Some of us grew up with a tradition of evangelical faith with a strong emphasis on gateway experiences, particularly being born again. There was a whole ethos into which we were born, and I for one tried hard to conform myself to this, but some elements of it have not proven to be very satisfactory, and we have needed to go searching for answers. I must arise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares, I must seek him whom my soul loves. (Song of Songs 3.2) This can be taken to mean searching among other viewpoints and spiritual ways. This has led me to look among other places at Orthodox traditions. Nowadays we have the eastern Orthodox churches, the Greek, the Russian etc., but perhaps we can extend the term to talk about eastern church views generally, going back to the Church Fathers. There is a different take on spirituality; and this article will look briefly at some of the places (including some which clearly are not Orthodox) at which I have looked, as well as an effort to describe some of the distinctives of thought.
Firstly, what have I read that can be recommended? Well, first exposure was to the Russian Orthodox — I studied Russian at school, and this led to one or two contacts — specifically with a man known as John of Kronstadt, who exercised a beautiful and influential pastoral ministry. This made me open to the otherwise alien ways of clerical garments, long beards, Metropolitans, priests etc., but not very much to the thinking. Many years later, when I was really searching for input outside the confines of Pentecostal evangelicalism, I found my way to the excellent Orthodoxy by Kallistos Ware. This opened my eyes to a different way of thinking and led on to further reading. This included The Way of a Pilgrim, an account of the results of praying ‘the Jesus Prayer’, and I bought a copy of the Philokalia, the compendium of writings from the Church Fathers. There was a cross over from the Toronto, Catch a Fire ministry through the writings of Guy Chevreau with Theresa of Avila, so I looked at some of the ‘medieval’ writers, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Catherine of Sienna and Catherine of Genoa. It is worth mentioning too that years before I had read Madame Guyon, of whom there is an excellent biography by Phyllis Thompson. (I mention these writers, not as in a formal sense ‘orthodox’, but as part of a different tradition. I have always found the Protestant divines of 17th and 18th century England dry and difficult, more given to polemic than devotion — the devotional, more ‘mystical’ outlook is much more sympathetic. I have also found in similar vein to Jeanne Guyon, Gerhardt Tersteegen, who, like, Guyon, influenced John Wesley. A very good Catholic writer on prayer is Jean Grou.) But then, as chronicled elsewhere on this site, I found Bob Ekblad and he sent me on to Daniel Bourguet, who has engaged seriously with the orthodox/patristic tradition and with its monastic element. Through this I have looked again at some of the writings in the Philokalia; some of the theology is really devotional in nature. Bourguet quotes from a number of sources. I read material from Isaac the Syrian as well as Matthew the Poor, a modern day Egyptian Coptic monk and author. There was a very good biography of Seraphim of Sarov and other material on him, and recently I found another Russian of similar ilk, Theophan the Recluse, who was another influential figure in his country, particularly through his writings; he has a charming book titled Tales of a Magic Monastery.
In all these writings there is a solidity and gentleness that can certainly be lacking in modern day charismatic circles. The gentleness I note is something I generally find true of writers from a Catholic background when compared to (particularly American) evangelicalism. There is a lot in our modern churches which is not very appealing to more educated people, but it is not just a question of what is attractive — there are also what we might term truth issues. An interesting take on this may be found in the writings of Brad Jersak and on his website www.bradjersak.com/about/orthodoxy. Brad was decidedly ‘charismatic’ , but explains in this article why he has changed streams.
So, there are certain distinctives to orthodoxy which are very different to the evangelicalism with which I grew up, and I will endeavour to explore this a little, firstly the doctrinal elements, and then the very obvious issue of the contemplative life, with its particular expression in monasticism.
It will be understood, please, that this is a complete beginner’s guide, an introduction to one or two elements of patristic/orthodox thought. Sometimes there are simply issues to do with language, but more normally there are distinctives of thought that have a lot to say to modern evangelicalism.
A first thought is this: where evangelicalism focuses on salvation, on the need for conversion – on human need, the orthodox focuses on – God!