Empty Ritual

For the first two decades of my life I thought that “empty” always had to be said in front of the word “ritual.” It speaks volumes about a certain understanding of the world in which we live and the nature of its relationship to God. Time and experience have given me a radically different take on ritual – both what it really is – and the place it holds in our world. It is not only not empty – sometimes it is the bearer of fullness.

The arguments that arose from the Protestant Reformation have had a dramatic impact on Western Christianity and the surrounding culture. Among those arguments was a new view of ceremony and sacramental acts (ritual). Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer were not enemies of liturgy: their reformed communities continued to worship with “reformed” liturgies. But the central acts of ceremony were radically changed.

In the successive prayer books of Cranmer (1549, 1552) there was a move away from ritual acts. The sign of the Cross disappeared in 1552 under increasing reformist sentiment.

The liturgical reforms meant to make a visual break with the Catholic past. The 1552 prayer book instructed the use of a free-standing table with the celebrant standing at its north side (meaning standing on its left from the point of view of the congregation). There was no inherent meaning in this other than that it should no longer look like a Catholic Mass (in which the celebrant stood with back to people, facing East).

The anti-ritual of the Reformation is rooted in a worldview. Ritual acts indeed are “empty.” The word spiritual comes to be identified with internal, mental, acts of the heart. The beginnings of this worldview are rooted in the dialectical opposition of faith and works. In Reformation short-hand, faith is good and works are bad. Faith becomes synonymous with certain mental acts. Works became associated with almost every outward action. Even almsgiving comes to be seen as a “work.” With the “interiorizing” of all things spiritual, ritual actions became virtually demonized (hence “empty ritual”). Indeed, some began to view any use of ritual as, in fact, demonic (“witchcraft”). Priests became worse than heretics – they were viewed as necromancers and the like.

Of course, the extremes of argumentation rarely make for useful reflection (cf. modern political “discussion”). The exact nature of ritual never came up as a topic worthy of consideration. Is there a good use of ritual? What would make it good or bad?

The liturgical movement of the mid to late-twentieth century began to look at ritual. However (from my perspective) its conclusions were largely predicated on the assumptions of Protestant thought and produced a theatrical understanding of liturgy (resulting in what I have elsewhere termed “pantomime“).

During my Anglian seminary years, studying under a “high church” professor, we were taught that all ritual movements were only done to “illustrate” the liturgy and should always be done in the full view of the people (since it was only for their benefit that such movements were done). This is the “pantomime” aspect. Movement is reduced to an illustration, enhancing the entertainment of a congregation reduced to audience.

Orthodox liturgical practice belongs to a different world. Within Orthodox liturgical tradition, many things (including ritual actions) are done behind the icon screen, sometimes done with the doors and the curtain closed. What is done is visible to the priest, God and the angels. It is a direct contradiction of modern non-Orthodox seminary teaching (including modern Catholic seminaries – except for those who are hearkening back to earlier Catholic practice).

What does a ritual action mean, of what use could it possibly be, if only the priest does it and no one sees it? What assumptions must accompany such movements?

The pantomime view of liturgical action sees meaning as a mental construct. What something means is simply what someone thinks it means. The task of worship is to help each other see and understand meaning. In such an understanding, everything of value that takes place in worship occurs within someone’s mind. Bodies, light, color, sound, bread, wine, smell, text, are incidental: they only have value because they create the occasion for thought. Spiritual and mental are two words for the same thing.

But the actions within the Orthodox liturgical world are not so constructed. They are done with witnesses and when no one sees. The priest says many things in secret and occasionally has directed ritual movements that even he does not see (as at one place in the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy). How do we understand this?

The simplest explanation is that the Orthodox liturgical tradition actually thinks something is happening in ritual actions – something that is not an event in someone’s mind. There is a similar tradition regarding the nature of the Holy Eucharist in Roman Catholicism and in Orthodoxy, but their liturgies have now moved world’s apart – particularly in the manner of understanding liturgical action.

What does ritual do? The most obvious answer from the Church’s perspective is that it does just what it appears to do. Ritual actions are iconic in nature – they make present that which they represent. Thus to make the sign of the cross in blessing is to bless. We do with our bodies what we say with our lips (and often more). The reduction of spiritual content to mental content is a denigration of the body and an insult to the Incarnation of our Lord.

The problem is much the same as that originally presented by the iconoclasts of the 8th and 9th centuries. They, too, denigrated physical things (images) and argued for an understanding of the spiritual that was decidedly non-material. The 7th Council declared iconoclasm to be a heresy – particularly because it denied the truth made known to us in the Incarnation of Christ.

Their response can be summed up in the aphorism: Icons do with color what the Scripture does with words. It was the recognition of a principle, modeled on the Incarnation itself. Additionally they said: icons make present that which they represent. Icons are not the same as sacraments, in which what is involved is not a representation. But in the icons there is, nevertheless, a form of presence. For those given to theological precision – icons have what is termed a hypostatic representation.

It is this same iconic representation that can be seen in the liturgical actions of the Church. “Let all adverse powers be crushed beneath the sign of the image of the Cross!” The priest says three times over the waters of Baptism as he traces the sign on the water’s surface with his hand. It is an action of blessing. The words and the action are one. But the words are not spoken for the benefit of the believers standing around. They are spoken to the waters and to those being crushed!

This is a challenge to the notion that spiritual meaning resides only in the mind. Those who have reduced spiritual actions to such restricted notions are very likely unwitting iconoclasts. But the arguments that restrict the meaning of ritual are very similar to those put forward by the original iconoclasts against the icons themselves.

As for those who simply oppose all ritual – they take an absurd position. Human beings have bodies and they move. Those movements have always been understood to carry meaning. Why does a pastor stand when he speaks rather than sit? Everything is an icon – regardless. If it is not an icon of one thing – then it is of another.

The actions of Christ, spitting on dirt, making mud and putting it on the eyes of a blind man, directing him to wash in the pool of Siloam, etc., are all ritual actions. I have never assumed them to be empty. The same Lord took bread (in His hands), blessed it, broke it, and gave it. He could have simply stood and said, “Father, we just want to thank you…” and let everyone walk around the table and serve themselves.

There is no empty ritual, for there is no empty action. Everything is filled with meaning and power. Sometimes for good.



  1. Great insights, Father. Lots to chew on.

    I prefer the (relative) simplicity of the Roman eucharist. I don’t mean the ridiculously pared down Catholic Lite ceremonies (I won’t even call them liturgies), of course. Rather, the clean, cool, quiet, solemn, almost martial Mass that is coing back with the younger generation of priests, accompanied of course with the haunting, celestial Latin chant. But this sort certainly hits the spot, I must say:

  2. I didn’t realize the video would appear in the comment box. If you’re not comfortable with that, Father, can you still leave the link? It’s a beautiful sight: Young fellow’s first divine thanksgiving as a presbyter of the Roman church.

  3. Darn, what ever happened to making those great high pulpits? Do the Orthodox have such beauties?

  4. Spot on. Great post Fr. Stephen. As always.

    It never occurred to me before the “ritual” was embedded in “spiritual”.

    What really baffles me is that Protestants are often heavily engaged in the rituals of patriotism but don’t recognize them as rituals. Then they turn around and despise their mother for using rituals in a manner that actually contains deeper meaning than patriotism ever could. Whenever I think on it, I wonder how on Earth Protestants can even claim to be Christian? They have gutted everything that is meaningful from the worship service and turned a meaningful experience into a weekly MLM seminar. Heck! The Mayans had more spiritual insight than the Protestants do! (IMNTBHO)

    It may sound strange coming from me but when I was first exposed to liturgy (and after I got over the initial shock), I began to comprehend why I was so miserable in the Protestant world. (It’s just too bad that the CEC was run by a bunch of Protestants playing at Orthodoxy.)

  5. “What really baffles me is that Protestants are often heavily engaged in the rituals of patriotism but don’t recognize them as rituals. ”


    One of my pet peeves is the displaying the American flag (or any national flag) in a church — especially in, or even near, the sanctuary.

  6. PJ
    It’s hard for me to know what to make of the new young priests and their throw-back liturgies. It carries such overtones of reaction that nothing is what it seems because it’s also busy not being something else. Also I find the Tridentine Mass, like these in the vid just a bit too precious . Priests with big beards lumbering about like bears is more to my taste.

  7. To be fair, it’s not a “throw-back.” This liturgy never stopped being used. Anyway, it only fell out of (common) practice a half century ago! That’s just a hiccup in the history of the Church.

    The Tridentine Mass is a precious spiritual jewel.There is sweet, life giving water found therein, to be ladled out abundantly for those who would drink of it. Further, these fellows are earnest. I know many of them. They’re quality men. It would be a crime to let our patrimony fall away. You’d never let it happen to the Liturgy of John Chrysostom.

    To be honest, I personally prefer the “New Mass.” But even that was rarely served in its completeness. Thankfully, the seminaries are finally producing priests who are obedient to the fullness of the liturgy. After decades of terrible abuses, the antiphons, the chant, the vestments — it’s all coming back. It’s a God send to hungry, weary Catholics.

    We were on the brink of losing our entire liturgical heritage. Surely you don’t think we should simply have let it slip away! Be charitable toward us: We’ve endured a lot.

    …you and your bears…bah… 😉

  8. I should say, there is much continuity between the Old Mass and the New. But that wasn’t clear given the rampant liturgical abuses perpetrated in the name of the “Spirit of Vatican II” (as opposed to the letter). Gladly, things are improving. Hopefully quickly enough that we don’t lose any more to you hirsute, poetical, incense-drunk oriental schismatics, ha-ha!

  9. The situation is roughly analogous to Orthodox theology. Were those who opposed the several centuries of Latinization “throw-backers”? No, of course not. They were reclaiming what was rightfully theirs.

    But I don’t mean to hijack the post, which is much more important than debating the merits of the Tridentine Mass!

  10. Dear Father,

    You have touched a vital cord running through all true worship, the whole person undissected standing before God Glory to God in All Things!

  11. Priests with big beards lumbering about like bears is more to my taste.

    Made me think of Merlin in That Hideous Strength (in full regalia and scented oils in his beard).

  12. One of my pet peeves is the displaying the American flag (or any national flag) in a church

    Repeat after me: “I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the savior for which it stands…”


  13. Father Stephen,

    I will need more time to reflect on what you have written here. While I understand what you mean about reducing liturgy to theatrics, the ritual having meaning apart from human mental experience is a bit baffling to me.

    I am not denying that it is iconic and I like the way you explain what iconic means. However, can anything be iconic apart from the human mind to experience it as such? God has no need for prayer or ritual. We, if we could be completely free of our sinful nature, would have no need of it either, I suspect.

    Communion with God needs no words, no ritual, no movement. Yet because we do not yet know how to live apart from our sinful human nature, the ritual (ideally) helps bring us closer to realizing this divine gift. Our minds and hearts are the vehicles through which ritual makes known the divine.

    Poorly enacted, stripped of meaning, robotic rituals are distraction from our path to union with God, whereas the truly iconic ritual moves us closer. (I’m also not sure that the “truly iconic” has a pre-set formula – solemn liturgies with traditional ritual actions vs. exuberantly joyful ones with more spontaneity – either could draw us away from or closer to divine union, could they not?)

    Sorry, I am rambling a bit. I will reflect more – but would appreciate any clarifying thoughts.

  14. Bless, Father..

    I coined a little term that I think covers this sort of thing nicely: ecclesiaclasm. The denigration, diminution, and even destruction of the church from within under ‘purifying’ pretenses.

    On another note.. ‘precious’ is a perfect word for the Traditional Latin Mass. God forgive me, but it’s hard for me to get past all the lace.

  15. I thought of putting up a video from a grandly mystical compunctionate Liturgy in the Holy Mountain in response to this… But then I have decided it is so Holy and otherworldly that I cannot ever do that….
    (and it involves Priests with big beards lumbering about) 🙂

  16. Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

    I have been looking forward to this post. I am constantly looking for new lines of thought for “empty ritual nay-sayers”; oh, let’s not forget the “vain repetitive prayer crowd”. I find it very ironic that as Protestantism especially has stripped itself of tradition, ritual, doctrine, works, symbols & so on, it has slowly stripped itself of faith altogether. Very sad really.

  17. “On another note.. ‘precious’ is a perfect word for the Traditional Latin Mass. God forgive me, but it’s hard for me to get past all the lace.”

    Yes, I’ve heard this before. I am personally quite fond of lace albs/surplices, so long as it’s not excessive. I wear a sort of pleated surplice with lace inserts in the skirt and at the end of the sleeves (forming crosses).

  18. “But the central acts of ceremony were radically changed…In Reformation short-hand, faith is good and works are bad. Faith becomes synonymous with certain mental acts”

    I don’t think that this can be said about the Lutheran reformation at least. Here is the definitive work on this, recently translated:


    Ritual is excellent. And yes, it is good to be “all there” during the ritual, but if you don’t even approximate this, that does not mean the performance of the ritual is bad or does not benefit the one doing it.


  19. I was linked to this post by a lovely young Orthodox lady on another discussion board. I am a Roman Catholic; my son is studying for the Roman priesthood.

    Full agreement with Fr. Stephen’s commentary! There is a great reality that is thinly hidden behind the outward rituals. This is sacred. This is mystery revealed.

    I am glad that Catholics are rejecting the iconoclasm that rushed in with the wake of Vatican II. The Council never desired this. And the young priests — they are not “precious.” They fresh troops, ready for battle. They anxious to bring the holy.

    But this post is really about the lacy surplices. You won’t see many young priests wearing that. My son calls it “liturgerie” — liturgical lingerie. I think that about sums it up.

    And God bless your bearded bears! Long may they lumber!

  20. Just a minor clarification. western churches are “oriented” traditionally to the west , not the east. The priest is supposed to be the one “oriented”, i.e. facing east. At least this is the excuse used for having the priest facing the people. The word “orient” means to face due east.

  21. One vestment that I’m really glad to see come back is the fiddeleback chasuble. I also like the longer, fuller chasubles with the St. Andrew’s cross. Also, the maniple.

  22. Nathan,
    It becomes a moot point. Lutheranism lapsed into the Protestant mainstream and to the greatest extent is there today.

  23. Mary Benton,

    I always appreciate your thoughts and insights. Here’s my feeble attempt to share my own experience with what I know of some of the rituals of the Orthodox faith. I am a reader and blessed to be in a parish which offers daily services which I get to participate regularly.

    I have been Orthodox for only 4 years. The ‘rituals’ of the church have evoled from challenges for me to try to ‘figure out’into gateways I now trust as leading me to Christ and His wellspring of love to both consume and to give away.

    I think of these rituals as pathways to Christ. I don’t reach Christ by figuring Him out and believing something in my head; I reach Him as I walk daily on these well trodden paths which have existed since He walked incarnate on the earth. These pathways, when I cooperate with Him, become ways to soften my hardened heart and let Christ in. God became man that we might be united to Him. The way to Christ has been alive throughout the ages and these paths are not new or unclear or uncertain. We have this amazing set of Parents in the Saints who join with us and can guide us and strengthen us as we together walk this road to Him.

    It’s an incredible blessing to not have to figure all of this out on our own, but to trust and rely on God and His Church. When I can sacrifice my doubts, trust, and praise Him; I have an experience of Him filling me in a way or a place I have never been filled before. Our doubts and apprehensions are really just invitations for us to join with Him in a new, empty place free of my false self as I offer it to Him.

    Rather than finding it necessary to find my own path, I can rely upon those who have gone before me. Orthodoxy, as a way of life , has an order and beauty in the daily services. My favorite time of each day is Matins. In the silence of beginning the day in the darkness of His Temple with the Six Psalms speaking of the waves of both spiritual poverty and wealth, I have a chance to be reminded of who He is and to worship Him as God. And somehow in the finding of Him and acknowledging Him as God, He both reveals Himself more fully to me and allows me to discover who I truly am.

  24. Antonio,
    I’m sorry but you’ve been misinformed. The Churches are still oriented towards the East (altar in the East-end). The position of the priest is, in fact, called “West-facing” in the new rites.

  25. “Just a minor clarification. western churches are “oriented” traditionally to the west , not the east. ”

    No, churches traditionally were built facing east, so that both the priest and the people, facing the same direction, were “oriented.” The reason for having the priest confront the people has nothing to do with direction (most often, it means the priest faces west), but with errant understanding of the purpose of the presbyter in particular and the liturgy in general.

    That said, many modern churches, and even some older churches, face west — or north, or south. But the tradition is definitely easterly-facing churches, so that the people face the “eastern window” above the altar.

  26. PJ,
    I’m sure that moves to return to tradition are good. I remain very doubtful about current Roman Catholic efforts – and certainly wondering what it will actually mean. But, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing). Thus, a return to traditional practice would, one would think, mean a return to traditional thought. Then, as an Orthodox priest, I would still have difficulties with Rome’s “traditional” thought. But that’s a longer post on a different topic.

  27. There is a remnant of liturgical Lutheranism out there somewhere, though only encountered it over the internet. I once saw a Lutheran Mass where the “priest” (elder?) was decked out in richly embroidered vestments, standing before a stone altar, with his back to the people. Needless to say, I was a bit perplexed.

  28. Interesting post. Is there, then, a language of ritual action – similar if you like to translations of written scripture which more or less closely adhere to the originals? For instance, at what point does a ritual action deviate so far from its iconic meaning that it ceases to make present the thing it purports to make present. Can you celebrate the Eucharist with cherry cola and a chocolate-chip cookie? If not, why not? Where, if anywhere, can the line be drawn? It is surely an act of faith (or of your mind) to hold that these actions have a power independent of the mind of the performer or observer.

    When or where were these rituals – not thinking specifically of the Eucharist here, but all the ancillary stuff like jingling thuribles and whatnot – decided upon: sure, there is plenty of ritual in the OT, but much of it gets short shrift in the light of Israel’s grievous perfidy (Amos, Isaiah, etc.)

  29. Father Stephen,

    I do not think that it is a moot point. There are many thousands of “Confessional Lutheran” churches that still believe this.


    “There is a remnant of liturgical Lutheranism out there somewhere, though only encountered it over the internet. I once saw a Lutheran Mass where the “priest” (elder?) was decked out in richly embroidered vestments, standing before a stone altar, with his back to the people. Needless to say, I was a bit perplexed.”

    This is hardly unusual. Again, many Lutherans would identify with Father Stephen’s post. Many may not be as richly “decked out”, but are not doing cowo either – they simply keep the ceremony more simple and humble in fitting with the simple and humble forms of bread and wine that Christ’s body and blood really and truly comes to us in…


  30. Nathan,
    Why I think it is a moot point would be the difference between why things are done. Is the simple ritual done out of preference, or because they think there is something inherently necessary in it? I’m familiar with the confessional Churches, and the faithfulness to traditional doctrine. Some of this, as a moot point, is simply the difference between East and West.

    I suppose one way of saying this – is that the liturgical developments of the last several generations seem to me – quite natural to the thought of the West – and are therefore somewhat inevitable. Is there anything other than a preference holding its finger in the dike? Even Orthodoxy feels the pressure of the cultural tide of the West.

    Underneath these things, I think, is the doctrine of the holy icons – a dogmatic underpinning that the West never embraced (at its fundamental level). As a cultural force, iconicity will only see a resurgence if there is continued growth (in every respect) of the Churches in the East, as well as greater acceptance of the Eastern Church in the West. That kind of thing is in the hands of God and well beyond my speculation.

    In the course of my near 60 years – I have not seen the tide turn very much (other than the resurgence in Eastern nations).

  31. I should say, with regard to the post, that it is not ritual per se that interests me. It is the thought that ritual in fact does something – is not a pantomime or near kindred. There are many lovers of beauty, aesthetes of one form or another, who love ritual – but they may very well see nothing more actually taking place than the most reform minded Anabaptist.

    The Orthodox view of ritual would extend to the Orthodox view of Beauty. It is the fact that these actions, events, etc., are the bearers of something more – that the world has been structured in an iconic form that interests me. For it says that I am daily encountering God (even when I’m not thinking about Him). Those who do not understand the iconicity of the world will eventually tire of interest in beauty and return to the practicality of their “real” world, and, in turn, will make of the world an uglier place.

    That the world in which we live is encumbered with as much ugliness as it is at present is a monument to the literalism of the present age. Mired in utility, the world has been reduced to a tool. Little wonder that it occasionally resembles a dirty wrench.

  32. “Why I think it is a moot point would be the difference between why things are done. Is the simple ritual done out of preference, or because they think there is something inherently necessary in it?”

    OK, I see. Some things are to be done because they were given to us by God to do and are intimately tied up with our salvation (Eucharist). Other things – or at least certain ways of doing them – are probably more related to preference.

    “…It is the fact that these actions, events, etc., are the bearers of something more – that ….”


    “the world has been structured in an iconic form that interests me.”

    OK, I see what you mean here – we Lutherans aren’t quite where you are, although, we would, for example, say that marriage is a sacramental icon of the True marriage. As regards created icons however, no….

    We’d like to see these concepts in the Bible, I think. I think as far as beauty goes, there is much about Lutheran hymnody, for example, that is very beautiful…


  33. Father, ritual is empty, is it not, if it is not filled with the Holy Spirit?

    Since the Holy Spirit is at an amorphous gas, but a living person, there are some forms that He prefers over others (or so it would seem to my poor heart) and some that are abhorent.

    A story I read someplace about a priest in Asia Minor a long time ago who always began the Divine Liturgy at a different time each Sunday. Sometimes folks were there, sometimes not, sometimes they got there and waited. Eventually they complained to the bishop. The bishop called the priest in and asked him about his behavior. He replied, “Your Grace, I start the Liturgy when I see the Holy Spirit descend on the altar.” The bishop took no further action.

  34. Michael,
    Yes. You’ve touched on something important. In thinking about those things we do not see, but are nonetheless quite real, we must not think of them as simply invisible versions of what we do see. A component, I think, of those things we call “invisible” is that they have the quality of freedom about them. This always entails relationship as an important component. God is everywhere present, but He is also everywhere free, and so He is not subject to my whim. This is the mistake made by some Pentecostalists and by the New Age types. They believe in spiritual things, but think as well of spiritual principles, almost like a Newtonian spirituality. Freedom messes all of that up.

    What would Newton have done if gravity worked when it wanted to?

  35. Part of my point, Father, was to suggest that the forms of worship revealed in the Bible are the ones God ‘likes’. That means that we should follow those forms as closely as possible, IMO. The Orthodox Church seems to do that.

    To me that is why the priest can confidently call down the Holy Spirit on “us and these gifts here spread forth…”

  36. Like PJ says, a lot to chew on here.

    I’ve always been one to say that the iconostasis reminds me of the veil in the OT temple that was supposed to have been rent long ago. However, this new understanding of ritual could go a long ways to smoothing that over.

    I guess it comes down to the clergy and the people trusting each other and both parties understanding that there really are unseen mysteries that they know little of – therefore a paradigm shift from the pantomime to the iconic view of all things.

  37. Drewster,

    Pavel Florenksy, in his book Iconostasis, says something to the effect that the iconostasis is that which allows us to see the altar rightly. He says that if there were no iconostasis present, we would have an impenetrable wall erected between us and the altar, and that without it we would not see the altar as the heavenly kingdom that it is. The iconostasis is light breaking through that impenetrable wall which allows us to see that spiritual reality with our physical eyes.

    He of course nuances this much better than my paltry summary, but I found it to be very helpful in understanding some of what the iconostasis does.

  38. Maximus,

    It’s a lovely thought. I’m not saying he’s wrong either. It’s just one of those ideas I often find on this site that I have to let simmer on the back burner for what sometimes turns out to be a loooooooong time.

  39. Nathan’s comment about the beauty of Lutheran hymnody touches something that’s been on my mind for awhile.

    One of the main things that attracted me to Orthodoxy was its theology. So much of it is beautiful and rings true. Alongside this we on this site have made free to label Protestantism a heresy. While I understand where this sentiment is coming theologically, it still makes me uncomfortable.

    Heresy is a very harsh accusation that shouldn’t be made lightly. When heretics walk down the street, good God-fearing people pull their children inside and refuse to answer the door. They’d rather spend time in the company of prostitutes and tax collectors – even Pharisees – rather than those mired in heresy. Heretical groups are akin to leper colonies in religious social status.

    Though Protestants are severely impoverished in their doctrines, can we not look at them a bit better than just being outcasts? I know many of them that aren’t abrasive and closed-minded personalities like Rush Limbaugh. Maybe I’m being too merciful but I’d estimate that for every one of him, there are 10 with lots of goodness in them.

    So my question, what good things do they possess? As in the hymnody of the Lutherans. Or for example, a friend of mine said 20 years ago that the Baptists were excellent at Sunday School, being conscientious of raising up their young in the way they should go.

    Just as we would have to find something worth saving in an individual before we tried to save them, what things are good, true, beautiful, worthy of contemplation in the Protestants (or certain groups therein).

    Yes this is an Orthodox forum, but if we’re going to continue to harp on Protestants and their many faults, it seems only right to extol their virtues as well. This is NOT a plea for us to take the best qualities of all denominations and mash them into some “super” religion, but rather a request for us to look upon children of God in a different camp with the eyes of Christ and see the beauty and worth that still lies within.

  40. Drewster –

    I can’t say this prayer from the Supplication Service to the Theotokos often enough:

    Every soul will be made living, exalted, and made shining, purified by the Threefold Oneness in a hidden manner.

    Please note that it does not say every Orthodox soul, but every soul.

    It is true however, that many revered Orthodox elders refer to Protestants as heretics – not that some of them ever met any Protestants – but I guess, just the idea of there being so many denominations appears to them as “so many lost sheep”. And yes, they actually do cry over them.
    Fr. Stephen, I believe, has noted elsewhere, that there is much good we can take/learn from those other camps of God – may the Lord bless it to be so.

    In peace,

  41. Eleftheria,

    I have no doubt that everything you said is true, but we need to expound on it. It’s not enough to say “there is good in them too” and “we can learn a lot from them.” When we speak out loud the good things about other – whether it be individuals or organizations – it can be a fearful thing.

    What if people turn away from me/us and start focusing on those others that I just spoke highly of? I find that we are rather insecure about these things.

    Being able to pronounce these truths about others:
    -Helps build them up, as Christ does.
    -Is an act of pouring out our lives for others, like Christ does.
    -Lets us and others know that our source is the Lord, and therefore we can afford to part with compliments (especially if they’re true and said out of love), that He will sustain us if no one returns the favor.

    If someone tears us down for our faults but gives us back no reason to feel worthy of living, would we not consider them our enemy? As God’s children, we need to see His other children through His eyes, affirming what is good and calling them further up and deeper in.

  42. We do use the term ‘heresy’ a bit too freely. Strictly speaking it should only be used when some belief or practice has been officially condemned by the Church. The list of these is long and varied.

    Having been burned by heresy in my youth, I have always maintained that we should teach the heresies as what not to believe and why.

    Heresies are always with us. As a product of the human mind and our distorted understanding of God, they and their variations are always popping up. To ‘fight’ them is a bit like playing Whak-a-mole. Yet vigilence is required as the most dangerous place for them to occur is in my own heart.

    Nevertheless there are specific aspects of much Protestant doctrine that seem to be heretical in nature and the teachings of Calvin in paraticularly have been offically condemned as heretical by a local council as Fr. Stephen mentioned.

    However, the title of heretic is usually only given to those who believe and teach wrongly and when confronted with their wrong teaching refuse to repent.

    As confusing as it may appear, holding heretical beliefs does not automatically make one a heretic. It is the hard hearted refusal to accept the truth when faced with it that makes one a heretic.

    Since we have done a horrible job in both living and witnessesing to the Truth to our fellows, who’s to say who has the more fault?

    If one wants to discuss a particular belief as heretical in content, one should have the honesty to both know and be able to refer to the specific heresy. One should refrain from labeling someone a heretic altogether.

  43. Hello all,

    Interesting discussion about heresy and the need for us Christians to back off a bit. If any of you are interested, I have recently been doing a series of posts on “the Coming Vindication of Martin Luther”. In part IV, I quote widely from Olivier Clement, who I am sure some of you are familiar with:


    (Father Stephen – if you decide to not let this post stay up because you do not think it is relevant, please know I respect your decision).


  44. “This is NOT a plea for us to take the best qualities of all denominations and mash them into some “super” religion, but rather a request for us to look upon children of God in a different camp with the eyes of Christ and see the beauty and worth that still lies within.”

    I am struck by how Drewster’s comment is related (in my mind anyway) to the main topic of ritual.

    As an Orthodox Christian, it is extremely interesting to observe the protocols of a traditional Protestant wedding. One quickly recognizes remnants of iconic truth and beauty that remain even though the content of it has largely been forgotten. For example, when facing the alter the groom is on the right (the side of Christ), and the bride is on the left (the side of the Theotokos, the image of the Church). There are prescribed movements, prescribed language, prescribed readings, and so forth.

    When objections to Orthodox liturgy as “empty ritual” arise, the thought of weddings immediately comes to mind. No matter how stripped of iconic content, few Christians view weddings as empty ritual. Most would still strongly affirm that something very real and life-transforming occurs through this ritual – that in this ritual God truly unites the couple together in an unbreakable bond in which the two become one flesh. This is perhaps one of the few (and in some quarters only) instances where the ‘memory’ of the true meaning of Christian ritual lives on.

    As Orthodox Christians, we recognize this affirmation of ritual on the part of Protestants as good (and perhaps a means of common understanding), for although it only a remnant, it is an indication that some “beauty and truth still lies within.” We recognize it as such, just as we recognize every other remnant of beauty and truth that is derived from the Church and invite others to enter into her fullness.

  45. Brian,

    Here! Here! The traditional Protestant wedding also struck me that way some years back. The bride (Church) being led by her father (Church Fathers) to the groom (Christ). The vows (if viewed rightly) said to each other as promises of commitment.

    And I agree that this is a remnant which has remained in some form. My hope is that (at least in certain groups) there are others: hymnody, body life, good and active use of the Bible, training up of the children.

    Where we find these good things, we should affirm them – whether they evidence themselves in individuals or parishes. And part of that affirmation should be imitation where possible and suitable. If a Methodist church has a great idea for a soup kitchen or a women’s group format, why not implement it in our own setting? This implies no communion with the original group, but simply giving credit where its due, not reinventing the wheel, and striving to see past our prejudices. And those are all good things.

  46. I definitely second the observation that many Christians willingly accept the rituals of patriotism without considering them “empty.” There is a strong sense that we recognize the stars and stripes as not just a mental image but a real manifestation of the nation itself. We expect to salute the flag, to treat it with great reverence and to get angry if bystanders do not participate in the appropriate manner. I remember back in 2008 when Obama was slammed for not wearing a flag pin, plus the various rumors that he does not hold his hand over his heart during the playing of the National Anthem nor salute the flag. And many Americans seem convinced that the federal flag code is legally binding and contains criminal sanctions for violations.

    I came into Orthodoxy from Protestantism about 3 years ago. I was and am confronted with the necessity of these rituals not for what they represent, but for what they do. My Protestant habits have taken a while to overcome. I have come to realize that Protestants do not divest themselves of ritual, they are just forced to reinvent them. Infant baptism is out, but baby dedications are in. And how many Protestant weddings now incorporate a unity candle or the pouring into a vase of colored sand to represent the uniting of the man and woman? On the other side of things, some Protestants discard the old corporate rituals in favor or individualistic ones, flailing around for a consensus.

  47. Drewster, with regard to the term “heretic,” I have read that this term properly only applies to those who are the originators and propagators of the
    heretical opinion (e.g., Arius, Calvin), not to those who have been raised in one or other of the various non-Orthodox Christian traditions and who practice this in a good faith effort to follow Christ. Technically, those in this latter category practice a different faith than that of the Orthodox, but aren’t “heretics” as such. They may hold doctrinal formulations that, technically, are “heresies,” from an Orthodox perspective, though, and we need some way to call a spade a spade in regard to that. “Heresy” is the term the Fathers used to identify doctrinal opinions contrary to the Orthodox consensus.

    I don’t know about you, but when I was Protestant, to consider someone a “heretic” was also to consider them damned. The way I was taught, it often seemed that being “saved” had more to do with being “right” in one’s doctrinal opinions than being united to Christ and transformed into His likeness (a process). But Orthodox don’t (or shouldn’t) think like this–we are not encouraged to judge someone in regard to their salvation. So it seems to me that Orthodox are much more likely to be using “heretic” as a descriptor than a pejorative, much less to identify someone’s status with regard to ultimate salvation, but that still doesn’t fall easily on Protestant ears for the reasons I’ve discussed.

  48. Karen,

    There is a lot to respond to here:

    1. I think you and I come from similar backgrounds, and I agree with what you say.

    2. Protestant or Orthodox, I’ve heard more than a few people speak like they’re very unsure sure of the “unsaved” (those outside their particular group) and their salvation on Judgment Day. I agree that the judgment shouldn’t be made, but it often is. And thus my uncomfortableness with the term here when speaking of Protestants.

    3. My main point is that while we may have just cause to lay out the Protestant errors in theology, we should at the same time be willing to speak well of what they do right – what shows the light of Christ in them – and even be willing to contemplate imitating them in those regards.

  49. I agree, Marc. But as there are plenty of “Orthodox” sites out there bashing Protestants, I don’t want to see this become another one of them. If we don’t shy away from exposing their faults, we also shouldn’t be slow to admit their good qualities. That’s all I’m saying.

  50. I tend to think of it this way: The Church is like a chalice that is constantly being filled by the Holy Spirit and contains the Body and Blood of Christ, the fullness of the Truth. However, there is some overflow that is taken up by others who do not share in the fullness.

    Where there is truth, it is of God and the Holy Spirit, but the Church being the Body of Christ mediates that truth.

    We do not need to imitate what others have, it came though the Church in the first place. We need to discover more aspects of holiness and witness that are already here. By the same token, if we denigrate the truth that we see elsewhere, we are denigrating what Christ has given. Nevertheless we must be vigilent in discerning the truth and not accepting the dross with which it is often entwined, especially outside the Orthodox communion.

    It takes humility.

  51. Michael,

    You are touching on what I’m talking about. I’ve heard this phrase: “We know where the church is; we don’t know where it isn’t.” And I’ve heard these same words come out of different people’s lips differently. In fact people like you and I know just how easy it is to hide behind words, since we’ve become quite comfortable with them.

    The Orthodox have much. But to whom much is given, much is required. When someone is in this category, it becomes WAY too easy to NOT discern, to consider all within the circle to be holy – dross and all – and all without the circle to be dross – holy and all.

    That is what I’m talking about, and yes it takes humility.

  52. If a person really knows the truth, not just as a mental ascent to a formula, it is easy to see it. If a person just thinks he knows and is proud of that knowing, the truth will not be seen anywhere.

  53. Michael,

    We do not need to imitate what others have, it came though the Church in the first place. We need to discover more aspects of holiness and witness that are already here. By the same token, if we denigrate the truth that we see elsewhere, we are denigrating what Christ has given. Nevertheless we must be vigilent in discerning the truth and not accepting the dross with which it is often entwined, especially outside the Orthodox communion.

    Well summed up indeed.

  54. I guess this is why I haven’t ever made the final transition into canonical Orthodoxy. It’s the old “I’ll stick my fingers in my ears and hum until you’re done” routine. “We don’t need anyone else. We have the fullness of the faith, thank you very much.” That attitude is OH so attractive!

    Let’s look at it like this. Orthodoxy in it’s true sense may in fact be complete, lacking nothing. But it’s a whole different thing to say that every person under that banner – or even every parish – is complete and lacks nothing.

    And if you (as a person or a group) are lacking something – say great hymnody – and you look over and see that the Lutherans are excelling in it, why would you turn your head away and put your nose up in the air. Is it really so difficult to admit that someone else might possibly be doing even one little thing better than you!?!

    Wait…no…I’ll answer my own question. This has nothing to do with the Orthodox. Human being’s worst enemy is pride and it is no respecter of persons. Not only is it the mightiest of the vices but it is also the most subtle.

    God have mercy on those who struggle with pride. I say this with no malice toward anyone. We all fall short of the glory of God, just in different ways. By the same token God wants that all would be saved, no matter what particular sin they get snared by. Again, God have mercy!

  55. Never said what you think I said. We can see goodness elsewhere and be instructed by it. We should.

  56. Thank you Michael, for that acknowledgment. That kind of statement is not easy to make, and even harder to act upon. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. So thank you.

  57. I so appreciate where you’re coming from, Drewster. It is hard to hear Orthodox Christians confess that we have seen the True Light and have received the Heavenly Spirit without it sounding as though we think we are superior. We are not. We are nothing. Christ is all in all. None of us claims – or ought to claim (and if I understand you correctly, this is your point) – to have anything that we did not receive. Nor does anything belong to us. Quite the contrary; it is we who belong to Christ.

    The Faith we have found is not ‘our’ faith (although we believe). It is the faith of Christ toward God and His faithfulness toward us. If this faithfulness of His compels us to confess that “We have found the true Faith,” it is not with a sense of triumphalism, but in humility with joy over God’s mercy toward us.

    And if we have ‘found’ Him, it is He who first found us.

    “The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’”

  58. Drewster2000,

    Im not sure why the hard heart of a few would prevent your enterance to Orhodoxy. I mean, I believe you when you say so. But the church is a hospital for sinners, not a social club for saints. He actions of a few are not representative of the whole. If that were the case, nobody would consider Protestantism because of the Phelps family. Please bear with us sinners and overlook our deep wounds in mercy. We are all in need of healing. I, for one, have been guilty of this triumphant attitude, as if by some virtue of my own, I have found the Church. Quite the contrary, as Brian so aptly said, Christ has found me (parable of the lost sheep).


  59. BTW, I have always been a huge fan of the Protestant hymnals. Those songs showed me a side of Chriatianity that was more than intellectualism. Such beautiful words, theology expressed through hymnody. They will always have a special place in my heart. I was excedingly sad when my former church, not the denomination as a whole but my particular parish, scrubbed the hymnal more and more in place of more contemporary works that seemed to lack something that the hymnal readily provided. Not that all contemporary music is as such, just the stuff used by my former church.


  60. Exactly, Brian!

    It’s really difficult to explain this, and it seems like only a very subtle difference, but in actuality it makes all the difference in the world. When I was a Protestant, I decided what the “True Faith” was. I sifted everything through my own opinions. I chose what I wanted to believe. I chose my denomination (mostly non-denominational), and even there I decided what was and wasn’t right at the churches where I attended. It was all “my faith”, my own, individualized, tailor-made, fits-like-a-glove belief.

    When I started out on my own journey to find real Truth, I thought all I would need to do is “round off the corners” of my individual beliefs. But then I came across the scary thought that I might be totally wrong about faith, and that the problem might actually be me, myself (thank you George MacDonald for pushing me down that path!).

    When I found out about Orthodoxy, I knew I had found the “True Faith”. It was no longer my own individual faith. It was a faith that had existed since Christ, and it wasn’t shifting and morphing with every wind of change. It wasn’t for me to judge it and offer my own opinions about it – it was for me to join the Faith that Christ had given to us.

    This is where it’s hard to explain. It sounds like the same kind of a choice – between which denomination I liked, which church I preferred, etc. And now I’ve “chosen” Orthodoxy. But kind of like Brian was saying, Orthodoxy instead chose me. And for the first time in my life, I have actually *submitted* to the Church, instead of *choosing* a church based on my own opinions and preferences and thinking I’m standing above it.

    I’m sorry to all my friends, and everyone here, if I’ve ever sounded triumphalistic about this “True Faith”. When we sing “We have found the True Faith” at the liturgy, it is totally humbling. Anytime I am moved to tears during the liturgy, it is almost always because I am thinking “God, why did you take such an arrogant, self-righteous, selfish iconoclast like me and bring me to the Orthodox Church? I never would have ‘chosen’ this on my own, but I am so thankful I am here.”

  61. Drewster, in the spirit of what you have suggested, I am very thankful for my Protestant background, which taught me the love of Scripture. I know my Bible because of the emphasis upon it in the churches I belonged to.

    I also am thankful for how I came to know the importance of strong fellowship, and living life out with your brothers and sisters in the faith, in those churches.

  62. Thank you everyone. These are good, healing words. They are what I was hoping to hear.

    It is as a couple of you have said: truly the Church (or Christ) finds us; we don’t actually find it. But as you have also acknowledged, the difference – while great – is also very subtle. It can be just SO easy for each of us to decide that WE have found the Church or the Faith, and that it is OURS. When that simply isn’t true. To find and own something seems to engender pride in us. To be found and owned ourselves is humbling.

    I would also point out that this comes down to the individual level. I can get two completely different views of the same faith – or even the same parish – by talking to two different people of that same parish. And yet if I talk to one, that will be my impression of the whole group.

    Think of when you talk to one customer service representative from a company. You’ll find yourself turning around telling your friend that the company – not the individual – said so-and-so or was rude or whatever. Perhaps it is unfortunate that it works this way, but there it is.

    Now, I agree with John that I as the outsider should not let one bad experience put me off. I have a responsibility to allow Christ (or the Church) to find me. That is my struggle to deal with.

    In any case, thank you for coming forward and finding good things to say about groups outside your own. Again, this isn’t easy and takes some courage. But it is good work.

  63. Drewster2000, Personally, I’ve never found it difficult to recognize truth in other places, but perhaps that is because of the manner in which I approached the Church. I was neither a Protestant nor a Catholic. I had attended various services of each from time to time. I’ve always been interested on knowing God and the truth. Never gotten too attached to anything secondary.

    I’m in the Orthdox Church because here is were I was led. I stay because here is where I experience the grace of God in a personal, deep and unique way. My soul is fed.

    I know that God is “everywhere present and fills all things” I look for Him (when I’m not too busy). Occasionally I see Him in other traditions of faith (not just Christian) but never in the fullness as is always present in the Orthodox Church even on our, mostly, bad days. Everything in the Church makes Him present and He is present in everything. It is sometimes easier being further away. For that reason, it is not a place for everyone, although everyone is welcome.

    You have to want to be in the Church to be with God, no other reason is sufficient. That doesn’t make us all saints by any means, in fact we are probably less healthy in some ways than some denominations, heretics, schismatics and atheists. We have a lot of warts, disease, dysfunction and corruption. Welcome to the human part of the divine/human reality that is Christ and His Church.

    One often found Jesus with the harlots, the lepers and tax collectors and He called for the maimed, the halt and the lame to come to His feast, so we do.

    Whatever anyone says about the Church, good or bad, is probably true, but Jesus Christ is here despite all that.

    The Hebrew children were not so upright and faithful, yet God fulfilled His promise and the Savior was incarnate through them.

    Listen to your doubts, clarify them, examine them carefully. Ask honest questions. Don’t make a commitment until you are confident, but remember: God gives the increase. It really is like a marriage.

    Life in the Church is a life of constant change and transformation. It is often unpleasant. Often difficult, trying and tiring. We all fall or are knocked down frequently. I for one, despite myself, intend (by the grace of God) to finish the fight. I’d love to have you along if you want to join. If not, God bless your path anyway and I pray that we both end up at His feet in the Kingdom. Just remember that in limbo there is no life.

  64. Good words, Michael. Wisdom, let us attend. And it could be that I do walk alongside you already, even if the distance is further than line-of-sight. God bless your path as well. And there is no limbo in the end.

  65. “Priests with big beards lumbering about like bears is more to my taste.”

    So, actually, this discussion boils down to a matter of personal “taste” ideas that somehow speak to each of us.

    Why should it be surprising that God uses everything at His disposal to “find” us?

  66. Philip S.
    You are mistaken a light-hearted comment for a discussion point. “taste” is interesting, but of no consequence. God does, indeed, use everything to find us.

  67. Drewster,

    We do tend to throw the term “heretic” about more than we should, and more than we have a right to, but heresy is a reality in the Christian world, and its roots go back to the very founding of the Church.

    I highly recommend Father Andrew’s excellent book on heresy, “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy:”
    http://www.conciliarpress.com/products/Orthodoxy-and-Heterodoxy.html to see the continuity between the early heresies and various denominations as they exist today.

    His podcast at AFR has a the original series of lectures that the book grew out of, and I recommend them also. There is more detail in the lectures that was, of necessity left out of the book.

    His analysis of modern heresy really gave me a fresh look at modern protestantism, and it gives me a much firmer place to stand when I discuss religion with my Protestant friends.

  68. Fr Stephen,
    I love this post! I am slow to keep up with your posts but I do enjoy them when I have time to focus on them and ponder what you are saying. This post is especially relevant to me as my parish has almost completed its iconography of the entire nave and sanctuary. It is a beautiful sight! At times I see it as my childhood Sunday School books come to life! At other times those icons are the most humbling sight of my day when I ponder the real persons behind those pictures who suffered much for Christ and His Church. And, I wonder why would anyone not want to see their spiritual family, not want to be surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses in their Father’s house?

    On a wall in my house are a collection of black & white photos of my parents and grandparents when they were children. Those are my favorite pictures. When I look at them I am humbled because they remind me that my parents and grandparents were not born adults. They were children, too, and like me, they’ve made mistakes. But, most important those pictures remind me to be more merciful and forgiving to my parents. Besides, who could not look at a child or a baby and smile?
    Perhaps this post is too rambling but I hope in a simplistic way it makes a point to those iconophobes as I prefer to call them. Physical family or spiritual family, whether they are pictures on a wall at home or icons in a parish, they for me are aids toward loving all my family members, aids to remind me that our God came and walked among us in the flesh, aids to remind me of God’s words when He looked up upon His creation said that is was good.

  69. Pilgrim,

    I think this topic was well-discussed. I certainly agree that heresies are a reality. My original contention is that our first greeting with anyone be “My Brother!” instead of “You Heretic!” I believe that we should first proclaim our similarity in being all God’s children before we are forced to divide some out based on their beliefs. That’s all.

    Thanks for the book recommendation. It will come in handy when I create a lesson on this topic.

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