The Confused Person’s Guide to Being Even More Confused About Orthodoxy
Eastern Orthodoxy is exactly like Roman Catholicism, except that it is Oriental and exotic. The Catholic Church split off from the Orthodox Church because the Orthodox would not accept the filioque clause, an anti-Arian shibboleth which offended the traditional Orthodox reverence for Constantine (a baptized Arian). The Orthodox Church is very wise because it has traditionally used the Julian Calendar to have an extra thirteen days to prepare and contemplate before each day. Each year, the Orthodox Church also rolls a die and holds Easter up to six weeks later than in the West, just to make things more confusing.
The Orthodox Church, sometimes called the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, held seven ecumenical councils in response to controversies that arose. The main results were that the Church officially ruled out certain misunderstandings of Christ. The first council was the Council at Nicaea, modern day Nice, where Saint Nicholas of Myra and Lycia (our jolly old Saint Nick) boxed Arius on the ear. The Council at Nicaea rejected Aryanism, which teaches that Christ had blonde hair and blue eyes (a misunderstanding which is still prevalent in the land of blonde hair and blue ears). The other councils are really not that important, as they dealt with abtruse ancient controversies and don’t have much to say about the modern and practical questions people struggle with today, such as whether Jesus was really tempted like us, or was just play-acting. The word “ecumenical” comes from the Greek οικουμενη, meaning the whole civilized world. Catholics and Orthodox disagree whether there are still being ecumenical councils; the Catholics, who are traditionally more universal and embracing, believe that a council without Orthodox bishops can still be ecumenical, while the Orthodox (considered by the Catholics to be schismatic) do not believe one can hold an ecumenical council without healing certain divisions, a task which faces any number of daunting obstacles, ranging from the Catholic Church’s progressive Westernization to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s demonstration that an Anglican can be a Druid. (If you find this confusing, don’t worry. Most Orthodox don’t understand it either.) Most devout Orthodox are wary at best of ecumenism as Protestant in spirit, but even these Orthodox should none the less be distinguished from the “True Orthodox”, the preferred designation for a loose confederation people and groups who regard themselves as properly Orthodox and Novatians as liberal ecumenists.
Understanding the Orthodox understanding of understanding is a point that is not often appreciated, partly because the syntax of “understanding the Orthodox understanding of understanding” is very confusing. The Orthodox believe, as Catholics still do on paper if not in practice, that we have a logos (from the Greek λογοσ, meaning the part of the mind we use to keep track of facts related to corporate logos), and a noose (from the Greek νουσ, meaning the part of the mind we use to grasp spiritual realities), and with typical ingenuity the Orthodox insist on using the noose for practical matters. The noose is very different from any Western understanding of mind, but if I explained it you wouldn’t believe the claim that Orthodoxy is ordinary, concerned with the here and now, and not exotic in the way people assume. Some Orthodox, caught up in the Celtic culture boom, want to represent the noose with a stylized knot.
The words at the institution of Holy Communion, λαβετε φαγετε (literally, “Take, eat”) have been misunderstood in the West (i.e. Catholics and Protestants) to mean “Take, understand.” In the East, among Orthodox, people have insisted on preserving the apostolic meaning unchanged and have therefore reacted against the West and taken the text to mean, “Take, but do not understand.” The Orthodox is free to say that the Eucharist is a symbol, on the understanding that this does not mean anything like the Western understanding of “just a symbol.” The Orthodox is also equally free to claim that transsubstantiation occurs, on condition that “transsubstantiation” does not mean what the Catholic doctrine says it means.
Grace is like the sun in Orthodoxy: not only do we see it, but it allows us to see everything else. “Grace” characteristically means different things for Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant; for Catholics “grace” is what we create by our works, for Orthodox “grace” is when God gives himself, and for Protestants “Grace” is a woman’s name. Grace is behind works, sacraments, and everything else—food and drink, for that matter. Orthodox believe that God’s grace rains down from Heaven, and because “He has established the round world so sure, it shall never be moved,” God’s grace then collects at the center of the earth.
Fully Orthodox believers may be divided into cradle Orthodox, who don’t understand Orthodoxy very well and tend not to take it seriously, and convert Orthodox, who overdo everything. Orthodox are required to remain in communion with their bishops, which means community and a degree of submission to authority; people who fail to do this are called non-canonical, schismatic, etc. Non-canonical “Orthodox” are notorious for a rigid legalism in their interpretation of ancient canons. Canonical Orthodox take the matter much more lightly and often do not know the difference between a canon and a cannon.
There are many ranks of clergy, including (but not limited to) readers*, subdeacons, deacons, archdeacons, proper subdeacons, sub-sub-deacons, ostriches, priests, arch-priests, archimandrites, bishops, arch-bishops, bishops of the caves, metropolitans, patriarchs, prophets, ascetics, protons, neutrons, and Abednegons. There is a proper way of addressing each of these ranks, and it is traditional to embarrass your priest by not knowing how to address the higher ranks of clergy or (at your option) not being sure how to address anyclergy.
* Remember that Orthodoxy originated at a time when most people didn’t know how to read and write, and Orthodoxy hasn’t seen mass literacy as reason to change its practices. The positive way of stating this is that Orthodoxy, while incorporating the act of writing, preserves many of the attributes and the essential spirit of an oral tradition and culture, an achievement which may be appreciated in light of the anthropological observation that the opposite of “literate” is not “illiterate” but “oral”. In other words, a Catholic is an Orthodox who can read.
Orthodoxy has been blessed by many great theologians, including Saint Dionysius the Aereopagite, who was not Saint Dionysius the Aeropagite but another writer known as Saint Dionysius the Aeropagite, and Saint Maximus Confessor, who stalwartly resisted the heresy that Christ lacked a human will, and whose intricate analysis of will concluded that we have something called a “gnomic” will and Christ does not. Augustine is not revered nearly so much in the East, owing to the fact that he became a Christian and in fact a bishop without realizing he was supposed to stop being a Manichee. (This is why Augustine is considered the founder of American Catholicism.) The Orthodox consider the patristic era to be a golden age for theology; it ended in the ninth century and has produced a small number of patristic theologians since its close.
In contrast to American individualism, the Orthodox Church talks about how when we come closer to Christ the more closely we resemble each other. This spirit of uniformity is demonstrated by her saints, who have been known to live on top of a pillar, make acts of public foolishness a form of spiritual discipline, or walk around after their deaths.
Icons are called “windows of Heaven” and, apart from being an emblem of matter drawn into spiritual glory, provide a place where saints can look in and see how people like them were on earth. This is a humbling enough experience for the saints, so that they no longer have problems with pride.
Please do ask why we aren’t up to date enough to have women priests. Some Orthodox consider feminism to be an interesting spot of local color in our time and place, and at any rate the Orthodox will remember feminism as it remembers other challenges which lasted a mere century or two and which you probably haven’t heard of. The Orthodox Church will continue discipling boys and girls, men and women, to be the men and women God created them to be, long after feminism is one more -ism that people of the future will learn about when they study the history of abandoned fashions. And besides, Orthodoxy is gender balanced. Cradle Orthodoxy is a woman thing, and convert Orthodoxy is a man thing.
It is an Orthodox principle that there should be one Orthodox Church in each country. That is why, if you are an American, you have your choice of Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Orthodox Church in America, Antiochian Orthodox…
Metania (μετανοια) is from meta (μετα) as in “metacognition” or “metaphysics”, for a philosophical analysis of other things, and noia (νοια), which means mind but is not to be confused with the noose above. Hence “metania” means a philosophical discussion of how our minds should be functioning if we are Orthodox. This is very important in convert Orthodoxy; cradle Orthodox think converts miss metania completely. “Metania” also refers to an action performed with the body in worship, thus exemplifying the Orthodox penchant for conflating mind and body.
One closing word. Part of what distinguishes Orthodox theology is that it is no more systematic than the Church Fathers. In keeping with this tradition, this introduction is proudly disorganized.