So out here in the Wild East, Orthodox Christianity is by far the largest and most dominant religion, and since I find it rather interesting since it seems significantly different in many respects from the forms I knew back in the states, I thought I’d give a little rundown of it for anyone who’s interested in these kind of things. (and subsequently drive away all my blog followers)
I’ve been to Catholic masses many times with ex-girlfriends, since before Maja I seemed to favor, by far, catholic girls. Actually, every serious girlfriend I’ve had before Maja has been Catholic. No idea why… been to Lutheran, which were…okay, but a bit sterile. Been to Baptist since my now long deceased father had a bit of a binge/purge cycle with his homosexuality, and service-wise, baptists by FAR throw the most entertaining shindig. Never made it to a Pentecostal service, but i hear they can throw down too. Unfortunately, while having very entertaining services (as as someone raised Jewish and thus subjected to services that last for HOURS in aNOTHER language i didn’t understand, i was very, very appreciative of some shaking and shouting) the more charismatic forms of American Christianity coalesce into the general American evangelical movement, of which I am at some fundamental odds with. (although I love Michael Spencer, Internet Monk and mean to write him a big long e-mail one of these days)
So, Orthodox Christianity.
It’s certainly flourishing in these parts since the fall of communism and socialism, and can often be, to it’s detriment, identified with a very nationalistic pride. I went to church at midnight one Serbian Christmas eve, and it was the wildest outdoor party i’ve ever seen. And by outdoor, i mean directly outside the church, extending for blocks, was droves of people, many of the younger ones drinking beer, stereos blasting music, totally partying down, while others lined to get into the church to light candles and take communion.
I expressed a bit of shock to my wife’s brother since back in the State, X-Mas eve midnight services are really, REALLY mellow. They’re all gentle and hushed and reverent, and this… I’ve seen New Years celebrations, on the streets of New York no less, that were lamer and tamer.
He explained that amongst the actual religious, there are many, not obviously deeply religious, who turn out for the celebration out of national pride since they see the Serbian Church as part of a Serbian national heritage first and foremost.
But of course, this isn’t what Orthodoxy is actually about.
Orthodoxy is hands down the oldest form of Christianity and unlike Catholicism, remains virtually unchanged from how it was 2,000 years ago. Catholicism has changed a great deal over the centuries, but Orthodoxy not so.
As most know, way back in the beginning of Christianity there was no difference between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. There WERE of course, and have ALWAYS been many diverse forms of Christianity, but after the 4th century (post Nicaean council) Gnosticism and Arianism and Marcionism etc. were declining rapidly and Orthodox/Catholicism was now the dominant form of Christianity.
The split occurred technically in 1054 when the Pope sent 2 Cardinals to a church in Constantinople just as the service there was beginning. They walked in, placed a Bull of Excommunication on the altar, turned around and walked out. Of course the split had been happening for centuries, and was not just theological (the Pope’s claims of supremacy and the Filoque) but also significantly cultural.
In Orthodoxy, each large region has a Patriarch, one in Constantinople (and despite it’s LONG ago having been conquered by the Turks he’s still there) one in Russia, one in Serbia, one in Bulgaria, etc, and one in Rome, the Pope. All decision about doctrine and ritual must be decided by ALL of them, unanimously. They all have equal say. So, of course, the Pope eventual dominance and claims of absolute authority was a major problem.
Because it take a unanimous council to decide anything, there have been very few changes in both theology and ritual throughout the centuries. When you step into a mass here, it’s happening the exact way it was observed back in 700. (And in many cases, in a church or monastery that dates back many, many centuries.)
After the fall of Constantinople, the Russian Orthodox Church emerged as one of the largest and strongest Patriarchs, but all but crumbled in the 20th century. More Christians were killed and tortured here in Eastern Europe for not renouncing their faith, then in the entire first 3 centuries of Christian persecution combined. (FAR more, actually. The estimated numbers are insane.) However, Orthodoxy is definitely experiencing a resurgence in these parts.
There are many, many, many monasteries here, and unlike in Catholicism, there aren’t different “orders” of monks. You’re a monk and that’s that. Orthodoxy has a long history of monks who take there vows to renounce all worldly passions, and then get down to the serious business of Heschia, but I’ll get to that in a second. There are rarely any commands given to monks. They are not told what to do. They often simply try to follow what the older, more advanced fathers are doing, and ask any questions they have. (communication between the younger monks and their fathers is absolutely key)
Monasteries are seen as the backbone of Orthodoxy. They are individually usually quite small and only a handful of monks live there. The number of them is huge and this ratio is seen as beneficial.
I’ve been to dozens of monasteries (I love them) . One of the most distinct differences between Orthodoxy and all other Western forms is Icons and the imagery inside the churches. This is what Orthodox churches look like:
They are all covered, head to foot, every inch, in colorful, even slightly cartoon-like pictures. Which types of pictures go where, content, everything has a very specific order. There are many scenes from the New Testament as well as pictures of disciples, Orthodox Fathers, Saints, etc. My synagogue where I went as a child had lots of large stain glass windows that achieved a similar effect.
One of the purposes of this was to make the Mass as sensory filled as possible. The service is sung for the ears, frankincense is burnt for the nose (and the Orthodox LOVE their frankincense), and the images serve as Gospel for the eyes. Add to that a double purpose of getting the Gospel and it’s major players across to a largely illiterate population back in the day.
In many ways there are similarities between synagogue services and Orthodox services, they’re both really long (Easter service, if you do it properly, begins at midnight Sat night, and ends at dawn), and they’re in a completely different language (even for Serbians by the way. Orthodox services are in whatever native tongue the country they’re in speaks, but Serbian Orthodox, in keeping to the Old Ways, still uses ancient Serbian, which no one can actually understand).
But here’s a big difference, and here’s the magic extra that will make all my atheist friends out there drop what they’re doing and run to their nearest Orthodox Church and sign on up (Calvinists, it’s not too late for you, either): There are NO seats. You do NOT sit down during the (incredibly long) services.
That’s right. American Christians, you are wimps. Jews, wimps. Mormons, Buddhists, sorry, but the wimp factor is in effect. (Scientologists, you are being terribly manipulated by a very greedy, dishonest, and hurtful organization, and you need to get out.) Orthodox are hard core. They stand throughout the whole thing. I’ve seen little old ladies outlast my sorry behind, standing quietly and reverently while I’m dying and choking back sobs.
The idea is that you should feel in the presence of God, and one would naturally want to stand in this situation.
For those of you are actually still with me (i’m drinking coffee, i can only assume you must be too) I want to wrap this up with a little bit of theology, since there are some key bits of Orthodox spirituality and even mysticism that I find particularly intriguing.
As i said, monasteries are the heart of Orthodoxy, and within them, there is a type of prayer called Heschia. This is when you essentially sit or stand and pray silently to yourself, attempting to form the words of one specific prayer, The Jesus Prayer, in your heart. (New Agey folks: right where your Heart Chakra is, actually) They believe that this point in your heart area is where Divinity is able to enter the human body.
You pray this way for YEARS. In addition, or even through this, you are attempting to clean yourself. Clean yourself of worldly desires, of course, but also of your issues, and all the pathologies you as a person are carrying around. (one can draw a lot of parallels with Buddhism in this respect) The more you’re able to clean yourself, the more the Holy spirit is able to merge with you.
And steady practice of the Jesus Prayer has a very specific outcome for which you are attempting. There is a phenomenon all these monk and fathers (and lay people too) discuss as happening. Eventually, as you purify and pray, you achieve a state where they believe you change internally, the Holy Spirit fills you and you and It actually merge and transform into a new, enlightened, Christ-like being.
There are many Saint and Fathers who discuss this in great detail, and the greatest literary achievement of Orthodoxy, on par with any literary achievement of any other religion, is the Philokalia. In English it’s collected into 5 volumes, but it’s writings by Heschia practicing monks (some having acheived this state, some further advanced writing to fellow monks further behind) from the 4th century to the 18th.
So there you have it. A long winded discussion of Orthodox Christianity in as much of a nutshell as I could manage. If I have misrepresented anything, i apologize, but to my little Western mind, this is what it seems.