A father figure in my life left a fundamental/evangelical belief to join the Orthodox church. In fact, several people I know have either converted to Orthodoxy or have considered it. So I decided to read Facing East to better understand what appears a mysterious and very “other” faith. Icons, incense, chanting, chrismation, standing for worship, prostration, saints’ days, long beards in black robes are images that came to mind when I heard the word Orthodox. And yet we worship the same Trinitarian God.
Frederica Mathewes-Green is an excellent tour guide to Orthodoxy. She writes in a warm, personal tone, with an exceptional ability as a wordsmith. (I enjoyed her movie reviews and columns in World Magazine, back in the day.) Facing East takes the reader through one year in the church calendar as a pilgrim’s journey. By the end of the church you feel you know the folks of the mission church her husband leads.
What I appreciated the most in this book were the ancient prayers and hymns.
For you abstain from food,
But from passion you are not purified.
If you persevere in sin, you will perform a useless fast.
When thou comest, O God, to earth with glory, and all creatures tremble before thee, and the river of fire floweth before the Altar, and the books are opened and sins revealed, deliver me then from that unquenchable fire, and make me worthy to stand at Thy right hand, O righteous judge.
When I asked a friend about the attraction to Orthodoxy she explained that she was tired of worshiping with her head only, like her faith was just something that went on in her brain. She loved the physicality of Orthodox worship.
Mathewes-Green is a compelling writer. She throws in commentary on art by Christians, popular and not; you laugh and sigh at her distress when her daughter gets a nose ring. Catch some of her phrases:
From my perspective, there’s nothing sacrosanct about “dignified” hymns a couple of hundred years old. All of those four-lines-and-a-chorus hymns now have a man-made quality to me; they’re all us talking about various aspects of God or ourselves. In comparison, the ancient liturgies have been washed through multiple centuries and cultures and have stood mostly unchanged; what endures has the scent of eternity. It’s stone-washed worship.
[About a widow] Adversities hone her like flint.
For me, a writer, it’s more literally the hands and the head, because that’s all I’ve got. I sit at my computer most the day, tapping…watching, absorbing, percolating, trying to transmit it all back on a little square screen. No tools to do this with but fickle, ephemeral words, stacked on one another like figments in the air. Sometimes I think I’d feel more satisfied at the end of the day if I could display some visible, concrete object my hands and head had made, no matter how humble–even if it was only a well-crafted chili dog.
The Eastern and Western church are often divided on the dates of the church calendar. I’m glad that this year we will be celebrating Pascha on the same day. To my Orthodox friends: Many years!