Monday, January 18, 2010

Thoughts on The Orthodox Way - Part II

This is the second part of my thoughts and quotes from The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware, my first introduction into Orthodox theology.

The Person of Christ
 The vast majority of Orthodox theology is summed up in the seven ecumenical councils of the early church, which is where all of Christendom derives their beliefs about Christ, so there is not much different in this area. He is God, but He is man. He has one nature, he is our salvation, etc... etc. It's nothing particularly new in contrast to what I was raised to believe. There are some interesting thoughts in there, though, like one of the explanations for why ikons of Christ are so important and are considered acceptable. Also, they honor Mary much more than Protestants do, but because of their view of sin they never had to develop doctrines like the Immaculate Conception. In my mind, they are very balanced in this area.

The seventh Council (Nicaea, 787), setting the seal on the four that went before, proclaimed that, since Christ became true man, it is legitimate to depict his face upon the holy ikons; and, since Christ is one person and not two, these ikons do not just show us his humanity in separation from his divinity, but they show us the one person of the eternal Logos incarnate.

The Mother's virginity serves as a "sign" of the Son's uniqueness...... Orthodoxy does not evisage the fall in Augustinian terms, as a taint of inherited guilt, then we might also have felt the need to affirm a doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. As it is, our terms of reference are different; the Latin dogma seems to us not so much erroneous as superflous. Secondly, for Orthodoxy the Virgin Mary constitutes, together with St John the Baptist, the crown and culmination of Old Testament sanctity. She is a "link" figure: the last and greatest of the righteous men and women of the Old Covenant, she is at the same time the hidden heart of the Apostolic church. But the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception seems to us to take the Virgin Mary out of the Old Covenant and to place her, by anticipation, entirely in the New.

The Son of God suffered " unto death", not that we might be exempt from suffering, but that our suffering might be like his. Christ offers us not a way round suffering but a way through it; not substitution, but saving companionship.

The Holy Spirit
This part was so intriguing to me. They have such a clear and integrated doctrine of the Holy Spirit, His role in our lives and our life in Him. At times they sound like charismatics, and in some ways they are. They emphasize the importance of the gift of the Spirit on all believers, and they recognize that this sometimes manifests itself in outward signs.

Ware spent several pages explaining two particularly religious characters, the elder or starets, and the fool. The elder is not a position within the church, it is someone whom the Holy Spirit has given particular discernment and gifts of healing. He becomes sort of a spiritual advisor to the people, and those he advises are bound to him. It's all very foreign, the only box I had to put it in was the depiction of an elder like this in one of Dostoyevsky's books. The fool is essentially a slightly crazy zealot, who somehow in his craziness is able to powerfully affect those around him in usual ways. I know. It sounds weird, and a little arbitrary, like a great literary device but not something I would define as a particular religious type. It's like - is this really the natural outflowing of your theology? It seems like a cultural construction rather than a necessarily point to hold to.

[Along with spiritual brotherhood with our fellow disciples],... those who seriously commit themselves to the Way should in addition make every effort to find a father in the Holy Spirit.

As pilgrims on the Way, then, it is our purpose to advance from the stage where the grace of the Spirit is present and active within us in a hidden way, to the point of conscious awareness, when we know the Spirit's power openly, directly, which the full perception of our heart... The Pentecostal spark of the Spirit, existing in each one of us from Baptism, is to be kindled into a living flame. We are to become what we are.

When it is genuinely spiritual, "speaking with tongues" seems to represent an act of "letting-go" - the crucial moment in the breaking down of our sinful self-trust, and its replacement by a willingness to allow God to act within us. In the Orthodox tradition this act of "letting-go" more often takes the form of the gift of tears.

Spiritual Life - Church, Sacraments, Scripture
I loved this section. This is where I have felt a lack as an evangelical, and have longed for the tradition and integration of the sacraments and for the emphasis on the importance of the church. They hold to the idea of ONE church, one body of believers following Christ. They emphasize that it is disobedient for believers to not be a part of the church. Faith and membership in the body go hand in hand. They emphasize the importance of the sacraments - the eucharist, prayer, baptism, etc. They emphasize the importance of scripture but are hesitant to fully accept the critical scholarship work that the West does, afraid that it will become a work of the mind rather than a devotion of the heart.

I don't know exactly how exclusive they are in their claims. Do they believe, as the Catholics, that you really do need to be a member of the Eastern Orthodox church to be a part of the true church? They are less centralized - they have a number of leading Bishops, and the churches are divided by nationality and location. They have often developed quite independantly of each other, unified by their commitment to the early tradition.

First - it is presupposed that the traveller on the Way is a member of the Church. The journey is undertaken in fellowship with others, not in isolation. The Orthodox tradition is intensely conscious of the ecclesial character of all true Christianity....

Secondly, the spiritual Way presupposes not only life in the Church but life in the sacraments.... There is only one way; the way of the sacraments and the way of inner prayer are not alternatives, but form a single unity. None can be truly a Christian without sharing in the sacraments, just as none can be truly a Christian if he treats the sacraments merely as a mechanical ritual. ... Certainly God is able to save those who have never been baptized. But while God is not bound to the sacraments, we are bound to them...

The third indispensible presupposition for an Orthodox Christian... is to turn for guidance to the voice of God speaking to us through the Bible....

The real purpose of Bible study is more than this - to feed our love for Christ, to kindle our hearts into prayer, and to provide us with guidance in our personal life. The study of words should give place to an immediate dialogue with the living Word himself.

This is part of the spiritual life, but I section it off because it is one area where Eastern Orthodoxy leaves their pattern of being very general and becomes very specific. Sometimes I appreciate this and sometimes I struggle with it.

Prayer and meditation is a huge deal within the Orthodox Church. Entering a church is a surreal experience for those of us from the Protestant world. The importance of ikons and paintings and the particular kind of art and design is very different than our culture. Ikons are seen as a window to see through to the spiritual world. You do not worship the ikon, you use it to guide you through to a vision of the divine. They are meant to foster devotion, and tiny little things within the paintings mean a great deal and escape the Western mind at first glance. Ikons are very flat - no perspective or shadow really painted in. This is their traditional practice, but some actually give a sort of theological arguement for why this is. They do pray for the dead, but they do not believe in purgatory. To me this actually makes sense to me, mostly because I see us as being INSIDE of time, but God hears our prayers outside of time, at all times?

The orthodox often use the methods of divine reading and prayer in the tradition of lectio divina. It is a systemized way of reading scripture that allows you to dwell in it, meditate on it, and offer it up in prayer. I was taught this method in an undergrad class, and it was remarkably moving and powerful to do both communally and individually. The Orthodox also emphasize hesychasm, which is a particular method of praying. It is an ancient Byzantine style of prayer with a long history of being practiced by ancient saints. Its intent is to allow the hesychast (pray-er) to leave the constant distraction of their senses and focus on the divine, eventually resulting in union with God - but only with His energies, not His essence (which is wholly seperate from us).

In particular hesychasm refers to the Jesus prayer, which very simple and is meant to be repeated over and over meditatively. In English is says, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." It is simple and it is truth. It's hard for me to understand why this is so important. Yes, initially it seems very Eastern, very Buddhist or Hindu... well there is good reason for that, after all this is the Eastern Church, and these are classic ways to approach prayer, and it seems very foreign because my religious culture developed so seperately. Different doesn't necessarily mean bad, though. After all, scripture teaches us to meditate. However, there's also passages in the New  Testament that discourage believers from babbling on with endless repetition in their prayers. Where is the balance? I am so far from the traditions of the ascetic desert fathers, it's hard for me to understand why this is SO important that it became a central doctrine of Eastern Orthodoxy.

To contemplate nature is to become aware of the dimensions of sacred space and sacred time. This material object, this person to whom I am talking, this moment of time - each is holy, each is in its own way unrepeatable and so of infinite value, and each can serve as a window into eternity.

This stillness or inward silence is known in Greek as hesychia, and he who seeks the prayer of stillness is termed a hesychast. Hesychia signifies concentration combined with inward tranquility. .... The hesychast, as well as entering into the prayer of stillness, , uses other forms of prayer as well, sharing in corporate liturgical worship, reading Scripture, receiving the sacraments.... In Orthodox hesychast tradition, the work which is usually assigned to it is the frequent repetition of some short "arrow prayer", most commonly the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner

So the Jesus prayer begins as an oral prayer like any other. But the thythmic repetition of the same short phrases enables the hesychast, by virtue of the very simplicity of the words which he uses, to advance beyond all language and images into the mystery of God. .... where the soul rests in God without a constanty varying succession of images, ideas, and feelings.

And finally, some can sometimes reach the stage when it ceases to be the prayer of the prayer, but rather the prayer of Christ in them. ... infused.

I loved reading this book. It was helpful in understanding some issues, but what was beautiful about it was reading the central beliefs of Christianity, most of which are shared by the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches. Reading about these truths makes me overflow with joy - they aren't dry old theological ideas in my heart. The diety and humanity of Christ, His death for us, the love of the Trinity, our ability to know our God, the body of the Church.... these things are beautiful to me, and so in reading them I am led to worship.

My reaction would probably be the same after reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, but what I love about Ware and Eastern Orthdoxy is that they explanations, history, rationale, and even the people quoted throughout the book are mostly ancient.... very very ancient, back to the early church. This connection to the church throughout history is very important to me right now, so I deeply appreciate that in contrast to the very very modern feel of my particular evangelical world.

I do have questions... so far mostly about WHY hesychasm and a few other practices are held so tightly, and then also how this ancient and eastern church can look in the Western and modern world.


CM said...

I know very little about Eastern Orthodoxy, so I don't feel that I have anything valuable to contribute to the conversation. Just wanted to say that I've enjoyed hearing about it.

Kacie said...

Thanks CM, yep, I've been in the same boat as you, didn't know anything - that's why I've been reading so much about it! I think most people don't know much about it.

Amy B. said...

I am definitely interested in reading this book to learn more about Orthodoxy. Thanks for sharing!

P.S. Regarding your recent comment on my blog - we are in such similar positions, it's almost eerie! I am also working to help get my husband through grad school (seminary). And I am also drawn to counseling or other "jobs" that would require an MA, but have to put that on hold for now. It is challenging for me to be confident that the next step is out there, and that I am not closing off options for my life by waiting too long. Let's pray for each other, for patience and wisdom to find the next step!

Rae said...

"I don't know exactly how exclusive they are in their claims. Do they believe, as the Catholics, that you really do need to be a member of the Eastern Orthodox church to be a part of the true church?"
It is actually a bit more exclusive than Catholicism. If you were baptized using the trinitarian formula the Catholic Church considers you to be a Christian, regardless of whether you are in communion with Rome. If a person with a valid baptism chooses to become Catholic, s/he will not be re-baptized because s/he is already a Christian, and simply needs to be confirmed as a Catholic. This is not the case with Orthodoxy, and those who wish to join the Orthodox Church are baptized because a non-Orthodox baptism does not count as a Christian baptism. Apparently this is not true in all
Orthodox parishes
but it was the case for my friends who converted and some branches of Orthodoxy will even re-baptize those who were already baptized in another Orthodox Church with whom they are fighting. has interesting discussions of the issue which may balance out my bias. Orthodox exclusivity is actually the issue that bothers me most about some Orthodox, so I am not a fair judge of the issue!

" Reading about these truths makes me overflow with joy - they aren't dry old theological ideas in my heart. The diety and humanity of Christ, His death for us, the love of the Trinity, our ability to know our God, the body of the Church.... these things are beautiful to me, and so in reading them I am led to worship."
This is wonderful! I sometimes get so tired of books like this (mostly Catholic) because the focus seems so weighted toward converting others rather than knowing God more fully. It is great that you're able to sort through this with greater love of God rather than increased frustration with Christians.

Kacie said...

Yeah, Rae, I am still discerning whether the exclusivity comes from the nationalism of the various Orthodox churches, or if it is exclusivity for Orthodoxy as a whole.

In my understanding, there is no one instruction on the re-baptism question. apparently there are a variety of approaches?

PresterJosh said...

Regarding "exclusivity": Orthodoxy and Catholicism share the same self-understanding as the "one true Church established by Christ."

The Catholic Church officially regards other churches and ecclesial communities as having a participation in the life of the Church.

"It follows that the separated Churches(23) and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church."

Vatican II's decree on ecumenism

Within Orthodoxy, many theologians have essentially the same position as the Catholic Church. However, this isn't an official teaching in Orthodoxy.

What does this mean?

1. You can be an orthodox Orthodox and believe that it is impossible to be saved without being a visible member of the Orthodox Church.

2. You can't be an orthodox Catholic and believe that it is impossible to be saved without being a visible member of the Catholic Church.

Kacie said...

Prester Josh, perhaps this is the opinion of many Orthodox theologians. However, this is not a defined doctrine in the Orthodox church as it is in the Catholic Church.

PresterJosh said...

Kacie: That was my point. The Catholic Church's dogma is more inclusive (of Protestants and other Christians) than the Orthodox Church's dogma.

PresterJosh said...

Kacie, I thought you might like this post by Fr. Stephen (an Eastern Orthodox priest) on the problem of church. It has a little section addressing the "exclusivity" of Orthodox and Catholic claims as well.

DebD said...

Hi Kacie,

You have written a wonderfully long and thoughtful post. Much to ponder and chew on here.

I think to understand Hesychesm one should look at Gregory of Palamas and the issues he tackled. You may find some interesting connections between Western scholastic emphasiis and those that fought against hesychesm. At least that was one thing that jumped out at me. Anyway, I am not the most informed person to discuss that particular issue.

I would also highly recommend Fr. STephen Freeman's blog - he is a wonderful writer. I would also recommend the Orthodox inquirere's forum at yahoo groups. They have many knowledgeable clergy and laymen there to answer questions.

I fear that words like "true church" become muddles together with salvation to many people and I'm hesitant to use them. I prefer a description that Met. KALLISTOS (Ware) used himself - he considers the Orthodox Church to have "the fullness of the faith". This does not mean that we have the truth and everyone else is false and therefore, lost. Most Orthodox churches in America do not re-baptize if one was baptized in the Trinity. You do need to be a member of the Orthodox church to partake of the mysteries of the church (usually called sacraments in the West): confession, communion, Orthodox marriage, Holy unction, etc. But, we do not believe that only Orthodox christians are saved. In fact, we are discouraged, and even forbidden, to judge another person's salvation. That is between them and God.

The ethnic ghetto can be, and is, a problem in some parishes in America. Usually those with long history and strong ties to their nationality have the most issues. I belong to the Orthodox Church in America, which has its roots in Russia but is quite diverse. We have a lot of converts as well as cradle Orthodox from many different jurisdictions. With other jurisdictions (Antiochians, ROCOR, Greek) it depends on the parish. Some are wonderfully welcoming and have all/most services in English. They also have a nice mix of cradle and converts.... others are not so well integrated. They look at the parish as a ministry to their nationality and those of us who are not those can feel like outsiders.

I hope I have been helpful.

Kacie said...

DebD, having your perspective is invaluable - thanks! I have been browsing the Orthodox Church in America's website and reading several articles listed there... it's a great website!