Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | August 20, 2012

Highlights from a Conversion Story

Like so many others, I’ve read a number of Jim Forest’s books, and FWIW, even subscribed to his journal, “In Communion”. Yes, and I’ve been warned about “those guys”… all so peacenik and everything. Yeah, well… the war thing hasn’t worked out so well, though our propensity to fight anywhere, any moment and over anything and our cache of potential nuclear annihilation may have something to do with the dollar still maintaining some measure of value. I don’t underestimate the impact of our defense dollars on keeping iPhones and iPads affordable. But that’s another story. I just wanted to add that the story of Jim Forest’s conversion is worth a read. And for those who worry about these things, let me add that though obviously I did not have communist parents nor am I in any way a communist, socialist… or probably any other kind of “ist”…I mean it’s tough for this boy who grew up loving John Wayne movies to swing with the pacificism that increasingly seems compelling as more than a counter to our over-assertiveness of recent decades. Fact is I long for something closer and more traditional like George Washington’s more prescient than you thought it was warning about foreign entanglements… but like I said, that’s another story. As to this story, I can’t claim to have lived or prayed or served nearly as well in the ranks of the christian life and devotion he and his wife Nancy have lived, yet I nevertheless found much else would seem to correspond in their discoveries and wanderings. Here are a few take-a-ways I hope will encourage you to read the whole thing, some of his books, and even consider the journal “In Communion” and the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

On (Roman) Catholic Liturgy:

“What had most attracted me to Catholicism was the Liturgy. Though in some parishes it was a dry, mechanical affair, there were other parishes where the care taken in every aspect of worship was profound….

The Englishing of the Liturgy was not carried out by poets. We ended up with the English language in its flattest state. We also lost not only Latin but Gregorian chant, a great pity. Most of the music that took its place was pedestrian at every level, fit for shopping malls and Disneyland. The sand blasting had also removed incense. The body language of prayer was in retreat. The holy water fonts were dry. Many bridges linking body and soul were abandoned.

Yet, like most Catholics, I uttered few words of complaint. I knew that change is not a comfortable experience. And I thought of myself as a modern person; I was embarrassed by my difficulties adjusting to change. Also I had no sense of connection with those who were protesting the changes. These tended to be the rigid Catholics of the sort who were more papal than the Pope. (I had never been attracted to that icy wing of Catholicism that argued one must be a Catholic, and a most obedient Catholic, in order to be saved.)

If one has experienced only the modern “fast-food” liturgy of the Catholic Church, perhaps the typical modern Mass isn’t so disappointing. But for me there was a deep sense of loss. For many years I often left Mass feeling depressed.”

On Orthodox Worship:

“The church was crowded as a church in the west would be only on a major feast day. As is usual in the Russian Orthodox Church, there were no pews. There were a few benches and chairs along the walls for those who needed them, but I found it freeing to be on my feet. Though at times it was uncomfortable to be standing up for so long, being upright made me more attentive. It was like a move from the bleachers to the field. (I’d like one day to learn how chairs and benches made their way into churches. Is it connected with the Reformation’s re-centering of services around the sermon? Perhaps it happened when people got bored.)

I was fascinated by the linking of spiritual and physical activity. Making the sign of the cross and half bows were ordinary elements of prayer. Orthodox believers seemed to cross themselves and bow almost continually. As I watched the rippling of bowing heads in the tightly packed congregation, I was reminded of the patterns the wind makes blowing across afield of wheat.

All the while two choirs, in balconies on either side of the huge cupola, were singing. For the Creed and Our Father, the congregation joined with the choirs, singing with great force.

At first I stood like a statue, though wanting to do what those around me were doing. It seemed so appropriate for an incarnational religion to link body and soul through these simple gestures. It must have taken me most of an hour before I began to pray in the Russian style.

The sense of people being deeply at prayer was as tangible as Russian black bread. I felt that if the walls and pillars of the church were taken away, the roof would rest securely on the prayers of the congregation below. I have very rarely experienced this kind of intense spiritual presence. In its intensity, though there are many superficial differences, I can only compare it to the black church in America”

Other Notes:

“I came to esteem the married clergy of Orthodoxy. While there are many Orthodox monks and nuns, and celibacy is an honored state, I found that marriage is more valued in Orthodoxy than Catholicism. Sexual discipline is taken no less seriously, yet one isn’t left feeling that the main sins are sexual or that sex is innately sinful.

I came to cherish the relative darkness usual in Orthodox churches, where the main light source is candles. Candle light creates a climate of intimacy. Icons are intended for candlelight.

Praying with icons was an aspect of Orthodox spirituality that opened its doors to us even though we weren’t yet Orthodox. During a three-month sabbatical in 1985 when we were living near Jerusalem, we bought a small Russian Vladimirskaya icon of Mary and Jesus and began praying before it. The icon itself proved to be a school of prayer. We learned much about prayer by simply standing in front of our icon.”


Like many, I’ve read “Praying with Icons“. This is a great book for Orthodox converts like me, as Forest combines not only the personal, but also the story behind the icons. Another recent read is the “Ladder of the Beatitudes” which I wrote on recently, but in short, I came across on the inspiration that the order was (of course) intentional and like a ladder, and began looking for a book… and here it was, with far more depth of insight than I’d have managed in years and years f’sure. The Forest’s seem to be one of the treasures of our church… and like so many, overlooked by many for one reason or another to their (and our) great goodness. Like the Orthodox Church itself: Hidden in plain view.

There are many I’ve seen who’d suggest the whole bit of the Orthodox continuum is a lark, that we’re the original Protestants, that we’re a cult, and so on. They find much they like or that has appeal, but also much that continues to offend. Many of these have even sojourned for years within our walls as ailing members of the Body. And sure enough, those are all fair comments. I respect as well Forest’s comments on the negatives of Orthodoxy… there are plenty – just as there are anywhere else… and he gently gives a few. FWIW, the longer I spend within the Church, the more I think that the task in seeing warts is like any other aspect of Christian love… and you have to see what we could be rather than always where we start… and when we do this, we begin to see the beauty of how we are as we are as well. And if we can’t manage this with our own Church and her people, we’ll surely not manage to be charitable towards others. Could we improve, could we “develop” our ecclessiology a touch in constructive, balanced ways to strengthen the church’s mission and our lives within her? Sure…. it’s a challenge…  so have at it. There’s more in this vineyard than it looks… though I guess like the vineyard owner in Matthew’s 20th, casualties shouldn’t be unexpected.


  1. The had a OPF conference here in MD a few years back and I went. I had no problem with the peace part… it was some of the other baggage I was quite uncomfortable with. I do like Jim Forest though.

    • Deb: Thanks for the comment. I’ve heard “baggage” before but been unaware of what it is… as it’s “new to me”. So I may be in for a schooling.

  2. Hello. I just stumbled on this and was pleased to see your use of quotes from my conversion story. Conversion still going on — a work in progress.

    Jim Forest

    • Jim: Thanks for stopping by and your comment. Love the WIP… but of course!

  3. By the way, just one “r” in Forest.

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