Through the creative vehicle of a fictional parish, Frederica Mathewes-Greene opens a door into Eastern Christianity.
Who are the Orthodox? It’s a question increasingly on Western minds as Eastern Christians suffer tremendous persecution — such that the future existence of Christianity in the region is uncertain. Frederica Mathewes-Green, whose husband is archpriest of Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Md., provides a tour of and primer on the Orthodox Church in her new book, Welcome to the Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity. She discusses her faith and Christian beliefs and recommends practices that can be of ecumenical benefit.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: If you had to tweet out your welcome to Orthodoxy, what would you offer as a definition?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: “Why has the indigenous Christian faith of Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe changed so little over the centuries? Because it works. Come and see.”
But if I could whittle down the character count I would add something about amazing weight loss, and end with “You won’t believe what happened next . . . ”
Lopez: Who are the Orthodox? I think people get very confused here as things move eastward.
Mathewes-Green: Let’s look at a map. Open your left hand, palm toward you, and assign the thumb to Rome, and the fingers to Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. These were the five leading cities of early Christianity; but cultural and theological differences gradually led to a split between Rome and the other four. Christian Orthodoxy is the faith that continued in those lands farther east. It went on spreading from them around the world, coming to America in 1794, with Russian monks who crossed the Bering Strait to bring the Gospel to natives of Alaska.
Churches designated “Greek Orthodox,” “Russian Orthodox,” and so on, belong to the same worldwide Orthodox Church; they are not different denominations. It’s analogous to Catholic churches in the 19th century, when one could say, “That’s the Irish Catholic church, and that’s the French Catholic church.” With time they became simply American churches, and we expect a similar process will take place here. Worship at American churches is mostly in English.
Lopez: You write that “Orthodoxy is not primarily a religious institution, but a spiritual path.” Is there a danger that that path could become the road to no religious affiliation?
Mathewes-Green: Less so now than ten years ago, I think. As the profile of Christian Orthodoxy has risen, so has awareness of its traditional stance on moral issues, and that makes it less attractive to some.
Also, this is not one of those comfortable, self-affirming spiritual paths. It’s challenging; it is built on a premise that we need to change, need to learn humility and get better at resisting sin. Lots of people like the idea of being “transformed,” but they don’t actually want to change.
Lopez: You write that “the most important thing in Orthodoxy is holiness — the indwelling of Jesus Christ transforming our daily lives.” Seeing holiness is what people need from Christians, isn’t it? Why do you believe the Orthodox do it better?
Mathewes-Green: I like what you say about people needing to see holiness. That’s different from the path some churches have taken, of thinking people need to see hipness, or to be entertained, or to be comforted. But holiness is just another name for the life of Christ in us; and that is the whole purpose of Christianity, being filled with the light of Christ. I mean for everybody, ordinary people, not just “mystics.” So that’s what Orthodoxy has focused on; it is the science of how to become one with Christ, a process based on the experience of holy men and women over 2,000 years, all over the world.
But I can’t claim that Orthodox “do it better.” People go to church for all different reasons. It’s not enough to possess knowledge about how to do something, you have actually put it into practice. But enough people do take on the challenge, and follow the path, that we feel encouraged to try. Looking at contemporary saints like St. Paisios or St. Gavrilia — we can see for ourselves that the program “works.” It makes you want to give it a try.
I think the influence of Christians in American life will continue to fade. We’ve operated for so long under the assumption that we have a role in the public sphere if we perform it gently and respectfully; but the time is coming when just being known to be a Christian will be ample reason to ignore us. I’m not predicting Roman Empire–type persecution, but we’ll face increasing social rejection, mockery, and contempt.
When that time comes, what’s going to matter is the fire of faith inside each person’s heart. Then it will really mean something when a person says, “I am a Christian,” because it will be so easy, so inviting, to say, “I do not know Him.”
Holiness is going to matter. I hope that a church that offers a demanding and transforming way of life, one that’s been proven to “work,” will have a role to play.
Lopez: How does life in Christ differ from life without him?
Mathewes-Green: In the book, I say that the Eastern Orthodox have not had a lot of practice explaining their faith to other Christians, and so aren’t familiar with many of the historic theological controversies of the West. But they did have lots of experience with non-Christians (Persians, Mongols, Muslims, Communists), and they “knew well how life in Christ differs from life without him.”
It’s a “way,” a program, a science, of union with God — 2,000 years of wisdom on how to safely, sanely, increase in the presence of Christ.
Now that you ask, I don’t really know how to express it! Christ is life. It’s having the Creator of the Universe with you. It’s having the source of all love with you. It’s indescribable. And it’s real, palpably real.
I had a miraculous conversion experience, 41 years ago. I was hitchhiking around Europe (at that time, calling myself a Hindu), and went into a church to look around. I was looking at a statue of Jesus, and then I had an overwhelming sense of his presence, with me, within me. I “heard” him speak to me (not with my ears, but inside). It was kind of scary, and also really wonderful, and it turned my world upside down.
Ever since, all I have wanted is to be closer to him — to stay in his presence. When I became Orthodox some 22 years ago, I was amazed to find that that’s what it’s all about. It’s a “way,” a program, a science, of union with God — 2,000 years of wisdom on how to safely, sanely, increase in the presence of Christ. That’s why I’m excited about Orthodoxy; it’s what I always wanted, and I didn’t even know it existed.
Lopez: You write: “We Christians know Someone is there. We know that he loves us and has promised he will never leave us (Matt 28:20).” But what about doubts?
Mathewes-Green: People say they have “doubts,” but what they really have are doubting thoughts. Thinking about it in this way makes a difference, and understanding our thoughts is a cornerstone of Orthodox spirituality. We are constantly besieged by thoughts that are often not helpful, or not even true. The goal is to take back that mental real estate and instead stand prayerfully, attentively in the presence of God. It’s learning how to stay in reality, rather than wandering in our habitual fog of aimless thoughts.
Thoughts of doubt are characteristically futile. They just go around and around. So you don’t have to spend time trying to resolve them, because there is no resolution. In this life you’re just not going to gather enough information to “prove” the question, one way or another.
So you can learn to recognize a doubting thought just by its outline, by its shape, while it’s still a block away. And you can decide not to spend time talking to it. That doesn’t mean proclaiming that you have absolutely no doubts; it just means making a decision about how you will allot your time. We can say to doubting thoughts, “I don’t need to go around in circles with this topic again.” And we can say, “But I will do what I said I would do: I’m going to keep going to worship on Sunday, keep saying my prayers, and keep reading the bible.” That simplifies things. You just keep showing up. You don’t have to get in a wrestling match with thoughts that have no conclusion. Of course, this works for many other kinds of troubling thoughts as well.
Lopez: What do you mean by “life in Christ”?
Mathewes-Greene: It’s hard to put into words, but I can at least say that it means something literal. It’s not pious gas. Christ is a person, and we know him as a person. As we get closer to the people we love, our hearts are mysteriously intermixed with their hearts; there is an ineffable merging. We similarly become one with Christ.
But there’s something more. Because God fills all of creation, every molecule, he is already in us, deeper than our minds, deeper than the life animating our bodies. Becoming one in Christ is a process of discovering something that is already true, even while it is a process of making it true, by clearing out the garbage and distractions, and learning to consistently attend to his presence. And also, it’s wonderful. It’s life.
Lopez: Why is Orthodoxy so challenging? That is Christianity, isn’t it?
Mathewes-Green: Yes, Christianity is inherently challenging, but a few decades ago people decided to make it easier. I grew up in the ’60s, and I remember when everyone was buzzing around the idea that the church should be “relevant.” A long, slow process of trivialization set in. “Relevance” appeared to mean adjusting everything to suit the “felt needs” of the congregation, so challenging elements were tossed out, and sentimentality was ushered in. Worship changed from something the faithful offered to God, into something the “worship team” offered the faithful.
I think, in that setting, people end up feeling vaguely unsettled, dissatisfied, but they don’t really know why. Some keep shifting from one church to another; some stop going to church entirely. The purpose of every religion is to connect people with something bigger than themselves, but an eager-to-please religion is too much the same familiar size. There’s room for all kinds of churches in the world, and room for one that is forthrightly challenging.
Lopez: You write about how icons seem to have “an unsettling way of coming to life.” How do they “look through you” and what difference does it make?
There’s room for all kinds of churches in the world, and room for one that is forthrightly challenging.
Mathewes-Green: Faith in the Resurrection means believing that the people pictured in icons are alive — alive right now, in Paradise, in the presence of the Lord. Icons are not magical objects; they don’t capture or embody the people they depict, but rather offer a point of contact, a meeting place (as a photo of a loved one might, to a person who is grieving). Nor are icons portraits; they are meant to show us how this person looked when the light of Christ was shining through her. They show us where we’re going, what we’re aiming at. You put all that together, and add that the person in an icon looks directly out at the viewer, making full eye contact, and it can be unsettling, yes. It’s another aspect of “challenge.”
Lopez: Would it be a fair assessment that you don’t seem particularly concerned with Christian unity? Or that you’re more concerned that someone be authentically Christian already, live the Christian difference, understand her faith?
Mathewes-Green: I think the latter is accurate, that Christians should prioritize oneness with their Lord, and live their faith in a visible, humble way. And we must accept that doing so, visibly living our faith, is likely to bring rejection. But when Christians shine with a living faith, even if they have no social influence, it subtly affects everyone around them. Small fires begin to be kindled. Lives start to change. This is something that only happens when people connect with each other, directly and honestly. It doesn’t come from a committee releasing a statement.
Our anxiety about how Christianity looks in the public eye is misplaced. There is no “public.” There are only persons — each one a unique and irreplaceable being. Each has his or her own destiny, and own calling in Christ. So we Christians should prioritize repentance, prayer, humility — in short, holiness. And expect to be ridiculed and despised. But we can expect also to discover moments of genuine connection with those whom Christ is calling. A beloved Orthodox saint, St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759–1833), said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and thousands around you will be saved.”
But about that first question — what about institutional unity? Well, Orthodox don’t even have institutional unity with each other. A church’s organization covers a nation or a people, but there isn’t a higher international board to hold all the national churches together. It seems to not be necessary.
What holds Orthodox together is a common faith — believing the same things. It’s an inner connection, like a skeleton. People learn the faith from the ancient liturgies, icons, hymns, and feasts, and those are the same in every culture. Everybody is in charge of preserving the ancient faith, and no one has the power to change it, so we remain united. (I know it sounds impossible, but it works. In the book I tell a story about a congregation who changed the locks on their priest, when he taught something they knew wasn’t true.) Since we don’t have or want an international organization to unite all Orthodox, we don’t see a need to be in (much less submit to) an organization of all Christians.
I even wonder if we’ve gone too far in downplaying the theological differences among Christians. It makes it look like we don’t really care what we believe. But theology has practical repercussions; theology is a map, and it matters. I would hope that we can explain and defend the differing beliefs that matter to us, without insulting each other. I think of Colgate and Crest, who evidently feel free to proclaim how wonderful they are, and show off their distinctive traits, yet without denigrating the other.
Lopez: How are the Orthodox questions different from typical Western ones?
Mathewes-Green: A good example is the whole question of how Christ saves us; how does his death on the Cross relate to our sins? The early church’s view (which has been maintained in the East) is that Christ died in order to go into the realm of death and defeat the evil one. It’s analogous in that way to the Exodus from Egypt; we are rescued and ransomed from captivity. As for forgiveness, the Father forgives our sins for free. But in the eleventh century, an idea arose in Europe that the Father had to receive restitution of some sort before he could forgive us. In that case, Christ’s death restored the Father’s injured honor, or it repaid the Father the debt for our sins, or it fulfilled the punishment for our sins; there were many different theories. This has been a lively source of disagreement for a thousand years in the West, but the question never arose in the East. They still believe the Father forgives our sins for free, and see Christ’s death and resurrection as a rescue.
Lopez: And about suffering, you write that it involves “the question of why there is suffering in the world, and in particular why the innocent suffer. This is a tormenting puzzle in the West, for Christians and non-Christians alike. However (and it took me several years to notice this), in Orthodoxy it just doesn’t come up. Orthodox Christians suffer as much as people do anywhere, and grieve as deeply. But there isn’t the confusion and bitterness about it that infects the discussions in the West. It took me quite a while to fully grasp the reason why.” You pinpoint a language barrier. Can it be conveyed in action? In the Cross? What are you thinking Western Christians don’t get?
Mathewes-Green: Later in the book I have room to get into this in more detail. It’s not really a language barrier. It’s that the Orthodox believe there is a real devil, and he hates humanity. It is he who causes suffering. In particular, he makes the innocent suffer, because that provides a double harvest, both of the sufferers and of those who helplessly look on. In one of Jesus’ parables, someone finds that an enemy has sown weeds among his wheat, and he says, “An enemy has done this.” That’s what Orthodox believe about suffering — an enemy has done this.
But we also believe that our sins contribute to the brokenness of this world, and make us allies of the evil one. Sin is the prevailing condition of brokenness in the world, omnipresent and debilitating, like air pollution. We all contribute to it, and we all suffer from it. This is one reason Orthodox are so serious about fighting against temptation and resisting sin. It’s because sin poisons us, distorts our thinking and poisons our minds, and the ill effects pour onward to those who least deserve it. We fight against sin so we can be healed in mind and bear more of the light of Christ.
Lopez: Right now, as many Orthodox and other Eastern Christians suffer persecution in an especially intense way, is an understanding of these differences crucial?
Mathewes-Green: I actually did not have that in mind as a goal when writing the book; I was just trying to present this form of Christianity to people who are not familiar with it. But it does help us to understand and identify with fellow-believers undergoing persecution far away. The more we see persecuted Christians as truly our brothers and sisters, the more we are moved to help them and pray for them, and the more we are being prepared for our own coming time of trial.
Lopez: Does your parish have particular ties to a parish in the Mideast or feel a particular urgency in prayer and service?
Mathewes-Green: Not in an official sense, but we have many friendship ties with the Christian village of Taybeh, and the Khoury family that produces Taybeh Beer. Arab-Americans have given a wonderful welcome to converts to Orthodoxy.
Lopez: How much is your imaginary parish of St. Felicity like your own?
Mathewes-Green: Very similar, in terms of how things are arranged inside the church building; that was a great help to memory. In terms of the range of people in the congregation, it is like many churches I have visited in the U.S. and overseas, although there are other churches that are losing their membership and being whittled down only to the elderly members. I expect this is happening in many denominations, as the younger generation doesn’t see a reason to bother with church. On the other hand there are parishes like mine where there are lots of converts, lots of young people, and lots of babies. By the way, I made a short eight-minute video of snips of our Holy Week and Pascha celebration in 2014, which paints in some of the colors of what I describe.
Lopez: What brought you and your husband to seminary?
Mathewes-Green: It’s a funny story. We met in college in the early ’70s and were both non-Christians; anti-Christian would be more precise, actually. In his senior year my husband was required to read a Gospel for a philosophy course, and in doing so found the figure of Christ to be arresting. I was alarmed, and warned him against becoming a “Jesus Freak.” We both continued to think that all religions were equal, and to think of Christianity as childish in comparison with more mature faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism. My husband found that the liberal “demythologizing” theologians provided a door to studying Christian theology, because they said Jesus was just a great teacher, and didn’t do any miracles or rise from the dead.
So he spent a year in seminary, and when we married I was hoping to get into a film program in a nearby school. (My dearest goal was to be film critic for the Village Voice; it’s ironic that I now write movie reviews for National Review.) But when film school didn’t pan out, I made an impulsive decision to go to seminary too. It was over the course of that semester that we met fellow students who knew Jesus in a personal and living way.
After graduation my husband was ordained in the Episcopal Church, and I planned to wait a couple of years and apply for ordination too (women’s ordination was new then, and willing bishops were scarce). But when I saw how really tough a job it is, being a pastor, I decided it wasn’t for me. I’m not that brave.
Lopez: How is life different for a pastor’s wife?
Mathewes-Green: I grew up Roman Catholic, so I never saw a pastor’s wife; it was a role I knew nothing about. When I was in seminary, though, the other seminary wives talked a lot about the tough expectations they would be facing, and the gossip and judgment clergy wives face. I was grateful that I had no experience of that, and was free to try to be a clergy wife in my own way.
Over the years I have found it a joyful role, and I give all the credit to my husband. He’s a born pastor. Parishioners like him, and look up to him, and follow his leadership. I think it’s especially telling that so many of his parishioners over the years decided to become pastors themselves. So I can’t say I have suffered at all from the expectations people have of the pastor’s wife, but I think it is because I married a pastor whom congregations love.
When we were preparing to enter Orthodoxy, I wondered if there were expectations for the pastor’s wife that I didn’t know about. In Orthodoxy, a priest’s wife has an honorary title (like presbytera in Greek, khouria in Arabic) and is seen as sharing in her husband’s pastoral ministry. So I worried about unknown expectations. I asked a Russian matushka if there was anything people would expect me to do in the parish, and she just couldn’t understand what I was asking. When she finally understood she said, “You just be a Christian! Just pray and be a Christian!”
Lopez: You write: “I shouldn’t have to say this, but the evil one is really EVIL.” Why do you say it anyway?
Mathewes-Green: I find that some people, even conservative Christians, are surprised that Orthodox believe in a real devil. It seems to many that the devil is an outdated superstition — and the way there are picturing him might well be — but I believe that there is a reality we should be aware of and prepared for.
I think the reason the devil fell out of Western Christian thinking is because of those new ideas, mentioned above, about what Christ’s suffering on the Cross meant. Instead of the ancient idea that Christ died and rose to free us from the evil one, the new idea was that Christ died to pay the Father the debt for our sin. The devil isn’t an essential part of that story, because it’s now a transaction between the Father and the Son. I stress the reality of the devil here because I find that, when I write about the devil, people sometimes just envision a comical character in a red suit, a figure who doesn’t really exist. I find it’s a good idea to take a moment and explain that there is a devil who does exist.
Lopez: How is Christ our healer and rescuer? And why is it important to understand both?
Mathewes-Green: There’s a delicate balance among all the various elements of salvation: that Christ frees us from captivity, that he heals and restores our sin-sick being, that he offers a sacrifice to the Father, that he defeats the evil one — all that and more. I think we need to understand the entirety of salvation (to the extent we can), for we have our own part to play. Salvation is dynamic, and we need to enter into it fully.
Lopez: Why are relics important in the life of the Orthodox Christian?
Mathewes-Green: Relics of the saints are important because material reality is important. Salvation is not a process of exalting the spiritual and ignoring the physical, for God fills the material world. That’s why God does miracles, because he cares about our physical lives and the material world we inhabit.
Orthodoxy isn’t the only way to acquire that oneness with him, but I’ve found it to be a way that is effective, it works, and it’s accessible to ordinary people in any walk of life.
Growth in Christ means becoming one with him, a process that affects the body as well as the soul. Saints are powerful intercessors, and are often used as agents of miracles. I noticed not long ago that Orthodox don’t speak of a saint as a “mystic,” but as a “wonderworker.” A saint does not grow in the presence of God for the sake of acquiring her own experiences, but for others, for those who need her prayers. A saint’s life is not for herself alone, but for others. Because God is love, the more she is filled with the presence of God, the more she prays for others, and miracles follow.
When God has so thoroughly filled someone, body and soul, in this life, the effects can linger after death. There’s an example of this in the Old Testament: “As a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet” (2 Kgs. 13:21)
Lopez: An “astonishing” 70 percent of the clergy in the Antiochian Orthodox Church in the U.S. are converts, you point out in the book. What is it about evangelization that the Orthodox have down?
Mathewes-Green: I don’t think it’s the result of evangelization, actually. These are mostly clergy who made their own way into Orthodoxy, dissatisfied with their former denomination for one reason or another, and looking for an ancient, unchanging church. And I don’t think the numbers of converts are particularly high; it’s just that there is an amazing proportion of them. I have a poor grasp of how statistics work, but I think it looks like there are even more clergy converts than laity. Maybe that’s because clergy are more likely to be aware of changes in their denomination’s teachings and practice. And maybe it’s because clergy are generally more interested in reading theology and church history than laity are, and keep on digging till they find what they’re searching for. The higher proportion of converts also reveals a lower proportion of people raised in the Orthodox faith, who may drift away from the church if they believe it to be only about ethnic heritage. There are a number of factors at play, and I don’t think genius evangelization is the deciding factor.
Lopez: You’re a convert. What did it for you?
Mathewes-Green: It was my husband’s idea, and I really wasn’t happy about it. The first time he went to an Orthodox service, he fell in love. He came right home and told me that he had found the church that he had to belong to. I went with him to the service the following week, and found nothing at all to like. It was like we had been to two different movies.
Over the next couple of years he just kept reading and studying, visiting Orthodox churches, and telling me how wonderful it was. I was skeptical, but I finally reached a point where I said, “You obviously see something here that I don’t — but I believe you do see something. So I am willing to go along.” Once we were chrismated, though (with three kids, ages 11–16 at the time), I started to “get” it. It was an entirely different church than I’d known before; it has a wholly different idea of what Christianity was for. It had an invigorating disregard for my opinions and preferences. I think that toughness and objectivity is part of what men like about it, and why (anecdotal evidence would say) men are attracted to Orthodoxy more immediately than women are. I know many other women who would say, “My husband dragged me here kicking and screaming,” but once they get it, they love it as much as men do, and for the same reasons.
Lopez: You write: “We should listen to what people report of their experiences of Christ the way we’d listen to the experiences of a roomful of heart surgeons. Some of the experiences they’d report would be common to all of them, some would have happened to half, some to only a few. The more people we manage to hear from the better, because large numbers of reports will give us more detailed and reliable information.” What has your experience been?
Mathewes-Green: The story I tell about hearing the voice of Christ in the Dublin church is one of the very first, but there were a few hints and nudges before that, and in the 41 years since many, many more. I’m a journal-keeper, and I think I could write a book about all the experiences I’ve had, sifting through all those notebooks for the incidents, miracles, and “words” I’ve received. I know it’s wise to be alert to the possibility of self-deception, or even of an evil influence disguised as “an angel of light.” It would be a good exercise for me, and maybe interesting to others, to review all those years, and all those experiences.
Lopez: What could our American culture afford to learn from the Orthodox Church?
Mathewes-Green: Maybe the most important thing would be the seriousness of Christian faith. Or it might be better to speak of the seriousness of life. I just have to shake my head in wonder sometimes at how silly our common life has become. It’s all funny videos and celebrities. Even our controversies, even our tragedies, are gussied up as entertainment. Countless generations of our ancestors labored and sacrificed, working toward just such a safe, prosperous, comfortable world as we now enjoy. And, once they get there, look how people want to spend their time. You want to laugh and cry at the same time.
So I would hope that some people, at least, would reflect on the fleeting nature of life, and the certainty of brokenness and suffering in everyone’s life sooner or later. I hope that motivates them, first of all, to fulfill their commitments and stay faithful to those who depend on them. The faithfulness you give is the faithfulness you will desperately need one day. But if they also spend some time thinking about what lies beyond life and death, and why we have sprouted from this whirling planet in the first place, and what it all means — I hope they will consider Jesus Christ. Knowing him is the entire point of Christian faith. And Orthodoxy is a collection of time-tested wisdom about how to do that.We’re able to maintain such a seamlessly entertaining public sphere because of our ferocious drive for independence. The flip side of independence is isolation, so when someone falls into sorrow or trouble, they fall out of sight, and the party goes on. There’s plenty of suffering; I expect loneliness is epidemic. But, much more than they used to, people suffer alone. When they reach the hard moments of life, all they have is that list of favorite videos. They have “friends” who understand “friendship” to mean clicking a like button. Friendship used to mean a lot more than that.
Lopez: What are you hoping every reader takes from your book? Would you hope your “Welcome” might be a step, in God’s grace, toward Christian unity, even as it talks about differences?
Mathewes-Green: When I meet people in other denominations who love Jesus, and when I read stories about people who loved him from other ages and cultures, I can see that a God-given unity is already there. He is one, and we are one in him. Orthodoxy isn’t the only way to acquire that oneness with him, but I’ve found it to be a way that is effective, it works, and it’s accessible to ordinary people in any walk of life. But however people come to him, they will all come to the same place, they come together, and Christ makes us one.
Lopez: What are you most grateful for?
Mathewes-Green: I’m most grateful for salvation. I’m grateful that Jesus spoke to me, 41 years ago. I didn’t deserve it. I’m happy.