"Our only loveliness is Orthodoxy itself"

I recently re-read Frederica Mathewes-Green’s book Facing East, a warm and well-organized account of her conversion to the Eastern Orthodox church. The book is a collection of vignettes, moving through a liturgical year in the life of their small Maryland church. The sub-chapters range from a few pages to just a few paragraphs long — this makes Facing East a very good pick-up-put-down book, as each chunk may be separately digested. And digested is the right word; Mathewes-Green’s writing naturally invites one to pause for reflection. This was perhaps my third or fourth time reading it straight through, and the thoughtful intimacy of this portrait of Orthodox life will no doubt recommend itself to me again.

Plus, she’s funny:

My favorite experience with the Trisagion prayers occurred when I was invited to speak at a pro-life rally in a large Southern city. I had suggested the organizers invite the local Orthodox priest to give the benediction, but by the end of the evening when he came to the podium, he had figured out that the crowd was 90 percent charismatic. So he prayed the Trisagion prayers, just as any Orthodox would do, but in a heartfelt way with pauses, as if the phrases were just coming to him:

“Holy God,” he said. 

 “Holy! Holy! Our God is holy!” all the charismatics around me murmered.

“Holy! Mighty!” the priest went on.

“Mighty! He is a mighty God!” the charismatics echoed. 

“Holy! Immortal!” said the priest. 

“Immortal God! Yes, Lord!” 

“Have mercy on us,” the priest concluded in a deep rumble. 

“Mercy, Lord! Mercy! Yes, Lord!” 

I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed anything so much. I sat in the front row with my arms in the air, just rejoicing in the mercy of the Lord, buoyed on the bosom of all those good, good people. (p 39) 

Having spent a lot of time with charismatics, I found that pretty amusing.

Not only is Mathewes-Green funny, though, but she has a gift for explaining the basics of her faith. My only previous encounters with Orthodoxy were of the My Big Fat Greek Wedding variety, and so I originally came to this book with no idea of what to expect. I found that Facing East is accessible, entertaining, and intelligently-written. As an example, to my mind Facing East contains one of the best explanations I’ve ever encountered regarding the idea of praying to saints (which doesn’t naturally sit well with my Baptist-raised, low-Anglican self):

Upon chrismation, each new Orthodox claims a saint from the church’s rich history as his or her own. Often the person will assume that saint’s name and lay aside the birth name, entereing new life in Christ with a new identity. This saint becomes that person’s patron, a special intercessor and friend in high places.  

Because the role of these saints is so often misunderstood, it’s good to take a look at what saints are not. First, and most important, they are not dead. Life in Christ is eternal life, and they are merely on the other side of the veil, continuing that everlasting life that they began, as we do, on this side. This is why the interior of Orthodox churches are covered with icons; it makes visible the unseen reality that our worship is lifting us into heavenly realms, where we stand with the faithful of the centuries.  

Lest this confidence in the saints’ heavenly reality be pushed to an unhealthy extreme, it’s important to note something else they are not: they are not deputy Gods. We don’t ask them to perform supernatural feats under their own power, like superheroes with individual areas of expertise (this one finds lost keys, that one makes houses sell). We ask their prayers, just as we might ask the prayers of our friends here on earth, though we assume that standing in the unclouded presence of God gives special power to their intercessions. Unlike our friends on earth, the saints do not chat with us in return. Two-way conversation is not the goal.  

Finally, the saints are not God’s receptionists. We don’t submit petitions to our favorite saints instead of praying to God; they don’t stand between us and the Almighty, transcribing our requests and turning them in at an end-of-day meeting. We still bring our intercessions directly to the throne of the Father. But there is a place for uniting with fellow Christians in our prayers, and no reason to exclude from that the brothers and sisters who have gone on to stand before the throne. (pp 213-14)

That seems to me a much more nuanced, and more biblical, approach to the saints than I have seen demonstrated in Roman Catholicism. One of Stan’s coworkers actually explained to him the other day that the best way to get your house to sell was to take a statue of St Somebody-or-Other and bury it upside-down in the garden. And voila! Your house will sell. This strikes me as, well, superstitious nonsense, so I was happy to read Mathewes-Green’s more thoughful explanation of the role of the saints in our lives today.

Facing East is a lovely little portrait of Orthodox life, well worth reading and re-reading. Is it a bit happy-go-lucky, at times? Perhaps. But if that’s so, it’s the happy-go-lucky of a woman falling in love with her community, her liturgy, and her God:

Just when you think life is going to be cozy, something like this happens–a blue electric jolt, the black jagged trees dancing, a red pit in the earth. God isn’t our pet and he isn’t our pal, and when our lives are swept up into his, anything can happen. He never promises us safety. He only promises himself. 

As I reread Facing East I worry that I’ve projected a happy-little-family image of our church, and although that’s not false, neither is it best. We are extraordinarily blessed at Holy Cross; I’ve never been in a more joyous and vibrant church, and I give all the earthly credit to my husband’s God-directed leadership. But even in a less functional church, in an inharmonious community or unhappy family, God is still fully present and still supplying all things needful to each person who seeks his face. It’s not a comfortable earthly life that we are looking for but a transformed life in him, one that extends beyond the grave. 

At the graveside I hold Hannah’s little hand tightly. It’s cold, and I can feel the bones of her fingers, so small and smooth, in my own. My fingers get more knobby and bent every year. I once had a tiny, pretty hand like Hannah’s, but now the thing, wrinkled skin can’t conceal the orderly bones lined up beneath. Bones are the signature we leave behind when we dive under the blanket of earth and strip down to nothing. Nobody has a choice about this dive into nothing. We can only choose who we’re going with. (p 244)