Sherry W from Intentional Disciples asks some very good questions about the spiritual formation of Orthodox Christian lay people. I have included her questions in this post (the sections in italics). My thoughts (I hesitate to call them answers) are below.
Dear Fr. Gregory:
Where shall we start? Since my knowledge of Orthodoxy is *extremely limited* but my knowledge of Catholic teaching in the area of the formation of the laity is truly expert, I'm completely lop-sided!
Actually, I think your limited knowledge of Orthodoxy is of great benefit—your questions are more likely to come from a point of view that we are likely to overlook.
Looking at the questions that you ask below, it is also pretty clear to me that though your “knowledge is ‘extremely limited’” you (helpfully) ask questions that assume ways of doing things that we never thought about. For example, the additional year of seminary to give men some basic catechesis and discipleship experience is first rate. But more on that later.
A number of Catholic seminaries are adding an additional year at the beginning simply to give the men the experience of basic catechesis and living as a disciple. So I'm afraid that it's a universal problem - with a few exceptions.
While I’m certainly not happy with the situation, I do take some comfort in the fact that a lack of basic catechesis and spiritual formation is NOT simply a problem in the Orthodox Church. I had some Catholic seminarians in a class I taught last year at Duquesne. Over the course of the semester I got to know the young men who were taking that additional year and was favorably impressed by the things they were doing.
One thing that I though was very helpful for our own seminarians was adoption of the seminars that seminarians had that examined celibacy. For our seminarians we might want to address not only the basics of human sexuality, but also the dynamics of marriage and pastoral ministry.
I wonder, could you please direct me toward some resources that might explain how this additional year works? My own thought is that this would be a good program for us to run say with our college students who are thinking of attending seminary.
I have some questions for you. One, does Orthodoxy have a theology of the laity that is distinct from that of monks/priests? Do you have a theology of the secular mission of the Church?
For the Orthodox Church, lay and monastic spirituality are the same. The vast majority of our monastics (male and female) are laypeople. What difference there is, is a matter of intensity. Monks might pray longer and fast more strictly then the typical man or woman in the parish, but at least in principle, they follow the same form of life. You can read more about this in an article by Fr Georges Florovksy “The Ascetical Ideal of the New Testament.”
So no, we don’t have a specific theology of the laity in the way that the Catholic Church does. As I think about it though, I think that a the Orthodox Church would do well to have a more systematic conversation about the theology of the laity. Paul Meyendoroff, a faculty member at St Vladimir’s Seminary, has done some work on this topic—but certainly more work needs to be done.
As for “a theology of secular mission” that is largely absent. Some work has been done on the idea of the symphonia of the Church and the Emperor during the Byzantine era and under the Russian Czars, but that doesn’t really get us very far in the modern era.
Again, do you have any recommendations of what I might read to help articulate an theological vision of the laity and their secular mission?
What is your catechetical practice at the parish level? How many of your parishioners would quality as simply "culturally Orthodox" (or whatever term you use) rather than disciples? What percentage of baptized Orthodox in the US attend the Liturgy on Sundays?
Alas, here we do not cover ourselves with glory. Overall our catechetical ministry us hit or miss.
On the parish level, catechesis is largely limited to children. In many dioceses we have a summer camp program for junior and senior high school students (though I would guess our camp program really only serves 10-20% of our young people). We also have small campus and young adult ministry programs, but these also only reach a small number of the people in that group.
Most of our parishioners are probably what you would term “culturally Orthodox.” On average I would guess that about 10-20% of our faithful attend Divine Liturgy any given Sunday—of those maybe 50% receive Holy Communion.
What are the really good lay formation initiatives in American Orthodoxy?
Our lay formation tends to be ad hoc—it largely depends on the relationship between the lay person and his/her spiritual father (typically, though not necessarily, the parish priest).
When this relationship works, it is an extraordinary blessing to all concerned. I know as both a layman and now as a priest that my relationship with my spiritual father has helped me understand what, concretely, the Gospel means in my daily life. It can however be a labor-intensive relationship for both parties. For example, confession, can easily last an hour and several hours over several days is not unheard of when making a life confession with a Priestmonk.
We do have philanthropic organizations for men and women, but beyond that formation is basically left to the local parish (which does not in the main do a particularly good job for the vast majority of the laity) or the desire of the individual lay person to seek out a relationship with a particular priest or monastic.
How would you sum up the difference between an Orthodox approach to forming the laity and a Catholic approach?
Orthodox spiritual formation is essential monastic. As you might have guessed, the Orthodox approach is generally not systematic or intentional. Certainly it is more rigorous in a monastery—though even in our seminaries we adopt sort of a milieu approach to formation. By that I mean we assume that simply attending services is sufficient.
Over the last several years, and I mentioned this in the entry “Credit Where Credit is Due,” I’ve come to realize how much of my spiritual growth as an Orthodox Christian lay person and now priest is the fruit of my initial formation as a Roman Catholic. People taught me how to pray and read the Scriptures and when I encountered the Orthodox Church I found an environment in which that initial formation could flourish.
Comparing the two approaches I would say that—when done well—the Catholic approach is more systematic and the Orthodox approach less so. Catholics tend I think to focus more on the individual and his or her inner life, the Orthodox focus more on the liturgical and shared ascetical character of the spiritual life. For example, Catholics peak about a variety of religious orders and schools of spirituality, the Orthodox tend to think simply in terms of the one tradition, the one Orthodox life, common to all, but lived with varying degrees of intensity.
Of course this isn’t to say one does only this, and the other does only that—but I think I have captured something of the general difference between the two traditions. Especially in the East the Church has been a persecuted Church for really almost 14 centuries (with the rise of Islam) and so ours is very much a spirituality of endurance
I guess I'm just trying to get a sense of the lay of the land. I hope these questions don't sound impertinent. They are the sort of questions we've had to ask ourselves for the past 10 years.
Far from being impertinent, you have asked very important questions. And you have asked them with great charity and clarity. When people first come to me about becoming Orthodox they often have questions about (among other things) confession. One of the things I tell a person about why confession is important is because none of us can see the back of our own heads. The questions you have asked are very helpful and I hope my answers generate a least a bit of discussion and mutual understanding.
I am reading “The Parish: Mission or Maintenance?” that you and Fr Michael wrote—when I’m done I hope to have some questions for our discussion. What I've read is very good--I would (and have) recommend it to my Orthodox friends and colleagues.
God willing my questions will at least approach the quality of yours for me.
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