20 Years of Being Orthodox: 6 Things I’ve Learned

Today marks the 20th anniversary of my reception into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church — the Orthodox Church. I was just 22 years old at the time and still in college (I had something of a “career” in college, accumulating one BA, most of another, and three minors, all while working to support myself).

In 1998, April 19 was Pascha, and at that Pascha 20 years ago, it was between Matins and the Divine Liturgy, when I was received into the Holy Orthodox Church.

2018 was my 21st Pascha, including 12 as a presbyter. It never gets old but instead is newer every year.

A lot has happened these past 20 years, and I can’t say that I really knew what to expect. There has been both pain and joy, both loss and gain, over the past two decades.

But I will say that this faith is deeper and stronger and more pervasive in its practice than I could have imagined in 1997 when I first learned of it. It is also both more difficult and more merciful than I could have known 20 years ago.

I have a long ways to go, but here are six things that I’ve learned over the past couple decades, and I do hope that my old friend Chris (a cradle Catholic) will stop referring to me as a “recent convert” now. (Heheh.)

1. It’s way less work than I could have imagined.

My impression 20 years ago of Orthodoxy was that it was like a kind of life-long boot camp, in which one is constantly engaged in grueling effort — all that fasting (yes, we always mention the fasting first), prayer, long services, etc. — in order to repent of sin and acquire the Holy Spirit. When I was 22, the “hardcore” feeling of Orthodox Christianity is part of what drew me to it.

But eventually I found out that it becomes part of “normal” life. You don’t stay in boot camp forever. Eventually you get out on the ocean and have to just mind the ship. And that’s what most people do most of their time. Of course, there are periods (e.g., Lent or pilgrimages) when we kick it up a few notches, because we need to do that from time to time, but human beings can’t spend all their time at full intensity.

2. It’s way more work than I could have imagined.

When they said that Orthodox Christianity was about repentance, I didn’t really know what that meant. For sure, when I did my life confession before becoming Orthodox, I had a lot of sins that I confessed, many of which I was quite ashamed of. But I didn’t really know how many deep-seated tendencies toward selfishness, being closed off, anger, resentment (I could go on) I actually had. And I didn’t know how much practice it would take to see improvement on those things.

This is not to downplay God’s grace, of course. The point here is that God’s grace is freely available to those who freely reach for it. But I wasn’t very good at reaching for it 20 years ago, and I didn’t really even know that. I know it much better now, and I pray that, by grace, I am better at reaching for it.

3. It’s much deeper than I could have imagined.

When I became Orthodox at 22, I thought I understood Orthodox theology and practice pretty well. That’s why I became Orthodox, right? But here I am, 20 years later, with an M.Div. under my belt, with seminary 11 years in the rear-view mirror, with 11 years of priestly ministry, including 9 as a pastor, and there are still a lot of things I just don’t get. There are still a lot of things I’m just beginning to get.

I’ve had to learn to say “That just isn’t my field” when asked questions I’m not really qualified to answer. And I’ve also learned that there is still so much of this beautiful Kingdom to explore. Even with 20 years of Orthodox life behind me — nearly my entire adulthood — I feel like I’m just getting started! That’s a great feeling.

4. Prayer is much more than I could have imagined.

When I really began to start paying attention to just trying to keep a daily prayer rule, I noticed something. First, I should say that it was “easy” when I was 22 to say morning and evening prayers every day — no problem! But then at some point it wasn’t happening every day. And then I’d start again. And then I’d have long periods where I just didn’t actually pay much attention to it — including after ordination. What was so basic, easy and elementary at first became almost the whole of the struggle. Thank God, though, that He’s sent me guides to help me in this.

One of the things that I’ve seen clearly — some of it only just within the past few years — is that prayer actually does do something. It may not “do” the thing that I’m wanting, hoping or asking, but it really is an opening up of the person to the grace of God. One experiment that I did (at the behest of my confessor) was to notice how I felt at my worst times of day and then to see if there were any correlation between that experience and whether I prayed that morning. And you know what? There was!

Probably the biggest reason that I have been so inconsistent with daily prayer at times in my life is that I generally didn’t think it did anything. I had no problem being consistent with brushing my teeth, getting coffee, eating breakfast, etc., because I could see and measure the effects of doing those things. But I had never actually checked whether daily prayer did anything. Well, it does. In praying in the morning, I receive God’s protection from many temptations. I’m not perfect — far from it — but when I do that prayer, the day is observably different.

5. Parishes are much more different from each other than I could have imagined.

When I became Orthodox, I don’t think I’d even visited more than a couple other parishes than the one I was joining. I didn’t know how different the customs, the music and even the commitment levels could be from one parish to another.

I remember one of my first conscious moments of knowing that there were differences was when I was asked by a fellow seminarian why I was Antiochian (some 6.5 years after I became Orthodox). The answer was that it had been the parish closest to my house. His question presumed, however, that I had made some kind of conscious choice between different parishes and picked the tradition that suited me best.

I’ve now been an active member of 5 different parishes all within the same tradition, and wow! are they different from each other. Even the two “converty” parishes I’ve been part of are quite different from each other.

And now especially with getting a chance to do speaking engagements all over the country, I’ve seen a lot of different traditions and ways of doing things. The thing I’ve learned is that every parish is on a journey. None will remain exactly as they are. So when I become part of a parish’s life, even if it’s just for a day, I’m joining them on that journey. I’ve also learned that experiencing other traditions and even other ways of brokenness is an enriching experience.

6. The only way to be an Orthodox Christian is to focus on Jesus Christ.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but honestly, 20 years ago, I don’t think I really knew that. I sort of assumed it, but focus isn’t made of assumptions. We have to keep returning to Jesus, exploring Who Jesus is, exploring how Who He is shapes everything in spiritual life. He is the One Who opens the door for us, the One Who is the Way, the One Who accompanies us on the journey, and the One Who is the destination. Everything is about Jesus Christ.

Possibly the most important thing to note about #1 and #2 above is that in both cases, what I had to learn was that spiritual life isn’t about making me a better person (however defined). It is about learning how to invite Christ more deeply into every part of myself.

And one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in this regard is that I can’t let myself become focused on the brokenness of either myself or other people within the Church. I recently watched a video of someone who visited an Orthodox church one time and decided not to be Orthodox because he experienced a particular kind of brokenness in that parish. He then extrapolated outward that brokenness is what the whole Orthodox Church is about. This man was looking at us from the outside, so it’s perhaps understandable how he could walk away with such a false sense, but those of us on the inside do it, too. We make our spiritual lives about the brokenness, and sometimes we walk away or just check out because of it — either because I can’t do it well enough myself or because those around me aren’t doing it well enough.

But it’s about Jesus. It always has been and always will be.

How about you?

What are some things that you’ve learned about being Orthodox that only became apparent over time (whether you were raised Orthodox or, like me, got here as soon as you could)? And if you’re new to Orthodoxy, what are some things that you wonder about that you imagine might seem different over time?

Let us know in the comments!


Yes, the long-haired guy in the picture above is me! I’ve had people suggest that I ought to grow that hair back, but even if I wanted to, my head has already decided otherwise. Now if only I could be that thin again…

12 comments:

  1. What I’ve learned is that prayer is much more meaningful in the orthodox church because we physically and mentally take part in it, not just in liturgy but in our everyday lives. I’ve also learned about real change as I had to and am still changing my lifestyle/

  2. Christ is Risen! I loved this retrospective on your journey, Father. I am a cradle Orthodox, but never really “got” that it’s all about Jesus until I was in my twenties. Even today, I still struggle with many of the things you speak of. Truly, Orthoxy takes you on a journey of love, faith and repentence and I am ever grateful that I was born into this faith! God bless you and your ministry.

  3. Thank you for your reflections.. They are curiously strengthening. Eight years into this and the pride and zeal of “conversion” are thinning. I’m learning a little better about praying with the very little faith I have been given.

  4. Oh my goodness – 20 years already? I remember reading your blog around the time you were received, perhaps before? Many Years!

  5. Insightful, encouraging, refreshing, shows signs of maturity in the faith, demonstrates a wisdom beyond your years. Bravo and thank you!

  6. 1. I don’t try to explain Orthodoxy. The more I learn about the faith the more I realize how much I don’t know. I’ve come to see that authentically becoming Orthodox, which is to say Christian, is the best witness. I talk a lot less. Like Scripture, Orthodoxy doesn’t make much “sense” unless you live it from within. Trust the Holy Spirit to move whom it wills. If you don’t actually know what your’re talking about you may very well drive folks away from this Ark of Salvation.
    2. Say your prayer rule whether you feel like it or not. More than one elder attests to the truth that forced prayer is looked upon by God favorably. Your prayer rule is an exercise in obedience; how you “feel” about it is irrelevant. In fact, checking to see how you “feel” about it is the worst thing you can do. If your prayer rule is too long to say twice a day, it’s too long to begin with.
    3. “Tole lege”. Take up and read. The best advice I got from a priest was to acquire a copy of the Liturgy that would fit in my pocket, and follow along during the liturgy. I know. You’re not supposed to read along during the liturgy, but when that priest blessed me to do it, I ran with it.
    After 20+ years of doing this every Sunday, I know the shape and form of the liturgy backwards and forwards. The language used is no longer a stumbling block. In fact, it has freed me to enjoy the sounds of other languages. Also, I’ve discovered what I dare say most priests and not a few lay folk have discovered: You can read the same passages from the Liturgy or the Psalter over and over again when, one day, a verse will just jump out at you and rock you back on your heels. And you’ve read that verse a hundred times but never saw it. Take up and read.
    4. Confess your sins. This is the most powerful “pre-emptive” strike you can deal to the devil. The devil, like the child molester, always wants you to keep your sins “just between you and me–don’t tell the priest.” Problem is, unconfessed sins are secrets and secrets will always turn on you. Go to confession. Be defiant in the face of that liar! Take the shameful sins you’ve hidden in the middle of the deck and put them on top. Name the sins in plain (but not vulgar or coarse) English. No long-winded justifications, etc. Just drag them out into the light and name them. When you do that you’ve robbed them of 90% of the powerful hold they have on you. Absolution from the priest takes care of the remaining 10%. Works every time. Confession is a lot like changing diapers. Nobody likes it but it has to be done for the well being of the infant. And, in a way, we’re all infants aren’t we.
    5. Your Orthodox family at your church comes first. Folks deride ethnic communities but they have something we, as Americans don’t much have: A unifying sense of community. Give us a Hurricane Katrina or some such and you can count on us but on a day to day basis our default position is our individual selves. This is the unfortunate byproduct of the western emphasis on the autonomy of the individual. Only an American could author a book entitled “Looking Out for Number One” and it become a best seller. A few Russians I’ve met simply don’t understand how that could be. The remedy is to put your church family first. Don’t check to see if you have time for activities at your church; rather check to see if you have time for worldly pursuits. We come into this world through the Church and we depart this world through the Church. I once saw a sign above the exit from a church parish hall which read: “What has the world EVER done for you?” Indeed.
    6. Love your priest! And his Matushka!!! Only a handful of priests are blessed to have solid financial support from their individual churches. For many I know being a priest is a struggle. Between holding down one or two jobs, taking care of their families and being a parish priest, it’s astonishing they persist. Glory to God! Take care of your priest! Never ever mock him or judge him. If your priest ( or bishop or metropolitan, etc. ) is/are as bad as you say they are, you’d better be able to say before God that you pray for them with exactly the same fervor with which you criticize them! Remember, when there are no more priests to serve the liturgy, the Church will cease to exist. And then what will we do?
    7. As the late Jaroslav Pelikan wrote: “If Christ rose from the dead, nothing else matters. If Christ did not rise from the dead, nothing else matters.” Well, Christ is indeed risen and that’s all that matters.

    1. Christ is Risen!
      I’ve never replied to a blog but this was all so true! Thank you for sharing your inspiring and beautiful thoughts. I wish I was more articulate to do the same!

  7. Repentance…TRUE repentance is hard. Really, really hard. Seemingly impossible most of the time. I’m a Lifelong Southern Baptist turned non-denominational turned Orthodox inquirer about a year ago. Heard talk about repentance in church my whole life, but never heard a lot about actually putting it into practice every day. Lent drove the reality and necessity of true repentance home with me for the first time ever. And I stink at it.

  8. Congratulations, Fr. Andrew!

    We had our family Chrismation on Holy Saturday a few weeks ago, and it feels great to be a part of the Orthodox family. Your writings and podcasts have helped me learn more about Orthodoxy, and I appreciate it. I really enjoyed your podcast “Out of Appalachia.” My paternal side of the family and my wife have a lot of family in Appalachia (WV, VA,etc.), and I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church. It reminded me a lot of my childhood, spending summers at my Grandma’s house in West Virginia, and my own journey to the Orthodox faith. Thanks again for all of your hard work! -Sebastian.

  9. Hi everyone! Even though I was baptized and confirmed in the Orthodox Church I had grown up living my early formation years within the Catholic tradition. I did not know anything about Orthodoxy until my father had taken me aside when I was 28 and told me I was not baptized in the Western Church but in the Eastern Church. That is when I decided to find out more about this Church. Like most people on these posts and you Father I had to discover Orthodoxy later in life. Some things I have learned about the Orthodox Church is her different approach in teaching about God. The Catholic Church tends to follow through with theory first (I am talking here when you are very young) before you enter into any experiences with God. It is to my observations that the Orthodox Church will give you these experiences while you were young. I call this “on the job training”. My experience with Catholicism while it very disciplined and yes orderly while celebrating the Mass has a much different tone with the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. I find the experience within the liturgical services in Orthodoxy more like your home environment. I must tell you it was very difficult for me to experience God early in my life within Catholicism. What had awakened me to experience God was when I had discovered the Eastern Orthodox Church and her simplicity in praying. I do not mean the Divine Liturgy or her Liturgical services. I had discovered more of God if I can say through my personal prayer life. I was praying using the method which the Eastern Orthodox Church would pray by (in a personal setting). This prayer setting combining it with some Catholic prayer devotions had given a better experience with the Lord. This was the time when one can say the Holy Spirit “erupted” within me. I must say that I do not connect very well with Liturgical services until I have set up a disciplined personal prayer life. This for me helps me when I celebrate the Mass and then the Divine Liturgy. For some reason it does not work for me the other way around. I sense though many people respond better to a liturgical life and then work with a personal devotional life in response while I and probably people like me need a personal prayer life to make the Divine Liturgy or the Mass become more alive. This is my observation. One thing I will mention that I had wanted to know when I was younger was how was it possible the change was made at the Mass. The Catholic priest would only say the words of Christ produce the effect. I did not like the answer as I thought there was more to this than words! It was not until I had discovered the Church which had baptized me to finally know the answer I was always searching for. In fact what was so amazing about this was where the answer was found, right within the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church. Like those in the Acts of the Apostles I began to know more about the Holy Spirit because in truth I was not taught anything worthwhile about Him. It was like we did not know there was a Holy Spirit. Believe me the Holy Spirit is spelled out more within Orthodoxy. Any way that is part of my story. Like everyone else I am picking up things old and new! Christ is Risen and may He find our hearts to be this home where He will live in. God bless!

  10. Christ is risen!

    Hello everyone.

    What I have learned? That I have to reorientate my life completely in order to live – although I fail miserably at it all the time. And I have learned that Orthodoxy is paradoxy (thank you fr. Hopko); the Faith is in very many ways stricter and more well defined than what I knew in the protestant church I came from, but at the same it is much more flexible when it comes to practical application in our daily lives. The Faith is all encompassing.

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