Tuesday, February 23, 2010

One holy catholic and apostolic

The day after I saw Stranger than Fiction, the priest of a local Orthodox church and his wife came to UMBC to tell us about Orthodoxy.

Father Gregory talked about the Nicene Creed, or, really, one phrase in it, we believe in "one holy catholic and apostolic church."

My eighth grade Sunday school teacher, Miss Cathy, taught us about how in church, it's important not to say something you don't actually believe. The example that she gave was that she used to omit the word "catholic" when she would recite the Nicene creed. She then talked to a pastor or elder or wise person, one day, when it bothered her enough, and found out that it means "catholic" as in universal, not as in "Roman Catholic". I wonder if Miss Cathy ever would have found out what the word, catholic, means in the Nicene creed if she'd not held her breath when everyone else in church said it.

I think it was from Miss Cathy that I learned what the word catholic means; that no matter what we call ourselves, no matter how much we botch theology and mangle worship and abuse the pulpit, no matter how much we ignore and separate ourselves from the Christians we disagree with, all of us who are saved by Jesus are the church. Some Roman Catholics might be Christians, but probably not the ones who think that they're saved by works.

Father Gregory wrote a list of five cities on the markerboard in that meeting room: Rome, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. He talked about how, for the first millennium of Christianity, the leaders in the churches in these five cities represented all of Christendom, how every Christian in the world was connected especially to one of these five cities. Except for Constantinople, these been centers of Christianity since the apostles, with Peter and Paul leading the church in Rome, James growing the church in Jerusalem, and so on.

I forget the structure of what he said, but hearing him made me feel like I should find the wholeness and the oneness of the church in its roots. I had been bothered a lot, around then, by denominationalism, and it seemed to me that the Orthodox way of thinking about things would help me make sense of confusing doctrinal controversies.

Father Gregory's wife, Frederica then got to talk. In the Orthodox church, the wife of the priest often gets a special title, typically meaning either "priestess" or "mother". I had grown up in churches where women weren't allowed to be pastors or elders, but the only jobs that seemed like they were made especially for women were cooking at potlucks and changing diapers and teaching Sunday school for kids. Adult Sunday school classes had to be taught by men if they had male members. I'm impressed by how the Orthodox church has developed special, strong roles for women who are good teachers and leaders.

Frederica told us that she had been thinking about how to best express Orthodoxy in the fifteen or twenty minutes that she had to talk with us. She had decided to talk about the idea that the church is a hospital. This idea grabbed me. I had been suffering from problems with anxiety for the past year, I was overwhelmed and unfocused and had had an existential crisis and became a vegetarian and I was still anxious. I wanted to lie in a bed with white sheets and recuperate. Healing is a strong theme in Orthodox theology; I suppose there is a greater emphasis on the idea that Christ heals us from being soul-sick, from sin, than on the idea that Christ paid for our sin by dying on the cross in our place.

One day, as I was walking to the library on campus, a man came up behind me and invited me to study the Bible with him; he introduced himself as Peter. At the time, I was leading a Bible study, and was in other Bible studies as well, I didn't need one more Bible study, and, even if I did, I would know where to look. Peter was insistent that there was something special about his Bible study, and that I would be missing out on something important if I didn't join him. I didn't believe him, because so many Bible study leaders had made a hard sell like that to me, claiming that they had some special method.

Frederica talked about how patients in a hospital can tell people outside the hospital about how they're getting better, but that it's not like they have anything to brag about. This was an important idea to me, as I was coming to understand that the Orthodox church was something that I wasn't in but maybe should be. I shouldn't be obsessed with figuring out the absolute truth about God for myself, but I should look for where I could be made whole, in myself and with the church.

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