by Rod Dreher
In his 18 years as a professional journalist, including serving as chief film critic for the New York Post and an editor at National Review, Rod Dreher has established himself as one of the most interesting commentators of his generation. His writing about religion, politics, film and culture have appeared in both National Review and National Review Online, The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, Touchstone, Men’s Health, the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. He is currently a columnist at The Dallas Morning News. Rod’s commentaries have been broadcast on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and he has served as an analyst on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, Court TV and other networks. Rod also writes Crunchy Con, one of the most popular blogs at Beliefnet.com. He has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize multiple times.
I came to Orthodoxy in 2006, a broken man. I had been a devoutly observant and convinced Roman Catholic for years, but had my faith shattered in large part by what I had learned as a reporter covering the sex abuse scandal. It had been my assumption that my theological convictions would protect the core of my faith through any trial, but the knowledge I struggled with wore down my ability to believe in the ecclesial truth claims of the Roman church (I wrote in detail about that drama here). For my wife and me, Protestantism was not an option, given what we knew about church history, and given our convictions about sacramental theology.
That left Orthodoxy as the only safe harbor from the tempest that threatened to capsize our Christianity.
In truth, I had longed for Orthodoxy for some time, for the same reasons I, as a young man, found my way into the Catholic Church. It seemed to me a rock of stability in a turbulent sea of relativism and modernism overtaking Western Christianity. And while the Roman church threw out so much of its artistic and liturgical heritage in the violence of the Second Vatican Council, the Orthodox still held on to theirs. Several years before we entered Orthodoxy, my wife and I visited Orthodox friends at their Maryland parish. As morally and liturgically conservative Catholics, we were moved and even envious over what we saw there. We had to leave early to scoot up the road to the nearest Seventies moderne Catholic parish to meet our Sunday obligation. The contrast between the desultory liturgical proceedings at Our Lady of Pizza Hut and what we had walked out of in the Orthodox parish down the road literally reduced us to tears. But ugliness, even a sense of spiritual desolation, does not obviate truth, and we knew we had to stand with truth – and therefore with Rome – despite it all.
If Catholicism in America had been healthy, maybe we could have held on through the sex abuse trials. But my wife and I had been worrying for some time how we were going to raise faithful Christian children given the loosey-goosey moral teaching in Roman parishes. We considered ourselves orthodox Catholics, meaning we really believed what was in the Catechism, and struggled to live by it. We failed – everybody fails – but the point is, we looked to the church to provide clear moral leadership, and to help us live out the faith with integrity and joy. Here’s the problem: there is very little orthodoxy in the U.S. Catholic Church, and at the parish level, almost no recognition that there is a such thing as “right belief.” It wasn’t that I wanted to throw out all those who don’t live up to Catholic teaching – I would have been the first one shown the door if that had been true – but that I discerned no direction, and no real conviction that parish communities exist for any reason other than to affirm ourselves in our okayness. Though I didn’t have a term to describe it at the time, I was weary to the bone from an ersatz form of Christianity that sociologist Christian Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” I had been so hollowed out by despair over all this as a Catholic that when the strong winds of the abuse scandal began to blow, the structure of my Catholic belief did not stand.
I say all this not to disparage the Roman Catholic Church – which I still love, and to which I cannot be grateful enough for introducing me to ancient, sacramental Christianity – but to show why Orthodoxy was so attractive to me. When I interviewed him for my book “Crunchy Cons,” my friend Hugh O’Beirne, a convert from Catholicism to Orthodoxy, told me that for a Catholic wearied by the culture wars raging inside American Catholicism, it is blessed relief to find that in Orthodoxy, there is no “war footing.” The kinds of issues that are tearing apart many other American churches aren’t nearly as contentious in Orthodox practice. Though it would be foolish to pretend these conflicts don’t exist in Orthodox parishes, they simply aren’t nearly as much of an issue.
And then there is the liturgy and music. There is nothing comparable to it in other churches. It is overwhelmingly beautiful and deep, and is largely the same Divine Liturgy (though in the vernacular tongue) that St. John Chrysostom, the 5th century patriarch of Constantinople, formalized. The beauty of that liturgy is utterly transporting, and the reverence it inspires is tonic. And while I miss familiar old hymns (in Orthodox services, we chant prayers and Psalms), there’s a lot to be said for never having to endure “On Eagle’s Wings” and other shag-carpeted hymnody endemic to modern American Catholic worship.
The main reason why Orthodoxy is so attractive to converts, at least to this convert, is its seriousness about sin. I don’t mean that it’s a dour religion – it is very far from that! – but rather that Orthodoxy takes the brokenness of humankind with appropriate seriousness. Orthodoxy is not going to tell you that you’re okay. In fact, it will require you to call yourself, as St. Paul described himself, the “chief of sinners.” And Orthodoxy is going to tell you the Good News: Jesus died and returned to life so that you too might live. But in order to live, you are going to have to die to yourself, over and over again. And that will not be painless, and cannot be, or it’s not real.
Because of that, for all its dramatic beauty and rich feasting, Orthodoxy is far more austere and demanding than most American Christianity. The long liturgies, the frequent prayers, the intense fasts – all make serious demands on the believer, especially comfortable middle-class Americans like me. They call us out of ourselves, and to repentance. Orthodoxy is not interested in making you feel comfortable in your sins. It wants nothing less than for you to be a saint.
It’s common among American converts to hear that men were first attracted to Orthodoxy, and their wives followed. It’s not hard to see why. Many men are tired of a soft, bourgeois Christianity that doesn’t call them to much because it doesn’t ask much of them. Men love a challenge, and that’s exactly what Orthodoxy gives them.
Don’t be misled. Orthodoxy is not, at its core, about rules and practices. The more I progress in my Orthodoxy, the clearer it is to me that Orthodoxy is, above all, a way. It is not an institution, a set of doctrines, or a collection of rituals, though it contains all three. It is rather a way of seeing the world, and one’s place in it, and a map to holiness that is paradoxically both ancient and astonishingly fresh, at least to Western sensibilities. It is the way of liberation.
True, it is possible to find dreary parish life in American Orthodoxy, often among the ethnically-oriented older parishes that see themselves as little more than the tribe at prayer. And because Orthodox churches are full of ordinary American people, they are also filled with ordinary American problems. Anyone who comes to an Orthodox church expecting perfection will be disappointed. What you will find, though, is truth and beauty presented in a way that can be breathtaking to modern Americans, and an ancient Way grounded on doctrinal stability, sacramental reality, and practical Christian mysticism – a mysticism that has been marginalized in most other American churches.
I found in Orthodoxy what I thought I would find when I became Catholic. As my patron saint in Orthodoxy, I chose St. Benedict of Nursia, dear to both churches, and a sign of the unity we used to have, and that we might yet have again. The Catholic church needs to be more orthodox, and the Orthodox church needs to be more catholic. I pray, I really pray, that I will live to see that unity return. Until that time, though, I am grateful to God that He gave me a second chance in Orthodoxy, and showed me the Way I had been searching for all my life. When I first came in the door, a spiritually broken mess, I thought it would be impossible for me to learn to endure these long liturgies, this intense prayer, these prostrations, the strict fasting, and – how to put this? – the weirdness of Orthodox Christianity in an American context. Five years on, I can’t imagine how I ever lived without it. You can’t read your way into Orthodoxy. You have to come and see for yourself.
Steve Griswold says
This is exactly right. Orthodox means “Right Honor” and Orthodoxy is the only avenue to pay right and proper honor to the Lord. The “modern” Western beliefs border on and cross into the occult and mythical thinking because they have forgotten Chalcedon and the fullness of who the Lord really is: Fully God and Fully Man. In the humanism of the West and the pollution of Western Christianity with humanist ideas in every denomination and independent only Orthodoxy represents a calm harbor of right belief.
Jerry Takis says
This is a great article and well written, but it left me wondering why Mr. Dreher feels that Orthodoxy should become more Catholic. If, as he says, “After five years, I can’t imagine how I ever lived without it,” what more would be added by becoming more Catholic? Is it doctrine, administrative or what? Nevertheless, this is a great piece.
Blessed Lent to all,
Benita Bylicki says
This is a great article and was glad to see it here. I have read some of Mr. Dreher’s other articles on beliefnet and I also was raised a Roman Catholic. I left as an adult because of personal reasons, that refused to be adressed. I will leave it at that. My journey has taken me to Orthodoxy, one I do not have any regrets in taking. I of course being the rebel I am, embrace the tenets of Orthodoxy with all my heart, but not the Ecumenism, or the WCC. I personally feel that reunification with the RC would be wrong. IMHO, as scripture says, what hath light to do with darkness. While it would be most favorable for the Roman Catholic church to return to its roots of Eastern Orthodoxy, I would hope and pray that the precious church of Eastern Orthodoxy take nothing from the Roman Church. The sad thing in our churches today is no one is listening to the people, the orthodox people do not want Ecumenism, the people do not want the WCC, they do not want to be unified with other churches and beliefs. They want the pure and true Orthodox Church to remain as it has for 2000 years, but just as the accusations of Papal Supremecy knowing what is good for the people in their faction, so it seems now our Metropolitans seem to have the same train of thought, and have decided they will choose what is good for us.. The people do not wish modernism, we wish for the return of the old ways, with the old laws in place. The Old Calendar in place. Jesus founded the Orthodox Church, let not man put it asunder.
Michele Maki says
Wow….our journeys are so similar! You have told ” my” story as well as many others too. Thank you. Many Blessings to you.
Philip PM says
What an excellent piece of writing. I can empathise with the challenge of your journey in giving up your Catholicicsm, notwithstanding how far and fast the Roman Church was deteriorating, I had a similar experience in giving up my lifelong and inherited Anglicanism.
We have the impression on this side of the pond that Americans feel culturally freer to ‘shop around, in the market place of Christianity, while over here we are more condemned to our inheritance because of centuries of history etc. Perhaps this is not strictly correct, certainly in the modern secular era, but breaking away from one’s roots can be very painful.
However, the reward for doing so and for returning home to the ancient Apostolic Christian Church of these islands cannot be exaggerated; ‘safe into the haven guide,’ as the old hymn says. Incidentally, for those of us of the western rite, hymns are still a possibility, varying from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but ‘psalms, hymns and spritual songs’ fill our concourse of worship to our Heavenly Father!
Jerry Takis wrote [in part]: “This is a great article and well written, but it left me wondering why Mr. Dreher feels that Orthodoxy should become more Catholic.”
Actually, he wrote that Orthodoxy should become more catholic, with a lower case “c”. The distinction is important, because two definitions of catholic (lower case) are
universal in extent; involving all; of interest to all.
pertaining to the whole Christian body or church
This is not the same as upper case Catholic, as in Roman Catholic.
And when one sees Orthodoxy in North America segregated into various ethnic jurisdictions, why wouldn’t one hope that the Orthodox Church becomes more universal in extent, involving all, of interest to all, pertaining to the whole Christian body, instead of a Greek, or Serbian, or Romanian cultural outpost, or a locus of local slavo-philia?
I am a seeker at a local Antiochian Archdiocese parish — I’ve attended an OCA parish — I am strongly attracted to Orthodoxy. But I will confess that the lack of (lower case) catholicity in many expressions of Orthodoxy is a real obstacle, and should be viewed as a scandal.
Fr. John says
Catholicity does contain one more critical element – universal wholeness. That is, the entire truth and the entire faith, all and complete, in the Orthodox Church. It’s a deep concept. Bishop Michael (OCA) did his Ph.D. on the idea (Sobornost in slavonic), and I understand it was an excellent presentation of the Orthodox understanding of catholicity.
Regarding the scandal of perpetual jurisdictionalism, I could not agree more. That is precisely why I started this site – so that inquirers would not be held hostage by local culture clubs masquerading as Churches.
If you agree – as many do – please support our work and mission, and thanks for writing.
A very helpful conversion story from a ex catholic to a Catholic.
Fr. John says
Actually, JR, he converted to Orthodoxy.
A most insightful and inspiration article ….. thankyou for making the “Attraction of Orthodoxy” real …
May the Face of the Lord shine upon you and Family
All my love in Panagia … Lord Jesus Christ and ORTHODOXY
Orthodoxy or Death
convert from Charismatic/Protestant Background
Mrs. Mutton says
“It’s common among American converts to hear that men were first attracted to Orthodoxy, and their wives followed. It’s not hard to see why. Many men are tired of a soft, bourgeois Christianity that doesn’t call them to much because it doesn’t ask much of them. Men love a challenge, and that’s exactly what Orthodoxy gives them.” I must disagree with you on this – every Orthodox convert with whom I am friends, is a woman whose husband either followed her into the Church, or is still resisting, kicking and screaming (which pretty much describes my own husband). I think Orthodoxy is attractive to seekers of truth, regardless of their sex. The rest of the article was spot on.
Fr. John says
Mrs. Mutton, I don’t disagree with your conclusion, but in fairness, Fredericka’s opinion is based on her own experience as the wife of a clergyman. Perhaps you could write an article on your own experience for us? 🙂
Leonidas Papathanos says
Orthodoxy means in greek “i believe right”. What is really attractive to Orthodoxy is the fact that the dogma is the same like it was at the firts centuries of Christianity. It has not changed at all.
Fr. John says
Orthodoxy only changes just enough to remain the same.