LANDING GEAR IS DOWN — I’M COMING HOME
After years of feeling spiritually homeless I knew where I belonged. Keeping with an early tradition of the Church in which many converts were brought in the day before Pascha (Easter), I was chrismated on Holy Saturday and partook of my first communion on Pascha.
It was a cold, wet morning, but nothing could quench the fire within; I was exploding with life, joy, and love. No longer was I part of the nameless, placeless, faceless tribe! I wanted to embrace the entire world and shout to them about the love of Christ that I found in Orthodoxy. During those initial months, I probably seemed like a fanatic and I wouldn’t be surprised if I annoyed some of my family and old friends.
SETTLING INTO ORTHODOXY
The coming months and years had many challenges. I continued to discover the life-changing power of God’s grace in the Orthodox Church, but the “old man” does not die easily or quietly. As St Ignatius Brianchininov said, our flesh does not like to be crucified.
In my Protestant years, we practiced sin management. In other words,
“sin is bad, so try not to do it. And if you do sin, say you’re sorry and move on.”
During those years I surrounded myself with noise and distractions so I wouldn’t hear my heart or conscience.
It was not the same in Orthodoxy.
Instead, I was learning inner quietness and that Christian virtue was not simply a nice idea, but the direction in which we should be striving to become one with Christ. The commandments of God were not given to us because God has a quirky dislike for certain things; rather, they reflect who God is. If salvation is oneness with God, and sin is breaking oneness, then, I realized, to break the commandments is to break my communion with God by participating in behavior with my soul and my body that is contrary to the very Being of God.
Heaven and salvation are not a place or an eternal destination. Rather, they are a state of being in which we experience oneness with God Himself. This life prepares us for that oneness, and I began to realize the depth of my selfish desires as the Holy Spirit further enlightened my heart. I learned first hand why the Church is called a hospital for the soul and salvation is considered to be therapeutic (and not an instantaneous magic trick).
TAKE A LITTLE TIME
One of the most important decisions I made on my journey into Orthodoxy was that I would not hurry. After the first month, I realized through the haze of challenges there was something within me deeply drawn to it. I decided I would purposely take a year to explore it; by then I felt I would know for certain whether or not it was for me.
As I progressed in my journey, I believed that if I waited until I was 100% convinced of all beliefs and practices in Orthodoxy, then I may never join. It is completely foreign to our westernized form of Christianity and entering into the life of the Church requires time and grace in acquiring a new heart and mind. I personally feel that if one is mostly convinced and has no major hang-ups, then entering into the grace of the Church will help them resolve any minor lingering thoughts or doubts. Of course, this is my opinion and not pastoral advice.
POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE VIRTUES
Once one has joined, they may be a bit overwhelmed – I was. There are cycles of feasts and fasts, a church calendar with daily readings, morning and evening prayers, prayer without ceasing is taught, services throughout the week, confession, pre-communion prayers, an expectation to actually live this faith, and all sorts of practices. It is easy to feel Frustrated with The Spiritual Struggle.
As one Greek Orthodox theologian* wrote, it is often better to establish the positive virtues before the negative. Positive virtues, meaning those things you add to your life, include establishing a prayer rule, learning the Jesus Prayer, going to church services, spiritual reading, etc. Negative virtues are things that are “taken out” of your life such as sleep (prayer vigils), food (fasting), and other forms of abstinence. These latter virtues are practiced as one’s spiritual life deepens and a desire for them begins. More important than my opinion though is the direction that your spiritual father discerns for your path of salvation.
All virtues have one aim: to attain to union with God (aka, theosis). This is accomplished through the grace of God and humility (the latter of which is our synergistic cooperation with God). Without either of those, the virtues can still be practiced to some degree but will often lead to feelings of spiritual superiority and pride.
WRAPPING IT UP
In summary, I was spiritually hungry for something deeper than the intellectual Christianity I found in some circles and the hype-based emotionalism I found in others. I wanted an experiential faith filled with wisdom regarding the scriptures and the power of the Holy Spirit. In short, I wanted to encounter God Himself.
Orthodoxy, on the surface, seemed an unlikely candidate. It took some time to realize there was nothing wrong with the liturgical form of worship; rather, I was closed off to the movement of the Spirit. Once that was shown to me, it was a down-hill course from there.
If you are considering Orthodoxy, then as I said above, take your time. Read books on it that spark your interest and visit your local Orthodox parish. If you’re not sure what to read, check out a list in my Resources.
Also, I don’t personally recommend online discussion forums when beginning the journey because I did not find them helpful early in my journey. There are really knowledgeable and caring folks in the forums, and there are also some people who enjoy flaunting their opinions. These groups mostly discouraged me during my initial steps toward Orthodoxy, but I do recognize that they have been instrumental in assisting others in their journey.**
Theophany – blessing of the waters by Sergey Kompaniychenko – Valaam MonasteryLast of all, approach Orthodoxy in prayer. But also, learn the Orthodox way of praying. My martial arts sensei used to say,
“Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
In other words, if we learn something wrong and practice it for years that way, we will not suddenly get it right.
It is the same with prayer. The fathers of the Church offer thousands of years of wisdom in regards to prayer, how to pray, what happens in the spiritual realm during prayer, and how to come out victorious. For that reason, one of the first things I would recommend to an inquirer is to glean the wisdom this Church has to offer on prayer. A good Prayer Book can assist with that.
Godspeed on your journey.
*The Greek theologian was Alexander Kalomiros in his book Nostalgia for Paradise. To read an excerpt from the book, go here.
**A further word about online discussion forums: I have been part of several, some are moderated better than others. When I began my journey into Orthodoxy, the forums didn’t help because I was frequently watching someone propose an idea and then seeing others argue about it while throwing names and quotes back and forth of various authors/saints, most of whom I had never heard of. At that time, it simply wasn’t what I was looking for. Now that my journey has progressed and I’ve read a number of the fathers, I can understand the context of the arguments and see how they (during better times) are iron sharpening iron. Being challenged is healthy for growing, but it helps if it happens in a season where we are ready and open to hear various ideas.