GREAT BRITAIN OF MY HEART
USA OF MY HEART
Setauket, New York, USA
Brotherhood of the Holy Cross
East Setauket, Long Island, NY, USA
Holy Cross Orthodox Monastery
JOURNEY TO ORTHODOXY
After years of spiritual wandering and disillusionment, and studying all religions, I am entering the Eastern Orthodox Church: How I discovered new meaning in the word “catholic” and the true challenge of a Christian life
“In His unbounded love, God became what we are that He might make us what He is.” —St. Irenaeus (d. 202)
I am in love. The object of my affection, or rather, my devotion, is not a person per se, though it is very much alive. It has been alive for 2,000 years, persisting through seemingly insurmountable odds, and in that time it spread from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean north and east, ultimately to the shores of Alaska and the New World. Now it is very much established and thriving here in the US. What is this thing that has become such a defining part of my life?
I have fallen in love with the Orthodox Church.
It is difficult for me to render into words an account of the transformation that this awakening has wrought in all areas of my life. I feel myself to be at last truly satisfied, spiritually and emotionally. I feel enriched beyond description after years of an ever-present void. From the depths of my heart I sense that I am now a more fulfilled Christian, and above all I know that I am a more inspired human being. Sadly in this increasingly secular society, many people my age do not want or desire such inspiration.
For the rare college student who craves a deeper inspiration that goes beyond a routine weekly church hour, for anyone who wants to enter into a new level of spiritual life, I urge him or her to consider Orthodoxy. It has awakened in me a kind of spiritual consciousness that I never imagined I would experience, a kind of spiritual inspiration that very few of my non-Orthodox friends have today.
For this awakening, I am, and will always be, forever grateful.
“Remember constantly that the light of your soul, of your thoughts, and of your heart comes from Jesus Christ.” –St. John of Kronstadt (1829-1908).
Before I begin, I wish to thank two dear friends who have had the biggest impact on introducing me to Orthodoxy, Rebecca Dixon and Gillian Davies. They exemplify all that is best about the faith first and foremost in their incredible kindness and warmth. They are two of the most intelligent, cultured, and open-minded individuals I have ever met. Typical of most Orthodox who encounter a would-be-convert, they would probably tell you that they had little to do with my spiritual journey, saying such a thing is something that can only begin and evolve in the individual’s heart and soul.
But they did more than simply start me off on my journey. After I met them when I started attending weekly 5pm Orthodox vespers at Kay Spiritual Center at American University during the fall 2010 semester, they provided me with so much counsel and encouragement. They were welcome and informative company to the Sunday liturgies I insisted on attending as often as I could. They answered the many questions I had, and introduced me to two beautiful churches. Most of all, they shared with me their own unique personal experiences with Orthodoxy.
Because Gillian, a Greek-British American, preferred to attend Sunday liturgy at St. Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the Greek Orthodox cathedral a mile down Massachusetts Avenue from American University, I was able to experience worship in that church whose beauty is truly breathtaking. Gillian has graduated, so besides one very kind, thoughtful priest there, Fr. Dimitri Lee, who sang the weekly vespers at American, I know no one at that Cathedral. While I decided not to become a member of the St Sophia parish, I will be glad in the future to be a communicant on the occasions when I decide to visit that beautiful church.
I think Gillian understands. She proved invaluable in helping me improve on my Greek-reading, though I think I will continue to pronounce the letter ‘tau’ incorrectly in many instances! In our walks to and from church during Great Lent on Mondays when we trekked over to hear Fr. Dimitri sing the office of Great Compline, she shared her thoughts on the Faith, the Church, and some of her own personal views on its teachings and St. Sophia’s own traditions, as a parishioner and someone who was “cradle” Orthodox. I realized that by entering the Church, I would not be required to subscribe to some sort of ideological litmus test, but be encouraged, in every liturgy, and indeed, in every moment of my life, to believe in the Orthodox way, and put its teachings into practice. Thanks to Gillian I have come to appreciate how the Church stands for certain things, and does take specific positions on contemporary issues, but it does not focus so much on projecting an absolute image of itself to an ever-changing world as much as it emphasizes staying true to its rich Tradition.
As soon as I met Rebecca I saw that she has a love for life and an infectious spontaneity, twin attributes inestimable in any friend. Although she was only in DC during the fall 2010 semester, we’ve kept in touch, especially on Facebook where I love to share my latest stories and updates about my spiritual life at St. Nicholas Cathedral, the church she introduced me to in November. She loves to converse on all manner of things, from travelling abroad (she recently was in India spending her summer in New Delhi and Kashmir) to Canadian politics (she worked in the Library of Parliament in her native Ottawa) to different cuisine and languages.
I will always remember our many treks to St. Nicholas Cathedral for the Sunday Divine Liturgy, both for the amazingly lively conversations we had at 8:30 on mornings when most students slept in, and for the frequent snow and rain that often made it necessary to run to church! When she visited DC during Holy Week in April, perfect timing to have my old Orthodox buddy back in town, we had to sprint through pouring rain to get to the morning liturgy on Holy Wednesday, and I was in a suit! (Neither of us had umbrellas.) I remember that liturgy especially because upon entering St. Nicholas, Rebecca, who sang in her church’s choir back in Canada, immediately walked over to where the choir members stood, and proceeded to join them and the Metropolitan in their singing!
She is a member of the Orthodox Church in America, an autocephalous (fully self-governing) body of several hundred thousand Orthodox in the US, Canada, and several communities in Central America. In addition to its Russian roots, the Church has a large and steadily growing number of members entering from mostly mainline Protestant groups, but there have also been considerable numbers of Catholic converts, as well as some evangelical Christians who have all come to Orthodoxy in recent years through the OCA.
His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah, primate of the Church from 2008, has said in interviews that
“our churches embrace a very broad diversity of peoples across the continent.”
This is true, and one of the aspects of the OCA I find so attractive, along with its rich history. The Church in America is as old as the nation itself, historically founded in 1794 by Saint Herman of Alaska, a Russian Orthodox monk who peacefully inspired the conversion of the Aleut population on Kodiak Island, learning the local native languages, and proceeded to minister to dozens of indigenous tribes.
Rebecca’s family exemplifies the incredibly embracing diversity of the OCA; her mother’s family is religiously Jewish, and her mother made the difficult decision to enter the Church after she was born. Rebecca explained how her mother did not want to lose any of the cultural heritage with which she had grown up. After much thought and prayer her mother came to realize that embracing Orthodoxy did not mean she had to give up her family or her Jewish cultural roots. According to Jewish custom, which passes on the faith tradition through matrilineal descent, Rebecca and her mother, in addition to being Orthodox Christians, are also, and will always be, Jewish. As someone who has Jewish roots on my mother’s side of the family, I always thought it was beautiful that Rebecca could be both Jewish by heritage, and a Christian in her religion.
In addition to Rebecca’s wonderful sense of humor, and what I would describe as the enormously helpful ‘education’ that she gave me on really “all things Orthodox”, she also enlightened me early on in my studies of Orthodoxy, as I became increasingly interested in converting, that the OCA was no stranger to controversy. The Church has been going through controversy in many ways as painful as that which has been engulfing the Roman Catholic Church in recent years (albeit of a different cause.) I’m so grateful that she had the strength and forthrightness to share this with me.
More than anything else, I am grateful to Rebecca for introducing me to Saint Nicholas Cathedral, two blocks down Massachusetts Avenue from St. Sophia. This church is the primatial cathedral of the Orthodox Church in America, and it has been my spiritual home ever since that November day when she first took me with her to experience the Divine Liturgy there.
Into this beautiful church (in which I feel I have been adopted) I have come as a cautious but hopeful catechumen.
Finding Orthodoxy: The Beauty of the Faith and the Soundness of its Teachings
I will first address an area that is of less importance compared to the other doctrinal reasons behind my conversion, but still very important to me: the incomparable beauty of Orthodox worship.
The Divine Liturgy
I have never come across anything quite like the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharistic liturgical service of the Orthodox Church. As St. John of Kronstadt observes in his “Thoughts on the Divine Liturgy”,
“The divine services are a blessed fount from which the heavenly Grace abundantly pours forth its gifts upon all those who serve the Lord in fullness of heart – gifts of mercy, peace, consolation, purification, sanctification, enlightenment, healing, renewal, and – what is most precious – the gift of worship, in Divine Liturgy and Holy Communion.”
This “blessed fount” contains a beauty which is so transportive, so moving to the soul that once I experienced it for the first time, I had a powerful sense that something in me had changed forever.
Before I experienced the Liturgy for the first time, I had no idea such ethereal worship existed in Christianity. For many students who were raised in one of the Western Christian traditions, used to a primarily logical and rational approach to theology and spirituality, Buddhist and Hindu devotional practices can often seem refreshingly mystical, offering a more beautiful, transcendent approach to the divine. I know of many former Protestants and Catholics who have moved away from Christianity to pursue these mystical practices, leaving behind faith in Christ largely because they were bored or disillusioned with the only form of Christianity they knew. They were not generally grappling with issues of Christian soteriology or theology when they left, but simply found themselves drifting, disconnected from any real deep sense of spiritual engagement, challenge or fulfillment as Christians. Unfortunately, they were unaware that Eastern Orthodoxy exists and that for centuries it has offered its faithful a profoundly mystical- yet still a corporate and communal- approach to God.
Within the life of the Church, our path to theosis is not some lonely climb on our own unique “spiritual journeys” as an island unto ourselves, for such an approach to faith leaves anyone ultimately feeling alone and vulnerable. Nor is the Church’s admonition that life in Christ requires a life lived together as His living Body a burdensome, narrow-minded insistence that we obey its “rules”. Rather, the Church insists we partake of and unite with the Body of Christ literally, communally, and liturgically because she recognizes the most basic truth about the human person: man is created in the image of God, and thus finds his highest fulfillment as someone who worships God and rejoices in His presence. The Church holds that the most beautiful and fulfilling way to worship God is in the Divine Liturgy, her principal worship service. Man is thus, at his core, a liturgical creature.
Like any Liturgy, such rejoicing is always magnified when it occurs with many worshipers present adoring God, rather than a few faithful standing by themselves at a sparsely attended weekday service. At these weekday services one gains so much wisdom and becomes even more aware of the fullness of the Church’s liturgical life and her constant witness of the Gospel, but undoubtedly the occasions of greatest rejoicing are when the whole congregation joins together at wedding liturgies, the great Feasts of the Church, chrismations and baptisms, etc. These occasions are always filled with great rejoicing because they are a time of true, organic fellowship and community as the Body of Christ united around the bishop.
The Church recognizes that each human life is of immeasurable value and absolutely unique, and any bishop will tell you that our experiences of God differ from person to person. For instance, if you ask parishioners to name at what point in the Liturgy before communion they feel closest to God, or which liturgical prayers move them the most, you will get many different answers. Some people feel most comfortable praying alone in the quiet of their room; other people like to pray silently as they go about during their day, etc. A way to think of this is that we travel at our own pace, with our own distinct gait, but we are all on the same path, the Orthodox Way. Crucially, we unite ourselves, by the grace of God, to this Way, which offers the faithful union with Christ within His Holy Church. It is this unity in faith which is so crucial in the Church which has been preserved for centuries in the inner life of the Liturgy and the other divine services.
Many students today use meditation to find and center themselves, seeking to rise above the innumerable stresses of the world. The Church exhorts us to meditate on Christ, but not for the ultimate purpose of achieving a kind of nothingness or emptying of one’s very soul in moksha or nirvana. In her ancient witness she provides healing for the whole of the human person—the body, the spirit, the soul, and the heart—by helping the faithful connect to the divine. For those of you who are practitioners of any of the Buddhist or Hindu traditions, or interested in these practices, I would especially urge you to visit your local Orthodox church. There is such a rich treasure of Christocentric meditative practices within Orthodoxy’s ancient Tradition that any person’s appetite for mysticism can be more than satisfied by the meditative practices of the Holy Church.
What one discovers as one comes more and more into Orthodoxy is that the Church does not exist to entertain people, as some churches attempt to do in efforts to “grow” their congregations on corporate models, nor is the Liturgy simply about “making people feel good”, but it is about renewal through and in and by our life in Christ. This lifelong transformation in the image of God is, in all humility, richer and more transcendent than any of the non-Christian Eastern practices I have read about, participated in, or witnessed. I have read and experienced so much of other faith traditions, and there is truly nothing else like Orthodoxy. If you come to the Liturgy, you will experience what I describe with your own senses, your own soul.
In order to give you as clear as possible an impression of how beautiful Orthodox worship is, and how it has been transforming and satisfying its faithful for millennia, it makes sense to recount to you one of the most important stories in the history of the Church. The Russian Primary Chronicle recounts that late in the tenth century in the eastern European lands inhabited by the Rus, a Slavic tribe of peoples rumored to be descended from Vikings, one local knaz, Prince Vladimir of Kiev, desired to know which of the world’s religions he and his people should adopt. His grandmother Princess Olga had adopted Orthodox Christianity late in her life around 955 after visiting Constantinople, and Orthodox missionaries Cyril and Methodius, known as the ‘Apostles to the Slavs’, had introduced a Slavonic translation of the Bible using a newly devised Cyrillic alphabet, which borrowed heavily from Greek characters.
While Christianity had already made limited inroads in the lands surrounding Kiev, the principality’s most recent ruler, Vladimir’s father Svyatoslav, had been a pagan. Vladimir sent his envoys abroad to look into the religions of the world and recommend the one they found most fitting for the Rus. After experiencing the Divine Liturgy in Constantinople, the envoys were moved to choose Orthodoxy after previously having witnessed Muslims, Jews, and Catholics at prayer. Describing the liturgy celebrated in the Great Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in the Byzantine capital, the envoys wrote to Vladimir:
“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty. . .”
Importantly, the envoys make no mention of Orthodox dogma or teachings, which were nevertheless speedily brought to Russia along with Byzantine art, architecture and court etiquette following 988 when Vladimir and many of his people embraced Orthodoxy. Vladimir also eagerly married Anna Porphyrogeneta, sister of then-reigning Byzantine emperor Basil II “the Bulgar-Slayer.” It’s worth noting that the envoys, having travelled throughout all Europe and the Middle East, commented that
“surely there is no such beauty anywhere on earth.”
They were at last satisfied that they had found a religion that brought them closest to God. I am reminded whenever I hear this story of Saint Augustine’s beautiful quote in his Confessions:
“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
When the envoys reported
“we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth”,
their description of the liturgy is certainly fitting. Anyone who has ever been in an Orthodox church, who hears the mesmerizing chanting of the choir, anyone who contemplates the array of holy icons and frescoes that gaze down upon the worshippers along with the angels and “heavenly host” in the dome will know what the envoys meant. You need only to smell the sweet incense, with which the priests repeatedly bless the church and the people, as it rises toward the heavens to feel as the envoys did that
“God dwells there among men.”
The Liturgy is above all else a reflection on earth of the splendor and richness of heaven. In it, heaven and earth are united in the sacrifice of the Eucharist, the holy oblation, of Christ Himself on the altar. Many Orthodox are unsurprisingly very devoted to it. Since the word “orthodox” denotes not only “right belief”, but also “correct worship” and “correct glory”, some Orthodox consider the manners in which other Christians gather to worship God to be inferior when compared to the complete worship rendered to God in the form of the Liturgy. This can sound insulting, but it is not meant to be. Many believe that to honor God with anything less than the most beautiful expressions of love, appreciation, and reverence refuses Him the full glory we owe him and the full honor He commands. Since the Orthodox see human beings as
“liturgical creatures who are most truly themselves when they glorify God, and who find their perfection and self-fulfillment in worship,”
taking active part in the liturgy itself offers a means for Christians to aspire to that kind of perfection through intent concentration on the divine. As Matthew 5:48 reminds us,
“Be ye perfect, therefore, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
It is through participation in the inner life of the Church most fully expressed in the Divine Liturgy that man begins and continues on his path toward perfection, toward the divinization of his very being.
As Bishop Kallistos observes in his much-acclaimed The Orthodox Church the Liturgy is something that
“embraces two worlds at once, for both in heaven and on earth the liturgy is one and the same—one altar, one sacrifice, one presence.”
Similarly, St. Germanus, an early Patriarch of Constantinople (r. 715-730, d. c. 733) wrote that
“the church is the temple of God, a holy place . . . an earthly heaven in which the supercelestial God dwells and moves.”
This is a fitting description of the liturgy; each Sunday is not merely a gathering of the local congregation of the faithful in remembrance of God’s loving kindnesses and Christ’s sacrifice, nor is it only a sacrifice by the people, but a kind of celestial gathering, with the heavenly saints and angels dwelling among the earthly in worship. In the liturgy the faithful are
“taken up into “heavenly places” . . . and the Church universal, the saints, the Mother of God, and Christ Himself” are all present.
Anglicans, Lutherans and others of the Reformed tradition will notice, often to their immense surprise, that the Divine Liturgy contains numerous references to Holy Scripture. Bible passages are chanted at every service, sung by the choir in the form of Old Testament psalms while priests will chant the Gospel passage. Mary’s Magnificat (taken directly from Luke 1:46-55) is beautifully sung at each All-Night Vigil in the Slavic tradition (Orthros in the Greek tradition) and the “Our Father” prayer is sung by the entire congregation at every Liturgy. Bishop Kallistos tells us that
“Orthodoxy regards the Bible as a verbal icon of Christ . . . in every church the Gospel Book has a place of honor on the altar; it is carried in procession at the Liturgy and the faithful kiss it.”
The faithful bow their heads whenever the deacon or priest holds the Bible aloft and carries it out to the lectern during the chanting of the prokeimenon. This is not because we ‘worship’ the Bible, but because we consider it proper and fitting to treat it with the reverence it deserves as inspired of God.
When venerating a church’s principal icons during the Saturday vigil, worshipers will always venerate the Gospel book which is placed on an icon stand in the very center of the church next to the icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and the day’s saints. The Psalter, honored as the “prayer book of the Church”, is beloved by many Orthodox and since beginning my studies of the faith and attending the Divine Liturgy, my knowledge of it has significantly broadened. At every Vigil many psalms are chanted in their entirety, and many at the Divine Liturgy as well, compared to the one responsorial psalm chanted in most Protestant and Catholic liturgical services.
In contrast to Orthodoxy, Western services are uniformly shorter in length, condensed in form, and feature considerably less singing. Since all mainline Protestant churches have their origins during the time of the Classical Reformation or shortly after, the structural basis for most Protestant services originates with the Roman Catholic Mass, which, unsurprisingly, given its shorter length, contains less scripture than the Orthodox liturgy. Today, contemporary Episcopal communion services in the US are nearly identical in form, content, and substance to the existing Ordinary form of the Mass, while Luther’s Deutsche Messe, even considering his advocacy of sola scriptura and the changes he made to the Western liturgy, bears a very similar resemblance to the current Roman liturgy.
In order to give you a sense of how old the roots of the Divine Liturgy are, and how it has withstood the test of time despite medieval wars, many church councils, the brutal oppression of the Ottoman Turks, and more recently communist Soviet attempts in the past century to exterminate the Church entirely, the main liturgical form celebrated on Sundays is the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, an early Church Father who died in the year 407. In his 1984 translation of St. Germanus’ On the Divine Liturgy, Dr. Paul Meyendorff, a prominent American Orthodox author, editor of St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, and Alexander Schmemann Professor of Liturgical Theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, cites a noted Byzantine scholar who observes that the final developments in the Constantinopolitan or ‘Byzantine’ Rite occurred between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries prior to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. Most historians trace the core development of the Eastern liturgy to between the first and seventh Ecumenical Councils of the early Church, in other words, between 325 and 787 when the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’ occurred with the restoration of icon veneration.
The Russian Orthodox liturgy assumed its present form shortly after Patriarch Nikon ordered corrections to the Russian liturgical structure beginning in 1653 in order to bring his Church in line with the liturgical practices observed in Constantinople. By comparison to any of the variants of the Byzantine Rite, the current Ordinary form of the Roman Catholic Mass dates to only forty years ago in 1969 when Pope Paul VI promulgated the revised Novus Ordo form after the reforms enacted at Vatican II.
Orthodoxy has admittedly had its own periods of liturgical change, but these occurred centuries ago and did not result in any Orthodox doctrinal teachings being altered or abandoned. The liturgy remains the unchanging cornerstone of faith and worship. What does it say about other branches of Christianity that so many worshippers either feel unfulfilled by their services as they currently exist, or that some churches hold councils and parish meetings where a majority vote can strip a service of many of the things that define it as Christian? Many of my Catholic friends do get a sense of spiritual fulfillment from the Mass, and this is wonderful, but none of them have exhibited the kind of enthusiasm for it which I have encountered among Orthodox anticipating the Divine Liturgy. Granted, most of these friends are “cradle Catholics” who grew up with the much-abbreviated Ordinary form of the Roman rite, as I did, but I have never met a Catholic who felt the depth of transcendent inspiration that I’ve witnessed so many Orthodox feeling during the Divine Liturgy.
I do not claim that all people who have ever experienced the Orthodox liturgy find it to be the most beautiful of any Christian service. That is simply not true; if it were, the Church would certainly have many more converts each year than it already has. But among all Orthodox, you will find almost no one — certainly no one prominent or respected — wishing to alter the Liturgy’s wording or, worse, omit any of it. This happiness and deep satisfaction with the existing age-old liturgy is not due in part to any sort of “inflexible conservatism” or aversion to the idea of change in the Church. Rather, it reflects the degree to which Orthodox appreciate the liturgy for its incredible beauty, its fullness, and the transcendence it allows each worshipper to have when he or she contemplates the mysteries of God’s loving kindness, mercy, grace, and majesty.
Despite my discomfort at seeing several mainline Protestant churches currently adapting gender-neutral pronouns to refer to God in their services, or the fact that many evangelical Christian congregations do not even baptize in the name of the Trinity, my love for the Orthodox liturgy is a positive thing that stands alone. I do not constantly compare it to the Mass or to Protestant services each time I stand in St. Nicholas Cathedral on Sunday mornings. Yet the degree to which the Liturgy has inspired the Orthodox faithful over the years is really incredible and worth noting. Most private prayers and personal devotions written by Orthodox over the centuries come directly from the liturgy, in comparison to the Western (both Catholic and Reformed) traditions, where most saints and important laypersons have composed prayers and hymns entirely of their own meditation, with little to no influence from their respective liturgies. Having grown up with many of these vernacular prayers and hymns, I continue to love most of them, but the reality that for centuries the Orthodox faithful have taken their deepest spiritual inspiration from the Liturgy speaks volumes about its unique and compelling draw.
The Orthodox sense of devotion to preserving the Liturgy and Church teachings is perhaps best expressed by the Eastern Patriarchs who told a group of Anglicans in 1718 that
“We adhere to the Faith He delivered to us, and keep it as a Royal Treasure, and a monument of great price, neither adding anything, nor taking anything from it.”
St. John of Damascus wrote similarly,
“We keep the Tradition just as we received it.”
This sense of liturgical continuity contrasts markedly with every other Christian tradition, even Roman Catholicism, which has changed the Mass less than most Protestant and evangelical churches have altered their services in recent years. Yet the Vatican II Council dramatically shortened the Ordinary rite of the Catholic Mass, at least partly in an attempt to make it more “doable” for increasingly busy people unwilling to devote more than an hour of their Sunday to sit in church. It is saddening that so few Catholics have ever been able to experience the Latin chants of the Tridentine Mass. Even with Pope Benedict XVI’s declaration that the present Extraordinary Form could be sung if people so desired, few actually endeavor to ask their priest to celebrate the Eucharist this way and some priests have been reluctant or unwilling to do so.
To me, the manner in which people worship and the degree to which—or if—it inspires them is indicative of not only their own spiritual health and happiness but the condition and state of their faith in general. I believe in the old principle of lex credendi, lex orandi. Anyone who has felt God’s presence in their own personal devotions or in a church service knows how powerfully inspiring it is. Paradoxically, when worship is emotionally stilted or mechanical, when it does not involve all your senses or emotions, when you leave the service without feeling awakened, enlightened, or transformed, you feel disappointed, frustrated, and unfulfilled.
Whether Orthodox or Catholic, Anglican or Low Church Protestant, if you have simply been “going through the motions” on Sunday without really getting much fulfillment out of it (I did this for years) I would humbly challenge you first to concentrate and allow yourself to be more open to contemplation. Try asking yourself:
“If my lips and mouth are praying, is my heart? Is my soul uniting to God?”
Of course there are times when inspiration just doesn’t come.
But if you find it impossible or very difficult to concentrate on heartfelt prayer or contemplation of God during your time in church, and if this continues week after week, ask yourself: could it be that the Mass or the service just does not inspire me to the extent that I crave? If your service does not give you a sense of spiritual fulfillment and communion with God, then you might consider thinking on the overall teachings of your denomination.
do you understand them?
Do you agree with them?
Do you really think that they are the best way to worship God and the inspiration for you to live the fullest, most Christian life?
I am by no means advocating that anyone should abandon their specific denomination just because they like the services of another church more than the services in and around which they were raised. To do that would be to trivialize the whole process of deciding to leave or enter a church, which is a profoundly contemplative, gradual, and serious matter. It is dangerous for someone to embrace a whole new faith suddenly or based only on how a service moves them; it is unlikely that the foundation of this new faith has embedded itself deep within them. Regardless of what denomination you come from, if you want to acquire a meaningful understanding of any of the Christian faith traditions, you should endeavor to study the Bible and connect with the intellectual and philosophical doctrines and teachings of your specific Church. “Going through the motions” is never enough to live any kind of fulfilling spiritual life, and anyone who does just that, week after week, will tell you that it leaves them with only a void.
If you are one of potentially millions of American Christians spiritually unsatisfied—profoundly unsatisfied—with what you are hearing, singing, and saying in church on Sundays, I would say to you that you should not feel obligated to continue participating in such a spiritually stagnant environment. One of the most beautiful things about the US is our long tradition of religious freedom. Every world religion and every denomination has a presence here. If you are bored or unsatisfied with your church, whether it’s Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist or “non-denominational” evangelical, I urge you to consider the numerous other options that you have! Since God gave us all free will, He surely does not want any of His children to persist in trying to worship Him in a church where they just don’t feel the spiritual connection or awareness of God that they crave. So, if you want a new kind of experience, look around you. Visit an Orthodox church.
Come to the liturgy. I promise you, you will be moved, in ways I cannot put into words.
Orthodox Iconostasis in Arkansas
First experience of Orthodoxy – the Liturgy— a kind of transcendent, enveloping beauty.
My first experience of Orthodoxy was, fittingly, also my first experience witnessing the Divine Liturgy, on the evening of Holy Thursday, April 1, 2010, at Holy Wisdom (St. Sophia) Greek Orthodox Cathedral a few blocks down Massachusetts Avenue from my university. My surroundings initially overwhelmed me—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I was no novice to beautiful religious buildings: I had been inside Notre Dame de Paris, la Basilica San Pietro in the Vatican, and more recently, in DC, the Episcopal National Cathedral and the Catholic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. An avid student of art history, I had ‘Googled’ images of St. Paul’s in London, Westminster Abbey, Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock and the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. I had seen many beautiful Gothic and Neo-Byzantine style churches, and worshipped in many other Catholic, Anglican, and some Protestant churches. I had also been in beautiful synagogues, mosques, and a Sikh temple.
Having seen these beautiful places, it is still difficult to put into words the extent to which experiencing the Holy Thursday Liturgy of St. Basil affected me over a year ago when I worshipped in Holy Wisdom Cathedral. I went with an ex-girlfriend, one of my closest friends, a Polish Roman Catholic: she never went back, but she saw how much the experience moved me. The whole liturgy—some three hours long—awakened in me an entirely new spiritual plane that nothing else had inspired in me before.
St. Sophia’s (referring to the sofia, or wisdom, of God, not a particular saint named Sophia) is a beautiful templon (the Greek word for church is identical to the ancient word for temple) constructed to look like a miniature model of the Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. For those unfamiliar with Byzantine history, this larger ‘Holy Wisdom’ was the incredible sixth-century mother church of the Orthodox world and for centuries the world’s largest cathedral, famous for its crowning dome that endured many earthquakes. It was the liturgy in this church that inspired the conversion of the Rus.After the Ottoman Turks captured the city in 1453, it was preserved as a mosque, and today is one of Istanbul’s most frequently visited tourist attractions. Unfortunately, it has not been reopened as a place of worship: it is a museum.
The smaller Hagia Sophia I visited that April day is similarly very beautiful: with its great dome and high-set windows, it is something altogether out of place in the shadow of the Neo-Gothic Episcopal National Cathedral two blocks away. Yet as with all churches, the true beauty of this temple lies within. To give readers unfamiliar with Orthodox church architecture a sense of how different the Byzantine style is from anything Western, I wish to give the following description:
Entering the cathedral’s unfinished narthex (it’s still white, as yet unpainted with the golden frescoes and saints’ images that dazzle the interior), one immediately notices icon stands in the corner: to your right is Christ, to the left His Mother, the Theotokos (Orthodox give her this title, meaning “bearer of God”, dating to the Third Ecumenical Council, since she chose to bear Christ, the New Adam, the Father’s Incarnate Son.) Every Orthodox church has a small open shop in the narthex/vestibule area where laypersons, often including the presvytera (Russian: matushka), the priest’s wife, sell candles which the worshippers can light in front of the icons before entering the church. Some people bring their candles unlit into the church proper and when venerating another icon will place the candle in front of a saint’s image.
Upon entering the church interior, your eyes will be dazzled by the vivid colors everywhere: rich gray and dark green marble columns support the soaring pendentives upon which the cathedral’s towering central dome rests. Everywhere above and around you, on the gold-painted ceiling and the less-adorned side walls around the windows, you will see Byzantine-style painted frescoes of saints. The large, high-set windows, with colored glass panes, are actually obstacles to seeing outside. The reason for this is so that the church community, or laos, is not distracted by the outside world during the liturgy and can focus wholly on worship in the cathedral.
Rising above the temple are the four Gospel writers, their inscriptions written in Greek, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, taking their places close to the dome. Above them, rising higher in circles, are exalted angels, the ‘cherubim and seraphim’ of the Magnificat. At the top of the dome gazing down on His temple is the image of Christos Pantokrator—Christ enthroned as ruler of the universe. The Savior’s placement at the very top of the Cathedral reflects that the dome symbolizes heaven, and, indeed, just as with the great dome at the original sixth-century Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the dome here seems to hover above the temple, perched delicately on the sturdy Corinthian columns.
You will notice as your eyes come back down to earth the pews—these are uncommon in most American Orthodox churches, an example of ‘latinizations’ that have crept into certain Orthodox architecture over the years, especially in many American Greek churches. Pews are almost nonexistent in many European churches, where several rows of chairs are often placed along the side aisles for use by the elderly or small children. This is how it is at St. Nicholas.
Looking forward you will see that to the right on a slightly raised platform (this is not the altar) there is an elaborately carved chair. This is the thronos for the bishop (episkopos) when he visits the cathedral and presides over the Liturgy.
Unlike in Western Masses or services, Orthodox priests do not usually sit at all during the service. Like the congregation in most churches, they stand reverently before the altar which symbolizes the throne of God. The Israelites of the first century worshiped liturgically in the Temple at Jerusalem, where a rotation of prescribed daily prayers were said and psalms chanted, and worship was always conducted with the congregants standing, as Christ implies when he speaks to his disciples in Mark 11:25:
“When ye stand, praying. . .”
At St. Sophia’s, the priests allow people to sit for parts of the liturgy and use the pews. To the left side of the church you will see several low tables or recessional apses. Here, certain icons will be kept, and confessions heard during orthros (the pre-liturgy morning rite.)
Chapter 3: Icons, Images of the Saints and Reverence for the Virgin Mary
Many Protestants and Roman Catholics are unfamiliar with the use of icons in church services or private devotions. In Orthodoxy they play a major role in both, but this role has often been grossly misunderstood. Because Protestant theology eschews many of the older Church traditions that explain the reasons and importance behind these religious images, most Protestants are unaware of their theological importance, believing them instead to be distractions from worshipping God. The perspective I’ve heard from most of my Protestant friends is that “having so many ‘faces’ in a church distracts from worshipping God.” Others tell me that images of the Blessed Virgin, saints, and angels are either idolatrous, or simply “unnecessary.”
I would say that one person’s standard of what is “necessary” and “unnecessary” for proper worship is as subjective as the next person’s, and that is why respect for the Church’s revealed teachings on these matters and a willingness to evaluate and consider the role of centuries of Tradition (including the writings of many prominent Church Fathers, both Latin and Greek) is crucial here. To disregard all this wisdom as “unnecessary” or distracting seems to me to be taking a great liberty.
St. Germanus, mentioned earlier, was Patriarch of Constantinople until iconoclast Emperor Leo III “the Isaurian” (r. 717-741) removed him due to the archbishop’s continued and vocal support for the veneration of icons. St. Germanus’ defense of icon veneration is most clearly expressed in a letter he wrote to John of Synades, in which the Patriarch states that
“It is not to deviate from the perfect worship of God that we allow the production of icons. . . For we make no icon or representation of the invisible deity. . . But since the only Son Himself, Who is in the bosom of the Father, deigned to become man, according to the good will of the Father and the Holy Spirit, since He became a participant in blood and flesh, like us, as the great apostle says, “Having become similar to us in everything except sin” (Heb 4:15) we draw the image of His human aspect according to the flesh, and not according to His incomprehensible and invisible divinity, for we feel the need to represent what is our faith, to show that He is not united to our nature only in appearance, as a shadow. . . but that He has become man in reality and truth.”
As St. Germanus writes, our icons never depict God the Father, since He is invisible, as Scripture tells us in many places, most specifically in John 1:18 that
“No man hath seen God [the Father] at any time.”
Any Orthodox or Catholic theologian will tell you that veneration of saints’ relics or icons (known as doulia in Greek) differs significantly from latreia, which is the form of worship due to God alone. In our veneration, it is not the images or relics themselves we honor, but the spirit of the saint embodied in them. Doulia of icons and relics retains widespread practice in certain Catholic communities, particularly in South America and Southeast Asia, yet among American Catholics the practice is rare, mainly confined to older faithful, especially those who prefer to use the current Extraordinary form of the Mass, widely known as the Tridentine rite. Neither Catholics nor the Orthodox worship icons, nor do they worship the saints whose assistance they sometimes seek or whose exemplary qualities they seek to follow. This is of course a point of great distinction between Protestants and the older two Christian branches.
Icons are not painted, but “written” by their human authors—an appropriate distinction given that Orthodox believe that icon-writing comes from divine inspiration. Many of the most famous icons are centuries old and have been attributed to saving certain countries or peoples from disaster, such as Our Lady of the Sign in Russia, which the Russian people to this day venerate for the role attributed to it in saving the city of Novgorod from invasion. Another famous, beautiful icon is known to the Orthodox as the Virgin Theotokos (Mary) of the Passion (familiar to Roman Catholics as Our Lady of Perpetual Help, it is given particular veneration among Filipinos.) The Passion icon is one of many healing icons, as many laity and clergy have reported being healed of their afflictions while praying in front of it. This might seem superstitious to some Protestants disinclined to look favorably on such veneration in the first place, but the records and claims of people claiming miraculous healings exist.
Regarding the Virgin Mary, the Orthodox give her several titles corresponding to her role as Jesus’ mother. Because she is Christ’s mother, she is therefore mother of the Son of God who was Himself part of the Holy Trinity “before all ages”. This is why we call her Mother of God, for she is the mother of the eternal Word, the Logos described in the opening of St John’s Gospel. The Church’s reasons for honoring Mary are quite simple, and they are biblical. In Luke 1:43 Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord”. Father Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983), renowned Orthodox theologian and former Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, observed that Mary is “our link to Christ, and in Him, to God” the Father. She is
“. . . The very expression, the very depth of man’s “yes” to God in Christ. . . the human person that has become totally transparent to the Holy Spirit. If Christ is the “icon” of the Father, Mary is the “icon” of the new creation, the new Eve responding to the new Adam, fulfilling the mystery of love. . . Mary is the image and the personification of the world.”
Thus, Mary is the natural archetype for mankind, a perfect example for her fellow human beings to imitate. Through her willingness to bear the Savior of mankind, full cooperation with the will of God became something attainable and personal for mankind. Because
“she is the one who gave Him His human nature, His flesh and blood, she is the one through whom Christ can always call Himself “The Son of Man.””.
Because of Mary’s willing cooperation with God
“Salvation is no longer the operation of rescuing an ontologically inferior and passive being; it is revealed as truly a synergeia, cooperation between God and man. In Mary, obedience and humility are shown as rooted not in any “deficiency” of nature, but as the very expression of man’s royal freedom, of his capacity freely to encounter Truth itself. In the faith and the experience of the Church, Mary truly is the very icon of “anthropological maximalism”, its eternal epiphany. . . In Mary, the very notions of “dependence” and “freedom” cease to be opposed to one another as mutually exclusive. We are inclined to think that where there is dependence there can be no freedom, where there is freedom there can be no dependence. She, however, accepts, she obeys, she humbles herself before the living Truth itself, a Presence, a Call so overwhelmingly evident. . . ”
Because of Mary’s “yes” to God’s invitation to bear Christ the Savior, she signaled the coming redemption of humankind through her Son. No longer was man cut off from God, for God would enter the world through a woman’s body. Mary did not have to accept the role to which God called her; her very acceptance radically changed God’s relation to humankind, for it is through Mary that God entered the world as a man, and it is due to Mary’s humanity that Christ is “fully man” while also being fully God. Due to her special role as the Mother of Christ, it is only logical that
“Mary stands in the very center of the Church’s vision of the world, of man and life as the ultimate fruit and therefore the highest expression of that humility and obedience, without which there is no entrance into the mystery of man’s true communion with God.”
Father Alexander affirms her role as mediator and channel between man and God:
“Truly she is unique . . . and yet she is one of us, she is like us: her life and her experience are fully human.”
This is why the Orthodox feel such comfort in the presence of Mary, why we can approach her with our prayers that she might intercede with her Son to save us. She is the natural maternal figure for all humanity to look to for comfort, and through her Son, the very vessel by which the promise of salvation came to our fallen world.
Many Protestants consider the veneration given Mary by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox as something distracting from the latreia due to God alone. Some attribute widespread Marian devotion to a desire originating from pagan influence to have a female presence in the human experience of God. Orthodox and Catholics would answer that every person, man or woman, has the ability to believe in and come to know God, and since God the Logos, the Word, came into the world as the incarnate Son of Man, it is only natural that we seek to know Him through His mother.
Marian devotion in Orthodoxy is entirely Christocentric, revolving around and relating entirely to her role as Jesus’ mother. Because Mary is the Father’s chosen instrument of bringing His Son into the world, as she states in the Magnificat when she exclaims
“He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden, from henceforth all generations shall call me Blessed”,
we believe it is improper not to honor her. Some Catholics and Orthodox condemn as oversimplification and reductionist the tendencies among Protestant theologians and ministers to omit almost any mention of her. Aside from the reference to her in the Creed, she is overwhelmingly “toned down” by most Protestants (excluding High Church Anglicans) who are uncomfortable with her importance in earlier centuries of Christian theological development, and are skeptical of the attention that Christians of the earlier Church traditions pay her.
As with Roman Catholics, Orthodox refer to Mary as the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of God, and often ascribe to her the honorific “Queen” or “Lady”, depending on the translation, as she sits besides God the Father and her Son in heaven. One universal Orthodox title for Mary that does not usually appear in the West is the Greek term Theotokos, (lit. “Bearer of God”.) Another Greek honorific is Panagia, the “All-Holy” one whom the Father chose to carry His Son into the world, who “without corruption gave birth to God the Word”, without the pain and physical changes that alter all other women’s bodies in and after childbirth. Having been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I can attest that devotion to Mary in Orthodoxy is as beautiful and just as much part of the liturgy as it is Roman Catholicism, if not more so.
While the Orthodox do not use the “Hail Mary” in the Liturgy per se (a more correct translation of the Greek ‘Chaire’ is “Rejoice”, rather than ‘Hail’) at the end of Vespers during an All-Night Vigil the choir will sing, in English “Rejoice O Virgin Theotokos” which is of almost identical wording to the Western Hail Mary.
Every Sunday Liturgy following the conclusion of the anaphora, the clergy and people chant the millennia-old Axion Estin (English: “It is truly meet”) which is similar in wording to the Magnificat sung by the choir and people at most All-Night Vigils. The Magnificat (from the Latin “I magnify”) is one of the most beautiful and compelling parts of our worship. In the majestic chanting of the choir the people and clergy’s voices join together to intone the very words that Mary exclaimed at her Annunciation. Throughout all Eastern Orthodox services, there is never instrumental accompaniment, since Orthodox hold the human voice to be the most pleasing sound to the God who created it.
At the Magnificat, many worshipers become emotional—as St. Silouan tells us, tears in prayer are an expression of the heart’s desire to know God. Its beauty alone was something that drew me to attend the Saturday evening vigils at St. Nicholas. Every Orthodox church I have attended always offers a beautifully unique composition of the Magnificat, but the style at St Nicholas remains the one most touching to me. The celebrating clergyman comes out from the altar, turns to face the icon of the Blessed Virgin on the iconostasis, which he censes as he cries
“The Theotokos and the Mother of the Light, let us magnify in song!”
and then, as the choir begins the canticle, he processes around the church, censing all the worshipers as well as the icons of the saints. This is a reminder that the Church sings to the Lord in the presence of all the saints and the angels, who are present invisibly among us as Psalm 137 reminds us. The priest censes the people because Christ, truly God and truly man, bridged the ‘sacred distance’ between heaven and earth, uniting the human and the divine natures in His single personage. Several times during each vigil the presiding clergyman, whether priest or bishop, census us as a salutation to the presence of God in each one of us, and so, when we honor Mary, we remember that it is through her, a person as human as any of us, yet who chose to never sin, that God the Word took on human form and lived among us as Jesus the Christ.
Orthodoxy- The Orthodox Church: A family of Churches united by belief in the central role of conciliarity, the pastoral role of bishops, and adherence to a common Tradition.
One of the most attractive aspects of Orthodoxy to those coming from either Roman Catholic or Protestant traditions is that, while internal church politics of course exist in the different parishes, and at national or regional levels, Orthodoxy today is largely free of the kind of disagreements that frequently arise in Western churches. Of course not every Catholic or Protestant church community is going to have these problems over disagreements, but from my own observations they are far more common than in Orthodox churches. Jurisdictional wars and conflicts over doctrine and belief—whether official or unofficial—seem to be perpetually waging in mainline Protestant churches, and the line often seems blurred between Catholic bishops’ pastoral responsibilities and administrative roles, with the former often being neglected for the latter. Orthodox congregations do not disagree on matters of Church teachings or dogma.
While the Church in each nation or regional area is either autonomous or autocephalous (self-governing), the Orthodox Church across national and regional lines does not face the major challenges to its basic doctrinal teachings that Protestant churches and the Catholic Church have faced in recent years regarding questions of ordination of women, non-celibate homosexual clergy, elective abortion, etc. The Church’s stance on these issues is decidedly traditional or conservative, but not in a negative sense.
For instance, regarding abortion, the Church emphasizes a positive invitation to consider raising the child or adoption as a way of enabling a sacred human life to enter the world. Likewise, for those women who have had abortions, the Church does not treat them as pariahs, but as sisters or daughters in crucial need of Christian care and pastoral attention. They are encouraged to come to confession, since abortion is a sin of enormously tragic consequence, but above all, to come to church and not withdraw from life as so many women do when they are wracked with deep feelings of guilt. After a long time of thought and reflection, during which a spiritual father is expected to talk and meet with them and minister to them, they are readmitted to communion.
Describing administration of the Eastern Church worldwide, Bishop Kallistos Ware describes it in The Orthodox Church as a:
“Family of self-governing Churches held together not by a centralized organization, not by a single prelate wielding power over the whole body, but by the double bond of unity in the faith and communion in the sacraments. Each Patriarchate or autocephalous Church, while independent, is in full agreement with the rest on all matters of doctrine.”
In an April 10, 2009 podcast radio interview with Fr. Andrew Jarmus, Communications Director of the Orthodox Church in America, His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, made similar statements regarding the importance of continuing the tradition of what can be called “autocephalous communion” in the Church worldwide:
“The Church is not simply controlled by its primate, it is not a papacy, but rather, it’s always led in terms of councils, of people coming together. Now, in the ancient canonical vision of the Church, this always meant councils of bishops, but thanks to the development, especially within Russian theology from the late nineteenth century onwards, and through the experience of our own church, which was able to institutionalize some of those ideas. . . . we have been able to bring about participation of the clergy and the laity in almost every level of decision-making. . . This is something I believe is essential to the life of our Church, we have to make decisions together.”
Thus, in the Orthodox Churches, while most of them operate in a form more democratic than that allowed in Roman Catholicism, with elected parish councils that recommend many administrative matters to the bishop, the episcopacy also retains a degree of traditional authority lacking in almost all mainline Protestant churches. Because the main areas of contention within Orthodox Churches are principally over matters of church finance or questions of local parish administration, rather than differences in belief, the Orthodox faithful have not had the disruptions to their liturgical life that most mainline Protestant churches and even some Catholic parishes have had in the United States.
His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah encapsulated the Orthodox position on faith and liturgy and their codependent, mutually reinforcing and symbiotic interconnectedness in a speech to the assembly of the newly-formed Anglican Church in North America in June 2009 in which he remarked “The Church is not simply human. It is divine . . . the living body of Jesus Christ.” This explains in part why we are so concerned not to allow any disputes or arguments over parish administration or inter-jurisdictional relations to mar our liturgical life. In the Liturgy, we transcend all of the outside concerns of our lives, which fade to the peripheries that they are, and enter in communion with the visible body of Christ all around us, and the invisible body, the saints, the angels, all the departed, the Theotokos, and God Himself.
Agreement on doctrine throughout the Orthodox world is nearly universal since
“certain doctrines, never formally defined, are yet held by the Church with an unmistakable inner conviction, an unruffled unanimity, which is just as binding as an explicit formulation.”
The Church’s stances on homosexual activity and elective abortion come to light in this regard. Divisions exist over certain new questions—for instance, the question of restoring the historic female diaconate, with certain bishops in favor and others opposed—but as His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah observed, these questions, if the clergy and people felt clarification was required, would be dealt with as the Church has always done,
“in terms of councils, people coming together”
rather than the Church ever splintering or dissolving outright. Thus, whenever there are disagreements in Orthodox congregations, they can be and are settled with local council meetings between the parishioners, priests and the bishop, without the formation of new church communities or sects.
In this context, the faithful understand that it is the Orthodox Church as a whole, the worldwide Body of Christ, which is universal in constitution and communion, not one particular bishop or pontiff. Bishops at their election and consecration assume crucial roles over their specific dioceses,
“endowed with the threefold power of
(2) teaching, and
(3) celebrating the sacraments.”
Authority and jurisdiction in Orthodoxy thus are held to be both local and universal—local in the bishops, who are “appointed by God to guide and rule the flock” as “monarchs” in their own dioceses, and universal in the Churches adhering to Tradition or when acting together in Councils.
Jurisdiction and authority have never been understood in the Orthodox Tradition in terms of residing in any one particular patriarch or pontiff. Rather, we remember the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of St. John the Apostle, who said
“Where the bishop is, there is the Church.”
The logic behind this is very clear, and I will elaborate more on this in Part II when I describe why I decided to leave the Roman Catholic Church. While His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople enjoys a status of primus inter pares among all Orthodox patriarchs and bishops dating to Canon 28 of the 451 Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon, the bishops themselves all possess a common charisma or gift of grace, constituting as they do the leadership of the universal Church. As Bishop Kallistos writes,
“Where Rome thinks in terms of the supremacy and the universal jurisdiction of the Pope, Orthodoxy thinks in terms of the Ecumenical Councils; where Rome stresses Papal infallibility, Orthodox stress the infallibility of the Church as a whole.”
Why I left the Roman Catholic Church
Before I begin the second and last Part, I wish to separately address the impact that the Roman Catholic Church leadership’s handling of the clergy sex abuse scandal had on my ultimate decision to leave that Church. My decision to enter the Orthodox Church lies almost entirely in positive affirmations and belief in its faith, teachings and concepts of authority, rather than negative reactions to the Catholic faith in which I was raised. I see my decision to enter the Orthodox Church as one in which I have continuously opened myself to the light and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I feel that my embrace of Orthodoxy is more a fulfillment of what is best about the Catholic tradition than a rejection of what is incorrect and heterodox about it.
In his popular book, Rediscovering Catholicism, author Matthew Kelly admits that while the Catholic Church has
“spent more than two billion dollars settling lawsuits, we have not spent a single dime on any special initiative to encourage Catholics in America to continue to explore the beauty of their faith. . . We have not spent a dime inspiring Catholics at a time when more are disillusioned about their faith and the Church than perhaps ever before. And that is a tragedy.”
This passage really moved me when I first read it. I was initially struck by my agreement with Kelly’s last sentence. This entire episode in the history of the Church, the media firestorm, the alienation of so many of the clergy from the people, and of course, the abominable instances of abuse that did take place, all of it together forms an absolute tragedy in the life of the Church. Looking back over this passage, however, I am struck by what I find between the lines, something that troubles me. Clearly many lay Catholics feel disconnected and impatient with the responses given by various senior and local clergy, and such perceived silence or indifference on the part of some of the clergy is troubling. Yet what is more troubling is that someone as internationally influential as Kelly believes that the Church needs to concentrate its efforts in investing money to revitalize Catholicism in the U.S, and that perhaps this is the main if not the only way to
“keep people in the Church.”
If American Catholics expect the Church to pour money into expensive ads to draw them back in, but they do not expect their pastors and priests to really endeavor to bridge the gaps in trust and understanding (or to really teach them the core Catholic doctrines, the substance of the beliefs for which they should be coming to Mass if they truly believe in the Catholic faith) off of what kind of reservoir of faith is the Church in America depending? Kelly writes that the problem of the Church losing members could be solved with financial investment from Rome. I will not dispute this here. What I find odd is that in his entire book he says nothing about how the struggling parish life in so many communities could be revitalized at ground level. Where is the emphasis on a revitalization of the Church’s pastoral care of the faithful, in the churches and in the communities themselves?
Although Kelly’s book did not convince me to return to the Roman Catholic faith, and I am concerned by his advocacy for a top-down financial rather than a local-based pastoral approach to a restoration of the Church, much of his book deeply inspired me. He is a very gifted writer, and his words spoke to my own life experience as someone who grew up as an often confused Catholic unsure of the Church’s teachings or direction. The book is a compelling and often philosophically oriented read for any Christian, Catholic or not. Besides his frank admission of the abuse, Kelly highlights the Church’s immense impact on the world through its feeding of millions of hungry each day, its education of more children than any government or private program, and the operation of thousands of hospitals across the globe.
These efforts are truly laudable, and for them the Church deserves great praise. I will always be proud of the Church’s efforts and I will always be grateful for the Christian faith it taught me. Yet even Kelly, an internationally celebrated champion of his faith, admits in his book’s opening pages that there is a chronic deficit of trust, of leadership, and of convinced faith within the Catholic community in America.
This truly is a tragedy.
While I did not know anyone personally who was victimized by a predatory priest, there can be no question that the damage the abuse caused to individual victims and their families is beyond what any apology can heal or any amount of compensation ever appropriately redeem. Only the healing power of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, and God’s providence in time can bring the healing which so many crave.
The larger issue, from my perspective of a member of the Christian laity viewing the Roman Catholic Church as a pastoral entity, is: how did the world’s largest religious organization and establishment fail so many millions of its believers? As much as media attacks on the Church have been increasing, to what extent this is due to an increase in secular culture in the US and worldwide is impossible to deduce with certainty. What is certain is that the initial reaction of the senior Church leadership in the Vatican offended and hurt many millions of faithful. Not because it harmed them bodily, but because the covenant of trust, that all-important trust, between bishops and the laity, between priests and their congregations, was broken, in parish after parish, by the combination of revelations of sexual abuse and further revelations that senior Vatican leaders had been complicit in covering up cases when media were “getting too close.”
Thus, while the large majority of priests and bishops had nothing to do with any of the abuse, the Church sustained a terrible damage to its pastoral reputation, its institutional prestige, and above all its image in the world. As a result, the somewhat unstable or loosely grounded faith of many Catholics worldwide, many of whom were never educated in the Church’s doctrinal teachings, came loose. From my perspective, three interrelated problems intensified many Catholics’ reactions to the Church’s handling of the abuse revelations.
1) an internal church culture in which clergy used the hierarchical system to seek protection and hide from possible charges of wrongdoing,
2) the complicity of many senior Church leaders in these cases of abuse by either ordering the payment of victims’ families in order to silence them, or the deliberate reshuffling of priests who may have been dangerous to children, and
3) the perception by many faithful Catholics that statements made by senior Vatican officials, US cardinal-archbishops and other leading prelates indicated a lack of willingness to punish the offending clergy.
Ultimately, all of these things taken together deeply saddened me. Combined with the aloofness of my diocesan bishop and lack of a sense of community at my family’s parish, I started to become disillusioned with the Church’s ability to offer real pastoral care to the faithful, or to actually enforce any degree of orthodoxy internally. Part of the Church’s difficulty in maintaining orthodoxy rests in the sheer size of it as a bureaucratic organization, as a global institution, but I think this symptom speaks to a larger, deeper illness in the life of the Church. I know many people who have left the Church or gone ‘inactive’ who felt as though something was missing in their own spiritual lives, in the Mass, and in the Church itself. I noticed the lack of connection in the liturgy itself, how vernacular hymns punctuate the prayers of the Roman rite in an almost staccato arrangement. I cannot recall the exact time it began, but for years I had a sense that the Church had lost something it once possessed.
Until I discovered Orthodoxy I could never have told you, much less imagined for myself, what this missing link was or where it existed. When I walked through the magnificent Baroque and Gothic cathedrals of Europe summer 2005, I caught glimpses of something the Church in America lacked, the presence of an ancient beauty that seemed an altogether different thing from the plain churches in which I grew up. This made me think more about the Mass itself. The shortening and alterations of the Roman missal undertaken in the wake of the Vatican II council confused and estranged many Catholics, who felt that much of the core beauty, the inner Tradition, of the Church had been pushed aside.
The Second Vatican Council brought many laudable practices, such as an interest in basic ecumenical dialogue with other Churches and the celebration of the Mass in vernacular language, but Mass attendance has declined ever since the implementation of the revised Roman missal in the 1970s. Many Catholics considered the Novus Ordo Missae lacking in the spiritual depth and beauty the Tridentine liturgy had offered the faithful for centuries. Especially in the Anglophone world, many felt that the liturgical changes moved certain translations beyond the necessary transliteration and lost the inner beauty that the Latin, however incomprehensible to most, preserved. I think it is wonderful that the Mass is at last in the vernacular, but I never understood why the Church took out so much of the beautiful language which conveyed so much spiritual depth, theology, and mystery.
I do not blame the Church collectively for the failings of so many of its leaders and priests, but I am deeply disturbed that such a large religious system such as the Church was peopled with many clergy who put their own positions within the institution—and a desire to save face—ahead of the pastoral needs of the faithful. It is impossible to describe the amount of shock, grief and pain that the scandals caused in the life of the Church. My reasons for departing the Church have little to do with the scandals themselves, and center mostly on theology. However, what I consider to be a massive pastoral failure on the part of the Roman Catholic leadership definitely embittered my sense of being a Catholic, and led me to question Church doctrine and dogma more than I had previously.
Orthodoxy: in part Catholicism’s Correction, in part its Fulfillment
Bishop Kallistos correctly observes that
“the Orthodox Church is not as much given to making formal dogmatic definitions as is the Roman Catholic Church”,
yet there are certain elements of the Orthodox faith that have come into the Orthodox Tradition in past centuries and stayed there. One of these “unmistakable inner convictions” of the Church is the refutation of the Filioque clause which played a defining role in the eventual Schism between East and West. The Filioque (Latin: “and the Son”) was first formally introduced in the West at the Third Council of Toledo in 589. This was a localized, non-ecumenical council in Spain convened by King Reccared and attended only by Spanish clergy at which Arian bishops and clergy recanted their heretical views.
The insertion of the Filioque, which, pointedly, only gradually entered into use in the West, violates the Orthodox spirit and approach toward the inner Tradition that
“is preserved above all in the Church’s worship.”
No Ecumenical Council ever authorized its introduction in the Creed, nor, from a Roman Catholic perspective, did a pope ever pronounce it as infallible doctrine. Since Orthodox believe in the principle that “Our faith is expressed in our prayer”, then the degree to which the West’s arbitrary insertion of the Filioque in the Creed offends the inner Tradition of the Church is a very high one. Even St. Augustine, one of the principal Latin Church Fathers credited with expressing the concept of Double Procession (that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son), repeatedly clarified his understanding of the Filioque with the ending tanquam ab uno principio—“as from one principle.” Thus, even to Augustine, the Holy Spirit’s procession rests on the centrality of the Father as this directing “principle” or originator within the Trinitarian framework, since any principle regarding the Trinity must have the Father as its directing head since the Father alone is unbegotten.
The Orthodox have been in many ways willing to compromise, or at least tolerate the idea that the Spirit proceeds “from the Father through the Son”, by virtue of Our Lord saying in John 15:26 that “When the Comforter has come, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father—He will bear witness to Me.” Jesus tells us that He “sends” the Spirit, but He states unequivocally that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone. This is a question of the language our Lord used—he did not say “the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father and I”, but “proceeds from the Father” alone. In the past few years, whenever I attended Catholic Mass, I would either omit the Filioque or say “through the Son”, but for considerable time the West’s logic for including the Filioque has defied my understanding.
The manner in which it was devised and declared (in a local Spanish council at Toledo with neither Ecumenical authority nor papal recognition), and the anti-counciliar manner in which it was implemented in the West violate the principle of “inner Tradition” of universally maintaining the Church’s time-honored traditions without alteration. Popes recognized the danger the Filioque posed and several condemned its gradual adoption into popular use in the West. Pope John VIII endorsed the decision of the Eighth Ecumenical Council of 879-880 at Constantinople which reiterated the earlier 431 Third Ecumenical Council’s prohibition and anathematization of any alteration of the original wording of the Creed at Ephesus. Historian Dr. Margaret Trenchard-Smith of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles observes in her essay “East and West: Cultural Dissonance and the “Great Schism of 1054”” that Rome resisted the Filioque’s insertion into the Nicene Creed for several centuries after its first official declaration at Toledo in the sixth century.
“Having promoted it at the Synods of Frankfurt (794) and Friuli (796), Charlemagne himself tried to insist on the inclusion of the Filioque in the Creed as normative practice in Rome in 809. However, Pope Leo III—the Pope who had made Charlemagne emperor—resisted the interpolation, as it would be “…a mistake to depart from the version of the Creed that had been universally accepted by Christendom.” To impress upon contemporaries his point and to preserve it for posterity, the Pope had the original Latin and Greek versions of the Creed inscribed upon silver plaques placed within Saint Peter’s.”
That Leo III, the very pontiff who crowned Charlemagne as Imperator Romanorum in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day in 800, refused the emperor’s desire to normalize the Filioque’s use at Masses in Rome speaks to the level to which the Pope saw himself as the defender of orthodox Christianity, the faith Rome then shared with the East. That he deliberately placed two silver plaques with the unaltered Creed in the central and most visited shrine in Rome, the site of St Peter’s execution and his tomb, demonstrates his rejection of the Filioque as a doctrine for the universal Church to espouse. One Catholic apologist with whom I have often talked argues that Pope Leo did this only to appease the Byzantines, who opposed Charlemagne’s campaign to normalize the Filioque in the West. His argument ignores the historical reality that in the very act of crowning Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans, the Pope had already offended and strained relations with the East.
The Byzantines had preserved their imperial succession of Eastern Roman emperors at Constantinople in the centuries after a Gothic king compelled the teenage Romulus Augustulus, the last Emperor in the West, to abdicate in 476. Ever since Constantine I moved the imperial capital to the Greek-speaking port of Byzantion in 330, renaming it “New Rome”, the city’s inhabitants referred to themselves as ‘Romans’. Leo’s crowning of another emperor to rival one in Byzantium outraged many in the East. In 800, when he crowned the Frankish king, an emperor reigned in Constantine’s city, but Leo considered the imperial throne vacant because its occupant was a woman, Irene of Athens.
Trenchard-Smith observes in her essay’s endnotes (#42) that in fact Pope Leo sympathized with the Double Procession theory, which he put forth in his treatise Symbolum orthodoxae fidei Leonis papae. Ironically, it was in this work that Leo – who clearly from his title saw himself as the defender of the Orthodox faith- expressed his own belief in the Filioque, yet ecclesiastical scholars and theologians most remember him for erecting the two silver tablets in defiance of the same belief. We can deduce Pope Leo’s intentions on the Filioque through not only this public gesture against its introduction in Rome, but also from his refusal to permit the Filioque to be used when he publicly celebrated the Mass in Peter’s See during his lifetime. Most telling about the papacy’s attitude to the Filioque is that, as Trenchard-Smith observes,
“Rome first used the Filioque in 1014 at the coronation of German Emperor Henry II.”
The Roman rite in the Eternal City did not allow the clause until almost five centuries after it was first formally introduced into the West at Toledo. We have solid evidence that several Roman popes opposed the Filioque, but none that the clause was ever used in any Mass in Rome before 1014.
Implicitly tied to the Filioque controversy is what Orthodox theologians have found to be the West’s
“tendency to subordinate and neglect the Spirit.”
The Catholic assertion that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son suggests that the Spirit is fully dependent on both, and therefore a lesser or weaker part of the Trinity of God. If the Holy Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son, then the Spirit must proceed from something impersonal rather than Personal, since He would not be proceeding from one Person of the Trinity, the Father alone or the Son alone, but the divine substance or energy of the two Persons, which they have in common. This confuses the personal nature of the three hypostases of the Trinity.
Catholics and Orthodox share belief that the Son was begotten of the Father “before all ages”, and we both believe that God the Holy Spirit and God the Word, the Logos who eventually became incarnate as Christ, created the world with God the Father, as Genesis 1:26 tells us God said “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. This presents a challenge to Western understanding of the Trinity.
When do Catholics and Trinitarian Protestants (who continue to include the Filioque) believe the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son? They cannot say at Pentecost, for that is when Christ sent the Holy Spirit, already having proceeded from the Father, into the world. In the Creed, Orthodox and Catholics alike profess our belief that the Holy Spirit “spoke by the prophets” of the Old Testament, and Trinitarians will say the Spirit proceeded eternally or from time immeasurable, but it is theologically impossible for the Holy Spirit to have proceeded from the Father and the Son anytime before the Son’s Incarnation. Before His Incarnation of the Virgin Mary He was not yet the God-Man, fully human and fully divine, but the begotten Son and impersonal Logos. Do you see how the Filioque clause confuses and dilutes the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Holy Trinity?
Catholics traditionally have used three scriptural passages to explain their belief in the Holy Spirit’s procession from the Father and the Son in which the Spirit is respectively called the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9), the Spirit of the Son (Galatians 4:6), and the Spirit of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:19).
The Orthodox understanding of these descriptions of the Holy Spirit is that because Christ is God Incarnate, the Spirit was of course present in Him and sent by Him into the world at Pentecost. However, these scriptural references to the Spirit relating to the Son do not address how the Spirit came to proceed from Father and Son in Western understanding, but simply that Christ, the Son of God, had the Holy Spirit’s grace and power because He is fully God. The Greek words which correspond to the Latin ‘procedere/procedit’ (to proceed/proceeds’) do not appear in any of these passages in question, and nowhere in Scripture do we have any examples where it is written that the Holy Spirit proceeds from Father and the Son. We do however have Christ’s words in John 15:26 that the Spirit
“proceeds from the Father”.
The online Catholic Encyclopedia page on the Holy Spirit gives credence to the orthodox “Father through the Son” position, citing that
“the Greek formula ek tou patros dia tou ouiou [Greek: from the Father through the Son] expresses directly the order according to which the Father and the Son are the principle of the Holy Ghost”
yet the Encyclopedia errs in reflecting the Catholic belief that this formula somehow “implies their equality as principle”, that the Father and Son are equally the source of the Spirit which must, therefore, proceed from both. The Encyclopedia continues,
“As the Son Himself proceeds from the Father, it is from the Father that He receives, with everything else, the virtue that makes Him the principle of the Holy Ghost. Thus, the Father alone is principium absque principio, aitia anarchos prokatarktike, and, comparatively, the Son is an intermediate principle.”
The Catholic clarification that “the Son from the Father receives the virtue that makes Him the principle of the Holy Ghost” is unnecessary in the Orthodox view. Since we hold that the Spirit proceeds only from the Father, we do not need to explain how the Son receives “the virtue” that makes the Spirit also proceed from Him—we do not have this problem since we hold to the original wording of the Creed. Furthermore, Catholic belief that “the Son is an intermediate” connecting or standing between the Father and the Holy Spirit is another example of Orthodox apprehensions that the Filioque confuses the relationship between the Persons of the Holy Trinity.
Orthodox theology, in contrast, has a more internally balanced and unified view of the Trinity: everything the Church holds God to be can be attributed to one Person of the Godhead, or to the three Persons in triunity. The Father, the Logos, and the Spirit were present at the creation of the world and before all sense of time. God the Father is the “maker . . . of all things visible and invisible”, God the Son is “begotten of the Father before all ages” as the Logos, and God the Spirit “proceeds from the Father”—the Father is the source of both Son and Spirit, who proceed from Him eternally. Because the Orthodox theology of the Person of the Holy Spirit is unconfused and does not require the philosophical extrapolation and clarification which the Filioque does, Orthodox worship and spirituality has maintained a close connection to third Person of the Trinity, “the Paraclete, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth”. We invoke the protection of the Spirit in our personal morning devotions and evening prayer before we sleep, and constantly during the Liturgy.
After reading several of his writings, I have come to love and greatly esteem St. Seraphim of Sarov, and his observation that
“the true aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.”
With this incredibly challenging and beautiful aspiration, the true Orthodox life becomes one of an ever-occurring process of theosis, or deification where we strive to become one with the energy of God in all ways, constantly endeavoring to let ourselves be filled with the Holy Spirit. This call to begin a long process of aspiration to godliness, to become one with God as “partakers of the divine nature” through the light and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as Saint Peter tells us, is such a beautiful thing. It is something that strikes me as the perfect embodiment of Christianity—striving to become one with God. St. Athanasius of Alexandria reminds us in On the Incarnation that
“The Son of God became man that we might become god.”
This is not just a passable offer from anyone—this is the very reason for the Incarnation of the Logos, the Word—why the Father sent His Son into the world to dwell among us!
Since I first began my studies of Orthodoxy, I have noticed that Eastern theology is imbued with a kind of awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence and importance that I had only once briefly experienced in any Western church. When my class was preparing for confirmation at St James Roman Catholic parish in high school, our pastor Father Robert Smith (we called him Father Bob), a very kind man, enjoined us to sing with him a vernacular hymn “Send Us Your Spirit” by David Haas, the refrain of which is
“Come Lord Jesus, send us your spirit, renew the face of the earth!”
This struck me as being so beautiful, and so different from what I was used to in church—confirmation was the one time, as far as I remember, that the Church had ever really focused on the Holy Spirit outside of Pentecost. When I heard my pastor singing this beautiful supplication to the Spirit, it seemed to me such a perfect calling toward all that I sought to be as a Christian: loving God, opening up oneself to the work of the Spirit, serving and loving others, and seeing God alive in humanity. Yet I never experienced any awakening or transformation like it again while I was a Catholic.
The Church’s Catholicity: Affirming Orthodoxy’s conciliar approach, its non-coercive understandings of authority and the maintenance of Church communion— and its emphasis on the mysterious role of the Holy Spirit in life and liturgy. Catholic and Orthodox, Infallibility and Conciliarity: Different approaches to the “theology of communion” and opposing conceptions of how the Church maintains its catholicity.
Both Roman Catholics and Orthodox would agree with St. Ignatius in his letter to the Smyrnaeans (viii, 2) when he observes that
“where Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
Similarly, Orthodox and Catholic do not disagree that
“the Church is the extension of the Incarnation, the place where the Incarnation perpetuates itself.”
Certainly both Catholic and Orthodox would agree with St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) in his observations in his seventh century Mystagogy that
“the holy church of God. . . is a figure and image of the world, which is comprised of visible and invisible things. . . The Church is essentially one.”
Where the two traditions differ is in their conception of how this oneness or “catholicity” is expressed and in what manner the Church should guard the faith.
“For Rome the unifying principle in the Church [in other words, what makes it truly one, universal, or catholic] is the Pope whose jurisdiction extends over the whole body, whereas Orthodox do not believe any bishop to be endowed with universal jurisdiction.”
The heart of this debate rests in the Churches’ differing understandings, textually and historically, of Matthew 16:18 when Christ says to Simon Peter, also called Cephas:
“And I say to you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
When I was younger, I would have assumed, as I had been taught, that this passage clearly endorses the papacy as the reservoir of universal Christian jurisdiction on earth. Now that seems to be a real distortion and I approach the text with a different understanding. It seems that Christ is choosing Peter, as an especially beloved and dedicated follower, to fulfill a special pastoral role in the Christian community after His death. There is no example from Holy Scripture in which the apostles understand Peter to have infallibility or supreme authority over them after Christ’s death and Resurrection, as the Roman Catholic Church has claimed for centuries. In fact, in Galatians 2:11, St Paul writes that
“when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed.”
The Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible translates Peter here as “Cephas”, but this is an equivalent Greek name for Peter. This passage is a public assertion by St Paul of his equal statute to St Peter in apostolic authority and dignity, and far from suggesting that Peter was the infallible Prince of the Apostles, this passage shows that he was capable of making a mistake, an error another apostle corrected.
There is no reason to think that just because Peter was given a special commendation by Christ that any sort of universal jurisdiction applies to his successors as bishops in Rome, some of whom were soldier-warriors, princes, and even murderers. Nowhere in the Bible is there any statement that Peter’s successors should have infallible power or supreme apostolic authority. A Catholic apologist with whom I have talked points to Matthew 16:18-19 as the justification for Rome’s claims. I then would point to John 20:23, where Christ speaks to all the apostles, not only Peter:
“Whosesoever sins you remit, they are remitted to them; and whosesoever sins you retain, they are retained.”
‘You’ here in the Greek appears in the plural usage, confirming that Christ was speaking to the apostles together. If Peter was considered to be the prince of the apostles, their supreme leader and the chief shepherd of the Church after Christ’s death, Resurrection and Ascension, why did Christ give to all the Apostles equal authority to remit sins?
As I read over the text of Mark 16:18, it seems to me that Christ is foretelling the struggles that the Church would face in its infancy against pagan Roman persecution and endless heresies. He seems to be entrusting Peter with a certain brotherly charge toward the other apostles in the loving way that other first bishops were the spiritual and pastoral cores, or hearts, for the local faithful as the leaders of the first churches. This is only my humble interpretation.
As a result of diverging interpretations of this scriptural passage, the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches have approached the question of communion of belief and matters of jurisdictional authority in different ways. Where the Roman Catholic Church is “often seen too much in terms of earthly power and organization” due to its more administrative, executive understanding of the papacy, Roman Catholics will, in turn, often see the
“more spiritual and mystical doctrine of the Church held by Orthodoxy as vague, incoherent, and incomplete.”
While traditionalist Catholics tend to believe that their Church has always defended the Papacy’s powers of supreme and universal jurisdiction, there is strong evidence to suggest that this view gradually evolved in the West. One pope venerated by both Catholics and Orthodox as a saint, Pope St. Gregory the Great (r. 590-604), famously opposed Patriarch John of Constantinople’s desire to add the term “Ecumenical” to his title, writing to the patriarch that
“Whoever calls himself the universal bishop, or desires this title, is, by his pride, the precursor of Antichrist, because he thus attempts to raise himself above the others. The error into which he falls springs from pride equal to that of Antichrist; for as that Wicked One wished to be regarded as exalted above other men, like a god, so likewise whoever would be called sole bishop exalteth himself above others. . .”
Pope Gregory’s unequivocal condemnation of any primate calling himself “universal” or sole bishop might shock most Catholics who have never read it, since the Catholic Church has long attempted to convince its faithful that popes always professed the claim to universal authority and immediate jurisdiction over all other Christian Sees. Yet St. Gregory clarifies that this is anything but the case. He points out to Patriarch John that even when the 451 Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon offered the bishop of Rome the honorary title of ‘universal’ bishop, the reigning pope refused to accept it:
“You know it, my brother; hath not the venerable Council of Chalcedon conferred the honorary title of ‘universal’ upon the bishops of this Apostolic See [Rome], whereof I am, by God’s will, the servant? And yet none of us hath permitted this title to be given to him; none hath assumed this bold title, lest by assuming a special distinction in the dignity of the episcopate, we should seem to refuse it to all the brethren.” [Emphasis mine.]
This is the very antithesis of a pope claiming universal power and authority over all other Christian Sees. Pope St. Gregory refers to his fellow bishops as “brethren” and cautions against any bishop “assuming a special distinction in the dignity of the episcopate”. He not only reiterates that since his predecessors as Roman popes, first in honor among the five apostolic sees or patriarchates, declined the honorary title ‘universal’, all other patriarchs ought to avoid using the term, but he specifies that even when the Fathers at Chalcedon offered the popes this title, they understood it primarily as an honor of distinction, rather than a recognition of the Papacy’s unique power. St. Gregory clearly feared that this honorific title and similar ones offered to previous Roman popes could lead to an improper and heterodox elevation of one of the patriarchates above the others. Even the title ‘pope’, meaning ‘father’, was first applied not to the bishop of Rome, but to the Patriarch of Alexandria. Today, the primate of the Coptic Oriental Orthodox Church centered in Egypt is still addressed by this ancient title which precedes the Roman one.
How does this early pope’s view of universal jurisdiction compare to the Catholic Church’s teachings on papal authority today? In Christus Dominus, the Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church promulgated by Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965 during the Second Vatican Council, Section II of the Preface states
“In this Church of Christ the Roman pontiff, as the successor of Peter, to whom Christ entrusted the feeding of His sheep and lambs, enjoys supreme, full, immediate and universal authority over the care of souls by divine institution.”
This is understood as a
“primacy of ordinary power over all churches.”
Section II of Christus Dominus, titled “Bishops and the Apostolic See”, describes the Pope as
“exercising supreme, full, and immediate power in the universal Church.”
These words differ markedly from those of Pope St. Gregory some thirteen centuries earlier who was so cautious not to take to himself an honorific title he believed would elevate the Papacy far above the other Sees.
The Roman Catholic Church today still asserts the Papacy’s universal and immediate jurisdiction over all Christians. Part I, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 9, Paragraph 4, Section I of the 1997 Second Edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that
“The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.” “For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”
This is the very antithesis of the episcopal collegiate conciliarity which is a key part of the ancient Tradition which administered and held together the Sees of the early Church. As these words show, the Catholic Church today teaches that the Bishop of Rome, not Christ, is the
“perpetual source and foundation of the unity”
of the Church itself, both for the bishops and “the whole company of the faithful.” Unsurprisingly, those Catholics who believe such a legalistically defined and power-based concept of universal papal jurisdiction and power over the Church are likely to ask,
“If Orthodox reject papal claims to universal jurisdiction, what could possibly keep their Church together?”
The Orthodox answer is one of the most beautiful examples of our faith. The Church is united not by one man but by:
“. . . the act of communion in the sacraments. The Orthodox theology of the Church is above all else a theology of communion. Each local Church is constituted by the congregation of the faithful, gathered round their bishop and celebrating the Eucharist; the Church universal is constituted by the communion of the heads of the local Churches, the bishops, with one another.”
Rather than a Pope externally maintaining the unity of the Church through his “supreme and universal power” over all believers, the Orthodox emphasize the Church’s catholicity, its wholeness, at a local level all over the world. Wherever you have “the faithful gathered round their bishop celebrating the Eucharist” you have the Orthodox faith, and the Church’s pastors, its bishops, “in common with one another” exercise local responsibility for maintaining it alongside the faithful laity. Thus, to the Orthodox believer, one’s bishop is not the distant administrator that he commonly is to the vast majority of Roman Catholics, but a pastor, a spiritual advisor, even, in small enough dioceses, a beloved family friend. Because dioceses are smaller in size, many Orthodox bishops are able to fulfill the role most commonly given to the parish pastor in Catholicism.
The internal strength, continuity, and timelessness of the Orthodox Church is so because unlike in Roman Catholicism where the Church’s liturgical life, spiritual health, and overall dogma depend heavily on arbitrary inclination and can, by canon law and practice, be changed at will by a Supreme Pontiff who maintains unity from without, in Orthodoxy
“unity is created from within by the celebration of the Eucharist.”
We do not see the need (or the orthodoxy) in vesting one single See, one prelate as ‘Supreme Pontiff’ to maintain the Church from without. Indeed, if one examines the state of the Catholic Church today, one sees liturgical chaos in more liberal parishes and often a reactionary (rather than an organic) conservatism in traditionalist ones which has produced sedevacantists, certain fringe members of the SSPX, etc. Where is the unity of faith Rome always championed?
Sadly, many Catholics are aware that the historic unity of their faith is gone. Traditional Catholics will be the first to admit that the Roman Church today is far less orthodox than it was in 1054 or 1439. Examine its worship: there is no longer unity in the inner liturgical life of the Church. In one parish you have traditionalists clinging to the Latin Tridentine Mass, the current Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite, while in most, you have the much more informal services in the Novus Ordo style that are a juxtaposition of the Roman liturgical rite (spoken, no longer sung,) and vernacular, mostly Protestant or post-Vatican II hymns with diverse instrumental accompaniment, including trumpets and string instruments.
While Rome (and the Protestant churches which evolved out of and in reaction to the early modern papacy) defines the Church in an invariably legalistic and rational framework, harking back to Augustinian juridical theory and Scholasticism, Orthodoxy sees the Church as the living and mystically united Body of Christ carried on through the treasured deposit of a living Holy Tradition. Fidelity to this core has enabled her to defend the faith from within the context of a dynamic fidelity to this Tradition, which means that we value adherence to the faith of the early Church and the maintenance of collegiate conciliarity as the framework for Church unity. We believe this is the surest ways to carry this living Faith into modernity. While we maintain koinonia from within, and see the Catholic Church as the faithful everywhere in faithful communion with their bishops, including those living among us and those faithfully departed who sleep in Christ, we are internally accountable for defending and living the Faith – bishops to each other, priests to bishops, laypersons to father confessors and spiritual mothers, and so on. This is the very antithesis of the top-down hyper-centralized Catholic administrative approach to maintaining communion which sets one man, the Pope, as the source and symbol of the faith’s unity.
In his April 10, 2009 Ancient Faith Radio podcast interview with Fr. Andrew Jarmus, the director of OCA Communications, His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah aptly described the less-coercive nature of Orthodoxy when he said that
“in the Church there is absolutely no room for obedience as power. There is no room for coercion in the Church, there’s no room for subjection in the Church, there’s no room for submission, other than to the will of God Himself.”
There has never been anything corresponding to the Inquisition in the Christian East, and punishment for heresy during the Byzantine and Russian empires generally involved excommunication and a fine, sometimes exile, and only rarely incarceration.
Having been raised in the Catholic faith since my birth, I can attest that the Orthodox Tradition is not only very much complete, but that the Roman Catholic Church’s more legalist focus, manifested, for example, in its scholastic declarations on the process of transubstantiation, has major limitations. The view of the Eucharist as a ‘Divine Mystery’ does not hold up to logical Aristotelian formulae, so in the thirteenth century influenced by Thomistic thought the Roman Church dogmatized ‘transubstantiation’. This is the philosophical formula that the elements in the consecration are materially changed to flesh and blood and only the ‘accidentals’ of bread and wine, that is, their outward appearance, remain visible.
From the Orthodox perspective, we do not see the purpose in attempting to rationalize what the faithful have from time immemorial received reverently as a divine mystery. In the Divine Liturgy we affirm that we believe the bread and wine are changed in a divine Mystery at the Epiclesis “by the power of the Holy Spirit” into “the most precious Body and Blood of Christ.” In the opening words of our communion prayer, we say:
“I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first. And I believe that this is truly thine own most pure Body, and that this is truly thine own precious Blood. . .”
We do not see the need to expostulate, as Thomas Aquinas did, that in the changing of the bread and wine into Body and Blood, the substance is materially altered, hence the Latin term transsubstantiatio. This seems to philosophize and rationalize what the Church has understood for centuries to be a holy, awe-inspiring, and incomprehensible Mystery. Likewise, the Orthodox Church has never dogmatized a view on purgatory, but has always taught that souls require some form of purification if they are to enter into the presence of God in the next world (Revelation 21:27). Rome’s dogmatization of purgatory is a later development foreign to the beliefs of the early Christians.
Because I was always told that transubstantiation is the exact moment in the Mass when, after genuflecting before the Holy Gifts, the priest by the Holy Spirit changes the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, my experience of the Mystery that occurs at the Epiclesis was never so much as an incomprehensible holy transformation as it was a kind of already defined, almost scientifically precise thing, of whose essence and mystical power I was actually quite ignorant. The Orthodox emphasis on the change that takes place at the Eucharist by the Holy Spirit’s mysterious transformative power, or metousiosis, while not really differing theologically from the Catholic definition of transubstantiation, allows for the preservation of a strong degree of heightened anticipation, awareness, and sense of wonder among the laity at the consecration.
Rather than trying to rationalize and explain it as Thomas Aquinas and others did, we keep it as a Holy Mystery. St. Germanus, aforementioned eighth century Patriarch of Constantinople, gives the following detailed description of the significance of the symbols and movements during the Epiclesis of the Eastern liturgy in his Ecclesiastical History and Mystical Contemplation. After declaring
“to the God and Father the mysteries of Christ’s incarnation, His ineffable and glorious birth from the holy Virgin, His dwelling and life in the world. . . His holy resurrection from the dead on the third day, His ascension into heaven. . . His second and future glorious coming. . . ”,
the priest then silently
“. . . expounds upon the unbegotten God, that is the Father, and on the womb which bore the Son before the morning star and before the ages, as it is written: “Out of the womb before the morning star have I begotten you” (Psalm 109:3). The priest asks God to accomplish and bring about the mystery of His son—that is, that the bread and wine be changed into the body and blood of Christ. . . then the Holy Spirit, invisibly present by the good will and volition of the Father, demonstrates the divine operation, and, by the hand of the priest, testifies, completes, and changes the holy gifts which are set forth into the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord, Who says: “For their sake I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified (John 17:19), so that “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:56).”
St. Germanus describes the epiclesis as a profoundly transcendent moment, but nevertheless a mystery of inexplicable power and grace, in which the clergy and the people together become
“eye-witnesses of the mysteries of God, partakers of eternal life, and sharers of the divine nature. . . . the priest’s performing the divine mystery while bowing down manifests that he converses invisibly with the only God, for he sees divine illumination, he is made radiant by the brightness of the glory of the face of God.”
This deeply mysterious understanding of the changing of the elements into the Body and Blood of Christ reflects Orthodoxy’s spiritual richness, manifested in the poetic beauty and transcendence of the wording of the Liturgy.
Patriarch John of Antioch, the successor of St. Peter
Papal Infallibility: A distortional innovation and an affront to the conciliarity of the Church.
For years I have endeavored to understand, yet never been able to truly understand or accept, one of the most important theological aspects of Roman Catholicism, the jurisdictional and administrative primacy of the Papacy. This core belief in doctrine separates this Church from every other, so thus it cannot be but essential to what it means to truly be a Roman Catholic in belief. I tried many, many times to understand or rationalize the idea of papal supremacy, then for a time I resigned myself to thinking “who am I to question such a teaching of the Church?”, but even then I felt that I was simply blindly accepting something that I didn’t really believe.
I never was able to believe or accept the 1870 ruling of the First Vatican Council that declared the doctrine of papal infallibility ex cathedra. Neither my pastor nor any priest or religious education teacher ever instructed me or any of my fellow first communicants or confirmation candidates in the importance or meaning of this most important decree. Yet this text is a core part of the Roman Magisterium’s authoritative doctrinal teachings. I will include the specific paragraph in question that is, in summary, the chief obstacle to a restoration of communion between the Roman Catholic Church and every other Christian denomination:
In the concluding paragraph of Session Four, chapter 4 of the First Vatican Council, issued on July 18, 1870, the senior archbishops and papal legates in the Vatican proclaim that they
“. . . teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, on the exercise of his office, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by divine assistance, infallibility. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not by consent of the Church, irreformable. So, then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition, let him be anathema.”
I was deeply troubled when I read these words for the first time. Most Roman Catholics my age have never read them, my relatives and family members who consider themselves Catholics have not read them. Yet here the Church anathematizes all who do not believe in the “divinely revealed dogma” of papal infallibility. Anathematization in the Roman Catholic Church means that the Church declares excommunication and sanction against the individual being anathematized, and that offender, knowingly or unknowingly, is outside the grace and protection of the Church. During the medieval period anathemas were declared which removed all ecclesiastical and legal protections from suspected heretics, and someone so anathematized could be seized at will and persecuted, with no intervention by the Church.
As a student of history, I never understood why the Church held numerous councils before 1870, including those after the Great Schism such as the 1215 Fourth Lateran Council and the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century and others. If before 1870 the Church believed that popes uniquely possessed the authority to pronounce unerring declarations on questions of faith and dogma, why did the Church hold so many councils of bishops who worked with the Pope in deciding these questions? The Church maintains that papal infallibility existed before 1870, and that it was simply defined explicitly for the first time in the First Vatican Council. Never mind that such a pronouncement is an upending of the inner Tradition of the Catholic Church, which never believed infallibility as it was revealed in 1870, let us examine the situation in 1870.
What happened when Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-78) and the First Vatican Council pronounced the dogma of papal infallibility? Hundreds of thousands of faithful Catholics, who could not believe that such a doctrine could suddenly come into the Church as revealed dogma over eighteen centuries after the Church began at Pentecost, separated from the Church. Why would they do this if the Church had always believed and understood papal infallibility throughout its history? If the Church had always believed and taught the doctrine, why did its pronouncement cause so many faithful Catholics to leave the Church and become part of what are today known as the ‘Old Catholic’ churches?
The First Vatican Council receives no mention in most American students’ confirmation preparations. Many local parish churches entirely overlook this decree and its immense doctrinal significance in the Roman Catholic faith. Why is this? Do most Roman Catholic pastors in America not believe it—or do they themselves not fully understand it or believe it to be understandable by the laity? At best, the declaration of papal infallibility was profoundly unnecessary, since the two times it has been employed by popes, both relating to questions of the Virgin Mary’s status and position, the Church theologians were in agreement about the issues before the pope ruled on them ex cathedra.
At worst, however, papal infallibility is a gross breach of Church Tradition. For a Vatican council of only Roman Catholic clergy to declare, after centuries of never venturing to do so, after centuries of never asking to convene an ecumenical council on the matter, that the pope possesses full “divinely revealed” authority in certain instances, and thus has no need of consulting other bishops strikes me as both arrogant and, of course, unorthodox. That the papacy should take this view of its own authority, after centuries of Roman pontiffs who often ruled as corrupt princes rather than as exemplary churchmen, is especially troubling. I believe that the Orthodox understanding of infallibility makes much more sense. Christ is “the head of the church” (Ephesians 5:23) and the Orthodox Church, as
“the pillar and the ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15)
“but there is no such thing as personal infallibility.”
Orthodox Spirituality: The centrality of the Holy Spirit’s illuminating presence in our lives and the Church’s insistence that knowledge of God and aspiration to Theosis require transformative Philanthropia and a willing sacrifice of self.
“To Know God”: The Holy Spirit within us, Christ alive in the Church today, and living the Sign of the Cross.
“If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but you know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but you see me: because I live, you shall live also. In that day ye shall know, that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.” – John 14:15-20
These beautiful words contain Jesus’ promise to His disciples that He would send them the Holy Spirit from the Father, “another Comforter” to abide with them—and with all the faithful!—forever. The first verses are familiar to many as Elizabethan composer Thomas Tallis’ magnificent “If Ye Love Me” choral composition. I urge you to wonder at their meaning: Christ did not say that the Spirit would dwell “near” us or “by” us, but that “he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.” It is by the grace of the Holy Spirit that in Christ we “shall live also.” Revealing the Trinity, Jesus tells us that by the Holy Spirit,
“ye shall know that I am in my Father. . . and I in you.”
What an extraordinary promise, that God in the third Person of the Holy Trinity will dwell with us and abide in us to the end of time!
Stirring testimonies left to us by so many of the saints bear witness of their profound awareness of Christ’s active presence in His Church on earth and the Spirit’s abiding presence in the hearts of the faithful. From St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and many others among the early Fathers, to Seraphim of Sarov, John of Kronstadt, and Silouan of the Holy Mountain, all the saints reaffirm that the Holy Spirit and Christ Himself are truly at work among us. One of the most beautiful passages about the Spirit left by St. Seraphim comes to mind when he describes the Holy Spirit as a fire,
“warming and igniting the heart and inward parts. So, if we feel coldness in our hearts, which is from the devil (for the devil is cold), then let us call the Lord: He, in coming, will warm our heart with perfect love, not only towards Himself, but to our neighbors as well. And the coldness of the despiser of good will run from the face of His warmth.”
From these words rings forth the centrality of the third Person of the Holy Trinity in Orthodox spirituality. Just as the Spirit is an active presence upon which the faithful are urged to call, Christ Himself is always present in the Church, which St John of Kronstadt equates as
“one and the same with the Lord—His Body, of His flesh and His bones. The Church is the living vine, nourished by Him and growing in Him.”
When St. John wrote these words, he was reminding us that Christ is not only supporting the Church from heaven as His “living vine” on earth, but that Christ is truly alive in the Church, as much as His flesh and bones are of Him! By the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Church continues to grow in Him here on earth.
St. John continues by urging us to think on the Church not as a man-made institution or earthly thing, for in truth it is neither, but to think on it together with
“the Lord Jesus Christ, the Father and Holy Spirit.”
While the Church on earth is partially in the care of wise yet fallible men, it is above all in the loving care of Christ, its creator and eternal head. The late Bishop Basil (Rodzianko) of venerable memory spent the closing years of his life at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington. Father Valery Shemchuk once told me that His Grace often said that God made creation itself so that there might someday be a Church. In saying this, Bishop Basil was underlining not only the timeless and divinely preordained mission of the Church, but that the very purpose of man’s existence is to draw closer to God in the life of the Church.
Similarly, Bishop Kallistos observes that “Orthodox theology never treats the earthly aspect of the Church in isolation, but thinks always of the Church in Christ and the Holy Spirit. All Orthodox thinking about the Church starts with the special relationship which exists between the Church and God.” By this “special relationship”, through participation in the inner life of the Church by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we may come not only to believe in God, but even to know Him. As St. Silouan observes,
“Enlightened by baptism, people believe in God. But there are some who even know Him. To believe in God is good, but it is more blessed to know God.”
How does the venerable elder describe those who “have come to know God by the Holy Spirit”? They “stretch upward day and night, insatiable, to the living God, for the love of God is very sweet.” May we all aspire to this intimate knowledge of the love of God in our souls, “stretching upward” to touch the very heavens.
One of the most profoundly simple ways to invite God into our hearts is to make the Sign of the Cross over ourselves. You will notice when you enter an Orthodox church that people make the Sign of the Cross quite frequently, often accompanied by a bow. Worshipers cross themselves during the Liturgy whenever the doxology is invoked, which is quite often in comparison to Western Christian services, they cross themselves when praying before icons, and they cross themselves in their own private devotions, in morning and evening worship. There is a particular symbolic beauty to the Orthodox method, in terms of how it is done physically, which you should find out for yourself. I have seen many old men and women at church perform the most beautiful crossings upon themselves, with faith shining in their eyes, and I have witnessed the loving kindness with which my archbishop, His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah, greets individual members of the congregation after the Divine Liturgy, holding out the gold cross for people to kiss. If you catch him later for a blessing, he makes the Sign with his right hand over your cupped hands in the same ancient way Our Savior holds His own right hand in benediction in every icon.
Certainly, the Sign of the Cross is very important, for it is the physical Symbol of the Christian faith. Yet it occurred to me recently that the perfect Sign of the Cross is not actually a precisely done hand gesture or movement at all. As Christians, the Sign is something much more meaningful than a physical motion with our right hand. We are called to make the Sign of the Cross each day within our hearts, as a quiet commitment in all that we do, asking that the Holy Spirit illumine every aspect of our lives. Truly, by living in imitation of Christ’s loving example, we live the Sign, we live the Cross. This is by no means easy—indeed it is a great challenge—but it is the most beautiful, the most fulfilling one ever offered to mankind.
Just as we are challenged to live the Sign as much as we find comfort in performing it over ourselves, implicit in the very word “Orthodox” is not only an obligation to observe the many traditions of the Church that constitute “right belief”, but to live in a spirit of “right glory” toward one’s fellow man made in the image of God. Thus, Orthodoxy in its truest form is a resounding call to work toward holistic social justice which embraces and strives to heal and foster the whole of the human person, body, mind, soul and spirit. It is a call to live in philanthropia, a profound love for mankind.
As Bishop Kallistos reminds us from the words of 1 John 4-20,
“Love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable. A person can love his neighbor as himself only if he loves God above all; and a person cannot love God if he does not love his fellow humans. . . only if he loves his fellow neighbor can a person be deified.”
Thus, outside of philanthropia, there is no possible way we can become like unto God through divinization. Because humans are “made in the image of the divine Trinity”, we can only realize “the divine likeness” if we
“live a common life such as the Blessed Trinity lives: as the three persons of the Godhead ‘dwell’ in one another, so we must ‘dwell’ in our fellow humans, living not for ourselves alone, but in and for others. . . Such is the true nature of theosis.”
As St. Silouan observes,
“Blessed is the soul that loves her brother, for our brother is our life. The Spirit of the Lord lives manifest within her, giving peace and gladness.”
It is this inner peace which comes from exercising the Church’s calling to the highest form of love: agape, or love of the image of God in every person.
“That you be saints”: The Church’s invitation to holiness, communion in self-sacrifice and the life-long process of Deification through love of God and love of mankind.
“Seek God daily. But seek Him in your heart, not outside it. And when you find Him, stand with fear and trembling, like the Cherubim and Seraphim, for your heart has become a throne of God.” – St. Nectarius of Aegina (1846-1920).
“Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – St. Matthew 5:48.
In this journey toward divinization, the Church’s central role cannot be overemphasized. Because so much of Orthodox spirituality has to do with worshiping in the “inner Tradition” of the Liturgy, the Church’s services and the prayers taken from it really are direct aids in the evolution toward theosis. At the same time, the process of deification requires a Christian to lead a life of Christian action. It is here where Orthodoxy is so deeply inspiring to me: the Church cleaves to its “inner Tradition”, which holds fast and remains unchanged, emphasizing a positive invitation rather than a negative command, over and over again, to listen and act based on the words of Our Lord recorded in Luke 9:23:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
What is this daily cross in modern times? Where does it appear? I believe it is to be found in a unique place in each person’s soul, oftentimes with different crosses appearing over the course of our lifetimes. These crosses constitute different sacrifices, different struggles for different people. For some, the cross may be poverty, physical or spiritual, and its accompanying fear, depression, and tendency toward despondency, and the challenge is to seek God with an open, loving heart with all one’s strength. For others, the cross may be material wealth, which can often become a great spiritual poverty, and the challenge is to come to God with a humble heart with all one’s strength and love the poor. For others still, the cross might be healing (or in some cases, ending) a difficult or harmful relationship, dealing with estranged family members, enduring a personal tragedy, or any other deeply painful circumstances which unnerve our inmost being and cut to the core of who we are. It is these later struggles which can often impair our relationship with God. For a smaller group within the Orthodox Church, there is the challenge to embrace asceticism and monastic life as a monk or nun or a religious vocation as a priest or deacon. For all of these crosses, the challenge is always to try, through our prayerful relationship with God, to remain open to the grace of the Holy Spirit,
“the Paraclete, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth. . .”
To follow in the path of Jesus and live the Christian life is certainly not easy, especially in a contemporary society that constantly challenges core elements of the faith. His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah has said that what we do in church on Sunday counts for only five percent of actually being Orthodox. Actually living the faith requires that one’s beliefs, which one professes in church, be put into meaningful and corresponding action outside in the world. His Beatitude observed in his April 10, 2009 podcast interview on Ancient Faith Radio with Fr. Andrew Jarmus that this impetus to right action corresponds inexorably to a selfless love of one’s fellow man:
“. . . In order to be Christians we need to take up the daily cross of self denial, which really consists of being able to put our own opinions and ideas into perspective, and to look and see what is the greater good of the other. How can I serve the other, how can I love the other? How can I deny myself so that I can live in communion and love with the other, so that my ego no longer becomes the main criterion of my decisions, my own action, but rather, first and foremost, the will of God.”
The Orthodox believe that in every sacrifice or trial we undertake in pious and heartfelt rendering to God, when we do these things we are ever conscious that we are doing them in remembrance of Christ’s redeeming salvation and His promise to all of eternal life, that ever-present sign of God’s enduring love for His creation. Thus, the “belief” in Orthodoxy and the “action” living the Faith requires are not separate parts of a compartmentalized, cordoned faith, but mutually symbiotic, reinforcing elements that both serve to strengthen, enrich, and enliven one’s faith. This thinking is one of the strongest attractions the Orthodox way holds for me.
This denial of self might seem especially difficult to college students. It is hard in many ways to be a religiously observant college student today; many devout Christian, Jewish, and Muslim students will tell you that living out their faith involves not only positive loving service and action in the spirit of God, but answering many of their secular colleagues’ often hostile questions: “Why are you praying?” “Why are you doing that?”, or, more often, “Why don’t you do that?” Many religious students will find that living their faith requires them to abstain from much of what their less observant (or non-religious) friends consider to be “integral parts” of the contemporary college experience: heavy drinking, recreational drug use, the “hookup” culture of casual or anonymous sex, etc.
Indulgence in all these things—sex, drugs, and alcohol, as they are so succinctly put—are attractive to many college students. A part of why I am writing this is to be a witness, in what small way that I can, to share with whoever is reading this that there is another path you can take, another path open to you outside of what everybody seems to be doing. Many students feel a heavy pressure to “just do it” whether the ‘it’ in question is a marijuana joint, binge drinking, hard drugs, or becoming physically involved with someone they literally just met. The last ‘it’ in particular has caused many of my friends, both male and female students, to feel used, hurt, and confused. These instances of misuse of your or someone else’s body are events in time that have happened in every generation and every culture throughout history. What is so hard for a lot of young students today is to avoid the line of thinking which insistently proclaims ‘everyone is doing it.’ This peer pressure is a powerful argument for many students struggling with poor self-image or with low confidence entering college, and especially those facing different emotional issues or family circumstances.
When Saint Paul wrote to the Thessalonians in the first decades of Christianity’s very presence in the world, he offered them a clarion call to holiness—not absolute perfection, for saints are not God, but a path toward holiness, toward perfection. His words then are as relevant, and as actionable, today as they were when he first recorded them:
“This is the will of God: that you be saints.” (1 Thessalonians 4:5.)
The apostles frequently referred to the first Christians as ‘saints’, but what did this term mean to them? One such saint is not the same person as the Virgin Mary, who was so without corruption or sin that God became incarnate through her, by her acceptance and free choice to bear the Theanthropos, the God-Man Jesus Christ. A saint, like all of us, starts off ‘fallen’ or separated from the perfect form of living to which we are all called. What makes the saints of the Church so remarkable is their ability to open themselves, truly open themselves in all aspects of their life, to the working of the Holy Spirit.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons reaffirms St. Paul’s urging, reminding us that
“The glory of God is the perfection of the creature.”
Since man is the summit of His creation, made by Him in His image, and granted the promise of eternal life through God the Son, think of this challenge to perfection as an ongoing process rather than an intrinsic end. Salvation is not some thing that just happens, but an ever-evolving, ever-revealing transformation in which we are called to attain the highest and truest form of personhood by living our faith in Jesus Christ. Father Anthony M. Coniaris, a prolific Orthodox writer and priest emeritus of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America reminds us that
“Salvation is not static but dynamic. It is not a completed state, a state of having arrived, but a constant state of moving toward, becoming like Christ, toward receiving the fullness of God’s light.”
Thus, salvation from the Orthodox perspective can best be described as a constant journey toward Christ, a road which meets with many bumps and challenges along the way. God is the engineer who laid the foundation for this road, Who planted that seed in all of our souls, and the Church is the engineer who shapes, designs and helps maintain the road, and its saints the best travelers.
Many look at the lives of the saints and get overwhelmed or discouraged, thinking “they were perfect!”, and feel unworthy of emulating their path, as though they could not possibly move from where they are at present to even remotely near a saint’s level of holiness. At other times it might seem as though such a sanctified life is not possible to live in this day and age, with young people feeling so much pressure to “just do it.” This can be very discouraging.
Yet part of the beauty of living an authentic Christian life is not being sinless, for we all sin, even the saints, but striving for imitation of Christ, for imitation of godly living and of wholesome love for the other and of care for one’s soul. Michelangelo, that genius among geniuses who painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling laying on his back at the command of a pope, hands down a gauntlet, not for us to seek to imitate his genius or his specific work, for that can never be equaled or surpassed. Rather, he challenges us to challenge ourselves:
“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”
Orthodox prayer encourages and facilitates the development of an individual sense of consciousness of one’s sins and failings, but not for the purpose of dwelling negatively on one’s failings, but focusing positively on one’s free choices to live “in the light”. One of the most important prayers in personal devotion is the “Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” This prayer has particular importance in Orthodox monastic life, specifically in the eremitic hesychasm pursued by many monks on Mount Athos, the monastic center that can be regarded as a spiritual capital of Orthodoxy. In the Jesus Prayer we are reminded of the importance of St. Paul’s words when he urges us to “not be conformed to this world, but continually be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may be able to determine what God’s will is—what is proper, pleasing, and perfect.” (Romans 12:2). Responding to the call to such “pleasing and perfect” life is a deeply spiritual undertaking, very much connected to the process of theosis, which Bishop Kallistos reminds us is “a social work” originating in the heart as well as the mind, and necessitating the will of both.
Not something to be complainingly undertaken as a burdensome obligation, this call to holiness is one of the crowning jewels of the Orthodox faith. Orthodoxy is an invitation to return to the fullness of God’s love, to restore the intended closeness of the relationship between God and man. As St. Basil the Great writes, “The design of our God and Savior in regard to mankind is a calling back from the Fall and a return to a familiar friendship with God from the alienation brought on by disobedience. This is the reason for Christ’s sojourning in the flesh, for the model of His Gospel actions, the suffering, the Cross, the tomb, the Resurrection. That man, who is being saved through his imitation of Christ, might receive that old adoption as son.”
This view of salvation is profoundly relationship-based, intimately connecting each person’s sanctification to how Christ-like she or he is, how meek, humble, and loving she or he is toward all people. When in the Litany of Fervent Supplication in the Divine Liturgy the Church prays for
“patriarchs, priests, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers”,
one sees the centrality of human relationships to the Orthodox perspective. We are being saved together; all of us a part of our church community living in communion with each other and with the living Body of Christ around the world. When during the Anaphora the priest offers the Eucharist
“for those who have fallen asleep in the faith; ancestors, fathers, mothers, patriarchs, prophets, evangelists, martyrs, ascetics, and every righteous spirit made perfect in flesh”,
one sees that this communion, and the prayerful and loving relationships such communion entails, extends beyond the grave to include those “fallen asleep” in Christ, who we believe worship invisibly with us before the altar.
When we strive to become like God, ultimately one with Him as we contemplate His glory and the joys of Christ’s saving triumph over Death, we begin to understand the key to the ideal Christian life, which is salvation itself. Writing in the year 270, St. Basil the Great compared salvation to ascending a ladder, with one end touching the ground of the earth and the other rising to the heavens: What is necessary for
“those being introduced to the virtuous life”,
the Christian path to salvation, is that they “should put their feet on the first steps, and from there mount ever to the next, until at last they have ascended by degrees to such heights as are attainable by human nature.”
St. Basil’s expression of salvation is the antithesis of the evangelical concept rooted in “five-point Calvinism” that an elect person can be saved by an emotionally overpowering “born again” experience in which he or she is absolutely “saved” the moment they accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. This doctrine, taught as the last point, “Perseverance of the Saints” in classic “T.U.L.I.P.” Calvinist thought, ignores and denies each person’s God-given free will to choose to sin or fall away. Faith in Christ as the Savior and obedience to the teachings of the Church are fundamentally important to the Orthodox view of salvation, but what faith is not is an unshakable certainty in a static moment of salvation which one receives in an instance. Faith is not surety in a gift of salvation from God granted to some (but not all) in a set moment in time from which the elect can never depart or fall short, but an invitation to a process of gradual transformation as one strives to dedicate one’s life to Christ through constant renewal by the Holy Spirit.
By describing salvation as a slow ascent of ladder steps which one takes in degrees, St. Basil draws attention to the crucial role that one’s spiritual father or mother plays in the life of every Orthodox believer. By meeting regularly with one’s spiritual parents, especially a priest who can administer confession, one intimately learns of ways to recover and return again to the path of ascent, the gradual transformation in faith. As Bishop Kallistos once answered an evangelical Christian he met on a train who pointedly asked him, “Are you saved?”, “I trust that by God’s grace I am being saved!”
For the Orthodox, the central axiom of our life in Christ is making Him the core of our existence. In his remarks at the assembly of the Anglican Church in North America in June 2009, Metropolitan Jonah insisted that Christians must change their mindset, their approach to spirituality, so that we acknowledge that:
“. . . It is only Jesus Christ that matters. And that faith is the core of our identity, not only our relationship with God but with one another. It’s a unity that totally transcends our particularity. But in and through that unity, in and through that communion, with Christ, and with one another, by the Holy Spirit, we find our true and authentic personhood. It’s only by actualizing that relationship with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit with one another that we truly become persons in relation to one another, in that communion of love, and that love which is not a human emotion, but that love which is the very grace of God that flows forth from our hearts by the presence of the Holy Spirit, embracing our neighbor, embracing our enemies, embracing all of our name, everyone. And it’s only by this unity, this transcendence of all that would keep us imprisoned in our heads, imprisoned in our emotions, imprisoned in the particularities of our own egocentric little worlds, it’s only by the transcendence of all of that, to live according to this new identity in Christ, in absolute union and communion of love with one another, that we actualize the Church..”
His Beatitude’s speech is nothing less than a rallying cry for Christians everywhere to engage with the central questions of Christianity (“Do I love God with all my heart? Do I love my spouse, my neighbor, the poor woman, or my enemy, as if he or she were Christ?”) on a much deeper level than what society today asks of us or what many Christian denominations instill or expect. Communion in Orthodoxy is certainly communion of belief, sharing the same faith, partaking of the Eucharist together, but it must also be a communion of joined souls. The Church calls us to a communion of people coming together in full cooperation with the Holy Spirit in love, fellowship, and true transcendence of self-centeredness and self-importance.
This is not a liberal idea or a conservative idea. This is the very process of theosis, the very core of our divinization. Without this core aspect, without people opening themselves, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to
“that love which is the very grace of God that flows forth from our hearts”,
as Metropolitan Jonah puts it, the Church remains divided in a dichotomy between the Place, that is, the location for worship and spiritual transcendence, and the Idea, the unrealized community of hearts and souls living and acting together in Christ. It is the joining of Place and Idea in the lives of the Orthodox faithful which offers a full, living, dynamic synergy between that timeless, beautiful transcendence found in Orthodox worship, and the transcendence found in what Metropolitan Jonah calls actualizing the Church—living the Gospel in heart, body, and spirit. By this actualization, which is impossible without our cooperation with the Holy Spirit, we are divinized, we become as St. Peter exhorts us,
“partakers of the divine nature”.
Importantly, since theosis “according to the likeness of the Trinity involves a common life, it is only within the fellowship of the universal Church that this common life of coinherence can be properly realized.” This fellowship should be seen as inclusive rather than exclusive, since its greatest expression in the life of the Church is in the communion of the faithful in the Eucharist. Orthodoxy maintains that since
“Church and sacraments are the means appointed by God whereby we may acquire the sanctifying Spirit and be transformed into the divine likeness”
to which we aspire , participation in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist should be a joy for one’s heart and soul.
Final Observations: Eastern-rite Catholicism as a bridge between two Church Traditions, hopes for restoration of communion between Orthodox and Catholic, and seeing the universal Church as a place of “living Tradition” where mankind is fulfilled above all in the life of the Liturgy.
“If a man thinks highly of his brother, deeming that the Lord loves him—and especially if he believes that the Holy Spirit dwells in his soul—that man is near to the love of God.”
-St. Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938).
There was a time over a year ago when I was still nominally a Roman Catholic, but had been immersing myself in the life of the Orthodox Church at St. Nicholas Cathedral, when my soul was in a state of transformation and transition. I longed for a solution to a question that came to me with increasing frequency: how could I continue participating in the fullness of Eastern liturgical and spiritual life and remain within Catholicism? Was this possible? Would I attend two churches on Sundays?
I briefly considered Eastern-rite Catholicism as a kind of bridge. It would have mollified my family, since they would naturally be saddened by my conversion to Orthodoxy, they would think that I was “giving up” the faith in which they had raised me, the faith tradition their families had practiced and believed for generations.
I repeatedly emphasized that Eastern spiritual and liturgical life added so much to, rather than took away, any sense of my catholicity, but I can of course understand their sadness and surprise. Initially Eastern Catholicism seemed ideal: I could worship in the Orthodox liturgical form and have access to the incredibly rich Eastern spirituality which Western Catholicism in the Roman rite lacked, while still honoring the Pope in the litany.
Eventually I realized I could not fully be a part of the Orthodox spiritual and liturgical life I had so come to love while remaining outside the Orthodox Church that had uniquely preserved it all these centuries. Likewise, I could not remain in a Church that, however much autonomy it was now recently allowing its Eastern members, had often suppressed their liturgical and spiritual life in the past. In the Catholic Church today, its Western and Eastern members still have to adhere to certain papal innovations in order for Rome to deem them fully Catholic and
“within the See of Peter”.
In the life of the Orthodox Church, most clearly in the Great Litany of the Divine Liturgy, we pray for people who harm us, even those who are our enemies – we pray, as do Eastern-rite Catholics,
“for those who love us and those who hate us”.
Saint Silouan reminds us that
“The Lord wants us to love our fellow-man; and if you reflect that the Lord loves him, that is a sign of the Lord’s love in you. And if you consider how greatly the Lord loves His creature, and you yourself have compassion on all creation, and love your enemies, counting yourself the vilest of men, this is a sign of the abundant grace of the Holy Spirit in you.”
Thus, when we pray in the Liturgy, and on our own in our daily prayers, if we can find it in our heart to pray for our enemies, to genuinely love them, and to recognize the presence of God in them, we are on the path to holiness and divinization, becoming like unto God Himself. Much more easily, we should feel this love for our brothers, for those who support us and love us, and for all those who we befriend and hold dear to us, including those of other faiths.
The unified pre-schism Church prayed for heretics like Arius to repent and come back to the fold. Why then should we not pray in true love and charity for Roman and Eastern-rite Catholics, who are not our enemies but brethren from whom we are currently and lamentably divided? While we do not yet pray for the Pope by name in the Litany, as we did for centuries before the schism, we pray in our opening Great Litany as we have for centuries
“for the welfare of the holy churches of God and for the union of all”.
Catholics are not only not our enemies, but they are our friends and neighbors and often in the U.S. (as in my own case) they are beloved family members with whom we are hoping very much to restore communion!
Eastern-rite Catholics today are in a more comfortable position within Catholicism than they were before the late Pope John Paul II issued his Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome in 1990. The Pope’s 1995 apostolic letter Orientale Lumen (“Light of the East”) praised the unique spiritual and liturgical gifts which the many Eastern-rite Churches in communion with Rome added to the faith, and urged the Eastern Churches to restore many of their recognizably Orthodox liturgical and spiritual traditions which had often disappeared or were dying out due to forced or inadvertent “latinizations”.
Such changes included forbidding Eastern-rite Catholic priests to marry, introducing the practices of First Communion and Confirmation as separate sacraments given to children and teenagers apart from infant baptism, the Stations of the Cross and Eucharistic adoration, kneeling for parts of the liturgy, etc. Examples of the ‘Orthodox restorations’ in the wake of Orientale Lumen include the adoption by Eastern Catholic churches of the celebration of Presanctified liturgies during Lenten weekdays, the increasing ministering of infant baptism followed by immediate chrismation and partaking of the Eucharist, and other Orthodox practices lost or discontinued in many Eastern parishes over the years.
While it is a joy to see my Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters free at last to rediscover so much of their ancestral Eastern Orthodox liturgical and spiritual heritage, the 1990 Canon in particular has bewildered many Orthodox bishops and theologians. While encouraging the promotion of Eastern, essentially Orthodox orthopraxy, in many ways the Canon reaffirmed core aspects of papal orthodoxy. It requires Eastern-rite Catholics to accept in principle yet not teach in practice many Roman beliefs which the Orthodox consider heresies and treat as obstacles to a restoration of communion. The Canon stipulates that Eastern Catholics must submit to and acknowledge universal papal jurisdiction and above all supremacy and infallibility ex cathedra in order to be in communion with Rome, yet since Orientale Lumen and the introduction of the Canon, most Eastern parishes are today allowed to worship essentially as Orthodox Christians in their liturgical life. One of my Eastern Catholic friends who attends Georgetown University, Frank Miller, thus describes himself as an “Orthodox in union with Rome”.
As a result of this complicated history with Rome and persisting uncertainty as to the extent to which the recent ‘restoration’ of Orthodox practices in the Eastern Catholic eparchies will facilitate the renewal of these parishes’ historic liturgical and spiritual life after decades of alterations, the Orthodox look upon the situation of the Eastern Catholics with some caution. Rome historically compelled them to insert the Filioque in their recitation of the Creed, forbade the Eastern parishes from ordaining married priests, and many Roman Catholic bishops refused to allow the Eastern parishes to function autonomously within the Catholic communion but instead imposed various latinizations in their worship. Fr. Alexis Toth’s conversion to Orthodoxy a century ago, which brought many thousands of Carpatho-Ruthenian Byzantine Catholics into the fullness of the Orthodox faith of their ancestors, is an example of the often unstable position of many Eastern Catholics within the Catholic Church which historically did not allow them autonomy in their liturgical life.
We cannot help but wonder what would happen if we too quickly embraced communion with Rome. What would happen to the deposit of the Faith, and how would we address the important questions on how the unity of the Church is maintained? One of my friends Nathaniel Lewis, a catechumen due to be chrismated at Pascha, observed in a discussion with Frank Miller, the Eastern Catholic friend mentioned above, that in the past millennium out of communion,
“Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have developed fundamentally different diagnoses on how to fix the human condition and this affects practice.”
Most Roman Catholics remain completely unaware of the existence of Eastern-rite Catholics, and so they are unfamiliar with the core Eastern belief of theosis. As a result, in their soteriology Eastern Catholics have far more in common with the Orthodox than the Roman Catholics with whom they are in communion.
The Western and Eastern views of the human person, its purpose in this life, and its possible progression and destination in the next are profoundly distinct. The Augustinian view of original sin comes to mind—most Catholics today are horrified when they read the Thomistic scholars’ rationalist and legalistic interpretations of Augustine’s elucidations, which logically led to Calvinism’s heresies of Double Predestination, Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, etc.
Calvinism is the inevitable rational conclusion to much of Augustinian thought, for both Calvin and Augustine believed in the essential evil and depravity of the human person, especially in the condition of ‘original sin’ before baptism.
Thus Augustine enunciated what became a widespread Roman Catholic popular tradition that unbaptized babies go to Limbo, a remote corner of Hell (seen as a physical place) where they never behold the ‘Beatific vision’ of God. What a monstrous God would condemn sinless infants to such a fate? Calvin took Augustine’s views further, teaching a God who allows no free will to follow Him but “Unconditional Election” for the pre-ordained righteous. While he saves a tiny minority, the God of Calvinism likewise predestines most people for hell-fire before their birth – this is Calvin’s theory of ‘Double Predestination’! This is likely part of the reason historically Calvinist countries have higher rates of atheism than surrounding states and lower rates of church attendance: how depressing to hold to belief in such a God!
In addition to different views of salvation, Orthodox and Catholics maintain very different beliefs on how the unity of the faith is and should be maintained. Thus, we are understandably hesitant to rush to a restoration of communion. Sadly, arrival at true reunion will continue to elude us if Rome persists in keeping the innovations of papal supremacy and infallibility in the way it currently practices and teaches these as dogmas. We know this schism was not meant to be, but until the Vatican alters its position, it must be so, for we cannot risk compromising the fullness of the Faith which we see Rome has so utterly compromised in the many latent protestantizations in parish life and among the attitudes of the Catholic laity especially in North America, and the long history of the latinization of the Eastern Churches.
How can we look upon the history of the Eastern Churches in union with Rome and think “this is a safe path for us to tread?”, much less the right one? While Rome has recently begun urging Eastern Catholics to guard and restore their sometimes eroded Orthodox inheritance, we look upon this shift with natural skepticism because it is Rome which for hundreds of years encouraged and sometimes compelled the various latinizations in the first place! These alterations caused undoubted harm to the life of the Eastern Christians living in union with the Holy See.
I very much hope that one day we can return to communion with Rome. The simplest way to move toward this goal which we all desire is not primarily through faith in the ongoing theological conferences between the hierarchs. While these talks have yielded promising discussions, especially with regard to the question of papal primacy on a universal level, they seldom impact the lives of the faithful or cause any of the bishops to ‘change’ their minds. Rather, the easiest and most natural way for East and West to grow closer is for ordinary faithful of the Roman and Orthodox Churches to introduce each other into the traditions of their Churches. We can grow closer together through greater understanding of who we are, what we believe, and what we can learn from the beautiful aspects of each other’s faith traditions.
Western Christians would greatly benefit spiritually from greater access to the Eastern Fathers and Orthodox beliefs in theosis and the potential divinization of the human person which are largely missing in the West. Similarly, many in the Christian East are unfamiliar with the great writings of the Western Fathers and the pre-schism Western saints, and the Western musical traditions of Gregorian and Ambrosian chant and evensong would be possible eventual additions to some Eastern churches.
Eastern Catholics should invite their Roman Catholic brethren to worship with them, and Orthodox should invite both Western and Eastern Catholics to the Liturgy. More ethnically-rooted Orthodox and Eastern Catholic parishes, while laudably preserving their unique heritages and showing greater hospitality and warmth to visitors in recent years, would do well to reach out more to the diverse local communities beyond their church walls. All of these things, done in a loving spirit with the humble and joyous hearts of servants of God, will do wonders to heal the spiritual schism, the rift of otherness which has been the greatest chasm between East and West over the centuries. As St Silouan reminds us, when are actualizing and living out the great invitation of the Gospel, Christ’s commandment to “love one another” as He loves us, then we can truly call ourselves Christians, a word which means “little Christs”:
“The man who knows the delight of the love of God—when the soul, warmed by grace, loves both God and her brother—knows in part that ‘the kingdom of God is within us.’”
It is this love which I hope will enable Orthodox and Catholics to genuinely learn more about each other. My immediate family members, most of my aunts and uncles, and my four grandparents all remain Catholic, so naturally I long for a restoration of the ancient and natural communion between our Churches. It is what Christ prayed for, that “they may be one” just as He and God the Father are one. Just as the Trinity contains three divine Persons, a restored Communion would include three Church Traditions: the Orthodox, Roman, and the Eastern Catholic, and just as the divine unity of God does not prevent the Trinity of three Persons, the oneness of a restored communion will not mean that the Orthodox are subsumed into the Roman Catholic fold, but at last in full communion with the ancient primus inter pares See of the early Church.
When communion is restored in the fullness of time, a monumental dream will have been realized as East and West will at last be reunified in the fullness of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic faith after a millennium of separation. However, it is crucial that in our natural but cautious movement toward a restoration of communion, we not seek to move precipitously beyond this basic restoration. To do so is not only unnecessary, but would risk corrupting the ancient Faith delivered to us to carry on and defend. We simply cannot and have no right to compromise in any way the fullness and integrity of the Orthodox faith, the faith of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. For now, we should aim for something deceptively simple, but actually beautifully complex: a better understanding of each other’s faith traditions, and entry into a deeper love for each other as Christians which strips away the obstructive barrier of otherness. By this love, we will, through God’s grace in the Holy Spirit, come gradually closer to a unity in the faith which today eludes us.
I consider entering the Orthodox Church as not so much a rejection of Roman Catholicism—though I am certainly glad to be able to leave behind the doctrines of purgatory and papal supremacy and infallibility—as much as a fulfilling embrace of what I consider to be Catholicism in its earlier and true, purer form. Orthodoxy, in its belief, teachings, and above all its liturgy, is profoundly catholic in nature. It is a pity that the Roman Catholic Church has gradually deviated from original orthodox teaching in its view of its own authority. It is clear to me from my studies that many of the Latin Fathers would never have anticipated the papacy developing a view of itself as the sole and absolute universal judicial and administrative authority for all Christendom. The scriptural passages that Catholics cite to claim such universal authority (mainly Matthew 16:16-19 and Luke 22:31-32) hardly justify the First Vatican Council’s declaration or the papacy’s long-established view of its own jurisdictional authority.
In fact, the two times popes have spoken ‘infallibly’ ex cathedra, Pius IX on the ‘Immaculate Conception’ of the Virgin Mary in 1854 and Pius XII in 1950 on her Assumption, the popes were not acting arbitrarily, but in response to millions of faithful who petitioned them for clarification. While the traditional Roman Catholic arguments for the Immaculate Conception rest mainly in Luke 1:28 (Mary is “full of grace”, gratia plena), logically her fullness with the Spirit and with Jesus hardly seem to suggest that she was born outside of sin. The Fathers are clear that she was conceived like anyone else; she is All-Holy by choice, by her lifelong transformation into a truly holy person who chose to never sin and to lead a perfectly righteous life. That God the Father chose Mary to bring His Son into the world shows clearly that she is most “blessed among women” and certainly did not sin, and so the declaration on her Immaculate Conception seems unnecessary at best and emblematic of problematic Augustinian views on “original sin” at worst. As to the 1950 decree on her Assumption, Pius XII left it open in his Munificentissimus Deus whether or not he understood the Virgin’s Assumption into to heaven to have prevented her death or immediately proceeded it; in the text he alludes to her death several times.
I have come to understand the catholicity of the Church as a unity of intent and belief comprised in and among the faithful and in the communion of bishops—laity and clergy together, those devout Christians, orthodox and catholic, who observe and receive the Eucharistic mystery in wonder, love, and awe on Sunday. How can there be true communion, true oneness of faith and a common life in Christ, between people not in ecclesiastical communion with each other, people who, by definition, belong to different religions, different confessions? Papal infallibility seems out of place here principally because such external, inevitably political control is so unnecessary to the unity of the Body of Christ maintained by communion in the Eucharist and sharing in the one
“faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3).
St. Peter being given “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” by Christ could, and has been taken to mean a number of things apart from the Vatican’s declaration that Peter’s successors as bishops in Rome have supreme authority and jurisdiction over all other Christians. Popes could be acknowledged as having universal pastoral care, certainly a status as first among equals, but—universal administrative jurisdiction?
As Bishop Kallistos observes, Orthodox recognize the Pope
“as first—but only first among equals. He is the elder brother, not the supreme ruler. We do not consider that, in the first ten centuries of the Church, the Pope possessed direct and immediate power of jurisdiction in the Christian east, and so we find it impossible to grant such power to him today.”
What I and many Orthodox long for is the time when popes will universally see themselves as the loving elder brothers of a reunited Orthodox Catholic Church. In some ways this is how modern popes, especially Pope Benedict XVI and the late John Paul II, have exercised their ministry in the context of close ecumenical discussions with the Orthodox and other Christians not in communion with Rome. I very much hope that the Vatican moves to embracing this historic role which the Orthodox always accorded the papacy: respect, deference, and honor as the first See in the ancient Faith. While Fr. Oscar Lukefahr, C.M., a prominent Catholic priest and author of We Believe: A Survey of the Catholic Faith (1990) contends that “Peter’s successors as bishops of Rome were recognized as leaders among the bishops, just as Peter was recognized as leader among the apostles”, the ancient and long-practiced tradition of Rome holding a place of honor among the other patriarchs and bishops does not equate with, amount to, or explain later papal developments regarding claims of universal jurisdiction.
In contrast to the Vatican today, the Orthodox understanding of the Church honors its conciliar form, the guiding authority of local bishops in their autocephalous or patriarchal Churches, and above all the idea that unity and catholicity rest in the communion of believers. To me this is clearly the correct understanding. There is such balance, flexibility, and beauty in the Orthodox arrangement where the Church is comprised of a “family of sister Churches”, each one independent or self-supporting in governance, yet all belonging to the same universal, catholic communion of belief.
As someone who was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, as much as I believe as an Orthodox Christian that the papacy has erred in its adherence to the doctrines of primacy of jurisdiction and infallibility, it saddens me that some of my family members might feel that I am rejecting or departing from the tradition in which they raised me. Yet I am cautiously hopeful of the many new promises of ecumenical dialogue and interfaith collaboration, especially between the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican Churches. I am especially intent when the priest prays during the Great Litany of the Liturgy for “the welfare of the holy churches of God and the union of all men” — may all unite themselves to the Orthodox faith which is the Christian faith. Christ Himself prayed about all those who believe in Him “that they might all be one” (John 17:21.) I would welcome the reunion of East and West in the event that both Catholic and Orthodox Churches could meet the conditions which Bishop Kallistos outlines as necessary for such a reunion to take place:
“Surely we Orthodox should be willing to assign to the Pope, in a reunited Christendom, not just an honorary seniority but an all-embracing apostolic care. We should be willing to assign to him the right, not only to accept appeals from the whole Christian world, but even to take the initiative in seeking ways of healing when crises and conflict arise anywhere among Christians. . . We would wish to see his ministry spelt out in pastoral rather than judicial terms. He would encourage rather than compel, consult rather than coerce.”
This primarily pastoral role envisioned for the papacy is one which attracts a prominent Catholic theologian, Fr. Patrick Granfield, OSB, professor of theology at The Catholic University of America. Father Patrick joins Bishop Ware in positive opinion about the Pope fulfilling a universal primatial role. In his book The Limits of the Papacy: Authority and Autonomy in the Church, Granfield foresees that
“as the universal primate in collegial association with bishops in other Churches, the Pope’s task would be to safeguard the faith and the unity of the entire [universal] Church.”
While such hopes of reunification and above all, restoration of communion, are unlikely to come to fruition in present time, I trust in the guiding power of the Holy Spirit—who works in mysterious ways—and pray that the time will come, sooner than later, when the two great Christian Traditions, Catholic and Orthodox, will be again one. I wish for the Catholic to be more orthodox in belief and the Orthodox to be more catholic in vision and focus. I would humbly echo the plea of Anglican Bishop John Pearson (1613-86) when he urges all Christians to
“search how it was in the beginning; go to the fountainhead; look to antiquity.”
Although I have already written on the Liturgy extensively, I wish to leave you with some final observations. Bishop Kallistos observes that “the Orthodox peoples have poured their whole religious experience into the Holy Liturgy which expresses their faith. It is the Liturgy which has inspired their best poetry, art, and music.” This is true, as anyone with an art history background or possessing an ear for the works of Rachmaninov or Gregoriev can tell you. Similarly, in his own reflections in his book The Orthodox Liturgy, Austin Oakley observes that the liturgy has always been one of the most integral aspects of Orthodox identity and faith, both personal and communal: “The normal lay worshipper, through familiarity from earliest childhood, is entirely at home in church, thoroughly conversant with the audible parts of the Holy Liturgy.” I have come to increasingly feel this way as I continue to participate in liturgies and vespers. As a result of such a deep feeling of communion, ordinary Orthodox worshippers
“take part with unconscious and unstudied ease in the action of the rite, to an extent only shared in by the hyper-devout and ecclesiastically minded in the West.”
In the Liturgy one discovers the Inner Life of the Church, for it is in the Liturgy, beloved, treasured, and defended by Orthodox for centuries, that the faithful so clearly manifest their abiding devotion. The Liturgy, as something which has remained almost entirely unchanged for centuries, whose essential form dates to over sixteen hundred years ago, is, to me, one of the greatest gifts of Orthodoxy that I will receive when I am chrismated. In the Liturgy are found the best embodiments of the “living Tradition” to which the faithful cleave. Bishop Kallistos correctly, and with some sense of humor, observes that Orthodox are constantly talking about Tradition. Yet what does this word really mean? Is it a kind of reactionary, mechanical, static devotion to all things old? Such tradition, if that were Orthodoxy, could only be called empty.
Of course, the word has different significance for different people. Certain Orthodox parishes that are more ethnically oriented (specific communities of Russians, Serbians, or Syrians, etc) may sometimes strike people unfamiliar with them as being more mechanical in nature, cleaving to specific ritual observance rather than a broad, more informed Tradition. If you are inclined after reading this to visit an Orthodox church, there is a small chance that you might step into one like this, where, if you don’t immediately venerate an icon, people might look at you as if asking, silently, “Why are you here?” Do not be afraid if this is the case; rest assured, most parishes are not like this, and such behavior is not in the spirit of Orthodoxy.
As Bishop Kallistos observes, the true Orthodox tradition is one which is far from static: the life and light of the Church are vividly expressed in the Liturgy, a word which means
“work of the people”.
It is here that the life of the Church is most evident, the heart and soul of the Faith where the priest, representing Christ, and the faithful come together and worship before the invisible powers of heaven. Yet the life of the Church is also present in the day-to-day trials and interactions among parish communities. The Church is present whenever the local ???????? gathers as an assembly to bring new members into the Orthodox fold in baptism and chrismation, whenever it celebrates the joining of a man and a woman in holy matrimony with high solemnity and radiant joy, or commemorate the passage of loved ones into the next world. The Church lives also in its centuries of accumulated teachings, which are replete with oceans of ink in wisdom: the writings of the Ante-Nicene and early Fathers, the lives of the saints, and above all, the Psalms, the “prayer book of the Church” and the Holy Scriptures.
The Orthodox sense of obligation toward and honoring of Tradition is anything but empty or outdated; the exact perception of Church Tradition is something that differs in each person, with different practices from parish to parish manifesting in different cultural and linguistic traditions. Yet the faith remains the same everywhere. The venerable Bishop Kallistos reminds us that
“Loyalty to Tradition, properly understood, is not something mechanical. . . An Orthodox thinker must see Tradition from within, he must enter into its inner spirit. In order to live within Tradition, it is not enough simply to give intellectual assent to a system of doctrine, for Tradition is far more than a set of abstract propositions — it is a life, a personal encounter with Christ in the Holy Spirit.”
This invitation to enter into the Tradition’s “inner spirit” is the shining beacon of Orthodoxy. Bishop Kallistos’ avowedly dynamic conception of the Way of the Church, which he observes is inwardly changeless, is one in which individual believers’ approaches to this Tradition are
“constantly assuming new forms, which supplement the old without superseding them.”
The Holy Spirit is constantly connected to this perpetually renewing sense of Tradition. Georges Florovsky calls Tradition no less than “the witness of the Spirit.” Therefore, it is an informed, contemplative reverence for the Church’s many traditions, all revealed together as part of its great Tradition, combined with spiritual openness and introspection, which is the key to developing a richer, more self-aware Christian life. Orthodox are seriously called to be witnesses of this ‘Tradition of the Spirit.’
I would be misleading you if I said that Orthodoxy does not involve and require a deep appreciation for and sense of devotion to its traditions. Yet it is worth one final time noting the words of the estimable Bishop Kallistos, who reminds us that
“true Orthodox fidelity to the past must always be a creative fidelity.”
Loyalty to Tradition, properly understood, means accepting that Tradition is not only something “kept by the Church” exactly as it was some fifteen centuries ago. It is something that
“lives in the Church, it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church . . . a living discovery of the Holy Spirit in the present.”
The challenge for each Orthodox person is to enter into the fullest possible awareness of how studying, honoring, and above all living this Tradition will bring them a closer communion with God, a greater sense of self and a deeper understanding of human nature.
Bearing all this in mind as I prepare for chrismation, I am reminded of the opening words of the Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!”
I use an exclamation point because when the Virgin received news that the Father had chosen her of all women to bring His Son into the world, she ‘exclaimed’, rejoicing, for she was filled with overwhelming gladness. An indescribable gladness fills my heart and warms my soul as my chrismation approaches. In my own small way, and ever-conscious that I sin, while the Blessed Lady was without corruption, I rejoice to have found the Orthodox way, and I look forward to the day when, in the fullness of time, the Churches of the world will be reconciled. Mindful of the many preparations that lay ahead, I close with the familiar words of praise rendered by King David in the psalm which he taught to Solomon:
“Blessed art thou, O Lord, teach me thy statutes. . .”
Epilogue: Orthodoxy – Home at Last
“I will give thanks to Thee, O Lord, with all my heart,
for Thou hearest the words of my mouth;
And I shall sing to Thee in the presence of angels.
I shall bow down and worship toward Thy holy temple.”
On December 4, 2011, the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, I entered into a new life. It was a glimmer of the joy I imagine I will one day, I hope, feel on my wedding day. I was received into the Orthodox Church by the laying on of hands and chrismation at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington D.C. His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah performed the ceremony. Surrounded by my family, parishioners, and standing in the invisible presence of God, the Theotokos, the other saints, the angels, and all the departed who are yet alive in Christ, I professed the Orthodox faith, that treasure beyond compare
“once for all delivered to the saints”.
Marilyn Swezey and Mikhail Arsentiev stood next to me as my godparents. As I closed my eyes and raised my hands in supplication to Almighty God, and Metropolitan Jonah anointed me on my forehead, my ears, my eyes, my mouth, my palms, and my feet, aside from Christ, I felt one person’s presence more than any other.
My twin brother Sean entered the world five minutes after I did on July 2, 1990. Seventeen days later he passed away. While I never knew him, I miss him every day. I miss the life he never lived with me, the laughs we never shared, and even the fights we never got to have together. Above all, I miss the deep friendship we never got to take for granted as twin brothers. I always wondered how my life would be different had he survived, and I have often wished that I could hear his voice. I don’t have to wonder at what he would have looked like: my parents always said all I needed to do when I wanted to see him was look in a mirror.
And so I live. When I was reading the Psalms the other day, my eyes fell to the opening of Psalm 33:
“I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall be praised in the Lord.”
What a joy it is to be alive! I will never know why God took my brother so soon from this earth, or why He wished me to remain here, but I feel a sense of wonderment and awe that I live. If my brother could pass away so soon, if hospital doctors were certain I was supposed to grow up mentally handicapped and bound to a wheelchair or even blind for life, and yet now I am as I am, what incomparable power God has, what mystery He works beyond our understanding! Oftentimes I feel overwhelmed with joy and gladness that I am alive. Life truly is a mystery. I recall Psalm 145
“Praise the Lord, O my soul, I shall praise the Lord as long as I live, I shall sing praises to my God while I have being.”
This is the joy that grips me every day of my life, the joy that flows from being alive.
My parents always said God must have kept me here for a reason, for His own purposes. Rather than trying to figure them out, as I used to, now I seek only to cooperate with God as He leads me in all that I do. I see my brother as a kind of guardian angel, and I feel that he wants me to live life as beautifully, and rightly, as I can. I truly believe he helped guide me to Orthodoxy.
I turned the pages of my Bible to another Psalm, 85:
“Incline Thine ear, O Lord, and hear me. Guard my soul: O my God, save Thy servant who hopes in Thee. Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for all the day long I will cry to Thee. Gladden the soul of Thy servant, O Lord, for to Thee, O Lord, I lift up my soul.”
This beautiful prayer helps me begin the conversation with God that occurs softly, in the quiet of the heart. It reminds me of the words of my patron saint, St Silouan the Athonite:
“My soul thirsts for the living God. Times and again my soul seeks fullness of delight in the Lord. My soul yearns for the Lord, and I seek him in tears. How could I not seek Thee, O Lord? For Thou Thyself didst seek me out, and gavest me to delight in Thy Holy Spirit, and now my soul yearns for Thee.”
My patron saint spent the closing decades of his earthly life in perpetual prayer and repentance, shedding endless tears for the suffering of the world. He lived as an ascetic in ceaseless prayer in a small cell on the Holy Mountain in northern Greece. When he died in 1938, his disciple, Archimandrite Sophrony, found thousands of notes that the barely literate saint had somehow penciled on scraps of paper. Wisdom from Mount Athos is the collection of these notes, and besides the Scriptures themselves, their words have inspired me more than any others. Reading through them for the first time, it is impossible to describe the joy that gripped me as I read his words about the all-encompassing love God has for each of us, and how our souls yearn to know God:
“The Lord loves us so dearly that it passes description. Through the Holy Spirit alone can the soul know His love, of which she is inexpressibly aware. The Lord is all goodness and mercy. He is meek and gentle, and we have no words at all to tell of His goodness; but the soul without words feels this love and would remain wrapped in its quiet tranquility forever.”
When I first read these words, I asked myself: does Sean feel this quiet tranquility? For as long as I can remember, I have wondered: Can he laugh? Does he see me? Is he aware of my presence? My soul feels his presence deeply. I wonder where he is, what heaven is like. I wonder what is must be like to see God, truly and up close.
I believe that our spirits, once separated from our bodies at physical death, must have the freedom to go where they please for some time before their particular judgment, not as haunting ghosts, but as freed, liberated souls, like rays of light. On the day of my chrismation, I felt my brother’s presence in the Cathedral so strongly. He was telling me, “Ryan, you are home.”
I don’t long for death at all—I am someone who loves every minute of life and treasures it for what it is: the sweetest of gifts from the Father of Lights. When, many years from now, God calls me to fall asleep and pass unto eternal life, I don’t have such a fear of the passing, of the upending of this mortal phase, since I have the comfort of knowing that my brother awaits me. It will be such a joy to at last see his face. I wonder if people grow in heaven, in any way reflecting the passage of time here on earth or the years since their earthly death, or will my brother appear as the baby he was when he departed this life? I am always drawn to little babies and toddlers; in part I see their fragile joy and their innocence and imagine my brother must have been this way in the short time he lived on this earth.
As this Lenten season begins, my first one as an Orthodox Christian, I am mindful of the countless blessings God has put in my life. In the past two years since my journey to Orthodoxy began, so many incredible people have come into my life. My incredible girlfriend has absolutely transformed and enriched my life beyond description. I cannot put into words just how much she means to me, and how grateful I am to God for her presence, all her invaluable advice, her constant support, and above all, her love. My godparents, Marilyn and Misha, are two of the kindest people I have ever met, each with a strong faith and a deep love for God, and I am so grateful for their prayers, support and friendship. Through St. Nicholas Cathedral in DC, I have made a fantastic friend, Ivan Plis, who is one of the most hilarious, brilliant, and kindhearted men I know.
I have made so many wonderful friends here in Scotland on exchange, and I remain close to my friends in the States, whom I miss very much. My relationship with my family means so much to me. My parents’ love and encouragement has grounded and sustained me in times when I doubted myself throughout my life. I have always felt really close to my mom, and in the past few years I have come to feel much closer to my dad than ever before. I see the Holy Spirit at work in this change, and in the healing that is coming to my family. I am so grateful to them for their acceptance of my conversion. As the older brother of two sisters, my parents’ reminding me that I should set a positive example for Lauren and Beth pushed me to excel and pursue my passions in history, languages, and writing, and, more recently, international politics, interfaith work, and theology. I miss them both very much. It amazes me that Lauren is about to go off to university and that Beth will be doing the same in just another year!
The monks at Holy Cross Monastery in East Setauket, my hometown, are exceptionally kind and hospitable men, of an almost palpable love for Christ. Worshiping with them before I left for Scotland was a deeply transformative experience. They are under the omophorion (canonical authority and protection) of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, primate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). From only the videos I have seen and what little I have read of him, he seems to be a wonderfully kind archbishop, filled with such grace and love for his flock, and I am overjoyed that the ROCOR is once again in communion with her sister Orthodox Churches. Three monks in particular at Holy Cross, Fr. Silouan, Fr. Hierodeacon Parthenios, and Monk Cornelius, have amazed me with their level of spiritual insight, kindness, and deep humility.
I cannot describe what a blessing it is to have the ability to attend the Divine Liturgy and receive communion in my hometown. Stepping into the monastery church, one enters not only a unique physical place, but ones comes into a whole spiritual mindset and frame of being that is a world removed from its surroundings outside. When I was younger I often passed the small white building with its peculiar gold onion dome, so out of place amidst the colonial architecture surrounding the village green in the New York town. Now, looking back after my chrismation, it seems that the monastery’s very presence was a sign that God was calling me to Orthodoxy.
Arriving in Edinburgh on exchange for the semester, I began worshipping at a church quite unlike any other I had ever entered. The community of St Andrew here (under the omophorion of Archbishop Gregorios of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain) is a testament to the international catholicity- the wholeness, the unity in faith- of Orthodoxy. When I attend Liturgy here, I experience the same liturgy that priests in every Orthodox church worldwide celebrate on Sundays. I am brought into the same Orthodoxy that the faithful live at St. Nicholas and at St Sophia Cathedrals in Washington, the same faith which transcends language, different cultural heritages, and historic jurisdictions. Here at St. Andrew’s are the Slavonic and Byzantine chant modes I came to love in the Orthodox parishes I attended in D.C. Deacon Luke and his wife Marion, both exceptionally kind and warm people, lead the choir together. Coming to liturgy here, I feel a close connection to the Orthodox worshipping in D.C., in my hometown in New York, and all the faithful everywhere. As I participate for the first time as an Orthodox Christian in the Great Fast of this Lenten season, I feel at home.
St Andrew’s is a vibrant parish full of young families with more babies and little children than I have ever seen gathered in one place. One little boy of six, Yuri, who matter-of-factly tells me and my Romanian friends that he is a “Russian from Glasgow from Latvia”, has such a joy in him, such a lively personality and such an inquisitive nature (in and outside of Liturgy!) that I see firsthand the Church’s wisdom in keeping little children present at Liturgy, allowing them to take everything in, the sounds of the choir and the bells, the scent of incense and rose oil, the sight of the icons, vestments and the candles, so that they grow up in the bosom of the Church community. When I compare the Church’s wisdom in providing for this cura personalis kind of education and introduction for its children to the attitude common to many churches among different Western denominations that see worship services primarily as ‘ordered, disciplined instruction’ for teens and adults, and consequently ferry their kids off to Sunday school at the earliest possible point in the service, there is no real comparison in my eyes.
To raise one’s children surrounded by and immersed in the fullness of the Christian community in all its beauty and its imperfections, its glories and its frailties, to show them the images of the saints invisibly present on the walls and on the iconostasis, to instill in them a familiarity and a love for Orthodox worship from the earliest age, this seems to me the most natural way of raising one’s children to love Christ, to know what it is to be in awe of God before one can contemplate a sermon or understand the Gospel. Just as I saw at St. Nicholas Cathedral, at St. Andrew’s I see parents inevitably struggling with noisy or inattentive toddlers, but no one seems to mind. For anyone wholly caught up in the Liturgy, worship transcends such distractions, and in a way, the presence of these young children, these people so new to the world who can so easily feel wonder and express awe, adds to the beauty. I see the radiance that enters a child’s eye when his mother raises him up to light a candle, or when a little girl’s father lifts her up so she can kiss the icon of the Theotokos, and these are small moments of beauty and wonder that might plant themselves in the very core of a child’s memories.
St. Andrew’s is a remarkably diverse community. There are many Americans, as well as Scottish and English converts, as well as a small number of mostly Romanian students attending the University of Edinburgh. Most of the Divine Liturgy is sung in English, with parts in Greek and Romanian for the large and vibrant immigrant communities from these countries. My experience with the latter language is new, and it is a beautiful, lively Romance one which reminds me very much of Italian. What is most remarkable about this community is that we worship in a house church facing the Meadows Park. It was built as an ordinary house, and only from the cross painted in gold on the front door can one identify the building as a church. Stepping into the church for the first time I felt the distinct impression that this is how the early Christians must have felt worshipping clandestinely in each other’s houses. The reason for our worshiping in this house church has nothing to do with the persecution the first believers faced, but worshiping in this humble building, in contrast to the magnificence of the two cathedrals which were my principal previous experiences of Orthodox worship, is a new and inspiring experience.
Two priests at St. Andrew’s have made a deep and lasting impression on me. They are archimandrites, monks with a high degree of spiritual development and cultivation, and both have at the end of Liturgy given poignant, eloquent and powerfully challenging sermons urging us to examine ourselves and enter into a new cleanliness of being, of heart, mind and action, this Lenten season.
Father Avraamy (Neyman), the English monk who invited me to his house for dinner on Meatfare Sunday, is an absolute delight to talk with, and I cannot describe how much his warm hospitality moved me. He is a man of exceptional kindness, lively wit and great humor. I deeply enjoyed his stories about his childhood growing up in southern England, attending a public boys’ school, and what his life entailed before he became a monk. He is also a convert from Roman Catholicism, so it was wonderful to be able to talk to someone with the same background and a similar journey into Orthodoxy. A lover of beautiful choral music, he shared with me several magnificent compositions of Ambrosian chant, including sixteenth century Seville composer Francisco Guerrero’s O Sacrum Convivium (O Sacred Banquet). I am also profoundly grateful for his gentle pastoral guidance.
Father Raphael (Pavouris), my confessor here, is a kind, quiet presence with the inner grace and humility of a man who has lived on holy Mount Athos. His gentle words of kindness, guidance, and healing have greatly helped and comforted me, and I strongly sense the presence of the Holy Spirit working through him. I am profoundly grateful for his prayers for me and for my family at the altar.
I am deeply grateful to Fr. Valery at St Nicholas Cathedral, for his kind and instructive guidance during my time as a catechumen, and especially for introducing me to St Silouan! His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah, my spiritual father, is a reservoir of grace, kindness, deep faith, and pastoral guidance. Even from across the Atlantic, his words of wisdom reach me through modern technology: the OCA website, the St. Nicholas Facebook page, and Youtube and Vimeo videos. This is a great comfort. He is not only a primate charged with the care of his Church. To the people of St Nicholas parish, he is in every sense a loving pastor.
Metropolitan Jonah often speaks at St. Nicholas about the Orthodox view of repentance, which is, he frequently points out, quite different from the traditional Western emphasis on guilt and penalty for one’s sins. The Eastern emphasis is on the power of the term repentance itself, which means ‘to turn away’ from these sins into the healing embrace of God’s love, for He is the physician of our souls. At his June 2009 address to the newly formed Anglican Church in North America, the Metropolitan spoke of the importance of surrendering to God, of opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s transformative grace and light:
“We have to surrender to God, personally, in the depths of our being. Our surrender, and this takes tremendous humility, is that spiritual quest to allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit. It is a quest of repentance, and renewal of our mind. Repentance does not mean feel guilty and beat yourself up. That’s not repentance. Repentance means be transformed in the renewal of your minds. What we’re talking about is a radical spiritual transformation that we are called to by the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that we can enter into and participate in that living unity. And it takes that complete surrender of our lives, on every level, the surrender of our passions, the surrender of our attachments, the surrender of all of those passions which we hold so dear, and especially all of the resentments which we bear.”
This Lenten season, when Christians are called to deny the control these passions so often exert over our lives, His Beatitude’s words are especially poignant for me. The true Lenten spirit involves fasting, for certain, since, as St John Chrysostom observed over sixteen centuries ago, “fasting is a medicine” for body and soul. Yet what is far more important than whether or not we adhere exactly to the Church’s teachings on abstaining from all meat and dairy during the forty days before Pascha is that we live in the right spirit of love, charity, and humility toward our God and our fellow sinners. In this way we can hope to “enter into and participate in that living unity” with Christ in the Holy Spirit. St. John Chrysostom, the author of the Divine Liturgy, writes in On Fasting that
“Fasting is the change of every part of our life, because the sacrifice of the fast is not the abstinence but the distancing from sins. Therefore, whoever limits the fast to the deprivation of food, he is the one who, in reality, abhors and ridicules the fast. Show me your fast with your works. If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy. If you see an enemy, reconcile with him. If you see a friend who is becoming successful, do not be jealous of him!”
St John’s words urge us to greater love of the other in this time of renewal, discipline, and hope (for we await the death and Resurrection of our Lord!) He cautions against gossip and cruel speech, urging us to “fast from disgraceful and abusive words, because, what gain is there when, on the one hand we avoid eating chicken and fish and, on the other, we chew-up and consume our brothers?” His advice for Lent is advice we are meant to live by throughout the year, throughout our lives.
God acts in ways far beyond our understanding. He is God. He moves outside our conception of time and place. He touches our lives in ways we would never expect, and in subtle, soft whispers which we do not always notice. The Byzantine tradition of hesychia cultivated at Mount Athos, the discipline of acquiring inner silence and the stillness of the heart, allows us to see and feel and perceive so much more of God’s activities in the world, among us, if we only endeavor to keep this stillness. This stillness is not one which insists we remain physically motionless, but that we ceaselessly strive to commit our soul to the whispering guide of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who will put a deep, peaceful quiet in our heart.
If we do this, and we free ourselves to perceive the incredible beauty in God’s creation all around us, His reverberating presence in the joy, laughter, tears, and sufferings of each of our fellow man beckons us to see His presence within ourselves. In our morning prayers, Orthodox invoke the Holy Spirit, the “Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who are everywhere present and filling all things.” We ask Him to dwell in us, for He is “the Treasury of Blessings and the Giver of Life.”
I rejoice with all my being to have found the Orthodox way. Giving humble thanks to Almighty God, aware of the blessings that He has bestowed on me, I close with a supplication left to us by St. Silouan who cultivated such a reverence and awe for all of God’s creation, all the natural world and the men that inhabit it, that he prayed ceaselessly and sought the Holy Spirit in tears.
“O ye people of the earth, fashioned by God, know your Creator and His love for us!
Know the love of Christ, who in His mercy waits for all men to come unto Him.
Turn to Him, all ye peoples of the earth, and lift your prayers to God. And the prayers of the whole earth shall rise to heaven like a soft and lovely cloud lit by the sun, and all the heavens will rejoice and sing praises to the Lord for His sufferings whereby He saved us.
Know, all ye peoples, that we are created for the glory of God in the heavens. Cleave not to the earth, for God is our Father and He loves us like beloved children. . .
O Lord, grant to all nations to know Thee by Thy Holy Spirit.”
– Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, May 2012