You’ve been on this Orthodox journey for a while now. Maybe a few months, maybe decades. And sometimes the work of Orthopraxy, of living out this Faith day in, day out, season after season, gets old.
Other Christian groups aren’t demanding this level of ascesis. Among your Protestant friends, fasting is a personal choice, the dietary rules and length of the fast determined by individual preference. Lent is largely ignored or might be a season of giving up television or chocolate.
The Catholic Church used to be rigorous, but the Lenten dietary rules over the last few decades have been loosened to a simple abstinence from meat on Fridays. So at lunch with your Catholic friends during Lent, their gaze moves past the juicy burgers on the menu, and they sigh as they order the salmon. Meanwhile, you bite your tongue and pick at your tofu.
And then . . . the Divine Liturgy is so long. The music isn’t very hummable. And there’s regular confession, extra prayer services during certain seasons on the calendar—all kinds of Church practices to work into your already busy schedule. If you talk about them with your Protestant friends, they give you a blank stare in response.
On especially weary days, that Evangelical megachurch down the road with the rockin’ sound system and comfy stadium seating looks really tempting. Congregants are in and out in an hour, and nobody tells you what to eat.
The question is inevitable, hovering on the edges of our minds: So, do I have to do all this stuff to follow Jesus? I mean, obviously not. My non-Orthodox Christian friends are serious about their faith, and they love the Lord.
To be clear, Orthodox practices are not about a works-oriented approach to salvation, and we don’t follow a list of rigid rules. Our practices are applied with economia, where the priest, in consultation with his bishop, allows flexibility according to individual need, such as medical conditions, allergies, and other life circumstances.
But the rules are still there, even if sometimes modified. And when we’re weak, under a lot of stress, and dealing with uncooperative family members, it’s easy to wonder: Why bother?
Reasons to Persevere
Especially when you’re new to the Faith, or returning with intention after time away from Orthodoxy, the culture shock is real. My husband Rob and I were definitely not on the same page in this exploration of Orthodoxy—that’s a story for another time—and of course our teens were not on board.
But in the midst of the doubts and struggles, I kept coming back, kept participating, because I had reached a few conclusions about Orthodox Christianity that helped me to persevere. Conclusions that helped me to be patient with the Church and with myself.
If you’re counting the cost right now—as you should—and wondering if the effort of Orthodoxy is worthwhile, I hope these thoughts will encourage you. These are my personal five core convictions—the beliefs kept me going through the difficulties and adjustments.
1. In the Divine Liturgy, we actually participate in heavenly worship.
The very first Orthodox service Rob and I attended was Vespers. We didn’t have big theological reasons for this. It was simply convenient because it was offered on Saturday night, enabling us to try out an Orthodox service and continue our church search the next morning.
The prayers were really long—so many psalms!—and I wasn’t prepared for all the standing. But what really made a lasting impression on me was the sense of honor. Honor for God, for the heavenly host surrounding Him, and for His people who had gone before us. Honor is something that is largely absent in modern society, and it felt appropriate and right. A sense of holiness pervaded the service, and the iconography touched my heart deeply, even though I recognized only Jesus and the Virgin Mary and some angels. I had no idea who those other solemn-faced people were.
For me, given where I was spiritually and emotionally at the time, the holiness of this place outweighed the uncomfortable foreignness of the service. As we hunted for a church home, our most recent experiences had been with a very casual, Jesus-is-my-buddy approach to worship. For many months we had attended one charismatic church, now defunct, that had some questionable teachings and practices and a really strong emotional emphasis. Now, my charismatic friends would disagree with this assessment. They might use terms like being “on fire” or “sold out” for Jesus, but people’s spiritual state was really measured by emotional intensity and saying the right things.
Then we spent a season at an Evangelical church that featured vibrant ministries to the poor and immigrants, but it too had an incredibly casual approach to worship. I remember taking our donuts and coffee to our seats, singing along with praise songs between bites.
At these churches, filled with committed Christians, I rarely experienced anything that I would call transcendent. It’s hard to put into words; I’m talking about more than emotion here. There were beautiful moments of prayer and praise at these churches, but at that little Orthodox parish, I experienced a holiness that was present and palpable. More importantly to me at the time, this holiness had absolutely nothing to do with my feelings or my spiritual state.
The worship wasn’t about self-expression; it had nothing to do with me at all. The room was a sacred space, filled with the presence of a holy God and His holy saints. I had a sense that I was invited to enter into the worship and encounter this holiness, but it wasn’t some spiritual state that I could whip up with my own efforts.
That’s a lot to process in one 45-minute service. I shifted back and forth on my feet a lot, but there was a steadiness here—an eternal quality to the worship.
I delve into the Liturgy more deeply in an early “Stumbling Stones on the Orthodox Road” post called “Learning to Love Liturgical Worship,” but I’ll just say here that that sense of the holy in the Vespers service was magnified exponentially in the Divine Liturgy.
The worship of heaven is not a pop concert and a sermon. I encountered in the Liturgy a seriousness in worship and a repentance and humility before the Holy Trinity that were truly heavenly. At that point in my life, I had had my fill of feelings-oriented pop music in church and a parade of trends that came and went. I knew that this Liturgy would point me consistently to Christ and His Kingdom, reorienting my mind and heart for the coming week.
I had a feeling that with repetition and familiarity, that foreign feeling would dissipate. And over time, it did.
So I kept returning.
2. The Orthodox Church provides theological continuity —an ancient settledness that was a new experience for me.
When I discovered Orthodoxy, I had spent many years volunteering at a Protestant Chistian school where the families attended more than forty different churches. To say that the people there represented a wide variety of religious opinion and practice would be a massive understatement. And if you’ve ever been in this kind of heterodox environment, you know that under many of the smiles is a lot of suspicion and judgment—people assuming that they know the truth, that their theology is sound, and if you differ, that’s because you’re not biblical. The mistrust and distancing was real.
I’ve seen a whole lot of negative things done in the name of “truth,” and I was sick of the differing convictions, spiritual grandstanding, and misuse of the Bible that I sometimes saw there. Yes, there were wonderful believers at that school, but the problem was the system. Protestantism is not actually a religion, like Judaism, Islam, or Roman Catholicism. It’s a collection of differing churches who believe in the same basic things, such as the Trinity and Jesus as Savior, but pretty much everything else is up for grabs.
For a weary pilgrim like me, the settled theology of Orthodoxy held tremendous appeal. The Orthodox Church has the historical continuity that even Roman Catholicism has abandoned. None of the Protestant groups can make that claim. I held onto this through times of missing some of my favorite hymns and worship songs and through impatient mornings when the Liturgy seemed to last such a very long time.
From my reading and listening to Church history and theology, I came to believe that the Orthodox Church is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that Jesus established. I didn’t come to that conclusion in order to argue with anyone, and I certainly don’t believe that my non-Orthodox Christian friends aren’t “real” Christians or that I had been somehow outside of the sheepfold during the decades I spent in other churches. I know Protestant and Catholic people who are far better Christians than I am.
But if Orthodoxy is the fullness of the Christian Faith, that means that I will find Christ in all His fullness and glory here, if I will just pay attention. If I choose to follow the Church’s wisdom in my daily life, I will draw closer to Christ. The Church’s teachings are like a plumbline, showing me an ascent to life in Him that is straight and true. This conviction has kept me in the Church through good times and bad.
So I kept returning.
My third reason for staying Orthodox, even when holding on by my fingernails, is directly related to this second reason.
3. The Church provides spiritual formation that has been tested through time.
At the nondenominational church where we raised our children for most of their growing-up years, I knew an older woman (“older” defined as “older than me”—at the time, she was younger than I am now). She was taking a series of classes at Denver Seminary to earn a certificate in spiritual formation. I might not be using the right terms, and I don’t know if the program still exists. But the upshot was that she was learning how to mentor other women and disciple them in Christ.
I also knew a fellow student from my MFA program who was a spiritual director in the Catholic Church. I affirm both of these women and anyone else who wants to help others grow closer to Jesus. This is work of eternal significance. But I’m pretty confident that their approaches, teachings, and even goals were vastly different.
I’m old enough to remember something called the Shepherding Movement in the 1980s. This was a popular trend among Protestant house churches, initially to help people develop intentional communities and to grow in Christ. But with its emphasis on submission, abuses of power became a problem, with self-appointed leaders controlling the major life decisions of members, including job decisions, use of time, and, of course, money. Sounds like a cult, doesn’t it? The movement fell apart, as trends tend to do.
Over the years I watched as new programs would be developed, marketed, and sold as a method of spiritual growth. Many of these programs bear good fruit. But because they are not grounded in the historic Church, their teachings vary, and many of them fall by the wayside as people search for the next shiny new thing to keep church interesting.
In contrast, the untrendy Orthodox Church has been spiritually forming people for 2,000 years. True, throughout the process a lot of us are a mess, myself included. But this Church has produced saints.
The music of the Church is a good example of this formation. In case you haven’t noticed, the hymns are not the most hummable melodies, but they also are not emotion-based and full of repetitive praise phrases. Because Sunday is the day of the Resurrection, every Sunday Liturgy includes a Resurrectional hymn, reminding us that Christ has conquered death. The hymns to the Virgin Mary draw my heart and my thoughts to her and to her humble obedience. The hymns to my parish’s patron saint and to other saints who are honored on that day provide me with examples of commitment and self-sacrifice.
The music shapes me, guiding my thoughts. This is formation.
The Church’s three-part recipe for Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—is the same, year in and year out. With the guidance of our spiritual father we can add various disciplines, such as an expanded prayer rule, according to individual need. But there is no new program, no exciting new revelation leading to change.
The Church gives us the same old, same old because these disciplines work. They form us, they restrain our passions, they lead us closer to Christ and work theosis in us.
Year in and year out, the rhythms of the ecclesiastical calendar shape my life rather than conforming to my personal preferences. And, as I discussed in the episode “Canned Prayers,” the prayers of the Church form my understanding of God and His work in our lives.
The prayer and guidance available in the Sacrament of Confession also shape me, providing spiritual cleansing and renewal.
All these aspects of the Orthodox Church are here to stay. They will not fall apart because of scandal, even though imperfect people are participating. They will not change with the times. Instead, they change us—they change our hearts and minds, which is what repentance is all about.
And so I keep returning.
4. I want to be healed.
The theology of the Orthodox East, in contrast to the West, is a theology of healing. As we discussed in the episode “Cautious about Confession,” the Western view of confession is of punishment for offenses against God, whereas in the East, it is looked upon as medicine for healing.
Healing is the orientation of the Church; the disciplines are designed to heal our brokenness, to help extinguish our passions, and to reorder our lives toward Christ. Many of us came from church backgrounds full of condemnation; our sins are a violation of law, an offense to God’s honor, a breaking of a moral code.
But the Orthodox Church understands that God desires us to become like Him by grace, to be deified. The Greek word for sin, amartia, means “to miss the mark.” Sin is, as Fr. Michael Shanbour writes in Know the Faith, “a failure to fulfill God’s destiny for us, which . . . is to become like Him by grace.”
This is not a legal, juridical understanding of sin.
To quote Fr. Shanbour again,
Sin is an illness, and repentance is the cure. God’s grace is the medicine that heals the soul’s wounds and brings the sinner into spiritual health, making him . . . truly human, and thus bringing him into communion with His Creator. [p. 264]
This is what I want for my life: grace as medicine. I want to be transformed and to live in communion with God. I trust the historic Church to help me to reach that goal—to form Christ in me.
The proof is in the pages of history: as I said earlier, this Church produces saints. The saints whose prayers I request, whose lives I admire, once stood in their own parishes and worshiped with the same Liturgy that I attend now, in different languages, in different time periods, throughout the world. They confessed their sins. They prayed the Psalms. They worshiped the Holy Trinity with no development of doctrine, no innovative programs to keep changing the church service. And they were healed and deified.
I want what they had. And to be healed, I need the fullness of the Christian Faith.
So I keep returning.
And finally, most importantly . . .
5. I want to know Christ.
The previous four points—the heavenly worship of the Liturgy; the theological continuity of the ancient, apostolic Church; the direction that the Church provides to mold me into Christ’s image; and the path of healing grace through the sacraments and unchanging theology—overlap quite a bit, and they all lead us to Christ.
If I’m in love with all of the trappings of vestments, incense, and chanting, I will miss Him. If I’m more in love with the teachings of the Fathers than I am with Christ, I will miss Him. And if I take the ridiculous path of getting puffed up with pride over my knowledge of Church history and start looking down on other believers, I will definitely miss Him.
Did I know Christ even when I had never heard of Orthodoxy? Absolutely. I have no doubt about that. But I want to know Him better, and I believe that if Jesus established a Church (He did) and if that Church has carefully guarded the Scriptures and their interpretation while remaining true to holy Tradition (it has), then . . . as I seek and follow Jesus within the safe guardrails of this ancient Church, I will come to know Him more deeply and, through God’s abundant grace, be transformed into His image.
I realize there are a lot of presuppositions bound up in this statement—too much to unpack here. But the upshot for me is the belief that the ancient Church has been preserved in Orthodox Christianity, and this is where I can be made right, experiencing the fullness of the Faith and thus the fullness of Christ.
So I keep returning.
I hope you will too.
Our next episode of Walking an Ancient Path is about a crossroads that many of us have experienced on the road to Orthodoxy or on the road back to Orthodoxy. When you’ve traveled this road for a season, in spite of all the stumbling stones, you may reach a point where you realize that you cannot go back.
This can be a very uncomfortable crossroads, and we’ll explore it next time in the episode, “The Point of No Return.”
I hope you can join me.