This is the second of probably three parts in this series. The first one was done in allegory, and now I want to apply that allegory to real life through the lens of my own experience in this. I hope in the next one to talk about modern “issues” that we all have and of the things we like to accuse one another and ways to look at things if we want to ever grow from this. Too often we level accusations at one another and we judge others in their contexts without having any real understanding of one another as people or of one another’s contexts! If we want unity, we need to understand one another, not to label one another improperly.
My first encounter with the Easterners was in a chamber orchestra rehearsal in grade eight. Shocked to meet another person who was Orthodox and fasting Wednesdays and Fridays, I told him that I was Coptic Orthodox. He was excited, and so was I. After that’s night rehearsal I was eager to go the next week, knowing that for the first time I was going to have an Orthodox friend. I imagined the possibility that we could visit one another’s Churches. Mine was far away and a long drive, but maybe he would be willing to see it. I’d be happy to go to his. The week passed, and I went to rehearsal. I was beaming ear to ear waiting for my potential friend to arrive so that I could suggest our church exchange – when, he walked in, not looking happy to see me. Very succinctly he told me, “I told my priest about you, and he told me that you are part of a cult.” I laughed. Obviously this was a misunderstanding. “Of course not!” I answered, “He must be confusing us for that Coptic Zionist cult that uses weed in their services!” I was so happy that the answer was so simple. “No,” replied my unfriend, “he said that I should have nothing to do with you.” In spite of this, I assumed that it was a misunderstanding, but not worth pursuing further. If Nicholas, a Russian, wanted to have nothing to do with me, that was fine by me. Obviously we were both Orthodox but this Zionist group had ruined everything. At least, that’s how my juvenile mind dealt with the issue.
The next time I encountered the Easterners was in my first year of university. Naively, I got on one of those old usenet forums – the ones that were e-mail based, not like modern posting forums. I sent out a message asking if there were any other Coptic Orthodox Christians out there. The first response was, “This questions presupposes that you can even call yourself Orthodox, there are a body of us who would argue that you are monophysite, and thus, not Orthodox.” I will never forget that reply because it rocked my world. A monophysite? Was that some kind of insect? So I searched it up and found out what a monophysite was. I saw what the accusation was, and I laughed. I actually laughed joyfully, not sarcastically. “Wow! This is what they think I believe? Well, this one’s really easy to correct! Of course I’m not a monophysite, just listen to the confession in our Liturgy and you’ll know that!” I told them as much, but this was not, apparently, compelling. Apparently, it did not matter to them what I was saying. It did not matter that I was explaining that what they were accusing me of believing, was not what I actually believed. I do not think I could articulate how upset this made me. It aggravated me that someone was determining for me what I believe, affirming that they are right in their accusation, and then throwing a label on me.
Of course, to add insult to injury, most people on that board would never refer to the Coptic Orthodox Church as Orthodox. There would be a very intentional omission. They would say, “The Coptic Church needs to understand that the Orthodox Church believes…” This irked me. A lot.
Response, Folklore, & Retaliation
My immediate response, was to devour everything I could read on the subject. I would read as much of Sts. Cyril and Athanasius that I could down. I read all the history I could find on it – from both sides, pro- and non-Chalcedonian. I read everything I could devour on Ephesus I, Ephesus II (the so-called Robber Council), and Chalcedon. When the minutes of Chalcedon came out eventually, I devoured those as well. This was not a bad idea, but given my mood, it only fanned the flames. I found all sorts of things in there that were aggravating. It was aggravating because I was seeing more clearly that the Christology of my Church has always been Orthodox, and yet I was being called something unjustly.
So, very wrongly, I started to retaliate with same kind of polemics that I saw with the EO. I would write “the Greek Church needs to understand the Orthodox view of…”, just to fight back. I would go out of my way to speak with disdain about Leo of Rome or John Damascene. It didn’t matter if I knew much about them or not, I wanted to be hurtful. I wanted to show “their side” how “my side” felt. The group for which I reserved the most contempt, were those Athonite monks. Those ones who would not even acknowledge the Ecumenical Patriarch. They were the symbol in my heart of all that was wrong with ‘them Byzantines’. I fanned those flames without restraint. I wrote about them. I spoke about them. I taught about them. I hated their polemics. I hated the persecution that we had at Justinian’s hands in Egypt. I was angry. I was angry and was myself returning evil for evil.
I wish that I could identify only one turning point, but there were many. As I grew, I simply became less angry in general. Not just about this issue but with people as a whole. I was becoming more self-aware, but I didn’t drop my polemical stance entirely. To be totally honest, not all my words were harsh or mean, but they had a tone of “until they repent of their error, there can be no communion!” or “I lament the disunity, but only when they are ready to rejoin the Church can we discuss…” or “There’s a lot they have good, and yet they’re still a bit messed up.” That was my way of thinking.
During that period, I was on those old forums at coptichymns.net. This was after the early 2000s, and I met a few people during that time. One was a Russian priest who was corresponding with me. It was an Easterner that first sent me a copy of “The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined” – not an Oriental. He sent me a dried Eulogia with an explanation of how the Easterners prepare their oblation bread, their korban. He sent me a print of an icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov. He was affectionate and kind. He made me want to visit a local Russian Church, which in my area was a ROCOR one. I told him of my intentions, and he messaged my priest, cautioning him not to allow me to go because I would not be welcomed if I went. He was sensitive to me and my state. I didn’t know that he did that until much later. It also then made sense to me why Nicholas of my childhood thought I was in a cult, he was a parishioner at that very Church. My tone softened even more. I began to speak with kindness and some hope about reconciliation.
Then I met a nun, a convert nun, through those forums. She had had a very rough life, a wild life even, and came to Christ through St. Mary of Egypt. She had become a nun within the OCA, if I’m not mistaken. She wrote beautifully and lovingly. She told me, “I cannot believe how much love you have toward us in spite of what happened to your people at our hands” (I believe, referring to the Justinian persecution of the ‘monophysites’). Her calling me loving made me want to be loving. Her acknowledgment that something wrong had happened, made me feel less aggressive. What was I going to fight about? Here was someone saying that something is wrong and being apologetic. This was what I had always wanted, so how could I be more upset?
I would be doing a horrible injustice if I did not add one monumentally important person in this personal journey: Father Peter Farrington. It was not only Eastern Orthodox that were showing me a proper way and route to love and unity, here was an Oriental Orthodox layman (then priest) who did the same. Anyone who has done extensive study on this topic has inevitably had to bump into Father Peter. It was incredible to find a man who was both spiritually grounded and objective, to learn from. Father Peter was alive and active teaching on this and researching this long before his becoming subdeacon, and eventually, a presbyter. I could easily make a whole blog about Father Peter and his work – for me personally and my parish, but to extol him on here would not entirely do him the greatest service. Father Peter is the mastermind behind this website dedicated to the cause. I will probably make reference to this in part three, but for there to be a discussion about this, Father Peter cannot be anonymous.
Then came an event that was monumentally important in my life: meeting Father Nikolaos. Father Nikolaos is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church. I had moved to his neck of the woods for my internship in my last year of school. It was an area in which there was no Coptic Orthodox Church. I would play Liturgy in my prayer room to candlelight; singing the congregational responses, signing myself, and making prostrations where appropriate. I loved it, but obviously it wasn’t the “real thing”. So one Sunday I went for a morning drive, and I stumbled across the Greek Orthodox Church. I drove up beside it on a side where I couldn’t see that there were cars there. Thinking the Church was empty, I decided to park and see if the Church was open to go in and see. Well, the cars were on the other side. I went in, and they were finishing the Divine Liturgy. “Great!” I thought to myself, “I’m going to get owned for being a Copt.” I decided on a strategy. During distribution of the Eulogia, I would keep my eyes closed shut like I’m praying. That way everyone would leave me alone, because who wants to disturb the praying guy? So that’s what I did.
Then, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Here it comes, the moment of being blasted publicly for being a Copt. I opened my eyes, and saw the priest in front of me. “Hi, I’m Father Nick! Who are you?”
I decided the best thing to do was say it from the get-go:
“Hi, I’m so and so, and I’m Coptic Orthodox.” There, I said it. I expected at best an, “Ohhhh, that’s nice. Well, if you have questions ask.” At worst, I thought it was going to be, “You’re a heretical monophysite, please leave.” I got neither. I got:
“Oh! Welcome! THat’s wonderful. Well, first of all Merry Christmas since you’re on the Old Calendar. Second, if you want to take Communion here, there’s an agreement between our Churches for where we don’t each have our own parishes and jurisdictions. If you and your spiritual father are comfortable with it, then I don’t mind at all that you commune here.”
I was floored. I wanted to cry. I could not believe that I was being greeted with so much love. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been insulted, and that instead, I was being offered the chalice. Not only was the Eastern Orthodox Church willing to care for me, but specifically the Greeks! The one that I most loathed within myself the most!
By the end of my trip, I told Fr. Nick as much. I told him that God had given me a deep lesson in humility in that in my time of need, it was my so-called enemy that cared for me and showed me love. The Samaritan had taken me in. This priest, who has no idea how much love I have in my heart for him until this day (especially because I rarely show it), has been the model for me in Christian charity and in proper ecumenism: love first, love always. It was his Christian love that made me change from one of the people name-calling, to one of the people seeking unity. Seven years later, Father Nikolaos and I got to vest together to pray over a precious and dear woman battling a difficult illness. When we both wore our stoles, Father Nikolaos burst into tears, sending me in the same direction.
We need to seek unity, and we need to seek it in humility and on our knees. Humble love converted me and assured me who was of Christ. For:
“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
In the next installment, I want to discuss some barriers and misconceptions that are serving as obstacles in this pursuit of oneness.