At eighteen I wandered into a little church with wood-worn walls and candlelight that illuminated the faces on the icons and the people, blurring the difference between the two. The smell of incense and the sound of chants soothed my senses like a lullaby. A small group of
a cappella voices rose and fell to the rhythm of longing that blossomed throughout my body, linking me with tones, troparia, and kanons well over a millennia old.
The priest slowly walked out from behind the iconostasis, each step seeming to match a breath in the chant, and the bells on the censor he swung briefly became the only accompaniment those voices would ever have. Soft and sweet and beautiful, it felt like ancient goodness enfolding me, like all that’s lost in the hurry of modernity could exist in one room. It felt like I’d stepped back in time and found the pearl of great price.
I entered as a lost soul and left feeling like I was home.
Then seven years ago, after twenty-five years in the faith, my husband and I left the Orthodox Christian Church. We felt it was time and, in fact, necessary to move on.
The Faith I Loved
The Orthodox Christian Church believes itself to be the original, unchanging, and apostolic faith. Following Apostolic Tradition, Orthodoxy teaches that the original apostles appointed bishops, who in turn appointed bishops, and on and on through a laying on of the hands that touched the hands that touched the hands of Christ. Past and future blur together into timelessness. Holy Tradition holds the same weight as scripture because the church is the keeper of them both.
As early Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, eastern and western traditions began to develop, eventually leading to the Great Schism of 1054 which split the church into Eastern Orthodoxy and western Catholicism. Orthodoxy retained its tradition of having many bishops and no single head of the church, while Catholicism elevated the bishop of Rome to Pope. There are nine Orthodox Patriarchates (Jeruselam, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Moscow, Georgia, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria) each headed by a Patriarch, and though this title denotes organizational and hierarchical responsibility, there is no ordination higher than a bishop. A Patriarch is not a Pope.
Each Patriarchate has its own local traditions and saints, but all threads weave into the same cord. The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom has wound its way through the ears and into the marrow of every Orthodox Christian since the fourth century.
I loved my faith. I could weep with the beauty of it. I can still chant a Psalm, and it will always feel right to cross myself when I need to be grounded, when I need the mark of my savior’s sacrifice on my body. And sometimes the only thing that will regulate the anxiety of my racing heart and rapid breath is to time them to the Jesus Prayer: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
The Faith I Left
But as beautiful as it is, Orthodoxy is not infallible. By believing they are the original and apostolic faith, Orthodoxy leaves itself open and vulnerable to the very human sin of pride. Over the years as we stood surrounded by clouds of witnesses, both living and dead, we began to notice the air of judgment. The subtle sneer of superiority when the protestant or Catholic faiths came up. I’ll never forget the wince I felt when the phrase “cadillac Christianity” was used to refer to protestants who used instruments, lights, and visual media in worship. It’s not uncommon to hear the Orthodox openly making fun of who they perceive as unenlightened Christians.
It took us many years to realize that, for us, tradition clouded the path to Christ rather than illuminated it. Tradition became an idol, a pride of place, where only Jesus belongs. The day we left the church, my husband had one last meeting with our priest. Michael told him we were leaving to attend a protestant church and the priest said “You are apostates now. When the small cup they offer runs out, you will be welcomed back after a period of repentance and fasting.”
The weight of apostasy clung to me for months. It took me almost a year to receive protestant communion, for that was the most unforgivable sin—to knowingly receive what was not actually the body and blood. Honestly, even seven years later, I still cringe when someone spills a drop of the grape juice on the floor. Holy habits die hard.
But I’ve learned that being a grown-up Christian means looking forward and looking back without forgetting to look up. Orthodoxy is neither all good nor all bad; it is what all denominations are: a human expression of faith, worship, and learning how to be loved by God. I look back often and take what I need from it.
What I Can’t Leave Behind
Every year on the last Sunday before Great Lent, Orthodox Christians celebrate Forgiveness Sunday. After the morning’s Divine Liturgy, everyone lingers and the air changes. There’s a nervous energy as the people stand around waiting for it to begin. The Vespers chants start as the priest walks out and venerates the icons and then moves to stand in front of the altar facing his congregation while everyone else forms a line, one behind another, with the first person facing him. The line will probably snake out into the hallway, or even out the door of the church. One by one, each person faces every single other person and repeats the words: “Forgive me if I have sinned against you in word, thought, or deed.” The reply is: “God forgives and so do I,” followed by an embrace (or a nod for those unwilling to embrace).
It’s at first an awkward, stilted, and sweaty process but before long, grown men weep with the sweetness of it. It sounds so simple really, but the event is otherworldly. Forgiveness freely offered and freely received changes everything. It changes every single thing.
A few scripted words may not be all that’s needed to work out deep grievances, but they are a visceral symbol of the willingness to do the work. All the petty failings fall away in that hope-filled line of body odor and giddy smiles and a glimpse of the clean slate of heaven appears. If I could take only one thing with me from my Orthodox past, it would be Forgiveness Sunday hands-down.
And couldn’t we all stand to mark a moment with intentional forgiveness? The release of grievances means I let both you and me begin the process of reconciliation. It means I give you the benefit of the doubt so we both can reap the benefits of growing closer to Christ. The pearl of great price is only found at Jesus’s side. It’s the tradition he began while hanging on the cross, asking our forgiveness for us before we knew to do it on our own.
Reconciliation is the business of God. Repairing our relationships with each other is holy work, and holy work is gritty, sweaty, and beautiful.
My beloved Orthodox Church, my first experience of Christ, I offer you my forgiveness and I ask you for yours. Christ is risen, indeed.
Cover image by Museums Victoria.