Too Deep To See


One of the blogs I follow is To and Through St. Vlad’s, written by Michael, a seminarian at St Vladimir’s (I hope he doesn’t mind that I snitched the photo from his blog). In his (currently) most recent post, he discusses evening communion on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout Great Lent. 

On Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent the Church prescribes complete abstinence from food until sunset. These days, therefore…are selected as appropriate for lenten communion which…is one of the essential means or “weapons” for the lenten spiritual fight. Days of intensified spiritual and physical effort, they are illumined by the expectation of the forthcoming Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ, and this expectation sustains us in our effort, spiritual as well as physical; it makes it an effort aimed at the joy of evening Communion. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence comes my help!”

He is Orthodox, writing for Orthodox, but his first sentence brings to mind something that isn’t obvious to a Western eye, because it sees familiarity on the surface, and assumes familiarity throughout.

While Orthodoxy might seem liturgically odd or unfamiliar to, say, a Roman Catholic, a look deeper will reveal all sorts of these familiarities: the Real Presence, the Sacrament of Confession, devotion to the Mother of God. A Protestant will likewise see these similarities, though he may react differently than the Roman Catholic. But whatever the reaction, the Westerner is seeing superficial similarity and assuming what I will call deep similarity.

Yes, the Real Presence of Christ is the same belief whether East or West (I’ll get to transubstantiation later), as is Confession, or devotion to the Theotokos. But there lies a difference between East and West on a deep level, one that, because of the similarities, isn’t easy to see until one has had a fairly long exposure to Orthodoxy.

The difference is philosophical, and has in some cases led to theological differences, but is not itself theological.

The Orthodox are far more comfortable with mystery than Westerners. We believe in the Real Presence, but have never felt the necessity to define exactly how or when the transformation occurs. Therefore, we have no doctrine of transubstantiation (many Protestants confuse the Real Presence with transubstantiation, yet they are wholly distinct).

It was partly the discomfort with mystery, partly the legacy of the Roman Empire, and partly the philosophical influence of Aristotle that led the West into a pattern of defining and legalizing points of faith and behavior that never developed in the East. We have no distinction between moral and venial sin, nor did we see the need to adopt or develop it. Sin is separation from God. Whether it is venial or mortal, the separation still exists.

But back to our seminarian, who quotes:

On Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent the Church prescribes complete abstinence from food until sunset.

I return to this because it is Great Lent, and because I have seen a lot of discussion about fasting on Western blogs. Fasting is different for us than it is for Westerners, and again, because of this deep level difference.

Because we never developed this tradition of legalism, and also because St John Chrysostom warned us to fast in secret, if we fall short of the guidelines of the church, we neither confess it, nor do we speak of our fasts to one another. The church sets guidelines. It is up to us to follow them as best we can.

During the year, we fast (no meat, dairy, olive oil, fish, or alcohol) on Wednesdays and Fridays. During fasting periods, such as Great Lent, we fast throughout the period, and adopt a strict fast (nothing except water) on Wednesdays and Fridays (fast guidelines are loosened on feast days that fall during the fast: Fish is permitted on Annunciation, for example). We also observe  a strict fast from Vespers on Saturday evening (sundown) until Divine Liturgy on Sundays, if we are going to receive Holy Communion (the coffee goes pretty quickly after Divine Liturgy).

It isn’t considered a sin that must be confessed, however, if for some reason, we cannot keep a strict fast on a Wednesday during Great Lent, and those of us with medical conditions, as well as the very young and the elderly, are not expected to keep the fast. If I break the fast and feel the need to confess it, I will. But the church does not require me to do so. That’s the point.

I should say that Roman Catholics are not required to confess if they break the fast on Fridays, but that’s because the church has become so squishy over the last forty years and discipline is nearly non-existant. The Orthodox are the furthest thing from squishy in all Christendom.

Many differences in doctrine arise from this deep level difference. We are allowed to believe in the Immaculate Conception, but because it isn’t doctrine, we are not required to. The Orthodox have never set an official number of Sacraments. You get the idea.

Divine mystery is the heart and soul of Eastern Christianity. Divine mystery has always, to some extent, made Western Christians uncomfortable.

But this difference has other effects. The Sacrament of Confession is different in the East, both in form and emphasis. Anonymous confession never developed. We make our confession standing in front of the Gospel with the priest standing next to us, but it isn’t face to face. I look at the Gospel, as does the priest. When we confess, we focus on God and His Word. Although an Orthodox priest would agree with a Catholic priest on the elements of confession, an Orthodox priest is unlikely to assign traditional Catholic penance (ten Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers). The priest is witness to our repentance, and he will assign penance in the form of how we should avoid these sins in the future, services we should attend, and thing we should study, be they parts of the Bible or writings of the Church Fathers. The focus in the East is on the healing rather than the exact treatment.

And speaking of, I need to make something to eat, then get ready for the Presanctified Liturgy this evening. I’ll continue this later.


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