A priest who gets it, but as a voice crying in the wilderness
February 8, 2015
Rainer Maria Rilke, the early twentieth century Bohemian-Austrian author, captured the age of intense anxiety in many of his works. Perhaps most famous is a collection of letters, Letters to a Young Poet, published posthumously in 1929, some three years after Rilke’s death. The letters were written to a 19 year old military cadet, Franz Xaver Kappus, who wanted the more famous Rilke’s opinion on his own poetry. The young man was contemplating his future and deciding if to pursue a career as a writer or begin training for the officer corp. In one of the most famous and often quoted letters, written in 1903, Rilke writes the following words to young Franz:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
I would encourage you to read this passage again, and look at the simple, nurturing, but dominant phrases: “be patient, love the questions, live the questions.” As a teacher, I encourage my students to love the questions and to learn from them. Frequently lecturing in the Socratic Method, I want my students to ask questions, and never be ashamed of wanting to know more. Quite often their questions lead to other questions, and the cycle of learning is enriched. Unfortunately this has not always been the method used by the Orthodox Church when teaching her faithful.
Recently a minor controversy has erupted within the Orthodox Church when a priest, a long time serving and respected pastor, dared to ask a few questions that many in the Church are uncomfortable hearing. He called upon the Church, not to condemn questions raised by many about such issues as “human sexuality, the configuration of the family, the beginning and ending of human life, the economy and the care and the utilization of the environment, including the care, dignity and quality of human life.”
“Never Changing Gospel; Ever Changing Culture” is a thoughtful essay written by Father Robert Arida, pastor of Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral (OCA) in Boston. While it has been, unfortunately, widely condemned by many in the Church, including by the priest’s own Metropolitan, Tikhon, Father’s thoughts deserve an attentive read and consideration. In particular, Father Arida was ridiculed for his suggestion that topics surrounding human sexuality be discussed. The original article was posted on the Wonder blog, which is a publication of the “Department of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministries of the Orthodox Church in America.” The purpose and focus of the blog appears on its “about” page and deserves to be looked at in its entirety, because Father Robert’s article, although later removed from the site at the request of the Metropolitan, fits directly into the mission of the website.
“Wonder is published monthly on a particular theme and presents four or five articles from a variety of perspectives. This blog is particularly geared for young adults and college students, and those who minister to them. It is our hope that this blog will help provide a “good defense” for our faith, hope and love. These articles are published to spur discussion, both online and off, and provide material for those engaged in campus and young adult ministry.”
Observe the phrases used: “variety of perspectives”, “spur discussion”, “defense for our faith, hope and love”, “provide materials”. This is exactly what Father Robert was trying to accomplish with his relevant article. Is there any doubt that young adults and college students are interested in discussing such vital topics? How many high schools have GSA (Gay, Straight Alliance) clubs or LGBT affinity groups? These items are not debated in hushed tones by students, but are part of the established curriculum of most secondary schools. Is there a college student in America not exposed to gay people or disinterested in the issues of marriage equality or gender discrimination? Our faithful have long ago raised, and many times already answered the questions, that Father Robert has raised. And yet the official Church has decided that such questions are off limits, or worse, have convinced themselves that they have been answered millennia ago, ignoring decades of scientific research.
A recent study by Andrew Whithead of Clemson University, published in Review of Religious Research, found that congregations with more individuals holding bachelor’s degrees or higher were more likely to be welcoming to gay and lesbians. Therefore, imagine a high school or college student who approaches his or her pastor, and respectfully begins to ask about the Orthodox Church’s view on homosexuality, gay marriage, transgendered rights, the neuroscience associated with the gender spectrum, and a host of other topics they have discovered or learned about in school. Someone who has studied biology, psychology and sociology at the college or graduate level is not going to be content with being given an outdated pamphlet written in 1992 (OCA Synodal Affirmation on Marriage) stating, for example, that homosexuality is a rebellion against God. How many advances in science have taken place in the last twenty-five years which might better inform the discussion?
In the words of Metropolitan Tikhon “we need to begin by listening more and asking ourselves if we are truly able to hear the questions that are being asked by our college students, by our relatives, by the strangers we meet on the street, by our neighbors?” And yet, instead of allowing the discussion to take place, the Metropolitan instructs “the editors of Wonder to replace the lead article in question [Father Robert Arida’s] with my [the Metropolitan’s] present reflection.” So much for any discussion. The reader does not even know to what the Metropolitan is responding. So much for “listening and hearing” on the part of the Church. Father Robert is listening. He is listening to his parishioners, his penitents, as well as his own conscience. Unfortunately he is a voice crying in the wilderness. However, the good thing about voices in the wilderness is that many times they become prophets. (Mark1:3)
There is an ancient proverb, “the fish stinks from the head,” meaning that when something fails, the leadership is to blame. Is there anything more dangerous for the Church than a lack of compassion combined with self imposed ignorance and smugness? “Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa – from the masthead on the Wonder blog)