Part 1 // Part 2
After months of what felt like dry liturgical services, my quasi-Pentecostal mindset wondered: where is the Holy Spirit in all of this? I recognized the validity the Orthodox Church’s claims to have the same beliefs and practices as the early church, but what good is that if the Holy Spirit has abandoned them and their services are dead and boring?
It was then that I somehow came across the book The Way of a Pilgrim. It is the story of a young Russian peasant during the late 1800’s who set out on a quest to experientially understand St Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing.”
The pilgrim learns about the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner”) and begins to practice it rigorously. I decided that I would journey with this simple Russian peasant and practice the Jesus Prayer. My priest, who himself was experienced in this prayer life, asked that I meet with him regularly to discuss how things were going with that.
THE DIVINE SPARK
Words cannot adequately express what began to happen in my heart as I opened myself to Christ and the Holy Spirit through a disciplined prayer life. When first venturing into Orthodoxy, I began reciting a few simple selections from the Morning Prayers. I was now coupling that with the Jesus Prayer throughout the day and I began to notice changes in myself.
The prayer is not meant to be a mantra, rather it is something that is fused to our hearts. It opens us to inner communion with Christ. As this deepened, I noticed that old sinful habits that had the upper hand over me for many years were shaken. I was far from overcoming them, but a visible shift had taken place. Even my wife commented that something was happening to me; at that time she did not want to join the Church herself, but she liked what it was doing to me.
After some months had passed, the church services that I once found boring were moving me to tears at times. I sensed a deep presence of Christ in the worship and even in the icons. The power of the Holy Spirit overcame me in a way that was very quiet, yet vivifying and profound. It was something into which God had allowed the briefest glimpses throughout my life. Now, it was happening more frequently and more deeply.
THE POINT OF NO RETURN
I came to the realization that Orthodoxy truly was not offering me a new set of beliefs with old ways of doing things. The offering was oneness with the Body of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
There were still some theological questions and hang-ups, but those seemed less important. I concluded that if this is where I am meeting God Himself, then this is where I belong. If there are differences of belief, then maybe it is me that needs to change and not the ancient Christian Church.
With everything that had happened, I felt like the twelve disciples when Jesus had scandalized the multitude by stating they must eat and drink His body. He didn’t shout, “Hey guys, come back. I was just being metaphorical and stuff.” Rather, He let them go and asked the disciples if they too would leave. Peter spoke for all of us when he said, “To whom shall we go?”
And that is exactly how I felt.
I was convinced that Orthodoxy was Christianity in its truest and most powerful form. At the start of my journey, I briefly studied Buddhism and Taoism (the latter of which I found to be attractive), but everything I liked about those I found to an even fuller extent in Orthodoxy.
LANDING GEAR IS DOWN — I’M COMING HOME
After years of feeling spiritually homeless I knew where I belonged. Keeping with an early tradition of the Church in which many converts were brought in the day before Pascha (Easter), I was chrismated on Holy Saturday and partook of my first communion on Pascha.
It was a cold, wet morning, but nothing could quench the fire within; I was exploding with life, joy, and love. No longer was I part of the nameless, placeless, faceless tribe! I wanted to embrace the entire world and shout to them about the love of Christ that I found in Orthodoxy. During those initial months, I probably seemed like a fanatic and I wouldn’t be surprised if I annoyed some of my family and old friends.
SETTLING INTO ORTHODOXY
The coming months and years had many challenges. I continued to discover the life-changing power of God’s grace in the Orthodox Church, but the “old man” does not die easily or quietly. As St Ignatius Brianchininov said, our flesh does not like to be crucified.
In my Protestant years, we practiced sin management. In other words, “sin is bad, so try not to do it. And if you do sin, say you’re sorry and move on.” During those years I surrounded myself with noise and distractions so I wouldn’t hear my heart or conscience.
It was not the same in Orthodoxy.
Instead, I was learning inner quietness and that Christian virtue was not simply a nice idea, but the direction in which we should be striving to become one with Christ. The commandments of God were not given to us because God has a quirky dislike for certain things; rather, they reflect who God is. If salvation is oneness with God, and sin is breaking oneness, then, I realized, to break the commandments is to break my communion with God by participating in behavior with my soul and my body that is contrary to the very Being of God.
Heaven and salvation are not a place or an eternal destination. Rather, they are a state of being in which we experience oneness with God Himself. This life prepares us for that oneness, and I began to realize the depth of my selfish desires as the Holy Spirit further enlightened my heart. I learned first hand why the Church is called a hospital for the soul and salvation is considered to be therapeutic (and not an instantaneous magic trick).
TAKE A LITTLE TIME
One of the most important decisions I made on my journey into Orthodoxy was that I would not hurry. After the first month, I realized through the haze of challenges there was something within me deeply drawn to it. I decided I would purposely take a year to explore it; by then I felt I would know for certain whether or not it was for me.
As I progressed in my journey, I believed that if I waited until I was 100% convinced of all beliefs and practices in Orthodoxy, then I may never join. It is completely foreign to our westernized form of Christianity and entering into the life of the Church requires time and grace in acquiring a new heart and mind. I personally feel that if one is mostly convinced and has no major hang-ups, then entering into the grace of the Church will help them resolve any minor lingering thoughts or doubts. Of course, this is my opinion and not pastoral advice.
POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE VIRTUES
Once one has joined, they may be a bit overwhelmed – I was. There are cycles of feasts and fasts, a church calendar with daily readings, morning and evening prayers, prayer without ceasing is taught, services throughout the week, confession, pre-communion prayers, an expectation to actually live this faith, and all sorts of practices. It is easy to feel Frustrated with The Spiritual Struggle.
As one Greek Orthodox theologian* wrote, it is sometimes better to establish the positive virtues before the negative. Positive virtues, meaning those things you add to your life, include establishing a prayer rule, learning the Jesus Prayer, going to church services, spiritual reading, etc. Negative virtues are things that are “taken out” of your life such as sleep (prayer vigils), food (fasting), and other forms of abstinence. These latter virtues, while perhaps being practiced initially in small doses, are strengthened as one’s spiritual life deepens and a desire for them begins. More important than my opinion though is the direction that your spiritual father discerns for your path of salvation.
All virtues have one aim: to attain to union with God (aka, theosis). This is accomplished through the grace of God and humility (the latter of which is our synergistic cooperation with God). Without either of those, the virtues can still be practiced to some degree but will often lead to feelings of spiritual superiority and pride.
WRAPPING IT UP
In summary, I was spiritually hungry for something deeper than the intellectual Christianity I found in some circles and the hype-based emotionalism I found in others. I wanted an experiential faith filled with wisdom regarding the scriptures and the power of the Holy Spirit. In short, I wanted to encounter God Himself.
Orthodoxy, on the surface, seemed an unlikely candidate. It took some time to realize there was nothing wrong with the liturgical form of worship; rather, I was closed off to the movement of the Spirit. Once that was shown to me through prayer, it was an easier course from there.
If you are considering Orthodoxy, then as I said above, take your time. Read books on it that spark your interest and visit your local Orthodox parish. If you’re not sure what to read, ask your priest and check out a list in my Resources.
Also, online discussion forums were not helpful to me early in my journey. There are really knowledgeable and caring folks in many forums, and there are also some people who enjoy flaunting their opinions or over-zealously attacking anyone who is not well-versed in the fathers. Watching people fight and call each other heretics mostly discouraged me during my initial steps toward Orthodoxy, but I do recognize that some groups have been instrumental in assisting others in their journey.
Last of all, approach Orthodoxy in prayer. But also, learn the Orthodox way of praying. My martial arts sensei used to say, “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” In other words, if we learn something wrong and practice it for years that way, we will not suddenly get it right.
It is the same with prayer. The fathers of the Church offer thousands of years of wisdom in regards to prayer, how to pray, what happens in the spiritual realm during prayer, and how to come out victorious. For that reason, one of the first things I would recommend to an inquirer is to glean the wisdom this Church has to offer on prayer. A good Prayer Book can assist with that.
Godspeed on your journey.
All images in this blog were taken from valaam.ru‘s website.