A Community That Endures

For many Christians from other traditions, the Orthodox Church looks like Christianity’s answer to Ringling Brothers Circus—no tigers or clowns, but vestments that make peacocks look understated and more ritual than in a trapeze act. The casual visitor to an Orthodox service is likely to come away impressed with "the theatrical side of it"—and perhaps even a deep sense of God’s presence.

A visitor to our parish—St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam, the Netherlands—asked me during the coffee gathering after the Liturgy if "two hours wasn’t just a little on the long side for prayer" and "Was it really necessary to say ‘Lord have mercy’ so many times?" On the other hand, he was glad he came because "it was like a living museum, like Williamsburg, only here you get to see what the church was like back in the time of Constantine." The surprising thing was that he returned the following Sunday and, back home in Chicago, eventually became a member of an Orthodox parish. He wrote me to say, "I was wrong about Orthodoxy being like Williamsburg. I find there’s no place where I am so much in the present as when I’m taking part in the Liturgy."

A Protestant visitor to the parish told me she felt like she was "meeting cousins I didn’t know I had." She had read about Orthodox Christianity and knew about the Great Schism of 1054 when the bishops of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other, "but it just seemed like some detail of history." She was amazed by the intense atmosphere of worship during the service. "I learned today that Christian worship doesn’t have to be a classroom with hymn breaks."

Not everyone comes away from a first visit to an Orthodox church with positive things to say about it. It’s easy to find parishes where it’s a major asset to speak a language that was never spoken by anyone you ever met before: Greek, Russian, Romanian, Serbian, or Arabic. Many parishes are not only places of worship but ethnic enclaves where national traditions are maintained and in which a great effort is made to keep the mother tongue alive. Yet look around and you will find in many "ethnic" parishes people whose hair or complexion or last name suggests this isn’t just a national club (our Russian parish has about 10 nationalities worshiping together), while in a growing number of parishes, those born in Orthodox Christian families or cultures are a minority. There are more and more Orthodox parishes in America where the main or only language of worship is English.

Because in many countries the Orthodox Church was the only social structure to survive generations or even centuries of oppressive rule, Orthodoxy is haunted by the problem of nationalism. A priest in Moscow told me, "It’s easy to find Russian Orthodox Christians who are Russian first, Orthodox second, and Christian last." It isn’t just a problem in Russia. In every country there are rivers of people for whom religion is the wallpaper, national identity the wall.

ONE CONVERT explained that what drew her to Orthodox Christianity was the Divine Liturgy—its "beauty, reverence, peacefulness, the eternal feel, and the sense of community." Through its liturgical practice, the Orthodox Church ignores no human capacity in trying to open our hearts to God’s presence.

For the eyes there are the many candles, the ritual gestures linked with particular moments in the Liturgy, the symbolism of the vestments worn by the clergy. There are the icons (from the Greek word for image), not only those painted on wood but the building itself, which often will have imagery on walls, ceilings, and within the dome. Sacred imagery in places of worship has been part of Christian life since it found refuge in the catacombs. Icons are objects of reverence, not worship. They help to lift the veil between our day-to-day world and eternity, reminding us that all who have died in Christ are alive in Christ. They provide a means of helping to renew our bond with Christ, with his mother—her usual title in the Orthodox Church is "Theotokos," meaning "God bearer"—and with all the saints who have given witness to transfigured life. They are not only looked at but are often "greeted" with a kiss.

For the ears there is the continuous chant and singing—apart from the sermon, very little is spoken. As St. Ambrose declared, "To sing is to pray twice." For the nose, there is incense, an invisible reminder of paradise and of the kingdom of God; it symbolizes our prayers rising to heaven.

Touch is also involved. The early Church linked physical and spiritual actions in every possible way, a tradition that has never been lost in Orthodox Christianity. It’s the body language of prayer. We don’t just say or think something, we do it. There are moments when it is usual to lie face down on the floor. On Pentecost, we have "kneeling prayers." Both fasting and feasting are physical expressions of the spiritual life—putting on your plate that part of the gospel the church is concentrating on today.

There are two processions in the Liturgy. In the first, a book containing only the four gospels is solemnly carried through the church, then placed on the altar—the "holy table." Biblical readings are at the heart of the first half of the Liturgy, yet in Orthodox worship the goal is not to talk about God or become better informed about the Bible, but primarily to stand before God in worship. Entering the church building, we place ourselves in a situation where awareness of God is everything, and in which all that happens, all that surrounds us, is meant to help us be aware of God’s presence.

DESPITE OBVIOUS contrasts, Orthodox Christianity is not altogether different than what most Christians take for granted. We all have the Bible and most of us have some form of sacramental life, even if among Christians there is a tremendous range of opinions about what a sacrament is. Most of us live within an "iconographic calendar"—a procession of seasons of attention to events recorded in the Bible. We all belong to communities that revere the memory of certain people who gave witness to Christ and challenge us to be less fearful. But there are many aspects of Orthodoxy that, if nothing more, can serve to remind us of what was once normal for all Christians but has been lost by many along the way.

Take Pascha, as Orthodox Christians call the feast of Christ’s resurrection. This is the high point of the year in every Orthodox parish and home, truly the feast of feasts. For the main part of Christian history, Pascha was far and away the most important festival for all Christians, whether belonging to churches of Greek or Latin descent, but in non-Orthodox countries it has been increasingly overshadowed by Christmas. Why hasn’t Orthodoxy experienced a resurrection-to-nativity shift? It may be pure Orthodox bullheadedness—Orthodox Christianity does not bow to the current fashion or the slogan of the moment. It may have something to do with the millions of martyrs who have arisen in the Orthodox Church in the last few hundred years—the Orthodox Church has been kept close to basics by suffering, much as happened throughout the Roman Empire before Constantine.

Whatever the historical reasons, Orthodox Christianity remains passionately centered on the Christ of the gospels: God incarnate, born of a virgin, who died on the cross and rose from the dead, smashing the gates of death’s kingdom. It’s no exaggeration to say these attitudes are normal among Orthodox Christians, not simply something we are supposed to aspire to. Given the pressures and sales pitches of the modern world, this is a stunning achievement. What we often fail at is looking for the Christ of the gospels outside the church building.

Because Orthodoxy wasn’t significantly influenced by St. Augustine, the Church in the Greek-speaking world never came to regard anyone as predestined for hell but saw everyone as being created for communion. The stress is on the primary fact of each person being made in the image of God and therefore worthy of love, even though we are all sinners. (Note the stress in the Jesus Prayer, so widely used by Orthodox Christians: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.")

IN SOME WAYS, the form of Western Christianity that comes closest to Orthodoxy is the Protes-tant tradition, with its intense devotion to the Bible, with parishes having a high degree of autonomy and lay people bearing a major role in the decision-making process. I am especially reminded of black churches, where services can easily run overtime, in which singing is the main form of worship, and where you sense that prayer isn’t just a formality but is deeply felt by one and all.

In other ways, the form of Christianity that comes closest to Orthodoxy is the Roman Catholic Church: It is sacrament-centered, stresses the pastoral role of the bishop, has a similar understanding of integrating the physical and the spiritual, counts many mystics among its saints, links each day with the calendar of saints, makes a similar use of symbols, and realizes we travel toward heaven as part of the community of believers.

The list of parallels with both Protestants and Catholics is long, but there are also differences. From an Orthodox perspective, the center of the Church is not Rome or any distant city, no matter how important the role of the bishop residing there, for no one can be head of the Church but Christ. The center is the altar of one’s parish church. This is the nearest throne of Christ. From the holy table, which supports both the gospel book and the chalice, Christ both speaks to us and gives us eternal life.

As in the Catholic Church, the monastic vocation is of tremendous importance in Orthodoxy, yet celibacy is not nor has it ever been a precondition to being a priest. The vast majority of Orthodox priests are married. This makes for a very different climate in the parish, something closer to the Protestant tradition. The priest’s wife—called "Matushka" in Russian parishes—is usually one of the principal figures in the parish. A friend says that when her father, an Orthodox priest, is away, no one seems to notice, "but when my mother is absent, it’s a crisis." Another tells me, "If the priest orders you to go right and Matushka says left, go left."

But isn’t the Orthodox Church—or any church that only ordains men—sexist? Frederica Mathewes-Green, co-founder with her husband, Father Gregory, of an Orthodox mission parish in Baltimore, writes about women martyrs of the early church in her book, Facing East. "Perpetua, and the many women saints like her through the ages, stands as the best refutation of accusations that the Christian faith is oppressive, anti-woman, and inherently sexist," Mathewes-Green writes. "If that were so, women like this would not have been remembered and honored by the Church for century after century." She notes that a number of women saints have been given the title "Equal to the Apostles."

ONE OF THE notable Orthodox qualities—slowness—is downright shocking to most people when first encountered, but eventually is recognized as a healing experience in a society moving at high speed. Orthodoxy is Christianity traveling at four or five miles an hour. Practically nothing is done in a hurry. The best Liturgies are those in which you simply forget about time. To rush through the Liturgy would be like going to McDonald’s for Thanksgiving dinner.

Our lack of haste is linked to Orthodoxy’s care not to lose anything of value accidentally. This gives rise to one of the complaints frequently voiced about Orthodoxy—that "it’s stuck in tradition." But is this such a terrible thing? None of us minds traditionalists in the kitchen—every loaf of bread is the work of a thousand generations and an infinity of hands. Are we obliged to be ceaselessly inventive in our religious life? In Fiddler on the Roof, we hear Tevye singing the praises of tradition, the blessing of following sacred customs even when the reasons behind them are not fully understood. In voicing that conviction, Tevye might as well be an Orthodox Christian as an Orthodox Jew. It’s a point of view G.K. Chesterton defended in his book Orthodoxy: "Tradition is democracy extended through time...a suffrage so universal that it includes not only the living but the dead....Tradition gives the vote not only to ourselves but to our ancestors."

Yet tradition is more than mimicking the steps great-great-grandmother danced. "Holy tradition is something alive," says Bishop Kallistos Ware, a lecturer at Oxford University. "It is not simply mechanical acceptance of things from the past. It is listening to the Holy Spirit in the present." The Orthodox sensibility is marked by immense respect for all the saints, known and unknown, especially those we call "the Church Fathers," a community of brilliant scholars whose theology gives voice to their direct experience of God. For Orthodoxy, a theologian is not simply an expert on God but a mystic—someone who has been illumined by the Divine life. When you go to confession, the priest is quite likely to offer suggestions and help by quoting from the Fathers of the Church. And confession itself, along with prayer and fasting, is part of the necessary preparation for Holy Communion.

Part of preparation for Communion is to be sure you have sought reconciliation with the people around you. As one of the prayers warns us, "Before drinking the Divine Blood in Communion, make peace with those who have grieved you. Only then may you dare to eat the Mystical Food." This reflects the solemn requirement to forgive and to seek the conversion rather than the destruction of enemies.

A psychologist friend notes a contrast between the Western approach and that of Orthodoxy: "The school of psychology I was trained in was phenomenology—description rather than explanation and causation. Orthodox theology seeks to describe experience, rather than explain or prove it. Western converts to Orthodoxy sometimes bring with them the need to prove everything. Our pastor said it something like this: ‘We will tell you our story. You can take it or leave it. We’re not into trying to prove it. It is simply our story.’"

What drew her from a Presbyterian background to Orthodoxy, she explained, was a "deep-down joy I experience coming into the church, smelling the incense, seeing the beauty, being surrounded by the icons, seeing familiar faces, being greeted with a smile or a hug by people who are also trying to live in the kingdom of God. I don’t know what the true church is, but I know that God dwells here, and not only God, but a whole community of believers and saints, some of whom are there in the icons...a community that has endured and will endure."

JIM FOREST, a convert to Orthodoxy who said that trying to fit the Orthodox Church into an essay this size is like trying to fit an elephant on the wings of a mosquito, is a Sojourners contributing editor and the author, most recently, of Praying With Icons (Orbis Books, 1997).

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