Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | July 14, 2009

Not a matter of Intellectual Choice, but a matter of God gathering His people

I’ve been steadily but nevertheless leisurely re-reading Fr. Meletios Webbers excellent “Bread & Water, Wine & Oil“.

I confess that a number of Orthotexts find my eyeballs driving through as searching a distant landscape for my set of keys. Many in fact fit this paradigm where the telling is less than what is told, or the nuggets few and far between, but with Fr. Mel, it seems different. His careful writing is less to be plundered than savored, planted, watered, pondered and allowed to sprout and grow as if heirloom seed for a garden within. My sense is that presentation reflects an attitude and a stance matching something of the experience of God, and if this seems worthy, it is equally worth sharing.

In particular, his section on the mystery baptism struck a chord. Maybe it’s that my own introduction to Orthodox worship began with a baptism, or maybe its Fr. Mel’s thorough account, but it seems almost as if he manages to exorcise the page and infuse it with a vision and spirit of the life giving water itself.

More likely it’s not just the way he draws out the tie between the indelible change that occurs and our renewal in Christ, but also my own familiarity as an altar server standing at the side of the font. There is recognition of a reality in the experience of baptism that even as it fleets before us, allows us to see the Body of Christ tied together, even as it includes those other lives elsewhere “belonging to us”.  And this begins something of the reversal of the fragmentation of our lives so that we can say that indeed we are one together,  both young and old, all sharing this same moment in our lives, this same repentance and renewal as persons defined in relationship to Christ Jesus.  And yes, middle age adds some illumination from familiarity with birth and death, youth and age in ways that were more comfortably academic once upon a time, but now seem sadly all too real… and the yearning for common connection finds its place more readily.

And though I might venture to claim that my past as an Anglican, as a collegiate medievalist and cathedral kid prepared me for this, I’ll admit to none of this… nor will I claim that only the virtues of Orthodoxy offered this vision as  legion as these virtues are. For my heart obviously lay elsewhere prior to becoming Orthodox, and what I failed to see earlier and elsewhere may well have been there only my eyes were not inclined to see. Instead, I am more comfortable claiming only that what now I experience is part of where I am. For me, becoming and remaining Orthodox is inseparable with a change in my relationship with God. It might have well happened elsewhere, and indeed it began elsewhere, but the very process drew me here and seemed as if it could only be continued here. And so by God’s grace I remain.

By contrast, Fr. Meletios offers the reflections of an author whose heart has always been Orthodox, and whose decades in the faith offer experiences I can scarcely imagine:

…the whole point of Christian baptism is that the person being baptized should find his or her identity in the Savior. This process commences when the person identifies with Jesus in the Mystery of Baptism, and thus finds his or her identity as a member of the Body of Christ. Later, this identity grows to become the dominant and eternal part of the person’s complete identity. This is the indelible mark of baptism: a person is given a new identity within the Body of Christ and starts a new, eternal life.

..From the moment he or she emerges from the water, a new life begins – marked not by physical characteristics, which remain the same, but by spiritual experience. This spiritual experience is that of being “enlightened.” This enlightenment is not necessarily obvious when it comes to the mind, but finds its expression at a much deeper and more eternal level – the level of awareness, the level of the heart.

…In answer to those who ask whether a child is able to understand what is happening to him, most Orthodox would reply that even an adult does not understand what happens when he participates in the Holy Mysteries. Belonging to the Church is not a matter of intellectual choice, but a matter of God gathering His people.

In a sense, water and death represent two aspects of our life, with water, the source of our life as we understand it, contrasting with the waters of drowning. We cannot accept life without accepting the death that is a part of life. Yet the death we receive in baptism is not the terminal sort of physical death, such as we will experience when we leave this present life. Rather, this is a death of transition, in which, independent of our level of awareness, God effects a lasting change in our nature, and we are transformed from one thing into another – from children of this world into children of the Kingdom of heaven.

If I may, I would add to this that perhaps entry into the Church as a convert is no less a mystery, and no less a matter of God gathering His people, and not so much a matter of intellectual choice as our own convert stories so often suggest. The words spoken on  entry as a catechumen and at Chrismation seem to suggest as much. Moreover, while surely there were years of preparation elsewhere, and I can even begin to guess at fitting the pieces together in a forced mosaic, it hardly seems fair to the process. In the end, the two years spent wandering in-between hardly capture the whole of the journey and seem the least interesting part. What remains is the sense that arriving in the Orthodox Church formed  an immediate recognition of a journey’s end as clearly and concisely as the Latin I used for the original title to this blog: (Veni Vidi Credidi) “I came, I saw, I believed.” More than that, words can only limit, and I’d suppose that even when we are finally reconciled to the wholeness of the mystery of our own conversions, the less said the better.


  1. I too am leisurely reading the same. There are sentences in every paragraph that knock your socks off. Maybe I’ve read the same things in Lossky or Schmemmann…but it didn’t have the same ring of “experience” that Fr. Mel brings to it. Great book.

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