By Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The other day I met with a book rep who asked me what I'm reading. I said, "A book on Eastern Orthodoxy." She looked puzzled, and I hastened to add, "It's a really good book about what it means to be Orthodox in modern life."
I've been reading “At the Corner of East and Now” by Frederica Mathewes-Green. I've read other works of hers, so I knew I was in for a treat. What I love about this book is that it's more like a book of essays than a sustained narrative. The book is structured so that every other chapter takes us back to an aspect of the worship service. Then, in the alternating chapters, we're exploring a different aspect of religious life, which may or may not be Orthodox: iconography or a music festival or a thrift store. It's a fascinating way of structuring the book.
I was fascinated by the explorations of iconography woven through the book. In one chapter, we visit a woman who creates icons. In another chapter, Mathewes-Green reminds us that "We are the original icons, since God was the first iconographer, making us in his image" (p. 178). But even if you're not at all interested in icons, there's plenty here for you.
The book gives a bit of history about the migration of Orthodox to the U.S. and about the issues that arise when non-Orthodox want to convert. She gives us a wide window into what the worship service looks like, as well as the time around the worship service: the fasting before, the shared meal afterward. I was fascinated by their relaxed approach to the exact -- or not exact -- start of the worship service.
Mathewes-Green was on the road to ordination -- how did she end up in a faith tradition that doesn't allow women to be priests? She explains in chapter 13, and along the way, she explores the relief she feels in not being in charge. She imagines how different modern life would be if we took seriously our charge to compete to be the most lowly.
I've read enough of her work to know that Eastern Orthodoxy is not my call, although I do understand its deep appeal to people. I'd like my Lutheran church to do more with art and incense. There are days when I think that my individual church could do a better job of being stricter about theology. We've got a fair number of people who come from widely divergent faith traditions, and it begins to feel a bit untidy to me. I know of several church members who believe in literal demons, and I know of at least one woman who feels she can speak in tongues, although she does it quietly. We have a disconcerting number of members who believe that if we just pray hard enough and frequent enough, that God will do what we want God to do.
Yes, I understand the appeal of a more rigid Orthodoxy, and I know that Eastern Orthodoxy can feel more joyous than Roman Catholic (Western) Orthodoxy. Yet I will stay here, at a different intersection, but on the same road.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college teacher and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative-writing classes for the last 20 years.