Frederica Mathewes-Green is a well-known expert on Eastern Christianity and the Orthodox Church. In this exclusive interview, she talks about the rich history and practices of this ancient faith. Mathewes-Green gives a full and interesting look at the world of Eastern Christianity and the Orthodox Church, from their unique beliefs and customs to their place in modern society. Originally published on my defunct website, “I Am Proud to be Catholic.”
Godwin Delali Adadzie: Who is Frederica Mathewes-Green?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: I am evidence of God’s mercy.
I am the wife of an Orthodox priest and mother of three grown children, grandmother of 13. I write books, mostly about the Orthodox Church.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: As a Catholic, your video “What Do You Mean, ‘Pray to the Saints?’” impressed me. Can you please restate some of the points again?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: I explained that the Saints are the “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12. Because they are alive in Christ, and praying right now, we can ask them to pray for us. This does not replace praying to God directly; it is no different from asking our friends and family alive on this Earth to pray for us, and still praying to God.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: What are the differences in devotion to the Mother of Jesus between Orthodox and Catholics?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: Both Orthodox and Catholic Christians love her very dearly; that is something we have in common, and I think is often misunderstood by some Protestants, who can interpret it as idolatry.
Our two Churches have different devotional practices that have sprung up over the years, such as the Akathist Hymn in the East, and devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the West. In general, in the East there is more emphasis on her pregnancy as a holy mystery, and how this was foreshadowed in the Old Testament. That goes back to the very early debates in the Church about Christ being fully divine; talking about her pregnancy is a way of thanking God for becoming human.
The main theological difference between us would be that Orthodox do not believe in “Original Sin” as St. Augustine defined it, so we do not have the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which holds that Mary was conceived without stain (macula) of Original Sin. Also, Orthodox usually call her “Theotokos,” which means “birth-giver of God.” You see the emphasis on her pregnancy. It is an ancient title; she was called “Theotokos” in an AD 250 papyrus, which recorded a very ancient prayer still in use in both Churches: “Under your compassion we take refuge, Theotokos; do not overlook our prayers in the midst of tribulation, but deliver us from danger, O Only Pure, Only Sinless One.”
Godwin Delali Adadzie: Do the Orthodox have special prayers to Mary?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: Yes, and although we do not have the Hail Mary, we have a similar prayer: “Rejoice O Virgin Theotokos, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have borne the Savior of our souls”. We do not say it repeatedly, though. Orthodox have another prayer that they say repeatedly, the Jesus Prayer (below).
The Akathist Hymn mentioned above, written in the early 500s, is a long prayer in her honor (all Orthodox liturgical prayers are hymns), as is the Paraklesis, a hymn that asks her prayers. These long hymns are services prayed in her honor several times a year.
This short prayer is prayed at the end of many Orthodox services: “It is truly meet to bless you, Theotokos, ever blessed and all blameless and the mother of our God. More honorable than the cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, you who with corruption gave birth to God the Word, true Theotokos, we honor you.” Orthodox have a prayer to the Theotokos at the end of most services, though not the Divine Liturgy (the Eucharist or Mass).
Godwin Delali Adadzie: What kind of daily devotions do Orthodox people participate in?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: Like Catholics, Orthodox have short prayer services that they offer once or several times a day, according to the prayer rule they establish with their spiritual mother or father, or confessor. Orthodox homes usually have an “icon corner”, where favorite icons are placed, and where other items are kept: candles, prayer books, a Bible, holy water, and maybe some incense. We don’t make the sign of the Cross using Holy Water, but we sprinkle it on homes and people, and take a sip from it when sick.
By the way, we make the sign of the Cross differently. We put together the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand, to represent the Trinity; then put together the last two fingers to represent Christ’s two natures, and bring them down to the palm to represent his descending to earth. Then we touch forehead, stomach, right shoulder, left shoulder; it goes right to left, not left to right.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: Do the Orthodox Christians use beads in their prayer?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: We don’t have the rosary, but we do use a prayer rope to keep track of repetitions of the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” A prayer rope is made of yarn, usually black wool, tied with a complicated knot; those who make them (usually monastics) do so while continuously praying. Many Orthodox Christians wear a 33 not prayer rope around the wrist; some carry a longer prayer rope in a pocket, or keep it in their icon corner, or near their bedside. The Jesus prayer was developed by the Desert Mothers and Fathers in the early centuries of the church, as a way to enable continual prayer; as St. Paul said, “pray constantly” (1 Thessalonians 5:17 and elsewhere).
By the way, there are Orthodox monks and nuns and monasteries, but there are not monastic orders (like Jesuit, Franciscan, Benedictine, etc in the West). There is only one form of spirituality in Orthodoxy and everyone shares it.
Women’s monasteries are often called “monasteries” rather than “convents.” Occasionally you find a “double monastery” where both men and women live (in separate buildings). Sometimes monks or nuns live by themselves, maybe in an apartment in a city, and hold a day job.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: What difference does it make to have married priests?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: I think it makes the priests more accessible. Because they are living the life of a husband and father, they know what life is like for their parishioners. They are not seen as inhabiting a different realm of holiness than ordinary laypeople do; but because they handle the Holy Mysteries (sacraments), they bear a great responsibility to live holy lives, and to model the life their parishioners should be aiming for.
I think something that also made a difference is that the Orthodox custom has always been to worship in the vernacular, and missionaries who brought the Gospel to new lands always translated the Scriptures and liturgies into the local language. (St. Innocent, who came from Russia/Finland to Alaska, made translations into 6 Alaskan dialects.) So the people could always understand what the priest was saying, and I think that made a difference in how they looked at him. There was not the added level of the priest alone being able to understand what was going on in worship, and having an education which raised him above the ordinary people. So in Orthodoxy both those factors help make the priest seem more like a regular human being–worship in the vernacular, and the married priesthood.
If a priest is going to marry, he must do so before ordination. Some priests are celibate, and some priests are also monks. The preference, in parish life, is to have a married priest.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: How do the Orthodox understand original sin?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: We use instead the term “ancestral sin.” By it we mean the Fall of Adam and Eve, which introduced a inclination to sin into the human race. We are infected with sin, and sin leads inevitably to death.
But the difference between that and Original Sin is that Orthodox don’t believe that we bear guilt as a result of this Fall. There is not a debt that must be paid to the Father. We believe that God forgives freely, without requiring payment or satisfaction (that is how Christ told us to forgive each other). But due to the Fall we have inherited brokenness and an inclination to sin, and are held captive and not able to free ourselves.
The view that we owe the Father a debt because of our sin did not emerge until the 11th century, in the work of St Anselm. He taught that the Father cannot forgive us without restitution, because our sin severely damaged his honor. Someone had to make “satisfaction” and restore that honor. St. Anselm taught that Christ’s death on the cross more than paid it, and because Christ paid a debt he did not owe, the Father was now obligated to the Son. He wrote, “One who could freely offer so great a gift to God clearly ought not to be without reward. If the Son chose to make over the claim he had on God to man, could the Father justly forbid him doing so?”
This idea, that the Father could not forgive us until payment was made, was not the view of the early Church, and has never become part of Eastern theology. Orthodox still hold the view that Sin enslaves us and infects us with Death, and salvation is a rescue operation, like the rescue of the children of Israel at the Red Sea (the great Biblical foreshadowing of Christ’s work). Christ became human and died in order to go into the realm of Death as an ordinary human would; and then he set the captives free.
The theology is portrayed in our icon of the Resurrection, which shows him standing on the broken gates of hell and lifting Adam and Eve from their tombs. Christ literally saved us, from the power of sin and death. His suffering is the cost he paid in order to go into the realm of Death. It is like a soldier who “bought our freedom with his blood”—we mean by that that he willingly shed his blood to fight for our freedom, and not that he literally paid someone. He didn’t give a vial of his blood to the enemy. It was not a transaction.
Christ’s death was many things, including an offering of love to the Father, but it was not a payment to the Father. In Orthodoxy, “Salvation” means “Rescue.” I like to say “Sin is infection, not infraction.” Sin is a serious matter because it confuses and darkens us, and drags us away from God. The more we sin, the harder it is to go back; the more acclimated we get to sin until we no longer have sensitivity to the Lord. So sin is very serious and there is strong motivation to resist it and become healed.
That’s a long answer, and our churches still have in common the idea of the Fall meaning that we are inevitably disposed to sin. But Orthodox never inherited St. Augustine’s extra idea, that we share in Adam’s guilt (based, it seems, on an ambivalent preposition in the Latin translation of Romans 5:12). This concept of a debt that must be repaid made a profound difference in Western theology.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: Explain confession in the Orthodox Church. How is it different, how does a person participate in it?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: The priest and person making confession stand in front an icon of Christ, and the person tells their sins to Christ, with the priest as a witness. The priest may counsel the person and give advice about resisting these sins in the future, eg, recommending a saint’s life to read. The priest concludes with this prayer:
“May God who forgave David through Nathan the Prophet when he confessed his sins, and Peter weeping bitterly for his denial, and the sinful woman weeping at his feet, and the Publican, and the Prodigal Son: May that same God forgive you all things, through me a sinner, both in this present world, and in that which is to come, and set you uncondemned before his dread Judgment Seat. And now, having no further care for the sins which you have declared, depart in peace.”
In the Orthodox understanding, the priest does not personally forgive the sin; God forgives the sin. The priest announces this forgiveness, even though he himself is an unworthy sinner.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: How do the Orthodox faithful do penance for confessed sins?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: We don’t do penance. There is no debt for sin, because Christ forgives freely. If someone is misusing the sacrament of confession, for example continuing in blatant sin and not trying to resist it, the priest may restrict him from receiving communion until he gets his life in order.
In general our spiritual disciplines look forward, toward the battle ahead, rather than backward, at the debt we owe. One of the things we do to gain strength is fasting, which for Orthodox usually means abstaining from meat, dairy, eggs—basically, a vegan diet. We fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (this is mentioned in the 1st century “Didache”), and during Great Lent before Pascha (Easter), and during three other Fasts during the Church year, and on some other days (eg, the day we observe the Beheading of St. John the Forerunner / Baptist). If we are going to receive communion, we observe a strict fast and do not eat or drink anything from the previous midnight.
These were once universal Christian customs; the traditional “pancake supper” before Ash Wednesday was designed to use up all the butter, milk, and eggs before the vegan fast of Lent began. For Orthodox these customs are not acts of penance, but “workout exercises” aimed at gaining strength over future temptation.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: What does the authority of bishops mean to Orthodox Christians? How does it affect their worship?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: The bishop is the chief pastor of the diocese (geographic area), and has authority over what the people do. How this might affect worship is that he may direct that, instead of doing a combined Vespers and the Divine Liturgy on the eve of a Feast, that parishes should do the two services separately, on the evening of the Feast and in the morning. That would be the sort of thing that would affect worship. He might also give directions about fasting or other practices in the diocese. And he is the pastor of the clergy.
Orthodox understand membership in the Church to mean being in a local congregation and under the authority of the bishop of the local diocese. The whole Church is complete in each congregation which functions under a canonical bishop. There is not a need for an international organization to connect all the dioceses. We are united because we share a common faith, each in obedience to our bishop, and not by membership in an international organization.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: Can you explain the Orthodox understanding of Tradition?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: Tradition is the living faith (beliefs and practices) that has been taught in all nations, and held unchanging till today. There has been less change in the Orthodox Church than in the Catholic Church, because there is no person or group with the authority to make changes. It is the faith itself that preserves the faith, passed on from one generation to the next; the faith is instilled in community memory, preserved in it, and passed along by means of it.
That faith is taught and passed on largely in the context of prayer and worship. That is, it is taught by the words of the ancient prayers and liturgies, the Scriptures that are read in worship, the way an icon depicts a person or event (eg, the icon of the Resurrection of Christ teaches our theology of Salvation), the stories we tell of the saints, who show how we should live in Christ. The faith is learned by immersion. Since worship is in the vernacular, anyone who attends worship can learn the faith. You don’t need to be a trained theologian, or even need to be able to read; you only need to go to worship and listen.
It might seem like this would be an extremely weak way to preserve the faith—to rely on voluntary adherence to what has been passed down. But, surprisingly enough, it’s been very successful. You can see this by comparing the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Those Churches separated in the mid 5th century, and yet are amazingly alike today. The spirituality of the two Churches is very much in harmony; it’s clear they are practicing a common “Orthodox spirituality.” The customs, like the fasting traditions above, have continued in both churches as well. These Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches have been separated from each other for 1500 years, three times longer than Protestants and Catholics have been separated, yet they are much more like each other than like any Western Christian church. Both are following the faith that was in place before the 5th century split.
This is without any earthly leader empowered to enforce that faith. There is no equivalent to the Pope. There is no organization at the international level at all. Church organization goes up only to the level of “people group,” the level at which people tend to naturally group themselves – every “tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). Yet peoples in different cultures with no political obligations to each other— who, in centuries past, might not even have known that the other existed—keep practicing and passing on the same faith.
I think what makes it possible for this to work is that the Orthodox faith is expected to do something. It has to prove itself, in practice. And it does prove itself, it does what it promises to do, in visible ways. So there isn’t a restless desire to change it. We can see that it works.
That points to a subtle difference in how Orthodox view their Church. Orthodoxy is not so much an institution as a process, a course of spiritual therapy. It is the treasury of prayers, sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and so on, which have proved over the centuries that they can change lives. (Maybe there are other effective ways in other churches; we are knowledgeable only about our own.) Any faithful Orthodox person in any culture who takes on these practices will be changed by them, brought increasingly into the light of Christ. Those who pursue it with all their hearts are, often enough, visibly changed, and become miracle workers. So for Orthodox the faith is not the institution of the Church, but this course of spiritual therapy. The institution exists in order to preserve and transmit that faith. In my new book (“Welcome to the Orthodox Church”) I use the analogy of a hospital governing board. Even if the people on that board are corrupt, they cannot damage medical science itself. The path of transformation is going to go right on changing lives, even if we have to wait out a period of bad leadership. The faith is in the faith, not in the earthly institution—though we do give great thanks for the earthly institution, which has preserved and taught the Way all these years.
When I first became Orthodox I wondered how the Church could possibly withstand the assaults of the culture, especially without the powerful centralized leadership that other churches have. Then I thought about how it has withstood it, through every trial so far—the Roman emperors, Muslims, communists. Perhaps a decentralized faith, the same in every place, is harder to eradicate. And I wonder if having a “strong man” on top might actually backfire, in that it presents a target for people who want change. They know who to attack and bring down. In Orthodoxy, there’s nothing to target. There’s no place to start. It’s disseminated all over the world, alike in every place, alike in every century. And the members of the Church believe it works, it keeps proving itself in real life. Even if you wanted to change it, there’s no place to start.
Theologians are often the source of change in the West. There is a long tradition of theological argument in the West, as compared to the unifying expectation of effective change in the East; in fact the title “Theologian” in the East means someone who has experienced the presence of God and seen the Uncreated Light. Theologians don’t challenge the Church or try to come up with original ideas, as in the West; they are not so much seen as authorities. The authorities on the faith are the saints, the ones who know the Way by experience, and like explorers come back to tell us what they found.
Lay people can even stand up to clergy, when necessary. I tell a story in my new book (“Welcome to the Orthodox Church”) about an Orthodox priest in 1893, who spoke at an interfaith conference and said that all religions are equal, and that everyone worships the same God under different names. When he went home, he put his key in the lock of the church and it wouldn’t turn. The congregation had already changed the locks on him.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: What are the differences in understanding Councils?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: I don’t know enough about how the Catholics understand them to say where the differences are, but we Orthodox recognize only seven councils, the last being the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 which upheld the use of icons.
We do believe that after a council makes a decision, it must be confirmed by the whole community of the faithful. After a council, the decision is carried home to the laity and clergy in the home community. They either “receive” it (as the term is) or reject it. The best known example of the larger community rejecting a council decision is the Council of Florence in 1439. The Orthodox had come to Italy asking help to withstand the Turks, who were about to invade Constantinople. The Catholics agreed, with the condition that the Orthodox Church place itself under the authority of Rome. All but one Orthodox delegate signed the agreement. But when the decision was carried home, it was vehemently rejected by the laity and clergy. So the council’s decision was voided, and Constantinople fell in 1453.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: The Orthodox reject the primacy of Peter. How do they make important decisions for the Church?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: Let’s divide that in half—the primacy of Peter, and the making of important decisions.
The Orthodox don’t reject the primacy of Peter. Our hymns honor St. Peter as the foremost of the Apostles. We even do something to honor him that, as far as I know, Catholics don’t: we keep a fast every year (keep a vegan diet) from the 8th day after Pentecost until his feast day, June 29 (a feast he shares with St. Paul). Where the two Churches part ways is in our understanding of what that primacy entails; what the Lord meant when he said, “You are Peter, and on this petros (rock) I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).
Orthodox think Christ was praising Peter’s statement of faith, not giving him authority over the other Apostles. He often praised faith when he found it, as with the Centurion (“[N]ot even in Israel have I found such faith,” Matthew 8:10) and the Syro-Phoenecian woman (“O woman, great is your faith!,” Matthew 15:28). To many whom he healed he said, “Your faith has saved you.” On the other hand, he often chastised those whose faith was weak, including Peter: “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).
In the current situation (Matthew 16) Christ asks his disciples what the people are saying about him; who do they say he is? They cite the names of several prophets. Then he asks, “But who do you say that I am?” and Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
Our Lord then says Peter is blessed, because he didn’t think of this on his own, but it was given to him by the Father. Then he praises Peter before the apostles, as a teacher might call the class’s attention to an outstanding student. “Excellent, Peter, you got it right. I named you ‘Rock,’ and that’s just what you are. The words you have spoken will be the foundation of my Church.”
Catholics are used to hearing these words as establishing Peter as the authority over the Church. But that doesn’t necessarily follow. A teacher can praise a student, and even say he is the foremost student in the class, without giving him authority over the class. She retains the authority. The student is given honor, but not power. So Christ was honoring Peter for his faith at this moment, and might chastise his weak faith at another moment, and was not investing him with powers over the other apostles.
(In the US, an analogy to Peter’s role would be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It is a role that carries real honor, but it doesn’t confer authority over the other Justices. The Chief Justice cannot overrule them or veto their decisions; his opinion carries no more weight than theirs.)
Christ went on to say, “I will give you [singular, Peter] the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you [plural, all the apostles] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you [plural, all the apostles] loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Christ honors Peter among the apostles by bestowing on him the keys. But the authority to bind and loose he gives to all the apostles. They all share the same power.
We can look at the rest of the New Testament and see how Peter understood his own role. From that point forward, does Peter act as if he believed he held authority over all Christ’s followers?
It doesn’t look like it. There is one occasion on which it would have been natural for him to make use of his power, an early controversy which needed to be settled. Peter could have issued a statement and solved the problem easily, if he thought that was his role. But that’s not what he did.
In Acts 15, Church leaders have gathered to settle a controversy over whether Gentile converts were obliged to keep the Jewish diet and purity laws. Peter attended the meeting, but he did not preside over it, or make the decision alone, or release that decision under his own authority.
It was St. James, the Brother of the Lord, who presided; he was bishop of Jerusalem. The meeting began some with lively debate, then St. Peter spoke of his experience with Gentiles, and gave his opinion. Next, Ss. Paul and Barnabas spoke about the conversion of the Gentiles and the miracles they had seen.
Then St. James said, “Brethren, listen to me. …[M]y judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.”
St. James pronounced the decision—but he did not single-handedly make the decision. He enunciated the consensus that the Holy Spirit was bringing about. The gathering then embraced and affirmed his statement, for it “seemed good to the apostles, and the elders, and the whole church.”
Orthodox would say that God does not appoint any single human to have power over the whole Church. Instead, we can rely on the Holy Spirit bringing about consensus in the Body of Christ, and thereby showing us the way. As Our Lord said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). This is approach is called “conciliar.”
Another indication of Peter’s role is that St. Paul did not feel bound to submit to him, or even to honor him in public. On one occasion, he openly rebuked him. (This is found in Galatians 2.)
In this case, Peter was in Antioch, where he had been fellowshipping with both Jewish and Gentile Christians. But, Paul says, when some people from Jerusalem arrived, Peter stopped taking meals with the Gentile Christians, due to “fearing the circumcision party.” Paul goes on, “I opposed him to his face” (Galatians 2:11), rebuking him “before them all,” in front of the whole Christian community at Antioch.
To sum up, the Orthodox see St. Peter held up by Christ as a great example of faith, and honored as the foremost apostle. But we do not believe that Christ gave him power over all the Church. There is a series of conclusions drawn by the Catholic viewpoint which Orthodox do not follow:
–That in his words to Peter, Christ was giving him authority over the other apostles. Orthodox see him as giving Peter great honor, but not endowing him with power.
–That Christ intended that Peter’s power would not end with Peter, but be passed on to those who came after Peter. As above, Orthodox believe Christ was honoring Peter at that moment, but he made no reference to others after Peter continuing his role.
–That this power is linked with being bishop of Rome. That’s not a necessary conclusion, however. Instead of being associated with the city where Peter died, it could have been linked to the city where he was born, his place of origin, his homeland. Or, in line with Old Testament custom, it could have been passed down Peter’s bloodline, to his descendants of all generations, as the priesthood was passed down in the tribe of Levi. Or, if the role was attached to a city where he was bishop, it could have been Antioch, where he founded the church and was bishop before he went to Rome. It’s not obvious that the city selected for this honor would be Rome.
As the seat of the empire, Rome was the leading city of the ancient world. Among the 5 patriarchates (Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria) it took first place. Yet it was not thought to be superior to all other cities spiritually. In the West Rome seems supremely important, because has a unique claim to have been founded by an apostle. But in the East there are many churches founded by apostles, so the priority of Rome in that regard is not self-evident. This is the same distinction between being first in honor, but not having superior power.
–The Bible doesn’t say much about Rome. If you ask which city is most honored in Scripture, it would have to be Jerusalem. Over and over, Jerusalem is identified as the Holy City, the City of our God. Wouldn’t Jerusalem be the obvious choice for such an office to be held, among all the other cities on earth?
If Rome deserves honor because it is the place where St. Peter died, wouldn’t Jerusalem deserve more honor, as the place where Christ died?
Don’t the Cross and Resurrection outweigh anything concerning St. Peter?
Wouldn’t St. Peter want it that way?
The Orthodox don’t believe that the bishop of Jerusalem, or any city, is empowered to rule over the world-wide Church. No human being has that power, for Christ himself rules the Church. I once heard Met. Kallistos Ware say that Christ does not need a vicar, because he himself is with us. That is, a vicar serves in place of an absent higher authority, but Christ is not absent from us.
The second part of your question had to do with “important decisions.” These are made by the bishop of each diocese, or by a council of bishops meeting together. There has not been a need for new decisions in theology, spiritual practice, or morals for many centuries. Everything was settled a long time ago.
In terms of issues that become controversial in modern times, if there is a need to restate a position during a time of confusion, the bishops of a diocese or archdiocese can release a statement. American Orthodox bishops have done this on some recent issues. It is seldom reported in the media.
Some progressive Orthodox might advocate for change, but they cannot do that in the name of the Church. It would be a personal opinion only, not something representing the Church. We cannot accept gay marriage, abortion, or anything else, because we never have accepted it. No one can go back in time and change our memory.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: Does St. Augustine hold the same position for Orthodox as for Catholics?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: No, his theology is not wholly accepted, though he is regarded as a saint and a great writer of spiritual devotion. He stands out in the West partly because he was one of the few who wrote in Latin; in the East he stands in the midst of many other Church Fathers.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: Catholics understand Grace in different ways. What is the Orthodox teaching on Grace?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: Grace is the presence of God, rather than something God dispenses. We say that God has an essence which is shared in common by Father, Son, and Spirit; but he also has “energies” by which he acts in the world, for example, filling the Burning Bush with fire. The destiny he intends for every human being is that we would likewise be filled with his fire / light / energy.
“Energy” is a Greek New Testament word, energeia, which St. Paul used about 30 times (eg “God is energizing in you, both to will and to energize for his good pleasure,” Philippians 2:13). But when St. Jerome was translating the bible into Latin there was no good equivalent, so he used operatio and variants. For God to “operate” in the world is different from him “energizing,” being present in his own energies. So there was a subtle difference between Greek and Latin bible theology from the start. Western Christianity was built upon the foundation of the Latin translation, so some bible concepts are not as easy to grasp as in the East.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: Does the Orthodox have the same teaching about Purgatory?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: I think the Catholic teaching on Purgatory has changed, perhaps? But it used to be that Purgatory was exactly like hell, with the only difference that there was a time limit and you would eventually get out. And other people’s prayers could contribute to shortening the time. The reason for Purgatory was to pay the temporal debt for the unconfessed sins on your soul when you died. Jesus paid the eternal price of sin, but each person must pay their own temporal price. “Indulgences” meant that you yourself, or other people, could apply the merits of good deeds to reducing the amount of time owed.
So Purgatory used to be forthrightly viewed as the need to pay a debt. More recently, if I understand correctly, it has been adjusted to mean that sin distorts our souls, and it takes time for that damage to be healed.
Orthodox believe that God forgives all our sins freely. So there is no remaining temporal debt to be paid.
In the Orthodox view heaven and hell are not separate places, but rather the experience of the presence of God. Those who hated God in this life will feel his light as if it were burning and misery, while those who loved God will find it healing and joyous. All of us will enter death with some damage to our souls, and it may be that it will take time to become fully acclimated to the presence of God. But that would be a matter of “going from strength to strength,” of increasing joy, rather than something that feels like temporary punishment or hell.
But in the next life, time surely can’t be sorted into weeks and days, like life on earth. No one knows how time will work in the next life, for we will be outside time. From our present position we can’t imagine going directly into the presence of God, and think there must be a period of adjustment. But whatever that process of adjustment is, we can assume that a mental image of earthly days and weeks and years is probably not accurate.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: Please explain the Orthodox calendar of the Liturgy.
Frederica Mathewes-Green: The Church Calendar? As in the West, we have a Liturgical calendar that is based around the great feasts and includes many saints for every day. Most Orthodox use the “New” (Gregorian) calendar for most of the Church Year, but some use the “Old” (Julian) calendar. All Orthodox unite in celebrating Pascha on the same day each year, which is determined by the Old Calendar.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: Do the Orthodox have a catechism and a missal for worship?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: No official catechism, though people have written them from time to time. A person is meant to absorb the faith by living it, rather than by reading books; this goes back to pre-literate times. There are books of prayer and of liturgical services, but it is the prayers that are the authority, which might be written down in books as these books are needed. The prayers are the authority, not the books.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: Why are the dates for Easter different?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: Because, for the Orthodox, Easter is calculated based on the Old Calendar. The rest of the year may be New Calendar, but Easter / Pascha is always based on the Old. Some Orthodox celebrate Christmas by the Old Calendar, and some by the New.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: Do the Orthodox go on Holy pilgrimages?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: Yes. Like western Christians, we go to the places of the Holy Land, and to the tombs of saints or sites of miracles in many lands. A typical souvenir is to bring back a small bottle of oil from the oil lamp (lampada) hanging over the tomb of the saint. That oil would be used in making the sign of the cross and anointing oneself or others.
Godwin Delali Adadzie: Do you have any final thoughts?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: I’d like to say something about unity between our Churches. I think an unnoticed point of confusion is that Catholics and Orthodox have different ideas about what unity would mean. In the West, it means being united in the same institution with a single head, while in the East it means being united by believing the same things. This is how I described it in my new book (“Welcome to the Orthodox Church”):
<<[W]ho left whom? There’s a subtle distinction here, and it has to do with what you think the Church is.
From a Western perspective, the Church constitutes the faith. Christians are held together by common membership in that Church, as if it were an exoskeleton (skeleton on the outside, like a lobster). To the West it was the Orthodox who left, because they abandoned the authority of the Church’s head, the pope.
But from an Eastern perspective, the faith constitutes the Church. Christians are held together by their common beliefs, as if it were an endoskeleton (skeleton on the inside, like a salmon). To the East it was the Western Christians who left, because they abandoned the common ancient faith, embracing new ideas like the filioque and increased papal authority.>>
Thank you, Godwin, for this opportunity to talk about the Orthodox faith.
Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author, whose work has appeared in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, the Los Angeles Times, First Things, Books & Culture, Sojourners, Touchstone, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, a commentator on the Hallmark TV network, a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, wrote regular book reviews for the Los Angeles Times, movie reviews for National Review Online andChristianity Today Movies, recorded a podcast for Ancient Faith Radio, and was a consultant for Veggie Tales.
She has published 10 books, including Welcome to the Orthodox Church (Paraclete Press, 2015), The Jesus Prayer (Paraclete, 2009), Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy (HarperCollins, 1997) and The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation (Paraclete, 2001). Her essays were selected for Best Christian Writing in 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2006, and Best Spiritual Writing in 1998 and 2007. She has published over 700 essays.