The More Catholic Things Change…

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!”

As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there he caused considerable laughter. “Have you lost him then?” said one. “Did he lose his way like a child?” said another. “Or is he hiding? Is he scared of us? Did he emigrate?” They shouted and laughed in this manner. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his look. “Where has God gone?” he cried. “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. We are all his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving now? Where are we moving now? Away from all suns? Aren’t we perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Aren’t we straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Hasn’t it become colder? Isn’t more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s putrefaction? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? That which was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives — who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games will we need to invent? Isn’t the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it?”

“There has never been a greater deed — and whoever shall be born after us, for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all the history that came before.” Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground and it shattered and went out. “I come too early,” he said then; “my time hasn’t come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still traveling — it has not yet reached human ears. Lightning and thunder need time, deeds need time after they have been done before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars — and yet we have done it ourselves.”

It has also been related that on that same day the madman entered various churches and there sang a requiem aeternam deo. Led out and told to shut up, he is said to have retorted each time: “What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

(The Gay Science, Section 125: The Madman, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche)

As I got ready to go out this morning, my early life flashed before my eyes. I thought that was something that happened before people died. You know, like someone is in a car accident or near car accident and right before that crash, there is their life, replaying in fast-forward picturesque-movie mode. They remember all the little people, the big people, the things they wanted to do, the things they wish they’d done differently…there it all is. That happened to me, today. It just didn’t happen as a result of a car accident, or any sort of trauma. Today, it happened in the shower.

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Me, today, on the way to the service.

For the first time in nearly twenty years, I visited a Catholic mass.

I know this blog has kind of lacked something the last few months…like content. The reason for that is simple: I kind of lost project mojo. I reached out to no less than twenty different places about visiting, and nobody, I repeat, nobody, got back to me. Then I finally found an occultist who at least had the dignity to respond to my inquiry, back in June. I got all ready and showed up, only to be the only one there. I’m not sure what happened, if they cancelled or changed things around, or what, but whatever it was, nobody was there. That made me reach a point where I was rather disgusted with everyone and just decided to take up residence as a temporary hermit. Whenever my mother would make suggestions as to where to visit, it sounded like places we’ve already been. Baptist services are all the same. Presbyterian services are all the same. Lutheran services are all the same. Everything sounded…the same.

Until my mom got a copy of the diocesan newspaper of the parish we used to belong to. When I say “we used to belong to,” I mean we used to belong to it twenty years ago. My mom has sent formal notices and even called the newspaper to state she is no longer a member of that parish, and now, she’s not even a resident of the state, but for some reason, the newspaper keeps coming.

There are obvious things we’ve noticed about the paper. For one, it’s significantly smaller than it used to be. For two, things are constantly closing in that diocese. Churches, schools, parish outreaches, and convents close, literally, by the month. Without getting into a long story, I have learned throughout the years that the diocese we belonged to was labeled a “trouble diocese” due to the bishop who was over it at the time (he has since retired) and many different situations throughout the diocese that were classified as “progressive” in nature. I’m not going to get into the details of that, because it was a very internal battle that one could only truly understand from watching it on the inside. Twenty years ago, the Catholic Church was wedged in between tradition and progress, between change and who it had always been, and the two weren’t reconciling real well. There were fights that got quite ugly, public brawls, newspaper ads, and mess of the like, all from people who didn’t like what was happening and where things were going. And, after looking over what we found in the diocesan paper, I guess we could say I understood where many of those people who were fighting to keep things the same were coming from.

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My shoes from today.

The article we found that caught our attention was one that related to the parish were we attended all those years ago: the entire church was getting a makeover. It wasn’t just a renovation, however. Everything that was staple to being Catholic, to the look, structure, and feel of the church…was now…being removed. Marble and stone was being replaced with wood, they were adding rocking chairs to the back of the church, the altar was being removed, the ceilings were lowered, the candle room was gone, and everything that made it Catholic…was no longer there. They even changed the name of the church, to something that didn’t sound so “Catholic.’

I wondered what was going on. Of course something was going on. Just like when Pope Francis took his position, of course something was going on. After the controversy that was John Paul II and the public relations nightmare that was Benedict XVI, of course they picked someone who was going to convey a fuzzy, public-friendly image. Now it was happening with the buildings. So I said, what’s up with the Catholic Church? And today was the day to find out.

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Me, receiving a medal for Catholic girl scouts, circa 1996.

I should probably clarify why I am no longer Catholic…yeah, that would probably be good. It might help the observations of the day make more sense. The problem with this is that explaining why I am no longer Catholic is like explaining why I am no longer a toddler, or why I am no longer in high school. At the same point, those comparisons are a little too simplistic. We could say I outgrew it, but it isn’t that simple. Why anyone leaves a church, particularly the religion of their birth, is never something we can summarize in a single statement. It is a progression within an individual, probably something that started much earlier in time in their lives, that ultimately ends with the realization that what they have adhered to is no longer who they are. That’s a good way to simplify the reason I left the Catholic Church: it wasn’t who I was. I’m not sure it ever was, although it was a huge part of my identity, for a very long time.

The longer answer to why I am no longer Catholic is wrapped up in several different realizations that came to me from different sources as I went along in the late 1990s. To understand where I was coming from, I was born into the Catholic Church, as much as anyone can be born into anything. My mother was a Cradle, Pre-Vatican II Catholic, and my father was a convert to the Catholic Church when my next-in-line older sister made her first Communion. This means he wasn’t officially a member of the church until around the time I was born, which I actually did not realize until I sat down to write this. I never did the math before today, and the realization that my parents were married for so many years and my dad wasn’t technically of the same faith as the rest of us is one to shock me into a strange sense of reality. My experience in the Catholic Church was radically different than that of my sisters, and that of my mother, whose life-long membership was due, in large part, to our ethnicity. To be fair, some of the different experiences were due to the many changes the church had undergone, and is still undergoing, to this day. While my mother heard mass in Latin as a child and had an antisocial priest speak to a wall the whole service, I grew up hearing English masses and singing the same songs, over and over again. I also went to Catholic School for four years, which my siblings and mother did not, and while I, too, was very involved with the parish that I attended, our experiences were very different. My parents separated and later divorced, leaving us at the bottom rung of the Catholic hierarchy. We didn’t have a lot of money, so that meant the parish didn’t have a lot of use for us. Girls weren’t as highly regarded as boys. These were all factors in leaving, but they weren’t the only reason. I can say with certainty that if I believed in the church and its claims, I would have stayed in it, no matter how I was treated. How I was treated, however, is indicative of deeper problems the church has, and those, therefore, are part of the reason.

The more spiritual, and academic side of the issue, relates to what was going on in American Catholicism in the late 1990s and the literal direction realizations pushed me in that I could no longer ignore, or deny. While I learned later that my mom had doubts about the Catholic Church and its claims as “the only true church” for many years, I was nursing my own doubts, only on more of an academic level. It’s not a big secret that Catholicism isn’t the most Biblically-oriented of churches, and back in the 90s, we didn’t pretend to be interested in the Bible. I used to joke that every classroom in my Catholic School junior high had cabinets full of purple-covered paperback Good News Bibles, but we never used them. I knew a little about the Bible, but not anywhere near enough to stand against “Protestants,” as we called them (because everyone who wasn’t Catholic was “Protestant,” or so they were labeled). While studying the book of Isaiah in an Apostolic-Pentecostal setting, I came across Isaiah 2, specifically verses 19-22, which are a direct attack on the use of idols and on the result of what happens to those who will worship and follow the ways of idolatry. I was deeply uncomfortable with the way Catholics behaved around statues by this time, and seeing those words in black and white challenged me in a way that made me uncomfortable. The more I tried to find answers to these questions, the more I did not receive, and the more I came to study about Catholic and Christian history, inclusively, caused me to realize that this wasn’t the church I needed to belong to, for the sake of respect of history and truth. It also didn’t help that being so involved in the parish on an administrative level, attending Catholic School, and being up-close-and-personal with the parish leadership changed my view on all things related to parish participation and function. Things weren’t the way they might have appeared from the outside, and after embroiling in the battle between progressives and traditionalists where I lived, the response and result was either get out or shut up. You’ve read my blogs, so you know shutting up wasn’t going to work. The choice became simple. The results were hard.

I spent many years vacillating, at least internally: first trying to hold on to the identity I’d known, and then trying to abandon it, all together. It didn’t help that after leaving in 1999, I spent many years in churches and among individuals who were anti-Catholic just to be anti-Catholic. They couldn’t have told you the name of the current reigning pope or where there was a Catholic church in their city, but they knew they didn’t like the church. Sad to say, many of them had incorrect information that they were lax to correct, and I always found myself put in the position to feel like an outsider because of my background. I finally found a breakthrough in this area about three years ago, when a woman I barely knew said to me, “Well, I won’t hold it against you that you used to be Catholic.” I didn’t like her and I knew she had a long history of sleeping around, so I replied with, “OK, in that case, I won’t hold it against you that you used to be a whore.” Yeah, I know, probably not the best thing to say, and it did echo the great Cookie Lyon (who I had never even heard about at the time), but she did shut up and never spoke to me again, so mission accomplished. Her response was typical, typical of people who make judgements about a background they can’t identify with, so instead of learning, they shame people, instead.

It is a shame for me to say that was a situation that brought me to an understanding of my background and a reconciliation with it, but it took me fifteen years to get there. Fifteen years of wishing I’d been born as something else or had a different background, all so I wouldn’t feel so judged. Fifteen years of not embracing that, good, bad, or indifferent, that was my background, and it was there for a reason. Fifteen years of trying not to embrace a part of myself. It might not be who I am now, but it is who I once was, and thank God that most of us aren’t who we used to be.

So in setting out today, I wasn’t sure what I was going to find. The Catholic Church claims it is unchanged, an unbroken line, dating all the way back to the Apostle Peter. A simple investigation into history proves this to be completely false, yet it is amazing how many people believe it. I take issue with this kind of a statement, because it is said to verify something, when in actuality, it verifies nothing. It’s ridiculous. If we believe the Holy Spirit to be alive and active, that means God has already provided us with the reality of change, with the reality of adjustment that must come along in each and every generation of the church, right up until Jesus comes back. God did not invent the church to be static, to be “the same,” but to stand for Him in the face of each unique challenge that arises. I think I’d have more regard for Catholicism if they would just fess up and admit they’ve changed, not once or twice, but many times, and are changing, now. Change is not the enemy, but lying certainly can be.

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Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, Raleigh, NC

I wasn’t born in the south, nor was I ever Catholic in the south, but that is where I live, now. The city of Raleigh, NC is the seat of the Diocese of Raleigh, which means it is home to the diocesan cathedral, where the bishop of the diocese presides. A diocese could be compared to a regional grouping of churches, all of which are under the oversight of a bishop, who oversees the churches, priests, and parishes in that area. In contrast with Pentecostal or more Baptist-style bishops, Catholic bishops are more involved in ceremonial rites than with day-to-day church involvement. You don’t see the bishop of a diocese very often, unless you attend the cathedral, which is the location of the bishop’s “chair,” a fancy throne-like seat which is considered a sign of the bishop’s installment. I chose the cathedral to visit for two reasons: one, I sort of knew where it was, and I don’t know where another Catholic Church is, down here, and two, I’d heard a lot about this cathedral, because it was new. It was a newly renovated construction, finished in September of this year, which made me curious about the construction. Since it was obvious Catholic churches seem to be getting a makeover, I thought it might be interesting to see how that translated to a southern cathedral.

The structure is grand, to say the least; expensive, a true statement piece, for those who attend, as well as those who drive by. There was almost nowhere to park. People were outside, taking pictures, walking in the church, and from the outside, the church looked immense, huge, and like it was going to seat the equivalent of the PNC Arena.

Inside, it was a different story. The only way I can describe it, is full…but empty.

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Interior of Cathedral during Sunday mass.

The church itself was packed. There wasn’t, at least in appearance, a vacant seat in the whole cathedral. It turns out there were many visitors there to see it, because it is still considered somewhat new. But overall, for the way it looked outside, there was a tremendous amount of wasted space: a foyer that had a square footage larger than my entire apartment that was extremely empty, space for a “gift shop,” a small adoration chapel that was equally empty, and huge ceilings with wasted space, that added to the feeling of vastness and emptiness. It felt like being in a mausoleum.

But, it was obvious, it was what they call in fashion an “editorial piece.” The point of its grandeur was to make the statement that there are Catholics in the south, and they are going to have their big, huge church, and everyone is going to notice it. It doesn’t matter how confused it appears or how much God wasn’t in the whole project. They were going to be out, loud, and proud, and everyone was going to notice them.

Yes, I thought, how obnoxious. Then I thought about all the money that was spent on a building. On wasted space on a ceiling that would make it cold in the wintertime. On a building that was totally built, without acoustics in mind. On all the missions that could be sponsored, all the children who could be fed, all the ministries that could thrive. I don’t know a single ministry with a yearly budget that equated their weekly offering totals. And yet, we might not have much, but we still have more than they do.

To say the building was the focus is probably an understatement, because there isn’t a whole lot to say about the service, itself. Portions of the mass were differently worded, including in the creed and the responses. It was impossible to understand the minister who presented the homily (kind of like a sermon, only shorter, and not as cohesive), at all. I don’t believe he natively spoke English, but he also didn’t speak from the platform stand, with a microphone, so nobody in the back could understand him. People sat like they were paying attention, but I was waiting for someone to stop and say that they couldn’t hear him, which nobody did. Catholics aren’t any friendlier than they were twenty years ago. I feel like I could have dropped dead in the back, and everyone would have trampled over me to get to their cars. There was no feeling of reverence, or holiness. Everyone was just sort of there, and the draw to being there wasn’t God, or worship, but the building they all helped construct. They wanted to come and see the Southern Museum of Natural Catholic History.

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Adoration chapel

Part of me thought we needed to wait for a tour guide to walk us through and explain all the displays to us. The statuary in the church was large, lifelike, and most impressive. They had international and historical figures from all over the world, at every walk and step of the sides of the church. Walking down the side aisles, you would find an array of expensive, huge (larger than me, or my mom) full-color, modern statues of saints, such as Michael the Archangel, Katherine Drexel, Theresa of Avila, and even Mother Teresa. It felt like walking past museum displays, complete with small plaques to state who the individuals were, as people took pictures in front of them. There was a time when doing such was considered a huge no, and would have been perceived as irreverent. Yet I suspect that the reason they house such life-like statues is to give a sense of pseudo-fuzziness while trying to echo tradition, and instead of being nice and appropriate to people, they are trying to make the saints of history more lifelike and feel real, like they are really there, walking among the congregants.

In keeping with the museum-like feel of the building, there was not a single book…anywhere…in the entire church. Not a missal, not a Bible, not a hymnal…barely even any paper. There was a small paper leaflet with some songs in it and a church bulletin, but otherwise…there was nary a book to be found in this church that had more money invested in it in a week than most people put down to buy a house. Apparently, while spending all sorts of money on statues and organs and pews, someone forgot to pledge some money for some books. When my mom asked a highly antisocial usher about them (he never once offered to find us a seat, or really anyone, for that matter, so it wasn’t personal), she received three answers: they don’t use them down here, then it was they ordered them and they weren’t here yet, and then it was also that he didn’t even know what they were. That man stood in church, with his usher pin on, and he lied in church. Then he told her if she wanted one, she’d have to go buy it, herself.

Sigh.

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Statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, outside the cathedral

It was also notable that there was a general sense of inattentiveness among the attendees. People walked around, freely, came and went in and out, dipped their fingers in the large, white baptismal font in the back of the church (which creeped out the germaphobe in me, who could only think of how disgusting that was), and weren’t real subtle about making noise. This may very well be related to the fact that the cathedral is new and so many people wanted to come and go inside just to see it (not to mention you couldn’t hear what was being said, anyway), but talking during mass was another huge no-no that I recall from my childhood. There were large groups of people talking in rooms in the back of the church, paying no attention to what was going on up front. It felt like any other public building people come to observe, just with a public event going on.

I also picked up on the way that people were dressed…and shouldn’t have been. I recognize that Catholicism is a little more lax on attire than we are over here in Pentecostalism, but I will fully well admit that if some of the people in that church attended service where I preside, they would be sent home until they learned how to dress themselves properly. Don’t come to church dressed like you just mowed the lawn. Put on some clothes that fit. Don’t look like a slob. Don’t look like you are going to the museum for the day. At least over here in Holiness, we do know how to dress before God.

Of course, they did go to a museum of sorts…

What did I learn?

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The weekly bulletin and pamphlet with songs…the only papers in the entire building.

The more things change…the more they stay the same – This old saying rings true for me, in many ways, and it’s one I think of often, in different circumstances. Yes, things change. They always do. Even though the Catholic Church doesn’t want to believe it of itself, it has changed. It is not what it once was, and in its effort to try and change its image (which I will speak on later), it is not ever going to be what it was, once upon a time. Yet as it changes, things within it stay the same. It is different…but at the same time, what was underneath, what has now been revealed, what always will be there…is still the same.

Sing a new song of praise to God – Changes galore, they still sang a song that I remember singing…over and over again…as a kid. I can’t believe in thirty years, they haven’t come up with any new songs. I like the traditional hymns of our churches, but I also really like new songs of praise…and thank God for those words that echo what we see and desire to expound upon in our times.

The Bible is important – I can’t believe I went to a church that tries to insist it is Christian, and the guardian of the Bible, and there is no Bible within its ranks. The Scriptures are important…and if we try to take the Word out of our church, we are eliminating all of the one that are three and united: the Father, the Word, and the Spirit.

Bigger is not always better – We all aspire for bigger churches and ministries today, but it behooves us to step back and realize the original megachurch is, indeed, the Catholic Church. Its history is not simplistic, but reveals to us what happens and what we do when we start to grow far bigger than our capacity. That church might have been a spectacle, but that doesn’t mean it was a house of God.

Old doesn’t mean truth – Just because something claims to be ancient doesn’t mean it is any more truthful than something that is newer, or realized later in time. Satan is old, too, but that doesn’t make him truthful.

My sense is that the Catholic Church desperately wants to change its image. The sexual abuse scandals, different rantings from Protestant and departed Catholics alike, and overall negative media has hurt the church, in more ways than one. But we can’t pretend that changing an image, especially of a church the size of the Catholic Church, can happen without changing the church, itself. Whereas I might change my ministry logo or my domain name, change in the Catholic Church, of any sort, assaults its very identity of being the same. Catholicism is not the same; not since I left, not since I was there, and while yes, I have changed…it has, too.

Yet as I stood in that church and heard the words of Friedrich Nietzsche in my head, once again, I felt those words stir something within me that caused me to remember why they resonated, so many years earlier. I realized that in change, the heart of things stays the same: the coldness, the unfriendliness, the lack of feeling and spiritual presence, the lack of hope and personal interaction that I often wanted, but missed, as a Catholic. The issues the Catholic Church has always had, it still has, and no amount of trying to change its image will make those issues go away. The way the cathedral seemed to swallow up everyone who was there was just a picture of a bigger mire, a bigger spiritual reality that was, and remains, Catholicism. To me, it’s not as simple as debating as to whether or not Catholics are Christians or are saved (although I remember a time when we didn’t want to be identified as Christians). I believe that, throughout history, people have always done the best with what they have known and that yes, I do not believe the entire Catholic Church is gone to or is going to hell, as some might presume. To me, it is about a deeper sense of knowing God; of coming to a place where we know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the promise of His truth, having experienced Him and know that He is true, spiritual things are true, and living them are all things that I never found in the Catholic Church. And I don’t know, in my good conscience, standing in that church today, if I believe anyone today can find it, therein. There might have been a time when what one discovered might have been found in what existed back then, but in the midst of choices we have today, this is where we stand, now, and I don’t know we can truly find a sense of God in a mausoleum.

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Alternate shot of the cathedral, displaying the building’s dome

I remember when it came out that Mother Teresa felt a profound sense of emptiness for nearly forty years of her life, and she confessed, as such, in her diaries. Those writings were never intended to become public, but someone decided to capitalize on her, and published them, after her death, anyway. When I found out about this, I did what most people did: I judged her, too. I thought it was appalling for someone who was such a public figure to expound such feelings about God. Yet, after being in that church today (which contained a statue of her), I couldn’t help but wonder if part of why she felt the way she did was because of the church she was a part of. I have to admire her for sticking through what she knew and upholding it, to the best of her understanding, even in her vast emptiness and loneliness. Still, what she described, felt an awful lot like being in that huge building today, that was full of people, and yet profoundly empty. Now I wonder, who else is there who feels that way, and doesn’t know how to handle it?

Yeah, I have reconciled with my history; and a part of me has a funny feeling, as a nearly 36-year old person, that the history I have finally reconciled to myself is no longer there. The school I attended closed some years back. The parish church I attended has dwindled down in size, and now has been changed and renovated to the point where what I knew no longer exists. The church I attended no longer exists; it has been replaced by something else, that is different, and yet the same, all at once; and all I can say is that I am so grateful that where I once stood is no longer now where I stand.

© 2017 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.

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Eckankar Fields Forever

IF what I saw last month was an example of something very old, what I saw today was an example of something very new…and I almost feel like it loses something in the translation of religion. Isn’t the whole point of religion to make those ancient precepts and happenings relevant and valid for today? I mean, sure, we all kind of miss the mark sometimes on that, but what is it like to be in a setting, a religious experience, that has been created within the last fifty years? Not updated, not modernized, not conformed to culture…but something that has been taken out of an ancient construct and stuffed into westernized society?

That’s exactly what I found today, and that’s exactly what Eckankar is. Sure, if you ask members of Eckankar, they probably wouldn’t define it quite as I just did. They would talk in circles about focal points of their understanding and use words in a pointed way, but it is never that sincere. What I walked away with today was the major question I will be posing to my missions class as we approach the end of it: How do we minister to those who already think they know everything?

In all honesty, I tried to go somewhere else. I sent out over a dozen emails with the project at hand and asking various religious groups if it was all right for me to visit, but none of them responded. Not one. So that kinda annoyed me. I understand I didn’t send an email saying “I am desperate to join your group, will you let me in?”, but nonetheless, there are just some things we do when people reach out to us. Even Eckankar’s emails bounced back because the inbox was full, but I decided to plow forward with things, anyway.

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Me, outside the Eckankar building, leopard-print clad and ready to go!

In all truth, I was not familiar with Eckankar beyond the conceptual, and I’ll admit not having the best handle on that, either. In fact, if you can say you know anything about Eckankar before reading this blog, I’ll be rather surprised. I will explain it within my understanding of religion in the next paragraphs, but not knowing a whole lot about it beyond the conceptual meant that I wasn’t real sure what I would find before I went to their weekly meeting today. Just to be safe, after standing in stilettos for two hours last time, I went with a squarer, more solid shoe and attempted to not look so Pentecostal. I picked a $15 brilliant find off Ebay that was newly joining my closet. This was picked over a rather expensive suit with a scarf and purple shoes that I resolved to save for a time when I wouldn’t be in an alternative religious group looking for members. I stood and looked at myself in the mirror, with an entirely different line of thinking than I had last time I did this. We sat in the car and I said to my mom, “I look like Courtney Love.”

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My answer to more sensible footwear.

My mother was adamant that I did not look like Courtney Love, because in the first place, she is taller than I am. I don’t think she was amused I mentioned that type of resemblance, especially given Courtney Love is given to behave a bit crazy in public. Alas, we took some pictures outside, and then ventured inside to what would be a most interesting hour or so.

Eckankar is basically a group known among Christian cult criterists as an alternative religion with cult tendencies. I am not entirely sure I agree with the cult labeling myself, although after having been in the group today, I can see why it is often identified as one. Eckankar was founded in 1965 Las Vegas by a man named Paul Twitchell. Very little is known about his early life because he had a way of deliberately confounding the facts therein. What we do know is he was born sometime between 1908 and 1922 in Paducah, Kentucky. He had a long history of failures, including college that he never finished, and eventually worked as a journalist. Twitchell’s spiritual interests cross many diverse paths, including L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics (a part of the Scientology cult), the occult, and several different eastern Hindu offshoot groups that operated in western culture, such as  the Self-Realization Fellowship and Ruhani Satsang.

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The Eckankar storefront

Eckankar is what I would classify as a deconstructed Hindu organization. What this means is they have taken the basic principles of Hindu worldview and thought, but they have removed the context that makes those concepts relevant. In place of the construct, they have infiltrated western ideals and values, terminology and language, and style and format. Instead of worshiping various Hindu deities and making the daily sacrifices and offerings, meditating, practicing yoga, and disciplining one’s self to the personal commitments of the Hindu system, they elevate certain mind concepts and ideals within the context of western living and understanding. I also believe Twitchell gave his work a certain sound or understanding to compete with groups such as Scientology, which is nothing more than behaviorism in a complex and pseudoscientific context. Eckankar’s basic structure revolves around their key figure, called their Sri, Mahanta, or Living Eck master, which is comparable with the way a Hindu guru is often revered in various Hindu cults. Every single quote, teaching, and brochure focuses on the teachings of that singular individual, and his picture is found in every single brochure and teaching they make available. This individual is considered to be a living enlightened being, one who can provide inner guidance to those who follow Eckankar. Their current leader is named Harold Klemp, a man who, at one time, trained through divinity school to become a minister. (Yes, it makes me wonder what he learned there, as Marilyn Manson and Seth MacFarlane also went to seminary, but I digress). With assumption of his leadership, headquarters of the group was moved to Chanhassen, Minnesota, and remain there today.

Even though Eckankar is modern, the adherents of it believe it’s based on ancient principles. They have their own language and dictionary, and according to their understanding, “Eckankar” means “Co-Worker with God.” Their understanding of God, however, is not what Christians, Jews, or Muslims speak on when they use the word “God.” “God” is an abstract concept of a master, manifested in the enlightened beings of the religious system. It’s something one aspires to become, not something separate from us. Eckankar follows monist principles, that everything is one and one is everything. They also embrace karma and reincarnation, believing multiple lives bring about spiritual awareness and teaching.

Eckankar’s teachings that vary from Hindu thought center around the principle that the soul is separate from the body and can be experienced as such through altered states of consciousness in different realms of existence. This is often spoken of as soul travel or astral projection. From what I understand, it appears they believe this often happens through dreams, so much of their spiritual expression comes through interpreting the dreams one has that might have explanation in their belief of soul wandering through different cosmic or natural realms. They believe the ultimate liberation comes through “self-realization” and that if one achieves this “God-consciousness,” they can be free. This comes about through applying and living the precepts of Eckankar in one’s life.

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Shelves in the Eckankar foyer

Eckists (as members of Eckankar call themselves) practice weekly spiritual exercises to bring them to their desired place of God-consciousness. Every Sunday of the month features a different application of Eckankar principles as taught by Harold Klemp and showcased to appeal in different ways. After their weekly classes (which are taught in seminar style) is a 20-minute “worship” session in which they chant the name “HU” (pronounced hue) and then meditate upon it for 5 minutes. “HU” is believed to be the true name of God, and focusing and chanting on it will make an individual “one” with that precept.

There are about 50,000-65,000 Eckists worldwide. They believe their religion is superior to others, but do not deny any religious path to be problematic or inferior. They just claim to believe it is the most comprehensive available, and that any Eckist can be a member of Eckankar and remain a practicing member of any other belief system as they wish. Membership is done through payment of annual dues to headquarters and numerous purchases, all of which cost money, to elevate an individual through various levels of initiation. In all, there are five lower levels of initiation which one is determined to be prepared to receive based on their application and absorption of the Mahanta’s teachings. If you do some internet searching, there is a lot of controversy over initiation and what qualifies one to elevate up, but we aren’t going to get into that here.

I first learned about Eckankar from a television commercial in the early 2000s advertising Eckankar: Ancient Wisdom For Today. I’d never heard of it. It didn’t exist where I lived then, or where I would live after that (although the founder was from a city about 45 minutes from where I would live). I did some reading on it, but the basics make it sound a lot more complicated than it is. In considering this project, Eckankar was never a consideration until I was doing a search for something else in the area and stumbled across it. The group was about 10 minutes from my house, in a very nice storefront, and since nobody else had the consideration to return my call, I figured I’d see this group I only knew of in shades.

Upon walking into the group’s meeting hall, nobody spoke to me or to my mother. Nobody introduced themselves, welcomed us to the meeting, asked our names, shook our hands, or did anything whatsoever to make us feel welcome. In fact, nobody even spoke to us. We were looked at a bit sideways, in fact. We had to find someone to ask where the meeting room was, and even that man wasn’t particularly nice about it. He acted as if our presence was ruining his fascinating conversation with whoever else he was talking to. In twenty years of religious study and well over 500 services later, I would concede this group was, by far, the rudest I have ever encountered. After walking into the meeting room, I turned to  my mother and I said it.

“Rude ass people.”

I meant it. I don’t care who heard me.

Sure, I have spent the better part of twenty years in every conceivable sect of Pentecostalism that exists, and for the most part, you almost can’t keep people off you in those churches. They find out you are a visitor, they are eager to hug you, learn where you are from, who you are, and ask so many questions, it’s not funny.

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A wall of Eckankar masters in the back of their meeting room.

The feeling of the group was quite sterile. There were about sixteen people there; one teenager, no children, and most of the members were somewhere around retirement age. Most were Caucasian; there was one family that was a mix of African and African-American; that was it. There was one member in my age group, and trust me, he was enough to make me want to lie about my age. Their meeting space was quite ample and beautiful, immaculately cleaned and pristine in appearance. It also felt unwelcoming, unwarm, and impersonal. Tables and chairs were set up, seminar style, with sheets of paper on each table and some pencils toward the center, near a vase of flowers. The sheets were titled “Law of Creativity – Quotes.” There were two presenters: a man and a woman. The woman did most of the talking; the man just interjected here and there. The accompanying slideshow had all the same quotes on the papers; nothing more, nothing less. All except for one quote, every single one of them was by Harold Klemp.

When Hindu offshoots are put in a western context, they often become cultic. Seeing the way Harold Klemp was clearly the focus put that understanding front and center for me. Everything was what he taught. They didn’t even mention former individuals they believed were enlightened or showed ways of truth. God was only mentioned once, and it was in the context of being a master and becoming one with that God-identity. Jesus was never mentioned, and no one was mentioned from Hindu beliefs. They even showed a short clip, and, once again, Harold Klemp was talking. As a minister for so many years, I couldn’t believe so much focus was on one man who came from a midwestern farming background. Sheesh.

The theme of their teaching was “creativity,” which was never formally defined. It was used in various contexts and spoken of in the different quotes, which sounded deep, I am sure, to some, but when you pulled them apart, really wasn’t saying much of anything, at all. The use of the term “creativity” was to be applied to life, school, work, retirement, health, and spiritual principles, and by reading through the quotes and talking about them, the members of the group were to find ways to apply these concepts to their own lives. The quotations were read in thirds; the first third, participants were to give verbal answers; the second, participants were to discuss them with others at their table; and the third, participants were to meditate upon them and write out a life plan, some way to incorporate creativity into their lives, and then were given the opportunity to share if they so desired.

The sharing at the table was notably awkward. Us being there was notably awkward. It was clear that our presence was causing others to feel uncomfortable. I leaned over and told my mom, “We look Pentecostal.” It made her smile, but it was probably true. I was in a leopard print dress and she had on a lovely two-piece black outfit with pearls. We looked dressed to go to church. Everyone in the room looked dressed to go to Wal-Mart. The man at the table with us obviously wanted to talk. We weren’t apt to share as our own thoughts and perceptions wouldn’t be readily accepted, so we listened to him. The first thing I noticed about him was he wore a Buddhist rosary on both wrists and was even playing with it at one point in time. He never told us his name, but was eager to share the story of how he was diagnosed with Lyme’s Disease when it first came out and nobody knew what he had prior. He claimed he used “creativity” to keep going to different doctors until they found a diagnosis.

When it came time to share with the group, others were eager to share their own “creativity” stories, including creative eating. The moderator spoke about loving ice cream and how she self-diagnosed herself with gallbladder issues after visiting Eckankar headquarters in Minnesota. Since she started moderating her ice cream intake, the attacks stopped. She attributed this diagnosis to her insights through Eckankar. Another table of individuals started a discussion about apples being healthy, and apples being fresh. Somehow all this was supposed to be creative, but I am not sure how it applied because the term was never properly defined and within my own experience, none of what they talked about sounded creative; it sounded conventional.

At around this point, they stopped discussing to chant the name “HU” for a few minutes. They called it, “doing the HU.” It was very much like their worship service; in fact, it was exactly the same. It was their hope this would inspire their creativity and help them continue through the remaining exercise, which was their life plan. They got particularly hung up on one quote on the paper that involved the word, “chessboard.” One woman claimed she was “redesigning her DNA” because she drew a diagram of a chessboard to demonstrate to her the need to rearrange things in her life. The chessboard imagery turned into a 3-D chessboard with another, and then a 2-D chessboard with yet another, and an astral chessboard with someone else, and then someone started on it being a recasting of one’s life movie. The basic principle was if they were creative enough, even in something as simple as changing the room one is in when fighting with a relative, they can change the course of their entire life.

The obvious appeal is one of the illusion of control; the people felt that if they apply the principles of Eckankar to their lives, they will be more in control of what happens to them. All it takes is thinking or looking at something differently to master that desired control. The problem with their concept is that it is, indeed, an illusion. Even in a game of chess, our moves on the board are not dictated by us alone. They are counter-moves, created in response to our opponent. They move, we move; we defend, we check, we checkmate as we go around the board and use the different pieces to accomplish different things. We can’t just rearrange pieces on a chessboard; and we can’t just rearrange life, either. But this group creates the illusion that life can be controlled by following an abstract guide of principles that does not challenge, nor really change, its adherents.

Before leaving, my mom asked the man we were seated with how he came to find the Eckankar group. He started an extensive story that I was concerned was not only going to be long, but also boring, and was, indeed, both. He went back to his childhood where he claimed the ability to astrally project himself while his father walked around at night and then later got interested in Franciscan spirituality through a Tridentine brotherhood on Long Island. I’m going to skip some of the details in here that aren’t really relevant, because I don’t feel like recounting them. He came to Eckankar because of their acceptance of astral projection and because they don’t require him to make a steady commitment away from any other belief system. He was quick to say he gets interested in honoring Jesus at Christmas and has no qualms about practicing anything else, whether it’s Buddhism or Christianity, because he feels there are many paths “up the mountain.”

His attitude annoyed me and I had long had enough of prattling rudeness passed off as intellectualism. He wasn’t moved by learning I was a minister, that we had been Catholic and we really didn’t care to have him patronizingly explain “chanting” to us, and he made a rude remark about my mother’s age. He gave no consideration to the fact that we might actually know something about what he spoke of, or that we might actually know more than he did. So yeah, since he said there was nothing wrong with multiple paths, I asked him, “How can you possibly walk on two different paths at the same time?”

He was annoyed by this time and tried to talk about taking deep paths up the mountain. He even quoted Joseph Campbell, who I know of and know the context of what he said and somehow it sounded different here. He also pronounced “contemplative” “contem-plative,” which made me wonder just who he was hanging out with, because the speaker pronounced several words incorrectly, as well. It was amazing how a few carefully placed questions challenged him to a place where he was not only uncomfortable, he was unprepared.

I left the building without a single introduction, nobody asked our names, one or two told us we could go have refreshments with them, but I really wasn’t comfortable doing that. We’d been treated as if we were lepers the whole time, and that was not a nice feeling. The sterility got to me, and I was ready to leave.

What did I learn?

Christ transcends constructs – Christianity is the only world religion that seems to have the ability to fit into every culture, worldwide. It has made its appearance and home among different thoughts, understandings, and structures. This speaks to its truth and solidifies it in a way that other religions often do not experience.

Be nice – I can’t believe it’s 2017 and I have to tell others to be nice to people, but I guess I have to after my experience today. The Bible reminds us that we never know who walks among us, so it is important to be kind and hospitable. I’ll agree that some of what I have experienced in church is a little extreme and it can be off-putting to be hugged by 15 people you don’t know, but there is something to be said for genuine affection: a handshake, a hug, saying hello, greeting someone, and showing genuine interest in them, whether they return to your church, or not.

If we aren’t challenged, we aren’t prepared to answer – The people in the Eckankar group I saw were comfortable with one another, but notably uncomfortable with others. Their system doesn’t challenge them to make real change or be real change, and they don’t know how to handle challenges. When we isolate ourselves like that, we become the utmost authorities about everything, and this is bad because none of us corner the market on information. We can always learn, always explore, always experience something new. When others disagree with us, we should rise to learn about our own beliefs and how we can explain them better instead of trying to avoid our own limitations.

Agreement is powerful – The Bible teaches us that two cannot walk together, unless they be agreed. In this particular group, it was obvious no one agreed, even on the basics. They interpreted them all differently and understood things in varying ways, which caused confusion. You can’t be a Christian and in a system that doesn’t even mention Christ. There are differences in religions and in religious beliefs for a reason. In Christianity, we recognize there are things we don’t always agree upon, but the essentials of faith – Ephesians 4 – need to guide our belief, because if we don’t have foundations, we sound like the disagreeable Eckankar people.

Delusion is also powerful – The illusion of control and power over one’s life is definitely appealing. We all can feel like too many things are random and that we are the cosmic butt of a nasty, universal behind-kicking. We can’t control other people and sometimes responding to others doesn’t feel adequate. Pretending we can, however, by changing our thinking, strategically placing our movements, or meditating is delusional. We change our world by making changes; by doing concrete things, guided by God and our faith, to bring about change. No amount of meditation or wishful thinking is going to substitute our own needed deeds for actions.

Words do mean things – When the group referred to “Eck” as the “Holy Spirit,” I was deeply grieved. This was beyond blasphemy, as the Holy Spirit does not fit within the construct of the group. They use this term, however, to make you think everything is one and the same, all acceptable, and all variable in form. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit; Eck is Eck is Eck, if Eck is even, arguably, a real thing in religious definition. Alternative groups and cults are quick to use this form of word-play to make you think you are all on the same page. We, as believers, must be cautious about terminology we use; how it is properly defined; and how it is properly used, both by ourselves and others.

Learn to limit your wordiness – I get notably impatient with people who take too long to get to the point. If you have to get long-winded every time you talk, you are talking too much. Everyone doesn’t need to hear the entirety of your stories…or your thoughts…or your entire life. We should all be able to give testimony in three forms: In under one minute, in under five minutes, and in complete form. None of us should have to prattle on endlessly every time we are asked a question about ourselves. No one is that interested.

New doesn’t equal truth any more than old does – It’s just as much a mistake to assume a new group is more truthful than an old one as it is to assume an old one is more truthful than a new one. New doesn’t equate to fact, and we should all be highly cautious when it comes to embracing any group that does not have some sort of grounding in a belief system that can trace itself back more than a few generations. If a group has to grapple and make things up because it does not adhere to an ancient system or tie to something tried and true…be very cautious with its embrace.

There’s a difference between science and pseudo-science – Many modern religious groups, such as Scientology and yes, even Eckankar, fall into the category of “pseudo-science.” The term literally means “false science” and is used to indicate something sounds scientific, medical, healthful, or plausible within a provable or scientific context, but there is no such evidence, even in the face of research, to prove that any of it is real. Be very careful with the “alternative” things you accept, because many of them do not have a basis in reality.

“Though logical systems often speak about turning the opportunities into reality, everything is not so simple. There’s a decisive moment in between them – the anxiety.” (Paul Tillich, Existentialist philosopher and Lutheran theologian)

(c) 2017 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.

Blasting Into Oriental Orthodoxy

BEFORE today, it had been well over a decade since I last visited a church that I was not preaching for or attending as a ministerial guest. Once upon a time, I did what I did today all the time. I used to visit different services every Sunday to get an up-close-and-personal perspective on what people believed and what they did. Once I ran the gamut of availability, I stopped and focused more on other ways of ministry development and study. I never stopped learning but attending different services every week wasn’t feasible. Sometimes I had to preach, sometimes I had to minister, and sometimes I was busy maintaining my own congregations and groups. I’d also seen a good portion of the denominations we associate with western experience, and nothing in them was changing enough to merit new visits.

When I started teaching a seminary class on missions a few weeks ago, I had no idea I would be challenged to do exactly what my students were assigned to do. Over the years, I have not only visited services, I have also ministered in Puerto Rico, Hispanic churches, minority churches, and in Europe, so I am not a stranger to variances in ethnic faith dispersions. The only thing that has been kind of consistent is most of the churches I minister in for the past decade or so have been Pentecostal or neo-Pentecostal. Every now and then I would hit up a Baptist church, but they were always Baptists with strong Pentecostal ties and roots, so that doesn’t count as going somewhere different. Yet in the instructions for the course, which is mostly involved in looking at missions from a multicultural and diverse perspective, there is an assignment to visit an ethnically different church from your own, to learn more about Christians and the Christian experience in a country that interests you in missions.

For almost a year, we had our own church property here in Raleigh, which kept me notably busy. After it was time to move out (due to mold) and then wait to relocate (which I am still waiting on), there was no real reason to seek out another building. When you are a church leader and you’ve run your own gamut preaching in and out of local places, there aren’t many options when you are waiting on your next move except to stay home a lot. We all know how people immediately start giving you words about joining their church and leaving what you do to become a part of them, and I have been down that road once too many times to desire to entertain it any more. I know who I am and what I am called to do, and if that means waiting…it means waiting.

I heard my own challenge to my students in my words, the call to learn more about the churches that exist in different places. Ever since I started studying more of missions and the history therein, I have taken a particular fascination with the Assyrian Church of the East, or the Nestorian Church. I’ve wanted to see their liturgy for as long as I can remember, so when I discovered a church that had ties to the Syrian language and history, I was quick to say, this is where I want to visit first. It was going to be my first brush with Oriental Orthodoxy, which I knew was different from the Eastern Orthodoxy I’d already seen. This church was a part of Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, descending from the St. Thomas Christians of India. Even though it wasn’t a part of the Assyrian Church, it had enough similarities and similar roots to make me happy. I delighted in it all week. I went and told other people about it, who were jealous I was going to see a liturgy in Syriac. I was thrilled.

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Me, outside my apartment, as I prepare to leave for my encounter with Oriental Orthodoxy.

I carefully plan my attire, and I worried about it for days. I settled on a blue two-piece suit that I’d found recently at Ross’ through a brush of divine favor, but I still wasn’t sure. I was worried it might be too…blue. After all, when I attended a Divine Liturgy years earlier, everyone was wearing black, like it was a funeral. The Eastern Orthodox I had met were staunch and rather mean, looking down on each and every Christian group in existence because they felt we were all not Christian enough to stand up to their antiquity. So I had no idea what to do. But I was careful to make sure my outfit matched, and was washable, because I hate the smell of incense and I knew they were going to use it some.

I stood all dressed and ready to go, and my coordination was spot on. There was just one problem. I left the bathroom and found my mother, who was coming to the service with me.

“I look Pentecostal.”

She gave me a look that only mothers give to their daughters and said, “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know, I look Pentecostal. Everyone is going to know that we don’t belong in this church. I am even wearing blue, the pristine color of stereotypical Pentecostal polyester.”

I think my mom was trying to ignore me at this point, especially because she was concerned about how her sweater was looking its age, but what I was trying to express is that my suit, like every other suit I have bought in the past ten years, was a little on the flashy side. It had glitter on it and my shoes were blue glitter and even my jewelry had a glittery hint to it when it hit the light. I looked like a Pentecostal. Of course, I am a Pentecostal, so of course I look like one, but I didn’t expect it to be so…obvious.

It’s not bad enough that Oculo-Cutaneous Albinism causes me to look like the person with the whitest skin tone in every room I am in. I am also short (4’11”), with puffy blonde hair (that came out perfectly, by the way), spike heels (4.5 inches as of this particular day), now I looked like a Pentecostal dyed in the blue tradition of 100% polyester glitz and glamor, and I was going to an Orthodox Church.

Sigh. I was not changing. We were going to the church, and if that meant everyone in there turned around and stared at me, that was what it was going to mean. I was going to go as myself. Off to St. Gregorios Indian Orthodox Church of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church we were to go.

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St. Gregorios Indian Orthodox Church

Trying to explain Oriental Orthodoxy is extremely difficult, especially if one has no frame of reference for Orthodoxy in general. It is not readily studied in western seminaries, which typically trace their history through Roman Catholicism (at least to some extent). History is written by the victors, and that means we almost treat eastern and Oriental Christians as if they aren’t even believers. Because the Orthodox communion was deemed heretical at different points in Christian history (for things most of us wouldn’t even care about today, and I shall explain more on this in a little bit), they have been considered as good as irrelevant and unimportant. We don’t study their histories and the way we see their churches, they were a part of the “right” church until they willfully broke away, as is taught in westernized church history, over matters that make them doctrinally errant…or so we are told.

Even the best seminarian from the top school was lied to about schisms and church unity. We are presented a version of history, often even among those who are not a part of the Catholic Church, that Christianity was, at one time, perfectly unified. If you start digging into realities, however, the truth is that there have always been marked differences between Christian understandings found in the west and east. When we talk about “west” and “east,” it is a sort of understanding of faith as falls between Europe and near-Asian lines, starting with the Middle East and Africa, and working through points of India, Pakistan, Turkey, and even Eastern Europe. From the very beginning, Christianity has been different in the east than it is in the west, and many of the politics, polarities, and even spiritual understandings have always been radically different. It seems impossible for western minds to comprehend that the same apostles, taught by the same Jesus, were founders and influencers of Christianity that appears markedly different in different places, so we sort of botch over Christian history. We make it sound like people were rebellious and difficult and just refused to submit to established authority, rather than understanding that differing perspectives and differing authority has always been in place since the beginning.

Proof of this is evident nowhere more than in the Orthodox Churches, of which there are three main divisions, then several different subdivisions, and literally thousands of different communions, organizations, groups, and solidarities that have formed throughout their formation.

Westerners don’t typically have experience with the Orthodoxy in any form unless they live in communities near or of immigrants who practice the various ethnic Orthodoxies found in the world. If one does have an Orthodox frame of reference, it is, most likely, through eastern European organizations, such as the Russian Orthodox or Ukranian Orthodox, those Eastern Orthodox churches that resulted from the Great Schism of 1054. Many compare Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism, but this is quite incorrect. It is also incorrect to compare different orthodox groups to one another, because even they can vary from one to another.

The term “Orthodox” literally means “right teaching.” The Orthodox identify themselves as such due to the different identities as relate to the various schisms to indicate they have the correct, or traditional teaching, whereas the church of the west has deviated from truth. In order to understand where the histories divide, let’s start by looking at what the Orthodox do have in common with traditional churches of the west: they believe in apostolic succession, or the principle that the main authority of the church comes through their bishopric. This means they believe their leadership traces all the way back to the original apostles and disciples of Christ who, in turn, left “successors” after their death (bishops) who were ordained with the same power as them, who then did the same thing upon their death. They believe this has created an unbroken line of tradition, which means the traditions, practices, and teachings of their church are the same as those of the first-century believers. They accept the authority of the early ecumenical councils of the church (how many they accept varies from group to group), which were early formations of what the church was to believe and how it was to structure itself (contrary to what they might teach, the councils do prove their church formation does not go back to the apostles, but I digress). Orthodox of all sorts accept all believers and saints as their own up to the point of their breaks, thereafter embracing their own unique set of saints and believers. They all classify themselves as Trinitarian, but the way they believe in the specific nature and identity of the persons of the Trinity vary, mostly in ways people don’t get what the big deal is about, but are identifying markers for their unique theologies. They believe in liturgy (although they have different forms), all of which equate to highly structured, ritualized worship. They also adhere to sacraments (although the number, way they are executed, and the rules surrounding them often vary) and a yearly liturgical cycle. They all have leadership that consists of bishops, priests, and deacons, in one way or another. They also chant through their entire services without the use of instruments, and members are expected to stand through most, if not all, of their liturgy.

Beyond these commonalities, the various Orthodox churches are all very different from western Christianity and also from one another. It can be quite overwhelming to witness, especially if one is not familiar with liturgical traditions of any sort. To sort through the minefield, I am going to attempt to break down the major forms of Orthodoxy and highlight some of their major differences, differing points, and history.

Oriental Orthodoxy – Oriental Orthodoxy is known by many different names (Old Oriental, Non-Chalcedonian, and Monophysite, among others) and ethnic church identities. It came into its own unique, specified identity after the Council of Chalcedon, which defined the nature of Christ as having two natures in one person (human and divine). Prior to this time, the church upheld the belief that Jesus was only one being, though divine and human, in only one nature. When this change came down the line, the churches who resisted it were seen as conceding to Nestorianism (the belief that Jesus had two natures and two wills). I am not sure how this was understood, since these churches in question believed that Jesus had only one nature and one will, but that one will was human and divine. It’s all a “who really gives a crap” now kind of thing, because it was the work of theologians trying to figure out aspects of Jesus we will never understand, but back then, it was taken with such severity, it divided churches. It’s kind of simplistic to define the schism this simply, because the truth is that there were already issues and divisions over authority, doctrine, and who answers to who long before the issue of natures and wills ever came up. As this form of independent Orthodoxy is so ancient, it does have traditions that overlap with other Orthodox groups generally unaccepted by one another, including Nestorian Orthodoxy, which we shall discuss next. Oriental Orthodoxy has a long and sorted history, including many battles with western forces of colonization, church controls, and loss of traditions due to invaders within their nations. In our modern times, it is most readily associated with certain ethnic groups that trace themselves back generations in observance from their own native countries. Such groups include India (Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church), Syrian (Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church), Armenian (Armenian Apostolic Church), French Coptic (French Coptic Orthodox Church), Alexandrian (Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria), Etriean (Etriean Orthodox Tewahedo Church), and Ethiopian (Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church). They are few and far between, and difficult to locate in the western world. Oriental Orthodox celebrate Holy Qurbana (in form, attributed to the Liturgy of Saint James), or “Eucharist,” as they call it, celebrated primarily in the original liturgical Syrian language. Most trace their roots back to the St. Thomas Christians of the Orient, especially in India. They accept the first three ecumenical councils of the church, and use the Peshitta Bible, which is the Syriac version translated from the Aramaic and believed to be the original foundation for the New Testament prior to Greek. This is not necessarily accepted in the west, but it is worth noting the Peshitta contains many important idiomatic references and concepts within its translation that are not always so clearly spelled out nor identified in western Bible translations.

Nestorian Orthodoxy – Nestorian Orthodoxy is frequently confused with Oriental Orthodoxy, and I will admit making this mistake myself. This is because they are extremely similar with the exception of theological difference: they believe Jesus has two distinct natures and two wills, rather than one and the same. They are also known as the Nestorian Church, and trace their roots within the Syriac traditions of oriental Christianity. They use the East Syrian Rite (Assyrian or Persian Rite), which is also used by churches in communion with Rome that maintain their own unique ethnic liturgies (such as the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church). They also celebrate Holy Qurbana in liturgical form, embracing Eastern Syrian Rite, and seeing development in ethnic regions such as India, Syria, Iran, and Russia. It, too, is believed to be founded by Thomas the Apostle and specializes in services in Syriac and Malayalam, much like that of Oriental Orthodoxy. It also overlaps with Oriental Orthodoxy in membership, embracing groups of St. Thomas Christians of India and other places in the ancient world, and has a great deal of division within its ranks. Nestorian Orthodoxy is also known as the Church of the East and includes the Assyrian Church of the East, which have minor schisms and differences among their different ranks. As hard as it is to find an Oriental Orthodox church, it is that much more difficult to find a Nestorian Church, even though their history is far more diverse and includes missions to China and the far east as early as the 600s.

Eastern Orthodoxy – When we think of Orthodoxy, most of us who are familiar with its different strains think of the Russian Orthodox Church or the Greek Orthodox Church, which are noted for their icons, or flat, two-dimensional images of Christ and the saints believed to be windows of their glorification in heaven. Most of us have seen Orthodox icons at some point in time, but I was surprised to learn on my journey through Orthodoxy that not all Orthodox embrace icons. The Eastern Orthodox churches began as a part of what’s called the Great Schism back in 1054. They accept the first seven of the ecumenical councils and also have held nine of their own subsequent councils, all of which upheld their own beliefs. Eastern Orthodox beliefs are unique in many ways, including variances on Trinitarianism, salvation, redemption, sin, eschatology, sainthood, and differences in acceptance of Biblical canon. Eastern Orthodox observe the Divine Liturgy, which in some ways resembles Oriental Orthodox services and in other ways resembles older versions of the Roman Catholic rite, with a few of their own variances and differences. Eastern Orthodox fast throughout much of the year depending on their specified group, and there is a great deal of emphasis placed on personal disciplines, sacrifice, and a general satisfaction of being the right, or only true, existing church. Eastern Orthodox Churches are associated with cultures, and those cultures indicate the language the Divine Liturgy and different prayers are spoken in, especially Russian and Greek. The main communion recognizes fifteen different groups, including American, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Greece, Cyprus, Albania, Czech and Slovakia, and Poland.

Then there are the Byzantine Rite churches, which I am not going to get into too much for the sake of space. Byzantine Rite churches hold services within the traditional framework of liturgy and language of their cultural identities, but are in full communion with Rome. They do not have the same requirements as Roman Catholic churches (such as celibate clergy), but they adhere to the governance of Rome. They are also known as Eastern-rite Catholic Churches. These include the Marionite Church, Byzantine Church, Alexandrian Church, and Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which specifically was a part of the Assyrian Church of the East before the Second Vatican Council.

One of my particular interests with Orthodoxy is that I believe they are the modern-day filter for much of Gnosticism, at least the spirituality of which that was absorbed into the eastern churches. It’s worth noting that the eastern churches have always been far more mystical than those of the west, and it is not surprising that the Gospel of Thomas and other Thomasine writings were associated with eastern spiritual understanding.

Before I went, I assumed the group was a part of the Assyrian Church of the East due to its affiliation with the Syriac Church. It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption, as they are from the same time frame and alike in many ways. The church itself was a modern structure, built in only 2013. It had those red chairs we have in all our churches, which was disappointing to me. I was like, if I am going to see something different, I don’t want to see chairs that I’ve seen at a thousand other churches over the past twenty years. But I was willing to overlook that. The church was also not as ornate as I expected. There were two pictures on the wall: one of Mary with Jesus as an infant, which I had seen as a Catholic child and did not look remotely like it was from India, at all, and one of a man I am assuming is St. Gregorios, the patron of the church.

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My shoes from today.

My first mistake was not considering my footwear. I wore beautiful blue spike heels that matched my outfit perfectly. If I had been in a Pentecostal church, everyone would fuss over the outfit. Not so where I was. I was standing in those shoes. For two hours. Not sitting. Because no one sits. Not my finest hour. Just a reminder that I am what I am…ouch. In keeping with Indian tradition, I noticed all those in the sanctuary removed their shoes, but since I wasn’t in the main sanctuary, I kept mine on. I wasn’t taking them off, anyway. If someone took off with my shoes, I might not act real holy and I was trying to do right by my school, my class, and well, be a good example. The shoes were staying on. That is, until I took them off and kept them by me because I was going to cut off my feet if I didn’t.

I also made myself crazy beforehand, trying to find out if the church required the women to wear a head covering. In the forms of Eastern Orthodoxy I had experienced prior, they specifically told me I didn’t have to cover my head because hats had become a symbol of wealth and position, and so it didn’t serve the purpose it had before. I sent the church a Facebook message beforehand, asking, but nobody answered me. I get there and every woman had her head covered, and at certain points in the liturgy, they all moved and readjusted their head coverings. So much for trying to be prepared. Me and my puffy blonde hair sat in a room in the back, which I could see the service through a large window and hear everything over the loud speaker.

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Holy Qurbana in progress, from the women’s side of the room.

The congregation sat all the men on one side and all the women on another, and never the twain shall meet. The women wore traditional Indian attire, and the men wore western clothes. The priest was elaborately dressed with extremely fancy robes, and he had at least four different attendants up there to assist with each and every need. They were busy, too. They used incense at least nine times (one man waved it during all the readings and censed the people at least three times, but it seemed like more) and others were busy ringing bells on what appeared to be cymbal-sticks, lighting candles, holding and getting books, and the priest spent most of the service with his back to the people, praying and chanting away. The people also were relatively non-participatory, only responding or speaking on occasion. During the consecration, they drew a curtain, where he performed the rite with his helpers and no one else, because it is regarded as too sacred to be seen. As one who is not a part of the Orthodox Communion, I was not permitted to receive, but I did note communion was received on the tongue via intinction (the bread is dipped in the wine and then given to the participant), and the bread was leavened.

The service was not just in Syriac, but also parts in Malayalam (an Indian language of south India), and short portions of prayers, responses, and readings were also in English. There were also phrases uttered in what sounded like Hebrew (might have been Syriac) and Greek. From what I was able to pick up in English, Bible passages are found throughout the liturgy, which is an interesting learning method for those who were (and maybe are today) illiterate. They don’t vary, however, and are read at specific times, repeatedly. The Bible readings were joined together from different parts of the Bible, and sometimes the way they read didn’t make sense to me as a native English speaker. I learned later this is due to the fact that the church falls back on seven different Bible translations, and at any time, any of those seven translations can show up somewhere in the liturgy.

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Holy Qurbana in progress, with the curtain open for the liturgy of the word.

The service itself was different from what I expected, because I expected to see something more along the lines of the Divine Liturgy I had seen earlier in my life. It had some similarities, but it was quite different. I do believe it is an ancient form of worship, but I also think it’s safe to say there have been cultural insertions here and there which have modified things throughout time. The chants were intense, the traditions were notable, it was obvious that attending the church is a part of maintaining the culture where the people were from, and that was of primary interest for those who were there.

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Shirley, a member of the church whose outfit was so beautiful, we had to photograph her!

I was most blessed to speak with some of the church’s members afterward, who were most eager and interested to talk with us about their church and their beliefs. They were quite respectful of my ordination credentials and experience through seminary, and that I was an ordained minister (even though they do not ordain women in their tradition). I tripped up a little with trying to explain what it means to us to be apostolic (five-fold ministry) and Pentecostal, because our usual, standard, long-winded answer was not going to work on people who did not natively speak English. But they were quite impressed with the idea of missions work and seeing how other Christians worship, and fellowshipping with their church. It was obvious they wanted to talk and to share, and it didn’t matter how different I might have looked. They provided me with a few different books detailing their liturgy, both in native languages and in English, and someone gave my mother a children’s book for Sunday school. They also talked about their culture, how they came to live in this area, and one even shared about missing his job now that he was retired and how genuinely scared people are with the current political climate.

Overall, what did I learn? Besides the thought to give more prominence to footwear for appropriate occasions, I came away with:

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Some of the books we were given.

Ancient does not equal authoritative – One of the biggest things Oriental Orthodoxy (and most traditional churches) hang their hats on is the belief that they can trace their leadership back to the time of the apostles. It’s the concept that because the apostles were anointed, they had the power to transfer that same anointing to someone else, and so on and so forth, and that the leaders they have today are still walking in that same exact anointing. It’s a nice idea, but it is an absurd one, for a few reasons. The first, and main reason, is it denies the work of the Holy Spirit as having the ability to transcend to our current era. The anointing each minister has, in each generation, is unique for the work and situations that they will encounter in that time frame. We could say if the anointing breaks the yoke, the Holy Spirit is there to endow us to break the yoke we will encounter in that era. If we are relying on an ancient concept of authority to try and give power today, we are missing the Spirit’s work and activity right now, what He wants to do today. Just because something is old or is the way it’s been done for a long time does not mean it has the authority or power that is needed for our modern times.

Old doesn’t equal authentic – Sometimes we assume something that’s old is authentic, while things that are modern are less authentic. This has to do with our concept of lineage and accountability, and the way that we perceive where we are, right now. It’s often associated, even in modern Christian groups, that old is good and new is bad. We compare now to the “good old days” and think things were better or more authentic once upon a time, and we insist that returning to an old method is the way to revive true authenticity. There are a lot of reasons why this becomes theologically problematic, especially in light that we are assuming what is old was ever authentic to begin with. The biggest challenge we face as Christians is how to take a book that is, in and of itself, old, and make it apply to where we are, right now. Just because things have been done a certain way, even if that certain way has been done for thousands of years, doesn’t mean it is authentic or the way Jesus intended it to be done.

Tradition does not equate to truth – Tradition is one of those sticky topics that no matter how much we study, we can’t seem to agree on how much is enough or how much is not enough. We are quick to denounce tradition in many of our more modern denominations, especially in the face of what I saw today in Oriental Orthodoxy. I won’t deny, what I saw was all tradition, and I agree that tradition is extremely problematic. It doesn’t give us a sense of responsibility in the Christian life and it doesn’t teach us the Word of God, properly and in a way we can understand. It reaches a point where we are doing it to maintain something other than truth, be it our identifications or our own hopes that we won’t lose part of our own identities if we give it up. But I think we need to stop pointing fingers and realize all groups have developed traditions, and we are all quick to fall back on our traditions in order to avoid dealing with the realities God wants us to see within ourselves. Whether it is a long liturgy where everyone stands and walks out smelling like burning trees or the tradition of only using the King James Version of the Bible and insisting it’s best, tradition is tradition is tradition, and whether those traditions are new or old, they all keep us from where we are supposed to be in Him.

All traditions can cloud spiritual realities – As I sat in the back and watched the service, I wondered if the people in that church had any sense of God in their everyday lives. God, hearing from God, learning about God, and developing spiritual insight is such a part of my daily life, I forget it’s not that way for everyone else. If we hang our hat on being right in our traditions and our exteriors, we will overlook the role God desires to play in our lives. Some of us are quiet and some of us are loud, and then there are those of us who try to maintain a balance between the two, but learning how to hear from God for us, ourselves, is an essential part of balancing the Christian lifestyle and learning how to be a believer. We are all called to learn how to be believers for ourselves, without relying on the traditions we hold dear to lead us where we might not be sure we’re going.

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Me, standing outside the church after service.

We’re the heretics western Christian history talks about – Protestants get a bad rap for being divided and disunified. To hear Catholics speak on it, you would think there is nothing worse than the endless parade of Protestant denominations that exist today. I don’t deny non-Catholic western Christianity has its divisions, but a realistic look at Christian history proves divisions and schisms have always existed. The term “heretic” literally means “to change one’s mind.” Most of us started out as one thing, and are now something else. We’ve all left churches because we couldn’t find a point of unity or agreement where we were. It wasn’t as simple as being rebellious or disobedient troublemakers. Most of us left recognizing we already weren’t in union with where we were. Yes, the Orthodox are divided, Catholics are divided, Protestants are divided, people are divided. We are divided because of sin. Only the work of the Spirit can bring us back together, and that requires each of us to do the work of God in our own lives and learn the leading of the Spirit to who we should connect and grow from in our lives. It also means we need to be brave enough to step out and do different things, even if it means history will somehow brand us in a negative light.

Perfect love casts out all fear – Bombings, shootings, attacks, and general disrespect are thrust on foreign churches and immigrants all the time, even if we don’t hear about it. It’s generally understood that people don’t typically receive those who are different from them. When I was first in the church, many of the people seemed unfriendly and awkward. My mom pointed out that many of them are probably afraid. We know why we are there, but they don’t, and as far as they know, we could be there to harass or harm them. A simple conversation, exchange, showing of the meeting of the minds proves that in all things, showing other people great respect removes any barrier of fear that might exist.

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Some of the books we were given.

We talk often about how we can reach the world, especially right where we are. Yes, these are individuals who are immersed in a tradition that means more to them than just “being right.” It is a part of an ancient identity, a culture, something that keeps them together and connected to their ancestry. In a world that doesn’t always embrace diversity, we can prove that Jesus loves them, right where they are, right as they are, by helping, serving, and being willing to talk and listen. So much is gained by learning from others. They might not have agreed with me, but you better believe I intend to send a follow-up email to talk more about the Bible and other understandings, if nothing more, as a witness that we can love others and treat them with respect.

Not bad for a trip that started off with Pentecostal blue polyester and big hair. Always something to be learned. Always someone new to reach. Always missions work to do.

Glory be to Thee, O God,

Glory be to Thee, O Creator,

Glory be to Thee, O King,

Christ, Who does pity sinners, Thy Servants.

Barekmor (Syriac for Bless, Lord).

(From Service Book of The Malankara Orthodox Church, The Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom)

(c) 2017 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.