Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | February 20, 2008

Why Does Anyone Become Orthodox…

One Sunday after Divine Liturgy, we were in the Parish Hall speaking of another’s recent conversion, and the inevitable interest in how it came to pass led to, “Who knows? Why does anyone become Orthodox – by choice?” An excellent question indeed, and about as good a place to approach the subject to the extent that it merits more than a shrug.

Surely many puzzle, shake their heads, laugh, and wonder… both inside the Church and outside at those of us who come to the conclusion that for some reason we simply have to become Orthodox Christians. It surely isn’t the only choice, the easy or popular choice. No doubt many wonder whether we converts haven’t lost our minds, and that like George Constanza in the Seinfeld “Conversion” episode where joining the Latvian Orthodox Church is part of continuing to date his girl friend, these folks suspect our real motivation is something less inspired, and if they press hard enough, like George, we’ll give it up in a moment of not-quite honesty and say, “I’m here for the hats.”

Equally some would suggest that opting to become Orthodox is “as if” to opt for the puzzle of dis-assimilation into the “exotic”, the esoterica of the weird, the plentitude of celebrated but avoided multi-diversity that is today’s American Way… and yet at the same time seen as an American Way that’s maybe just “way out” or “okay for some, but not for us”. The suggestion implies that our enterprise is somehow not quite right, not quite American, and perhaps even not quite Christian. But to their credit, these folks may be precisely on point – only they see us as we begin… and understandably remain skeptical of where we intend to go as anything more than putting on airs.

And oddly empowering as it may equally prove for some to “become one with the otherness of the borg”, or to experience a light jaunt to the unknown, the invisible, the ridiculed, the mocked and derided, and the not spoken of “sub-elites” as if for some entertaining mixer with the lesser lights and non-telegenic, or to vanish into the backdrops reserved for pitiful postcard fundraisers – this is not the attraction either. Conversion really is neither part of an effort garner a touch of the counter-culture chic, nor polish a profile as more serious, devout, and “legit” than we are. Honestly, we’re still just people.

And yet there is indeed something of the wild, unhomogenized and unadulterated in Orthodoxy. But surely it must be unhealthy to see this alone as its virtue. For while it may be common for us as Christians to see ourselves as sojourners in an alien land; there remains a need for a more compelling and balanced vision if we are to ultimately offer hospitality, love, regeneration and so much more to a land and people which has welcomed us, and given us opportunities to worship in our way. Our Orthodoxy should be a gift, rather than a burden to others.

But in the end there is no easy balance to strike, and in part this is certainly why the process of conversion seems so hard. Moreover, if we somehow let the hardness of the journey toughen our hides rather than serve as a sort of purifying fire, then we risk becoming harsher in temperament in ways that just aren’t becoming as a Christian.

Thus it seems from here, that after all the fussing and ranting is done, the reasons we become and remain Orthodox have a lot less to do with the other guy, less to do with whatever place we may have come from, and more to do with what lies within our hearts, what has been planted there, what we fancy might grow, and if we are candid, what we most fear might take hold as well – if we do without this ancient Church.

Indeed, Orthodoxy seems to have less and less to do with who we are and where we’ve been than with what we might become as members of the true, incarnate Body of Christ. This seems less a place or simply a church than a commitment to a way of life that is an emptying of ourselves – and a commitment to keep emptying ourselves – of the stuff that keeps us mired where we are and tied to a past of which we no longer wish to be a part. And yet at the same time, we don’t want to lose our ability to be thankful that our past – rocky though it may have been – is nevertheless the path that brought us here.

In my case much has already passed, and but for the grace of God I would not be here. Where much has been given and the trials have seemed light, it is in truth all too often that blind obliviousness has ruled rather than gratitude. And where the outward measures have seemed “good enough” for a prized sunny disposition, this has been managed alternatively by failing to admit to the darkness that lies beneath, or by ranting to a patient soul unable to find the off button. And yet the self-impression just ain’t what it’s cracked up to be…. and time inevitably catches up with us.

Just as we are often unaware of the deciding impact that shatters a glass – whether a single tremendous blow or a series of smaller, incessant “pingings”, and instead focus on the moment of fracture, so do we also more readily recall the moment we decide to start in a new direction… and often struggle to recall God’s repeated knocking on the door to our hearts. Often our habit of running the other way on hearing these knocks is so ingrained, it becomes automatic and unconscious until that day when we finally allow to our vulnerability. Then if we find ourselves caught-up in the whirlwind in a moment that we do remember, we may find our hearts shattered before the seat of God. And at that point, no matter what sort of Christian we may have fancied ourselves beforehand, from that moment on… we are forever changed.

And yet as sweet as that moment it can be, it is not without pain. For some of us, this is the realization that we have so very little to give, and of that which we have…. we have clung to for some senseless reason. These aren’t big things typically, but all the little things… the precious little things that day by day we come to realize we cherish in those no longer with us. And with our diminished sense for the art of having and what we have or how we have come by it, we realize we have even less of a clue about the art of giving.

Perhaps we thought we knew how to give… but how can we give what we don’t know how to hold? So we give something less. And in this there is little real generosity, and often more motivation for our own sense of comfort in ourselves. It may be a start, but a poor one. For surely we have continued to hold back the one real thing we could offer. Perhaps it’s a risk we thought better avoided. Yet we can come to realize that in not risking this offering of ourselves to God, we have equally not loved others as well as we should… or at least as we think we have. Maybe they haven’t complained, but instead been thankful for the little we have managed… that our hearts at least weren’t stone cold.

And then perhaps we realize we aren’t separate, and that much of what has gone right, has gone right less by our own making than by those about us whose forgiving love is far greater, and asks far less. Here at last we begin to peel the fancy picture off the new mirror and take a look at the real reflection underneath: Maybe not as bad as poor Dorian Gray, but nonetheless a pathetic parody of the self-image in our minds, and no winner of America’s Next Top Model.

So we realize that in our case, whatever it is that is less, whatever it is that is false, whatever it is that is not love or gentleness, whatever it is that is but an idea or carefully measured notion, whatever it is that preens us… it is this and not the core of ourselves that we have offered. We have instead kept the essence of ourselves and the dearness of our person close from ourselves, from our God and from those we profess to love. We may comfort ourselves that we have done no apparent evil nor fallen for a great lie, but these small bedevilling ones are equally death by a thousand cuts. And we can see in this the mean and ungrateful steward who has hidden his master’s treasure in the ground, and know that surely there is a faith, there is a God, there is a worship and life that is worthy of much more.

And because there is still time, even in this eleventh hour we come to this Church in tears to do better… to do what is asked or what is needed but not asked… if we can but yield. We are thankful for the chance… but perhaps still accustomed to our old habits… and only grudgingly and slowly at first, but yielding bit by bit all the same. Surely there might have been some other ways to this end, as indeed many have managed this course without this ancient, crusty church, without the necessity of becoming part of her. Yet many of us could not. And I could not because I simply needed the stronger medicine offered and administered here. I needed her faith, her patience, her steadfastness, silence, prayer and gentle love.

Taking nothing away from those who find their medicine elsewhere, here I find it is deeply personal; here I find it is true and authentic; here all the pieces fit; here the game – if indeed it is a game – remains unnervingly and inexorably the same tall challenge; and here the struggle is enjoined to a broader family incorporating all the fullness of the Church. I don’t know that it will cure in my case, but it seems worth a shot…. if I can but bring myself to do more than aim. And surely it’s reasonable that on the pause where we exhale before pulling the trigger to wonder, “Just what am I doing here in this crazy place?” But I wonder less now. Sure, there are still many wild things in the forest… but there is less fear as well.

In Orthodoxy we are blessed with the confidence of the well worn witness of the saints that this is do-able and worthwhile. We may not be completely free of our doubts, of our “old man”, but this ain’t about something some guy just made up, or something that no one can actually live. And maybe, for once, we won’t be shooting in the dark – as if no one’s ever done it before. Surely we are neither the first, nor the last. But mostly, we know we are not alone. We have the help of all the company of heaven. And maybe with all this, real change and real faith will come and in our time, and we will find peace, love and giving and all the rest.

But sure, in the meantime, I’ll take a funny hat.

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