Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today

Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today

by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

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As Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew is the symbol of unity for the self-governing national and ethnic Orthodox Christian churches throughout the world. He is well known for his commitment to protecting the environment, and for opening communications with other Christians as well as with Muslims and other religious groups. His efforts for raising environmental awareness globally have earned him the title "Green Patriarch."

Written with personal warmth and great erudition, Encountering the Mystery illuminates the rich culture and soul of Orthodox Christianity. Bartholomew traces the roots of Orthodox Christianity to its founding two thousand years ago, explores its spirituality and doctrine, and explains its liturgy and art. More especially, in a unique and unprecedented way, he relates Orthodox Christianity to contemporary issues, such as freedom and human rights, social justice and globalization, as well as nationalism and war.

With a recent rebirth of Orthodox Christian churches (particularly in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe), there has been great interest in understanding this important branch of Christianity with its close ties to the traditions of the early Church. As USA Today recently reported, Orthodox Christian churches throughout the country are drawing converts attracted by the beauty of its liturgy and inspired by its enduring theology. But for the general seeker, whatever their background, Encountering the Mystery is a rich spiritual source that draws upon the wisdom of millennia.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385525619
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/18/2008
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 584,672
File size: 490 KB

About the Author

BARTHOLOMEW, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch, is spiritual leader for the world’s over 200 million Orthodox Christians. He is dedicated to advancing reconciliation among Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities, and is an active proponent of environmental causes.

Read an Excerpt





This is the faith of the Apostles; this faith has

established the universe.


 It will be helpful from the outset for readers to gain some insight into the world of the Orthodox Church with a general reflection on the history and teaching, as well as the spirituality and practice, of the Church through the centuries.1 This will be followed by a brief survey of the history and role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in order to present the broad scope and overall structure of the Church.


The Orthodox Church numbers some 300 million people worldwide. Geographically, its primary area of distribution lies along the coast of the (northeastern) Mediterranean, in Eastern and Northern Europe, and in the Middle East. Composed of several self-governing or Patriarchal churches, it constitutes a form of international federation within which each local church retains its independence while remaining committed to unity in faith and worship.

The Orthodox Church does not have a centralized authority or leadership, instead comprising a constellation of independent and equal national churches, among which the Ecumenical Patriarch is historically and traditionally honored as "first among equals." In this regard, the Ecumenical Patriarchate bears a primacy of honor and service; its authority lies not in administration but in coordination. Therefore, it serves as the primary focal point of unity, fostering consensus among the various Orthodox churches. In addition to the responsibility of facilitating Orthodoxy unity, the Ecumenical Patriarch has immediate jurisdiction over the Greek, Ukrainian, Carpatho-Russian, and Albanian Orthodox churches in the United States and Canada as well as all Greek Orthodox churches in Europe, South America, Australasia, and the areas of Greece freed from Turkish occupation after the Balkan wars, including Crete and Macedonia.

Although it is certainly of Eastern origin, the Orthodox Church nonetheless regards itself as the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" and may be found today throughout the world, in countries such as America, Australia, Western Europe, Japan, and Asia.2 It is defined not in relation or in contrast to Roman Catholicism or Protestantism, but rather as a seamless continuation and spiritual succession of the early Church of the Apostles, martyrs, confessors, monastics, great teachers, and saints.

The term "Orthodox" was first adopted in the early-fourth-century Christian Church by the Greek Fathers, namely by the great teachers and theologians of the early Church, in order to determine and distinguish the canonical faith from heterodox, or heretical, doctrines and deviations. Today, the term forms part of the official title of the Eastern Christian Church and those in communion with it. Also included in the title are certain other Eastern churches that were separated in the fifth century as a result of the Monophysite controversy, a theological dispute over the question of interpreting Christ's divine and human natures.

The title "Patriarch" is adopted for the head of various Orthodox churches. It was originally confined to the five ancient Churches of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem-the "Pentarchy," or five ruling churches, officially codified under the emperor Justinian (527-65). The title was later extended to the Metropolitan of Moscow in the sixteenth century, to the Archbishops of Serbia and Bulgaria in the early twentieth century, and to the head of the Romanian Church in the middle of the twentieth century.3 The ancient Church of Georgia adopted the exceptional title "Catholicos" for their primate.

The hierarchy and administration of the Orthodox Church are based on the ancient orders of bishop, presbyter (or priest), and deacon. Each diocese has integrity as the full expression of the Church while maintaining full communion or unity of faith with every other diocese. Many people tend to think of the Church as a vast, worldwide institution. Nevertheless, the concept of universality, or catholicity, is understood as being expressed in the local community. This is a fundamental aspect of Orthodox theology and tradition, which recognize each local eucharistic gathering as related on the principle of identity and as reflecting the fullness of the Body of Christ.

Such is the general vision of the Church, or the overall structure of what is called ecclesiology. Within this vision, one may refer interchangeably to the "Orthodox Church" (collectively) as well as to the "Orthodox churches" (individually). For the Church is the "one Body of Christ," which comprises "many parts."


The Eastern Orthodox Church is characterized by its continuity with the apostolic tradition, adhering to the faith and practices defined by the ecumenical councils. However, the Orthodox Church is not only defined by this historical perspective. Like the god of antiquity Janus, the Orthodox Church looks both ways: backward toward the sources of the historical Church and forward-or upward-toward the heavenly kingdom. This is true not only historically, since Orthodoxy derives authority from the early Church Fathers and the lives of the saints in order to discern the spirits of the times in every age. It is also valid spiritually, inasmuch as Orthodoxy draws inspiration from the age to come in order to make sense of the present reality. The first aspect is summarized in the term "tradition." The second dimension is a worldview summarized in the word "eschatology."4

Therefore, in its very essence, Orthodoxy is a Church at once rooted in the past and looking toward the future. It is this dual nature that permits Orthodoxy to speak boldly about critical contemporary issues while at the same time firmly retaining its respect for doctrinal formulations and sacred practices of the early Church. It is, therefore, what we like to call a "living tradition." The vivid sense of continuity with the past and community with the future-with those who lived saintly lives on this earth, as well as with those who live in what is called the "Church triumphant"-shapes the way that Orthodox faithful think, feel, and live.

Moreover, the Orthodox Church has been deeply marked by a sense of martyrdom and suffering. Through the divine blood shed by Christ on the Cross, the Orthodox Church has learned that the very persecutions and troubles that beset the early Church became the seed for the growth of the Christian Church. Indeed, even in more recent centuries, especially in Asia Minor and in Russia, the story of the Orthodox Church has been marred by persecutions and divisions that have shaped the identity and defined the spirituality of the Orthodox themselves. Humility that results from suffering is a distinctively Orthodox virtue, which has accurately defined and profoundly shaped Orthodox theology and spirituality through the centuries.

Thus, anyone reading the history of the Orthodox Church must learn to appreciate and incorporate the darker moments within the more illumined moments and historical events. For instance, it is impossible to speak of the suffering of the early martyrs during the first three centuries without intimating the way in which "red martyrdom" gave way to a "white martyrdom" with the development of monasticism around the same period. Anthony of Egypt abandoned his ascetic discipline in the desert of Egypt to support his fellow Christian martyrs. Since he was not persecuted in Alexandria, he returned to his "inner desert," as he liked to call his more remote place of abode, and increased his ascetic labors-namely, the martyrdom of the spirit-as a way of substituting for the martyrdom of the flesh. The early monks lived on a daily basis as if they were prepared to die like the early martyrs; they are to be admired in their preparedness at all times to bear witness to the Word of God in their world.

Moreover, one cannot fully appreciate the way in which theological doctrine and spiritual life were perceived as two sides of the same coin by the early Christians, as well as by the Orthodox as their contemporary successors, unless one is able to appreciate the profound connection, intimate friendship, and mutual respect that developed between the likes of Anthony of Egypt (known as the "father of monasticism") and Athanasius of Alexandria (one of the early and staunch defenders of the orthodoxy of faith).

This is precisely why the Orthodox Church places such great emphasis on the accurate articulation of doctrinal formulations. Not because this is how God is ultimately known or defined. For it is impossible either to comprehend or ever to contain the fullness of the divinity, whether in rational concepts or in written documents. Nevertheless, every word and every letter is critical inasmuch as it reflects the tested witness of a saint, even the blood of a martyr, who has experienced a glimpse of the divine energies. The seven great ecumenical councils, from the first held in 325 (at the time of Athanasius of Alexandria) through the seventh in 787 (in support of the veneration of sacred images5), are therefore careful to determine with meticulous precision the most appropriate words with which to describe the inexpressible and inexhaustible divine experience. It is no surprise, then, that Saint Athanasius of Alexandria was exiled five times for affirming the correctness of the term homo-ousios (or "of the same essence") rather than the term homoi-ousios (or "of similar essence") to describe the relationship between God the Father and God the Son in the Holy Trinity; one letter was a superfluous iota in the pursuit of theological precision. Thus, the eighth-century defender of sacred icons Saint John of Damascus (675-749) wrote:

We do not change the everlasting boundaries that our Fathers have set, but we keep the tradition, just as we have received it.6

For the Orthodox, it has always been crucial to preserve the invaluable treasure of the faith with care and respect, "neither adding anything, nor taking anything away."7

These discussions were by no means the monopoly of specialists; theology was never an esoteric or academic exercise. Ordinary Christians were all involved in theological debates: they would be divided on doctrinal issues; they would take sides in ecclesiastical controversies. Saint Gregory of Nyssa complained that, during the Second Ecumenical Council (381), the city of Constantinople was alive with such unending discussions:

The whole city is full of it: the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; salesmen of old clothes, money changers, food sellers; they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone for change, he will philosophize about the begotten and the unbegotten nature of God; if you inquire about the price of bread, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater than the Son; and if you ask the attendant whether your bath is ready, he will answer that the Son was made out of nothing.8

Throughout its history, the Orthodox Church is not only concerned with traditional consistency and purity; it also values the element of historical continuity. For example, in twentieth-century Istanbul (formerly Constantinople, and the See of the Ecumenical Patriarch), the Patriarchate is still known as "Rum Patrikhanesi" (namely, the Roman Patriarchate). Furthermore, the Greeks of the polis (namely, the capital "city" of the Byzantine Empire, as Constantinople is still known) continue to call themselves "Romaioi" or "Romioi" (namely, "Romans"). Behind these somewhat strange and seemingly anachronistic traditions, there lies a historical seed of great importance. Under the pressure of barbarian invasions, the Roman Empire in the West collapsed during the fifth century. As a result, the medieval society that eventually emerged there may well have retained certain links with, but at the same time fundamentally differed from, the immediate past. By contrast, however, the East knew no such sudden break in its history; there, the Roman Empire survived for over a thousand years until the middle of the fifteenth century. Despite numerous religious, economic, political, and social changes, as well as its tragic decline in size and resources, the Byzantine Empire remained-at least until the fall of Constantinople in 1453-essentially the same Roman Empire as that over which Augustus had ruled in the first century of the Christian era.

The period that ensued after the first millennium of undivided Christendom, often known as the "Byzantine era" proper (from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries) or the "Church in captivity" (from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries), is marked by the progressively deteriorating relations between Eastern and Western churches, the rapid increase in missionary expansion, and a remarkable revival of theological writing, liturgical commentary, and spiritual experience.9 Two efforts to heal the Great Schism between the Roman and the Orthodox churches, which occurred gradually over centuries but culminated especially in the middle of the eleventh century (1054), did not come to fruition: the Council of Lyons (1274) and the Council of Florence (1437-38). Moreover, the fourth Crusade left indelible scars in the memories of the Eastern Christians with regard to their Western brothers, especially after the fall of Antioch (1098) and Jerusalem (1100), together with the perverse and lawless sacking of Constantinople (1204).

Nevertheless, the same period is also characterized by the Christianization of the Slavs from the tenth century and the development of a rich spiritual teaching, based on the experience of the Hesychasts in the fourteenth century, whose theology was articulated in spiritual treatises by their spokesman Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) and in liturgical treatises by Saint Nicholas Cabasilas (1322-90).10 Even during the occupation of Byzantium by Islam from 1453 to 1821-a period of intense suffering and mere survival, as well as of unprecedented agony and anxiety for the Orthodox Church-the spiritual light of previous centuries was never completely lost. In the nineteenth century, for instance, an entire spiritual renewal was inspired by the writings of The Philokalia, with its emphasis on mystical "prayer of the heart." In addition, new national churches appeared and flourished in the Balkans and throughout Europe, although the Orthodox Church always insisted on refuting and condemning religious nationalism (or "ethnophyletism"). Finally, during the twentieth century, beyond a new wave of missionary activity throughout the world, especially in Africa and Asia, the Ecumenical Patriarchate insisted on fraternal collaboration among the various Orthodox churches and ecumenical conversation with other churches and religions.


The Orthodox Church is characterized by a profound sense of continuity not only with the times but also with the teachings of the apostolic Church. With regard to its faith and practices, it adheres to the decisions of the first seven ecumenical councils. The word "Orthodox" signifies both "right believing" and "right worshipping," and so the Orthodox Church is recognized as the bearer of an uninterrupted living tradition of true faith lived out in worship.

In expressing its belief and worship, the Orthodox Church looks for consistency with Scripture and tradition. Indeed, the roots of the Church lie in Scripture and tradition, as these are manifested in the life of the Church and the early Fathers. However, external criteria of truth are not foremost; Orthodox Christianity seeks the living experience of truth accessible in the communion of saints, wherein the Mother of God, or Theotokos, holds a special place of honor. Venerated from the early cult of the martyrs, the saints in general are honored as witnesses to the fullness of the experience to which all baptized Christians are called and, as such, are considered intercessors for all Christians. In most Orthodox cultures, the faithful are baptized with the name of a saint, celebrating the feast day of that saint in the place of a birthday. In some Slavic Orthodox cultures, the entire family will honor a certain saint as its patron, passing this tradition on through generations.

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Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
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Just look who wrote this book and you know you are in for something special. Well thought out, concise, and inspiring.
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