Yesterday, at least two of the comments on the post about my son’s birthday asked questions about the family and Orthodox conversion. This is extremely close to my heart – both because of the blessings we have enjoyed in our family – and the blessings and difficulties I have seen in others. I should quickly add that my own family then and now faces issues.
In 1998, myself, my wife, my three daughters and one son were received into the Orthodox Church by Chrismation. My wife and I were 44, my children 17, 15, 10 and 6. The two oldest girls had known of our intention to convert for nearly two years before and were somewhat prepared, though at least one of them was caught off-guard by unexpected grief (or this is how I understood her difficulties). The younger two did relatively well (I shared my son’s story in my previous post).
Several years before we converted my wife’s youngest brother and family had been received into the Orthodox Church in my wife’s hometown – both through conversations with us and by their own study and prayer.
In September of 2003, my parents were Chrismated at age 79 in the OCA parish in their hometown. They had been Episcopalian for about 15 or so years prior to that. We continue to have conversations with others in the family and I would generally say the subject is no longer a point of pain or argument. God will do whatever He will do.
I share all of that as background on some general observations. The issue of family is frequently one of the most problematic and least discussed difficulties in coming to the Orthodox faith. I believe that one of the things it most reveals is how individualized most families are in their approach to religious faith.
It is, of course, not unusual for a family to be members of the same Church. But in our American religious landscape that common membership may only mask a wide range of differences on religious matters within the same family. Terry Mattingly, the religion columnist (and my godson), has written that the “great dividing line in American religion runs down the middle of the pews.”
This is sometimes made manifest when certain topics are broached and opinion in the family suddenly becomes polarized. It is also manifest in the fact that many if not most families have little or no common life of prayer.
It is on this latter point that I usually begin when I am counseling someone about family and the Orthodox faith. In my own household, common prayer at the end of the evening with the children began in the early ’90’s. That is over 10 years after my ordination as an Episcopal priest. I can offer no excuse for why my family did not have a common prayer life outside of the services of the Church before then. We did not have them in the home in which I grew up. I did not see them in other homes. There was even a section in the Prayer Book for just such prayers (leaving me with less excuse).
Some things began to happen to us as a family that brought about our common prayers. The first was we made a pilgrimage to a Marian shrine. The result of that was that we began to pray the Rosary each night.
Later as my knowledge of Orthodoxy grew, we set up a prayer corner with icons, a place for candles, and began to do prayers in an Orthodox manner. We stumbled across music for some of the prayers and thus my family (all of whom have always been involved with music in one form or another) became a choir as we offered our prayers each evening. I recall an evening that the Antiochian priest, Fr. Gordon Walker, was passing through Knoxville and gave me a call. He said he was more tired than expected and asked if he could stay the night with us (I think it was also an opportunity for him to continue the conversations we had been having about my possible conversion). He came and was completely surprised at our evening prayers when we began complete four-part Russian harmonies. “You sound better than some Churches!” he exclaimed. I still miss that part of family prayer as the children have grown up and gradually moved out. Today our common prayer life is largely within the services of the Church – but I think our conversion would have been far more difficult without the prayers that became such a part of our family during those preparatory years.
When I speak with others who are considering Orthodoxy, the first place I tend to start is with the suggestion of common prayer. How can a family reach a common mind with regard to conversion if there is no life of common prayer? The grace of God makes all things possible so that I realize this doesn’t happen in all situations – but it is always a very important place to consider starting.
I even believe that the form of the prayers need not necessarily be Orthodox (at least with a capital “O”). The importance is to pray and to pray together. A common mind is a spiritual gift and is a constant refrain in the Epistles of the New Testament. But for that gracious gift to be present, I believe that common prayer is pretty much an absolute.
Along with this I would counsel patience. Grace can work in a wonderfully swift manner, but more often it seems to work in a manner that takes time. I suppose it’s the nature of the human heart.
I have always told inquirers who found themselves in an “uneven” position, that at the very least I wanted their encounter with the Orthodox Church to be something that strengthened their family even if they did not convert. I have received spouses separately and at different times into the faith, but thus far I do not think I have had a case of someone entering the Church over the objections of a spouse.
I am also aware of the Scriptures about “hating father and mother” and “leaving family,” stated in various ways – but these more extreme statements of Christ, it seems to me, are not the first place to begin when dealing with family and conversion. If husband and wife are one flesh we can hope for more than animosity and division.
Again, I think that it is appropriate to start small. Children who have had little or no common prayer in the home do not suddenly need to be introduced to 30 minutes of Compline. You’ll likely just have bored and angry children.
We began with the “Trisagion Prayers” and usually concluded with some small litany that allowed us to pray for the various needs in our lives. The younger children immediately liked the idea of lighting a candle (or more than one) for prayers, though it did occasion some disruption when disagreements about whose turn it was to light or blow them out arose.
My wife is also a voracious reader and loves to read aloud. Thus she began to add stories from the lives of the saints to her other nightly reading for the children. When she can make me sit down she still loves to read saints’ lives aloud.
We added to our prayers the various manual acts of devotion common in Orthodoxy. We crossed ourselves (in an Orthodox manner – right to left), learned how to venerate an icon and thus greeted our icons at the end of our prayers. These practices in the home meant that when we visited Orthodox Churches (which we did on the four Sundays a year I had as vacation while in the Episcopal Church) we understood the etiquette and felt at home with others in their prayers and actions.
My family’s case is unusual in several respects. I was a clergyman and we took a number of years in the process of converting. By God’s grace and the generosity of others we were able to remain in the same community we had lived in for 9 years previous, keeping our house. Thus converting did not mean moving to new home and schools – something that would have undoubtedly been disruptive and a distraction in the lives of our teenagers particularly. But I believe that God is the master of these things and did for us what was necessary for our salvation.
If you are considering the Orthodox faith, and you are in a family, consider as well the common life of your home. Pray and establish a spiritual center within the family. From that place grace will flow and many issues may dissipate and disappear as you go along. My experience also tells me that those who seek conversion frequently find themselves under spiritual attack (our enemy does not wish us anything good). Thus a family’s grounding in a life of common prayer is of even greater importance and necessity.
There’s more to say on this topic and I promise to revisit it from time to time. I would welcome any specific suggestions of related issues to write about, as well as thoughts on what I have offered here.