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Why Orthodox Men Love Church

Many men may not love church, but Orthodox men do. Frederica Matthewes-Green asks them why.

Frederica Mathewes-Green

In a time when churches of every description are faced with Vanishing Male Syndrome, men are showing up at Eastern Orthodox churches in numbers that, if not numerically impressive, are proportionately intriguing. This may be the only church which attracts and holds men in numbers equal to women. As Leon Podles wrote in his 1999 book, "The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity," "The Orthodox are the only Christians who write basso profundo church music, or need to."

Rather than guess why this is, I emailed a hundred Orthodox men, most of whom joined the Church as adults. What do they think makes this church particularly attractive to men? Their responses, below, may spark some ideas for leaders in other churches, who are looking for ways to keep guys in the pews.

Challenges. The term most commonly cited by these men was "challenging." Orthodoxy is "active and not passive." "It's the only church where you are required to adapt to it, rather than it adapting to you." "The longer you are in it, the more you realize it demands of you."

The "sheer physicality of Orthodox worship" is part of the appeal. Regular days of fasting from meat and dairy, "standing for hours on end, performing prostrations, going without food and water [before communion]...When you get to the end you feel that you've faced down a challenge." "Orthodoxy appeals to a man's desire for self-mastery through discipline."

"In Orthodoxy, the theme of spiritual warfare is ubiquitous; saints, including female saints, are warriors. Warfare requires courage, fortitude, and heroism. We are called to be 'strugglers' against sin, to be 'athletes' as St. Paul says. And the prize is given to the victor. The fact that you must 'struggle' during worship by standing up throughout long services is itself a challenge men are willing to take up."

A recent convert summed up, "Orthodoxy is serious. It is difficult. It is demanding. It is about mercy, but it's also about overcoming oneself. I am challenged in a deep way, not to 'feel good about myself' but to become holy. It is rigorous, and in that rigor I find liberation. And you know, so does my wife."

Clear Disciplines. Several mentioned that they really appreciated having clarity about the content of these challenges and what they were supposed to do. "Most guys feel a lot more comfortable when they know what's expected of them." "Orthodoxy presents a reasonable set of boundaries." "It's easier for guys to express themselves in worship if there are guidelines about how it's supposed to work�especially when those guidelines are so simple and down-to-earth that you can just set out and start doing something."

"The prayers the Church provides for us--morning prayers, evening prayers, prayers before and after meals, and so on--give men a way to engage in spirituality without feeling put on the spot, or worrying about looking stupid because they don't know what to say."

They appreciate learning clear-cut physical actions that are expected to form character and understanding. "People begin learning immediately through ritual and symbolism, for example, by making the sign of the cross. This regimen of discipline makes one mindful of one's relation to the Trinity, to the Church, and to everyone he meets."

A Goal. Men also appreciate that this challenge has a goal: union with God. One said that in a previous church "I didn't feel I was getting anywhere in my spiritual life (or that there was anywhere to get to�I was already there, right?) But something, who knew what, was missing. Isn't there SOMETHING I should be doing, Lord?"

Orthodoxy preserves and transmits ancient Christian wisdom about how to progress toward this union, which is called "theosis." Every sacrament or spiritual exercise is designed to bring the person, body and soul, further into continual awareness of the presence of Christ within, and also within every other human being. As a cloth becomes saturated with dye by osmosis, we are saturated with God by theosis.

A catechumen wrote that he was finding icons helpful in resisting unwanted thoughts. "If you just close your eyes to some visual temptation, there are plenty of stored images to cause problems. But if you surround yourself with icons, you have a choice of whether to look at something tempting or something holy."

A priest writes, "Men need a challenge, a goal, perhaps an adventure�in primitive terms, a hunt. Western Christianity has lost the ascetic, that is, the athletic aspect of Christian life. This was the purpose of monasticism, which arose in the East largely as a men's movement. Women entered monastic life as well, and our ancient hymns still speak of women martyrs as showing 'manly courage.'"

"Orthodoxy emphasizes DOING. �. Guys are ACTIVITY oriented."
No Sentimentality. In "The Church Impotent," cited above (and recommended by several of these men), Leon Podles offers a theory about how Western Christian piety became feminized. In the 12th-13th centuries a particularly tender, even erotic, strain of devotion arose, one which invited the individual believer to picture himself or herself (rather than the Church as a whole) as the Bride of Christ. "Bridal Mysticism" was enthusiastically adopted by devout women, and left an enduring stamp on Western Christianity. It understandably had less appeal for guys. For centuries in the West, men who chose the ministry have been stereotyped as effeminate. A life-long Orthodox layman says that, from the outside, Western Christianity strikes him as "a love story written for women by women."??The Eastern Church escaped Bridal Mysticism because the great split between East and West had already taken place. The men who wrote me expressed hearty dislike for what they perceive as a soft Western Jesus. "American Christianity in the last two hundred years has been feminized. It presents Jesus as a friend, a lover, someone who 'walks with me and talks with me.' This is fine rapturous imagery for women who need a social life. Or it depicts Jesus whipped, dead on the cross. Neither is the type of Christ the typical male wants much to do with." ??During worship, "men don't want to pray in the Western fashion with hands clasped, lips pressed together, and a facial expression of forced serenity." "It's guys holding hands with other guys and singing campfire songs." "Lines about 'reaching out for His embrace,' 'wanting to touch His face,' while being 'overwhelmed by the power of His love'�those are difficult songs for one man to sing to another Man."??"A friend of mine told me that the first thing he does when he walks into a church is to look at the curtains. That tells him who is making the decisions in that church, and the type of Christian they want to attract."??"Guys either want to be challenged to fight for a glorious and honorable cause, and get filthy dirty in the process, or to loaf in our recliners with plenty of beer, pizza, and football. But most churches want us to behave like orderly gentlemen, keeping our hands and mouths nice and clean." ??One man said that worship at his Pentecostal church had been "largely an emotional experience. Feelings. Tears. Repeated rededication of one's life to Christ, in large emotional group settings. Singing emotional songs, swaying hands aloft. Even Scripture reading was supposed to produce an emotional experience. I am basically a do-er, I want to do things, and not talk about or emote my way through them! As a business person I knew that nothing in business comes without effort, energy, and investment. Why would the spiritual life be any different?" ??Another, who visited Catholic churches, says, "They were conventional, easy, and modern, when my wife and I were looking for something traditional, hard, and counter-cultural, something ancient and martial." A catechumen says that at his non-denominational church "[w]orship was shallow, haphazard, cobbled together from whatever was most current; sometimes we'd stand, sometimes we'd sit, without much rhyme or reason to it. I got to thinking about how a stronger grounding in tradition would help." ??"It infuriated me on my last Ash Wednesday that the priest delivered a homily about how the real meaning of Lent is to learn to love ourselves more. It forced me to realize how completely sick I was of bourgeois, feel-good American Christianity." ??A convert priest says that men are drawn to the dangerous element of Orthodoxy, which involves "the self-denial of a warrior, the terrifying risk of loving one's enemies, the unknown frontiers to which a commitment to humility might call us. Lose any of those dangerous qualities and we become the 'JoAnn Fabric Store' of churches: nice colors and a very subdued clientele."??"Men get pretty cynical when they sense someone's attempting to manipulate their emotions, especially when it's in the name of religion. They appreciate the objectivity of Orthodox worship. It's not aimed at prompting religious feelings but at performing an objective duty." ??Yet there is something in Orthodoxy that offers "a deep masculine romance. Do you understand what I mean by that? Most romance in our age is pink, but this is a romance of swords and gallantry." ??From a deacon: "Evangelical churches call men to be passive and nice (think 'Mr. Rogers'). Orthodox churches call men to be courageous and act (think 'Braveheart').
Jesus Christ. What draws men to Orthodoxy is not simply that it's challenging or mysterious. What draws them is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the center of everything the Church does or says. ??In contrast to some other churches, "Orthodoxy offers a robust Jesus" (and even a robust Virgin Mary, for that matter, hailed in one hymn as "our Captain, Queen of War"). Several used the term "martial" or referred to Orthodoxy as the "Marine Corps" of Christianity. (The warfare is against self-destructive sin and the unseen spiritual powers, not other people, of course.)??One contrasted this "robust" quality with "the feminized pictures of Jesus I grew up with. I've never had a male friend who would not have expended serious effort to avoid meeting someone who looked like that." Though drawn to Jesus Christ as a teen, "I felt ashamed of this attraction, as if it were something a red-blooded American boy shouldn't take that seriously, almost akin to playing with dolls." ??A priest writes: "Christ in Orthodoxy is a militant, butt-kicking Jesus who takes Hell captive. Orthodox Jesus came to cast fire on the earth. (Males can relate to butt-kicking and fire-casting.) In Holy Baptism we pray for the newly-enlisted warriors of Christ, male and female, that they may 'be kept ever warriors invincible.'" ??After several years in Orthodoxy, one man found a service of Christmas carols in a Protestant church "shocking, even appalling." Compared to the Orthodox hymns of Christ's Nativity, "'the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay' has almost nothing to do with the Eternal Logos entering inexorably, silently yet heroically, into the fabric of created reality." ??Continuity. Many intellectually-inclined Orthodox converts began by reading Church history and the early Christian writers, and found it increasingly compelling. Eventually they faced the question of which of the two most ancient churches, the Roman Catholic or the Orthodox, makes the most convincing claim of being the original Church of the Apostles. ??A lifelong Orthodox says that what men like is "stability: men find they can trust the Orthodox Church because of the consistent and continuous tradition of faith it has maintained over the centuries." A convert says, "The Orthodox Church offers what others do not: continuity with the first followers of Christ." This is continuity, not archeology; the early church still exists, and you can join it. ??"What drew me was Christ's promises to the Church about the gates of hell not prevailing, and the Holy Spirit leading into all truth�and then seeing in Orthodoxy a unity of faith, worship, and doctrine with continuity throughout history." ??Another word for continuity is "tradition." A catechumen writes that he had tried to learn everything necessary to interpret Scripture correctly, including ancient languages. "I expected to dig my way down to the foundation and confirm everything I'd been taught. Instead, the further down I went, the weaker everything seemed. I realized I had only acquired the ability to manipulate the Bible to say pretty much anything I wanted it to. The only alternative to cynicism was tradition. If the Bible was meant to say anything, it was meant to say it within a community, with a tradition to guide the reading. In Orthodoxy I found what I was looking for." ??Men in Balance. A priest writes: "There are only two models for men: be 'manly' and strong, rude, crude, macho, and probably abusive; or be sensitive, kind, repressed and wimpy. But in Orthodoxy, masculine is held together with feminine; it's real and down to earth, 'neither male nor female,' but Christ who 'unites things in heaven and things on earth.'" ??Another priest comments that, if one spouse is originally more insistent about the family converting to Orthodoxy than the other, "when both spouses are making confessions, over time they both become deepened and neither one is as dominant in the spiritual relationship."??Men in Leadership. Like it or not, men simply prefer to be led by men. In Orthodoxy, lay women do everything lay men do, including preach, teach, and chair the parish council. But behind the iconostasis, around the altar, it's all guys. One respondent summarized what men like in Orthodoxy this way: "Beards!" ??"It's the last place in the world men aren't told they're evil simply for being men." Instead of negativity, they are constantly surrounded by positive role models in the saints, in icons and in the daily round of hymns and stories about saints' lives. This is another concrete element that men appreciate�there are other real human beings to look to, rather than a blur of ethereal terms. "The glory of God is a man fully alive," said St. Irenaeus. One writer adds that "The best way to attract a man to the Orthodox Church is to show him an Orthodox man." ??But no secondary thing, no matter how good, can supplant first place. "A dangerous life is not the goal. Christ is the goal. A free spirit is not the goal. Christ is the goal. He is the towering figure of history around whom all men and women will eventually gather, to whom every knee will bow, and whom every tongue will confess."

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The author certainly seems to appear to have ZERO understanding of actual Roman Catholicism.

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Originally Posted by Lawrence
The author certainly seems to appear to have ZERO understanding of actual Roman Catholicism.

The author was, for many years, a "matushka" to an Episcopal priest who is now an Orthodox priest. I think that she understands Western Christianity.

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I don't think that Mathews-Greene has zero understanding but in the books I have read she does kinda make it sound like Orthodoxy is superior to other religions. I generally like the stuff she writes about.

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I know Mathews-Greene from her other writings, I have learned to distrust her confidence.

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I read the article a second time and found it even more absurd. "Western Piety became feminized in the 12th-13th centuries ". Yeah tell that to the Knights Templars or the Hospitallers of St John. "For centuries men who chose the ministry were stereotyped as effeminate". Ask any guy over 60 who was taught by Benedictine Brothers if they thought they were effeminate. More than a few Catholic school tough guys learned the hard way that Brother Jaspar or Brother Ignatius just happened to be an ex-football player or pretty good amateur boxer. And then the author states "Or it depicts Jesus whipped, dead on the cross. Neither is the type of Christ the typical male wants much to do with" Well of course the typical male wants nothing to do with that, nor does the typical female, because the vast majority of people don't want to accept that this is the end result of our sins.

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I listened, open mouthed, to this reflection the other day. Give me a break. Anyone walking into a Greek church in Greece, or a Russian church in Russia, or a Romanian church in Romania, would hardly be struck by how many men there are. More likely how many there aren't.

Unfortunately many of the Ancient Faith Radio people tend to assume that the experience of their convert communities is typical of Orthodoxy always and everywhere. It would help their credibility if they could temper their enthusiasm with some reality.

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Originally Posted by Fr Maximos
I listened, open mouthed, to this reflection the other day. Give me a break. Anyone walking into a Greek church in Greece, or a Russian church in Russia, or a Romanian church in Romania, would hardly be struck by how many men there are. More likely how many there aren't.

Unfortunately many of the Ancient Faith Radio people tend to assume that the experience of their convert communities is typical of Orthodoxy always and everywhere. It would help their credibility if they could temper their enthusiasm with some reality.


Originally Posted by Lawrence
I read the article a second time and found it even more absurd. "Western Piety became feminized in the 12th-13th centuries ". Yeah tell that to the Knights Templars or the Hospitallers of St John. "For centuries men who chose the ministry were stereotyped as effeminate". Ask any guy over 60 who was taught by Benedictine Brothers if they thought they were effeminate. More than a few Catholic school tough guys learned the hard way that Brother Jaspar or Brother Ignatius just happened to be an ex-football player or pretty good amateur boxer. And then the author states "Or it depicts Jesus whipped, dead on the cross. Neither is the type of Christ the typical male wants much to do with" Well of course the typical male wants nothing to do with that, nor does the typical female, because the vast majority of people don't want to accept that this is the end result of our sins.


Originally Posted by Terry Bohannon
I know Mathews-Greene from her other writings, I have learned to distrust her confidence.


Well said, all of you.

I like some of the Matushka's writings.

But, I have grown leery of her penchant for inaccurate generalizations. I remember an essay she wrote some time ago (2 years ago?). She basically said that the old ethnic Orthodox parishes in America are dying out; and the new, vibrant Orthodox parishes are growing up in strip malls and so on. I was floored by the first assumption, and I posted that she should visit the vibrant, old ethnic Greek Orthodox parishes in Toledo, Ohio and Dayton, Ohio, the Arab parish in Toledo, Ohio; etc., etc., etc.

-- John

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I agree with the general sentiment here. This "reflection" was just absurd. It was the worst kind of generalizing and caricaturing. I call it sophistry. I will now use this opportunity as a religious educator to say that it is because popular religious books are filled with this kind of stuff that the laity often get inaccurate notions in their heads.

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Originally Posted by John K
Originally Posted by Lawrence
The author certainly seems to appear to have ZERO understanding of actual Roman Catholicism.

The author was, for many years, a "matushka" to an Episcopal priest who is now an Orthodox priest. I think that she understands Western Christianity.


Being an Episcopalian does not exactly equip one with an understanding of actual Catholicism.

But did anyone else catch the references to her male converts as "choosing Orthodoxy" like a brand? In a sense we all choose where we are or for some, where we aren't... but she sounds like she is a sales rep for a cell phone brand - most people choose this carrier because they like how it handles, better reception more places.

Never mind that 100 converts who travel in the Frederica camp, is probably NOT the most reliable sample out there.

Frederica has been Orthodox long enough for her to drop the primative neo-vert stance of "East good, west bad" nonsense. Behind every problem, under every stone, there is a simple explination - the west is in error!

Her long and protracted honeymoon seems to be working for her - visions of an Orthodox West still dance like sugar plumbs in her head at night. (I wish it were so!) It just seems easier to look at it that way and focus on all her convert pals, Mr. Dreher included, and only see the "boom". It is definately easier to envison Orthodoxy as the "Braveheart warrior Church" and paint it as such in her writings, than it is to start asking "Where are grandkids of the cradle-dox?"

If you started to hang out in convert parishes exclusively, you would think the world is about to convert. If you started to attend Latin Mass parishes exclusively, you would think every Latin in America will be chanting flawless gregorian chant in a year. Go spend all your time at Catholic Answers or the Coming Home Network, and you will feel sure that it is just a matter of time before every Evangelical and mainliner in America is Catholic. Hang out at an Evangelical mega-church made up of 20%+ ex-Catholics, you will think the opposite is true.

Her rose-colored glasses must have very wide lenses.

I for one have always felt she traded in her Episcopalian anti-Catholic over-coat for an odd version of Evagelical Orthodoxy cut from the same cloth. If one wants a feel for Orthodox thought tradition and praxis, a visit to one of her so-called "dying ethnic" parishes would probably serve one better than a convert chapel of first-gen enthusiasts. God bless and keep them - we could all use some convert enthusiasm - but when she starts her "for thus is Holy Orthodoxy" routine, I just get embarassed for her.

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The irony is, I'm pretty sure the Antiochian Archdiocese has founded more new Western Rite missions [westernorthodox.blogspot.com] in the last year or two than Byzantine Rite missions.

If she thinks imagining an individual soul married to Christ began in the West in the Middle Ages (didn't everything Baptodox don't like?), she might try reading some of the patristic commentaries on the Canticle of Canticles. E.g., St. Gregory of Nyssa: "In the sacred text we shall find the soul clothed, in a sense, in the garment of a bride to prepare it for a pure and spiritual marriage with God." (Sermon 1 on Canticle of Canticles.)

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Granted that her approach may be overly polemic, but I wonder if she's not on the right track in some respects. Is Eastern Christianity (both Catholic and Orthodox) more masculine than Western Christianity?

If you look at mainline Protestantism, large segments have fallen under the sway of feminist theology, and the clergy in these churches are increasingly women. (At least I felt this to be true in the Episcopal Church when I was a member). Within traditional evangelical Protestantism (e.g., Southern Baptists), most ministers are men. But women ministers are becoming more common among the growing Pentecostal/charismatic churches, and many of the most popular televangelists are women (Joyce Moore, Paula White, etc).

The ordination of women to the priesthood of the Catholic Church is an impossibility, despite the efforts of many feminists to change the Church's teaching. However, the recent abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have highlighted the high proportion of homosexuals among the priesthood. Of course, there is still a strong masculine presence in the Catholic Church (Knights of Columbus, anyone?).

So, is there something to her argument, that Eastern Christianity is more muscular, more masculine? I must admit, based on my limited exposure to a largely convert OCA parish and my social contacts with some of the men of that parish, there is some truth to her basic premise.

Does Byzantine Catholicism have a more manly feel than Roman Catholicism?

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Well, I think Fr. Corapi could wipe the floor with Fr. Joe Bertha, if that's what you're asking.

Granted, aside from the priest in The Immemorial Tridentine Mass narrated by then-Fr. Fulton J. Sheen, I've seldom heard Gregorian chant that doesn't sound like it was done by the castrate from the Vienna Boy's Choir.

I don't think these sorts of sweeping generalities help. A would-be "convert" who sees Orthodox making false statements will question everything all Orthodox say. Particularly when those falsehoods or generalities seem to have an uncharitable tone.

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"So, is there something to her argument, that Eastern Christianity is more muscular, more masculine? I must admit, based on my limited exposure to a largely convert OCA parish and my social contacts with some of the men of that parish, there is some truth to her basic premise.

"Does Byzantine Catholicism have a more manly feel than Roman Catholicism?"

This is a broad issue and it depends on the parish. The Roman Rite parishes where I have attended mass have been more or less "masculine" or "feminine".

I question how sex is seen to correlate to forms of worship. There are parishes I have seen which have been spiritually dominated by women, but have "manly" services; then one led by a few men which are more "feminine".

Her premise is rooted in a type of feminist criticism which does not fit well with understanding the nature of parish life across America.

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What I am wondering, and I could be off base, is among converts to Eastern Christian churches. Current congregations may be more heavily populated by women than men in some regards but is this the case among converts? Or, is the trend that men come to the church first and then bring their families with them? Is the Eastern Christian church more appealing to mean of other Christian denominations? In Mathews-Greene's book Facing East I believe she discusses her own families journey from the American Episcopal church to the Antiochian Orthodox church and she discusses how drawn her own husband (an ordained minister in the Episcopal church) was to the Orthodox church.

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