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Archive for May 25th, 2009

Last summer I taught my fifth iconography class at the Romanian Catholic cathedral in Canton. Every year yields a harvest of fine first icons, varying widely according to the natural ability and experience of the student. But while each of them has been worthy of the Church’s blessing and of private veneration, every year I have been blessed with one or two students whose first icon looks like the work of an experienced iconographer.

Last summer I had several obviously gifted students, none less than Paul, a fortiesh Orthodox layman, and a convert from evangelicalism. As the class was the first week of August it fell during the beginning of the two week fast preceding the Feast of the Dormition, which Roman Catholics celebrate as the Assumption. We were both observing the fast, so we took lunch together, seeking vegan meals. And so we got to know one another, and on the Sunday following the week of the class Paul invited me to his friends’ farm for a potluck meal. I had met the family – also evangelical converts to Orthodoxy- some time before, and while I did not really know them I instinctively liked them and considered them kindred: six children, a small farm, and the dad, Mel,  is even a letter carrier, like me. Still, I hardly knew any of them, and knew Mel’s brother, who was visiting, not at all. As my family and I were the only Catholics at an otherwise Orthodox gathering, I was a little apprehensive. But the children immediately hit it off and headed outdoors, the women gathered in the kitchen to talk of babies and herbs and to prepare the meal, and the men in classic form retired to the living room and passed out the beer.

Mel’s brother began what I assumed would be small talk: “So, as a Byzantine Catholic where do you come down on the Palamist controversy?” I was a little stunned. I had not studied St Gregory Palamas in any depth, nor did I have any but the sketchiest knowledge about his teaching on prayer or his theory of the divine essences by which God worked in the world. And I didn’t know much about the details of the resistance that his ideas had met in the West, though from what I had read his basic thought was not incompatible with the teaching of St Thomas.

But what the heck kind of way was that to initiate a conversation?

So I stammered that Byzantine Catholics commemorate St Gregory in our calendar, and that we are free to be as Eastern as we wish, so long as we refrain from calling the West heretical. Paul, clearly embarrassed by this turn of events, steered the conversation to topics less likely to strain things, to iconography and Tolkien and Wendell Berry.

Then it was time for dinner: a fasting feast of homemade pesto pasta, salad, and fruit. After dinner and cleanup the women drifted out to look at the gardens and the men settled back into the living room.

Mel’s brother again began the conversation: “So, as a Byzantine Catholic do feel like” and here I cannot remember if he said “a fish out of water” or “like you are in no man’s land?” Caught offguard again, I fumbled through another answer, saying that I felt just fine, thank you. I then spoke of what I perceived as the affinities between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, emphasizing the saints. I mentioned the often-noted kindred spirits of St Francis of Assisi and St Seraphim of Serov, the 18th century Russian starets. I figured no one could argue with manifest holiness, but I underestimated this guy. He started in on how St Francis exhibited every sign of spiritual delusion, and I for once was rendered speechless. St Francis, it seems, could not have been a genuine saint because he often made dramatic gestures and experienced ecstasies and visions, all of which contradicted the goal of the true hesachyst, which is stilling the passions. Just as gnostics and manichees misunderstand St Paul’s condemnation of “the flesh” as a rejection of the body and of the physical world, my new friend mistook the holy fathers’ struggle against the passions as a damning of the emotions. I can only assume that as a convert of only a few years he was unfamiliar with the visions and ecstasies of the Eastern saints and the affective nature of their devotional lives. They were and are not Dr Spock at prayer. And the antics of the holy fools of Orthodoxy make St Francis look restrained.

But as I said, I was speechless. But I didn’t have to defend poor St Francis. Paul did a good job of holding up the ecumenical end of things while I listened. Finally someone asked me what I thought. I said that I was dumbfounded by his attack on St Francis and asked if he had read any of the source material on the saint, the Little Flowers, or the works of Thomas of Celano or of St Bonaventure (he hadn’t). And I mentioned St Paul, who had been taken up in ecstasy into the heavens and experienced things beyond human utterance. Then I excused myself, as my very pregnant bride no doubt needed help by now keeping up with Michael Seraphim, who was two and quite a handful.

Michelle got a welcome break, and I followed little Michael around outside, intervening only to keep him from breaking his neck. Mel made his way outside too, leaving his brother and Paul intellectually duking it out. We talked, uncontroversially: postal shop talk, weather, gardening.

As the afternoon wore on Paul and his family left, and I said that we should be going too. Brenda, Mel’s wife, spoke up: “Do you have to go? We like you”. This was so sweet and guileless that we stuck around until dusk. As we left Mel’s brother shook my hand. “I hope I didn’t offend you”, he said. I told him that I didn’t believe he hoped any such thing, and that I would be happy to discuss the things that divide the Churches, that he might be surprised that on most controversies we would be in agreement, but that it would be wise to have such a conversation only after some trust and friendship had been established. I don’t know if I said it or just thought it, but it occurred to me that I would not insult a Muslim or a Mormon by attacking those they held to be prophets on a first meeting, but would try to find common ground (admittedly more difficult with a Mormon), let alone someone who in the great scheme of things shared so much on questions of faith.

As offended as I was by his approach to a new acquaintance, it did not occur to me until some months afterward that his question- the fish out of water or no man’s land one- hits pretty close to the mark. The Byzantine Catholic, as one who prays and worships in the way of the Orthodox, but who lives in communion with the bishop of Rome, really does feel adrift. Because of the spiritual life we live we feel great affinity with the Orthodox, who often view us with suspicion, if not hostility. Even the friendly ones no doubt wonder why we don’t just embrace Orthodoxy and get it over with. And Latin rite Catholics, if not downright suspicious, often misunderstand us. One priest friend insists on calling us “Roman Catholics of the Byzantine Rite”, which misses the point entirely and runs counter to the Church’s own description, in the Code of Canon Law, of “autonomous ritual Churches”.  But then popular Roman Catholic ecclesiology, with its absolute papal monarchy, veers pretty far from the Church’s official teaching.

I know that a year or so ago on this site, when we were discussing Orthodoxy and Catholicism and the conditions for reunion, my opinions led several posters to suggest that I was on my way out, that I was heading for the Orthodox Church. But that hasn’t happened, nor is it likely to. I may have found my spiritual home in an essentially Orthodox praxis, in the Divine Liturgy, in the Jesus Prayer, in iconography. And I may concur with Orthodox criticism of the West on a wide variety of subjects, from the decadence of its religious art to its arbitrary changes of ancient custom, to its tendency to over-define doctrines, and a host of other things. But I will remain Catholic. Why? In a word, ecclesiology.

While it is more accurate to speak in the plural of Orthodox ecclesiologies, as there are a variety of opinions on the various points of contention, it is very common to encounter the idea that Peter’s primacy was passed to all the apostles, not just to the bishop of Rome, and even that when Christ spoke of building His Church on “this rock” He was referring only to the newly renamed Peter’s (“Rock’s”) confession of faith. But while I might argue with the way it has been exercised historically, the continued primacy of Peter in the bishop of Rome seems pretty clearly an essential element in the structure of the visible Church.

And if one doubts this, one only has to compare the clarity and simplicity of Rome when it comes to any question of authority with the jurisdictional confusion of the Orthodox Churches, especially in this country. The multiplicity of Orthodox jurisdictions and their various ongoing squabbles in the US run counter to any Orthodox ecclesiology with which I am familiar and does much to temper any attraction to Orthodoxy I may experience.

And so I remain, a fish out in no man’s land, under a cloud of suspicion, content to be misunderstood.

Disclaimer: I apologize if anything I have written offends either my Roman Catholic or Orthodox readers. This is not a theological tract, merely an experiential reflection, and should not be taken as reflecting the opinions of any but myself.

—Daniel Nichols

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