Friday, October 15, 2010

Finding God In A Byzantine Church

     Walking into a Byzantine church shrine, for the first time, I was unaware of what was going to happen to me. Suddenly, it was as if I went from one reality into another. From my own shallow way of seeing God into a way that was far beyond and deeper than what I could conceive. Immediately, I was brought to tears and could not stop the flow of desire in my heart for God. I will never forget this experience. It started me on a journey to where I find myself today, which is in the Byzantine Catholic tradition. At the time of my experience I was a fairly new Christian and in my arrogance I believed that I knew everything about God. However, the experience that took place showed me that there was so much more of God, which I needed to “experience”. This understanding about experiencing God in my opinion is what it means to find God in a Byzantine church and it is an essential witness of what our tradition means in the world.
     The witness of the Byzantine tradition says that God indeed can be experienced in this earthly life. Most of my life I had the understanding that we meet God only in heaven. However, we don't need to wait to meet God. The theology of the Byzantine tradition teaches that we encounter God (now!), not just in our ideas but in the body. In fact, it’s through continual purification of the body and mind that we grow in a true experience of God. This experience of God, as the Byzantine tradition teaches, is offered to all who call on the Lord Jesus Christ (Lord Jesus Christ,Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner). It is only in our Lord Jesus Christ that our humanity is continually granted participation in the divine nature. Another way of saying this is that only through Christ we receive an ongoing experience of God, which continues on into eternity.
     Beliefs and precepts about God are never enough. The longing of the human heart is not fulfilled with ideas about God, the heart wants to experience God himself. In one way we can see this in our culture by the ever growing interest of young people who, in their longing, sometimes get involved in the occult and new age practices. They are looking for something they can experience. Unfortunately and to our shame, many of them have grown up in traditional Christian families but have never experienced the presence of God. Since no experience of God was communicated to them its understandable why they disregard faith in Christ and then try to find something greater in false teachings. On another level, we find the longing of the human heart within the many new movements in the Church, such as the charismatics. We find in these movements a true desire to experience God, which is sometimes seen with great emotional expression. Personally, I have seen these movements often discredited by the more traditional followers in the Church. However, these traditional people cant seem to offer to the those in the movements what they are longing for.
     When it comes to these things a Byzantine Monk, Archimandrite Zacharias, provides some insight into why such things happen in the Church. He also provides a possible answer to why our young people leave for false teachings. He expressed that these things develop when people are “prevented from worshiping God from the heart (Hidden Man of the Heart pg.179)”. If the heart is not experiencing God it will either look for Him in other religious expressions or movements will be started within the Church to find Him. The Archimandrite hoped that those searching would one day discover the riches from Jesus Christ in our tradition of Hesychasm. He said that he hoped they would discover, “The true unbroken Tradition of the Church, the Tradition of the Prayer of the Heart, which is the surest and humblest prayer in the edification, inspiration and salvation of man (Hidden Man of the Heart pg.180).” This Tradition that he speaks of in my opinion is the foundation of what it means to be Byzantine.
     As Byzantines we have so much to offer but we first need to discover and practice our traditions. In my own experience I encountered God in a way that I never thought I could. A way in which the Byzantine tradition offers to all. God is looking for those who would be living shrines, like the one I visited, to carry his “experience” into the world. This brings me to my point about finding God in the Byzantine Church, which is to say that He must be found in us first. Ultimately, we need a spiritual renewal in our Byzantine Catholic churches. I believe this begins by a renewal of what the Archimadirte called, "The true unbroken Tradition of the Church,". It is through recapturing what is traditionally ours that we can provide perhaps what many are looking for today, which is a real experience of God.
     In order for this to take place I believe we need to start teaching, practicing, and promoting the Prayer of the Heart. The practice of the Jesus prayer and our tradition of Hesychasm are essential characteristics of what it means to be Byzantine. Too often, at least from what I have seen, these elements are treated as mere private options. However, the experience like the one I had  in one way had a foundation in the Prayer of the Heart. For that which was found  in the Heart, "The true unbroken Tradition of the Church",  by our Byzantine spiritual fathers has made possible an "experience" of God today. Like our fathers we are also called to participate in same tradition and like them make possible an "experience" that someone might be longing for.

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