Frequently-Asked Questions

What does “Silouan” mean?

My patron saint, Silouan of Mount Athos was a Russian monk who lived during the early part of the twentieth century.

Saint Silouan was born Simeon Ivanovich Antonov in 1866, of godly parents who came from the village of Sovsk in Russia’s Tambov region. At the age of twenty-seven he left his native Russia and came to the monastic region of Greece called Mt. Athos where he became a monk at the Monastery of St. Panteleimon and was given the name Silouan. (The Russian version of the Biblical name Silvanus.) An ardent ascetic, he received the grace of unceasing prayer and was granted to see Christ. After long years of spiritual trial, he acquired great humility and hesychia, inner stillness. He prayed and wept for the whole world as for himself, and he put the highest value on love for enemies. Thomas Merton has described Silouan as “the most authentic monk of the twentieth century.” St Silouan reposed on September 24, 1938. His memory is celebrated on September 24.

When I was baptized I was named Silouan after this saint. These days most people call me Silouan, but I still answer to Phil.


What is the Orthodox Church?

Archbishop Paul of Finland writes:

“The Eastern Orthodox Church is organically the same congregation (or ecclesia) which was born at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem on Pentecost, a direct continuation from the Apostles by laying on of hands from each generation of priests to the next. The Orthodox Christian recognizes the rich Christian heritage and proclaims that he belongs to this Church, which corresponds to the Church of the Apostles as does a grown-up person correspond to a picture taken of him as a child.”— From This Faith We Hold

Is the Orthodox Church like the Catholics or Protestants?

Well, the Orthodox Church is “catholic” in the original meaning of the word: “whole, complete, and universal.” But centuries before the Reformation split Western Europe between Roman Catholics and Protestants, Orthodox Christians were resisting Latin doctrinal innovations and the Roman Pope’s attempts to become supreme over the Church.

Before there were Protestants, before the Roman Catholic Church began innovating, there weren’t denominations; there was just the Church. That early Church hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still around. It’s Orthodox.

That’s a pretty bold claim, isn’t it?

It is a bold statement — but Jesus Christ promised that he would found his Church, that his Spirit would lead her into all truth, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against her. So it makes sense that the community of believers, established by Christ on the foundation of prophets and apostles, should continue uninterrupted until he comes again.

Jesus never left room for us to believe that the Church would die out for a thousand years, or need to be re-created from scratch. In response to abuses in medieval western European Christianity, the Reformers felt they had to reinvent Christianity. But many people are dismayed at the implicit assumption that Christ’s Church has failed and must be re-established by man. Instead, they’ve taken Jesus at his word and begun seeking out the apostolic community that has continued in unbroken, organic unity and faithfulness to the present day. The Orthodox Church demonstrably is that community.

What about the Pope?

In the early centuries when the Popes of Rome were Orthodox in their faith as well as in their understanding of servant leadership, the Pope was first among equal bishops. When the Popes’ view of their own authority outstripped what the rest of the Church would accept, the Roman patriarchate went its own way and western Europe was divided from the rest of Christendom.

In 1136, a Catholic bishop, Anselm of Havelberg, visited Constantinople on a diplomatic mission, and while there engaged in a public debate with the Orthodox archbishop of Nicomedia, Nicetas. Anselm put forth the traditional claims for Roman supremacy: that Peter founded the church at Rome, and Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom to Peter.

Nicetas replied that the Holy Spirit did not descend on Peter alone at Pentecost but on all the apostles. All bishops had the right to be consulted about matters of faith and practice. One speech in particular sums up well the Orthodox views of the matter:

We do not deny to the Roman Church the primacy amongst the five sister patriarchates; and we recognize her right to the most honorable seat at an ecumenical council. But she has separated herself from us by her own deeds, when through pride she assumed a monarchy which does not belong to her office.

How shall we accept decrees from her that have been issued without consulting us and even without our knowledge? If the Roman Pontiff, seated on the lofty throne of his glory, wishes to thunder at us and, so to speak, hurl his mandates at us from on high; and if he wishes to judge us and even to rule us and our churches, not by consulting with us, but at his own arbitrary pleasure; then what kind of brotherhood, or even what kind of parenthood can this be? We would be the slaves, not the sons, of such a church. And the Roman seat would not be the pious mother of sons but a hard and imperious mistress of slaves.

More: On The Unity of the Church – Cyprian of Carthage (c.250AD)

Are you charismatic?

You mean, do we do rock-n-roll worship, get slain in the spirit, or have laughing revivals? No – but that’s probably not what you meant. We believe that the Holy Spirit has never left the Church, and that He’s still doing miracles as He always has. The presence of God and the miraculous are part of Christian experience in every generation. It’s worthwhile to read about modern saints like Saint Seraphim of Sarov or Saint John of San Francisco and see some of the powerful and miraculous ways God moves today in the experience of the Orthodox Church.

What about the Baptism in the Holy Spirit?

We’re all for it! When we baptize someone, they are immediately prayed for and anointed with oil to receive the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Orthodoxy didn’t wait for the modern American Charismatic movement; we’ve done it this way for 2,000 years.

How do the Orthodox view the charismatic movement?

As a rule Orthodoxy is suspicious of movements in general. Anything new needs a few centuries to bear fruit, and often enough the saying is proved, that “what’s true is not new; what’s new is not true”. Regarding charismatic experience, here’s a thoughtful look at charismatic spirituality by Bishop Kallistos Ware.

Why do Orthodox churches use liturgy?

You might not be aware of it, but virtually all Christians outside the 20th-century fundamentalist and charismatic movements are liturgical and always have been. In recent decades it’s been controversial for a Presbyterian or Lutheran or Methodist church to add to its liturgical services a “contemporary” service. Even congregations that are not overtly liturgical still sing hymns (repeating written words by rote to praise God) and often feature a remarkably inflexible overall order of worship. And of course it’s impossible not to begin repeating yourself in prayer, especially when you’re meeting for daily prayer. We go further and make sure that all the prayers we mean to pray get prayed every time. Remember, Christ didn’t condemn all repetition; only that repetition which is vain.

Early Christianity, like Judaism, was a liturgical religion: There were set times of prayer, specific readings and prayers and hymns to be used, and a weekly and seasonal rhythm to life. In Acts 13:2, the Greek text tells us that the Holy Spirit spoke to the Church “while they were engaged in the liturgy (leitourgounton) and fasting”. The apostles were no strangers to orderly worship at set hours and days: “Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the Ninth Hour” (Acts 3:1). In fact, the Jewish Mishnah details the specific hours and purposes of the daily prayers at the hours which Scripture calls the third, sixth, and ninth hours (9am, noon, and 3pm), along with the other daily prayers.

In the original Christian Jewish synagogues a specifically Christian liturgy began to develop: At first this was simply a Messianic version of the Jewish liturgy. Later it grew more differentiated and focused as the Agape meal became separate from the Eucharist later in the first century.

The exact wording of the prayers at various points in the Liturgy was fluid and the “president” of the congregation ad-libbed within familiar guidelines, which rapidly coalesced into patterns we can recognize today. But outside of Corinth (the most dysfunctional parish in the New Testament!) we don’t see anything like modern free-form services, either in Scripture or in history.

But don’t take my word for it: Within a decade of Apostle John’s death at the end of the first century, one of John’s disciples, Ignatius the bishop of Antioch, wrote a series of letters as he was being carted off to Rome for martyrdom. The local Churches that received these letters kept them, copied them, and shared them with one another, so we know that at the time of John’s death, Ignatius’ letters were considered normal Christianity by Christians throughout Asia Minor. It’s eye-opening to see what Christian worship and authority look like in Antioch about 100 AD.

How can you pray the same prayers all the time? Isn’t it limiting and monotonous?

We’re certainly not expected to limit our prayer lives to liturgy and prayerbooks. The written prayers and songs of the Church don’t circumscribe my prayer life; they provide a foundation and jumping-off place for pouring out my own heart to God: a wider, more firmly-established launchpad than I’ve ever had before. The quality of my prayers no longer depends on my subjective eloquence or feeling on a given morning. Prayer becomes a daily act of faithful obedience to God, and it’s not so important whether I had a particularly fervent or satisfying time of worship and prayer. Since I am not the audience, the question I ask after prayer and worship isn’t, “How good was it?” but rather, “How did I do?”

In a way it’s nothing new to use the same prayers every day. I’ve always kept a list of ongoing prayer requests. And since early in my Christian life I have used the Lord’s Prayer as an outline to keep my prayers on track so I’d remember all the ways I mean to pray.

To my surprise, the more I pray the same prayers daily, the more meaningful they become. An unexpected benefit, too, of using the prayers of the early Christians, is that , as these prayers become part of me, they are shaping the way I think and worship at all times.

G.K. Chesterton had this to say about repetition:

The recurrences of the universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began to see an idea. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.

It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think of miracles in the stricter sense that they were willful. I meant that they were, or might be, repeated exercise of some will (in Orthodoxy, pg 60-61).

Tito Colliander said,

Frequent repetition is important: with frequent wingbeats a bird soars high above the clouds; the swimmer must repeat his strokes countless times before he reaches the desired shore. But if the bird ceases to fly, it must be content to dwell among the mists of the earth. And close beneath the swimmer lurk dark and threatening depths (in Way of the Ascetics).

And Dr. Richard Schmidt, in Motor Learning and Performance, wrote:

It takes 300-500 repetitions before a new movement is learned, but 10 fold (3000-5000 repetitions) to learn a new movement that has to replace the old.

His context is martial arts training — but this is very relevant to changing habits of thought and response.

Why don’t the Orthodox do more evangelism?

What you’re probably asking is: Why don’t Orthodox people do the things that Evangelicals call evangelism?

Short answer: Evangelicals tend to define “evangelism” too narrowly.

Orthodox evangelism can’t be done effectively in the ways many Evangelicals do it: Often the method doesn’t produce the outcome we’re aiming for. You don’t become an Orthodox Christian by saying a prayer, by making a “decision for Christ”, or by kneeling at the altar at a revival after hearing Four Spiritual Laws. Citywide rallies or streetcorner witnessing or surprise visits to your house by trained teams don’t make disciples.

The message is no more credible than the messenger.

Before taking it upon ourselves to be teachers of righteousness, there’s a place for seeking purification and divine illumination. That doesn’t come in a moment or without struggle. We believe that the fruit of the Holy Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and the rest – if given a chance to grow in us, will make a greater impact in the lives we touch than a recitation of the “Romans Road” or the “Four Spiritual Laws.” So our approach to evangelism begins by seeking purification from the passions and cultivating the virtues that make for our own sanctification and full salvation.

That certainly doesn’t mean never speaking about our relationship with Christ. But it does mean that our preaching is much more than verbal in nature.

What exactly are we inviting people to?

Orthodox Christianity is about “bringing forth fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8). You confess your sins to God, and a spiritual father holds you accountable, counseling you so you can not only find forgiveness for sins but begin to overcome them. You participate in the Body and Blood of Christ. You pray not just for what you want, but for the will of God to be done, according to prayers said by men who died triumphant in the Faith, centuries before you were born. You live a lifestyle that increasingly incorporates self-denial, whether in the realm of food or drink (among the easy things to deny oneself), or of your own will (among the the hardest of things to deny oneself). Living the Orthodox Christian life is serious business – a full-time uphill journey toward Christlikeness (i.e. salvation) carrying the cross the whole way.

That journey, it seems to me, also forms the heart of Orthodox evangelism. The life lived in Christ is the life that impacts others. As Saint Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and thousands around you will be saved.” Each of us as individual Orthodox Christians will have an evangelistic life to the extent that our life is transformed by Christ. The inclusion of techniques or programs from the Evangelical world won’t make Orthodoxy evangelistic. Humble people, daily dying to self, daily being converted to Christ, and daily acquiring the Holy Spirit, bear a truthful witness to Christ.

Is there a place for verbally telling the Gospel?

Of course. It wouldn’t be called the “Good News” if it were not meant to be told. And that’s what an evangelist does: Not renting a stadium for a rally, but effectively preaching Christ. Orthodox Christians recognize that not everyone – not even all leaders – are called to be evangelists. “To some, He gave evangelists…” among other gifts. To continue quoting St Paul, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? If all were one member, where would the body be?” Those of us neither called nor gifted as evangelists don’t try to fit that mould. So instead of passing tracts or asking strangers if they know Jesus, among Orthodox Christians it’s much more likely for a word to be privately shared in season, with much prayer, and in a relationship where we’ve earned trust.

Orthodox evangelism isn’t about filling pews (we don’t usually have pews anyway). Since we expect to spend the rest of our lives working out our own salvation, and since the message of the Cross is “Come and die,” we aren’t very tempted toward slick marketing, persuasive streetcorner salesmanship, or stadium rallies. We’re more likely to be doing it this way:

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the Breaking of Bread, and in the prayers… So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42ff)

I’ve heard that the Orthodox use pictures. Isn’t that against the Commandments?

Icons (the word for “images” in both the Greek Old and New Testaments) are honored as reminders of the glory and presence of God, and venerated as such. Worship belongs only to God: the Father, Jesus Christ the Word, and the Holy Spirit. Just as we recognize that Man is made in the image [icon] of Christ, and so we show honor to one another – in the same way we acknowledge that God is represented in all His creation. Even further, we believe that, since Christ has entered creation and has become material, He has made matter itself holy; so material things are fit to be used to worship and depict Him.

Rather than attempting a natural or artistic depiction, icons point to the realities of the Kingdom of God. They are often referred to as “picture windows to Heaven”. In other words, you will not only hear the Gospel in an Orthodox Church, you will see it. (And smell it, and touch and taste.) Icons are tools in our spiritual worship, and they bear witness to the sanctification of all creation and matter that occurred when Christ Jesus, the Son of God, took on human nature. Jesus in the Incarnation became the living icon of God in the flesh (John 10:30; 14:6-11).

Still, aren’t images a violation of the Second Commandment?

It might be worth another look at the text: What God actually forbade was the making of graven images of anything in heaven or earth, for the purpose of worshipping them. Here’s His actual command:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Exodus 20:4,5).

If this passage prohibits pictures of the incarnate Christ, or of angels or our heroes in the Faith, then at the same time we’re tearing down all the Bible flannelgraphs in our Sunday School rooms, we really ought to destroy our photos of our families, snapshots of pets or the Grand Canyon, and the Statue of Liberty… Those are all images of things in the heaven or earth or water. In reality, of course, no one but the Muslims really believes that God meant to prohibit all images of anything in heaven or earth; it’s the worshipping of images that He forbids.

Then why do Orthodox Christians kiss icons? Isn’t that worshipping them?

To modern Americans, unaccustomed to expressing honor physically, it might look that way. But it’s worth noting that this kind of veneration isn’t unique to Orthodox Christianity: Many Orthodox Jews kiss the mezuzah on their doorpost as they pass it; they kiss their tallit and tefillin as they put them on (Deuteronomy 6:8,9). Orthodox Jews kiss the Torah before reading it in the synagogue, as Jesus must have done. Orthodox Christians likewise kiss the book of the Gospels in reverence when we read it, since it is the premier verbal icon of Christ. (See this Jewish explanation of kissing things in devotion.)

In many cultures outside the Western world, there is nothing strange about bowing to greet someone; in Mediterranean and Slavic cultures it’s common to greet friends and honored guests with a hug and kisses on both cheeks, as Scripture repeatedly says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26). It’s worth speculating as to whether that greeting with a kiss came to Christianity from the hearty Mediterranean cultures, or whether those cultures learned it from the Christians. Either way, culture and spirituality affect one another deeply. Perhaps if we as a Western culture were more in tune with the middle-eastern sensibilities of the New Testament writers, we would have less aversion to honoring one another with kisses and bowing; and then we would be much less put off by the ways in which Christians show honor to other living Christians who are no longer living in the body.

We ought to distinguish between worship, which is for God alone, and honor, which we owe to kings (1 Peter 2:7), presbyters (1 Tim 5:17), wives (1 Peter 3:7), and indeed to all people (1 Peter 2:17), since all are in the image [icon] of Christ. We bow to honor one another and to honor our heroes in the Faith who are depicted in icons. We greet all the saints (Hebrews 13:24) with a holy kiss …including the saints who are represented in the Bible and in icons. After all, there isn’t a great chasm fixed between the living and the dead. That gulf lies between the righteous and the wicked (Luke 16:26), not between us and the living Christians who are “absent from the body and present with the Lord.” Christ doesn’t have two Bodies, one on earth and one in heaven; His Body the Church is one, and includes both us who are in the body and the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1).

But there weren’t any images in the Tabernacle or the Temple.

Sure there were! Anyone who’s read much of the Old Testament will probably recognize the phrase “golden calf.” Aaron set up a golden calf and told Israel “This is your God who brought you out of Egypt!” In later generations, Israel’s default design for an idol was a bull or calf. This was an image that had strong resonance for them – this is what a god “looked like” to their religious sensibilities. (For comparison, see all the Assyrian and Babylonian images of “cherubim” i.e. human-headed, winged bulls.) Prophets cried out against the worship of the golden calves; God pronounced judgments on those who set up these images for worship.

So what would you say if I told you these images were set up in the Temple – with God’s approval?

It may be startling (to say the least) to read in 1 Kings 7:25 that the brazen sea – the huge 15-foot diameter basin in the courts of the Temple – was made with graven images of twelve bulls prominently displayed. This should tell us, if nothing else, that God is not displeased by the presence of pictorial representations in holy places. Even when, as in this case, they are graven images identical to those the Israelites periodically worshipped!

Of course those weren’t the only graven images in the Temple. You’ll also find:

  • Two fifteen-foot-tall cherubim in the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 6:23-28)
  • All the Temple’s inside walls were covered with carved figures of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers. (1 Kings 6:29)
  • The doors of the sanctuary and of the inner sanctuary were carved gold-overlaid images of cherubim, palm trees, and flowers (1 Kings 6:32,34)
  • On the Temple carts, images of bulls and lions. (1 Kings 7:29,36)
  • and of course the two cherubs on top of the Ark itself!

God sees the difference between graven images in general, and graven images to which one gives worship. Hopefully we can too.

In fact, God has commissioned a number of icons. He commanded Moses to display an icon in Numbers 21:8,9 – God healed the Israelites from snakebite when they looked to the icon of the snake. It was not until a later generation, when the people had named this icon Nehushtan and worshipped it as a god, that it was necessary to destroy it (2 Kings 18:4). At another time, God specifically commanded Ezekiel to paint an icon of the city of Jerusalem and to treat the icon as a symbol of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4:1ff).

We certainly can’t theorize that images are foreign to Biblical prayer and piety. Modern iconoclasm was not a feature of ancient Judaism, nor are images automatically idols. (Which is not to say that abuses never occur, as with the divinely-appointed icon that later became the idol Nehushtan.)

I’ve visited Jewish synagogues, and I know for a fact that they don’t display images like the ones in an Orthodox Church. Who changed?

The Jews did. Certainly modern synagogues don’t display images as an Orthodox Church building does. But New Testament-era Jews had no qualms about lavishly decorating their synagogues with images of biblical figures. When the second-century synagogue at Dura Europos in modern Syria was unearthed, the stunning iconography on the walls was found in excellent condition.

Synagogue at Dure Europos: Samuel anointing David
Synagogue at Dure Europos: Moses parting the Red Sea

Modern Jewish practice notwithstanding, it is entirely appropriate to display representations of things heavenly or earthly, at home or in the sanctuary. It’s not the presence of images that’s wrong; what God rightly forbids is the worship of images. And the Orthodox Church, while using icons as tools in prayer, has always vigorously condemned idolatry in all forms.

Didn’t Jesus say the Church was anywhere two or three gather in His name?

In Matthew 18:20, Jesus did say “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” As a Protestant, I used that scripture often to justify not needing to be a member of any particular “church.” Moreover, I used it to qualify any denomination or group as equal to a “church” and therefore legitimate. For instance, a home fellowship that gathers to study the Bible and sing praises would be just as legitimate as going to a Baptist, Catholic or Methodist church to do the same. I recall saying, “Let’s just have church right here in the park; wherever two or three are gathered in His name, Jesus is right here with us, right now!”

But there is a big problem with this interpretation of the Scriptures and with the resultant theology. It’s been said that “a text without a context is a pretext.” So let’s look at what Christ really said: “Truly I say unto you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father who is in heaven, for where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:1-20)

The context is reproving sinful brethren. It has nothing to do with what legitimizes a gathering as a “Church.” But the same misinterpretation of this Scripture leads to other illicit practices, such as the “Name it — claim it” doctrine, that says “Anything two of us agree on, God will do for us.” Then too, there is this idea of “binding” — binding Satan, binding cancer, binding desires, binding love of chocolate… again, all taken out of the context in which Jesus spoke these words.

It’s often said that the many “flavors” of Christianity serve to accommodate the many different kinds of people. Some like it hot, some like it cold. Some prefer loud music, others more subdued… But does God need accommodate us? It was not God who willed to create nations and tribes; man’s arrogance led to the punishment of different tongues – not as accommodating man, but as divine retribution on his sinfulness. Christ’s prayer for us, and the will of God commended to us, is for our unity! Jesus prayed we would have the kind of unity he has with the Father (John 17:21). This is not mere mutual recognition of each other’s legitimacy, but true unity would find us being of one mind and practice, one in worship, in polity and in conduct.

For the last 40 years the “church” has made way for the world; Popular Christianity has accommodated pop music, divorce, “worship” services that never address God, taking down crosses so we don’t “offend” nonbelievers; dumping communion in favor of espresso bars and gimmicks to accommodate worldliness, in hopes that the worldly will fill the pews. All of this stems from this misinterpretation, which legitimizes virtually everything. Please find higher standards, based on the Biblical expression of the Church as the architect Paul described.

More: See INfrequently-Asked Questions (IAQ)