.”
Now, it is against the law to try to convert Muslims to Christianity, but Fr. Daniel says that they are beginning to have greater success. How is this possible? Well, each day Fr. Daniel goes into the bell tower and calls the Christians to come and pray the Hours.The Muslims are amazed. Then when they come to visit, they are shocked. “You prostrate! Allah be praised. Your women cover their heads and are modest. Allah be praised. You fast…what….180 days of the year? Impossible! That is more than we do.” By the practice of piety, the power of the Faith is made real to them.
Why do I wear my robe in public? Well, of course, I am required to do so, but I’ve actually made converts that way. Sitting in a MacDonald’s or walking in a Home Depot, people will ask me who I am and why do I dress this way. Entering into a conversation, I always invite them to Church. Sometimes, they end up becoming members. I’ll be honest -sometimes I feel foolish out in the world in my priestly ensemble. Yet, I know that there is no way to live the faith in this culture and not be considered foolish by family, friends, and co-workers. Soon, we will approach Nativity and the world will “prepare” by throwing parties. They will think we are fools for not joining in and we will feel foolish for not doing so.
Its Almond Joy Orthodoxy: sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. I know that it is a balance because the Lord told us to pray in our closets and do our good work in secret. Yet, He also said that we should let our lights shine before men so that they could see our good works, and glorify God. Somewhere, between those two commands, we can find our Orthodox lifestyle, a life of piety.
Still, when it’s all said and done, it’s better to be fool than a psychopath!