Catechumens on the Way to Dinner

[Ancient Faith Radio; June 1, 2007]

Frederica: Let me introduce it: I’m in a car with my husband and we’re going to lunch with some friends in Washington, so we’re driving along here and my husband, Father Gregory Mathewes-Green, pastor of Holy Cross Orthodox Church outside of Baltimore. We’re talking about catechumens, the catechetical process and how people coming over from another kind of Christianity often have more re-thinking to do than they expect, certainly it was more for me than I thought I would have to do. It took many years, I think, to realize the depth and the range of how Orthodoxy was different. So of course my husband takes in many catechumens and counsels and prays and talks them through to Chrismation, and I wanted to get his feedback about what are some of the flags that you see going up that tell you that things are going well or are not going well.

Fr Gregory: Well, I guess two things come to mind: one is that, you’re absolutely right, there is a different way of thinking about Orthodoxy, about church, about the human person, all of that in Orthodoxy, and I do look for certain things to see if people kinda get it, or when they are starting to understand it. And some of those have to do with not just their range of knowledge, that they’ve mastered dates and events and have read x number of books and so forth, but they really see that Orthodoxy is first of all a vision more than anything else, a way of looking out at life, a way of apprehending truth. We can talk more about that, but I also don’t want to forget the second point, and that is that when they realize it’s not about thinking. That it’s about their personal salvation, but it’s a deeply personal, not individualistic, but deeply personal – which is to say that it runs to the depths of who they are – change, and challenge.

Frederica: I think you should probably be in the center lane here. We’re looking for Florida Avenue. We’re going to turn right on Florida. I was trying to remember back to what it was like for me, when we were first preparing for chrismation and I think the first thing I remember being really struck by was a quality in the prayers that seemed so intimate. It seemed as if, when the prayers were calling people to talk about their sinfulness, there was something so vulnerable and yielded about it. And I wasn’t used to that. I think I had for my childhood a sort of a ‘We’re going to stand up and we’re going to admit that we did things that were wrong’ and kind of a tough ‘take your punishment.’ And the gentleness of it, the release, I think I gradually put together with the fact that talking about sin is always linked to compassion. God’s compassion. So that it’s never like, you know, you have to screw up your face real tight because you’re gonna get whapped. It’s always the more sin we see the more love we realize. And that was new for me. I was expecting increased formality and propriety. And the gentleness and the self-revelation and the prayerful references to sin, that was the first thing that began to open my mind, that there was a whole different worldview here that I hadn’t seen before.

Fr. Gregory: Oddly enough, I do have a slightly different take on that, because I’m a priest, and the first time I prayed some of the Theophany prayers, the blessing of waters, or the prayers that the priest prays before the Eucharist, or the prayers that are said at the kneeling vespers of Pentecost. Actually, they’re so self-accusatory, I found them embarrassing. I still find them a little embarrassing. I think that’s good. I think that’s a healthy thing because hopefully I do take them seriously.

Frederica: I was thinking about during the Unction prayers where it keeps stressing ‘I am not the one who is doing this healing. Christ is doing this healing. I am a sinner.’ It is, it’s very naked in a sense. Just very exposed. I think maybe they have to compel the priest to say prayers like that by putting it in writing, and you have to say this every time. And it’s a healthful thing.

Fr. Gregory: And you have to say it in public. I mean, you have to say it in front of the people with whom and to whom you’re ministering day after day after day. They probably don’t have any problem with them at all. [Frederica laughs] They’re true. They’re authentic, and I think that rings as you pray them too, that, ‘Yeah okay, this is my public confession and it’s all true. I’m being forced to do it. I wouldn’t necessarily choose to do it, but I have to admit to the utter, well, truth.’

Frederica: Yeah. It’s like no longer being afraid. It’s like, sin and fear used to be linked together and now sin is linked – or talking about sin is linked to a daring that maybe it’s ok. Maybe you’re going to be embraced by the father of the prodigal son after all. So that the more sin you can face, the more overwhelming the love of God seems. It just gets deeper and deeper and larger and larger.

Fr. Gregory: Yeah, there’s definitely a sense in which it’s kind of a safe confession. And I don’t mean safe in terms of that I won’t really have to be totally honest. Yes, of course you have to be totally honest. But there’s the safety, as you point out of it all being done within the arms of our Father. Our great and forgiving Father.

Frederica: And that got mixed-up, unfortunately, in so much of western Christianity, with ‘God is angry and He must be paid’ and ‘He has to be paid in blood’ and I have a lot of mixed feelings about a God like that, I think.

Fr. Gregory: It would be interesting to know the history of the kneeling prayers because they’re full of that.

Frederica: Yeah, that’s true. We do talk a lot about deserving God’s wrath. Yeah, that’s Florida. Make a right on Florida, and then an almost immediate left on R Street. We talk about that we deserve God’s wrath, but we never attribute it to Him, as if we really think that’s the way He is. We always say that what we deserve is appalling, and yet you keep offering us compassion. Well, I guess we’d better stop talking because we’ve got to find this restaurant. Any last words?

Fr. Gregory: I’m really hungry; I hope we find this restaurant.

Frederica: [laughing] Okay.

Fr. Gregory: No, we can talk about this on the way back.

Frederica: Okay. Alrightie. Talk to you later.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.