Bridge Dweller

drawing by Len Munnik

by Jim Forest

published by Orthodoxy in Dialogue November 29, 2017

As someone who made his way to the Orthodox Church from a Roman Catholic background, I am often asked why I became Orthodox and how I would compare the two Churches.

In the 29 years since my Orthodox chrismation, my answers to both questions have evolved. One of the constants has been to stress that, in crossing the Great Schism’s border in an eastward direction, I neither slammed nor locked any doors, and that my transition has not involved a conversion. There has been but one conversion in my life, and that occurred before I was either Catholic or Orthodox—my becoming a Christian, that is, an apprentice follower of Jesus. Finding a church came next.

“But after so many years a Catholic,” friends have asked, “why your turn to Orthodox Christianity?”

In the early years, I tended to stress what I didn’t like about Catholicism: its monarchical papacy, a fast-food liturgy that too often could be described as a McMass, a legalistic approach to pastoral issues such as failed marriages, its insistence that priests be celibate, its obsession with sexual sins, its insertion of the filioque into the ancient creed. (As Hilaire Belloc wrote, “The moral is / it is indeed / you must not monkey / with the Creed.”)

Taking a slightly different tack, I sometimes said that the two Churches were like parallel highways which, at first glance, looked nearly identical; but then, on closer inspection, you notice the traffic moves more slowly on the Orthodox highway, and there are no police cars. With such slow-moving vehicles, cops aren’t needed.

On the positive side of my change of address, I emphasized the unhurried beauty of Orthodox worship, saying that each eucharistic meal is done “at Thanksgiving Day speed…you wouldn’t want to eat a festive meal in a hurry.” I praised the Orthodox Church for its married priesthood and its relative lack of clericalism. I contrasted Orthodoxy’s more therapeutic approach to confession with the “shopping list of sins” approach that I had so often experienced in the Catholic Church. Recalling Jesus’ request to the apostles, “Let the children come unto me,” I asked if the Orthodox admission of children to Communion as soon as they are baptized was not wiser than to delay Communion until the would-be communicant reaches “the age of reason.” After all, I pointed out, few of us ever reach the age of reason. I argued that even Orthodoxy’s notorious slowness to change is more a plus than a minus in a culture in which short-lived ideological winds are blowing at hurricane force, with theological hemlines rising and falling as the winds howl.

But, Catholic friends would ask, are there no areas in which Catholicism is more admirable? Is there nothing you miss?

I freely admit that there are aspects of Orthodox Christianity that lag significantly behind its western counterpart, the most significant of which is tribalism. Catholics, in my experience, are far more likely to see themselves as members of a world church, a church in which national identity is secondary, a church on which the sun never sets, a church for whom all the dotted lines on world maps are provisional. One might be Korean, Irish, Italian, Polish, American, etc., but recognize these words as mere adjectives; whereas, for too many Orthodox, being Greek, Russian, Serbian, or Bulgarian comes first. One was Orthodox because having an Orthodox identity was an essential aspect of having a particular national identity.

Another especially praiseworthy aspect of modern Catholicism is its conciliar teaching in regard to war. The one and only actual condemnation that was made by the Second Vatican Council was its condemnation of weapons of mass destruction and of city destruction. At the same time, the bishops endorsed conscientious objection, praised those who refuse to obey unjust orders, and urged nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution. One seeks in vain to hear similar statements from the various Orthodox jurisdictions; instead, one finds weapons—even nuclear weapons—still being blessed by priests and even hierarchs. Were a Greek or Russian Orthodox Christian to declare himself a conscientious objector, how many Orthodox bishops would give him support? We Orthodox prefer to remember that such saints as Martin of Tours were soldiers, and forget that later on they renounced military service as inappropriate for Christ’s followers.

I have even learned to appreciate the papacy, which has been slowly undergoing its own reformation, most notably in the past half century. The pope is indeed a symbol of unity as well as the Christian voice most often heard in the world as a whole. Orthodox bishops are rarely heard beyond the borders of their citizenship.

“Okay,” various friends have said, “thanks to all you’ve said, it’s now even more puzzling that you’re in the Orthodox Church.”

I often respond with a joke: “Count me as a Catholic on loan to the Orthodox Church.” It’s not a perfect joke. Things on loan are normally returned to the lender. I am where God has nudged me to be, and expect to spend the rest of my life in the Orthodox Church, and gratefully so. But I remain deeply indebted to my years in the Catholic Church, and see myself living and praying on an under-construction bridge crossing the river that flows between East and West in Christianity.

Whether Orthodox or Catholic, we have so much to learn from each other.

Jim Forest is the international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and the author or editor of many books. His At Play in the Lions’ Den: A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan was published just two weeks ago. His earlier The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers won the International Thomas Merton Society‘s Louie Award. He serves as a reader at St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.