Becoming Orthodox.

It’s the title of a book by Peter Gillquist, certainly, but for this “convert”, it is an expression I use all the time. In many ways it explains the difference between the Protestant mindset in which I was raised and the Orthodox mindset to which I have turned.

There was a day when I was chrismated into the Orthodox Church, but that was just another (albeit a wonderful and HUGE) step in becoming Orthodox. For Protestants, salvation is a single event, complete at a particular moment in time. For Orthodox, salvation is an event AND a process. It is a “becoming.”

Becoming Orthodox happens as I participate in the sacraments of the church, in eucharist, and in confession. These are two of the sacraments that are ongoing. Baptism is a one-time deal. Marriage will ideally be a one-time deal. But the daily, weekly and repeated practices help us become Orthodox.

The way I describe it is like saving a document. I hit “save” and that act initiates the process, but the process is not complete. It continues as the hourglass or other symbol reveals onscreen that the process is ongoing, saving, behind the scene. Then a small flash or indicator reveals that the document is now “saved.” It is a flawed picture, but it reveals the stages of salvation. We are saved, being saved and, finally, salvation is complete, or accomplished.

I am aware when I write this, that it is not a complete description, that it misses that salvation is complete in Christ, that He accomplished “once and for all”, but…in the midst of the process, we are cooperating with it, not that we are in any way able to save ourselves, but just as a prescription of penicillin will not cure a bacterial infection if you don’t ingest it, we cooperate, or take in salvation and become as we cooperate, or take in and stick with the saving treatment. Does that make sense?

So…I am Orthodox and am becoming Orthodox. I am saved and am being saved. I am a Christian and am becoming a Christian. Just as a medical doctor has that moment of obtaining the degree of doctor, but then has continuing training, practice, and learning…is, in effect, becoming a doctor while having that paper declaring him or her to be one, I am becoming Orthodox.

I must belabor this a bit, I fear, for it is a concept that is so foreign to the mindset of a “once saved, always saved” that it has taken me years to grasp this. Or, I should say, to begin to grasp this.

As I am learning, being Orthodox is a process, it is a doing, a learning, a growing, active thing. It is examining of self, it is facing my pride, my flaws, my failures, it is facing the goodness of a God of mercy and lovingkindness. It is not that these things aren’t available to Protestants, but becoming Orthodox means tapping into a wealth of mentors, both living and dead, of examples, of heroes and heroines, of saints and martyrs and of saints of the everyday kind.

I’ll grant you, I was in contact with some of those from within the Protestant church — Uncle Rich, who showed me what forgiveness looked like in a way that forced me to shed my previously shallow understanding of forgiveness when he forgave the boy who deliberately ran him over and nearly ended his life, and caused him intense physical suffering. Or of a man (still living, so I will not mention his name as he would not want to bring attention to himself) who has always been so generous that the stories that quietly made it my way are legion. The man slipped money to people struggling, picked up the check for people having a hard time, paid college tuition for many, employed people who needed work…and I don’t know but a fraction of the stories, because he doesn’t want them told. This saint wanted his deeds known only to God. I could go on, but I recognize the grace that is within the Protestant churches.

That being said, I needed more. I needed tools that I could not find, help that was unavailable, or untrained, or… Oh, how I struggled as a Protestant.

I struggle as an Orthodox, but I am now aware that I am becoming. I am becoming. Oh the grace that implies to me. I am not expected to know all, to do all, to be complete right now. But I am given tools to become.

Those tools were and are mocked and derided by many, if not most Protestants. Icons, for example. Why icons are so offensive or distasteful is hard for me to understand. Protestants like to claim they are objects of worship. They are not. There may be some who give them undue reverence, but I haven’t seen it. What I have come to understand is that as a Protestant I did not give due reverence to many people and things that deserved it. But that is a subject for another essay. Confession was understood as a means of doing whatever you wanted throughout the week but being absolved in confession on Saturday night. We made jokes about it. There may be some truth to this for some people, but true confession is an examination of the heart and activities, of our sins of thought and word and deed, of omission and commission. Also, our confession (as Orthodox, I cannot speak for Roman Catholics as I don’t know much about them) is to God himself, with the priest bearing witness. When your guilt is “absolved” it is not the priest performing a function of God, but witnessing to you who and what God is and has already done. Confession, to me, is part of becoming Orthodox. It is a means of help in life, forcing me to an awareness of my pride and providing guidance as I face life. It is part of the action of becoming Orthodox. But there is also a lot of being. This is difficult to explain, but I will try.

When I struggle with things (which, let’s face it is often), I am counselled to do the thing in front of me, to be in the moment, the time, the situation in which I presently exist. The Orthodox are not just doing things, but are being. To me this means that I am to BE peaceful, peaceable. How, you might ask, as I often have. To be peaceful and peaceable is to be in prayer at all times, as much as you are able. This is a practice, not only of the Jesus Prayer, but of the Lord’s Prayer, of consciously seeking acknowledging the presence of God, whether I feel him or not. Feelings are nice, but are largely irrelevant. Feelings often result from what I choose to do, but in the past, I would usually choose to do something because of how I was feeling. Admittedly, I do this far more than I should, even to this day, but as I become Orthodox, I am choosing not to be led by feelings.

So if this morning I don’t feel close to God, I still say my morning prayers and read the scriptures of the day. This is not as foreign as it may seem, as we don’t go to work only when we feel like it, or take care of the children when we feel like it, ignoring them when we do not. The structure of our days, the structure we choose guides our thoughts and feelings, just as our thoughts and decisions guided our choice.

This is starting to sound too abstract, I think, so let me be practical. At one point, I read that happiness is a choice. This was a revelation! I had always thought that happiness was something that people of a particular disposition had, or that it was the result of circumstances beyond my control. I decided to find out if this was true, and if so, to learn how to be happy. I decided to surround myself with happy, even cheerful people. I decided to do this thing which was uncomfortable for me, to discover if this could be true. Once I became aware that people I had previously thought simply were predisposed to happiness made conscious choices to be so, I determined to learn how to make those same choices. It may be a bit more difficult for me than for someone who was taught how to do this as a child, but I have, indeed, learned to be happy. I have chosen to learn this skill and to put it into practice. In doing so, I have found an interesting thing. I have to choose this over and over again, or the skill goes away. That is to say that I can, if I don’t practice happiness, become dreadfully unhappy again. I have to remind myself to be happy and to choose to avoid activities and some people which will drag me into forgetting the skill of being happy.

Such is also true of becoming Orthodox. I have to choose to do so, and once having so chosen, I have to choose again, over and over and over, to be Orthodox. I have to choose confession, I have to chose self-inspection, prayers, scripture readings, I have to chose repentance, chose liturgy, chose fasting, chose the Eucharist. I must chose once and then again and again and again. I must chose to partake in the life of the church and in the life of Christ. This is the essence of becoming Orthodox. I am finding as I become Orthodox, that I am also becoming human. Glory to God.