Encountering the East
March 14, 2020
A Christian pilgrim cannot come to the Holy Land without experiencing Eastern Christianity. Iconographic scenes embossed in gold adorn the walls of sacred spaces, the thurible unceasingly rings, and fills the air with the fragrance of prayer, sacred serenades resound in the ancient domes, lifting the cries from the depths of the human heart! Surely an impression is made; one of beauty and reverence and respect.
For many in our class, the pilgrimage has been the opportunity to have these “impressive experiences” of Eastern Christian communities and their rituals. They have been novel experiences that have expanded horizons. It has been the opportunity to exercise charity of clarity, namely that Roman is not the only adjective to modify the identity Catholic.
On Sunday, the Mundelein pilgrims had the opportunity for an “impressive experience,” namely Divine Liturgy at the Greek Melkite Catholic Patriarchate in Jerusalem. This church is a community of Syriac origin that worships through the Byzantine tradition. We enjoyed the richness of the prayers and the beauty of the chanting; an English worship aid and homilist helped to unveil some of the mystery as well. However, after Jesus was received and the final prayers were offered, the choice was ours: many wanted to use our free afternoon to go in groups for shopping or lunch or sight-seeing. The Archbishop Emeritus stated his desire. He insisted we go up to the roof to see the view of Jerusalem. The whole class scurried up the stairs and there were many photos and laughs upon the roof. During our photoshoot, Archbishop Emeritus was fumbling in his drawer to find little crosses to gift us, future priests. He created a space of warmth, welcome, and love… and people lingered. He shared little details and anecdotes of his life. With the little time we spent with him, I knew I was in the presence of a Friend of Christ, a holy and joyful man.
We could have just come for liturgy, enjoyed its beauty, and left. What made a world of difference was allowing that experience to become an encounter. What could have just been an “impressive experience” of wonder and novelty could have stayed that way. It was the courage and love of this holy man that opened a place that allowed us to recognize someone so familiar. Archbishop Emeritus is a Melkite Catholic, but rather than focusing on the adjective, the external, the identifier, we could see the identity: a fellow brother in Christ and a father given to us through His One Church. It is easier to focus on the former.
Eastern Christians comprise less than 15% of the Christian world; they comprise even less of the Christians in the United States. The average American might go a lifetime without interacting with a member of these diverse and ancient communities. Perhaps there are no worshipping communities where we live, or, if there are, they might be so small that they are overlooked or so conspicuous that a protective bubble has formed around them. Perhaps we have interacted with them and did not even know. Perhaps we do not have the interest to know. As a seminarian studying for an Eastern-rite Church in the United States, I often worry if we, brothers and sisters in the One Christ and One Church, will be ships in the night…or find enrichment and wholeness in our communion. I hope that space will be made.
St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago