Don’t Look East Just Because of the Problems in the West 

One theme among some conservatives has been the role of Russia as a sort of holy scourge of a decadent West. But the answer to Western problems is not salvation by way of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought to the surface simmering tensions within Eastern Orthodoxy and among the defenders of differing ecclesiologies and eschatological visions vis-à-vis East and West. One major theme has been the role of Russia as a sort of holy scourge of a decadent West. The recognition of a very real rot in the West has even tempted some in politically and religiously conservative circles to admire Putin’s Russia as an admirable alternative to Western apostasy. 

I will leave those debates to trained theologians. Nevertheless, I have come to the conclusion that the answer to Western problems is not salvation by way of Eastern Orthodoxy. I base this conclusion in my own journey from Protestantism to the One True Church via the schismatic East (the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome are a different matter, of course).

In 1999, believing the West (Catholic, Protestant, or humanist) offered no spiritual sustenance, I was chrismated as an Orthodox Christian. Then in 2012 I was received into the Catholic Church. 

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Since then, I’ve cautioned Catholics fed up with the seeming Roman chaos since Vatican II who think Eastern pastures are greener to reconsider. Even when I was “all in” for Orthodoxy, certain features—lack of organization, excessive emphasis on ethnicity, legalism about fasting, to name just three—confounded me. But what I now see, a decade in as a Catholic, is that, above everything else, I now feel at home. 

The East is a wonderful place to visit, but it was not home for me. For that reason, I now consider St. Gregory the Great my co-patron, since he spent time in Constantinople as Rome’s representative before returning to the West and emerging as a staunch defender of Western prerogatives. 

Ten years of life in the Roman Church—about half of it in traditional circles—has opened my eyes to our great riches. Those riches are why I am staying put and am not tempted to go back. Some of those reasons include, in no particular order: the Rosary; social and political teaching; St. Joseph; St. Thérèse of Lisieux; the threefold Western patrimony of the pope, the Latin language, and the traditional Mass; and, for the sake of piety, honoring my ancestors.

The Rosary: Devotion to Our Lady is found in both East and West, but the Rosary does not have an Orthodox equivalent (at least in terms of popular piety). In terms of “technique,” the Jesus Prayer said on a prayer rope or chotki appears to be similar but really is foreign to Western spirituality, being more ethereal than Western devotions. The Rosary, by contrast, is tangible with its beads and mysteries. Ironically, I first started praying the Rosary while Orthodox. I was searching for the common ground between East and West, and I stumbled on the small Western-Rite Orthodox Lancelot Andrewes Press and a prayer book it published, which had a way of saying the Rosary. The Rosary is a source of nourishment, inspiration, and discipline for millions of Catholics. 

Social/Political Teaching: Certainly, Orthodoxy has teachings on society. Unlike the West and Catholicism, the Orthodox are not used to a relatively level playing field: they have experienced either ascendancy, such as they had in the Byzantine Empire, Russia, and Greece; or, subjugation, as in the Ottoman Empire and the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Catholicism’s social teaching has been formed by a more diverse set of circumstances. The encyclicals by past popes such as Leo XIII, St. Pius X, and Pius XI let the fundamental issues of society come clearly into focus. Rather than a pining for a bygone empire (not to diminish the post-Vatican II withdrawal from state religion), Catholic Social Teaching can guide us through social problems.

St. Joseph: The foster father of Jesus is almost invisible in the East, where he is depicted as an aged man. One wonders how he could have either protected the Holy Family or worked to provide for them. But to the West he is a vigorous and masculine presence, able to work, nurture his wife and the Child, and lead them away from evil. He shows us the dignity of manual work, reinforcing the incarnational aspect of Catholicism. Since he is silent in Scripture, it may seem difficult to know him, but his actions and willingness to submit himself to God’s plan speak loudly to those with ears to hear.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Over time, I have developed an intimate connection to this great saint, and I daresay there is no comparable saint in the East. When I looked at her from the standpoint of Orthodoxy, she seemed silly. When I started studying her as a new Catholic, she still seemed lightweight and not to be compared to more “serious” saints like the martyrs or St. Teresa of Ávila. Yet this outwardly unremarkable French girl was transformed by suffering and love into a powerful witness with a hauntingly beautiful countenance.

The Pope: It might be difficult for many Catholics struggling with their faith to appreciate the current pope, but just try living the faith without a Holy Father. It’s not about any particular pope and his personality. It’s about the unifying office. In my sixty years, there have been good, mediocre, and bad popes. But even a bad pope is still the pope, and God still uses his pontificate to reveal truths to the faithful. 

Latin: Exorcists frequently state that the devil hates Latin. Perhaps that is why so many bad things only started happening in the Roman Church after Latin was marginalized or discarded. Language matters. Latin is a great equalizer since it is no one’s native tongue. In the new Mass, language is often treated as a malleable, squishy thing, but Latin offers solidity. It also offers common ground. When Latin was the liturgical language, a Catholic could hear Mass anywhere in the world and not feel adrift.

The traditional Mass: It is the outworking of love, beauty, and discipline. For some time after I left Orthodoxy, I lamented that the East had us beat when it comes to the liturgy. Then I knew only the New Mass. Not now. I’ve experienced the Missa Cantata and Solemn High Mass, and we hold our own. I sometimes wonder if the Orthodox might be less hostile to Catholicism if they were familiar with the traditional Mass, which is manifestly akin to the Divine Liturgy.

Piety: This is a prime virtue in the Roman tradition, pre-dating Christianity’s ascendancy. Think of Virgil’s praise of pious Aeneas. As a Roman Catholic, I am able to honor my ancestors, my Catholic ancestors. It may very well be their prayers that guided me to Rome. When deciding where to buy our burial plots, my wife and I decided on a nearby Catholic cemetery where members of my family rest. There is a quiet assurance in knowing one will be with one’s people through life and death.

Someone might wonder why I didn’t choose Eastern Catholicism. The truth is that I’ve had very little exposure to our Eastern-Rite fellow Catholics. There are none very close to where I now live. I was received as a Melkite but successfully petitioned to change ascription since both my wife and mother are Roman Catholic.

There are wonderful and wondrous aspects of the East. I was first attracted by the incense, icons, and culture. But anyone looking for an escape from human problems besetting the Roman Catholic Church will find similar problems in the East: squabbling, moderns versus traditionalists, divorce, abuse, etc. The East, with its heavy emphasis on the Resurrection in its iconography, might seem like greener pastures than the West and its dominant motif of the Crucifixion. They are two leaves of a diptych, and neither can stand alone. I choose home, and home means under Peter’s protection, come what may.

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]

  • Greg Cook

    Greg Cook is a writer living with his wife in New York’s North Country. He earned two master’s degrees, including one in public administration from The Evergreen State College. He is the author of two poetry collections: Against the Alchemists, and A Verse Companion to Romano Guardini’s ‘Sacred Signs’.

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