“Like a Branch Rejoined”: A Journey from Eastern Orthodoxy to Catholicism

One joy of the Catholic life is receiving good news from the darkest places. Few places have seemed darker in the past year than Ukraine, currently under brutal assault from Russia. The Ukrainian people have shown remarkable courage in the face of vicious aggression, but the military front lines are not the only location of warfare and bravery. The war in Ukraine has put the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and its Major Archbishop in the spotlight. As a crossroads and frontier in Europe, Ukraine has long been the venue of spiritual and confessional struggle, with Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all seeking ascendancy.

The most recent good news from Ukraine (as reported by The Pillar) is that a sizeable group of Orthodox have come into union with Rome. Some may ask, if the Catholic Church recognizes Orthodox sacraments and orders as valid, why does union matter? Think of the tragedy of separated spouses—the ontological relationship between the two still exists, but is marred by the two not living together. Or, St. Paul’s scriptural teaching about the branch is apt here: the Orthodox reception into communion with Rome is like a branch rejoined to the life-giving trunk and roots.

The example of the Ukrainians joining themselves to Rome is pertinent because of the continuing appeal of Eastern Orthodoxy to some Catholics and Protestants coupled with a disdain of Western Christianity and culture. I speak from twelve years of experience that the East—for all its attractions—is manifestly not paradise. There may be things we can learn. Look no further than the Servant of God Catherine de Hueck Doherty and her books on eastern spirituality, but with one enormous caveat: she was in communion with Rome.

Disillusioned westerners fleeing eastwards may think they will be entering a realm of rich, mystical liturgical life unerringly guided by Tradition and free of papal tyranny. But the East is not monolithic, and the neophyte’s experience can depend in large part on their entry point. Slavic or Greek? Arab or Ruthenian? Old Calendar or New? The visitor can find many differing practices, such as requirements for baptism and acceptance of non-Orthodox baptism, which language to use in the liturgy, variations in vestments and music, rigidity or laxity for confession and reception of Communion, and open-ness to converts and other ethnicities.

To be clear, the East is not inherently perilous, unless it is severed from Rome. For instance, the separated (Chalcedonian) Orthodox East has long permitted divorce and re-marriage. There appears to be a growing acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, even to the extent of baptizing a gay couple’s child. Orthodox spiritual teaching and practices such as aerial toll-houses and hesychasm may open the door to Gnosticism.

Other problematic issues include the centuries-long unhealthy relationship between church and state in the Orthodox world. The Orthodox Church has scant experience as one player amongst many on a level playing field. Instead, the Orthodox are accustomed to either actively bolstering the ruler’s supremacy (as in the Eastern Roman Empire), or being subjugated and perhaps finding a way to compromise with them (as in the Muslim world or the Soviet Union). In my own experience, I have seen the strict fasting prevalent in Orthodoxy verge on legalism. It certainly can cause friction between spouses, which hardly seems like the hallmark of healthy Christian living. Ethnicity is another recurring issue in the East, with culture sometimes substituting for faith. These three issues can make Orthodoxy a rough fit in a multi-ethnic democratic republic like the U.S. And that is where the heresy of nostalgia comes in. Orthodoxy is prone to sighing after the bygone semi-paradisical era of unadulterated religious belief and practice, such as the mythical golden age of 19th century “Holy Russia” with its spiritual magnets of monasteries and every priest an exemplary spiritual figure beloved by his family and flock. The truth is that Orthodox priests and laity alike in past centuries in places like Russia and Ottoman-occupied Greece often lived lonely, impoverished and even squalid lives. Likewise today, priests (usually married with children) and lay people are hemmed in by the same forces impinging on all of us in post-modern society. Holding a Greek (or Russian, or Serbian, or…) festival with food and dancing will not repair any of that.

Due to their rejection of the West, the Orthodox have a weak connection to the Great Tradition of Western philosophy and literature. For instance, some Orthodox reject St. Augustine of Hippo as a “neo-platonic philosopher” and not a foundational doctor of the Church. That example is especially meaningful in my own journey. I credit Augustine as part of the “team” that helped guide me back to the West and into the Catholic Church. Also on that team are Medieval studies, Tolkien, Pope Benedict XVI, E.F. Schumacher, Benedictine life, Sigrid Undset, and Catholic Social Teaching.

Before I go on to describe my experiences, I want to say that I am grateful for my time in Orthodoxy, and that I met some wonderful people along the way. I experienced beautiful liturgies and robust, virile music. I was exposed to thinkers and writers not well known in the West and, to top it off, cultural customs and foods I hadn’t previously known. But, like Pope St. Gregory the Great, once a Western representative in Constantinople, I returned home, appreciative, but also protective of Western ways and prerogatives. The error of the separated Eastern Church is to think of itself as the authentic trunk and roots, rather than a major part of the tree broken off and hence denied life-giving nourishment.

In my agnostic twenties, I studied Medieval literature, history, and art at university. Unknowingly, I was imbibing a liqueur distilled from the flowering fruit of Christianity. Also hidden from my conscious mind was my still earlier and ongoing intoxication by the Christ-permeated books of J.R.R. Tolkien. I was being formed as a Catholic without realizing it. After a pilgrimage through evangelical Protestantism and Orthodoxy, I yearned for a re-connection to the Western Great Tradition. I found it in, of all places, the ultra-progressive and thoroughly weird Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. In a class on sustainable economics, I delved into the works of economist and convert E.F. Schumacher, the foundational text of Catholic Social Teaching, Rerum Novarum, and a 2009 encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate. I also looked into the Benedictine roots of public administration and organization, and experienced a bit of the Divine Office at a local abbey I graduated in 2010 with a degree in public administration and a growing interest in the faith of my French-Canadian ancestors, Roman Catholicism. The subsequent two years saw my anti-western armor pierced, rent, and knocked to the ground, not unlike the hapless Don Quixote. My reading ranged widely, including Sigrid Undset’s heart-rending tales of sin and redemption set in thoroughly Catholic medieval Norway. I was received into the Catholic Church in 2012. Due to my chrismation (confirmation) in the Orthodox Church of Antioch, I was received as a Melkite, the Catholic analog to that Antiochian Orthodox jurisdiction.

The story could have happily ended there, and now I would be writing with deeper knowledge and experience of Eastern Catholicism. I considered remaining Melkite, but because my wife and mother are Latin Catholics, I petitioned to have my “ascription” changed to Roman Catholic, and that request was granted by the two archbishops involved. In the past ten years I have broadened and deepened my knowledge of Roman Catholicism and found a home—a refuge—in the Traditional Latin Mass.

East-West dialogue is often a thankless and/or fruitless endeavor. That is unfortunate. There is much to be said for the comparison of East and West to two lungs meant to function together for full bodily health. The two lung analogy is worth exploring. Today, both lungs have (as it were) obstructions, but a large part of the Eastern lung is separated from the body. On the surface (what we can see in iconography, art, liturgy, and organization) the two lungs appear to have unique patterns, paths and emphases: the West emphasizes the Crucifixion, the East the Resurrection; the West places St. Joseph next in honor after the Blessed Virgin Mary, while the East the honors Holy Prophet Forerunner and Baptist John after the Theotokos; the West’s paramount units are family and parish, whereas the East arguably puts a higher value on monasteries. If the West were a book it might be The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of The Child Jesus and Holy Face, whose parents failed in religious life but were fruitful and loving as a family. The East could be well-represented by the solitary wanderer in The Way of a Pilgrim. Or, Western Martha, Eastern Mary.

A well-functioning body needs its lungs to work together and not at cross-purposes. Any of these different tendencies becomes unbalanced and unhealthy if taken to extremes or promoted at the expense of the corresponding tendency in the other lung. The Western fault can be over-reliance on organization and standardization; the Eastern overemphasis on disembodied mysticism can segue into Gnosticism.

The bifurcation of East and West is well-expressed in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamzov, one of the greatest works of world literature. Dostoevsky, who was suspicious of the West and its decadence, puts in a number of opposing pairs in his book (he was fond of using doubles), but three that speak to this essay’s point: 1) Roman ultramontanism versus the Russian approach; 2) two contrasting approaches to monasticism (Fr. Zosima against Fr. Ferapont); and 3) the Church of the Grand Inquisitor ousting the Church desired by Christ.

In Book II of The Brothers Karamazov, “An Unfortunate Gathering,” a number of characters gather at a well-known monastery in hopes of getting direction on a variety of issues. On page 56 (all references are to the Dover edition of the book translated by Constance Garnett) there is discussion of ultramontanism and church-state relations. Should state become church? Or church morph into state? Perhaps this is the sort of dichotomy that could usefully inform current debates about integralism and the reversal of secularization. Westerners who think Russia presents a positive model of law and order implicitly endorse Orthodox collaboration with Mr. Putin’s government and buy into the idea of Russia as bulwark against Western-led globalism.

At the same monastery we meet at least two types of monk:  the wise, merciful starets (elder) Fr. Zosima, but also Fr. Ferapont, a harsh, unloving, rigid and works-oriented monk who may be Dostoevsky’s representation of the Western monastic style. Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen, asserts that “Eastern monastic communion has always been careful to guarantee the superiority of love over every law” (35). Orthodox monasticism is more charismatic than the Roman Catholic system of well-regulated orders with their identities.

We get to the heart of the matter in the novel’s challenging tale, “The Grand Inquisitor” (223ff), in which Ivan Karamazov–perhaps under the influence of the devil–recounts a story about Christ appearing in sixteenth century Spain, only to be rejected by a Grand Inquisitor who informs the Lord how the Catholics threw out the Faith and replaced it with a secular, earthly religion. Scholarly, artistic Ivan tells his monkish younger brother Alyosha, “The old man [Inquisitor] has told him [Christ] he hasn’t the right to add anything to what he has said of old. One may say it is the most fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism, in my opinion at least. ‘All has been given by thee to the pope,’ they say, ‘and, therefore, is still in the pope’s hands, and there is no need for thee to come now at all. Thou must not meddle for the time, at least.’ That’s how they speak and write too—the Jesuits at any rate. I have read it myself in the works of their theologians” (227). The passage goes on to describe how Catholicism has no need for Christ and that people have traded their freedom for security. The Inquisitor tells how miracle has been replaced with surety, taking away the need for a Savior. Whether or not it reveals Dostoevsky’s own beliefs, it is a damning tale about faith and despair. But the truth cuts both ways. Although traditionally Orthodoxy was a major component of charity in their respective societies, Communism and Islam both severely damaged that work. The Soviets could not accept any competition, and shut down schools, convents, monasteries, and almost all church functions. Muslim rulers forced the Orthodox into inferior roles, helping only their own and no one outside their religion. There is also little in the way of an explicit social doctrine in Orthodox teaching. Catholicism, by contrast, has a very-well articulated body of social teaching which could be of use in a re-united East. Ukraine again provides an example.

It is best to keep in mind throughout all these mental excursions that East and West are not essentially or ontologically different, but they have developed along different (and complementary) lines. I am happy in the West and think there are many positive features and practices that some who hope to depart to ostensibly greener pastures overlook. I can remember my first whiff of incense and the tangible sacrality of the iconostasis at the first Divine Liturgy I attended. It was a grand adventure and one I don’t regret, but it was also filled with humans, all of them frail, wavering children of fallen Adam and Eve, and the flawed institutions they built and sustained. Perhaps the reader can think of me as a travel guide. My advice? Don’t idealize what you perceive as exotic and therefore better. Even if one leaves home, travel need not go in a straight line. “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time,” T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding.” My hope is that before the branch, which is Eastern Orthodoxy, withers and rots away, it can be re-attached to the life-giving trunk and roots of Catholicism. Without that branch, the trunk will be incomplete and the tree will grow in a lopsided manner. That would be to mar God’s precious symmetry. That would be a failure of love.

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Greg Cook is a writer living with his wife in New York's North Country. His work has appeared at Crisis, OnePeterFive, and St. Austin Review. He is the author of two books of poetry: Against the Alchemists and A Verse Companion to Romano Guardini's Sacred Signs. He is at work on a collection of essays.

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