Strange Places

There seems to be a lot of interest in Eastern Christianity among Catholic blogs, which I am unable to grasp entirely, given that most Catholics don’t even know that Eastern Rite Catholics (or the Orthodox) exist. Of course, the oblivion is understandable; for every Eastern Rite parish, there are at least a thousand Latin Rite parishes, and Eastern Rite Catholics are limited to a few areas in the US.

Pennsylvania is one of the few states where there are, at least comparatively, a great many Eastern Christians, both Eastern Rite Catholics and Orthodox. There are six Byzantine Catholic parishes in Indiana, and one hundred and twenty here in Pennsylvania, and that doesn’t count the Melkites or Ukrainian Catholics, both of whom are well represented here (and there are even more Orthodox than Eastern Rite Catholics in Pennsylvania, mostly Slavs who immigrated here to work the coal mines and the steel mills). Yet even here, they are the forgotten stepchild of the Church.

This is surely, at least in part, because the Eastern Rite Catholics have far more in common with the Orthodox than they do the Latins. They use the Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil, so are liturgically identical, or nearly so, to the Orthodox, and strange to the Latins.1, 2  They follow the same liturgical calendar as the Orthodox, and not the Latins.3  Go to the official Byzantine Catholic Church webpageand peruse the sources and conversations on the forum: They’re indistinguishable from the Orthodox.1   (The English text of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as used by the Byzantine Catholic Church is here; the Orthodox, and other autonomous Eastern Rite Catholic churches use the same liturgy, but each its own translation. If you’re interested in the liturgical music, you can view the Byzantine chants here, and listen here. As with the liturgical translation, each group has its own system of chants, although all have eight tones, which correspond to the modes of the western Gregorian chants.)

Some churches have been architecturally Latinized. A fair number, for example, contain pews, which never developed in the East, and not until relatively recently in the West. I have been in one Greek Orthodox church (St George in Knoxville, Tennessee) with an organ (instrumental music was never allowed in Eastern Christianity, and does not occur in most Eastern parishes). The forced westernization of Russia by Peter the Great bled over into the church, and what are today traditional Slavic icons look more West than East. The Slavs were also the only group of Eastern Christians to allow polyphonic liturgical music, and is today the only Eastern polyphonic system of chant (though technically, they aren’t chants); however, many parishes of other jurisdictions use Slavic liturgical music.

Extra-liturgical sacred music, however, does not exist in Eastern Christianity. There are no hymns. There is only the chanted liturgy. Both Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky wrote liturgical music, but “wrote” is an overstatement. Had they composed the music, it would not be allowed to be performed. They rewrote the harmonies, but left the tones intact, as they were required to do. There is no Eastern equivalent of the Missa Solemnis.

The whole Divine Liturgy, and the Divine Services, are chanted, and all but the smallest parishes have choirs. If you are a Western Christian, Catholic or Protestant, you are probably visualizing the “passive” worship of Roman Catholics prior to 1970, understandable, but incorrect. This “passsive” worship never developed in the East. Members of the congregation chant along with the choir (or in a parish too small to have a choir, alone), except for the equivalent of the Propers. The Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel readings are chanted. The only thing that is not chanted in an Eastern liturgy is the homily.

Eastern worship is more physical than Catholic, and far more physical than Protestant, worship. Eastern Christians do not genuflect, but have three worshipful actions that roughly correspond.

There is the bow, in which one lowers his head, often while making the Sign of the Cross. Eastern Christians typically bow when censed or blessed by the priest (and if you’re curious, cross themselves from right to left to mirror the priest, who makes the Sign of the Cross from left to right). There is the metanoia, performed most often when reverencing icons, where one crosses himself, then bends at the waist and lets the fingers of his right hand brush the floor, and then rises; the metanoia is always performed three times in succession, and reverencing icons involves making the metanoia twice, then kissing the icon, then making the third metanoia. Finally, there is the full prostration, in which one falls to one’s kees, places his hands before his knees on the floor, then touches his forehead to the floor, and rises (because Christ arose from the dead). Eastern Christians do not kneel, save during certain liturgies in Lent. There is certainly nothing “passive” about Eastern worship, and to an Eastern Christian, most Western worship seems “passive.”

Eastern Christians are liturgically conservative to an extent most Western Christians would find at least odd, if not a bit disturbing. This is partly because Western Christians view liturgy as a superficiality, whereas Eastern Christians see it as the fullness of the communal church, and the expression of the apostolic faith. The East also has far more laity who are fascinated by theology, a distinctive feature of the East that has existed back to the earliest days of the Church. Eastern Christians view prayer, liturgy, and theology as inseperable parts of one whole, the expression of the apostolic faith, and many can discuss at great length the disctinctions between the monophysite and monothelite heresies, or can discuss the seven Ecumenical Councils in detail. You are unlikely to find a practicing Eastern Christian who needs to look at a book to remember the Nicene Creed, or the Divine Liturgy as a whole, and many Eastern parishes have no equivalent of the Missal(ette) available in the church. There is a whole discussion on the Byzantine forum devoted to whether “and became a man” in the newest translation introduces heresy into the Nicene Creed, and whether there is, in fact, a theological distinction between “and became man,” “and became a man,” and “and became a human being,” and what heresies the re-translations do or do not introduce. You’re unlikely to ever see this kind of discussion on a Catholic forum, and even less likely to see it on a Protestant forum. Whereas heresy is a somewhat quaint and outdated concept in the West, save among the most traditional and conservative, and most of those Catholics, it is a very important, living concept in Eastern Christianity. Even the slightest deviation from the apostolic faith is taken very seriously.

Consequently, no “liturgical modernization” movement has ever taken hold in Eastern Christianity, nor is it likely to. An “updated” translation of the Divine Liturgy has been published by the Byzantine Catholic Church, but no parish is required to use it, and from what I have seen, very few do.

The truly fundamental differences between East and West aren’t theological, but philosophical. These distinctions are numerous, and I cannot tackle them all, at least not in one post. But I can tackle one or two here, both of which partly are due to historical reasons.

In both the West and East, the hierarchy and monasteries maintained a tense, often oppositional, relationship. In the West, this problem was (mostly) solved by allowing monasteries to be autonomous, as they are today, subject to their own heirarchies, answerable only to the Vatican. The result was that over time, monasteries became more and more separated from the rest of the church, and lost what influence they had once held. Today, we see this in the fact that few Catholic churches regularly offer the Liturgy of the Hours, or in the softened expectations of the laity.

This would not have been a solution in the East, where no strong central authority had developed, and monasteries had always been autonomous. In the East, the monastics usually won the struggle, and gained even more power in the church (to this day, Eastern bishops are chosen from the monasteries). The monastic tradition of Christianity as a rigorous, daily struggle was cemented into the life of the church, so that even today, Eastern Christians observe a fast approximately half the year. In Eastern Christianity, the equivalent of the Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Services, are chanted in the parish. When a Western Christian tells me he is going to an Eastern church, I always tell him to wear the most comfortable shoes he owns, no matter what they look like: Serious, practicing Eastern Christians spend many more hours in church than their Western counterparts, and even not counting Matins before, Divine Liturgy will run close to an hour and a half. And the shoes? Well, most Eastern churches have no pews, so unless you’re going to sit on the floor, like everybody does during the homily, you stand. You’ll soon find why all of those people are gently rocking back and forth.

Eastern churches are forbidden by Canon Law to offer more than one Divine Liturgy per day at the same altar, and anticipatory liturgies are non-existant.

A word about differing church etiquette, only because Westerners, particularly Catholics or high church Episcopalians, are likely to find it a bit disconcerting. The concept of “on time” doesn’t appear to have developed in the East. The parish here, for example, begins Sunday Matins at 9 o’clock (Matins lasts about an hour and runs directly into Divine Liturgy, that is, there is no break between the two), and Divine Liturgy is over anywhere from 12:15 to 12:30. Matins begins on time, but Eastern Christians feel no compusion to arrive on time. If you go at 9 o’clock, you may be one of only fifteen or so there; people arrive when they arrive, and nobody notices or pays them any mind, because, well, that’s the way it is (typically, the church is packed by the time Divine Liturgy starts, and most arrive during Matins).

When Catholics arrive, they genuflect, then kneel in prayer. If Catholics arrive after Mass has begun, most will participate with the rest of the congregation, that is, not kneel in prayer. This is in direct opposition to the East.

When Eastern Christians arrive, no matter what is going on in the church, they reverence the icons, then find someplace to stand (there are no pews). Eastern worship seems a bit messy as a result to Western Christians, at least until everyone is there. Also, different jurisdictions have different customs, and many Eastern parishes in the US are pan-ethnic, so you will see different people crossing themselves a different number of times (once or thrice), performing menaions at different times, and doing different things in general. It’s rather silly to worry about doing what everyone else is doing, since everyone else isn’t doing the same thing.

If you are not Orthodox, you may not commune. However, the Eucharist is taken a great deal more seriously in the East than in the West. For one thing, many Eastern Christians do not commune every Sunday. More importantly, the Eastern priest takes his duty as the guardian of the chalice far more seriously than his Western counterpart. Even if you are a Roman Catholic at an Eastern Rite liturgy, do not approach unless you have first talked with the priest, who may require you to make a confession first. I cannot stress this enough. And make sure you ask the priest, if it is your first time, how you should commune; in the East, the (leavened) bread is mixed with the wine and hot water in the chalice, and the priest places it on your tongue with a spoon (photo here). It’s very different, and even if you may commune, check with the priest about how before you do. Eastern priests expect not only regular confession, but regular attendance, and most Eastern priests do not consider only every Sunday regular attendance. Both the Byzantine and Orthodox priests here expect attendance at Vespers as well as Matins and Liturgy on Sundays. The Orthodox parish offers Vespers and confessions every Wednesday and Saturday evening, and the priest expects attendance on Wednesday evenings, as well as Holy Days, in order to receive the Eucharist. Both priests require regular confessions.

Eastern Christian homes typically contain shrines, as Roman Catholic homes typically did before the Protestantization of the church in 1970. Many Eastern Christians have a daily cycle of prayers, often the Divine Services (the equivalent of the Liturgy of the Hours), and the Jesus Prayer. These prayers are offered in front of the shrine. Eastern Christian homes (and businesses) are blessed by the priest in the weeks following Theophany.

Another distinction which I will touch on, and elaborate further in a later post, is that Eastern Christianity is masculine, while Western Christianity is feminine. Frederica Mathewes-Green, who converted to Orthodoxy from Protestantism, has discussed this at length, but for now, let’s take her article, Men and Church.

In a time when churches of every description are faced with Vanishing Male Syndrome, men are showing up at Eastern Orthodox churches in numbers that, if not numerically impressive, are proportionately intriguing. This may be the only church which attracts and holds men in numbers equal to women. As Leon Podles wrote in his 1999 book, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity, “The Orthodox are the only Christians who write basso profundo church music, or need to.”

Rather than guess why this is, I emailed a hundred Orthodox men, most of whom joined the Church as adults. What do they think makes this church particularly attractive to men? Their responses, below, may spark some ideas for leaders in other churches, who are looking for ways to keep guys in the pews.


The term most commonly cited by these men was “challenging.” Orthodoxy is “active and not passive.” “It’s the only church where you are required to adapt to it, rather than it adapting to you.” “The longer you are in it, the more you realize it demands of you.” 

The “sheer physicality of Orthodox worship” is part of the appeal. Regular days of fasting from meat and dairy, “standing for hours on end, performing prostrations, going without food and water [before communion]…When you get to the end you feel that you’ve faced down a challenge.” “Orthodoxy appeals to a man’s desire for self-mastery through discipline.” 

“In Orthodoxy, the theme of spiritual warfare is ubiquitous; saints, including female saints, are warriors. Warfare requires courage, fortitude, and heroism. We are called to be ‘strugglers’ against sin, to be ‘athletes’ as St. Paul says. And the prize is given to the victor. The fact that you must ‘struggle’ during worship by standing up throughout long services is itself a challenge men are willing to take up.”        

A recent convert summed up, “Orthodoxy is serious. It is difficult. It is demanding. It is about mercy, but it’s also about overcoming oneself. I am challenged in a deep way, not to ‘feel good about myself’ but to become holy. It is rigorous, and in that rigor I find liberation. And you know, so does my wife.” 



What draws men to Orthodoxy is not simply that it’s challenging or mysterious. What draws them is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the center of everything the Church does or says.

In contrast to some other churches, “Orthodoxy offers a robust Jesus” (and even a robust Virgin Mary, for that matter, hailed in one hymn as “our Captain, Queen of War”). Several used the term “martial” or referred to Orthodoxy as the “Marine Corps” of Christianity. (The warfare is against self-destructive sin and the unseen spiritual powers, not other people, of course.)

One contrasted this “robust” quality with “the feminized pictures of Jesus I grew up with…I’ve never had a male friend who would not have expended serious effort to avoid meeting someone who looked like that.” Though drawn to Jesus Christ as a teen, “I felt ashamed of this attraction, as if it were something a red-blooded American boy shouldn’t take that seriously, almost akin to playing with dolls.”

A priest writes: “Christ in Orthodoxy is a militant, butt-kicking Jesus who takes Hell captive. Orthodox Jesus came to cast fire on the earth. (Males can relate to butt-kicking and fire-casting.) In Holy Baptism we pray for the newly-enlisted warriors of Christ, male and female, that they may ‘be kept ever warriors invincible.’”

After several years in Orthodoxy, one man found a service of Christmas carols in a Protestant church “shocking, even appalling.” Compared to the Orthodox hymns of Christ’s Nativity, “‘the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay’ has almost nothing to do with the Eternal Logos entering irrevocably, inexorably, kenotically, silently yet heroically, into the fabric of created reality.”

All of this is absolutely true. Much has been writtten about the feminization of Christianity, but few have mentioned that this feminization was wholly a Western phenomenon. The Eastern Christ is the Pantocrator, the Almighty Ruler of the Universe, who battled Satan and to quote from the Divine Liturgy, “trampled down Death by death.” The concept of the passive, sweet Christ does not exist in the East. Christianity is seen as our battle against Evil. Eastern Christianity is difficult and rigorous, and this appeals to Christian men. Eastern Christianity is also fundamentally and intensely conservative in its approach to the faith, and how we must live it daily, not by doing good works alone or primarily, but by praying, fasting, and being an active part of our parish. You will never hear discussions about how one “feels” in an Eastern Christian parish.

I will return to this topic later, because there is much to be said about the fundmental masculinity of Eastern Christianity. I suggest that if this interests you, you should read Frederica Mathewes-Green’s blog. She has much to say on this topic.

Finally, if you are a Roman Catholic and you want to attend an Eastern Rite parish, all you have to do is go. The Eastern Rite churches are sui juris, that is, autonomous, with their own hierarchies, but you are not required to do anything to worship there, or partake of the Eucharist (see above). However, if you want to become a member of an Eastern Rite parish, tell the priest you want to change jurisdictions, particularly if you may have another child. Eastern Christians chrismate (confirm) children immediately after baptism, and all chrismated Christians may partake of the Eucharist. Changing jurisdictions avoids confusion about whether your child has been chrismated, or confirmed.

In the 80s, the Antiochian Orthodox Church accepted a number of whole Episcopalian congregations, and established a Western Rite. If you are an Episcopalian who has reached the breaking point, this is one option. Check the web page for the Antiochian diocese (see the blogroll). 

That’s enough for the first intallment. Blessed be God!



1 To western eyes, I should say. While there are few, if any, substantial liturgical differences between the Eastern Rite Catholics and their Orthodox brethren, there are differences in practice. The Orthodox typically have Vespers at the church every Saturday evening, often with confession afterwards, and Matins precedes, and runs directly into, Divine Liturgy on Sundays, whereas the Eastern Rite Catholics are less likely to offer either Vespers or Matins. 

2 There has been a small amount of Latinization in the Byzantine Catholic Church, certainly. They kneel during the Prayers of Consecration, and use the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed. Predictably, because Eastern Christians are exceedingly conservative about their Faith, some are not happy about it (there is a whole thread devoted to it here), although there is a gradual purging of liturgical Latinisms. But the overall point still stands, that they are far closer to the Orthodox than they are the Latins.

3 I don’t refer here to the Gregorian v. Julian calendar differences, nor to the calculation of the date of Easter (which in the East, must fall after Passover; hence, the usual difference between Western and Eastern Easter, or Pascha. I am referring to the Liturgical Calendar. Eastern Christians celebrate Theophany, not Epiphany, and so forth (and Theophany is not simply the Eastern “word” for Epiphany; the two celebrate two different things).



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