By Fr. Michael Gillis
In order to compete in the Olympics, athletes must have the right equipment: you can’t complete in long track speed skating wearing skates designed for short track racing. Expert skaters may debate among themselves which slight variations of, for example, the ankle support are optimal, but when it comes to basic distinctions between long track and short track skates, there is no debate. There is a difference, and in order to compete in long track speed skating, you need long track skates. There is such a thing as the right equipment—you might even call it “ortho-quipment.”
If some inexperienced person wanted to give long track racing a try in short track skates, I’m sure he could make it around the track. In fact, if the person in the wrong skates is in great shape and he were racing me—even if I had the right skates on—he would probably lap me before the end of the race. I’m in terrible shape. Nevertheless, that fact that someone in very good shape wearing the wrong skates can race faster than someone in lousy shape wearing correct skates does not change the basic fact that the fast one is wearing the wrong skates. It only shows that the faster fellow has worked very hard to get in shape while I have been sitting at my computer all day writing blogs and sipping coffee. With the right skates, “ortho-skates,” the fast would be even faster.
As Orthodox Christians we celebrate our tenacity. We hold on to the right faith and accept no innovations. We proclaim the right faith: the truth declared and clearly articulated by the holy Fathers from the beginning. We accept the teaching handed down to us by men and women who by experience in the things of God were able to articulate differences between what are the right ways and what are inappropriate ways to talk about the Mystery of God’s appearing in the flesh, His life, death, resurrection, second coming and the fearsome last judgment. There is a right way to understand theology. “Experienced experts” through the ages have confirmed for us the Orthodox faith, and this is the faith that we hold. We are not at all shy about declaring our faith, nor are we shy about pointing out heterodoxy. There is right faith and there is other faith (hetero means “other”).
Having right faith is very important if we are going to grow in our relationship with God, repent of our sins, and increase in virtues and godliness. Just as athletes need the proper equipment to train and compete at their highest level, so Christians need right faith to grow well in the Christian life. But it is not enough merely to have right faith, just as it is not enough for an athlete merely to have the right equipment. If one is going to compete in athletics or grow in the Christian life, one must put on the equipment and get out and train.
Lent is a season of asceticism. It is the season of the year in which Christians force themselves to train a little harder—in fact, the Greek word askisis, where we get the word “asceticism” means athletic training. Orthodox Christians have an advantage in that we have inherited right faith from our forefathers: we have the correct equipment. But if we do not put on the equipment; if we do not put on mercy, gentleness and faith; if we do not control our habits, our speech, our eating; if we do not force ourselves to strive a little harder in prayer and repentance especially during this season of the Great Fast, then having right faith will not do us much good. Equipment is to be used just as faith is to be practiced. A faith that is not practiced is like skates that are never worn. Only when we put on our skates and start working our way around the track do we become athletes: just owning the skates means very little. So too being Orthodox Christians has meaning only when we “put on” our faith and make an effort to live it every day.