Orthodoxy in America

[Sinteza magazine, Romania, Summer or Fall 2015]

-Which is now the place of Orthodoxy in a world of such a great religious diversity as America? What do Americans generally know about the Orthodox Church? What do they know about Romania?

America was founded mostly by Protestants, though some areas were populated by Roman Catholics. But over the years it has become extremely diverse, such that people of every land and every faith are visible in our cities. We are not as free to display Christian symbols, such as a cross or a stone engraved with the Ten Commandments. People of other faiths protest and demand equal time. Recently, a group of Satanists demanded the right to place a statue of Satan next to a stone carved with the Ten Commandments on a public lawn. Atheists also attack the expression of Christian beliefs in public places. While a very large percentage of the country is still Christian, the  people in power tend to be atheists and despise Christians (in part because we oppose abortion and same-sex marriage).

Orthodoxy is better-known than it used to be, but the public in general is not sure what the Orthodox Church is. The most interest in Orthodoxy comes from Protestant Christians. They have usually grown dissatisfied with their church for one reason or another (often, because the faith is presented in a very shallow way, though in other cases they are seeking beauty in worship, or a more ancient, grounded church. Some are leaving Protestant churches that have become too liberal, endorsing abortion and gay relationships, and ordaining gay pastors.

Americans do not have a good record of knowing much about other countries. We are surrounded by oceans (in a sense) and other countries seem far away. When the average American thinks of Romania he is likely to recall the tyrant Ceaucescu, and the victory when Romania became free once more.

-What does it mean for you to lead an active Christian life as an Orthodox in the US?

In America, about half the people who are members of Orthodox churches have converted to Orthodoxy from a different Christian background (occasionally from other faiths or no faith). If they became Orthodox as a deliberate choice, it is likely that they have done a great deal of reading and research  and embrace the Church with joy. They are likely to practice their faith seriously, with commitment. They will set up an icon corner in their homes, say daily prayers, wear a prayer rope and say the Jesus Prayer, keep the fasts, go to confession, and attend Vespers and other services in addition to the Divine Liturgy. It is nice being Orthodox in America now because the people around you are committed to their faith.

The other half are people raised in the Church, and some of them are like the converts, practicing their faith conscientiously. Some of them, however, think of it as a part of their ethnic identity, and don’t practice it to that extent.

-Do you think that the religious background of a nation is important nowadays for the way society works and for the way peoples’ lives are regulated?

I think it is a beautiful thing when a nation is made up of people who share a single faith. Their religion unites them at a deep level. They come together in agreement that loving and serving God is the most important thing.

We don’t see that unanimity as much anymore, because people move so easily from one country to another. It breaks up communities, when people go to distant lands, and when people from other faiths come and live in our midst. It is unavoidable because that kind of travel is easy and inviting these days. But a sense of unity is missing.

-Tell us a bit of your experience with the Romanian spirituality. Which was your most vivid memory of Fr Gheorghe Calciu?

Soon after I became Orthodox an American priest who had done a great deal of travel told me that Romania was the nation where the Orthodox faith was practiced with the greatest devotion and commitment. I think Romania shows the world a beautiful presentation of the Orthodox faith.

I have so many beautiful memories of Fr. George. What stands out is how attentive he was as a pastor. He loved other people. I remember him telling me that there was a Romanian woman who did not come to worship, but came to him for money to buy food and he always gave it to her. She was living with (not married to) a black American man and they had four sons. The day that I had gone to meet with Fr George, he told me that the man had killed the mother. The father would go to jail and maybe be executed. So Fr. George was trying to find someone who could adopt all four of the brothers, so they could stay together. I was touched that he cared so much and worked so hard for people who didn’t even bother to come to worship. Even when he was very old and in bad health, he did all he could to help others.

-In the context of a discussion on the American strategy for Romania, a US businessman recently told me, ‘America is very close, culturally, to Romania.’ Would you agree with this statement? Isn’t our Orthodox spirit a major drawback in our dialogue and relations with our American partners?

That US businessman must have had something particular in mind when he said that; I don’t know what he meant. Perhaps he meant something having to do with business in particular. I think what we have in common is that there is a very great number of people in America who love the Lord Jesus Christ in a simple and heartfelt way, both Protestant and Catholic. This love of Christ is something that unites us. But the problem is that the Americans who have strong Christian faith are, for the most part, not powerful. People in power tend to take faith lightly. I guess that has always been the pattern in every culture. The people who control the government, the news media, the universities, for the most part laugh at Christian faith. They think Christians are full of hate, if we disapprove of abortion and gay marriage. So though there is a beautiful tie at the level of shared faith, it does not tie us together with the people who control things and have power.

Some things about Orthodoxy might seem strange to American Christians; for example, Protestants think that Catholics “worship” the Theotokos, and when they see us honoring the Theotokos they think the same of us. They don’t understand the way we love her. There are reasons Protestants disagree with Catholics that they would assume are part of Orthodox faith as well. And Catholics tend to think Orthodox are disorganized, because we don’t have a pope. They think we should accept the pope as our ruler so the churches could reunite. So, while our love of Christ is a very strong tie, some elements of Orthodoxy look strange to them.

-Do you think Orthodoxy can be a cultural and spiritual bridge between America and Eastern Europe? Why do you think Russia appears so fundamentally irreconcilable with the Western ideals and so deeply different in the eyes of Americans?

I think that during the Cold War Americans cultivated a deep distrust of Russia, and it still holds sway to some extent. When I was growing up (1950s-60s) we thought of Russia as “godless,” and did not know of the millions of Orthodox believers dying for their faith. This mistrust of Russia remains, even all these years later. As I read the news every day I see so much distrust of Putin. It’s like anything he says is interpreted in the worst possible way.

My hope is that Americans will grow more and more familiar with Orthodoxy, and understand it on its own terms, instead of thinking of it as a disorganized form of Catholicism. The faith is very beautiful and speaks for itself. I think that American Christian churches have leaned too far in the direction of making Christian faith easy and entertaining, and that people are looking for an ancient faith that is demanding and challenging, and that accomplishes great things in the lives of those who practice it. I pray that the unity we all have in Jesus Christ will become manifest, for the good of both our nations.

About Frederica Mathewes-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, Beliefnet.com, 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.

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