When you enter an Orthodox church, you are apt to feel as if the room were both spacious and crowded at the same time—spacious, even if the building is small; and crowded, even if you are all alone. You are meant to feel this, of course, for Orthodox art and architecture express Orthodox theology. The dome overhead opens the room to the heavens above; the apse seems to stretch the nave out into the surrounding world; and the icons, which cover the walls and ceiling, testify to the great cloud of witnesses, from all ages and nations, who participate mystically in the Divine Liturgy. Patriarch Bartholomew’s new book, Encountering the Mystery, struck me in much the same way.
The heavens above and the world around: The first five chapters delineate the Orthodox perspective on ecclesiology and ecclesiastical history, liturgy and liturgical space, theological “method” (although that word has a Western ring to it that is potentially misleading in this context), monasticism, and spirituality. Bartholomew elucidates these themes with the humble self-confidence of one who has lived his church’s ancient dogmas and found them true to his own experience of the living God. His apologetic for Orthodoxy is clear, vigorous and direct—surefooted in expression without being doctrinaire or polemical in tone. Yet it is the last three chapters which really differentiate this book from many other expositions of Orthodoxy. Bartholomew is known as “the Green Patriarch,” and the views he espouses here on ecology, international relations, ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue, human rights and globalization are remarkably progressive, even “liberationist,” although he shows how they really spring from the core convictions of Christian scripture and antiquity.
The community within: If the argument of this book is intellectually “spacious,” in both the vertical (theological) and horizontal (ethical) dimensions, the text is nevertheless “crowded” with a diverse cast of characters. His All-Holiness quotes effortlessly from the Jewish and Christian scriptures (and even occasionally from the Koran), from Church Fathers and Byzantine mystics, from Athenian tragedians and Arab poets, from ancient liturgical texts and modern social-scientific treatises. Yet for all his extraordinary erudition and literary dexterity, he is utterly free from pedantry and pretentious display. Learned patristic citations stand cheek by jowl with fond reminiscences of the simple country priests who formed him in the faith as a boy. This far-flung crowd is Bartholomew’s spiritual family, and he takes shy but evident delight in introducing them to us.
It is worth noting that two other eminent Orthodox scholars have lent their pens to this book. Kallistos Ware writes a foreword which introduces the Patriarch’s theological program, and which is a gem of theologizing in its own right; and John Chryssavgis contributes an admiring sketch of Bartholomew’s extraordinary life of prayer and service.
I do have one very mild criticism of the book: there are a few too many references by the Ecumenical Patriarch to the Ecumenical Patriarchate (his own and that of his predecessors). Yet this self-referentiality may simply reflect the fact that many of the chapters were originally public speeches that his All-Holiness delivered in various settings, where the situation demanded that he speak in his official capacity for Eastern Orthodoxy as a whole, and where it was appropriate for him to defend that tradition against the conventional charges that it is antiquated and irrelevant to the contemporary world. And it is certainly not the case that Bartholomew is straining to defend his own ecclesiastical authority or to magnify the significance of his office in a self-aggrandizing way.
All in all, Encountering the Mystery is Orthodox theology at its best: profound in content, simple and direct in style, stately and tranquil in tone, boldly prophetic and yet encouragingly pastoral in its application of church dogma to our time. The book would serve beautifully as an introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy for undergraduate classes in world religions or for adult church school classes in ecumenism. Highly recommended.