By Thom Nickels
The word ‘orthodoxy’ can conjure up foul associations. There’s Bertrand Russell’s famous quote,
“Orthodoxy is the grave of intelligence,”
which covers any sort of rigid or right thinking at the expense of creative thought.
Orthodoxy (lower case) implies a strict adherence to tradition against which Modernism doesn’t stand a chance. In Judaism, Orthodoxy is seen as that religion’s supreme, most traditional expression, its un-reformed essence. In Christianity, Orthodoxy which has never had a Second Vatican Council or anything approaching a Novus Ordo – Divine Liturgy with lay ministers and Protestant-style hymns – is a window into the ancient Church. In fact, you could search the world for a modern young Orthodox priest with a guitar and a penchant for humming “On Eagles Wings,” but chances are you wouldn’t find one. Priests like that never get a chance to bloom in Orthodoxy; or, if one was discovered in seminary, he’d be sent packing or be told to switch hit to the local Catholic Franciscans.
In the Orthodox Church there are no activist organizations of lay women clamoring to be priests (although Metropolitan Kallistos Ware admits that at some point in time the Church may have to consider the question). To date Orthodox women, however feminist their inclinations, haven’t splintered off and gotten themselves “ordained” by renegade bishops.
There are no Orthodox lay liturgists trying to reinvent or modernize the Divine Liturgy, either. In the eyes of the world, Orthodox Christianity has always been relegated to second tier status, taking a back seat to Catholicism’s power, even in this era of clergy sex abuse. As a box to be checked on applications and questionnaires, where religious affiliation means Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or other , Orthodoxy barely exists at all.
My first glimpse of Orthodoxy was at the 1964-1965 New York Worlds Fair. I’d gone to the Fair with my family primarily to visit the Vatican Pavilion, a modernist white building that had a futuristic look and that effectively mirrored the reformatting of Catholicism taking place in Rome at the Second Vatican Council. Inside the Pavilion was Michelangelo’s treasure, The Pieta, a major Fair exhibit that attracted people of all faiths. Inside the Pavilion there was also the modernist Chapel of the Good Shepard with its minimalist altar table, glass stained windows but not much else.
The chapel’s over-wrought simplicity made an impression on me. Not only did this new Catholic structure have a decidedly Presbyterian style, all the signature Catholic elements were missing except a crucifix. The intent seemed to be the creation of an interdenominational chapel where everybody would be made to feel at home. This was a Catholic chapel that didn’t want to offend Protestants by looking “too Catholic.”
At the time, I sensed that the chapel design hinted at coming changes in Catholic Church architecture.I was right. Most visitors, distracted by the media hoopla surrounding The Pieta (the Vatican Pavilion was the second most popular exhibit at the Fair, attracting some 27,020,857 guests) probably didn’t dwell on this fact that much. My sense is that many Catholics then excused minimalist, Protestant looking church interiors if there was enough stained glass to take the mind off what had been eliminated.
Not far from the Pavilion was a small log cabin church with a three-bar cross on top. I knew the cross to be Russian Orthodox. The chapel was a replica of the first Orthodox chapel in America built in the 1800s at Fort Hood, California. While the rustic exterior put one in mind of Lincoln Logs or Lewis and Clark expeditions, the interior – we had to peer through the windows because the chapel was locked – revealed something startling: a small chandelier illuminating a colorful iconostasis in the center of which were circles of electric candles and a replica of the framed (miraculous) icon of Our Lady of Kazan.
The beauty of that small log cabin church far surpassed anything in the great white Pavilion monolith with its cold and empty Chapel of the Good Shepard.
It was then that I asked myself: What is this thing called Orthodoxy? Growing up, I was taught by the nuns that only Catholics had the true sacrament, the actual Body and Blood of Christ or the Real Presence; Catholics were the only ones with saints, the Mass, priests, and churches that looked like real holy places.
Orthodoxy, I found, also had the Mass (the Divine Liturgy), canonized saints, monks, nuns, priests, vestments, miters—everything in fact that Catholicism had, even miracle stories, bleeding and myrrh streaming images, as well as visions of the Virgin Mary.
This was confusing stuff for a committed, 12-year old Catholic. If there is only one true Church, why would the Virgin Mary make alleged appearances over the dome of a Coptic Orthodox church in Zeitoun, Egypt in front of hundreds of thousands of people? These series of apparitions, lasting from 1968 to 1971, spontaneously healed many people who witnessed the lady in light move around the dome of the church. Why would the bodies of some Orthodox saints remain incorrupt in the same manner as Saint Catherine Laboure’s body in Paris? For every Catholic saint or miracle story there is an Orthodox counterpart.
Is the Orthodox Church the true “other” lung of the whole Church, and not the schismatic renegades they’re made out to be by some Catholic traditionalists? In the eyes of God, where the divide and conquer nature of human politics does not exist – to the chagrin of strict doctrinaire prelates, both East and West, steeped in charges of heresy or schism – are both Churches already really one and united “under the skin” despite the lack of an official agreement?
As the abbot of St. Tikhon’s monastery near Scranton told me last year:
“It was the Western, or Catholic Church, that began changing everything.”
These changes not only included the Flioque clause in the Nicene Creed but the way Christians crossed themselves. The original method of crossing oneself was the Orthodox way, right to left, but Rome changed it from left to right in the 8th century.
A change like this seems a small thing but it can also be indicative of something deeper, like a tendency to re-invent and denude until centuries later you get something like the Second Vatican Council, where the changes were so drastic that if a Catholic from 1947 could come back he wouldn’t even recognize today’s Catholic Mass as being Catholic.
When former Byzantine Catholic Hieromonk and theologian Fr. Gabriel Bunge converted to the Orthodox Church, it generated a lot of press. (Conversions work both ways and can be a lot like musical chairs: In 2009, Orthodox theologian and writer John Mack converted to Eastern Catholicism although shortly after this he divorced his wife and left the priesthood).
On his conversion to Orthodoxy, Fr. Bunge said:
“…Many people thought that the two Churches were moving towards each other and would eventually meet at one point. But as I was growing older and learning some things deeper, I stopped believing in the possibility of the reconciliation of two Churches in terms of the divine services and institutional unity. What was I to do? I could only go on searching for this unity on my own, individually, restoring it in one separate soul, mine. I could not do more. I just followed my conscience, and came to Orthodoxy.”
I see the wisdom in this statement, especially since my conversion to Orthodoxy on April 8th of this year. Prior to my first communion at an Orthodox parish in Northern Liberties, I had many conversations with members of the congregation in which more than several freely admitted that they often attend Catholic churches when they are away on vacation and when they cannot find an Orthodox church.
Not only do they attend Catholic churches but they receive communion in these churches, a fact which may be frowned upon by their pastor or bishop but a fact nevertheless. The Orthodox people I spoke with felt they could relate to Catholics because Catholics believe in the Real Presence. “It’s all about the Eucharist,” as one Orthodox lady told me.
“This is why I come to church, to receive the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not a symbol or a memorial, it is real.”
Comments like these bypass the usual East-West schism rhetoric having to do with the Filioque, or questions related to the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. It’s not that many or most Orthodox don’t think that these questions are important; many do. But for the ordinary people in the pews, ie. people who are not theologians, priests or monks, it is the Eucharist that stands out as the centerpiece of spiritual life. So yes, a certain strange unity of the heart between the two churches has already taken place.
I came to Orthodoxy from Catholicism partially because of its unchanged liturgy; because the Orthodox Church, in its wisdom, never embarked on a path of liturgical self-destruction. It was not enough for me to attend the Traditional Catholic Latin Mass once a month when the bulk of the Catholic Church remains in the Novus Ordo camp. Even while attending the TLM at beautiful Saint Paul’s church in South Philadelphia, one could not escape the reality that this Mass was a minority Mass, primarily a footnote to the Novus Ordo.
It pained me to realize that the TLM was seen more as a specialized event and not part of the regular lists of masses in most Catholic churches.
In the Orthodox Church there is always the traditional liturgy; the rubrics never wax or wane depending on the latest liturgical fashion. There’s no need for committees to advertise or promote tradition.Tradition is already there, and it’s not going anywhere. It is, as they say, the Church.
Since becoming Orthodox, gone are the endless personal narratives that would run in my head whenever I’d attend either a TLM or the Novus Ordo. Those narratives concentrated on what had been lost or thrown away.
In the Orthodox Church, tradition is not shuffled in and shuffled out, like a road show trekking onto Buffalo.