Magazine article New Oxford Review

Welcome to the Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity

Magazine article New Oxford Review

Welcome to the Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity

Article excerpt

Welcome to the Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity. By Frederica Mathewes-Green. Paraclete Press. 384 pages. $18.99.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, author of Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy, a past vice president of Feminists for Life of America, the best of National Public Radio's commentators, and Khouria (priest's wife, "mother") of Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Baltimore, has written a new book about getting to know the Orthodox Church. In it she walks the reader through a semi-fictional, representative American parish of the Orthodox Church, stopping to chat along the way. We look at the outside of the building, go through the front doors, and stop to hear about the icons, the altar, the chanters' stand, and the iconostasis. We attend vespers, Mass, and finally a funeral. Each of these stops invites discussion, and everything is fair game. Now she's discussing why the icon of the crucifixion does not show a suffering Christ; now she's describing which prayers are said on which days of the year, and why the Russian cross has three bars. A description of confession leads to a compact discussion of the different days the East and West celebrate Christmas and Easter, which somehow takes us to differences in theories of atonement.

Mathewes-Green is a good companion, colloquial and easy, clear even when she dives into knotty theological controversies. What other book will you read this year that gives a quick summary of the controversy over the double procession of the Holy Spirit? But one of the great things about Mathewes-Green's writing is that, unlike so much from the C.S. Lewis school of Christianity, she does not live entirely in the world of arguments. She writes with "the mind in the heart," as the Orthodox say. Christianity is not primarily a philosophy or assent to a set of propositions; it's a way of life. Mathewes-Green never loses sight of that. Liturgy, the life of prayer, reflection, confession of sins, frank acknowledgement of the need for mercy, sacraments, hymns, Scripture, the 80-yearold woman who no longer stands during vespers, the tiny Ethiopian who removes his shoes to pray, the smell of incense, the burning of candles, vigilance against the Devil - these all come into play. Progress in religion is about the turning of the total self toward God, not another analogy proving that what Christians believe is reasonable.

Herein lies the real pleasure of reading Mathewes-Green. This is religion for the whole person, mind in heart, heart in body, body and soul. There are deep veins of wisdom shot throughout:

* "A sin we especially long to cast off might be held in place by a different sin, one that has to be removed first, even if we don't grasp the connection and consider it less important."

* "I shouldn't have to say this, but the evil one is really evil. Don't picture him trying to tempt a fat lady into eating more chocolate."

* "Thinking and talking about God is not communion with God. Only prayer is prayer."

She quotes liberally from the dynamic liturgies that, with the icons, are the chief cultural glory of Orthodoxy: "Why, Judas, did you betray the Savior? …

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