Let me tell you, spending virtually this year’s entire season of Lent on the Greek Isle of Patmos, in an environment completely Greek Orthodox in culture, language and piety, was an extraordinary and memorable experience. Among other things, my Lent’s unique discipline this year included fasting from the Eucharist! I was probably the only token Catholic on the entire island other than possibly a lost, off-season tourist. That turned out to be a more difficult diet than I ever expected.
Contrary to Roman Catholic practice which allows individual non-Catholics to receive the Eucharist under certain circumstances as listed in the Holy See’s Directory of Ecumenical Principles (1993), the Orthodox require full communion for anyone approaching the Table.
I was allowed, however, to receive a small portion of the unconsecrated leavened bread (called antidoron) together with non-communicating Orthodox worshippers after the final blessing and dismissal. That was indeed a gift!
Fortunately, I was able to follow the beautifully chanted parish liturgy as a result of having downloaded the full text of the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom into my Kindle before leaving Milwaukee. The ancient prayers are really lovely … and I secretly wondered how many passionate debates were experienced among the Orthodox over their translation issues whenever it happened.…
Patmos is famous for being the site of the visions gathered with all their harsh and vivid imagery into the last scroll of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation. The entire island and its population of slightly less than 3,000 inhabitants is wondrously permeated by the spirit of John: apostle, evangelist and seer.
Contemporary Catholic biblical scholarship is quite convinced that those are three different individuals, even though they share a recognizable continuity of name and a common passionate conviction about the mystery of Christ and the necessity of taking clear stands on issues of faith, no matter what the cost. Jesus felt compelled to reprimand the Apostle and his brother James by calling them “sons of Thunder” (Mk 3:17) when they thought a reception by Samaritans was less than cordial!
Our cathedral in Milwaukee is explicitly named after the Evangelist, even though I suspect that the individuals were all commingled in the mind of Archbishop Henni when he selected the new church’s name in the late 1840s.
So every morning this past Lent, with my New Testament in my backpack, I walked up to the Cave of the Apocalypse, some two kilometers up the steep hill to the ancient chapel marking the traditional site of the visions. I found a goat path to shorten the trip even though it was more strenuous than the paved road nearby … “Better for the heart,” I kept telling my winded self!
The site itself is decorated with extraordinarily beautiful ancient icons. The cave-chapel is a perfect place to pray, sitting in utter silence and sorting out the layer upon layer of the book’s vivid imagery in order to seek the precise messages of John’s early Christian community which might be especially pertinent for ours as well.
By definition, the ancient Semitic world saw the number “seven” as a superlative universal … and the book is completely filled to the brim with sevens: spirits, stars, churches, messages, woes, plagues, vials of poison and even seven beatitudes scattered through the text.
The fundamental message through it all is the utter supremacy of Christ and the announcement of severe punishment for all those who allow themselves to be tainted by idolatry, and in particular, by the idolatry which permeated the Beast of the Roman Empire.
John and his community were uncompromising in their opposition, fully conscious of the price which such a stand would entail. John, speaking in the name of God, demanded repentance from those who had allowed social and occupational life to become entangled with Roman idolatry in any form. Taking such a stand in that ancient world could cost dearly! Nevertheless, he pointed out that the first people cast out of the New Jerusalem were the “cowards” (21:8).
At the end of the month it was clear to me that the primary focus of Lent amid the Orthodox is the community rather than merely its individual members. The season is an ecclesial call to repentance and to re-examine its fidelity to the vocation of being a people set apart for transforming the world in which they live, rather than becoming conformed to it.
One can easily see evidence of so much idolatry in our own modern world as evidenced in American “worship” of military might, of greed in all its forms, of personal convenience and even political imperialism of all sorts. I became convinced that the Beast of Imperial Rome finds new incarnations in virtually every “State” throughout human history. John would have some strong things to say, and he would demand resistance to all of it as an act of Christian faith.
Among the other books in my Kindle is the recent (2008) work of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, namely “Encountering the Mystery.” I found it a helpful treasure for understanding the richness of the Eastern Orthodox spirituality, and I recommend it to anyone seriously interested in exploring that grace.
A special gift of Orthodox Christianity is to take all the symbols of liturgical worship seriously. During this Easter Season we Latin Catholics celebrate the Risen Christ embodied in the glories of the paschal candle. Having traced the sign of the cross with the five symbolic nails and this year’s date, in every parish church we proclaimed Christ as the “Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (Rv 22:13). It is a summons to believe in the victory of life over death. It is also a call for the entire community to stand firm against all idolatry, even that which is woven into the government within which we live. The Cave at Patmos has something to say about all that!