Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Catechumen: Preparing for Illumination

On Wednesday evening, we gathered together for the solemn Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. (The Holy Gifts are called presanctified because they, the bread and wine, were consecrated on the previous Sunday for Holy Communion during the week.) During the Liturgy, we prayed a special prayer for a particular group of people called catechumens:

O God our God, the Creator and Maker of all things, who willest that all men should be saved, and should come to the knowledge of the truth, look upon Thy servants the catechumens and deliver them from their former delusion and from the wiles of the adversary. And call them unto life eternal, enlightening their souls and bodies and numbering them with Thy rational flock, which is called by Thy holy name.

What is a catechumen? A catechumen is one who is learning the Faith. He or she is a person who has renounced paganism and is preparing to become an Orthodox Christian through the mystery of Holy Baptism.*

In the summer following my 18th birthday I found myself on a military base standing at attention with a group of other young men. We were being yelled at by an instructor. Welcome to Basic Military Training. I arrived there with the clothes on my back and a suitcase in my hand. Soon after my colleagues and I stepped off the bus, the process of turning undisciplined civilians into professional military men began. The military stripped us of our identities. They shaved our heads, took away our clothes, and gave us camouflage uniforms to put on. Everything we brought with us, except for a short list of acceptable items, were packed into our suitcases and locked away. We had come to the base looking like a bunch of guys from varying backgrounds with different personalities. The military took away our individuality. After a while we all looked like we belonged to the same group. Our instructors wanted to teach us how to think like a single unit and work together as a team. They intended to educate us in the essentials of military duty, socialize us in the military way of life, and instill in us the values of honor, integrity, and discipline.

When I started my Basic Training I had already made a firm commitment to serve in the military by taking the oath of enlistment. Nevertheless, until I had completed Basic Training I was in an ambiguous state. My identity was uncertain. The military was forming me into the kind of person they wanted me to be, but the process was not yet complete. I wasn’t really a civilian anymore, but I wasn’t completely initiated into the military yet either.

As nations prepare young men and women for military life through a period of initial training, the Orthodox Church prepares men and women for initiation into the fullness of the spiritual life. As people turn from paganism to the true Faith, they must learn a new way of understanding the world and adopt the Church’s common beliefs as their own. (The process of abandoning an old way of life for the new life in the Faith can be challenging spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.) Catechumens learn basic knowledge of the Faith through formal instruction, build relationships with Orthodox Christians, and observe how the spiritual life is practically lived within the Church and out in the world by the Church. This period of preparation allows the catechumen to begin to understand what being an Orthodox Christian, a cross-bearing disciple of Jesus Christ, really means.

Catechumens are stripped of their old pagan identities. While they aren’t yet Orthodox Christians, “the Faithful,” they aren’t pagans anymore either since they’ve already begun their spiritual journey toward their entrance into the Church, the mystical community of Christ’s own. The catechumen’s training culminates in Holy Baptism, whereby the person is united with Christ, received into the Church, initiated into the Holy Mysteries, and illumined by divine knowledge. Once received into the Church, the newly illumined Orthodox Christian begins living the fullness of the spiritual way of life, the journey of salvation that leads to union with God. He or she still lives in this world, but now lives here as a traveler who truly belongs to the kingdom of heaven. Having received as a catechumen basic instruction, the spiritual milk of an infant, the illumined one is now ready to receive the more substantial nourishment necessary for spiritual maturity and growth.

Let’s remember the catechumens in our prayers, and also ask God to bring us more men and women who seek spiritual truth, rebirth, renewal, healing, and wholeness through a relationship with the true and living God.

Reveal, O Master, Thy countenance to those who are preparing for holy illumination and who long to put away the pollution of sin. Enlighten their minds. Secure them in the faith. Establish them in hope. Perfect them in love. Show them to be honorable members of Thy Christ, who gave Himself as a deliverance for our souls.

* Note: I use the word pagan in the ancient sense to mean a non-Christian, one who does not know, through experience, the true and living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The term paganism refers to non-Christian religions or ways of life. In contemporary times, a catechumen may also be a Christian who is outside of the Holy Orthodox Church and is preparing to unite himself or herself with the Church. Christians outside of the Church who have already been baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity are usually received through the mystery of Holy Chrismation.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo copyright © 2005 by Dana S. Kees. (Prayers for the catechumens from The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts as published by the Department of Religious Education, Orthodox Church in America.)