A review by Jeffrey CarsonI well remember the first occasion when I encountered, inadvertently, a service in a Greek Orthodox church. It was in 1965, at Paros’ Church of a Hundred Doors (my most recent was at the same church at Easter). The only Greek churches I had ever visited were three tiny ones in Athens. These buildings did not resemble Italian churches, that point you to an altar, or Gothic churches, that lift you to heaven, but were mysterious, unanalyzable, strangely immaterial, floating and gravid at the same moment: they seemed out of time. They were dark with sudden rays of light, redolent of incense, and dazzlingly decorated with old bronze, ancient carvings, elaborate woodwork, dim lamps, and fresh flowers. The services in them were incomprehensible, not only because my Greek was still incipient, but because they resembled, in form and tune, nothing I knew.
Had I then had in hand a copy of Katherine Clark’s just published The Orthodox Church to augment my compendious Guide to Greece, it would have enlarged immensely my perception and receptivity, and the beauties and truths at the edge of my comprehension would have come into radiant focus much sooner than they eventually did. It would have helped even to know how welcome I was.
The Orthodox Church is a handbook or manual, meant to be helpful to the curious but uninformed such as I was. Intended to be straightforward and useful, it succeeds more than I would have thought possible for such a recalcitrant subject as an ancient religion still growing in numbers, interpreting to the world and to itself, guarding its traditions. Unique, it should find a place in the library or suitcase of everyone who needs such information readily accessible, and if you love Greece, her traditions, culture, antiquity, history, and present reality, that means you. The explanations also take in Russian and Balkan Orthodoxy, but the author lives on Paros, and her church is here. I thought I knew most of this material, but I learned plenty, and I shall not let it bury itself in my dusty library.
The book’s first section retells Jesus’ life, something all religious persons, culture critics, and art aficionados must know well. The next chapter presents Orthodoxy’s origins in the early church, and Clark wends her dangerous way through this contentious period (disputatious in its own times and with scholars today), so that we can safely follow her. The third chapter recounts the contributions of Constantine the Great, the Emperor whose death-bed conversion in 337 changed Christianity from a religion fearful of power to one wielding it. In “Dogma and Belief”, we learn that dogma, though present, is de-emphasized in Orthodoxy (doubters never faced a frowning Inquisition), and are told what beliefs are common to the ecumene of the faithful. A chapter on the year’s festivals (complicated), and another on church structure (simple), prepare our way for a visit. And in chapter 7 she takes us on a guided tour, so that at last we may know what things are, why they are there, and how they are used. Newly knowledgeable, we can admire or revere; our beautiful, ancient Church of a Hundred Doors will seem less mysterious on its surface, and more mysterious in its depths.
In the final two chapters Clark succeeds admirably in explaining icons (every high church Christian I have ever met worries a bit that his religion may seem pagan and magical to the uninitiated, rather than monotheistic and reasonable), and in outlining the differences between Orthodoxy and other churches.
The book is brief and well produced. It is easy on the eyes, stimulating to the mind, and pleasingly augmented by photographs and useful appendices. Are there orders of nuns? Why are priests married and bishops celibate? What is going on at a joyous marriage service? What are votives? What does “apophatic” mean (you’ll find yourself using the word a lot)? Now you will know, and you need to know.
In her introduction Clark writes, “This book aims to help Western readers to gain enough insight into the Greek Orthodox Church (and by extension the Eastern Orthodox Church generally) to put them at ease in Orthodox churches, explain what they see, and give them an idea of what is going on there.” But it does much more than that. There is nothing like understanding. Read it all, and services will seem shorter. See you in church.
The Orthodox Church
by Katherine Clark
published by Kuperard
Copies can be purchased at the little shop of the Church of a Hundred Doors in Paroikia or ordered online from: