Frederica Mathewes-Green, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, is a regular commentator for National Public Radio's Morning Edition and other media outlets, a columnist for Beliefnet, and a regular contributor to Christianity Today, which she formerly served as a columnist. She is also a contributor to the Christian Millennial History Project. Her books include Real Choices: Listening to Women, Looking for Alternatives to Abortion, Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy, At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy, and The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation. Her latest book is Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism (excerpt), but we talked to her about her spiritual journey and the ideas in The Illumined Heart.
You've ended up in what is clearly a minority religious expression within Christianity in the United States. Which branch of Orthodoxy are you in?
I am Antiochian Orthodox, but I'm not so sure we're a minority. I recently heard that if all the Orthodox churches in America united we would be either the third or the fourth largest Christian body in America. But we have a low profile because it is an immigrant church.
Where did you start out?
My mother was an unbeliever — and still is. My father was a nominal Catholic. We would go in to church at the last minute before the gospel reading, take Communion, and walk right out again. We were taught, as so many Catholics were then, if you were to miss a Sunday and get hit by a truck you go straight to hell. It was an attitude towards religion that probably harked back to early days of Greece and Rome where you placated the gods.
And you broke away from that during your high school and college years?
I wish I could pinpoint exactly why I began to lose faith. When I was around eight or nine, I went through a spurt of having very strong faith. My parents didn't think it was entirely healthy to be that religious. When I'd say that I wanted to be a nun (because we didn't know of any other way of giving your whole life to Christ), they said that was neurotic and that I was running away from life. So I got the message that it wasn't good to be too religious.
When I was 12 or 13, I began to doubt the entire Christian story. I felt almost as if I'd had somebody try to cheat me. They had fed me this long, complex story about virgin birth, born in a manger, died on a cross, came back to life — it just sounded preposterous to me. I thought that it was something that no normal, sane person could be expected to believe, and I'd been made a fool.
I began then to consider atheism, agnosticism, and various other religions. But I rejected Christianity with vehemence. Initially I chose Hinduism because it seemed to me the most intriguing and colorful of all the different world religions.
What ultimately led you out of Hinduism?
Well, it was a strange experience. I was with my husband on our honeymoon, hitchhiking around Europe. He was an atheist who had been assigned in one of his classes to read a gospel. And he kept saying, "There's something about Jesus. I've never encountered anyone like this before. I know that he's speaking the truth. I'm an atheist. But if Jesus says there's a God, there must be a God."
It was a very scary experience for me, because I didn't want him to be a Christian. He was not ready to make a full commitment to Christ at that point, but he was curious and wanted to study more. The more liberal theologians were the door that he was able to walk through, and then into a more traditional faith.
So what happened to you?
We're in Dublin sightseeing. I walk into a church. We're admiring the windows and altar and so forth. In a corner of the church there was a small altar with a white marble statue that showed Jesus' heart exposed on his chest with flames coming out of the top and thorns wrapped around the heart. As I was looking at this, I suddenly realized that I was on my knees. And as if a radio inside of me suddenly clicked on, I could hear a voice. I didn't hear it with my ears, but it was like a presence that filled me. The voice said, "I am your life. You thought that your life was your history, your name, your personality. You thought that your life was the fact that your heart beats. But that is not your life. I am your life. I am the foundation of everything else in your life." It was pretty incontrovertible who it was that was speaking to me.
How did you reorder your life after you've encountered Jesus?
My ideas were still very skeptical, so I was trying to assemble it. I wanted to find out who this guy was. So I started reading the Bible and I found that I just disagreed with Jesus about a lot of things. But something had happened to me in that church in which I realized that I didn't know everything about the world.
Gradually we were able to come into faith. It was several months later that a friend of ours said, "Well, have you ever given your hearts to Jesus? Have you ever asked Jesus to be your Lord?" You have to picture that both of us grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, him Episcopalian, me Catholic, and our response was, "We're not Southern Baptists." Our association with that kind of talk is that you have to be Southern Baptist for Jesus to be your Lord.
He said, "Actually, it's for everybody."
We said, "Well, you know, we're in graduate school."
"No, even for you."
So the three of us knelt down together and prayed and asked Jesus to be our Lord, having no idea what that would mean but wanting so much to find out.
So how did you gravitate toward Orthodoxy?
Fast forward. My husband was an Episcopal priest for 15 years and I was doing the Bible studies and raising my kids. And we saw some things going on in the Episcopal Church that were disturbing to us. Not only moral changes. We were very strongly antiabortion, for example, because we saw that as a kind of violence. It was also theological changes. It was bishops questioning whether there really was a resurrection and so forth.
We looked into Catholicism and the Continuing Anglican churches, but had no idea what Orthodoxy was. We were afraid that it would be works righteousness. We were afraid it would be idolatry. But bit by bit our questions were answered. And what really turned the tide for my husband was attending an Orthodox service, which he found overwhelmingly beautiful. I guess the test of any faith is the worship: When they turn to face God, when they fall on their knees and let their hands down, how true does it ring?
So that was about eight years ago that we decided to enter the Orthodox Church. My husband was ordained again, and we founded a little parish here near Baltimore and have been growing a little bit every year since.
You talk in The Illumined Heart about theosis, which is kind of the aim of what we're supposed to be about. But you're saying that it's more than following Jesus, it's the process of transformation.
In Western Christianity we tend to think in terms of following or of being like Jesus. And in the early church, and a tradition that was maintained all through Eastern Christianity, it means being transformed and actually having the life of God within you. Theosis is the Greek word. And when it gets translated into English, the term is alarming. It is deification. And that's a term that's so easily misunderstood I usually just stick with theosis. But deification is not far off the mark. The analogy that I use is that it's like a coal that's been set on fire. And as fire moves all through the heart of the coal, it destroys every impurity in its path. And so finally the coal has achieved its destiny. It was made to burn. The entire thing has been permeated with fire. And so in eastern Christianity our presumption is that we are meant to catch fire with God and be transformed.
How does Orthodoxy interact with these notions of who humans are and what sin is?
When we think of repentance in the West, we think of people beating themselves up and being down on themselves. We think of masochism and self-hatred and so forth. And it's not that. What we find in the representatives of the early church is tranquility— hesychasm, which means a peaceful stillness and a great joy. Your heart has become so broadened because you know you're a sinner, but you love others. You love even people that sin against you and hurt you. You feel pity and tenderness toward them. You pray that God will forgive them and restore them.
How does hesychasm happen?
One way is discipline of the body — fasting from different kinds of foods on specified days so everybody is doing it together. [Another is] discipline of the mind. Some people will say this sounds a lot like Buddhist or Hindu forms of meditation, but the theology is entirely different. It has to do with stilling and centering the mind, and focusing it on one thing. "Let your eye be single." Constant prayer means that over and over in your heart, like background music, you're calling on the name of Jesus all through the day no matter what else you're doing.
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