by Frederica Matthewes-Green
Read far and wide for her whimsical, penetrating and poetic expressions of life and faith, Frederica has quickly become known as the “Orthodox Erma Bombeck.” And rightly so.
He was an Episcopal priest, but he was standing in an Orthodox church on this Saturday night and thinking about Truth. At the altar a gold-robed priest strode back and forth swinging incense, moving in and out the doors of the iconostasis according to rubrics that were as yet unfamiliar. Golden bells chimed against the censer, and the light was smoky and dim. Over to the left a small choir was singing in haunting harmony, voices twining in a capella simplicity. The Truth part was this: the ancient words of this Vesperal service had been chanted for more than a millennium. Lex orandi, lex credendi; what people pray shapes what they believe. This was a church that had never, could never, apostatize.
She was his wife, and she was standing next to him thinking about her feet. They hurt. She wondered why they had pews if you had to stand up all the time. The struggling choir was weak and singing in an unintelligible language that may have been English. The few other worshipers weren’t participating in the service in any visible way. Why did they hide the altar behind a wall? It was annoying how the priest kept popping in and out of the doors like a figure on a Swiss clock. The service dragged on following no discernible pattern, and it was interminable. Once the priest said, “Let us conclude our evening prayer to the Lord.” She checked her watch again; that was ten minutes ago, and still no end in sight.
It was a long journey from that evening to my present life as an Orthodox priest’s wife. For many, converting to Christianity, or changing denominational allegiance, is the result of a solitary conviction. As I ponder my pilgrim’s progress to Orthodoxy, however, I realize that I didn’t make the trip alone, but in a two-seater. And I wasn’t the one driving.
This is more relevant than may initially appear. Something about Orthodoxy has immense appeal to men, and it’s something that their wives—especially those used to worshiping in the softer evangelical style—are generally slower to get. The appeal of joining this vast, ancient, rock-solid communion must be something like the appeal of joining the marines. It’s going to demand a hell of a lot out of you, and it’s not going to cater to your individual whims, but when it’s through with you you’re going to be more than you ever knew you could be. It’s going to demand, not death on the battlefield, but death to self in a million painful ways, and God is going to be sovereign. It’s a guy thing. You wouldn’t understand.
When I asked members of our little mission, “Why did you become a member?”, two women (both enthusiastic converts now) used the same words: “My husband dragged me here kicking and screaming.” Several others echoed that it had been their husband’s idea—he’d been swept off his feet and had brought them along willy-nilly. Another woman told how she left Inquirer’s Class each week vowing never to go again, only to have her husband wheedle her into giving it one more try; this lasted right up to the day of her chrismation. I can imagine how her husband looked, because that’s how my Gary looked: blissful, cautious, eager, and with a certain cat-who-ate-the-canary, you’ll-find-out smile.
That night at Vespers a few years ago I was one of those balky wives. Gary and I stood side by side feeling radically different things, but the pattern could have been predicted from the beginning. When we first met over twenty years ago, he was a political animal who just didn’t think much about God; I was a passionate agnostic, angry at God for not existing, eagerly attacking the faith of Christian friends.
Gary’s shell began to crack when a professor required his philosophy class to read a Gospel. As he read the words of Jesus, he became convinced that here was one who “speaks with authority.” Since Jesus said there was a God, Gary began to doubt his doubting.
This reasoning left me unconvinced. By the time of our wedding I was going through my Hindu phase, but didn’t object to visiting cathedrals on our honeymoon hitch-hiking through Europe. One day in Dublin I looked at a statue of Jesus and was struck to my knees, hearing an interior voice say, “I am your life.” I knew it was the One I had rejected and ridiculed, come at last to seize me forever. It was a shattering experience from which I emerged blinking like a newborn, and decades later I still feel overwhelming awe and gratitude for that rescue, that vast and undeserved gift. It’s like the story of the farmer who had to whap his donkey with a two-by-four to get its attention. I imagine that, when God needs a two-by-four that big, He must be dealing with a pretty big donkey.
True to form, Gary needed Truth, while I needed a personal, mystical experience. In the years that followed we went to Episcopal seminary together, were baptized in the Holy Spirit together, and spent several years in the early charismatic movement. He was ordained a priest, and we moved to a new church every few years, having babies along the way. When the charismatic experience grew stale, he rediscovered the high liturgical tradition of his childhood, while I went into spiritual direction and centering prayer. Though there are pitfalls along each of these paths—high-churchiness can devolve into form-but-not-substance, mysticism can float into goo-goo-eyed self-centeredness—neither of us lost our central commitment to Jesus as Lord. Wherever we went, God kept us near himself and each other.
As I shifted my aching feet on the floor of that dim church I wondered whether Gary’s new direction would ever make sense to me. What had pushed him in the door of this church in the first place was growing unease with changes in the Episcopal Church, changes both moral and theological.
For example, in July of 1991 I was present for a vote of the Episcopal House of Bishops, a resolution requiring ordained clergy to abstain from sex outside of marriage. When the ballots were counted, the resolution had failed. I remember thinking, “This isn’t a church anymore; it has no intention of following its Lord.”
Meanwhile, it became fashionable to doubt Jesus’ miracles, the Virgin Birth, even the bodily Resurrection. Before his consecration as England’s fourth-highest ranking cleric, David Jenkins claimed that miracles were in the eye of the beholder. Of Jesus’ physical resurrection he sniffed, “I’m bothered about what I call ‘God and conjuring tricks.’” He was consecrated Bishop of Durham in York Minster Cathedral on July 6, 1984; two nights later, lightening struck from a cloudless sky and burned down a wing of the building. Beholders thought they might have seen a miracle.
Home in Baltimore such shenanigans were wearing on my husband. He banded together with five other “troublesome priests” and wrote a document asserting seven points of theological orthodoxy; they called it the Baltimore Declaration. It prompted a minor dust storm, but the national church lumbered on its way as undisturbed as a water buffalo by a mosquito.
Gary at last decided that he could no longer be under the authority of apostate bishops; he had to be in the line of Truth. But where to go? He briefly considered the “continuing” Anglican churches, but felt he couldn’t climb further out from the branch to a twig; if anything, he had to return to the trunk. Also, he began to believe that the compromising flaw lay at the very heart of Anglicanism. The beloved doctrine of “comprehensiveness” suggested, “Let’s share the same prayers, the same words about the faith, but they can mean different things to you than to me.” Not a common faith, but common words about the faith—mere flimsy words. A church at peace can survive this way; a church attacked by wheedling heresies must tumble into accommodation reducing orthodoxy to shreds.
Roman Catholicism was the next obvious choice, and we looked into the Pastoral Provision whereby married Episcopal priests can become married Catholic priests. But, ironically, pro-Provision literature gave us serious doubts. One book by a priest’s wife painted an unintentionally grim picture; would we have to sell our furniture and live in a furnished apartment, never be allowed to retire, be ordered to teach high school instead of pastor, and be fourth on a huge staff, under supervision of people whose views were uncomfortably similar to those of the Episcopal bishops he was fleeing? Despite that author’s cheery “it was worth it all,” it sounded to me like jumping from the frying pan to the fire.
Then there was the matter of theology. We remained worried by traces of salvation-by-works in Catholic practice, and a habitual tendency to frame human relations with God more as business transaction than love affair. Catholic theology seemed in general too overdone, compelled to parse every sentience and split every infinitude. I call it “driving nails with your forehead.”
Gary was invited to join a small group of Protestant clergy for an evening with Orthodox evangelist Father Peter Gillquist, and he went carrying some hard questions; Father Peter later said he thought Gary was the one present that night who would never convert. But the questions were evidence of urgent wrestling. Gary particularly needed assurance that the Orthodox cling to salvation given by God’s loving grace, not earned by human effort. Father Peter directed Gary to the fourth-century commentaries of St. John Chrysostom. In a sermon on 1 Timothy, for example, Chrysostom says that the best purpose of the law is to reveal that it cannot save us; it then “remits us to Him who can do so.”
Then I re-encountered a history lesson that had eluded me in seminary, but now took on vital importance. For the first thousand years, the thread of Christian unity was preserved world-wide through battering waves of heresies. The method was collegial, not authoritarian; disputes were settled in church councils, whose decisions were not valid unless “received” by the whole community. The Faith was indeed common: what was believed by all people, in all times, in all places. The degree of unity won this way was amazing. Though there was some local liturgical variation, the Church was strikingly uniform in faith and practice across vast distances, and at a time when communication was far from easy. This unity was so consistent that I could attribute it to nothing but the Holy Spirit.
Then a developing split between East and West broke open. The Church had five centers: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. The bishop of Rome was accorded special honorary status, but no unilateral power to determine doctrine or to command the other bishops. However, by the eleventh century the concord between the four Eastern centers and Rome was disintegrating. The East believed the papacy was seeking expanded power over the worldwide church, and balked particularly at Rome’s insistence on adding the word filioque (“and the Son”) to the Nicene Creed, a statement of faith which had been in common use since 325 A.D. So serious a change as rewording a creed would have to be won by consensus in church council, not imposed by command.
While the filioque controversy sounds at first picayune, it had theological reverberations that are significant, as disputants at the time realized. In an effort to elevate the second person of the Trinity, it dilutes the singular authority of the Father, and changes the Trinity from—visually speaking—a triangle with God the Father at the top, to one tipped over, both Father and Son above the Spirit. Orthodoxy is indeed “patri-archal,” that is, the Father (the pater) is the arche, the source and font of all.
In Orthodoxy the all-male priesthood is not based on the idea that women can’t represent Jesus; if replication of the specifics of the Incarnation is the goal, only a first-century Jew could come near that. In Orthodoxy, it’s not Jesus, but the Father whom those serving at the altar represent, and whatever else a woman can be (and, in Orthodoxy, she can be anything else: choir director, lector, teacher, head of the parish council) she cannot be a Father. She can be a Mother, of course, and so there is a recognized and honored role for the priest’s wife, with a title: Khouria (Arabic), Matushka (Russian), or Presbytera (Greek).
The filioque controversy, then, had implications that reach further than initially appear. The bishops of Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Jerusalem objected that the Holy Spirit would not have waited a thousand years to clarify the role of the bishop of Rome, and that a church council would be necessary to amend the Creed. The conflict grew worse, and the legate of the pope excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople on Christmas Day of 1054 AD. The patriarch returned the favor, and the split was on.
When West severed from East in this four-to-one split, the Orthodox churches continued united, as they have to the present day (Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and so forth being just national expressions of the same worldwide church). Unlike the Western church, the church of the East went through Christianity’s second millennium without being shattered into fragments by theological disputes. This is despite horrific persecution and martyrdom: twenty million Russian Orthodox are estimated to have been martyred in this century alone.
Once unchained from the need for consensus with other bishops the Western Church continued freely developing Christian doctrine, while the East had laid the task to rest with the end of the seventh Ecumenical (“world-wide”) Council in the eighth century. As Western Christian theology grew more elaborately defined, it offered more fodder for protest, and eventually for Protestantism. Five hundred years after the East-West split the Reformation emerged, spurred by a desire to whittle back to the simpler original. But though some Reformers read the Church Fathers and made an effort to learn from Orthodox leaders, barriers of geography, culture, and language made cross-fertilization difficult. For the most part the Reformers relied on the Bible as their only guide, and it’s a book that sincere people can interpret in wildly different ways, as shown by the existence of nearly twenty-five thousand different Protestant “Bible-based” denominations. Subsequent generations continued the split from ancient practice. Like untrained gardeners going into an overgrown garden, successors to the Reformers hacked about with machetes, slashing unknowingly through material that had been affirmed for the first thousand years: the sacraments, the honoring of Mary, the eucharistic Real Presence. Protestants were trying to rediscover the ancient Church, but instead they created a dancing array of sorcerer’s apprentice brooms, all trying to sweep one another clean.
The constant experience of doctrinal disagreements contributed to a Western tendency to make the Christian experience more about ideas than about heart-driven living faith, more what you think than what you do; more assensus than fiducia, more ideas about God than surrender to him. The Orthodox Church, escaping this sort of discord, could admire a butterfly without having to pin its head to a board. Orthodoxy has had many failings and controversies, but they are most often about use and abuse of earthly power; they are not about theology. It’s not yet perfection on earth, but there is to a refugee Westerner a certain bliss in bypassing theological arm wrestling about things too big for our puny understanding. For example, rather than over-defining Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist, or tossing out the concept entirely, Orthodox are content to say that the bread and wine become his body and blood simply because they “change.” In Orthodox theology there is a humility, a willingness to let mystery remain beyond comprehension.
The stance of an Orthodox believer is similarly humble and childlike: we are sinners, receiving the overwhelming love of God, and we stand before him in gratitude. This is, I think, one of the reasons we kiss so much: we kiss icons, the Gospel book, the cross, and each other. Most Sundays we use the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and we thank God for sending his Son “into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” Grateful repentance is such a constant in Orthodox worship that mystic surfers, looking for smells, bells, and thrills, rather than submission to Jesus as Lord, find they can’t take more than a couple of weeks—not without conversion.
I paint here in hindsight a rushing tide of conviction about the truth of Orthodoxy which swept my husband away. At the time, I was having none of it. Orthodoxy was too foreign, too old, too fancy. I didn’t care what they said, I just couldn’t believe that this was what the worship of the early church looked like—all the cluttered doodads of gold, incense, and fancy vestments.
My vague assumption was that early Christians just sat around on the floor, probably in their blue jeans, talking about what a great guy Jesus was. It was embarrassing to review Scripture and realize that from Exodus to Revelation worship is clothed in gold, silver, precious stones, embroidery, robes of gorgeous fabric, bells and candles; I don’t know of an instance of scriptural worship that doesn’t include incense. God ordered beauty, even extravagant beauty, in worship even while his people were still wandering the desert in tents. Beauty must mean something that no-nonsense, head-driven Christians fail to grasp.
Gary was rarin’ to go, but I put on the brakes. Oddly, I wasn’t concerned about finances, even though becoming Orthodox meant throwing away a fifteen-year career when our three kids were entering their teens. Nor did I feel loyal affection for the Episcopal Church, either nationally or in our little parish (where, as a cultural conservative, I often felt like the odd man out). But I was afraid we would be leaving for the wrong reason: because we weren’t happy. Too many people break up marriages, shirk obligations, and betray commitments because they feel insufficiently fulfilled. Besides, even if the Episcopal Church was lost to apostasy, didn’t God need chaplains on the Titanic? Hadn’t we better stay where he planted us?
Gary finally won me over by saying, “You know what God needed on the Titanic? Life-boats. We know where there’s a ship that doesn’t sink. Let’s try to get as many people to safety as possible.” So on January 30, 1993, I found myself standing before Bishop Antoun as he anointed me with holy oil, calling out “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit!” “Seal!” the congregation shouted. Five other families came with us from our Episcopal parish that day, and two weeks later we celebrated our first liturgy, at a homemade altar, in a borrowed space, with borrowed appointments. Three years later, Holy Cross Mission numbers forty families—nearly every one a convert.
A continent away someone I’ve met only by mail is writing me a letter. She’s a multi-generation evangelical, descended from missionaries and professors at Christian colleges. Now her husband has begun looking into Orthodoxy and shows the signs, so familiar to me, of beginning that plummeting dive. Her words, too, are familiar:
“This is a church whose disciplines and life, I feel, appeal initially more to men. To me it all seems so…hard. In my spiritual walk up to this point my heart has led my head. I might go to church mad and unrepentant, but with a worship chorus in a lilting tune, or a heartfelt spontaneous prayer, my heart would begin to soften. I’d come out ready to live the obedient life.
“Orthodoxy makes sense in my head, but I yearn for something to grab my gut and help me over the hump labeled ‘self.’ All the ‘soft’ music, etc., that used to draw me is missing and I’m left in this massive struggle with my will. Does that make sense? Doesn’t a spoonful of sugar help the medicine go down, and all that?
“And how do women eventually come to terms with this somewhat austere church?”
How did I? Now I can’t imagine ever not being Orthodox. Here is my home, my joy, my fulfillment; I tasted and saw and nothing can compare. But how did I get past the bare truth part, the aching feet part, to discover the rich, mystical beauty of Orthodoxy?
A kaleidoscope of images flashes through my mind. The textures, the scents, the music of the liturgy, a continuous song of worship that lifts me every week. The Great Fast of Lent, a discipline far more demanding than I’d ever faced in my Christian walk. Kneeling on Holy and Great Thursday and listening to the hammer blows resound as my husband nailed the icon of Jesus’ corpus to the cross; seeing my daughter’s shoulders shake with sobbing. Easter morning giddiness and champagne at sunrise. Hearing my son say that, after a year of the Divine Liturgy, he didn’t like the sentimental hymns of the last 300 years any more: “They make me feel further from God.” Seeing icons change from looking grim and forbidding to looking challenging, strong and true. True.
Truth turns into Beauty in unexpected ways. What was strange and perplexing has become my sweetest home. As I look over my shoulder, I can see this friend not far behind me on the road, on the cloverleaf of conversion, and it’s by now a familiar sight. Her husband is driving, and she’s in the passenger seat.