Style over substance


It was 1960 and I was 8 years old. I can’t say that I was a precocious child, but for some reason I noticed that my mother was keenly interested in the presidential election. She was watching the debate which was an unusual activity for her. I asked if she was voting for Kennedy or Nixon and she replied that she was voting for JFK. When I asked why, she answered “because He’s so handsome!” Even at 8 years old, I found the answer surprising. I don’t mean to imply that JFK was devoid of substance, but my mother knew little about his political policies. His style appealed greatly to her sense of patriotism.

I grew older, I began to measure elections by the style-substance dynamic. I would observe how much depended on the appearance of maturity or youth, conservatism or liberalism, elitism or populism, experience or lack of experience, and so on. Some elections were worse than others, but no election was free from it. Certainly, candidates represented the platforms of their party, and they could have some personal convictions, but I wondered if style mattered more than substance to the electorate. How is the present election doing on this issue? I’ll let you make your own evaluation. Yet, I wonder if I will vote for a candidate because of his character and political platform, or because “I like the cut of his jib.”

To be honest, I realized that the dynamic of style over substance sums up a lot of my life. I look very pious all dressed up in my priestly ensemble. With my white robe, gold vestments, long hair, white beard and skufia, I certainly look the part of a spiritual elder. Is there any substance to support this image, or is it just style? Once again, the Bible is painfully precise:

This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, high minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.” 2 Timothy 3

“Having the form of godliness, but denying the power”– yes, that pretty much describes the situation. I don’t know if we are in the last days, but it is true that style is so much easier to attain than substance. It’s easier to build a cathedral than it is to build the Church. It’s much easier to pray all the prescribed prayers, but it’s harder to pray short ones with heart and attention. It’s easier to refrain from hamburgers during the fast and read the ingredients on every box to make sure that I am pure than to enter into the spirit of the fast and draw close to God. It’s easier to wear the robes of a priest than to wear the robes of righteousness. It so much easier to write and preach sermons (and even blogs) than to live what is preached. It’s even easier to stand through a 3 hour vigil, than to sit down for truth and humility and love.

The tragedy of all of this is that there is no religion that has more substance than Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is the fullness of life, truth, and faith. Why then do I settle for style when there is so much substance? The truth is that I love God, but I love myself moreand I love pleasure more than I love God Therefore, I settle for the form and style of godliness, but I don’t have the power.

Though I am a shallow person, salvation is a journey, or a process, so God isn’t finished with me. St. Paul put it this way: “perfect holiness in the fear of God.” I want to do that, but often I’m not very motivated. What can move me from the form of godliness to its power; or how can I perfect what I have and engage in a sustained struggle for holiness?

St. Paul says that what motivates us is a promise. What kind of promise? “Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” As we perfect holiness, we begin again to experience Paradise. “I will dwell in them and walk among them.” To walk with God is the perfection of Eden, the joy of relationship and there is nothing greater in the universe. Is that enough to motivate us or will it be style over substance?

3 Responses to “Style over substance”

  1. Betsy Says:

    Good post as usual, Father.

    I agree. It is almost impossible to deny one’s own desires. I discovered that I was more self-centered than I imagined, after I went on an introspective hunt and discovered that a ravenous lion prowls around in my heart! Some days–most days–I just give up the struggle with self. The struggle [work] towards our salvation is difficult [impossible?] indeed!

    But what can we Orthodox do, living in the world with all its temptations? I struggle daily with the lure of instant gratification on the material-here-and-now-plane vs. loving an invisible God, who often “feels” distant, detached and frequently inaccessible. I confess: I am a lazy Orthodox. I am an undiscplined Orthodox. But the lion stays seemingly calm, if I feed it regularly. A hungry lion adds stress to my already stressful 21st century life. Praying for mercy is about all I can manage, because I’m no lion tamer, even if the lion is me!

    Which is why, I suppose, we Orthodox have been given this prayer:
    “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

    I sure hope that He does!

  2. PD Says:

    I’m afraid I was cringing while reading this post, Father–it hit a little too close to home! I’m a Reader and I’ve felt that sensation of “Hey, check out how pious I am!” when I’ve got my cassock on…(my wife calls it my “casket”–much closer to the truth!).

    Betsy, I think you articulated it well for me, too! I’m sure you’ve run across this quotation from St. Macarius:

    “The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.”

    It’s that last part that gives me hope…

  3. Betsy Says:

    Thank you, PD, for sharing the quote from St. Macarius. No, I had never read that, but how funny that I came up with the same imagery?! Hmmmm….

    I just read the “I Am Drunk” piece. Clearly these two posts are related. It is our unwillingness to fight our drunkeness–to fight for sobriety–that causes us to live for style over substance.

    May God give us the strength to find those “treasuries of grace” that lie buried deep within.

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