My father was an auto mechanic. He learned the trade by working on cars (airplanes before that in the war). He liked his work and would come home in the evenings with stories of things he had diagnosed and fixed. I thought he was amazing. Stanley Hauerwas tells similar stories about his own father who was a brick mason. A brick mason learns his trade by working with another mason until he has gained the skills required of a master mason. This method of learning is probably as old as humankind. We learn by doing. The learning we gain, however, is more than mere problem-solving. A mason comes to think like a mason. He knows where a wall should start and avoids missteps and false lines of work. A true mechanic knows his machines and their logic. My grandfather was also a mechanic. He could diagnose many things in an engine just by listening to it (even in his last years when he was blind). All of these behaviors and learnings belong to the realm of “practices.” They are the things we do that make us what we are.
Hauerwas famously writes about certain practices that create virtue. We do not become virtuous people simply by willing virtue. St. Paul describes this process:
…we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Rom 5:3-4)
Christianity should be seen not just as a set of beliefs, but as a set of practices. The simple act of generosity is essential. Vigils and fastings are mentioned by St. Paul himself and remain part of the normative practice of classical Christianity. The forgiveness of enemies and regular, even continual repentance is required. And these things are more than mental concepts – they have a manner of being practiced.
Christ Himself did not give the Scriptures of the New Testament to the Church. They were written over the course of roughly 50 years, the first writings only appearing some 15 years or so after the resurrection. But Christ left an essential practice among the last acts of His ministry: the Holy Eucharist. This liturgical act was a constant practice of the Church’s life before a single line of the New Testament was written. It not only commemorated Christ’s death and resurrection – it explained them. This new feast defined Christ’s death and Resurrection as a Paschal feast. From there, the interpretation of the Old Testament could begin correctly. The Eucharist is the anchor of all Christian teaching and the New Testament is the first commentary on the Divine Liturgy.
Without such traditional practices, Christianity begins to change. The non-eucharistic character of contemporary Christianity not only violates Christ’s own commandment, but neglects the single most foundational practice that we have.
There are other practices as well. In Orthodoxy, the whole of doctrine is expressed in practice. The Great Councils of the Church were not bureaucratic decisions, official opinions on doctrine to be written and codified and consulted as needed. Every Conciliar decision was equally a decision about how we pray and every doctrine finds its expression in the mature Liturgy of the Church.
Doctrines as fundamental to the faith as the Holy Trinity are often neglected with a modernist “just Jesus” patois taking its place. These things happen not because of ill-will or rebelliousness. They are the natural outcome of a Christianity shed of its practices. As I noted in my previous article, even the Marian Feasts are essential to a right-understanding of doctrine. The Incarnation cannot be fully taught or appropriated without them.
But these things are under attack even within Orthodoxy. None of the practices themselves are criticized. They are simply neglected. I hear from time to time of a major feast being ignored in a parish. Doubtless a priest is thinking to himself, “Why should I bother to celebrate the feast if nobody is coming?” And too few come because many Orthodox have adopted the practices of cultural Protestantism.
This, too, is not rebelliousness or ill-will. It is the shape of our culture. Our neighborhoods, and infrastructure are architectural monuments to a secularized culture. There is no need to think of living near the Church if you only need to commute once (or twice) a week. Schools, parks, shopping – all of these “conveniences” are considered first – the Church often exists as an inconvenient afterthought.
There has recently been discussion of the so-called Benedict Option, an incubation of the Christian community with a view to the long run. The Benedict Option will not likely be a suburban project. Suburban life embodies a set of practices designed to secularize and marginalize the traditional faith.
In the classical Christian village (once upon a time), the day began with prayers. You could hear the bells of the Church ring. A person’s daily cycle mirrored the Church’s daily cycle. The calendar of the Church marked and blessed the passing of the year. These things were completely integral. Today’s left-overs such as blessing grapes at Transfiguration, or honey on August 1st, are merely shadows of a village way of life that has passed. They are good memories, even though they feel alien to our suburbs.
It is interesting that we are discovering that our suburbanized American lifestyle is among the most wasteful and polluting ways of living ever devised on the planet. In time, such extravagance will fail. In the meantime, we need to remember (and recover) as much of our humanity as possible. For Christians, who alone remember the fullness of humanity in Christ, this means remembering and recovering as much of the practice of the faith as possible. Doubtless, there are practical decisions families can make. Is it possible that being a Christian might cost you a lifestyle?