Father Michael Harper tells the story of a Pilgrimage to Orthodoxy
A few weeks ago I had to telephone a Russian Orthodox bishop. At the end of our conversation, and just before ringing off I said “bless you”, a habit of mine going back many years. As I put down the receiver I realised that this was wrong. You don’t bless bishops in Orthodoxy, they bless you! I had to phone him back and did exactly the same. Habits die hard. On the third occasion I phoned him I apologised to be greeted by guffaws of laughter at the other end of the line.
The moment one becomes Orthodox one is aware that many things are different, and there is a great deal to learn. One makes a serious mistake if one thinks that it is just “very high church”. Worship is priority, for time belongs to God first. Every Sunday is another Easter, and fasting and feasting are part of the steady rhythm of the Calendar. It is a simple replication of the simplicity of the Early Church. For us it has become a remarkable voyage of discovery, which combines great fascination with frustrations and insecurities. You never know quite what is going to happen next.
For instance, one has to get used in the Orthodox Church to a lot of kissing. It was David Watson who first taught me that worship means to “kiss towards”. So Bibles, Crosses, the Holy Table and Icons are kissed regularly. I remember the shock my sister experienced for the first time when her brother kissed her three times (not twice), and a newly bearded brother at that!
Yet all the time there are important links with one’s past. One serves the Liturgy, for example, in front of the Holy Table, not the Altar (which is the whole area behind the Iconostasis or icon screen). The Word and Sacrament are conjoined as truly as in the best Anglican tradition; there are no pulpits (usually no pews either, the Bible is always kept on the Holy Table, and is the first thing you reverence when you come to the Holy Table at the start of the service. Here is a Church that never went through the sieve of the Reformation, because it didn’t need that kind of reform. A Church which excludes sentimentality, not least because it worships in the presence of such a host of martyrs. The Orthodox Church has had more martyrs in the 20th Century that in the whole of the first four centuries of Church history.
“Moving home” is never easy, and for us it has had moments of deep sadness. The Church of England is a very difficult Church to leave. But our Anglican friends have been extremely kind to us: we have received wonderfully reassuring letters. Many of those we have worked with over the years have said “we are sure this is the right thing for you to do” or words to that effect.
Becoming orthodox involves readjusting and recentering one’s life. In ways that are new to us we are finding how Orthodox people try to live the doctrines they believe; central to that is the Incarnation. The Orthodox link together what others tend to separate. For instance, as a Protestant I remember arguing strongly that God only blesses people not things. For us “things” now have a greater importance (including ecology) without our lapsing into pantheism or New Age. We are gradually recentering our home with “things” that point to Christ, particularly, of course, icons and crosses. I remember disliking homes with texts on every wall. But now we have icons everywhere!
Billy Graham on one occasion told some Russian Orthodox bishops that the most important thing he lad learned from them was to emphasises the Resurrection as well as the Cross. Last April I concelebrated an Easter liturgy for the first time. It was an awe-filled occasion. I had been experiencing a rough time and was exhausted when the service started late at night. It went on for three hours, and I stood the whole time. The grace and glory of God washed over me, no wonder the orthodox people have endured the worst that Communists could throw at them.
But the orthodox also reverence the cross, which is right at the centre of all its worship. Again the orthodox unite both cross and resurrection, and the whole experience of Orthodoxy is full of the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Blessed Trinity, which is central to everything.
The place of Mary in Orthodoxy no doubt bothers some people. One is immediately aware that there are significant differences from her position in the Roman Catholic Church. Both Churches believe she was “Ever Virgin” (a view incidentally held by both John Calvin and John Wesley). But in Orthodoxy you very seldom ever see Mary on her own, she is nearly always with her Son. Roman Catholic devotion to Mary varies from person to person, from those who almost ignore her to those who almost treat her as the fourth Person of the Trinity. In Orthodoxy there is consistency, she is there as the Mother of God, amongst the worshippers, neither ignored nor over emphasised. There has never been a cult of Mary in Orthodoxy. I see her as a part of the family. When I have visited Palestinian families in the Middle East, the old mother is always there, quietly in the background, but loved and honoured by the family. Honoured (not worshipped) for her role as the Theotokos, Mother of God.
My wife and I realise that we are just beginning. I am now exploring the richness of Orthodox theology, contemporary as well as ancient. There is so much in writers like Alexander Schmemann, whose critique of modern society is one of the most brilliant I have ever read. Also Thomas Hopko, Olivier Clement, our own Patriarch Ignatius IV, and one of my favourites, Lev Gillet, who wrote under the pseudonym “A Monk of the Eastern Church”
There is so much more one could share – the deeply inspiring music without a guitar in sight! And the “Toronto blessing” Orthodox style (unchanged for nearly two thousand years). In Great Lent I frequently saw the whole church prostrating itself, everyone, man, woman and child with their faces to the ground in deep repentance and faith. Becoming Orthodox is always demanding, sometimes maddening, but forever glorious in God.