A journalist asked me a question, and I didn’t know how to answer it. She said that she had read something I wrote in which I said that my husband was attracted to Orthodoxy right away, but I didn’t like it. (That’s a common pattern; a priest told me that, if a couple comes to him to talk about joining the Orthodox Church, and one of them is gung-ho and the other is resistant, 80% of the time it’s the wife who’s dragging her heels.) Now, of course, I love it, and she asked what that process had been like. What brought me around?
I’d never thought about it before. I honestly didn’t know what to tell her. I started trying to trace my memories, but it was almost 30 years ago.
I told her there was one thing I was sure about: my husband and I love the same things about Orthodoxy. It’s not that I discovered some different part of it that was more appealing to me. The thing that he saw at a glance is the same thing I came to see more slowly.
I tried to put this into words; I said it comes from the way Orthodoxy has its own balance, gravity, and coherence. It doesn’t rest with me to make it work by supplying my own interior emotional connections. Orthodoxy is full and powerful all by itself. It makes room for me to be just myself, just one small person. There is something freeing about that.
But I don’t remember how I came around to seeing that, much less preferring it. So I asked readers on my Facebook page, and got many fascinating replies.
Taken together, it seems to me that the main thing that won us over was the worship.
I would have expected the consensus to be “the beauty.” I’ve often written of the beauty of Orthodoxy as the thing that seizes people by the heart. But, to be honest, what you’re going to encounter in your hometown church may not necessarily be aesthetically pleasing. I’ve worshiped in hundreds of Orthodox churches by now, and many of them are congregations small in numbers and fairly poor, meeting in rental space, maybe in a strip shopping center or an industrial park. They worship without hand-painted icons, and without a musically-educated choir and chanters. When you walk in, you’re not overwhelmed with the beauty.
So it was clarifying to see, in these responses, that it’s not the supposed beauty of the initial Orthodox experience that attracts, but the Liturgy itself. There’s a kind of undertow enabled by the theological profundity of it, and its constant focus on God. It keeps returning to the vastness of his power and his love. Whatever might be less-than-beautiful in the execution of the Liturgy is more than made up by the content of the prayers.
Some elements of the Liturgy serve to impress us with this content. For example, it is a long service (90 min or so, depending on how many people receive communion), and it is repetitive, utilizing the “put it to music and say it three times” strategy that is so useful in learning something. Also, that every single bit of it is falling-on-our-faces before God. It’s relentlessly about God and not how we’re doing today. That it keeps emphasizing our sin and unworthiness, in order to make God’s overwhelming grace and forgiveness shine forth. And that it presents to us holy men and women throughout history who have loved God, in countries all over the world. We see that they are undeniably are worshiping and loving the same God we do, saying the same prayers, chanting the same hymns. And they are beside us in worship, that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).
In all these ways the worship works its way into your mind and memory, and you come to sense the deep truth there. It feels like such a privilege, so amazing that we are allowed to worship in this Church, and receive communion with all the saints!
The Church is somehow able to be so grand and magnificent, so eternal, so filled up with holy ones of all the ages, so majestic–even when it’s a couple of dozen people in a humble rental space. It leads you to look at yourself in a different way. For me, I began to see how small and unimportant I am. That was such a relief.
In my earlier life as a Christian, I felt unconsciously like a worship-shopper. I brought to worship the same skills I used in discerning something I was buying. So what was at the center of things? Me. I was taking from the scriptures, the sermon, the hymns, whatever seemed right for me that day.
It’s one of the most wonderful, most counter-cultural things about Orthodoxy, that it doesn’t care what your opinion is. What the church sings and preaches is what the community
believes, and you can come in and worship, or go somewhere else; what you can’t do is alter it to fit your preferences.
So it seems like the key, for those of us who once-disliked-now-love the Church, turns out to be its worship. I get such a kick out of that. I’m always telling people that Orthodoxy is soooo beautiful–but come around some Saturday vespers when I’m trying to chant! Around our chanters stand we laugh, “Well, at least we got all the words said.” And honestly that is the important part. We are all saying the same words. All over the world, all through time. Wherever other Orthodox Christians are, whatever language they’re chanting in, we are all saying the same words.
The Orthodox Church can make that claim, and I bet no other church in the world can say it. In every other church there was just too much pressure, since midcentury, to please the customer, to adapt things so it serves people’s “needs.”
Listen, people have no idea what their real needs are. Just no idea. We don’t know ourselves well enough. We only know our wants.
The ancient worship has got our number. It knows exactly what we need. As I gradually saw demonstrated through the worship, I saw that the Church was not going to bend, that on the contrary it was strong, so strong–well, that turned out to be what I was looking for all along. I didn’t recognize it at first sight. But the Church was patient, and I came around.