The Lessons of Santa Fe

We Orthodox Christians have a beautiful faith with a beautiful tradition. The entire span of our human experience is seen in splendid glory, from the Blessing of a Newborn Baby on the first day of life, continuing through the sacraments of Holy Baptism, Chrismation, Communion and Confession. We have a glorious wedding service as well as poignant yet beautiful funeral rites. The life of an Orthodox Christian is a life of great beauty, depth and meaning. It’s a life that takes what would have been, transforming it into what was always meant to be.

But perhaps for too long we have made great assumptions that may well be unfounded. When many Orthodox talk about their lives as Orthodox, they often describe it in terms of membership, similar to the ways anyone talks about any organization to which they belong. We speak of our religious affiliation by naming which parish we belong to and from where we hope to have the good standing to qualify for the aforementioned burial rites. Some commonly define their Christian commitment in terms of the frequency of their weekly attendance and their financial support of their parish (sometimes even referring to their stewardship as “dues”). Again, just like people describe their membership in any other club or organization.

While these aspects of our Church life do describe a part of the story of our membership in the Church, I think it’s time we rethink how effectively they do that, and how they actually have little bearing on what it really means to be an Orthodox Christian.

This past week, our nation and to some extent the entire world once again felt the shock waves emanating from yet one more mass shooting taking place in an American school, this time in Santa Fe, Texas. Once more, a horrible contrast was drawn between what had been a peaceful and safe place of discovery, learning and growth, now disintegrated into an unimaginable scene of tragic carnage. Again we heard horror in the voices of young people with too few years to be known as “survivors.” We saw the inconsolable sorrow in the faces of grieving parents. And who is it we find this time at the epicenter of this earthquake of human tragedy?

Sadly, this time it was one of “our own.” Dimitrios Pagourtzis was a son of the Church. Baptized and Chrismated into Holy Orthodoxy, he once knew what it was to “taste and see that the Lord is good” as a receiver of the Holy Gifts of Communion. Doubtless, he prayed the Lord’s Prayer–probably in both Greek and English. He kissed icons, processed on Palm Sunday and took “light from the light that is never overtaken by night,” soon thereafter listening as the refrains of “Christ is risen from the dead” filled a dark night, now turned bright with Paschal joy.

But then something happened. Something went wrong. It’s likely that we’ll find that mental illness played a part in what happened, but something more destructive was also going on. Current information tells us he was still “around” but had for some time been drifting from the Church. He danced at the Greek Festival. He attended services with his family once in a while, even while sharing with some that he had given up his faith and adopted atheism. But here is the tragedy that I believe is at the heart of the tragedy that led to the shooting: he was around the Church enough for people to assume he was a “member,” but had for some time ceased to be transformed in the ways the Church ALWAYS transforms Her true members.

Being an Orthodox Christian has never legitimately been viewed in terms anything close to membership in any other organization. It is a radical departure from the common, the ordinary and the worldly, not a mere subtle change in direction. It is to die to old ideas of what it means to live. We begin Christian life by being plunged into the drowning waters of Baptism, in order to be brought up into new life. We feed regularly not on mere earthly food, but also on the broken Body and spilt Blood of the One we follow, whose Name we take as our own as Christians. We do this to fuel our ongoing transformation, rooting out as much evil as we can identify and tending to the growth of the virtues. As Orthodox Christians, we live lives of deep and ongoing repentance, “working out our salvation with fear and trembling,” (Philippians 2:12).

But let’s be honest: for many of us, this sounds radical. Extreme. Overzealous. And let’s be even more honest: for most of us, we would rather define Christian life as membership and affiliation. A much lower bar, void of any disconcerting expectations of deep and meaningful change. It’s easy to see the attraction of this perspective.

But let’s also be open to what we miss out when we settle for affiliation and take a pass on transformation, defining our “membership” in the Church as we do with any other worldly body. Poor Dimitri and those around him settled for his affiliation and thereby missed out on his transformation, at least so far. And now how many will suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives? Of course it doesn’t take such an extreme case to highlight the fact that missing out on transformation is the greatest tragedy of them all. All that Christ came to do, all that the Saints suffered for and even died in order to pass on, all that life was meant to be, all of this is bound up in the transformation inherent in the life of a true Christian.

And because Orthodox Christianity is the Way of the Kingdom, to follow it is to find all the peace, joy and love that all humans crave and were created to receive. While it seems repetitive to say it, we don’t receive this transformation without being transformed. Affiliation just doesn’t cut it. It’s not the bargain it appears to be, let alone the viable option many (and maybe even most?) Orthodox Christians think it is. In fact, mere affiliation with Orthodoxy is even worse than having nothing to do with it. At least one who doesn’t have it can decide they want it. The one who is affiliated with Orthodoxy but is not seeking to be transformed by it tragically thinks they already have it, and therefore doesn’t seek what it truly offers.

The tragedy of Santa Fe, Texas is a warning sign, a disturbing alarm which can wake us from the slumber of our settling for affiliation and membership as the definition of Faith. It’s not too late to abandon this hollow definition of Christianity, and restore a true image of true Faith. Perhaps it’s not mere coincidence that this tragic shooting took place where it did. The name Santa Fe means “Holy Faith.” Holy Faith is real. Holy Faith is life-changing. Holy Faith is transformative. Let’s learn the right lesson as we should from any school, let alone one in Santa Fe. Let us see, accept and then live a life in which God is constantly transforming us. This is what it truly means to be a part of the Church. This is where Santa Fe, Holy Faith, will always lead us.