Byz-y Mama: an Introduction

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Editor’s Note: Today we welcome Brittany Balke as a contributor. Brittany brings us a different Catholic perspective: she’s a practicing Byzantine Catholic and plans to share more about that in the coming months. She blogs at Seeking to Be Human, so be sure to visit her there, too. Welcome, Brittany! -SR

Theotokos of Great Grace

Almost four years ago, the Lord didn’t just introduce me to my future husband; he brought me to my spiritual home in the Byzantine Catholic Church.

I grew up proudly practicing Roman Catholicism and was taught by innocently ignorant catechists that the unity of Catholicism was in the Mass. They taught me that every Catholic all over the world was celebrating the same Mass and hearing the same readings.

Imagine my surprise when, in my early twenties, my friend (a.k.a. the guy I was very interested in) invited me to a Ruthenian Byzantine Divine Liturgy for the first time.

I didn’t like it. I know there are a lot of Romans who go to a Divine Liturgy for the first time and swoon over it. I did not.

I believed it was legitimately Catholic, but I just didn’t like it. There was too much stuff going on: incense with bells, chanting the whole thing, troparia, kontakia, crossing yourself the “wrong” way all the time, and hymns to the Theotokos that made me want to call my Protestant friends and tell them they were right about us worshiping Mary.

Moreover, it radically changed my perception of Catholic unity. I realized from this first Liturgy and later ones that Byzantine Catholic spirituality was not merely cosmetically different from the Roman spirituality that I knew, but that it was a vastly different way of celebrating and understanding Truth, such as in seeing original sin as “ancestral sin” instead and with a different understanding of its effects.

Our unity, I eventually discovered, was in Jesus Christ and based on some shared doctrinal beliefs, but not necessarily in sharing every belief or in having the same liturgies. I had some difficulty dealing with all of this, but I pretended that I at least sort of liked it in order to impress the guy.

Not long after that first Divine Liturgy, I had a strange experience while napping in my backyard. Maybe it was just the heat of the sun, but I tend to believe what happened was truly mystical. Drifting out of sleep, I felt a strange nearness to God. I felt color and warmth. And something–or someone–conveyed to me without words that this friend of mine and the Byzantine Church were the keys to my spiritual well-being, that they would change my life for the better.

And that messenger was absolutely right.

Slowly but surely, liturgy by liturgy, I saw that the Ruthenian Byzantine church was my true spiritual home, and that my Roman upbringing had laid the solid spiritual foundation for me to be able to recognize the East as home. Eastern spirituality filled in the gaps that Roman spirituality had left in my heart, and, even though I did not share my husband’s Ruthenian ancestry, I found myself falling in love with the ethnic shadings of our little church.

More and more, I felt filled rather than distracted by everything going on in the Divine Liturgy. A little more than a year after that first Divine Liturgy, my “friend” and I celebrated the Mystery of Crowning and were married. A few months ago, we had our first child, and her presence in our lives both before and after birth seems to have invigorated our desire to lead better and more authentically Byzantine spiritual lives.

However, I can’t say it’s been incredibly easy to be Byzantine in a Catholic culture where we tend to be the minority. Finding resources to better understand Byzantine theology and spirituality has proven difficult.

Our churches are few, and so I often have trouble making it to as many liturgies or activities as I would like because the closest Byzantine church is 15 miles away through traffic. That distance can also be an obstacle to building community with other parishioners. So is the fact that we can be kind of a tourist attraction, filling many seats with curious Roman visitors rather than permanent Byzantines. (This isn’t to say I have any problem with Roman visitors. I was one, too, and I am grateful they are getting to know us!)

I would guess that many of the Byzantine moms out there deal with similar struggles and others, and that’s why I’m here to contribute on CatholicMom.com. I hope to build a little bit of support for us Byzantine moms. I want to share what I’ve learned so far about family life and living an Eastern spirituality as well as to hear what you’ve learned.

I want to not only be a source of wisdom, knowledge, humor, and empathy, but I want to hear your wisdom, knowledge, humor, and empathy. Many of you have been Byzantine and/or mothers for much longer than I have, and so I hope you’ll give your contributions in the comment section with each article. Of course, I hope anyone who feels they have something to add about motherhood or spirituality feels welcome to participate in discussions as well, whether you are Eastern, Roman, Oriental, or any other kind of Catholic; Orthodox; or of any other persuasion.

Speaking of discussion, here’s your first question:

What do you want me to write about? Do you have questions about Byzantine Catholicism? (My husband is getting his Master’s degree in Eastern Christian theology, so we’ll research the tough ones together.) Do you have questions about family life in the Byzantine church or just family life in general?

I will leave you with one of my favorite books for learning how to better enter into the spirit of Great Lent.

cover-great lent

The book is called (no surprises here) Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann.

Father Schmemann was an Orthodox Christian priest, and in this book, he illuminates the history and meaning behind many of our Lenten traditions and liturgies.

Now I know what some of you are thinking: this book is Orthodox, not Catholic. Byzantine Catholics are basically the Orthodox who are in union with the Pope. We differ on a couple of issues of morality and theology, but otherwise, we share the same beliefs, and I did not find any discrepancies with this book’s description of Lenten principles and our Byzantine beliefs.

Be forewarned that Father Schmemann is very honest and occasionally harsh in this book concerning his disagreement with a few Roman Catholic concepts, such as Eucharistic adoration. While I think his explanation of the discrepancies between the two theologies is both interesting and helpful for identifying true Byzantine belief, I’m not sure his implied invalidity of Roman theology is a concept those of us in union with Rome should adopt.

All of that is a very small fraction of this book, though. Mostly, you will find ways to make Great Lent more meaningful in your life. This might be the first Lent in a number of years that I have approached with excitement, and that’s because of this book.

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13 Comments

  1. Hi Brittany and welcome! I know very little about Eastern Catholicism, so I will be interested in learning anything you have to share!
    The first thing I want to know is: what is “Ruthenian?” And is Byzantine the same as “Orthodox?” And do you worship in English or is another language used? (Around here–southern NJ, we have many Orthodox churches: Greek, Russian, Romanian, etc. and worship is in those languages.)

    • Thank you, Barb! Ruthenian–and I’m stealing this straight from the Wikipedia page on “Ruthenian”–“is a historical term for ethnic minority in Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and the Czech lands,” and so our church is the Byzantine tradition that hails from that culture. That is the short answer. There is a long answer that involves politics, and I’ll refrain from giving that one unless you’d like it, haha! (And then I might make my husband write it!).

      The original language was Slavonic since that’s what our people spoke, and sometimes we thrown in a few Slavonic phrases as a way to sort of actively remember that history, but our liturgies are in English now. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if in New Jersey some Ruthenian liturgies are celebrated using more Slavonic since people there tend to be more more acquainted with the language of their ancestors or they are immigrants themselves.

      We are not exactly the same as the Orthodox, as that tends to refer to those Eastern Christian churches who are not yet in union with the Catholic churches under the pope, and the Byzantine Catholic churches are in union. However, Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics share almost all of the same beliefs. It’s just that one has not yet decided to be in union with the Catholic churches for various reasons, and the other one has.

      Our diversity within this universal Church is both beautiful and confusing! I’m still learning a lot, but I hope I can effectively communicate what I learn and facilitate discussion so that those who know something that I don’t can give their input, too!

  2. Hello and Welcome. I am fascinated by the various flavors of Eastern Catholicism and would love to learn more. Sometimes I think the Eastern Rites have been less diluted by Western culture. Barb’s comment lists some really good questions to start with.

  3. Hello Brittany! I appreciated your article, having family members who have switched to Eastern rites, and they have the same appreciation for Eastern spirituality as your description above. However, one point that I would like to clarify in your article – the unity of Catholics is actually found precisely in the celebration of Mass, or for my Eastern rite relatives, the Divine Liturgy. Regardless of how it’s celebrated, in Latin, Greek, Arabic, with or without incense, singing or chants; it is precisely in the celebration of the Paschal Mystery that we are united. We do not partake of two different Eucharists. So while you had a good point that the two Liturgies look and sound very different, it is precisely in the “what” is happening at Mass and Divine Liturgy, that we are united in the Body of Christ.

    • Yes, Louise, I see what you mean by that! We are most assuredly united in that Communion of the Eucharist, which is Jesus Christ! That is what I meant to imply by saying that our unity is in Christ, but it is good and necessary to specifically mention the Eucharist and the fact that this is exactly what these different Sunday liturgies are celebrating.

  4. We have an “East-West” home here – I am Roman Catholic and my husband is a deacon in the Melkite Catholic Church. He is lucky, his parish is only 15 minutes away. He was originally Roman Catholic and visited his parish back in 2000 during the Jubilee – a tour was set up of Catholic churches in the area for the youth and he was a chaperone. He recalls entering a certain church known as Our Lady of Perpetual Help and was just blown away by the icons. He listened to the priest and just fell in love. He was not at all dissatisfied with where he was at, he was very active at our parish especially with the youth. But God called him to the Melkite Church. I shared in his study as he prepared for the diaconate and have grown to love the Eastern Church very much. I have read some of Fr. Schmemann’s book and loved it.

    Are you familiar with ancientfaith.com? Wonderful Byzantine chant 24/7 and numerous podcasts with teachings. My favorite is Search the Scriptures, taught by a professor equally passionate about the bible and ancient history – her passion is infectious!

    • It’s so awesome to see you have that familiarity with the East! I like that you pointed out that your husband wasn’t dissatisfied with his Roman faith but felt called to the Melkite Church, because it demonstrates that one church isn’t really better than the other. Rather, it’s another way for God to speak to us and work with us.

      I am not familiar with ancientfaith.com, and I can’t wait to check it out! I’m secretly doing this whole contributor thing just to get a lot of awesome information out of the comments, and now I see it’s totally working. Haha, I hope I have something to give, but I think you all will have a lot to contribute as well.

  5. Brittany, again welcome to the family. I hope your presence among us will not only inform us about your rites, but will also make other “Byz-y” moms feel more welcome too! I look forward to learning from you!

  6. Welcome to the family, Brittany! I have two very close friends who are Byzantine and I am so excited that I will be able to point them toward your posts!

  7. I enjoyed your post Brittany. I kind of had an opposite experience…grew up Byzantine Catholic and found my spiritual home in the Roman Rite during college. However, I do believe that Byzantine Catholicism is not widely understood by most Roman Catholics and your efforts to share your experience in that church can help us all appreciate and reflect on our own spirituality.

  8. Hi Brittany,

    Your story reminds me of mine in a way. I, too, was raised Roman Catholic and was brought to the Eastern Catholic Church by my husband before we were married. After attending Liturgy for two years with him I knew that being an Eastern Catholic was also home for me. We were married in our Byzantine Catholic Parish and have been attending ever since. I recently became a mother last year and found this website recently and was delighted to hear your post!

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