I think many people are attracted to Orthodoxy because of its outward, monolithic appearance. When you compare it to modern Protestantism, with its kaleidoscope of different denominations and theologies, our Church does indeed look impressively uniform. I can walk into any Orthodox Church and within a minute or two, know what’s going on—regardless of the language. I can rest assured that those I am in communion with share my beliefs about the trinity, Christ, and what He came to do for us. We have a shared history of saints, stories, and customs. Tapping into Orthodoxy is like having an instantaneous social network of strangers that have the same formative experiences of God and religion.
What OCF taught me, however, was the beauty of the diversity of our Church. So often we tell the story of the Orthodox from the point of view of “sameness” (i.e. we all share one belief, one faith, one inherited Tradition), which is certainly true, but there is amazing diversity within our Church that is often overlooked. Local traditions, cultural practices, smaller histories do not get swallowed by a monolithic Church, but find new meaning in the light of Christ.
Coming from the Slavic tradition, OCF showed me the beauty of diverse practices. I had never experienced the moving communal prayer to the Mother of God, called the Paraklesis, before my first college conference. I learned the lives of the martyrs of Byblos and of St. Nektarios of Aegina, unfamiliar to me growing up. Most importantly, I was able to share the incredible stories from my tradition, like the native Alaskan melodies preserved in our Church’s worship in Alaska. One night at a Student Advisory Board meeting, several of us snuck out to St. Raphael of Brooklyn’s grave on the edge of Antiochian Village. We all took turns singing hymns to him in our traditional melodies, and ended by singing “The Angel Cried” together.
Diversity and unity expressed at the same time.
St. Raphael is an icon of what OCF is calling us to be. He was born in the Middle East, educated in Greece, served in Russia, and eventually came to America to serve Arabs under the Russian Mission. He was canonized jointly by the Orthodox Church in America and the Patriarchate of Antioch. His life is a testament to both the unity we all share, and the beauty of our diversity. He went where he was needed, never sticking his nose up at the traditions and history of others. He didn’t call someone’s chanting ugly, or make fun of a region’s saints, neither did he make broad generalizations about any of the groups he was called to serve (you know those Arabs, they’re always late, and those Russians, they’re so uptight, etc.). He served the people in front of him with love and an open mind.
May Saint Raphael guide all of us as we work towards unity in our Church in North America, not to make a boring Church of sameness, but that sharing in communion with our God, we can see more clearly the value in each other’s diversity and with one mind confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.