Glory to God for All Things

A Modern Conversion

baptism3A few years back I had a very enlightening conversation with one of my Russian parishioners. I had Baptized her and her family some years before.  In the conversation I referred to her and her family as “converts.” She bristled and quickly spoke, “I am not a convert!” My thoughts were running ahead. I did not say what I was thinking but was mindful of the fact that I had catechized and Baptized her.

“Converts are people who choose,” she said. “I have always been Orthodox. But I was not yet Baptized.”

It was a revelation. “Converts are people who choose.” I had never heard the word used with such disdain. No American would ever think less of someone for making a choice. Indeed, some American converts imagine that their Orthodoxy is superior for the very fact that it is chosen.

It is a clash of civilizations. Not simply Russian versus American, but, more to the point, Classical Christian versus the Modern World.

In the previous article I noted this understanding: In the modern project, human beings are autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization.

We consider ourselves to be the product of our choices and therefore value them almost above all else. We not only value our ability to make choices – we value the people who make them. “Decisioners” (a “Bushism”) are paid more in our culture than others. The people who make the choices are thought of as the most valuable people, those worthy of being paid the most.

American Christianity very early on began to adapt itself to the culture of choice. The Great Awakenings (late 18th and early 19th centuries) pushed a theology of choice to the forefront of Christian existence. To be a Christian is to “make a decision for Christ.” “God has no grandchildren!” the revivalists proudly proclaimed. Those who were born into the Christian faith and Baptized as children, but had never made a conscious “decision for Christ” were considered less than Christian. Baptism as sacrament was treated as “empty” ritual. The “personal decision” became everything.

As time has gone by, this thinking has effected much of the modern Christian world. Many contemporary Christians would think that my above description is “traditional” Christianity – even normative, with the notion of infant baptism being a cultural innovation of the Middle Ages and a degeneration of “true” Christianity. However, decisional Christianity is less than 250 years old, and is simply an example of the Modern Project in Christian disguise. It is not the faith of the Fathers (once delivered to the saints).

Doubtless, there is no human life without choices. My Russian parishioner certainly made a “decision” to contact me and make arrangement for her family’s Baptism. Why did she not see this as a choice?

It is not choice precisely that is the issue between the Modern Project and Classical Christianity – it is the nature and power of choice. Within the Modern world, choice is seen as foundational, the primary driving force of history and of reality itself. We are who we choose to be, and the world is as we choose to make it. In Classical Christianity, choice is peripheral, an incidental requirement in the course of life.

The modern convert sees his/her choice as constituting their existence. “I am Orthodox because I choose to be Orthodox.” Classically, a convert accepts what they already are. “I am Orthodox and I accept Baptism.”

In the Orthodox service of Baptism, the candidate (or sponsor if a child) is asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” It is interesting that the question is not, “Do you choose to unite yourself to Christ?” In the Classical understanding, it would be similar to asking, “Do you breathe the air?” We give assent to our union with Christ, just as we rightly give assent to breathe. To unite ourselves to Christ is to give assent to our true life. The notion of choice utterly fails to do this justice.

For the Modern Project, our choice presumes that there are multiple, viable options. I may shop at this store or that store. Where I shop is my own decision. I have actually heard contemporary Christians say that denominationalism is something that God brought about so that all people could have a Church that suited them!

The Classical Christian understanding is that the nature of our life is not a choice but a given. Our lives are contingent and only exist because they are rooted and grounded in God. Rightly understood, the “choice” for Baptism, is simply the acceptance of existence.

Life in Christ is inherently the right-ordering of our existence. It is not one out of many options. There are certainly many options for how to live in a manner that is contrary to true existence – but only life in Christ is true life.

Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself (John 5:25-26 NKJ).

The nature of conversion in the Classical model is probably best illustrated by the  structures of the catechumenate in the early Church. Those who wanted to be united with Christ were first enrolled as “learners” (catechumens – mentioned in Galatians 6:6). The period of learning included instruction in the gospel but primarily in the life of the Church. This period could extend for one or more years. Interestingly, catechumens were not instructed in the Holy Mysteries (Baptism, Eucharist, etc.) until after Baptism when they began the Mystagogial Catecheses (learning in the mysteries). The Creed itself was not even taught to Catehumens – but “traditioned” to them as part of the liturgy of Baptism!

Choice was seen as something playing a fairly minor role in the Christian life. It certainly had a part in everything – but the entire process was geared towards formation, not towards decision-making.

To this must be contrasted the modern Christian practice in which decision-making is everything and “joining” (however it might be sacramentally expressed) rather anti-climatic. The notion of formation is quite beside-the-point.

Many inquirers are put off by what might at first seem a reluctance on the part of Classical Christianity (Orthodox or Catholic) to admit them into the ranks of the Church. Classes must be attended, and some keep waiting for the “sales pitch” (that may never come). They will be told that “Orthodoxy is a way of life.” How do you choose a way of life?

Our choices do not make us better or worse. The kind of persons we are comes through the patient practice (or neglect) of the spiritual disciplines  in the life of the Spirit. Those who engage in choice as a spiritual discipline only become proficient in shopping. I have found in modern missionary work, that catechumens must often be made to “slow down,” so that their “shopping instincts” can be thwarted. It is good in our present circumstance if someone is allowed to “become” Orthodox rather than to “choose” Orthodoxy.

For many, particularly those who still live largely in the consciousness created by the Modern Project, this talk of “becoming” rather than “choosing” will seem odd or merely semantic. For those who have begun to “become” Orthodox, the distinction will be clear. These words of Christ seem appropriate:

 You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. (Joh 15:16 NKJ)

Next article  Obedience: Learning not to choose 

 

 

46 Responses to “A Modern Conversion”

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  1. Sophia says:

    I’m a convert and relate very much to what you are saying. I have always felt like I ‘came home’ much more than that I ‘converted’ (I had been looking for home and not found it until, finally, I did). I never dreamed I could be this joyful in a church, or feel this rooted and connected to what is real.

    I’m interested in furthering my own understanding of the Orthodox emphasis on free will and agency, while at the same time striving to know and do God’s will. I find your distinction between choosing between different options (consumerism), and then choosing to accept what is real (a loss of illusions but also an acceptance of true grace), to be very helpful. I need to think more about this! Thanks for your posts as always.

  2. Christopher Pittman says:

    Fr. Stephen, I appreciate your assertion that the clash of civilizations is not between Russian versus American but Classical Christian versus Modern World. I sometimes grow tired of Orthodox making everything “East vs. West” which implies there is nothing good in the West and I think sometimes turns people away from Orthodoxy who otherwise might be receptive to the gospel. The fact that before the schism the West was thoroughly Orthodox, especially in the British Isles, proves the clash isn’t between East and West, but, as you say, Classical Christian and the Modern World. We could also characterize the clash as between a sacramental worldview and a secular worldview.

  3. Dino says:

    Christopher,
    that’s a good point especially viz the British Isles…!
    The East West is perhaps misunderstood slightly more nowadays – one needs a thorough historic grounding to understand it correctly. In a sense it is just a way of differentiating a ‘West’ (centred around Rome to start with) that tried to become something other than what it used to be, and an East (centred around the New Rome -Constantinople) that remained what it was.

  4. Dean says:

    Father Stephen…the Scriptures give us a couple of examples at least of choosing. Isaiah 7:15 states that Immanuel will “refuse the evil and choose the good” and Joshua says to the Hebrews, “Choose this day whom you will serve”(Joshua 24:15). Is the latter an example you give of “accepting true existence”… of living in the one storey, of truly “living and moving and having our being” in Christ?

  5. Dino says:

    The Classical Christian understanding is that the nature of our life is not a choice but a given.

    And what eternal truth that is! Yet the delusion of modern ‘choice’ has got us to such a low point that (coupled with the ‘path of least resistance’ to all of our ego’s little whims) has made many people impervious and desire-less to hear about such Classical Christianity: There’s time for a thousand consumerist ‘choices’ apart from that one!
    I sometimes wonder if (an unconscious) knowledge that opting for the One Truth is actually not a ‘choice’ amongst choices, but would of necessity entail the cessation of carrying on with ‘choosing’ from a relativist ‘Legion’ of options, is the reason why secular man is scared of giving it any of his attention…
    It is interesting that CS Lewis in ‘the Abolition of Man’ tried to avoid his reader’s seeing what he says as a particularly Christian understanding, avoiding explicitness on that particular matter. It is something we often have to do when discussing with the world – at least as an intro to what really needs to be said…

  6. fatherstephen says:

    Dean,
    Yes, indeed. We read “choose” in these passages and too easily import the consumer choosing of the shopping culture. It’s a far more profound action. I think preachers have, through the years, thought of these choices in profound terms, but in our cultural context, they have become far more meaningless.

    When someone comes into the Orthodox faith by “conversion” (from some other form of Christianity), after repenting of the sin of schism, they are given absolution. They then say:

    This true faith of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Church, which I now voluntarily confess and unfeignedly hold, I will firmly maintain and confess whole and in its fullness and integrity, until my last breath, God being my helper; and will teach it and proclaim it, so far as in me lieth; and will strive to fulfill its obligations cheerfully and with joy, preserving my heart in purity and virtue. And in confirmation of this, my true and sincere profession of faith, I now kiss the word and cross of my Savior. Amen.

    “I will firmly maintain and confess whole and in its fullness and integrity until my last breath” with the action of kissing the Cross and the Gospel is so much more than “choose.” It rises to the character of the Biblical example.

  7. fatherstephen says:

    Dino,
    Yes. Lewis’ original essay was on the state of education – though in England you’d think that arguing for a Classical Christian education would be acceptable (it was not).

    I do not want to “fault” the public in general. They’ve never been fed anything other than the Modern Project (and they are crammed full of it). It’s thoughts thus seem “natural” to them. But they were not natural such a short time ago.

    Worse still, as we try to deal kindly with very difficult matters in our culture, the tools people are using are those of the Modern Project. And the results will be more of the same gnomic confusion that surrounds us already. It is a great grief to me.

  8. Michael Bauman says:

    Father would you comment on the difference between discernment and choice? It seems to me there is a difference. I’m classified as a convert because I came into the Church as an adult (not long after finding out about her).

    My wife has been practically every other kind of Christian there is but she is one of those folks who has been Orthodox (essentially) her entire life without ever hearing about the Church at all until a few years before we met. (I’m not alone in recognizing that in her).

    I do not feel that I chose to be Orthodox. I felt I simple could/can be nowhere else because I am home. That is a common expression amongst the “converts” I know.

    A friend of mine walked into my parish for Christmas many years ago never having been before and one of our ushers greeted him with “Welcome home”. He has never left despite moving a few times.

    That is not choice, but I have a hard time saying what it is.

  9. Lina says:

    Two thoughts. Jesus said to go and make disciples. For me this implies formation and becoming and changing one’s lifestyle etc.

    and

    I’m one of those blessed people who upon attending an Orthodox service as a visitor, heard, understood, the words, “You have come home.” Needless to say, I was rather blown away by the experience. As far as I am concerned, I was chosen to be where I am. In one sense I had the option to say no, but not really. I even made a list of reasons why not and presented them to God and His response was, “I want your heart.

  10. Shelley Armstrong says:

    Father,
    Archmandrite Aimilianos said “That which exists is God” so is the modern project’s choice some land of illusion? Is what you talk about here like getting up and “deciding” to do this or that like living on some periphery instead of an orientation, for lack of a better word, rooted in existence, more of maintaining a posture if you will. It sounds passive, I know, but I don’t mean not struggling. I think I’m getting your meaning, but not sure. Also, when you state your grief about those in the world trying to deal with issues but with the tools of the modern project, do you mean because it is just one more “choice” they offer, another movement or program, instead abandoning all that choice and “resting” into existence? I might be way off base and if I am, please let me know.

  11. Timothy says:

    Father Stephen,
    I thank God for your insightful articles and discussion on the “modern project.” I admit that I have felt uncomfortable calling myself a convert, but couldn’t quite grasp “why?” Now I think I understand. My family and I became Orthodox about two years ago, but we certainly didn’t choose the Orthodox Church as one of many viable options. There simply was no other option. When we entered the Catechumenate, we were becoming what we had already begun to become, inadvertently and unwittingly, through many years of struggle and formation. From the modern world’s point of view, it certainly wasn’t a wise “choice”; becoming Orthodox, in my situation, meant becoming jobless, homeless, and (to a certain degree) friendless. I think I would even venture to say that becoming Orthodox was a “choice” that I tried very hard to avoid. When I tell people that I am parole officer who used to be a Lutheran pastor, they say with a tone of shock, “How did that happen!?” I smile and say, “Well, I loved being a pastor and never thought of doing anything else. But when I realized that I was more Orthodox than Lutheran I had to resign. I could hardly call myself a Lutheran standing in a Lutheran pulpit when in reality, I was Orthodox. For the sake of integrity and honesty, I had to quit, though it meant giving up my home, job, and most of my friends.” I didn’t choose to be Orthodox; I became Orthodox. Perhaps, it is the modern way of thinking that keeps people from understanding why I did what I did; they think I chose to become Orthodox.

  12. fatherstephen says:

    Shelley,
    “Abandoning all that choice and resting into existence…” a sweet phrase. Thank you.

  13. fatherstephen says:

    Timothy,
    When I first became Orthodox I was troubled in conversations where people would say, “If that’s good for you…etc.” Or even if I caught myself saying, “I felt it’s what I needed to do…” and such polite nostrums. It’s almost impossible to have a Modern conversation that is remotely adequate without sounding harsh. “I believe it was the one true Church…” which can only be heard as, “And yours is going to hell…” A corollary of the Modern understanding of choice is that all choices must be equal. To judge another’s choice is to impinge on their freedom.

    I think that your story is not uncommon (in my experience). It is quite powerful. I was fully prepared not to be re-ordained, and it was 13 months in between. It is a great grace of God that you were able to do what you did – may he continue that great grace.

    I don’t think enough thought has been given to the losses incurred in the process of conversion. It was about 13 years before I became aware of how powerful my shame was in the process. I feel embarrassed to say it – I was not ashamed to be Orthodox – but the loss of identity, income, etc. that can occur, as well as the disorientation in a new place (I suddenly felt quite stupid and incompetent) are not light matters. I made some inappropriate decisions as I wrestled with all of that and made matters even harder for myself. But there have been very few road maps. Some of these things depend on our age and other details.

    I occasionally read stories of someone who “converted” and then left. Some went back to where they came from, complaining about the short-comings of Orthodox life and Church politics, etc. I recently read of someone who had now moved on to Rome. The latter tale was a breathless account of growing inner revelation, how he learned to quit judging, etc. Now he’s a peaceful Roman ecumenist. But he never “became” Orthodox.

    I think the experience of shame is the primary force that drives people to “hyperdoxy.” It is easily the deepest emotion in our lives, quite subtle. People cannot stand shame and therefore either deal with it or quickly substitute inappropriate things and behaviors.

    May God bless you. “For the sake of integrity and honesty…” how un-Modern of you!

  14. fatherstephen says:

    Michael,
    Yes it seems more like discernment. The “welcome home” thing is extremely widespread. I think that home and “choice” somehow don’t go together. After a long day of shopping, getting home means you can rest. The morning of my Chrismation, my older brother came to the service. My spiritual life and his had always had a closeness. My parents were not very Churched when we were young so he and I went together to the nearby Church. As a teenager he took me to the Episcopal Church where I discovered a world I did not know existed. At my Chrismation, in the service, he whispered to me, “This is everything we were ever looking for.” It was the wonder of one child to another. How could I describe the experience of “everything I was looking for?” How can you look for something that you didn’t know existed?

    Lewis’ Surprised by Joy has this element in it. So does Narnia. There’s this instinct for the Kingdom of God – of a world of wonder – of a depth beyond the secular flat lands in which we live. Some mistake the merely Romantic (in its classical meaning) and settle for make-believe and dress-up.

    I even think it’s possible to see Orthodoxy only on the Romantic level. When things begin to be dull and familiar and we become aware that the priest is sort of annoying and that choir member is too loud or flat, etc. or that Moscow and Constantinople don’t get along very well, etc. then the Romantic is growing thin. Then we become cynical, or look for a new choice, or – or we begin to push beyond the merely Romantic and go truly deeper. Then God can begin to reveal the depths of wonder and Reality that are the Kingdom of God bursting forth in our midst. The annoying priest who is also a true Ambassador of Christ, the flat choir member who stands with the angels, and the slightly shabby iconostas that actually is a gateway to heaven.

    But we do have a hard time saying what it is…

  15. Dino says:

    Father,
    thank you for your response and the reminder not to ‘fault’ the public in general.
    We often encounter vehement disinterest, opposition and mockery as Christians. It’s harder to deal with when it comes from those closest to us. Keeping a ‘healthy distance’ in all relationships (a regularly repeated counsel from Elder Aimilanos concerning our vigilance in relating to the world) is harder to keep up outside a monastic backdrop – particularly regarding immediate family.
    Juggling meek acceptance and noble resignation from self-entitlement in relating to those close to us (who are often victims of the ‘Modern Project’ yet cast themselves as firm advocates of it) on the one hand, with an all consuming absorption with the ‘one thing needful’ on the other is walking a tight rope indeed.

  16. Shelley Armstrong says:

    I think coming from a consumerist culture of choice it is so easy to think that Orthodoxy means a certain striving to obtain something, to possess it, to “get somewhere.” I think the word is problematic from a consumerist viewpoint. I have watched many of my friends, who when they first became Orthodox, approach it with a manic quality, only to fall away very quickly later. But I’m just beginning to understand that to unite yourself to the truth and ground of all being means doing yes, but also seeing, perceiving, and being. I think what you said to me earlier is true here. You said having a foot in the modern project we want to “fix things” and often, we think when we become Orthodox we will “fix” ourselves. When that doesn’t happen, it’s like a new product that doesn’t work so we look for a new product. Sadly, I’ve watched this happen too many times. Also, I think we are addicted to speed and accomplishment, to feel productive. And becoming Orthodox is not about that paradigm at all. In fact, that’s not Reality.

  17. Michael Bauman says:

    Father Stephen, those moments when we get bored, critical or cynical are special times. If one presses through them in the search for the truth, some pretty wonderful things can happen.

    It happened to me recently. I had been struggling with one particular thing for most of my time in the Church that I didn’t like. The “I don’t like it” would ebb and flow and at times become really intense dislike. Finally during a homily by our bishop one Sunday, a switch went off in my head and not only did the thing I disliked make sense, I have come to embrace it as a great gift and a load off my shoulders.

    The only thing that has gotten me through the many false pathways I’ve gone down in my life is that, ultimately, I want to know the truth more than I want my own way. Sometimes it is a tough fight, but so far, by the grace of God, the hunger for the truth has won out.

    BTW, I am leading my parish’s adult Sunday School class and we are going to be using your book for the rest of the year. Everyone is really looking forward to it.

  18. LI says:

    Father,

    I was wondering, isn’t shame a common outcome of this “shopping” behaviour when great things are at stake? If an important decision or act is based merely on individual choice, then anyone can be proved deeply wrong at any moment, nobody has any footholds. Choice is marketed as freedom and strength, but isn’t it a great vulnerability instead?

    And thank you for describing the feelings of stupidity and incompetence, I thought I was the only one. I never converted from or into anything, but after not going to church for almost 20 years, I stepped into one as a 30 year old and suddenly understood the prodigal son. I wished I could fall through the floor. I envied the 5 year olds who walked surefooted right to the icons, kissed them, lit their candles and took their place in the church while I stood gathered in a corner, not knowing what to do with myself. Yet this feels as a different type of shame. What’s the difference between them?

    Dino – you’re right on spot, it feels sometimes like being a double agent, with a hidden life in plain view… It is a lot of things, but mostly painful. I sometimes wish I was orphan/single. Bad thoughts.

  19. Nathan says:

    Father, thank you both for this post and for describing the experience of shame – and even your account of childhood. I have often had difficulty talking to friends and family who do not understand my becoming Orthodox, and have at times even gone so far as to suggest that I may not be a Christian anymore. I have never known how to explain to them that “this is what I was always looking for” – and I am not entirely sure they would understand, even if I could (not for lack of knowledge or anything like that, but because their own experience of “this is what I was always looking for” is so different from mine).

    In any case, I did have another question (this post greatly clarified the questions I asked previously about conversion and the “choice that isn’t a choice”):

    How ought we understand the “choice” that Adam and Eve made in the garden in Genesis? I come from a background where the doctrine of Total Depravity is taught, man has no free will in any sense of the phrase, God chooses for Himself those He would see saved, and we cannot say why or how people reject or go to hell, only that they do.

    But the one place (it is taught) where that was different was in the Garden, where Adam and Eve had a clear choice before them: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve had a free will in a sense that we don’t, and they were the ones to “make the choice” for all of humanity.

    I was wondering if you could comment on that? Is that reflecting our modern understanding of choice, and if so, how should be understand that particular situation in the Scriptures?

    Thank you, Father. Your writings are a true blessing in my life.

  20. Michael Bauman says:

    “…they didn’t become Orthodox…” Ah. My lovely wife, as I noted, has been through many different Christian types before she met me. Her children, bless them, think that she is unstable in her faith and that she just changes to accommodate others (in this case “I made her convert to my church.”)

    In telling her story she always remarks “I did not join the Orthodox Church, I became Orthodox. I was swimming in the shallow end of the pool before and now I am in the deep end”

  21. Raphael says:

    Father Bless! Thank you for this father. I never considered myself a convert. Simply found home when I wasn’t even looking. Now conversion is something that happens within but for me this is a daily practice. Lord have mercy.

  22. Maximus says:

    Father, thank you. I was chrismated just a few weeks ago. But I never felt like I chose to be Orthodox. I started studying church history and theology, there was no decision, it was: this is it, this is what I’ve been searching for! I had no choice, since I believed this was the Church. I resigned myself to be as “orthodox” as I could be until I found a parish, it took years since I live in a rural area. Once I found a parish, it was a no-brainer, this is who I am and who I want to become, nothing else. But, unfortunately, I see the consumer mental in many others, it runs rampant.

  23. Dino says:

    Realising how unclear and convoluted my syntax was above I will attempt to re-post a sentence in the hope it makes a little more sense when said another way around:

    I sometimes wonder if the real reason why secular man is scared of giving Classical Christianity his attention is, in fact, an (unconscious) knowledge that opting for the One Truth is actually not a ‘choice’ amongst choices, but would of necessity entail the cessation of carrying on with ‘choosing’ out of a relativist ‘Legion’ of options.

    The Truth everyone seems to be alluding to here might be unconsciously felt and feared and avoided by some who need a special ‘enticement’ first.

  24. Michael Bauman says:

    Dino, seems to me it is a case of loving darkness more than light. That is the challenge we all face.

    When one follows the love of truth/light that is when the struggle ensues that leads inevitably to the cross does it not?

    Choice means we are still in control, at least in our own egos it seems that way.

  25. JWM says:

    Father, I think your example confuses two seperate experiences. From the perspective of someone who had a Russian mother and an American father and who is a cradle American Russian Orthodox christian : when a Russian starts going to church he often feels that he is becoming more Russian, reconnecting with his heritage. Russians don’t speak of “becoming Orthodox” though they may speak about “becoming Christian”: Orthodoxy being the only option. That’s the way they feel. For American converts the experience is often different: they are in a church and choosing a truer church. The cultural contexts are different, even for Russians in the United States.

  26. Sumi says:

    Father,

    Thank you for writing this. I have just begun to attend an Orthodox Church over the past few weeks, though in my heart I feel like I have been Orthodox all along and I have simply come home. I have to admit that I am not immune to the “Modern Project”, especially when it comes to ‘consuming’ theological information and wanting to immediately put to task all assertions and opinions made by the Church and those in it. Your admonishment to slow down is one that I desperately need to take to heart and is definitely what I needed to hear today. There is much I am not ready for, and become easily overwhelmed or disheartened when I try to tackle difficult subjects.

    I want to add that you and your writings have been very, very important in my journey to Orthodoxy. Bless you, Father.

  27. fatherstephen says:

    JWM,
    I’ve seen this to be so as well.

  28. Albert says:

    A wonderful thing about these exchanges, Father Stephen, is free and open they are–reflections and responses as well as the many comments. It’s close to being together in a room talking (or in a church praying)

    When Ll said “it feels sometimes like being a double agent, with a a hidden life in plain view… It is a lot of things, but mostly painful. I sometimes wish I was orphan/single. Bad thoughts” I felt a strange merging of persons, as if we were somehow one. Even though I don’t think the phrases “double agent” and” orphan/single” would ever have occurred to me, they describe exactly how I often feel. And I do wonder about my thinking this way, but also smiled at the gently understanding tone of “Bad thoughts.” It reminded me not to take myself too seriously. (I hope that is what you meant, LI, and not something more serious.)

    And when Sumi wrote about the difficulty keeping herself from “‘consuming’ theological information and wanting to immediately put to task all assertions and opinions made by the Church and those in it” I immediately recognized a personal issue that was becoming an obstacle. Her words helped me understand something beneath the surface, something harmful that I couldn’t quite identify (probably “acknowledge” is more accurate) on my own.

    I am so grateful to God for these visits.

  29. mary benton says:

    This is an excellent article, Fr. Stephen. As I was re-reading it tonight, this particular statement stood out to me:

    “In the modern project, human beings are autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization.”

    The problem, it seems, in the modern project is not so much that we make choices and decisions but what importance we attach to them.

    If I expect that MY choice/decision will lead to my self-actualization, fulfillment, etc., I have stepped out of the Way of Christ. I am trying to make myself god, rather than embrace the God who is.

    In other words, I am claiming that I “self-actualize” myself by my choice. This is essentially the same as saying, “I am my own savior,” (though most moderns might be a bit more subtle than that). If my choice is what completes me, what do I need God for?

    To truly repent, embrace Christ and accept conversion of my self into Self, indeed I must “decide” or assent. But that is only because God will not force me – not because the decision itself accomplishes much of anything except starting me on the path.

    (I think I am just re-stating what you have already said – because doing this deepens my understanding. But please correct me if my understanding is off the mark.)

  30. Dino says:

    Mary,
    that thought of yours does indeed reveal the ‘Protestant’-like background of some of this modern thinking…
    I can exegete individually. Is that not why Orthodox obedience (the cure to this) is not seen as scandalous for the ‘modern project’?

  31. LI says:

    Albert,

    yes, I only meant that such wishes are simply bad thoughts. Removing the people or myself from them would not remove the problem, that my love for them is imperfect, with expectations. It’s just a childish desire to have it easy, so I dismiss it the moment it arises.

    A nun I love and admire much and to whom I often go for wisdom said some years ago that family was given to us so we wouldn’t go through life picking those we love, but learned to love those put in it. I trust it to be so.

  32. Greg says:

    “Father, I think your example confuses two seperate experiences. From the perspective of someone who had a Russian mother and an American father and who is a cradle American Russian Orthodox christian : when a Russian starts going to church he often feels that he is becoming more Russian, reconnecting with his heritage. Russians don’t speak of “becoming Orthodox” though they may speak about “becoming Christian”: Orthodoxy being the only option. That’s the way they feel. For American converts the experience is often different: they are in a church and choosing a truer church. The cultural contexts are different, even for Russians in the United States.”

    I think this can be very, very true. The problem with this (as I have seen in my own family) is that under pressure of assimilation, the tendency for Russian Orthodox is to simply give up “Russian Christianity” for something more American. This is true even from the second generation in my experience, especially strong for parishes that use Slavonic and have a primarily ethnic identity.

  33. fatherstephen says:

    Greg,
    The problem with “assimilation” is that it becomes an assimilation into the Modern Project – to which Orthodoxy feels increasingly foreign.

  34. Michael Bauman says:

    There was a Lutheran (from one of the less traditional synods) woman who came to our big dinner this year and went on a tour of the sanctuary. Despite having dozens of icons of Jesus all over the place (many quite large) because we tour guides pretty typically refer to Him as Christ, she asked the question: “You talk about Christ, Where is Jesus?”
    I never really understood her question. Fortunately, I did not have to answer it.

    To many Americans one is not Christian unless one is their type of Christian. They object to the “one true Church” statement, but seem to hold more tightly to it than we do.

    There is even today a cultural Christianity that is considered the norm and anything other than that is weird.

    Since I’ve always been considered weird, that doesn’t bother me but it can bother many people.

  35. Martha says:

    Fr Stephen,

    Thank you so much for this blog, and also thank you to all those in the comments for helping to make this such a blessed place of seeking.

    I was a cradle Anglican, who later moved into an evangelical Brethren church, who later despaired of finding/becoming anything in church that I could not find/become in my own prayer closet. I’ve been now unchurched for years. Lately I have been prompted to seek, again. And frankly reacted that prompting with cynicism and weariness. “Oh, no, not this finding a church business again. Been there, done that.” I’m a bit of a hermit by nature – not a social person at all. Were I one, I would have joined a church long ago, managed to have my temporal needs for companionship, friendship, and community filled, and been content, I suppose.

    But I kept getting nudged, and tentatively felt this was God nudging me, not my own social needs. I won’t bore you with the roundabout way I have come to begin to investigate the Orthodox Church, along with Roman Catholicism, despite my Protestant background and culture. Some of it has to do with my observations of how the splintering and destruction of Deep Tradition in the western, post-modern world is doing terrible things to humanity in the secular realm as well as the religious. I have a foreboding that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Much worse. Is there a Beacon in that darkness? Is there a Light, or only many innumerable small flames of faith, such as my own? Yes, Christ is the Light, and the Beacon, but where is He manifest? Only in my own heart and life? I of all people know too well what a flimsy bulwark that is, how limited that vessel of Me. So, I seek, with tentative fear. Last night I was praying the Jesus prayer, and as I repeated it, out of the blue I added a word to the end.

    “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner, alone.”

    I can’t describe in words what, exactly, I meant by that word “alone”, or why I added it to my prayer. I can tell you what it wasn’t. I can say that it had nothing to do with self-pity, or with being socially unsatisfied or “lonely” in the way we normally think of it. I’m very content in my husband and family and friends in that regard. Nor was it a sense of being cut off from God. I felt Christ was more with me as the word “alone” passed my lips than He has been in a long time. My true confession of faith is not the issue here, I don’t think. It’s something else. I left my prayers with a gift of hope. Hope of what? I have no clue.

    I am trying very hard to listen. Then I am kicking myself: “No, no, that’s not it at all….stop your striving and trying, and LISTEN.” I’m terribly afraid. Deeply afraid. I don’t doubt Christ, but I do deeply doubt my ability to hear Him and obey. To avoid either turning away in confusion and willfulness from a path I need to take, or surging forward half-cocked and blind on merely human “inspiration.”

    So for now I’m not doing, I’m waiting. I’m reading (this excellent blog among many things), praying, and would humbly ask that those here pray for me as well if God so moves you. Pray for me, a sinner, alone.

  36. LI says:

    Be welcome, Martha :). May God bless you and help you.

  37. mary benton says:

    I will pray with/for you, Martha.

    You wrote, “I’m terribly afraid. Deeply afraid. I don’t doubt Christ, but I do deeply doubt my ability to hear Him and obey.”

    It is important that we not be too afraid of our weaknesses. If you can allow the fear to become humility, then there will be more peace in the waiting…waiting with open hands rather than kicking yourself for not knowing what to do.

    (Forgive me, if my words are not helpful. I offer them in a spirit of love, knowing how hard fear and waiting can be.)

  38. Martha says:

    Thank you LI and mary benton. Waiting for God when I have no idea what the heck He is doing upending my complacency is at once easy and difficult. I’m less fearful tonight, as I let go of “I must know/figure this out” and rest in His grace. It’s enough for me tonight that He knows. I don’t need to yet. He has no fear for me, only love, so why should I?

  39. Greg says:

    Father I agree with you, but in many cases, simply bad or no catechism and bad or no understanding of the services was at play. As one Reader relative told me in his 90s: “we had beautiful services but I sure wish I understood what I was reading…”

  40. drewster2000 says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’m indebted to you for the new understanding of “choice’. It has always been an inner conflict for me when hearing something like “But what if a person doesn’t WANT to go to Heaven? Why should that be the only good choice they have?”

    But when you explain that we don’t make a choice for the essential things in life, but rather accept them – that makes it crystal clear. While we might choose what clothes to wear or food to eat, we accept things like God, ourselves, others – just like we accept that the ground is solid so we can choose to walk on it.

    As noted in one of your responses, it’s not that choice is bad or should not exist in our lives; just that it has been elevated above all else in our culture. The point about how decision-makers are paid more than anyone else was especially eye-opening. So taken for granted and yet so true!

    By the way, have you noticed how (ironically) we are producing less and less decision-makers? Good leaders don’t grow on trees, for one thing. But even getting the “man on the street” to decide how to live or make a statement that doesn’t come out sounding like a question asking for approval – seems to be increasingly difficult. For a nation that has stressed the need for self-confidence and not judging anyone, we seem entirely lacking in self-esteem and extremely sensitive to any kind of criticism.

    Anyway, your article was a real revelation. To respond to the “more choices than Heaven” question I originally posed – with your comments in mind this time – the answer would be that we don’t choose Heaven; we do or do not accept it. And like you mentioned, the same thinking could be applied to breathing or the family we were born into or the gifts we were given.

    Being that you’re in Tennessee, I’m reminded of a Yankee friend of mine who was traveling in the South and stopped for breakfast at a small diner. He ordered bacon and eggs, but when they arrived there were grits on the plate as well. He said, “Excuse me miss, but I didn’t order grits.” To which she replied, “You don’t order grits, they just come.” While he could accept the grits or not, it’s apparently not something a person selects or orders.

    Thanks again for the wonderful insight. May God grant you many years (but not too many).

  41. Mark King says:

    I love this paragraph–so true!

    “Life in Christ is inherently the right-ordering of our existence. It is not one out of many options. There are certainly many options for how to live in a manner that is contrary to true existence – but only life in Christ is true life.”

  42. Sophia says:

    Martha, you have also been in my prayers. I am touched by the word ‘alone’, added to your prayer. While I have no qualification to offer any pastoral advice, from my own experience I felt a kind of resonance in that there is also a kind of ‘aloneness’ when we have to choose to follow what God puts on our hearts…in the sense of there being a kind of essential alone place where it is just oneself, God, and a choice. But there is also hope and joy in that, because it feels like it is truly one’s own self connecting to God, not a series of ideas or even images of oneself. This may not at all be what you are experiencing–forgive me for implying anything, I am only musing….and I know that in Orthodoxy we also know we are never alone because we are in communion with God and the saints and each other….but lately I wonder a great deal about choice and free will and there does seem to me to be something ‘alone’ about it, in my own experience. Perhaps that is my own blindness.

    Along those lines I would also ask for the prayers of any who feel so moved. As a doctoral student in theology I am gearing up towards my dissertation work, and want very much to come from an Orthodox perspective (though my learning curve is steep as I’m still so new). And as I approach some major academic hurdles it does feel like the demons are piling on…in particular I am often woken up mid of night worrying about a particular area of my life that is very painful and uncertain, though not un-hopeful. I would be so grateful for your prayerful support. Thank you and thank you Fr. Stephen for your posts and creating this space of blessing.

  43. Albert says:

    Sophia’s words to Martha, along with her trusting all of us with a prayer request, helped me understand and reflect more deeply on Mary’s comments about the internet and specifically email.

    (As I was about to type the next sentence, I suddenly realized that my commenting this way is an example of the two sides of technology that you summarized, Mary: I felt enough of a connection with all three of you to want to say something back, not necessarily to add to or challenge any thing you wrote, but more simply to acknowledge your presence in my life. This sounds strange I know, and could easily become a source of discomfort;but the fact is, my daily experience of life, not to mention of God–through faith, that is–has changed simply as a result of reading Fr Stephen’s reflections and the many comments; changed enough that I keep wanting to respond in the comment section as well, as if we were actually meeting each other on a deep level. “As if,” that’s the point that I wonder about, and maybe what Mary was getting at. Is this medium an amazing blessing from God? It seems like it. Is it enough of a benefit to re-think our approach to the modern project? Apples & oranges probably. But to continue. . . )

    I think what I felt impelled to say has already been expressed by many others: you are doing something special here, Fr Stephen. I don’t think I have ever had the opportunity for such inspiring and moving exchanges. For me it falls somewhere between classroom and church, seminar and liturgy, friendship and prayer. In that sense alone, it is unique. It gives me hope that the modern project could be redirected, turned on its head, discovered to be yet another path to God-given at least not such a threat.

    I plan to read and think more about this. I myself became fully conscious as a result of that project, not as a result of my early religious training. I feel hypocritical ignoring that growth, rejecting how I learned to recognize the complexity and beauty in nature and in human beings (myself included), acting as though I could simply undress mentally because I have been trying to do that spiritually. So your writings here, all of you, have encouraged me to try to come to terms with what could seem like a contradiction.

    While writing this, I also discovered that, like others in need, I am also asking for your prayers.

  44. eneubauer says:

    Quote: “Life in Christ is inherently the right-ordering of our existence. It is not one out of many options. There are certainly many options for how to live in a manner that is contrary to true existence – but only life in Christ is true life.”

    –Dead On!

  45. Kevin Allen says:

    Great article Father! I re=posted on the Ancient Faith Today facebook page.

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