[An excerpt from At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy, Penguin Putnam, 1999]
Prologue: At the Corner of Maple and Camp Meade Road
A little church on Sunday morning is a negligible thing. It may be the meekest, and least conspicuous, thing in America. Someone zipping between Baltimore’s airport and beltway might pass this one, a little stone church drowsing like a hen at the corner of Maple and Camp Meade Road. At dawn all is silent, except for the click every thirty seconds as the oblivious traffic light rotates through its cycle. The building’s bell tower out of proportion, too large and squat and short to match. Other than that, there’s nothing much to catch the eye.
In a few hours heaven will strike earth like lightning on this spot. The worshipers in this little building will be swept into a divine worship that proceeds eternally, grand with seraphim and incense and God enthroned, “high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). The foundations of that temple shake with the voice of angels calling “Holy” to each other, and we will be there, lifting fallible voices in the refrain, an outpost of eternity.
If this is true, it is the most astonishing thing that will happen in our city today.
I believe it is true. I didn’t always. But I now believe it is the most important thing I will do in my life. When death strips away from me all the shreds of foolishness, self-indulgence, gossip, and greed, this will remain, one of the few things to remain. In the moment after communion I press my lips against the chalice, a kiss of surrender, veneration and gratitude. It is the one true centering moment of my oblivious cycling days and weeks. On the chalice I see the face of Christ painted in enamel. I look at him and he looks at me. He has been looking at me a long, long time–long before I would look at him.
It is strange that I would be here. Back in my college days I was pretty dismissive of Christianity. To be more accurate, I was contemptuous and hostile. Though raised in a minimally Christian home, I had rejected the faith by my early teens. I remained spiritually curious, however, and spent the following years browsing the world’s spiritual food court, gathering tasty delights. The core of my home-made belief system was “the life force;” the raw energy of life, I’d concluded, was the essence of God, and the various world religions were poetic attempts to express that truth. I selected among those scraps of poetry as they pleased me. My senior college year I gained a startling insight: I realized that my selections were inevitably conditioned by my own tastes, prejudices, and blind spots. I was patching together a Frankenstein God in my own image, and it would never be taller than five foot one. If I wanted to grow beyond my own meager wisdom, I would have to submit to a faith bigger than I was and accept its instruction.
At that point I chose Hinduism. I can’t say it was a mature decision. Frankly, there weren’t a lot of Hindus attending the University of South Carolina in the 1970’s, and I chose it in part because I thought it would look really cool on me. I enjoyed the vivid poetry and mythology of the faith, but can’t say I engaged it deeply. When all the world’s religions were coquetting to be my choice, Christianity didn’t even make the lineup. I considered it an infantile and inadequate religion. I found it embarrassing, childish–probably because I associated it with my own naive childhood. A rhetorician could have told me which logical fallacy this was, to presume that since I was immature when I was a pre-teen Christian, the faith itself was immature.
Now I stand in front of the chalice and meet Jesus’ steady gaze. I have been fasting from all food and drink since last night, and standing up in this swirl of incense and chant for almost ninety minutes. I’m hungry and my feet ache. Yet all I want is more of him. To see the beauty of your face, Lord Christ, this is all I want.
I didn’t become a Christian because somebody with a Bible badgered me till I was worn down. I wasn’t persuaded by the logic of Christian theology or its creeds. I met Christ. This was, at the time, a big surprise, and pretty disconcerting.
It happened not long after my wedding. Gary and I were married out in the woods, me wearing sandals and unbleached muslin with flowers in my hair. You can picture it: the women in tie-dyed dresses and floating batik scarves, the jovial black lab with a red bandanna around his neck, the vegetarian reception under the trees. When archeologists discover my wedding photos hundreds of years from now, they’ll be able to place the date within five years.
We’d saved up enough funds to stretch our European honeymoon to three months, as long as we traveled by hitchhiking and discount train seats, lived on bread and cheese, and stayed in the cheapest hotels. (In one northern Italian town we figured out why it was so cheap: all afternoon we sat on the little balcony and watched women go in and out with different men.) On June 20, 1974, we took the ferry from Wales to the Irish coast and hitchhiked up to Dublin. We found a hotel, dropped our bags, and went out in the late afternoon to see what we could sightsee.
In a block of business buildings we came upon a church and decided to go inside for a look; even declared Hindus can’t travel Europe without being exposed to some church architecture. I strolled around the dimly lit building, admiring stained glass windows and stonework. Eventually I came upon a small side altar. Above it there was a white marble statue of Jesus with his arms held low and open, and his heart exposed on his chest, twined with thorns and springing with flames. This depicts an apparition to a French nun in 1675; she heard Jesus say, “Behold the heart which has so loved mankind.”
I can’t really explain what happened next. I was standing there looking at the statue, and then I discovered I was on my knees. I could hear an interior voice speaking to me. Not with my ears–it was more like a radio inside suddenly clicked on. The voice was both intimate and authoritative, and it filled me.
It said, “I am your life. You think that your life is your name, your personality, your history. But that is not your life. I am your life.” It went on, naming that “life force” notion I admired: “Beyond that, you think that your life is the fact that you are alive, that your breath goes in and out, that energy courses in your veins. But even that is not your life. I am your life.
”I am the foundation of everything else in your life.“
I stood up feeling pretty shaky. It was like sitting quietly in your living room and having the roof blown off. I didn’t have any doubt who the ”I“ was that was speaking to me, and it wasn’t someone I was eager to get to know. If someone had asked me a half-hour earlier, I would have said I was not sure the fellow had ever lived. Yet here he was, and though I didn’t know him it seemed he already knew me, from the deepest inside out. I kept quiet about this for a week, trying to figure it out. I didn’t even tell Gary, though he must have wondered why my eyebrows kept hovering up near my hairline.
This wasn’t one of those woo-woo spiritual experiences where everything goes misty and the next day you wonder if it really happened. It was shockingly real, as if I’d encountered a dimension of reality I’d never known existed before. Years later I read C. S. Lewis’ novella, ”The Great Divorce,“ which begins with the charming idea that every day a bus crosses the great divide from hell to heaven. Anyone who wants can go, and anyone who wants can stay. The thing is, heaven hurts. It’s too real. The visitors from hell can’t walk on the grass, because the blades pierce their feet like knives. It takes time to grow real enough to endure heaven, a process of unflinching self-discovery and repentance that few are willing to take. At the end of the day, most of the tourists get back on the bus to hell.
This experience in the church was real like that, like grass that pierces your feet. In that explosive moment I found that Jesus was realer than anything I’d ever encountered, the touchstone of reality. It left me with a great hunger for more, so that my whole life is leaning toward him, questing for him, striving to break down the walls inside that shelter me from his gaze. I am looking for him all my life, an addict.
What we do in this little stone church is pretty strange: what’s strange is that it should seem so unremarkable. The whole Christian story is strange. Frederick Buechner describes the Incarnation as ”a kind of vast joke whereby the creator of the ends of the earth comes among us in diapers.“ He concludes, ”Until we too have taken the idea of the God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it, we have not taken it as seriously as it demands to be taken.“
But we have taken the idea as seriously as a child can. America is far from spiritually monolithic, but the vast backdrop of our culture is Christian, and for most of us it is the earliest faith we know. The ”idea of the God-man“ is not strange or scandalous, because it first swam in milk and butter on the top of our oatmeal decades ago. At that age, many things were strange, though most were more immediately palpable. A God-filled baby in a pile of straw was a pleasant image, but somewhat theoretical compared with the heartstopping exhilaration of a visit from Santa Claus. The way a thunderstorm ripped the night sky, the hurtling power of the automobile Daddy drove so bravely, the rapture of ice cream–how could the distant Incarnation compete with those?
We grew up with the Jesus story, until we outgrew it. The last day we walked out of Sunday School may be the last day we seriously engaged this faith. Thus the average person’s conception of the Christian faith is a child’s conception, still hobbled by a child’s perspective and presumptions. We were fed the oatmeal version of Christianity, boiled down to what a child could comprehend, and to many it never occurs that there might be something more to know. The other great faiths of the world we encounter as adults, and can perceive their depth and complexity. We cease thinking about Christianity when we are children, and so fail to glimpse the power and passion that has inspired poets and martyrs and theologians for millennia. There is ample material here to ponder for a lifetime. The problem is, we think we already know it all.
Eastern Orthodoxy gives us a chance to see it new again, because the form is unfamiliar, while the Lord at its heart is the same. Many people don’t even realize that there is an eastern Christian Church; check the bookstores where shelves are tidily labeled ”Eastern Religions“ and ”Western Religions.“ But Christianity began in the middle east, and spread in both directions at once; it is not an exclusively western possession. Christian faith begins, not with a teaching or insight, but with a geographically-rooted event: a crucifixion on a hill outside Jerusalem. From there one branch of the faith moved westward, to Rome and through Europe, while another reached south into Egypt and Ethiopia, north and east to Greece, Finland, Persia, India, and Russia. Soon five main cities emerged as centers of the faith: Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, Constantinople, and Alexandria in Egypt.
This united faith endured a division roughly every five hundred years. In the fifth and sixth century some of the churches of the south and east separated over issues of the divinity of Christ. These churches, for example, the Armenian Orthodox and the Egyptian Copts share with Eastern Orthodoxy a great many elements of faith and practice, such as icons, incense, and chant. Full communion, however, has not been restored.
More significant in western history was the Great Schism between what would become Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, usually dated to 1054 AD. For some time tempers had been flaring over the role of the pope: was he the supreme head of all Christians, empowered to rule over local churches everywhere? Or was his role mostly honorary, that of ”first among [self-governing] equals“? Could he hand down doctrine single-handedly, or were points of faith to be determined by consensus, as leaders deliberated in council and the laity either received or rejected their conclusions? In one of those pinpoints of history, this conflict between top-down and bottom-up church leadership came to a head over the pope’s authority to add a single word to the Nicene Creed. Rome went one way and the four other cities, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem went the other. Those four have continued united to this day, sharing a faith indistinguishable from that of the first century. In the west, however, another split took place five hundred years after the break between east and west, and the Protestant Reformation began peeling new denominations off of Rome.
Though westerners tend to think of Protestant and Roman Catholic as the two opposite poles of Christian faith, in eastern eyes this quarreling mother and daughter bear a strong family resemblance. The two circle around questions of common obsession, questions which often do not arise in the east: works versus faith, scripture versus tradition, papacy versus individualism. This very context of habitual argument creates a climate of nitpicking, and every theological topic that can be defined, and some which are beyond definition, gets scrutinized in turn. As a result, the east sees in the west an unhelpful tendency to plow up the roots of mystery.
While the initial schism between east and west led to further divisions in the west, as new Protestant denominations continue to emerge, the Orthodox Church remained intact. The Church is kept from significant change by its characteristic governing principle: conciliarity. Unlike religious bodies where a single powerful leader dispenses the faith, in Orthodoxy it is believed that the Holy Spirit guides the whole community of believers into the truth (as Jesus promised in John 16:13). Faith is a treasure jointly possessed by all believers, not one guarded by a powerful few; it accumulates over the centuries, never contradicting what has been previously held. Thus there is continuity from first century Jerusalem, to fourth century Egypt, to seventh century Constantinople, to eleventh century Russia, to nineteenth century Alaska. What diverges from this shared faith would automatically disprove itself, even if it was urged by high ecclesiastical authority. No authority is greater than the common faith.
Since there is no locus of power where the faith may be tailored to fit current fashion, it doesn’t change in any significant way–not over long centuries nor across great geographical distances. The faith of the first century is the faith of Orthodox today. When we meet in this little stone church outside Baltimore, we celebrate a liturgy that is for the most part over fifteen hundred years old. We join in prayers that are being said in dozens of languages by Orthodox all over the world, prayers unchanged for dozens of generations.
I’m a recent convert, so I have to check a tendency to gush. The history of this Church is not spotless. When people criticize Christianity they usually point to two incidents in western history, the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades. While Orthodoxy is not implicated in either of these–Greek Orthodox were among the victims of the Crusades–Orthodox must confess their own sins. The pogroms that occurred against the Jews of Russia, for example, were executed by mobs which included Orthodox believers. Sadly, many clergy were less than vehement in condemning these persecutions, though some clergy risked their lives to defend their Jewish neighbors. There has been a general tendency of the Orthodox Church to reflexively support the state rather than criticize it; Serbian Patriarch Pavle’s brave denunciations of Slobodan Milosevic stand as a welcome exception.
Of course, when I became Orthodox I didn’t become Russian, Finnish, or Serbian. I’m here for the faith, not the pierogis; I don’t know how to do Greek dancing or paint Ukrainian eggs. My ethnic background remains that of the quirky Southern tribe known as ”Charlestonian.“ I am not responsible for the sins of Orthodox of other lands through the ages, but I more than make up for that with sins of my own.
Yet Orthodox sing on Sunday, ”We have seen the true light! We have found the true faith!“ It’s the faith that’s true, not us; even the most beloved saints of history weren’t perfect. The problem is that this radiant faith is handled by sinful people, who are only partially transformed by it during our earthly lives. The faith is like a hospital, and we come to it sick with sin. The more we receive it, the more we are changed; not ever to be perfect on this earth, but to be, at least, better than we otherwise would have been. Examples of the flaws of the earthly institution of Orthodoxy are easy to find, and, sad to say, there is no guarantee that all such failings are in the past. Not everyone in the hospital takes his medicine.
Though I’ve been a Christian for twenty-five years, I came to this hospital only a few years ago. Soon after my conversion in the Dublin church my husband made his own journey from atheism to faith, and when he went to seminary I attended as well. He was ordained, and we served in a mainline Protestant denomination for fifteen years. I counseled and taught at the church, had a daughter and two sons, taught natural childbirth classes, and helped out at some home births. More recently I started doing some writing, and, because I’ve been on both sides of the abortion issue, got involved with ”common ground“ dialogues between representatives of the opposing sides. Our national group ranges from abortion clinic owners to sidewalk protest leaders, and it has been a fruitful environment to see ”love your enemies“ (Luke 6:27) put healingly into practice.
In the midst of this busy time my husband began to develop a hunger for more ancient Christian roots. Gary wanted to be part of a church that was immersed in the unchanging faith of the ages, rather than one which had an active history of only a few hundred years, or which was eagerly jettisoning its history in favor of transitory relevance. Neither of us had heard much about Orthodoxy, but as soon as he discovered it, he loved it.
I didn’t. Orthodoxy initially struck me as strange and off-putting: beautiful but rigorous, and focused much more on God than on me. Western Christianity of many stripes has tended in recent decades to become somewhat soft and emotional–in a sense, consumer-focused. Orthodoxy has missed that bandwagon, and still stubbornly addresses its energy toward worshipping God; every believer’s primary need, Orthodox would say, is to come further into union with God, and the whole work of the faith is to enable this.
It didn’t take long for me to be won over, as I found this God-focus was what I’d hungered for all along. My husband was ordained and we founded a small parish outside Baltimore, which has grown to number about a hundred. There were many strange new things to learn about this unfamiliar Church, but learning them was a delight. Immersed in a continuous, centuries-old faith, at last we feel at home.
This continuity has become the hidden thread that runs through my life. I live at the corner of East and Now. The blaring immediate Real Life we all share chugs from one vivid episode to another, events which are overstuffed but mostly inexplicable, like a chain of sausages. I drive carpool, write e-mail, read the paper, go to the mall, pop a tape in the VCR. None of this matters; all of it could blow away overnight. What matters is this slim golden thread: the liturgy that begins each Sunday morning in a little stone church and reaches its fulfillment in the moment I receive communion. Prayer spills backward and forward from that moment, wrapping me into union with God. It’s the work of a lifetime that stretches on beyond my earthly life. This perspective is backwards from the usual. What happens in the meek stone church is the most important thing; what happens in the rest of my life is transient and contingent. The liturgy is whole and beautiful; the rest of my life seems random and bumpy. In this book I alternate between chapters describing times of worship and chapters describing points of encounter with ordinary life. Ones that trace the liturgy on a typical Sunday morning roll smoothly from one to the next; ones displaying how that ancient faith might be lived in slice-of-life moments are as oddly matched as shoes on a thrift shop shelf.
The point of this book, however, is not Orthodoxy, because Orthodoxy is not about itself but about Jesus. Everything I say here must be under that steady gaze, because he is the beginning and the end, and the foundation of my life. Those whose Christian education halted at the elementary-school level should be warned that there is more to Jesus than the consoling Good Shepherd they tell children about. His words are frequently challenging and sometimes disturbing.
For example, Jesus warned that following him would be difficult, and that his disciples would be hated: ”The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God“ (John 16:2). He called his followers to standards of behavior even higher than those of the era’s religious professionals: ”Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven“ (Matthew 5:20). Now, not only deeds but even thoughts would be examined: ”You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect“ (Matthew 5:48).
Finally, Jesus expected that most people would not accept this challenge: ”Enter by the narrow gate: for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few“ (Matthew 7:13-14).
Unlike faiths that teach one has only to go within to find truth, Christianity presumes that each human is a mixed bag, with some impulses pulling us toward selfishness and egocentricity, while others yearn toward oneness with God, and resulting self-sacrificial love for others. It’s not a matter of bad people versus good people, but of a tumultuous blend within each human heart. The person who resolves to pursue the hard path toward reconciliation with God must treat his inner impulses with careful discernment, and resolve to put aside anything that hinders.
Thus, this is not a faith of broad self-affirmation, but one which explicitly calls for self-denial. ”If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me“ (Matthew 16:24). The life we clutch greedily close will rot in our arms, and only transformed life in Christ can save us: ”Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it“ (Luke 9:24).
Reading over such a series of statements by Jesus feels something like being repeatedly punched in the nose. Good Lord, who would want to do such a thing? Why sign on for such a grueling experience?
I look into his thin face, that strong and battered face, in enamel on the side of the chalice. My heart feels like a rock falling down a well. It is for love of him. Not mere admiration for his teachings–to think of him as a mere ”good teacher“ at such a moment is preposterous. He is Lord, the Christ, the Son of God–like he said. If he is a teacher, he taught disturbing things about himself. And those are the teachings that sting; those are the teachings that were so scandalous they eventually got him killed. When a woman poured out on his feet a jar of fragrant ointment worth a year’s wages, it was Judas who protested (reasonably, it would seem) that the money should have been given instead to the poor. It was Jesus who accepted the extravagant honor as his due: ”The poor you have with you always, but you do not always have me“ (John 12:8). A mere ”good teacher“ doesn’t make such audacious claims. Either this man is a monstrous egoist and a charlatan, or he is telling the truth. Who is this strange and compelling man? He turned the question on his apostles: ”But who do you say that I am?“ (Matthew 16:15). Peter had the lucky bell-ringing right answer, the answer that got him crucified as well, a weary old man in a strange city, hanging upside-down like mutton from a spike through his feet. Only powerful love can enable such sacrifice, love greater than death. And that may be the most scandalous assertion of all: that Jesus proved who he is by destroying death, that Jesus is still alive.