'Become All Fire': The Splendor of Orthodox Spirituality

Article excerpt

My wife and I visited Amsterdam a couple of years ago. Her time was taken up with business, and my days were spent exploring. There was a Catholic church close to our hotel and I wanted to see its interior. The church was unlocked on weekdays for the celebration of Mass during the lunch hour. The Mass itself was very short--no homily, only ten attendees, done in seventeen minutes. Used to much longer Orthodox services, I put this brevity down to a combination of the Catholic tradition of low Mass and the fact that Dutch is a very concise language.

Two things impressed me. Half the people at the Mass were young. It was a small group, but it was a weekday Mass and in its minor way contradicted the idea that the church is completely moribund in Europe. The other thing that impressed me was that the small gift shop at the rear of the church was stocked with Orthodox icons. The sort of religious art that many Catholics grew up with--bad imitations of Renaissance art, sentimental holy cards--was gone, replaced with icons.

In some way, I thought, Catholics now find themselves reinforced in their faith through contact with images that were once quite unfamiliar to them, with a few exceptions (the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, for example). How is it that the Eastern Church has, at least at the visual level and maybe in other ways, become a place to which Western Christians look for spiritual help?

Orthodox spirituality has interested many modern Catholic writers--Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Henri Nouwen, to name a few. And while it is true that it is in many ways distinct from Catholic spirituality, too much can be made of this. I will go into some of its unique features, but it should also be noted that Western spirituality has had its own influence on Orthodoxy. One Orthodox classic, Unseen Warfare, is a reworking of Spiritual Combat, a classic of Catholic spirituality by Lorenzo Scupoli. Catholic theology had a powerful influence on Russian Orthodox catechesis from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. This was in part a response to Protestant proselytizing, and even though the influence has been regretted by some modern Orthodox writers, who believe it introduced a foreign element of scholastic legalism, it can't be denied.

Orthodox are drawn to saints like Therese of Lisieux, Charles de Foucauld, Francis of Assisi, and Benedict Joseph Labre, just as Catholics have been drawn to such Orthodox saints as Seraphim of Sarov and, more recently, Mother Maria of Paris, who aided French Jews and died in a concentration camp. Her brilliant, challenging writings have recently been published by Orbis Books (Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings). The fact that for half our history East and West were in communion should make it clear that much unites us.

Still, there are some differences, which often have more to do with nuance than with substance. I like the words of one French Orthodox priest, who said that we should not speak of someone converting from Lutheranism or Catholicism to Orthodoxy; it is more like adjusting a pair of binoculars. The same applies to looking at many of the differences between Orthodox and Catholic spirituality.

Orthodox Christians speak of "Holy Tradition," and see tradition not as an accumulation of habits but as the living language of the church, the received knowledge of what it means to pray, struggle, and understand within a community. Tradition is the way in which we are in touch with all those who have tried, in every age, to live in Christ. Although this is an individual effort in one sense--each of us has to be willing to take it up--it is also unavoidably communal. Before the recitation of the Creed we Orthodox say, "Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one in essence and undivided." And a prayer before Communion reads, "When you desire to take the Body of the Lord, come forward in fear, lest you be burned, for it is a fire. …