I have been getting more than a few comments and private emails lately from people who are considering conversion to the Orthodox Church. Some have asked for advice and counsel. Let me begin by saying to those who have indicated they are entering or at least thinking about entering the Orthodox Church, welcome. It took me roughly a quarter century from my first visit to an Orthodox service to make the move. So, most of you are already ahead of me. Secondly let me say thank you. I am flattered (and a little surprised) that apparently some people actually read my blog and take my often eclectic ramblings seriously.
Ronald Reagan once said that leaving the Democratic Party for the Republican was the hardest thing he ever did. He compared it to changing religions. My politics have evolved over time but I have never had a "Road to Damascus" moment that impelled me to a really major political sea change. So I can't comment on how hard that is. But if Reagan meant that changing religions is hard, he won't get an argument from me.
It really is not easy, especially if you are coming into the Church at least in part because of a painful situation in your current/former spiritual home. Family considerations can be tough too. Even if you are single or your spouse has no objections to your conversion, changing religions creates baggage. You will forever be explaining to extended family and those friends who will know of your move why the Episcopal Church (or fill in your former church) was not good enough for you.
But then there is the compensation. And that is in the form of the peace that comes only from knowing that you are in God’s Church working out your salvation “in trembling and fear” with other Orthodox Christians. That sense of peace is priceless. It doesn’t mean there won’t be rough patches. I promise you there will be. It doesn’t mean the Orthodox Church doesn’t suffer from all of the problems that come with any organization composed of human beings. It does. You need only do a quick online search to find references to the recent troubles in the Orthodox Church in America
or the current controversies in the Antiochian Archdiocese for evidence. Orthodox Christians, whether layman or clergy or even bishops suffer from all the temptations of the world just like Methodists, Roman Catholics, and everyone else. And sometimes we fail. (I could write books on that subject without ever making references to third parties.)
A friend of mine once told me the story of a monk at St. Anthony’s monastery in Arizona who was asked by a visitor what they (the monks) did all day. The monk replied “we fall down and get back up again.” That in a nutshell is Orthodox Christianity. To borrow a line from a source I have long forgotten, “after years of desperate searching, I finally found the perfect church. And then I ruined it by joining.”
So what about the advice I mentioned in the title? It’s coming. First though we must have the inevitable disclaimers. I am not a priest, monk or anyone whose opinions should be taken as being of more importance than anyone else’s. If someone else gives you conflicting advice there is at least an even chance that you should pay more attention to them than me. And if they are wearing a cassock those odds rise to near 100%.
Ok with the disclaimers out of the way here is John’s generic advice, which along with $5.00 will get you a very small cup of coffee at Starbucks.
I strongly encourage inquirers and those more firmly on the path to Orthodoxy to look at some of the material and websites I have linked in the sidebar of Ad Orientem. You will find a lot of stuff there. Perhaps one of the best things you can do (besides praying and fasting) is to join the Orthodox Inquirers and Converts online discussion group
. That's also linked in the sidebar. You will be able to talk to people from all kinds of backgrounds who are also converts or inquirers. Some have been in the Church for many years. Others are still new or just asking questions. The group has many clergy who are there to help and answer questions. Also the forum is moderated by clergy so things don’t get out of hand if someone starts throwing out really bad advice or making statements that aren’t quite on the mark.
Remember also that the Church has been around for 2000 years. Whatever questions, problems or concerns you have, I promise you that you are not the first one with those issues. The discussion group is I think one of the best places for an inquirer to go for information besides their priest. That said don't get wrapped up in too many details.
Not long ago someone commented on another thread that they were always worrying about whether or not they were doing things "right." Were they correct in their understanding of church canons and rules? It is really easy to start getting focused on things like what is and is not OK on a given fast day, or how many times should I make the sign of the cross when entering a church or when should I be making full prostrations. Some people also worry about which councils forbid fourth marriages or what council condemned Calvinism.
I am not saying that any of that is unimportant. But I am going to say most of that is not critical to our salvation. God is not worried about whether you bow and make the sign of the cross three times when you walk into a church or can rattle off church canons from memory. He is worrying about the other things, most of which are covered in the Ten Commandments. Your priest / spiritual father will guide you on your path into the Church and make sure you get the need to know information. So don’t sweat the details until you have the basics down first. Speaking of which, what are the basics?
This is IMHO what we really need to know and be doing… the basics. First the “know this” part…
1. We need to know how to make the sign of cross correctly.
2. We need to know the Creed and be able to recite it from memory.
3. We need to know the Lord’s Prayer and the Jesus Prayer.
4. We need to have a basic familiarity with church teachings and doctrine of which most of the essentials can be found in Fr. Thomas Hopko’s work on The Orthodox Faith
. There are other sources as well, but that one is convenient and you don't need a PHD to read it.
Now for the need “to be doing” part…
1. First you need to find an Orthodox parish church
and start attending services. If you are blessed to have more than one Orthodox parish within a reasonable distance from where you live, visit all of them. I encourage you to look for parishes where services are mainly or entirely in English. This is increasingly the norm here in North America but there are still some very ethnic parishes where services are in old country languages. There is nothing wrong with liturgy in Greek, Arabic or Slavonic. But much of the Orthodox Faith is found in our liturgy. It has often been said that the Orthodox Liturgy is one of our great catechetical tools because almost every sentence, gesture and even individual words are packed with theological meaning. Some of you however may be limited in your choices. You go where you must. I know of many people who converted into Orthodoxy through parishes where the services are still mostly not in English and one can find great beauty in the Divine Liturgy served in some of the ancient liturgical tongues of the Church, just as many Roman Catholics often find great spiritual inspiration from Mass in Latin. Once you find a parish be sure to introduce yourself to the priest and let him know you are considering converting. He will take it from there.
2. Pray. We need to pray everyday, ideally at least three times a day. If you don’t have an Orthodox Prayer Book, buy one. I recommend the Jordanville Prayer Book, but any one that your spiritual father blesses is a good choice.
3. Fast to the best of your ability under the guidance of your spiritual father. This latter part is very important. It is extremely common to try taking on too much fasting fresh out of the gate. The result is that you fall and get discouraged. Always remember that fasting is not an exercise in how well we can meet some 5th century dietary restrictions. It is spiritual medicine designed to stretch and discipline the body. If you discover that keeping the fasts strictly (especially during Lent) is really tough, don’t worry. You are not alone. Talk to your spiritual father and ask his advice. Often priests will bless a relaxation of the fast for those who struggle with it.
4. Don’t dive into theology. Read the lives of the saints.
5. Do visit an Orthodox monastery. But don’t move in. Monasteries are one of the great treasures of the Orthodox Church. If the Church is a spiritual hospital then monasteries are often our intensive care ward. Some people have a calling to the angelic life. But inquirers and recent converts need to be cautious about becoming convinced in the fresh enthusiasm for their new faith, that they are called to be monks or nuns. Most monasteries wisely will not take recent converts as novices. But by all means visit a monastery for a few days.
6. Once you are received into the Church take confession frequently and Holy Communion as often as your spiritual father will bless you to do so. As Metropolitan +Jonah recently said “you can not lead a spiritual life without frequent confession.”
7. This next point falls under the heading of “do as I say and not as I do.” Avoid (online) disputations and arguments. I am soooo
guilty of this. So trust me when I say that these are very rarely spiritually healthy. That doesn’t mean you should not share your faith with others. It doesn’t even mean you should not discuss it with people who might not agree with you. But when you sense a “conversation” turning into a debate or an argument, that is usually a good time to bow out. I have never once met anyone converted into Orthodoxy by calling them a heretic. That’s not saying that there is no such thing as heresy or that there aren’t heretics. But judgmentalism and triumphalism are spiritually dangerous. Yes, we sometimes need to make prudential judgments. Many converts have found Orthodoxy in part because they concluded that their former spiritual home had gone off the tracks. But care needs to be taken before judging or correcting others. St. Maximus the Confessor once said that those who busy themselves with the sins of others have not yet begun to see their own. I have frequently been guilty of this. May God forgive me.
Have you noticed something? The “do this” list is a lot longer than the “know this” list. That’s because Orthodoxy is not a collection of canons or decrees from OEcumenical Councils. It is quite literally right belief and right worship of God. Orthodoxy is inherently experiential. You can’t become Orthodox from reading books. You become Orthodox from praying and living an Orthodox life. And that is really what everything I have written boils down to.
Please feel free to drop me a line with questions, comments or even criticism either in the combox or by email. My contact info is in the link in the sidebar.Addendum
See Orrologion's post
of a similar theme. I strongly concur with his witty (and pointed) observations.