I’ve recently been enmeshed in reading mythology and folklore, a genre that has never interested me. I got the sudden urge to do so after a long period of reading the old classics of psychology: Freud, Jung, Rank, Frankl, Fromm, and others. Nearly all these guys were seriously versed in mythology which seemed to make them better psychologists and therapists. Jung went so far as to claim that without deep knowledge of mythology one could never be a good depth psychologist.
At any rate, I’m deep into Greek Tragedy at the moment and just began reading the tales of Heracles. When Heracles (or “Hercules,” as the name is better known today) was a teenager he went to a solitary place to decide what his course in life should be. He knew the stakes were high since he was a son of Zeus and had strength that no man on earth possessed. In seclusion he was approached by apparitions in the form of two maidens. The first maiden was named “Idol Pleasure” and the second was “Virtue.”
Both maidens gave Heracles a sales pitch as to why he should choose their path for his life. Reading the speeches I could not help but imagine the two forms of Christianity I am most familiar with: the Word of Faith movement, which I spent 19 years in, and the Eastern Orthodox Church of which I converted to 5 years ago.
First Idol Pleasure spoke:
“If you choose me for your friend, I shall guide you along a path most smooth and easy. There is no pleasure you will not taste, no discomfort you shall not avoid! You will not be concerned with war or other hardship. You shall think of nothing but the enjoyment of exquisite foods and wines, of indulging your eyes, your ears, and your whole body with pleasant sensations, of sleeping on a soft couch—and all these joys will be yours without labor or effort. Should you ever fall short of the means for leading this manner of life, do not fear that I might urge you to bodily or mental toil. Quite the contrary! You will reap the fruits of another’s labors and refuse nothing that could bring you profit. For I accord my friends the right to use everyone and everything to their own advantage.”
Then Virtue spoke:
“…if you choose the path I show you, you will become a master in all that is good and great. But I have no slothful joys to bribe you with. I shall tell you the will of the gods for those on earth. Know then that the immortals grant nothing to men without effort and toil. If you would have the gods look upon you kindly, you must honor them. If you would have your friends love you, you must aid them. If you would be held in esteem by a city, you must render it services. Would you have all Greece admire you for your virtue, you must become the benefactor of all Greece. If you would harvest, you must sow, if you would wage war and win, you must learn the art of warfare. If you would have control of your body, you must work and sweat to harden it.”
There is a great back-and-forth between the two after this last speech, where they basically argue with each other over which is better, but Virtue definitely gets the upper hand. She explains to Idol Pleasure that she has never known true pleasure because, “you are sated before you even approach pleasures. You eat before you are hungry and drink before you thirst… no bed is soft enough for you,” etc. I’d write the whole thing out but you should really just read it for yourself.
Growing up in the Word of Faith movement was almost exactly like the path offered to Heracles by Idol Pleasure. We were taught that life with God should be one victory to the next, that if we had faith we would live in perfect health, have wealth without limit, and favor with all men, and the best part is that it was easy, easy, easy. The only difficult part was devoting yourself to “sowing” your tithes and offering—to the tune of everything you had—to which ever local WoF pastor, traveling faith preacher, or TV charlatan you trusted most with praying in the biggest “harvest” possible for you.
Indeed the sowing and harvest part of Virtue’s speech was the only part that seems to fit with the Word of Faith modus operandi.
Virtue’s speech is such a good rendering of the Orthodox path (minus the obvious lack of liturgical and doctrinal aspects) that one easily finds all the same features in the written works of the Apostles, prophets, martyrs and saints of the Church over the last 40 centuries or so. In short, there is no easy path to virtue. There is no easy way to walk with God. To walk with God means a wholesale denial of cheap pleasure. Truly only when one has hungered does he really understand the pleasure of food; only when one has experienced real thirst does she understand the pleasure of drink; only when one has slept in mire does he understand the pleasure of a soft bed.
And when one translates these things into spiritual realities they match up even more. It is not until one has experienced abandonment that he understands union with Christ; it is not until one has experienced the “dark night of the soul” that she can really experience light; it is not until one has experienced the deafening silence of God that one can really experience His gentle whisper; it is not until one has ceased from sin that he understands both the pains of death and the bliss of resurrection.
In over 19 years in the Word of Faith movement I cannot recall a single time I heard this sort of teaching. The only time I did hear it was prior to my joining in with the WoF movement as a teenager when I read works from ancient Chinese and Japanese philosophy. Once I became a Christian in the WoF movement I was shocked at how shallow and materialistic their doctrine was. I often ask myself why I stayed and the truth is because God is merciful and found me in the movement, meeting me where I was at the time. I knew that I had met the Lord, but I also always knew that something major was missing. What was missing was His life – the liturgical life of the Church. For most of those years I never so much as heard of the historic Orthodox Church, I didn’t even know it was an option.
But I digress.
Much more could be said but this article is becoming much longer than what I envisioned when I began. I’d like to end with one more quote from Virtue when she responded to Idol Pleasure, this makes for a good final word on the matter. She says, “You let your friends spend the night in carousing and the day in sleep. That is why in youth they go adorned on nimble carefree feet, but drag themselves through a sordid and painful old age, ashamed of what they have done and faltering under the load of what they have still to do.”
I’ve known many who have grown old in a cheap, materialistic version of Christianity and this is an apt description of what I often find: people in their old age still trying to find what the movement could never give them—the life of Christ. Luckily, almost everyone I grew up with or went to school with in the WoF movement have since then left the movement. And some of them have even found themselves initiated into the mysteries of Christ in the Orthodox Church. God be praised!
Thanks for reading.