What does being Orthodox mean to you?
What does being Orthodox mean to you?
How this suffering world would be transformed if we could more freely acknowledge to each other the real presence of God in our lives! Think of how society would be transformed if more of us could understand and connect with each other on this deep spiritual level! These moments, which so deeply transform and illumine us, are little theophanies, moments of revelation of divine love and whisperings of God’s grace by the Holy Spirit.
These manifestations of our Savior’s love for us touch the very soul and warm the heart of the man or woman open to receiving them. It is these moments which serve to convert and orient one’s soul towards her Creator, which can and should inspire us to seek after God with all our being.
How transformational and glorious these manifestations of divine love and grace are in the lives of those who discern them! If men and women felt free to acknowledge to their fellows this abundant grace of God and manifestations of His love in their lives, the whole world would realize how much more united in His love it actually is. They would see how, in the words of St. John of Damascus (675-749), “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God”. The Lord who has created all existence, who has painted this icon of His children whom He has fashioned in His image, works with human soul in tapestries of grace and love, His Spirit like a fire warming the noetic hearts of the faithful.
If only more people in the Church felt that they could share their experiences of divine grace, which can come upon any person at any time when they have opened themselves to receiving it! This grace, always a miracle when it visits a person by the power of the Holy Spirit, is bestowed on the heart and soul of someone who seeks after God daily and at all times, who discerns Him as that which is “everywhere present and fillest all things”. Those who have discerned this grace know what it is to live and believe the words of Blessed Augustine (354-430) even if he or she has never heard them: “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance.”
Such a person who truly loves Him and discerns His presence in their life constantly remembers the Lord’s chief command, both to those of the Old and New Covenant, to the blood of the House of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to the new Israel of the New Dispensation, that we must love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and all our might (Matthew 22:37-40). The person who remembers the Lord’s commandments, truly endeavoring to love God with all their being, is on the path to that mystical union with His divine energies and love which shines in the faces of the saints. Such a person is immersed in the lifelong process of theosis: the miraculous and mysterious awakening and transformation of the noetic inner heart and soul of man in union with God’s loving grace through which he or she is divinized.
“God became man so that man might become God”, wrote St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria (296-373) in his treatise On the Incarnation. St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (130-202), who died almost a century before St. Athanasius’ birth, wrote similarly, “In His unbounded love, God became what we are that He might make us what He is.” This teaching is a universal witness of the early Church, present in all the writings of the earliest Fathers who knew the apostles of Christ or who were trained by their disciples and their disciples’ disciples, and so on.
How can man become God when he is so clearly imperfect? St John Climacus (“John of the Ladder”), St Isaac the Syrian, St Silouan the Athonite, Elder Cleopa (Illie) and so many other holy men and women write of the process of salvation and divinization- for man can only be divinized to the degree that he allows himself to be completely opened to the saving and transformative loving grace of God- as a ladder of gradual, lifelong spiritual ascent. Elder Cleopa (+1998) offers beautifully clear instruction on the ladder of ascent in prayer and spiritual introspection and communion with God here.
The ladders of spiritual growth and increasing discernment through prayer, fasting, repentance and love for God are mutually interconnected to the point of pursuing the same end, reaching for the same transformation in and through and by Christ. First comes the recognition and aversion to sin as anything which separates us from God’s grace and love of the other. Then comes the ceasing of sin and the promptings of repentance, turning away from sinful mindsets and actions, and turning anew to the love of God, With this increasing discernment comes the ability to pray with the lips and the mouth and gradually, the mind; that is, to remember how to pray and what one wants to pray, and to increasingly understand the significance and meaning of what one prayers. Still, this is not the highest level of prayer, which the saints call “prayer of the heart”, the deepest level of communion with God when one’s mental comprehension of what one prays, one’s psyche, descends into the nous, the spiritual eye or the inner heart of one’s soul. Without a lifelong cultivation of ceaseless prayer (1 Thess. 5:17) and repentance, we may mount the ladder rungs again and again, but never truly begin to ascend in prayer.
We cannot become God by our very essence, which is created, no more than a child can ever become identical in essence to its parent, but we are gradually transformed as our noetic heart and soul open more to the energy and promptings of the Holy Spirit. Man can thus mysteriously and miraculously become united to His Creator by the most intimate adoption of sonship. Insofar as man, a created being endowed by God with an immortal spirit, can be united to Him through immersion and participation in His illuminative grace and love, he can be transformed and made divine.
This is the first part of a two-part video recording from a truly holy and erudite man (retired Archbishop Lazar, founding abbot of All Saints Monastery in British Columbia) on the deep theological and liturgical significance of the crowning ceremony to marriage and salvation in Orthodox Christianity.
At the height of the ceremony, the bride and bridegroom are crowned and communed together as equal partners in a mystical union joining them forever in shared devotion and loving self-sacrifice to each other. The husband is an icon or type of Christ, the eternal Bridegroom who cherishes and honors the Church more than Himself (Ephesians 5:25), and the wife is an icon or type of the holy Church, the eternal, loving Bride of Christ.
Vladyka Lazar explains that the Western Christian tradition of the father of the bride walking his daughter down the aisle to meet her waiting groom is historically absent from Orthodoxy. The handing over of the bride by her father to her new husband recalls the ancient pre-Christian Roman and Greek patriarchal practice whereby fathers symbolically transferred their power and authority (potestas and auctoritas) as paterfamilias over their daughters to the husband, who then automatically assumed her into his authority and family, effectively erasing her independent legal existence.
Since in Orthodoxy, by contrast, bride and groom come to the altar as equal partners, they walk there together after first making their vows and exchanging rings at the entrance to the temple. Then, with the priest or bishop presiding, they are mystically joined together by the grace and power of God during the Liturgy, a mystical transformation which recognizes the close bond of love they already share.
Unlike in Western Christian ceremonies when the couple is considered married from the moment when the presiding clergyman pronounces them as such following the exchange of vows, there is no set moment in the Orthodox crowning ceremony when the couple is considered automatically joined in marriage.
Their crowning three times by the celebrant, who exchanges the crowns between their heads, symbolizes their mystical union and their equality in partnership before God as king and queen of a new ‘little church’, a new family. The traditional Byzantine bridal crowns, called stefania, explain the etymology of the name Stephen.
The couple can be considered married by the time they first commune together of the holy Mystery of the Eucharist as husband and wife and walk around the altar, on which rests the chalice, patens, and the Holy Gospel, to the solemn hymn of witnesses. This walk symbolizes both a religious procession of pious faith by the married couple, now a holy unit, and is the moment from which they take their first steps together in their new union.
From the moment they approach the altar, they are already considered bound to each other in sight of man, and once they commune and walk together after their crowning, this mystically binds them in the eyes of God.
Please click on this helpful link for more information.
We are called to love every person as a child of God made in His very image
If anyone professes that man is created in the very image of God, for men are all “children of the Most High” (Psalm 81:6 LXX), then it follows logically that the essential purpose of man’s life here, his very being, is to unceasingly worship His Creator through all his actions, by his words, and in his very demeanor, countenance and spirit.
If anyone truly and sincerely claims this divine inheritance, through which we are called to “be perfect even as [our] Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), summoned to be “imitators of God as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1), and exhorted to become “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17), then he or she would naturally seek to conform the entirety of their life, the whole of their inner heart and the depths of their noetic mind, to glorify and praise God in all ways and at every moment.
Even the etymology of the word by which we have been known to the world since the first days after Christ ascended to heaven, ‘Christians’, from the Greek Χριστιανών, means ‘little anointed ones’. How then can a Christian, a little Christ, thus truly be a disciple of the Lord, much less aspire to mystical union with Him through participation in the divine energies, if he or she does not live, show and even breathe Christ in all they do, from the depths of their being? How can we be Christians, how can our lives be a “Christ-like fragrance rising up to God” (2 Corinthians 2:15 NLT) if we do not truly love all those around us?
The simple answer is the logical one. If the very essence of the Christian life is to worship and glorify the boundless and ineffable grace, mercy and majesty of God, if the core calling for all humanity is to worship Christ the Savior by loving and honoring His image present in each of His children – even the lowliest or ugliest or rudest person – then any person who does not understand this simplest of the Lord’s commandments (John 13:34, Matthew 22:37-40, Deuteronomy 6:5) cannot, in truth, be numbered among His anointed ones (Matthew 25:34-46).
Our highest calling as Christians is to do as St Paul wrote to the Ephesians in Asia Minor, walking “in love, as Christ also has loved us, and has given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling fragrance.” (Ephesians 5:1-2, KJV). Among all those who lovingly honor Christ’s commandments, we know that the Lord “abideth in him, and he in Him. And in this we know that He abideth in us, by the Spirit which He hath given us.” (1 John 3:24, Douay-Rheims version).
Certainly, the idea of conforming one’s actions, one’s approach to living and thinking, and even the eye of one’s noetic heart to live chiefly to glorify God runs completely contrary to what “the world” values today, especially in its prevailing secular outlooks of modernism and relativism, which challenge and question the very concept and existence of objective Truth.
This is why the true heart of the Christian Gospel appears as foolishness to those who live and think and have their being in and of the world, outside of a yearning for God (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Indeed, St. John the Theologian, beloved apostle of the Lord, reminds us that our love, if truly selfless, is something the world not only often fails to understand, but indeed, because it is selfless, is something the world often despises:
“Wonder not, brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not, abideth in death.” (1 John 3:13-14, Douay-Rheims version).
Yet if we truly hold to the faith we have received (Jude 1:3, 1 Corinthians 15:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 1 Corinthians 11:2), living out the essential message of the Holy Scriptures and the universal witness of the ancient and holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church, if we rest assured in the vast reservoir of wisdom handed down through centuries of martyrs, confessors, evangelists, teachers and pastors of the revealed Truth, how natural and joyous it is to be a Christian, to take upon ourselves the mantle of Christ crucified for love of the world, even a love it does not want or understand!
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20, KJV)
What a fathomless blessing it is to participate in the divine energies, the very manifestations and grace of God active in the world, indeed, in all who are open to it, through the invisible power and action of the Holy Spirit. It is by our participation in the energies of God that we are motivated, strengthened, and beckoned forth to show the world that we are truly little Christs by our selfless and genuine love for all His children. This love, fired by faith, is the spring, the catalyst in our souls, for our transformation in Christ, our divinization:
“A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” (John 13:34-35, Douay-Rheims version).
For just as we remember St. Paul’s admonition that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26), so too do we recall that works done without a loving spirit of real devotion to the other lack the spirit and grace of God. For any works lacking in love is are not true examples of loving kindness by which we truly desire to serve, selflessly, as little Christs unto our brothers and sisters:
“If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20, King James Version).
“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 in Washington, DC, 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?
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, they would think that I was “giving up Rome” and the faith in which they had raised me, even though I repeatedly emphasized that Eastern spiritual and liturgical life added so much to, rather than took away, any sense of my catholicity. 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 Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo/Mass of Paul VI) of the Roman rite so lacked, while still honoring the Pope in the litany.
I eventually 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 Church, most clearly in the 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, in the fullness of time, 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 Eastern/Byzantine Catholicism 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 latinizations 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 historically Eastern 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 liturgical and spiritual heritage, the 1990 Canon in particular has caused Orthodox bishops and theologians considerable bewilderment. While encouraging the promotion of Eastern, essentially Orthodox orthopraxy, in many ways the Canon reaffirmed core aspects of Roman Catholic 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 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 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, a catechumen due to be chrismated this Pascha, observed in a discussion with 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 within their own communion, 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, our purpose in this life, and our 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 in some ways 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 Catholic tradition—still embraced by many Catholics today despite the official Church hierarchy distancing themselves from it—that unbaptized babies go to Limbo, a remote corner of the universe, a kind of netherwolrd (seen as a physical place) where they never behold the ‘Beatific vision’ of God. What kind of a monstrous God would condemn sinless infants to suffer for eternity?
Calvin only 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 – such as Scotland where I now am residing – 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 on soteriology, Orthodox and Catholics maintain very different views of how the unity of the faith is and should be maintained. On the Roman Catholic doctrines of universal jurisdiction and papal supremacy, the 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches 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.” In comparison, we Orthodox would say that Jesus Christ is the sole foundation of the unity of the Church – the bishops and the whole company of the faithful – not any mortal man. The Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church are the earthly spiritual heads of their respective jurisdictions, and the Ecumenical Patriarch has from the time of the Great Schism gradually come to exercise the primacy of honor and authority formerly accorded to the Pope of Rome by the other patriarchs, but the notion that one man — the Pope — is the “perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity” of the Church is absolutely foreign to the first thousand years of orthodox, catholic Christianity.
How does the 1997 Catholic Catechism define the Pope’s ministry? In terms which echo the First Vatican Council’s rigid ultramontanism: “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, of which Rome was always first in honor and charged with a universal mediatory role.
Besides these theological concerns, one more significant day-to-day aspect of Church life in which senior Vatican prelates continue to upset and interfere with Eastern Catholic parish practice is the question of married clergy, which Rome has continued to discourage (previously it had strictly forbidden Eastern Catholic seminarians from marrying). Thus, for all these reasons, 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 monarchical papal supremacy and infallibility ex cathedra 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, we must remain out of communion, for we cannot risk compromising the fullness of the Faith which we see Rome has so utterly compromised in the past thousand years.
While it is heartening and intrinsically a good thing that we Orthodox dialogue with the non-Orthodox, including Rome and the non-Chalcedonians, I remain immensely reserved as to the actual state of affairs of the vast majority of the Roman communion, which uses the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite (the Mass of Pope Paul VI). Despite the Ordinary Form’s liturgical rubrics which call for retaining and preserving many traditional elements of Catholic worship, the Ordinary Form in practice is usually 1) spoken, not sung, 2) celebrated without incense, 3) celebrated versus populum instead of ad orientem, 4) often accompanied by guitars, trumpets, flutes, and piano, and 5) indicative in terms of the overall ethos or atmosphere of the service of many latent protestantizations widespread among the attitudes of the Catholic laity especially in North America. Naturally, a sixth point to consider is the long history of the latinization of the Eastern Churches.
I cannot help but speak to my greatest fear: that, with the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, Anglican Usage, and the various ancient Eastern Rites excepted, the way Rome usually offers liturgy — the Ordinary Form of the Mass — is in practice, though not in theory, far removed from anything resembling Orthodox worship. Exterior actions and how we worship speak to inner truths of what we believe and why. As much as many devout and more traditional-minded Roman Catholics wish to cover their eyes and ears, the reality is that, year after year, gross examples of flagrant liturgical abuse go on with no censure or correction from Rome. What is the point of acknowledging the supremacy and theoretically absolute power of a Pope who either will not or cannot do anything to stop such liturgical abuse? A theoretically absolute, all-powerful Pontiff who is helpless or unwilling to correct liturgical abuse strikes many Orthodox as an absurd concept. This video (numerous others exist of the same “Los Angeles Religious Education Congresses“) shows tens of thousands of Catholics gathered for “Mass” in the Ordinary Form in a large arena presided over by numerous priests, bishops, and even the Los Angeles archbishop. Think of that: the archbishop either freely chose to, or felt obliged, to attend this event.
Here is a video of none other than Pope Francis, then-Cardinal Bergoglio, celebrating an “Archdiocesan Children’s Mass” in Argentina in 2011. Please watch the entire video. When you take into account that Pope Francis — a man who while Cardinal of Buenos Aires regularly attended both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic divine services, a man who has forged a close relationship with HAH the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, as his two predecessors have — willingly presided over such a service as the “Children’s Mass”, this means that either Rome approves of such abuses — silence often conveys tacit approval — or that Rome is powerless to do anything to stop the liturgical abuse, or (worse) that she simply does not care. What is the point of acknowledging a theoretically Supreme Pontiff and Vicar of Christ when, since 1969, these men have been utterly unable, or unwilling, to enforce basic aspects of decent, orthodox liturgical worship?
The reality today is that the vast majority of Roman Catholics have only experienced the Mass in its present Ordinary Form (the Mass of Paul VI). When one attends a Roman Catholic Mass in the Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo Missae), even a Mass not as irreverent as the appalling Los Angeles Religious Education Congresses, it becomes clear as day that this is fundamentally not the same religion as the Orthodox Faith. If our religion differs so markedly from that of the majority of Roman Catholics around the world today, we clearly do not share the same faith. As His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said in his well-known October 1997 speech given at Georgetown University (emphasis mine):
Assuredly our problem is neither geographical nor one of personal alienation. Neither is it a problem of organizational structures, nor jurisdictional arrangements. Neither is it a problem of external submission, nor absorption of individuals and groups. It is something deeper and more substantive. The manner in which we exist has become ontologically different. Unless our ontological transfiguration and transformation toward one common model of life is achieved, not only in form but also in substance, unity and its accompanying realization become impossible. No one ignores the fact that the model for all of us is the person of the Theanthropos (God-Man) Jesus Christ. But which model? No one ignores the fact that the incorporation in Him is achieved within His body, the Church. But whose church?
Regarding our Eastern Catholic brethren, can we look upon the history of the sui iuris Eastern Churches now in union with Rome and think “this is a safe path for us to tread?”, much less the right one? While Rome has recently and laudably begun urging Eastern Catholics to guard and restore their sometimes eroded Eastern (Orthodox) inheritance, we look upon this development with natural skepticism because it is Rome which for hundreds of years often encouraged and sometimes compelled the various latinizations in the first place, which 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, but, more accurately, I hope and pray that Rome returns to the fullness and timeless truth of the Orthodox Faith, the true faith of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” of which we speak in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The simplest way to move toward this goal which we all desire is not primarily through faith in the ongoing theological conferences taking place between the Orthodox and Catholic hierarchs. While these talks have yielded promising discussions, especially with regard to the question of settling an orthodox understanding of how, should reunion take place, papal primacy is to be exercised on a universal level, they seldom impact the lives of the faithful or cause any of the bishops to ‘change’ their minds. You have within the Orthodox camp a large group of those opposed to ecumenism, a large but smaller group of those dedicated to it, and a smaller group of people like myself who see the benefits to ongoing discussions but retain a high degree of skepticism that they will produce any lasting fruit. 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. Let every Roman Catholic know what it is to experience not only the solemn Extraordinary Form (Latin Mass) and dignified Anglican Usage of his or her own communion, but let them experience the majestic Byzantine Liturgy of St Basil the Great or that of St John Chrysostom. Likewise, let every Orthodox come to experience the reverence of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, and the beauty of the Anglican Usage. We can grow closer together through a greater understanding of who we are, what we believe, and what we can learn from the beautiful, orthodox aspects of each other’s faith traditions.
Western Christians would greatly benefit spiritually from greater access to the Eastern Church Fathers and their teachings on 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 pre-schism Fathers and many of the pre-schism Western saints. The Western musical traditions of Gregorian and Ambrosian chant and evensong would be wonderful additions to some Orthodox churches (see “Western Rite Orthodoxy”).
Eastern Catholics should invite their Roman Catholic and Orthodox brethren to attend their divine services, and Orthodox should invite both Western (Roman) and Eastern Catholics to our divine services. 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, the Lord Jesus 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’. Blessed is the soul that loves her brother, for our brother is our life. Blessed is the soul that loves her brother. The Spirit of the Lord lives manifest within her, giving peace and gladness.”
Most of my immediate family members, most of my aunts and uncles, and my grandparents all remain Roman 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 Holy 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 loving 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. Naturally, this can and will only happen when all the Orthodox are convinced of the Orthodoxy of the Pope of Rome and his flock. I do not expect this to happen for many years.
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 — the faith we Orthodox have preserved by God’s providence through the grace of the Holy Spirit — 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 integrity, fullness, and beauty of ancient Faith delivered to us to carry on and defend. 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 a shared faith which today eludes us.
Why all Christians should look to the Orthodox Church for the dynamic fullness of the ancient apostolic Faith
“Search how it was in the beginning; go to the fountainhead; look to antiquity. . .” – Anglican Bishop John Pearson (1613-86)
I am a convert to Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism. My chrismation took place at St Nicholas Cathedral in Washington D.C., the seat of His Beatitude Metropolitan +Jonah, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, who received me into the Church in December 2011. I took Silouan of the Holy Mountain as my patron saint. My immediate family and most of my relatives remain Catholic, and I hold no negative feelings toward the Church in which I was raised.
Theologically, I consider my entry into the Orthodox faith as an acceptance of the catholicity of the Tradition of the early Church, a common heritage the East shares with the Roman Church, rather than as a rejection of or departure from Rome. I am grateful to the Roman Catholic Church for teaching me the Christian faith as a child, in providing so many invaluable life-saving services as the world’s largest charitable body, and continuing to educate more people than any other institution or group.
Why did I leave the Church in which I was raised? It was a very drawn-out and difficult decision which involved many hours of prayer and soul-searching, and until I experienced the Orthodox Divine Liturgy for the first time in April 2010, I had no real idea of where exactly I could look for a real alternative to Roman Catholicism. At that time, I certainly did not have any semblance of the larger reality that the Orthodox Way is a profoundly distinct approach to God which developed apart from the Western tradition, which originally included only the papal Church but then gave birth to the Reformed or Protestant churches beginning in the sixteenth century.
Several years before I experienced the Orthodox liturgy for the first time, I was something of a spiritual wanderer. In my first two years at American University I regularly attended Sunday evening Mass with friends at the Kay Spiritual Life Center on campus. Sometimes I went to a beautiful Gothic church, St. Anne’s in nearby Tenleytown, but I felt restless, as though I was being called to experience different religious traditions. I knew I did not believe in certain core Catholic theological teachings, most of all, the dogma of papal infallibility ex cathedra, yet I was unsure of where I should or could look outside the Roman Catholic faith in which I was raised.
In high school, studying the different world religions had always fascinated me, especially eastern traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. I had studied Judaism in detail, and I participated in the Hebrew Culture Club, but I knew I would not be ‘leaving Jesus’ as it were—I truly believed Him to be the Son of God and God Incarnate. Since I had been to several synagogues as a teenager with Jewish friends, I remained very interested in Judaism, as I still am today – but I knew I would not convert.
I had read much of the Qur’an and Islam intrigued me, especially given the basic ignorance that many Americans were demonstrating toward the youngest of the three Abrahamic faiths in the years following 9/11. In my interfaith work I had met and come to know many Muslim students who were deeply sincere and pious believers, yet who were never aggressive or sanctimonious about their beliefs.
I never considered becoming a Muslim, and after reading through the Qur’an, I was surprised and often deeply disturbed by what I found. While many passages urge Muslims to live in peace with their fellow “Peoples of the Book”, Jews and Christians, other passages are graphically violent, urging the maiming and killing of non-believers (Suras 2:191-193, 5:33, 8:12 9:5). While most Muslims obviously do not take these passages literally or enact them accordingly, their very inclusion in the Qur’an, which the vast majority of Muslims believe came as direct revelation from God, deeply disturbed me. Nowhere are Christians ever urged to slaughter their enemies in the New Testament.
Theologically, Islam is fundamentally a religion opposed to Christianity in its view of who Jesus was and will be. Several passages in the Qur’an teach that Jesus was only a Prophet of God (4:171, 5:17, 5:75) who at the Day of Judgment will emphatically deny before God that he ever claimed divinity (5:116, 5:72, 3:55). Islamic jurisprudence considers shirk, that is, making partners to God, the one unpardonable sin: “Whoever joins other gods with Allah, Allah will forbid him the garden [Paradise] and the Fire will be his abode.” (5:72). In 5:17, those who believe Christ is God are condemned as living “in blasphemy”.
Islam thus incorrectly assumes that Christian belief in the Trinity is tritheism, belief in three gods, and so the unpardonable sin of shirk. In effect, the Qur’an teaches that Christians were misled or deluded into making Jesus and Mary ‘gods’ beside Allah (9:31, 19:88-92); this view of course ignores that orthodox catholic Christians venerate but do not worship Mary, and consider Jesus to be fully God, not God’s ‘partner’ or a distinct god beside Him.
Interestingly, the Qur’an, which Muslims believe to be directly revealed from God, holds that Jesus performed many miracles (5:110, 3:49), but by Allah’s power, not his own, and was actually a Muslim. This word means someone who submits to Allah, the Arabic term for “The God”. Curiously, the Qur’an refers to Jesus indirectly and by name almost one hundred times in fifteen suras (chapters), far more than it refers to the Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an holds Mariam (Mary) in high regard (21:91, 23:50), mentioning her by name far more than the New Testament. Many suras affirm her annunciation and virgin birth (19:19-22) as well as Jesus’ Second Coming (43:61). Prophet Muhammad is, ironically, not expected to return to earth.
In its view of Jesus, the Qur’an can be considered an antithesis of the Christian Gospels. It explicitly denies the Crucifixion (4:157) and thereby the Resurrection, claiming instead that Jesus was assumed bodily into heaven without death. Muhammad, by contrast, died and was buried at Medina, Islam’s second holiest city in modern day Saudi Arabia, where he and his first supporters found refuge after the Meccans expelled them.
During my years of searching and study, I continued to read widely on different religious and faith traditions, including Hinduism, the Baha’i faith, Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, and Sikhism. I knew that I was committed to the Christian faith, but I could not find the right Church or denomination where I sensed my whole being was finding connection to God. I was not convinced that any of the Protestant churches were the true Church – not that they make the claim to be the ‘original’ historic Church, since this claim is chronologically impossible, but I developed the clear impression that most if not all of the mainline Protestant churches were being overrun by ‘culture war’ battles between liberals and traditionalists, with the former being inconsiderate in their rapid advancement of a revolutionary agenda and the other side often lacking love in their response. Each was losing tens of thousands of members each year.
For a long time the Mass had not been fulfilling my soul’s craving for a more mystical approach to God, a more historic and ancient faith rooted in the mindset and experiences of the first Christians. I never left Christianity, much less ‘abandoned God’, but for many months wondered at where I could possibly find a safe harbor for my soul. Entering St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in D.C. in April 2010 for the Holy Thursday liturgy of St. Basil the Great, it was as though I had found my answer – or rather, the answer found me!
Many of my Catholic friends wondered why I was becoming Orthodox. Those who have accepted my invitations to attend vespers or the Divine Liturgy at St. Nicholas usually are much more understanding, and several Catholic friends have told me that “if it weren’t for the Pope” they would become Orthodox. Looking back on the last few years, it amazes me that I did not see the signs pointing me to Orthodoxy earlier.
In my hometown of Setauket on Long Island, there is a small Orthodox men’s monastery to which I always felt an inexplicable draw and have, since entering the Church, attended several times for Divine Liturgy. There is also a Greek Orthodox parish, the Church of the Annunciation, which I would pass while on my daily cross-country runs with the boys’ team throughout high school, and I always felt a compelling draw to this mysterious Byzantine-style building.
The underlying chasm dividing the Orthodox and Catholic Churches today is that while we come from a shared ancient tradition, major differences in our approaches to ecclesiology, worship, and soteriology developed even before the period of schisms. A millennium out of communion has only further entrenched these differences and added many new ones.
Certainly the Roman Church today is far less orthodox than it was in 1054 or 1439. Traditional Catholics will be the first to admit that. Just look at 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 Mass, while in most, you have the much more informal masses in the Novus Ordo style that are a strange 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 and then split from each other into fragments) 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 (Russian: sobornost) as the framework for Church governance.
We believe this is the surest ways to carry this living Faith into modernity. While we maintain ‘koinonia’ or communion from within, and see the Church as the faithful everywhere in 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.
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 Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), etc. Where is the unity of faith Rome always championed? Sadly, many if not most Catholics are aware that the historic unity of their faith is gone.
Rome’s claims to have the intact mantle of the historic Church are deeply and obviously flawed. The Orthodox would point out that while all of the earliest Church Fathers indeed looked to Rome for guidance given the city’s importance as the capital of the Empire and the site of the martyrdoms of many saints including the Apostles Peter and Paul, the primacy of honour and spiritual ‘headship’ over the early Church which Rome came to enjoy was never understood in the way Rome now claims it developed.
The Caput Mundi was indeed a great defender of Orthodoxy in the Church’s first centuries, yet its bishops never articulated any conceptions of their own authority over the Catholic (meaning “whole” or one) Church beyond an honorary and historically based primacy as ‘primus inter pares’ among the other Sees. This primacy was principally understood as a mediating and advisory role during the great Ecumenical Councils which all took place in the Christian East, such as when Pope Leo I sent a tome to the Council at Chalcedon in 451.
No less prominent a pope than Gregory I “the Great”, honored by both Churches as a saint for centuries before and after the Schism, condemned attempts by his contemporary Patriarch John of Constantinople to take upon himself the title “ecumenical” meaning universal. Pope Gregory cautioned:
“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 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 Orthodox Church centered in Egypt is still addressed by this ancient title which precedes the Roman one.
Rather than accept the catholicity of the ancient conciliar form of Church administration and organization, Rome gradually evolved into a hyper-centralized papacy whose bishop came to be seen in the West as a Supreme Pontiff and ‘Vicar of Christ’ with temporal as well as spiritual supremacy over not only the Roman See and the Papal States, but theoretically the whole world. This explains how in 1494 Pope Alexander VI felt empowered in the Treaty of Tordesillas to divide the world on an invisible line between Spain and Portugal to settle the two kingdoms’ disputes over territorial claims in the New World. Such claims served to confirm Orthodox Christians’ apprehensions prior to the Schism that the papacy saw itself as replacing the old Roman Imperium in the West, the same imperium which remained in place in the East for a millennium after ‘Old Rome’ fell to Goths and Vandals.
Gradually there arose between East and West profoundly different approaches to spirituality and theology which the language distinctions (Greek East and Latin West) accelerated and then entrenched. The compulsion that medieval Roman Scholastics felt to reconcile the Church’s mysteries and traditions to Aristotelian logic manifested over time in a theological re-orientation that gradually produced a philosophical approach to theological questions which led to a persistent rationalist influence in Catholicism.
Fundamental to its claim of papal supremacy and immediate and universal jurisdiction is the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching that St. Peter was the undoubted leader or ‘prince’ of the apostles, even though St. Paul publicly rebuked him in Antioch for his misjudgment of the Judaizing Christians (Galatians 2:11) and James, bishop of Jerusalem, not Peter, presided over the first Church council at Jerusalem described in the Acts of the Apostles. Catholics often point to Matthew 16:18-19 as the justification for Rome’s claims to papal supremacy and universal jurisdiction. But what of John 20:23, where Christ speaks to all the apostles, not only Peter: “Whose soever sins you remit, they are remitted to them; and whose soever 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, giving them all authority to remit sins. Likewise, at Pentecost, the ‘birthday of the Church’, when the Holy Spirit descended to the apostles in “cloven tongues like as of fire” (Acts 2:2) the Spirit hovered over them all, not Peter alone, and they all miraculously spoke in the different languages of the world.
Yet in the Catholic tradition, popes are considered Peter’s sole successors and must therefore have immediate and supreme jurisdiction over all Christians. The Second Vatican Council and most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church confirmed the Vatican I-era (1870) dogma of papal infallibility ex cathedra.
Similarly, what does the Catholic Church teach happens at the consecration of the Eucharist? The Orthodox 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 Church dogmatized ‘transubstantiation’. This is the philosophical formula that the elements in the consecration are materially changed 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. We do not presume to categorize, prescribe or deny God’s omnipotence and cast unbaptized babies into the abyss, and likewise, we have never dogmatized a view on purgatory, but have 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 dogmatized teachings in these areas are later developments foreign to the beliefs of the early Christians.
Perhaps the chief obstacles to the restoration of communion between the Churches today are the issues of papal infallibility and supremacy. While the Roman Catholic Church teaches that papal infallibility ex cathedra only applies under set conditions, the dogmatic rules for when it should apply are vague. The doctrine was only dogmatically defined at the First Vatican Council in 1870, and the Church’s claims that it was something Catholics had always previously believed is not supported by any evidence. The 1870 Council anathematizes – that is, declares outside of the Church – any person who has “the temerity to question” the dogma of infallibility.
If you are a Catholic and do not believe in papal infallibility, your Church teaches dogmatically that you are not actually in it. I cannot believe that a human man could ever be truly incapable of the possibility of error (papal infallibility means that when speaking authoritatively in matters of doctrine to the whole Church, the Pope does not need to consult his brother bishops and cannot err, at all), nor can I reconcile the complete absence of infallibility from the writings of the early Councils and Fathers with Catholic insistence that the early Church believed it.
Protestantism which sought to correct Rome’s abuses and distortions (indulgences to get time out of Purgatory, papal supremacy in which the Pope ruled as a temporal monarch over the Papal States and commanded armies, salvation earned largely by works) ended up foundering in the wake of its own contradictions. Within the first generation of the Classical Reformation, disputes arose among Protestant theologians regarding the interpretation of Luther’s ‘solas’, what exactly the role of a Church should be, how to maintain Christian orthodoxy outside of the only Western precedent – papal authority – for doing so, and the nature, number and purpose of the sacraments. Protestants often profess their faith in the Bible as the ‘literal’ Word of God, yet they use hundreds of different editions of the Bible, most without many of the books the Church originally included, and most ignore or are unaware of the scriptural passage which holds that Christ Himself is the Word of God (John 1:1).
Basic history tells us that the New Testament did not ‘fall from the sky in one piece’ but was carefully compiled in the first two centuries after Pentecost before it was canonized (put together as one tome or canon, the New Testament). Who put the New Testament together? The Orthodox Catholic Church, the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Yet if you talk to many Protestants, they talk as though the New Testament dropped out of the heavens completely intact in one instance! Interestingly, this is what Islam traditionally teaches about the Quran. Many Muslims are unaware that the Islamic holy book has gone through several different editions during its translation from the original Arabic, yet devout Muslims believe the Quran to be God’s literal words revealed to their prophet Muhammad.
The early Church always taught that the Bible was divinely inspired, but that it must be interpreted within the proper context of Church teachings and careful guidance in the Holy Tradition. For a Christian studying the Scriptures on their own without any guidance from the Church is to risk moving outside the fold of the Church Tradition (into schism). This risks misinterpreting scripture and falling into heresy, as have all Protestant denominations to varying and often incredible degrees.
The extent to which many Protestants are completely unaware of the Eastern Church’s existence is matched if not surpassed by their ignorance of much of their own churches’ darker details. This of course is not their fault, given that many older denominations, already losing tens of thousands of members every year, are reluctant to disclose bits of history that portray their founders in unfavorable light. I will cite only one example of the disturbing connection between Martin Luther, ‘father of the Classical Reformation’, and Judaism. Most Lutherans today know nothing about Martin Luther’s violently antisemitic 60,000 word treatise “On the Jews and their Lies”. No Lutheran denomination (there are dozens worldwide spread over different ‘synods’ which differ in many core beliefs) actively teaches its members about their founder’s hate-filled writings.
In every historically Calvinist country today where the descendants of the so-called predestined ‘elect’ live, rates of church attendance are very low. Wales and Scotland, for example, are countries with some of the lowest rates in Europe, while their demographic percentages of declared atheists are considerably higher than many other places. Did the ‘elect’ simply vanish from these societies – or did the idea of a God who would somehow predestine people before their birth for the fires of hell strike people for what it is: monstrous? Such a capricious God who would create people only to damn them before their birth, who would send His Son into the world for the sole purpose of atoning for the Elect as a Ransom Offering, is the very antithesis of one Who “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16).
Even Luther and Calvin, for all their heresies and inconsistencies, are recognizably Christian in the traditional sense, as anyone who reads their works can see. Yet today the first reformers would not recognize many of the churches named in their honor as Christian communities. Many of the smallest Protestant ‘denominations’ are little more than self-supported ‘solo churches’ of an itinerant preacher, his interpretations of his Bible, and perhaps a radio or television program with a few dozen supporters. Protestantism has produced over 23,000 denominations just on the North American continent alone, and hundreds of these somehow claim to be the “true” Church.
Rather than hold to the historically preserved Truth of the Church, which is impossible by the very nature of Protestantism’s conscious divorce from what had been the historic Church in the West, Protestants seeking to live out their Christian faith cannot appeal to such a Church, since they are outside it. Instead, as part of a broad sectarian movement with thousands of different denominations to “choose from”, they have the recourse to “church shop” until they find a community that suits their particular understanding of the Bible or offers services they enjoy. Where are you to search for Truth, and how can you hold yourself accountable outside the inner Tradition of the historic Church? You cannot.
Most evangelical Christians are entirely unfamiliar with Orthodoxy, and those who do enter an Orthodox church are often stupefied, since what they come into contact with is essentially the polar opposite of their normative church experience. Their only point of reference with ‘elaborate’ traditional liturgical worship is usually an often deeply misguided idea about what the Roman Catholic Church was and what it now is. Most are unaware that the Catholic Church in the English-speaking world has recently seen a lot of liturgical modifications and attempts by some parishes at innovations in musical and instrumental style that would actually be very acceptable for the evangelical ‘P&W’ approach to “doing church”. Unsurprisingly, it is not uncommon for many evangelicals to assume that Orthodoxy is some ‘weird ethnic offshoot’ of Catholicism when they first encounter it. Yet interestingly, in the Orthodox Church in America, many of our converts are from evangelical backgrounds.
When we Orthodox look at contemporary Western society and see evangelical non-denominational Christians as the most vocal defenders of traditional values, people who are often proponents of the ‘born again’ experience of ‘one and done’ single moment salvation, we cannot help but wonder. How can such a minimalist, instant gratification view of one’s salvation possibly inspire anyone to work to heal and transform their lives if they believe they are already and irrevocably saved? Much less, how can such a view inspire these people to heal the pain and the confusion that moral relativism and post-modernist apathy have wrought in our society, if these people cannot (or do not think they need to) work to transform themselves? Without the humility and patience which Orthodoxy leads her faithful to cultivate in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, I do not see how Western society can heal itself and fight the cancers of abject relativism and hedonism into which so many in our society have fallen.
Roman Catholicism has gradually distorted and expanded the original role of the Papacy to the extent that for those who firmly adhere to traditional Catholic teachings, the Pope indeed often becomes an idol, while many liberal Catholics often live and think consciously or unknowingly as Protestants within their Church, for various reasons choosing not to break away. I hear from so many people who are raised Catholic that they believe “communion is communion”, whatever it means to them. They do not understand transubstantiation, and most have not even heard of papal infallibility. What does this mean for the Roman Catholic Church when potentially millions of its members are so essentially ignorant about core doctrines of their faith? If Catholics are left to be Catholic “on their own terms”, without the authoritative instruction in the faith provided by pastoral bishops, how does this distinguish them from Protestants? Over what unity in faith will Rome preside?
The first Protestants’ intentions in purifying the Catholic Church of its errors were undoubtedly well-intended, but to argue that the Bible alone contains all things necessary for salvation, when the very New Testament was put together by the apostolic Church, ignores the crucial – and Orthodox would say paramount – role which Holy Tradition and the apostolic Church play in guiding the lives of the faithful. This has consequentially led to the birth of thousands of heretical and schismatic groups, many of which are today barely recognisable as Christian, because Protestants ultimately have no source of authority beyond their own subjective interpretation of the Bible or their pastor’s. While Rome maintained “unity without freedom”, and has since the Second Vatican Council increasingly lost that inner unity of faith and common adherence to tradition, Protestantism has come to embody “freedom without unity”. Neither branch or part of Western Christianity has preserved the original faith of the early Church.
So what are Christians looking for the fullness of the Christian faith to do? Look to the East, for we have never lost or corrupted it! Every one of our bishops can trace his lineage of apostolic succession back to one of the original Twelve. In our worship we approach the divine in a spirit of reverence, humility, mystery, and joy unique to our Church, and we preserve our ancient liturgies as they have been handed down to us for centuries, a key in the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The liturgy informs and has impacted all aspects of Orthodox spiritual life, especially the prayers we use in our daily devotions outside of church.
Spiritual life in the Eastern tradition focuses primarily on a relationship-centered approach to salvation, that is, seeing God as the ‘physician of our souls’ and salvation as a process of theosis (divinization) through prayer of the heart, love for God and the other, perpetual repentance and opening ourselves up to the transformative grace of the Holy Spirit, rather than in the more contractual or legalistic Western understanding whereby sinners are damned to hell or cut off from God and the righteous saved. We believe we are saved together, just as together we work to defend and maintain the inner Tradition of the Church under the guidance, direction, and counsel of our ruling bishops. In our preparation prayers before we receive communion, we ask that our participation in the Eucharist be neither to our “judgment nor condemnation, O Lord, but to the healing of soul and body.” These last words speak volumes as to why we pray, why we commune, and why we seek to find salvation through the path provided by this ancient Church.
The Orthodox do not teach nor have we ever taught that salvation is only possible within our Church, for such a claim denies the limitless grace and omnipotence of God. He works in mysterious ways, hastening to all people who seek Him, including the repentant thief on the Cross. For anyone seeking the authentic, original faith of the Church Fathers, the original and historic Body of Christ, it can only be found here. In every faith there is the Seed of the Word of God (Luke 8:11), a hint of Christ in all traditions and all peoples, for we are all made in the image of God, but only in the Orthodox Church will you find the fullness of the ancient Christian faith preserved, defended and fully alive today.
“Do you see God’s love for us? And who shall describe His mercy? O my brethren, on my knees I beg you to believe in God—believe that there is a Holy Spirit Who bears witness to Him in every church, and in my soul. The Holy Spirit is love; and the souls of all the holy who dwell in heaven overflow with this love. And on earth this same Holy Spirit is in the souls of those who love God. All heaven beholds the earth in the Holy Spirit, and hears our prayers and carries them to God.”-St Silouan the Athonite. 1866-1938.