by Wesley Giesbrecht
From Symbol to Sacrament
Part of my Evangelical Anabaptist upbringing was a complete rejection of the sacraments. Baptism was only an act of public declaration and the Eucharist (a word entirely foreign to my upbringing; it was simply called ‘communion’) was nothing more than a memorial meal. This was something I held on to myself until I read N. T. Wright. In the writings of N. T. Wright I discovered how all those passages of baptism and the eucharist in the Bible only really make sense if they are more than just symbols. In baptism we are set free from our former oppression to sin just as the Israelites were set free from their former Egyptian oppressors in the water of the Red Sea (I even came to accept infant baptism). The doctrine of the Incarnation naturally implies that reality of the Eucharist; if God enters into the world and takes up His abode in matter through the Incarnation then the Eucharist, being His body and blood, is somehow mystically the very body and blood of Christ which imparts Grace to us. I then began to read the scriptures in a whole new light; a sacramental one. This sacramental vision was also found in C. S. Lewis and John Wesley but it didn’t hit home with me until N. T. Wright.
A Spiritual Development
Alongside my theological and sacramental journeys was a spiritual one. When I first became an Evangelical Christian I was very much a part of a ‘charismatic’ community; prophetic visions, highly emotional worship, ‘mountain top’ experiences, etc.. I never felt entirely home in this atmosphere though and I knew that it wasn’t for me when I was at a charismatic church one time and faked speaking in tongues just so some ‘prophetess’ would leave me alone. My first development came almost a year after my conversion.
I was in Winnipeg with some friends of mine to attend a talk from the notable Evangelical figure Tony Campolo when we went to a Christian bookstore and my friends pointed me towards to book “Common Prayer” by Shane Claiborne. My friends were huge Shane Claiborne fans and had heard of this prayer book (one of them had even spent some time living with people who practiced liturgical prayer). I had never heard of liturgy of liturgical prayers before I bought the book but I began to incorporate it into my own devotions. It consisted of a different morning prayer for every day of the year, a midday prayer, as well as an evening prayer for every day of the week.
Eventually I had established for myself a prayer rule consisting of the liturgical prayers from the book along with my own personal prayers that I would say throughout the day. During the day I would strive to pray without ceasing, as St. Paul exhorts us to. I was initially inspired to strive to pray more when I read about how much time John Wesley spent each day praying. When I would wake up I would say my liturgical prayers, during the day at work I would say spontaneous prayers, at lunch time I would say my midday prayer, the afternoon would be spent in spontaneous prayers, when I would come home from work I would spend time reciting a prayer of my own composition in which I would pray for others that I know, and before I go to the bed I would say my evening prayers. Within my spontaneous prayers I began to incorporate the Orthodox “Jesus Prayer” (how I first came into contact with the prayer escapes me). I also began to incorporate bodily actions into my prayers. In the ‘Common Prayer’ book it recommended bodily actions such as bows, prostrations, the sign of the cross, as well as using items such as candles and incense. Alongside my incorporation of liturgical prayers and bodily accompaniment I began to fast regularly.
I had read once that John Wesley fasted every Wednesday and Friday (something I wasn’t quite ready to take one yet) and so I started fasting once a week. I also began to experiment with other spiritual disciplines. I read the book ‘The Celebration of Discipline’ by Richard Foster and came to the conclusion that our spirituality must be disciplined, ie: ascetic. I came to understand theologically that the Kingdom of Heaven is near and that Grace is all around us but it’s necessary for us to orient ourselves towards it and to open our hearts to receive it. Disciplines such as prayer, fasting, solitude, stillness, silence, study of the scriptures, and other spiritual tools where means towards this end of experiencing to a greater degree the Presence of God within ourselves (this ascetic understanding tied itself in perfectly with my theological understanding of theosis and synergy). I came to understand the intercession of the saints by reading an interview with Frederica Matthewes-Green that was conducted by Rachel Held Evans where she said,
“Sometimes people say to me, ‘I can go directly to Jesus, I don’t need to ask intermediaries,’
and I reply,
“OK, I won’t pray for you any more, then.”
Really, the prayers of the saints are no different from the prayers of our friends on earth. It is “the great cloud of witnesses,” both visible and invisible, all one in Jesus Christ. I also came to accept the use and veneration of icons through a discussion with my Orthodox friend where he noted that most people point to the commandment in Exodus not to make an images and yet not too shortly after God Himself commands the Israelites to makes images of Cherubim in the Temple Veil and on the Ark of the Covenant (my acceptance of veneration came from the anthropological understanding that all people of ‘icons’ and St. Paul instructs us to greet each other with a holy kiss; so if kissing each other isn’t worship neither is kissing an icon). I began the practice of praying for the dead after reading the book written by N. T. Wright about the after life, but I will quote him from his monumental work ‘Surprised By Hope’,
“Since both the departed saints and we ourselves are in Christ, we share with them in the ‘communion of saints.’ They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we celebrate the Eucharist they are there with us, along with the angels and archangels. Why then should we not pray for and with them? The reason the Reformers and their successors did their best to outlaw praying for the dead was because that had been so bound up with the notion of purgatory and the need to get people out of it as soon as possible. Once we rule out purgatory, I see no reason why we should not pray for and with the dead and every reason why we should – not that they will get out of purgatory but that they will be refreshed and filled with God’s joy and peace. Love passes into prayer; we still love them; why not hold them, in that love, before God?”.
My Personal Journey
Everything that I have mentioned so far about my theological, sacramental, and spiritual developments were largely kept to myself. On the outside I seemed to be a typical Evangelical Christian. Over the time that I spent at the church that I was attending I became very involved in many different areas of the community. I became a youth leader, a Sunday School teacher, I played in the youth worship band, I played in a Sunday morning worship band, I would sometimes play my guitar as an ‘intro’ to the service, I would run the projector, I was part of a prison ministry team for youth in Portage La Prairie, I spoke in the youth group a few times, I led a session on a youth retreat once, and I even gave a sermon twice. I became very used to being a respected member of the church community and enjoyed the influence that I had. Due to this I largely kept my personal convictions (such as infant baptism, sacramental theology, prayers for the dead, and so forth) to myself.
The community that I was a part of can be largely described as an Evangelical church with Anabaptist roots, a Baptist tinge, and a Charismatic leaning. They were Zwinglian in their sacramental theology, believed in salvation by faith alone, eternal security, and definitely not liturgical in worship. The reason I could still attend this community and secretly believe everything that I did was because I still held onto an ‘invisible church’ ecclesiology where the true church is marked by those who have true faith in Christ (whether they are Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox) and that this faith in Christ is more important than what we believe (though I still believed that the community that I was a part of was wrong). What mostly kept me silent though was my relationship with a certain family in the church. They had a Baptist background and were pretty set in the classical Protestant Evangelical tenets of Christianity. I would usually go over to their home every other Sunday after church and stay sometimes very late playing guitar with them and having discussions. I had a very strong attachment to this family and I recognized in them a legitimate love for Christ which inspired me to be more Christlike (and I still to this day have the deepest respect and reverence for this family). I also at one point became secretly obsessed with their oldest daughter. I began to think of her and fantasize so much that I wasn’t able to focus on anything theological anymore (this neglect of theology with preference to my feelings also helped me disregard my theological differences).
Fear and Longing
Throughout my Christian journey I would have times where I would draw close to Orthodoxy. I would read an Orthodox blog titled ‘Eclectic Orthodoxy’ and through it came to understand that many of my theological developments where in line with Orthodox theology. I can recall one point saying to my Orthodox friend that if there was ever to be an Orthodox Church in Winkler that I would join. I also remember one time watching a series of videos from Frank Schaeffer, the son of notable Evangelicals Francis and Edith Schaeffer, who had converted to Orthodoxy give a presentation on his journey to Orthodoxy. During the videos I found myself strangely at peace and an odd longing to be Orthodox myself. There was another time that I had bought a copy of an ancient Christian commentary of Scripture (specifically some of the books of the New Testament) and while I was reading a passage from St. John Chrysostom and listening to the hymn ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’ I thought to myself,
“If this is what it’s like being Orthodox then I wouldn’t mind it”.
But almost every time that I found myself fondling these feelings for Orthodoxy I suddenly reacted against them. I became afraid of becoming Orthodox. How would I do it? What would my family think? What would the people at my church think? I was far too emotionally attached to the church I was a part of and couldn’t imagine myself breaking off from them. At these points I would try to do everything I could to convince myself that the Orthodox Church wasn’t the one true Church. I was particularly fond a blog written by a man who had converted to Orthodoxy from Protestantism and eventually, for reasons never specified on his blog, left the Orthodox Church. He would post proof texts from the Fathers that made it look like they held onto Protestant beliefs (such as Faith Alone) and this was enough for me to look at Orthodoxy as if I now knew better than them because I had read some proof texts out of context. I would go so far to say that I was Protestant by choice and would never become Orthodox.
Suffering, Beauty, and the Issue of Unity
During the time of my secret obsession with the daughter of the family that I was very attached too I was unable to focus on theological thought and writings. I began to turn to novels as a way to keep reading. Two novels I read had a huge impact on me as well as a movie that I watched during this time. The novels were ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens and ‘Phantastes’ by George MacDonald. The movie was the recent musical production of ‘Les Miserables’. What struck me in all three cases was Christlike characters who were willing to enter and endure suffering for the sake of their love. These characters pierced my heart and I found the whole concept of suffering for the sake of love exceptionally beautiful.
I came to the conclusion that suffering is a necessary element to love and in fact the willingness to endure suffering for another is the proof of love. I began to meditate on this in the context of the life of a Christian and came to really understand that the center of the life of a Christian is to bear our crosses out of love for Christ since He bore the cross out of love for us. The love in turn transforms us and makes us more like Christ (which in my theology took the terminology of theosis). Thus I saw that the path to perfection, the path to union, the path to salvation, is the way of the cross.
This to me was truly a beautiful life. Beauty became for me that which points us towards Christ and thus it is necessary for beauty to be a part of the life as a Christian as a means of being directed towards Christ (the place of beauty as a sign-post towards Christ incorporated icons as being necessary as precisely pointing us towards Christ through their beauty towards He Who is Beauty). Around this time I was also reading the Gospel of St. John and became convicted over the passage described as Christ’s ‘Great High Priestly Prayer’ (John 17). In it Christ prayers that His followers may be one even as He is one with the Father.
The issue of Christian unity began to become important for me. The best place I thought that I could work on this was at my work place. At my work place was a variety of Christians. One was an Evangelical Mennonite, another was a Charismatic ‘prosperity gospel’ believer, another was an Evangelical with a Reformed bent, while others were simply Mennonites. I figured that I would make an attempt, as poor as it was, to try to be attain to a better sense of unity with them, but I realized that this wasn’t possible. Two things that I personally find deplorable are Calvinistic doctrine and the prosperity gospel.
The Calvinists are wrong and the health-and-wealthers are wrong, but since the concept of ‘soul competency’ (which states: in matters of religion, each person has the liberty to choose what his/her conscience or soul dictates is right, and is responsible to no one but God for the decision that is made) is dominant among many people who hold on to ‘Sola Scriptura’ I realized that in their minds they have every ‘right’ to read the Bible as they do and that I have no ‘right’ to tell them how they are supposed to read it. I began to see the the doctrine of Sola Scriptura was in reality the foundation of division and I was beginning to see that as long as Protestants believe in Sola Scriptura there will never be unity among them.
How Dostoevsky Changed My Life
After I had read Dickens and MacDonald I somehow came across a quotation from the famed Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky that said,
“Active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams”.
The quotation spoke to me profoundly and I found another quote from him which said,
“Beauty will save the world”.
Both of these quotes were perfectly harmonious with my recent ruminations on love, suffering, and beauty, so I quickly went out and obtained a copy of Dostoevsky’s novel, “The Idiot”. As I read the book I was once again struck by the Christlikeness of the main character, the Prince, but what hit me even more was my abhorrence towards to characters he interacted with. At some times they were nice to him, other times they were down right cruel. They were constantly shifting in how they treated the Prince.
The reason I was struck so deeply by this observation was because when I looked at these wretched Russian aristocrats I saw a frightening reflection of myself. The relationship of these people towards the Prince in some ways was a reflection of my interior relationship towards the young woman I was obsessed with. I kept this obsession a secret, for the most part (I told a select few people), due to the fact that I myself thought that it was an inappropriate attraction; she was a youth kid, I was a youth leader, she was in the highschool Sunday School class, I was the highschool Sunday School teacher. Most of the time I hated myself for feeling the way that I did but I never felt like I was able to get over my attraction, even though I knew she had no interest in me and there was no real possibility of anything. But nonetheless I continued to obsess.
There were times when she might say ‘hi’ to me or smile at me and I would feel great. The next week she might not acknowledge me and I would hate her and tear her apart in my thoughts and feelings. When I saw the two faced Russians I saw myself. Not only did this affect me but the realization that I am a complete hypocrite struck me even more. I had come to adore the man who lays down his life and gives up his own desires out of love for another and here I was selfishly holding on to feelings for someone I knew I could never have. I was the complete opposite of what I preached. I had only one option. I wrote a letter explaining myself to her and the next time I visit her family I managed to get it into her room. Once she found it she emailed me asking if she could show it to her parents. I said that she had every right to.