May 2015

Welcome to the Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity.  By Frederica Mathewes-Green. Paraclete Press. 384 pages. $18.99.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, author of Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy, a past vice president of Feminists for Life of America, the best of National Public Radio’s commentators, and Khouria (priest’s wife, “mother”) of Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Baltimore, has written a new book about getting to know the Orthodox Church. In it she walks the reader through a semi-fictional, representative American parish of the Orthodox Church, stopping to chat along the way. We look at the outside of the building, go through the front doors, and stop to hear about the icons, the altar, the chanters’ stand, and the iconostasis. We attend vespers, Mass, and finally a funeral. Each of these stops invites discussion, and everything is fair game. Now she’s discussing why the icon of the crucifixion does not show a suffering Christ; now she’s describing which prayers are said on which days of the year, and why the Russian cross has three bars. A description of confession leads to a compact discussion of the different days the East and West celebrate Christmas and Easter, which somehow takes us to differences in theories of atonement.

Mathewes-Green is a good companion, colloquial and easy, clear even when she dives into knotty theological controversies. What other book will you read this year that gives a quick summary of the controversy over the double procession of the Holy Spirit? But one of the great things about Mathewes-Green’s writing is that, unlike so much from the C.S. Lewis school of Christianity, she does not live entirely in the world of arguments. She writes with “the mind in the heart,” as the Orthodox say. Christianity is not primarily a philosophy or assent to a set of propositions; it’s a way of life. Mathewes-Green never loses sight of that. Liturgy, the life of prayer, reflection, confession of sins, frank acknowledgement of the need for mercy, sacraments, hymns, Scripture, the 80-year-old woman who no longer stands during vespers, the tiny Ethiopian who removes his shoes to pray, the smell of incense, the burning of candles, vigilance against the Devil — these all come into play. Progress in religion is about the turning of the total self toward God, not another analogy proving that what Christians believe is reasonable.

Herein lies the real pleasure of reading Mathewes-Green. This is religion for the whole person, mind in heart, heart in body, body and soul. There are deep veins of wisdom shot throughout:

- “A sin we especially long to cast off might be held in place by a different sin, one that has to be removed first, even if we don’t grasp the connection and consider it less important.”

- “I shouldn’t have to say this, but the evil one is really evil. Don’t picture him trying to tempt a fat lady into eating more chocolate.”

- “Thinking and talking about God is not communion with God. Only prayer is prayer.”

She quotes liberally from the dynamic liturgies that, with the icons, are the chief cultural glory of Orthodoxy: “Why, Judas, did you betray the Savior? Did he shut you out from the company of the disciples? Did he sit at table with the rest, but send you away? Did he wash the feet of others, but pass you by? How much kindness you have forgotten.”

There is a difficulty in writing from inside one’s own faith tradition, and this book is not immune. It’s probably not so bad for a reader with no particular faith, or with little knowledge of his faith, but to someone steeped in a different tradition (I’m a Roman Catholic), outsiders’ unfavorable characterizations of you can rankle. When the Greek Fathers appear, they are well characterized by wonderful saintly quotes. Not so with the Western Fathers: They resisted the authentic spirit of early Christianity, were too stupid to pass freshman Greek, and are introduced every time the author wants to call attention to a chamber pot that has been kicked over.

A better view might acknowledge that theology arises in polemical contexts, that traditions are built from the cascade of these contexts and the responses to them over time. These different challenges lead to different responses, which in turn lead to different questions, which lead to different growths and different depths. If we grant that even a Roman Catholic can be saved, as I think Mathewes-Green would, then presumably the Holy Spirit also guided the poor benighted Latin-speaking slobs west of the Adriatic.

Welcome to the Orthodox Church contains some organizational problems. It suffers from some repetition, and there are a couple of places where it’s unclear how we got to the topic we’re on. But it’s hard to fault the author. As she states in her introduction, “All the dynamic elements [in Orthodoxy] slide into one another.” She’s committed to the mind-in-the-heart approach, to a faith that engages the whole person at all levels. Books are inevitably sequential, but faith isn’t. To understand Orthodoxy, Mathewes-Green believes, you have to live it: You should be in a church, standing next to the old woman whose arthritis prevents her from standing, with the mothers, the children, the fathers, with the smell of incense in your nostrils, the stone floor under your knees. You should have the icon of Christ Pantocrator before your eyes, the taste of the wine-wetted prosphoron still on your tongue, and the choir filling your ears with chant: “The angels give songs of praise, / The heavens give a star, / Wise men give costly presents, / While shepherds give their simple awe. / The earth gives a cave, / The cave gives a manger, / And we give you a mother, a virgin mother.”

The reader gets what the book’s title promises. But the best reason to read this book is that the author is wise. Wisdom springs from deep roots within a well-ordered soul, and is quite different from the things we mistake it for: intelligence, charm, wit, sympathy, openness, or empathy. Wisdom is rare in public discourse; when you see it, you recognize it.

- J. Mulrooney





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