As the old adage goes, you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been. My road to Orthodoxy has been long despite my mere twenty-five years of age. It has also been delightful. Certainly there have been times of confusion, doubt, despondency and frustration, but I believe this is indicative of my own passions and struggles rather than the journey itself. I can honestly say that I would not change anything in my past as each experience has led me to a more full knowledge and more fervent desire for true union with Christ.
I was born and dedicated into the Southern Baptist tradition. We had the Lord’s Supper once a quarter to remember what He did for us on the cross. We walked down the aisle to be saved once and for all. We read the Bible and prayed for the Holy Spirit to interpret it to us in our hearts…although we were not above a little commentary from modern theologians. On the other hand, it was during these very early years of my life that I learned to pray and memorize Scripture. I learned that Jesus loves me as an individual person. I learned about missions and the great importance of sharing my faith with others. From here, I went to an independent charismatic church. Deeply emotional worship, unarticulated doctrine regarding the sacraments, and ultimately, mass chaos and disorder were the norm as I neared my teen years. However, it was here that I was introduced to the sacraments in any sense, as well as spiritual disciplines such as fasting and corporate prayer. I also learned a hard lesson on the issue of reinvented Christianity. Next, my father pastored an independent Bible church. While we made a point to at least seek out the “early church,” there were continuing issues with doctrine due to issues with accepting the proper authority, Tradition, to correct our frame of reference. However, it was this struggle that finally pushed us into the most sacramental tradition yet as we joined a Communion that was charismatic, sacramental and accepted most Tradition. I was hopeful, but confused during this period—and it ultimately became a sort of limbo where I felt incomplete and on my way to some other unarticulated place.
The circumstances that led to my conversion to Orthodoxy were a bit like an arranged marriage. Admittedly, I have no personal experience with arranged marriages. However, my basic knowledge tells me that, generally speaking, traditional arranged marriages are dispassionate agreements made after careful deliberation by the parties and their families. The agreement is not based upon emotion or superficial needs and desires, but upon a conscious decision that it is the right and best choice. When my family decided to convert to Orthodoxy, I was at the crossroads right along with them…again. But this time, I was tired. I was not even twenty-two, yet I felt that I had traveled the world…by foot…on a quest for something that now seemed to be a shadow. So, when I finally decided to take the plunge, I understood the gist of Orthodoxy; I felt confident that I was making the best decision I could in this life; I knew I had the stalwart support of my family. That was enough. Although I felt the satisfaction and peace that accompanies making the right decision, I felt completely and utterly lost in my new church home. It didn’t help either that I had a nagging voice which originated in my individualist, protestant past that constantly heckled me about taking the easy road and following my family into Orthodoxy. My early days as an Orthodox Christian were filled with these thoughts of doubt and guilt, as if following my family stripped me of the all-important autonomy necessary for true salvation…even though becoming Orthodox was the right decision no matter how I got there. I also felt guilty for not appreciating Orthodox worship, for getting impatient during the prayers and for being inwardly critical of its seemingly disorganized presence in the world. I should have known better, but I wanted an instant honeymoon with Orthodoxy, not the awkward stuttering and fumbling that characterized my early encounters with Orthodox tradition.
The comforting, yet somewhat humiliating truth is that God and Orthodoxy have never changed. It is I who must peel back the layers that have collected through the years, stripping my consciousness of the lies and half-truths that I have allowed to form my view of myself, my God and my world. Of course it is uncomfortable—God and I have to become reacquainted on His terms, terms that are new and foreign to me despite their existence since the beginning of time. But as with the bride and groom—what began as simply a good decision, perhaps even reluctantly made, gradually becomes an actual relationship of trust, then respect, then overpowering love and awe.
So, here we are. I have been Orthodox for over three years and I still choke when people ask me questions about my faith and have a general sense of overwhelming inadequacy in every part of my spiritual life. This is unnatural for me. Even with my diverse and even conflicting background, I have always slipped into each church community with the ease of putting on a well-worn glove. It is comfortable, warm and homey. Orthodoxy challenges every part of my being and uproots every spiritual capability that I thought I had. Orthodoxy has been described as organic, yet I feel about as organic within it as a stiff, polyester gardenia planted in a vibrant, blooming field of wildflowers that stretches and grows to cover all that lies in its path. I feel awkward and clumsy on every level, whether I am venerating an icon, kissing the hand of the Bishop, or offering a confession. If my body feels clumsy, my mind feels even more so. My thoughts race and scatter recklessly during prayer to such a degree that I wonder how I have ever considered myself to be a disciplined person in any sense at all. I wonder how I could have believed myself to be devout and dedicated to my Lord on even the simplest level. I wonder how God was so patient and gracious to have led me to this place, as proud and dismissive and capable as I have been. Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal, have mercy upon me.