Ask an Orthodox Christian...(Response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

In a wonderful addition to our ongoing interview series, Frederica Mathewes-Green has responded to your questions about Orthodox Christianity with all the grace and wisdom that has made her such a respected figure in the religious community. 

Frederica began her faith journey as a Roman Catholic, dabbled in Hinduism, then converted to Anglicanism, before finding her home in the Orthodox Church. She is the author of nine books, including the critically-acclaimed and beautifully-written Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey Into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Baltimore, Maryland, where he is pastor and she is “Khouria” (“Mother”) of the parish they founded, Holy Cross Orthodox Church

I hope you will set aside some time to really pour over Frederica’s thoughts here. I really learned a lot about Orthodox Christianity from this brief exchange. Thanks for sending in some great questions! 

From Dianna: You seem to have a pretty unusual faith journey, but one thing I notice throughout each of the four major steps (Catholic-Hindu-Anglican-Orthodox) is the inherent beauty in each of those worship styles - Catholicism has a very beautiful set routine of liturgy, the Hindu call to prayer is (to me) one of the most beautiful sounds in the world, and Anglican services tend to be quite beautiful as well. The Orthodox church (I have only attended a couple of services, so I only have impressions, not full theological understanding) seems to have an emphasis on things being beautiful - what with all the icons and the atmosphere created in the service. What role, if any, do you feel beauty has played in your journey of faith? 

For me and for many, beauty plays a handmaiden role; it facilitates and smoothes the way, but is not the entire motivator. It seems that the general pattern among peoples around the world is to surround their worship with as much beauty as they can. It seems to be an impulse akin to the desire to adorn a bride on her wedding day and make her as beautiful as possible. The feeling is that the gods deserve as much beauty as one can gather, and it is appropriate to spare no expense, so there is an element of sacrifice too. This emphasis on beauty naturally appears in the early church, East and West, a carryover from the beauty of Temple and synagogue worship (vestments, incense, chant, etc). 

I think the later Christian West has been an exception, perhaps because there were so many, many arguments about the words of the Bible and what they mean. There grew up an intense focus on the words of the text, and less interest in—sometimes even suspicion of—non-rational content like beauty. 

The deeper level, however, is that Christ came so we could have communion with God—direct personal experience. And you cannot analyze something and experience it at the same time. The great emphasis on intellectual activity (or, worse, cleverness) competes directly with actually communing with God. But it is easier, in a way, because our minds crave leaping about rather than stillness, and our egos savor intellectual dominance more than humility and un-knowing. 


However there is in the West a misperception that a human has two aspects, reason and emotion, and if you are not being rational you are being emotional. A corollary, “You cannot experience God with your mind,” so direct experience of God is emotional, possibly (likely) an emotional projection.  No, the experience of God is an experience with an objective “other,” like any other experience in life. Such experience is likely to cause both thoughts and emotions in reaction, but the immediate experience comes first.  It is of course an uncontrollable experience, but the surprising thing about the Eastern Church, from a Western perspective, is that they have preserved and passed on, from generation to generation, wisdom about how to prepare yourself for your side of the encounter; how to teach yourself to “show up” and pay attention. This may not be the thing Orthodox would think of as most significant about their Church, but it is the thing that is most surprising and fascinating to many Western Christians. People who have a desire to dwell more consistently in the presence of the Lord will find much of interest here. 

(The question is, can you take bits of it piecemeal, or does it “work” only if you do the “whole program”. I think there is benefit in using any part of it, but “whole program” is bound to be more effective. The problem is that what you choose piecemeal is going to be limited by your prior ideas, your likes and dislikes. The ancient way has been through so many cultures and centuries by now that it is transcultural—works for anyone, anywhere.) 

Beauty facilitates the openness that makes contact with God possible; it creates humility, simplicity, awe, desire. Like flowers and candlelight at a romantic dinner, it is appropriate and helpful, but not in itself the point.   

From Karl: I realized after reading Facing East that I'd misunderstood many Orthodox and Catholic practices, such as the use of icons and "praying to" saints and Mary.  Can you discuss a couple of common protestant misconceptions on these issues and explain how Orthodox view them?  How and why do you think those misconceptions arose? 

I think much of the misconception about the saints goes back to the word “pray,” which originally meant simply making a request. You could say at dinner, “I pray you, pass the steak sauce.” When we pray to God, we ask him directly what is on our minds; when we pray to saints, we ask them to pray for us. It’s just like when I ask my prayer partners to pray for me. But, with them, I use email or a phone; with the saints, I use prayer. It’s a means of communication. 

Sometimes people say to me, “I can go directly to Jesus, I don’t need to ask intermediaries,” and I reply, “OK, I won’t pray for you any more, then.” Really, the prayers of the saints are no different from the prayers of our friends on earth. It is “the great cloud of witnesses,” both visible and invisible, all one in Jesus Christ. 

The point of theological confusion may also be an unclear idea of what exactly the afterlife is like. For most of Christian history, people have pictured our departed loved ones, as well as the “greats” of all ages, awake and aware in heaven, worshipping God and spending all their time in prayer. If Christ’s Resurrection means that death really is overcome, then it seems easy and natural to ask a departed loved one to pray for you. 

It would be weird and creepy, though, to try to get into a conversation with them. You’re not supposed to try to hear replies. You are just sending them a post-it note with a request. Attempts to communicate with the departed beyond that—trying to learn the future, for example—would be spiritually dangerous and entirely off limits. 

I was pleased when reading last summer’s best seller, Heaven is For Real, to see that the little boy saw the saints in heaven as living, active people. He said he saw St. Mary kneeling before the Father’s throne, which is exactly how Orthodoxy and R. Catholicism see her: she prays for us. And he said he saw her standing near Jesus because “She still loves him like a mom.” He surely loves her the same way, and wants us to treat her with affection and honor her (he said “Behold your mother” to St. John, and we think he meant to all of us). We can ask her to pray for us just like we would ask a neighbor. That’s the Orthodox view of heaven and the afterlife. 

About icons, it fits in with the earlier discussion about beauty—in secular society at the time homes and public buildings were painted with frescos, and it seemed natural for Christians to paint bible scenes on the walls of their churches, and in the catacombs, of course. There is a town called Duras Europa in Syria which was destroyed about 250 AD; both the synagogue and the church in town were covered with scenes from the bible. So even Jews used images we’d call “icons” when we look at them. 

One reason was that books were very scarce and expensive; imagine what it would cost you, even today, if you hired a calligrapher to make a hand-lettered bible for you. Most people were illiterate. Paintings of bible scenes on church interiors functioned like a children’s picture bible; they taught the scenes of biblical and church history. They also, in presenting to us portraits of Christ and his followers give an example to follow. The many elements distinctive to iconography—reverse perspective, lack of shadows, golden background and so on—are designed to confront us with a reality that is not like what you see out the window; it is not a scene from everyday life. It is not emotional. Contrary to traditional Western religious art, it does not seek to stir emotions, which are beside the point. Instead it shows us where we are going. It shows those who have preceded us on the way. Their gaze is challenging and unsentimental, as it should be. 

From Joseph: I find the Orthodox view of salvation; finding union with God, or participating in the Trinity very meaningful and refreshing. I think those of us in the west have a lot of learn from your tradition. Can you explain this in more detail and compare it to the protestant views of justification and sanctification? 

Instead of viewing salvation primarily as a matter of Christ paying his Father the debt for our sins (a view which doesn’t appear before the 11th century), Orthodox Christians hold the first-century view that sees the Father and Son united in a rescue operation, very much foreshadowed by the Exodus at the Red Sea. This time the enemy is not Pharaoh, but Death itself; “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (Hebrews), and free us from condemnation to eternal death. In the East, there never was a concern that the Father could not forgive us until the debt was paid. Instead, he forgives us freely, without payment, like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. 

In this ancient view of salvation, Christ became human in order to go into the realm of death, where we were held captive. Once there he revealed his powers and broke down the gates of Hell.  The result is that death is now only a transition into eternal life. 

Heaven and Hell (or Paradise and Hades) are not places; they are both experiences of the presence of God. In this life, God is veiled by the material world he created; in the next life, the veil is taken away and there is no separation. We will participate in God’s life, his “energies” in theological language, as distinct from his “essence” which is something beyond human capacity to know. His life or “energies” fill us, like the warmth and light of fire, the “energies” in turn of fire, which penetrate through a piece of iron in a furnace and make it hot and glowing. “Our God is a consuming fire,” and those who loved him in this life will find that fire to be warmth and light. Those who “loved darkness rather than light,” on the other hand, will find the inescapable light to be burning and misery. 

These energies are God’s love. He really is love. Love is not an emotion but a living force, the life that upholds the universe. God does not have anger and does not punish, though it is right for us to recall in humility that that is what we deserve.  But those who hate and reject him will feel his love as pain. St. Isaac the Syrian (7th c) said that those who are scourged in hell are whipped with the cords of love. 

'Dome of orthodox church of Saint Nicholas, Saratoga, California' photo (c) 2007, Eugene Zelenko - license:

Orthodox do not have “assurance of salvation.” While God offers salvation to everyone, freely, we humans vacillate and are not constant in our love of God. We keep wanting to do things our way, or to do things in a corner where God cannot see. God will never revoke our salvation, but there is a terrible danger that we could throw it away, by habitually preferring our own desires. We are constantly having to make the decision to accept God’s love, in each moment. That’s why Christ and St. Paul so often urge us to be vigilant, to keep watch. So there is not “assurance of salvation,” not because God would change his mind, but because we do, all the time. In humility we doubt our own constancy and keep throwing ourselves on Christ’s mercy. I think this results in a very good, dynamic relationship with God. Gratitude and repentance are energizing producing stances.  

The experience of God, by which we assimilate his presence, begins in this life and continues into eternity. As St. Peter says, we are “partakers of the divine nature.” This is called theosis. “Theos” means God, and “-osis” means a process, so it is a process of being “God-ized.” The iron-in-furnace analogy fits well here. When Orthodox think of salvation, union with God is what they mean; and that Christ suffered and died in order to go into the realm of death to set us free, and enable us to choose and embrace it. 

Another aspect of this is a positive view of matter. Like the bush that burned and was not consumed, like Mary being able to contain the God of the universe within her womb, this material world exists within God and is filled entirely with him (“Do I not fill heaven and earth?” Jer., “Heaven and earth are full of your glory,” Isa.) People who progress very far in this transformation during this life are sometimes seen to glow, like Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. They are characterized by great love for others and humility, and their prayers become so in tune with God’s will that they are known as miracle-workers. Miracle stories and angel sightings happen all the time in Orthodoxy. From one perspective, the church tradition closest to Orthodoxy is Pentecostalism. 

This belief in the ability of the human body to be filled with the divine is one reason that we revere the mortal remains of saints, and find them to be miracle-working (as with Elisha’s bones, 2 Kings 13:21). From the earliest Christians gathered the bones of the martyrs and buried them under their altars, as we see in Revelation 6:9. It was the Christian affirmation of the goodness of the body and material creation that provoked the disgust of pagans and Gnostics. When asked why God didn’t come to earth as something more noble, like sunlight or a star, St. Athanasius said, “Because he did not come to put on a show. He came to seek and save suffering humanity.”  

From Heath: My understanding of the Orthodox view of the afterlife isn't great, but from what I have learned, it seems to make a lot of sense.  Could you expand on the Orthodox view of the afterlife for us?

 Heath, I covered some of this above, in particular that there aren’t separate “places” called Heaven and Hell, but a common experience of God’s love, which is like a consuming fire. I could clarify further by saying that, if you want to be very precise in language, at present the departed experience either Paradise or Hades, not Heaven and Hell. At present, the departed are separated from their physical bodies, and dwell in a bodiless existence, like angels do. This is not natural for us; we are created to be embodied, so this temporary separation is unnatural and incomplete, perhaps even a sense of loss. After the Great Resurrection on the Last Day, bodies and spirits will be reunited. At that point true Heaven and Hell will commence.   

From Kacie: I've read your book and am very, very interested in the Orthodox church. However, when I visit a local congregation it feels like I'm in a foreign country. There are things that are beautiful about holding to tradition, but it's also important for a church to be in the local culture. It's essentially a church still in "missions" mode and just learning to interact with American culture. Can you speak to the dilemma of a church full of tradition and how they can interact and be reachable to your average American? 

'Pèlerinage St ANTOINE-47' photo (c) 2010, ???????????? ???? ? ?????? - license:

It’s been hard for Orthodox immigrants, as outsiders, to know which aspects of American culture are most important to adopt. For example, for the first hundred years or so Orthodox immigrants to America took the presence of pews and organs in churches as significant cultural clues. Though in the “old country” churches usually have no pews (just some benches and seats for the infirm), and all music was done a capella, new churches built in American included pews and organs. In retrospect, perhaps that wasn’t the most important feature to copy, though I expect they made the church interior look a bit more familiar to visitors.   

In my view, the most important thing is English language. I understand that immigrants cherish their heritage and fear that it will get lost in the new land, but it’s not effective to keep worship in another language. Young people end up leaving and going to churches where they can understand worship. It has been the tradition through history in Orthodox missions to translate the worship and Scriptures into the local language right away (as opposed to Western missions, which kept everything in Latin). Missionaries to Alaska 200 years ago created 6 alphabets for unwritten Native Alaskan languages, so that they could have the Bible and worship in their own language.  If the worship is not in English, church membership will decline. 

A major difference with the US, in Orthodox history, is that in previous instances Orthodox people went to new lands as missionaries, with faith uppermost in mind. In America, Orthodox people came seeking a new life, rather than as emissaries of their faith. They set up churches in order to have the worship they were familiar with at home, so the process was kind of backwards. As time passes, though, and there is increasing interest in Orthodoxy from outsiders (well over half of Orthodox clergy are now converts, which is creating wonderful revival), these things need to be thought through. 

I should add that Orthodoxy has gone into many different cultures, of course, from Finland to Alaska, and remained pretty much the same, because it is a program of spiritual transformation and the program works, no matter who or where you are. The inner heart of Orthodoxy is culture-transcending. It’s a pattern of healing that works for humans everywhere, like vitamins do. It also stays the same over time; I was told early on that Orthodox devotional writings from every time and place sound alike, and have found that to be true. So in adapting to a new culture there is partly the problem of determining which elements are changeable, and which are not. 

I read an interview with a Romanian monk, now living in America, in which he said that Orthodoxy would need to adapt to America, and in particular accommodate the characteristic desire to explore things intellectually. I’m not sure that’s the case, though, because I think the things we think we have figured out intellectually are likely to be wrong. When it comes to theology, we just don’t have enough underlying information to be able to construct accurate theories, or even accurate questions. I think we Americans have a whole lot of remedial and humbling direct-experience-of-God to go through. But he’s certainly right in noting intellectuality as a strong national characteristic. I hope that Orthodox churches will emphasize hospitality and welcoming newcomers, and helping newcomers to find a place in worship; that is most important.   

From Elizabeth: What does Orthodoxy have to say on women's role in the Church -- both big "C" and little "c" church? Also, within this, what exactly is a Khouria's role? Is it different from the "pastor's wife" role in Protestant churches?

It was a surprise for me that, when I left a liberal-progressive mainline denomination and became Orthodox, my scope of ministry in the church became much larger. In the Episcopal Church, there wasn’t a lot of interest in my speaking and writing, but as soon as I became Orthodox I was in demand everywhere. In terms of “supporting women’s gifts and ministries”, the Orthodox Church has been much more welcoming.

The difference you ask about is probably better understood as between lay people’s ministry and ordained ministry, rather than between male and female. But I should say first that you discern what Orthodox “policy” is on one topic or another by looking at what Orthodox people actually do, rather than by consulting official statements. There are no official statements, for a great many things. So you look at what is expressed in worship and practice. (To comprehend the Orthodox teaching on the Resurrection, for example, you would look at icons and hymns about the Resurrection.) What we see in practice is that women do nearly everything that men do, in terms of lay ministry.  That would also be most of what ordained people do, in non-liturgical churches.

For example, the Orthodox Church has always had woman preachers and evangelists; no problem with women preaching, and I have preached in the pulpit of Orthodox churches all over the country. For example, St. Nina of Georgia was a 14 year old Cappadocian girl when she was abducted and sold as a slave in Georgia. She had an opportunity to preach to the king and queen, though, and in the end converted the entire nation. Such women are given the title “Equal to the Apostles” (eg, St. Mary Magdalene, Equal to the Apostles).

St. Cassiane shows us that women can be theologians and write hymns that become part of the Liturgy. St. Perpetua, St. Catherine and others show us that women can be brilliant debaters and defend the faith eloquently. Empress St. Theodora shows us that women can rule over both men and women, and call a council that establishes church doctrine. In short, lay women do almost everything lay men do.

Women are not ordained priests, however. There has never been a reason spelled out for this. Orthodox do theology on a need-to-know basis (for the reason above, that the real purpose of life is union with God, not analyzing him), and spell things out when controversy arises and peace in the church is threatened. But male-only priesthood has just never been controversial before. (There is past precedent for women deacons.)  

If the Holy Spirit wanted to, he could bring to Church to agreement that women should begin being ordained priests; that is always possible. The Orthodox way is to make decisions by consensus, with all bishops holding equal standing in the decision, rather than by top-down decision-making. What’s more, the decision does not become official policy until the lay people accept and affirm it. There are cases where the laity defeated a decision a council had made.

I don’t know whether the laity would accept women’s ordination to the priesthood. I don’t sense a very widespread desire for that. Women as deacons was an ancient practice and some recent councils have recommended that the practice begin again, but so far there has not been much interest in actually doing so. Historically there has not been a sense of deprivation in the Orthodox Church because of the lack of women priests. Perhaps this is because there is a high expectation of what lay people can do, and not as strong a distinction between clergy and laity as there historically was in the West, where clergy were separated both by education and an ability to understand Latin, and by being celibate. (Orthodox priests can be married, which is humanizing.)

“Khouria” is the Arabic term for the priest’s wife (“priest” is “Khoury,” which you sometimes see as a surname). Every culture has its own term for this role (“Presbytera” in Greek, “Matushka” in Russian) since there is no English equivalent. Of course the khouria is the pastor’s wife, but the role holds greater honor in the East, as the wife is understood as “one flesh” with her husband, and thus shares his spiritual authority in an organic way. 

From Donald: What do Orthodox believers think of non-Orthodox believers, like Catholics and protestants and Messianics? 

There is no blanket condemnation, as if to say anyone outside the Orthodox Church is damned. There is, though, increasing awareness that non-Orthodox Christians do and believe many things that Orthodox consider counter-productive, if the goal is assimilation of Christ. Since rank-and-file Orthodox have not historically had much interaction with Christians who were not Orthodox (much more experience with Muslims, for example), I think among immigrants to America there was first an assumption that all Christians have the same beliefs they do. There have been many surprises, as they find out how varied and, from their perspective strange, Western beliefs can be. (I was the first person to explain the Substitutionary Atonement theory to one of our bishops, and at first he couldn’t believe anyone could possibly believe that, and once convinced was appalled.) 

Given that the Orthodox impetus is to be seeking union with Christ, some of the things Western Christians believe or do are regarded as negative or harmful, and some doctrines seen as insulting to our Lord. For example, in Orthodox spirituality you aim at holding your mind attentively open to the presence of God. To instead send your mind through imaginary scenes with Jesus, as Ignatian meditation and some other devotional paths do, is seen as not only a waste of time (why imagine he’s here, when he really is here?) but also holding a potential of great spiritual danger. So there are aspects of Western Christianity that Orthodox, if they know about them, would regard as negative or dangerous. 

Since the process of theosis is very challenging, requiring a great deal of resistance to pride and constant prayer, some Orthodox would worry that those who are not even trying to follow the ancient path, don’t even know about it, may not reach salvation. But Orthodox would not say that any particular person was not saved (except for Arius; they seem to be pretty sure about him). No one looking from the outside could say how God might have dealt with someone internally, even during the last minutes of life. The saying is, “We know where God is, but not where he is not.”

From Karl: As someone who submitted as an adult to an ancient branch of the Christian faith, what do you make of the "emerging church" movement within (primarily) American evangelical and post-evangelical protestantism? 

I haven’t kept up much with the emerging church. I think it has an inherent structural weakness, that it is defined more by what it is not than what it is. 

I have known many emerging-church leaders who have been interested in taking aspects of Orthodox spirituality into their churches, and I have encouraged that, of course. But I think the drawback will always be that their people are not experiencing the faith of the early church itself, intact, but rather the selections from the early church that fit the taste of this particular contemporary leader. It’s being filtered through that person. There is still some benefit in that, of course, but it is like flowers in a vase. You can go to the garden of the ancient church and cut some flowers, and bring them into the worship space in a vase, and they will do much good, providing beauty and fresh life. But they are going to die. They have been cut off from their roots.

For me, when I realized that there was a spirituality that was developed by the early church—by the same community that wrote the New Testament and would naturally understand it best—and that this spirituality had been practiced unchanged by believers in every culture and time, I had to be there. I wanted to take it on its own terms, because I can’t trust my enculturated taste and preferences to know what’s actually best for me. It was, “If this still exists, why am I not there?” But not everybody feels that way.

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