The "Right Way" Meets Other Ways
Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth. There went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured: coals were kindled by it. He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and darkness was under his feet. And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind. . . .
The choir member's chant carried across the nave of Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church; at the other end of the church, unearthly events were taking place. Two saints were presenting gifts to the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child: one offered them the walls of the city, while the other profferred the city's cathedral. Below the presentation, Christian saints stood in niches of a screen cutting off the altar area from the remainder of the church, and in the middle archway, waiting behind two gates, was Christ himself.
The unearthly scenes were only art, of course. But Orthodox Christianity's otherworldly art gives outsiders their first glimpse into a religion where the divine and human touch, not momentarily, but eternally. And into this strange world was about to step a man who was expected by his followers to bring the divine into ordinary life.
His All Holiness, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I; 270th successor to the apostle Andrew and spiritual leader of 250 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, was about to visit an "ordinary church." Those were the words Michael G. Mantzouranis used on October 19 to describe the Washington church he has attended for 67 years.
"This ecumenical patriarch is an extrovert," said Mr. Mantzouranis, who was garbed in a red choir robe. "We were going to prepare a reception for him downstairs that would be closed to the public, but he said, ‘No, I want to meet the people.'"
Mr. Mantzouranis has attended Saints Constantine and Helen all of his life; he remembers looking up from the dinner table when he was a young boy and seeing a light in the church's original building, which was near the Mall. The light turned out to be the beginning of a fire. The church was renovated after the fire, but eventually the congregation outgrew its quarters and built a new church in northwest Washington. Now, an hour before the ecumenical patriarch's welcoming service was scheduled to begin, people were already beginning to stand in the aisles.
When Mr. Mantzouranis was in the army many years ago, his priest told him to wear a cross that said, "I am a Catholic." "Nobody has ever heard of Orthodoxy," the priest told him. Since that time, many events have taken place in the Orthodox Church, including the first visit of an ecumenical patriarch to the United States in 1990. But on this second occasion of such a visit, many Americans remain unaware of the extent of Orthodoxy in the United States.
The problem is one of ethnic divisions. There are more Orthodox Christians in the United States than Episcopalians, but they are divided into 14 churches associated with or descended from European national churches. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which is hosting the patriarch's visit, is the largest Orthodox group, with 1.5 million members.
Amidst the gold and silver of the gilded icons and the glass chandeliers, congregation members continued to chatter. Then the closed doors to the icon screen opened, and not long afterwards a procession of boys and men started down the aisle toward the back of the church. People quickly rose to their feet and stood in silence. The choir director peered over the balcony, tried vainly to espy the return of the procession, and decided to take the chance. He raised his hands.
It is truly meet to bless you, Theotokos, ever blessed, most pure, and Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim . . .
The choir paused in its Greek hymn; there was no sign of the procession returning. The choir director smiled, shrugged, and began whispering instructions to the choir members. A long wait ensued; then the signal was given. "Axios!" sang the choir once more. Axios, the word that is shouted by the congregation during a Greek Orthodox ordination, where it means, "He is worthy." And down the nave strode Bartholomew, blessing the congregation with the cross in his hand.
THE RIGHT WAY
On October 20, the Hall of Remembrance at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was filled with light: skylight poured through the glass above, candlelight memorialized the Jews who died in concentration camps, and firelight shone from the eternal flame. In front of that flame stood a single figure, robed in black: the ecumenical patriarch, singing a memorial hymn for the dead.
The patriarch's visit to Washington, D.C., marks the beginning of a month-long interfaith tour of the U.S. During his four days in the Nation's Capital, Bartholomew visited the Holocaust Museum, participated in an interfaith service at Washington National Cathedral (Episcopal), attended the First Orthodox/Muslim Dialogue in America at Georgetown University, and accepted an honorary degree from that same Catholic university.
Throughout his visit to Washington, the patriarch spoke of the importance of religious freedom. On October 20 at Washington Cathedral, surrounded by leaders from the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities, he said:
The fact that we can come together this evening, in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding, a spirit of not only tolerance but good will, even a spirit of esteem and admiration, this reflects the achievement of the American vision of religious liberty. As Ecumenical Patriarch occupying the First Throne of Orthodoxy – the Holy Mother Church, the Great Church of Christ – and bearing the responsibility of spiritual hegemony among the world's three hundred million Orthodox Christians, we affirm that religious liberty is a necessary condition for authentic faith.
The Patriarch's message was not only preached to outsiders. At the very start of his visit, during his homily at Saints Constantine and Helen Church, he emphasized the importance of religious freedom. But only a short time later, he added, "Our joy is to behold our Lord Jesus Christ worshipped in the right way, that is, in the Orthodox way."
The English translation does not reveal what is obvious in the original Greek: that the word Orthodox is derived from the word orthos, meaning "right" – Orthodox literally means "right in opinion." It cannot be said that the Orthodox Church has any doubts on this matter. A pamphlet sold by Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in northwest Washington strongly counsels Orthodox Christians against marrying outside of their faith; the pamphlet's reason for this advice is not confined to the traditional issue of whether people of different religious faiths can agree on marital matters. "Remember that when you were baptized, you pledged yourself to Christ and His Church by a sacred oath," says the pamphlet. "You cannot permit even marriage to make you untrue to the Lord Jesus and His Holy Orthodox Church."
This view that Orthodoxy is the only Christian Church colors its relationships with other churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church. For that reason, the patriarch's visit to Georgetown on October 21 was eagerly anticipated by both Catholic and Orthodox observers.
The causes of the break between the Orthodox Church in the East and the Catholic Church in the West were traced by two representatives of those churches on the afternoon of the patriarch's visit. The participants in the Georgetown press briefing were the Rev. Robert George Stephanopoulos, dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York City, and the Rev. Ronald G. Roberson, associate director for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The patriarch's address that day, they said, would reportedly be a response to "Orientale Lumen," Pope John Paul II's 1985 letter on Eastern Christianity. "For Catholics, this is a very important moment," said Father Roberson. He was eager to hear what the patriarch's response would be to the pope's strong call for unity between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
A healing of divisions was certainly needed, both priests agreed. Disagreements between the Western and Eastern churches had increased during the first millennium of their existence, culminating in a formal split in 1054. Said Father Roberson, "In 1054, when the papal legate excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople, which was one of the major moments of the schism between the two churches—"
"He returned the compliment," Father Stephanopoulos pointed out with a grin.
"—and he slammed the bull of excommunication down on the high altar during the liturgy, which was really bad manners," Father Roberson added.
The Eastern and Western churches went their separate ways, splitting Christendom in half. The Orthodox Church, centered on the Byzantium capital of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), had already developed a remarkable fusion of ecclesiastical and political life, a fusion based on the Orthodox belief that there is no real separation between the sacred and the secular. Just as Orthodox theology resulted in the creation of churches filled with heavenly scenes, so too did many Orthodox Christians believe that there must be an alliance between the divine and the earthly in the political sphere. The effects of this fusion would resonate up to 1997, when the Russian Orthodox Church persuaded Russia's government to pass a bill that would restrict non-Orthodox religions. Critics said that the Russian Orthodox Church was trying to reassert itself as the country's national church.
Since the ecumenical patriarch has no direct jurisdiction over the Russian church, he cannot interfere in this matter, said Father Stephanopoulos. "Hopefully, the patriarch of Constantinople might offer some helpful admonition to our Russian brothers, [saying] that if we are to make our appeal for freedom of religion and human religious rights in our own setting, they must do the same in their setting," he said.
From Orthodoxy's point of view, the Orthodox Church has most often been the victim of religious persecution. When a 15th-century attempt at reconciliation failed, the Catholic Church began persuading individual Orthodox churches to come under papal authority; the existence of these Eastern-rite Catholic churches strained relations further between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. But now, said the Catholic and Orthodox priests, it appeared that the Ecumenical Patriarch's speech that afternoon would bring the churches closer together.
If the Orthodox Church has had difficulties with the Catholic Church, it can be imagined that its problems with non-Christian faiths has been greater still. A Muslim participant at the Orthodox/Muslim dialogue directly addressed the problem as the workshop came to an end. "How does a Christian believe that Jesus is the life, the way and the truth, and at the same time love his neighbors?" he asked.
"I think that Jesus Christ's example in his life on earth . . . is the best response to your question," the patriarch replied. "We Christians, following his personal example, are open to everybody, not with the intention to proselytize them, but to have personal communion face to face, to see through the eyes of one another, and to have dialogue, because we believe that dialogue is the best way for men to communicate with each other." Then he added, with a flash of the humor for which he is noted, "There is room on earth for all of us."
Yet even as he spoke, Father Roberson was staring with a bemused expression at an advance copy of the patriarch's speech that afternoon.
It contained no mention of "Orientale Lumen"; it did not even mention the Catholic Church. The speech began with a stated desire for union, but the bulk of the speech consisted of a reiteration of Orthodox beliefs about the Christian church. "The organization, the goals, the functions and all aspects of the life of the [Orthodox] Church are not determined by human judgment, but the real and unchanging nature of the Church," the speech concluded. "Thus, the steadfastness of the Orthodox Church on ecclesiastical assumptions of every type is not the product of any narrow perception, but the natural result of our living ecclesiastical experience."
When asked whether the speech offered any hope for Catholic-Orthodox relations, Father Roberson hesitated before saying, "The desire for unity is there. . . . I think he's saying that the dialogue can't dwell on intellectual discussion, but must go into shared experiences." He looked down at the speech again, flipped through several pages, and added quietly, "He's not really dealing with concrete issues of the dialogue."
Or as Father Stephanopoulos put it, "He's not ready to move on the dialogue. . . . This is a boilerplate speech."
"I guess it's nice that Georgetown is giving the ecumenical patriarch a degree," said Maria Constantine a short time later. "I don't know why, though – he's so conservative."
Born into a Greek Orthodox family, Ms. Constantine spent most of her childhood in Greece and Italy; now she is a graduate student at Georgetown University and attends Saint Sophia Cathedral in Washington. She has had ample opportunities to compare Catholic and Orthodox beliefs, and can readily list their differences: "Catholics concentrate on the suffering of Christ on the cross. To the Orthodox, it doesn't really matter how Christ died – he could have been flayed or died any other way. What matters is that he rose again – his resurrection is what is important."
Orthodox Christianity, she said, concentrates on the transcendence of God: "In Catholic worship, Christ comes inside you through Communion. In Orthodox worship, we are pulled upwards toward God."
Ms. Constantine's opinion of the present ecumenical patriarch is decidedly down-to-earth. "He's the sort who probably thinks that men and women should still worship separately," she said. "The conservatism of the holy Orthodox Church is really outstanding. On the one hand, they're keeping the tradition, but on the other hand, you can't breathe."
And yet here she sat in the last row of the Georgetown University auditorium, clutching her invitation to attend the patriarch's degree ceremony. "For us, he's the symbol of the holy church," she said. "In my heart, I have this feeling that if I pray with him in the room, my prayer will reach God. It's like praying with a candle."
The ceremony began; Bartholomew stood on the platform, a striking figure with his black vestments, shining breastplate, black walking stick, and chest-long beard. The president of Georgetown stepped forward to give him his hood; obviously uncertain how to drape it past the patriarch's clerical hat, he handed the hood to the patriarch instead. An assistant came forward and kissed the patriarch's hand before taking the hood from him. The patriarch began his address:
Those baptized as infants, whose Orthodox parents grafted them into the body of the Church, are unable to express in words the change that took place in them, but they feel it. However, those present at the moment of baptism who have purity of heart see the grace that surrounds them. Those baptized at a more mature age and with depth of faith are able to describe the liberating feeling of renouncing the devil and joining Christ.
"So much for the Muslims," whispered Ms. Constantine.
The ceremony came to an end; the Metropolitan Brass Ensemble filled the auditorium with music, and the patriarch made his way to the back of the auditorium. As he did so, he passed a woman who slowly bowed toward the Orthodox leader. It was Ms. Constantine.
HEAVEN ON EARTH
In 987, Prince Vlademir of Kiev in modern Ukraine sent emissaries to the nations of the world in order to find a religion for his people. The emissaries visited Muslim and Catholic nations and sent back disappointing reports. Then their report arrived from Constantinople, where the emissaries had attended a service at Hagia Sophia Cathedral:
We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.
On October 22, at the Washington cathedral named after the Istanbul cathedral, Orthodox Christians met once more to worship in the surroundings of heaven.
In Saint Sophia Cathedral, golden light shone through the colored glass and the windows in the dome above, falling upon the marble columns and mosaic-covered walls. In the sanctuary area, smoky incense rose toward a mosaic image of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. Saints looked down upon the cathedral's worshippers, each labelled in modern Greek which echoed the choir's Greek chants. "O AGIOS IO O THEOLOGOS" read one label: "St. John the Theologian." The saint was depicted in an artistic style that has changed little since the early years of the church.
This sense of timeless was embodied in the liturgy, which dates to the fourth century, and which in Greek Orthodox churches is sung in the original language. An English-speaking visitor to Saint Sophia Cathedral would encounter much of the mystery that overwhelmed the Kiev emissaries: a service performed in a strange tongue and rich in ritual.
Out of the sanctuary walked a man holding an incense burner on a chain; he swung the silver censer in the direction of Bartholomew, walked forward, and was blessed by the scarlet-mantled figure. The incense-bearer kissed the patriarch's hand and returned to the sanctuary. Figures in the sanctuary continued a flurry of activity; the altar was censed, the Bible was kissed, and then a line of candle-bearing altar-boys preceded a man carrying the Bible to the pulpit. There was a pause in the singing, and the service suddenly switched to English.
My mouth shall speak wisdom, and the meditation of my heart shall bring forth understanding. Hear this, all ye nations: The reading is from St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews. Brethren, it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself. Indeed, the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect for ever. Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord.
The Bible was returned to the sanctuary; after a while, the communion bread and wine was carried in silent procession around the nave of the church as the censer chains jingled. The procession passed under the dome bearing the image of Christ surrounded by the cherubim. Then came the cry that had been heard three days before: "Axios!" But this time it was the patriarch who spoke the word, and his face was turned toward the altar.
This, then, is what the Orthodox Church seeks so jealously to preserve: a liturgy that draws its worshippers toward heaven so that, in the words of the patriarch that day, the "eternity of eternities" is present at this earthly moment. This is why, despite all the failings of their earthly high priests, Orthodox Christians continue to believe that they are divinely guided, and that they are not at liberty to change the doctrines and worship which have been ordained by God. And this is why, when the people at the cathedral spontaneously greeted the ecumenical patriarch with cries of "Axios," the word was aimed in two directions.
Whether Orthodox Christians can come to recognize the divine beauty in other people's forms of worship remains a question, but in the meantime, as the service at Saint Sophia Cathedral drew to a close, several non-Orthodox observers voiced remarks that echoed the one made a thousand years ago: "We cannot forget that beauty."
U.S. News: Greek Orthodox Archbishop Opposes Possible Russian Withdrawal from World Council of Churches. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. (September 18, 1997)
World Brief: Georgian Orthodox Church Leaves World Council of Churches (July 31, 1997)
Orientale Lumen (1995)
© 1997 Heather Elizabeth