Forming the Mind
If you have read through this entire introductory series, you have already begun to form a very basic understanding of the Church’s teaching and life. Those who move from being inquirers (individuals interested in learning more about the Church either out of curiosity, or to determine whether they want to join) to being catechumens (individuals who have formally declared their intent to join the Church after a period of formation known as catechesis) will necessarily engage the Church’s teachings with greater seriousness as they prepare for the Church’s way of life to become their own.
From a liturgical point of view, catechumens are unique in that there are special prayers only for them and their formation in the faith, and while they are not yet fully united to the Church and not yet receiving the sacred Mysteries, they would—for example—receive a Church burial if they died while yet catechumens.
The mechanics of catechetical formation vary by parish—for communities with large numbers of catechumens, structured weekly classes may be offered with readings assigned beforehand. In communities with smaller numbers of catechumens, the priest may meet with each individually, discussing questions or concerns the catechumen may have about specific readings or experiences in the Church. In either case, the catechumen continues to speak individually with the parish priest, gauging the catechumen’s readiness to enter into the Church.
The readings involved in forming the understanding and life of the catechumen will be assigned by the parish priest, or his catechist if he has one; it is important on the one hand to read these given texts completely and attentively, in order to receive the benefit of their formation and also to allow for meaningful follow-up conversations with the parish priest (or catechist) regarding what has been read. On the other hand, there is much reading available that is unhelpful or dangerous for both catechumen and for newly-received: various websites and a few publishers promote misinformation about the Orthodox Christian Faith, or what they provide may require a higher level of maturity in the Faith in order to be beneficial. For this reason, it is best to consult one’s parish priest, or catechist, about private readings one may use to supplement assigned readings. The examples that follow are accepted resources that may, nevertheless, require additional explanation by a priest or catechist.
The most significant texts of Christianity are the Holy Scriptures. It is best to read through individual books or letters from the Bible completely, giving attention not only to individual verses, but to each book or letter as a whole. (Many great errors have been propagated against Christian teaching because of individuals’ private readings of isolated verses and passages.) Together with the Bible itself, there are commentaries on it by holy men, whose interpretations have received the approval of the Church—these are called the Church Fathers. It is easy to misunderstand what is contained within the Holy Scriptures, and it is better to begin with prayer, and an open heart, to receive what is written. Where there is difficulty in understanding, additional reading in the Fathers’ commentaries and consultation with one’s priest may help.
Hymns and Liturgical Texts
The center of Christian life is worship, and the best way to understand Christian worship is first to attend the services of the Church, and second to attentively read through the texts themselves. With the availability of these texts online, and in widely-available published translations, it is a simple matter to read through liturgical texts before the services, allowing the mind to begin being formed by them even before the service starts. One website that hosts texts in English translation (as well as in the original Greek) is AGES. The hymns and liturgical texts of the Church provide a rich, thorough theological education; in fact, one of the foremost theologians of the 20th century received the great bulk of his own formation simply by chanting the hymns of the Church throughout his childhood and early adulthood.
Books about the faith
In order to access the theology and life of the Church in a structured way, many books have been written about the Christian Faith. One four-part series that is both accessible and complete is The Orthodox Faith—its content is so well-regarded that it has been made available online here. Another well-loved introduction is The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware, now known as Metropolitan Kallistos; the first half is a history, while the second half is about the theology of the Church—Metropolitan Kallistos also wrote a helpful companion volume on Christian spirituality called The Orthodox Way.
All these simply begin to cultivate the rich soil of the mind—correcting error, planting the seeds of the Church’s teaching. It is so important that countless men and women have died defending these teachings over the past two millennia. Yet it does not end with information about God and His Church. Rather, this formation leads to an encounter with God in His Church. This is what we will talk about in the next section: Forming the Heart.
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Daniel the Stylite of Constantinople; Luke the New Stylite of Chalcedon; Holy Martyrs Ascepsia and Aethal; Holy Martyrs Miracus and Barsabas; Leontios the Righteous of Monemvasia; The Glorious King Nikephoros Phokas