My Thoughts on Eastern Orthodoxy
Matthew J Bellisario 2012
In the past I have posted some information regarding reading material or videos which are of Eastern Orthodox authorship. Some have written me thanking me for the information that I have given them. I believe that the material I have recommended has been material that is of some benefit to faithful Catholics. That being said, I do not think that I have given a full explanation of my thoughts on Orthodoxy, and how it relates to living an authentic Catholic life. While my attention is focused on this topic, I wanted to give a more full explanation of my thoughts on Eastern Orthodoxy so that readers of this blog will understand my previous posts more fully.
To start off, I will let it be known that I am a convert from Orthodoxy, which occurred in 2003. I was a member of a small Ukrainian Orthodox group established in Canada. So I do have some experiential knowledge of Orthodoxy and its teachings. I will say from the start that many Orthodox clergy and laity alike are fiercely opposed to the Catholic Church. They often misrepresent the Church’s teachings concerning the Holy Father, Our Blessed Mother, Original Sin as well as many other doctrines and dogmas. I experienced this first hand. I have listened to talks by an orthodox priest who falsely claimed that Catholics make the sign of the cross with five fingers instead of three because we believe that Mary and the Pope are equal to the Holy Trinity.
Secondly, if you hang around enough of them, especially converts, you get the impression that anything that ever came out of the West is from the devil. They go out of their way to make sure that they can differentiate anything they can between the East and the West, even when there isn’t even any substantial difference. For example, they act as if they have an exclusive claim to deification. These and other misrepresentations often paint the Catholic Church in a radical negative light, which I now tend to just ignore rather than get bent out of shape about. I guess I have experienced it enough to know that these people are sad cases of a form of fanaticism.
Finally, I must acknowledge their lack of ability to maintain any kind of stable moral theology. They simply do not have the tools to examine modern ethical situations and come to any united moral standing on them. They often waver back and forth on the contraception issue, often leaving it up to the individual and their spiritual father. They malign marriage and the vows made between a man and women to which Our Lord tells once they are made cannot be broken. Their radical contempt for the Holy Father and the brilliance of Saint Thomas Aquinas has crippled their ability to maintain any unity on a variety moral issues. There are also some dogmatic issues of which are of concern which I will not cover here which readers should know about such as the Filioque, Purgatory and so forth. All this being said, we can indeed learn from some of their writings and publications if we are well studies and grounded in the Catholic faith.
The most beneficial aspect of reading their publications is that of Eastern Spirituality and monasticism, which has all but lost to the West. Even in our Eastern Catholic Churches the establishment of Eastern Monasticism is sparse to say the least, and are often modeled on later Western monasticism rather than that of the Desert Fathers. I long for the reestablishment of Eastern Monasticism in the US. There are only a few small communities that exist at this time in the US, and none of them really have any substantial publishing arm to communicate to the general Catholic population. There is much wisdom in the Eastern writings which contain advice on prayer and spiritual practices which are hard to find elsewhere. Unfortunately since most of these practices are abandoned in the West most of the written material on the subject is written by Orthodox monks and elders. This is an unfortunate reality that we must recognize.
‘The Jesus Prayer’ or the ‘Prayer of the Heart’ is one example of many spiritual practices that has been long lost to the West. It is however part of our Catholic heritage that needs to be reclaimed, being that the Desert Fathers and Eastern Church Fathers often spoke of this practice. I have found much benefit to practicing this form of prayer to strengthen me throughout the day, and to keep me focused on Christ rather than worldly things. LIkewise, I have found their explanations on spiritual warfare to also be of immense help.
Secondly, we in the West can tend to over-intellectualize things, and if we are not careful we turn theology into an intellectual rather than a mutually spiritual enriching practice. This is not an inherent flaw in Catholicism, but in our modern Western mindset which seeks to understand everything down to the tiniest detail. If we are not careful we often put God in a box, and when things don’t add up in the system we have created in our minds it often effects us in a negative manner. Having some acquaintance with the Eastern Fathers and Eastern spirituality can help us stay balanced.
Finally, I enjoy reading about some of their Saints and elders through which God seems to have enriched those around them, at least to the level that is available to them through their valid Sacraments and valid apostolic succession. The Catholic Church has maintained that the Orthodox are rightly called “Churches” because of these divine realities, something that is not found in any form of Protestantism. Again, I will repeat a warning to those who want to read these types of books; know your Catholic faith well and do not get sidetracked by some of the anti-Catholic stances they take. Some authors are more pronounced in these matters than others and many times I will not even come across anything that is opposed to the Catholic faith. For example I just finished reading a great little book published by the Coptic Orthodox on the spiritual life titled, ‘Practical Spirituality According to the Desert Fathers.’ However this is something you need to be aware of because sooner or later you will come across anti-Catholic prejudice and you will have to be prepared to dismiss it.
In closing I will say that reading Orthodox material is not for all Catholics. With the confusion going on today in the Church it may even be harmful to some people, so let me be clear that I am not saying that everyone will receive enrichment from Orthodox publications. I often visit Orthodox churches and I am prepared to engage in defending the Catholic faith when having conversations with them. I remember having a heated debate a few years back with an Orthodox priest in South Carolina who went ballistic when he found out I was a convert to the Catholic Church. These types of encounters do not bother me and I am usually more than happy to engage such people. In fact I believe that our attempts at true ecumenism should be more oriented in their direction. At any rate, if I run across a good Orthodox book that I have found to be spiritually enriching, I will certainly put up a post about it. I just wanted to clear the air on the subject so that those reading my blog do not think that I see no problems or differences with the Eastern Orthodox. I do not want to come across as supporting indifferentism between our one true faith in Catholicism and the schismatic problems inherent in Eastern Orthodoxy. I also do not want to dismiss some of the spiritually enriching material that many Catholics can benefit from and seek to reintroduce into their Catholic heritage. It is my hope that we will see a resurgence in the publication of Eastern spirituality and practice from the many Eastern Catholic Churches. There is one website that you can find Eastern Catholic publications that I would recommend checking out. May God bless and keep you!