Every single Orthodox person knows that in order to become Orthodox, you don’t read about it. You live it. You attend the services, do the fasting, say the prayers and read the Bible. You accept the sacraments, venerate the icons, kneel in the prostrations and inhale the incense.
Books and courses, as Frederica Mathewes-Green points out in her introduction to Welcome to the Orthodox Church teach you ABOUT the faith, but they can’t teach the faith itself, because it’s not “primarily a religious institution, but a spiritual path.” So if that’s the case, and she knows it, why would she write a book about it?
It’s a very simple answer: this book is about as close as you can get to learning to be Orthodox while still being a book about the Orthodox Church. It’s meant for inquirers and those who aren’t Orthodox but are curious about those weird folk who process around their church in the middle of the night. Except that it’s a pretty good book for Orthodox people as well.
As we all know, and as Frederica informs the reader in the introduction, the Orthodox faith and church aren’t, as she so charitably puts it, “very amenable to sorting” so the book isn’t organized as you’d expect an informational book to be, with a chapters about liturgy and one about icons and another about fasting. Instead, she takes the reader into the fictional parish of St. Felicity, named for the early Christian martyr (and Frederica’s name saint), and introduces us to various services and events in the life of the parish. We start, in the first section, “Inside the Temple,” with a tour of the building and as we wander through the narthex, we learn about praying with icons and venerating them, church architectural styles, pews, the Theotokos, the Great Schism and the Filoque, Sacraments, Iconoclasm, the altar, Divine Energies, liturgical implements and some interesting things about Frederica herself.
The second half of the book is “Inside the Liturgy” and is an introduction to and an overview of some of our services; notably Vespers and Liturgy. But, like all conversations, the discussion ranges, so that as we move through the details of the service, we also learn about Original Sin, Sin as Sickness, the meaning of ransom, mercy and forgiveness, the nous, doctrinal development, fasting, temptation, the wedding ceremony, marriage, house blessings, death and funerals.
The final part of the book is “Inside the Community”, a series of “snapshots” of some typical moments in the life of a parish – we take part in the after liturgy coffee hour, peek in on a pastoral phone call, attend a baptism and chrismation service, a house blessing, a wedding and a funeral. In the course of these “visits”, Frederica discusses far more than the actual events taking place – she talks about some of the theology behind the services, and what it means, about the way the Orthodox deal with things in ways that are different from the Western Christian approach.
The lists noted above seem daunting and intimidating, but Frederica writes in a conversational style that is relaxing, engaging and humorous, a style that teaches without lecturing. It really does feel like a prolonged, relaxed visit with a friend. I hadn’t realized just how engaging the book was until I was most of the way through it. I had set myself a limit of four chapters per day, so I could get the book read in a reasonable amount of time and still have time for other work. As it happened, I started Chapter 12 one morning, and after a while, wondered just how long it was going to be before I finished the day’s chapters – this was feeling awfully long and, honestly, a bit tedious. I turned the page, and realized that I had just finished Chapter 19. The book wasn’t tedious at all, not if I could become so engaged that I simply forgot about my four chapter limit, and did two days reading in one! The problem was that I’d had overdosed on information and needed to let it settle down in my head. I would recommend the same to other readers – don’t try to read too much at once, because you do need time to let the information you’ve read be absorbed and integrated in your mind, but do read the book.
For long time Orthodox, much of the book won’t be news – it’s basic theology, history and information that we learn in the first few years, both by learning about the church and by living the faith. Yet Frederica has a way of explaining and describing that can shine a light on these well known truths. She uses metaphors and comparisons that show us things from a new angle, that can help deepen our understanding of the services, the faith and our theology without ever lecturing, talking down to us or sounding as though she’s in a classroom lecturing us. She provides quotes from the services and hymns that allow us to reflect on them in new ways, since they are outside their usual setting and in slightly different translations than we’re probably used to.
Even though the book is intended for interested non-Orthodox, I don’t hesitate in recommending it for those in the faith as well. It fits my criteria for a good book about my faith: it makes me want to go (as CS Lewis put it in The Last Battle) “further up and further in.” It makes me want to draw closer to God.
Welcome to the Orthodox Church: An introduction to Eastern Christianity
By Frederica Mathewes-Green published by Paraclete Press, Brewster, Mass. 2015
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