This post isn’t meant to be an analysis or argument against Eastern Orthodoxy, but rather an expression of my own views on our Eastern brothers. I used to post on Twitter until last fall, and on there I made several friends who were Eastern Orthodox or Eastern Catholics. I was still a new Catholic, having only been in the Church for around six months, so I had a lot of curiosity over the Eastern Orthodox and their expression of Christianity. This lead to an immense inner struggle that I still battle from time-to-time. I really began to question whether I had made a “mistake” in converting to the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Eastern Orthodox. And this stemmed from a few factors, which I will try to describe here.
Aesthetics and Appearances
First of all is the spiritual and artistic aesthetic of the Orthodox church. Icons, their chant, the Divine Liturgy, the masculine role of the priests as well as their religious dress, are all outward factors which contributed to my struggle. I loved the mystical expressionism that is only to be found in iconography, the art form speaks to me on a level that I do not get from Western religious art. I love both expressions, but there’s this depth to iconography which pulls me into the depiction of the saint or mystery that just doesn’t happen with any other medium. I have a particular love of Russian Orthodox icons, of which several bless my home. There is also a profound masculine beauty to Byzantine chant that elevates my soul immediately to God. I get this from Latin Gregorian chant too, but not in the same way. It’s difficult to describe, but it almost feels as though I am being thrust into the Presence of the Godhead when I hear Agni Parthene or the Cherubic Hymn.
On the angle of pure outward appearances, the religious dress of Orthodox monks, priests and patriarchs has this uncompromising aspect to it that we don’t really find in the modern Catholic Church. There is this startling, mysterious resonance around the garb of your average Orthodox cleric that seems to elevate their position beyond that of the average man. This can be found in the religious cassock of Roman Catholic priests, but seeing a priest in a cassock is like seeing a unicorn nowadays. Yet the Orthodox stick out like a sore thumb in the modern backdrop, which is exactly how a cleric should appear. They should seem like someone who lives solely for God, rather than Presider Bob who is prone to homilies with dad jokes and pop culture references.
And then there’s the Divine Liturgy, which, like the Tridentine Mass, does exactly what it sets out to do in raising the hearts and minds of the faithful to God in worship. There’s the repetition of prayers three times in honor of the Trinity, the clear divide between the altar and the faithful with the division provided by the iconostasis, and the complete and total reverence before God which is startlingly absent in most Roman Catholic parishes. And to be completely honest, as much as I love the Tridentine Mass and regularly am able to attend one at my local SSPX parish, I still prefer the Divine Liturgy. If I had an Eastern Catholic parish in my area, I would most definitely attend it over the Latin rite. I know this can be scandalizing to some traditionalist Catholics, but I just have a much stronger draw to the Eastern form than I do to the Western form.
Theology and Mysticism
The theology and mysticism was another aspect of Eastern Orthodoxy that I struggled with last year, and still have strong leanings toward. As much as I appreciate the methodical approach to theology provided by the Scholastic school, and of course my own frequent utilization of it, I do not see it as the only means of obtaining knowledge of God. Yes, it provides clarity and concrete philosophical ideas of God grounded in the Fathers and Sacred Scripture, but it also has a habit of categorizing the spiritual to the point of legalism.
My experience with Orthodox theology is not profound, but is rooted in an interest in Palamism and the book The Way of a Pilgrim and the Philokalia. Both of which emphasize the role of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) as a means to ‘pray always.’ I think there is some profound insight into emptying oneself of all creatures and focusing solely on the prayer itself as a means of fixating on God. After reading The Way of a Pilgrim I implemented this technique into my own spiritual habits. I went a few months where I constantly repeated the Jesus Prayer either mentally or vocally to where I was able to empty my mind of most images and creaturely concerns and focus on Christ. Today, I utilize the method in regard to the Sacred Heart, where I repeat ‘Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us’ like I would the Jesus Prayer, it is a valid method of emptying oneself that I think more Catholics should adopt. With this method comes the theology of St Gregory Palamas, which emphasizes the Jesus Prayer, or hesychasm, and its end of obtaining the mystical vision of the so-called ‘Uncreated Light of God’ which was revealed to the Apostles on Mount Tabor and gives way to the essence-energies distinction (something I may cover in a different post). This has, of course, been met with much resistance by traditional Catholics due to its connotations with this supposed polytheism and accusations of ‘quietism.’ With the former being grounded in the essence-energies distinction, which in my opinion does not contradict Thomistic teachings, but I digress.
There is also a much stronger emphasis on Platonic philosophy in the Eastern church, which aligns more with my own subjective philosophical biases. This most likely has a foundation in the lack of exposure to Aristotle and Scholasticism in the East as opposed to the West. But this Christian Platonic perspective has consistently breathed life into theology that in some ways appears to have been lacking as the West moved more and more into Thomism and a rationalistic view of God. Platonic philosophy tends to speak more to the heart whereas Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy speaks to the intellect. When I reflect on the writings of St Macarius the Great or St John Chrysostom I not only have an intellectual elevation but an affectionate elevation into contemplation of God. And since the highest aim of the spiritual life is that of Divine Love, to seek out this affection of God seems much more practical than just to bury ourselves in pure reason and rationalism.
On top of the Jesus Prayer, Christian Platonism and the theological ideas of Palamas, there is also a profound mystic quality to Orthodoxy that seems to have been buried beneath the dogmatic and doctrinal focus of the Catholic Church. The Orthodox view of God seems to emphasize much more of experiential knowledge of God rather than academic rationalization of God. This is most prominent in the writings of the Desert Fathers and the profound insights they attained through intense asceticism. And it is this experiential mysticism which ties into the private revelations of many Western saints, including St Margaret Mary and St Francis of Assisi, that draws me to the truths within the Orthodox church. This emphasis of knowledge of God through love of God on the path to theosis, or divinization. And this kind of knowledge beyond the mere rational can only come through the subjective experience of mystics as they grow in perfection. Forgive me, but this aspect I am having a lot of difficulty expressing. There just seems to be a draw towards Eastern Christian mysticism that appears to be lacking in the Western Church which has consistently dwelt within me. I too have a profound veneration for some Orthodox saints and figures like St Seraphim Sarovsky (whom I have an icon of) and Fr Seraphim Rose. I think there are things about Eastern Orthodoxy that Latin Rite Catholics should be more open to.
Issues with Orthodoxy
Now that I’ve attempted to express what draws me eastward, I should probably express the things that have since kept me from accepting Eastern Orthodoxy as the true Church. And these issues mainly come down to the structure of the church itself and the lack of doctrinal unity from one diocese to the other.
There are four marks established in the Nicene Creed which identify the true Church of Christ, these being; one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. When it comes to Eastern Orthodoxy, they have maybe two of these marks. The first being holy, where their sacraments and rites are all valid and they are the only Christian sect outside of the Church which validly boasts all seven sacraments. There is also the example of their mysticism and saints which can vouch for the holiness of the Orthodox church. The second is apostolic, where each of the Orthodox bishops can validly trace their line back to the Apostles and Jesus Christ, giving them valid holy orders on top of the sacraments. Yet I have not found an argument to convince me of the catholicity and unity of the Orthodox church.
The conciliar structure of the Orthodox church of a collective of nationalized churches under five patriarchs does not have the same cohesive unity as the Roman Catholic Church does under the papacy. This disjointed structure of the Orthodox church has lead to many issues between Patriarchates and mutual excommunication among them. One just needs to look at the schism of the Russian Orthodox church from Constantinople to see what I’m talking about. Whereas under the Pope, at least up until the Second Vatican Council, there was a visible unity between the diocesan bishops and the Pope in matters of faith and doctrine as well as ecclesiastical structure. And even though there are incredible issues today surrounding the Novus Ordo Missae, one could attend a Mass in a Catholic parish on the other side of the world and still be able to follow its teachings and liturgy as if they were in their home parish. And this universality of the Mass and doctrine leads into the claims of catholicity, or universality, that the Roman Catholic Church holds. If I can, reasonably, expect the Mass to be the same in every Catholic parish then that is an obvious mark of catholicity. Which is not something the Eastern Orthodox church can boast, because of the nationalized nature of many of their churches. Yes, I know that I can attend a Greek Orthodox church and be welcomed, but how am I to engage in the community of that church when many of its parishioners are ethnically Greek and immersed in Greek culture. I would still be an outsider. And this can in no way be argued as universality or unity.
Another issue I have with the Eastern Orthodox church is the disunity of doctrine, as well as their stance on married priests. I am aware that the early Christians would ordain married men to the priesthood, and that Levitical priests were married in pre-Christian Judaism, but acting in a role that requires complete devotion to God should not be split by the temporal concerns of raising a family whilst guiding the souls of the faithful. I know it can be done, but the priest is then splitting their devotion between their own family and Jesus Christ. Whereas the abolition of marriage within the priesthood worked phenomenally well in the Catholic Church, as that priest could completely commit themselves to God and their parishioners.
Not only is there this issue of married priests, but there is the lack of cohesion on doctrine between one bishop and another. Where some Orthodox bishops will permit contraception, where others will not. This isn’t the whole of the issue for me, but its something that we are seeing symptoms of in the Catholic Church today once the Church de-emphasized papal primacy and moved toward synodality. The disunity of the bishops under the leadership of the Vicar of Christ has lead to one diocese allowing certain concessions to the faith that another forbids, and its something I can see as a major issue in Orthodoxy which has kept me from even considering it as the true Church.
All of that being said, this again isn’t mean to be some academic criticism or defense of Eastern Orthodoxy. I have a lot of personal appreciation for their spiritual methods and expressions while I am wary of their ecclesiastical structure and declaration of doctrine. I personally find that there is a lot which is complementary in the theological and mystical developments of the East that could be beneficial to Roman Catholicism. Therefore, I think it we should take a serious look at the schismatic Eastern church and learn from the things they do well in order to eventually see their conversion to the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.