I was recently asked if I could write an article giving the distinctive elements of the Eastern Orthodox Church which cause it to stand out when compared with Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and the various Protestant faiths. This is a tall order and no doubt difficult to cover even in a multiple volume work. That said, I would highly recommend a book by Fr. Andrew Damick entitled, “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy,” which attempts to accomplish this feat with surprising fluency and depth. For one wanting to see how Orthodoxy stacks up against these other traditions and more, I can’t think of a single book which contains a more succinct yet thorough treatment of the subject.
Now that the burden of supplying fine-tuned comparisons has been lifted from me and thrown onto Fr. Damick, I shall turn to some of the elements which were the most profound in my own conversion to Orthodoxy from the charismatic Evangelical movement.
What I love about the Orthodox Church is how in many respects it can be experienced only by way of paradox (if one will allow me latitude in my usage of the word, as nothing I am about to describe is technically paradoxical). Here are some examples of what I mean:
(a) Alone, yet never separate
One of the claims of Orthodoxy is that all Orthodox believers are mystically united with one another as they are united with Christ and cannot, in fact, accomplish anything of eternal value without one another. Orthodox ecclesiology is fiercely comprehensive in that it cannot be wrestled from other theological aspects of the faith; one cannot separate Orthodox ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) from, say, its soteriology (doctrine of salvation). Thus, for the Orthodox believer, ones relationship with God is weaved into the fabric of Christ’s body—the Church—in such a way that they are inseparable from one another. However, Orthodoxy does not allow the individual to be swallowed up in the whole, nor does it allow the whole to be swallowed up in the individual. The balance is struck mystically.
By way of illustration, one must “strive to enter through the narrow gate” unto the kingdom of God by way of love, humility, and practice of the virtues – both hearing and doing the will of God. This striving is made, largely, by the individual believer. Take humility for example, either the individual practices humility or he doesn’t. No group can practice it for him; humility is not a team sport. However, a Christian cannot become humble without mystical participation with the Church (whether wittingly or unwittingly).
If time would allow, great elaboration on this point could be made, but suffice it to say that Orthodoxy presents a vision of the individual abhorrent to the common Western veneration of individualism, and at the same time a vision of communion abhorrent to popular ideologies of collectivism.
(b) Never changing, yet always new
The Orthodox Church has observed the same liturgical life for nearly 20 centuries. The constancy is unmistakable. Visit any Orthodox Church anywhere in the world and at any time in history and one will discover the same rhythmic liturgy. The same words and the same kaleidoscope of vestments and icons are experienced today as they were experienced by the saints of old in their own times. But although the “show” is unchanging, the experience is never the same. My priest, Fr. George Eber, describes the Orthodox service in a way I’ve never heard. Paraphrasing, he says, “Don’t ask yourself ‘should I go to church today,’ rather ask yourself ‘should I go and partake of God together with the congregation of the Apostles, prophets, martyrs, and saints in the great communion feast of Christ?” An Orthodox Church service reflects the very nature of God: never changing, yet eternally new. It is the constancy of God which raptures the ever-changing thoughts and passions of a man’s soul and grounds him in his eternal makeup.
(c) The scholar’s mountain and the child’s playground
A similar, but slightly off topic, observation is that Orthodoxy from the outside appears incredibly complex in both its exterior trappings and doctrines, yet it is likewise curiously simple. It is the playground of scholars and children alike. The layers of history and doctrine can keep the intellect occupied for a lifetime turning over its every leaf of thought and reason, yet the Church in all its brilliance of artistic expression is nothing short of the very thing a child might design: paintings of loved ones teeming with color, robes (dress-up), candles (kids love fire), incense, singing, and a mysterious absence of chairs (who ever put rows of chairs in a playroom?). In short, regardless of where believers are in their wrestling with the intellectual “technicalities” of the faith, there is nothing preventing them from losing themselves completely in its worshipful liturgical life (though it seems in many respects that the mystical life of the Church favors those who are not constantly burdened with the entrapment of scholarly curiosity).
In the words of what’s her face from the Sound of Music, “These are a few of my favorite things.”
Thanks for reading!