‘Become All Fire'

The Splendor of Orthodox Spirituality

My wife and I visited Amsterdam a couple of years ago. Her time was taken up with business, and my days were spent exploring. There was a Catholic church close to our hotel and I wanted to see its interior. The church was unlocked on weekdays for the celebration of Mass during the lunch hour. The Mass itself was very short—no homily, only ten attendees, done in seventeen minutes. Used to much longer Orthodox services, I put this brevity down to a combination of the Catholic tradition of low Mass and the fact that Dutch is a very concise language.

Two things impressed me. Half the people at the Mass were young. It was a small group, but it was a weekday Mass and in its minor way contradicted the idea that the church is completely moribund in Europe. The other thing that impressed me was that the small gift shop at the rear of the church was stocked with Orthodox icons. The sort of religious art that many Catholics grew up with—bad imitations of Renaissance art, sentimental holy cards—was gone, replaced with icons. In some way, I thought, Catholics now find themselves reinforced in their faith through contact with images that were once quite unfamiliar to them, with a few exceptions (the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, for example). How is it that the Eastern Church has, at least at the visual level and maybe in other ways, become a place to which Western Christians look for spiritual help?


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About the Author

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.