Orthodox Christianity Through the Eyes of John Sanidopoulos

In this interview, I had the opportunity to talk with John Sanidopoulos, an Orthodox Christian, to gain a deeper understanding of the beliefs, traditions, and practices of this ancient Christian faith. Join me as I explore the world of Orthodox Christianity through the eyes of John Sanidopoulos. Originally published on GADEL.info, my personal website.

Godwin Delali Adadzie: Who is John Sanidopoulos?

John Sanidopoulos: By the grace of God I am an Orthodox Christian, by heritage a Greek-American, by birth a Bostonian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by my calling a theologian in the academic sense. I have completed four academic degrees in Religion, Philosophy, History and Theology. Currently I live in Boston, Massachusetts and run a weblog called Mystagogy (www.johnsanidopoulos.com) that deals with a variety of topics from an Orthodox Christian perspective of the 21st century.

Godwin Delali Adadzie: Who are the Orthodox Christians?

John Sanidopoulos: Though there are many individuals and groups out there who refer to themselves as Orthodox Christians, when I say I belong to the Orthodox Church, I am saying that I belong to the communion of the four ancient apostolic Patriarchates that have always remained in communion: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. After the Catholic Church, we are the largest body of Christians in the world, about a third of the number of Catholics, and our largest number of faithful are in the Balkan and Slavic lands, though we are spread throughout the world.

Godwin Delali Adadzie: Is Orthodoxy really necessary?

John Sanidopoulos: In referring to ourselves as “Orthodox”, we place great emphasis on what that Greek word means, which is simultaneously “right glory” and “right belief”. Thus, Orthodox Christians believe that through the true worship of God and the true faith in God, we are able to be healed of our sins, conquer death and its consequences, and be saved. We believe the Orthodox Church, as the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”, has preserved faithfully this right and true means of salvation in Christ.

Godwin Delali Adadzie: What still divides Catholics and Orthodox today?

John Sanidopoulos: Though Catholics and Orthodox hold many commonalities, which allows us to have a deeper understanding of one another more than Protestant Christians, such as our mutual respect for tradition and the centrality of liturgical life, we also have many differences.

In ancient times prior to the schism there was a great distance between Rome and the other ancient Patriarchates, and this fostered the development of different traditions that developed in a different empire with the use of a different language. Most Orthodox would argue that the distance and isolation of Rome from the ancient Patriarchates in the East, as well as from the center of the Roman Empire in Constantinople after the early fourth century, led the Popes of Rome to establish themselves as the Supreme Pontiffs, the first bishops among lesser bishops, not only in their own territory, but extended that belief to the bishops under the other ancient Patriarchates of the East as well. For Orthodox Christians, this is unacceptable. This is the main issue that divides us, among other theological and practical elements.

Godwin Delali Adadzie: Do you see a unity between Orthodox and Catholics once more?

John Sanidopoulos: Since the rise of Frankish influence in the Catholic Church and the “official” schism of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople, Catholics and Orthodox have different histories and we developed into our modern world very differently, which leaves us still divided, though now we are in a dialogue of love that will hopefully unite us once again, as long as we both humbly follow the original received apostolic and patristic tradition of the first thousand years of Christianity. Orthodox Christians suffered much to preserve the apostolic and patristic tradition while under Muslim and Communist domination and we cling to it very strongly. Because Orthodox and Catholics don’t agree on what that tradition is, we are not united, and never will be if we continue to disagree. Both Orthodox and Catholics have much to learn from our common tradition, and God only knows what the future holds, but I personally don’t see unity any time soon as long as the Papacy holds on to the titles that divide us and a theology that doesn’t heal us through purification, illumination and glorification by participating in the uncreated Grace of God.

Godwin Delali Adadzie: What is the Orthodox understanding of the sacrament of confession and reconciliation?

John Sanidopoulos: Orthodox view sacraments as Mysteries that help to unite man with God, and work hand in hand with our own personal ascetic and spiritual life. The aim of these Mysteries is to sanctify us and make us temples of the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Mystery of Baptism completes our purification through the remission of the sins of our hearts, Chrismation activates our illumination by making us temples of the Holy Spirit, where the Holy Spirit resides in our hearts as new members of the Body of Christ, and through Holy Communion we come to know Christ entirely in His glory every time we partake of it. We do not believe this magically happens, but as St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes, this happens according to the measure of our faith.

The Mystery of Confession exists to restore us after we have fallen into sins that separate us from the Body of Christ. Since Baptism cleanses us of our sins and, according to the Nicene Creed, we “believe in one baptism for the remission of sins”, the Mystery of Confession serves as a second baptism through the tears of our repentance to make us worthy once more to become a temple of the Holy Spirit, according to the measure of our faith, and members once again of the Body of Christ by being accepted by the Priest who mystically represents the Bishop and the Church at that moment, and reconciles us to Christ.

Godwin Delali Adadzie: How would an Orthodox Christian view the Rosary devotion of the Virgin Mary our Theotokos?

John Sanidopoulos: Though the prayer and contemplation of the Rosary for Catholics is at the very heart of their spirituality, in the Orthodox Church we place a great deal of emphasis on Hesychasm and unceasing prayer. The central prayer of Hesychasm is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, the sinner”. We believe that this prayer helps in the process of our purification and healing, and a sign that we have of being illumined is when we reach a state of unceasing prayer, which is when the Holy Spirit prays unceasingly in our hearts day and night without interruption and with our complete awareness. Thus, instead of using a prayer rope or prayer beads to count our prayers to the Theotokos, they help us to count the number of times we say the Prayer just mentioned, otherwise known as Noetic Prayer.

As far as our devotional prayers to the Theotokos, rather than the Rosary we encourage the reading and contemplation of prayer services known as the “Akathist Hymn” (which is a bit more theologically developed than the Rosary) and the “Supplication to the Theotokos”. We encourage at least one of these, if possible, to be recited daily, which are richly theological and devotional and are very beautiful. We also implement a version of the “Hail Mary” in our personal prayers as well.

Godwin Delali Adadzie: What are the Orthodox position on abortion, contraceptives and homosexuality?

John Sanidopoulos: For the most part, Orthodox and Catholics are in agreement on moral issues like abortion, contraception and homosexuality. We may have differences on certain details, but Orthodox tend to have differences on those details as well. With many moral issues, due to certain complicated matters individuals may face, the general rule may be set aside slightly and/or temporarily to help a person physically and/or spiritually. This is why it often happens that while the Orthodox Church does have general statements on these issues, they are applied carefully to individuals struggling with the issue through a spiritual guide and bishop. For example, while we consider abortion a sin and murder, an individual with their spiritual guide may allow an abortion in cases where the physical health of the mother is in danger.

Regarding contraception, Orthodox clergy are encouraged to make every effort to stay out of the “undefiled mariage bed” of a married couple and how they conduct their intimate sex life. When rules are made in such intimate matters, we view this as a form of moralism, which is a heresy in Orthodoxy and only serves to stifle ones spiritual growth through rules and regulations. It reminds us of ridiculous manuals from the Medieval West that established stifling rules when the acceptable days and times for coupling were, and even what positions were acceptable. Of course, couples are more than free to accept advice on such issues if they wish from their spiritual guides, but it is not a requirement or rule. Ideally every couple would have many children and help the Christian population to grow, and for this reason contraception is discouraged. We would rather married couples place their trust in God and not use contraception, but this depends on their mutual agreement and faith and should not be a cause of division among themselves or with the Church. Even sexual relations are discouraged on fasting days in the Orthodox Church, especially days before and after receiving Holy Communion. It should also be noted, contraception is prohibited in all cases that would induce an abortion.

As for homosexuality, we regard it as a sexual passion like any other and deeply complicated, though the practice of homosexuality is forbidden and requires repentance and ascetic struggle. Homosexual “marriage” is also forbidden.

Godwin Delali Adadzie: Do the Orthodox Churches believe we are in the Apocalypse?

John Sanidopoulos: Officially, no. The Church would make no such statement unless it was fully agreed by all and there was undeniable proof that the prophecies of the Book of Revelation were being fulfilled right now. However, there are many Orthodox that would disagree. On this issue, there are similar cases between Orthodox and Catholics. Just as there are many Catholics who proclaim “the end is nigh” or “the Antichrist has been born and lives among us”, the same rings true with Orthodox Christians. Some Orthodox like to emphasize certain “prophecies” by certain of our Saints and Holy Elders as if they are being fulfilled right now, and to them these indicate that we are right now living in the Apocalypse, but I usually consider such readings to be either misreadings fueled by paranoia and the confusion of our times, or personal observations, predictions and opinions based on folk and ecclesiastical traditions and not on a personal revelation from God. As one holy and wise Elder taught, whose name was Porphyrios and lived not too long ago in Athens, Orthodox Christians should not think about the Antichrist, but rather they should concentrate on Christ, and contemplate our own death, which is our own personal Apocalypse. If we spent all our time concentrating on Christ rather than the Antichrist, we would not fear the Antichrist when he comes and we would be more ready to accept suffering and martyrdom at his hands rather than trying to read “the signs of the times”. Another holy and simple Elder, Evmenios, who recently reposed in Crete, would say: “You know, I personally don’t believe that Christ would only give 2000 years of grace to the world. It just doesn’t seem very long to me.” Hence, Orthodox have differing opinions on the matter.

Godwin Delali Adadzie: Can you tell us about the Eucharist and why it is necessary for our salvation?

John Sanidopoulos: Our entire Eucharistic theology is contained in the Divine Liturgy and in what we call Preparation Prayers Before Receiving Holy Communion. What we learn is that the Bread and Wine offered during the Divine Liturgy are mysteriously transformed by the Holy Spirit into the very Body and Blood of Christ, through which we can know Christ entirely in His glory, depending on our faith. We pray in these prayers that the Divine Eucharist we partake of be for the remission and forgiveness of our sins, for our illumination that we may be a temple of the Holy Spirit, and for our glorification that we may see Christ in His glory both in this life and the life to come. We believe that this cannot happen without participating in the Eucharist.

Godwin Delali Adadzie: Your final thoughts. 

John Sanidopoulos: I’d like to thank you for this interview to allow me to briefly, openly and honestly express the Orthodox Christian position on the important issues covered. I hope and pray it helps us to mutually understand each other when Orthodox and Catholics discuss these issues among one another.

John Sanidopoulos holds a BA in Religious Studies from Hellenic College and an M.T.S and Th.M from Holy Cross School of Theology. Beyond this he has also completed a Masters in Philosophy and studied in Ivy League Universities as well as Roman Catholic and Protestant Seminaries. He is an Orthodox Christian author and is administrator of his weblog Mystagogy.

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