Entering the Church of Christ
In my days as an Orthodox catechumen, I was rather open to Roman Catholicism, especially since I had a western liturgical heritage, and I had been helped along the way by pious Catholics. Even after reading the anti-Catholic books mentioned above, I was always committed to Christian unity, and initially I believed that Catholics, with the Orthodox, were also a part of “the one true Church.” But very soon (God knows) I became flared up with wrath against Rome, in the same way as I had been as a Protestant. For the wicked man cannot bear for an instant to have any authority telling him what to do (and thus demand he be humble). Rather, he lusts after the unclean pleasure of myopic autonomy at any cost (that is, intransigently insisting that your view point is the only thing valid). In order to do this, the wicked man deceived me into condemning the Papa’s authority as unjust, thereby claiming a moral high ground for myself. It was a cunning trick: concealing pride by accusing of pride the one who claims the authority to rebuke your pride. It is the wicked man’s calculated, preemptive strike. It makes you hate evil (which is good) ((Rom. 12:9; love must be sincere; hate evil, cling to what is good.)) but become unwilling to hate the evil inside yourself. Thus the wicked man, with nefarious craftiness, used against me the good intensions the Righteous Man gave me. It’s simply Adam in the garden—blaming someone else for your own sin.
Now as an Evangelical Protestant, my critique against having a Father in Rome was rather shallow. “It’s not biblical.” The Body of Christ bears the marks of the folly that comes from trying to wield this two-edged sword. But the Orthodox—ah-ha! I was told that they had “the unanimous teaching of the Church Fathers” on their side! Well, now that’s a different story! When I read the stories of bishops rebuking Papa for his incursion into their business, my hatred was enflamed and the wicked man said through me—“The prideful pope of Rome! It’s his fault!” ((Cf. St. Cyprian (against Pope St. Stephen I), St. Basil (against St. Damasus’ ruling regarding Meletios), the Celtic saints resistance to Wilfrid’s vindication of Pascha via Papal Primacy at Whitby in 567, Photios’ excommunication of pope Nicholas I, etc. The Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs 1848, moreover, says that St. Irenaeus “boldly and victoriously opposed and defeated the violence of Pope Victor in the free Church of Christ” (13). On every issue, however, Papa’s ruling seems to have always won, despite opposition.)) Besides this, the most unassailable argument is undoubtedly this—the forgeries. Surely those Vatican notaries had doctored up this whole business about papal primacy! Yes, those evil, prideful, wicked bishops! They were craving power, and they took it all for themselves and divided the Church! ((I refer here to the infamous Donatio Constantini or the so-called “Isidorean Decretals,” both of which do little to aggrandize Papa beyond what the saints have said of him, as will be said below)) I looked at the Holy Father with invincible distrust.
This solution gave me unclean, sinful pleasure—because I now had someone to hate. The wicked man inside me was satisfied, and I was so glad I didn’t have to let anyone tell me what to do. Because in The Orthodox Church, “infallibility resides solely in the ecumenicity of the Church… not of one hierarch but of all the people of the Church.” ((Alexei Kohmiakov, On the Western Confessions of Faith, quoting The Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs (1848))) Thus the laity had a right to govern themselves, and nobody was going to domineer us—we just all submitted to the wisdom of Holy Tradition. Somehow I was hoping that the Orthodox Church would be a democracy.
Blinded by such passions (I had no idea about any of this at the time), I, like many Protestant converts to Orthodoxy in English-speaking lands, never bothered to truly understand Roman Catholicism before I rejected it. The very word “pope” was like a counter-argument in itself—its refutation was a fait accompli to a soul prostituted to the wicked man. I did not evaluate this according to Christian wisdom (even though I thought I had committed myself to the wise). I did not search the Church Fathers to confirm or deny the assertions of these Orthodox polemics. A few quotations was good enough for me, and good enough for my sinful nature—I could submit to wise men of the past, and selectively choose which wise men to listen to (which patristic interpretation), but I sure as hell wasn’t going to be under the pope! I became an Orthodox apologist and polemicist, proving to everyone that the Orthodox Church was the one true Church, and that everything else was an impious derivation therefrom. I saw myself as a pious freedom fighter, liberating others from the tyranny of division, ushering them into the light of Orthodoxy. I was overjoyed to finally have the answer to the division in the Church.
The Sacramental Life
After I was chrismated on Pascha of 2010, I began to receive the Holy Mysteries and begin to live, with God’s help, a Sacramental life—Confession and the Sacrifice of the Eucharist. And like anyone who has entered into the Sacramental life from Protestantism can tell you—it is like night and day. Confession in particular became a crown of thorns to teach me the glory of Christ in humbling myself and piteously pouring forth all of my darkness before another human being: God’s priest. It is the path to humility and wisdom. Confession (thank God) is one of the most powerful weapons of the Righteous Man against the wicked man. I didn’t know it yet, but the Righteous Man was taking hold of a weapon and shield and arising to my help. ((Ps 35:2))
Because I had an authority over me. It was nothing more than Proverbs. He who heeds discipline shows the way to life, but he who ignores correction leads others astray. As I lived the Sacramental life, God’s grace began to open my eyes to see more of that wicked face—oh God, he was all around me! My wounds are loathsome and corrupt, Because of my foolishness. ((Ps. 38:5)) Mine eye wastes away because of grief; It grows old because of all mine adversaries. ((Ps. 6:7))
Under the direction of my confessor, I began reading from the lives of the Saints. I began to see their wisdom. They taught that obedience is the swiftest route to humility. ((See, for example, the life of St. John of Damascus from the Lives of the Saints by St. Dimitri Rostov)) I read the classical ascetical text of St. Ignatii Brianchaninov, The Arena. ((This text brings together much of the ascetical wisdom of the eastern fathers, and was published before Brianchaninov’s death in 1867. It is still read on Mt. Athos.)) That changed my life. He related the patristic view that “the voluntary giving of advice is a sign that we regard ourselves as possessed of spiritual knowledge and worth, which is a clear sign of pride and self-deception.” The privilege of judgment and teaching should be reserved for those appointed to the task. ((See Branchininov, The Arena, trans. Lazarus (Jordanville, 1997), 53)) I was also directed to read St. John Cassian, the greater founder of western monasticism. In his Institutions he writes:
It is dangerous to judge others because, being unaware of the need or the motive out of which they do things offensive to us but either correct or excusable in God’s sight, we put ourselves in the position of having judged them rashly; in this we commit no small sin by thinking of our brothers other than we ought.” ((St. John Cassian, Institutes, bk. 5.30 in Boniface Ramsey, trans. (Paulist, 2000), 134))
And again in the Conferences:
The knowledge of everything is attained by those who think well and with simplicity about all matters and who strive to imitate faithfully rather than to discuss everything that they see being taught or done by the elders. But whoever begins to learn by discussion will never enter into the reason for the truth, because the enemy will see him trusting in his own judgment rather than in that of the fathers and will easily drive him to the point where even things which are very beneficial and salutary will seem useless and harmful to him. The clever foe will so play upon his presumption that, stubbornly clinging to his own unreasonable understanding, he will persuade himself that only that is holy which he considers to be correct and righteous, guided by his erroneous obstinacy alone. ((St. John Cassian, Conferences, 18.3 in Boniface Ransey, trans. (Paulist, 1997), 636))
As I read these words my spirit was in ashes and my heart mourned for the multitude my sins. Mine iniquities are gone over my head: As a heavy burden they are too heavy for me. ((Ps. 38:4)) Oh wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death?
I began to submit myself to my confessor, to other priests, to seek their advice and not my own. The grace of the Righteous Man began to penetrate my spirit. I saw my sin like the gaping horror it was, and my hatred for the wicked man was beginning to grow towards perfect hatred. At the same moment, an unspeakable joy began to enter my heart, as God soothed me into surrendering to obedience and humility. I began to understand the exhortation of Holy Scripture: submit to one another out of fear of Christ. ((Eph. 5:21)) I began to find great joy in submission and obedience. It was the path to humility! It was the wisdom of Proverbs. It was the beginning of repentance.
But as the Righteous Man was waging war against the wicked man inside me (and I was trying my best to not get in the way), I began to learn some disturbing truths. The Orthodox Church was not what I was told it was. I was told that Orthodoxy was completely unified with no need for a pope. But some mischief began to appear among the Orthodox episcopacy. One of our bishops was treated rather unjustly by his superior and I was told (by reliable sources) that racism was the motivation and bribery the means. In response, our bishop simply moved to another jurisdiction in order to be under a different authority. This struck me as deeply disturbing. Of course I was not going to be under the illusion that wicked priests did not exist. But even if all that was alleged was not true, there was still something there that didn’t sit right. In the early Church, didn’t bishops appeal to Rome to be vindicated from something unjust like that? Sure, sometimes the pope’s decision was not accepted, ((I refer here particularly to the Meletian-Paulinan schism or to the Photian schism among other examples)) but at least a structure existed to judge between bishops. But as I read more and talked to other Orthodox Christians, I discovered a deep-seated rivalry between the Greek Orthodox and the Russian Orthodox. Two competing primacies. What was this? That didn’t seem right. I knew some Church history, and I knew that if the pope of Rome was in heresy, then Constantinople should be the new court of appeals. There must be, as Ignatii stated, the “one who is appointed to judge.” ((Constantinople did in fact claim this right in the synodal tomos of 1663, which attempted to block the ascendency of Moscow as Third Rome. This is cited in Laurent Cleenewerck, His Broken Body, 133)) But from what I was reading, it seemed that many Orthodox—whole churches, and by far the largest one, Russia—would never submit to that authority. Where then, was the virtue of obedience? Of humility? This deeply disturbed me.
I began to think about the autocephalous organization of the Orthodox Churches. Were they all independent of one another? Was there no structure of obedience that could humble us all and unite us? I began to realize that there must be something to be said about Rome’s approach. To make matters worse, the Orthodox priests I knew were themselves divided on this issue. Some were favorable toward Rome, some were less than favorable.
Then something happened. Because of the sacramental grace given me by the Righteous Man in confession, I realized my own folly. I had completely dismissed the Roman Catholic view point. I had not investigated it as I had the Orthodox faith. I had not read their catechism, their apologetics, or their patristic evidence. I had not tried to look at Catholicism on its own merits. Everything I knew about Catholicism I learned from Orthodox sources (save of course, those basic things my pious friends taught me). Why did I do this? I had actually rejected something without first understanding it—and I had rejected it according to my own wisdom, not the wisdom of our forefathers and mothers. I remembered telling this to an Orthodox convert friend who also treated Rome the same way. I said, “So are we still Protestants then?”
I realized that in my sinful desire to be without authority I had actually unconsciously wanted the Papacy to be heresy (the wicked man had deceived me, as I said above). That’s when I realized that the issue of universal fatherhood in the Church is really a spiritual issue. It’s like talking to an Atheist about God. You can argue with the most unassailable rhetoric and logic, and at the end of the day he’s not going to open his heart to God, unless he allows the Spirit to touch his heart. The reason is because his sinful nature values its own autonomy. If he were to believe in God, he would have to change his whole lifestyle. He would then be under an authority.
So too with the Papacy. Even the thought that an authority can be over me to ultimately check my autonomy immediately engenders a knee-jerk rejection from my sinful nature. Since obedience is the swiftest route to humility, our pride can never countenance such a thing. The wicked man will convince you unconsciously to believe anything but that.
Source: Pater Noster (Wordpress)
Used with permission.