My initial research into Orthodoxy has yielded some fascinating reactions on my behalf. First of all, it occurred to me that the idea of choosing a single "true church" from among many seemingly authentic traditions is like trying to choose "the true God" from among the Trinity. Is God not at once a single essence and three distinct personalities, if you will? Does it not miss the point to pray to the Father but ignore the Son or Holy Spirit? Is it not un-Christian to pray in Jesus's name but not to acknowledge the Father or the Holy Spirit? Wouldn't it be mistaken to pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit as if the Son and Father are irrelevant?
The beauty of the Orthodox tradition, I think, is in the stressing of experience of the mystery of God - not to the exclusion of scholarship, but with the understanding that ultimately, no matter how articulate the words, one human being cannot explain God to another; God must be experienced. When I first read about this attitude, I got goosebumps, for it was as if I was reading my own thoughts!
As I proceeded to explore the major differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism - papal infallibility, the addition of the filioque to the Nicene creed, and a few others - an overwhelming thought of insatiability coupled with peace of mind came over me. There is so much talk of finding "the" church, "the" religion, that I've bought into it as well. But thanks to this brief exploration of Orthodoxy, I return to my previous beliefs on the nature of the divine in that there is more than one way to experience God, to please God. In fact, Orthodoxy seems to believe this very thing. I take the following excerpt from http://oodegr.com/english/dogma/diafores1.htm :
"According to the Orthodox, since all men will see God, no religion can claim for itself the power to send people either to heaven or to hell. This means that true spiritual fathers prepare their spiritual charges so that vision of God’s glory will be heaven, and not hell, reward, and not punishment. The primary purpose of Orthodox Christianity then, is to prepare its members for an experience which every human being will sooner or later have."
A few days ago, after reading well into the night about Orthodoxy and finding myself nodding along in amazement, I was sure that I would eventually become Orthodox. But the very next day, as I continued my exploration online, I got a small taste of reality when I watched some YouTube videos of Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Divine Liturgies. My observations may not be terribly impressive to the onlooker, but they are what I have to go off nonetheless.
I knew that the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches prefer painted icons to statues or stained glass, but I didn't realize until I spent a good deal of time looking at them that this experience was very foreign to me. I'm no artist, mind you, but I have always had very peculiar taste when it comes to paintings, or art in general. Realism resonates with me, touches my heart, lifts my spirit. I get no spiritual, emotional, or aesthetic benefit from gazing at any artwork that leaves too much to the imagination. It boggles my mind how anyone found beauty or value in Picasso's work. So when I looked at these icons, I found them lacking in realism, and therefore unable to speak to my religious experience. I soon began to compare them to the many realistic depictions of Christ and all the other Biblical players I've seen decorate churches and especially cathedrals over the years, both in paintings, stained glass, and statues. I became very aware of how uniform the icons seemed to me - similar color palate, similar somber facial expressions. At first, I took it only as food for thought.
Then I realized that while there is much more use of incense in Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches - which I looked forward to - the incense burner is bejeweled with what I can only describe as jingle bells, and the sounds of those tiny bells jingling with every move actually annoyed me a great deal. This was actually when I realized that I had jumped the gun when I assumed that a conversion may be in my future.
Then I paid more attention to their sanctuaries and noticed that, while the altars were always very ornate and separated from the rest of the space, the remainder of the churches was quite bare and minimalist. Not only this, but the juxtaposition of simplicity on one side and excess gold and adornment on the other left on me an impression of gaudiness, not godliness.
Finally, it occurred to me that the Orthodox and Eastern Catholics do not tend to kneel as part of their liturgy the way Catholics do. It was then that I began to think, "so where am I getting this idea of what Holy Mass 'ought' to be like?" I was taken back in my mind's eye to my childhood experiences in Polish churches, both in Poland and the one we attended stateside. There was a railing separating the altar and the pews, where the faithful would line up and kneel to receive the Eucharist. Yet the altar and the rest of the sanctuary were well balanced in terms of the decorations, with stained glass windows, statues, stations of the cross, paintings on all walls. Immediately upon entering the church, with the dipping of the fingers in holy water, I remember feeling as though I was entering a sacred space. From watching the set up of Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches online, I did not get that same sense at all.
What's more, in the Catholic churches of my youth, I remember that the people respected the time and the space as sacred. There was minimal chit-chatting. People were there to pray and to worship and nothing else. Fellowship took place after Mass, in an adjoining room or building. Mass was sung for the most part, and the responses of the people were predictable and unchanging. There was a sense of eternity in that space. Presence in such churches would always predispose me to want to remain there, for I felt God's presence surrounding me. And I found myself on my knees, where I believe a humble servant of God belongs when contemplating the Immortal One.
The only expression of piety that I've found more genuine-seeming is that of the Muslim prostrations, which I've experienced and witnessed firsthand several times, both in mosques and in my Muslim friends' homes. However, while the postures themselves may have been more "extreme", the overall effect left something lacking. In Catholicism, at Mass or during Adoration, we actually have the Son of God Almighty present in not just a spiritual form, but in a physical form, in the guise of the Holy Eucharist! If we believe this, why are we not on our faces paying Him homage? The Muslim bows down, but I believe it is symbolic, for it is always in the direction of Mecca, where is housed the Kaaba, which is believed to have been built by Abraham as the first place humanity built to worship God. The Muslims bow down in the direction of a symbol of their faith; Catholics kneel down before the real presence of God Himself! But I digress.
Once I realized that the very thing that initially attracted me to Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism - the belief that their liturgy would be more, well, orthodox, traditional... the way I remember it, the way I think it should be - was actually very different, albeit still beautiful and meaningful, I now was faced with no good reason to move towards Orthodoxy or Eastern Catholicism.
Where does this leave me? Well, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, you can't go home again. I can't turn back time and reverse some of the changes that Vatican II has had on the majority of our Catholic churches. And some of the changes have been quite positive, I think, as they've opened up options to reach a variety of sentiments and attract believers with preferences different from mine. It was here that I finally recalled that while no longer universal, Latin Mass was very much still a part of the Catholic tradition. So that is where I find myself, hoping to find my way to experience various Latin Masses whenever I can.
I mentioned that I remember all the beauty of the Mass from Polish churches, but I don't want to focus too much on the Polish church for two reasons. #1: My husband doesn't quite speak Polish yet, so it'd be unfair for him to not understand everything at Mass. The idea of Latin Mass, however, totally turned that notion upside down for me, and I've started to reconsider the purpose and the best way of attending at Mass. But at least we'd both be on an equal footing at a Latin Mass. And there's also #2: We were not able to find very close fellowship at the Polish church, not for lack of trying. It is far away, over an hour with no traffic, making any small group meetings impossible.
While my excursion into Orthodoxy did make me question some of the dogmatic differences between the two traditions, I don't think anything taught by the Catholic church right now doesn't have a very valid, solid reason for being taught as dogma. This includes theology as well as social teachings. I think what I do sometimes wonder about generally falls under personal discernment and conscience.
So while I don't think that Catholicism has all the answers, because I don't think any amount of human scholarship will ever grasp the magnitude of God, I do think that there is enough wealth of knowledge there, enough spiritual depth, enough room for mysticism and social justice, to comfortably and confidently proclaim that, by doing the best I can in following Catholic teachings, I am in fact staying true to what really matters, and that's following the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus.
You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.