It was in 2007 that I was received into the Church, after many years of being an “unofficial catechumen,” many months of classes and readings guided by our rector, and a few months as a regular catechumen. During that last period I wrote this article, which I’m presenting unchanged because it is descriptive of that vantage point on the journey. It’s also not a bad summary of things I still hold to be foundational eight years later.
I Believe in the Orthodox Church
I am converting to the Orthodox Church because I believe it to be the true, apostolic church founded by Christ through His apostles. So it might not matter what goes on there: if I believe that much I ought to want to be there.
On the other hand, there are elements of the faith and of its outworking in believers that I have believed or longed for most of my life, some of which I find only in the Orthodox church, and all of which I find in fullness only there, that is, in the doctrine and practice. Following is a list of things I believe, that I found in Orthodoxy; but I might start by saying that I don’t believe Christ meant for His people to be primarily individuals who assemble with other individuals in loose and frequently-rearranged groups with little cohesion.
I believe in honoring our fathers in the faith, and our departed brothers and sisters in the faith. This is why I loved the idea of Reformation Day when I heard about it 20 years ago, but immediately thought, Why only those saints who were of that era? Let’s remember the whole “cloud of witnesses” we read about in the Scripture, I said, and invented the celebration of Cloud of Witnesses Day. For many years our family and friends did honor believers from Miriam to Justin Martyr to Nate Saint, in an evening-long event including candles, symbolic food, and songs about our connectedness.
The Orthodox Church honors those who have gone before as still alive in Christ, as He is “the God of the living and not of the dead.” They are our brothers and sisters in the faith, and many of them are shining examples. We surround ourselves with icons of them and include them in our joyous worship, singing to them to rejoice, also. If they are indeed living, why not also ask them to pray for us, as we do other living Christians? The ceiling between earth and heaven is very thin, seemingly transparent, in the Orthodox Church, and this joining with our ancestors in Christ is one reason.
I believe in the unity of body, soul and spirit, and that worship should be reverent. A reverent demeanor is the opposite of casual, nonchalant, or breezy. You cannot dress for the beach or dance floor if you want to tune your spirit to bow before the Lord of the Universe, and you can’t bow in your spirit if your body is sitting back with your legs crossed. You can’t sing “Holiness is what I long for” with any meaning to a tune that sounds like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” In the Orthodox Church we stand at attention, or we use our arms and body to cross ourselves and bow, or we prostrate ourselves on the floor. We use our bodies to worship God and don’t act as though we are made only of spirit.
I believe in praying a lot in church. When the whole church comes together, what other activity could be more appropriate? There are so many things to pray about, and so many ways to pray; I don’t trust this job to someone who thinks prayers should be short and spontaneous. There are few I would trust to be eloquent and articulate enough on the spur of the moment to do justice to an encounter with Almighty God. Only formal prayers familiar to everyone present can truly be prayed together from the heart; anything else keeps the mind buzzing and distracted from a real corporate meeting with Him with Whom we have to do. The Orthodox use prayers that have been passed on by many church fathers over the centuries; they are rich in theology, Scripture, and devotion, and provide the means to enter into the presence of the Holy.
I believe in using a lot of Scripture in worship, in honoring the fathers by reading their inspired words. The church is founded on the Apostles’ teaching, and should be full of it. The Orthodox have many prescribed readings for every day of the year, and give Bible reading a prominent place in all services.
I believe in a systematic passing on of our Christian heritage and traditions, the imparting of the wisdom and history of the church. Through the church calendar of feast days and events hearkening back to Christ’s teachings or important events down through the centuries, the Orthodox have a structure and format that redeems time by embracing it as our God-given climate. We submit to time and history as we remember and participate in our family’s birthdays and anniversaries, as it were.
I believe that we have an Almighty and loving God, who created “everything visible and invisible.” Christ the Son of God became man and was born of a virgin, was crucified for the forgiveness of our sins and is coming again to set up His kingdom in fullness. I believe that if all this is true, it is worth making a Big Deal about. Solomon sacrificed a thousand sacrifices, to show the momentous nature of an encounter with God. Was that too much? We ought to be extravagant in our worship while maintaining our reverence for our likeness to God, our excellent humanity. Flowers, robes, blue and purple decorations, gold, a multitude of candles, a multitude of bows: too much beauty and glory for our Lord is a ludicrous contradiction. Let’s give everything we have, all our time, our creative energies, all the royal colors we can paint deeply, and if we run out of time and wealth, let’s return when we have some more wealth, come back again next time and bring the best and most once more. This is the attitude of the Orthodox Church.
I believe that it is through the Holy Spirit living in us that God will do His work on the earth. No matter how many people come to church meetings, read their Bibles, recite the Four Spiritual Laws….if they don’t encounter true Christians, “little Christs,” they will not be won to the True Church. For this reason Christians’ “vertical” relationship, their knowledge of the Holy God, their growth in Christlikeness should be of paramount importance in the church. The Orthodox set a high standard for this process of theosis, and declare it to be God’s goal for humankind. We are encouraged to pray much, to fast much, to seek God with a heart purified by these disciplines.
I believe that we ought to honor the Virgin Mary, Christ’s mother, as our example in obedience and as the one who gave her humanity to our Lord. The Orthodox honor and love her without inflating her role.