I went to Greece this summer to teach a Bible class: Paul’s Letters to Greek Cities. I expected to trace the footsteps of Paul. I expected to gain new insights into the writings of the Apostle simply by being in this land. And I expected to eat a lot of gyros. In none of these things was I disappointed.
What I didn’t expect was the extent to which I tapped in to Eastern Orthodox spirituality. Growing up, I’d been taught that Catholics weren’t Christian, and didn’t even know what Orthodox was. And now? Shame on those of us Protestants who, while developing our own expressions of faith, were so presumptuous as to judge who is a Christian and who is not.
On our tour of northern Greece we visited Meteora. Here enormous rocks seem to shoot straight up out of the earth, and sitting perched on top, as if God had created them that way, are monasteries. The Ancient Celts talked about “thin places,” where the veil between heaven and earth becomes nearly transparent. Meteora is a very thin place.
It’s easy to see why this “rock city” was chosen by Orthodox monks and nuns to build places for prayer and solitude, beginning in the 11th century. The inside of the catholicon (church) at each monastery is covered floor to ceiling with icons: beautifully detailed images that tell stories from the Bible and the lives of the saints. We Protestants have a hard time with icons, probably because we don’t understand them.
My interest in icons began while browsing an Orthodox bookshop one day. We’d been looking around and noticed two in particular—the “Last Supper” and the
Hospitality of Abraham.” The bread on the table in each icon looked like zwiebach, an icon of sorts in my Mennonite Brethren tradition. I asked the shopkeepers if this was special bread. They said no. They consulted an Orthodox priest sitting nearby. Same answer. Afterwards, we joked about Mennonite Byzantine iconology.
This discovery led us to look more closely at icons. In some, the bread was definitely zwiebach: the size of a dinner roll, with a top that’s smaller than the bottom. In others, it looked more like a hamburger bun, or just a loaf of bread. Finding this small thing I could identify with opened me to appreciate other aspects of icons. I learned to recognize certain icons, no matter in what style or century they were painted, because certain things always remained the same. In “The Virgin of Tenderness” Mary’s cheek is always touching baby Jesus’ cheek. I learned some of the stories behind the scenes represented in the icons. I even bought a few and didn’t feel like I was committing the sin of idolatry, as I’d always been taught.
But the part of Orthodox spirituality that had the most impact on me is the simple prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” I say that prayer every day, several times a day because it’s inscribed in Greek on a silver ring I bought at St. Demitrius in Thessaoniki, the largest Greek Orthodox Church in Greece. This prayer is central to one of the most ancient spiritual traditions in the Eastern Orthodox Church, hesychasm.
Christianity wasn’t born in a vacuum, but has cultural and religious roots in Judaism. Jesus didn’t break ties with his Jewish heritage, but gave new expression to that faith. In the same way, Protestants didn’t dream up their faith from scratch. We came from somewhere. And I suspect that not only could we learn something from our spiritual mothers and fathers in Orthodox and Catholic traditions, but that we might in fact miss something if we don’t. There is life and vitality that comes with age and wisdom. In a culture that values youth and newness, and looks down upon its elders, it is no wonder we’ve dismissed the ancient Christian traditions, going so far as to declare them not Christian at all.
So I wear this ring and say this prayer to connect to the ancient traditions of Christianity. I think about zwiebach, icons and monasteries. I think about profound conversations with students and how they moved and impressed me as the distinctions between student and teacher, ancient and modern, Orthodox and Mennonite, were beautifully blurred.
Audrey Hindes teaches biblical and religious studies classes at Fresno Pacific University. She is a graduate of FPU with a master’s degree from Graduate Theological Union.