So You Want to Be a Byzantine? A Guide for Romans (Part Two)

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This is a series dedicated to the Roman Catholic who finds him or herself curious about becoming a Byzantine Catholic. In part one of this series, I recommended a great book and a few other things to get you started.

In this post, I’d like to discuss some of the misconceptions I’ve known in my few years as a practicing Byzantine. They’re not the kind of misconceptions you’ll read about in theology books, but have more to do with how people tend to approach Byzantine communities.

Jumping right in, then…

1) “Byzantine congregations are so small. You must have an awesome community!”

Don’t mistake knowing everyone’s name for being solid community. Small congregations tend to have just as many disadvantages (and advantages) to building a peaceful, compassionate, and motivated church community as do larger ones.

For example, yes, having a small parish affords more personal time with your priest and fellow parishioners, which has great ministerial advantages. However, in such close quarters, drama tends to grow quickly. If people have a difficult encounter with one another, they can’t just sit on opposite sides of a massive church or go to separate Sunday liturgies (in many cases) and avoid one another. They have to actually work through the issue or endure the impending drama.

small church probs

Me, when church isn’t as perfect as I want it to be.

The former option can yield beautiful results, but we imperfect humans often to choose the latter. Gossip and rumors also spread to a greater percentage of the community much faster simply because there is less ground to cover. This can, again, lead to unnecessary drama.

There’s no need to divulge all the other possible pros and cons. Just know that we small congregations have stumbling blocks as much as any larger parish.

Why even mention this? I have seen people “decide to become Byzantine” based on the  seemingly wonderful community they experience within their first few weeks at a church, only to find months later that we have problems just like anyone else. They eventually discover that what they really wanted all along was not Byzantium but a better community than what their old Roman parish was offering.

2) “I can be bi-ritual” or “I can practice both Byzantine and Roman Catholicism.”

It would appear that the underlying problem with this idea is a further misconception that Byzantine spirituality is merely cosmetically different from Roman spirituality. But, as I mentioned in part one, this could not be further from the truth.

The two spiritualities, while celebrating the same dogmatic and universally Catholic beliefs, approach those beliefs from two very different angles that are not compatible to be practiced all together by one person or mish-mashed into some kind of franken-spirituality. This is not only something I have come to learn by my own reasoning and experience but through consultation with an experienced spiritual director as well.

(“But what about bi-ritual priests?” Bi-ritual priests have been canonically given faculties to preside over liturgies in both rites. However, even these priests do not necessarily “practice” both spiritualities. Usually a priest has one spirituality that he practices personally, and he simply helps out in the other rite out of a real need. There are some rare clergy who attempt to practice both, but I feel like these men are the exception to the rule.)

As a die-hard, cradle Roman Catholic, I understand how troubling everything I am saying here can be for some people. The problem of not being able to be “bi-ritual” was troubling to me when I first encountered it, and committing to living one spirituality consistently hasn’t been easy: I have had my ideas of theology, Catholicism, and God himself shattered time and time again by learning Byzantine theology.

I have had to let go of my most treasured, uniquely-Roman practices–like Eucharistic adoration–in order to live a spiritual life that was consistent with the Byzantine spirituality to which I felt called. I have had to adjust to living a radically different church calendar. I have had to relearn how to pray.

My world has been broken time and time again by having to give up Roman Catholicism and give myself completely to this spirituality. But this breaking has been fruitful beyond my imagination.

If I could tell one thing to Romans who have discerned they are supposed to be Byzantine, it would be this: do not be afraid to give up everything that is uniquely Roman Catholic in your spirituality and to adopt Byzantine spirituality wholeheartedly.

It’s important to note that this does not mean as a Byzantine you can never attend Mass or Eucharistic adoration if the circumstances call for that (i.e weather prevents you from driving to your Byzantine church or a friend invites you to adoration with them). What it does mean is that, at the times when you would normally go to Mass, go to Divine Liturgy instead. When you would usually spend an hour in adoration, pray with an icon instead. When you would usually say the Rosary, pray the Akathist to the Theotokos. If you have a choice between a Byzantine or a Roman option, choose the Byzantine one. And so on.

Likewise, if you discern that you should continue to be Roman Catholic, give up your uniquely Byzantine practices and return to Roman spirituality completely.

A few people might find themselves in situations where they must encounter both spiritualities on a regular basis. One of the most common examples of this would be a “mixed” marriage, where one spouse is Byzantine, and the other is Roman. In order to fully support such situations, I think it can be beneficial to seek a solid spiritual director and possibly even a counselor.

3) “The Divine Liturgy is just so much more reverent” and “Byzantines are so much more aware of and/or faithful to the traditional teachings of the Catholic faith.” 

Giaquinto, Corrado: The Holy Spirit

“Alright, naked baby cherubs, the Romans are coming over for dinner next week. They’re no Byzantines, but they’re part of our Church, so we have to tolerate them. Put out the IKEA china. I don’t want to risk them breaking the expensive stuff.” #thingstheHolySpiritneversaid

I lumped these two together because they both occur on a theme of “The Byzantine church is a holier place to be than the Roman church.” While many good jokes can be and have been made about this being the case–and I am not afraid to use them–nothing could be further from the truth. Otherwise, there would be no need for the Roman (or any other Catholic) church.

It’s not as though the Holy Spirit organized his churches into the “A team” and the “B team.”

Addressing these two misconceptions specifically, I would say first of all that every rite approved by the Catholic Church is reverent. Period. If you perceive more reverence in a Divine Liturgy than at Mass, I would encourage you to dig deep and find out what’s really going on: is there something intrinsic to the Divine Liturgy itself that moves you? Or are you just excited about the way the priest celebrates the Liturgy or about the fact that it’s different from your normal routine?

To address the second misconception, no, just…no! We are a normal variety of sinners just like Rome. The misconception makes some sense, because one might assume that a person who is aware of something as obscure in the Catholic faith as the Byzantine church would also be aware of many of the more basic teachings. But, for a large number of reasons, that’s simply not the case.

4) “What’s cool about Byzantium is all the fun extra ‘stuff’ that they have: the incense, the bells, priests wearing blue, the extra blessings on feast days, etc.”

Ugh. This misconception drives me nuts, even if those nuts happen to be blessed.

What’s cool about Byzantium is its rich spiritual tradition that goes far beyond extra blessings, fancy garments, speaking old Church Slovanik, or whatever other small things people tend to first notice and attach to in our churches.

"Those blue garments looks so good on him...this incense smells great...but what the heck is this  'Holy Spirit' he keeps referring to?...Ooo, bells!'

The blue garments are nice, but there’s something just slightly more important here…

Don’t get me wrong, those small things are great. But it’s important to not get stuck on them and miss the bigger and more magnificent realities to which they are meant to point, such as the therapeutic quality of Byzantine spirituality, an approach to theology that both differs from and supplements the Roman approach to theology, a unique understanding of the makeup of the human person, illumination, theosis, and so much more.

Let’s not forget the magnificent realities that the Byzantine church shares with the other Catholic churches, such as the Eucharist, priests who can celebrate the Mysteries and Sacraments, an appreciation for the role of Mary as our mother and intercessor, and that whole worship-of-the-one-true-God thing.

Whenever I see or hear people getting caught up in the more ornamental aspects of our faith, I can’t help but wonder what past and current martyrs have considered as they face their death: thank God their grapes got blessed at the Feast of the Transfiguration or thank God they got to participate in the Mystery of the Eucharist for that feast? Thank God they have a prayer rope or thank God they have prayer?

The fundamentals of this spirituality are absolutely beautiful, but it’s a beauty can’t be found by living merely on–or for–the bells and the incense and the blessed grapes and all the other relatively trivial stuff.

As far as discernment goes, I feel like committing to a spirituality based on its ornamental features is similar to committing to a spouse only for their physical appearance or their hobbies: by refusing to dig deeper, you miss out on some of the most amazing and fulfilling experiences.

5) “If I discern that I am not called to the Byzantine church, I have failed or I didn’t ‘make it.’”

This is closely connected to number 3 and that whole “A team, B team” mentality.

If you discern that you truly aren’t called to become a saint through Eastern spirituality, that means you’re called to become a saint through Western spirituality. You have in no way failed. In fact, coming to a proper discernment means you’ve succeeded incredibly.

Most of you know this and read it and say it and agree. But I fear there are a few people who, despite knowing all this, attach themselves at the beginning of discernment to becoming Byzantine as though it were somehow holier than the other options.

The Byzantine church’s minority status often gets mistaken for exclusivity, a kind of club in which only the extra cool kids are invited. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Roman Catholicism is beautiful, and the world needs Roman and Byzantine saints who exude authenticity and humility, not Roman and Byzantine Catholics trying to maintain an image or to distinguish themselves. If you discern you are meant to be a Roman Catholic, praise God for the journey you’ve taken and for it’s beautiful end.

Finally:

I hope and pray that sharing some of these lesser discussed points is helpful for your discernment and that I haven’t scared you away with my moments of snark. I also hope and pray that your spiritual journey is peaceful and fruitful, wherever it happens to take you. 

If you have any questions, as always, please feel free to mention them in the comment section.

Copyright Brittany Balke, 2014

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5 Comments

  1. HI Brittany,
    I was raised Roman Catholic, but was led by the Holy Spirit to a beautiful UGCC church 8 years ago. We go to Divine Liturgy there weekly, I am a Religion School and lead adult Bible Study there. The one thing that bothered me in your post/article was saying to really abandon Roman rite spiritual practices in favor of Byzantine ones. I did break from Adoration at the proximate Catholic church in favor of driving 20 minutes to have time in front of the Lord in quiet church without the monstrance. Still I love the Stations of the Cross, and while this isn’t a Byzantine practice, we actually have them in our church, presumably because the UGCC founders were on eastern side of Ukraine influenced by the Polish over their border.

    We haven’t converted rites formally, but 2 of my children received chrismation in 8th grade, and 2 received Holy Communion at this church–because it is our parish church. I do in my spirit have an aversion to being advised I can’t pray the rosary or pray the stations because it isn’t Byzantine. At same time I prefer the Divine Liturgy over all other forms including Latin Tridentine. But on other hand, I think the Lectionary in the Roman Rite is superior to only hearing he same New Testament scripture readings.

    So my heart is in the UGCC, at least in my local (which isn’t that local–several towns away), parish.

    I don’t really have a spiritual director other than whomever I was able to find for a confessor last.

    Do you think it is important to formally change rites? Or is it sufficient to commit to my local UGCC parish and continue to worship there?

    Thank you,
    Colleen

    • Colleen, thank you, these are really good points and questions!

      First, let me address the easy question, about formally changing rites: no, it’s completely sufficient to simply commit to your parish. Formal ritual changes are changes for ordinations and not much more. They can also be helpful for organizing sacramental records (i.e. I was married in the Byzantine church, but my record is kept at a local Roman church that I don’t even attend because I am technically Roman), but beyond that, as a regular lay person, there’s no real need to change rites.

      Regarding Roman practices: I very much understand the aversion. I would reiterate that’s it’s not that a Byzantine can *never* do those things, but they’re not necessarily the preferred method and should–in general–be minimized.

      Every practice in Byzantine spirituality stems from Hesychasm and every practice in Roman spirituality stems from Scholasticism. Both Hesychasm and Scholasticism aim to know God, but the means by which they go about it are very different. Let’s say analogously that one is a ladder to God and another is a swimming pool to God. (Not saying which spirituality is which, I just mean to point out that each is different). You can perhaps jump from the ladder to the pool and back again, but either it gets (A) exhausting or (B) your technique in either practice–ladder climbing or swimming–is going to get diluted from swinging back and forth and not gaining a real expertise in one technique. Consequently, the journey becomes more arduous or potentially even dangerous either way.

      With that in mind, it IS possible that it might truly be fruitful for you to continue in one or two Roman practices that you enjoy. That’s something to perhaps pray about and address with your confessor. My first inclination is to recommend also doing the Byzantine counterpart to that practice if one exists. For example, in addition to the Stations of the Cross, also pray (not necessarily one right after the other) the Moleben to the Cross. In addition to the Rosary, pray the Akathist. And so on. In addition, be sure you understand the principles of Hesychasm and the concepts of Scholasticism clearly. Knowing these roots of Byzantine and Roman spirituality will help illuminate the goals of your spiritual practices and hopefully make each practice more fruitful in that regard.

      I hope that helps answer your questions and clarify my meaning regarding letting go of Roman spiritual practices.

  2. Brittany,

    Thank you so much for your quick response. I had to do some research on your comment, “Every practice in Byzantine spirituality stems from Hesychasm and every practice in Roman spirituality stems from Scholasticism,” to better understand what you were meaning.

    I agree that Scholasticism — especially in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and earlier in the foundation laid by St. Augustine hold sway in the Roman Rite church spirituality. I can’t say every practice is from scholasticism though as I think it tends to minimize orthodox mystical spirituality (I put the orthodox in there — in the definition of it being right and not in terms of it being from the Orthodox faith tradition). I really can’t see how you could make a case for how praying a Scriptural Rosary is Scholasticism. Or even that sitting in loving adoration in front of a monstrance or tabernacle is scholasticism. If anything seems to be an example of Hesychasm it would be staring in silence at the Lord hidden behind the form of the host in a monstrance—as if staring into the light with no other desire than pleasing and loving the uncreated, ineffable presence—which is the Lord.

    So essentially, I can’t agree with your absolute categorizations of the spiritual practices. I know within our own parish family there are those that put great importance on emphasizing the Byzantine practices as that is our role—to ensure those continue and flourish and continue to bring praise to God and grace to those who engage in worship using them.

    Of course I never fit those personality type categorizations whether it was type A or ENTJ, etc. I think spirituality is more of a Venn Diagram between Eastern and Western. There are some practices that are unique or originated in the east and some that are unique and originated in the west. There are also some that are arguably found in the overlap—the Trisagion that is used at the end of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy is one—we are worshipping the same Holy, Holy, Holy God — so when we reach that space where we find the Way the Truth and the Life with an integrated mind, body, and soul seeking after the Lord with desire to please and love the One that so loved us — we will trod some common ground there in the overlap of the circles. At same time I understand the problems of syncretism. Which goes to your point on the importance of committing to a parish and a faith tradition—since it requires humility and obedience to teachings moral and doctrinal.

    This was a minor issue with the Nicene Creed in our parish. For many years we said — from the Father and the Son. But then our Pastor said, “that even the Pope excluded “and the Son” when he offered Divine Liturgy, and the Metropolitan says we should not say it, and that goes to our obedience.” In both spiritual traditions, east and west, we learn how primary obedience and humility are to growth in holiness, so that was it. Our church switched like a light switch to not saying “and the Son”.

    • Colleen, as far as obedience goes, one of the most influential events for me has been the second Vatican council’s call for all Eastern Catholic churches to be rid of unnecessary latinizations and to return to their original heritage and traditions. This was issued in light of many Eastern Catholic churches, especially in America, succumbing to inappropriate Roman Catholic pressure and/or wishing to unnecessarily distance themselves from their Orthodox counterparts and thus taking on several Western and distinctly un-Eastern practices. If the Church saw a need for her individual Eastern churches to be authentically Eastern and rid of unnecessary Roman practices, then it makes sense that individual members of those churches should also seek a completely Eastern way of worshiping and to work–perhaps progressively–to replace their Roman practices with Byzantine ones.

      While I can appreciate the Venn Diagram image of spirituality–having once adopted this view myself–my understanding of the call of the second Vatican council as well as of the differences between Eastern and Western spirituality prevent me from seeing this as an ideal way of worshiping. But I do appreciate your expression of your views and willingness to discuss this topic. I would also emphasize that if maintaining a certain Western practice is important to an Eastern Catholic, that’s something that needs exploring and proper spiritual care.

      If you become unsatisfied with the answers Google is giving you, one of the books that really helped me to better understand Eastern spirituality and how it differs from Western spirituality, including their bases in Hesychasm and Scholasticism, is Orthodox Spirituality by Metropolitan Hierotheos Nafpaktos. The book is written by an Orthodox bishop and thus has some very harsh comments about Roman Catholicism. While I do not condone such a harsh attitude toward Roman Catholicism from Byzantine Catholics, I find the bishop’s blunt style makes understanding the differences between Eastern and Western spirituality somewhat easier. I am currently in search of a solid Byzantine Catholic resource that is as thorough and as readable as Orthodox Spirituality, but I haven’t found one yet.

      On a side note, regarding Adoration: the main consideration with Eucharistic adoration from an Eastern perspective is that it conflicts with the Eastern view of the Eucharist as primarily an action between God and his people. This was an ancient view of the West as well, but eventually the West developed a view of the Eucharist as primarily an object (because the scholastic approach allows for such developments), which led to the practice of Adoration. In order to “gaze upon the Lord,” the East has instead developed the practice of praying with icons. This is more fitting to Eastern spirituality and its experiential basis in that it appeals to the senses meant for such “gazing:” icons very clearly appeal to the sense of sight, while the Eucharist, having the accidents of bread, appeals to the sense of taste and to the action of eating. You mentioned, “If anything seems to be an example of Hesychasm it would be staring in silence at the Lord hidden behind the form of the host in a monstrance,” but Hesychasm actually seeks to facilitate an experience of the Lord in the heart through the senses. It is precisely because the Lord appears to be “hidden” in the accidents of bread that make adoration a less desirable practice in the East than praying with an icon.

      I think arguments could be made that a Spiritual Rosary is not *against* Eastern views, but we have other prayers, such as the Akathist to the Theotokos and the Jesus Prayer, that more richly and explicitly illuminate our theological principles.

      • Denise Maslowski on

        Brittany,
        I am confused about what you said about the rosary. I was raised Roman but transferred my rite to the ruthenian in June of 2000. Our churches do pray the rosary, maybe because of latinization. Is it true that the rosary is not a byzantine tradition. I have heard in some circles that it is not.
        Sincerely,
        Denise Maslowski

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