A Word to Those Contemplating Membership in the Orthodox Church

Take your time. Please. Think of the journey in terms of years, not months. Be patient. When you think you’re ready, you’re probably not. Your priest will not be in a hurry. Follow his lead. Assume that God’s providence is operative and will work everything out with impeccable timing and grace. After you think you’re ready, if you can be convinced that you’re not ready, and you’re resolved to wait another couple of years, then you’re probably ready.

Oh, and as a general rule, stay away from Orthodox blogs. Like this one.

If you don’t already realize this, you need to understand that most Orthodox bloggers who write about the faith are themselves converts from other Christian traditions. Like me. Most of us are working out our questions and “issues” which is going to significantly distort what the Orthodox Church is like. Reading my blog, for example, might lead one to think that the Orthodox Church is all about philosophical categories, like free will, or about dogmatic issues, like sola scriptura and the Sacraments, or about theological issues, like the hypostatic union or the filioque. This is just not true.

Unfortunately, you will also encounter blogs which are heavily polemical, rife with rhetorical hyperbole and the taking of extreme positions. You may, God forgive us, find a paucity of charity and an excess capacity for judgment. This is not true of all blogs, of course. Father Stephen Freeman’s blog is a blessed example of the best of Orthodox blogs, which can be recommended without qualification. But for the person investigating Orthodoxy the expansive plethora of unhelpful blogs is too great to sift through. Not only may you quickly derail your search regarding Orthodoxy, you may do great damage to your soul by infecting it with a critical spirit and turmoil. This goes especially for websites which are dedicated to discussing various matters of strife within the Orthodox Church. I will not link to these sites devoted to “news” or to “truth.” They are, regrettably, too easy to be found, and I will not be complicit in driving traffic their way.

If you are interested in Orthodoxy, your best bet is to find the closest Orthodox parish, and begin attending the worship services, and to talking with the priest. I say this knowing that it is possible, though thankfully rare, that one may find a rather unfriendly and closed parish with a priest of similar spirit. But Orthodoxy is not something one reads about, it is something one does. It is about worship and about the struggle for salvation.

Orthodox worship is not “seeker friendly.” We’ve been doing it for two thousand years, and it is remarkably effective for saving souls. We see no reason to change. You may have to stand for close to two hours for a Sunday morning service. There may not be any service books available for you to use, and if there are, there will be large portions not in the book or hymns which are different from what’s in the book. Even in a parish who conducts their services almost entirely in English, you will likely still hear portions of the Liturgy in other languages. There will not be a coffee kiosk for you–Orthodox engage in a total fast prior to receiving Holy Communion. While you may well encounter a greeter as you enter the worship, it is likely that you’re going to be on your own as you enter. There’s a service going on. In fact, unless you arrived prior to the start of Orthros, or Matins, the worship will not stop, but Orthros will move directly into the Divine Liturgy. We’re worshipping God. Come on in and get started; join us. Our attention is on God. You’ll please excuse us if we don’t glad-hand you once you come in. The service will be chanted a capella. No hymnals will be passed around. For your first several visits, simply listen to the chanting and the hymns, and prayerfully contemplate them in your heart. If there happens to be an organ, it will only play a few bars or notes, and that’s for the choir so they can chant the following hymn. No matter how much you’ve read and studied about the service, you will be overwhelmed. You will probably feel like it has gone on forever, your feet are hurting, you are dying to sit down and you wonder whether it’s over. At that point, there’s probably another half hour or hour to go. There will not be an altar call, no invitations to pray the sinner’s prayer. The homily, or sermon, may not be as robust as you’re used to. You might even encounter a parish in which, lamentably, one is not given. You will not be able to take Holy Communion. Prepare beforehand to be offended by that, if such offends you. While it may seem as though all around you are dispassionately going through the liturgical motions, rest assured that this is not the case. The worship is in deadly earnest.

This is Orthodoxy. This is what you’ve come to. You alone will have to decide if this is what you’ve come for.

But if you give yourself to the worship, listening as attentively as you can, you will almost assuredly feel a definite difference later that afternoon. If you’re like many people who’ve encountered the Divine Liturgy for the first time, a little reflection after you’ve gotten home and put your tired feet up will uncover a strange warmth. And if that’s true, then you will be hooked. You may only go back a couple of times over the course of several months, but there will always be a growing longing in your heart and mind. You may, of course, go back the following week. The more often you worship in an Orthodox parish the more drawn you will be to it. It will seem strange and otherworldly, foreign at first. You may devoutly prefer acoustic guitars and simple melodies and choruses, or perhaps resounding organs and classic Protestant hymns. But it will not take long before Orthodox worship is the internal standard by which you evaluate all other worship. That is as it should be.

Over time you will also discover that the Orthodox worship is simply the concentration of the Orthodox daily life. Orthodoxy is prayer. Prayer is Orthodoxy. This prayer is more than just words read or recited from memory. It is an alignment, indeed a union, with the heart of God. Therefore it is composed also of fasting and of doing acts of mercy. It is, as one may guess, an attempt to build an active life full of constant remembrance of God and meditation on his Scriptures. This constant remembrance, this praying without ceasing, then fills and fuels all our activities, our work, our relations with our loved ones and friends. We sin, we confess, we are forgiven. We pray, we commune, we are united with Christ. And we return home to continue this life of prayer and mercy.

This is the Orthodox Church. This is what you’ve come to. You will have to decide if this is what you’ve come for.

This is also the reason why you must take your time. Do not expect to show up to services on Sunday and transfer your membership the following week. You must test this way of life and this way of prayer. It must test you. If you have not yet been offended by something or someone in your journey to Orthodoxy, give it another year so that there will be an opportunity for such to happen. You are not simply received into the Orthodox Church and then leave if you don’t like it. You are encountering the life-giving Way and a way of life. If you encounter it truly it is meant to reorient your life.

That said, if you are a Christian from among the evangelical churches, you will find here solid dogma with some of which you may agree. If you are a Christian from among the mainline churches, you will likely find here dogma and practice with which you will have more agreement than you find among your own churches. But coming into Orthodoxy, while it is certainly about correct belief, isn’t simply a rearranging of one’s mental doctrinal furniture. It may be that in part. Orthodoxy is about first and foremost the reorienting of our distorted and frequently disoriented hearts and lives by means of prayer and worship, and turning those hearts and lives toward union with God.

That is going to take some getting used to. So take your time.

And ignore the Orthodox blogs. Like this one.

4 thoughts on “A Word to Those Contemplating Membership in the Orthodox Church

  1. This is somewhat meta, one blogger linking to his own blog on somebody else’s blog to reinforce sentiments expressed on the other person’s blog that blogs are to be avoided, but there’s kind of no way out of that, so… yeah. As I was saying, similar thoughts here.

  2. I have found it strange on more than one occasion how much in line I have been with “where you’re at”.

    I have thought about posting for some time a piece warning about blogging, reading blogs by Orthodox Christians and the like.

    If I may say so, I think you have said it all very well in this piece. I’m going to post in facebookland.

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