The clay and the potter

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And every one who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as he is pure.”

1 John 3:1-3

My soul is on fire as if it has been lit by ten thousand candles, and yet I feel a deep calm, an innermost peace, at the same time as this fire. This divine fire which has inflamed my soul is the radiant joy and awe I feel at God’s immediate and immanent presence, which is “everywhere present and fill[s] all things”!

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I am in love with every part of God’s creation, all that is on this earth and in the heavens, but most especially, I am struck by the beauty I see in every face, in every person’s countenance. Old and creased with cares, young and carefree, wrinkled from the accumulation of a life’s work, or soft and smooth in youth – every person I see is beautiful, because each person points to the Creator.

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Whenever I think on the reality that every single person I will see or meet in my life is a child of God, formed by Him before birth in His image (Psalm 138 LXX), I am almost overwhelmed with awe. Every person, at every stage of his or her life, is a precious vessel of the Holy Spirit, the divine Love, the immanent and active grace of our Lord present in all His creation.

Every person is sacred, and the grace of Him who made us all cannot ever be fully absent from anyone. It is always there; the seed of the divine Image remains imprinted upon each soul, no matter what a person does to deny, shatter, or flee from that grace. For we are as clay formed by a master potter; just like clay vessels which travel to the corners of the earth away from the hands of him who formed them, even if we end up far away from Him who shaped us, we cannot escape the reality of our existence. Impressed upon our souls, our very being, is the reality that we came from, and were generated by, the divine Love of God.

The Scriptures are filled with beautiful verses describing God and man in the language of a potter and his clay. Within Genesis 1:26-28, we read:

“. . .So God created [in Hebrew, the word used here is bara] man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them.”.

God created man ex nihilo, but the word bara also signifies that He molded and fashioned man as would a potter out of clay. Bara is a word which occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures only in reference to the creative activity of God. It implies that something new has been brought into existence by divine command.

Further, in Genesis 2:1-7, we read that 

“In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground—then the LORD God formed [In Hebrew, the word used here is yatsar] man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [רוח, ruach, or spirit] of life; and man became a living being. . .”.

In Hebrew, “dust” and “clay” are often used interchangeably to refer to soil or earth from the ground. Yatsar, translated in this version as “formed”, literally means to mold as a potter molds clay. The use of yatsar tells us how God formed and sculpted the first of mankind, Adam (אָדָם, whose very name means ‘man’ in Hebrew) and Eve ( חַוָּה, whose name means “living one” or “source of life”). God created man as the summit of His work, the highest of all of His artistic creation, after His own image.

In Jeremiah 18:1-7, we read in the Prophet Jeremiah’s revelation from God a wording very similar to that used in Genesis: “Then the Word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.””

Most beautifully, in Isaiah 64:8, we read:

“Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father;
    we are the clay, and thou art our potter;
    we are all the work of thy hand. . .”

Knowing this by the sweetest and most touching grace of God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which imprints Himself upon our souls, we are transformed “by the renewal of [our] mind”, as St Paul writes in Romans 12:2. (Here, “mind”, a latinism, is a very misleading translation of the original Greek word νοός, nous, which is more accurately understood as the eye of the soul or mind of the heart; that spiritual consciousness which makes us aware of God’s immanent presence and grace).

When our noetic faculties are enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we become more and more aware that God truly is “everywhere present and fill[ing] all things. . . the Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life”. When we come to look upon every person — no mater their emotional or psychological state or physical appearance or social status — as a fellow child of God, an icon of the Divine image, we see the spark of His love present all around us in everyone we meet and see, each hour of every day. In this, each moment of our life becomes a great blessing.

How can we not love each person as a precious icon of the Holy Trinity, our God who loves us in a way that is beyond our power to rationally describe or conceptually understand? If we know this, once we discern His love for ourselves, then we must realize He loves every other person just as much as He loves us. How can we not but see that the love God has for each of His creatures is a reflection of the perfect love which unites His Three Persons in a unity which transcends our rational understanding?

We read again and again in the Scriptures variations on the reality that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 1 John 3, John 3:16, Ephesians 2:4-5, Galatians 2:20, Romans 5:8, etc), which the universal witness of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church has maintained through the centuries. Only by integrating into our daily lives this awareness that our God loves us to the depths of our being, who fashioned each body and soul in His image, may we be transformed and become truly Christ-like Christians, little anointed ones, sons  and daughters of the Most High. What a soul-astounding and glorious challenge this is: to live by love in all things, seeing in the other, in every person you meet and know, the presence of your Creator.

“Acquire the Spirit of peace. . .”

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This is perhaps the most famous quotation from St Seraphim of Sarov, born Prokhor Moshnin, one of Orthodox Russia’s most beloved wonder-workers, monks and elders (startsy).

The saint was born in 1759 in Kursk during the reign of Empress Elizabeth (Yelizaveta Petrovna), daughter of Peter I, and died near Sarov in 1833 during the reign of Emperor Nicholas I.

O Holy Father Seraphim, pray to God for us!

Thoughts on the grace of God in our lives and the transforming power of His love

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.

Words of wisdom from Bishop Basil (Rodzianko) on the thirteenth anniversary of his repose

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“When Christ promised his disciples that the Spirit of God, His Holy Spirit, would descend upon them, He called Him the Comforter. To be in the Spirit promised by Christ is to be comforted, consoled. One need not fear any kind of sorrow or surrounding evil or inner affliction when there is such consolation. But in order to come to this consolation, it is necessary to understand in the depth of one’s soul that any sorrow, any suffering, any affliction is a consequence of sin – either one’s own or another’s. And if you accept everything as your own sin, if you identify yourself with the whole of sinful humanity and understand the fall and that you deprived yourself of Paradise, the Kingdom of Heaven – first of all, you yourself – then tears of repentance will flow at once and with them, all encompassing consolation. Such a person (who has come to such repentance) becomes meek, filled with an inner calm, silence and peace. Only in such a condition is it possible to subdue surrounding evil, win people over and win over the world. ‘Acquire the spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved’ said St. Seraphim of Sarov.”
–His Grace Bishop Basil of San Francisco (May 22, 1915- September 17, 1999).

Marvelous in our eyes

The Lord can and does work miracles in the simplest of ways. Most often He does this by reminding us of His presence in our lives when we have become too self-centered, spiritually ‘blind’ or ‘deaf’ amid the bustle of our day-to-day existence to discern or appreciate it. His presence can be felt everywhere, in every moment of the day, in every minute of the hour, if only we open ourselves to it. If only we would allow ourselves to see with our spiritual eyes, with our noetic soul, how much richer and more beautiful our lives would be!

We could then easily discern the presence of God pervading every aspect of our lives. In this ever-present, ever deepening discernment, we would experience constant spiritual, and even physical, renewal, a rejuvenating transformation, for the glory of God’s presence restores all things to their most beautiful state of fullness in Him! By this restoration, our spirits become reanimated and reawakened as they bask in the radiant awareness of God’s majesty, and they feel in close communion with all beings and things created by God.

In every smile you give and receive, the light of God is present, especially in those smiles which you can tell really warm the soul by the creases they form all across one’s face, especially near one’s eyes. In the innocent, pealing laughter of babies and young children, fully animated with an unbridled joy, God is surely present, along with many angels.

In very old churches, testaments of stone and mortar to the enduring memory of the ancients whose piety and love for God drove them to raise these temples in which they glorified and worshiped Him, we see the abiding presence of God, especially in those holy places His providence has saved from almost certain destruction in the wake of wars.

Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, Chicago, IL, built in 1903, is one of the more ‘ancient’ Orthodox churches in the Americas, but compared to other Orthodox churches in the rest of the world, it is practically a ‘baby’!

In comparison to Chicago’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Cathedral of Svetitskhoveli (“Living Pillar”) in the eastern Georgian city of Mtskheta is truly ancient! The cathedral, which dates to the eleventh century, is the seat of His Holiness Ilia II, Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia, and thus, this stone church is at the spiritual heart of Georgian Orthodoxy. Miraculously, the church has survived numerous fires, raids, and threats of war.

Even in the quiet, simple day-to-day encounters with nature, God is so clearly evident and abundantly present, for there is a sense of the sacred, the holy, the mysterious and the majestic, which pervades all created things. I especially feel this beauty, this divine presence, around water.

Every time you walk out of your home early in the morning, and feel the warmth of the sun on your face or the soft, awakening drops of rain from the heavens, God is there. Every time you await the change in seasons, and you delight in stepping on a crunchy, crisped autumn leaf as I do, or the cool, gentle September breeze replacing the thick, humid summer heat, thank God for this small but monumental blessing. As you delight in these things, remember that He made each of us in His image, and created all that we see that we might recognize and ceaselessly praise the glory of His creation. Remember that the timeless splendor of His endless creation is a reflection of the Lord’s own eternal glory, and this is a mirror of the fullness of glory to which we are called to attain, by participation and cooperation with, by, and through the Holy Spirit, what is His by nature, essence, and from eternity.

If you try amid prayer to find that long sought-after stillness of innermost heart and soul, if you let the Holy Spirit of the Lord move you and take hold of your heart in its deepest quiet, you invite natural contemplation by which you can wonder and marvel in awe at the magnificent expanse and breadth of the Lord’s creation. If you then endeavor to contemplate, just for a few moments, the sheer majesty and transcendent beauty of all created things, all embodied beings, all physical matter in its incredible variety, expanse, diversity, vitality and order, how can your soul not marvel, how can your eyes not fill with tears at the indescribable doings of the Lord? How can you not but rejoice and say,

“This is the doing of the LORD, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” -Psalm 118, verse 23

“A Domino factum est istud et est mirabile in oculis nostris.”

“παρα κυριου εγενετο αυτη και εστιν θαυμαστη εν οφθαλμοις ημων.”

Glory to God for all things!

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Why we must travel slowly on the road to a restoration of communion

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI and His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew I join hands as they bless the Christian faithful in Istanbul near the Patriarchal residence.

“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.

How much of their historic Orthodox liturgical and spiritual life do Eastern-rite Catholics maintain?

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.

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St James Roman Catholic Church, my family’s parish in Setauket, New York, where I received First Communion and Confirmation as a Catholic.

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”.

HH Pope John Paul II worked closely with Orthodox patriarchs to establish greater understanding, friendship, and ecumenical dialogue exploring ways to restore communion between the ancient Churches.

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.

HH Pope John Paul II and HAH Patriarch Bartholomew established a close relationship and encouraged ongoing dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox religious leaders.

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!

Edinburgh’s “Club Sin” is a former Kirk of Scotland parish church converted to use as a lounge and nightclub.

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.

Both Catholic and Orthodox Churches accept the first seven Ecumenical Councils as binding and authoritative, for in these councils the bishops of the universal (“catholic”) Church assembled to defend the orthodox Faith, condemn heresies, and issue statements reiterating central Christian doctrines and beliefs. Rome considers later councils which popes called after the Great Schism to be ecumenical, but none of the Orthodox Churches recognize these claims.

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.

Participation in a common liturgical life by Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics will lessen feelings of otherness, and Eastern Christians of both Churches should introduce Western Christians to the beauty and transcendence uniquely found within the services of Matins (Orthros), Vespers, and the Divine Liturgy.

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.