Vladimir Yakuntsev: Overcoming Superstition among Parishioners during the process of Catechesis

14 June 2016
Reflections from Practical Experience among Catechists
Vladimir Yakuntsev
Vladimir Yakuntsev

This text is not some sort of a scholarly article, but more a set of reflections based upon practice. In the recent years of our catechetical ministry, we have been dealing primarily with people who have years of experience of parish life in the real conditions of the church, and it is only logical that a very particular experience should reveal itself. These cases are usually complicated. In attempting to comprehend this complexity in some way, while not covering it completely, I have written down these thoughts, which actually represent several broad theses.

In our opinion, superstition among the baptised faithful is one of the most widespread and complex problems that catechists encounter. On one hand, no such superstition should exist among Orthodox Christians. On the other, the emergence of various superstitions is inevitable, just as weeds sprout up in the field of the Gospel parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). This being so, the solution is to build an immunity which will act as armour against them.

In an ideal world and according to the tradition, a Christian must attain to this immunity and put on this lie-detecting armour during pre-baptismal catechesis. We remember that St Cyril of Jerusalem told those whom he was preparing for baptism that his lectures were not only to make them steadfast in their faith but also to be their armour against any false doctrine. In the Prologue to his Catechetical Lectures he wrote:

“…For you are receiving armour against adverse powers, armour against heretics, Jews, Samaritans, and Pagans. You have many enemies; endeavour also to carry many weapons … <…> that you might be invincible against every advance of the heretics” [Cyril of Jerusalem].

But today we find ourselves in a different situation: the majority of the faithful have not attained in due time to such armour and immunity and can therefore hardly be invincible. As such, we need to face the task during post-baptismal catechesis! But to do this is much more difficult and one can understand why: to educate someone correctly in the first place is easier than re-educating him.

Unlike pre-baptismal catechumens, a post-baptismal catechumen often considers all the beliefs and teachings s/he follows to be unambiguously Orthodox, and, in this sense, does not doubt them, and has even had time to construct his or her practice of personal piety around them. But many of these beliefs and teachings do not have Orthodox, or even Christian, roots.

For this reason, post-baptismal catechesis, strange as it may seem, may involve more of an experience of inner-conflict than pre-baptismal catechesis. During post-baptismal catechesis, the catechist often has to unravel tangled masses of confusion very delicately and meticulously, knowing that some of the authentic traits of Orthodox doctrine and piety can inflict pain on or even shock some Orthodox believers. This is due to the specific nature of superstition itself, which does not require of the subject any particular effort of the heart but rather is easily assimilated by the religious consciousness of a person living a psychic rather than spiritual life; superstitions always replace real spiritual work with false assurance (or sometimes false doubt) of salvation. And this starts to come out during catechesis, which a person can find truly difficult, as that which s/he once believed to be highly sacred and a key point of faith and church life, suddenly turns out not to be so, whereas that which is genuinely Christian and sacred may have gone unobserved and been neglected.

In our view, if the catechist dealing with baptized people wants to help victims of superstition, then, generally speaking, some extra effort is needed in at least three areas:

a) working out a fundamental understanding of what superstition actually is, how it is experienced and what its boundaries are; coming to an understanding that it is not enough to preach sound faith, but that one has also to identify and persistently apply an antidote to superstition;

b) knowing and understanding the ‘pathological anatomy and physiology’ of any given superstition that affects a specific catechumen and, taking this into consideration, focusing tactfully and within reasonable limits on corresponding issues in catechetical practice;

c) being constantly sure, during catechesis, that its overall structure and tenor are rooted in the patristic tradition – not only avoiding being fed by any superstitions, but also creating conditions in which superstitions won’t be able to hide themselves from the catechumen’s conscience; knowing what it is within this tradition that is particularly important for victims of any particular superstition and taking this into account.


What is Superstition?

In Russian, the word itself – ‘sueverie’ (‘sue’ – vain; ‘verie’ – belief) – means a vain or false belief. But superstition is not heresy. Heresy tries to change the dogma of the Church, whereas superstition has no such pretentions. It ‘sneaks’ into the Church not via dogma but in the sphere of what might be called ‘faith-consciousness’ or practical, everyday faith. But superstition can be no less harmful than heresy: affecting ‘faith-consciousness’ without changing a single letter of dogma, it trains us to be oblivious to the teachings of our faith, while producing false hope and life practice that are contrary to them. This can be a mass phenomenon. Thus, in cases where we come across a contradiction between faith, prayer and life or as Fr Alexander Schmemann put it – between theology, worship and piety [Schmemann, Eucharist], with dogma remaining safe and secure – we are dealing with superstition. And this is true even when this contradiction is ‘legitimized’ by tens or even hundreds of years of practice.

Interestingly, some heresies which were once officially rejected may still exist in the form of superstitions. One example might be the monophysitism inherent in the claim that it is impossible for a common person to imitate Christ, because ‘Christ is God.’ Thus, it is said, if imitation of Christ is possible at all, then only by saints, because they are different by nature. And it is typical that phyletism feeds Orthodox nationalism. Most superstition has never reached the level of heresy, however, and was therefore never defined as such by a council of the Church. In the list of named heresies we do not see the obsession with miracles or spiritual elders, the latter which results in demand for ‘elders’ who actually lack experience and wisdom. Neither are clericalism, modernism and fundamentalism, the belief in the self-sufficiency of ascetic feats or the Satanic origin of bar code and tax reference number allegedly containing ‘666’, or the belief in the validity of church sacraments ex opere operato, named as heresies.

In our view, the prevalence of superstitions of one kind or another depends on whether the region is urban or rural – a large city or a small town. It is also most likely correlated with the level of church education as well as with the standard of culture and general education.

Moscow also has its own, specific profile. Everything – in its own peculiar manifestation – can be found in a megalopolis. In Moscow, for example, there is a palpable sensation that Orthodox parishes are primarily represented by ‘occasional’ parishioners. Their percentage is comparable to the general data (as everywhere, 93 to 95% of the population consider themselves to be Orthodox [Zagvozdina; Zaytsev Andrey]), but in no way does this actually translate into real numbers of people in church. And most of those who come for catechesis after having been baptized are this sort of ‘occasional’ parishioner.

Here I would like to dedicate some further attention to this issue of the ‘occasional’ parishioner, and the type of superstition on which s/he is generally feeding.


Superstition among ‘Occasional’ Parishioners

So what can we say about ‘occasional’ parishioners? This is a category of people who consider themselves Orthodox and have a specific understanding of piety which has one constant feature – one must be baptized. They then let life go by as it will: communion or no communion, with or without observing prayers and fasts, committing grievous sins or not – one way today, another tomorrow. In other words, one must be baptized, but after that, observance depends upon life’s needs and possibilities. This is a faith without effort. A full quarter of ‘occasional’ parishioners never set foot in church. More than a third come in only to light a candle. Another third take part in christenings, weddings and funerals. The gospel has nothing to do with ‘occasional’ parishioners, who take no notice of it. More than 60% of them have never read any part of the Bible. The main thing for them is to have an intention to live a Christian life – as they understand it – and not to be opposed to it. And so it goes for years. To follow Christ, for them, is at most to take care of their families and be honest at work. ‘Occasional’ parishioners are not usually interested in the meaning of sacraments or worship, because they have already found meaning in improving their psychic wellbeing, satisfying their religious needs (which should by no means be confused with faith) and, most importantly, arranging their everyday lives.

Such ‘piety’, as we know, is in no way derived from the spirit and the meaning of the Gospel and the teachings of the Holy Fathers. But such a thing exists, and it follows that so does a sort of quasi-faith and quasi-doctrine, which we call superstition. Its essence is that in their ‘occasional’ piety, ‘occasional’ parishioners believe that they live a grace-filled life: surely it must be that the grace of the sacraments in which they partook in the past or in which they sometimes partake now is somehow there and working in their lives, giving them hope of salvation.

What is the origin of this strange belief in the saving effect of sacraments and radical hope in them? Is it consistent with the Orthodox sacramental theology? We think that it is important for the catechist dealing with baptized people make sense of this issue.

Indeed, there is an oddity here. It is well known that Orthodox Christianity teaches that the aim of the Christian life is theosis, which can be achieved through both personal and community efforts of heart and mind within the Church: ‘with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming’(1 Pet 1:13). According to the teaching of St Gregory Palamas which was adopted by the Orthodox Church, grace – being uncreated divine energy which emanates from the triune God – is God Himself, though not in His essence, yet revealing Himself truly, non-representationally, and without any intermediation [Dionysius; Bernatsky, 8–37]. The revelation of God's grace is Epiphany, and is always associated with the revelation of His Person and His will. For this reason, it is impossible to be filled with grace without that real encounter with God, without having communion with Him and serving Him and His Church and without fidelity to His call. Grace, according to the Orthodox doctrine, is not a thing-in-itself; it is not an impersonal, sanctifying substance at work independently inside the human being. Rather, it is the fruit of an ongoing relationship with God – and through Him – with one’s neighbours in the Church. It is for this reason that grace cannot be ‘channelled,’ ‘transferred,’ ‘conveyed,’ or ‘accumulated’ (such as implied by the Roman Catholic idea of “acts of supererogation”). The source of grace is God Himself, while its receptacles are the Church and the people in the Church. The difference between the actual and potential means of action of grace in Orthodox sacramental theology does not contradict what we have just said: grace becomes actual and efficient only when a person is open to it, resolute in his whole life, and makes a real effort of heart and mind. If these conditions are not met, then grace is inert. One might say the action of grace is possible in potential, but ‘potential’ grace does not have real existence. Therefore, a baptized person who does not live by the faith does not have the grace of baptism.

It is precisely in this, that the Orthodox experience of sacrament is based. If all is as it should be, there is not the slightest trace of automatism or magic in our experience of sacrament. The Orthodox experience does not reject but, on the contrary, brings to the fore an effort of heart and mind and attention to the spirit and meaning of sacrament, which are to be perceived and embodied in all of life. In fact, it is only through real synergy – in the experience of encounter and communion with God, in the Church, through Christ and in the Holy Spirit – that we can achieve the fusion of human and divine life.

It is precisely in this way that one can understand the words by the Apostle Paul when he wrote to the Corinthians, that if they take communion without testing themselves and ‘discerning the body,’ – that is, if they do not make effort of heart and mind to embrace through faith the meaning of the sacrament and embody this in their lives – then they inevitably eat and drink judgement upon themselves (1 Corinthians 11:29). St Symeon the New Theologian also wrote:

“If you partake of the heavenly bread and wine, that is, the Body and the Blood of Christ, discerning what these are, know then that you partake worthily; If you do not partake in this way, then you eat and drink unworthily. <…>

In this way those partaking worthily are united with God – those who eat the bread and drink from the communion cup, who know and contemplate the power of the sacrament. And those who receive communion unworthily are empty of the grace of the Holy Spirit and feed only their bodies, and not their souls.

<...> For those who have not raised themselves above the sensual sphere, this heavenly bread remains simple, earthly bread” [Symeon the New Theologian].

We are aware of many similar quotations from the Holy Fathers and Teachers with regard to other sacraments, and particularly with regard to baptism*. Orthodox sacramental theology takes these into consideration.

But ‘occasional’ parishioners have a different ‘sacramental theology’, as is evident from their piety. And judging by the prevalence of this kind of ‘sacramental theology,’ church communities do not appear to have developed the necessary immunity to it.

As this ‘sacramental theology’ would have it, the grace of the sacraments is irrevocable and works irresistibly. A grace-filled life does not presuppose communion with God – the symbols and signs of this communion are enough. This grace works outside of personal encounter, outside of fidelity and ministry, beyond the scope of the path and the meaning of the Gospel. This grace requires no choice, no decision, no promise; good intention is all that is required. After all, only the Lord can make promises. He promised us salvation and is now a prisoner of his own promise.  Having established the sacraments, he cannot at this point abdicate from his own intention. Just as his love in Christ was shown to be boundless and unconditional, there is nothing that I can do from my side – no sin or condition – that would cut off grace. Sacraments are irrevocable, the Church has no power over them and is necessary only for their sake.

Grace, in the view of such a sacramental theology, is not strictly related to God and does not reveal His Person: God lives by Himself, whereas grace, having ‘morphed’ from energy into substance, lives its own life. Grace comes down of its own accord, does its work, fills us up and rests upon us. Someone has power over it and can send it down, confer it and even to take it away. And grace can be specialized: every holy mystery is seen as having its own particular grace; sacraments have one kind of grace, whereas rites and rituals have another; a lay person has one kind of grace, while a clergyman has another. Even holy water may have different ‘graces’, dependent upon whether it is sanctified on the Eve of Epiphany, the day of the feast itself, or on some other day of the year! There are many examples. And if there can be specialization, then the next step is to differentiate functional applications of grace to the point that not only sacraments but even each particular saint has his or her ‘applied’ grace.

The type of grace to which the ‘occasional’ parishioner and his support structure within the church ascribe does not require the burden of synergy with God or a feat of mind and heart. According to their creed, purifying grace itself descends upon a person and deprives him or her of any desire to sin. If a sinful impulse persists and the person cannot turn away from it and resolve in his or her mind to respond to the call from above, the reason for this is that God has not bestowed such a measure of grace on the person, and in this is the mystery of his providence. Not everyone is called to be a saint, right? ‘Everything is from God,’ and ‘whatever happens is for the better,’ including sin, weakness and betrayal…This boundlessly positive view is the creed of the ‘occasional’ parishioner.

I could go on, but there is no need. In our view, in the ‘faith-consciousness’ of the ‘occasional’ Christian, features of western church teaching on grace and the sacraments are easily discernible. More specifically, we can see the scholastic teachings of the western church, which were finally formulated during the period of the Counter-Reformation. Quite a lot of scholarly work has been done on this question. As we know, it was the western church which elaborated and canonically adopted the doctrine of the seven sacraments: the distinction between sacrament and sacramental action, the teaching on matter and form (formula) in the sacraments, on the sacramental power to convey grace, on the efficacy of the sacraments ex opere operato, etc. All these are derived from an idea which is specific to the West and traceable back to St Augustine’s view on grace as an irresistible force having its own created substance, though being of supernatural origin [Zaytsev Alexey].

Of course, the tragic consequences of the Great Schism of 1054 also play into all this. The break in communion between the western and eastern churches led to the western church being cut off from and failing to accept St Gregory Palamas’s suggested teaching on the grace-filled life of the entire Church and its members [Zaytsev Alexey].

The tragedy of this situation is, as we all know, that the western sacramental theology of the 17th century makes its way into all the school programmes of the Russian church as ‘classroom theology’, and has led to the so-called ‘western captivity’ of Russian theology over the last three hundred years (approximately) [Schmemann, Russian Theology]. And this has had a tremendous impact on the ‘faith consciousness’ of Orthodox believers, having triggered a large-scale church’ secularization, identical to that in the West and manifesting itself in the form of ‘occasional’ parishioners. And if this ‘captivity’ is being overcome in the field of theology, its consequences for the ‘faith-consciousness’ of churchgoers are still far from being outlived. For example, if a catechist at this point says that there are not seven sacraments in the church but only the one, that is, the Church itself, he or she will not be anathematized (although in accordance with the canons of the western church, one is accursed in this case [the 1st canon of the Council of Trent on sacraments]). Having said that, it is eminently possible that the catechist may be reproached by his baptised catechumens for having read too many modernist ‘western’ books!

But it is nevertheless important for the catechist to continue the work of catechising previously baptized ‘occasional’ parishioners – carefully, tactfully and humbly, and taking into account any previous inclinations and belief-profiles.


The Patristic Tradition

As we have already said, the overall structure and tenor of catechesis and its firm foundation in the whole of the Patristic tradition is important in the process of healing superstition.

In this sense, catechesis should help ‘occasional’ parishioners break through all sorts of constructs, conventional wisdoms, and obsessive commentaries which are supposed from the ‘tradition of the elders’, through to the commandments of God and his Word (Matthew 15:1-6). In other words, it is necessary put into practice one of the basic principles of the patristic catechesis – being based in Holy Scripture means reading and discussing, and not merely quoting it.

St Philaret of Moscow has been, and remains, an important example to us in returning to this principle. St Philaret, in his own time, believed that the spiritual enlightenment of the Russian people and the healing of their superstition could be achieved by offering them access to the word of God and to its meaning. It was with this goal that he not only translated the Holy Scripture into Russian but also wrote his well-known Longer Christian Catechism of the Orthodox Catholic Eastern Church. His catechism was unique in its time because, despite its scholasticity, which was quite usual for that age, it also began working to overcome scholasticity from the inside, obviously focusing on quotations from Scripture. This is not just a ‘symbolic book.’ One should also take into account the fact that St Philaret wrote his Catechism in Russian in 1824. Both the quotations from Holy Scripture and the text of the Catechism itself were to be read in a real-life situation – preceding the liturgy on Sunday. ‘For the word of God is living and active’ (Hebrew 4:12). Only the word of God, recognizable to discernment in the context of church communion, can overcome the spirit of superstition from within. And if post-baptismal catechesis is made up not of abstract and boring lectures, but of meetings where we seek this word together, then everything will turn out well.

This is why catechising baptised people can be very inspiring. It is a great joy to see a person strengthened in faith and truly renewing his or her baptismal vows – to see superstition lose its power over him or her.

Vladimir Yakuntsev (Moscow) is an M.A. in Theology, a Senior Lecturer at SFI, and a Senior Fellow of the Mission and Catechesis Research and Methodology Centre at SFI’s Department of Missiology, Catechetics and Homoletics.

* See e.g.: ‘Even Simon Magus once came to the Laver: he was baptized, but was not enlightened; and though he dipped his body in water, he enlightened not his heart with the Spirit: his body went down and came up, but his soul was not buried with Christ, nor raised with Him. <...> But if you persist in an evil purpose, the speaker is blameless, but you must not look for the grace: for the water will receive, but the Spirit will not accept you’ (St Cyril of Jerusalem, Procatechesis (Prologue) 2, 4); ‘If the baptism has only washed the body, and the life after initiation is identical with that life before, then despite the boldness of my assertion, I will say without shrinking that the baptismal water is merely water, and the gift of the Spirit in nowhere in action’ (St Gregory of Nyssa. The Great Catechism, 40); ‘Come, catechumens! Do penance, so that Baptism for the remission of sins will follow. He who stops sinning receives Baptism “for the remission of sins.” For, if anyone comes sinning to the washing, he does not receive forgiveness of sins’ (Origen. Homily 21 on Luke 3, 1-4); ‘Pay attention and listen to what is being said here, you catechumens; prepare yourselves, while you are catechumens, while you are not yet baptized, and you may come to the washing and be washed “unto salvation.” Such a one receives the water but does not receive the Holy Spirit. The one who is washed unto salvation receives water and the Holy Spirit’ (Origen. Homily 6 on Ezekiel).

the end!