Hello Rosary Lovers! In this post, we are going to do something a bit different. We are going to ask: What is the Eastern Orthodox Church?
My Experience of Eastern Orthodoxy
Before I became Catholic, I very seriously considered becoming Greek Orthodox.
At the beginning of 2017, I realised that Protestant Christianity was based on the extremely tenuous foundation of sola scriptura. I could no longer accept this basic worldview because I found it to be illogical and self-contradictory. It is also not taught in the Bible itself.
To remain Christian, my options were radically reduced to just two: Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.
(In hindsight, I later realised that there was a third option: that of Oriental Orthodoxy, such as the Coptic Orthodox Church.)
I completely disregarded Catholicism because of my Protestant background. I didn’t think Catholicism could possibly be true, or the answer I was looking for.
(How wrong this assumption turned out to be!)
So during my spiritual journey, I took a radical path and decided to really look into Eastern Orthodoxy.
I did everything I could to involve myself in and embrace this incredible form of ancient and yet modern Christianity.
I kept the Orthodox fasts! Yes, I went vegan on Wednesdays and Fridays. I gave up meat entirely for Lent. I went vegan for the Dormition fast.
I prayed the Orthodox prayers, every morning and evening.
I did the Orthodox sign of the cross. I did prostrations.
I coated our house in icons of Jesus, Mary and the saints.
I used incense.
I attended Divine Liturgy and Vespers.
I read Orthodox books, such as Vladimir Lossky’s amazing ‘Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church’.
I received blessings from Orthodox priests, which involved kissing their hand.
I lit candles in Church. I venerated the icons in private and in public.
I visited an Orthodox monastery, and engaged in a very long Jesus Prayer service.
And if there was any more to do, I did it. I THREW myself into Orthodox Christianity.
To the eyes of others, they would have thought I was a full-blown Orthodox convert.
And yet, in all of this, I had never yet been Chrismated. My local priest even doubted that my Protestant baptism was valid, and another Orthodox believer suggested that my marriage wasn’t valid.
To be honest, this journey was a pleasure. I loved every minute of it. Orthodox Christianity was everything I had ever been looking for, or so I thought at the time. It had everything I needed.
What is the Eastern Orthodox Church?
Put simply, the Eastern Orthodox Church is a collection of individual (autocephalous) Churches all headed up by an Orthodox Bishop. These are self-governing and self-ruling Churches, where the Bishop of each Orthodox Church has the final say.
There is no Pope in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. What holds them together is their love for the same theology and their celebration of the same Divine Liturgy.
Effectively, they are in love with the same Tradition, handed down from the Greek Church Fathers.
The Orthodox Bishops claim Apostolic Succession from the Apostles, and this claim is valid. The Catholic Church accepts it.
An extremely key aspect of Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the Divine Liturgy. The Liturgy is (almost) EVERYTHING in Orthodox Christianity. It is certainly the heart, soul and centre of Orthodox Christianity.
It is in the Liturgy that the bread and the wine become the very body and blood of Jesus, although the Orthodox do not explain how this is so. They don’t use terms like Transubstantiation. They simply believe that Jesus does this, and that is that.
So Eastern Orthodoxy (as with Oriental Orthodoxy) is an extremely liturgical centred form of Christianity. This makes it a very mystical form of Christianity.
God as Utterly Transcendent Mystery
As such, the Eastern Orthodox don’t tend to theologise or dogmatise very much, at least officially. They leave a great deal to mystery, because they believe that it’s more important to experience God in the mystery of prayer and the liturgy than to try to explain God or divine truth.
There is also a theological reason behind this, in that the Orthodox do not believe it is possible to ultimately know God. They believe that God, in his very essence, is entirely and totally inaccessible.
We can only know ‘the things around the essence, but not the essence itself’ (St John of Damascus). The Orthodox say we can know God’s energies, but not his essence.
And so, much is left to mystery, because God is ultimately inaccessible in his very being. There is a profound, healthy agnosticism, and a deep respect for not going beyond certain limits in what we can say about God and divine Truth.
The Seven Ecumenical Councils
The things we can know about God and his divine truth have been revealed in Holy Scripture by the Gospel and through the Holy Spirit in the Church. This is particularly the case with regards to the Seven Ecumenical Councils.
These Seven Ecumenical Councils are very much prized and venerated by the Orthodox. There are Seven Councils and Seven only (so far, anyway). Each of them deal with defining in some sense who God is and who Jesus is.
Councils 1-2 dealt with God as Holy Trinity.
Councils 3-5 dealt with Mary as the true Mother of God and the absolute union of Christ’s divine Person with his human nature: one Person in two natures.
Council 6 defined that Jesus had two wills: a divine will and a human will.
Council 7 declared that Icons were necessary in the Church, and that they should be venerated.
There is a lot of thought within Orthodoxy about whether the Orthodox are strictly bound to believe anything else beyond these Seven Councils. It seems that the definitions of these Seven Councils is as best as it gets dogmatically. Beyond them, much seems up for discussion or left to mystery.
Monasticism also has a heightened importance in Eastern Orthodoxy. Monks and nuns are not simply people who live the life we all wish we could live; they are examples that we should all try to follow in our own vocation.
Eastern Orthodox Christianity is very ascetic. The faith is about sights, smells, vocal singing, silence, prostrations, the sign of the cross, and fasting. The monastics emulate this ideally.
I’ve had numerous Orthodox priests tell me that they don’t focus much on theology. Rather, their focus is much more on praxis: that is, LIVING the Christian faith. Orthodox Christianity is not so much thinking the correct beliefs as it is living and doing the correct things.
A Faith to be Seen, not Read About
The Orthodox faith is one which is much better experienced and witnessed first-hand. You can’t understand Orthodox Christianity by watching a few videos on YouTube, or by reading a post. It needs to be felt, touched, tasted.
I strongly recommend you take a look. Find out where your nearest Orthodox Church is and go visit one Sunday morning. See it for yourself, smell the incense, step into that mystical experience of the Divine. There is nothing like it.
So why am I Catholic?
There are many reasons I eventually decided to become a Catholic instead of a convert to the Orthodox Church. I don’t wish to spark a lot of criticism here, but in short it was basically because I came to believe that the Pope of Rome is SUPER important and irreplaceable.
I could no longer be at peace joining a Church separate from or out of communion with the Bishop of Rome.
There was a great deal that led to this spiritual conclusion, but a lot of reading and intellectual thinking went into it, far too much to jot down here.
One particularly interesting point was that I started to actually take the Oriental Orthodox Churches seriously. I started to believe they have valid succession and that they have valid sacraments. This is an acceptable position in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but it really began to beg the question:
Which one of THESE is the true Church?
Neither the Eastern Orthodox or the Oriental Orthodox Churches had a defining SOMETHING that they could objectively point to and say, ‘Ah ha! There is it. This proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that we are the true Church.’
But the Catholic Church did. She had the Pope. She had something that neither of the others had, and which the others emphatically deny that they do have.
That spoke volumes to me. It was the Catholic Church that objectively stood out.
I imagined myself in the 6th century, when the Oriental Orthodox Churches split from the Catholic-Orthodox communion. I thought, ‘Well, where was the true Church? It was with the Catholic-Orthodox communion, but why? Because they claim to have the truth? So do the Oriental Orthodox Churches!’
But the Catholic-Orthodox communion had Peter, they had the Bishop of Rome.
Then I imagined myself in the 12th and 14th centuries, when the Catholic and Orthodox Churches split apart, and I asked, ‘Where was the true Church then?’
People could go back and forth claiming that they have the truth BECAUSE, and we have the truth BECAUSE, and you are false BECAUSE.
But ultimately it’s all just subjective arguments and subjective human reason.
It’s not objective.
And I really wanted something obvious, something objective, something which was a giant Sign-post for the true Church.
I could find nothing better than the Apostolic See, the Pope of Rome.
And that is really why I began to realise that I simply had to become Catholic, even though when this realisation dawned in my mind and soul I had another long journey ahead of me in exploring Catholicism and trying to deal with elements of Catholic belief I found tough to take.
One very significant pull for me towards Catholicism was that the Catholic Church already contains much that is in the Orthodox tradition in the form of the Eastern Catholic Churches.
When I realised this, I also realised that I didn’t have to give up the things I loved about Orthodoxy as a Catholic. So it seemed I could have the best of both worlds.
As time has gone on, I have also discovered the sheer beauty and depth of the Latin tradition, and these days I practice that. This is why I created Rosary Lovers, because I am very devoted to the Rosary, a Latin devotion.
Anyway, I realise that this post has been rather autobiographical, but that’s the way it worked out and perhaps someone may find it helpful.
God bless you through Mary, Immaculate Seat of Wisdom.