The progression of Orthodoxy

By  Noel Cooper, Catholic Register Special
  • March 28, 2008

{mosimage}Encountering the Mystery: Perennial Values of the Orthodox Church by Patriarch Bartholomew I  (Doubleday, 254 pages, hardcover, $25).

Before reading Encountering the Mystery, I could not have told you the name of the patriarch of Constantinople, but still considered myself adequately informed about the history and practices of Orthodox Christianity. I understood the Orthodox Church to be truly ancient in both the commendable and the less welcome senses of the term — faithfully continuing the apostolic tradition in a way that has avoided innovation for many centuries.

Bartholomew I, who has been Ecumenical Patriarch since 1991, transformed my understanding of Orthodoxy with Encountering the Mystery. 

During his tenure, Bartholomew has taken a number of initiatives to promote environmental awareness, inter-faith dialogue and peace. His book explores the contemporary significance of Orthodox faith and wisdom in clear, elegant English, with no mention of a translator or ghost writer.

The first five chapters offer an introduction to the history and tradition of the Orthodox Church. In those chapters, Bartholomew made me think again about the alarming superficiality of our society. We tend to rely on appearances, facts and proof. Most of us are uncomfortable with symbolism and poetry. We can find new depth in our lives by looking at our world more poetically, as the Orthodox do. 

 {sa 0385518137}In a chapter entitled “Song and Space” on art, architecture and liturgy, Bartholomew speaks of  “the grammar of magnificent domes, … every stroke of an iconographer’s paintbrush, every musical note chanted in psalmody” as “an attempt to re-create the divine beauty that inspires every living being.”

Bartholomew reminds us the theology of the Holy Trinity was proclaimed in creeds developed by the first eight ecumenical councils, all of which took place in the Eastern church. Eastern theology is described as apophatic, which is to say we know God best by expressing what God is not — “a creative process of elimination.” 

Frequently referring to the work of the great theologians of the Eastern tradition, Bartholomew understands that “theology transcends all formulation and definition, being identified rather with personal encounter and a loving relationship with God in the communion of prayer.” 

The chapter on monasticism is entitled “Vocation of Love.” Monasticism is understood as profoundly related to life in society, working toward “effective, transformative change in our world.” It “provides us with a different set of values, an alternative way of living without compromising.”

The final three chapters, comprising more than half the book, present the Orthodox Church’s remarkably progressive viewpoint on the major issues of our time: religion and ecology, conscience and human rights, poverty and globalization, fundamentalism and racism, and war and peace. On each, Bartholomew’s position is beautifully and persuasively expressed. 

He offers this fascinating reflection: “Plants are the wisest of teachers and the best of models. For they turn towards light. They yearn for water. They cherish clean air. Their roots dig deep, while their reach is high… They adapt spontaneously and produce abundantly.” For Bartholomew, “love for God, love for human beings and love for animals cannot be separated sharply.” He believes every act of pollution or destruction of the natural environment is an offence against God the Creator. Human beings have behaved as if we own creation, and have treated our planet in an inhuman and godless manner. We are called to repentance, to a radical change of ways, a new outlook and new vision.

Since “God can never be exclusively comprehended or exhaustively known,” Bartholomew is politely critical of absolutized faiths which “believe that they are bearers of the whole truth,” “merely tolerate” other faiths and engage in proselytism that is insufficiently respectful of believers of other religions.

He admits that the Orthodox Church claims to have received the fullness of truth through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but understands that for individuals, knowledge of the truth is “a gradual process, an endless development.” He believes in interfaith dialogue in a spirit of respect and responsiveness and declares that “we are closer to one another than we could ever imagine.”

In a challenging plea for peace in the world, Bartholomew refers to the crusades and jihad with equal disapproval, and calls on Christians, Jews and Muslims to overcome our history of turmoil. Referring to the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, he states that “many similar events and tragedies” have taken place, some of them selectively ignored by the global community. For him, “war in the name of religion is war against religion. War in the name of God is offensive to God.” All religions are to blame for “the violence they have not avoided by their silence.”

Ending on a hopeful note, Bartholomew says that when Orthodox Christians speak of the heavenly kingdom, they are expressing their hope for the transformation of this world. “Hope is a divine gift… It is never too late… We can still make a difference as individuals and as institutions.”

Encountering the Mystery is a worthwhile summary of “perennial values of the Orthodox Church,” but perhaps more importantly a valid and challenging exploration of the responsibilities of believers towards the major global issues of the 21st century.

(Cooper is a retired education consultant in Brechin, Ont.)

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