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Wednesday
Nov192008

Why Converts to Orthodoxy are Obnoxious

[Beliefnet; November 19, 2008]

In 1993, over 15 years ago, I was chrismated and joined the Eastern Orthodox Church, but only lately has it dawned on me that I must have strained friendships over the years, due to my vocal enthusiasm for my adopted church. I can’t be the only one to have done this. Converts to Orthodoxy usually precede their decision with voluminous reading and research, so their friends must endure agitated lectures on church history, ancient heresies, and what words mean in Greek. Those friends benefit, no doubt, from this opportunity to practice patience and long-suffering. But why is our kind so characteristically obnoxious?

The first, most obvious explanation is that some people simply are obnoxious to start with. But that can’t be the case with me, so let’s press on.

A second theory is that converts of any sort have a tendency to exuberance that is wearying to outsiders. That’s surely a factor, but I think there’s something else going on, more specific to Orthodox converts.

Here’s a clue to a third possibility. I can remember that, after I’d been Orthodox a few years, developing an increasing sense of tension or frustration. At the beginning, I thought I knew what I was getting into. My husband had been an Episcopal priest for 16 years, and we had gradually moved from evangelical-style “low church” to the more liturgically-fancy “high church.” Orthodoxy looked taking that escalator up one more floor. Plenty of ceremony and beauty, but without the mainline churches’ affection for keeping up-to-date.

It took me a few years to sense that there was a whole other something going on. It took awhile because I grasped it through hearing the hymns of the church year, week in and week out. Everyone associates Orthodox worship with sensory richness, but it’s also rich in theological content. The basic framework of services like the Divine Liturgy or Vespers doesn’t change much, but every day of the liturgical year provides prayers for saints and feasts that can be added to that framework.

And these prayers are jam-packed. For example, on the Feast of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, the chanter launches into this:

Of the Father before the morning star Thou wast begotten from the womb without mother before all ages, even though Arius did believe Thee to be created, not God, classing Thee in ignorance and impudence with creatures…

 That’s just a fraction of a thorough march through what happened at the first Council of Nicaea, and why it was important (including Arius’ unpleasant death from digestive indisposition: “his bowels were torn by a divine hook…in a repulsive manner his soul came out”). Hymns like these offer quite a theological education to anyone who comes to services, and if you didn’t catch it all, there’s a good chance they’re going to sing it two more times.

It takes awhile to get it, because it’s gotten by a process of immersion, by soaking in a context of worship. It’s not something you can figure out by studying the Church Fathers. Each of them had his idiosyncracies, and they regularly disagree. But they all came together in worship, and were shaped by the same hymns and prayers, the appointed Scripture readings, preaching, and the “picture bible” of iconography. Rich worship taught the faith to literate and illiterate, peasant and emperor, and it’s essentially the same as our worship today.

After being dunked in this sea of hymnography for a few years I began to recognize an underlying unity among all the elements of Orthodoxy—the worship, the fasting, the exhortations to humility, the companionship of the saints, all of it. There is an organic quality here, and the thing itself is inexpressibly alive. It was like seeing a face emerge from a random pattern of dots, and then wink at you. It was electrifying. And during those years of discovery, my mind was constantly cranking away as I labored to absorb new ideas and excise stubborn old ones. This absorbed my attention so much that I was apt to expound my current level of comprehension to anyone who stood still in my vicinity. Perhaps this unanticipated experience of encountering something unknown and marvelously organic accounts for the distinctive lapel-grabbing impulse among converts to Orthodoxy.

Even more obnoxious, though, must be the tendency to reject hospitality. I kept finding myself in conversations with nice people who wanted to assure me that this very thing I was so excited about in Orthodoxy is something they have in their church as well. And I would try hard, no doubt to the point of rudeness, to convince them this was not so. (Of course, for every person insisting that there were no differences, there was another person asking me to explain the differences. If only you could get them to form two lines.)

Well, was it so? It depends on where you put the emphasis. Most people like to be polite and get along, so they highlight what we hold in common. But every church must have its distinctives, or we’d all be in the same church. At the time I was so occupied with comprehending this strange thing called Orthodoxy that I emphasized the differences, and was impatient with kindly big-tent suggestions.

As I realized what the big difference is, I grew more insistent, I’m afraid. It’s that Orthodoxy still passes on the early church’s knowledge of how to tune in to the presence of Christ. They saw this as a perception skill, something anyone could (with diligent practice) hone; it has nothing to do with emotion. Not that every churchgoer is following that path, not that the church administration is perfect, but that the path still existed—that’s what amazed me.

I felt like Marco Polo. I had been to the east and discovered something wondrous that I assumed all Christians crave. But I slowly came to see that I can’t communicate it. I think people just don’t believe me, and I hardly provide a good personal example. It must sound like vague, fluffy religious talk (though in my experience it is anything but). Maybe you have to soak in it for years, till the evidence becomes overwhelming.

The last reason Orthodox converts are obnoxious resembles the reason adolescents are obnoxious. Young teens go through a few years when they are trying to understand their own unique identity, and trying to establish it in the face of—well, it would be one thing if they had to establish it in the face of hostility, because, even though that would be hard, it would be bracing and clarifying. Instead, an adolescent has to figure out and establish his adult persona in the face of affection. Granny and Pops and Uncle Pete love the little guy, and they’re going to be kindly and patient with him because he’s going through a phase.

But the “little guy” is not going through a phase. He senses that it’s something much more profound than that, ashe is turning into a different person, the adult he is destined to be. Affectionate attempts to obscure this quest feel suffocating. He has no good option for dealing with that affection, so he’s either sullen or angry. There are no doubt some ways that he is the same person he will always be, and there are ways Orthodoxy and every other church has significant points in common, not least that we love the same Lord. But the impulse is to exaggerate the differences when you fear being hugged to death.

This is not just an explanation but an apology, and even an appreciation for the perseverance of friendship in the face of truly annoying behavior. My ideas haven’t changed, and I’m always glad for a good discussion, but maybe I’m past the need to belabor them. Yeah, I think I’ve gotten it out of my system. I hope so.

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