Most of us in America and the Western world in general know two faces of Christianity: Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Some are vaguely aware of an entity known as the Orthodox Church. Hardly any have even heard of the Eastern Catholic Churches. No one is to blame for this, of course. It’s just how history and geography worked out. As such, many Catholics and Protestants can spend their whole lives debating Sola Scriptura and Purgatory and faith vs. works without ever considering the unique positions the Eastern Churches might have regarding these issues. Most Protestants regard the Orthodox Church as an only slightly less malicious version of Catholicism, and most Western Catholics dismiss it as schismatic and heretical (neither Catholics nor Protestants give much thought at all to the Eastern Catholics). This is a shame. The existence and practices of the Eastern tradition (by far older than those of the West) are a wake-up call, a reality check if you will, when Western Christians get too caught up in theological peculiarities particular to their own world. How much more intellectually enlightening to both parties would a debate over faith vs. works be if it were suddenly suggested that there is a branch of Christianity that views the goal of the Christian life not as salvation but as divinization?
My first real encounter with Eastern Christianity was a Greek cultural festival at the local Greek Orthodox Church. The food was great and all, but what I was interested in was the Church. As anyone who has done it knows, upon entering a Byzantine Church one’s whole attitude changes. The smell of incense permeates the air, the sun streams in through the windows bathing the nave in alternating stripes of light and ark, the icons with their wide ghostly eyes eviscerate any cynicism or irony you may have brought with you. There is a terrible aliveness to it all that strikes fear and awe into the most spiritually tone deaf of persons. In my case I felt very uncomfortable as I took my seat in a pew, wondering what the etiquette was with regard to genuflecting/bowing to the altar. The talk that evening was given by a non-Greek lay person and other than some obnoxious rambling about the Pope I found very little with which to disagree. It was certainly different, however, than the Scholastic thinking to which I had been accustomed.
This short introduction to Byzantium planted a seed in my head which came to fruition a few months later when I attended my first Divine Liturgy at that same Greek Orthodox Church. The Divine Liturgy is a highly mystical, glorious ritual. It is long, repetitive, involving a LOT of standing. It is a liturgy totally at odds with the modern Western obsession with instant gratification, easy moral equations, and you know, the whole brevity thing, man. It is chanted from start to finish, demands of the congregation an exertion of the will to endure it. It is as purgatorial (if you’ll forgive the term) as it is heavenly.
Now, obviously I did not convert to the Orthodox Church, thank God. But my enamoration with and admiration for the Byzantine Christian tradition continues. In my own spiritual life I have benefitted greatly from adopting Byzantine devotions and prayers. There is a certain peacefulness in the rhythms of the Byzantine Divine Office, with its constant invocations of the Name of the Holy Trinity, that allows for, at least in my experience, greater resignation to the will of God, greater joy in the simple things of life, and greater love for the creation which Our Lord in his wisdom deigned to make visible to us. The recitation of the ancient and venerable Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” (brought on by a reading of that life-changing spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim) transfigures the world about. “The Heavens proclaim the Glory of God” begins to take on a deeper meaning.
I also find that the wisdom of the Eastern tradition is incredibly helpful in evangelization. The West has become jaded and bored with Western Christianity. Western Christians, on the other hand, have failed to respond quickly and correctly enough to stop the hemorrhaging of their faithful. Eastern Christianity, however, does not carry the same stigma that the most obvious forms of Christianity in our culture do. It tends to be just foreign enough to seem interesting and exotic. It presents the popular dogmas of the Catholic Church in a way they have never heard before. There are no culture wars to fight hear, no sex-abuse scandals to muddy the waters – just honest-to-God Catholic Truth.
First, Byzantine theology is heavily Trinitarian. In the West, which focuses more on the oneness of the Godhead, the foundational doctrine of the Trinity is often marginalized or taken for granted. In the East, every prayer is related in some way to the great mystery of the Trinity. Though we can never, of course, comprehend the Trinity, the prayers of the Divine Liturgy and of the daily offices bring us to an intuitive, if still O so primitive, understanding of the mystery of God. There is the Father, alone ungenerated, from whom the Son is eternally begotten and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds. In the East, if something is worth doing once, it is worth doing thrice in honor of this supreme mystery. In the world of evangelization, it can be easy to shove the Trinity aside, either because it’s too difficult or because there are more “important” issues at hand. The venerable traditions of the East do not allow for this attitude. It helps keeps things in perspective.
Also, the East offers our humanist-minded populace a more compassionate and radical view of the Atonement. The typical Protestant doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, where God is unable to forgive sins without a bloody sacrifice, is totally unknown in the East. The Western Catholic view, though worlds removed from the perversity of the aforementioned doctrine, often utilizes the same language as Luther and Calvin, and therefor to an outsider can sound very similar to this barbaric heresy. In Byzantine theology, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is anything but a payment to an angry God to divert his wrath. Rather, when Christ dies he descends into the very depths of God-forsakenness, and in his glorious resurrection he brings mankind with him, freeing fallen humanity from the bonds of sin and death. Imagine how refreshing it must be to the jaded secular ear, who has been told his whole life that he is totally depraved and only escaped eternal damnation because of some loophole in the arbitrary whim of a cosmic mafia don, to hear that God died not to satisfy some bizarre sense of justice but to sanctify and divinize us to the very end. It’s a message of hope, and not of condemnation, that Christianity once brought to the Pagan world, but now has been drowned out by the voices of Luther and Calvin.
The noetic theology of the Eastern Churches also serves as an antidote to dangerous Western rationalism. Still subconsciously influenced by it, the Scholasticism of Aquinas and Anselm is a tad too familiar to the secularist to truly shake him out of his slumber. Eastern theoria is something totally new. Rather than devising logical proofs of God’s existence or reasoning one’s way through theology, theoria seeks personal experience of God uncreated energies through prayer, asceticism, and the Sacraments (or Holy Mysteries to be more accurate). As much as I love St. Thomas’s five proofs, it tends to fall on ears deaf to syllogisms and rules. Theoria is intuitive, similar to the practice of the Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism, but ordered toward the one true God of Israel. In fact, much of the ritual surrounding Buddhism is borrowed quite liberally from the Nestorian Christians of India. You will find no First Movers or Blind Watchmakers hiding behind the iconostases only “God, ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, always existing and ever the same.” This is a God above god, totally removed from the anthropomorphic sky daddy given to us by Calvin (although, I do wonder if Michelangelo is not also to blame for this – ugh).
As someone who, like I’m sure many in our culture today have, became disenchanted with the standard presentation of Christianity, I understand the frustration many people feel with the phantom menace of “religion”. Fortunately I found the rich tradition, both Eastern and Western, of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, for only it has the power to save the world. Let us pray, brethren, that all may discover the True Church of Christ, be it in the enormous Latin Church or the remnant Eastern Churches.
Οἱ τὰ Χερουβεὶμ μυστικῶς εἰκονίζοντες,
καὶ τῇ ζωοποιῷ Τριάδι τὸν Τρισάγιον ὕμνον προσάδοντες,
πᾶσαν νῦν βιοτικὴν ἀποθώμεθα μέριμναν,
ὡς τὸν Βασιλέα τῶν ὅλων ὑποδεξόμενοι,
ταῖς ἀγγελικαῖς ἀοράτως δορυφορούμενον τάξεσιν.
Ἀλληλούϊα, Ἀλληλούϊα, Ἀλληλούϊα.
Иже херувимы тайно образующе, и Животворящей Троицѣ трисвятую пѣснь припѣвающе, Всякое нынѣ житейское отложимъ попеченіе. Яко да Царя всѣхъ подъимемъ, ангельскими невидимо дориносима чинми. Аллилуіа.
Let all we who mystically represent the Cherubim, and who sing the Thrice Holy Hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now set aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by the Angelic hosts. Alleluia.