Letter to a formerly Orthodox friend who became a Roman Catholic

To an agnostic-turned Orthodox friend who left Orthodoxy for Catholicism at the time of his marriage to a Roman Catholic. December 2015.
Dear  _______,
Congratulations on your marriage! Many years! I hope you both are doing well. I appreciate your thoughtfully detailed comments. I am in the midst of exams, so I will respond to your specific points in more detail later.
I remember that at a Bible study Metropolitan Jonah was hosting at St Mark’s OCA parish in Bethesda some years ago, probably late fall 2013, you commented that you hadn’t felt Christ truly present when you communed of the Eucharist. That always astounded and saddened me, since it was entirely the opposite of my own experience upon becoming Orthodox. I hope and pray you did come to experience Him noetically while you were still Orthodox, or, if not, that you have begun to experience this when communing now as a Catholic. I fell in love with Orthodoxy above all else because I encountered Christ in a way I never had as a Roman Catholic. I saw Him acting and alive in the Orthodox around me, in the beauty, truth, and majesty of the divine services, and in the words of her Saints and the ancient Fathers’ writings which simply breathe grace. Immersed in living (and failing repeatedly to live up to) Orthodoxy, God touched my soul and illumined my heart in a way I had never encountered as a Catholic. Time and again since becoming Orthodox, I have experienced profound grace and God’s healing (salvific and therapeutic) presence, mainly through moments in church, communing of the Eucharist, reading the Bible and the Fathers’ writings, talking with the poor, and in deep noetic prayer. I pray that you have found and continue to enounter Christ in this real, intimate way, above all in your marriage and in becoming a Catholic. Although I naturally was sorry to hear you had left Orthodoxy, and am grieved for you, I respect you too much to think you could ever make such a decision lightly.
I guess I’m wondering: what inspired you to leave Orthodoxy for Rome? Are you predominantly worshiping now according to one of the Roman Rites (Ordinary Form/Novus Ordo Missae/Mass of Pope Paul VI, or the Extraordinary Form/Tridentine Latin Mass) or one of the Eastern rites? I have several Melkite and Ukrainian Greek Catholic friends, so I couldn’t help but wonder which rite(s) you and your wife decided on in terms of worship.
A major factor for me in moving from Roman Catholicism (my faith for the first 21 years of my life) to Orthodoxy was not so much the papal claims in theory (these were problematic enough) so much as what I saw as their utter failure in practice. By this I mean: it’s all well and good and right (and apostolic) to have the Pope of Rome serve as the “servant of servants”, as St Gregory the Great called himself. The Pope ought to be Primus in rank and Protos in authority and honor, exercising a supreme archpastoral role, presiding in love, mediating conflicts between local Churches (jurisdictions), etc. I and most Orthodox would welcome this someday. Metropolitan John Zizioulas has written superbly in this area (a man whom Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has recently and publicly referred to as the best Orthodox theologian alive today).
To be honest — this may surprise you — the papal claims themselves aren’t nearly as unnerving as what many of my Orthodox friends call among ourselves “the L factor”. Both the papal claims and “the L factor” are supremely interrelated — the latter could never have taken place without such a concentration of power over the fate of the sacred liturgy itself in the papacy’s hands. We are terrified — genuinely — and deeply concerned more than anything else about the radical innovations which have taken place in Rome’s liturgical worship since the implementation of the Novus Ordo Missae/Mass of Pope Paul VI beginning in 1969. Put simply, Pope Benedict’s well-intended but, I believe, ultimately futile efforts to defend the Ordinary Form as a valid Mass when properly and reverently offered does not convince me. Where the Holy Father insists on defending both the Mass of Pope Paul VI and the Tridentine Mass as equally valid forms of the Roman liturgy, as much as I respect him, I can’t accept this view. Rather than accept his earnest contention that faithful Catholics must try to understand, reform, and improve the Novus Ordo rite through a “hermeneutic of continuity”, Benedict himself admitted to observing with alarm a noticeable “hermeneutic of rupture” between the 1969 Missal/Ordinary Form and the previous, organically developed missals of the Roman Mass. In his Introduction to the French edition of The Reform of the Roman Liturgy by Msgr. Klaus Gamber, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

  What happened after the [Second Vatican] Council was something else entirely: in the place of the liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries and replaced it, as in a manufacturing process, with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product (produit banal de l’instant). [Introduction by Cardinal Ratzinger to La Reforme Liturgique en question (Le-Barroux: Editions Sainte-Madeleine), 1992, pp. 7-8.]

Bearing this in mind, how can we Orthodox possibly consent to lowering and denigrating the Divine Liturgy and our other ancient, holy services and admit, as Pope Benedict and certainly Pope Francis would have us do, that the Mass of Pope Paul VI — as it is commonly and usually offered — is on the same level as the Orthodox divine services when spiritually, noetically, and liturgically it simply and obviously isn’t? How can we be seriously be expected to say that the Novus Ordo, as usually offered, is right glory and right worship truly befitting God when so often its celebration is marked with profound irreverence, liturgical abuse, and an overall Protestant atmosphere? How am I, or anyone with eyes to see and noses to smell and ears to hear, supposed to seriously believe that a solemn, reverent High Church Anglican service is supposed to count as less valid in God’s eyes than the most sloppily offered Ordinary Form Mass? Because one is offered in communion with Rome, and the other not?
Such a claim astonishes me in both its sweeping arrogance and its utter dismissal of the crucial importance virtues like beauty, reverence, solemnity, and dignity play in leading and beckoning the worshiper to God. All these things, Rome says, matter less than being in communion with one man. How can you expect me to explain to my Russian or Greek or Antiochian friends that the Novus Ordo Mass as commonly offered is, in Rome’s view, actually equal to the Divine Liturgy? Even if liturgical abuse were not nearly as widespread as it is among so many Novus Ordo parishes, these kinds of abuses should not be taking place at all. Yet these abuses have gone on for decades with little to no real interference from Rome, because, I suspect, she values 1) even a nominal communion with her See no matter how skin-deep or threadbare, and 2) Novus Ordo parishioners’ continued tithes rather than risking driving them from the pews by restoring traditional, reverent worship to replace what they’ve gotten used to since 1969, all over an actual fidelity to orthodox, organically developed Catholic worship and spiritual tradition.
How can you justify these liturgical abuses or explain them away, when many of them take place with the full knowledge and support of local Catholic bishops and archbishops, even the papacy itself?
To illustrate my point, think on the sad reality that every year the horrifically irreverent Los Angeles Religious Education Congress occurs, sponsored by the L.A. Archdiocese, one of the nation’s largest, and attended by numerous faithful laity, priests, and bishops, including the Archbishop himself. Far from only occurring in a few tiny, marginalized liberal name-only Catholic parishes such as this one in Seattle, these liturgical abuses are taking place at major stadium events, major “valid but illicit” Masses celebrated with the full knowledge and blessing of Church leaders as high as the L.A. Archbishop himself. You then might say, in defense of Rome, “well at least this wrong, unfortunate toleration of liturgical abuse and error is only a problem among liberal bishops and archbishops. At least it does not extend all the way up to the Papacy itself!” Sadly, Rome is entirely complicit in not only allowing such abuses and turning a blind eye, but as recent as 2011, the man who is now the Pope of Rome himself happily presided over a “Children’s Mass” replete with liturgical abuse. Think on the sad reality that in this public “Children’s Mass” celebrated in Argentina in 2011, the presiding celebrant was none other than then-serving Buenos Aires Cardinal and Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.
According to the video,
El 15 de octubre de 2011 se realizó la Misa Arquidiocesana de Niños en el Estadio del Parque Roca. La jornada se llenó de sol y alegría con la participación de muchísimos niños acompañados por sus catequistas, dirigentes y delegados. La Misa fue presidida por el Cardenal Jorge Bergoglio.
[My translation] On the 15th of October 2011 was celebrated the Archdiocesan Children’s Mass in the Parque Roca stadium. The day was filled with sunshine and joy with the participation of many children accompanied by their catechists, leaders and delegates. The Mass was presided over by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.
Think of the reality that not only was this event somehow seen, indefensibly, as a proper form of catechetical instruction for Catholic youth, but that the man who is now the Roman Pope, allegedly the Vicar of Christ Himself, willingly presided over such a Mass! How does this kind of banal, ugly worship lead anyone to salvation? Yet we Orthodox are often accused of chauvinism and triumphalism (“our liturgical life could never get that bad!”). We are somehow expected to “mind our own house” and not express our horror that, were we to reunite with Rome anytime soon, we would be obliged and expected to accept as entirely legitimate this kind of “worship” as a valid Mass! This is theological-liturgical minimalism — “let’s set a low baseline standard of what has to take place in a service for it to be counted as a valid Mass. The rest doesn’t matter”. This overly permissive, I would argue fundamentally lazy attitude to offering the Eucharistic liturgy could not be more estranged from the ancient Orthodox phronema which holds instead that we are to offer the most beautiful, glorious, reverent, and majestic worship to our King and Creator. Man’s primary purpose, his intrinsic end, is to worship God and grow closer to Him — so how can such irreverent, minimalist  “I guess this is good enough to count as valid” worship be pleasing to Him? Why do we presume to offer anything less than the most beautiful and sublime worship to God?
Perhaps the sad truth is that we, Rome and the Orthodox, have gradually, in the past millennium of intermittent levels of cultural and liturgical and theological estrangement, but more rapidly in the past five decades, developed apart from each other fundamentally different understandings of what true beauty and true sublime worship actually are, and thus, we sincerely believe in worshiping God in very different ways? From an Orthodox perspective, this chasm has only occurred because Rome, by giving a primacy of emphasis to her political and jurisdictional claims, has tragically over centuries cut herself off from her organic roots, from the single, united deposit of apostolic Faith and post-Nicene worship which defined the pre-Schism Church, East and West. (Let us leave the Arians and Nestorians and Non-Chalecedonians aside here, since both Rome and the Orthodox view these divisions as ruptures by heretical groups from and out of the one Catholic Orthodox Church). Thus we Orthodox are forced to ask, especially when we walk into most Novus Ordo liturgies and are confronted with the spectacle of what is clearly another faith separate from our own: what have we carried on and preserved which Rome has lost, and what has Rome accrued and accepted which we reject as, at best, unhelpful, and at worst, heretical? There is, I believe, a close interconnection between the two components.
I understand and have processed the intellectual draw of the papacy and its claims, yet all my research using numerous patristic sources and Greek language scholars over the past five years supports an Orthodox understanding of the papacy (pre-Schism), an understanding which is very different from how Rome has gradually come to define its understanding of the proper universal powers and role of the papacy from 1213-15 (Fourth Lateran), to  Trent (1545-63), to Vatican I (1868-70) and Vatican II (1962-65), and of course in the latest edition of the constantly updated Catechism (CCC).
Fundamentally, I believe that the Orthodox are correct in arguing that the Roman papacy has evolved its theological views, and more recently ruptured its ancient, inner liturgical life, to become, since the Schism gradually became reality, something now which it was not prior. Put another way, the papacy tragically claims today for itself a degree of absolute spiritual authority and power which it simply did not always have.
Then you have the disturbing theological and pastoral implications of Rome’s opposing approach to chrismation/confirmation between the Roman and Eastern rites. Rome delays confirmation and communion in the two Roman rites, but now encourages and supports the ancient Catholic and Orthodox practice of chrismating and communing infants among Byzantine and other sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches. This disparity is extremely disturbing to me. How can they both be right? Regarding ministering chrismation and communion to infants, it is either an apostolic, orthodox practice and therefore essential for the good of the young souls being chrismated and then communing, or it is, on the other hand, wrong to offer confirmation and communion, as the Scholastics argued, to those who could not begin to rationally discern what they were consuming. One approach being right/orthodox logically and rationally necessitates the other one being wrong/heterodox. That Rome endeavors to try to allow and maintain these two fundamentally contradictory approaches to such major questions is to me astonishing, and reinforces my belief that she values maintaining communion with her to the great expense of any notion of enforcing orthodox of belief and practice. My same concern applies with equal weight to the Latin/Western Church’s longstanding custom (with almost the force of law) since the 13th century of requiring celibacy vows of all priests. This innovation goes against the pre-13th century universal practice in West and East alike of married clergy (excluding monks who were always celibate, from whose ranks bishops in the East are selected). There are numerous other examples of Rome departing from the pre-Schism practices of the Church, but for time’s sake i will not delve into them here. Suffice it to say that, far from serving as the universal conservator of Truth and the early apostolic and pre-Schism Faith, Rome seems to have become a great innovator and enabler of new theological ideas, customs, and pastoral practices.
Far worse, in my estimation, the Magisterium has colossally failed in the past fifty years (since the conclusion of the nebulous, much-misinterpreted and much-misunderstood Second Vatican Council and the subsequent issuing by Pope Paul Sixtus of the revised, much abbreviated Roman Missal) to preserve intact the most basic and important of all things — orthodox, reverent, holy Catholic worship. Isn’t it a scandal that something like the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress exists, much less that it is so expensive and yet continues to be held and publicized annually? I was raised in the Novus Ordo/Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. I attended two parishes when I was a child and went to Mass every Sunday with my family, one parish from 1990-1997 when I was in northern VA and then one in suburban Long Island, NY from 1997-2010, when I started exclusively going to Orthodox divine services. These churches were both very modern, ugly (built, of course, in the 60s), and everything there was conscientiously done to adhere to the so-called, nebulous, somehow decidedly progressive “Spirit of Vatican II”.
The vast majority of Masses offered by the Catholic Church today are Novus Ordo (Mass of Pope Paul VI/Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite). I know that the Revised Missal’s rubrics prescribe great reverence, assume that the priest is celebrating ad orientem and using incense, defend the continued pride of place of Gregorian chant and the organ to the exclusion of “secular” instruments and music bands. Yet visit most OF/NO parishes around the Catholic world and this is never the case. Ask yourself: why and how is this? What is the purpose of the Pope’s supposedly universal spiritual authority and jurisdiction if not precisely to enforce such rubrics’ liturgical orthodoxy, while working to forbid and prohibit liturgical abuse and innovations?
Every year I dread going to Western Christmas Eve Mass with my mom and sisters because of how fundamentally Protestantized, how “happy clappy”, how fundamentally irreverent and banal the ethos of the service is, how ugly the building is, etc. I try so hard to find beauty there, but compared to Orthodox worship it is like night and day. Beauty points to holiness and witnesses to and conveys inner spiritual truths. Its absence is jarring to me. 
The “Spirit of Vatican II” as interpreted by theologically progressive liberal bishops and priests has been devastating to Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Where is Rome in all this? What has Rome done to restore proper, orthodox Catholic catechism, discipline flagrantly heretical, progressive”social justice warrior” priests and nuns such as the defiant LCWR groups, and encourage the restoration of dignified, reverent, orthodox worship in its Ordinary Form? Pope Benedict’s “New Evangelization” was laudable, but all of his efforts seem to be quietly, and sometimes not so quietly opposed, by his perplexing successor. This highlights another major vulnerability to the papal Church’s governmental structure — one more traditional, orthodox Catholic pope can work so diligently to reform and undo decades of poor catechism and liturgical abuse, but then his more liberal successor can in turn undermine, slow, or undo all his efforts. The hypercentrality of the Papacy–which has the practical effect of rendering all Catholic diocesan bishops worldwide as essentially little more than deputies or vicars of the Pope, who thus becomes the only one true ruling bishop– has the major liability of allowing successive popes to greatly disrupt, interfere with, and disturb the organic liturgical life of the Church via papal fiat, Vatican council, or committee agenda. This kind of concentrated power to alter or revise or even do away with the sacred liturgy is incomprehensible to the Orthodox.
It is deeply saddening, and terribly ironic to me, that at the end of the day we Orthodox are being asked to sacrifice our commitment to absolute, organic, high and ancient standards of truth-conveying beauty in our liturgical life for the sake of external unity. We are being told “keep your liturgy as you like, for now, but if you enter into communion with Rome, you have to recognize even the most irreverent Novus Ordo Mass as valid.” This is theological and liturgical minimalism and I just can’t bring myself to accept it. I can’t see how it is right to offer second-rate worship to God in purposely-built ugly buildings with banal services but still pride oneself on being in communion with Pope Francis. What would one gain from entering into communion with him which one does not already have as an Orthodox Christian? My spiritual life would be greatly impoverished were I to do that, and I would lose so much of my relationship with God which the Orthodox Church has helped me deepen and cultivate.
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We so clearly have two different religions, two different faiths — Rome and the Orthodox. At our worst we Orthodox are factious and feuding. We need papal primacy properly exercised. But at Rome’s worst, you have archbishops and bishops presiding over the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress every single year, with either Rome’s tacit approval or her inability to stop the madness. Then you have the current Pope himself happily and freely presiding over, enabling, and doing nothing to correct a Children’s Mass in Buenos Aires filled with numerous examples of liturgical abuse. This man is supposed to Christ’s Vicar on earth? The idea is really laughable, were it not so sad.
My studies of all the Vatican I and Vatican II documents — and my years of seeing their poisonous fruits firsthand (appallingly bad-to-nonexistent parish Catholic catechesis, openly heretical “Spirit of VII” priests and nuns who deny the Real Presence and the Trinity and Christ’s maleness and even His (and thus all of our hope for) bodily resurrection, all sorts of liturgical abuse uncriticized and unchecked)– have convinced me that Rome has fundamentally erred and has lost in various ways the pre-Schism deposit of Faith which she once shared with the Orthodox. Put simply, if you go into almost any Novus Ordo/Ordinary Form parish on a Sunday, and then visit an Orthodox Divine Liturgy the next weekend, you will not be able to believe that these two services, worlds apart in content, ethos, atmosphere, decorum, style, and reverence, are somehow of the same religion and a shared faith.
We Orthodox are asked and expected to acknowledge the full, immediate, and supreme jurisdictional authority of a Pope, resting by virtue of his office in and on a man who, in the case of Pope Francis, willingly presided over flagrant liturgical abuse. Seriously? I just can’t believe that this man is who Rome claims him to be.
My point in all this is that the Orthodox have preserved, over centuries, in a living Faith, an astonishing degree of beauty and inner truth without the externally-imposed unifying power of a theoretically (in certain situations) infallible and unerring Pope. We have, despite centuries of Ottoman Turkish and then communist Soviet oppression, preserved something in and by and through the inner life of our Church — the divine services above all — and defended and kept and passed down such an inheritance of beauty united with Truth. Sadly, despite having her theoretically universally-ruling and situationally infallible Pope, or more likely because of this overcentralized papal structure, Rome could or would not preserve and keep intact this same rich and timeless deposit of Faith.
This is by no means to argue that the Orthodox Church does not have serious problems of its own, especially concerning evangelism and petty jurisdictional disputes, or that every Novus Ordo Catholic parish is a nest of irreverence or liturgical abuse. One can search hard and find a OF/Novus Ordo Mass properly offered according to the prescribed, rarely followed rubrics. These are a tiny minority — and this reality speaks volumes. With Catholic parishes in most Atlantic and Pacific coast towns and many even in more Protestant Midwestern states, something is really wrong if one has to drive hours, even across state lines, to find a reverently offered Novus Ordo Mass or Tridentine Mass. One can also remain in communion with the Pope and choose to worship in the different Eastern Rites or the Extraordinary Form (TLM) and shut one’s eyes and ears to flagrant liturgical abuse in Ordinary Form parishes. That defensive, withdrawing attitude of “what isn’t around me can’t harm me” is understandable for Catholics looking for a healthy, liturgically orthodox parish, but it is ultimately a kind of head-in-the-sand denial of the reality of how things are for the vast majority in the Catholic world. The sad reality is that the vast majority of Roman Catholics will never experience anything beyond a banal (to use Pope Benedict’s word), protestantized Mass of Pope Paul VI, which, as it is usually offered, is such a profoundly impoverished, sad departure from the glorious musical, artistic, liturgical, theological, and architectural patrimony of ancient and medieval Catholic tradition. 
Despite the laudable attempts at restoring Catholic orthodoxy via the recent New Evangelization, this movement has made very little headway outside of elite Catholic intellectual circles. I can guarantee that, once again on Western Christmas Eve this year, my local Catholic Novus Ordo parish will celebrate Mass on the second-holiest day of the year without incense, versus populum, clapping for the choir’s performance during the service against Pope Benedict’s ethos, a full music band, communion in the hand in an assembly line, etc. This kind of worship can’t possibly somehow be passed off as “basically the same thing” as the Orthodox Liturgy. No one can seriously be that blind. The ethos of the Mass will feel more like a banal, lovey-dovey Unitarian Universalist assembly than an authentic, reverent, traditional Catholic liturgy where Christ’s Sacrifice at Calvary is fully made reality and He is offered, by and of Himself, on the altar to be worshiped and consumed body, soul, and divinity. Yet if I were to ask the parish priest beforehand to celebrate ad orientem and use incense, he would either be confused, laugh at me, or be annoyed that I dared to question or disrupt the “new normal” of post-VII life. Most Catholic laity have in this environment only a tiny glimmer of the glorious patrimony of Catholic sacred music or art or architecture. This is so sad.
How do you explain or reconcile yourself to all this? How did you come to terms with the rampant liturgical abuse, the poor state of parish catechism, or the hundreds of radical feminist liberal pro-abortion nuns (LCWR) who openly espouse various heresies, whom Benedict XVI sought to discipline but whom Francis let go free? How do you view the internal Vatican reaction to the child abuse scandals, or the reality that the Orthodox have preserved liturgical integrity and orthodoxy of belief far better without a supreme Pope than Roman Catholicism has managed to do with popes? I’d love to hear your thoughts when you have time. Thanks, and God be with you.

Superb essay on U.S. and U.K. media’s ongoing Russophobia by Catherine Brown

I know no Russian who has any knowledge of Russia’s representation in Britain who is not strongly critical of it. I too am depressed by it, specifically because I think that it is intellectually and morally demeaning, and counter-productive to a dangerous degree.

-Dr Catherine Brown

I could not agree more with these words. They describe the sentiments held by all of my Russian friends, of all religious persuasions, and of all political persuasions. Of my Russian friends–only three of whom are from Moscow, and none of whom are active members of Putin’s political party– all of them nonetheless strongly support President Putin’s policies, believe he has had a strongly positive impact on their country’s economic development, and believe that Crimea, historically part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev drunkenly signed it over to the Ukrainian SSR in the 1950s, is now rightfully once again part of nasha strana.

Noted British professor, author, and academic Dr Catherine Brown recently published a superb essay “Deconstructing Russophobia” on her blog. By her own admission, Dr Brown has “no ethnic, financial, professional or political ties to Russia whatsoever. It follows that I am not a Russian expert – but nor am I, on the other hand, parti pris. I am a friendly, distanced observer of the country.” This is the way I would describe my own godmother, a lifelong Russianist who has no ties to Russia save her abiding interest in the pre-Soviet Tsarist period, especially its magnificent artistic, cultural, and religious heritage.

Dr Brown, while not claiming herself to be “a Russian expert”, is nonetheless immensely qualified from her decades of direct experience with all matters Russian to write on the topic. Her academic resume is of the highest calibre:

My academic position is as Senior Lecturer and Convenor (Head of Department) of English at New College of the Humanities in London.

I took a BA in English Literature at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, then an MSc in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at the London School of Economics. I lived in New York and Moscow, and learned Spanish and Russian, before coming back to literary academia with an MA in Comparative Literature at University College London, and a PhD at Caius College Cambridge as an Anglo-Russian comparatist.

I taught English at the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Greenwich, before starting in my current position in London in 2012.

Dr Brown begins her essay by reeling in her readers with a gentle yet damning satire of the ongoing idiotic British and American narrative of Putin as a tyrant and thug:

Imagine that Vladimir Putin were not a murderous autocrat and kleptocrat who has spent his fourteen years in power living up to his KGB past and dragging Russia ever back towards Communist autocracy, illiberalism, and expansionism. Imagine that instead he were the one of the greatest leaders that Russia has had, whose policies have helped produce a massive rise in living standards and life expectancy, recuperation of national pride, and enforcement of the rule of law, who has tackled kleptocrats and gangsters wisely and well, whose foreign policy has on balance been realistic, diplomatic, and conducive to peace, who has presided over a country of which the human rights record is considerably better than that of the United States and in which civil rights are improving, and who richly deserves the steady support of 65% – currently at a Ukraine-related high of 83% – of the population that he possesses. It is my understanding that the reality is closer to the second scenario than the first…

Dr Brown notes that, since the early 2000s, she has noticed a steady improvement in the conditions of life for ordinary Russians under Putin’s tenure as President and then Prime Minister:

A year later, on a visit, the situation was slightly better. The most extravagant misery was no longer apparent. A year later, better still. And that has been the consistent pattern on all my visits since then. Capitalism has been getting its gloves back on. Public facilities are in a much better state. Nothing is sold in dollars and Western brands have Russian rivals. A sensible tax structure means that businesses and salaried employees can and do pay their taxes. One sees no-one drunk in public. Muscovite women no longer exaggerate their femininity in a way which testifies to financial insecurity and a strenuous imitation of a pornographically-imagined West. And most reassuringly of all, to Westerners used to this custom, people have begun to smile. Even the hardest cases – the babushki guarding the museum rooms, and the border guards at passport control – will now return a smile. Last year, for the first time, I felt that Russia was in a new phase – the post-post-Soviet, in which people are no longer waiting for normality to be re-established, or yearning to live in a ‘normal’ country. A new normality, and a new optimism, have emerged.

Dr Brown also notes how the Western condemnation of the Russian government’s prosecution of activist group Pussy Riot for their “punk prayer” on the solea of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral was both grossly inaccurate and flagrantly hypocritical. She also observes how Pussy Riot are anything but a legitimate musical band or decent political activist group, noting that prior to their desecration of Christ the Saviour Cathedral, they had done even more offensive things in public to attract attention:

In certain respects the operation of the Russian law is more lenient than the British. Prior to their ‘punk prayer’ in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, members of Pussy Riot had performed public sex in a museum, and thrown live cats at workers in a McDonalds restaurant. In Britain such acts could have resulted in prison sentences of at least two years, whereas in Russia they were not prosecuted at all. One reason why Pussy Riot were prosecuted for their ‘punk prayer’ was that it disrupted and parodied a religious act of worship, which is specifically prohibited under Russian (as also British) law, and which is particularly comprehensible in a country with a history of state persecution of religion.

Dr Brown goes on to note how the Russian human rights record is far superior to that of the United States, with Russia incarcerating fewer prisoners, the death penalty no longer practiced at all there, and Russia not allowing its President to “authorise the kidnap, torture, and killing of domestic and foreign citizens without trial” as the United States has done since the authorization of the Patriot Act.

Let us compare Russia to the United States (China being of course much worse than both). The US has around 730 to Russia’s 598 prisoners per 100,000 of the population. It uses the death penalty, executes minors, and empowers its President to authorise the kidnap, torture, and killing of domestic and foreign citizens without trial. Russia does none of these things. The US government has significantly curtailed Americans’ civil liberties under the Patriot Act, extensively spies on the media activities of its own and other countries’ citizens, and detains hundreds of people without trial in an international network of secret prisons. Russians’ civil liberates are now more strongly guaranteed by law than are Americans’; there is no evidence or suggestion that Russia kidnaps individuals abroad or outsources torture, nor that it runs a torture camp resembling Guantanamo Bay, nor that the FSB spies on Russian citizens to anything near the extent that the NSA spies on Americans, let alone on foreigners. In this respect – the extent of spying on their own citizens – Russia and the US have changed places since the end of the Soviet Union.

Dr Brown’s essay is refreshing in that she analyses Western media’s biases against Russia from a purely secular perspective. Thus, her analysis appeals to the majority of Russian scholars in Britain and the United States who are not Orthodox. Nonetheless, I think her essay would have befitted from one additional area of analysis: religious identity. This is a core difference between American and British civilization and Russian civilization. Neither Britain nor the United States have been defined by a single unifying, common religious heritage, whereas all of Russian history is closely tied to the country’s embrace of Eastern Orthodox Christianity over a thousand years ago. Unlike the mostly non-religious country of Britain, Russia saw no inter-confessional religious wars, and large Muslim and Buddhist religious minorities continue to live in Russia today.

British history is marked by years of intermittent violence between Catholics and Protestants, with the pendulum of persecution veering from the targeting of both Catholics and Lutherans under Henry VIII, to savage persecution of Catholics under Edward VI, to the Marian persecution of Protestants under the infamous “Bloody” Mary I, to a less intense but still damning level of persecution of Catholics under Elizabeth I and James VI and I. The English Civil War was fought in large measure because Puritans despised the High Church Anglican King Charles I, whom they feared was sympathetic to Catholicism, while in 1689 the English Bill of Rights specifically disenfranchised English Catholics and made them second-class citizens under the law.

The United States is the first nation in history to have been uniquely founded without a national confession, a single, unifying religion, and so we have no concept of what it means to have a people’s national identity married to their religion. Suzanne Massie, American author, Russian expert, and President Reagan’s adviser on Russian culture and history, understood this when no one else did: that a significant factor behind the disconnect between Russia and the U.S. was the complete unfamiliarity of Americans, on a cultural level, with the notion of a nation being founded on one religion. Reagan called Massie “the greatest student I know of the Russian people.” Massie writes in her memoirs Trust But Verify: Reagan, Russia and Me that:

“There were reasons for our official blindness, among them that in the United States we have the tendency to see everything as a reflection of our own beliefs. Being “like us” is equivalent to being “right.” We in America can choose our religion as if we were shopping for a new car, changing at will, and harbor thousands of offshoots and sects. Because our history is founded on personal choice for all religions we have no experience or understanding of a religion that represents a nation, and we find this somehow disturbing. The history of Russia is the opposite, and the communist regime of the Soviet Union always understood this fact completely.” (135).

In fact, far from having “a religion that represents a nation”, our national identity is in many ways influenced by our lack of a single, unifying religion. Russian history, void of the religious wars that devastated Europe in the wake of the Reformation, is one of largely peaceful coexistence between the Orthodox majority and local religious minorities. While we have all read of the infamous anti-Jewish pogroms that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century during the Tsarist period, the inescapable reality is that all of these tragedies occurred not in Russia proper, but in Ukraine, predominantly western (Greek Catholic) Ukraine.

I interviewed Suzanne Massie in late November 2014 after Liturgy in the Holy Archangels Chapel in Washington, DC, where my spiritual father regularly presides over the divine services. She and I share the same godmother– my godmother is a dear friend of hers– and we were both received into the Church within a year of each other. Massie told me that to know Orthodoxy is to know Russia, and to know Russian history is to begin to know Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is inextricably bound up in Russia’s national identity. The only intellectual force — if one wants to so denigrate the term “intellectual” — that ever pushed for the separation of this dual Russian and Orthodox identity was Marxist-Leninism, or, more properly, what came to be Soviet Bolshevism.

What Massie insisted that Reagan learn, and what President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron and their advisers remain sadly ignorant of to this day, is that one cannot hope to understand Russia today without first coming to understand its religious history. Russian Orthodoxy is the only cultural and religious institution that survived Soviet rule. It is the single and deepest connection Russians have to the pre-revolutionary period, to the thousand years of Russian history before the Soviet nightmare. If you dismiss Orthodoxy’s role in shaping Russian history, as both Obama and Cameron clearly have, you will remain profoundly ignorant of the most basic aspects of Russian cultural history.

The Orthodox Christian faith has influenced the very foundations of Russian society. The Russian word for ‘Sunday’ is воскресенье (voskresenie), [Christ’s] ‘Resurrection’, while the most common phrase for ‘Thank you’, спасибо (spasibo), is a compound of Spasi bog — literally ‘God saves’ («Спаси тебя/вас Бог» means, literally, “God save you” ). The Russian word for peasant–the vast majority of Russians in Russian history — is крестьянин (khrestyanin), literally, a Christian. These nuances are all tragically lost on those who rule in Washington, London, and Brussels today.

The very heart and soul of Russia — the Orthodox Church — is experiencing a steady, imperfect yet unstoppable revival, and all that this merits from senior U.S., British, and EU policymakers is cynicism. Take for example the widely circulated yet disputed figure from the Pew Forum that, as of 2008, only 7% of Russians attend Orthodox services every month. This claim merits deeper examination. Even if we take that statistic as accurate, Russia’s population is currently 144 million, so seven percent of this figure is just over 10 million people. By contrast, in England, which still has an official, state-funded Church, only 800,000 Britons attend Church of England services weekly, out of a population of 64 million.

Russia is experiencing a cultural renaissance, a rediscovery of its true identity after seventy-four years of enforced atheism and Marxist-Leninist ideology. Should we miss the opportunity to reach Russians where they are, at this moment in their history, I fear we will lose a crucial chance to genuinely come to better understand Russian society’s past, present, and future.

One cannot understand the religious revival taking place in Russia today if one does not first understand, and contrast it, with the state-sponsored suppression of and attempted extermination of religion under the Soviets. When the Bolsheviks had taken power, Massie writes, they attempted to completely destroy all vestiges of religion, considered the chief obstacle to building an ideal socialist state:

“. . . all religion was considered Enemy Number One, but Orthodoxy the most dangerous, to be eradicated with all the ruthlessness they could command. They set out to commit what can only be called a genocide of the Church. In 1918 they began to wage what they called a “war on God.” All manifestations of religion were prohibited as were all Church holidays, even Easter and Christmas. Liturgical music was banned until the mid-1980s. Sunday was made a compulsory work day. . . the word god was always to be spelled in lower case. Thousands of historic churches and all their treasures were destroyed outright. . . Millions of icons were destroyed, broken, or sold abroad along with other treasures of the Church. Multitudes of priests and believers were murdered outright, more imprisoned or sent to labor camps. (136-37).

A quarter century after the fall of the USSR, the most important national institution in Russia today, the only one to outlast the Soviet Union, remains the Russian Orthodox Church. It is impossible for anyone hoping to understand Russia to do so without first coming to understand the guiding role the Church played—and continues to play— in forming the country’s national identity.

On Ecumenism

“We should view the non-Orthodox as people to whom Orthodoxy has not yet been revealed, as people who are potentially Orthodox (if only we ourselves would give them a better example!). There is no reason why we cannot call them Christians and be on good terms with them, recognize that we have at least our faith in Christ in common, and live in peace especially with our own families. St. Innocent’s attitude to the Roman Catholics in California is a good example for us. A harsh, polemical attitude is called for only when the non-Orthodox are trying to take away our flocks or change our teaching.”
– Fr. Seraphim Rose (1934-82)

“God is love, and therefore the preaching of His word must always proceed from love. Then both preacher and listener will profit. But if you do nothing but condemn, the soul of the people will not heed you, and no good will come of it.”
– St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938)

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This evening, I received an update that someone had commented on one of my recent blog pieces. The person, using the name “Orthodoxy or Death”, commented the following:

“Another friend who attended the banquet described to me his shock to hear Fr. Leonid praise Metropolitan Tikhon in his introduction with these words, again a thinly veiled attack on Metropolitan Jonah: ‘This one is no Lone Ranger!’ I respect Father Leonid for his many years of engagement with various ecumenical bodies, such as the World Council of Churches, but I find it difficult to view him as a man of integrity given that he engaged in such derisive remarks about a former Primate of his whom he seems to delight in insulting, regarding as almost an enemy. This just doesn’t seem to me like a Christian way of thinking — or speaking — especially from someone with so many years of active service in the Church.”

Why would you respect anyone for “engagement with various ecumenical bodes, such as the World Council of Churches”? Has he upon every appearance and interaction with that body told it repeatedly that they are all in schism and heresy and that Orthodoxy alone is the Church, and no real Christianity exists outside of us, and that Orthodox shouldn’t even be members of such false “ecumenical” groups?

Here is my reply: 
  • You misconstrued the meaning of my respect for Fr. Leonid– which, I must say, I’m afraid is not very deep since he took a leading role in the uncanonical conspiracy to force Metropolitan Jonah to resign. As the name you use is “Orthodoxy or Death”, it is clear that you are quite anti-ecumenical in your sentiments.

    I don’t know why you ask a question to which you obviously know the answer. Fr. Leonid certainly does not do as you described, since none of these bodies would respect him if he did. No one embraces a faith if they are made to despise and feel ashamed of their own. Instead they become defensive and become less receptive to hearing about the other faith. Would anyone convert to Orthodoxy just because they are made to despise the faith of their childhood, rather than love Orthodoxy for its incomparable fullness? I have never met such a person.

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    Fr. Hiermonk Seraphim (Rose), 1934-1982

    Even the most prominent anti-ecumenists of our day, such as the late Fr. Seraphim Rose, wrote that non-Orthodox peoples must be treated not with polemics and derision, but as fellow icons of Christ, even if they do not worship the same God we do or recognize Christ or the Theotokos the way we do. If we do not treat them with basic kindness and respect as human beings, fellow children of God, we will not be in a position to communicate to them anything about Orthodoxy. False prophets who seek to convert people to their heretical faiths, such as the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon/LDS Church), The Episcopal Church, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, and most if not all evangelical pastors must be condemned as such, as heretics or even as non-Christians, but we much reach out to their ordinary members with love and kindness to begin to bring them away from these heterodox churches or religious groups. Here is a wonderful link which goes into more detail, quoting from Fr. Seraphim Rose and St Silouan the Athonite, my patron saint:

    http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/howtotreattheheterodox.aspx

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    Starets Silouan of the Holy Mountain (1866-1938), my patron saint and one of the most brilliant, illumined Orthodox hiermonks and ascetics.

    I wrote what you quoted above in the interest of basic Christian charity- I wanted to find something to respect in Fr. Leonid. I do not presume to know what exactly he talks about in these dialogues, but I imagine he, in a more polite way, communicates some of the points you mentioned above.

    Engagement in these bodies, generally in the form of lengthy meetings and the writing of many statements of agreement and intent between different hierarchs and various non-Orthodox religious leaders, is often rather vapid in content but generally serves a purpose in that it makes various often extremely heterodox bodies aware of our existence. They become acquainted with our theology, many witness the incomparable beauty, richness, and theological fullness of our Liturgies and other divine services, and I imagine some have been moved to convert to Orthodoxy, inspired by their engagement with our Faith.

    Think of all the tiny Protestant churches which have embraced completely heterodox [usually Calvinist] theology. I imagine sometimes, in areas dominated by more insular, communities of cradle Orthodox which do not reach out beyond their own parish, Orthodoxy has little to no witness or presence outside these small ethnic communities. This itself is an abdication of the Gospel mandate in Matthew 28:19.

    I do not support the kind of involvement in these ecumenical groups which has led to some Orthodox abandoning their obligation to share the Gospel in an organic way.

    Your comment raises an important point- how do we best spread the Gospel? I firmly believe that we should offer to bring our friends to church, and better educate ourselves about our theology and the lives of the saints and the details of the Liturgy, so that, if put in such a scenario, we may talk truthfully and accurately about our faith. This is an area where I have found many predominantly cradle Orthodox parishes to be impoverished, especially those which adapt a generally negative view toward converts, or who presuppose that all converts bring with them significant evangelical, Roman Catholic, or other theological ‘baggage’. These parishes often have almost no faith outreach and do not see the need for the laity to serve as Christian witnesses at all.

    However, those converts who seek too overtly to change what they see as problems in their parishes, or who presume themselves somehow as being more knowledgeable and therefore “more Orthodox” than many of their fellow parishioners, only end up hurting and alienating the cradle Orthodox in their community rather than lovingly and carefully convincing them, for instance, to refrain from putting in pews, or the priceless wisdom found in not abbreviating the Liturgy. The root problem here is a profound failure in catechism and a lot of either overt or latent secularizing/modernizing influences which have crept into many parishes.

    I am in support of ecumenism insofar as it involves engagement with those outside the Orthodox Church for the purposes of 1) teaching them about our beliefs and not simply pretending we all believe the same thing, which we obviously don’t or there would be no need to engage as separate bodies in these dialogues, 2) attempting to show to those in other Christian communions that our Church holds to the original, apostolic Christian Faith, and 3) working toward collaborative solutions to end problems afflicting all of humanity, from the horrific reality of abortion, to child mortality in developing nations, to cyclic poverty and endemic violence in many poorer communities.

Entering into the mind and the heart of the Faith

“The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.” – St. John of Damascus (675-749)

Since before I can remember, I have always been passionately interested in the study and history of world faiths and religious traditions. The shelves of my amateur ‘library’ in my bedroom at my family home are filled with books on ancient, early modern and modern European, Middle Eastern, American, Chinese, Japanese and Indian history, and books detailing the beliefs and histories of different world religions and philosophies, especially Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Bookshelf

(Not my actual library.)

When I was home in New York over this past Thanksgiving break, I took what I intended to be only a few minutes and ended up losing myself for hours pouring over dozens of these magnificent books which marked my intellectual growth and absorption of knowledge as a child and teenager. It was a beautiful experience, transporting me back to the very pages which opened my mind, like a window, to the peoples, beliefs and practices of times ancient, medieval, and more recent.

As I looked through several books on Christianity and the history of Rome, Tsarist Russia and the Byzantine Empire, I became absorbed in the pages where my exposure to the teachings, spiritual life, and beautiful liturgy and aesthetics of Orthodoxy first began at a very young age: coffee table books such as Brian Moynahan’s The Russian Century or Rick Smolan’s A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union, heavy art history books from the Smithsonian and the Hermitage about St. Petersburg and Moscows palaces, churches, convents and monasteries. All of these books which marked my entry into Orthodoxy, at least intellectually and in my imagination, were gifts from my grandparents, one of my father’s colleagues, and one of my uncles who had traveled to Russia.

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These books transported me to two very different places: the art history books and photographic histories ushered me to a magnificent bygone world of lavish Courts, opulent palaces, solemn liturgies, cozy-looking villages and beautiful monasteries perched on lakes and the edge of great rivers, while the books on twentieth century Russian and Soviet history made me aware- often through their wordless, graphic images – of the almost unspeakable horrors which millions of peoples of Eastern Europe endured in the past century. It seemed incredible to me that Orthodoxy had somehow managed to survive at all under an unimaginably cruel, repressive and totalitarian regime dedicated to the cause of militant atheism and the abolition of all religion, considered superstition incompatible with the basic principles of revolutionary socialism and Marxist-Leninism.

Years later, I would learn of just how savage the persecution of Orthodox Christians and Eastern-rite Catholics had been under the Soviet period, especially  during the first years under Lenin, and then Stalin’s dictatorship prior to the Nazi invasion of the USSR and the Khrushchev years. A regime which dynamited ancient cathedrals, churches and lavras, sent spies to monitor priests and their congregations, and which first symbolically lined up icons and sentenced them to death, then followed with hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns, monks, and hierarchs, and untold millions of faithful laity.

The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior was completed in Moscow in 1839 in memory of Russia's 1812 victory over Napoleon. Stalin ordered the Cathedral's demolition in December 1931, and he proposed to build a " Palace of Soviets " on the ground of the demolished Cathedral. Instead the site became host of the world's largest public swimming pool.  The rebuilt Cathedral was completed in 1997 following exact specifications to ensure its obedience to the original building. It stands now as a symbol of the endurance and triumph of Orthodoxy over the Soviet regime which sought to destroy it.

The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior was completed in Moscow in 1839 in memory of Russia’s 1812 victory over Napoleon. Stalin ordered the Cathedral’s demolition in December 1931, and he proposed to build a “Palace of Soviets ” on the ground of the demolished Cathedral. Instead the site became host to the world’s largest public swimming pool.

This exposure, both to the beauty and richness of Orthodoxy, and the incredible suffering of Eastern Christians in the past century, deeply touched something in me long before I ever worshiped in an Orthodox temple, finding myself immersed in the timeless grace and ethereal majesty of the Divine Liturgy. I felt an inexplicable connection to the history of the Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian people, and wondered what it was about their faith that could have so threatened or outraged the Soviets that they attempted to completely eradicate it from the earth. How could anyone endure what so many Orthodox Christians had endured, how could people hold onto their faith when millions of their fellow believers went to their death for it?

Christ the Savior Cathedral

After the end of the Soviet Union, the rebuilt Cathedral was completed in 1997  following exact specifications to ensure its obedience to the original building structural design. Once again a major feature of the Moscow skyline, it stands now as a symbol of the endurance and triumph of Russian Orthodoxy over the Soviet regime which sought to destroy it.

After centuries of existing as the only official State faith of the Russian tsars (a position which enabled the Russian Church to produce some of Christianity’s most eloquent and brilliant theologians and holiest saints, but which also led to institutional corruption, entrenched political factions, and the abuse of the basic freedoms of non-Orthodox religious minorities, especially Jews), how then did the Russian Church endure a complete reversal of fortune when it became the prime target of a militantly atheist communist State committed to its destruction?

Because of my intellectual introduction to Orthodox history and my familiarity with the twentieth century traumas to so many of the Orthodox peoples (Greek, Serbian, Georgian, Russian and Ukrainian especially), when I first experienced the Byzantine Liturgy, while I was astounded to have found myself having stepped into what seemed like an ancient royal court or an entirely new world, the heavenly realm itself, I still felt inexplicably at home. Amid the chanting of the ancient psalms, the ethereal singing of the choir, the censing of the church, her beautiful, expressive icons, and her worshipers, I became absorbed in not just the rich aesthetic smells and sounds and sights of the worship- the vestments of the priests, chanting, the bows and prostrations, and heartfelt prayer litanies- but I became aware of a grace, the presence of God, which was stronger than anything I had ever before encountered.

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In my spiritual journey, I had visited many different Protestant churches, attended different Catholic parishes, and also read widely on non-Christian faiths and attended several of their services and meditations. But when I encountered Orthodoxy, stepping into the light of the Liturgy’s eternal banquet, I experienced a kind of awe-inspiring awakening which confirmed not only God’s existence and power, but His unspeakable, transcendent majesty and timelessness, and His deep concern for me and all the world.

I realized the reality that worshiping the Trinity which created us should be the core purpose for our existence. For, if there is truly a God who created all that is, if we truly believe that, and if He loved us so much that He chose to become incarnate so that we might enter into mystical union with Him through the divinization of our very being, then how can we not make Him the center of our lives? By extension, how can we be Christians unless we love every person on this earth as a unique creation made in His image?

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Dear Readers

“Blessed is the soul that knows her Creator and has grown to love Him, for she has found perfect rest in Him. The Lord bids us love Him with all our hearts and all our souls—but how is it possible to love Him Whom we have never seen, and how may we learn this love? The Lord is made known by His effect on the soul. When the Lord has visited her, the soul knows that a dear Guest has come and gone, and she yearns for Him and seeks Him with tears: ‘Where art Thou, my Light, where art Thou, my Joy? Thy trace is fragrant in my soul but Thou art not there and my soul yearns for Thee, and my heart aches and is sad, and nothing rejoices me because I have grieved my Lord and He hath hidden Himself from my sight.’” – St Silouan.
~   ~   ~
Christ is with us! Wherever you are in the world, if you are observing the solemn liturgies of Holy Week, or if you have forgotten to attend them, were too busy, or are not yet Orthodox, I hope you are well! This Holy Week, my first as an Orthodox Christian, I have been thinking of my fellow Orthodox, especially those newly illumined in the Faith, like me, and also the catechumens preparing for their chrismations at Pascha. Yesterday’s service of the Anointing was absolutely remarkable, and the anointing at the end reminded me very much of my chrismation.
In these holy days, when God’s grace fills the hearts of all of us who are partaking in the beauty and majesty of the Holy Week services, I think constantly of my family members, both Catholics and lapsed Catholics, and how I so wish they could be a part of the fullness of this Faith, experiencing the incomparable richness and profound depth of our observance of Holy Week leading up to the Passion Gospels of Holy Thursday. In the Liturgy of St Basil’s Mystical Supper this morning, the Church remembered her Bridegroom Christ’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Super two thousand years ago in Jerusalem.
The twelve Gospels of the Passion of our Lord which we heard tonight recall in vividly transportive and soul-stirring detail the dramatic final hours of Jesus’ earthly life as a Man: His betrayal by Judas for thirty pieces of silver, His trial and humiliation, Simon Peter’s denial of Him three times, the chief priest and the blood-minded crowd’s mockery and hatred for Him, Whom they would not know or believe, and His Crucifixion whereby, by submitting to death on the Cross, He opened the possibility of eternal life to all who believe in Him.
I’ve just returned to my flat from the chanting of the 12 Gospels of the Passion at St Andrew’s church here in Edinburgh. Holy Thursday is always profoundly moving for me, in part because it was two years ago at the Holy Thursday Liturgy at St Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington that I first experienced Orthodox worship and liturgical life. Since that day, my life has truly never been the same!
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Tonight I was more conscious than ever before of the words of the fifteenth antiphon of the Matins service for Great and Holy Friday. Here the Orthodox Church in America’s late Archbishop +Job (d. 2009, Memory Eternal!) sings the beautiful antiphon:
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree, 
The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns. 
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ. . . 
Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.”
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The services of Holy Week so far has been so ethereal, so other-worldly, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced! In the kathisma chants tonight between the Gospel readings, I was struck by the enormity of the cosmic shift presented in the words of the Church’s fifteenth antiphon of the Matins for Holy Friday, which St. Andrew’s parish here chanted on Thursday night. As we all stepped forward to venerate the icon of Christ hanging on the Cross, I recalled the words of St. Paul in Romans 8:21-22:
“The creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”
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How the Crucifixion altered the cosmos, all of creation, I cannot hope to rationally understand, but only contemplate in wonder! What an earth-shattering contrast, what a horrifically awe-inspiring sight it must have been for those who believed in Christ as the Son of God and God Incarnate- His disciples, male and female, and His mother – to behold Jesus allowing Himself to be put to death on the Cross! That the God who created the heavens and the earth let Himself be nailed upon the Cross, that the God who led the Hebrews out of Egypt in the Exodus and protected them as His people is mocked, abused and condemned by the very chief priests of Israel and a Jerusalem mob! What an extraordinary, horrifying, fearfully awesome thing!
As we wait for the risen Lord, beseeching that He “show us also Thy glorious Resurrection”, I hope you know, wherever you might be, that right now, there are thousands of holy people, nuns and monks, priests and bishops praying ceaselessly for you. Every Orthodox Christian prays for you in the antiphons of the Liturgy- whether these people are your brothers and sisters in faith, or strangers unknown to you, they still pray for you. The saints pray continually for us. As St Silouan reminds us,
“The Saints grieve to see people living on earth and not knowing that if they were to love one another the world would know freedom from sin; and where sin is absent there is joy and gladness of the Holy Spirit. The Saints in heaven though the Holy Spirit behold the glory of God and the beauty of the Lord’s countenance. But in this same Holy Spirit they see our lives too, and our deeds. They know our sorrows and hear our burning prayers. When they were living on earth they learned of the love of God from the Holy Spirit; and he who knows love on earth takes it with him into eternal life, where love grows and becomes perfect. The souls of the Saints know the Lord and His goodness toward man, wherefore their spirits burn with love for the peoples. They were chosen by the Holy Spirit to pray for the whole world.” 
If you are not yet Orthodox, I earnestly hope you will seek out the fullness of the original Faith, a fullness which, in all my own searching, I have never experienced anywhere else, in any other faith tradition or community. I know many wonderful men and women living in the Roman Catholic faith in which I was raised, and I met many people in the different churches, synagogues and mosques I have visited who truly love God. But truly there is nothing like the Church’s liturgical worship and its Orthodox Faith.
The prayers of holy men and women especially are jewels to be valued above any other earthly thing (See James 5:16). These saints, living on earth and those now departed, alive in Christ, love each of you, Orthodox or not. Christian or not, believer or not. As St Silouan reminds us,
“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.”
Wherever you are, I hope you have a joyous Pascha! If you are not Orthodox but want to experience the indescribable beauty and other-worldly mystical transcendence which the Orthodox liturgy alone offers, do not delay: visit your nearest Orthodox church and attend the Paschal Liturgy, the feast of feasts, the miracle of miracles! This time of year, more than ever, you will behold people exuding a quiet radiance, an inner joy which comes from participating in the full richness and mystery of this ancient Faith, the reservoir and the jewel of the timeless Church.
~   ~   ~
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“There are some who believe that the Lord suffered death for love of man, but because they do not attain to this love in their own souls, it seems to them that it is an old story of bygone days. But when the soul knows the love of God by the Holy Spirit she feels without a shadow of doubt that the Lord is our Father, the closest, the best and dearest of fathers, and there is no greater happiness than to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds, according to the Lord’s commandment, and our neighbor as ourselves.” -St Silouan.

The Faith Once Delivered

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.

St Anne’s Catholic Church in Tenleytown, Washington D.C.

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.

Facing the mihrab inside Islamic Center of Washington D.C. As you can tell due to the men and women sitting together and the absence of an imam (prayer leader), the prayer hall is mostly filled with non-Muslims. I took this picture during an interfaith tour of the mosque.

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!

St Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral

Inside the Cathedral after Divine Liturgy

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.

Holy Cross Monastery interior decorated for the Nativity, January 8, 2012 (Julian Calendar December 26). The monks here live under the omophorion of His Eminence +Hilarion, Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

The monastery is surrounded by green hedges and is absolutely beautiful, an oasis of tranquility set apart from my bustling town. Visible in the center are the monastery church bells which are rung at various points during the divine services.

The monastery grounds are an oasis of stillness in my bustling hometown, set apart from the world. The church’s Russian-style onion dome set it apart from its surroundings.

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.

St Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Woodbridge, Virginia – this is the parish in which I spent the first seven years of my life, where my grandparents still attend Mass. Its popular ‘folk choir’ always sang to instrumental accompaniment and guitar music. A new pastor’s decision to do away with such an innovation several years ago caused outrage, and Mass attendance remains much lower than it used to be.

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.

His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah with His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion and their respective Synods (OCA and ROCOR). The Orthodox Church in America and ROCOR remain separate jurisdictions or administrations but are fully in agreement on all matters of doctrine and faith, and are in communion with each other.

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.

His Holiness Shenouda III was the 117th Pope of Alexandria and head of the Coptic (Egyptian) Non-Chalcedonian (also called Oriental Orthodox) Church, the most ancient Church in north Africa. He fell asleep in the Lord on March 17, 2012.

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.

Spanish-born Rodrigo Borja (italianized to “Borgia”) reigned as Pope Alexander VI from 1492 to 1503. A complex character, Alexander patronized some of the leading artists of the period and invited the displaced Spanish Jews whom Queen Isabel and King Fernando had exiled to live in Rome. He also reaffirmed the Roman See’s approval of the Inquisition in Castile and Aragon, and openly made his son Cesare a cardinal. Rumors abounded that he had bought the papacy through bribery. Alexander later employed Cesare as his leading general to fight wars against Milan and France when his rival, Cardinal Giovano della Rovere (later Pope Julius II, r. 1503-13) conspired with these powers to overthrow him.

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.

Communion in the Orthodox Church has always been understood as a divine Mystery in which the Holy Spirit transforms the elements into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. In the opening words of our communion prayer, we say “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first. And I believe that this is truly thine own most pure Body, and that this is truly thine own precious Blood. . .”

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).

“The Bible contains all things necessary for salvation!” Many Protestants make this or similar statements. Which Bible? There are hundreds of editions. All Protestant bibles have omitted the apocryphal books (the Old Testament books of Tobit, Judith, the Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, and Baruch), so almost no Protestants actually use the full and original canon.

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.

Few Lutherans are ever made aware that Luther’s last treatise used obscenities and vulgar language to refer to Jews, urged Christian princes to expel them from their lands or compel them to do manual labor, and encouraged the destruction of synagogues and the burning of Torah scrolls. Students of history will note that the Nazis paraded in front of an original copy of Luther’s treatise at the 1933 Nuremberg games celebrating their rise to power.

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.

Evangelical ‘Praise and Worship’ services are often analogous to rock concerts in which one’s experience of the ‘rush’ is losing oneself in the drama of Christian rock or specifically designated ‘P&W’ music, flashing lights and visual-audio effects. As to how that fosters anything other than self-focused spiritual ‘ecstatic’ experiences or ‘high’s, I have no idea.

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.

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St Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, D.C. is a capital landmark heritage site, my parish and the primatial cathedral of His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah.

“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.