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Author Topic: "After the Chrism Dries" Some Pitfalls Awaiting Converts to the Orthodox Church  (Read 5842 times) Average Rating: 0
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Tamara
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« on: January 16, 2007, 01:54:24 AM »

Published by AGAIN, May 4, 2003

"After the Chrism Dries"

Some Pitfalls Awaiting Converts to the Orthodox Church

By David Tillman
Reprinted from AGAIN MAGAZINE, Volume 21, Number 1 - Winter 1999


May 4, 2003 (AGAIN) -- "Our merciful Lord says, Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it." (Matthew 7:13, 14)

Coming into Orthodoxy may look like the end of a long journey home, but on another plane it is just the beginning of another journey - the journey into the Kingdom of heaven. This pilgrimage is the hard way, the way of the Cross, and it is fraught with dangers and pitfalls.

There is a steady stream of souls coming into the Orthodox Church, but, alas, there is also a persistent trickle of those going out. Some are scandalized, disillusioned, and heartbroken; some are rebellious, defiant, and - may God rescue them and us - perhaps lost forever. Joy comes only through the Cross, and all are tempted to flee from it. Let us take refuge in the divinely inspired promise of the Holy Apostle John that as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name (John 1:12).

Let's get some basic doctrine down before we have a sober look at the journey after the chrism dries and the baptismal garment is folded and put away. I believe in One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, and the Orthodox Church is it. What the Orthodox Church has received from the Lord (the prayers, the liturgies, the Bible, the Mysteries, the Councils, the Fathers, the icons, the canons - in sum, the entire Tradition) is absolutely trustworthy. To reject these things in their proper place and order in the Church is to reject Christ as Head of the Church. To gain these things through Jesus in the communion of the Orthodox Church is worth every sacrifice.

The Pitfall of Expecting Sinless People

What we have received is absolutely trustworthy. The way we incarnate it in this world as individuals, parishes, dioceses, and the like can be an affront to God. If one flees to the Orthodox Church never expecting to encounter sinners again, one is deluded. Sinners are to be found in abundance not only among the laity, but among the clergy as well. St. John Chrysostom taught that the roads of hell are paved with the skulls of erring Orthodox priests, and erring Orthodox bishops are the lampposts!

In fact, even whole churches can fall into sin. The current Bishop of Corinth is reputed to say often that his church has not improved that much since the Apostle Paul left. And we must never forget that the seven churches described in St. John's Apocalypse (the Book of Revelation) were Orthodox churches! They're gone now. Their lampstands may well have been removed forever. Whether this is due to the vicissitudes of Greco-Turkish politics or to a deeper cause, we know that God preserves the Orthodox Church where she is faithful.

There are real live sinners in the Orthodox Church, and anyone that enters thinking to escape them will be terribly disappointed. He might have better luck entering a hospital in order to avoid sick folks.

One escapes nothing by coming into the Orthodox Church. What happens is that everything is intensified, but with a new clarity. The late Flannery O'Connor (a Roman Catholic writer of the first rank and native of the Deep South) was once asked why her stories, and those of so many Southerners, were peopled by such freaks. She replied to the effect that perhaps the Southerner's advantage is that he can still recognize a freak. The Orthodox Christian's advantage is that he can still recognize sin when most of the world would like to deny its existence. There are sinners pedestrian and venal in the Orthodox Church. There are sinners who have damaged and torn lives and consciences. There are sinners intellectual and simple. One healthy sign amidst so much that is unhealthy, even dangerous, is that there is an unchangeable vocabulary of sin, repentance, accountability, and God's coming judgment in Orthodoxy. One can hide from it, but one cannot escape it. The Orthodox Church still recognizes sin and celebrates virtue, even to the judgment and condemnation of some who would count themselves members in good standing, with medals and citations to prove it.

The Pitfall of Magical Thinking

Many come to the Orthodox Church with impossibly high expectations of her. Some of these expectations are quasi-magical. One can be baptized, chrismated, and communed with utmost care in Orthodoxy and still go to hell. The Holy Mysteries grant us an encounter with the Most Holy Trinity; they are not magic. They cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. A sinner who will not cooperate with this grace will be condemned by it.

Many a recovering drunk will say of his recovery program, It works if you work it! The Mysteries of the Church (which is itself the Great Mystery) work if you work them. One can be baptized in the deepest font made and be held under a good long time in each immersion and still end up in hell, for the lack of daily trying to die to self so that one can truly die with Christ and rise with Him. So many fixate on the outer form to the exclusion of the very presence of God in the Mysteries. The Lord is present to empower us to be faithful, not to magically transform us into lovers of Himself and our neighbors without struggle on our part. We must make the effort to lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us (Hebrews 12:1).

An excessive fixation on the ultra-correct celebration of the services of the Church can be the result of this magical thinking. Some seem to
be thinking that if the services are just done right (and there are wildly divergent definitions of done right) then the struggles will be over. Magic lusts after mere power. Alas, many prefer magic to grace and are disappointed that Simon the Magician was never canonized in the Orthodox Church! So they leave, or worse, stay and drive off the weaker brethren. It is heartbreaking to see people scandalized by the sins of others and/or their own sins and struggles. The antidote to this in faith is the foundational virtue of humility. When all is said and done, all that is wrong with the Church in her earthly pilgrimage (remember, there's nothing wrong with her Head) can be discovered by looking in a mirror.

Every Orthodox Christian from the Apostolic Age until today must say at every Divine Liturgy that he himself is the chief of sinners. After
many years of saying it, many come to believe it. Of those who believe it, many begin to do something about it. It is at this point that one begins to see and experience the Messianic miracles in abundance. At least on the moral plane one begins to witness, if not personally experience, the disfigured lepers being clean sed, the lame walking, the blind seeing, the dumb speaking, the demons being banished, and the dead being raised.

Yet some persist in wanting - may we say lusting for - a guaranteed magic rather than grace. Those healed by the Lord had to get up, get to work, and get home. Who are we to demand more? Jesus gives us His grace, the presence of the Holy Spirit, to walk the narrow way. He doesn't send a taxi to get us!

The Pitfall of Losing Our Balance

Being faithful is a struggle on both the individual and the corporate levels. Some give up the battle and settle for a worldly comfort. This is true for individual souls, parishes, dioceses, and patriarchates. None of us is immune to the desire to take the rest appointed for the Last Day right now. North Americans and Western Europeans have a great struggle with the devil's most subtle weapon: prosperity. Again on every level, there are those of us so seduced by prosperity that we create a huge stumbling block to many souls. Worldly prosperity and numerical growth are not always signs of spiritual growth. After all, cancer cells grow much faster than normal cells.

The antidote to the comfy poison of prosperity is ascetic effort. Ascetic effort is the directed and controlled violence of war against the passions. Ascetic effort can be derailed by pride, publicity, and legalism. There are times we Orthodox, again on both the individual and corporate levels, can simultaneously make the Pharisee blush and the publican despair. There are some who deny the centrality of ascetic effort, especially fasting. There are others who can keep a Lenten kitchen more fastidiously than any scribe or lawyer of old could ever have hoped to keep Kosher. Where humility and mercy are lacking, God is banished in the name of Orthodoxy, and souls are led astray.

The Lord grants us grace step by step so that we can walk a balanced walk. When we are confronted with fellow sinners, we need not
despair and begin looking for a Church more Orthodox than God. This is a temptation. Neither do we need to say, "Well, no one else is fighting sin in his life, so I am off the hook." In balance we can be grateful to God that He brought us to the Orthodox Church, but we need not have any illusions that the Church would be diminished without us or is enriched by us. With sobriety we can do what grace makes possible and bless the Lord.

Unbalanced enthusiasm is another pitfall.

One of the finest teachers in the North American Church tells the story of his enthusiasm in his first assignment as a parish priest. At one point his bishop reminded him, Father, the Church saves you. You don't save the Church. This is a saving balance and sobriety in the Christian walk. There is nothing extreme in it. Passionate and intemperate enthusiasm can be purified and tamed to become patient and long-suffering zeal. Being on fire with love for the Lord is absolutely necessary, but it must be a controlled burn.

The Pitfall of Ingratitude

One of the signs that we are getting off the narrow way of the Cross is ingratitude toward or condemnation of our origins. For those of us who came to Orthodoxy from the Western denominations, this is a major and serious temptation. One must enter Orthodoxy walking forward singing, not retreating backward shouting. It is the height of ingratitude to be without at least a prayer for the folks that taught one to call on the name of Jesus.

In the entryways of many an ancient church building (called the exonarthex) one could see pictures of Plato and Aristotle. The Church knew that the philosophies of the pagan Greeks were inadequate to the mystery of faith in Christ. The Church knew that too many had attempted to subordinate the Tradition to pagan categories and had been lost because of it. Despite all of this she allowed a beautiful expression of gratitude to Plato and Aristotle as seekers of Truth, sometimes even referring to them as the Moseses of the [pagan] Greeks. In this we see sober, open-eyed, and Christ-enlightened gratitude.

Truth is truth wherever it is found, and it always has some relationship to Jesus, who is, of course, the Truth Incarnate. Ingratitude for whatever glimmer of truth came to us from even the most doubtful of sources is a singularly evil symptom of profound spiritual malaise. From the denominational perspective, there are few bodies more inadequate than the snake-handling sects, but their call for total commitment and focus is laudatory. On Judgment Day one can speculate that a rattlesnake-handling sect may fare better because of its hundred-percent commitment, albeit in ignorance, than an Orthodox parish that has it all, at least on paper, but is only thirty percent committed. Where ingratitude is found, judgments abound, and presumption cannot be far behind.

Having said these things, we must be careful not to teeter off the other side of the narrow way by saying, It does not matter what you believe as long as you are sincere and committed. Although God is everywhere present and fills all things (as we say in our opening invocation to the Holy Spirit before nearly every private or public prayer of the Orthodox Church), He condescended to be objective - describable, touchable, knowable - in the Incarnation. The Faith has an objective content.

The Lord did not come to give us mere propositions. He came to restore our relationship to Him by freeing us from the tyranny of sin, decay, and death. Nevertheless, this relationship can be described accurately in ways He chose. There is right theology with attendant right practice. The Lord entrusts us with the Faith to equip us to walk the narrow way He pioneered. When we treat the Faith in presumption as our right, we distort it and disfigure it. The light in us becomes darkness, and we cause scandal and harm even though we may be members in good standing of the Orthodox Church.

A Bridge over Pitfalls - the Cross

What should be said in conclusion? Simply this: The Lord came to save us from the reality of rebellion, sin, death, and decay in every facet ofour being. The only way to be saved is to take up our cross and follow Him in obedient death to self and sin. If, in reality, our following Him is a charade, then all the tools and arsenal the Lord has provided for our salvation and sanctification will condemn us. Coming into the Orthodox Church does not take away the necessity of genuine repentance. It s a matter of grace, not magic.

In reality, if we have not died with Christ and risen with Him, we will find the Marriage Supper of the Lamb intolerable. The real God makes real repentance possible so that people can enter into the real Kingdom of heaven. It requires a genuine walk in faith with the power of our God, who cannot be fooled. The journey is not over yet.
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« Reply #1 on: January 16, 2007, 02:14:29 AM »

Thanks for this.
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« Reply #2 on: January 16, 2007, 10:16:56 AM »

Yes, thanks for posting this.

Donna
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« Reply #3 on: January 16, 2007, 11:45:34 AM »

Tamara, 
Do you know the name of the author?   Do you subscribe to AGAIN magazine?  And if you do would you recommend it as  an Orthodox woman?

thanks, Juliana Smiley
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« Reply #4 on: January 16, 2007, 12:02:34 PM »

Tamara, a most excellent posting! Very appropriate for the Convert Forum.

Thanks,
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« Reply #5 on: January 16, 2007, 12:31:43 PM »

I think it is important for the convert to know what he/she is getting into. To approach conversion soberly. This is a good post.  Wink
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« Reply #6 on: January 16, 2007, 12:41:05 PM »

Tamara, 
Do you know the name of the author?   Do you subscribe to AGAIN magazine?  And if you do would you recommend it as  an Orthodox woman?

thanks, Juliana Smiley

Juliana,

David Tillman wrote this particular article for AGAIN. I do subscribe to the magazine and I would recommend it to anyone regardless if they were a man or woman. The editor was Fr. Thomas Zell, an Antiochian Orthodox priest in California. The new editor is Douglas Cramer, an Antiochian layman. He has changed the focus to add more depth to the magazine (wider variety of authors). If you are looking for something specifically aimed at women then I would recommend the "Handmaiden."

If you go to these two sites you can read various articles that have appeared in AGAIN magazine over the years:
http://www.conciliarpress.com/again/   (new articles from the past year)

or    http://www.conciliarpress.com/again/content/articles/__menu/  (articles from previous years)

If you want to read a sampling of articles from the Handmaiden go to this site: 
http://www.conciliarpress.com/handmaiden/content/articles/__menu/

I am glad you all like the article. As I was organizing my old computer files last night I found it.

sincerely, Tamara
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« Reply #7 on: January 16, 2007, 02:42:52 PM »

Tamara,  Many thanks!        :)Juliana
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« Reply #8 on: February 20, 2007, 03:07:52 PM »

Rather than start a new post, I thought that I would rather continue this one.

The term Intellectual Convert Syndrome (ICS) was mentioned in another thread on Purges in the Antiochian Archdiocese in reference to Father Basil Hartung, who left the priesthood.

ICS can be a stumbling block, I believe, not to just converts but cradle Orthodox returning to active participation in the church. I think it is a sympton of our Western Culture. I am not against education and improving intelligence, but I think some people can get wrapped up in their minds and live or practive the Orthodox Faith in their minds or on-line  Embarrassed for that matter.

The best advice I ever got was that Orthodoxy is to be Lived! Fasting, fasting before commumion, active participation in the liturgy and church life or liturgical life, almsgiving, prayer, prostrations, crossing oneself, venerating icons, lighting candles, smelling incense, praying with icons.  Not just reading about the faith. Doing the faith.

I am preaching to myself here. It is so less messy to be intellectually Orthodox than to jump in and get involved.
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« Reply #9 on: February 20, 2007, 05:19:09 PM »

Well said.  Although I consider myself an intellectual person (not in the snobby sense), my conversion to Orthodoxy was definitely a more emotional experience.  As the emotion subsided a bit and my so-called "intellect" took over, I started to overthink things.  I'm the type of person who typically embraces something on an intellectual level first.

Due partly to this, my participation in the Church waned a lot after about 3 or so years.  Over the last 6 months I have tried to stop outhinking myself and just allow the spiritual aspect of Orthodoxy to take root.  It is, of course, a long process but it has been very beneficial.  I attended Forgiveness Sunday Vespers for the first time this year, and it was an awesome experience.  I honestly feel that I am entering this season of Great Lent in a better frame of mind (and heart) than in the first few years when I was much more zealous.
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« Reply #10 on: February 20, 2007, 05:31:48 PM »



The best advice I ever got was that Orthodoxy is to be Lived! Fasting, fasting before commumion, active participation in the liturgy and church life or liturgical life, almsgiving, prayer, prostrations, crossing oneself, venerating icons, lighting candles, smelling incense, praying with icons.  Not just reading about the faith. Doing the faith.




Best advice ever, and not just for Christian praxis, but for most anything.  You can read about anything and think you're an expert, but until you actually do "it", you're just fooling yourself.

I try to think of the countless poor, illiterate Christians who lived and died for the faith and compare that to my pithy intellectual understanding of it.  They're the true heroes, I'm only a wannabe.
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« Reply #11 on: February 20, 2007, 08:52:48 PM »

Schultz:

So true.  I believe saints are in our midst, but we may not know as they are in the guise of the old woman who attends church faithfully, gives what she can from her meager earnings and has a kind word for all.  She never read a book on Orthodoxy, but she is living Orthodoxy
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« Reply #12 on: February 21, 2007, 01:38:23 AM »

The old woman or man who has LIVED the faith are the true heroes. As is the harried mother who can't keep her active kids quiet during liturgy and unnecessarily apologizes to everyone. And the guy who drives to work out of state every afternoon after liturgy, only to return on Friday to attend all the kids events, run errands and attend liturgy and start all over again. Or the guy that comes in on his own time to fix the water heater at the church. Or the simple villagers throughout the ages who came to church to pray and get and hour and a half of peace and maybe finally a moment to reach out to God for mercy.

That's why I don't think, in one sense, God ultimately cares much for denominations, not even Orthodoxy as the true Church. The old woman praying her rosary, the old man planted like an oak that never shifts weight or flinches throughout a vigil, the woman praying for her grandchildren and reading her "sola scriptura" Bible, the laypreacher in a country church who labors in his auto repair shop all week long, or the storefront pastor in the inner city caring for the needs of the urban poor - God sees their ascetic sacrifices and most importantly, their sacrifice of love and hears their prayers and loves them.

It is easy to become proud and to think because we have found the true faith and received the heavenly gift and seen the true light that we are somehow to be commended. Many of us converts stumbled through the door of Orthodoxy out of nothing more than fatigue with our prior faith tradition. There are many stalwarts we left behind who shame us with greater devotion, obedience and sacrifice and who don't fatigue, even though their practices lack the full grace of the true Church, simply because they keep on because it is the right thing to do and it's all they know. What else can they do, apostacize? Not them, they only know one way. It' s like Peter saying, "To whom else can we go? We have seen and come to know that you have the words of eternal life." They often are stronger and more greatly to be admired than we converts. Just as many old cradles (or old converts, who usually married into Orthodoxy) are to be admired, as aserb pointed out and as I alluded to in the top part of this post.

Let us always be humble and thankful.
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« Reply #13 on: February 21, 2007, 08:37:25 AM »

Well said Borther Aidan.

Your words remind me that I am a sinner.
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« Reply #14 on: February 21, 2007, 03:49:40 PM »

Tamara

God bless you.

Your post is very timely considering the fasting period is upon us...thank God.

In all the time I have spent on this site; reading your post and the responses alone has made it woth it.

If I may note:

I am very cautious about intelligence or practices from pagans and heathens (past or present) that has or appear to has lead to real Truth which is Christ. In my mind A liar can not know the truth even if his lies, manipulations or deceptions (some how) exhibit what is the truth and or lead to what is the truth. I can not see anything except that a lie is a lie no matter what. The point posed in the essay regarding the narthex of old churches deplaying names of Greek pagans does have an element of promise and thus I tend to 'want' to agree with the point made. I have been looking for an excuse which I feel allows me to accept the thinking of those outside the Truth (Christ) since we as people has benefited so much from the intelligence of these people past and present. I have seen Christ-like-ness in many un-orthodox works, actions an the like but I have to date always kept these experiences 'seperate' from the faith redering them as ignorable.


Thanks for the essay.

Deacon Amde Tsion
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« Reply #15 on: February 22, 2007, 03:21:14 AM »

Dear Deacon Amde Tsion,

Thank you for your kind words and thank you for the blessing. I need the blessings!  Smiley

In regard to the truth....it has been my experience that even though a human being may not possess the fullness of Truth found in the Orthodox church, if that person loves God and wishes to serve Him, then God finds a way to reveal Truth to them. I remember reading a story in the Desert Fathers about a prostitute who would take the money she would earn from her profession and use it buy food to feed the poor. If I remember the story correctly, there was a monk who had befriended this woman. But he was obviously troubled by her livelihood and wanted to help her end her life of prostitution. So he went  to his elder and asked him how he could help this woman change her immoral lifestyle. The elder told the younger monk not to worry because God looked favorably on her service to the poor and through her service she would be lead out of her debauched existence.

in Christ, Tamara



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« Reply #16 on: February 22, 2007, 03:28:21 PM »

Thank you for the response.

I am still praying over the matter.

I find the love for people are great among non-believers and people who are outside the Truth. Much philanthropy and great care for the needy and the down troden is provided by those who believe that they do not need God (Truth) to be very good people. many of these people are looking to close churches and or remove recognition of God from any place they can in the world.

I am truely fearful of any kind of alignment with any idea or activity that is not 'from' the Church ( The Holy Orthodox Church). This includes behaviors, traditons and practices. I have gotten sour and angry responses from people on this site for my thoughts in this area. I could not understand why but I prayed on it and I am starting to find out. I am also learning more about myself and my faith due to this.

The wickedness of the evil one is very tricky. And he is always at work; especially in the Church.

As I said before I have a new perspective due to the essay you posted; but I am still not convinced.

So for me, for now; ALL Truth comes from the Holy Church only. All others are ignorable no matter how good it is.

Thats sad; but it is the safe road.

I will continue to pray on this matter.

God bless you.

Deacon Amde Tsion

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« Reply #17 on: March 07, 2007, 12:27:59 PM »

I think another pitfall would be the "we're going to do Orthodoxy right unlike _________".  Perhaps that should fall under the Pitfall of Ingratitude though.

ICS would be on my list too. 
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« Reply #18 on: March 09, 2007, 12:06:47 AM »

I remember reading a story in the Desert Fathers about a prostitute who would take the money she would earn from her profession and use it buy food to feed the poor. If I remember the story correctly, there was a monk who had befriended this woman. But he was obviously troubled by her livelihood and wanted to help her end her life of prostitution. So he went  to his elder and asked him how he could help this woman change her immoral lifestyle. The elder told the younger monk not to worry because God looked favorably on her service to the poor and through her service she would be lead out of her debauched existence.

in Christ, Tamara





   This is a very touching story- do you remember where you read it exactly? I would like to read it myself as well........
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« Reply #19 on: March 09, 2007, 12:52:37 PM »

David,

I thought I read it in The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers by Benedicta Ward but I can't seem to find it there unless I have missed it. I just can't remember where I read it now. If I suddenly remember I will post where I found it.

Tamara
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« Reply #20 on: March 10, 2007, 12:31:15 PM »

Thank you, Tamara-

    I really should follow Fr. Seraphim Rose's advice and keep a notebook whenever I run into a gem like that story. I've lost track of the number of times I've read something truly edifying but forgot where to find it when I wanted to read it again.

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