Christian Habits 

Rod Dreher notes something very interesting today over at The American Conservative as he contemplates something his priest, Father Matthew — who sounds like an amazing pastor based on what Dreher wrote about him in the Dante book — preached last Sunday:

Yesterday in church, Father Matthew in his sermon made a comment that struck me as highly relevant to a rationale for the Benedict Option. He was talking about the risks of evangelizing when we have not been properly discipled. Yes, we are called to share our faith with the world, he said, “But you can’t share what you don’t have.”

What he meant was that you can talk about the Christian faith all you want to, but if you don’t fully understand it, and haven’t been to some meaningful degree shaped by it, you should consider whether or not you’re really sharing the faith at all. He is an Orthodox priest talking to an Orthodox congregation, and what he specifically meant, I think, is that Orthodox Christianity can’t be reduced to a formula you can print on a pamphlet. It is not only a set of beliefs, but a set of practices. Becoming more deeply Orthodox is less a matter of accepting the right beliefs and deepening your understanding of them (which is important) and more about living the faith and allowing its regular practice to change your heart.

It’s this set of essential practices, I think, that the American church has forgotten, when it doesn’t — in my words — know what to do with converts.

Something I’ve concluded — American Christians do not really know how to welcome converts. None of them do. They do not know how to to do the work of showing people how to live as Christians. … the church is so tied to culture in this country, and it has no idea what to do with outsiders and non-conformists. The American church still expects the culture to do almost all of the heavy lifting, still thinks the skills that make someone a good citizen ought to make them a good christian too.

I think for too many American Christians, Christ is something one slips over an otherwise properly formed life, like a poncho. This following Jesus is an add-on for most, I think, a veneer or a sheen or an overlay that just is supposed to fit an otherwise well-adjusted and properly lived bourgeois life.

We’ve forgotten that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is supposed to form and shape us, and the historic practices of the church — daily prayer, a church calendar, liturgy, the life stories of Jesus told over and over and over again, along with the stories and laments and celebrations of Israel in which Christ’s life is so thoroughly embedded it cannot be comprehended without. Habits. Lives lived in, with, and under this story of an incarnate, suffering, crucified, and risen Lord.

Instead, we’ve boiled it all down to set of ideas that can allegedly be grasped and understood, and then held apart, in a bubble, as we go about our days habituated to things that aren’t Jesus and aren’t his church. Moderns are good at reducing things to mere ideas. It’s one of the hallmarks of modernity. But we forget that “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” (John 8:32 ESV) isn’t said about a fact, or a notion, but a person — God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ.

How we are supposed to live is the work of habits, of memorizing, of doing, repeatedly, over and over again. I’ve always appreciated that Orthodox worship has one liturgy (well, two, an ordinary form and a long one), so it is something that can be learned and repeated by memory. (By contrast, the latest ELCA hymnal has ten settings for holy communion — TEN! — and while it’s nice someone is thinking of the diversity in the church, our infatuation with novelty means no one can effectively memorize much of it.) This is why I love the simplicity of the Catholic mass. I always appreciated that everything Muslims did in worship — including the recitation of the Qur’an — was done by memory. It was a simplicity rich with the forming of habits. I hate worship bulletins and overhead projectors and wish our hymnals were as simple as my Swedish great-grandmother Sophia’s, a tiny, bound collection of words in which the tune name was printed at the end of hymn in lieu of musical notes. Because how many tunes were there, anyway?

(She also had her own hymnal, which she brought with her to church.)

I’m lousy at the habits part, and I lack the self-discipline to do that. I want to be good at cultivating habits, but I need a community of people encouraging me, disciplining me, discipling me. I was better as a Muslim, but then Muslims have preserved more of their habits — especially communal prayer that is supposed to break into and interrupt secular time. But even Muslims are losing their habits (when I was in Jeddah, I noticed that lots of Saudi men would just sit, not praying, during prayer times), their practices, and for many, Islam is the same kind of veneer affectation it is for many American Christians.

Or it is simply an ideology which promises all things and justifies all things.

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