Mother Maria Skobtsova, a martyr of the Nazi concentration camps, and an early 20th century intellectual and nun, wrote an insightful essay entitled, “Types of Religious Life.” In it she articulates five ways of being religious: the synodal, the ritualist, the aesthetical, the ascetical as well the ideal way, the evangelical (or “way of the Gospel.”).
While it is easy to point fingers and categorize certain churches or groups as this or that, what’s really interesting (and frightening!) is how easily I (*) seem to fall in these inaccurate and perilous ways of thinking about the Church.
Synodal. While really based on what she experienced of the émigré Russian Church, in its use of the Church to promote ethnic heritage and political ideals, it’s a potential trap for all of us, myself included, convert that I am. Anytime I see the Church as an institution, or as a way of conserving the past, I fall victim to this thinking.
The Ritualist. Mother Maria, calls this way “a type of magic,” and she is totally correct. We can get the idea that God’s grace is based upon our carefully exacting the right formula of rubric and spoken word. I have often fallen into this mire as I encountered first the Canons, and then the Typica, using my new knowledge to prove how “Orthodox” I was and taking the opportunity to judge bishop, priests, and whole churches, because of their inexact ways of “performing” the services.
The Aesthetical. Once again, I shamefully acknowledge my participation in this way of thinking. The beauty of the Divine Liturgy was what initially attracted me to the Orthodox Church. But to get so caught up in how the choir and/or chanting sounds, how the altar boys move and how the lighting is set, is to forget why we are there in the first place.
The Ascetical. Suffering is a huge part of our Christian faith. Jesus says, “Take up you cross and follow me.” And indeed the Church honors those who have done so, down to our present age. But the problem with (and evidently so many others, else Mother Maria would not be addressing the problem) … is that our suffering, our struggle…becomes a self-centered exercise. It is not a struggle out of love for God and fellow Man. It’s a struggle for my own salvation. I think the distinction is difficult to articulate, yet I can and do feel it in my own manner of living.
The Evangelical (Gospel) Way. Finally, Mother Maria turns to the true way to look at the Church; the true way to live. As St. Paul says, “It is no longer I who live but Christ,” so too, the Christian way is to live as Christ did, in a way that goes beyond “What would Jesus do?” Christ gave us two commandments to live by — that we should love God, and love our neighbor. These must be the criteria by which we judge all that we do. Its fine that other things happen at church; culture is preserved, social opportunities occur, etc. But if the heart of what we do is not about loving God and our neighbor, then our music is as tinkling brass, our icons are pretty pictures, and our prayers are hot air.
* I totally stole this entire post, and pic, from Deacon Raphael (he is the “first person” speaking above).
There’s also more here.