Monday, October 30, 2017

So, You Want to Convert to Orthodoxy? Part II

Orthodoxing Your Life

There is nothing stopping any Catholic from hanging icons on his or her walls (although it's a bit more complicated than that for Orthodox), crucifixes, or otherwise making their home the domestic temple Orthodoxy expects. Catholics have feasts to sanctify the year, and the Liturgy of the Hours to sanctify the day. (See 2014 article "YOU Can Pray the Liturgy of the Hours" for more about that.)

Icon corner at one particular time.
They tend to change, although
the large icon & Romanov 
lampada are constants.
However, there is a "physicality" in Orthodoxy one just does not find developed to the same degree in Catholicism. Orthodox kiss everything. Icons. Priests' hands. Each other. (One cheek, the other, then the first again for good measure, if you're Russian.)

Their icon corner is more than decoration. It is truly the center of the home. Orthodox visitors will first thing greet your icon corner when entering your home. It's where the family gathers to pray. It may have the traditional lampada burning 24/7.

The rosary is a Western feature, but the Orthodox have knotted prayer ropes upon which they say the popular Jesus Prayer. It takes less concentration and is somewhat less obvious, and when the Bear was Orthodox, it was often in his hands beneath counsel table during trial.

The Orthodox year also has its feasts, but is memorable more for its fasts. It sometimes seems like there are more days of fasting and abstinence than there are regular days. Someone - presumably a joker - counted up all the official days of fasting and abstinence and concluded there were only five days during the year one could enjoy marital relations!

Like most jokes, it is the bit of truth that makes it funny. Orthodoxy is extremely strict by Catholic standards. Catholics don't even have to avoid meat on Friday anymore (and the Bear is not certain that people caught the rest of that change - that you're supposed to substitute some act of denial of your own choosing).

An Orthodox temple may or may not have pews (although if not, there are probably a few chairs along the wall for those who can't stay on their feet for the whole Divine Liturgy). In any event, there is a lot of standing. The Divine Liturgy is beautiful, but not a model of economy, repeating things in case your attention might have wandered the first or second time.

The Sabbath starts on Saturday evening, and Vespers is the service that traditionally kicks off the weekend's worship, although attendance probably varies from place to place. It is a lovely service, and "O Gladsome Light" is its beautiful signature hymn.

But Orthodoxy played on "normal" mode finds different ways to wrap you in the ancient faith as a normal part of your life. Certainly, Catholics can do the same, but it seems more encouraged and expected in Orthodoxy.

St. Corbinian's Bear carried St. Corbinian's stuff to Rome. Big whoop. St. Seraphim's Bear built him a cabin. Pretty much says it all.

Being More Orthodox than the Orthodox?

Since the Bear is witnessing to the "Orthodox Convert Experience" in both positive and negative (close enough) ways he must comment on something he noticed in himself and others.

Part of the appeal of Orthodoxy is that it is right, right? So, because of this or some other reason, converts tend to take things really seriously. The Bear cannot testify to the inner experience of native Orthodox persons, but he seems to remember among many converts a sort of grim, white-knuckled approach to Orthodox discipline. He would certainly plead guilty to that. Fasts had to be by-the-letter, you know. Often, the Bear family would be the only ones at Vespers. (Bear does not know what the priest did when no one showed up - he suspects there were no Vespers.)

Bear means, if you're not going to take Orthodoxy seriously, you might as well stay Catholic, right? 

So, this isn't really as much a negative as a heads up to those thinking about converting. They should realize there is a whole lot more than icons and the awesome Divine Liturgy. There is a discipline (probably that varies among the jurisdictions, too, like most everything else) toward which you are going to have to figure out your own, sensible, approach.

There's also one bald fact that deserves some thought.

Converts Come into Orthodoxy by the Front Door and Leave by the Back

"We get a lot of converts," said one old Russian Orthodox lady. "But they never stay."

There seems to be a honeymoon period, like with anything else, beyond which converts are no longer carried along by enthusiasm. Has anyone else seen Orthodox convert burnout? Certainly the "churn rate" among converts is famously high. It is a commonplace to say it, but an impressive number of converts come through the front door, while a worrisomely high number leave through the back door. See e.g. this article by an Orthodox writer on Why You Shouldn't Convert to Orthodoxy

Why should this be? The Bear thinks you might do well to think about this and why you are tempted to convert to Orthodoxy.

Because it's a "better Catholic Church," only without some pope running around saying weird stuff? Because it has an ancient and beautiful Divine Liturgy and Russian polyphony instead of Father Dave's jokes and bad music?  Because an Orthodox temple gives the eye no rest from wonder while your own parish church features a beardless Resurrectifix that looks like Floating Fabio?

The Bear suspects that if Catholics thinking about converting are honest, there may be at least an equal desire to flee from a Catholic Church that sometimes seems like nothing but headaches to the proverbial greener pastures. And, the Bear would humbly suggest that conversion to Orthodoxy for that reason is probably the wrong reason.


  1. Bumper sticker: Honk forty times if you are Orthodox.

    1. Ha ha ha love it! There was an Orthodox version of Eye of the Tiber that portrayed a really strict Russian priest. I wish I could remember the name of it. About the only thing that has stuck with me is a “reader” asked if it was okay to use a non-butter spread during Great Lent. The answer was, “Are you trying to fool guardian angel? If good enough to fool guardian angel, is butter.”

  2. There was once 'The Onion Dome'. Is that the site, Great Bear?

    1. There probably aren’t a lot of Orthodox satire sites. I think it was.

      BTW, my Ortho-Catholic icon corner would be an abomination to Orthodox, if only for the statue. (Also note the Sacred Heart Of Jesus and Immaculate Heart Of Mary - definitely Catholic.) But it was the heart of our home for so long, dismantling it was unthinkable, and we still keep the lampada burning before the rather non-traditional icon brought back on one of our Orthodox priest’s visits to Russia. We have a collection of icons that tend to rotate with a mind of their own, except for the few seasonal ones.

      It looks a bit bare, now that I see the picture. I think we need more icons!

      In the upcoming sequel to Judging Angels, one character is Orthodox, and the icon corner is his “ADT” versus spiritual intruders. There is a very telling piece of action involved.

    2. Each Woodland Creature should send Great Bear a small icon for Christmas. Then there will be plenty.

    3. The Woodlands secret police, the Okhrana, is always spying out the troublemakers.

  3. It is fairly common place that the average Catholic Parish isn't a very serious place. The Orthodox are in comparison very serious. Owl was never overly attracted to the Orthodox (Eastern Catholics yes, Orthodox no) during the time Owl was thinking of converting to Catholicism. Owl read Owl's way into the Church through the Fathers and still is surprised at how short shrift Eastern Catholicism gets by Westerners, especially those in high places.

    So Great Bear, question: Besides the Orthodox being "serious Christians", what point of Theology did you find that they expressed better? Was their a point of Theology that you, at that time, thought the Orthodox got right and Rome wrong?

    1. It would be a mistaken assumption to suppose either the Bear or (he would wager) most other converts to Orthodoxy "read their way into it" in the same way the Bear "read his way into" Catholicism much earlier (mostly by way of out-of-date material, although he did not know that at the time). The Bear is insisting on witnessing to an "Orthodox Convert Experience" he not only had himself, but heard over and over from other Orthodox converts, and can be confirmed with even the Bear's usual slack research by pieces such as the cited article by an Orthodox writer.

      Those who have only gotten as far as looking at Orthodoxy from the outside are, with all due respect, missing a lot, because it is more "experiential" than Catholicism has become. Probably more than most Catholics today can even imagine.

      The Bear did read popular books by such as Bishop Kallistos Ware and very early Eastern writers and even popular works such as The Philokalia. Whether fairly or not, the Bear formed the impression that Orthodoxy just wasn't as interested in systems and definitions and Q&A and proofs so beloved by Catholic theologians.

      Orthodoxy is more mystical. St. Thomas Aquinas wanted to talk about "essence" and "potential." Orthodox writers tended to have a more apophatic approach.

      Perhaps without a central authority like Rome, various ideas could exist side-by-side without the felt need to reconcile everything. It was sometimes hard to know what fell under the category of "speculative theology" or "folk religion," an example being the "toll houses" that some said the soul passed through after death.

      If one could argue Catholicism was formed by theologians (in the conventional sense of the word) Orthodoxy was more influenced by monks and mystics. Although modern writers often couched it in "don't try this at home," the ideal of the Jesus Prayer was nothing like the Catholics' active meditation of the Rosary. The Jesus Prayer was meant to literally become a continual prayer, kept up barely below consciousness at all times. Traditionally, this even included "breath work" similar to Eastern religions.

      Is there an "Orthodox Catechism?" Probably some jurisdiction has published one. There was no "RCIA" for converts, though, and Bear cannot recall ever being given a book like the CCC that explained everything.

      Whenever the Bear did try to understand Orthodox theology, he would get as far as the Orthodox concept of "energies" and his 450 gm. brain would shut down. Orthodoxy is probably similar in a lot of ways to Catholicism before the Reformation & Counter-Reformation. There are some theological differences, but the Bear is deliberately not going into those because no one wakes up one day and says, "I just can't swallow the Immaculate Conception and the Filioque" and decides to convert.

      No. One.

      In any case, he's forgotten what little he learned of Orthodox theology beyond what everybody else knows. He is smarter than to be lured into a discussion different than the one he wishes to have, and believes is the most useful to real people considering converting from Catholicism to Orthodoxy.

    2. And, he would add, the Great Schism did not occur in a geopolitical vacuum when Eastern persons suddenly decided the Pope was bad theology. It was a diplomatic train wreck caused by a lot of things, not least of which was the shift in power from Rome to Constantinople earlier and mutual betrayals during the Crusades.

      Bear does not shy from theology He's reading Norman Geisler's Systematic Theology now because he wants to know what non-Reformed Evangelical theology looks like today so when it comes up, he has some familiarity with it. He has a huge Verbum library and has studied Vatican II out of a genuine desire to learn what it was about.

      So, Bear will happily allow everyone to think he's missing the whole point of the conversion issue by for the most part avoiding theology.

      The Bear, as usual, knows exactly what he's doing.

    3. Owl, Bear apologizes if he growled, or seemed to. Not really, he just wants Woodland creatures and visitors to know what it is he is doing. This is addressed specifically to those who are considering converting, and is more first aid than medical school. Owl is far wiser, but Bear possesseth the Smacking Shovel Of Truth.

    4. Owl had a busy week. Owl also respected Great Bears wish not to talk about theology. Owl though, doesn't find a separation between theology and mysticism -- that is like saying there is a separation between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

  4. After watching the tedious 4 hr. Andrei Rublev movie, I'll never go Orthodox again. It's a sure-fire cure.

    1. The one where they kill the horse? And make the bell?

    2. ..and set a cow on fire!

    3. Considered a masterpiece of Russian cinema. But I thought it was long and weird, too. As Orthodox movies go, The Island is much better in my opinion.

  5. They have married Priests. 'Nuff said. I can't respect a man of God who can't take a vow of celibacy. Very unmanly.

    1. Orthodox have a different ecclesiology. The Western Church underwent two periods (at least) of monastic overhaul of her ecclesiology and owes her required vows of priestly celibacy to that. Also, in the West, a lot of the functionality of the Bishop became a part of the Western Priest's Office thus the naturality of priests absorbing the bishop's vow of celibacy (there have never been married bishops but there have been married priests...the west didn't start off that way). Priests would function as mini-Bishops...still largely do. The West also developed a very strong intellectual formation for her priests through the monastic schools and later cathedral schools. A Western priest was an educated and formed man. In the East, the priest didn't absorb some of the functions of the Office of the Bishop. The parish priest was seen as a "working priest" who held a normal job, provided for a family, and did not have a high level of education. Eastern priests were much more envisioned as extensions of the bishop -- like how a Western Deacon functions as an extension of his priest -- community members, and family men. This is not necessarily the case now, but is the case for why the East doesn't think that priests need to have a vow of celibacy.

    2. @Martha: So does the Catholic Church.


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