You don’t learn how to ride a bicycle by reading books

In Orthodox Christianity: in general on May 25, 2008 at 12:32 am

I can’t remember the exact day I rode a two-wheeler without training wheels. I do remember the day my son learned how to ride a bike. We lived in a little town called Mount Shasta, in far northern California. This town counts as the actual place where, in the city park, the source of the Sacramento River springs out of the ground. We used to live at the end of a rather rough dirt road, overlooking a canyon. One day, I was guiding Christopher on the bike and I let go. He rode, wobbly, almost a crash to the left, almost a crash to the right; yikes, it’s good the road is so wide… and, hey, he’s GOT IT! From then on it was free and easy: more bicycling, sudden freedom to go to a friend’s house; WHEELS.

Christopher never read a book about balance, the gyroscopic effect, steering, and the like. It would be pleasing to types like me to learn about all those things. Indeed, when I was a young bike rider, I actually thought about how it was easier to balance while moving, than when stationary. But, in the end, the act of mastering the riding of a bicycle comes only with the trial and error of guided attempts–or sheer, terror-inducing experimentation! Parents hope that the new bike they bought for their child will survive the initial crashes during the discovery phase of learning, and then have that scratched-up bike go on to serve for some wonderful childhood years.  I think that was how it was for my son.

Many things in life are like learning to ride a bike.  Succeeding in marriage, or in any significant and deep human relationship, is like that. Learning to be a good pastor and curator animarum, for me, a priest, is like that. One can find many books and pay many thousands of dollars on counselors to find out how human relationships work. There are tomes aplenty to train priests on pastoral care. Much to be learned, and a great deal of wisdom in such resources, and yet… Something is always missing. The point is, we learn by fits and starts. We misunderstand each other, we argue, we get intransigent, we accuse, we weep with anger and self-deprecation over failures.  The good news is that God gives us the single necessary ingredient to ensure that those who are faithful in their attempts will not fail: FORGIVENESS.  Forgiveness is the living grace of the *gyroscopic effect* in personal relationships: with God, and with our neighbors.

By faith, we receive the forgiveness of sins, which is the very BASIS for all other virtues, leading ultimately to love which is forever (“God is love,” I John 4: 8).  But faith means something very particular; it is not vague or foggy.  First of all, faith is the organic, inner, living light which makes the human heart sing again. Faith is the noetic light, the return to purity, the bastion of the soul. Faith is “the gift of God” (Ephesians 2: 8). Faith is in itself something substantial, without which God cannot be known, or even be sensed. Just as blindness renders a man unaware of his visible surroundings, so un-faith; i.e., unbelief, renders a man unaware of his spiritual surroundings. When a man believes, he truly sees! This latter teaching was given to us in our Orthodox Christian Sunday Gospel lectionary last week (see Gospel acc. to John, chapter 5). Faith in this sense comes into our heart freely, but only as a result of struggle and a cry out for it. At every Orthodox Christian Vespers (evening) service of prayer, we sing very deliberately the first two verses of Psalm 140, “O Lord, I have cried out unto Thee…”  Without a cry, there is no answer. Get faith by seeking faith, and you will not be disappointed: “and they shall find Me, if they seek for me with all their heart” (the holy prophet Jeremiah, 6th century BC)

And, second, faith is something I have to get from others. I cannot find it in a pure way alone. “Contend for the Faith which is once and for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 4). This is teaching, apostolic instruction, preaching, churchly gifting, and is perfected through obedience to spiritual authority and the practice of love. I must have faith in this objective way from the Church, lest I be led by a surfeit of egocentrism or the bent of my life unknown to me into some delusion.  The Orthodox-Catholic and Apostolic Church is the guarantor of saving faith! She is the storehouse or treasury of sane spirituality, without which a man flounders in error, no matter his intent. Think of the first, subjective dimension of faith as the perfection of balance in the bike rider, and the second, objective dimension of faith as the proper functioning of the bicycle as a piece of equipment.

AS I BELIEVE, I LIVE! Faith is in itself the very life of Christ at work in me, in communion with the Body of Christ, His holy Church. What a fortification! What a sublime bestowal! What a wondrous deliverance! What an escape from ego and depression! What joy untrammeled! What unseen vision, unheard counsel, untasted Manna, intangible meat for the weary soul!

Faith comes by hearing, and hearing from the Word of God (=Jesus Christ, the Logos).  When we read the Bible, or some other book about faith, we can lose heart as we find it all so impossible to live. But, learning to ride bikes doesn’t come by books, but rather in the doing. The first step in faith is undergoing the process of repentance, leading to baptism, and entry into the Holy Community of Mother Church. In the atmosphere of love and forgiveness, all things are then possible. We enjoy the comfort of love when we crash in this holy “bike riding,” knowing that we shall surely learn, since the One Who invited us said, “those whom the Father hath placed into my Hand, no one shall ever take away.”

Are you ready to make the attempt? God invites…

  1. As I read your post, I realized that no one lives a scarless life, even Christ. Yet, as you have said before, there is no salvation without suffering. Christ’s scars reveal my salvation. My scars come from learning to actually be saved. It can be dangerous, but very exciting. All you usually get from books are paper cuts. 😉

  2. Oh, in case you haven’t seen it yet, Fr Patrick, I posted a cartoon in your honor. You can see it at:


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