Because the legendary Orthodox fasting dominates Lent, the last two days before Pascha are brutal. No food. Holy Week in the Orthodox tradition is grueling. Our priest is a bi-vocational priest who doubles as a full time school teacher, therefore our schedule is modified from what it would be if he was full time. Nonetheless, it's tough. We finish the week with the reading of the Twelve Passion Narratives on Thursday night, which is about three hours or so. On Friday night there is another service about the same length of time. Then Saturday morning begins with Divine Liturgy, which is a typical service of about two hours give or take. Then 10:00 PM that night for the Paschal Vigil.
From Thursday night until after Pascha, we're not supposed to eat. After the Saturday Liturgy, we can have a few nuts and fruits, but that's it. Even if you don't do it perfectly, the standard is so high that deviation is still next to starving. So as soon as the Vigil is over, we feast. And I mean feast. This is no small dinner spread with mints and a few crackers. If you ever wanted to experience Middle Eastern cooking and all its wonders, this is the place. Plus there being so many converts, there's also a fair amount of Americanized food for your dining pleasure.
It was at this feast in the early Sunday morning that I met a young woman who attends our church. I had seen her around for some time, but hadn't talked to her. It turned out we ended up at the same table. She brought wine and didn't want to drink alone, so we popped the cork and shared a glass or two. While that went on, she told me her tale.
She was raised Catholic, a phrase I've heard a million times if I've heard it once. And like so many, it meant the same thing: she left the Church as she got older. She went to Catholic school, but by then it was the 80s. John Paul II may have been pope, but it was still post-Vatican II (a point she made). She said it was a fine education, but not a very Catholic one. Hence, once in college, it was adios Church.
When she finally graduated college. got married and had kiddos, she decided it was time to get back to church. Having kids will do that. She attended a Protestant Bible study for a time but, for various reasons, concluded there was no avenue to anything beyond opinions in that approach. So she went back to the local Catholic parish to see about returning.
What she said was interesting. She said the priest was wonderful and kind, and the different people she talked to were welcoming. There was no problem with personalities, and she felt they sincerely wanted her back, bringing her in with open arms. But, she said, that was the problem.
To her, it seemed as if they wanted her back as the end goal. That was it. They didn't want her back to form her as a disciple, or help her get back to God, or help her along the straight and narrow. They just wanted her back. It was like some warm, fuzzy, happy Barney the Dinosaur thing. As long as she came back, that was all anyone would ever want.
She insisted there was no hint of it being for nefarious designs. It's not as if they wanted her money or her votes or her fetching countenance or anything of the sort. They really seemed to want her to come back and be with them in the church. But that's all they wanted. A happy, fluffy 'we're all family again' feeling. Ask us no questions and we'll tell you no doctrine.
She kept going back and meeting and talking, but she couldn't get over the fact that where she was or even where she was going didn't seem to matter. Was she a devout believer? Was she sleeping around? Did she believe in Jesus? Love Jesus? Hate Jesus? Piss on Jesus? Did she support abortion? Did she worship Satan? None of it seemed to matter. Whatever the Church spoke of in the big picture, her own individual journey seemed of no real importance.
There was some talk about recommitting to the teachings of the Church. But there was nothing that suggested they expected her to actually live it. Say it, yes. But what she chose to really believe or do didn't appear to come up in conversation. As long as she came back. That was something, she said, that simply didn't stack up to what she knew in her heart God was demanding of her. It made me think of this little gem from the show ER:
She encountered, to put words in her mouth, the ultimate Church of Nice. They wanted her back, because they're nice. They wanted her to be part of the family, because they're nice. But that was all. They wouldn't burden her with things, or impose tough standards, or really ask or demand anything. The demands might be in the abstract for the Greater Church in society at large, but the welcoming promises will be the only specifics she encountered. As long as she came back and recited a few formulas without the obligation to live it, all would be right with the world.
She said she realized that was not the path of the Truth. She was broken, she was seeking, and she needed a slap in the face to get her back on track. She wanted her children to be raised in the historical Faith, clinging to and searching for the Truth, challenged with overcoming the sins they would accumulate in this fallen, broken world. She didn't want them, or her, affirmed or celebrated whether or not they insist squares are round.
That's why she eventually became Orthodox. I've said before that the Orthodox are chockablock full or problems, as the church always has been since the New Testament era. Right now, it struggles in the post-Cold War world, when so many Orthodox were oppressed and persecuted. Freedom can be a bit puzzling when you're not used to it. Likewise, having been at the vanguard of the Ecumenical Movement, when it comes to reaching outside of the Church doors, you can get whiffs of 'you're OK, we're OK, let's all be OK'.
Still, behind those doors, this is not the case. Though most priests are rather low key, they have no problem saying it: There is Hell, there is Heaven, your life and faith today determine your eternal tomorrow, so you had best get on and stay on that narrow path. Get off of the straight and narrow, and there is only one destination. Live a life full of God and God's love, not politics, not social experiments, not the latest, hippest. Ours is not ancient, it is Truth. That's why we don't change, because Truth doesn't change. We don't change because, no matter how symbolic our actions, they are symbols rooted in eternal truths of God that transcend all time and space.
None of this is to say the Orthodox aren't beset with a rising movement to apostatize and join the latest/hippest of the world (despite the catastrophic track record of the world's latest, hippest). It is to say that, as of now, the Orthodox are pretty open about a God focused creation, preferring to deflect from questions about evolution and DNA and molecules, keeping it focused on a God created, mankind focused reality in which the Cross of Christ looms large over all things for the very real fact that if we choose poorly in this life, we will pay forever in the next.
While not all Catholic leaders deny this, and some even say it, it's safe to say the dominant, majority opinion of the Catholic Church today is 'enough of that, let's just get along to go along.' And that, kids, is why according to her she's no longer a Catholic.