I am often asked why I am an Eastern Rite Catholic. Why did I not just stay plain, old, Catholic? Most Americans only know the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope in Rome. They think that is all there is and do not understand that there are quite a few alternate rites within Catholicism, that are equal with Romanism. Then there are those who question why I chose to become Catholic in the first place! My spiritual journey has been one of twists, turns, and roundabouts. I was born and baptized as an infant into the Episcopal Church, as my parents were both British, it was the Church they were most familiar with and were married in, and the location was convenient. I thought my parents were raised Episcopal, but it wasn’t until I was a young adult that I found out my father’s family were all Methodists! I don’t even know, to this day, what my mother’s family was! My dad told me that they married in the local Episcopal parish because my mom thought it would result in the prettiest photos. (The interesting thing to me is there are no altar photos from their wedding. There are photos at a studio and photos of them leaving the Church, but none inside the Church! And I have all their wedding photos! I find that so amusing). As I was growing up, we drifted from one Christian community to another. From my point of view as a child and young teen, it seemed we attended the Church my parents thought was socially correct to attend, but it did not seem like they were people of intense faith, nor was our attendance regular, and neither did our home life seem particularly Christian. I enjoyed the different churches we attended, but I did not like being baptized so many times (three, for sure, that I know of!). I recall one time, at a First Christian Church, we were required to dress in white robes and be “dunked” in front of everyone. I wanted to die of embarrassment! I did not understand why I was being baptized again and I recall my mom saying, “Now we belong here.” I remember at that particular Church that I loved being asked to light the candles on the altar (complete in white robes and formal dress underneath) and that “communion” was a snack of Welch’s grape juice in little plastic cups in fun holders they passed down the aisle, and a little cracker! But the significance of the event went right over my head. I also remember putting on plays for our parents and one most memorable play for me was re-enacting the journey of Mary and Joseph, along to an Andy Williams Christmas Album song! I was Mary and my brother was Joseph, and my favorite doll, Elizabeth, stood in for the baby Jesus. I think that was a significant moment for me, because I became infatuated with Mary, but I don’t think it impacted anyone else. I have never forgotten it.
My serious pursuit of my faith came through, oddly enough, my secular education at California State University, Fullerton, where I declared my major to be Anthropology, with a minor in Biblical Archeology. After delving into the history of religion around the world, the history of language (anthropological linguistics), and the archeological history of Christianity, I was hooked. I used to give lectures to women’s church groups on Biblical Archeology as a way to supplement my income as a college waitress. It was during a particular series of lectures on the development of the family in the Middle East, the traditions of Orthodox Jews, and the development of modern religious practices, that I happened upon a Catholic Church. They were right next door to the Geneva Presbyterian Church, where I was lecturing. Once I walked inside, I knew I was where I was meant to be. I enrolled in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program and it was during this time I began to date my husband. We had not discussed faith at that point and it was several months later that much in our separate lives became paralleled. The woman I had asked to be my sponsor happened to be engaged to a friend of my husband and they all knew one another through High School and Youth Ministry…he actually attended the Church I where I was enrolled in RCIA, but I didn’t know that at the beginning. (This same couple later participated in our wedding and are our eldest son’s godparents!). Most of my college and high school friends think I converted because of him, but they did not realize how my life had been turning for quite some time. I remember choosing to go see my grandparents and have dinner with them on a Saturday night, rather than hang with my friends. When I was asked by my grandmother why I was with them on a Saturday night, I told her about my discovery of Catholicism, my deepening faith life, and how I was dating my future-husband (although I suspected it, I wasn’t totally sure at that point!). She approved of both and was pleased I had started to quiet down and pray more! Ha-Ha! (I miss her so much some days! Love you, Grandma! Pray for me!).
After 20+ years of being a practicing, homeschooling, Roman Catholic, my husband and I were lured to a different Roman Catholic Church where our eldest son (college-aged at that time) told us there was an amazing Priest, who was also an amazing confessor. We drove across town and went to Mass with our son. It was loud; there was a band, and there were tons of teens – not my cup of tea. But I sure enjoyed the homily and chatting with the priest afterward. We attempted to attend that parish regularly, but it was hard because I am much more quiet and conservative! This priest was bi-ritual and asked us to come to his “real” parish sometime (He assisted the Roman Catholic priest at that parish, who had far too many Masses to say and was elderly). And so, we did. During Lent. It was a Melkite Greek Parish – and boy oh boy, do Eastern Rite Catholics take Lent seriously! I was challenged and drawn to see more, for myself. It was, for me, like entering a tent in an oasis. I smelled the incense from the parking lot!! I literally could envision the early Christian community worshiping like this! The bulk of the Liturgy was in Arabic, which sounded so exotic. And the incense they use is serious stuff! It made me sneeze and cough at first, but it smelled quite “other-worldly” and before long, we attended regularly. (They use Frankincense and Myrrh, as well as some other exotic scents. It is divine! Literally!) Very soon, our older sons were serving on the altar and they both seemed to really love it. The Icons! The candles! The incense! The Vestments! The Holy Place! The Liturgy and the Prayers! We were drawn into the eastern side of the Church and for us, there was no going back. We have tried to attend a Roman Mass, over the years, but it is just not a fit for us any longer. I feel so alive and breathe so freely at Divine Liturgy. One important aspect, for me, are the prayers! They so perfectly express what I feel and I also love how the entire community participates, rather than responds, during Liturgy. You stand almost the entire time, and in some Byzantine parishes, they have removed all chairs and benches! (Most Orthodox also stand the entire time). It seems almost sacrilegious to sit in the presence of God. Many Protestants, and even most Roman Catholics, don’t understand why we stand so much. But if you truly believe in just two things, you feel it is not right to sit. Those two things are: (1) Wherever three or more of you are gathered, there am I in your midst (Matthew 18:20) and (2)- there are several versions, but I like this one the best: (1 Cor 11:23-26) “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’.”
Because I believe Christ God is present when we gather as a community, (in the prayers and in His Word) and I believe He is truly present, “Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity” during Communion itself, it feels wrong to sit in the presence of God. Think about it; when someone you want to greet walks into a room, or someone important enters a function, everyone stands up! We stand in the presence of dignitaries and royalty! How much more so for the Son of God Himself.
There is one particular prayer I like to share with everyone who is looking at the Eastern Churches and it is this one:
This prayer expresses, for me, the contrition I feel at my behaviors that I know are not Christ-like, and they also express the Divine Forgiveness that is awaiting me, from God Himself. He forgave the penitent thief on the Cross; talk about last minute! He also recognized the betrayal of Judas, with a kiss. And that instructs me to be more fully aware that how I act and how I behave can often be seen as the “kiss of betrayal” to My Lord and My God.
Why did I become Eastern? The very first Divine Liturgy we attended at the Melkite Parish we later joined, was assisted by a Deacon who has demonstrated to me over many years of friendship, the incredible gift of faith Our Lord left with his people; those people who reside in the Middle East. He was born and raised in Jerusalem, itself. During the procession of the Bible into the Church, the Deacon briefly stands before the Holy Place and intones, “Sophia – Orthoi” which quite literally means, “Wisdom – Let us attend” and is taken from Proverbs 5: 1-2 “My son, pay attention to my wisdom, turn your ear to my words of insight,that you may maintain discretion and your lips may preserve knowledge.” When the Deacon did that for the first time in my hearing, I was instantly transported to a place of worship – it was noisy, crowded, and the people were chattering and, yet, still intent on the worship around them. The moment the Deacon intoned “Sophia – Orthoi” all chatter ceased and all eyes were upon the Word of God. And then the most incredible thing happened – families walked their children up to the Holy Place and other adults joined them; someone from the community offered his brow, that the Holy Word of God be rested upon it, as the Deacon read from Scripture. Each person bowed their head, crowding as close as possible to the Deacon and the Holy Place. God was among us, in His Divine Word. It was one of the single, most powerful, spiritual moments of my life. After the Word was proclaimed, each person there went up, one by one, and kissed the Holy Scriptures. And I could not go back to the West; I was hooked. The freshest breeze from the east entered my lungs, invaded my heart and soul, and I was HOME.
Here is a portion of the prayers we say before we receive communion, and one of those I believe keeps me an Eastern Rite or Byzantine Catholic is this one:
“I believe, Lord, and profess that You are the Christ, the Son
of the Living God, come to this world to save sinners, of
whom I am the greatest. I believe also that this is really
Your spotless Body and that this is really Your precious
Blood. Wherefore, I pray to You: have mercy on me and
pardon my offenses, the deliberate and the indeliberate,
those committed in word and in deed, whether knowingly
or inadvertently, and count me worthy to share without
condemnation Your spotless Mysteries, for the remission of
sins and for eternal life. Amen.”
I think that sums up what drew me to, and what keeps me, and Eastern Rite/Byzantine Catholic. We stand in the Presence of Our Lord and it keeps me humble and and wanting to go back for more; ever more. My prayer for those seeking and those who have found, to always heed the words, “Sophia – Orthoi” – because there is Divine Wisdom in His Church and countless moments of grace and healing.