Mary as the “Secret Joy” of the Church

Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote:

…When investigating the history of Mariological piety, one discovers that it is rooted not in any special revelation but, primarily, in the experience of liturgical worship. In other terms, it is not a theological reflection on Mary that gave birth to her veneration: it is the liturgy as the experience of “heaven on earth,” as communion with and the knowledge of heavenly realities, as an act of love and adoration, that little by little revealed the unique place of Christ’s Mother in both the economy of salvation and the mystery of the “world to come.” Mary is not part of the Church’s kerygma [public preaching], whose only content is Christ. She is the inner secret of the Church as communion with Christ. The Church preaches Christ, not Mary. But communion with Christ reveals Mary as the secret joy within the Church. “In her,” says a hymn, “rejoices all creation.”(Celebration of Faith, Vol 3, pg 89)

Our recent conversations regarding the Theotokos sent me reading and reflecting about this mystery in the Church’s life. Not surprisingly, Schmemann’s reflections went to the heart of the matter. One of the points in his small book was that Orthodox Christianity has traditionally said very little about Mary. Unlike the Catholic West, there are no traditional treatises on “Mariology.” She is not the subject of theological reflection. Instead, her presence in the life of the Church is found spread throughout our liturgical life – a constantly repeated refrain within the greater chorus of our worship. She is the “secret joy” within the Church.

When I read that phrase in Schmemann’s work, my heart leaped. And it is just that leaping that I find so hard to express when speaking with others, particularly those who are not Orthodox. At the same time, it is just that leaping that I find utterly intrinsic to the whole of my Orthodox experience. The first time I sensed this, interestingly, was not in a reference to Mary at all.

In college, my best friend approached me in the library and handed me Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. “Here, Steve,” he said. “Read this.” Lossky’s work was the most dense piece of theology I had ever attempted. I’m sure that I did not understand the larger part of what I read. However, it was my first exposure to the classical patristic teaching, “God became man so that man could become god.” It is a thought that is expressed in a variety of ways. St. Paul boldly said, “For He [God] made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2Cor. 5:21) There are numerous other expressions that describe this “exchange.” God became what we are that we might become what He is.

This can easily become an abstraction. When I first read it in Lossky, my heart raced. My best friend and I had been having conversations about the topic (in vague and hesitant ways) for some time. In Lossky, everything was confirmed. In truth, my heart probably became “Orthodox” in that moment, though it would be another 23 years or so before I entered the Church. By the same token, I would say that it came as a surprise when, after my arrival in the Church, that heart, once touched by the word of God’s great exchange (“He became what we are that we might become what He is”), was touched in precisely the same manner in the Church’s veneration of Mary. Schmemann’s “secret joy” describes it to a “T.”

The Theotokos is probably the first and prime example of this great exchange. St. Paul said, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man, the good things God has prepared for those who love Him” (1Cor. 2:9). The young virgin correctly (and by inspiration of the Holy Spirit) said, “All generations will call me blessed!” (Lk 1:48) However, she is only the first example of that which awaits us all. As Christ says:

“Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:49-50)

This is that sweet secret! That it is such an intimate part of Orthodox worship is clear evidence that the Liturgy is heaven on earth. We say out loud on earth what we have seen in heaven – and then – only the smallest part of it.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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61 responses to “Mary as the “Secret Joy” of the Church”

  1. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Glory to God in all things, indeed!

  2. Bruce Avatar
    Bruce

    Father bless !!!

    Your reflection and profound ‘knowing’ about how Mary reveals herself to you through our liturgical worship put into words something I’ve known in my heart.

    Thank you!

    That Father Schmemann’s reflection was able to lead you in a similar way reminds us all of how this ‘cloud of witnesses’ is truly active today , right now.

    So often I struggle with the 18 inch movement from my head to heart. Your reflection affirms that there can also be a movement from our hearts to our heads.

    Thank God for that movement and His revelation.

    I’m also reminded of the first sentence from Father Schmemann’s last homily that fills me with hope today and everyday:

    “ Thank You, O Lord! Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.”

  3. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Father,
    I’ve always delighted, as well as wondered, at the continuous interchangeability between the Theotokos and the Church (often scripturally referred to as the “Woman”, -eg “fleeing to the wilderness/desert” in Revelations), however, it is the overarching cosmic principle (I remember this expertly described by Matthieu Pageau) of the union of ‘Heaven’ and ‘Earth’ (of “meaning” and “matter”, “Uncreated Creator” and “creation”, Male and Female, Spirit and Body,) as a fundamental structure repeated at every level of all being in a fractal pattern, that is exemplified in the utmost in the Person of the Theotokos. This concept makes great sense of it all. All ‘expressions’ of the “exchange” you mention (“He became what we are that we might become what He is”) are contained therein.

  4. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    It also – in Greek has a very “Maximian” wording as union (σύζευξη) of “immaterial meaning” ( άυλος λόγος) with “meaningless matter” (άλογος ύλη). All this being exemplified perfectly in the Mother of God expands on why She is able to *Magnify” the One Who’s has no need of magnification.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino,
    The opportunities I’ve had (on a small scale) to read Maximus in the Greek, or Dionysius, simply blow me away. There’s such a richness and a joy in the words themselves! They are true poets in the sense of St. Porphyrios’ famous dictum: “to become a Christian one must first become a poet.”

    Also, Matthieu Pageau’s observation seems very Maximian – and true.

  6. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Fr Alexander does it again. Wow. I agree with Dino about the astounding interchangeability btw Mary and the Church. But even more amazing for me is her correlation with cosmos. As we sing, “In her rejoices all creation.” She’s the virginal soil from which the Tree of Life grew. Perhaps she personifies and fulfills the pagan predilection to venerate Mother Earth.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Owen,
    You’re probably familiar with CS Lewis’ take on mythology. He describes it as “good dreams sent to us by God to prepare for the coming of Christ.” In Christ, he believes that “myth” has become the truth. It is all there in the prologue of St. John’s gospel. The generous take of CS Lewis, I think, enabled a generation or more of Christians to have a generous view towards such things as myth and earlier cultures. If Christ, the Logos, enlightens everyone coming into the world, then we should absolutely expect to see Him everywhere we look. This is not perennialism. It is just the doctrine of Logos. However, without the lens of the Incarnate Logos (Christ), we would fail to see and understand His presence elsewhere.

    I am keenly aware of the dangers of perennialism in its many modern guises. The drive of modernity is to fuzz everything out into an abstraction – thus making way for its own projects. Christ is not a generality – even if we can discern the Logos in non-Christian locations. Christ is radically particular – “this and not that” – and His commandments cannot be obscured into generalizations.

    The world makes “sense” and has “meaning” because it was created by and for the Logos. But that meaning remains but a vague intuition until we encounter Christ Himself, who is Meaning.

    It’s all quite wonderful.

  8. Justin Avatar
    Justin

    Growing up as a protestant, of course Mary was not a central figure… but she was a presence in the communion we enjoyed. I can’t count how many mystical Grandmothers (besides even my own) I knew, who watched over me, loved me, fed me, even corrected me and defended me. Such women are still all over in the Orthodox Church, under the watchful eye of Mary herself. I am convinced Mary was behind the Grandmothers of my youth, as well. That my eyes have been opened to her presence, now and all along, has been a great, deep blessing.

  9. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thank you for the response, Father. In my understanding, perennialists speak of God in terms of ineffability. Language, as a system of symbols, is like a finger pointing to the moon, and not the moon itself. To make any one “finger” supreme and exclusive is to risk forgetting that distinction. Elevating one’s own holy writ, dogmatic concepts, and devotional practices as the only way to access ultimate reality is to claim a monopoly on authentic religious encounter. I’m grateful the Orthodox Church does not make this claim. As one theologian wisely said, “We know where the Holy Spirit is, but we do not know where the Holy Spirit isn’t.” We know because we’ve experienced Christ’s presence in this Tradition. A perennialist might respond, “well, religious experience is ineffable. Other people claim religious experience in terms of different religious concepts and practices.” And this is true. When it comes to theological realities, all we have is our experience within our own context. People from other religious traditions have had powerful transformative experiences, and thus claim with full assurance, “This is the only way!” What else can they say?Personally, I follow Christ in the Orthodox tradition. I believe Orthodoxy — in its fullest expression — preserves the mystery of God’s ineffability better than other Christian traditions. But I experienced metanoia in Craven county jail, long before coming into the church. I now experience what I perceive to be the fullness of Christ in the Orthodox Church. This Church will never go the way of perennialism, because in Jesus Christ the “finger” and the “moon” are made one. And he calls us to join him!

  10. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    The world makes “sense” and has “meaning” because it was created by and for the Logos. But that meaning remains but a vague intuition until we encounter Christ Himself, who is Meaning.

    It’s all quite wonderful.

    Indeed Father!

  11. Petr Cabak Avatar
    Petr Cabak

    Thank you Father. I can truly relate to this “leaping” moment and the heart becoming “Orthodox” before entering the church. Exactly the place I have been in for the last three or four years. It feels like now is the time for the next step, but I am totally blind about how to do it practically. Do not want to rush anything either, but want to stay open for the guidance from “above” at the same time. It was encouraging to read about your story and time it took you to become home in the Orthodox church.

  12. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:49-50)

    Thank you Father. Yes, a sweet sweet joy, and one that repeats over and over again, like the mini-resurrections that happen after our crucifixions, in the midst of trauma and everything else. God bless!

  13. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I am wondering if someone can suggest a good book about how the veneration of Mary came to be in both the Eastern and Western traditions. I am mainly interested in tracing the development of Marian veneration from the very beginnings of the Church to the present day. Questions like how the veneration of Mary became a part of the liturgy as well as general questions about litugical development immediately come to mind. I am greatly curious about how liturgy in general deveIoped in the East. Did it all start with our brothers wearing priestly vestments and with the community venerating Mary ? If not, then can we expect the Eastern church to someday include guitar music as part of its liturical celebration? I am coming from a Protestant background, but I am walking Eastward.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Matthew,
    It’s a really good question. I’m not sure of a title to recommend. I recall consulting such a book (RC) when I was studying at Duke, but don’t remember the title. The East and West track split at a certain point (not sure when).

    On the Liturgy, I would recommend Hugh Wybrew’s The Orthodox Liturgy. Christian worship has its roots in the services of the synagogue (which was liturgical). There are descriptions of the Liturgy as far back as the 2nd century, and some texts as far back as the 3rd. What seems clear is tha the structure (the basic outline) was shaped extremely early and has remained unchanged. What has changed is the content attached to that structure. For example, when there were crises in the Church (heresies, etc.) the solution to those crises was often enshrined in the Liturgy – thus, in the 4th century, you come to see the full Nicene Creed being recited in the Liturgy. The Orthodox liturgies find a pretty final form around 1000 A.D. with but minor changes afterwards.

    But what you don’t see when you just look at texts is the whole life of the Church – what does the piety of the people look like? That has continued to have a living expression with various forms across the world. It’s very much alive.

    Protestants generally aren’t aware of how odd they are in the history of Christianity. Most Protestants, to this day, have liturgical worship in some form (though they may use guitars). The “frontier” style evangelism service that is the hallmark of Evangelicalism is a 19th century invention and just an outlier in Christian history. The sort of mega-church tv-show stuff only dates back to the last quarter of the 20th century. That said, it’s not a product of evolution – such that you’ll someday see Orthodoxy arrive there. It’s exceedingly American – rooted in uniquely American ideas about religion.

    Some of your questions can’t be clearly answered in the sense that there are no historical records that mention such things – vestments is an example. Their earliest forms are simply not known – but were likely. The veneration of Mary also has less than clear-cut historical evidence. It was certainly part of things long before we hear about it. What there is no evidence for – at all – is any kind of free-form Protestant style worship until the Reformation – and even the Reformers used liturgies. You’re asking good questions.

  15. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    So very interesting and informative Fr. Stephen! Thanks so much.
    My only other question after reading your response is:
    If the veneration of Mary has less than clear-cut historical evidence, how do we know it was
    part of things long before we hear about it? and … Why should I then venerate Mary if there
    is not a history of this practice for me to follow? I´m not even asking for the scriptural evidence
    (like a good evangelical should :-)) for this practice, but simply a logical and reliable historical trajectory
    to follow.

  16. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    Are you familiar with this book, and, if so, would you recommend or give it a pass?

    Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity with the Synagogue, the Temple, and the Early Church by Benjamin Williams

    I read it last year and found it accessible to a then-catechumen, but don’t know enough to speak to its accuracy.

    Regarding Protestants, since becoming Orthodox, I’ve visited with my son at his Methodist church and now appreciate (recognize) liturgical elements in it I was unaware of when Protestant myself. Even a relatively “Low” Church denomination like Methodism can still follow the same basic structure as the Divine Liturgy, unbeknownst to at least some of the Congregation.

    The nondenominational but Protestant church I belonged to from my late 20s until last year had a very simple structure (two hymns, greet each other, another hymn, Communion, offering, sermon, closing hymn, and blessing). No use of vestments, either, but my son’s Methodist church still employs them.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Matthew,
    Good question. Here is an important historical thought (since you’re asking a historical question). Why do things get written down or discussed? Generally, because there’s a problem with them. So, we know lots of stuff about early heresies – because they were problems. When something is not a problem we don’t get major treatises discussing it. So, though it’s an “argument from silence,” the fact that we don’t get major (or even minor) treatises on the topic of the veneration of the Mother of God is an indication that it was not a problem.

    The first time that it comes into a major question is when the heretic Nestorius (who was Patriarch of Constantinople at the time) objected to the use of the term “Theotokos” for the Virgin Mary. He though it should just be “Christotokos.” Theotokos means “birth-giver of God.” Christotokos means “birth-giver of Christ.” It was seen as an attack on the doctrine of Christ as fully God and fully man. So, the 3rd Ecumenical Council, which met in Ephesus, condemned Nestorius and defended the use of “Theotokos,” the term that Orthodoxy has continued to use to this day.

    Interestingly in this, is the clear fact that honorific treatment of Mary was already universal. Nestorius had no problem with that – he was just quibbling over the proper terminology.

    We can push it back further. We have a papyrus scrap from the 3rd century (200’s) with a prayer to Mary on it (one that’s still in use today).

    What you cannot find in the early Church is any attack on the veneration of the Mother of God (again, the argument from silence). Nevertheless, it points to the fact that the sensibilities of the Church (which was the whole Church of the world at the time) was that this was perfectly fine and salutary.

    The real problem comes down to the Protestant sensibility that wants only what can be proven by the Scriptures (which is a very, very narrow use of the Scriptures and has not really worked out very well). It does not contradict the Scriptures – and was easily accepted as an expression of faith in Christ. I am comfortable (more than) with being on the same page as Fathers in the 4th and 5th centuries, just as I’m comfortable being on the same page as the Apostles. It’s appropriate to ask the question: “Is there continuity?” I think that the only historically correct answer is, “Yes.” The discontunity within Christianity is Protestantism – when moderns decided to “re-create” a “New Testament” Christianity that had no more basis than their own imagination (and a lot of false charges and accusations hurled at Catholics).

    The veneration of Mary as well as any number of other things certain saw development in the life of the Church’s practices. Considering how many heresies were rejected and condemned during the same period, we cannot say that the Church wasn’t on its guard for error. It is also the case for Orthodoxy in the modern period that it continues to produce saints – that it continues to endure terrible persecutions from time to time, and, unlike many versions of Protestantism, has stood firm against the many heresies of our present time. I know it to be the case that even Evangelical seminaries are having a hard time resisting the arguments of the gender-heresies and such.

    But, keep asking good questions.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark,
    It’s a useful book, for sure.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Contemplating the connection to the Temple services of the time has always been helpful to me. Christ Crucified becomes the Sacrificial Offering — Since He is Risen, He continues to offer Himself in the Sacrament which also retains some of the other parts of the Offering (highly structured, priests, assistants, vestments and the exclusion of some on approaching the altar Holy of Holies).

    Sacraments always contain the life of the Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit gifted to all who follow Him.

    Historically there were significant abuses in the West. Those abuses plus a loss of comprehension of the actual content of the Sacraments let to the further watering down of the celebrations we are called to share with our Lord in His Kingdom—exactly why the Orthodox Divine Liturgy begins with: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

    He shares His presence with each of us in each of the Sacraments through His anointed Priesthood.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The book is available from Eighth Day Books through their website. A wonderful and beautiful ministry of the Church here in Wichita. The building and the people are extensions of the blessed life of the Orthodox community here in central Kansas. I have seen and experienced the wonderful presence of the Holy Spirit there many times (shameless plug). https://www.eighthdaybooks.com/product/143900/Orthodox-Worship-A-Living-Continuity-with-the-Synagogue-the-Temple-and-the-Early-Church#:~:text=Orthodox%20Worship%3A%20A,Seller%20ID%3A%3A%20227082

  21. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen and Michael. I find these responses very helpful and I will try to get the book Michael suggested as well as the book you suggested Fr. Stephen.

  22. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I mean Mark! 🙂

  23. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Ok … after thinking some more this morning about the responses I received re: the veneration of Mary, more questions are coming to the surface. Even if an argument from silence can be made regarding the veneration of Mary in the Church, and even if the 3rd ecumenical council can be brought in as evidence for that, how can we be sure that the veneration of Mary will not also become heretical or over the top? I look at the Roman Catholic Church for example. Mary is nearly co-redeemer for them and may at some point be labeled co-redeemer by Papal bull. Could there be a new ecumenical council that might address this? I don`t think so since the church is divided like never before. How has the East dealt with what I am calling possible abberations of Marian veneration? As I said in an earlier post, I am warming up to how the East views Mary and her veneration, but if she was ever placed on the same level as Christ in terms of redemptive power I would have to stop walking eastward.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Matthew,
    Given that there’s been no change or evolution of the veneration of Mary in more than a thousand years would argue that what is currently the case in Orthodoxy will remain the case. There is a trust, as well, that God has preserved the Church from error and defeated the heresies that arise. Orthodoxy would strongly differentiate itsel from Catholicism in that Rome has adopted the notion of the “development” of doctrine that allows for a change that Orthodoxy would not accept – with the added danger of being more “efficient” (“one Pope away from apostasy”). Orthodoxy’s conciliar life has largely guaranteed that we can’t get organized well-enough to make any significant change. Nonetheless – we live in very troubled times.

    I can see nothing in Orthodoxy on any level that would ever place her on the level of Christ.

  25. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks again Fr. Stephen. The time you are taking to write such comprehensive and articulate responses is greatly appreciated.

  26. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    For what it’s worth, the life in Christ is experienced in both heart and mind, physical and spiritual without dichotomy, though constrained by language and culture when we attempt to explain. This incarnate experience is the best way to learn about Mary and her place in the church.

    It’s interesting about myself that I could never fully engage with Mary in the imagery and statues presented in the Roman Catholic Churches. However that changed with my prolonged life experience with the Orthodox Church. Books about her were insufficient.

    I’ll say no more.

  27. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    Hi, Fr. Stephen. I know this is off topic, but I was curious if you had watched The Chosen or had any thoughts on it. I’ve been watching it lately. The treatment of women seems fairly modern and the Roman soldiers are classic TV bad guys, but I don’t know if I’m well versed enough to offer real substantive criticism.

  28. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Matthew,

    Coming from a Protestant background as you do and having throughout my life almost all of my (much loved) model Christians be Protestants who greatly object to the veneration of Mary (and Saints), the difficult steps of my own “walk eastward” have been similar to those you are encountering. Some random, disorganized thoughts, then, that have helped:

    “I’ve always delighted, as well as wondered, at the continuous interchangeability between the Theotokos and the Church (often scripturally referred to as the ‘Woman’, -eg ‘fleeing to the wilderness/desert’ in Revelations)”

    Statements like the above from Dino. They help me to understand some of the extravagant (to Protestant ears) statements about Mary, as well as see additional scriptural basis for the iconic/symbolic meaning Orthodoxy ascribes to the Theotokos.

    “the life in Christ is experienced in both heart and mind, physical and spiritual without dichotomy, though constrained by language and culture when we attempt to explain. ”

    This by Dee. Words are just hard. Whenever we speak (or write) we struggle to find exactly the words to convey our meaning, but even when we find a crude approximation that satisfies us, the words may not be received by the listener (or reader) who interprets them differently. (Example: Translating two concepts like “worship” and “veneration.”)

    This blog and finding so much of what Father Stephen says and writes authentic and pointing to (again it is awkward to convey in words) the same heart that I seek.

    My own thought: trying to understand this part of Orthodoxy helps my “masculine” develop a more sacred and proper attitude toward the feminine. That is, a learning to value feminine personhood as something holy, rather than wholly subordinate to my maleness. Protestants critique her elevation as making her too near Christ, but it is also a hazard in some Protestant denominations to treat half the human race as God’s afterthought.

    I also think of Communion itself, as described in John 6–how many could not accept the eating of flesh and drinking of blood. Jesus asked the disciples if they, too, would leave, but Peter replies, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” Each of us may have a different stumbling block, but the lesson (for me) is to trust the Shepherd and stay within the flock.

    As a Protestant, I relied much more on my personal conscience and thought it was impossible to be any other way. God, after all, gave me a brain to think with. Ultimately, though, that is the road to pride. The question is do I trust the community of believers (the Church) and tradition…or do I decide I know better?

    From what I’ve seen (and experienced), relying on the latter will ultimately lead to a loss of Christian faith entirely–or at least to anything meaningful. The Christian faith is a garment such that if you pull at the threads…it will either unravel or at least become threadbare. (I think I owe that analogy to CS Lewis.)

    Side note: I have begun reading Father Schmemann’s journals, written during the last 10 years of his life and the only book by him available at our campus library. So far it’s wonderful.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Laurie,
    I have not watched it. The very little bit I saw seemed too modern for me. It certainly smoothes things for modern watchers – but I’ve probably got too many critical bones in me to be patient with it.

  30. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thank you Dee. Thanks you Mark. Have a good weekend.

  31. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Mark. I don´t want to take this thread too far off topic, so I´ll be brief.
    You mention Protestants wanting to use their brains when trying to discern spiritual things. What are your thoughts on the more experiential side of Protestantism; the charismatics for example? I was in both camps as an evangelical believer. My wife came to Christ through a charismatic street ministry.

  32. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Hi Matthew,
    I’ve probably got your questions kind of muddled. But nevertheless I wanted to suggest to you that when we look at the Virgin, especially in her icons around and near the altar, her sole object is with her, cherished and central. Her treasure, the One she protected and whose life she shared and nurtured. Her devotion is never apart from her awareness and consciousness and neither is her love. So that’s where she leads us, too.

    I for one believe that whatever human personality He has is shared from her. So many have experienced her compassion through prayer and her protection. Whatever we see of Him must also contain glimpses of what she gave him which was more than flesh. This doesn’t take away His divine identity or that we know God is love, but just might complement it in the Incarnation.

  33. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Janine. I suppose when one considers the human side of Jesus Christ, it is true that Jesus was born of a virgin woman. I suppose that also means that Jesus received genes from Mary which means Jesus Christ has something of Mary´s DNA in his human person. What implications this all has for my own Christology … well … I´ll have to consider that more over time.

  34. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Matthew,

    To clarify, I was talking about when *I* was a Protestant; I did not mean to imply all Protestants tried to use reason and their personal conscience as much as I did. The general characterization, however, is the West (including Catholicism) favors the mind, whereas the East favors the heart. I mentioned Lewis, but I’d also include Chesterton as someone I’ve read who reasoned about the Faith.

    For me personal conscience and reason alone lead to a la carte Christianity, which likely all of us practice to some degree. In becoming Orthodox, what I try to do now is manage the stumbling blocks and focus on the big picture. To go back to my previous metaphor, I look at what seems to be a loose thread and perhaps ponder it a little, but I don’t keep pulling at it because I don’t want to ruin a perfectly suitable (and beautiful) garment. I will wait on the Tailor to mend it for me 🙂

    As for your question, I have no personal experience with Charismatics or Pentecostals, etc. although my sister was very much one for a while. I’m loathe to critique any religious practice I have never been “on the inside” of because of seeing how inaccurate (or at least imprecise) representations by non-adherents of most faiths are. Plenty of individuals of various denominations seem to do harm to Christianity by their example, but (as you and I were discussing in the other post regarding Orthodoxy itself) I think their example ought not lead me to think everyone of that flock has equally bad motives.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Matthew,
    I’ll jump into the conversation for a comment on Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity. I spent 3 years in a charismatic house church (back in the early 70’s). There were aspects that were very energizing. However, a great difficulty was the lack of controlling boundaries. I reached a place where I was asking questions of our experiential claims. We frequently used “objective” language to describe purely subjective experiences. Thus, someone would say, “The Lord spoke to me…” when what they actually meant was “I had an impression that God was speaking to me…” or “I imagined God speaking to me…” After a while, it begins to feel like you’re living in a shared world of make-believe. It led me towards unbelief. The history of “experiential” Christianity is littered with problems – schisms, delusions, cults, etc.

    I found my way back to historical Christianity – ultimately to Orthodoxy. There is certainly a place for experience – but if it happens in the context of the historical church, it can be judged and weighed and treated in a manner that doesn’t make you crazy. The sacramental order of the Church provides a steady base for living in a healthy manner. I do not want to live under the tyranny of my own neurosis (much less someone else’s).

    I have very solid, historical reasons for believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (from which all other claims of the faith flow). That belief is confirmed by a life-time of experience. By being rooted in the Resurrection, instead of in my own inner experience, I have a stable basis for my faith and life. I’ve seen lots of things over the course of my Christian lifetime. Nothing has shaken my faith in the Resurrection of Christ. Many things have shaken my faith in myself and my own subjectivity.

  36. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    This may come off as flippant, but when it comes to Orthodoxy I don’t try to explain anything to anyone ever. It’s like trying to teach someone to dance who can’t hear the music. Hearing the music is primary. Learning the dance is secondary. It is in the hearing of the music that makes the dance make sense. Mary as the “secret joy” of the Church is right. I am not inclined to expose our “secret joy” to the ridicule of Philistines who will only misunderstand it.

  37. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    I probably should emphasize that what I meant by experience involved reason and heart. And did not preclude the reality or importance of historical events. Rather, I attempted to point to the inadequacy of attaining knowledge only with logical analysis. Because it too has its limits. I’ve not been a Christian as long as you. As I know you know, over these years I’ve commented in your blog that I came into Orthodox Christianity from outside of Christianity. My path, it seems, was different from most of your readers. How ironic it is to say then that my first turning towards Orthodox Christianity involved the very act of reasoning, that of logic, that I claim is insufficient. I have made claims about that reasoning, such as that what I saw I could substantiate or could be substantiated through reasoning. Nevertheless, what people hear is “subjective experience”.

    St Sophrony says: “The ‘earth-based’ scientific hypotheses do not go beyond the limits of the fallen state of the world. Nonetheless to varying degrees, they have influenced theological ideas and are reflected in them.”

    I believe we want to see the world as the Lord sees the world, but we are not God. In humility we need faith. And I admit, that is where I struggle, where I am weak. But I take heart in the mercy and love of Christ.

    Much of what we might find objectionable in Orthodox Christianity I believe comes from cultural inculcation. But it takes time immersed in a different culture to see such distinctions. It takes time within the Church, physically being there with open minds and hearts, that such revelation of where one has been and where one is going (i.e. to the Cross of Christ) begins to unfold.

  38. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Mark said:

    “To go back to my previous metaphor, I look at what seems to be a loose thread and perhaps ponder it a little, but I don’t keep pulling at it because I don’t want to ruin a perfectly suitable (and beautiful) garment. I will wait on the Tailor to mend it for me 🙂”

    Thanks so much for this. Beautiful.

  39. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much to all of you for all the help.

    Simon, I would just like to add that a lot people over more than a 10 year period have greatly helped me by lovingly explaining so much to me about the beauty of Orthodoxy. If it wasn´t for their gracious help and steadfast patience with ALL my questions, I am not sure where I would be. Thanks to them I am closer than ever to becoming Orthodox. May the Orthodox never hide their precious light!

  40. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much to everyone for the helpful responses.

    Simon, I would just like to say that I for one am very happy that so many Orthodox faithful have graciously helped me over the years. Their explanations have greatly moved me toward becoming Orthodox. Without their steadfast patience with my MANY questions I am not sure where I would be. May the Orthodox light never be hidden!

  41. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Sorry for the near repeat. I thought my initial response to Simon was deleted.

  42. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Matthew, that’s fair. I wouldn’t want anything I think to be generalized into a rule that’s for sure! I would say that when one speaks of the mysteries of the church it’s like the communion prayer: “For I will not speak of thy mysteries to thy enemies.” Who are the enemies of Christ? I have no clue. So, I leave it t the Church to speak of the mysteries–but that is just me.

  43. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I may sound like a broken record, especially to those who have frequented this blog through several years. But I have always believed there is something more and deeper under foot with the difficulty of venerating Mary beyond the stipulations of Protestant theology. It is deeply cultural and has a concern with the spiritual place of woman.

    To that I owe many thanks to Mark’s comments. Furthermore I regularly receive pushback as if I might be some malcontent feminist, however it has been an observation I have had over the years that the place of Mary makes Protestant men (and women) shudder. —‘It cannot be appropriate or real’- some malformation, aberration of piety—idolatry. This is inculcated in this culture— it is not solely a bias against Catholicism. Please forgive me. I don’t have much patience for it.

    My lack of patience probably explains how I never became Christian until I became Orthodox.

  44. Chris Avatar
    Chris

    Father,
    As a young boy entering orthodox churches, I was always struck by the image of Mary with out stretched arms and the young Emmanuel pictured inside here. Had quite an affect on me as it would with any youth. I remember asking my grandmother what the icon meant. Her response, and I’m translating here, was that Mary’s motherhood allowed for our salvation. This has always been my understanding of why the veneration of the mother of god was so important and in some ways, she is the very matriarch of the church.

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, I suspect what you experience is, in part, due to Mary’s strength which is rooted in her Motherhood. At the same time I was blown away by Mary with her Son the first time I went to an Orthodox Divine Liturgy, it was a bit scary because the purity of he Motherhood was so far beyond anything this poor sinful ol’ man could ever be. Scary in some ways. That is the cultural contribution, I think.

  46. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Dee and Michael.

    Dee, you make a very interesting observation re: the veneration of Mary and the overall thinking people have in the culture (I assume you mean America specifically?) about the spiritual place of women. As an aside, I remember visiting the Greek Orthodox Church in my city and being overwhelmed at the sight of a huge image of Mary above the alter. I immediately thought to myself shouldn´t that place be reserved for Jesus Christ?
    I´m not so overwhelmed anymore.

  47. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks also Simon!

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    There may well be issues with women beneath some Protestant push-back on the veneration of Mary – but – I think it is primarily a distrust of Catholicism and some hundreds of years of Protestant culture accusing Catholics (and Orthodox by inference) of “worshipping” her. It’s just out there in the culture.

    I think, however, that our whole culture has difficulty with male/female issues. It’s not just with “women” (there’s probably a bigger problem at present with men – based on a number of statistical measures). Male/female relationships are some of the deepest things in a culture and have been experiencing an ongoing revolution for the past century or so – without understanding, guidance, or anything other than make-it-up-as-you-go ideologies. It is creating whole new worlds of suffering.

    I believe that the truth, as given to us in Christ, is the balm that heals that – such that Orthodoxy, when rightly lived, can help us flourish – but we’re so often a long way from rightly living what Christ has given us.

    In truth, only love solves any of this. What we have in the Church is the image of love – self-emptying love. There are no statements of rights, or demands, over dominance and submission – just love. Love is the strongest reality, and often the weakest argument.

    In the Theotokos, we see the love of God and the love of humanity – embodied. She is an icon of the Church – a picture of what it looks like, rightly lived. Christ did not come among us to be by Himself. He came to heal humanity, which is a holy community (the Church). Mary is the beginning of the Church. She is there at the foot of the Cross as Christ adds to the Church giving her to St. John, and St. John to her. It is to be noted that St. John is the great preacher of love.

  49. Justin Edge Avatar
    Justin Edge

    Dee:
    I have often thought/felt the same. I deeply suspect that Protestant culture’s opposition to Mary (originally based in anti-Catholicism) led naturally to depreciation of all women. If you devalue THE woman, then the de-valuing of all other women is an inevitable consequence.
    [For what it’s worth, I perceive nothing of “feminism” in you. It seems to me that most of what we see parading about as “feminism” is little more than women who have converted to male chauvinism. The fundamental assumption of this “feminism” seems the unshakeable belief that men really are superior to women, hence the solution is to convince women that they aren’t valuable unless they become more like men – and of course, if they quit being women in the process, so much the better.]
    In regards to the larger discussion of the Church, it ought to come as no surprise that what emerges from a Reformation which rejects Church, must also develop a rejection of Mary (inasmuch as she is a type of Church). Type and reality go together – reject either and the other will of necessity also be rejected.
    I think the chronological flow was something like, rejection of Church begot rejection of Mary, then rejection of Mary in turn begot rejection of women.
    In short, I agree with your assessment that our culture’s misogyny at present transcends a bias against Catholicism – although it certainly began (and still continues) as such.
    By way of aiding your understanding the other side, it will naturally come as the greatest of shocks to folks from Protestant backgrounds who, having failed to rise to mere veneration of Christ – and call that lack of veneration “worship” of Jesus – should encounter a true veneration of Mary which greatly transcends their own “worship” of Christ!
    Here’s how it developed – When the Reformation rejected Church, it of necessity rejected worship. Having rejected worship, it was left with no way to relate to Christ other than – at best – veneration. But now the only way to maintain the superiority of Christ to all else was to shove all creation (including Mary) down below the level of veneration. In other words, when they made Jesus smaller than He really is, then they naturally had to make Mary smaller than she really is to compensate.
    To put it succinctly, it is quite jolting to Protestants to encounter the reality of Mary and realize that she is much larger than their tiny omnipotent “Jesus.”

  50. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Justin, can you clarify? How is Mary larger than a tiny omnipotent Jesus? How have Protestants made Jesus small?

  51. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    So is Mary also the Church?

  52. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Isn´t Pentecost the official beginning of the Church?

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Matthew,
    It has become a commonplace to say that the Church is born at Pentecost. However, it is not unusual in Orthodoxy to understand that the Church began when God said, “Let there be light.” That is, it has existed from the beginning – for it is all of creation being drawn together into one in Christ Jesus – as noted in Eph. 1.

  54. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    So it (the Church) was born in the beginning, born again in Mary, and then born again at Pentecost?

  55. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Justin I sincerely appreciate your thoughts in your post. I share your perspective.
    I am grateful also for your graciousness and patience regarding my comment.

  56. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Mathew,
    One aspect of Orthodox theology that I have sincerely appreciated is that it recognizes historical events differently from the manner they are understood in western philosophy. Time isn’t linear with God. The Orthodox also say that Christ was slain before the foundation of the world, and that Christ manifested Himself to Abraham and the prophets in the ‘Old’ Testament. And we also say He was born to Mary at a particular time and place. In western philosophy these statements are contradictory.

    Ironically physicists have begun to understand that spacetime can be bent. And we barely grasp a fine sliver of our reality. But that doesn’t stop us from trying.

  57. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen and Dee.

  58. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Although Dorothy Sayers was Anglican, her book “The Mind of the Maker” helped me understand the Orthodox doctrine of time and eternity that Dee describes. Sayers’ short book also helped me (next to Kallistos Ware’s “The Orthodox Way”) finally approach the Trinity with some coherence in what I thought.

    I believe Christianity is a practice and way of life more than a theology, but trying to appreciate the intellectual beauty of God’s creation is part of what (for me) is meant by the “fullness of faith.”

  59. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much for the book suggestion Mark. I too was greatly helped on my journey by Kallistos Ware´s book “The Orthodox Way”. I found it to be a personal and tender presentation of the Orthodox faith, not so “heady”. This has been for years now a problem I have with western theology (particularly Protestant): the fact that for as much as we talk about the Holy Spirit moving and transforming us in an experiential way, in reality we remain mostly in our heads. Although we talk about sanctification and a holy way of life, we often spend most of our time arguing over intellectual theological paradigms. There simply doesn´t seem to be a deep well of spiritual resources for us to dip into as there are in the Orthodox Church. One thing that has been drawing me closer and closer to Orthodoxy is that I think in Orthodoxy there exists a path to real wholesome and deep experience in a form my charismatic sect could not offer.

  60. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hope Sayers’ book is as clarifying for you as it was for me, Matthew. Despite not technically being Orthodox, it’s one of the half dozen or so books I keep in my prayer corner.

    I sent my son a copy of “The Orthodox Way,” a few months ago, but I’m not sure he’s had time or inclination to read it 🙂 I may send him the Schmemann journal as well. There is something quotable in almost every entry:

    “I am convinced that if people would really hear Holy Week, Pascha, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology. All of theology is there. All that is needed for one’s spirit, heart, mind, and soul.”

  61. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark, Justin, et al
    As deeply troubling as it is – dealing with, living with, the sins and failings of leadership (and others) within the life of the Church – there is an important element of providence to be found in it.

    Christ “came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:11). This came as no surprise to Him. He came because He loved us (and the ones who did not receive Him, as well). He came, knowing that His journey would lead Him into the very depths of hell. This is what St. Sophrony describes as the “inverted pyramind.” That the “way up is the way down.” Or as Christ said, But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:26-28)

    I’ve written repeatedly that we are not saved by our strength, our excellence, but by our weakness (it’s my paraphrase of St. Paul). These offenses, when they come, invite us to “go down.” It is a painful place to be (hell isn’t pleasant). But in the example of St. Silouan (who birthed this vision in St. Sophrony), we enter into hell and, not despairing, we pray for all. It’s a terrible place to be – little wonder it is described as being crucified!

    St. Sophrony cheered us up with these words: “Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little and have a cup of tea.”

    I would add to that – that it is a good thing to be a “cup of tea” for your brothers and sisters. There’s lots of despair out there, one place and another, and a terrible shortage of tea.

    And, humorously, I recall the English phrase, “Shall I be Mother?” which means, “May I pour you some tea?” So, perhaps we might ask Our Lady to pour us a bit of tea now and again. 🙂

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