I did not know until a few years ago that I had been living in schism all my life. No one told me.
You may think that I am joking but I am not. It is rather hard to believe, given that I am 61 years old and not generally an ignorant person.
I grew up in a largely Roman Catholic world and, as a child, was taught that the Catholic Church was the One True Faith. While I came to gradually learn a bit about other religions, Christian and otherwise, I did not know that there was another Church that laid hold to this same claim.
There was the girl down the alley that I sometimes played with when we lived in Minneapolis. I knew that she was Lutheran. I also knew that I wasn’t to ever attend any of her church services because I might unwittingly learn some false teachings.
I had no idea what those false teachings were – but I was not about to risk finding out. I felt a bit bad for my friend, that she was under the influence of this unknown error, but she and her family seemed to be nice enough people. And I was raised to be accepting of diversity, even though we didn’t have a buzzword for it back then.
When I began high school (Catholic, of course), our insular way of life was challenged by change. Within the Church, Vatican II had launched its modifications to our familiar rituals and practices. It was an exciting time for me. Words that I had learned to rattle off in Latin now had meaning for me. And I liked the meaning.
My school encouraged us to question and examine our faith – to really make it our own. As part of a special interim time in the school year, I joined an instructor and a few other students in a study of Judaism. It was fascinating to attend a Bat Mitzvah and learn what it meant to keep Kosher.
In the outside world, change was also rampant. I was a bit oblivious during those early years of high school but, having an older brother, I soon learned about things like the Vietnam War. In 1973, the legalization of abortion cut through me like a knife. High school religion classes began to include the discussion of social and political issues in the context of our faith.
However, in one high school religion class, we learned about other religions. I do not recall just which ones – but I do remember the Mormons. They scared me because, on the surface, I thought it just might be true. I felt strongly about the plight of Native Americans and it seemed to me quite plausible that Christ might have visited these noble people after His Resurrection.
If this really did happen, would it mean that I had to change my religion? I did not like the idea of leaving the familiar – but the truth was important to me. However, further reading revealed some beliefs that did not ring true to the Gospel I knew. Hence, I was not put to the test and could, in good conscience, remain Catholic.
There was no discussion in this class of the Orthodox Church – at least that I can recall. In fact, I am embarrassed to admit that I probably didn’t even know there was such a faith. I vaguely recall asking my mother why the cross on a particular church looked different from ours when we drove past it. Whatever response she gave must have satisfied my curiosity. I had no reason to think about it further.
While my relative ignorance may seem appalling, it must be noted that, in those days, we did not have the Internet. Computers were huge machines that took up entire rooms and most of us had little or no access to one. Hence, our interests were piqued only by those things we saw in our daily lives or heard about on the television or radio.
And even if my interest was piqued on a topic, my information sources were limited to the Webster’s dictionary and the Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia my mother had purchased, one volume at a time, from the local grocery.
There was, of course, the library. But that required being driven by a parent and such excursions were typically reserved for times when homework assignments required more than what the Funk & Wagnalls could offer. The library had the Encyclopedia Britannica!
Naturally, one would expect that I would have learned more when I went away to college, especially given that theology classes were required at my Catholic institution. But, alas, no courses on Church history to cue me in on the “other Church” and the existence of the schism.
I would not want my Orthodox friends to be offended by my ignorance of their existence and our sad division. Truth be told, I never really understood the Reformation either. Despite my deep interest in Christianity, all of the details of history, religious or secular, well…kind of bored me. To this day, I’m not sure which side of the “faith vs. works” controversy I am supposed to be on. It has always seemed obvious to me that we need both, so why all the fuss?
In 1977, I moved to Cleveland to be part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a spiritual journey into living simply in community, with a focus on social justice and service.
And it was in 1977 that I had my first notable contact with Orthodoxy.
My volunteer job was working with ex-offenders in a program that was founded by Lutherans and administered by an Interfaith (largely Protestant) organization. My spiritual horizons were expanding and I learned a profound respect for the faithful lives of those who worshiped in ways other than my own.
But the Orthodox were not, of course, part of this.
However, just down the street from my office in the inner city, an Orthodox priest was founding a monastery which soon became a shelter for homeless men. I was intrigued by this because I had never heard of a monastery performing such a service – but we were very grateful for it. Extra food was always brought to their kitchen as they fed many of the poor of the neighborhood as well as their homeless guests.
I did not see many monks in this monastery but I did not really expect to. Their notices in local publications always included an invitation to attend Divine Liturgy. I considered going, having shed the old dictum about being led astray, but I was a bit shy. I didn’t know what to expect and was reluctant to just appear at the door for liturgy. Where amidst the throngs of homeless men would this liturgy take place?
However, having had a passing and pleasant acquaintance with the founder, Fr. Gregory Reynolds, I went to St. George’s Orthodox Church to pay my respects when he reposed. I did not attend the services, assuming that such were for those who shared his faith and life more intimately than me.
When, in 1999, I moved into my house in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland, I discovered a wealth of churches. There were (and still are) three Orthodox Churches within walking distance of my house and at least three Roman Catholic Churches (not to mention the Ukrainian Catholic and Byzantine Catholic Churches). We were also graced with the United Church of Christ, an Evangelical Lutheran Church and some Hispanic Pentecostal churches and storefronts.
We all seemed to live peaceably together in this small, once highly ethnic enclave to the south of downtown. Still, no one informed me that I was in schism. And yet, realistically, how and when could this have been brought to my attention?
I have told the story elsewhere of how, in July of 2012, God directed me to Fr. Stephen’s blog Glory to God for All Things.
In short, following a deep meditation while having an MRI of my brain, I felt compelled to search the Internet for an understanding of some words that had come to me. It had to do with God singing. I had never read before that God or even Jesus sang – yet this had entered my prayerful meditation while in the tube.
When Google did not immediately come up with anything significant, I recalled Aslan singing in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. So I entered “Aslan singing” into my search engine. And I found myself reading a text that didn’t seem to have much to do with God singing – but it caught my attention nonetheless.
“Wow, I really agree with this!” I thought to myself. “What is this website?” That initial reading wasn’t so much imparting any new information to me about Christianity (that would come later), but it was just so well explained that I had to continue reading.
It took a little while for me to get a grasp on the discussion, but not terribly long. The Internet was at my fingertips and I could learn the basic facts I needed. I had also had a patient some years before who had converted to Orthodoxy, debunking the old assumption that Orthodoxy was probably “just an ethnic thing”.
As I read more and more at Fr. Stephen’s, I found myself joining in the community of commenters and feeling quite at home. Most of the time. Every now and then someone made a comment that suggested some rather strong negative feelings about Catholicism. Fr. Stephen himself seemed to me to be “angry” when discussing our separation.
I even wrote a comment to him once, asking forgiveness for whatever my Church had done to his Church. I didn’t get it. Yet when his posts turned too historical for my poor history-challenged mind, I simply scanned them and waited for another.
While things that happened so many years ago might interest some, they didn’t appeal to me. This side says this, the other side says that. There is no unbiased account of history – how can I make sense of it?
We all believe in the Gospel, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the source of our salvation. We all know the real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We honor His Virgin Mother and celebrate the communion of saints. As for “the filioque”, frankly, I had never heard of it.
When I learned what it meant, I was again scratching my head. I could not imagine that any of us know or understand the inner workings of the Holy Trinity. What is important is that we believe that there is a Holy Trinity. And Catholics and Orthodox alike hold this fundamental belief.
Now I understood that this wasn’t the only trouble that led to this schism-thing. I’m sure more historical research would have led me to more facts. But I was searching with my heart, not my mind. Why was I separated from my brothers and sisters in Christ?
Fast-forwarding into the present stage of my faith journey, it seems to me that the heart of the trouble lies in our sinfulness. How can it not? God gave us one Church and we broke it in two.
Of course, it is very typical of us human beings to point to the other guy and say, “He’s the one who did it, not me!” or “I wouldn’t have had to do this if she hadn’t done that!”
And so, whether it be the schism or the Reformation (about which I remain in historically ignorance to this day), our natural tendency is to view things in black-and-white terms. It becomes as much about blame in these historical conflicts as it does in marital conflicts.
Which, I believe, reflects our lack of repentance.
Whenever people interact, a system is created – a system that is something different from just the two or more individuals (or nations or church bodies) involved. Even when one party commits an egregious wrong, the response of the other party becomes an important part of the dynamic. More actions and reactions come forth that would not have occurred were it not for the interaction. And on it goes, one reaction provoking another which provokes another…
In other words, none of us are innocent. We have all inherited sin and we all partake, feeding into the vicious cycle of destruction.
Were it not for Christ, I fear that we would never find our way out of this mess. We would be bereft of the glorious union with Him and each other for which we were made. I can imagine no greater tragedy.
Now that I have been told about the schism, certainly I can intellectually grasp the concept. It goes something like this:
There was a rupture in the Church many centuries ago, the history of which is there to be studied by those who wish to study it. As a result of the rupture, separate human ecclesiastical institutions developed, one commonly called “Catholic” and the other “Orthodox”. The Orthodox and the Catholic believe a few things differently. On a practical level, the manner in which these groups worship differs significantly on many details. I say “details” not to minimize their importance to the people who practice them but to distinguish them from the heart of the liturgy: the Word and the Eucharist. Despite their many common beliefs, they remain apart, not sharing the Sacraments with each other, and hence they are not “in communion” with one another. Both consider themselves directly descended from the apostles and thus, “the Church”, with the other ecclesiastical institution being regarded as the one who left the Tradition.
And oversimplified explanation, no doubt, but I’m not going to pretend to explain more than I understand. Nor am I claiming that my understanding is completely accurate.
Having said all of this about the schism, however, I must confess that I still don’t really see it.
I see one Church, the living, mystical Body of Christ on earth. You, my faithful Orthodox readers, I see you in the Body. You, my faithful Catholic readers, I see you in the Body too. And any other readers, genuinely seeking God, longing to know Christ, I see you in the Body too – or at least on your way to finding your home there.
We are one Church, one Body of Christ. In Him, we are being made perfect so as to be brought into perfect union with Him and each other.
Yet, you might ask, how can I say this when the Orthodox and Catholics are not in communion with one another?
My human mind and my earthly eyes can certainly see the rupture. But the eyes of my heart see the Oneness – and I trust the eyes of my heart more than their worldly counterparts.
It is true – the eyes of my heart cannot see it perfectly. I am not perfectly united to Christ. But I see it…if only “as in a mirror”.
Allow me to explain.
What do we imagine that Christ Himself sees? As the Head, when He looks upon His Body, does He see the broken or the whole?
Because we have broken what He gave us, is He then compelled to also see it as broken? For all eternity?
I cannot imagine that He is compelled to do anything, much less see through the eyes of sinful humanity. In His eternal Being, He sees all things as they are in the fullness of timeless Truth. How could we imagine that He would see our sinfulness, the lies of the evil one, rather than Truth?
This is not to say that He does not know that the lies and sins and evil are all still at work in our world. But He, in His eternity, sees the antidote. For He Himself is the antidote.
His Body, once broken and raised, cannot be broken again.
Just as in the Gospel the Lord Jesus looked upon the man with a withered hand and made him whole, so He looks upon our brokenness and we are made whole. He looked upon the blind, the lame and the deaf; if they believed, they too were made whole.
To be healed, they needed only a flicker of faith, not a lengthy creed. And those who were possessed did not even need to express belief. He saw that they were caught in an impossible trap and He set them free.
Yet even greater than this is what He has done for us. Before surrendering Himself to death, He gave us His Body and His Blood – that we might know that He chose to sacrifice Himself out of love.
Then, taking into Himself all of our weakness, our sin, our strife, He allowed His Body to be beaten, broken, spat upon.
Though He had done nothing to merit death, He entered death in utter humility, sacrificing everything. Death could not hold Him captive as it did us – for the prince of death could not endure His selfless love.
Triumphant in battle, He was raised up on the third day. Not into this life or into His old Body but into the New Life and the new Body. The Body which we are, the Church, through the outpouring of the Spirit upon us.
His Body, once broken and raised, cannot be broken again.
Human institutions we can pervert, divide or even destroy with our sins. But we cannot break the Body – we cannot divide it.
We are One Body.
We are the Church.
(Please note that these ramblings are simply my ramblings and do not represent the teachings of the Catholic Church. I do not know enough to undertake a task of that magnitude. May God forgive me in my sinful folly.)