Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy by Frederica Mathewes-Green is an account of a year, a very liturgical year, in the life of a convert from Episcopalian high church to Eastern Orthodoxy. I remember Mrs. Mathewes-Green from way back. I believe I used to read and enjoy her writing in Christianity Today before she converted to Orthodoxy, a conversion that took place over ten years ago in 1993. She’s a good, engaging writer.
Mrs. Mathewes-Green begins the book with a preface/disclaimer. First of all, she says, she’s no expert on Orthodoxy, not a “church historian, theologian, or liturgical whiz.” Next, she asks forgiveness if in relating her experience in a small Orthodox mission church pastored by her husband, Gary, she has made the Orthodox church as a whole seem less than majestic and dignified and holy. In other words, she wants the book to be read as a sort of memoir, a firsthand account of one woman’s journey into the Orthodox faith, not as an authoritative guide to all you ever wanted to know about the theology and practice of the Eastern Orthodox church. As such a personal account of the world of Orthodoxy, the book is quite successful.
Part of the charm of the book is the author’s honesty and transparency. Mrs. Mathewes-Green admits that it was her husband who was fascinated by Orthodoxy after becoming disillusioned with the increasing apostasy he saw in the Episcopal church. She remembers thinking during an Orthodox service about her feet which were hurting and wondering “why they had pews if you had to stand up all the time.” (It turns out that many Orthodox churches don’t have pews) Everything about Orthodoxy that was appealing to her husband felt strange and difficult to Mrs. Mathewes-Green. The rest of the book is about how she got “past the bare truth part, the aching feet part, to discover the rich, mystical beauty of Orthodoxy.”
I come from a lot farther away than Episcopalianism to discover what beauty and truth there might be in Orthodoxy. I’m Southern Baptist through and through. So there were some obstacles for me in reading about this journey that were mere bumps in the path for the Mathewes-Green family. I still don’t get the icon thing even though the suthor explains what an icon is and why icons are so important to Orthodox Christians about as well as it could be explained to a layperson outside the Orthodox tradition. I also doubt that the divide between “cradle O’s” as the author calls them and recent converts is as easy to bridge as it seems in this book, but again this story is just the experience of one small congregation, not meant to be indicative of all Orthodox churches everywhere. Fianlly, I don’t really see the distinction between venerating or honoring the saints and icons and worshipping the Triune God nor why the former practice is necessary or beneficial. I know it’s very Protestant, but I remain something of an iconoclast. (But I still think some of the icons themselves are quite beautiful and highly artistic.)
In the final analysis, the story is what makes the book absolutely fascinating. The personal details that Mrs. Mathewes-Green includes, such as her college daughter’s flirtation with a nose ring and the author’s grumpiness turned into joy on Pascha (Easter) Sunday, are what makes this book such fun to read. I felt as if I were discovering a wonderful and rich Christian tradition that holds many lessons and truths for all of us, though I would find it difficult to participate in many of the rituals that define Orthodoxy. I especially thought I could learn from the disciplines of fasting and feasting that the Orthodox observe, and I am drawn, as is Eldest Daughter, to the celebration of a liturgy and a liturgical year that places Christ at the center of our days and of our holidays.
The author begins and ends the book by inviting the reader to visit an Orthodox church, participate in the ancient liturgy, “come and learn firsthand what Orthodoxy is.” I feel as if I already have made such a visit and come away with much to think about and process and with new ideas about worship and about the holiness and majesty of our God. If you are at all interested in exploring the strengths of other Christian traditions, I highly recommend Facing East as at least a primer on modern Orthodox faith and practice.