[UPDATE: Recently, we partnered with The Life of the World blog. Our plan is to run posts first there, and archive the post here the following week. We are hoping to start posting regularly each Friday. Considering Liking the Field Guide’s Facebook page, LOTW’s Facebook page, and use the #fieldguidefriday hash tag if you share on social media.]
What is the Orthodox Church? And why a field guide? Put simply: she is the world’s oldest Church, and as such, she has matured and grown over time in her daily practices and liturgical expression, so understanding how to navigate her services and daily life is an important issue for anyone in the Church, or those exploring her for truth.
To those who have never been to an Orthodox worship service, the first few visits can be scary, and the services so intense, it can be confusing. Add to this, many times the services are conducted in strange languages that a visitor may not understand. And sometimes, even those who feel at home in the Orthodox Church, having spent many years experiencing her faith and worship services, may not have reflected on the meaning of this or that particular practice.
The Church is unchanged in a very real sense—she has carefully preserved, promoted, and died for the faith entrusted her by Jesus Christ in the first century. But that does not mean that she didn’t have to occasionally expand on or rephrase how she articulated that faith (usually to combat errors), or develop new customs over time. This process of maturity is not unlike life for any ordinary human being—we learn from our mistakes, grow from our trials, and try to find better ways to communicate.
The purpose of any field guide is to assist an observer in appreciating and understanding what he sees. This blog is no different. Its goal is to be a practical help and handy reference, designed for use with the shortest notice and easy to navigate answers about whatever a person may observe in a typical Orthodox church.
I have been reading about Orthodoxy and visiting different Orthodox churches since 2003, carefully observing and noting the strange customs witnessed. My experience of Orthodoxy is mostly limited to American Orthodoxy, though I have tasted virtually every ethnic expression of the faith and practice of the Orthodox Church in this country, and spent a wee bit of time in Ukraine. It did not take long before I recognized a beautiful, organic unity among the various churches, and it made no difference whether it was a Russian parish in San Francisco, Greek parish in Nashville, Ukrainian parish in Odessa, Ukraine, or a Pan-Orthodox mission in Hawaii.
With more visits over the years, and more familiarity with the services, I starting noticing subtle differences in liturgical customs. While not a precise set of categories, it seems that the lower-case “t” tradition of the Orthodox Church can be categorized broadly as Slavic-Russian or Byzantine-Greek—at least that’s how I’ll broadly categorize it for the purposes of this blog. The category of Slavic-style parishes includes Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, and Romanian churches—among a few others. The category of Byzantine-Greek parishes is inclusive of Greek, Turkish, Antiochian/Syrian, and Serbian churches—again, among a few others. Throughout this blog, I will attempt to be as universal as possible, and where “Slavic” and “Byzantine” practices are different, I will mention such things in a general way. (Somewhere, someplace, at some time there will almost certainly be exceptions to these generalizations. And at this time I will not focus on differences within the Orthodox Western Rite —that would likely require its own treatment.)
The approach this blog takes may appear random at first. But eventually a trajectory to the posts will emerge. If this field guide were a physical book, one would open it to find two sections. The first section would be a step-by-step walk-through of a typical Divine Liturgy, our most sacred and central service. The Divine Liturgy is the heartbeat of the life of Church, and without it, there is no Orthodoxy. The second section would be an A-to-Z reference of the Orthodox Church, with a special emphasis on the services and daily disciplines of her people.
The most important thing I hope to communicate with these posts really isn’t the nuts and bolts of Orthodox worship and discipline, but the One who is the reason for our worship and discipline: Jesus Christ. The whole point of Orthodoxy is to live a Eucharist life in Christ for our salvation, and for the life of the world.
Nothing in this guide blog should be seen as the final word. I am a mere layman, and have no authority to speak as an official representative of the Church. It is quite likely that I will make mistakes, and I will likely over-generalize. It is also likely that I will sometimes interpret local practices as universal, perhaps not realizing that the Greeks or Russians in the old countries have never done it like that. In light of that, I invite comments and corrections given in a kind spirit. Please, please, please offer corrections, suggestions, or exceptions wherever necessary, and if possible, please supply a link, valid book or academic reference, or at least a personal story to back up the correction or exception so I can better research the issue and provide a more accurate field guide in the future.
I am certainly not the world’s foremost expert on all things Orthodox. I’m just a guy who reads a lot of books, wears flip-flops, goes to church, and loves Hawaii. I was baptized the day before Pascha 2009 at St. Juvenaly Orthodox Mission in Kailua-Kona, HI, after six years of very carefully considering the claims of Orthodoxy. After Kona, I attended St. Michael the Archangel Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and served as as a janitor at St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church (OCA) in Philadelphia. I currently live in South Florida with my wife, Alison, and our three beagles. We are now attending St. Mark Greek Orthodox Church in Boca Raton, Florida.
I truly love the Church, and want to be a tool in the hands of Christ and his Saints to bless others with the fulness of the faith found only in the Orthodox Church.
Jamey (Athanasios) Bennett
Thanks to my friend, Joel J. Miller, whose idea it was to create such a guide. Thanks also to Donna Albino, who has courteously allowed us to use her field guide image. Her website is here: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~dalbino