*Before reading my post, please know I agonized over posting this. It is a part of my personal growth and is written with no ugly intentions. Please do not read it if you feel you will be angry. It is not my intent to anger or hurt anyone, it is just a discovery I made about my walk with God. It is about where I am and where I am going, which is the whole point of this blog.*
Blog Post Begins:
There’s nothing new under the sun, as the Scriptures tell us. (Ecc 1:4-11). And sometimes it feels like nothing can surprise you. And then something does, and it can be a life-altering surprise, or it can be God, whispering to you.
A life with no surprises can get to be pretty dull. I’ve had some surprises lately and I kind of like it; sort of like it. I’m dealing with it! Ha-Ha! This Lent has been a pretty topsy-turvy Lent.
Coming to a realization can be a surprise, in an of itself. And that has occurred with me. I realized that when I left the Roman Church and embraced the Eastern Church, I did so by jumping in with both feet. I embraced the philosophy, theology, and practices of my Eastern Church wholeheartedly. I found repose, sweet and quiet repose, in the teachings of my eastern faith. We had a pastor who inculcated us fully in the philosophies and traditions (both types of traditions) of the eastern Church, and he also showed us the whys and wherefores. We were blessed. The theological tenets of eastern practices and traditions were fully explained and made perfect sense to us. We completely embraced it all – culture, foods, traditions, practices. All of it – hook, line, and sinker. Our catechesis in the faith was truly remarkable. Now that we are away from that community, we see it even more fully. We miss it very much.
I distinctly remember a huge turning point for me and it was during a Divine Liturgy. The incense was pretty heavy and the light played just right through the windows…during the procession, the vestments just glowed and the sights, sounds, and smells just filled me. And then our Proto-Deacon intoned, “Sophia, Orthoi”! And I was transported to the times of the Apostles and the early gatherings of the nascent Church. And it was a transformative moment for me. I experienced my faith. And I was hooked – for eternity.
As I have learned more and more about Eastern thought and philosophy, a part of myself that had been empty began to be filled. And I did not even realize there was an empty space; a part of me unfilled. I do not need much of the traditions of the western church any more because I’ve become consumed by my faith, my experiential faith in the eastern Church. There are things called sacramentals in the west and two examples are scapulars and rosaries. You do not have to wear a scapular or recite the rosary to be fully Catholic. Those are things outside of dogma that enhance your faith experience, but they are not necessary to believe, to be in a state of grace. They are externals. They are almost “trappings” of our faith.
Most Roman Catholics own at least one rosary, even if they do not use it. In the mainstream church, very few people are even aware of what a scapular is, let alone wear one. I had a scapular in pretty much every color, using them for many reasons. They enhanced my spiritual life and I loved them. I always wore a miraculous medal, for example. Because I loved the story and loved the Mother of God. My middle son and his wife were laughing a couple of weeks ago, because they recently moved into their own space and were unpacking (finally) all their wedding gifts and they realized they have a crucifix for every room in their home, plus some to spare! It is part of our Catholic identity. It is a demonstration of who we are. People used to come into our home and ask where the altar was, because gradually all our artwork was religiously-oriented, with a crucifix in every room.
When I became an eastern Catholic, I left most of those western things behind me. I embraced the Jesus Prayer and wear a prayer rope on my wrist most days. I no longer wear a crucifix, but an eastern or Byzantine cross. I love learning about all the food traditions in the east; how certain foods are served only once a year on a particular feast day. I love that! And there are so many flavors of eastern Catholicism. Within the eastern grouping of Churches, there is such difference, but the same Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Some eastern Churches will only use certain types of candles and incense and it becomes a part of the experience of who they are. Being so fully immersed in my eastern faith is, at times, hard to maintain. And I will explain why…
I feel that being an eastern Catholic identifies me first as being a part of a free-standing, independent Church, that happens to agree with Rome on many issues. It does not mean, however, that I embrace Roman theology or practice. I listen first to my Patriarch, and then check in on what the Pope has to say. I listen to my local ordinary before I ever pay attention to what the local Roman church or diocese is up to. Roman Catholicism does not affect my life. It is not part of who I am. I am also a Greek Catholic…that is another aspect that is different from the Roman Church. Greek versus Roman in many areas; it is just an area of influence and I prefer the Greek influence.
All of that being said, I know many will be angry with me because I am somehow “dissing” their beliefs. Not at all. Please do not think that way. I have children and grand-children who are Roman Catholic. It is a matter of preference and taste. I just discovered that I am really, and truly, eastern. A woman I just met did not understand how I did not know the movers and shakers in the local Roman Catholic scene. When I said to her, “But I am not Roman Catholic, I am Byzantine Catholic, why would I know them? I have no reason to attend a Roman church.” Her response was, “Well, it doesn’t really matter because we are all Catholic.” And therein lies the crux of my problem. I was surprised because I realized I am really not Catholic, in the sense she inferred. I am not. I used to be, but I no longer am. I am a Melkite Greek Catholic, blessed to have been catechized in all things Greek and Byzantine.
There are little “t” things within eastern expression that I love and value. When I see the western expression coming in and being used in preference over the eastern ones, I get a little testy. I apologize for that. But once you immerse yourself in all things eastern, the western insistence on superiority or preference gets tiresome. It is the classic tale of David and Goliath. We easterners are David. If you are eastern, embrace it. Learn of all the richness of being a Byzantine, Greek Catholic. Learn about the physical history of how the eastern churches came to be. Live as an eastern Catholic. I can find fulfillment and riches enough to keep me learning for the rest of my life, if I read and study and learn from just the eastern philosophical/theological side of the aisle.
This is a touchy post because so many of my friends are Roman Catholic, as are two of my sons, and grandchildren. My Protestant family and friends will only be flummoxed by this post, but it is an issue and it is what I am dealing with. And I want people to know that different is not a better/worse sort of thing…it is just different. What I expect is that when we seek the mysteries for our children, when we want the blessing of the Church on our lives, we should live totally as if it were the most important thing in our lives. We don’t drop in for Chrismation or Crowning, if we do not plan to live that life. We could get Confirmation or Marriage instead. Leading our children to God should be the supreme emphasis of our lives as parents. A long and winding road, full of contradictions and contradictory practices can be awfully confusing for the faith development of our children, and not having a firm foundation can lead to a young person having no place to stand where they feel safe.
I remember feeling that I was tip-toeing around when we had a major upset in our lives. By tip-toeing I mean I had no safe, solid place to stand. It was a “the ground was moving under my feet” sort of feeling. We were no longer welcome in our home parish because of an incident with a son of ours. People we thought were friends, were not. We were spiritually floundering because of the actions of some priests and religious in our lives. Our children were floundering. Our church had let us down in a profound way. And then we were led, by our son, to the east and to our pastor (who became a life-long friend and spiritual adviser). I believe God brought us to the east to save us, and to enhance the faith we thought we were loosing. The deepest wounds were being healed. The deepest longings were being met. That moment of “Sophia, Orthoi” became the life-line I was waiting for. And from that moment, I dove into the font of love I found in the eastern Church. Perhaps I am so eastern because of the pain and hurt experienced in the western Church. I can see that. But I also know that the theology of the East fills me. And the more I learn, all these years later, the more I want to know.
And when I see latinization creeping in to my Byzantine practices, I want to shore up the Church and enhance even more our Byzantine traditions, both large and small T. There are things Byzantine parishes do not do, purely because it is not, historically, who we are. We flounder with our identity because we are so small, and in recent years, made up largely of converts from the west. Converts, many of whom want to bring their familiar practices with them, and have not been fully catechized into the richness of the east. We have vespers; we have orthros; we have Divine Liturgy. We have so many amazing things. We do not have to inculcate Roman traditions into our parishes. However, there are just so many little ways westernization is creeping into our eastern practices and I really just do not want to see that. Otherwise, why be Byzantine? Why have Byzantine rites or Churches? If we are nothing more than a “different mass” with lots of incense, why bother?
And so when my little sheltered, Byzantine world is shaken, I blog! Ha-Ha! I feel that if I partake here and there of different traditions of the west and the east, I become a hodge-podge of nothing. “A cafeteria Catholic,” if you will. A mixed bag of things that do not mesh well. Because their historical roots are so very different. My minor in college was Biblical Archeology and I love all things historical and all things physically historical. And when I dove into the east, I found history pretty much left alone, with artifacts intact. The liturgy is free of things I was leaving behind in the west. Many of the issues of the western church do not affect us in the east. It is because our view, our perspective, is just slightly different. And I love that difference; it’s what drew me east. And it is what keeps me eastern. So the surprise that happened is that I discovered who I really am. I am a Byzantine Catholic. I am a Melkite Greek Catholic. That identity is mine and it is not going away. It is leading me along my own, personal, theosis track, where I will embrace my eternity. And it is doing so, holding the hand of my spouse, for eternity. The surprise is that I really know it; I really own it; and I will do whatever I can to protect it.