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5 Regrets from My Conversion to Eastern Orthodox Christianity
And 5 recommendations for inquirers into the Eastern Orthodox Church, faith, and life
Over a decade ago I began the process of converting to Orthodox Christianity. I was just over 20-years-old.
Initially, my conversion was marked by a dissatisfaction with what my baptist-leaning, non-denominational upbringing could offer – and I had been the subject of a pastoral abuse that fractured my teenage faith. The pop-Christian literature I could find at the local Christian bookstore was not enough to soothe the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing: how can profession Christians treat their fellow human beings this way? That’s when I started looking for spiritual nourishment elsewhere: first in Christian apologetics (because of my own doubts), then in philosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism, et al. until years later I arrived at the doorstep of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
As I dove into the writings of Frederica Mathewes-Green, Metropolitans Kallistos Ware and Hierotheos Vlachos, Fr. Stephen Freeman, and Peter Gilquist, I was amazed to find that Eastern Orthodox spirituality contained a depth that I had not known in my previous Christian tradition. When I ran out of secondary sources, I began reading down the timeline of patristic literature, starting with the Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and so on. But most importantly, I began praying. (Here I should mention that, back then, the internet was not overrun with content about Orthodoxy.)
I was incredibly well-read by the time of my catechumenate (something that I believe is common these days) but I was still naive; I treated the Church as some sort of perfect institution – which it is at the level of theologia (that is, insofar as it depends on God) but it certainly is not on the human level. This is typical of converts, I think – at least for a time. But it’s not healthy. And I made a lot of mistakes – and was really hurt – by my naïveté.
So, here are five things I wish I had done differently in those early days:
1. Start an online blog or equivalent
In my newfound zeal, I started an Orthodox blog (now taken down). I realize now that I was neither grounded nor experienced enough to guide others. Unknowingly, I believed that if a theological tenet was taught by a Church Father, then it was necessarily true – I did not yet understand St. Vincent of Lerin’s Rule of Faith. This paved the way for a tendency toward black-and-white thinking and quote-mining the Church Fathers.
2. Quote-mine the Church Fathers
One of the first, black-and-white dogmatic statements that tickled my convert ears was Saint Cyprian’s view on the Church (essentially: that there is no salvation outside of the [Orthodox] Church). Although startled, I reasoned that I must crucify my mind (per Fr. Seraphim Rose)and accept this teaching in humility. What I did not know then was Cyprian’s postulations on that subject would be the topic of church-wide debate for over a millennia, ending in the Church community, guided by the Holy Spirit, authoritatively stating that St. Cyprian was wrong. The lesson: just because a Saint says it does not mean it’s true. Nonetheless, I began to believe that it was my prerogative to convince others (specifically non-Orthodox) that there was no salvation outside of the Orthodox Church. Which leads to the next regret…
3. Try to convert or argue with others
Trying to convert or argue with family and friends (or even strangers) is not the Orthodox way. Allow me to be clear: I am not saying that talking about Orthodoxy is wrong. Neither am I saying that having a different opinion than those around you, and expressing it, is wrong. What I am saying is the hubris that often goes along it is. And there is a huge difference between expressing an opinion when asked and attempting to shove your opinions down someone else’s throat. (To go back to #1, neophytes are not ready to discuss the faith publicly, even if they feel like they are. Not only can they easily fall into error, but it’s also spiritually dangerous.)
I never argued too forcefully – it’s not native to my personality to be confrontational – but I do regret the “holier than thou” sentiments that appended themselves to my newfound knowledge of the ancient faith. Often, such hubris is difficult to detect in yourself. It takes listening to those around you to discover them, repent of them, and cast them out of your heart.
To this end, one of my favorite stories from Fr. David Smith’s book, Mary, Worthy of All Praise, is when he was trying to argue with an Orthodox monk about the doctrine of Mary. The monk, who was sweeping the floor, just looked up, smiled, then continued his work.
4. Idealize priests
This is a typical problem with new converts: they put priests on a pedestal, often assuming that their words and opinions are authoritative and infallible. If going to seminary taught me anything, it taught me clergy are human too. A good priest will admit this – and will beg you not to treat them as though they are a god. And they will never impinge on your free will. If a priest tries to force you to do something or force “obedience” to himself, run away.
Clergy are, of course, to be respected. But to claim something as authoritative just because a priest said it misses the mark. And let’s not forget, a good portion of the condemned heretics were clergy.
5. Attend seminary too soon
There’s a funny thing that happens to some men after they convert: they think, oh, I should be a priest! I definitely felt it. Even though I’d felt called to pastoral ministry in some capacity since the age of ten, when I delivered my first sermon in our non-denominational Church, when I converted I decided that I would ignore this desire. It wasn’t until a few years later that, after confession, my priest at the time recommended I attend seminary to become a priest. I was flabbergasted and then laid bare my own feelings of being called.
I wouldn’t attend until a year or so later but my “faith” – which I now understand was naïveté – led us to sell everything we had, including our home, use the money on monthly expenses over three years, only to emerge from seminary penniless, exhausted, hurt, and disillusioned. While this might not have been precisely because of the time I attended seminary, I do regret not living a longer period of time as a low-key Orthodox layman before attending seminary. (For what it’s worth, I said no to ordination when asked in seminary, and since, for familial reasons that I don’t want to go into here.)
Overall, I’d say the running theme is that I regret putting myself out there, and putting out content (to family and friends and to the world) – which is ironic since that’s what I’m doing with this article. I am doing so now, over a decade into Orthodoxy and post-seminary, because I believe the things that I am writing about need to be said… But there is a sense in which the one who lives quietly and treasures the gift of faith in their heart has it best of all. And that’d be my recommendation to anyone that is starting out in the faith.
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The idea that we must crucify our mind is an Orthodox concept – but it can be used inappropriately or naively. Just like Protestants can refuse to use rationality or logic when adhering to erroneous believes.