I was drawn again to the Eastern Orthodox Church this summer by reading about the spiritual life on Mt. Athos and in monasteries associated with Mt. Athos elsewhere. The main thrust of Kyriacos C. Markides’s books, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality and Gifts of the Desert: The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality, is this: the age of the Desert Fathers and Mothers is now. The Orthodox Church still lives in the Patristic age, unencumbered by scholasticism and other events in the West that carved out mysticism from theology and made it esoteric and dubious. “All true Orthodox theology is mystical,” Bishop Kallistos Ware (nee Timothy Ware) says in his book The Orthodox Church, written a few years after he left the Anglican communion to the Orthodox one in the late 1950’s. Why wasn’t I told of this?
While reading about the Orthodox Church, my prejudices confound me and remind me of what an inveterate American and Protestant I am. The Orthodox Church, a rather musty and – judging from its virtual absence from U.S. religious dialog – diffident church, is the last place I would have expected such a rich, long-lasting expression of elemental faith. Men and women, holding to a tradition I am only partially familiar with, exhibit love and a religious imagination and maturity at a level I have dreamed of experiencing since I was a teenager.
Reading about Orthodox monasteries (male and female) of the East is like looking through a powerful telescope and realizing suddenly that my eye was traveling through time as well as space. The Orthodox express in spirit and Tradition the elusive early church that many Protestant movements, denominations, and “apostolic streams” in the past half century have sought after with only the tools of historical research, doctrine, and reason.
Of course, it’s debatable whether the early church, whatever that really is, is either obtainable or desirable. As Michael points out by way of example, the Corinthian church Paul sent two or three letters to was a mess. A renowned American Orthodox priest and professor, Alexander Schmemann, focused his life in part on reminding his communion that the early church wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and that the communion was in danger of becoming a museum. Speaking about the staid position of those whom Dr. Bradley Nassif calls “Orthodox fundamentalists,” Father Schmemen said in 1975:
Once more, I am convinced that I am quite alienated from Byzantium, and even hostile to it. In the Bible, there is space and air. In Byzantium the air is always stuffy, always heavy, static, petrified. Oh, the drama of Orthodoxy. We boast that did not have a renaissance as in the Christian West, sinful but liberating from the sacred. So, instead, we live in nonexistent worlds – in Byzantium, in Russia, wherever – but not in our own time.
So I have inside evidence supporting my lifelong impression that the Orthodox Church is hidebound and, as Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong once called it, irrelevant. As a Roman Catholic, William Dalrymple offers a more objective account than does Markides of the Levant’s remaining Christian monasteries in his 1997 travelogue From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East. Dalrymple ran into both living saints and hellish fanatics while retracing the monk Jon Moschos’s journey to several of the monasteries and hermitages of A.D. 587.
But it seems that the Orthodox Church’s adherence to the past contributes to not only elements of religiosity within it but also its true spirituality.
Paradoxically for someone of my religious background, Orthodoxy is at once higher than “high church” and lower than “low church.” To quickly comprehend a church denomination, I rely on superficial comparisons with denominations I’m already somewhat familiar with. With my high-church/low-church continuum, I can compare a denomination with several others as points along a single line, which makes things tidy. Your Roman Catholics are higher than your Episcopalians are higher than your Presbyterians are higher than your Methodists are higher than your Baptists are higher than your Pentecostals, for instances.
The Orthodox communion (I like that word better than denomination; denomination connotes a brand that its members gather under, while communion is defined as “an essential agreement in religious consciousness” their adherents share, according to Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary) is lower church than the Pentecostals, I assert. I was in the charismatic movement for decades, so I know something about low church. The Hesychasts’ spiritual ingenuity and their unconcern for imagery, as well as Mount Athos’s otherworldly phenomena, demonstrate that essential elements of the Orthodox Church present a better low-church profile than most charismatics do.
Yet the Orthodox communion is higher church than the Roman Catholic communion, I think. I mean, incense, icons, and iconostases!
At every Liturgy, as at every Matins and Vespers, incense is used and the service is sung, even though there may be no choir or congregation, but the priest and a single reader alone. (Ware, Orthodox 268)
Here the extremes touch, and my continuum model is inadequate. How can the Orthodox Church, so steeped in ritual, have so much life in its monasteries and hermitages? The Orthodox see themselves as the keepers of the Christian Tradition (Bishop Ware capitalizes “Tradition” when he refers to it in his writings). Perhaps this charge (or my own prejudice or the church’s bad PR work in America) provides the rationale for the musty image I have of the Orthodox Church. And perhaps the Tradition is a condition precedent to the depth of spirituality on Mount Athos and the offsite monasteries that are associated with it.
People are often drawn to the Orthodox faith by experiencing one of these two “extremes”: the Spirit in the silence of its monasteries or the Spirit in the richness of its services. I’ve never visited Mount Athos and its hermitages and monasteries, nor have I actually been inside an Orthodox church building. I once walked by the doorway of one in use, and it seemed pretty dark inside, so I hurried past. My introduction to Orthodoxy so far has been from only books. (That’s how the African Orthodox Church began in the 1920’s, by the way: two Ugandans studied the Orthodox Church in books and then started their own chapter.) And, I’ll admit, just reading about something allows me to keep my rose-colored glasses on and to maintain a safe distance.
I thought I’d share my first observations of the Orthodox Church through my limited reading (five books this summer and a few before; I put a bibliography of the ones I mention in this post at its end), sticking here with what either appeals to me or fascinates me. My writing here is pretty rough, and it doesn’t do the Orthodox Church’s customs and doctrines justice. You’ll sense again pretty quickly, I think, my American Protestant grounding. Here goes:
- It’s dark inside. Stepping into many Orthodox Churches is supposed to be a very quick way of stepping into another, slower world. Until recently, almost none of their churches had pews or chairs but only benches against some walls (Ware, Orthodox 269).
- Liturgy with flexibility. The officiants are free to ad-lib gestures, movements and pacing (Ware, Orthodox 269).
- They fast before communion (Ware, Orthodox 287).
- They fast during Advent, sticking with the season’s original intent (Ware, Orthodox 300).
- Face-to-face confession (Ware, Orthodox 289-90).
- Almost all services are in the vernacular, a tradition as old as their missions (Ware, Orthodox 74).
- Missions led to independent, usually national churches (Ware, Orthodox 77).
- Clergy can be married, though they must be married before they’re ordained. (Ware, Orthodox 51, 291). No women clergy, but they’re considering bringing back women deacons (The New Testament features women deacons and women who served as ministers on Paul’s apostolic team.)
- Decentralized government, which accounts in part for a variety of expression in worship among churches. Decentralization has helped to foster nationalism, though. One of the church’s big problems has been its history of identification and confusion with country (Ware, Orthodox 74, 309).
- They make communion-wide changes only by a consensus of patriarchs. There is a traditional ranking and deference among these patriarchs. (Before the Great Schism, the Bishop of Rome used to be the “first among equals.”) (Ware, Orthodox 49).
- No purgatory (Ware, Orthodox 255).
- Divorce is discouraged but permitted when to do otherwise would be to “insist on the preservation of a legal fiction” (Ware, Orthodox 295).
- They have an interesting argument involving the incarnation and the communion of saints to justify icons, prayers for the dead, and requests for intercession by dead saints (Ware, Orthodox 254-57; Markides, Mountain 149-50).
- Icons and their other art are so stylized because they portray their subjects in a glorified, after-death state (Markides, Gifts 355).
- They stick with the original Nicene Creed: the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, not from the Father and the Son (Ware, Orthodox 50-51).
- “All true Orthodox theology is mystical” (Ware, Orthodox 207). The Orthodox never pushed mysticism to the sidelines as the Roman Catholics did with scholasticism beginning in the twelfth century. Thomas Merton wrote The Ascent to Truth in an effort to reconcile John of the Cross’s mysticism with Thomas Aquinas’s scholasticism. The book wouldn’t have been necessary in Orthodoxy since the theological case for mysticism was well argued and won by Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century (Ware, Orthodox 67-70).
- Some of the Fathers were expressing their experiences with God in almost erotic terms long before John of the Cross. One prominent patriarch, Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), wrote his Hymns of Divine Erotics, considered by priest, poet, and professor John McGuckin as his finest work. (McGuckin 190 as well as this podcast).
- The church has tradition of a strong prophetic balance to the church’s governing authorities. (Not that this prophetic voice was always well received; Symeon the New Theologian was run out of Constantinople for telling the bishops that they had no place to pronounce upon theology without having experienced God’s divine light.) (Podcast)
- The church emphasizes experience over knowledge; perhaps this above all makes the Orthodox an Eastern church. (This despite Symeon’s experience – see previous observation.)
- Relative to observation 18, a strong apostolic/prophetic tradition of fools in Christ: men and women who feigned madness and were able to speak things others could not (Ware, Inner 153-80). We’re probably most familiar with this phenomenon through the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
- No heights without corresponding depths – one reason why The Brothers Karamazov is my all-time favorite novel.
- By avoiding scholasticism, the Enlightenment, and the Reformation, the Orthodox have also avoided the liberal-fundamentalist dichotomy that has plagued the Western church (Markides, Gifts 162).
- Orthodox monks and nuns have a three-stage discipleship tradition handed down from the Desert Fathers. We are slaves of God, then employees of God, and then lovers of God (Markides, Gifts 131-43) (McGuckin uses less categorical terms for the stages in his book’s introduction (7-10).)
- The Orthodox believe in theosis – that being united with God after the resurrection and being God’s children necessarily means that the saints (and not just those venerated by the church) will be gods – distinct from God the father, but gods nevertheless (Markides, Mountain 252). Our goal is not to get to heaven but to be “partakers of the divine nature,” as Peter puts it in the New Testament. “Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?’” (John 10:34).
- There’s a strong monastic and hermitic tradition of downplaying – even covering up – occurrences of miracles and inexplicable phenomena. Many saints simply lie and deny that they occurred (Markides, Gifts 12) (Compare this with the charismatic movement’s all-too-frequent showmanship attitude toward miracles and other gifts of the Spirit.)
- No tradition of either discursive or syllogistic meditation (Ware, Orthodox 304; Ware, Inner 101).
- The authoritative Old Testament text is in Greek: the Septuagint. “When this differs from the original Hebrew (which happens quite often), Orthodox believe that the changes to the Septuagint were made under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and are to be accepted as part of God’s continuing revelation” (Ware, Orthodox 200). Wow! The Greek translation of the Old Testament is more authoritative than the original! I think I understand this mind-set – I find that, in my private devotion, some things are gained in the translation. I also attended a church where an important segment of the members had no problem implying that the King James Version was tantamount to the original Hebrew and Greek. (“If it was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me!”) Part of it is cultural bias, I assume: the Greeks are the new Jews; the Americans are the new Jews and Greeks . . .
- Not all of the great doctrines have been formally defined – after 2000 years! “Certain doctrines, never formally defined, are as yet held by the Church with an unmistakable inner conviction, an unruffled unanimity, which is just as binding as an explicit formulation.” Some of those undefined doctrines are found in the liturgy (Ware, Orthodox 204-05).
- The Orthodox Church was a major victim, and not a perpetrator, of the Crusades.
Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, imported Orthodoxy as his country’s official religion because of the beauty of its services. “We knew not whether we were on heaven or on earth,” his scouts recounted to him (Ware, Orthodox 264). I feel drawn to Orthodoxy because its theology and monastic practice honors the Fathers and Mothers of the faith whose writings have meant so much to me over the past decade. The Orthodox Church says that, ultimately, you can’t have good low church without high church, you can’t go far in the kingdom of God without being fully rooted in Tradition, and you can’t experience the fullness of Patristic Christianity outside of their communion. I really don’t know.
Dalrymple, William. From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East. New York: Owl, 1999.
Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s, 2002.
Markides, Kyriacos C. Gifts of the Desert: The Forgotten Path of Christian Sprituality. New York: Doubleday, 2005.
Markides, Kyriacos C. The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality. New York: Image, 2002.
McGuckin, John Anthony. The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives. Boston: Shambhala, 2003.
Ware, Kallistos. The Inner Kingdom: Volume 1 of the Collected Works. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s, 2000.
Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. New York: Penguin, 1997.
Posted July 24, 2008.