Speaking of Spirituality
conversation with Frederica Mathewes-Green about
her circuitous path to
Orthodox Christianity and the spiritual practices she uses today
Interview by Jon Sweeney
Mathewes-Green is one of the busiest spiritual writers and teachers,
today. She writes a new book every couple of years, and in the meantime,
speaks to hundreds of audiences on a variety of subjects. A quick
glimpse at her website (www.frederica.com)
reveals that any given week, Frederica may be found speaking at
a pregnancy center, church or bookstore, seminary or university.
is also one of our most insightful cultural commentators. She writes
for a variety of publications, including Books & Culture,
First Things, National Review and Beliefnet.com
on subjects ranging from the arts, film, humor, marriage and family
issues, troubles and controversies in the churches, and gender issues.
lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Baltimore,
where he is pastor and she is “Khouria” (“Mother”)
of the church they founded, Holy Cross Orthodox Church. Their three
children are grown and married, and they have eight grandchildren.
Her books include Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into
the Mysteries of Orthodoxy, and just published, The Lost
Gospel of Mary: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts.
sat down recently with Frederica Mathewes-Green to talk about spiritual
spiritual journey has taken you from growing up Catholic, to practicing
Hinduism in your twenties, to Anglicanism, and finally, conversion
into the Orthodox Church. Would you say it was primarily belief,
or practice, that drew you to Orthodoxy?
enough, I had finished most of those changes by the time I was 21;
the “wilderness wandering” was brief but intense in
my teens. When I came home to Christianity my husband and I went
to Episcopal seminary and enjoyed being part of the “renewal”
movement in that denomination. In the late 80s we were concerned
about theological drift in that church, and that is why we set out
to examine alternatives.
it was primarily Orthodox belief that initially attracted us; the
fact that the Orthodox Church doesn’t “update”
its worship services means that it is still practicing the faith
of the first few centuries. We were searching for a church that
doesn’t change. However, we got more than that in the bargain,
and I’d say that the
best thing about Orthodoxy is that it preserves ancient wisdom about
how to cultivate the presence of God—how to become a god-bearer,
like a candle bears a flame. The “science”
of how to do this is reinforced by both beliefs and practices, but
the centerpiece is the vibrant and transforming presence of Christ.
are some of the real champions of Orthodox spiritual practice in
the last century?
persecution produced some extraordinary saints. The book Father
Arseny presents an excellent example. During the time this
priest was held in a Soviet prison, he practiced such love and humility
that even hardened criminals and communist authorities were converted;
many miracles accompanied him. The book is a collection of reminiscences
by people who knew him from all walks of life, and was circulated
underground for many years until the Iron Curtain fell and it could
My own spiritual father, Fr. George Calciu, was another survivor
of communist torture and attempted brainwashing. He was imprisoned
with Richard Wurmbrand, who became well-known in the West as the
author of Tortured for Christ and founder of Voice of the Martyrs.
I never knew anyone as full of life and joy as Fr. George. He died
this past November, and my new book is dedicated to his memory.
Gavrilia is sometimes called “the Orthodox Mother Teresa.”
She was a medical doctor, and later a nun, who traveled in India,
worked with lepers, and brought healing and the light of Christ
everywhere she went.
Maria Skobtsova fought Nazism in Europe, and at one point smuggled
children to safety by hiding them in trash cans. She was executed
Silouan was a Russian peasant, uneducated and humble, who became
an extraordinary “athlete of prayer” on Mt Athos. His
biography by Fr. Sophrony Sakharov is a staple of Orthodox spirituality.
Orthodox, a “champion of spiritual practice” wouldn’t
necessarily mean a mystic. We don’t really have the concept
of “mysticism.” It would mean someone who was being
taken over, inch by inch, by the flame of Christ. It’s expected
that the presence of Christ is already within us, and what we have
to do is get out of the way, removing fear and sin that block its
spread. A spiritual athlete may have extraordinary spiritual events
going on internally, but what would be seen on the outside is superhuman
love, patience, humility, a presence that transforms others. Saints
make everyone they meet more able to be themselves.
new book—The Lost Gospel of Mary—tells a story
about the Virgin Mother that many people have never heard before.
Was that your intention?
I think the fact that Mary is controversial among Christians must
grieve our Lord, who naturally loved his mother very much. He would
want us to love and honor her, but not to worship her—the
very idea is horrifying. Since there’s been a see-saw about
Mary over the last thousand years, I wanted to go back to an earlier
time, before the trouble began, and examine three ancient texts
about Mary. I hope that by recovering the understanding of the early
Christians, we can stand on solid, common ground.
are many spiritual practices for relating to Mary, aren’t
there? Are there some that are particularly Orthodox?
Orthodox don’t use the rosary, or say the Roman Catholic “Hail
Mary,” or honor Mary in any form apart from Christ. There
isn’t a form of spirituality directed exclusively at her.
We do honor her for her role in God’s plan of salvation: the
conception, birth, and mothering of Jesus. She stands for all the
human race in that she loaned her body, an ordinary body like ours,
and from it Christ took on flesh. And that very thought is astounding,
bewildering. How could God be contained inside a human body, one
he himself had made? Orthodox never get tired of exploring that
mystery, and in so doing we celebrate Mary and cheer for her as
if she’s a hometown hero, sometimes at great length. The third
document in my book is a lengthy hymn (actually, a kind of sung
sermon) written around 520 AD, celebrating Mary’s role in
God’s plan of salvation. Orthodox still offer this worship
service every year, near the time of the feast of the Annunciation
we ask Mary to pray for us—just as we would ask any friend
or prayer partner. The second text in the book is a prayer asking
Mary’s help, the earliest prayer yet found. There are several
short prayers to Mary that are used regularly in Orthodox worship,
including one which is like the first half of the Hail Mary, and
is made of the Scriptural words addressed to her. Usually the last
prayer of a service is addressed to her.
thirdly, people just love her. Orthodox dote on
her, and love to think about her, talk about her, and keep her picture—as
a young mom, holding Jesus—all through their homes and churches.
The first text in The Lost Gospel of Mary is a story about
Mary’s conception, birth, and early life, and its distinguishing
mark is affection.
seems to be acceptable, even normative, for people today to borrow
spiritual practices from various religious traditions. I’m
thinking of Catholics who do Yoga, or Methodists who do sitting
meditation at the local Buddhist center. What do you think of that?
what various religions have discovered is simply a physiological
mechanism. If you slow down and take deep breaths, it will calm
you – it’s as simple as that, and nothing uniquely “spiritual.”
It may well be that faiths that don’t radically separate body
and soul are more likely to discover such tools. Christians can
take these up, if they are not linked to any contrary religious
other Eastern religions depart from the Christian path sooner or
later. We can see this in the different results people report from
the two kinds of prayer. Eastern meditation often aims for and leads
to a sense of personal boundaries dissolving, personality fading
away, as the person becomes one with everything. That doesn’t
happen in Christian spirituality. It’s the reverse: the person
becomes more and more able to see the truth about themselves and
others (repentance, greater love for others, forgiveness). This
liberates from old sins learned from misperceptions and fears planted
by the devil’s malice. Christ is Truth, and the Truth sets
the Christian becomes ever more increasingly a unique individual,
a healed personality, occupied more and more with love. The personality
doesn’t dissolve, it is clarified and restored. Likewise,
what we meet in prayer is not amorphous nothingness, but a Person
who comes ever more clearly into focus, a Person who is incarnate
love. The prayer that developed in the early church to help believers
acquire the habit of “praying constantly” is a short
plea addressed to Jesus, the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God, have mercy on me.” That prayer reinforces the
sense that there are two persons involved, rather than a melting,
featureless unity. So the
experience of Christian prayer is very different from that of many
Eastern religions. We could even say it is the opposite:
it is love between two persons, between Christ and the individual
believer, and that contact fills and overflows the believer with
Christ’s love for all.
you mind sharing with our readers some of your own personal spiritual
practices? What do you do each day, as an Orthodox Christian, as
a human, as whatever, that connects you to the Divine?
years ago I began rising in the middle of the night for my daily
prayer time. I still do this. Fr George recommended that I begin
that time by saying the Nicene Creed and Psalm 50; after that, I
say a hundred Jesus Prayers. I go return to bed and go back to sleep
in continuing prayer.
I wake in the morning, I say some prayers before I get out of bed
(there are a short series of prayers, called “the Trisagion
prayers,” which open virtually every Orthodox service), and
greet the icons in my room before starting the day. I put on the
teapot and, lighting the candles, say some more prayers in my icon
corner; this is when I go through my intercessory prayer list, and
each day I pray for a section of the parishioners in our church
directory. When I go to my computer, I first do bible study in the
New Testament and Psalms, using wonderful Bible software that provides
the helps I need to study the texts in Greek.
the day I try to remember to say the Jesus Prayer. I try to note
on the clock whenever a new hour begins, and to say at least some
Jesus Prayers during each hour. I am trying to learn to “pray
constantly” as St. Paul says.
Three nights a week, and more in Lent, there are church services,
which I usually attend. And of course there is the Eucharist on
Sunday. At bedtime I say the Trisagion prayers again and go to sleep
saying the Jesus Prayer.
also keep the Orthodox fast, which is to abstain from meat and dairy
and some other foods on Wednesdays, Fridays, and during the 4 “Lents”
of the church year. Essentially, it’s a vegan diet, and we
are keeping it a bit more than half the days of the year. I have
hypoglycemia, so I adjust it slightly, and in particular when I’m
traveling and don’t have access to “home foods.”
the most important spiritual discipline is how we treat other people,
so that keeps me involved in volunteer work, financial giving, and
attempting to practice love and to subdue pride in every human interaction.
This is the most challenging discipline, to me, but potentially
the most transformative.
To learn more about Frederica’s new book, The Lost Gospel
of Mary, visit the publisher’s
website or amazon.com.
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