by Deacon Jason Ketz
It is memory that keeps me here.
This is my best explanation I have for why I am still around. My strongest answer (for now, at least), but not my first. The answer that I generally use when people ask me is “well, why wouldn’t I be?”
For the majority of my short life, this answer – why change? – has served its purpose. Few people have ever asked me why I believe in Christ, and I suppose such a simplistic answer as “well, why not?” wouldn’t really hold up. But it has done wonders for explaining my Orthodox Christian faith.
I should start by explaining that I grew up in the Church, and my family has been Orthodox for several generations, so Orthodoxy is normative for me. I’m long used to the fasts and the feasts, the saints, the lengthy liturgy, the different calendar for Lent. And on Pascha, “Christ is Risen!” is not merely a Church expression, but one that I am able to share with all of my extended family at dinner that Sunday. Furthermore, my experience with Orthodoxy has been overwhelmingly positive. I have benefitted from growing up in a large, vibrant and loving parish community. Never during my childhood or adolescence (and even rarely in my adulthood thus far) have I had the misfortune of interacting with clergy and lay community leaders who seem anything short of legitimate servants of our Lord Jesus Christ. Consequently, I have stayed involved in Church life, and particularly in liturgical worship, for most of my days, and the experience has been beneficial and enjoyable. Again, why would I give that up?
So when people ask why I’m [still] Orthodox, this response satisfies their curiosity and encapsulates my thoughts on the matter. I know that it makes me sound rather happy-go-lucky, perhaps a bit lazy or ignorant, but I have thought about the matter at length. And to spare you all the psycho-pathology, please believe me when I say that if I had a compelling reason to go elsewhere, I would.
My oblique response to those who question my faith served me well, ironically, until I attended seminary. I thought it was strange that people as pious as seminarians and professors of theology would ask me such a question, and then wouldn’t tolerate my nonchalance on the subject. I’m really not even sure the question is fair – it implies that our faith is a choice, but the question also strikes at the relativism of our day. Jesus Christ is, whether or not I choose to accept him. Of course, I’m well aware that religion is a buyer’s market today, and people court and select a church like they select a college or (God forbid!) a spouse, always with an exit strategy written into the fine print. But to describe church in such terms sounds awful. It completely misses the point. Where is Christ in such an equation? If he’s there, he’s certainly not there as Lord, God and Savior.
For most of my life, I have understood my faith in a few very simplistic tenets. I told my second grade teacher that the purpose of life was to serve God (she asked us because she meant it to be a riddle. Not so!). And I understood Church to be a place where our Lord was to be encountered. So when people ask me why I’m still here, and I say “where else would I be?” what I’m really saying – without meaning to sound overtly sentimental or pietistic or weird – is that I truly believe that I have encountered Christ in and through my Orthodox faith. So why would I turn my back on this belief? Turning my back on the Church would equate to turning away from Christ. He wouldn’t do such a thing to me, so why would I willingly turn away from him?
I don’t feel up to a discussion on ecumenism today, so I can say only this: because I know that the Orthodox faith has brought me into contact with my Lord and Savior, I am very hard-pressed to find another, ‘better’ way to reach him. As an advocate for continuous improvement, I’m open to the possibility, but I don’t get the sense that faith in Christ is meant to be easy or convenient. So I’m very much inclined to leave things alone regarding churches, rituals and creeds.
But I have accepted this question “why am I still here?” as a push toward a stronger explanation for my deep rooted inertia. So deeper we must dig.
I have also considered seriously whether the reasons I am still here are all of the kind, loving and positive role models I’ve encountered in the church. There is no doubt in my mind that I am here because of these experiences. I was an inquisitive youth, and I was fortunate enough to be in a church community with an abundance of people willing and able to answer my questions, or to challenge me, and always to keep me interested in Christ, in the Church, in the Liturgy, in theology, in scripture. The list of people to whom I owe this debt of gratitude is impressive.
This is not an uncommon theme, people motivating people to come back to church. This is probably the single most common reason that any of us are still here, and it is a perfectly defensible answer to say “because so-and-so invited me”… even if the invitation was years ago! I’m not much of a people-person, though, so it’s a bit comical that I, who could gladly attend church without ever a coffee hour, would realize that it’s my interactions with people that have kept me coming back to the liturgy that I love.
So it seems that my positive past experiences and acquaintances keep me coming back. In short, you could say that it is my memories that keep me here. Which is very nearly how I began this article. Except that I am not still here simply because of the memories, but because of memory itself.
Church, for me, is not a trip down memory lane. It’s not merely a chance to hang on to my own personal past, nor is Orthodoxy a stable, conservative haven from the incessant storm of change that life brings to us all. True, “Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8), but my faithful response to him is as dynamic as life itself. And although our Lord entered time and space (i.e., the incarnation), he did not enter the space and time in which I exist, so there is a chasm separating us – a chasm that is bridged by memory, and specifically by the memory that is evoked during the church services and especially the Divine Liturgy.
The preparation of the Eucharist involves prayers that require our recollection, or anamnesis. As a community, we gather and remember the past together. In the Liturgy, it’s our Lord’s past, particularly his passion and resurrection, that is remembered. Our worship does the same with the psalms, and with the lives of saints in other services. And when we do this, our memory breaks down this separation we have from our past. We are all connected though a series of memories now stretching through two thousand years – and beyond! – of time, and thousands of miles of space. Through memory, the past becomes present. It becomes a reality, and we recognize this. We recognize this when we say “today…” as we celebrate historical feasts in the Church. And we recognize this when we approach the chalice believing that today’s bread and wine is Christ’s body and blood. This is all possible only through memory.
I am still here because I am a part of this memory. I am a part of the group that together recollects the saving work of our Lord, and together experiences and rejoices in this promise of our salvation. I’m sure the group could get along fine without me – such is the nature of groups – but I would not fare so well without them. So together, we strive to follow God’s instructions first issued through Moses: “Give heed to the statutes and the ordinances which I teach you, and do them; that you may live” (Deut 4:1). And “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you” (Deut 15:15; 24:18).
And the reason that I am such a willing participant in Orthodox Christian remembering of our Lord Jesus Christ, is because this remembering is reciprocal. Not only do we remember our Lord, but he remembers us. Our Lord remembers his covenant with Noah, and with Abraham, and with David, and his remembrance of the covenant is our salvation. To what extent God remembers me individually, I cannot say. I believe that, as we say in the Liturgy of St Basil the Great, “the Lord knows (and remembers) the name of us each, even from our mother’s womb.” And I know also that the wise thief asked our Lord to “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42), and his prayer was answered. However, I hear and remember this prayer and this scripture passage primarily (and exclusively, in the case of the intercessions of Basil’s liturgy) as a member of the congregation!
So, in short, I am still here because of memory. I am here because I am remembered, and I return in order to remember. And through this experience, I have collected a lifetime of memories besides. Through my faith in Christ, through our liturgical worship, and through my continued participation in the life of the Church, these memories are all integrated, and all accessible.
To me, the most serious violence that time does to us all, is the destruction of memories. However, our Lord is also the Lord of time, and in him, our memories live on. And the Church, as a worshipping community, becomes a safe harbor from the amnesia that time afflicts upon us all. For this reason, I take great comfort in our Lord’s remembering, and in the survival of all of our memories. Perhaps it’s not the only reason, but for now at least, this is the most powerful reason that I’m still here today.