I was talking with one of my fellow ORU converts, who told me quite frankly that he wasn't really attending church anymore, that he wasn't really any kind of a Christian anymore. He named several people from "our group" (we all, of course, bonded well there in Tulsa, going through our similar situations as we were) who felt much the same way, according to him: scattered attendance, general lack of interest in Orthodoxy in particular and Christianity in general. And while this was not, by any means, characteristic of the whole group, the fact that it was more than just a handful bothered me. I began to ask myself why a move to Orthodoxy (or any purposeful move from one confession to another) would, in fact, hinder spiritual growth rather than help it.
Without judging the individuals who converted with me, I'll just speak from my own experience, and from general trends I've noticed. Converting to Orthodoxy from, say, Evangelical Protestantism, as I did, requires that one receive--either through a priest's patient catechism or one's own reading--the equivalent of a couple of courses in Christian Church History and/or the Early Church Fathers if one is to intelligently understand and be able to defend one's move. Things like sacraments--specifically,
- that baptism is not just a motion gone through in obedience but rather the moment where our initial faith is fully kindled and blossoms,
- that confession to an apostolically-decended priest or bishop is also a part of confession of one's sins, that individual confession, while good, is not enough,
- that communion is not just a "memorial meal" of mere bread and wine but the very Body and Blood of Christ,
- that one cannot simply "be called" to start his/her own denomination with varying degrees of agreement with other groups, but that one must be appointed by the abovementioned apostolically-succeeded bishop,
What is it, then, that keeps my faith, personally, from going the way of the dusty textbook? Of course, God's grace, for some reason, has been given to me again and again (Why? Anybody's guess), and has initiated, followed and (Lord willing) will complete my journey of faith, as I walk along with Christ. There is, however, one specific characteristic of my faith (as contrasted with "cerebral" adherance) that, I believe, is absolutely necessary for Christians (of any stripe, but particularly those with "much ornamentation" like us Orthodox) to keep in mind in order to continue in a personally meaningful relationship of faith with the Holy Trinity: Faith as Encounter.
For example: Why do we have icons in our churches? Is it merely because St. Theodora decreed that icons were to be used in churches, thereby ending the centuries-long conflict between the iconoclasts and the iconodules (the latter personified by St. John of Damascus) through empirical decree, the commemoration of which on the Church's calendar is the first Sunday of Great Lent? Or is it something more? Is it because God uses windows to meet us? Is it because His holy ones, worship--really worship!--our God with us through their presence in their windows? Or, to compare it another way: Are icons simply "a visible manifestation of the Church's awareness of the Incarnation, of Christ's being the eikon of the invisible God," or are they also a celebration of the fact that the command against making images of the deity has been forever and irrevocably reversed, for we can now know that God is with us, and the fact that we can have His precious image with us, at all times, joyously complete, bears glorious witness to this truth that should transform our lives, make our lives "windows into heaven"--in short, make us into living icons?
This is only one example, but I hope I've been clear in my illustration: we, as Orthodox Christians (and, I would add, especially converts like myself who come from confessions with fewer or no "liturgical accoutrements"), have to be wary of the idolatry of seeing the priest's stole in confession as merely an end in itself, of seeing icons as no more than the proper response to a historical and christological (read: largely academic) dilemma, of seeing the Real Presence and Baptismal Regeneration as only fidelity to apostolic doctrines--instead of seeing all these things as very real keys to our life in and with Christ, who gives us the Holy Spirit, who brings us blameless to the Father. All our "things" and doctrinal stances in Orthodoxy, beautiful and tangible and physical though they are (and must) be, must also "become transparent"--or, rather, be connected with the spiritual reality that is the Kingdom of Heaven--so that we may revel in the grateful knowledge that "of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen." (Rom. 11:36).