The Ancient Modern        

Poetic Catechism:
Becoming Orthodox Slowly and Completely
Joshua Alan Sturgill

Presented at the Orthodox Arts Festival 2022 in Carrollton, TX

The Heart is a small vessel;

             yet in the Heart
are lions & poisonous beasts,
rough, uneven roads & precipices
all the treasures of evil.

             But there also is God,
the angels, the life & the kingdom,
the light & the Apostles
all the treasures of Grace.

In the Heart are all things.

                     — Saint Macarius the Great

The inner world of our souls is closer to God and to others than is the outer world of our bodies. This idea should seem startling and uncanny to us who live in a culture dominated by exteriors.

We, in fact, believe the opposite of what this quote from the desert fathers teaches us. The ancients said there is an interior world that is cosmic and universal, and an exterior world that is isolated and individual.

Today, we consider our inner lives to be the most private, most isolated part of ourselves; and our outer lives—our physical appearance, our race, our social media, our employment—to be what is really important and what connects us to others.

We have made two mistakes. First we have set the more important (the soul) in second place behind the body. Second—consequently—we have made our souls very “body-like,” cultivating only the shallowest thoughts and emotions, usually those thoughts and emotions which pertain to what the body wants or what we want for it.

Thought and emotion are part of our inner lives, but they are merely the boundary, the interface, of our “inside” and our “outside.”

Much deeper than thought and emotion, feelings and desires, is the true depth of the inner life: our connection to God and to what He has made. In the depths of our souls is our union with what is Real. From our perspective as fallen men and women, we experience this depth as archetypal, mythic, and noetic: Consciousness itself drawn to Being itself by Joy itself. Distant, but irresistible.

This is a world of true Sight, for which our physical eyes are only a sketch or a metaphor.

In Orthodox hymnography, we call this depth “the home country of our hearts’ desire.” There are not various home countries, there is One Country which we all long for—sometimes openly, sometimes secretly, often in stories and images.

Jesus has his disciples pray “Our Father … Thy Kingdom Come.” There is one Father of us all, and one Kingdom to which we all belong. George MacDonald in his story The Golden Key called it “the Land from which the shadows fall.”

In the Parable of the Compassionate Father, the prodigal son wanders to a “far country” and joins himself to its citizens, feeding their pigs. But we are told “he came to himself” and decided to return to his father’s house. His coming to himself, the revelation of his present circumstance, and the remembrance of his father’s house occur simultaneously as an awakening of his Heart.

For Orthodox Christians, this parable summarizes our understanding of the Fall.

The Fall of Adam was not merely a punishment or exile: it was a sudden turning inside-out. What was visible for Adam in paradise is now hidden, separate, buried. It’s as if Eden, once our native environment, is now lost inside us, buried in myth and intuition.

Adam’s “individuality” was second to his unity with God and with all Creation; but after the Fall, the individual life seems to swallow up the whole universe. Or to think of it another way: Adam was both dust and Spirit. Before the Fall, the speck of dust floated in an ocean of Spirit. Afterward, the ember of Spirit smolders under a mountain of dust.

Consider the meaning of Adam naming the animals and of Noah taking the animals onto the Ark:

Before the Fall, Adam’s inner life was all around him—he knew the animals because they were not separate “things,” but part of his own Being. Knowledge of the animals was not hidden from Adam; knowing the animals was simply part of Adam’s full personhood.

In Noah’s time, knowledge and union and compassion (which are all one thing!) had become lost or distorted—or simply rejected. But Noah was the one person able to see as Adam did. Noah gathered to himself all that could be saved—the noetic and the physical—and carried it with him through the Flood.

In contrast to Noah, we are given the story of Cain’s descendants. In place of knowledge of God and Creation, they developed Technology, Economy and Entertainment (metallurgy, agronomy and music), which is a distortion of the Creation in order to make it a “life-support system” for fallen humanity. I do not know how to state strongly enough that the work of turning back outside-in, with the spiritual/heart now ahead of the physical/body, is the labor and joy of the Orthodox Church.

Each of us in our individual isolation and all of us together as the One Body of Christ are those who regain the Heart and who reintegrate the inner life with the outer life, discovering again the “secret knowledge” that Adam had in Eden.

In other words, Orthodoxy wakes us from the sleep of “vain imaginings” and puts us back in touch with the Real World—of which Jesus our God is the Light and the Energy, the Foundation and the Substance.

This union or reunion is initiated and sustained in the threefold Mystery of Baptism, Chrismation and Eucharist.

I certainly don’t want to lessen the importance of this sacramental work of the Church, but I want to emphasize instead that while the Mysteries are at work in the depths of our being—which is our Real Life—we, in our thoughts and actions, live far away from where the transformation is taking place!

Elder Zacharias of Essex says, “The great tragedy of our time lies in the fact that we live, think, speak and even pray to God, outside our heart, outside our Father’s House.”

So the uncovering of and return to our inner life is a necessary but neglected step in our Christian maturing. This is why catechism is so important, and why we have done ourselves a terrible disservice in following the way of the world and of other Christian traditions by making catechism a “class” and a “step” and a “formal process.”

Catechism should be two things which it currently, in practice, is not: challenging and life-long.

Part of the challenge is that change is painful. Adjusting our orientation toward the Heart and away from the Body disrupts our sense of safety and control. Even when we become aware of the depth of our inner being, we don’t know what is “down there” or “in there” among the shadows.

Modern psychology, showing its fear and distrust of the inner life, has called it the “subconscious” and describes it as a murky, cluttered basement. Fear is a proper response! But where others see a damp pit, we see a blocked spring.

St. Gregory Palamas prayed “Lord, illumine my darkness!” He was a man who had turned toward the inner life and realized he had no “senses” for seeing or hearing what was there. He asked God to show him.

I have found it very, very instructive that in cultures as diverse as the ancient Greeks and ancient Chinese, the heart (not the brain) was considered to be the organ of self-hood and the seat of personality, and was often compared to a cave. The idea of a “Cave of the Heart” appears in Taoist, Hindu and Hellenic literature since ancient times.

The Heart, the deep place, does appear to be a Cave. What will we find there? What happens if, following our Holy Fathers, we ask for the Gift of “prayer of the heart” or pray with the Divine Liturgy “illumine our hearts, O master, by thy Gospel teachings…?” This is a treacherous journey into unknown territory.

Another part of the challenge is that we’re so busy, we move at a pace faster than our hearts. We never slow down, never stop planning, never give our bodily senses a rest so that our inner senses can develop. And sadly, catechism almost never helps with this habit of frantic pace. Catechism is just another thing to do, another list of readings, another meeting to attend.

As an illustrative aside, I have a friend, a nutritionist, who is convinced that the contemporary rise in heart disease (especially among men) is a result of our out-pacing the natural leading of our hearts. Even the so-called “midlife crisis” can be understood as a call of the Heart to turn from temporal to eternal things as we near the end of our allotted time.

Catechism should be ready to respond to this crisis. But catechism is often as shallow as the rest of modern life, and I’ve seen evidence of this quite often in many years of working for Eighth Day Books. The cycle looks like this:

People are drawn to the beauty of Orthodoxy. Sometimes it’s aesthetic beauty, sometimes intellectual beauty. They begin to read and are convinced that Orthodoxy is the authentic Christian tradition, that its teachings are true and its liturgical life unaltered since the days of the early church.

Then their catechism stops. They cease reading except simple books which support these good but simple beliefs. And no inner revealing has taken place. No metanoia, no fearful transfiguring of the heart. No evaluating marriage, sexuality, career, entertainment, etc., by the possibilities of a deeper consciousness.

Soon, the allure of Orthodoxy fades, the busyness of life increases, church attendance becomes routine, another aesthetic or intellectual beauty arrives. For many who read their way into the church, reading can lead them out again; for anyone dazzled by the artwork, other “icons” will soon come calling.

What is needed is a long-term process of transformation, not a short-term course of study.

Do you believe that Orthodoxy is the authentic Christian Tradition? Very good. But this can’t be simply “more authentic than Rome,” or “more authentic than Protestantism.” Rather, do you embody Orthodoxy as the “Faith which has established the Universe?”

Or, maybe you believe that Orthodox liturgical life is unaltered since the days of the early church. Very good. But what will you do when you find out that many external things about the Liturgy have changed over time? Instead of focusing on the rubrics, have you internalized that at the Liturgy, you yourself are a priest of Christ?—a priest who has the dread privilege of eating from the Heavenly Altar?

A full and effective catechism makes what we read about in the Fathers present to us today. But it also means we slowly become Fathers and Mothers.

Saint Maximos said that Christians, like Adam, see the very “logoi” or principles within all created things. How can this be done? In a word, catechism should give us a living and well-formed cosmology.

Assuming our participation in the prayers of the Church, I believe our life-long catechism should also include some astronomy, a lot of music, great epic poetry, mathematics (especially geometry), and modern science. We need art history as well as military history so that we may humbly accept both the glory and tragedy of the world.

Unfortunately though, what we have today by default is public education + excerpts from the Fathers.

We read the Philokalia or the latest from Ancient Faith Press, but we only are adding bits of information to our already-formed worldview. Our catechism fails to replace our accepted and unquestioned elementary-school-level secularity. We paste Orthodox ideas onto a prefabricated secular structure.

You see that I’ve already made some suggestions about how catechism might be re-considered. Churches should be reading Ptolemy, Homer, Euclid along with Athanasius, Chrysostom and John Damascene. The first in order to tear down our worldly assumptions and the second to build Christian vision in its place. When we are asked, “What do Orthodox Christians believe?” we should be able to talk not only about sin and heaven and the Great Schism and Pascha, but also about the whole Cosmos transfigured and made whole in Christ.

We should be the people for whom the Age to Come has already arrived.

I suppose I picture this Slow Catechism as a little like the current “classical education” trend, a little like psychotherapy, and a lot like courageously wandering out into the desert to find and sit at the feet of a holy Elder. Finding good communities and good books is the best start.

Since I work for a bookstore, I have many suggested readings, which I’ll share after we’re finished here. But I want to close this talk instead with an exhortation to prayer:

Ask God to continue your catechism.

Ask Him to never cease “illumining your darkness.” Today, your catechism might be a passage from St. Nektarios. Tomorrow, it might be afternoon sunshine in the branches of an oak tree you’ve looked at a thousand times—but it’s now become a revelation of God’s gracious presence in all things.

Someday, you might look at the stars and see angels, like the ancient Hebrews; or at the planets and see the layers of Heaven, like the ancient Greeks.

Not long after that, you will look at the faces of those who have “stolen your cloak” or “spitefully abused you” and you will see the very Face of Christ Himself shining through the those who tried to be your enemies.

Until this happens for us, our catechism is not complete. Elder Porphyrios said, “he who would become a Christian must first become a poet.” Poets are those who live life from the inside, who are oriented toward their Hearts, who brave the fear of the unknown within them, trusting Christ, the Guide.

I believe, and I have seen it many times, that if we continue stubbornly and resolutely on the path of Christ in His Orthodox Church, each of us will be a unique poet of the inner life—and the whole world will be transfigured into a book of poetry we are daily able to read.

May it be said of our communities:

To the holy, all things are holy;
to the pure, all things are pure;
to the Orthodox, all things are Orthodox.”

Pray for this life-long, poetic catechism.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2022 by Joshua Alan Sturgill. All rights reserved.

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