A Few Comments on “Life in the Orthodox Church”

V., the anonymous writer who runs the Perceptio web-log, has finally followed through on the time-honored tradition of Orthodox converts writing about . . . their conversion. In a post entitled “Lessons Learned from Rocky One to Rocky Three (Life in the Orthodox Church),” V. provides his own spiritual-psychological account of why other people enter Orthodoxy before briefly touching on his own reasons (theology, ecclesiology, liturgy, and so on and so forth). It’s not particularly persuasive, at least not when it comes to accounting for the myriad of reasons people leave some form of Protestantism (and occasionally Catholicism) for the Eastern Orthodox Church. With respect to ex-Catholics, while it is true that some are looking for a safe haven from the turmoils of contemporary Catholicism (heck, even Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, is rumored to have entertained becoming Greek Orthodox following the Second Vatican Council), a good number of ex-Catholic Orthodox I have met over the years either married into Orthodoxy or weren’t strong churchgoers prior to finding the Christian East. Of course some certainly made their choice for concrete intellectual and/or aesthetic reasons, but they were not “traditionalists” in any strong sense of the word. Most traditional Catholics, for better or worse, take a fairly low view of the Orthodox, regarding them as “schismatics” or “heretics”; they are not inclined to convert, no matter how rotten things get in Rome. The few exceptions I have known to this rule (all priests and monks) did wind up in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), but less out of a desire for “exclusivism” and more because ROCOR, when compared to some other Orthodox jurisdictions in North America, is relatively “safe” in its conservatism. (Also, if you happen to appreciate the Byzantine-Slavic liturgy done well, there’s no better place to go than a ROCOR parish.)

As for ex-Protestant converts to Orthodoxy, a good number of their reasons for swimming the Bosporus rather than the Tiber come down to some form of anti-Catholic animus left over from their “Shine Jesus Shine” days. It’s not very surprising that so-called “Orthodox apologetics” contra Catholicism are just rehashes of Protestant polemics and that some of the very things these writings accuse Catholics of doing are present in the Orthodox Church (e.g., “Mary worship,” depicting God the Father in images, a too-low Christology, a too-high Christology, clericalism, Scholasticism, etc.). One of the most amusing things I heard Orthodox priests tell Protestant inquirers over and over is that the Orthodox (unlike the Catholics!) don’t “worship” or “venerate” saints; they merely ask saints to pray for them, like a friend. Similarly, Protestants are often given a very incomplete account of the role of icons in Orthodoxy and the degree of veneration owed to them (particularly miraculous ones). (The next time someone gives you a “modest” account of the role of icons in Orthodoxy, take them to your nearest ROCOR parish when the Kursk Root Icon is on display for veneration.) Sadly, ex-Protestant converts to Orthodoxy have something of a stranglehold on Anglophone Orthodox media, resulting in a rather distorted presentation of the Orthodox Faith to inquirers and the converted alike. While a great deal of anti-Catholicism in world Orthodoxy can be chalked up to national, ethnic, and historic tensions, much of the anti-Catholicism running through North American Orthodoxy is centered on intellectual gripes, many of which have already been dealt with by Catholic theologians and apologists well-versed in the actual disagreements which exist between East and West. The relative absence of Catholic apologetics contra Orthodoxy is largely due to most Catholics finding Orthodox concerns (genuine or not) to be non-issues, or at least issues that have already been covered. Why reinvent the wheel?

Returning to V.’s piece, I agree with him that in Orthodoxy there is “something for everyone.” I would argue, however, that Catholicism can make the same claim and do so with more force and conviction. (Neither claim, by the way, vindicates one side or the other with respect to where the “true church” is to be found.) Without trying to irk my Orthodox readers, it behooves me to remind everyone that there are more Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago than there are Orthodox in the United States. Unless you happen to live in a major metropolitan area like Chicago or New York, your chances of finding more than one or two Orthodox parish options are slim. And so it seems to me that those who choose to become Orthodox or desire to remain Orthodox must do so for reasons other than finding their own little “niche”; it probably won’t happen. (As a side note, this leads me to wonder how many people leave Orthodoxy because they can’t find their niche — but I’ll table that for the moment.) American Catholicism, on the other hand, has a bit of everything (including “Byzantium,” if you happen to live in the Rust Belt). Moreover, Catholicism has a much better spiritual, intellectual, and social infrastructure than Orthodoxy, which is perhaps why Catholicism continues to draw in a large number of converts while the “Orthodox Century” predicted by certain American Christian writers a few years ago remains on hold for the time being.

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29 comments

  1. A very fair assessment. As a confused ex-Protestant convert to Orthodoxy who has never ceased to be aesthetically enamored with traditional Catholicism, I find the overwhelming media presence of American Evangelical culture within Orthodoxy to be, frankly, obnoxious. The sheer amount of crypto-Protestant convert literature out there (and in the average parish bookstore) is enough to convince one that Fr. Oliver Herbel’s critique is spot on: American Orthodoxy is pretty much a charismatic restorationist movement with vestments and incense. As for “conversion stories,” well, that’s just what evangelicals call “giving your testimony.” And they’re just as formulaic.

    But if we’re talking about the obnoxious side of Protestantism, it’s honestly the banality (and some times downright atrocity) of the contemporary execution of the Roman liturgy that keeps me on this side of the Bosphorus, as it were. Sure, one could go Eastern Catholic. But there’s probably more Orthodox Christians in Pennsylvania than there are Eastern Catholics in the entire US (that’s just an assumption, I’d be quite happy in fact to be proven wrong).

    1. Yeah, I don’t know what the numbers are on Eastern Catholics. There may be close to a million or so, but that would include Maronites and other non-Byzantine Catholics as well. But I imagine there are definitely more Orthodox than Byzantine Catholics in the U.S. for sure.

      1. Where I now live, there are far more eastern rite Catholic churches than Byzantine Orthodox, not only Byzantine rite Catholic ones, but several of the Syriac tradition as well.

    2. I once actually met a Greek Orthodox priest, convert, who used reasoning right out of the Jehovah Witnesses for refusing to call Easter, Easter (you know the one where it really means some ancient goddess of something). He had never heard that it is the Old Anglo-Saxon word for “From the East.” Which would seem to make it quite respectable for the Orthodox, but the Orthodox seem get fixated on trifles and run with them; these secondary issues are adopted by their converts and become fundamental.

      I did read the article, and the converts issues seem to be that he simply loved the Byzantine liturgical tradition, and had really nothing to say about a theological witness; he should have simply gone Byzantine rite Catholic. I found the whole article very unconvincing.

  2. I’ve been a Roman Catholic for the first thirty or so years of my life (save for those few years when I was an obnoxious adolescent atheist and apostate), and an Eastern Catholic for the last thirty. I suppose that the only way I would ‘dox’ is if I were to come to believe that the Orthodox Church were the center of Christ’s Church on earth. Or if I came to believe that the Roman Church had lost the true faith. Right now, I am of the opinion that for the RCs, the inmates are largely in charge of the asylum, but that it remains the One True Asylum. I am, however and alas, beginning to consider the possibility that the Message of La Salette was a prophetic one, and that ‘even Rome will lose the faith.’ I do not know what I would do if that possibility were to become a reality.

    1. So let’s say Rome loses the Faith. What does that mean for the Church universal, especially if other Catholic Churches hold to it? For instance, I do not see the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the verge of losing the Faith. Rather, it has stood as a heroic witness to it, including its Patriarch having to go so far as to remind the Holy Father on his duties to the Church. Even if Rome folds (for a time), that doesn’t mean Kyiv will.

      1. Theoretically speaking, if Rome loses the faith, then are the Orthodox fundamentally in error for not being in communion with her? The prevailing narrative of schism simply assumes that that has already been the case for centuries. It would seem that an ecclesiology which allows for Rome to fail entails Orthodox ecclesiology (whatever the heck that is).

        1. This seems to be a form of circular reasoning. What if the Orthodox lose the faith, would this then prove that Rome was correct?

          1. It’s not circular reasoning. And I’m not being polemical – this is a thought experiment.

            It will be harder to measure whether the Orthodox lose the faith, given how casually the Orthodox regard the canonical ecclesial structures of communion (i.e. the church would still be considered existent on earth even if a single lonely monk was left praying in a cave on a remote mountain). For Roman Catholics, the canonical ecclesial structure is dogma. Now if Rome errs on a point of dogma and thus becomes apostate, what is left of the Catholic communion besides a cohort of loosely affiliated ethnic/national sui juris churches with their own jurisdictions, particular rites, and a general assent to a common faith? It certainly does not follow that Orthodoxy would be proven correct, but whether or not the remaining churches consider themselves to maintain the same faith as the Orthodox, in terms of ecclesial and canonical structure, they’d be a veritable Orthodox doppelganger.

            In other words, is there any positive reason, besides communion with Rome, that allows one to be Catholic and, in good conscience, *not* in communion with the Orthodox?

            Again, I’m not being polemical. Just speculating, and trying to understand how the Catholic mind works here.

  3. I always find that V guy disturbing to my Catholicism, but his reasons aren’t as devastating as I would have assumed.

  4. Siding with Peregrinus, I am “a confused ex-Protestant convert to Orthodoxy who has never ceased to be aesthetically enamored with traditional Catholicism” so my “nichey niche”, if you will, is Western Rite Orthodoxy; but 15 years after entering the church (or this lung, if you wish) I am *very* thankful that Orthodoxy allows men of my age to seek Monastic tonsure. Every Roman (and Anglican) order I researched at various times said I was too old – and I’ve been too old since the early 1990s.

    But: the lack of a support structure – social, intellectual, political – is a crucial issue. Where do I go when I need help or networking? At times, Russia seems to address that in very direct ways through ROCOR, but they don’t reach this southern white boy, very often: I only speak one language (two if you count non-southern English). I don’t identify with an Orthodox ethnic tradition nor with ex Evangelical folks (being ex liberal Episcopalian). So I always feel left out when it’s time to give my testimony. I didn’t go to Rome because at the end of the day Rome looked (to me) a LOT like ECUSA, especially in San Francisco where I was at the time. B16 changed my mind somewhat but it was too late: and, again, in hindsight what Roman Monastery would have taken a 50 year old? No anti Romanism here… although I confess in my crazy convert days I sounded like a Jack Chick tract.

    I’m not sure if there is a lack of a spiritual infrastructure in American Orthodoxy – that seems the one thing we have. I welcome an expansion on that.

    1. By “spiritual infrastructure” I meant more widely available monasteries, retreat centers, etc. I would probably agree that Orthodoxy has a “thicker” spirituality, at least in the U.S. right now. However, its spiritual hubs are few and far between, and some of them can be rather toxic if not handled properly.

      1. I actually find Orthodox spirituality as it is commonly presented in the US and by other Anglophonic resources to be rather trite and 2-dimensional. . . boring, that is. I guess I’m just plagued by the noonday demon. Even Staniloae, a theologian of immense creativity and brilliance, especially in the realm of dogmatics, is for the most part devastatingly rote in his “Orthodox Spirituality.”

        Orthodox spirituality has little use for the saeculum — I mean, meaningful human existence outside of monastic hesychastic discipline.

      2. Thanks, sir. Now I understand and agree with that as well. Your comment about Chicago is directly to the point.

      3. By “spiritual infrastructure” I meant more widely available monasteries, retreat centers, etc.

        Hmm… here in New York, there are Catholic monasteries and retreat centers, but many are like the Cenacle Sisters in Ronkonkoma who are offering me “MOVING CLOSER TO GOD THROUGH T’AI CHI,” “Guided Labyrinth Walk,” and “Zen Spirit-Christian Spirit.”

  5. From the blog of “that V guy,” seemingly in response to this posting:

    “Far more trust worthy are those who eschew fantastic accounts of religious melodrama and tortuous epiphanies of having found “the one true Church” – especially where critical data bears the conclusion that such claims are nonsense -and instead focus on the quality of their religious experience, or, better still, speak of it in very matter of fact terms.”

    Note his dismissal of all “true Church” claims, claims that are both ecclesiologically primordial to both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, claims about the nature of “the Church” which are embodied in the Nicene Creed (i.e., that it is visibly one, and indivisible), and claims, finally, the rejection of which render one an ecclesiological Protestant, or a Gnostic, or a solipsist (L’Eglise.c’est moi). Is this view acceptable in an Orthodox Christian?

    http://arealliveone.blogspot.fr/2016/06/lessons-learned-from-rocky-four-to-rock.html

    1. Is this view acceptable in an Orthodox Christian?

      Nope.

      As I wrote over there (with the typos removed):

      “So ‘In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.’ and ‘We have found the true faith’ mean what exactly? Remembering that these terms are linked in the Kontakion of the Fathers of the Six Ecumenical Councils: ‘The Apostles’ preaching and the Fathers’ doctrines have established one faith for the Church.'”

    1. Again, l’Eglise, c’est moi – ou c’est celle que j’aime; the “ecclesiology” of our contemporary solipsistic Modernists.

  6. I’ve been Orthodox for ten years now – a convert from mostly Protestantism, but I spent time in college where I was searching all over the map – Buddhism, Vedanta, Sufism, and yes, Catholicism and Anglicanism. When I discovered Orthodoxy, it seemed like this pristine jewel – the “Truth” amidst a 21st century sea of crap. Now that I’ve been Orthodox for a decade, I’ve begun to see that there are still all the same problems here that you’ll find anywhere else – only they are hidden under the veneer of icons, incense and “Tradition.” Even (God forgive me) sexual abuse. It may not be as evident as in the Catholic Church, but I think that’s simply because Orthodoxy doesn’t have the numbers, the cultural influence and the institutional visibility of the Catholic Church. The stigma of the sexual abuse, and of course all of the post-Vatican II craziness, played a large role in choosing Orthodoxy over Rome.

    However, for the past year or so, I’ve felt a strong urge to come into communion with Rome. I’ve never really took Roman Catholic theology or ecclesiology seriously before, and certainly not on their own terms. The more I look into it, however, the more I see how much of the anti-Catholic rhetoric simply doesn’t really understand what the Roman Catholic Church teaches on matters such as the Immaculate Conception, indulgences, Papal Infallibility. Now I read some Orthodox polemics, and it is sad to see that much of what they are arguing against are simply misconceptions and misunderstandings of Catholic teaching.

    I am beginning to find Orthodox-to-Catholic converts online, and they all say the same thing. They started out as very fiery, anti-Catholic Orthodox zealots. But the Orthodox seem to only be able to define themselves over and against Roman Catholicism. How is this too much different from Protestantism in this regard? Many of these Orthodox-turned-Catholics have had similar discoveries once Roman Catholic dogma and ecclesiology is taken more seriously, and after they discover that Orthodox is strangely ambivalent on some moral issues like divorce and contraception, and even homosexuality, depending on whom you ask.

    This is not to deny that there are problems in the Roman Catholic Church! God knows there are, and any Catholic would tell you that. But even despite the problems in the Catholic Church, this is beside the point as to whether or not the Roman Catholic Church and her beliefs are *TRUE*. Sure there are liturgical abuses… but is she still the True Church, in spite of this?

    Furthermore, there is only so much anti-Westernism and anti-Catholicism that one can take in the Orthodox Church – or at least that I can take. And it seems that these sentiments have reached a fever pitch with the current “Holy Council” convening in Crete.

    Anyway, forgive me for my scattered thoughts and for thinking out loud here. I’ve been praying about this and debating this for quite some time now, and posts and discussions like this are very helpful. I think that I will eventually come home to Rome, but it’s a big step – and the massive condemnation that I expect to get from the Orthodox side is not a small issue, thought perhaps worrying about this just comes from my own pride. Thank you, and please pray for me.

    1. Noah – you have my prayers. Please remember this struggling Novice in yours (regardless of where you end up lighting candles for me).

    2. Noah,

      Your experience isn’t unlike a lot of people’s who have left the Orthodox Church for Catholicism. There are many more to be found now than, say, 10 years ago when everything flowed Eastward almost exclusively.

      I am not interested in saying anything bad about the Orthodox Church or trying to score polemical points, but I will say that Orthodoxy does a much better job selling itself as something it isn’t than Catholicism does. Catholicism’s problems are well known, and if you don’t know them, a brief perusal through a handful of blogs and websites will smarten you up in a hurry. Orthodoxy is different. It is small and rather off the radar. Most of what is out there about Orthodoxy is very positive, even romantic, and it can leave people with a very false impression of what they are getting themselves into. This isn’t to say that Orthodoxy is “worse” than Catholicism as far as ecclesiastical environments go. And, depending on where you live, it’s probably a heck of a lot easier to find a spiritually and doctrinally healthy Orthodox parish than a Catholic one. As I have written about on here before, on any given Sunday, in any given parish, you are far more likely to find an “orthodox” Orthodox cleric than an “orthodox” Catholic one.

      For instance, if I met someone who was in serious spiritual need right now, I could name just as many Orthodox priests in my general geographical area that I would feel comfortable directing them to as I could Catholic priests (and the Catholic population here is exponentially larger than the Orthodox one). That’s sad, but it’s true. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the most humble, pastoral, and charitable cleric in this whole region is an Orthodox priest. Hyper-Caths can get mad at me for saying that if they want, but it’s just the plain truth.

      1. Noah and Gabriel,

        You are describing my own experience. I was a pretty fiery anti-Catholic Orthodox Christian convert. When I actually decided to explore what Catholicism taught, I ultimately ended up a Catholic. Luckily, there were two very orthodox Eastern Catholic parishes in my area.

      2. Thank you Gabriel and Nelson. I know there are some solidly traditional Catholic parishes and priests out there, but yes – my experience has been that more often than not, if you go to any Catholic parish or even religious community, you have to deal first hand with things like guitar masses, “On Eagles Wings”, lesbian feminist nuns, “Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer” and the like. If you live in a place like Pittsburgh where there are plenty of Orthodox Churches to choose from, going to an Orthodox parish is often the “safer” choice. But if all the good, faithful and traditional Catholics simply leave Catholicism behind in favor of Orthodoxy, what good is that? And again – abuses aside, it just ignored the question, “Is Catholicism true?” Not modernist Catholicism, but Catholicism that is loyal to its own tradition, to the Deposit of the Faith, to the Magesterium, etc.? I’ve heard it said from Orthodox priests that the crisis in Catholicism “is God’s way of making it very clear to us where the Church is, and where is isn’t.” In other words, it is apparent now that Catholicism was false all along, and Orthodoxy was right. But would this have been apparent back in the 1920s and 1930s, when Catholicism was strong and Communism and “the Living Church” was sweeping through Russia? Sure, it was ultimately defeated, by the grace of God, but it was an aberration that didn’t last forever. Perhaps it is the same with the abuses in the Catholic Church now? And if the Catholic Church was the Church “against which the gates of Hell will not prevail,” does this mean that Christ was lying, and the gates of hell *did* prevail after all? At what point did the most central pillar of the Universal Church – the Chair of St. Peter – become *not* the Church? In 1054? In 1204? At the addition of the filioque? At the rejection of the Council of Florence? When can we possibly say that this occurred?

        I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but I really have been looking for a like mind to bounce all of these questions and thoughts off of. I have to do it under a pseudonym, because I’m in a position that raising these questions openly would be a bit of a “scandal” in the Orthodox community, I think. (At least among people that I know.) I’m not an “ecumanist” in the “Liberal” sense. I believe there is indeed a Truth, and we should find it and follow it. So, as my understanding deepens and becomes more rounded and nuanced (I’d like to think), this issue arises. And then there will come a point in which I’ll have to make a move in which my outer situation in life will finally match my inner, “secret” beliefs. I’ll have to come back to Rome.

        I like what Marshall McLuhan once said about his conversion into Roman Catholicism:

        “I came in on my knees. That is the only way in. When people start praying, they need truths; that’s all. You don’t come into the Church by ideas and concepts, and you cannot leave by mere disagreement. It has to be a loss of faith, a loss of participation. You can tell when people leave the Church: they have quit praying.”

        I think it has been prayer that has really lead me to this point. I started praying the rosary daily, as well as praying the Litany of Humility, and when I do this, all questions and fears melt away. My heart knows, but my head still needs convincing. But again… It’s probably all just my pride. It takes guts and courage to “get on your knees” and enter the Catholic Church in the sight of all your Orthodox brethern – and guts and courage that I sadly lack, currently. But that’s my prayer daily – God give me the grace and wisdom to know what to do, and the strength and courage to do ti.

        Thanks so much for hearing me out.

        Noah

        1. Btw… I just read the newest post re: Fr. John Hunwicke on “pseudonymity.” I can assure this isn’t my usual modus operandi. And it’s just temporary. :-)

    3. Noah,
      I am in the exact same boat as you. Your post is really helpful and by no means scattered thoughts. I put a lot of time and commitment in being an Orthodox Christian after I converted in college. I am very active in my parish and have been the sponsor of several people who have decided to be received into the Church over the years. I know that swimming the Tiber will cost me friends and permanently sour a very good relationship that I have with my parish priest and his family. But as you mentioned, worrying about the flack I would get is more about pride and personal feelings that what would be the best place for me spiritually.

      The Orthodox Church is a legitimate church, from the perspective of the Holy See. But when I travel extensively around the globe and see the Catholic Church everywhere, with worshipers in its pews, missionaries spreading the Gospel, running schools and hospitals, etc, it is very hard for me to say they are not the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and my Orhtodox Church who looks inwardly and not outwardly in spreading the light of Christ.

      If most of us reading here are of Western ancestry, it is significant to note that the reason that we are of a Christian heritage to begin with is the result of the evangelism and missionary work of the Roman Catholic Church – regardless how many centuries or decades ancestors may have left it.

      1. Thank you, Jeremy. I have to say that a deepening of an appreciation for my “Western” spiritual roots and culture has contributed to this to some degree. When I see Christendom dying in Europe, and I hear about things like the talk of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris becoming a mosque someday, it deeply saddens me. I could, like some Orthodox I know, say, “Oh well! They left the True Church! They are devoid of grace! This is what happens!” But I just don’t believe that anymore. Yesterday I read a preface, written by Cardinal Newman, to “Notes of a Visit to the Russian Church” which is a 19th century account by one Oxford Anglo-Cathoic, William Palmer, who goes to Russia to test his “Branch Theory” and to see if he would be recognized as part of the Universal Catholic Church by the Russian Orthodox and given Holy Communion by a Russian Orthodox priest. Well… After “demanding” Communion, he was denied, and was basically given this response (in the words of Newman) by representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church: “We know nothing about Unity, nothing about Catholicity; it is no term of ours; it had indeed a meaning once, it has none now. Our Church is not Catholic, it is Holy and Orthodox; also, (because it came from the East, whence Divine Truth has ever issued,) it is Oriental. We know of no true Church besides our own. We are the only Church in the world. The Latins are heretics, or all but heretics; you are worse; we do not even know your name. There is no true Christianity in the world except in Russia, Greece, and the Levant; and, as to the Greeks, many as they are, after all they are a poor lot.”

        Your comment reminded me of this line from Cardinal Newman, and it has been a thought on my mind for some time as well. If Christ established His Church on earth, then why is there now only “true” Christianity “in Russia, Greece, and the Levant” – and *only* in these very strict cultural expressions of the faith? There is a Catholicity severely lacking, and it completely discounts the beauty, the sanctity, and the grace of the last thousand years of the Catholic Church in the West. Sure, there were abuses and rough spots – but was the Byzantine Church and the Russian Church ever absolutely pure and unsullied?? Must we gloat over the fall of Catholic Christendom in the West because they are a “dead branch” – cut off from the “life-giving sap of grace” of the Holy Orthodox Church?

        I can’t, and I won’t. I love Orthodoxy – but how much of this is just simply pride, devoid of any semblance of Christian charity? “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.” And how much has love grown cold today? The only people that rival some Orthodox Christians in their loathing for Catholicism are the “New Atheists.” I think that’s truly a sad state of affairs.

        1. Noah, Jeremy: As a convert to Catholicism who was very seriously tempted by Orthodoxy for about a year, and is now more firmly committed to the Catholic Church and strengthened in my Catholic faith than ever (while also having made some dear new Orthodox friends!), I read your comments with a great deal of sympathy and brotherly love. May God’s will be done for you, and let me know if anything I can do (even if only sharing my own limited and fallible thoughts and experiences) might help. God bless!

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