That East West Thing

[For Tripp who double-dog dared me.]

There’s been a dust-up at several places in the blog-o-sphere of late pitting Orthodox against Catholic, Orthodox against other Orthodox, and not-so-innocent bystanders against both over the purported fundamental differences between the (intentionally redundant) “Eastern Orthodox East” and the “Roman Catholic West.” Even my own priest, the inestimable Father Patrick Henry Reardon saw one of his own reflections given the once-over by a Roman Catholic commenter prominent on the erstwhile Anglican, now Roman Catholic, Pontificator’s blog. (I’m not metablogging the links so as to remove any temptations for the rousing of the passions for those who will go and jump into the fray.)

I have to confess, I find myself a bit mystified at this.

Now some of my readers are at this point scratching their collective heads. Huh? After all, haven’t I, myself, posted some remarks and entries basically to the point that Orthodoxy is better, that there’s something fundamentally wrong with Western Christendom, and so on and so forth ad nauseam? Depending on the essence of the query, I should probably say, “Yup. Guilty.”

On the other hand . . .

I find myself—and I don’t think I’ve really essentially changed on this so much—sort of stuck between what I take to be two extremes. There is the one side which asserts, “The Christian West is bad, and inherently so, ever since it schismed from the Christian East. Avoid and flee from all such Popery.” (And no, that’s not potpourri, though one can flee from that too, if one likes.) And so things like the rosary and the stations of the cross and the “Western Rite” are all but anathematized. But then there is the other side that asserts something like “All those who assert that the Christian West is bad are themselves proponents of the phyletist heresy (or its equivlent).” And here the reaction is almost the opposite: just about anything that is pre-Vatican II is endorsed. One side rejects anything but the riassa, the other encsonces the biretta.

For those who object to us who point out criticisms of “Western Christianity” let me suggest that there is a fairly significant failure to see that our problem is not necessarily with the “Christianity on the books” (which high-level theological discussion can be instanced at blogs like Fr. Patrick’s critic and the Pontificator’s blog archives [Fr Al doesn’t do comments any longer]), but with the “Christianity on the streets, in the pulpits and in the pews”–the very Christianity from which we’ve come and indeed from which we seek refuge. It is right and proper to assert and affirm the official declarations of the various religious bodies that we Orthodox converts criticize. After all, it is easy to construct straw men from anecdotal experience. But the one truth of Orthodoxy that has drawn this blogger right here is the fact that Orthodoxy is not a paper faith but a lived faith. Our problem, as converts from other religious bodies is not always or even necessarily that the “official” declarations of our various bodies were in stark opposition to the faith once for all delivered to the saints—but rather that the life of those various bodies was in such opposition. It may be difficult to substantiate fine theological points from the fact that Father So-and-so has consistently preached such-and-such from the pulpit (especially when said cleric’s pronouncements are out of line with official declarations), but it sure makes a difference to the parishioner who comes to the local body for sustenance and encouragement. It may be technically correct to affirm that Father So-and-so can still administer the sacraments despite his informal heresy or immorality—but when one is seeking a lived faith, it is at minimum, disheartening. Indeed, even inimical to one’s own lived faith.

Don’t mistake. There is a natural pscyhological tendency for converts to “demonize” their past religious affiliations. Not everyone falls prey to this rather ubiquitous temptation. But many do. And while charity offers compassionate understanding, charity also asks for reason rather than emotion to lead the way. This reaction is normal, and, to a degree, a way to re-order one’s inner world. Even so great a man as Father Seraphim Rose went from a very strong critic of Western, non-Orthodox Christianity to a much more compassionate pastor. He even went to great lengths to defend St Augustine against attacks from his fellow Orthodox, translated St Gregory of Tour’s accounts of pre-Schism French saints, and encouraged the affirmation of the good in “Western” Christianity while pursuing the depths of “Eastern” Orthodox Christianity. But as can be seen from his life, what he was reacting against was a lived “Western” Christianity that was at odds with the Faith owned by all Christians through all of the Church’s history.

That said, it seems to me that the opposite reaction is not very healthy, either. There are those, usually Orthodox, who take their co-religionist critics of the West to task, sometimes to the point of near-offense, affirming various Western feasts, clerical garb, liturgical traditions and so on, while at the same time critiquing the East with many of the same presuppositions and criticisms that “Western” Christians lob at their Eastern “opponents.” They look and talk like non-Orthodox who criticize Orthodoxy. One can dispense with offense at haberdashery, but ambulatory duck-sounding accusations will doubtless follow. One can frequently get the feeling—whether justified or not—that these Orthodox critics of their fellow Orthodox seek to confound and confuse rather than to clarify and edify.

It seems to me that both these reactions are wrong, though the substance of their respective errors is not the same. On the one hand, the converts who seek, largely unconsciously, to vilify their own pasts would do well to be subjected to a rigorous two-year criticism-fast post-chrismation by their parish priests. I, myself, who am not yet even a catechumen, can see what has happened in my own experience of the Orthodox life and faith over these last four and a half years, and know the difference two years of lived worship can make. One can hardly criticize one’s past from one’s newfound faith, when one has, usually, only just begun to live that new faith. One has to internalize such a faith by living it before one can offer real and edifying criticisms of one’s own past religious adherence. Indeed, there is much one must come to understand about oneself (through the sacrament of confession and regular immersion in the liturgies of the Church), before one can understand one’s past.

On the other hand, the critics of the critics seem to me to sometimes run the risk of becoming like the ten-year- old older brother who seeks to inculcate in his younger sibling the truth about Santa Claus. “It’s for his own good,” is a useful justification if often more honored in the breach than in the observance. Some of these critics seem to take great delight in doing this sort of “good” for their co-religionists. But one wonders whether the critical critic’s own soul is in a state wherein such a surgical tool of the soul is well-handled. A scalpel is, indeed, a useful tool, and it is indeed often fitting that the invasive tumor be excised. But the more pertinent question is whether the scalpel-wielder is the sort of surgeon that will truly heal, or merely maim or kill, the patient.

I know a few things—if I can be so bold—about the faiths from which I’ve journeyed to Orthodoxy. I know that these faiths differ in the life and in the paper versions. I’m much more concerned about the lived versions for it is these that have marked me. And having experienced the lives I’ve experienced, I think I have some authority (though not an infallible one to be sure) to speak on these things—even if my accounts differ from official declarations. But I also know that the heart is deceitful above all things, and one’s memories are not videographic exact reproductions but are narratives wherein even exact replicas are colored by perspective and personality. This does not make such memories false, but it does highlight their lack of completeness. For there is only one intellect that can hold all such memories accurately and infallibly together in a comprehensive and exact truth.

And having spent now some four and a half years in parish Orthodoxy, I know a few things more about Orthodoxy than I did some sixteen hundred and more days ago. And one of the things I know is that none of us, cradle or convert, will ever know Orthodoxy in such a way that we will be infallible. And even if we could know Orthodoxy with a technical infallibility, Orthodoxy is not simply a propositional religion. It is primarily a lived one. Orthodoxy is a life, indeed, the Life. It is not just a set of dogmatic formulas, canons and liturgies. It is the way one rises in the morning, eats one’s meals, blesses one’s children, loves one’s spouse, and retires in the evening. It is the way and manner and kind of food one eats. It is the prayers, the penitence, the mercy and the transformation of a life, heart, body and soul. Just when one might reach the level of expertise which grants one the authority to critique one’s co-religionists, one’s own faith and other faiths as well—well, one will have become the sort of saint that does not do those sorts of things.

I am a Western Christian who has embraced the Eastern Christian’s way of living the faith. I have done so because I see the Western ways of living that faith—all such ones that are offered to me—are either deficient or in some cases even malevolent. Whether there is a substantive and real difference that can be demarcated between East and West, whether on paper or not, I do not know. I just know the difference which is crystallized for me when I hear, “Blessed is the Kingdom,” smell the incense, see the gold and the cross, and the chalice, and make the sign of the cross. I have said and seen and done similar things in other “Western” churches. And there is a difference. It is probably not a difference that can be articulated in rational internet debate. But then one often finds it impossible to rationally articulate in full much of one’s lived existence. After all, how does one rationally justifiy one’s love of one’s spouse and children? How does one rationally justify one’s love for Christ? To do so would be something else, I think, than living that love.

So I take my St. Benedict, my rosary and my “Western” self into this “Eastern” worship. And, whatever else I may from time to time do online, I don’t bother myself over the technical fine points of the doctrine of development, the theological versus economical filioque, or whether pews are the sign of the antichrist. These are not needed. What is needed is a life. And I am given one that vivifies and deifies in a small converted Lutheran church house in Chicago, among other converts, who don’t bother themselves about these things either.

Most of the time.

Lord hasten the day when such divisions shall cease and there will be one and only one life of infinite goods for your children to enjoy.

6 thoughts on “That East West Thing

  1. The only thing is that … and I dont understand Orthodoxy too well … but a lot of people go in a reverse direction from you and if you ask them why, they will probably give reasons similar to yours.

    Ultimately, people will go where … where ever there is a lived out faith … not where hairs are split over doctine. It is the life of Christ being lived out that attracts people.

  2. Oh come on CD! I think it would be great if you and Dr. Liccone matched wits over DoD. I’m sure your tired of the easy pickens’ over at the Grace-Centered forums. Maybe you could come up with a series of posts on the subject.

    I do see what your saying, at some point you must live the faith, going beyond arguing the faith. I guess you would submit that the Orthodox generally live the faith the best.

    Right now I’m in the RCIA at the local Catholic parish, but I’m having some reservations. I fear that I’ve “jumped the shark”, or maybe overdosed on Catholic apologetics to where the argumentation makes me sick.

    I may PM you over at the Grace-centered forums.

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